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.)

Totally called it

In my forthcoming book on Agamben co-authored with Colby Dickinson, I include an essay that indirectly discusses The Use of Bodies, arguing that rereading The Time That Remains in light of the entire extant Homo Sacer series could be a good substitute for the book itself while everyone waits for me to finish translating it.

At the time I wrote that essay, and at the time that I compiled the collection with Colby, the actual epilogue to The Use of Bodies had not been finalized. Now that I’m translating the last few pages of the final text, I feel compelled to declare: I totally called it. Mere pages from the end, Agamben recapitulates his arguments from The Time That Remains about inoperativity and the “as not.” In fact, at the risk of overdoing it, it is arguably the most extended discussion of any single thinker in the epilogue — even the segment on Benjamin is shorter.

Posted in Agamben, Saint Paul, translation. Comments Off on Totally called it

Popular sovereignty and trinity

Popular sovereignty is triune. The Father is the popular sovereign as such, which is the source of its two hypostases or actualizations: the state and the market. The state is the Son, an embodied reality that is most often literally personified in a concrete individual (the head of state). The market is the Holy Spirit, a more shadowy entity that works primarily through indirect effects, distributing roles and gifts.

This trinity shares a single divine nature in that they all manifest freedom, though each in its own particular way. The popular sovereign represents sheer unmediated freedom as such, which can never be fully actualized in a finite world. The market gives us freedom in the form of choice, where the state gives us freedom in the form of decision.

(Idle reflections, sketching in the margins of The Kingdom and the Glory.)

Bare life vs. naked life

The most famous term from Agamben is surely “bare life,” la vita nuda. As often happens, this term actually stems from Benjamin, specifically the “Critique of Violence,” where he briefly mentions blosses Leben. As Carlo Salzani pointed out in our ACLA seminar on Agamben last spring, Agamben’s la vita nuda is not his own translation of blosses Leben, but is instead drawn from the original Italian translation of Benjamin’s work. And as a translation of Benjamin, la vita nuda is imprecise — one would probably prefer something like “mere life” (or, less circumspectly, “pure life”).

Similarly, the standard translation “bare life” initially seems questionable. One might have opted for “naked life” — a translation that is more visceral and more immediately clarifies that this life is emphatically post-political, not (as one might dare to think) pre-. You cannot be “naked” outside the context of social norms, while you can in some sense be “bare.”

Yet there is something ingenious in the translation “bare life” that warrants preserving it beyond simple considerations of continuity and tradition. It somehow straddles the gap between the original Benjaminian term and Agamben’s translation — echoing the way that the term itself is in a weird space of indeterminacy where it is neither fully Benjamin’s nor fully Agamben’s own creation.

Agamben translation: Update and request

Work on my translation of The Use of Bodies continues apace. I now have full drafts of the prologue, first major part, first “intermezzo,” and second major part. I have nearly completed all bibliographical work for those segments (the publisher requires that I consult English translations of every work Agamben cites if they are available), and over the next week I will be reviewing my drafts and then passing them over to a generous Italian colleague to check. Then I will return to translating new material. The deadline for submission of the final manuscript is August 1, and I am confident I will get it in on time if not a bit early. After that, your guess is as good as mine as to when it comes out.

There is one lingering citation problem I have [used to have, before commenters helped!]. If you provide a full citation and direct quotation from the English translation of the relevant texts in comments, you will earn your way into my acknowledgment section. The problem is a quote from Gregory of Nazianzus that purports to be from Oration 31 (better known as the 5th Theological Oration), section 35. In no edition of the orations have I been able to find a section numbered 35 or a quote that even remotely approximates this: “We Greeks say religiously one ousia in three hypostases, the first word expressing the nature of divinity and the second the triplicity of the individuated properties. The Latins think the same, but due to the restrictions of their language and the poverty of their vocabulary, they cannot distinguish the hypostasis from the substance and instead make use of the term persona… It is believed to be a difference of faith, while it is to us only a diversity of words.” I have already run multiple text searches of the transcriptions of the ANF available online. I’m wondering if it’s been completely mislabelled. Somehow it feels more like something John of Damascus would say. Any thoughts?

Preorder mania!!!

Creepiness is now available for preorder on Amazon, as is my translation of Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus. Both will be released in February.


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