Last summer, I reviewed Mathew Abbott’s excellent book on Agamben, The Figure of This World. The one reservation that I expressed was over Abbott’s claim that Agamben’s goal is a world in which “everything is exceptional” [note: Abbott has clarified that he never uses this phrase but instead puts forth the view that “the ordinary is exceptional,” with very different implications; see comments for discussion] — but I admitted that I needed time to ponder why that was.
Over a year later, I think I’ve come up with something. The problem with “everything is exceptional” is that Agamben shows how that’s already happening due to the ongoing breakdown of the Western machine — and he is absolutely consistent in presenting that process as destructive and horrible. I don’t think Agamben is the kind of dialectical thinker who would claim we need to go through this process to the end and then things will reverse into wonderfulness. Rather, he constantly uses the Benjaminian language of “stopping” the machine, and more generally he seems to embrace Benjamin’s position in the “Theological-Political Fragment” that the world bears no intrinsic relationship to the messiah.
Instead of making everything exceptional, then, I think he wants to make everything exemplary. The contrast of exception and example is already present in Homo Sacer, where he talks about the way that a grammatical example has its denotative content in some way “suspended.” But there’s a crucial difference — where the law ceases to function as a meaningful regulation during its suspension, the exemplary sentence is still very much a sentence. And if it were an “exceptional” sentence (with regard to the rule to be illustrated), the point would be lost. Where the exemplary sentence differs from the everyday sentence is simply in the fact that it calls attention to its own sentence-hood, and this calls back to Agamben’s earliest writings where he is asking us to make use of language in such a way that we also grasp the usually submerged fact that there is language.
The example comes back forcefully in The Highest Poverty, where the life of Christ or the monastic founder is put forward as exemplary — but the whole point is that everyone should be able to follow it. The rule that emerges out of life can be corrupted into a law-like mechanism, but in its originary moment, Agamben is absolutely insistent that the example-based model of monasticism is completely heterogeneous with regard to the exception-based model of the law.
We can even read Remnants of Auschwitz through the lens of the example. The Muselmann seems to be the outer limit of human experience, an exception if ever there was one, but Agamben ends by saying that the complex paradoxes of testifying to the Muselmann‘s plight reveals a structure common to all human beings in their relation to the inhuman element within them. And in The Open (which is somehow not a part of the HS series despite constantly coming up), Agamben is ultimately asking us to stop the machine that produces humanity as an exception within the animal kingdom.