Agamben events at Northwestern

On the 15th anniversary of Giorgio Agamben’s Northwestern lectures the Paul of Tarsus Interdisciplinary Working Group presents with support from the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the Program in Critical Theory, and the German department.

Friday, April 18, 12.30-3pm, Kaplan seminar room (Kresge 2-380)

Alessia Ricciardi – The Highest Poverty as Form of Life: Agamben’s Franciscanism and the Contemporary

Virgil W. Brower – “High Use”: Martin Luther as a hidden protagonist in Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer series

Wednesday, April 23, 2-3.30pm, German seminar room (Kresge 2-500)

Samuel Weber (in conversation with Peter Fenves and Anthony C. Adler, Yonsei University) – Politics of Singularity: Ontology, Theology, Economy

Against free choice

Common sense tells us that we’re morally accountable because we have free will. In reality, the opposite is the case — a free will is attributed to us so that we can be viewed as morally accountable. Put more briefly: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them.

I know that some readers are already objecting, thinking in terms of the intellectually fruitless debate between free will and determinism. I am far from viewing human beings as machine-like — indeed, the only people who seem to believe human beings are machine-like are economists, who assume that the right “inputs” (incentives, information, etc.) will always necessarily lead to the right “outputs.” Humans consistently respond to situations in surprising and unpredictable ways, which do not conform to any algorithm we’re likely to find.

Even if we decide that humans are “free” in the sense of not being fully determined by a saturated field of knowable causal laws, however, it’s still an additional step to claim that “freedom” in that sense carries with it moral responsibility — that I can be justly shamed or punished precisely because I can do something called “making a choice.” The one does not follow from the other. Indeed, we often shame or punish people when nothing like an informed free choice is in play, as when we punish someone for breaking a law they do not know (and virtually none of us knows even a significant percentage of the laws in our jurisdiction). We punish or shame children not because we believe that they have the same ability to “make choices” as adults, but so that they will begin to experience themselves as having free choice.

The concept of free will was most insistently developed in medieval scholasticism, and the really puzzling thing in retrospect was that essentially none of the scholastics doubted that each individual’s fate was completely predestined by God’s eternal inscrutable will. Here above all we can see that free will works as an apparatus to justify punishment, most especially in the various narratives of the fall of the devil. Aquinas settles on the position that the devil cannot be evil from the first moment of his existence, because then God would be to blame for his evil nature — rather, God gives the devil a good will in the first instant, and then in the second instant the devil falls away through an excessive willing that implied the sin of pride. The needle has been threaded: God has been absolved of responsibility, but the devil is also as thoroughly evil as possible. Anselm works similar magic on original sin, making it a heritable defect in the will — yet because it is a matter of will, it is a punishable sin just as much as what we more usually think of as willful sins.

The apparatus of free will in medieval theology allowed for a world not unlike our own. Free choice condemned the vast majority of human beings to a hopeless fate, while a privileged elite gained rewards — in both cases, despite the fact that God had predetermined everything, theologians were confident that everyone had gotten what they deserved. God’s justice was vindicated, and his glory assured. Our version is less grandiose. We want to vindicate something called “the market,” which always makes the right choices if only we allow it to, and in place of the glory of God we have the shifting numbers in various market indices and economic indicators. We are also content to let people waste the one life they have in this world, rather than imagine them suffering beyond death through all eternity.

Yet this deflated vision makes our attachment to the value of freedom all the more puzzling. I can see living and dying for God — but why would anyone devote their lives to making certain numbers go higher? Why would we sacrifice everything — the very livability of this finite world itself — so that the rate of change in those numbers would not decrease?

Here the medieval worldview might be helpful as well, because part of the pleasure of being among the heaven-bound elect was the prospect of watching, with great satisfaction, the punishment of the damned. Human decency leads us to assume that the suffering of the poor, the thwarted hopes of the young, the pending mass death of countless millions through the disasters of climate change are “bugs” in the system — but what if they’re features? What if part of the pleasure of being among the elite is to gaze upon the deserved fate of all those pathetic losers, knowing that the same market justice that redeemed you is vindicated when it punishes them? What if the unprecedented spectacle of global suffering is not an unfortunate side-effect, but the goal?

In praise of the ACLA

This past weekend was my aforementioned seminar on Agamben at the American Comparative Literature Association, at which I delivered this paper (PDF). It was an excellent panel all around — all the papers were substantive, and the discussion was easily the best I’ve ever experienced at a conference.

In large part, this was due to the quality of the participants and the well-defined nature of our topic, but I believe that the unique format of the ACLA’s annual conference is a big part of it as well. Instead of having one-off sessions, the ACLA is organized around multi-day seminars, and all presenters are expected to attend all the sessions. This allows for an extended dialogue and — especially crucially in my view — allows everyone to know basically where everyone is coming from. In my experience, one of the things that makes conference Q&A sessions so futile is the fact that there’s no real back-and-forth that can allow you to know where a person’s question is coming from (a gap which people understandably, if lamentably, try to fill with the “more a comment than a question”). People other than presenters also attend at most sessions, but having a core group provides a center of gravity for the converstaion.

I’ve been told that the format doesn’t automatically lead to good results, as there are lackluster and disappointing sessions. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the ACLA’s format gives a superior baseline expectation — as opposed to the traditional humanities conference session format, where a really good panel is experienced as something of a miraculous event.

My ACLA Paper: “What is to be done? The Endgame of the Homo Sacer Series”

Here is my paper (PDF) for the ACLA session on Agamben that Virgil Brower and I organized. It was the final paper of the seminar and provided an oblique “preview” of the final Homo Sacer volume, The Use of Bodies.

Obama and the new nomos of the earth

In The Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt argues that every legal order is founded in a kind of topology that divides the earth into regions and determines the law’s applicability to those regions. His book traces the metamorphosis of this fundamental apportionment of the earth through Western history, with decisive shifts emerging around the relationship between land and sea — and in his present-day, the relationship between the earth’s surface and the sky, where he believes the postwar nomos of the earth will play out.

As Taubes points out in one of the letters collected in To Carl Schmitt, there’s something obscene about Schmitt’s failure to address the place of the concentration camp in the nomos of the earth, and one could read Agamben’s Homo Sacer as an attempt to rework Schmitt’s argument around the very different topology of inclusive-exclusive sovereignty, as revealed most clearly in the camps. Contrary to Schmitt’s claim that the Western nomos has normally created a clearly delimited “free zone” outside the proper European sphere, Agamben points out that the kind of liminal space represented by the camp (and here one could include both the concentration camps and the refugee camps for the stateless) emerges within the political space itself. The apportionment of the earth, its new nomos, is defined by the anomalous space of the camp rather than by any supposedly distinct “outside.”

What is remarkable about our present political conjuncture is that both Schmitt and Agamben’s arguments seem to be vindicated. Read the rest of this entry »

American Comparative Literature Association seminar on Agamben

Next week, Virgil Brower and I will be presiding over an ACLA seminar entitled “Agamben, Capital, and the Homo Sacer Series: Economy, Poverty, People, Work.” The full conference schedule is available for download here. Our seminar’s line-up is as follows:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Agamben, Conference announcement. Comments Off

When the dictatorship of the proletariat lasts longer than expected

Kim Jeong Un did remarkably well in his recent election to a seat in North Korea’s supreme people’s assembly. The Western media is being suitably sarcastic about the 100% turnout, of whom 100% voted for the young Kim, but for me it highlights a curious thing about communist countries — even in the most extreme case of North Korea, there is some vestige of a “normal” liberal state underneath, with the Communist Party as a kind of overlay. In China, as is well known, the Communist Party isn’t even a legally recognized organization, and meanwhile in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s most decisive reforms consisted precisely in trying to empower the “normal” state at the expense of the Party.

The practice of fixing elections needs to be seen through this lens, as an enactment of the Party’s suspension of the “normal” state. We see this most clearly in the case of Yugoslavia, where Tito had genuine democratic legitimacy and would have won elections easily, but nonetheless the Communist Party rigged the elections. The point isn’t to use elections to gain spurious legitimacy, but to enact the Party’s illegitimacy in terms of the “normal” state institutions that it ultimately wants to abolish.

Agamben occasionally makes reference to this dynamic in the Homo Sacer series, seeing in the “dual state” structure the justification for the category of “totalitarianism” that includes both fascism and communism. While the critique of 20th century communism remains largely implicit, his basic point is that something like the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” understood as a suspension of “normal” state functions in order ultimately to abolish the state altogether, could never have worked. This is because the state of exception is precisely what generates the “normal” state, so that when prolonged indefinitely, the state of exception becomes its own state (as happened in all the communist countries, most notably North Korea, where communism somehow “looped back around” to hereditary monarchy).

As Gorbachev’s experience shows us, however, the answer is not to return to the “normal” state, which certainly backfired in Russia’s case, giving them rule by something like a mafia apparatus as opposed to the old Communist Party apparatus (i.e., fascism replacing communism).

From R.A.P. Music to Run the Jewels: Killer Mike and the Homonymity of the Idea

What follows is a first pass attempt to bring together the themes of sovereignty I have been exploring alongside Stephen Keating this semester with contemporary hip hop.


What could be an anonymous homonymy that moves towards the name itself? A herald from Atlanta carries the answer. Read the rest of this entry »

Agamben, theology, and me

The other day, Stephen Keating asked me what attracted me to Agamben initially, and I had to confess that at first it was simply a desire to see what the big deal was about Homo Sacer. I found the book pretty baffling, and out of stubbornness (and with some nudging from Ted Jennings), I read further to see if I could make sense of things — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except that it isn’t actually that simple. I’ve found many books baffling, and I didn’t wind up learning to read in a foreign language in order to keep up with their authors’ work, nor have I translated them, etc. The key, I think, is my strange disciplinary position. I do a lot with philosophy and really enjoy it — and yet I very often feel like I’m stuck in an “expositional” mode, as though I can’t fully inhabit the discourse in the way necessary to do creative work with it. It’s different with theology. There I feel like a genuine internal critic, and I feel confident that I can make creative contributions to the discourse.

From this perspective, Agamben is appealling to me because he occupies a similar position with regard to the Christian tradition. His readings of the theological tradition are much more interesting and daring than the majority of confessional theologians’ — particularly in the Paul book and in his bold rewriting of the entire history of Christian thought in The Kingdom and the Glory. Despite his immersion, he is still able to approach the tradition with genuine freedom, and despite his critical stance, he is able to approach the tradition with the initial sympathy needed to detect what is at stake in theologians’ often recondite debates. Agamben can make the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin seem as though it has urgent contemporary consequences, and yet that importance emphatically does not at all imply that we should become Christians.

This basic resonance makes Agamben at once a deep influence on my way of thinking and the philosopher that I feel most able to critique. And this weird stance toward philosophy and theology may explain my position on other philosophers. For instance, I have long had a gut feeling that delving deeper into Badiou’s work would not be the best use of my time, despite his obvious relevance for my work on Zizek — and I suspect that may finally be because his reading of Paul is deeply reactionary and anti-Jewish. Similarly, my interest in Zizek has waned as his theological work has reached a kind of dead end, where he can keep repeating the same basic point but seems unable to develop it further or fully integrate it into his system.

The true horror

Heroes of the Holocaust were people just like you.

Heroes of the Holocaust were people just like you.

In Remnants of Auschwitz, Agamben writes of a soccer match between the SS and the Jewish Sonderkommando (pg. 26):

This match might strike someone as a brief pause of humanity in the middle of an infinite horror. I, like the witnesses, instead view this match, this moment of normalcy, as the true horror of the camp. For we can perhaps think that the massacres are over–even if here and there they are repeated, not so far away from us. But that match is never over; it continues as if uninterrupted. It is the perfect and eternal cipher of the “gray zone,” which knows no time and is in every place. Hence the anguish and shame of the survivors, “the anguish inscribed in everyone of the ‘tohu-bohu,’ of a deserted and empty universe crushed under the spirit of God but from which the spirit of man is absent: not yet born or already extinguished” (Levi 1989: 85). But also hence our shame, the shame of those who did not know the camps and yet, without knowing how, are spectators of that match, which repeats itself in every match in our stadiums, in every television broadcast, in the normalcy of everyday life. If we do not succeed in understanding that match, in stopping it, there will never be hope.

My gut reaction is also to find the soccer match unbelievably offensive — how, in the midst of the camps, can it occur to the guards to say, “Hey, do you guys want to play soccer”? At the same time, it may initially seem to be an obscene exaggeration to say that we’re living in that soccer match today, as though he’s indulging in the most heavy-handed version of the moralizing gesture that would ask, “How can you be writing a blog post when people are starving in Africa?!”

Yet Agamben is not finally making a moral, but a legal claim: if we take seriously his view that the camp is the limit condition of the state of exception that has become a norm, and if we understand the entire postwar era as an endless state of exception, then all our petty entertainments are versions of that soccer match, fruitless attempts to establish something like normalcy within a sphere of potentially infinite violence. Surely the Cold War was one extended state of exception on both sides of the divide — the entire Soviet project was an exceptional measure meant to preserve the revolution at all costs, while the US government engaged its own secret police and even conducted secret medical experiments on its own citzens, and of course the entire world was held under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Agamben also makes it very explicit that the War on Terror is an extended state of exception.

Within this scheme, the one period that may seem difficult to account for is precisely when Agamben is writing, the 1990s, when the Cold War had ended and the War on Terror was still a glimmer in Dick Cheney’s eye. In retrospect, of course, we can see that the state of exception was never repealed during the “happy 90s” — the nuclear weapons were trained on their targets, and the national security apparatus was already reorienting itself toward terrorism even before the Cold War ended. The fact that Clinton ordered extra-legal bombing of Iraq while the Lewinsky scandal was unfolding in the press is perhaps emblematic here.

Taking a broader view, then, we can see in this passage Agamben’s response to the widespread sentiment that things were “finally returning to normal” in the 1990s — so that we could finally settle accounts with what happened in the Shoah (is it any coincidence that there was such an explosion of interest in the topic, which filtered down even to public school curricula, at precisely that historical moment?) and could move on to supposedly “apolitical” concerns such as environmentalism, human rights, etc.

From this perspective, Agamben is not simply talking about something like Bush asking people to go shopping after 9/11 — he is saying that the entirety of Western public discourse in the 1990s was that obscene soccer match. And in retrospect, it seems clear to me that he was right.


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