On Agamben and Mondzain

I have been rereading Mondzain’s Image, Icon, and Economy lately, and the topic of the relationship between this book and Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory came to mind. I already wrote several years ago about how I thought that Mondzain accomplished a tighter articulation between economy and spectacle than Agamben — indeed, her work is more tightly articulated in general, which is unsurprising given the bagginess of K&G.

Over the years, I have noticed that people who discover Mondzain often draw the conclusion that Agamben ripped her off in some way, or downplayed her influence on his work. Returning to the work after spending several years pondering over K&G, I have to say that such accusations are based on a very superficial comparison. Both talk about the concept of economy, both tie it to images or the spectacle, and both gesture at a connection with modernity. Sometimes they also seem to say similar things about economy.

But their approaches are totally different. Mondzain focuses on the iconoclastic controversy, and her entire presentation of the history of oikonomia is aimed at showing that the notion of economy demanded a consideration of the image. Agamben only turns to the question of the spectacle in the chapter on angelology, where he explicitly leaves behind economy to focus on glory separately; in his previous exposition on economy, there is no indication of a central role for the image, visibility, etc. Her center of gravity is the Byzantine period, his is the early patristics. The whole question of the reversal of “economy of the mystery” into “mystery of the economy” — which is so central to Agamben’s argument — is completely absent in Mondzain, who is comfortable attributing the notion of economy as providential plan directly to Paul.

Some of their patristic points of reference are the same, but even within this realm, they are drawing on substantially different archives, because Agamben privileges “theoretical” texts instead of the sermons and other rhetorical performances that Mondzain discusses at length. Coming at it from another angle, Mondzain strongly emphasizes the systematicity of Christian economic thought, while Agamben focuses on the non-conceptual nature of economic thought and even coins the notion of the “signature” to provide some means of tracing its effects. Agamben winds up moving through the Latin West, which is totally irrelevant to Mondzain’s project, and of course his whole argument is framed with the debate between Schmitt and Peterson, which Mondzain does not remotely mention.

The most likely explanation of the lack of explicit attention to Mondzain’s book is that he noted it was a specialized work on the iconoclastic controversy — which, you know, it is — and didn’t pay close attention to it. Such a choice seems defensible given that there is little evidence of the iconoclastic controversy having much impact on Western Christian thought, which he justifiably takes to be more relevant for modernity. Indeed, most scholars I have read seem to agree that there was almost no one in the West at this time who was intellectually equipped to even understand the iconoclastic debate.

You can definitely make the point that Agamben should have engaged more with Mondzain’s work, but the idea that he is somehow plagiarizing her or downplaying her influence is inflammatory and unfair. When he draws on a scholar, he is not shy about it — why would she be singled out for this treatment when he is quite happy to base half of Stasis directly on a reading of an essay by Nicole Loraux, for example?

In conclusion, to the extent that the books sometimes sound similar, it’s because they’re on similar topics — but within that framework, the differences are much more pronounced in my view.

4 thoughts on “On Agamben and Mondzain

  1. I may come back to this later with a more fully considered response, but I feel like I should at least say *something* since I take it that some of my past comments on Mondzain and Agamben are at least part of what’s on your mind here.

    I’m sure I’ve joked in the past about the similarities, but I think you’re right that it would be specious to claim that Agamben is directly plagiarizing or slighting Mondzain in some way. They are, as you note, very different takes. I’ll admit, however, that some of those jokes do stem from a preference for Mondzain’s work, and a feeling that it did deserve more extended engagement than it got (which was light enough that I literally didn’t notice it on my first reading of TKatG).

    Here and in previous conversations, you refer to Mondzain’s text as a ‘specialist’ one, in contrast to Agamben’s broader take. I’m not totally sure that’s as justified a distinction as it seems on the face, though. Certainly Mondzain takes a much narrower selection of texts for her material than Agamben does, but just as he does, she makes it very explicit that her concern is to use that material for the purpose of a more general theory of the connection between economy and political iconography, one that she thinks extends into the present. It’s not clear to me what marks the relation between the narrowness of her Byzantine texts and her general theoretical takeaways differently than that between Agamben’s patristic texts and his general theoretical takeaways except for the fact that she opts for a close-in, diagrammatic method. After all, for all the history she does, the bulk of the book is, in the end, a *philosophical* reading of an explicitly *philosophical* text (*Antirrhetics*).

    In the end, I’m suspicious that the reason Agamben looks like less of a specialist is that his texts are more familiar to those of us working in Western political theology and philosophy, and that his argument extends over a larger period of time. But I think, for reasons that would require an essay rather than a blog comment to get into properly, it’s a much less successful argument than hers is, and that’s in part due to the sort of ‘wide angle’ method it’s forced to take.

  2. It’s a difficult balance to strike. On the one hand, Mondzain’s argument is much more convincing as an account of the era she’s discussing (and the history leading up to it, though sometimes she seems to verge on iconophile apologetics by conveniently finding the ground prepared, etc.). But on the other hand, the narrower focus — and the fact that she’s addressing kind of a conceptual by-way in the history of Christian thought — makes her genealogical claims potentially less convincing. And the reverse holds for Agamben: the genealogical connection feels more supported because of the more or less continuous thread between Paul and us, for example, but the fact is that he’s trying to do too much for any single book. Both are definitely works of philosophy, though, which is why it’s a shame that Agamben didn’t look more closely — he loves scholarly works that start to move into philosophical territory. And yes, Mondzain definitely deserves greater attention.

  3. Adam, I’m so sorry to have missed you when you were here in Melbourne recently since I would have loved to discuss this. I am currently working on this exact question but in relation to the notion of authority via Kojève and perhaps herein lies a hint to some of the very differences between their work. I completely agree that is is unacceptable to say Agamben ripped her off and it misses the wonderful opportunities inherent in the disjunction between the works. I will come back to this once I have written my research confirmation that I am meant to be working on right now, but I’ll throw my two cents worth in that Mondzain goes further back than Agamben to a concept of authority as exousia (in Homo Spectator) in a pre-Aristotelian fashion. Her translation of Nikephorus certainly informs IIE, but she has written a lot more since then, unfortunately not available in translation. In fact, she is very disappointed when the English speaking world refers to her “book”. Her elaborations on the image as a kind of second order mimesis are key to this, as is her conception of a science of the subject as both caused by an image and the cause of an image. Key to this-Lacan. Wish I could write more but must nut this out further and in the meantime I am excited this discussion is taking place. She certainly deserves more attention and more translation!

  4. Interesting — perhaps I shall have to check out her untranslated works. I have been looking to do some French translation as well…. Sorry we couldn’t meet up in Melbourne, especially since you were so instrumental in arranging my visit in the first place, for which I thank you again.

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