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.

One Response to “Book review: The Figure of This World by Mathew Abbott”

  1. Dave Mesing Says:

    Thanks for the review of this–I was also looking forward to its publication, but for the reasons you point out at the end, I will definitely need to seek it out via library loan.


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