Agamben, theology, and me

The other day, Stephen Keating asked me what attracted me to Agamben initially, and I had to confess that at first it was simply a desire to see what the big deal was about Homo Sacer. I found the book pretty baffling, and out of stubbornness (and with some nudging from Ted Jennings), I read further to see if I could make sense of things — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except that it isn’t actually that simple. I’ve found many books baffling, and I didn’t wind up learning to read in a foreign language in order to keep up with their authors’ work, nor have I translated them, etc. The key, I think, is my strange disciplinary position. I do a lot with philosophy and really enjoy it — and yet I very often feel like I’m stuck in an “expositional” mode, as though I can’t fully inhabit the discourse in the way necessary to do creative work with it. It’s different with theology. There I feel like a genuine internal critic, and I feel confident that I can make creative contributions to the discourse.

From this perspective, Agamben is appealling to me because he occupies a similar position with regard to the Christian tradition. His readings of the theological tradition are much more interesting and daring than the majority of confessional theologians’ — particularly in the Paul book and in his bold rewriting of the entire history of Christian thought in The Kingdom and the Glory. Despite his immersion, he is still able to approach the tradition with genuine freedom, and despite his critical stance, he is able to approach the tradition with the initial sympathy needed to detect what is at stake in theologians’ often recondite debates. Agamben can make the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin seem as though it has urgent contemporary consequences, and yet that importance emphatically does not at all imply that we should become Christians.

This basic resonance makes Agamben at once a deep influence on my way of thinking and the philosopher that I feel most able to critique. And this weird stance toward philosophy and theology may explain my position on other philosophers. For instance, I have long had a gut feeling that delving deeper into Badiou’s work would not be the best use of my time, despite his obvious relevance for my work on Zizek — and I suspect that may finally be because his reading of Paul is deeply reactionary and anti-Jewish. Similarly, my interest in Zizek has waned as his theological work has reached a kind of dead end, where he can keep repeating the same basic point but seems unable to develop it further or fully integrate it into his system.

3 thoughts on “Agamben, theology, and me

  1. You put very well what troubles and intrigues me in those thinkers as well, only from the perspective of political philosophy (rather than theology). Much like you (or a long line of German and German-Jewish thinkers since the beg. of the 20th century, at least) I see no obvious separation between the philological-indexical analysis (of religious terms, often winning the ontological status of ‘origin’ in our language) and political philosophy. Having said that, this is exactly what makes me wonder about the implications of the method we are so taken by. In a way, Agamben’s endpoint is “affirmative” or even “revisionist” in its (successful) attempt to reintroduce the revolutionary content of key institutional concepts. Don’t we end up just supplying (neo)conservatives (of the Straussian, i.e. smart kind) the fig leaf at the end of the day? This isn’t a polemical question, but something I honestly struggle with.

    Thanks for a series of challenging posts.


  2. It’s something I wonder about as well, a concern that I have half-sarcastically summarized as “the weirdness of doing a radical left-wing project using only radical right-wing sources.”

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