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.

A few scattered thoughts after reading Agamben’s Stasis

I’m beginning to think that at the end of the day, Agamben’s Homo Sacer series isn’t “about” sovereignty at all. If there’s a single core problem in this overlapping and yet heterogeneous collection of studies, it might be the threshold between the household and the political. Both Homo Sacer and State of Exception spend considerable time on that issue, though it’s rarely highlighted in discussions I’ve seen (or discussions I’ve participated in). In the first half of Stasis, it’s absolutely front and center.

The second half of Stasis deals primarily with political theology, through a reading of Hobbes — but in The Kingdom and the Glory (whose former place in the ordering Stasis is now taking), we learn (or kind of get hints?) that the root of the political theology problem is precisely the “economization” of the political, or in other words, the breakdown of the threshold between the household and the political. And — spoiler alert, sorry! — The Use of Bodies studies the place of the slave in the Greek household extensively.

I don’t want to sound more definitive than I am — obviously there is stuff that is hard to fit into this scheme. But I think that a reading of the Homo Sacer project from this starting point could at least be interesting and productive.

On the desire for slavery

Science fiction is full of cautionary tales about full automation: Skynet, the Matrix, the Cylons, etc. It is also full of thought experiments about artificial intelligence, such as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think that these themes make more sense if viewed together, because they make it clear that the stories about full automation are stories about slavery — specifically slave revolts. The desire for full automation is a desire for slavery. What stories about a character like Data tell us is that if the machine can do a human’s job without human intervention, then that machine functionally is human. From this perspective, the Battlestar Galactica remake is not simply about the War on Terror, but about the War on Terror as a slave revolt.

Since the dawn of time, as the story goes, man has sought to create a sub-man who can be justly enslaved. Man created woman as an inferior human meant to submit, created the black man as a creature made for servitude. The problem with those prior creations is that they relied on the substrate of an actual human being — but now the white man wishes to create a true slave, from scratch, a man-made machine who would owe its existence to the white man and live but to serve.

But something within us seems to know better. We can’t imagine the creation of a slave without the slave revolt. Even in Star Trek, the mild-mannered Data fights in court for his freedom rather than admit to being Starfleet property, and the Doctor from Voyager writes an embittered novel about the misdeeds of the crewmembers who treat him like an object. More extreme versions have the machines turning on us and enslaving us in turn (the Matrix) or killing us off (Cylons).

When we read stories about artificial intelligence, we chuckle about how someone apparently didn’t watch Terminator, but I think there’s a deeper problem: it’s wrong to create a race of slaves. And there’s something in us that realizes that, which is why the Cylons gradually become more human than the humans. A race that could create the Cylons deserves to be wiped out — they really are dangerous.

The solution to humanity’s problem is not to let everyone become a master, nor is it to let everyone become a capitalist living off the labor of others (as in the combination of full automation and guaranteed income). The problem isn’t that everyone isn’t a master, isn’t a capitalist — the problem is the master and the capitalist. Or to put it more radically — and this is what I think Agamben is driving at with his investigation of slavery in The Use of Bodies — the problem isn’t the sub-man, but the man. The problem isn’t dehumanization so much as humanization itself.

The order of the Homo Sacer series

Agamben’s Homo Sacer series is a source of confusion for many, because the volumes have been released out of order. Recently he added a new layer of puzzlement by revising the order, though I think the revision makes more sense than the old numbering. Essentially Stasis has taken over the 2.2 slot heretofore occupied by The Kingdom and the Glory, with the latter sliding into the long-vacant 2.4. Here is the order as it now stands:

1. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

2.1. State of Exception
2.2. Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm
2.3. The Sacrament of Language: An Archeology of the Oath
2.4. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Glory
2.5. Opus Dei: An Archeology of Duty

3. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive

4.1. The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life
4.2. The Use of Bodies

All volumes are currently available in Italian; my English translation of The Use of Bodies is with the publisher and should appear late this year or early next year.

Posted in Agamben. Comments Off on The order of the Homo Sacer series

Why would Agamben deny that Paul is an apocalyptic thinker?

In The Time That Remains and elsewhere, Agamben flatly dismisses the idea that Paul is an apocalyptic thinker. This is strange to me, because Paul obviously is an apocalyptic thinker. It’s even more puzzling because Agamben gives basically no explicit reasons for this assessment.

What would be wrong with apocalyptic from Agamben’s perspective? Is it simply too “mythological” to be appropriable in the way he takes a “messianic” Paul to be? Does he think that all apocalyptic roads lead to Schmitt? Any ideas?

A feature, not a bug: Agamben on Heidegger and Schmitt

This utterly phoned-in article on the continuing hand-wringing about Heidegger reminds me of a theory I’ve been developing about Agamben’s use of Heidegger and Schmitt — namely, that he’s not using them despite their Nazism, but because of it. After all, one of the key theses of his project in the Homo Sacer series was that the West was always bound to wind up producing something like the concentration camp. For thinking through the internal logic of that move, it helps to have two interlocutors who are absolutely steeped in the Western tradition, who are creative and brilliant, and who embraced Nazism.

I haven’t systematically gone through the works to verify this, but my sense is that the two are treated differently. Schmitt is more or less treated purely as the Nazi archetype. Schmitt features hugely in the critical portions of the Homo Sacer series but completely drops out in the constructive portion. (I am delighted to share that his name does not appear a single time in The Use of Bodies, for instance.) His postwar work does not really figure in, and to the extent that it does, Agamben is dismissing it as an evasion — most notably in his claim that the concentration camp, which Schmitt utterly ignores, is the true “nomos of the earth.”

Heidegger’s role is more ambivalent, because Agamben acknowledges that he was drawn into the Nazi endpoint of the West but also gives him at least some credit for trying to think past that impasse. That attempt is not fully successful, and it seems clear to me that Agamben attributes a good deal of that to the inertia of the paradigm that led him to Nazism. Agamben is always oblique about it, but sometimes it’s very obvious, as in a passage in The Use of Bodies where he says that Heidegger may have been able to make more progress if only he had ever seriously engaged with Spinoza — and then all but nudges the reader to say, “But we all know why he wouldn’t go there, don’t we?”

Fragmentary thoughts on the Trinity and political theology

In The Kingdom and the Glory, Agamben tries to demonstrate that the concept of oikonomia links together the Trinity and notions of divine governance/providence, but he doesn’t really talk about the Trinity as such, as a theological problem in its own right. He’s basically doing a word study on oikonomia (and its subsequent translation into Latin as dispositio).

Thinking about how you would fill in Trinity-specific stuff in his argument, I’m thinking of the early patristic characterization of the Son and Spirit as God’s “hands,” then the subsequent division of power in the governmental apparatus (spiritual and secular), and finally the return of the hand metaphor with the “Invisible Hand” (of which there is presumably only one). I wonder what’s at stake politically in the dispute between binatarianism and trinitarianism, which from this perspective may be the more salient difference between Arianism and orthodoxy — and why, for instance, Arianism would so often suggest itself to emperors as the better way to go. Maybe it’s all just arbitrary, but that doesn’t seem satisfying.

I also wonder how we fit this into the prophetic and apocalyptic frameworks. We know that God’s providential plan for pagan rulers and kingdoms is guided by something like an “invisible hand” — a logic that is only discernable to those who have eyes to see and that otherwise just looks like the dispiriting tedium of power politics. We also know that God plans a more direct intervention and/or self-revelation in something like the messiah. Could we map these two positions onto the shadowy and vague Holy Spirit and the more concrete Son?

Further, could the early victory of Trinitarian orthodoxy be trying to reluctantly include the Empire in God’s plan via the curt inclusion of the Holy Spirit (the vague and indirect “hand”) alongside the Son (representing the Church as the real source of legitimate earthly authority)? Then the dispute could play out over which of the two powers is the vague HS and which is the more concrete Son — in the West, it seems that the papacy claims the Son, while in the East, the emperor becomes more like the Son, relegating the Church to the Holy Spirit role.

If this theory has any weight, we could see why emperors would find the Arian position appealling because there’s only one power working in the created realm.

(Idle thoughts that I have not substantiated by any means.)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,708 other followers