Agamben on philosophy and theology

[Note: This text represents the introduction to a lecture I gave at the University of Copenhagen earlier this month. The remainder of the lecture investigates The Kingdom and the Glory at greater length. I felt that this section can stand alone and may be of broader interest.]

Giorgio Agamben is surely the most theologically erudite living philosopher. While theology has formed an increasingly important site of reflection for contemporary European philosophy—as seen in the so-called “religious turn” in phenomenology and the more recent studies of the apostle Paul from a materialist perspective—there is no other single figure who has displayed such an imposing command of the full range of the Christian intellectual heritage, from the New Testament to the great theological debates of the 20th century, from doctrinal treatises to liturgical texts, from the stakes of the doctrine of the Trinity down to the smallest details of a monk’s habit. As a scholar of theology, I often find irritating errors in the works of other philosophers, but never Agamben. There is always room to nitpick—to lament that a certain scholar has not been cited, a certain theme left unexplored—but the quality of his work on Christian theology is unquestionable.

It is not only the depth and breadth of his engagement with Christian themes that sets Agamben apart from his contemporaries. If we compare him with another theologically astute philosopher such as Jean-Luc Marion, we see a clear difference in purpose. Whereas Marion, always a conservative Catholic thinker, has increasingly advanced a confessional theological agenda in his work, Agamben’s purpose has been unrelentingly critical and genealogical. Although he does have normative commitments that lead him to privilege certain figures in the history of Christianity—notably Paul and the early Franciscans—and view later developments as a kind of betrayal, he never advances a doctrine that takes those privileged sources as an authoritative canon. Instead, their successes and failures serve as materials for thinking through our own contemporary dilemmas.

Another way of putting this is that he draws no firm distinction between theological and philosophical materials. Continue reading “Agamben on philosophy and theology”

The Messianic Turkey

Thanksgiving is turkey pardoning season. For decades now, the U.S. president has been ceremonially releasing a lucky turkey from its fate as a family dinner. It is a bizarre custom, and NPR reports that it has its roots in an attempt to distract the public from the Iran-Contra scandal, which had raised questions as to whether Reagan would pardon members of his own administration who had been caught up in it. George H.W. Bush formalized the ritual, and it has been with us ever since.

Thus the turkey pardon is associated with the president who ushered in the neoliberal order and was confirmed by his successor, who presided over the transition to the “new world order” that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was the historical moment in which the U.S. President effectively became the global sovereign, unchecked by the counterweight of the Eastern bloc.

Giorgio Agamben teaches us that the fundamental activity of sovereignty in the Western political order is the production of bare life through the inclusion-by-exclusion of natural life or zōē. And it is certainly the case that the U.S. as global sovereign has consigned ever-increasing populations to the status of bare life, above all in the assertion of the power to carry out drone strikes anywhere in the world based solely on the president’s own decision.

In this context, the spectacle of the turkey pardon appears ironic or even parodic. At a time when the president can put virtually anyone to death based on his sole discretion, without any need for a legal trial or judgment, he also extends mercy to an animal, “including” it in the legal order by declaring its exemption from guilt. Yet what could this possibly mean? The turkey is not legally accountable for its actions and hence incapable of committing a crime. A pardon is not only superfluous, but incoherent. There have been cases of people who have maintained their innocence and therefore refused a pardon because it would imply a previous legal guilt. Yet the turkey is not even innocent — it is absolutely foreign the regime of guilt and innocence. To the extent that it is condemned to death, it is not for any kind of crime, but solely as a result of its de facto appeal as a human foodstuff. And even when it does have this strange encounter with the legal order, it does not generate new legal facts (aside, perhaps, from a transfer of ownership to the relevant wildlife sanctuary). Certainly it does not constitute the turkey as a legal subject with rights. Someone who killed the pardoned turkey would not be a murderer, but simply a jerk.

The encounter between sovereignty and the natural life of the turkey is thus a failed one, and therein lies the turkey pardon’s messianic promise. The ultimate sovereign prerogative of the presidential pardon falls idle in its application to a subject who is incapable of guilt or innocence. As against the “zone of indistinction” that opens up between law and life in the sovereign exception, here we have a separation of the two orders without any overlap — a law that is inapplicable, and a life that is simply lived, in blissful ignorance of the legal order. In the messianic kingdom, we will all, in a sense, be the pardoned turkey that is left to live out its life in peace.

What is human?

Note: This essay was my contribution for an issue of the Turkish publication Sabah Ülkesi on the very broad topic “What is human?” Knowing the text would be translated, I aimed for a simple style, but readers of Turkish will have to judge how much I facilitated the translator’s work.

When philosophers and theologians attempt to define what is human, they almost always end up talking about what is not human. That is to say, most definitions of the human proceed via contrast or negation. So one might say that a human being is not simply an animal, nor is it a god, an angel, or a jinn. In this procedure, we learn that animals are lower than us, and gods, angels, and jinn are higher—but what we actually are remains a mystery.

Continue reading “What is human?”

On living authors

Last night, I shared with My Esteemed Partner some of my latest gleanings from a systematic Agamben reading project I have been working on over the past couple months, she asked whether I had ever had such an intensive knowledge of any writer before. The only comparison I could make was Zizek, at least at the point when I wrote the book (and for about the next five years). In both cases, I believe I am seeing a gradual development in thinkers that most critics try to either vindicate as truly systematic from day one or else dismiss (or sometimes praise) as merely fragmentary and occasional.

I wonder about this preference for systematicity. Why would it be somehow *better* if Agamben and Zizek had done their “whole thing” from their very earliest work and were just filling in the details of the system? In American academia, I most often detect scorn for people who seem to continually rewrite their dissertation without thinking many new thoughts. And do we really want to think of *ourselves* as trapped in those incohate youthful insights of our earliest work? Again, why would this be better?

It seems to me that this desire for absolute systematicity over time is unique to literature on living authors, and it may almost be a “marketing” issue more than anything. It’s as though there’s a fear that no one will want to get on board with a thinker unless they can be assured that they represent a Whole Big Thing — or perhaps an anxiety that no one will view it as worthwhile to read and study their complete corpus unless it all belongs together.

For my part, I think it’s more interesting to think in terms of development — even if that term has progressivist connotations — because that makes the living thinker more of a model for our own work. How do you rethink and recombine your key insights for new purposes? How do you decide what to keep and what to leave aside? How much do you emphasize the change or leave it to your audience to figure it out?

Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human

Screen Shot 2018-07-03 at 12.40.46 PM

My book, Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human, was released by Fordham University Press today (here it is at amazon). The excerpt that follows is from the introduction and describes the central theme of the book: the problem of human animality. The first half of the book holds critical readings of the problem of human animality in the texts of two fourth-century authors (Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus) and a host of contemporary theologians. The second half of the book holds constructive reworking of human animality in major theological themes such as the image of God, sin and redemption, and eschatological transformation.  

The Problem of Human Animality

The mainstream of the Christian theological tradition has been committed to some version of a categorical distinction between human beings and all other animals. When that categorical distinction collides with two other thoughts—the undeniable commonality of human and nonhuman animal life, and the Christian commitment to the fundamental unity of the human being—this long-standing commitment to anthropological exceptionalism generates what I call the “problem of human animality.” Holding these three convictions together in the Christian theological tradition has produced a wide range of strategies to control and contain human animality, competing solutions to a common problem. The manifest commonality of human life with the lives of other animals in embodiment, nutrition, mortality, and reproduction is obvious enough, but a few more comments may elucidate the dogmatic Christian commitment to the fundamental unity and integrity of the human being as a creature. Continue reading “Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human”

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.