What is Agamben?

A recent talk prompted us to look again at Agamben, a thinker we have regarded in the past with not a few misgivings. In spite of having read a substantial portion of his work, we are quite ready to admit that we have never completely understood it (though we also hold a sincere suspicion that Agamben may not understand his own work: where it is orientated, what it orientates itself towards, basically, what it’s actually trying to say…) This is why, in what follows we will attempt to work out Agamben’s system. Given that this regularly appears to us as not much more than a desultory errance through the continental philosophy hall of fame (Heidegger… Benjamin… Arendt… Debord… Foucault… Deleuze… a case of “so many crutches and still he can’t walk?”), perhaps to speak of an Agambenian system is a tad disingenuous. Nonetheless, these are schoolboy errors after all…

The Relational Matrices of Life and the Originary Nonrelational Void

For Agamben, networks of meaning-making relations constitute the realm of actuality, including life and language, such that, for example, life only “makes sense” via a system of interrelational pathos and language only makes sense through the differential relations of words. However, these relational systems are in fact founded upon a pre-existing ground of meaningless (or more precisely, meaning-full) non-relational excess. This is clear in his (perverse, inaccurate yet revealing) analysis of Deleuze in “Pure Immanence”, a study of Deleuze’s last published work, “Immanence: A Life…” Here Agamben attests to the importance of the colon which divides the terms ‘immanence’ and ‘a life…’, a separation which also marks the indissoluble relation between two meanings, each of which is in itself partially complete. According to Agamben, the colon provides a compelling insight into Deleuze’s work, punctuating a “decisive intention” which has in mind, “neither a simple identity nor a simple logical connection” (223) between the meanings of ‘a life…’ and ‘immanence’:

the colon introduces something more than an agencement [organisation, harmonisation] between immanence and a life, it introduces an agencement of a special kind, something like an absolute agencement that also includes “nonrelation” or the relation derived from nonrelation. (223)

What Agamben valorises in Deleuze’s use of the colon, then, is a) the way in which it marks the relation between two partially complete terms and b) its demonstration that this relation is provisional and derived from a preceding nonrelational space. Leaving aside the fact this appears to us a gross misreading of Deleuze’s project (e.g. would Deleuze ever talk about the “partial completeness” of terms or the subordination of relation to nonrelation?), here we find Agamben’s own theory of the conjunction: this is how all relations in the world are formed and function. Thus for example, in the case of language there is what he calls an “originary, logical dimension” which indicates the “pure taking place of language [which shows] that there is a possibility of thought beyond meaningful proposions… a voice that, without signifying anything, signifies signification itself” (“The idea of language”, 42). (Leland Deladurantaye, in an excellent review of Agamben’s work has drawn interesting comparisons between this originary nonrelational dimension of language in Agamben’s work and Paul deMan’s notion of the inhuman materiality of language, where “the inhuman is not some kind of mystery or secret -it is linguistic structures, the play of linguistic tensions, linguistic events which occur, possibilities which are inherent in language- independently of any drive or any wish or any desire we might have” (Resistance to Theory, 96))

The (Im)potentiality of the Nonrelational

This nonrelational grounding of the actual, relational matrices upon which human life is built Agamben elsewhere calls potentiality, but in Agamben, potentiality is only pure potentiality when it is impotentiality (this is where it is easy to lose one’s thread in Agamben’s prose):

if a potentiality to not-be originally belongs to all potentiality, then there is truly potentiality only where the potentiality to not-be does not lag behind actuality but passes fully into it as such. This does not mean that it disappears in actuality; on the contrary, it preserves itself in actuality (“On Potentiality”, 183)

This is why, it appears to us, that Agamben regularly calls for the complete exhaustion of potentiality in actuality, because:

Contrary to the traditional idea of potentiality that is annulled in actuality, here we are confronted with a potentiality that conserves itself and saves itself in actuality. Here potentiality, so to speak, survives actuality and, in this way, gives itself to itself. (ibid, 184)

In more concrete terms, this indicates why Agamben regularly cites the Marxist adage, that “the absolutely desperate current state of affairs fills me with hope” because if potentiality appears completely exhausted in actuality, if the current state of affairs is entirely hopeless then the conserved/preserved potentiality in the actual may yield a transformed hope, according to what Noys has called a “logic of reversibility”:

For Agamben, it is a matter of transforming hope, of seizing upon the perfection and absolution of such hopelessness… a new, transformed hope is envisioned in the light of this perfact, absolute hopelessness where humanity is absolved… (Deladurantaye, “Agamben’s Potentialities”, 9)

This is Agamben’s messianic moment: when in the midst of absolute hopelessness, the homogeneous relational order is interrupted and, like a prism through which heretofore-unforeseen relational possibilities are glimpsed, nonrelational (im)potentiality yields a kind of paradigm shift. (We will conclude in the next post with some comments on the image and the paradigm, aspects of Agamben’s work which prompted these musings. Grudging thanks to Ben Noys and Alberto Toscano for causing this beast to rear its confused head again.)


~ by schoolboyerrors on December 4, 2008.

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