Agamben translation update

I have completed a full draft of my translation of Agamben’s Karman: A Brief Treatise on Action, Guilt, and Gesture. A lot of work remains to polish and whip it into bibliographical shape, but that is all mop-up. The Italian version does not seem to have been published yet, so this could wind up being one of the smallest gaps between the original and the English translation in the history of Agamben (not due to anything I did, just coincidentally).

The text brings together a lot of familiar themes in a new way, and it includes some quite unexpected references to Buddhist thought (which ultimately seem to be doing much the same work his account of the Myth of Er from Plato’s Republic). I think it will help people to get a little more purchase on Opus Dei, which is one of those texts that seemingly fell onto the philosophical scene with a great deadening thud, and also some of what he’s trying to do with responsibility and guilt in Sacrament of Language — but tying the themes from both texts more closely to his concern with law (which is, additionally, more obviously “relevant” to contemporary life than either liturgy or oaths). So out of the small trickle of tiny books I’ve translated since The Use of Bodies, this feels like probably the most significant text.

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?

Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage: Manuscript submitted!

Today we compiled and submitted the final manuscript for Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, the edited volume on Agamben’s many interlocutors that Carlo Salzani and I have been working on for seemingly all eternity (in reality, at least 18 months). Thank you to Carlo and to all the contributors for what has turned out to be an excellent volume that we hope will become a standard part of every Agamben’s fan’s reference library!

The enslaved will

One thing that is strange about the debate over free will between Erasmus and Luther is that they are arguing on two very different levels. Erasmus is the voice of common sense — “if we don’t have free will, then how can we be morally judged?” — whereas Luther takes the apparently loony position that we both lack free will and stand under the most severe possible judgment.

I think one way to understand the shift in perspective is not the term “will,” which I don’t believe Luther denies to human beings, but rather the term “free.” Erasmus means “free” in the straightfoward sense of unconstrained or autonomous, whereas Luther means “free” as opposed to “enslaved.” And in that sense, there can be no “free will” — every human being is enslaved to Satan until God rescues him and restores him to his rightful status as a slave of God. The problem isn’t the specific things we do with our wills, but rather the fact that we will as though we were “free” in the sense of being autonomous alongside God. The problem is that we presume to believe that God needs our go-ahead for salvation, which is tantamount to saying that God should obey our will in the matter of salvation. But that’s not how it works: we’re God’s slaves, and so anything we do that claims autonomy or anything like “rights,” anything we do on the assumption that we have been freed from the divine service, is sin.

Interestingly, Erasmus is the one who introduces the image of a slave, asking whether a just master would punish a slave for something he can’t help. This imagery is kind of strange in a culture where there hadn’t been slavery (at least by that name) for centuries, and presumably it comes from the New Testament and the Greek literature that Erasmus is steeped in. Luther turns around and takes this literally — if we are slaves, which the New Testament says absolutely constantly, then we have no claim on our master. You don’t morally exhort a slave, you give orders. The good slave isn’t one who has refined his will through moral striving, but the one who sets aside his will entirely and obeys.

There’s a lot to say about the fact that a more radical and literal theological concept of slavery asserts itself just as European culture is set to readopt slavery on the largest possible scale. For the moment, I will content myself to make an observation about Agamben’s recent study of slavery in The Use of Bodies. He claims to be discovering some new potential in Aristotle’s figure of the slave, but Christianity already made all human beings into slaves — and I would even say that for Luther, we are slaves in precisely the Politics Book 1 sense. Agamben uses the study of slavery to claim that we need to rediscover the realm of use, but Christianity had already made “use” the guiding concept — not only in Paul (where we are to make use of our social status), but most spectacularly and systematically in Augustine (where we make use of the faux-peace of the earthly city to spread the gospel).

In short, I wonder if Agamben is laboriously rediscovering Christianity.

An interview on Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

[The following is the English transcript of an interview that will appear in Portuguese translation in a special issue of the IHU Online Review on Agamben, published by Instituto Humanitas Unisinos in Porto Allegre, Brazil. The questions were provided by Prof. Márcia R. Junges.]

  1. From the perspective of Giorgio Agamben in The Kingdom and the Glory, could you explain what Trinitarian oikonomia is?
  2. Giorgio Agamben takes a unique approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than focus on the various debates that led up to the formation of Trinitarian orthodoxy, he traces the fate of one particular key term: oikonomia, which is the Greek term for “economy.” Oikonomia originally referred to the management of the household but spread to other improvisational forms of management—managing the emotions of the audience in a political speech, for instance, or managing conflicts within a multi-cultural empire. Agamben argues that when Christian theologians, including “heretics,” used this language, they were drawing on the same general concept. God has to “manage” his relationship with creation, which means first of all “managing” God’s relationship to God—the inner life of God, meaning the Trinity, has its own “economy,” which allows God to manage the “economy of salvation.”

  3. What is the novelty of this perception and its contribution to the debate of political theology and economic theology?
  4. Agamben is not the first to draw political consequences from the Trinity. Continue reading “An interview on Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

A brief note on biopolitics

Is the “bio” of biopolitics precisely bios in the Agambenian sense? The common reading (at least as far as I can tell) would align it more with zoè — and one could even read the Agamben of Homo Sacer in that way. If we take The Use of Bodies as our guide, though, it could seem that the problem with biopolitics is that it attempts to establish a bios by presupposing and excluding zoè.

After all, what could a political order do with zoè (taken in itself) other than presuppose it? I don’t think anyone thinks modern society has become or even could become a totalitarian baby-making machine. What it has become is an ever more fine-grained system for the production of what we might call life styles — which is to say, the realm of bios. The political order isn’t “making us live” in the sense of literally forcing us to stay alive, but it is constantly trying to make us live in certain ways.

The examples in the end of Homo Sacer are somewhat misleading if we don’t have a handle on this. For instance, putting someone on life support may look like a way of forcing them to live — and certainly it seems that way to many people (myself included). From the perspective of this analysis, though, the problem is that it is treating a raw fact of zoè — the moment of death, which has traditionally been radically beyond human control — as though it were a factor in bios. It includes the moment of death itself in the range of quality-of-life factors that the savvy biopolitical subject can shape according to his or her preferences. Similarly, Nazi eugenics treat the raw fact of ethnic or “racial” heritage as something that can be consciously cultivated — converting zoè into bios (and thereby accelerating the production of “bare life” as that third category that doesn’t fit into the system).