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?

6 Responses to “Agamben and the philosophical chapbook”

  1. Arthur Roski Says:

    “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?”

    Well put. There’s something undeniably dispiriting about lugging around (and trying to read) brick-like anthologies.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    When I teach literature, I am always tempted to switch to smaller volumes, maybe collections of an individual poet as they were published originally, etc. But practicality keeps me coming back to the accursed Norton, complete with its dumb typo in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

  3. ben Says:

    “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.”

    Not to mention the brick-like poems that poets occasionally write, which, unlike anthologies—whose components, since they are discrete individuals, can easily be read piecemeal completely apart from each other, regardless of the fact that the pages they’re printed on are bound together—purport to be single long works.

    What accounts for the long ascendancy of this view of poetry? I associate it with Poe, but I’m sure he wasn’t the first to express it, and I’d like to pin it on the Romantics, but they wrote plenty of extremely long (by the standard of the lyric) poetry.

  4. bh Says:

    Could this have to do with the financial/institutional imperatives of US academic presses/imprints? It seems like every press Agamben is published by in English (US markets at least) is a university press (Stanford, Minnesota, Chicago) or an imprint thereof (Zone Books by MIT, Seagull Books by U. Chicago). The only exception I notice on my shelf immediately is “Infancy and History” by Verso, which I am not aware of being an academic imprint. Are Agamben’s Italian presses predominantly academic, or are such institutions uncommon outside of the English-reading world? Are US presses just less likely to publish philosophy in the chapbook manner (except perhaps by more pop philosophers?) or to exist at all in a mode that would consider publishing philosophy?

    I realize these questions could be routine to those who are experienced in the publishing world so I will ask a hopefully more interesting one: do you think there would be value in disorganizing Agamben’s collected volumes into smaller chapbooks? To decompose works like Potentialities, Means without End, Profanations, Nudities so that they might be encountered in a new mode? What about decomposing the HS tetralogy itself? This would be an interesting mission for a non-existent press.

  5. danbarber Says:

    i’ve (sort of) done this — http://www.societeberlin.com/Publications/Davis-Rhodes-Artist-s-book-18.html (pdf download available here)

  6. Mathew Arthur Says:

    Thinking also of Palgrave McMillan’s “Pivot” series and of Prickly Paradigm Press. Both have interesting motivations for publishing short-form theoretical works–notably as a means to interrupt the neoliberal academy’s preoccupation with “productivity,” “standards,” and “formats.”


Comments are closed.