Giorgio Agamben’s latest book is dedicated to the State of Exception, the condition that now invests each power structure and radically empties any experience and definition of democracy.
Though I am a habitual reader of Giorgio Agamben, so far I have only reviewed one of his books, Language and Death, published in 1982.(1) Language and Death was a proper introduction to philosophy and proposed the method of analysis that was to mark his future work: to critically build, excavating at the margins of the existential and the linguistic, a path to redemption on the terrain of being: a fully immanent redemption that never forgets the mortal condition.
To labour in philosophy then it was necessary to travers being with ethical commitment whilst eliminating all dialectical residues (that were at the time so popular amongst the epigones of idealism and the declining socialism), and thus to produce a knowledge that was true, politically oriented, ethically qualified, and moved towards a possible human redemption. At first sight Agamben seemed to be close to Deridda and Nancy, looking through a point of being desiring another, however illusory. But this was not the case. As Agamben deepened his phenomenological analysis of being, he worked on the possible and on a new horizon, similarly, in other words, to Blanchot when he went through the linguistic world in terms of critical ontology. It is in this way that Agamben and the description of the reality he observes come close to the General Intellect, i.e. to a positive idea of the linguistic being of the common that is traversed by struggles, processes of exploitation and quivers of liberation.
How is it possible to structure the world that this ontological approach constitutes? How can someone like Agamben, who has always borne death in mind in his phenomenological descriptions, positively construe the idea of redemption? It is on this project that Agamben’s theoretical path presented increasingly evident jolts. Perhaps, we find the greatest jolt in The Coming Community of 1990 (2), when the experience of redemption presents itself as distopia. It demanded of the threshold of death to be traversed by the tension of life, and of the method to interiorise the Spinozian maxim: ‘Rather than thinking death, the wise man thinks of life’. In Agamben’s thought, the idea of the biopolitical here began to emerge as core potenza, surely a restless and perhaps alternative power, yet structurally innovative. Then again in Homo Sacer (3) this problematic is manifest in all its complexity and contradictions.
There are in fact two Agambens. The one holding onto an existential, fated and horrific background, who is forced into a continuous confrontation with the idea of death; the other seizing (adding pieces, manouvering and building) the biopolitical horizon through an immersion into philological labour and linguistic analysis: here, in the latter context, Agamben sometimes almost looks like a Warburg (4) of critical ontology. The paradox is that these two Agamben always live together and, when you least expect it, the first re-emerges to darken the second, and the gloomy shadow of death spreads over and against the will to live, against the surplus of desire. Or vice versa.
In The State of Exception (Bollati Boringhieri, pp. 120, €12) we have a chance to read the two Agambens together. Firstly, Agamben recognises and denounces the fact that the state of exception (a state of death) now invests all structures of power and eradicates any experience and definition of democracy. This is the imperial condition. Here a first line of interpretation emerges: this definition of the state of exception is posited at the level of an undifferentiated ontology, either cynical or pessimist, where each element is reassumed in the empty game of an equal negativity. The state of exception here appears to be the indifferent background against which all perspectives are neutralised and discoloured in order to be brought back to an ontology that is incapable of producing meaning in non destructive terms. This being is completely unproductive and is confused with right (or exists in its absence) where only right would be summoned to give meaning to the real. We thus see here an overestimation of right and an underestimation of ontology: reality does not produce meaning.
At this point, it is evident that there is no difference between state of exception and constituent power, because they both live on the same plane of indistinctiveness. The definition of the biopolitical - in this side of Agamben - poses itself as indifferent to antagonism: it is pointless to reply that the right of exception nullifies being, whilst resistance and constituent power create it! No, here all that occurs in bios is reduced to the indistinctiveness of nature, to zoe…In fact, it is not difficult to see in action the drift that forces each unilateral conception of bios to a naturalist reduction. The effect of this first rift of analysis is paradoxical: everything that happens in the world today seems to have been fixed onto a totalitarian and static horizon, as under ‘nazism’. But things are different: if we live in a state of exception it is because we live through a ferocious and permanent ‘civil war’, where the positive and the negative clash: their antagonistic power can under no circumstance be flattened onto indifference.
However, Agamben does not stop at this point. The State of Exception presents us with a second, more original and powerful perspective: a Spinozist and Deleuzian one. On this second terrain the analysis does not look over an inert biopolitical but traverses it with a feverish utopian anxiety and grasps its internal antagonism. The philological weapon that Agamben handles with such dexterity, now faced with the complexity that invests it, betrays uncertainty and begins to vacillate; the discoveries come out as surprises, but they are real discoveries, conceptual and linguistic innovations. The postmodern is here presented as ontologically rigorous and creative. On this unfolding the geneaology of the biopolitical gives continuity to the archaeology and the philology. The utopic dispositif is not synchronically counterposed to the ontological perspective, but diachronically breaks into, penetrates and wrecks institutions and juridical development. Here dialectics is really overcome because the biopolitical is deconstructed and internally traversed.
In Agamben, the biopolitical is no longer looked at from the outside, as if it was an independent reality to study or recognise – a fruit to pick. Hegelianism is here definitevily overcome by a critique that realises the impossibility of the dialectical homology of opposites. The Hegelian Left is surpassed too. Agamben moves even beyond Benjamin, who lived through and presented this series of problematic hitches and painful dialectical reminiscences. With a formidable gesture, he ethically and conceptually goes beyond the state of exception by going through it: just as primitive christianity and the communism of the origins had gone through power and exploitation and destroyed them by emptying them. In this second scenario, Agamben’s analysis shows how immanence can be realist and revolutionary.
This is an annoying book in its development and its dualisms, yet extraordinary in its realisation. It clarifies an issue which post-structuralist and postmodern philosophy had so far only circumscribed to no avail – turning, on the contrary, the biopolitical perspective into a verifiable and possible experience. A copernican experience.
Published in Italian on Il Manifesto – quotidiano comunista. 26 July 2003.
Translated by Arianna Bove
For a good bibliography of Agamben’s contributions in different languages, see: http://agambeniana.tripod.co.jp/index_it.html
(1) G. Agamben, Il linguaggio e la morte: un seminario sul luogo della negativit�, 2a ed. Torino: Einaudi, 1982. Published in English as: Language and death: the place of negativity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
(2) La comunit� che viene, Torino: Einaudi, 1990. Published in English as: The coming community. (Michael Hardt, trans.) Theory out of bounds, volume 1. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
(3) Homo Sacer: il potere sovrano e la nuda vita. Torino: Einaudi, 1995. Published in English as: Homo Sacer (Daniel Heller-Roazen, trans.), Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1998.
(4) Aby Warburg, art anthropologist (1866-1929).
Original text: http://www.ilmanifesto.it/Quotidiano-archivio/26-Luglio-2003/art73.html