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?

Blog event on Homo Sacer series at Stanford UP blog

To commemorate the completion or “abandonment” of the Homo Sacer series now that The Use of Bodies has been published, the Stanford University Press blog is running a blog event. My introductory post has been published, and this event schedule will be updated with links to each post as they are published.

It’s official

Carlo Salzani and I have officially been offered a contract with Edinburgh University Press for our edited volume on Agamben’s sources, which is now entitled Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage. We’ve put together an impressive group of contributors to cover all of Agamben’s major interlocutors in what we hope will be a go-to reference for anyone trying to work out Agamben’s relationship to his sources.

We will be receiving contributions this fall and have agreed to submit the final manuscript January 31, which will most likely lead to publication in the middle of next year. Thanks to Carlo and all our contributors for bringing us to this milestone. The table of contents, with contributors, follows beneath the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Provocations in Consideration of…(Cisney)

VERNON W. CISNEY is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide (Edinburgh University Press, 2014); as well as Deleuze and Derrida: Difference and the Power of the Negative (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming, 2016). He is also the editor of Biopower: Foucault and Beyond (University of Chicago Press, 2016, with Nicolae Morar); The Way of Nature and the Way of Grace: Philosophical Footholds on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (Northwestern University Press, 2016, with Jonathan Beever); and Between Foucault and Derrida (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming, 2016, with Yubraj Aryal, Nicolae Morar, and Christopher Penfield). Finally, he has recently co-edited and co-translated, with Daniel W. Smith and Nicolae Morar, Pierre Klossowski’s Living Currency, followed by Sade and Fourier (Bloomsbury, forthcoming, 2017).

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I am delighted to be part of the conversation surrounding this important work. Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant is one of those rare works that is at once timely and timeless. It is timely in the sense that the figure of the migrant has become a ubiquitous and undeniable reality of our time. As I write this at the end of spring 2016, the number of Syrian citizens displaced by civil war since 2011 has climbed to roughly 13.5 million; the United States is in the middle of its most racially charged presidential election of my lifetime (with one of the top party candidates running on a popular platform of draconian deportation of undocumented laborers and the severe restriction of immigration); the populations of Central Pacific island nations are being displaced in record numbers due to the effects of global climate change; and within the past week, several small boats carrying refugees from Libya have capsized off the coast of Italy, resulting in over one thousand deaths.[1] These are but a few examples. As Nail notes, “At the turn of the century, there were more regional and international migrants than ever before in recorded history. Today, there are over 1 billion migrants” (1).

But the work is also timeless in the sense that Nail attempts to rigorously formulate nothing less than a social and political ontology, one that is comprehensive and that takes movement as its basis and point of departure. Rather than starting from the presupposition of social order and stasis, and conceptualizing movement as a secondary passage between different pre-existing social orders, Nail attempts to formulate a political concept of movement as primary, a “kinopolitics,” as he calls it. This is not for the sake of cleverness, but rather because to do otherwise—to think the figure of the migrant from the perspective of citizenship, as one who is no longer a citizen—is, in fact, to miss the figure of the migrant. If the “essence” of the migrant lies in its movement, then it must be thought on the basis of movement, and movement must be thought in itself. But once we venture down the path of conceptualizing movement on its own terms (and not as a deficiency or lack of stasis), it radically alters our conceptions of stasis as well. As Bergson recognized, and as Nail cites, “If movement is not everything, it is nothing” (13).[2] The social order, then, every social order, on Nail’s account, is reconceptualized on the basis of three primary kinopolitical concepts—flows, junctions, and circulations.

Flows are fluxes, processes, and continua, all the way down. Despite its etymological relations to “stasis,” the “state” is not the stoppage of flows, but rather, the agency of their harnessing and redirection. There are flows of oceans and rivers, climate and culture, vegetation and animals, populations and sicknesses, “food, money, blood, and air” (25). The purpose of the social order, then, is to bring these flows into vortical self-relations, to loop them back onto themselves and in so doing, to augment and intensify them. These loopings of “relative stability” are what Nail refers to as “junctions” (28), the loci of “perceived stasis” (27) in the sea of continuous flows. The house, for example, is a territorial junction that organizes the familial flows of a particular group of people. These junctions are further organized and mobilized by their connectedness within the “circulation,” the network of junctions (29). A particular neighborhood, for example, can be conceived as a circulation that brings into relation the familial flows of individual households. Nail writes that the “city is a political junction” (28), but if I understand him correctly, the city is also a circulation, one that relates together the house junction with the educational junction with the religious institutional junction with the industrial junction with the police junction and so on. And in their own way, each of these junctions might in turn be thought of as a circulation (the factory, for instance, relates production with distribution; production relates different junctions of departments and different stages, etc.) Read the rest of this entry »

Dreamers, they never learn

Radiohead belong to ‘rock,’ and if rock has a characteristic subject, as country music’s is small pleasures in hard times (getting by), and rap’s is success in competition (getting over), that subject must be freedom from constraint (getting free). Yet the first notable quality of their music is that, even though their topic may still be freedom, their technique involves the evocation–not of the feeling of freedom–but of unending low-level fear. — Mark Greif, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop Music

Yesterday I immersed myself in the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, and it brought me into an emotional space I hadn’t been in for a long time. Reflecting on the times when Radiohead had been most important to me — urgently, even embarrassingly important — I recalled that it was always when I most felt like I needed a way out. I didn’t want sheer fantasy, I was always too cynical and pessimistic for that. Nor did I want to wallow and emote, at least not in an immediately legible way.

A song like “Lucky” hit exactly the right mark, which means that it displayed all the right contradictions. The lyrics were “officially” optimistic and yet the musical context — not just Thom Yorke’s delivery, but the dark and foreboding sound — made them feel sarcastic. And even within the lyrics themselves, there’s a strange contradiction:

Pull me out of the aircrash
Pull me out of the lake
‘Cause I’m your superhero
We are standing on the edge

The superhero needs to be rescued? And the edge of what? We can’t be sure, but we do learn, in the next track, that we need to slow down — idiot, slow down, slow down. An airbag may have saved your life, but don’t tempt fate. Perhaps survival is the real superpower.

This album feels like a return to the OK Computer/Kid A ethos, not least because of the reappearance of one of their great orphan songs from that era, “True Love Waits.” The extant live recording (from the I Might Be Wrong EP) plays it as an earnest “acoustic guitar guy” ballad, a rare eruption of the raw emotion of the pre-OK Computer Radiohead. The current version presents that emotion — the desperation of an adolescent crush — as a ghostly memory.

It’s a foregone conclusion: dress like her niece all you want, she was never going to stay. That’s always how it was going to turn out, and the younger singer who is barely audible in the preternatural calm always knew (or wants to believe he always knew) that that was the case. Yet there’s nothing cynical about it. It’s not mocking the emotion — it’s somehow enshrining it in the very gesture of deactivating it.

By taking up a stance of contemplation, we become free, and dwelling in the deactivated versions of our feeling of being trapped, of all that paranoia and desperation and total alienation, is our way out. “Dreamers, they never learn” — but perhaps we can learn to dream differently.

“Building a hedge around the law” in contemporary sexual ethics

This Jezebel piece by Jia Tolentino on David Bowie’s sexual encounters with underage girls is a fully considered, nuanced discussion of a complex issue. On the one hand, Tolentino takes Lori Maddox’s account of the incident seriously and respects the fact that she doesn’t understand it as rape, but on the other hand, she is clearly glad that social mores have changed such that a similar situation would definitely be condemned by mainstream culture today. And a big part of the shift in sexual ethics is a direct reaction to the simplistic and destructive reception of the “sexual revolution” that knocked down the existing sexual regulations — which really were restrictive and worthy of being knocked down — but left the gender hierarchy and its attendant power dynamics in place. The author quotes Rebecca Solnit:

The culture was sort of snickeringly approving of the pursuit of underage girls (and the illegal argument doesn’t carry that much weight; smoking pot is also illegal; it’s about the immorality of power imbalance and rape culture). It was completely normalized. Like child marriage in some times and places. Which doesn’t make it okay, but means that, unlike a man engaged in the pursuit of a minor today, there was virtually no discourse about why this might be wrong. It’s also the context for what’s widely regarded as the anti-sex feminism of the 1980s: those women were finally formulating a post-sexual-revolution ideology of sex as another arena of power and power as liable to be abused; we owe them so much.

In discussions of contemporary sexual ethics, a lot of focus lands on the question of “consent,” and there is considerable anxiety about losing the spontaneity of authentic sexuality amid all the bureaucratic red tape (or something). This article reminds us that a lot of what might have seemed like spontaneity was deeply conditioned by power relations of which the participants were not fully aware (though we have to assume that an adult man like David Bowie was, or should have been, more aware of them than a star-struck 15-year-old).

The emphasis on explicit consent has to be situated in a larger concern to eliminate borderline situations where power dynamics can creep in unannounced. Read the rest of this entry »

Some methodological thoughts on Homo Sacer

One thing that makes Agamben’s Homo Sacer so difficult to grasp is that the status of the claims is very unclear. On the one hand, you have the close analysis of this particular legal figure from ancient Rome, and on the other, you have a whole range of claimed homologies from linguistics, ontology, etc., as well as some very wide-ranging claims for the relevance of the homo sacer figure for Western politics. It would seem ridiculous to claim that the legal provisions for the homo sacer are causing all the phenomena Agamben connects to it, yet the nature of the connection is never made explicit.

Only as the series went on did he develop the conceptual tools necessary to clarify what’s going on in his argument. The relatively unremarked Sacrament of Language seems to me to be the decisive turning point, insofar as it combines the concept of “anthropogenesis” (which debuts in The Open) with the Foucauldian notion of “archeology.” The oath isn’t finally what’s in question in Agamben’s investigation — the oath serves as a crucial pointer for an archeological study that takes us back to a certain moment of anthropogenesis, namely the taking up of a certain stance toward language. It’s not about either shoring up or rejecting the oath as such, but rather trying to think a new experience of language that would “reboot” our sense of what it means to be (to be becoming) human.

If Agamben had had this structure worked out when he wrote Homo Sacer, I imagine the argument would look broadly similar — after all, he worked out the methodology as he was reflecting on what he was trying to do starting from that book. But if he were less fixated on the figure of the homo sacer as such and more thinking about the archeological level of exclusive inclusion or inclusive exclusion that creates a sub-human form of life as the necessary support for the fully human, then I assume that he would have had to be more attentive to the figure of the slave, for instance — something he in fact does in The Use of Bodies.

But it’s more than methodology that makes him “not go there,” of course — like Foucault, like Arendt, he is trying desperately to create a comprehensive account of Western political structures without being a Marxist. His seeming lionization of the “normal” Greek structure where good old zoe stays put in the household so that political bios can get down to work seems symptomatic here. It’s never about returning to the “normal” state for him, but his allergy to creating a too-Marxist-sounding analysis leaves him making claims that sure sound that way. In the end, I think this might be what leads him to so over-identify with the standpoint of the law (as Weheliye diagnoses), without really attending to what underlies the law and grants it its power — and grants us room to contest its claims.

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