A feature, not a bug: Agamben on Heidegger and Schmitt

This utterly phoned-in article on the continuing hand-wringing about Heidegger reminds me of a theory I’ve been developing about Agamben’s use of Heidegger and Schmitt — namely, that he’s not using them despite their Nazism, but because of it. After all, one of the key theses of his project in the Homo Sacer series was that the West was always bound to wind up producing something like the concentration camp. For thinking through the internal logic of that move, it helps to have two interlocutors who are absolutely steeped in the Western tradition, who are creative and brilliant, and who embraced Nazism.

I haven’t systematically gone through the works to verify this, but my sense is that the two are treated differently. Schmitt is more or less treated purely as the Nazi archetype. Schmitt features hugely in the critical portions of the Homo Sacer series but completely drops out in the constructive portion. (I am delighted to share that his name does not appear a single time in The Use of Bodies, for instance.) His postwar work does not really figure in, and to the extent that it does, Agamben is dismissing it as an evasion — most notably in his claim that the concentration camp, which Schmitt utterly ignores, is the true “nomos of the earth.”

Heidegger’s role is more ambivalent, because Agamben acknowledges that he was drawn into the Nazi endpoint of the West but also gives him at least some credit for trying to think past that impasse. That attempt is not fully successful, and it seems clear to me that Agamben attributes a good deal of that to the inertia of the paradigm that led him to Nazism. Agamben is always oblique about it, but sometimes it’s very obvious, as in a passage in The Use of Bodies where he says that Heidegger may have been able to make more progress if only he had ever seriously engaged with Spinoza — and then all but nudges the reader to say, “But we all know why he wouldn’t go there, don’t we?”

9 thoughts on “A feature, not a bug: Agamben on Heidegger and Schmitt

  1. It’s hard to see how, while reading seriously Agamben, one could argue that he is “using” Heidegger despite the problems of Nazism (and anti-semitism). That he is thinking and dealing with those problems upfront is manifest in various essays. I’m most familiar with “The Passion of Facticity” and “Heidegger et le nazisme” (which remains untranslated: part of it appeared in Home Sacer). In the latter, the “impasse” (Kafka’s short story “The Burrow”) is not something one needs to think past, but very specifically what must be thought: Heidegger’s problem is the expression of the political aporia of modernity. Agamben is very clear about that: “Si le nazisme a pu être en contact, du moins à ses débuts, avec la grande philosophie du XXe siècle, il serait stupide de croire qu’on pourrait se soustraire à peu de frais de ce voisinage gênant en condamnant un philosophe pour en absoudre un autre. […] Quel est le sens de cette proximité? Sommes-nous vraiment sortis de ce voisinage ou demeurons-nous encore sans nous en rendre compte sur les marges du nazisme?” A similar observation could be made about the way Jean-Luc Nancy is dealing with Heidegger.

  2. This sounds right to me. When I teach Agamben, I usually say something like, “He seems to be saying that we are all Nazis. Not in a normative (we ought to be Nazis), but in a descriptive sense. Maybe even in a pessimistic sense, that we can’t help but be Nazis.” Or, alternatively, “What does it say about us that a super-Nazi like Schmitt might be right about sovereignty?”

  3. The Spinoza barb is dramatic coming as it does at the end of the middle section just before the Intermezzo on Heidegger: “It is not possible here to specify the reasons that compelled Heidegger not to explicate the modal character of his ontology. It is likely that prolonged adherence to the Aristotelian apparatus {dispositivo} did not allow him to understand that the ontological difference must be resolved integrally in the relation of being-modes {essere-modi}. It concerns, in any case, the same difficulty that constrained him to avoid to the last a confrontation with Spinoza’s philosophy.”

    The passage in Homo Sacer cited by Philippe includes a long quote from Levinas’s “On the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” which is mentioned again in the Intermezzo in L’uso dei corpi. This seems like a key text. In the Intermezzo, Agamben zeros in on the dispositivo of Ereignis, repeatedly referring to Heidegger’s failure “a venire a capo” (noting that Benjamin once called Heidegger’s style spiglioso — schief? — which is saying a lot coming from Benjamin!). The critique leads up to a truly gripping account of the seminars at Le Thor (Agamben, Löwith, Beaufret…). Heidegger is left transfixed before St. Victoire, as in the photograph, and Agamben affirms without reserve, “The privileging of possibility in Heidegger’s ontology is inextricable {indissolubile} from the aporia that assigns man his humanity as a task, which, as such, is liable every time to be mistaken for a political task.” The Intermezzo ends with Levinas and Becker (two parodic extremes — Rabelais’ Abbaye de Thélème and Sade’s Château de Silling?) and the notebooks of one of Heidegger’s more delightful contemporaries.

    On the other hand, I don’t think Agamben is using Heidegger solely because of his Nazism. Heidegger was chosen for his Nazism as much as Foucault was chosen for his sadomasochism or Helen Grund Hessel for her name. (Perche proprio lui, Heidegger?)

  4. Thank you for the great summary of the relevant sections of Use of Bodies. I didn’t intend to say that he is working with Heidegger solely because of the Nazi connection, only that it is a benefit rather than a problem from the perspective of Agamben’s project.

  5. Spinoza is also a materialist, and anti-finalist, and this poses real problems for Heidegger’s account of the history — destining, sending — of Being…. Derrida, who himself almost never writes about Spinoza and in at one point threw up his hands and said he simply never “got” Spinoza, points out in an interview with Nancy that Heidegger “avoids” Spinoza for just this reason. Agamben’s language of “avoidance” — he uses the same term when criticizing Foucault at the end of the first intermezzo of “Use” — is citing Derrida.

  6. The question of Spinoza’s “Jewishness” is a very important and complicated one but we must also recall that in the German idealist tradition Spinoza a central, crucial figure, something Heidegger knew of course quite well. He makes a remark to this effect in the seminar on Schelling if I recall…. His avoidance is both easy to explain (there are any number of reasons, both essential and contingent) and mystifying. For what it’s worth Agamben doesn’t really engage Spinoza at all in this book, rather he invokes him as a deus ex machina…. his reading is very derivative of Wolfson.

  7. I’m not sure it’s totally fair to call it a deus ex machina in Use of Bodies — at least in “Archeology of Ontology,” he seems to emerge pretty organically out of the discussion of Leibniz and late scholasticism. I read it all as an attempt to set up Spinoza.

    In The Kingdom and the Glory, on the other hand, Spinoza definitely parachutes in out of nowhere.

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