On Agamben and Mondzain

I have been rereading Mondzain’s Image, Icon, and Economy lately, and the topic of the relationship between this book and Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory came to mind. I already wrote several years ago about how I thought that Mondzain accomplished a tighter articulation between economy and spectacle than Agamben — indeed, her work is more tightly articulated in general, which is unsurprising given the bagginess of K&G.

Over the years, I have noticed that people who discover Mondzain often draw the conclusion that Agamben ripped her off in some way, or downplayed her influence on his work. Returning to the work after spending several years pondering over K&G, I have to say that such accusations are based on a very superficial comparison. Both talk about the concept of economy, both tie it to images or the spectacle, and both gesture at a connection with modernity. Sometimes they also seem to say similar things about economy.

But their approaches are totally different. Mondzain focuses on the iconoclastic controversy, and her entire presentation of the history of oikonomia is aimed at showing that the notion of economy demanded a consideration of the image. Agamben only turns to the question of the spectacle in the chapter on angelology, where he explicitly leaves behind economy to focus on glory separately; in his previous exposition on economy, there is no indication of a central role for the image, visibility, etc. Her center of gravity is the Byzantine period, his is the early patristics. The whole question of the reversal of “economy of the mystery” into “mystery of the economy” — which is so central to Agamben’s argument — is completely absent in Mondzain, who is comfortable attributing the notion of economy as providential plan directly to Paul.

Some of their patristic points of reference are the same, but even within this realm, they are drawing on substantially different archives, because Agamben privileges “theoretical” texts instead of the sermons and other rhetorical performances that Mondzain discusses at length. Coming at it from another angle, Mondzain strongly emphasizes the systematicity of Christian economic thought, while Agamben focuses on the non-conceptual nature of economic thought and even coins the notion of the “signature” to provide some means of tracing its effects. Agamben winds up moving through the Latin West, which is totally irrelevant to Mondzain’s project, and of course his whole argument is framed with the debate between Schmitt and Peterson, which Mondzain does not remotely mention.

The most likely explanation of the lack of explicit attention to Mondzain’s book is that he noted it was a specialized work on the iconoclastic controversy — which, you know, it is — and didn’t pay close attention to it. Such a choice seems defensible given that there is little evidence of the iconoclastic controversy having much impact on Western Christian thought, which he justifiably takes to be more relevant for modernity. Indeed, most scholars I have read seem to agree that there was almost no one in the West at this time who was intellectually equipped to even understand the iconoclastic debate.

You can definitely make the point that Agamben should have engaged more with Mondzain’s work, but the idea that he is somehow plagiarizing her or downplaying her influence is inflammatory and unfair. When he draws on a scholar, he is not shy about it — why would she be singled out for this treatment when he is quite happy to base half of Stasis directly on a reading of an essay by Nicole Loraux, for example?

In conclusion, to the extent that the books sometimes sound similar, it’s because they’re on similar topics — but within that framework, the differences are much more pronounced in my view.

A critique of The Kingdom and the Glory

Tomorrow, I will be giving a masterclass (PDF flyer) at the University of Auckland, where we will be discussing my Crisis and Critique article (PDF) as well as a paper I gave at a conference earlier this year at Loyola University Chicago, entitled “Agamben and the Problem of Evil” (PDF). I have been reluctant to post the latter, as I was pondering turning it into a proper article, but since it is being distributed for the masterclass, I might as well make it available. It gives an overview of The Kingdom and the Glory‘s argument and its place in Agamben’s project, then critiques it from the point of view of the problem of evil. In many ways, it reflects and expands upon my critique of K&G in The Prince of This World (preorder link), so perhaps you can consider it an indirect preview.

A chronological list of Agamben’s publications, with reflections thereon

When I was working on my conclusion for the edited volume Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, which I have entitled “Agamben as a Reader of Agamben,” I had frequent reference to the order of publication of Agamben’s works, which sometimes surprised me as an English-language reader. I naively assumed that the order of publication in English would more or less track with the Italian, but the time lags have been much more varied than one might think. I also realize that I sometimes conflated my own personal experience of stumbling across certain works with the time they must have been released (I just assumed the Seminary Co-Op would always be up to date, and I wasn’t always right). I’m just going to list the bibliography in order “below the fold” and then add some remarks.

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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.

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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.

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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 »