Exception and Example: What is Agamben’s Endgame?

Last summer, I reviewed Mathew Abbott’s excellent book on Agamben, The Figure of This World. The one reservation that I expressed was over Abbott’s claim that Agamben’s goal is a world in which “everything is exceptional” [note: Abbott has clarified that he never uses this phrase but instead puts forth the view that “the ordinary is exceptional,” with very different implications; see comments for discussion] — but I admitted that I needed time to ponder why that was.

Over a year later, I think I’ve come up with something. The problem with “everything is exceptional” is that Agamben shows how that’s already happening due to the ongoing breakdown of the Western machine — and he is absolutely consistent in presenting that process as destructive and horrible. I don’t think Agamben is the kind of dialectical thinker who would claim we need to go through this process to the end and then things will reverse into wonderfulness. Rather, he constantly uses the Benjaminian language of “stopping” the machine, and more generally he seems to embrace Benjamin’s position in the “Theological-Political Fragment” that the world bears no intrinsic relationship to the messiah.

Instead of making everything exceptional, then, I think he wants to make everything exemplary. The contrast of exception and example is already present in Homo Sacer, where he talks about the way that a grammatical example has its denotative content in some way “suspended.” But there’s a crucial difference — where the law ceases to function as a meaningful regulation during its suspension, the exemplary sentence is still very much a sentence. And if it were an “exceptional” sentence (with regard to the rule to be illustrated), the point would be lost. Where the exemplary sentence differs from the everyday sentence is simply in the fact that it calls attention to its own sentence-hood, and this calls back to Agamben’s earliest writings where he is asking us to make use of language in such a way that we also grasp the usually submerged fact that there is language.

The example comes back forcefully in The Highest Poverty, where the life of Christ or the monastic founder is put forward as exemplary — but the whole point is that everyone should be able to follow it. The rule that emerges out of life can be corrupted into a law-like mechanism, but in its originary moment, Agamben is absolutely insistent that the example-based model of monasticism is completely heterogeneous with regard to the exception-based model of the law.

We can even read Remnants of Auschwitz through the lens of the example. The Muselmann seems to be the outer limit of human experience, an exception if ever there was one, but Agamben ends by saying that the complex paradoxes of testifying to the Muselmann‘s plight reveals a structure common to all human beings in their relation to the inhuman element within them. And in The Open (which is somehow not a part of the HS series despite constantly coming up), Agamben is ultimately asking us to stop the machine that produces humanity as an exception within the animal kingdom.

7 Responses to “Exception and Example: What is Agamben’s Endgame?”

  1. André Dias Says:

    I think you are spot on about this general tendency. And I was wondering if this immanent quality of the example you’re referring isn’t specially related to the way Agamben conceives language, besides the insistence on ‘there is language’ from his earliest writings that you mentioned.

    Regarding the famous question of Remnants of Auschwitz – ‘􀀀Ma 􀀀perché 􀀀indicibile?􀀀 Perché􀀀 conferire 􀀀allo 􀀀sterminio􀀀 il􀀀 prestigio 􀀀della 􀀀mistica?􀀀’ –, and not forgetting all its play about the inside/outside of language, remaining in language seems somehow the issue. More recently, when questioned about Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, he made a curious—although apparently minor—point about this ‘out of language’: ‘La polémique sur ces fameux carnets repose sur une équivoque qu’il est important d’éclaircir : l’usage et la signification du mot «antisémitisme». Pour les raisons historiques qu’on connaît, ce mot désigne quelque chose qui a à faire avec la persécution et l’extermination de juifs. Il ne faudrait donc pas employer le même mot pour des opinions sur les juifs – erronées ou débiles peut-être – mais qui n’ont rien à voir avec ces phénomènes. Or c’est précisément cela qui ne cesse d’arriver. Et cela ne concerne pas uniquement Heidegger. Si tout propos critique ou négatif sur le judaïsme, même contenu dans des notes privées, est condamné comme antisémite, cela équivaut à mettre le judaïsme hors langage.’

    But don’t we still need to account more deeply for the spatialization involved in this process, one that privileges the immanent nature of the example as opposed to the exception, particularly regarding all his obsessive thematization of the double articulation/non-relation/point of indifference, which regained tremendous force in The Use of Bodies?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Hmm… I’m not sure what to make of that quotation about Heidegger. Can you say more about how you interpret it?

    The spatialization is really interesting — one is almost tempted to deploy the Lacanian topological apparatus….

  3. Mathew Abbott Says:

    Thanks for this, Adam.

    I don’t have time to write a full response at the moment, but I do want to respond, because there is a misreading at work here, and I feel my argument has been misrepresented as a result.

    I do not argue that “everything is exceptional” in the book, nor that this thought is where Agamben’s philosophy should lead us. On the contrary, I spend a lot of time working to show that Agamben’s philosophy should lead us to jettison the desire to predicate over totality in this way. That’s why the final chapter turns to the notion of the “not all” developed in The Time That Remains, but the idea turns up in a number of places in the book.

    Part of the point of the claim that “the ordinary is exceptional” is that it should undo the logic of exceptionality, but without falling back into the sovereign position that claims to predicate over totality (which, of course, is what produces the exception in the first place).

    I don’t mean to be pedantic, and I know it is often unproductive when authors respond to criticisms by claiming they’ve been misinterpreted. But your reading misses something fundamental about what I was trying to say in the book.

    If I had more time, I’d try to respond properly to your points about exemplarity and dialectical reversal, which strike me as very interesting. Instead I’ll point to a review I published recently of Jessica Whyte’s important book Catastrophe and Redemption, where I argue against reading Agamben in terms of dialectical reversal: https://www.academia.edu/15162680/review_of_Jessica_Whytes_Catastrophe_and_Redemption_The_Political_Thought_of_Giorgio_Agamben. I also treat this issue in an article forthcoming in Agamben and Radical Politics. I’ll let you know when it comes out.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Sorry for my imprecise summary. “The ordinary is exceptional” is what I was thinking of, and I still do hesitate before any valorization of the “exceptional.”

  5. Mathew Abbott Says:

    Yes, I understand your point, but I do think this is more than a difference in rendering the same thought. The distinction is crucial: “the ordinary is exceptional” is supposed to undo exceptionality but without simply forcing a dialectical reversal.

    Incidentally, this is also why I say “no life is bare” rather than “all lives are forms-of-life” or something similar. An ungainly way of phrasing my point there would be “there is no life which is not a form-of-life”. As I’m sure you know, Zizek attempts something like this on a few occasions, when he talks about the Lacanian and Hegelian negation of negation.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yes, I see how I was misrepresenting your point. And I apologize for that, since the whole point of referring to you was to affirm your work! I hope my misreading of your point at least led to a halfway interesting point on Agamben as such.

  7. dbarber Says:

    This makes sense. And seems to me the vestigial “Hegelian” dialectics, run through its Heideggerean version, of Agamben — that point where the exceptional becomes nothing but exemplary is the possible point of transformation of the exceptional into its “autonomy” (forgive the imprecise term), into its being whatever it is, without the division between within and without. As with, for example, the idea of cultic ritual objects becoming play. (This being a similar dialectic, in this case between sacral and profane.) … imho this reveals the latent redemption narrative in Agamben, a sort of deflation of christian eschatology that still depends on that eschatology. Augustine gives you the city of God, Hegel gives you the community of spirit, and Agamben gives you “nothing to play with” … despite the differences between what they give, they have a lot in common


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