Book review: The Figure of This World by Mathew Abbott

I just finished reading The Figure of This World: Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology by Mathew Abbott (Amazon link). I’ve linked approvingly before to Abbott’s work characterizing Agamben’s project as one of “political ontology,” and this book easily meets and exceeds my expectations based on that small preview. It is a brilliant reading and systematization of Agamben’s work that extends beyond Agamben himself to argue that the problem of political ontology can serve as a common ground between Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and hence between analytic and continental philosophy.

Much of the first half of the book is taken up with laying out Agamben’s project and bringing it into contact with his primary sources, Heidegger and Benjamin. Abbott’s focus throughout is on the sheer givenness of Being as a unique and ungraspable “fact” that both grounds and ungrounds all human projects. The wager of political ontology, in Abbott’s view, is that this uncanny fact does not simply consign us to despair, but rather provides the basis for a positive political vision.

Having established his basic point of view, Abbott proceeds to contrast Agamben with Levinas and Nietzsche. These chapters were, for me, the most satisfying in the book, particularly the latter — ever since I first read Homo Sacer, I was struck by repeated points of contact between Agamben and Nietzsche, particularly Genealogy of Morals, but I’ve never stopped to dig further. Now I don’t have to!

The final chapters move beyond Agamben to stage a confrontation between Wittgenstein and Heidegger, using the Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” and Heidegger’s “world-picture” as a point of contact between the two. Abbott makes a case for the basic continuity of Wittgenstein’s work, claiming to find throughout a close parallel with Heidegger’s question of Being (as Abbott has laid it out previously). He claims that reading the two thinkers together can help us to overcome their respective deficits and to see that both analytic and continental philosophy originated out of the attempt to struggle with the same problems.

In the end, Abbott brings it all back to Agamben, taking the unexpected tack of introducing entire new topics (such as Marxism) in the final pages rather than concluding. For me, this section felt less convincing than the rest of the book, as Abbott seemed almost pressed for time. I have very serious questions about his formulation of Agamben’s “solution,” namely that we should recognize the exceptionality of the everyday — but it could be a matter of wording rather than substance.

Whatever my reservations, however, it seems clear to me that this text will stand as required reading for all Agamben scholars. Unfortunately, we may need to establish full communism to give everyone adequate access to it, because it’s one of those crazy $100 academic “hardcovers” (i.e., a shoddily produced “permabound” book reminiscent of the novels distributed in American public schools). I don’t understand why academic publishers seem so dedicated to the task of preventing people from reading important academic work.

Update on Agamben reading group

The Bay Area Public School has posted an announcement with details. The first session will be on Monday, June 30th, at 4pm, in downtown Oakland, and we will be reading up to page 34 in Agamben’s Infancy and History.

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Bay area reading group over early Agamben texts

I’ve posted before about the possibility of a reading group this summer through the Bay Area Public School. The details are still being finalized, but I wanted to give an update for those who would like to participate. I’m planning to start with Agamben’s Infancy and History, which is readily available in a Verso edition (and may be available in PDF form through various sources). I hope to start on Monday afternoon, June 30, and meet each Monday up through August 4, for a total of six sessions. Exact time and location to be determined.

For the first session (June 30), I’d like to do up through pg. 34 of the text, then through pg. 72 for the second (July 7). That will take us up to the end of the first major essay of the book. If you can’t get ahold of the book in time for the first session, it’s no problem — you can just catch up with the reading and show up for the second. After the first couple weeks, we can play it by ear as to the exact pace and where we go if and when we finish Infancy and History. (The most likely candidate for an additional book is Language and Death, but it seems to be on the verge of going out of print, so we may have to pick something else.)

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“Focus is life”: The mysticism of Five-Hour Energy

Five-Hour Energy is one of those products that exists near the back of all of our cultural consciousnesses, at the boundary between “real” products and obvious scams. We might map out that space as bounded on the more legitimate-seeming side by anti-oxidants and on the more scam-like side by the Atkins diet. I’m inclined to push it more toward the Atkins end of things. The round number seems very suspicious to me, for instance — how can they possibly know, amid all the wide variety in human physiology, that the energy boost will last that precise length of time? Further, how can such a product possibly fail to cause cancer?

Their advertising has generally fallen within certain predictable bounds. Do you feel too tired to work out? Take Five-Hour Energy. Do you feel worn out in the afternoons at work? Take Five-Hour Energy to avoid That 2:30 Feeling. The most adventurous they got was a self-mocking campaign in which an adventuring young man mastered dozens of skills within the five-hour window, with a little time to spare.

Lately, though, their ads have taken on a more mystical tone (unfortunately these ads don’t seem to be available on YouTube). Instead of giving you energy or motivation, they’re providing you with focus. They describe focus in terms that would not be unfamiliar to readers of The Cloud of Unknowing, concluding with the enthusiastic declaration: “Focus is life!”

It’s disconcerting to be told that an energy drink is the pathway to a meaningful, centered life, but here we are. It reminds me on one level of Zizek’s critique of “Western Buddhism,” whereby the spirituality of the Eastern world is instrumentalized to help workers cope with the stress of their jobs. While his focus on Buddhism is probably disproportionate, the basic point remains — think of what yoga has become in the US, for instance.

What’s misleading in Zizek’s stance, however, is the implication that supplementing work with spirituality is something new. Agamben’s description of the monastic workday in The Highest Poverty reminds us that there has always been a “zone of indistinction” between work and spirituality in the Christian tradition (and I assume the monks suffering from accedia would have appreciated a bottle or two of Five-Hour Energy). Leaving aside the obvious references to the “Protestant ethic,” we find the same overlap in Marxism, where productive labor is put forth as “the chief end of man.”

In other words, the problem with Five-Hour Energy’s claim that an energy drink meant to help you through the workday is also a mystical experience isn’t that it debases spirituality — it’s that they’re fundamentally on the right track. That really is how our culture thinks about work, even in its most radical self-critique. It’s a Hegelian-Zizekian “infinite judgment,” like “the Spirit is a bone” — “Marxism is a Five-Hour Energy commercial.”

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 »

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