An interview on Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

[The following is the English transcript of an interview that will appear in Portuguese translation in a special issue of the IHU Online Review on Agamben, published by Instituto Humanitas Unisinos in Porto Allegre, Brazil. The questions were provided by Prof. Márcia R. Junges.]

  1. From the perspective of Giorgio Agamben in The Kingdom and the Glory, could you explain what Trinitarian oikonomia is?
  2. Giorgio Agamben takes a unique approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than focus on the various debates that led up to the formation of Trinitarian orthodoxy, he traces the fate of one particular key term: oikonomia, which is the Greek term for “economy.” Oikonomia originally referred to the management of the household but spread to other improvisational forms of management—managing the emotions of the audience in a political speech, for instance, or managing conflicts within a multi-cultural empire. Agamben argues that when Christian theologians, including “heretics,” used this language, they were drawing on the same general concept. God has to “manage” his relationship with creation, which means first of all “managing” God’s relationship to God—the inner life of God, meaning the Trinity, has its own “economy,” which allows God to manage the “economy of salvation.”

  3. What is the novelty of this perception and its contribution to the debate of political theology and economic theology?
  4. Agamben is not the first to draw political consequences from the Trinity. Read the rest of this entry »

A brief note on biopolitics

Is the “bio” of biopolitics precisely bios in the Agambenian sense? The common reading (at least as far as I can tell) would align it more with zoè — and one could even read the Agamben of Homo Sacer in that way. If we take The Use of Bodies as our guide, though, it could seem that the problem with biopolitics is that it attempts to establish a bios by presupposing and excluding zoè.

After all, what could a political order do with zoè (taken in itself) other than presuppose it? I don’t think anyone thinks modern society has become or even could become a totalitarian baby-making machine. What it has become is an ever more fine-grained system for the production of what we might call life styles — which is to say, the realm of bios. The political order isn’t “making us live” in the sense of literally forcing us to stay alive, but it is constantly trying to make us live in certain ways.

The examples in the end of Homo Sacer are somewhat misleading if we don’t have a handle on this. For instance, putting someone on life support may look like a way of forcing them to live — and certainly it seems that way to many people (myself included). From the perspective of this analysis, though, the problem is that it is treating a raw fact of zoè — the moment of death, which has traditionally been radically beyond human control — as though it were a factor in bios. It includes the moment of death itself in the range of quality-of-life factors that the savvy biopolitical subject can shape according to his or her preferences. Similarly, Nazi eugenics treat the raw fact of ethnic or “racial” heritage as something that can be consciously cultivated — converting zoè into bios (and thereby accelerating the production of “bare life” as that third category that doesn’t fit into the system).

Posted in Agamben, Foucault. Comments Off on A brief note on biopolitics

Some thoughts on Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism

Early this summer, I received an unsolicited review copy of Dotan Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault — true proof of divine providence, given that I was working on a project connecting political theology to neoliberalism. It is a fascinating study of the concept of oikonomia, with its center of gravity in the era of classical orthodoxy (Nicea and Chalcedon).

Leshem hit on the idea of a genealogy of oikonomia around the same time as, but independently of, Agamben’s study in The Kingdom and the Glory. The book evinces a certain anxiety to differentiate itself from Agamben, which in my view sometimes leads to overhasty critiques. I prefer to view them less as competitive than as supplementary to each other. Agamben focuses on the formative moment of Christian economic thought (Pauline and proto-orthodox), whereas Leshem focuses on developments within established orthodoxy itself. When we add Mondzain’s account of the decisive role of economic thought in the iconoclastic controversy, we wind up with a fairly comprehensive view of the role of oikonomia in pre-modern Christian thought. This is not to downplay the very real differences between the authors’ approaches, of course — a truly comprehensive account has yet to be written, but it will need to start with the labors of these three.

I learned a great deal from Leshem’s study, which in many ways does a better job of following up in detail on Foucault’s suggestions about the role of Christian pastoral in forming modern subjectivity. He also deals much more closely with Arendt, who is claimed as a major source of the Homo Sacer series but mostly stays in the background. His study is based around the “human trinity” of economic, political, and philosophical, and the text is punctuated by helpful diagrams illustrating how this trinity keeps getting reconfigured over time. This provides clarity and orientation to a study that is not afraid to delve into the fine details of doctrinal and pastoral theology. What worries me about this approach is that it pitches Christian doctrine primarily as a development of Greek and Roman thought — as in Agamben, the Hebrew roots of Christian thought are comparatively neglected. I wonder whether that same “trinity” would apply to the Hebrew biblical tradition, and if not (which is my suspicion), how that might require us to reconceive the genealogy of oikonomia.

The weakest point of the book, in my view, is the title itself. The warrant for the book’s claim to establish “the origins of neoliberalism” is that Christian Orthodoxy establishes the dominance of the economy over the other hypostases of the human trinity and neoliberalism also forcefully asserts the dominance of the economy over other areas of life. The genealogical connections provided are even sketchier than in the appendix to The Kingdom and the Glory, and explicit discussions of neoliberalism are few and far between. The subtitle is misleading as well, given that the pre-Christian Greek concept of oikonomia is the real starting point, not Jesus (who is not a major figure in this book, given the absence of references to oikonomia in the Gospels).

I like to imagine Leshem’s book with a more accurate title. What it achieves is an important and formative contribution to the genealogy of oikonomia, one that places him into an emergent “canon” alongside Agamben and Mondzain. From this point forward, anyone investigating the place of economy in Christian theology will have to engage with Leshem’s work.

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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?