Academic Publishing: An Odyssey

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.

Giorgio Agamben: Medicine as Religion

[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”

The Real State of Exception?

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.

On doing the thing

During our sojourn in place, I have found myself unable to concentrate on much of anything beyond the immediate task in hand. Reformatting my courses for online delivery — then, inevitably, reformatting them again when the first version didn’t seem to be working — has been time-consuming, trying to keep the various discussions moving has been more draining than normal in-person classes, and keeping in contact with all the students who seem to be falling behind has been more difficult and stressful. This was in a semester when I already had three fresh preps in three radically different subjects, which is fun but also requires a lot of energy to keep up with. I am normally not able to do any considerable outside writing or research late in the semester, but at this point it feels like I am completely intellectually spent. I have actually welcomed the production work on my forthcoming monograph and translation, as relatively mechanical labor that keeps me busy without taking a lot of mental energy. Without the time commitment of commuting, I have been able to keep up more with studying the Qur’an in Arabic than I otherwise would have, but that too is more a matter of just putting in the time and flipping through the dictionary and trusting that I’ll gradually get better — I am not having startling creative insights so far.

Outside of those routines, I have mostly been binging TV, walking the dog, and drinking, on average, 10-15% too much. But I have found time for two intellectual activites: resuming my reading of Thomas Pynchon, whose work I have been revisiting during break periods for the last few years, and translating short pieces by Giorgio Agamben on the coronavirus crisis. Continue reading “On doing the thing”

Giorgio Agamben: A Question

[Translator’s note: Agamben has again requested that I translate his latest essay on the ethical implications of the coronavirus crisis.]

“The plague marked for the city the beginning of corruption… No one was any longer disposed to persevere in what he had previously judged to be the good, because he believed that perhaps he would die before achieving it.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, II.53)

I would like to share with whoever wants it a question on which for over a month now I have never stopped reflecting. How could it happen that an entire country has, without noticing it, politically and ethically collapsed in the face of an illness? The words that I have used to formulate this question have been carefully weighed one by one. The measure of the abdication of our own ethical and political principles is, in fact, very simple: it is a matter of asking ourselves what is the limit beyond which we are not prepared to renounce them. I believe that the reader who takes the trouble to consider the points that follow will not be able not to agree that — without noticing it or by pretending not to notice it — the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed.

  1. The first point, perhaps the most serious, concerns the bodies of dead persons. How could we have accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, that persons who are dear to us and human beings in general should not only die alone, but — something that had never happened before in history, from Antigone to today — that their cadavers should be burned without a funeral?
  2. We then accepted without too many problems, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, limiting, to an extent that had never happened before in the history of the country, not even during the Second World War (the curfew during the war was limited to certain hours), our freedom of movement. We consequently accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, de facto suspending our relationships of friendship and love, because our proximity had become a possible source of contagion.
  3. This was able to happen — and here we hit on the root of the phenomenon — because we have split the unity of our vital experience, which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual, into a purely biological entity on one hand and an affective and cultural life on the other. Ivan Illich demonstrated, and David Cayley has recalled it here recently, the responsibility of modern medicine in this split, which is taken for granted but is actually the greatest of abstractions. I know very well that this abstraction was actualized in modern science through apparatuses of reanimation, which can maintain a body in a state of pure vegetative life. But if this condition is extended beyond the spatial and temporal confines that are proper to it, as we are today seeking to do, and it becomes a sort of principle of social behavior, we fall into contradictions from which there is no way out.

I know that someone will hasten to respond that we are dealing with a condition that is limited in time, after which everything will return to how it was. It is truly strange that we could repeat this other than in bad faith, since the same authorities that proclaimed the emergency never stop reminding us that when the emergency has been overcome, we will have to continue to observe the same directives and that “social distancing,” as it has been called with a significant euphemism, will be society’s new organizing principle. And, in every case, what we have accepted submitting to, in good or bad faith, cannot be cancelled.

At this point, because I have declared the responsibilities of each of us, I cannot fail to mention the even more serious responsibility of those who had the duty to keep watch over human dignity. The Church above all, which, in making itself the handmaid of science, which has now become the true religion of our time, has radically repudiated its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope who calls himself Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. It has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is that of visiting the sick. It has forgotten that the martyrs teach that we must be prepared to sacrifice our life rather than our faith and that renouncing our neighbor means renouncing faith.

Another category that has failed in their duties is that of jurists. For some time we have been habituated to the rash use of emergency decrees by means of which the executive power is de facto substituted for that the legislative, abolishing that principle of the separation of powers that defines democracy. But in this case, every limit has been surpassed, and one has the impression that the words of the prime minister and of the head of civil defense, as was said of those of the Führer, immediately have the force of law. And we do not see how, going beyond the temporal limits of validity of the emergency decrees, the limitations of freedom could, as is foretold, be maintained. With what juridical apparatuses? With a permanent state of exception? It is the duty of jurists to verify that the rules of the constitution are respected, but the jurists are silent. Quare silete iuristae in munere vestro? (Why are jurists silent on what concerns them?)

I know that there will inevitably be someone who will respond that the sacrifice, which is of course serious, has been made in the name of moral principles. To them I would recall that a norm that affirms that we must renounce the good to save the good is just as false and contradictory as that which, to protect freedom, orders us to renounce freedom.

Pandemocracy and the State of Exception

These reflections are not only the product of our current global crisis but also respond to the theoretical challenge of thinking otherwise about the nature of biopolitical governance, the challenge of discovering some resources within the biopolitical to support an insurgent form of life. Recently, Roberto Esposito in Two (2013) has made the attempt to discover in the globalization of sovereign debt the possibility of overcoming the sovereign splitting of the biopolitical decision, between “making live” and “letting die”: “The fact that all states, divided by a clear inequality of resources, are now indebted to an entity as elusive as global finance means that for the first time, perhaps, the world will experience a condition of shared suffering. It is as if splitting had become the general form of unity. We are joined by a debt that separates us even from ourselves, by suspending us from a model of development that produces loss. Since everyone is included in it, we are at the same time also all excluded. The point of arrival for economic-political theology is identity, with no remainders, between inside and outside, whole and part, One and Two.” (Two, 208) Esposito cautions us not to try to return to this condition of the “identity . . . between . . . One and Two” by resurrecting some new form of sovereignty. Instead, he suggests that we create what I am calling a “pandemocracy” out of our globalized condition of being unified by our experience of being split between our identity as owners and our identity as owers. He claims that what “flickers” in our commonality as Ow(n)ers is “the law of jubilee.” (209)

Esposito did not imagine the possibility that it would not be the collapse of the global finance markets that allowed the law of jubilee to flicker, but the global pandemic. Giorgio Agamben recently characterized the pandemic as inciting a sovereign autoimmune response that decides, as Foucault descbribes it, one population to make live and another to let die. But the pandemic does more than that. In the midst of this sovereign decision, those who are called upon to execute it demonstrate a sacrificial exorbitance that is the sign of those who renounce their ownership of secure life and livelihood in a demonstration of common owership. I am of course referring to the women and men who daily minister to the sick and dying. This is not unique to this pandemic. Thucydides speaks of such self-sacrificing care in his description of the plague that broke out in his besieged city of Athens.

In Athens and today, the common owership displayed by the health workers is understood to be grounded in a sacred bond, the Hippocratic Oath. Agamben has taught us about the intimate link between oaths and the sacred. I would suggest that Asclepius, god of healing, is the figuration of the other of the sovereign decision between making live and letting die. It is not surprising that Asclepius is himself put to death by Zeus and transformed into a constellation, Ophiuchus, the “snake holder.” The wisdom of the snake is self-regeneration, a.k.a resurrection. Besides the jubilee of our redemption from debt, resurrection is also what “flickers” on the horizon of our “shared suffering.” Marx, in his 1841 dissertation on Epicurus, said that the heavenly bodies (ta meteora) in the ancient world intimated the fulfillment of our species being as a single immortal life form, no longer divided between owners of bodies and owned bodies. Each constellation, Marx explained, was thought to be a god-species. Marx shows that Epicurus’s philosophy of atomism was the reflection of the dissolution of the social bond of ancient polis and the atomization of its citizens into abstract individualities. Epicurus, Marx argues, could not bear the contradiction between his dirempted self-consciousness and the intimation of the unified form of species life intimated by the constellations. He could not bear the flickering of another form of life for our human species being. He turned the constellations into long-lasting but mortal atomic configurations. Mortal gods. Marx later connected Epicurean atomism to Hobbesian materialism. The Hobbesian sovereign, the mortal god, has become the figure our constricted vision, our atomized selfhoods turning away from the flickering of another form of species being. I fear that Agamben himself may have blinded himself by staring at the sun’s sovereign glory. He seems to have lost sight of the constellations, and especially Asklepius, the snake holder.

Robert Yelle has recently published a wonderful book, Sovereignty and the Sacred (2019) that beautifully complements Esposito’s Two. Yelle also draws out attention to the law of jubilee. In a philologically rigorous and historically informed study of the intimate relationship between the myths and rituals associated with sovereign investiture and the sphere of the sacred in general, Yelle demonstrates the doubled and split nature of our political conjunctions, whether in ancient city-states, medieval kingdoms, or modern liberal states. His book traces political theology (Yelle prefers “spiritual economy”) not only to its Greek and Roman antecedents, but to the Indic precursors of both traditions in Sanskrit myth and ritual. Esposito’s and Yelle’s books are sober accounts of the violence that continually (re)founds our polities and invests sovereignty with the lightning flash of the sacred, the brilliance of the heavens carving a murderous path to the earth. But Yelle and Esposito have not allowed themselves to be blinded by Zeus’s glorious weapon, the lightning of sovereignty. Like the early Marx, they teach us that the heavens also intimate our common life of owership, the pandemocracy that is no less sacred than Hobbes’s mortal god who demands obedience as the price of our claim to live more than “short and brutish” lives. That bargain is revealed today to be a sham. We may, as Agamben has suggested, allow ourselves to be duped again by this mortal god’s offer of security. Or we may, as Esposito and Yelle suggest, find another god flickering in the darkness, the god who promulgates the law of jubilee and raises our hope that the snake’s wisdom has not been utterly forgotten.

Giorgio Agamben: “Clarifications”

Translator’s Note: Giorgio Agamben asked me to translate this brief essay, which serves as an indirect response to the controversy surrounding his article about the response to coronavirus in Italy (see here for the original Italian piece and here for an English translation).

Fear is a poor advisor, but it causes many things to appear that one pretended not to see. The problem is not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic. The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them. Other human beings, as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter. The dead — our dead — do not have a right to a funeral and it is not clear what will happen to the bodies of our loved ones. Our neighbor has been cancelled and it is curious that churches remain silent on the subject. What do human relationships become in a country that habituates itself to live in this way for who knows how long? And what is a society that has no value other than survival?

The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.

It is not surprising that for the virus one speaks of war. The emergency measures obligate us in fact to life in conditions of curfew. But a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person is the most absurd of wars. It is, in reality, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, it is within us.

What is worrisome is not so much or not only the present, but what comes after. Just as wars have left as a legacy to peace a series of inauspicious technologies, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is also very likely that one will seek to continue even after the health emergency experiments that governments did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every contact — every contagion — between human beings.

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.