A Question Regarding Agamben

As a student whose research deals prominently with what Gil Anidjar refers to as the ‘Christian question’–the significance of Christianity for the distribution of things like the divide between religion and politics, philosophy and economy, etc.–I’ve found my attention drawn in most of my recent work (including my dissertation research) to materials that are probably best periodized as ‘medieval.’ That means that something that I find myself needing to think and rethink on a regular basis is the relation between two divides: the divide between the secular and the religious, and the divide between the medieval and the modern. As an old post of Adam’s points out, this puts me in the middle of a fairly common set of problems in political theology.

As someone who comes to these questions from (more-or-less) continental philosophy as the closest thing I have to a ‘home’ discipline, this puts me pretty squarely in the neighborhood of Giorgio Agamben. This is probably intensified by the fact that I’m working on medieval debates over categories we’d probably characterize today as economic, and by the fact that for better or worse, The Kingdom and the Glory still seems to be the most well-known take on the genealogy of economy, despite the existence of multiple takes that are at least as compelling. As a result, both for the sake of figuring out what exactly it is I’m doing in my own research and for the sake of a paper idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, I’m trying to think through my relationship to Agamben on the questions of Christianity, ‘secularization,’ and method.

One thing I find interesting in Agamben is that while secularization is a concept that he’s willing to schematize fairly specifically, Christianity isn’t–or at least (and I may be missing a very obvious reference here) he doesn’t seem to. That’s not to say that Agamben isn’t concerned with Christianity; on the contrary, it pops up everywhere in his work, from reflections on monastic life, to reflections on trinitarian debates, even contributing to the ‘turn to Paul’ in continental philosophy. But I can’t think of a place where Agamben reflects on Christianity ‘as such,’ despite a consistent concern with Christian materials.

Right now, I’m playing with a methodological hunch, and what I’d like from you–reader–is to know whether this sounds right or if there’s some reason to think that I’m totally off. I’m increasingly starting to think that it’s at the points in Agamben’s work where he’s most closely concerned with Christian materials that he’s also forced to be concerned with issues of genealogical method. Usually, this takes the form of explicit reflections on Foucault. From what I can tell, Agamben’s most sustained reflections on Foucault tend to appear in his writings between about 2005 and 2008. Extended meditations on Foucauldian concepts and methods appear in Profanations, “What is an Apparatus?,” and The Kingdom and the Glory, and are sustained through The Signature of All Things. All of these texts have in common a sustained attention to Christianity, and to the Christian-secular or medieval-modern divides. Foucault maintains a presence throughout the Homo Sacer series (starting with the first volume in 1995) as a resource for borrowed concepts and concerns. What doesn’t occur until this later period however, (as far as I can tell) is an explicit reflection on the nature of Agamben’s debt to Foucault. It may be, I’m tentatively suggesting, the form of the ‘Christian question’ that provokes Agamben to feel a need to give such an account. Or, more specifically, approaching the question of Christianity means that Agamben is forced to directly confront the relay by means of which ‘Christian’ concepts find their distribution across ‘political,’ ‘theological,’ ‘economic,’ and other ‘domains.’

What do you think, reader?

10 thoughts on “A Question Regarding Agamben

  1. In haste, apologies. I don’t think A feels forced to do anything for that matter incidentally and thus also he would not feel the need to give an account of what you call the nature of his ‘debt’ to F. As to the divisions I expect that for him they are not valid distinctions nor do they help thinking them as such. Not sure this helps much but I think one important thing with reading A is to get his manner right eventually. All good thoughts, Thanos

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  2. I suppose I should be clearer: when I say that he’s ‘forced’ to reflect on what he borrows from Foucault, or on genealogical method, I’m not talking about feeling beholden or something. I specifically mean that *the nature of what he’s studying* brings up these questions because they bring up relations that the genealogical method has a difficult time thinking. To be concerned with Christianity, for instance, requires that one concern oneself with something that not only slips between various ‘domains,’ (secular/religious, political/theological, etc) but which has also been intimately tied up with the *invention* of the partitions between which it moves. And I understand that, from the perspective of method, part of the point is that Agamben is strategically ignoring those divisions (we might say, attempting to render them ‘inoperative’). I’m trying to do something similar. But the *production* of those divisions isn’t something he takes himself to be strategically ignoring, as far as I can tell—in fact, ignoring them at a methodological level is exactly what’s supposed to make it possible to track the work that distributing concepts across these divisions (via the theory of signatures) is doing.

  3. Not a direct response (I’m not enough of an Agamben completist to speak to it), but something adjacent: For an independent study I’m conducting I’ve been reading through *Remnants of Auschwitz*, and I’m struck (in a way i haven’t previously been) by how much Agamben’s interest in Christianity leads him to some very critical-crucial insights, but also protects him from the implications thereof. I have in mind the framing of the whole book in terms of a Pauline theory of the remnant; as well as (or moreso) the equation of biopolitical substance with the Muslim. With this last I’ve been thinking about two things: 1. how bizarre it is that he doesn’t spend time (meta-)theorizing about the fact that what is banished outside of language, save for his invocation of the witness, is *literally* the Muslim (this from someone who will write a 10 page footnote about the most minute obscurity; 2. (and this one is not a new observation, but still, the enormity of it hits me each time) his granting historical singularity to Auschwitz, when what he is discussing has been at issue for much longer, much more regularity, and with much more regularity, with regard to the positionality of blackness.

    This has gotten me to thinking more and more about what a “good Christian” Agamben is.

  4. Not really my forte, but if I were to make an educated guess I’d say the reason these two appear in tandem is because genealogy contests the logic of temporal sovereignty the way Christianity/secularism has deployed it. Thinking here in particular of the work of Kathleen Davis. Of course, genaology as method remains implicated in logic of division.

  5. I think the proof is the antecedent in his prior working, and what follows, in ‘The Highest Poverty’ he doesn’t reference Foucault but Foucault is in the writing.

  6. Also not a direct response, but you might find Jeffrey Librett’s essay “From the Sacrifice of the Letter to the Voice of Testimony: Agamben’s Fulfillment of Metaphysics” useful on Agamben and the Christian question, particularly in the sense of his avoidance of a direct engagement. Like Dan said, this essay basically makes the point of what a good Christian Agamben is: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/254732/pdf

  7. Dan, yeah, that kind of strange relationship–simultaneously insightful and blind in a some important respects–I think that’s what keeps drawing me back to his work, and why I feel like my distance from Agamben is something to work through rather than something to simply say like, ‘yeah, that’s just not what I’m doing,’ and move on. As I’ve said a bit to you before, another angle on this is the question of analogy, which occupies a strangely central place in his theory of signatures. A lazy reading would be to say ‘this has nothing to do with the analogia entis and all the things that come along with it,’ but given his interlocutors in the section on analogy, that seems hand-wavy. Another move would be to say that he’s secretly bringing the analogia entis in through the back door (after all, the ontology of paradigms that populates an archaeology is said by Agamben to be ‘analogical’), but that’s not what he’s doing either. He’s more clever than that, I think. But I think the relationship he does take up to it is something like an attempt to deactivate it by making an example out of it; to out-analogy analogy, and thereby render it inoperative. Talk about a good Christian!

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