Friday, March 17, 2017

Reflections on Agamben's Philosophical Project

When one reads Agamben, one is confronted with what he calls the Killing-Machine of the Law. This is the legacy of Modernity, which represents a certain conflation of two principles which had, previously, remained somewhat distinct. For Agamben this is primarily in the division between zoe-bios, or economical/household-political. Following Arendt, in the model of the city, the realm of the political addressed people as citizens primarily, defined as such through law. However, when these dimensions become conflated, when the law becomes a means to address what was to be outside of it, usually through acts of exclusion, it can only kill. This is the secret reality that has been hidden within Western philosophy, metaphysics, and theology as far back as Aristotle and Ancient Roman law.

Carl Schmitt, who is a theorist Agamben interacts with a lot, reveals this through his brief comment on the domain of like in ancient thought. For the ancients, only likeness can govern likeness. Thus, only a god can govern the gods, and a man can govern men. Hence there is a correlative principle between a monarch of the gods (Zeus as a metaphor for the prime arche in Greco-Roman philosophy) and a monarch of men (the new imperial political apparatus of the Roman Caesars). However, Schmitt makes a comment that men can only rule men, and not the animals. Mankind can only pass laws respecting men. Here is the root of the Exclusionary powers of the law. If law were to banish a man to the realm of the gods (viz. Agamben's discussion on Homo Sacer) or to the realm of the animal, then one would be simultaneously inside and outside of the law, as a man excluded as a man. This is the full power of the law, opening an individual to complete annihilation. For Agamben, the Concentration Camp is really the end goal of Modernity, Humanity stripped of Humanity.

However, Agamben's solutions seem hazy at best. He tries his best, as a member of the post-liberal and post-Marxist scramble, reflected in his intellectual heritage through Arendt, Heidegger, and Foucault. I admit I don't really understand what Agamben wants. He wants an undoing of the power of the law through inoperativity of the law, not a replacement. This strikes me as a kind of Bohemian existence, not replacing a law with another law, but the maintenance of Modernity as a dead god which provides material to draw from without power. Like I said, I might not understand, but this seems to me as a very lame alternative (maybe that's the point?) which does nothing for the actual struggles of the plebs. His scheme depends on a very peculiar reading of Western philosophy, fascinating nonetheless, but one  that possesses a kind of leasureliness as its core. It's the bourgeois society deactivated of its drive forwards.

I am generally wary of this sort of solution. I don't think labor itself is problematic as a core source of analysis in politics. His idiosyncratic reading of Aristotle, and his reliance on Heidegger, get him stuck in some strange places. For example, he is pretty insistent at times that St. Paul was not apocalyptic. I think Agamben senses the Marxian reading of history is insufficient for anything but utter bleakness and pessimism. I do too, but I think Agamben's solution is an ambiguous stumble into the dark. I think his Benjaminian Messianic approach is absolutely helpful, but I think it needs more work. This is where, I think, developments in Russian philosophy and theology in the early 20th century might actually be helpful. However, this will require another post, in which I will elaborate more.

For now, these are my initial thoughts on a brilliant project that lays bare the pillars of modernity. In some ways, we might say that its theo-philosophical rational is an aberrant Christianity and this should make any conscientious Christian pause to give him listen. For anyone wanting a meaningful plunge into Western philosophy, culture and history, Agamben is a must.

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