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).

Some thoughts on Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism

Early this summer, I received an unsolicited review copy of Dotan Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault — true proof of divine providence, given that I was working on a project connecting political theology to neoliberalism. It is a fascinating study of the concept of oikonomia, with its center of gravity in the era of classical orthodoxy (Nicea and Chalcedon).

Leshem hit on the idea of a genealogy of oikonomia around the same time as, but independently of, Agamben’s study in The Kingdom and the Glory. The book evinces a certain anxiety to differentiate itself from Agamben, which in my view sometimes leads to overhasty critiques. I prefer to view them less as competitive than as supplementary to each other. Agamben focuses on the formative moment of Christian economic thought (Pauline and proto-orthodox), whereas Leshem focuses on developments within established orthodoxy itself. When we add Mondzain’s account of the decisive role of economic thought in the iconoclastic controversy, we wind up with a fairly comprehensive view of the role of oikonomia in pre-modern Christian thought. This is not to downplay the very real differences between the authors’ approaches, of course — a truly comprehensive account has yet to be written, but it will need to start with the labors of these three.

I learned a great deal from Leshem’s study, which in many ways does a better job of following up in detail on Foucault’s suggestions about the role of Christian pastoral in forming modern subjectivity. He also deals much more closely with Arendt, who is claimed as a major source of the Homo Sacer series but mostly stays in the background. His study is based around the “human trinity” of economic, political, and philosophical, and the text is punctuated by helpful diagrams illustrating how this trinity keeps getting reconfigured over time. This provides clarity and orientation to a study that is not afraid to delve into the fine details of doctrinal and pastoral theology. What worries me about this approach is that it pitches Christian doctrine primarily as a development of Greek and Roman thought — as in Agamben, the Hebrew roots of Christian thought are comparatively neglected. I wonder whether that same “trinity” would apply to the Hebrew biblical tradition, and if not (which is my suspicion), how that might require us to reconceive the genealogy of oikonomia.

The weakest point of the book, in my view, is the title itself. The warrant for the book’s claim to establish “the origins of neoliberalism” is that Christian Orthodoxy establishes the dominance of the economy over the other hypostases of the human trinity and neoliberalism also forcefully asserts the dominance of the economy over other areas of life. The genealogical connections provided are even sketchier than in the appendix to The Kingdom and the Glory, and explicit discussions of neoliberalism are few and far between. The subtitle is misleading as well, given that the pre-Christian Greek concept of oikonomia is the real starting point, not Jesus (who is not a major figure in this book, given the absence of references to oikonomia in the Gospels).

I like to imagine Leshem’s book with a more accurate title. What it achieves is an important and formative contribution to the genealogy of oikonomia, one that places him into an emergent “canon” alongside Agamben and Mondzain. From this point forward, anyone investigating the place of economy in Christian theology will have to engage with Leshem’s work.

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.

A critique of The Kingdom and the Glory

Tomorrow, I will be giving a masterclass (PDF flyer) at the University of Auckland, where we will be discussing my Crisis and Critique article (PDF) as well as a paper I gave at a conference earlier this year at Loyola University Chicago, entitled “Agamben and the Problem of Evil” (PDF). I have been reluctant to post the latter, as I was pondering turning it into a proper article, but since it is being distributed for the masterclass, I might as well make it available. It gives an overview of The Kingdom and the Glory‘s argument and its place in Agamben’s project, then critiques it from the point of view of the problem of evil. In many ways, it reflects and expands upon my critique of K&G in The Prince of This World (preorder link), so perhaps you can consider it an indirect preview.

A chronological list of Agamben’s publications, with reflections thereon

When I was working on my conclusion for the edited volume Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, which I have entitled “Agamben as a Reader of Agamben,” I had frequent reference to the order of publication of Agamben’s works, which sometimes surprised me as an English-language reader. I naively assumed that the order of publication in English would more or less track with the Italian, but the time lags have been much more varied than one might think. I also realize that I sometimes conflated my own personal experience of stumbling across certain works with the time they must have been released (I just assumed the Seminary Co-Op would always be up to date, and I wasn’t always right). I’m just going to list the bibliography in order “below the fold” and then add some remarks.

Continue reading “A chronological list of Agamben’s publications, with reflections thereon”

Agamben and the philosophical chapbook

I just finished reading Agamben’s Che cos’è la filosofia? (What is Philosophy?), a beautiful and elegant book both conceptually and as a physical artifact. When I ordered the book, I threw in one of his little pamphlet books, just out of curiosity, and it turned out to contain two of the essays from Profanations, enhanced with some black-and-white photographs (and a dagguerotype, by Daguerre himself as it turns out). Looking online, it then appeared that many of the Profanations essays had appeared in that format.

Such a publication choice seems strange, but if anything, the odd thing was that he chose to collect them together later. I get the impression that he is reluctant to have English-language publishers group together his shorter essay-length works, though he has allowed it (What is an Apparatus? includes three works published separately in Italian). Two works I have recently translated — Pilate and Jesus and The Mystery of Evil — likely could have been collected together with The Church and the Kingdom to create an attractive, and still small, edition of his “ecclesiastical” writings, but he opted for them to be published separately in translation as well.

I conclude from this that the small publication format must be more important to him as more than a lark or a novelty. Sometimes he includes artwork or even collaborates with a particular artist, sometimes he lets it stand more or less on its own, but when he writes something short and puts it out on its own, he’s doing it on purpose. Agamben’s writing already tends toward the fragmentary and aphoristic, so why not reduplicate that effect on the material level as well?

One major theme of Che cos’è la filosofia? is the relationship between poetry and philosophy, which he sees as disciplines that take up different but equally necessary stances at the edge of language. And so I wonder if there’s an attempt here to establish the parallel between the two disciplines at the level of publication. Poetry is best enjoyed in small chunks, which can be slowly digested — and the effect can be virtually destroyed by the brick-like anthologies which we inflict on undergrads. Poets can put out short chapbooks, so why not philosophers?