[Note: This is a transcript of a keynote address I delivered this week as part of the Münster International Summer School (Topic: “Tacet ad Libitum! Towards a Poetics and Politics of Silence”), sponsored by the Graduate School Practices of Literature at the University of Münster.]
This morning I wrote a review of Carlo Salzani’s excellent new book Agamben and the Animal, which is a kind of critical rewriting of The Open, more explicitly grounding it in Agamben’s previous work and more directly engaging with animal studies scholarship, in order to find the Entwicklungsfähigkeit of his admittedly limited and anthropocentric approach to non-human animal life. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in any of the topics addressed.
One issue that Carlo’s book brings up is the question of consistency and continuity in Agamben’s work. Most Agamben scholars maintain, almost axiomatically, that Agamben’s work is remarkably consistent and continuous. Quarrelsome person that I am, I went so far as to write an entire book arguing that his project evolves and changes over time. Ultimately it may not be very important for interpreting or applying his ideas — certainly I’m not arguing there’s some kind of radical break where he explicitly renounces earlier work. And admittedly, one point the continuists have in their favor is the fact that it’s clearly very important to Agamben himself to see his own work as consistent and continuous. After completing the Homo Sacer project, for instance, he very explicitly returned to earlier themes and even dug up some unpublished (or, in the case of Taste, underpublicized) writings from very early in his career. When I interviewed him in preparation for my book, he gave me a great line that I have quoted at every opportunity: when he reads his older work, he notices that his more recent concepts were somehow already present there, but “I didn’t know it at the time.”
My main project right now is to finish up my translation of Agamben’s book on Pinocchio. Though part of me wonders why I took on a translation during the busiest year of my life, it has been fun in a lot of ways — above all, by introducing me to the original novel by Collodi, which is significantly different and much better than the Disney film. When I first agreed to do the translation, I bought two different translations, intending to “triangulate” between them and Agamben’s commentary, and My Esteemed Partner decided to read it alongside me. One afternoon, she ran into the office and, nearly in tears from laughter, exclaimed: “He killed him! He threw something at the Talking Cricket and killed him!” And that’s only the first big twist in a book full of true WTF moments.
[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.
[As part of the research for my Slate article on Agamben’s covid writings, I interviewed several colleagues, including Eric Santner, whose ground-breaking interdisciplinary work is surely familiar to most readers of this blog. Rather than limiting himself to short answers to my questions, he found himself composing a longer essay on the roots of the paranoid pandemic turn in his earlier writings. With Eric’s permission, I am posting his full response here.]
Reflections on Hobbes form a central part of the analysis of sovereignty delineated by Agamben in the inaugural volume of his Homo Sacer project. When Agamben returned to Hobbes in a series of lectures given at Princeton very shortly after 9/11 it was in the context of a more general discussion of the concept of stasis, of “civil war as a political paradigm.” There Agamben tries to refine his earlier analysis of the notion of the state of nature as synonymous with the city as if dissolved (ut tanquam dissoluta consideretur). Though he doesn’t put it quite this way, the claim is that civil war represents (for Hobbes) something like the realization of this “as if,” that is, the emergence of a real state of exception or emergency in which a now really disunited multitude (rather than merely “as if dissolved”) attempts to reconstitute itself as a people by positing a new sovereign authority that will mediate its unity, represent itself to itself as one. Or alternatively, the (only virtually real) dissolved multitude represents a remainder/reminder of a (really) disunited multitude, one now held in reserve by the sovereign (the one who decides on the state of exception). In the state of exception, the sovereign power suspends the rule of law in the name of the protection and security of the people in the face of some threat or emergency. In the time of the exception the people in some sense return to a kind of pre-political status, to a “state of nature” now directly under state power and authority without the normal cover or mediation of law.
One of the things that most interests me about Tommy Lynch’s remarkable book is his unique approach to political theology. As I often complain, practitioners in this field seldom clearly define their methodology, such that “political theology” can be taken to embrace both politically-engaged theology and the often, but not exclusively, genealogical studies of the interface between political and theological concepts in a particular historical era or tradition. With all due respect to politically-engaged theology—or, as we might more efficiently call it, theology—I view the more genealogical version as normative for the discipline and believe it is confusing and counterproductive to lump such studies together with more confessional or constructive theological work that wears its political commitments on its sleeve. I was relieved to find that Lynch shares my more “narrow” vision of what political theology is, at one point defining the field as follows:
political theology is a methodology focused on the relationship between political and theological concepts. It seeks to understand the political history and significance of theological ideas, the theological history and significance of political ideas and to use theological ideas to explore the nature of the political. (7)
In my work, I narrow the definition even further to specify that the root of the relationship between theological and political categories is their shared confrontation with the problem of legitimacy, but Lynch’s definition here would include my understanding of what I am trying to do in my political-theological investigations.
More puzzling to me is a second definition of political theology, which appears to have more direct bearing on Lynch’s understanding of his own project here: “Political theology, in the narrow sense, is a method of philosophical thinking that uses theological concepts to critique the world” (35). We can say that this is a further specification of his initial, broad definition, akin to my more narrow focus on legitimacy. But it is a specification that raises any number of important questions. What is philosophy as opposed to theology? Why should philosophy need to draw on theological concepts to carry out its work of critique? And why should we view such philosophical usage of theological concepts as constituting its own distinct field of inquiry? I want to tease out some of Lynch’s implicit answers to these questions by putting his work into dialogue with the contemporary philosopher who has arguably spent the most time and effort using theological concepts to critique the world: Giorgio Agamben.
Over three years ago, I was invited to write a review of a handful of recent books by Giorgio Agamben. Since the books represented material from throughout his career, I used the opportunity to reflect on his intellectual development. After an unexpected round of editorial review, the text of my contribution was finalized and ready to go. That will have been approximately three years ago this fall.
Around the same time, I completed a translation of Agamben’s Creation and Anarchy, a reflection on the artwork that thematically overlapped with his first book, The Man Without Content. I hadn’t read the earlier book for a long time, so I decided to pick it up just to compare. It turned out to be very, very different, which piqued my interest in returning to Agamben’s earlier work. Gradually, this investigation evolved into an attempt to reread Agamben’s entire body of work in as close to chronological order as possible.
It became clear that this was my chance to make my definitive statement on Agamben’s work. As I finished my own read-through, I reviewed the relevant secondary literature. I began planning a book proposal and applied for (and received) institutional funding to travel to Italy to interview the man himself about his intellectual development. I gave papers on the topic in multiple venues. Then I wrote the book, got through the review process, and most recently, completed copyedits, proofs, and the index.
The book is coming out in September. I recently got an email that my book review has been scheduled for publication — in September. So in the time this journal has been sitting on a review that it solicited from me, I will have conducted a research program, obtained travel funding, then drafted and published a book on the same topic as that review. This has to mean something, but I can’t figure out what it is.
[Translator’s note: Agamben has asked me to translate his latest reflection on the coronavirus crisis.]
That science has become the religion of our time, that in which people believe they believe, has been obvious for some time now. In the modern West there have coexisted and, to a certain extent, still coexist three great systems of belief: Christianity, capitalism, and science. In the history of modernity, these three “religions” have often intersected, entering from time to time into conflict and later reconciling in a different way, until they progressively reached a sort of peaceful, articulated coexistence, if not a true and proper collaboration in the name of a common interest.
What is new is that between science and the other two religions there has ignited, without our noticing it, a subterranean and implacable conflict, the successful results of which for science are daily before our eyes and determine in an unheard-of way all aspects of our existence. This conflict does not concern, as happened in the past, theory or general principles, but, so to speak, cultic practice. Indeed, science too, like every religion, knows diverse forms and levels through which it organizes and orders its structure: to the elaboration of a subtle and rigorous dogmatic there corresponds in practice an extremely broad and widespread cultic sphere which coincides with what we call technology.
It is not surprising that the protagonist of this new war of religions should be that part of science where the dogmatic is less rigorous and the pragmatic aspect stronger: medicine, whose immediate object is the living body of human beings. Let us attempt to fix the essential character of this victorious faith with which we must increasingly settle accounts.
Continue reading “Giorgio Agamben: Medicine as Religion”
An Illinois legislator named Darren Bailey has convinced a judge to overrule the governor’s stay-at-home order for him — and him alone. It is worth pondering the peculiar form of life that emerges as one individual is excepted from the general state of exception. He is able to move freely, unencumbered by social distancing requirements, and yet every other resident in the state is obliged to stay away from him. He can leave his home freely, and yet there is nowhere for him to go. He is an outcast insofar as he is the only resident of the “normal” society that the stay-at-home order suspended. His civil rights thus enter into a state of pure inoperativity, rendered useless by the very order that supposedly vindicated them.
Is Bailey a messianic figure? The response of the sovereign — in this case, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker — may tempt us to think so. Yet it is a curious messiah who promises only to lead us back to the normal functioning of law. To be truly messianic, Bailey would have to renounce any claim to serve as a precedent, choosing instead to live out his peculiar form-of-life in a way that enacts its absurdity. We can imagine that solitary vigil as a kind of performance art piece that repeatedly exposes the limit of the bourgeois rights he has uselessly reclaimed.
The messianic condition is one in which all the rights of citizenship will be useless in their current sense — pointing to the potential for a new, unheard-of use.