FOR SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN following the career of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben from the beginning — perhaps even including his cameo appearance in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) — his current notoriety as a political thinker might seem surprising and even baffling. A good portion of Agamben’s early work focuses on questions of aesthetics, and much of the rest is devoted to careful and idiosyncratic readings of major figures in the history of philosophy. Familiarity with his most recent writing would likely increase that puzzlement. In addition to the ongoing, overtly political Homo Sacer series — which so far includes Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995; translated 1998), State of Exception (2003; translated 2005), and Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1998; translated 2002) — he has turned his attention to a commentary on St. Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans,” an enigmatic and fragmentary study of the relationship between the human and the animal, and a series of investigations into the history of Christian theology.
None of this sounds particularly timely or trendy. During the Bush years, however, Agamben’s investigations of sovereign authority, the state of emergency (or exception), and the concept of “bare life” seemed to speak directly to the most immediate and pressing political concerns of the day: the emergency powers claimed in the War on Terror, the fate of the “detainees” kept in the lawless zone of Guantánamo Bay, and the general reassertion of the kind of state sovereignty that globalization was supposed to be rendering irrelevant. Despite being coincidentally topical, however, there is still much that is puzzling about the political works themselves. Homo Sacer, which infamously claims that the paradigm of all modern politics is the concentration camp, proceeds by way of an investigation of an obscure figure in Roman law — the homo sacer (“sacred man”) who could be killed with impunity but not sacrificed — and stops to deal with Pindar, Hölderlin, and many other unexpected figures along the way. (There are also werewolves.) Remnants of Auschwitz focuses on the “Muselmänner,” the most degraded and hopeless victims of the Shoah, but spends a surprising amount of space dealing with questions of structural linguistics. State of Exception, in many ways the most straightforward of the three Homo Sacer books, provides a history of emergency powers in the Roman and modern world. But instead of making the seemingly obvious claim that we should stop relying on emergency powers and stick with normal legal structures, Agamben hints at a radically different solution that he believes to be implicit in a Kafka story in which Alexander the Great’s horse Bucephalus becomes a lawyer.
What is going on here? That was certainly my question when I first read Homo Sacer, and in my stubborn determination to figure out the answer, I wound up reading the majority of Agamben’s works, and even translating some of them. It’s on the occasion of the publication of two of my translations — The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, and Opus Dei: An Archeology of Duty (Stanford UP, 2013) — that I wrote this essay, which shares some of the patterns I picked up along the way.
A striking feature of Agamben’s work is its tendency to leap immediately from the tiniest detail to the broadest possible generalization. In Homo Sacer, for instance, we learn that the entire history of Western political thought was always heading toward the horrors of totalitarianism, as we can tell by taking a look at an obscure corner of ancient Roman law. Similarly, while his late works boast increasingly large-scale ambitions, they are nonetheless written in a fragmentary form and always make room for digressions and asides (often in the form of notes inserted right into the middle of the text, introduced by the Hebrew letter "aleph").
These idiosyncratic traits can, I believe, be traced back to Agamben’s two most significant influences: Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger. Agamben served as editor of the Italian edition of Benjamin’s complete works, which consist primarily of dense essays and cryptic fragments, the majority of them not published during Benjamin’s lifetime. It’s clear that Agamben admires the compression and vast interdisciplinary range of Benjamin’s work and aspires to similar effects in his own writing. The link to Heidegger is perhaps even closer: as a student in one of Heidegger’s postwar seminars, Agamben picked up the great philosopher’s ambition to provide an overarching account of the history of the West, and use that history to shed light on the contemporary world. From both Heidegger and Benjamin, Agamben inherits, on the one hand, a careful attention to philological detail and questions of translation, and, on the other, a marked tendency toward conceptual abstraction. (Heidegger, for instance, spent his entire career investigating the concept of “Being,” while some of Benjamin’s most famous essays are devoted to the broadest possible topics, such as violence, language, or history.)
It is not only Agamben’s methods that stem from these two thinkers, but often his path of investigation as well. The entire Homo Sacer series can be read as a follow-up on Benjamin’s suggestion, in his Critique of Violence (1921), that someone really ought to look into the origin of the concept of the sacredness of human life. His study of animality in The Open is, by contrast, centered on one of Heidegger’s writings on that question, and many of the chapters expand on Heidegger’s own key references. Agamben’s work can be read in part as a series of footnotes to the two great thinkers who have most inspired him, even if very few of his writings presuppose detailed knowledge of either.
At this point, one could rightly ask what in Agamben’s work is his own — aside, of course, from the aleph-notes. Some of his originality can be traced to the way he brings together Heidegger and Benjamin, along with other major figures such as Michel Foucault, Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt, and Aristotle. Leaving aside questions of intellectual genealogy, however, much of what is most distinctive about Agamben’s style of thought comes from his love of paradox and contradiction. For instance, following up Benjamin’s research agenda, he traces the notion of the sacredness of human life back to the homo sacer — an origin that, far from indicating that human life has exceptional and unconditional value, actually refers to a form of human life that has been deprived of all legal protection. And instead of marveling at how much our concept of the sacredness of human life has changed, he argues that the old meaning still stands: the state that respects the sacredness of human life is actually a machine that threatens to turn every one of us into a defenseless homo sacer.
This love of paradox is not simply a rhetorical tic. It deeply shapes Agamben’s political analysis, which seeks out places where our accustomed categories begin to overlap and break down. For example, he is fascinated with the figure of the sovereign ruler who can suspend the law, because of what he calls “the paradox of sovereignty,” namely “the fact that the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order.” On the one hand, the sovereign who declares a state of emergency can freely violate the letter of the law; on the other, his actions are legitimated by reference to the law and (at least ideally) aim to restore the normal conditions for the rule of law. Sovereign action in the state of emergency is thus a strange kind of legal illegality — or is it illegal legality? A related dynamic is at work with the figure of the homo sacer, who stands as a kind of metaphor for all people excluded from official legal protection and reduced to a state of “bare life,” such as refugees, “enemy combatants,” and concentration camp victims. On the one hand, they are excluded from the realm of law, but this very exclusion is itself a legal act, indeed one of the most forceful and decisive of legal acts. Thus the person reduced to bare life is “excluded in,” or “included out.”
The greatest contradiction of all, however, is the way that the sovereign and the homo sacer’s respective relationships to the law — relationships of exclusive inclusion or inclusive exclusion — overlap. On a purely formal level, the same paradoxical and contradictory relationship to the law holds equally for the mightiest ruler as for the most desperate victim. Indeed, these two paradoxes begin to become mirror images of each other: “At the extreme limits of the order, the sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures that have the same structure and are correlative: the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially homines sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns.”
Agamben believes that our political system is increasingly breaking down and that extra-legal but legally validated emergency power is no longer the exception, but the rule. Here we might think of the ways in which the supposed “emergency” of the War on Terror, which has now dragged on for well over 10 years and shows no sign of ending, is used to legitimate increasingly extreme executive powers (including, most recently, President Obama’s claim that he has the right to assassinate US citizens suspected of terrorism without trial and on US soil). This breakdown in legal procedure is not a moment of weakness, however, but the moment when the law displays its power in its rawest and most deadly form. As Agamben puts it in State of Exception, when “the state of exception […] becomes the rule, then the juridico-political system transforms itself into a killing machine.”
Many critics of the War on Terror, including Judith Butler, have used Agamben’s terminology to mount a kind of moral critique of American foreign policy. One might say, for instance, that the US government is wrong to create a kind of exceptional law-free zone in Guantánamo Bay, because that results in turning the detainees into bare life — which is bad. And certainly it is; yet Agamben’s political work is a little too complex to fit easily into this kind of moralizing discourse. For Agamben, the answer to the problem posed by sovereign power cannot be to return to the “normal” conditions of the rule of law, because Western political systems have always contained in their very structure the seeds that would grow into our universalized exception. It can’t be a matter of refraining from reducing people to “bare life,” because that is just what Western legal structures do. The extreme, destructive conjunction of sovereign authority and bare life is not a catastrophe that we could have somehow avoided: for Agamben, it represents the deepest and truest structure of the law.
Now may be the time to return to that Kafka story about Alexander the Great’s horse Bucephalus, entitled “The New Attorney.” (The text is available here. I recommend you take a moment to read it — it’s very short, and quite interesting.) In this brief fragment, we learn that Bucephalus has changed careers: he is no longer a warhorse, but a lawyer. What strikes Agamben about this story is that the steed of the greatest sovereign conqueror in the ancient world has taken up the study of the law. For Agamben, this provides an image of what it might look like not to go back to a previous, less destructive form of law, but to get free of law altogether:
One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good…. This liberation is the task of study, or of play. And this studious play is the passage that allows us to arrive at that justice that one of Benjamin’s posthumous fragments defines as a state of the world in which the world appears as a good that absolutely cannot be appropriated or made juridical.
The law will not be simply done away with, but it is used in a fundamentally different way. In place of enforcement, we have study, and in place of solemn reverence, play. Agamben believes that the new attorney is going the state of emergency one better: his activity not only suspends the letter of the law, but, more importantly, suspends its force, its dominating power.
Agamben’s critical work always aims toward these kinds of strange, evocative recommendations. Again and again, we find that the goal of tracking down the paradoxes and contradictions in the law is not to “fix” it or provide cautionary tales of what to avoid, but to push the paradox even further. Agamben often uses the theological term “messianic” to describe his argumentative strategy, because messianic movements throughout history — and here Agamben would include certain forms of Christianity — have often had an antagonistic relationship to the law (primarily, but not solely, the Jewish law, or Torah). Accordingly, he frequently draws on messianic texts from the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions for inspiration in his attempt to find a way out of the destructive paradoxes of Western legal thought.
In his most recent book to appear in English, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life (2011; 2013), Agamben conducts a detailed study of Christian monasticism, which he believes to be essentially a messianic movement. Not only was the movement founded and renewed by people who were unsatisfied with mainstream institutions claiming to represent a historical claimant to the title of messiah (namely Jesus), but they also display a particularly paradoxical relationship to the law. On the one hand, the monastic life is regulated down to the smallest detail, creating the impression that it represents the strictest possible form of law (an impression that is reinforced by the existence of detailed lists of punishments for infractions). On the other hand, monastic thinkers have always insisted that their rules are something other than laws. Where secular law aims to provide boundaries to life through the imposition of prohibitions and punishments, monastic rules aim to positively shape the life of the monks.
What is at stake in monasticism is thus not the enforcement of norms, but the very form of the monk’s life. Agamben believes that this blurring of the boundary between rule and life, to the point where they become indistinguishable, is a concrete historical attempt to achieve something like the state of “study or play” that he recommends in State of Exception. He finds the Franciscan movement to be particularly radical in this regard, and much of The Highest Poverty takes up the task of analyzing how the Franciscans were ultimately brought into the mainstream of Christianity, so that we can avoid the same pitfalls in our contemporary efforts to find some way to escape the destructive killing machine we call the law.
Based on what I’ve said so far, Agamben’s work may appear to be very systematic — and he reinforces that impression by elaborately dividing the project that began with Homo Sacer into various volumes and sub-volumes. What is most appealing about Agamben’s work to me, though, is not its systematicity but its open-ended and exploratory nature. For instance, in State of Exception, he notes how frequently modern governments have declared a state of emergency due to economic conditions, and that ultimately led him into his vast exploration of the concept of “economy” in The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (2007; 2011). That book, surprisingly, wound up encompassing the history of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (and included a particularly satisfying chapter that presents the angels as God’s bureaucrats). In The Highest Poverty, Agamben notes that the monks seem to be continually tempted to turn their entire life into a continual act of worship — which led him to conduct a study of liturgy and its influence on contemporary concepts of ethical duty. (That book is forthcoming later this year, under the title Opus Dei: An Archeology of Duty.)
For this reason, I think that the best way into Agamben’s work may not be his better-known political writings, but the short and fragmentary book The Open: Man and Animal (2002; 2004). It contains several unforgettable passages — perhaps most notable is the story of an unfortunate tick that was deprived of all sensory input by researchers and persisted in this state for nearly two decades. This leads Agamben to ask a series of probing questions that have implications far beyond the fate of a tick:
But what becomes of the tick and its world in this state of suspension that lasts eighteen years? How is it possible for a living being that consists entirely in its relationship with the environment to survive in absolute deprivation of that environment? And what sense does it make to speak of “waiting” without time and without world?
I expect that The Open will challenge almost everyone’s preconceptions about animals in some way. It’s not clear how all the pieces of Agamben’s argument fit together, but this only increases the book’s effectiveness for me: it’s not a definitive answer to the question of how humans and animals relate, but a book to think with.
Reading The Open — or other Agamben books in a similar vein, such as The Coming Community (1990; 1993) or Nudities (2009; 2010) — before coming to the more imposing political works may be useful, as they help to clarify the way Agamben thinks before one is faced with the issue of what he thinks. For all their sweeping ambition and programmatic claims, the political works fundamentally represent the same fragmentary and improvisational style of intellectual exploration as the more miscellaneous entries in Agamben’s canon; in all his writings, he exemplifies the “study or play” with the Western cultural and political tradition that he advocates. Whatever else Agamben’s works manage to achieve, they may ultimately be most successful when they serve to invite us to join him in the serious pursuit of study as play.
Adam Kotsko is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Shimer College in Chicago and the translator of Giorgio Agamben’s Sacrament of Language: An Archeology of the Oath, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, and Opus Dei: An Archeology of Duty. His other books include Žižekand Theology, The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation, Awkwardness, and Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television.