What is Agamben? II

The Logic of Exemplarity and the Image

To these two orders of the relational and nonrelational (or what we should perhaps call the monstrous relational to-come?), Agamben adds a third term: the example or paradigm. This trope persists within Agamben’s work as that which indicates a type or class yet which, by the very fact of this indication, paradoxically withdraws itself from that class, setting itself apart as no longer simply genus, but also singular. That is to say, in order for an example to function as an example, the relation it bears to a certain relational system (e.g. of pathos, of meaning) must be suspended.

…the example is characterised by the fact that it holds for all cases of the same type and, at the same time, it is included among these. It is one singularity among others, which, however, stands for each of them. On the one hand, every example is treated in effect as a real, particular case; but on the other, it remains understood that it cannot serve in its particularity. ( “Example,” The Coming Community, 10)

So the example is itself suspended in a state of nonrelational relation at the limit of the relational (and therefore, as we have indicated in the previous post, of the actual itself), one side facing a nonrelational abyss and another facing the class which it exemplifies. What Agamben valorises in the example, is its function as a paradigmatic prism through which nonrelational potentiality may be viewed, thereby momentarily dismantling the organisation of the relational and offering the possibility of reorganising the latter differently. The example, one might say, is the conduit for Agamben’s messianic moment. Instances of the logic of exemplarity abound: the Muselmann at the border of life and death; the concentration camp between the legal network and the extra-legal; the colon in Deleuze’s “Immanence: A Life…”; Melville’s Bartleby… This logic of example-as-image Agamben extends to include the image itself as example: like the example, the image is an indication of an actual narrative chain or nexus where relational orders such as time, identity and the body coalesce, yet as such, it is lifted from those relational orders and placed beside them. As Ben Noys rightly points out, the image interrupts “empty homogeneous time,” the principle of a homogeneous identity and, we would add, the homogeneity of the body but it does so, we believe, only by being an exemplary instance of the latter:

Breaking away from the double chains of biological destiny and individual biography, [through the image, the body] took its leave of both the inarticulate cry of the tragic body and the dumb silence of the comic body, and thus appeared for the first time perfectly communicable, entirely illuminated. ( “Dim Stockings”, The Coming Community, 48)

What links together empty time, identity and the body is that all figure in Agamben’s system as extant, relational orders, the “unicity” (ibid, 49) or rigid organisation of which is disintegrated by the image and its “freezing” (of time, identity and the body). The nonrelational potential that is unveiled in the image’s messianic “now-time” essentially offers the possibility for an unprecedented reorganisation of actuality outside of ratified modes.

Thus, for Agamben, the example is to be valorised because of its potential to reveal the profound font of relationality that appears from the point of view of actual relations as an abyss of nonrelationality. Yet this may easily be construed as a failing of Agamben’s work:  turned towards the nonrelational in expectation of a messianic moment, he can never consider seriously the demands of extant relational networks that form the world in which we live. Engagement with or supposed amelioration of existing conditions acts in an contradictory direction to the thrust of his work which seeks the complete  subversion (or inversion) of the present world order (in this light, his repeated references to contemporary politics and to historical junctures appear false and artful, disingenuous even).


~ by schoolboyerrors on December 9, 2008.

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