Excerpts from an interview with Agamben on Buddhism

[Translator’s note: A few months ago, I was approached by Steven DeCaroli and Adam Lobel to translate an interview that they were in the process of conducting with Agamben on Buddhism. I accepted, mostly out of a desire to see what he had to say! In this fascinating exchange — which is still ongoing — Agamben addresses every stage of his work and reveals that Buddhist texts have formed part of his reading and thinking for a long time. The complete interview will be published in an edited collection on Agamben and Buddhism, which is still in its early phases. As the author of the first published scholarly article on the topic, DeCaroli is especially well-suited to helm this project. They are still looking for potential contributors, so please drop them a line if you have relevant expertise and interest: steven dot decaroli at goucher dot edu and/or adam dot releasement at gmail dot com. In this excerpt, the co-editors’ questions are in bold and Agamben’s responses are in normal type.]

Prior to Karman, there are only three references to Buddhism in your work—twice in The Coming Community and also in a short chapter at the end of Idea of Prose. In The Coming Community you reference “Indian logicians” and in The Idea of Prose you specifically mention Nagarjuna and Candrakirti. Though these are relatively early references, for many years it has seemed to us that a familiarity with Buddhism has been a subtle influence on your work more broadly. Is this assumption correct? And given the recent publication of Karman, what has made you turn to Buddhism more directly and in a more sustained and expansive way?

My readings of Buddhist texts—and more generally of Indian thought, in particular the Vedas and Upanishads—go back a long time, certainly long before 1985, when I published Idea of Prose. In the 70s, in Paris, I read the Vedas in Louis Renou’s translation and also occasionally attended Rolf Stein’s lectures at the Collège de France on Tibetan Buddhism. If citations are lacking in my books, it is because I have always followed the principle according to which one can work seriously only on texts whose language one has mastered. In any case, for me the early reading of the Nagarjuna’s Stanzas on the Middle Path (Madhyamaka kārikā), which came out in Italian in 1968 in Raniero Gnoli’s translation, was decisive.

The proximity—and at the same time the distance—between this text and the tradition of Western philosophy struck me in an extraordinary way, as is evident in “Idea of Awakening” at the end of Idea of Prose. In particular, the idea of the error of imperfect nihilism, which consists in capturing and holding the doctrine of emptiness in representation, has much to do with my conception of philosophy. Philosophy is not a doctrine that could be expressed in the form of a series of correct opinions on the state of the world; as I write in that text: “awareness of the emptiness is not, in its turn, a representation; it is, simply, the end of representation” (pg. 132 of the English translation). In any case, Nagarjuna’s book is a masterpiece that I never stop rereading.

In The Coming Community, you reference Indian logicians to expand on ideas related to your work concerning political ontology. You draw a comparison between the doctrine of the indistinction between nirvana and “this world” (samsara) and Benjamin’s idiosyncratic understanding of messianism, both of which refuse a teleological image of time. Could you say more about this connection? What is the political significance of a non-teleological ontology and does Buddhism have something to offer here? If considered in conjunction with Benjamin’s notion of “now time” (jetztzeit), might these ideas point to the significance of the present moment? How is attention to the present also political?

The Buddhist idea that there is no substantial distinction between nirvana and the world has always fascinated me and returns often in my notebooks (“The veil of maya,” I read in a notebook from six years ago, “is not something that needs to be ripped or destroyed in order to approach the truth: nirvana is the point at which I understand that the veil is the true world, that they are no longer separate”). Nagarjuna formulates it in this thesis: “Between transmigration and nirvana there is not even the smallest difference”; and, at the same time, tempers it by distinguishing between relative truth and absolute truth (“those who do not discern the difference between these two truths do not discern the profound reality inherent in the doctrine of the Unveiled”).

The implications for a right understanding of what one is to understand by ta meta ta physika, that is, by what is beyond the physical world, are obvious. But in the apologue cited from Benjamin, what is decisive is the small displacement, the “everything will be as it is now, just a little different” (pg. 53 in English translation of CC). It is the right understanding of this “little difference” that seems to me to be decisive. It is not a question of a factual difference, but—as I wrote in The Coming Community—something like a halo, a “trembling of the finite” (CC 56), which restores it to possibility and renders it capable of indeterminating itself. Even in Hegel the Absolute is only a foam within the chalice of the finite; but while for him it was a question of the final result and the completion of a historical process, in Benjamin—and perhaps also for Nagarjuna—the small displacement is accomplished in every instant, it is not the completion but the interruption of the historical process, the narrow gate through which the Messiah unceasingly enters.

Picking up on the notion that there is an indistinction between nirvana and samsara, we want to ask you about the role of emptiness in your thought and its implications for politics. A certain ontological intuition guides your political reflections and we are interested in how emptiness connects to your view of politics. In the Appendix of The Coming Community, you connect the indistinction between this world and nirvana with the Indian Buddhist teaching of “the evacuation of any thingness,” i.e., the way Indian logicians equate sicceitas with the vacuity of things. We associate this vacuity with the teaching of emptiness (sunyata) in Mahayana thought and we understand that you are emphasizing that vacuity (non-thingness) and the being-thus of things are indistinct. Indeed, it is because of such emptiness, which is not separate from the things of this world, that nirvana and this world are not different. If this interpretation is correct, what role does the emptiness of things play in your understanding of political ontology? If things are empty what understanding of politics follows from this? Do you see a connection between an ontology of emptiness and modal ontology, which you have developed in The Use of Bodies?

In one of my notebooks, I find this affirmation: “The only thing that is my own is the void, all the rest I have taken from outside.” But I believe that to understand the role of vacuity both in Buddhism and in my thought it is necessary to rethink ontology from the beginning. It is a matter of thinking a non-substantialist ontology, which thus calls into question the primacy of substance, with its identity and its proper nature. If I had to express myself in grammatical terms, I would say that for the substantive one must substitute the adverb and for the substantival ontology an ontology that is, so to speak, adverbial. Not the thing [cosa], but its “thus [così],” its sicceitas. If Western ontology thought something as something, ens qua ens, now it is instead a question of thinking the adverb “as” that separates and unites the two substantives.

And it is in this way that it seems to me one must understand the relationship between substance and modes in Spinoza. The modes are the “thus” and the “as” or “how” of substance. Developing the Spinozan intuition, it is a matter of thinking a pure “how” without a “that,” a mode, so to speak, that is absolute and surging-forth, which escapes the opposition of essence and existence and of necessity and contingency. It is possible, in fact, that these antinomies arise from the difficulty of thinking a pure mode. In the tradition of first philosophy, dominated by the ontological difference between essence and existence, quiddity and quoddity, this means no longer thinking something (an essence) as something (an existence) or vice versa, but thinking the pure “as” which stands between them. I do not know if Buddhism can be read from this perspective as a doctrine of the pure “how.” It is only a hypothesis, but perhaps in the light of this “how” without a “that,” both the doctrine of vacuity and the identity between world and nirvana could take on their true meaning.

[Translator’s note: The Italian come can mean both “as” or “how.” I have used both translations throughout this passage in an attempt to be more idiomatic in different contexts, but the reader should keep in mind that the same word is used in the original.]

Following a related line of inquiry, does Buddhism offer a way of reconstituting ontology that is politically significant, especially given the importance you have placed on potentiality? Does the Buddhist ontology of emptiness offer us a way to think the relation between potentiality and actuality differently and even to think beyond this relation entirely? You write in Homo Sacer that, “until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality has replaced the ontology founded on the primacy of actuality and its relation to potentiality a political theory freed from the aporias of sovereignty remains unthinkable.” Does Buddhism offer a way of reconstituting ontology on the level of our most basic conceptual instincts and practices? Does it, for instance, offer a way of interrupting our tendency to divide the world into distinct and separable beings, our habit of formulating judgments in terms of degrees of perfection, and our inclination to conceive of ethics in relation to the will of a separate subject? And how might such thinking relate to inoperativity?

Nagarjuna: “Every thing is void and not void.” In Aristotle similar contradictory theses are true only in the sphere of potentiality. In this sense one could say that Buddhism conceives everything in the dimension that we call dynamis in an Aristotelian sense and that has been so important for me. An ontology of potentiality and not only of act. But the modal or adverbial conception of ontology implies that the relationship between potentiality and act be entirely rethought. Their relation is expressed not by a predicative judgment, but, in the sense that we have seen, by an “as.”

Coming to the last part of your question, it is not possible, even if Nietzsche sought to do it, to “will” one’s own “how,” one’s own mode of being. Something like a will cannot take place here. One’s own mode of being can only be loved, we can be drawn toward it in what Spinoza calls conatus (which should not be translated as “effort,” but simply as “tension” or “desire”). Another possible expression would perhaps be “contemplation,” a term familiar to the philosophical tradition, but which for me is very close to what I call “inoperativity” and to what Spinoza defines as “acquiescence in oneself.” The contemplation of one’s own “how,” of one’s own potentiality is not inert, on the contrary it alone discloses to us the possibility of an action and a use that would not be a mere execution of a command. Buddhism’s nirvana could be thought as something similar: contemplation of a pure “how,” of an appearance as such, of the world in its vacuity. But only at this point does there open up that through which the possibility of a compassionate action (karuna) is unveiled.

I wish, however, after having tried to respond to your questions, that, as far as my relationship with Buddhism and Indian thought is concerned, it should be clear that we are dealing in the last analysis with a perception of illuminating analogies, but not of that confrontation and almost hand-to-hand combat with a text that is possible only if one has mastered the language in which it is written, as is the case for me with Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza and Heidegger, Paul and Benjamin, Dante and Primo Levi. I have read Nagarjuna and other Indian texts in translation and a true hermeneutical relation is not possible in that case.

Naturally the relationship with a language that we do not know other than through a translation is certainly not indifferent for thought. It has been said with some justification that the limitation of the Greeks is that they did not know foreign languages, which seemed barbaric to them, which is to say babbling. But precisely that babble—like the foreign terms that we put between parentheses in the text when we write—contains something that cannot be ignored. It is in this sense that I have tried to understand Indian thinkers and thus that I would define my relationship with them: as with the words of a language that is not known, which is put between parentheses alongside their supposed translation.

To be continued….

6 thoughts on “Excerpts from an interview with Agamben on Buddhism

  1. ‘Not the thing [cosa], but its “thus [così],” its sicceitas.’

    Just checking – Is this another spelling of hecceitas?

  2. Yes, he is making a distinction – both term are in ‘The Coming Community’…

    ‘The limit of Duns Scotus is that he seems to conceive common
    nature as an anterior reality, which has the property of being indifferent
    to whatever singularity, and to which singularity adds only haecceity.
    Accordingly, he leaves unthought precisely that quodlibet that is inseparable from singularity and, without recognizing it, makes indifference the real
    root of individuation. But “quodlibetality” is not indifference; nor is it a
    predicate of singularity that expresses its dependence on common nature.
    What then is the relationship between quodlibetality and indifference?
    How can we understand the indifference of the common human form
    with respect to singular humans? And what is the haecceity that constitutes
    the being of the singular?’

  3. ‘Sicceitas’ (asness or thusness) seems to be an Agamben neologism coined to underscore his emphasis on the copula ‘as’ (‘Sic’ in Latin), and its difference from the classical metaphysical ‘thisness’ (haeccietas). Thank you for posting this translation. Fascinating.

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