I just finished reading Agamben’s Altissima povertà: Regole monastiche e forma di vita [The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form of Life], which is the first part of the long-awaited fourth volume of the Homo Sacer series. In it, Agamben investigates monasticism as an attempt to create a form of life apart from the apparatus of law. He regards the Franciscans, with their “abdication from the law” and their insistence that they do not own but only “use” things, as the most theoretically ambitious of the monastic movements, yet he believes that they ultimately failed to develop their thinking in a way that resists assimilation into the juridical system of the church.
The reason for their failure, in Agamben’s view, is that they developed their concepts too much in dialogue with the law and defined them negatively — yet Agamben’s whole project in the Homo Sacer series has been dedicated to showing that the very structure of Western law presupposes an attempt to “include” the outside, creating a “zone of indistinction” between law and fact (above all in the state of exception). Simply opposing the law isn’t enough to escape it, since it paradoxically includes what’s outside of it as well.
Agamben ends by calling for a positive development of the concepts of form of life and the use of things — and I think a model here might actually be in atonal music. In one of Schoenberg’s lectures on the origin of the twelve-tone system, he said that he came to the realization that the tonal system was increasingly breaking down due to experimentation with dissonance. It had reached the point where the rules were so constantly violated that there seemed to be little point in keeping them — yet when he and his students attempted to compose in a “non-tonal” way, they found that they could not sustain long pieces and that they were constantly falling back into the old tonal patterns. Only once Schoenberg developed his own set of new rules for making use of the raw materials of the tonal system (i.e., the twelve tones of the octave) did the attempt to escape tonality become sustainable.
This comparison may be superficial, but I think the example of Schoenberg does contain one useful warning: when we’re developing our positive alternatives to the existing system, we should expect to be met with incomprehension.
(By the way, if you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, Alex Ross’s book on 20th century music, The Rest is Noise, is a really great way into the subject.)