Agamben and the philosophical chapbook

I just finished reading Agamben’s Che cos’è la filosofia? (What is Philosophy?), a beautiful and elegant book both conceptually and as a physical artifact. When I ordered the book, I threw in one of his little pamphlet books, just out of curiosity, and it turned out to contain two of the essays from Profanations, enhanced with some black-and-white photographs (and a dagguerotype, by Daguerre himself as it turns out). Looking online, it then appeared that many of the Profanations essays had appeared in that format.

Such a publication choice seems strange, but if anything, the odd thing was that he chose to collect them together later. I get the impression that he is reluctant to have English-language publishers group together his shorter essay-length works, though he has allowed it (What is an Apparatus? includes three works published separately in Italian). Two works I have recently translated — Pilate and Jesus and The Mystery of Evil — likely could have been collected together with The Church and the Kingdom to create an attractive, and still small, edition of his “ecclesiastical” writings, but he opted for them to be published separately in translation as well.

I conclude from this that the small publication format must be more important to him as more than a lark or a novelty. Sometimes he includes artwork or even collaborates with a particular artist, sometimes he lets it stand more or less on its own, but when he writes something short and puts it out on its own, he’s doing it on purpose. Agamben’s writing already tends toward the fragmentary and aphoristic, so why not reduplicate that effect on the material level as well?

One major theme of Che cos’è la filosofia? is the relationship between poetry and philosophy, which he sees as disciplines that take up different but equally necessary stances at the edge of language. And so I wonder if there’s an attempt here to establish the parallel between the two disciplines at the level of publication. Poetry is best enjoyed in small chunks, which can be slowly digested — and the effect can be virtually destroyed by the brick-like anthologies which we inflict on undergrads. Poets can put out short chapbooks, so why not philosophers?

Academic strategery

The primary lecture I’m giving during my tour of the ends of the earth, “Neoliberalism’s Demons,” builds on my project in The Prince of This World. In that (still frustratingly forthcoming) book, I establish connections between key modern concepts and the theological problems that came to surround the devil, and in the various iterations of the lecture, I specify my claims further by connecting the most fully developed late-medieval theology of the devil with neoliberalism.

The interest this topic has generated made me ponder the possibility of trying to develop it into a short follow-up book. There are drawbacks to the idea, though. With a book-length treatment, even a relatively short one, I would probably have to wind up retreading a lot of the ground covered in The Prince of This World, and I’d also have to do a lot of “what is neoliberalism” exposition, which the academic world needs more of like it needs a hole in the head.

I’m now wondering if a journal article might be the more appropriate format. The idea may actually stand on its own more effectively as a shorter piece, while leading the inquisitive to The Prince of This World rather than replacing it in a dangerous supplement-type dynamic. It could even serve as the kind of thing that people could assign in classes, which would be helpful given that the book is probably not easily excerptable (or at least it doesn’t seem so to me). And best of all, I could finish it sooner, allowing me to maintain some momentum on my longer-term Trinity project rather than getting bogged down in the weeds of the vast and contentious literature on neoliberalism.

What do you think?

Social media as formation

Adam is right that what we do on social media has analogies with liturgy. But it’s that analogy which highlights the problems with his broader argument about the aimlessness of those liturgical practices. Liturgy is not merely vain repetition, dead ritual. It forms us; it trains us in particular habits of body, of affect, of mind. Liturgy is social, and so it is political. That’s not to say it’s good – for every politically radical celebration of the Eucharist there’s a counter-example of liturgy functioning to maintain an instrument of kyriarchal domination – or even necessarily transformative – it can function to maintain a status quo as easily as to create a new kind of social order. But it is formative.

In some ways it’s true that, on Twitter at least, I inhabit a kind of social and political bubble. It didn’t take me long to get over the liberal desire to ensure that my timeline was a nice balance of people I agreed with and people I disagreed with: I no longer think I’m going to learn anything of value from paying attention to Tories. But it’s also true that, over the last ten years or so, my Twitter community changed me than almost any other group I belong to. It’s not just that my political views are different. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that Twitter rites have changed my affective response to the world around me. I no longer feel safer when I see police walking around my neighbourhood. I no longer feel sentimental and inspired by Christian anti-trafficking campaigns. And it has changed my practice: I read different books than I would have done; I teach different texts; I spend my time and my money and my energy differently.

Of course, Twitter didn’t have to change me, at least not as much as it has. I probably could  have joined a more familiar kind of community there, one where I already knew the appropriate words and movements by rote. But the problem isn’t routine as such. If there’s anything my charismatic evangelical upbringing taught me it’s that when you try to reject liturgy in the name of constant, personal and original engagement, what you tend to end up with isn’t spontaneous and authentic invention, it’s just shoddy ritual. Communities develop habits over time; they produce shared practices and affective responses. What if the choice isn’t between liturgy and meaningful action in the world but between good liturgies and bad ones?

The Republicans cannot overreach

In American poltical discourse, legitimate opinions are represented by two different, but equally important groups: Democrats and Republicans. Political debate, as it is commonly understood, just is the dispute between the two parties. This is why it is possible to implement policies using American political institutions while at the same time “putting the politics aside” — because politics is defined as a dispute between Democrats and Republicans, a bipartisan consensus is no longer political. And since American political discourse lives in mortal fear of political division — a condition that is taken to be unnatural and illegitimate — bipartisan consensus is the most highly desired outcome.

Failing that, of course, political commentators and journalists reflexively return to the idea that the two parties, which should agree in all things, are at least in agreement as to their faults. If “both sides” were not of the same moral caliber, evincing the same degree of corruption, dishonesty, ignorance, and other undesirable traits, then that would call into question the legitimacy of one of the two sides and forever close down the possibility of bipartisan consensus. It would open up the possibility of permanent political division, rather than momentary disagreement between people of good faith whose different starting points ultimately enrich our great national dialogue, etc., etc., etc.

Within this system, neither political party can be wrong. Individual outliers within a given political party can be wrong — indeed, they can make statements and propose policies so ridiculous that, in the eyes of respectable discourse, all citizens of good faith should put the partisanship aside in order to vote against that person. Most often, those outliers are painted as outsider populists who abuse the primary system to subvert the real spirit of their party. It is even possible for the party as such to err in the short term, as the Republicans may well be doing by nominating Trump and pushing through a scary right-wing platform. Yet in the long run, each party is definitionally in the right, insofar as the Democrats and Republicans represent the only two legitimate options within the American political field. Trump will have been an overreach if the Republicans decide that he was — if they double down, Trumpism will turn out to be legitimate Republicanism.

It goes without saying that such a system is gameable, that the Republicans figured this out long ago, and that the Democrats believe so deeply in respectability that they are forced to play along with the charade of two equally legitimate “sides” — because to do otherwise would be to open up the prospect of a permanent and unbridgeable political division, which may well be the one sole taboo of American political discourse.

Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Closing Summary (Westmoreland)

MARK WILLIAM WESTMORELAND is a doctoral student and instructor of philosophy and ethics at Villanova University and is writing a dissertation on racial profiling. They also teach philosophy and religious studies at Gwynedd Mercy University, Penn State University – Brandywine, and Rowan University. They work in political philosophy, philosophy of race, and philosophy of technology and have published on Bergson, Derrida, and issues of race/racism. Mark is co-editor with Andrea J. Pitts of Beyond Bergson: Race, Gender, & Colonialism (forthcoming, SUNY), editor of a forthcoming special issue of The Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy commemorating the 75th anniversary of Henri Bergson’s death, and editor of a volume (in progress) on Charles Mills.


We have concluded our book event at AUFS. The original roundtable conversation can be found here.

The full posts of the book event can be found below.

Thomas Nail:

Todd May and Ladelle McWhorter:

Andrew Dilts:

Adriana Novoa:

Robin Celikates:

Daniella Trimboli:

Sandro Mezzadra:

Vern Cisney:

The fantasy of a hard boundary

The history of every hitherto existing society is the history of attempting to do away with the irreducibility of human decision-making. From the appeal to the inscrutable demands of the gods to the pious submission to the logic of the market, human beings have always been desperate to offload their responsibility for themselves onto some external agency. The newest variation on this theme is that once we hit the limits of earth’s carrying capacity, we will be forced to make fundamental changes to our collective behavior and norms.

This impulse is understandable, because the technologies for consciously directing our collective human decision-making are all laughably inadequate. Collective decision-making has historically consisted of a small group of people claiming a right to power and most people “deciding” to submit to them, often in ignorance of the fact that their power isn’t immutable. Even when people want to change the situation, the powerful often have violent means at their disposal. Great minds from Anselm to Hobbes have claimed that even decisions made under duress are technically free, since you could always go ahead and die, but even if we grant that disturbing premise, we have to agree that this minimally “free” decision to stop resisting in the face of violence does not match up to our ideal of freedom. In any case, the combination of violence and submission is unlikely to lead to very good decisions, from a collective perspective.

Hegel may have believed that the events of his era ushered in the possibility of a more transparent and deliberate form of collective decision-making (called “Spirit”). Maybe he was even right about that! But in any case, we have collectively chosen not to take it up (using the familiar combination of self-assertion, violence, and passivity). And now the car is on fire, with no driver at the wheel, and all we can hope is that market incentives will drive nihilistic corporate leaders to doom fewer of us than we currently project.

So the fantasy that Mother Nature herself will step in and correct us is appealing, but it’s also nonsense. We human beings do have limits, above all our embodied finitude. In that sense, we can’t just do whatever we want indefinitely, because we will destroy ourselves. But we can destroy ourselves. There is no hard boundary that brings us up to the point of destroying ourselves but stops us just shy of the mark. When Mother Nature pushes back, we can collectively decide — most likely through some combination of power politics, passivity, and violent coersion — to just go ahead and die.

Doubtless we wouldn’t decide that if we had a truly transparent collective deliberation on the matter, and maybe we will luck out and choose something else when push comes to shove. But whether we do develop effective means of collective deliberation or else just luck out, in neither case will it be because some external agency forced us to. It will be our collective decision, because our collective responsibility for ourselves is inescapable.

Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Method and Motion (Nail)

THOMAS NAIL is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015), and Theory of the Border (forthcoming with Oxford University Press, 2016). His work has appeared in AngelakiTheory & Event, Philosophy Today, Parrhesia, Deleuze Studies, Foucault Studies, and elsewhere. His publications can be downloaded here.


Thanks to all the reviewers. They have all challenged me to think differently about the book in their own way. In addition to my responses in the roundtable, I wanted to offer a final reflection on one issue in particular that has really made me think: methodology. In particular, I wanted to voice a couple of thoughts on the relation of kinopolitics to more qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

Qualitative: First, the knowledges and experiences of migrants are absolutely crucial to understanding contemporary migration. The quantitative approach favored by the sociology of migration literature leaves out entirely the human experience of the violence, suffering, and racism that many migrants go through. The consideration of this experience is, in my view, the very condition for understanding what is wrong with current immigration politics, as well as the possibility of doing anything differently. If we do not listen to the stories and demands of migrants we lose a crucial aspect of any analysis.

One of the motivations of this book comes from my work as a full-time migrant justice organizer with the group No One is Illegal in Toronto, Canada in 2010. One of the most important things we did as a group was to organize events which spotlighted the stories of migrants, told by themselves, and to fundraise to help them and their families. In addition to this, we also organized more intellectual kinds of events—panels of migration theorists and activists, for example. And, like good radicals, we also organized massive un-permitted street protests, civil disobedience events, and had delegates in a dozen local community groups related to education, women’s shelters, legal issues, medical issues, food banks, and more. I think that all these kinds of interventions (and others) are important, and all are needed. For more details about the kind of work we did you can read my interview with some of the main organizers here.

Quantitative: That said, the contemporary phenomenon of migration cannot be fully understood without both the qualitative study of the experiences of suffering and oppression (favored by the humanities: autonomy of migration and epistemology literatures) AND the quantitative study of migration (favored by the sciences). I am very thankful that there are people out there doing the original data collection, recording stories and writing ethnographies, or calculating the numbers of detainees, expulsions, deaths, global refugees, etc. There are many great works on migration that are, on their own, only quantitative or qualitative. That is fine. But for the whole picture I think we really need, at least, both.

Kinetic: However, the aim of The Figure of the Migrant was to introduce yet a third dimension and conceptual framework to the analysis of migration that would complement the other two, but which is not reducible to them: a kinopolitical dimension—a historical and comparative study of the patterns of the social motions of migrants. The kinopolitical framework of the book provides a way to track and compare large-scale patterns of social motion over long periods of time and space and draw some pretty dramatic conclusions. One of the most important being that the expulsion of migrants is the condition of a larger social expansion. In other words, that the migrant has been and continues to be the constitutive figure of western societies—through its motion. This is not a metaphor or an exaggeration. Societies have always required the movement of migrant bodies. The Figure of the Migrant takes the materiality and movement of the migrant body itself as its starting point. However, in offering such a focus, it has also only touched lightly on the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of migration.

What I have tried to do with this book is to add to the already vibrant literature on the old and well-studied phenomenon of migration, with its several foundational and productive methodologies, a new kind of framework for analysis that I believe can contribute something new to the conversation—a new method as well as new information. My greatest hope for The Figure of the Migrant is that something in it will be useful to someone working to provide a more complete picture of migration in effort to make the lives of migrants better. That may be as a supplement to their quantitative approach, or their qualitative approach, or their activism, or all three. I have no idea, but my fingers are crossed that something will come of it.




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