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 violence of refusal

I’m currently working through some (hopefully final) edits on my book about Dionysius and Žižek, and have found myself back trying to figure out the relationship between Žižek’s account of violence (primarily in his book Violence) and the account of violence in Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. I’ve pointed out before the way that Žižek ignores the fact that Benjamin’s discussion is dealing in part with the question of violence in relation to the general strike. But what I hadn’t quite grasped is that where, for Žižek, it is acts of passive refusal such as Bartleby the Scrivener’s ‘I would prefer not to’ or Saramago’s fictional country where all the citizens spontaneously refuse to fill our election ballots which best exemplify ‘divine violence’, for Benjamin the general strike is specifically not violent. That seems like an important distinction between the two accounts of violence, but I can’t quite get straight what that distinction is, so I’m hoping some of you might be able to help me figure it out. Here’s where I’ve got to:

For Žižek there are four types of violence. There is law-founding or mythical violence, which consists of the unjustifiable decision to create a social or symbolic order in the first place. The violence (that is, the excessive nature of this act – its lack of grounding in any reason or cause) of this moment is often covered up by reference to a God or gods: we do things this way and not that way because God has so ordained it. There is law-maintaining violence, the various forms of coercion directed at anything which threatens the ongoing existence of the social and symbolic order – whether that’s calling the police on strikers or gossiping about the person who made a social faux pas. There is simple criminal violence, which transgresses the law but doesn’t pose a threat to it. And there is divine violence, which for Žižek is anything which poses an existential threat to the existing social order, forcing a radical transformation.

Benjamin is trickier. Again, violence is always entangled with the social and symbolic order – Critique of Violence says that the question of violence arises in relation to law and justice. For law, violence can be justified only if it is deployed in order to achieve ends which are sanctioned by the law. The law wants a monopoly on violence – it wants to be the sole arbiter of whether or not violence is justified. Even when violence is legal, if it is not wielded directly by the state, then it poses a threat to the law: and this is where we get to the question of the strike. Benjamin argues that organised labour is ‘apart from the state probably the only legal subject entitled to exercise violence.’ And here’s where it gets tricky. A strike is not an action so much as a refusal to act. It is a withdrawal from the violent coercion of the employer. But a strike can aim either at an end that is sanctioned by the law – higher wages, say – or at an end that threatens the existence of the law as such – revolution, the end of the law. In the second case, although striking as such is legal, the law cries violence because the aim of the strike is one that threatens its existence.

Later, though, Benjamin makes a distinction between  the political general strike and the proletarian general strike. The political general strike doesn’t want to overthrow the law and the state, it just wants a reorganisation of the state or law: different bosses, different conditions for waged labour. But the proletarian general strike wants to end the state and the law. If the law is defined as a set of agreements about when violence is and is not legitimate (so a legal contract, Benjamin says, confers on each party the right to resort to some kind of violence against the other if they break the terms of the contract), then the general strike is properly anarchic: the strikers refuse to work until there is no more state, no more law, no more society in which the decision to work or to not work is enforced by the threat of violence. In the political general strike, the strikers want more control of the power of violent coercion held by the state; in the proletarian general strike, the strikers refuse any kind of social order built on violent coercion.

And then we get to divine violence. If mythic violence is lawmaking, Benjamin says, divine violence is law-destroying. It is not about enforcing the law, and so it is not about retribution or payback. It kills not to enforce the law of talion, but for the sake of humanity, whose value cannot be reduced to the law. On Žižek’s reading of Benjamin, this would mean that the proletarian general strike is the ideal exemplar of divine violence, and Benjamin has earlier indicated that the law might indeed perceive the general strike as violent. But he has also argued that the proletarian general strike is not violent.

I can’t work out how to square this circle. In part, I am not quite sure what Benjamin means by violence. Sometimes it seems that coercion is at play; but this again would seem to make the proletarian general strike violent, though Benjamin insists  that it is not. We could see it as having to do with the law, and specifically the way in which the law is founded on the state’s monopoly of violence and the law of talion. But then divine violence, which takes place in utter indifference to the state’s authority or the law of talion, would not count as violence. Either way, I’m stumped, and if anyone with a better grasp of Benjamin can help me out I’d be extremely grateful.

The astonishment that such things are “still” possible

Klee - Angelus Novus (1920)

Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” relentlessly attack the notion of any form of necessary social progress, whether liberal or Marxist. In the current election cycle, we may be witnessing a fresh “now of legibility” for this much-quoted text. Who can follow the bizarre events unfolding before us and still hold onto the illusions that the arc of history — or demographic change — will “automatically” save us in the end?

“Progress” in the conventional sense is simply not on offer here, in large part because we’ve had decades of “regression” in those terms. In the ostensibly “progressive” party, we are offered a choice between perhaps the most authentically conservative candidate in recent memory — Hillary Clinton, who promises to fight to keep things exactly as Obama left them — and an opponent who, in terms of the “progress” of recent history, counts as nostalgic and even regressive — Bernie Sanders, who wants to restore the elements of the postwar settlement that have been eroded and destroyed. To go forward, we must go back.

Meanwhile, on the ostensibly “conservative” end of things, we have people who are either “progressive” in the sense of wanting to hurry along existing trends (the neoliberal “Republican establishment,” such as it is) and outright revolutionaries — most notably Trump, but also Cruz. While much of their rhetoric seems “regressive” in the traditional “things should get more lefty” terms — how can anyone “still” embrace the KKK, for instance? Buy a calendar! — in reality they are offering us something unprecedented, something we truly cannot predict. The superficial nostalgia of “Make America Great Again” should not hide the fact that nothing Trump or Cruz is proposing is actually a “return” to any previous era. The embrace of white supremacy at the current moment, for instance, means something radically different than a similar move would have meant when even abolitionists were pretty much racists.

We can see the same thing on the state level. Bruce Rauner is not aiming to return Illinois to some previous state — he wants to impose an unprecedented arrangement upon it, and to achieve that he appears to be willing to literally shut down all state agencies for his entire term if need be. Here the Democrats are most vividly the conservative party, the party that is in favor of having a state government at all. And the telling thing, I think, is that — due to Rauner buying off a Democratic legislator — the Democrats are one vote short of the supermajority needed to render him totally irrelevant to the political process. All it would take is one Republican to say, “My God, this is lunacy” and it would all be over. And not a single one will.

We see a similar dichotomy in the response to public pressure. Republicans, going all the way back to George W. Bush, simply do not care. They’re going to do what they’re going to do, and the only question is when they’ll get bored of the spectacle and call in the national guard. Democrats, by contrast, are the party of at least pretending to respond to protest. Illinois offers an instructive example here: there have been countless fruitless protests against Rauner, but the terrible, corrupt, conservative Democrat Rahm Emanuel has made some token gesture toward meeting protestors’ demands and even allowed protestors to disrupt Christmas shopping unmolested. His responses have been token at best, but even Rahm — who is surely the very worst the Democrats have to offer — acknowledges and responds in some way.

This is why I distrust all those who smugly inform us that Trump’s most outlandish plans are a dead letter. Presumably this is because of institutional constraints — but since when are Republicans known for working within institutional constraints? During the Obama years, they have systematically weaponized those constraints, turning the fillibuster into a de facto minimum vote threshold, repeatedly playing chicken with the debt ceiling, and now flatly refusing to entertain any Obama nominee for the Supreme Court. They have fought aggressively from a position of virtually unprecedented weakness and repudiation, and they have been rewarded electorally.

Does this mean that Trump really will carry out the most massive population transfer in human history? I don’t know. I hope not. But we can’t rule it out. We can’t rule anything out. He would be the commander in chief of the United States armed forces, and he would have Republican allies at all levels of government, who control militarized and deeply racist police forces. Will the Republicans in the Senate literally let the Supreme Court die off one by one before they allow a Democrat to confirm a new justice? I don’t know. I hope not. But they could. They have the power to do that. Similarly in Illinois, do we really know that Rauner won’t continue his crusade for all four years? I don’t know. I hope not. But he could — there is nothing compelling him to sign any budget ever — and I don’t think we really know what that will look like for the state to be shut down for four years. And then we don’t know that he won’t be reelected.

In any case, demographics will not save us. The longer they’re in power now, the more opportunity they have to entrench their power. Conservative overreach will not save us. The more public institutions they destroy, the more they destroy the constituencies for them. Trump won’t lose automatically, because neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders can fully control events. The normal back and forth of politics, the trends and data, will not save us — because the unprecedented can and does happen. It is happening before our eyes.

“Poor Sovereignty” an InterCcECT workshop with Arne De Boever

Sovereign aesthetics, aesthetics of sovereignty, the power of the image, the poverty of the image, the state of exception, the real exception to the image –Arne De Boever’s new work on art history’s contribution to the philosophy of sovereignty invigorates and severs the too easily assumed connections between Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag that organize contemporary discourses of image politics. Join us for a workshop with Professor De Boever Tuesday 17 March, 5pm, generously hosted by our collaborator Gallery 400. Reading circulated in advance; request it here.

Arne’s abstract:
This article deals with the afterlife of Walter Benjamin’s comments on the state of exception—specifically, his distinction between the state of exception and what he calls a “real” state of exception that would dismantle the former–in Susan Sontag and Hito Steyerl’s theories of the image. It argues, first, that Sontag’s theory of the image, while conceived in Benjamin’s wake, insists on the reality of an outside-image that always risks to create new states of exception. While Steyerl, also working after Benjamin, goes a long way towards dismantling this risk, she too recreates it in her casting of the unreal people in spam images as those who will do the dirty work of imaging for us so that we, the real people, can withdraw from representation. This logic of substitution, which does not change what Steyerl in her work diagnoses as the “exceptional” conditions of contemporary imaging, does not succeed in bringing about the real state of exception that Benjamin called for. For this, the logic of substitution would need to be abandoned. Benjamin himself suggested this in his discussion of strike in his essay “Critique of Violence”. After the strike, Benjamin argues, it is us—i.e., not someone else—who go back to work. But the work has been “wholly transformed”.

Be on the lookout for another Rancière session soon; as always, drop us a line to propose events; and for now, here’s what’s
on our calendar:
2 March, Atmospheres
3 March, Charles Palermo,Photography and Modernism
5 March, Adam Kotsko, Creepiness
5-8 March, Narrative theory conference in Chicago

Bare life vs. naked life

The most famous term from Agamben is surely “bare life,” la vita nuda. As often happens, this term actually stems from Benjamin, specifically the “Critique of Violence,” where he briefly mentions blosses Leben. As Carlo Salzani pointed out in our ACLA seminar on Agamben last spring, Agamben’s la vita nuda is not his own translation of blosses Leben, but is instead drawn from the original Italian translation of Benjamin’s work. And as a translation of Benjamin, la vita nuda is imprecise — one would probably prefer something like “mere life” (or, less circumspectly, “pure life”).

Similarly, the standard translation “bare life” initially seems questionable. One might have opted for “naked life” — a translation that is more visceral and more immediately clarifies that this life is emphatically post-political, not (as one might dare to think) pre-. You cannot be “naked” outside the context of social norms, while you can in some sense be “bare.”

Yet there is something ingenious in the translation “bare life” that warrants preserving it beyond simple considerations of continuity and tradition. It somehow straddles the gap between the original Benjaminian term and Agamben’s translation — echoing the way that the term itself is in a weird space of indeterminacy where it is neither fully Benjamin’s nor fully Agamben’s own creation.

The tradition of the oppressed

As the governor of Missouri declares a state of emergency in anticipation of a ruling on the murder of Michael Brown, I’m sure many of us were put in mind of the famous quote from Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule.”

Last spring, I was teaching that text in a course where we had previous spent a week on James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, and Benjamin’s quote became immediately intelligible in terms of the black tradition in the United States. For the black community in America, there has never been a “normal” baseline experience from which emergencies are exceptions: unfortunate but episodic deviations. Rather, it has been a rolling emergency, interrupted by brief windows of relative promise. And from this perspective, perhaps we can understand the enigmatic “real state of exception” that Benjamin calls for — because from the perspective of white power, those moments of promise are the true emergencies that must be shut down at all costs.

Living Thought Book Event: Other “Italians”?

Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought is a strange hybrid of a book. On the one hand, it’s an extremely erudite and yet readable history of Italian philosophy, but on the other hand, it’s also a creative and constructive work of philosophy. The burden of the argument is that there is something about the Italian experience of the late and never fully constituted arrival of a nation-state that allowed for the development of a style of thought that sits askew relative to the mainstream discourses of modernity — and that this is the reason for the contemporary success of Italian thought under the conditions of globalized late capital. He proceeds by pointing to a series of distinguishing traits that mark the tradition of Italian thought from its beginnings in Bruno, Vico, and Machiavelli: an ambiguous relationship to the question of “origin,” resulting in a curiously bi-directional concept of history; a mutual “contamination” of philosophy with other discourses and practices; and an emphasis on immanence and life.

Continue reading Living Thought Book Event: Other “Italians”?”

Martin Luther King Day

In past years, I’ve linked to an old article about Martin Luther King’s more radical activism toward the end of his career. This semester, though, it so happens that the concluding reading for my class Social Sciences 2 (The Western Political Tradition) is the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This morning, Corey Robin posted an excerpt that I will post as well:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

I’m reminded too of Benjamin’s thesis on liberal dismay that progress might go in the wrong direction:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

Agamben and Heidegger

Spending time with Heidegger at the same time that I’m translating Agamben is proving fertile — it’s obvious that Agamben is “influenced by” Heidegger in a lot of ways, but it’s good to get a firm handle on exactly how. It’s now beginning to seem to me that the ambition of the Homo Sacer series is to rework Heidegger’s “history of Being,” in part by treating Nazism as a decisive event in that history in a way that Heidegger’s direct involvement could not allow him to.

I also have to admit that I feel a little dumb for not realizing that the emphasis on Aristotle most likely comes from Heidegger and that the priority of potentiality over actuality is found directly and directly in Being and Time: “As a modal category of presence-at-hand, possibility signifies what is not yet actual and what is not at any time necessary. It characterizes the merely possible. Ontologically it is on a lower level than actuality and necessity. On the other hand, possibility as an existentiale [i.e., the equivalent of a “category” for Dasein’s special way of being] is the most primordial and ultimate positive way in which Dasein is characterized ontologically” (M&R trans., pg. 183, original pp. 143-44).

(I thought I saw a book with the title “Agamben and Heidegger” in some context recently, but I can’t find it on Amazon now.)

A poem

I first came across this poem in Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, but in these dark days, it seems relevant — differently, but perhaps even more.

On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.
(for Walter Benjamin)

I’m told you raised your hand against yourself
Anticipating the butcher.
After eight years in exile, observing the rise of the enemy
Then at least, brought up against an impassable frontier
You passed, they say, a passable one.

Empires collapse. Gang leaders
Are strutting about like statesmen. The peoples
Can no longer be seen under all those armaments.

So the fugure lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.

One might substitute “debts” for “armaments,” but it amounts to the same thing.