I’ve been reading Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population the last few days, and it has prompted some thoughts on Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, which is a kind of response to Foucault’s work. The trigger for these thoughts came when Foucault said that the notion of the king as a shepherd is a not a classical Greek or Roman theme and was brought in from the Mesopotamian and specifically Hebrew tradition by means of Christianity.
That claim makes perfect sense, but it struck me that it’s absolutely impossible to imagine Agamben making such a claim. That’s because he is fundamentally Heideggerian in orientation: he views the West as a fundamental unity stretching from ancient Greece to today, and more than that, as a self-contained whole that is not fundamentally influenced by anything else. Hence even in K&G, where he delves most deeply into Christian traditions, he is concerned primarily to situate them within the broader Western tradition and specifically the Aristotelian tradition — Christianity for him does not and cannot represent a break. Nor indeed can modernity be a break. Instead, it is simply a particularly destructive reorganization of the forces that were at work from the very moment that sovereignty claimed bare life, etc.
Nowhere is Agamben’s insistence on the monolithic nature of the West more evident than in his continual reference to Judaism, where he portrays the rabbinic tradition as in essential continuity with Western debates. I cannot recall a single time when he cites the Hebrew Bible, for instance, or indeed any Jewish text before the first century. On a certain level, this approach might seem “good,” insofar as it works against the stereotypes of the essential foreignness of the Jew, etc. — yet it completely forecloses the notion that the Jewish community, as a segregated and often persecuted group, might have come up with a substantially different intellectual tradition than the surrounding groups. More than that, the overall pattern of assimilation seems to privilege the non-Jewish Western source: rabbinic messianism gets read through Aristotle, Benjamin gets read through Schmitt, etc.
Thus, even though Agamben is obviously a leader among the Gentiles in drawing on Jewish sources, he does so in such a way as to erase any possibility of genuine Jewish difference — and this is itself only the most serious symptom of his general tendency to make the West a self-enclosed entity that cannot be influenced from the outside.