Homo Sacer in retrospect.
With the publication of The Use of Bodies, Agamben’s monumental Homo Sacer project has now come to an end. Notwithstanding Agamben’s characterization, in the book’s “Prefatory Note,” of the project as now being abandoned rather than completed, future readers of the nine-volume series will inevitably have an impression of the project as a closed whole—and with good reason: though written over a period of twenty years and spanning an astonishing spectrum of times and topics, there is a remarkable continuity of concern and argument presented across the volumes, with this last offering something resembling a final cadence. In his contribution to this forum, Adam Kotsko notes how the organization of Agamben’s project often seems carefully planned, but at other times can appear quite open to contingency, modification, and digression. And certainly, anyone who has read Agamben’s work, both within and beyond the Homo Sacer project, knows that he is illuminating when writing not only on, say, Heidegger or Benjamin, or Aristotle, but also on Don Quixote, on Orson Welles' Don Quixote (at least six minutes of it), on Pinocchio, on Pygmalion, on Paracelsus, on Pope Benedict XVI. . . . But while many of Agamben’s short essays, aphoristic vignettes, and even passing remarks over the years might come across as unique gems, one striking fact that can be observed from what is now a panoramic retrospective view of Agamben’s work is the uncanny way they often turn out, after intervals of many years, to be crucial elements in the system of his thought. I will give just two of many possible examples.
In the “Prefatory Note” to The Use of Bodies, Agamben tells us that many pages of the volume were composed over the last 20 years. Framed in part as a caveat about possible repetitions and discordances, this note also calls our attention to the fact that the concluding volume of the project brings to fruition ideas and gestures that may have only briefly appeared here and there until now, but have in truth lain dormant, quietly guiding the development of the whole Homo Sacer project.
For example, Agamben’s references to Spinoza have often been oblique or made in passing in the course of other arguments. One notable exception (or half-exception) to this is the 1996 essay “Absolute Immanence,” which is primarily an essay on Deleuze but which lingers on Spinoza in a way that is significant not only for the brilliant reading that emerges of the contesting Kantian and Spinozan genealogies within modern philosophy, but also for the way it anticipates The Use of Bodies’ most central concept (and as it happens, Spinoza gets the book’s last word). In the course of an analysis of Deleuze’s conceptions of life and of immanence, Agamben makes a brief detour through a passage from Spinoza’s Compendium grammatices linguae hebraeae. In the context of the essay, Spinoza offers an example of how one might conceive of an immanent cause, “that is,” as Agamben writes in Potentialities, “of an action in which agent and patient are one and the same person.” After giving the analogy of the reflexive active verb in Latin, with mixed results, Spinoza turns to the Ladino verb pasearse, which idiomatically means “to stroll” or “to take a walk” but more precisely means “to walk-oneself.” For Agamben, Spinoza’s choice of example is “particularly felicitous” because “[i]t presents an action in which agent and patient enter a threshold of absolute indistinction: a walk and walking-oneself,” and as such, it constitutes a sort of micro-treatise on the ontology of immanence, “the infinite movement of the self-constitution and self-manifestation of Being: Being as pasearse.” Now, not only does Spinoza’s “Ladinoism” serve Agamben as a fine illustration of Deleuze’s conception of immanence, but it also contains an overt allusion to his own theories of (im)potentiality and of means, both of which were fairly well established by that time: “Pasearse,” he writes, “is, furthermore, an action in which means and end, potentiality and actuality, faculty and use enter a zone of absolute indistinction.” Of all the key terms listed in this passage, however, “use” would certainly have been rather cryptic in 1996, for its significance would only come fully to light in Part 4 of Homo Sacer.
In section 2.5 of The Use of Bodies, a good deal of Agamben’s detour through Spinoza in “Absolute Immanence” is reproduced verbatim (and would thus be one of those “repetitions” of which we’ve been warned), though it here assumes a somewhat different argumentative role—or better, reveals what that role always truly was. What the reflexive grammar of pasearse illustrates here is nothing other than the central concept of the book: “It is according to this paradigm,” Agamben writes, “that one must understand the singular nature of the process that we will call ‘use’” (The Use of Bodies, 30). Thus, from our current vantage point we can now draw a straight line back from The Use of Bodies reformulation of ontology through the figure of use to the “Being as pasearse” of “Absolute Immanence.” And lines such as this can also be drawn much farther back.
There is a remarkable continuity of concern and argument presented across the volumes, with this last offering something resembling a final cadence.
Among Agamben’s earliest pieces is an essay on Antonin Artaud. Published in 1966, “The 121st Day of Sodom and Gomorrah” proposes a reading of Artaud’s work and life as a strategy for negotiating a way past the fixed polarities that structure Western thought: reason/instinct, culture/nature, illumination/obscurity, Apollonian/Dionysian, etc. On Agamben’s reading, from his alchemical theater to his study of non-Western cultures, Artaud seeks in his work not to valorize either of these opposing poles, and not even to harmoniously or dialectically reconcile them, but rather to hold them fast in their stalemate in order to clear an opening for a new “body” and a new “life.” What Artaud works toward, Agamben argues, is not a new anthropology, but a new anthropogenesis, a decisive step beyond the impasses that define Western thought. Since this piece has never been translated into English or republished in Italian since its appearance in 1966, readers would be justified in thinking that Artaud was not a major source for Agamben’s thought. And yet, what Agamben describes here as the goal of Artaud’s work can be seen as the initial formulation of one of the signature themes of his later political philosophy, namely, the suspension or deactivation of dialectic apparatuses—or more precisely, apparatuses that are articulated and driven by the relation of the ban—as a way of opening a path to a new dimension of human thought and action. Instances of this gesture are numerous, but one well-known example will serve. In his discussion of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben argues that the point of the story is that rather than failing to enter the door of the law, the man from the country instead manages, by means of a patient strategy, to have the door of the law closed before him, an event that signals, for Agamben, the deactivation of the very relation (the sovereign ban) between the law and the subject of the law, thus clearing the path for a human praxis freed from the law. What is represented in the parable, he writes, is the point at which “the two terms distinguished and kept united by the relation of ban (bare life and form of law) abolish each other and enter a new dimension.”
What I want to note here is that this key moment in the early pages of Homo Sacer is a direct descendant of the argument introduced in the Artaud essay of 30 years earlier, where he had written: “the more we try to approach his words, the more he escapes our grasp, leading us to an impasse where thought encounters nothing but its shadow. And yet, we realize that the true critical problem of Artaud, as Agamben notes in his 1966 essay, is precisely this: “‘how can an impasse be an escape route?’” Long before the analyses of infancy in the 1970s, of (im)potentiality in the 1980s, and of the ban and the exception in the 1990s, in this obscure early essay lies the germ of the methodological principle that guides the Homo Sacer project’s presentation of the thought and politics to come.
In both of the cases I’ve pointed to (and, again, there are many others), from the present perspective of the final Homo Sacer volume, we can see in these early pieces seeds that over decades of dormancy have sprung back to life and come spectacularly to fruition. As we look back now on the completed (or abandoned) Homo Sacer project, focusing on these moments and motifs that emerge briefly and then reemerge over a span not only of 20 but of 50 years may give us a better sense of the development of Homo Sacer’s foundations and structures. It may also, among other things, lead to renewed pleasure and surprise at reading Agamben’s early work.