A conclusion to the Homo Sacer project.
- The Use of Bodies coalesces around what, borrowing from Sophocles’ Antigone, Agamben calls the “superpolitical apolitical.” The phrase appears only twice in the volume, but it proves decisive.
- What is it to live as superpolitically apolitical? It is to live and, at the same time, to think a politics “set free from every figure of relation” (and representation), in which, however, “we are together beyond every relation.”
- This non-relational togetherness requires the “use of bodies”—in the subjective sense of the genitive. That is: another—unproductive, non-instrumental—body is possible for the human being, whereby a “zone of indifference” emerges between one’s own body and that of another. Use becomes common use.
The superpolitical apolitical also ambitiously involves deactivating the entire apparatus of Western ontology, beginning at least with Aristotle.
- The superpolitical apolitical also ambitiously involves deactivating the entire apparatus of Western ontology, beginning at least with Aristotle. Ontology, as inextricable from politics, is in fact founded on the relation of the ban, which ultimately founds every relation. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life argued that the separation between natural life (zoè) and political life (bios), i.e. our understanding the anthropogenetic threshold as a fracture between life and language, is always accompanied by the banning (or better, the “inclusive exclusion”) of “bare life”, i.e. of a life deprived of its form, from the polis. The Use of Bodies complicates and substantiates this scenario. Ontologically, it is the very notion of the subject, the Aristotelian hypokeimenon as a singular existence that “must be at once excluded and captured in the apparatus.”
- It is only through the destitution of traditional ontology that the form of life (more and more reducible to bare life in modernity and contemporaneity) can express itself as a hyphenated “form-of-life,” where life immanently lives its own mode of being in a non-relational “contact” with its context, and finds “happiness.”
- The form-of-life as a non-relational commonality with the contextual other can also be grasped as the undoing of the Aristotelian relation between potency (or potential) and act. As use, the form-of-life is a potential that is not exhausted in the passage to the act (the being-at-work), but, contemplating itself as the deactivation of the act, becomes inoperative, becomes a potential of potential.
- The Use of Bodies answers the central, and at the time rather enigmatic, question first raised in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life—that of a new politics as a non-relational relation—with the “superpolitical apolitical” as a further oxymoron. But this is not a mere deadlock: the oxymoron (in its different variants) is both unfolded—through a thorough discussion of the concepts of use and form-of-life—and used as a concrete indicator of the radical crisis affecting our political and ontological categories, which works as a practical call for rendering them fully inoperative.
- In the opening pages of The Use of Bodies, Agamben opposes any strict division between the pars destruens and the pars construens of a work. He also rejects the very idea of a conclusion. And yet the reader cannot avoid the, perhaps naïve, impression that this book somehow constructively—and obstinately—does conclude the Homo Sacer series. Here, one must first and foremost acknowledge and praise the tenacious determination needed to carry out a twenty-year project, a monumental enterprise that now displays a rare level of consistency. Agamben is all too often revered—and vainly emulated—for the supposed irreverence of his impressionistic, quasi-aphoristic, and circumlocutory style. This is very misleading, especially when one retroactively considers the Homo Sacer series as a whole. Agamben stands out as one of the most systematic thinkers of our time. His fragmentary style (and the notion of style has close associations with that of form-of-life in The Use of Bodies) is probably nothing less than what he would call a “signature” of his philosophical system. Whether we agree or disagree with Agamben’s conclusions—and to what extent—is a different matter.
- Out of admiration, then, and following Agamben’s own admission in the forthcoming The Fire and the Tale that “the genuinely philosophical element” contained in the works of the authors he loves is its “capacity for development,” let us try to develop some of his conclusions—and thus also inevitably begin to challenge them.
- The Use of Bodies states that “ontology and politics correspond perfectly.” It also maintains that modal ontology, i.e. the ontology of use, “coincides with an ethics.” The subject that is constituted in use as form-of-life is, in turn, referred to as indiscriminately ethical and political. Moreover, the work of Foucault on the care of the self as the use of bodies would positively conflate ethics and aesthetics. Given this series of equations, how is philosophy—still explicitly entrusted with the supreme task of “construct[ing] a life at once ‘superpolitical and apolitical’”—to preserve its autonomous role? Is it a question of critically “saying yes” to language (as the greatly underestimated Sacrament of Language concludes)? Or is it a question of a philosopher-poet who contemplates his dwelling in language (as hinted in The Fire and the Tale)? If the latter, how might the philosopher avoid clumsily mimicking the Hölderlinian “inhabiting life” (as form-of-life), which, for Agamben himself, also “destroyed” Hölderlin’s language?
“The genuinely philosophical element” contained in the works of the authors [Agamben] loves is its “capacity for development.”
- Elsewhere I have suggested that Agamben’s philosophy amounts to a sophisticated kind of linguistic vitalism. His ontological aim, as specified in Potentialities, is an understanding of the “nature of thought,” and hence of language, from the perspective of “life […] as a power that incessantly exceeds its forms and realizations.” The form-of-life—however “immanently”—still pre-supposes a force-of-life. But The Use of Bodies firmly dismisses vitalism: “to bring to light–beyond every vitalism—the intimate interweaving of being and living: this is today certainly the task of thought (and of politics).” What remains to be articulated is how the political ontology of the form-of-life does not give precedence to life over its form, and how it no longer clings to the Christian evangelium vitae, or logos of life as a silent paradigm. In The Use of Bodies, Agamben demarcates his stance from that of Franciscanism: the Franciscan concept of use relied on an act of “renunciation,” and thus on “the will of the subject”; use as form-of-life should instead be founded on “the nature of things.” But, in opposition to the Christian “eternal life”—which by now the laicized Church itself tends to reduce to sheer bio-political “survival”—how are we to conceive of such “nature of things”? How do “the vitality or form of life of the [non-subjectivized] individual,” or the “impulse” and “virtue” of “life as such,” not relapse into vitalism?
- Agamben has been linked with a radical Left that attempts to promote a new “communist hypothesis.” The conclusion of the Homo Sacer series makes it absolutely clear that Agamben is not a Marxist. Marx’s “form of production” is not Agamben’s “form-of-life,” quite simply because the latter amounts to a “form of inoperativity,” which renders works inoperative and thus uses them. Marx would not have thought inoperativity, as allegedly evident in his understanding of “human activity in the classless society,” i.e. in communist life. More to the point, inoperativity would allow us to grasp the “classless society” as “already present in capitalist society.” What Agamben has in mind is not the Marxian class without class (be it the proletariat or any of its contemporary figures). The classless society that is already present—“in possibly infamous and risible forms”—is, again, a “common use” understood as “a communication not of the common but of a communicability,” i.e. of a potential. Can we really think and live in a community exclusively based on potentiality as commonality?
- One could still debate whether the concept of form-of-life—as the use of bodies—tries to think a renewed twenty-first-century version of anarchism. There are two immediate provisos. First, the real anarchy is, for Agamben, that of state power and its “sovereignty.” Second, Agamben’s anarchism—if it is one—resolutely thinks the archè. The origin in question is not a remote point in time, but a “historical a priori that remains immanent to becoming and continues to act in it.” Why? Because the structure of the archè follows a precise strategy: “something is divided, excluded, and pushed to the bottom, and precisely through this exclusion, it is included as archè and foundation.” Yet, if, as Agamben himself insinuates, this “mechanism of exception” is structurally linked with language and with anthropogenesis, what would it truly mean for the speaking animal to archeologically render inoperative the structure of the archè, that is, to exhibit the void at its centre? Is Agamben’s “anarchic” form-of-life prepared to bear all the consequences of “an inseparable life, neither animal nor human”?
- The form-of-life does not yet “fully” exist “in our society.” But examples of lives inseparable from their forms can be attested in “unedifying” places. The Use of Bodies abounds with positive references to sadomasochism as an inappropriable “intimacy,” to sexual perversion as a “sort of […] blessed life,” and to a certain Sade as a parodic yet “most serious” paradigm of the use of bodies as commonality. What is at stake here is not simply, following Lacanian psychoanalysis, perversion as one possible basic form of subjectivation/sexuation, which is as such ethically neutral. In these desubjectivized experiences in which “life has been entirely put at stake […] in [a] certain perverse behavior” we are rather confronted with what Agamben has to recognize as pathologies “under present circumstances.” But is this “zone of irresponsibility” the closest we can get to a model of the “superpolitical apolitical” for the time being?