And now thoughts on the talk at Cornell

It was a great visit here. The focus of my talk (it was a bit varied, since I wanted to lead it into a confrontation with the logic of deconstruction) was the use of hyperbole in Agamben. While at first that seems a critical take (okay, indeed at points it was), it also provided leverage into talking about language as such in Agamben, which for him means the opening cut at the heart of the human being from reference. Thus, language throws itself out ahead of itself (thus the root of the word in Greek), and eventually in the society of the spectacle we pay attention only to signs as such. And that last claims tells you that I was also interested in how Agamben does operate by hyperbole in the straight-forward sense: provocations thrown out ahead of evidence he provides, yet in a way that meets up  with his depiction of language splitting us off forever from what he calls the “open” in the book of that name. Here’s a bit from the opening of my talk:

Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer volumes (three now published, comprising five books)[1] offer the most prominent and influential accounts of sovereignty in recent Continental philosophy.[2] Agamben’s writings are known for their strikingly apocalyptic—in fact hyperbolic—tone as they mark a coda to two prominent “ends”: the end of metaphysics and with it a certain epoch of being as described by Heidegger, as well as the end of political history, as announced by post-Kojèvian ideologues and feared by those countenancing the denouement of the emancipatory hopes of modernity. For Agamben, any accounting of a non-sovereign politics must confront this double closure, since one would otherwise naively repeat the sovereigntisms of the past. “The only possibility” left for us, he argues, is “to really seize the contemporary” and “to think of it as the end.”[3] This is not a charge for us to choose or not to choose, since this is a task that the time “imposes on us,” even as it presents “extreme danger.” Agamben thus posits that we need to “take seriously…the theme of the end of history as well as the Heideggerian theme of Ereignis as the end of the history of being,” and this also means “thinking the end of the state” as correlative to the “end of the history of Being.”[4] Only “a thought that” can “mobiliz[e] one against the other” is, he argues, “equal to this task” before us. Or, to put it in the pithy Heideggerian phrase, where there is danger, the saving power also grows.[5]

It’s well known that Agamben’s work identifies key moments in the long use and abuse of the concept of sovereignty while attempting an intricate reconciliation of Schmitt’s theory of the sovereign exception with the historical genealogies and archaeologies on offer from Arendt and Foucault. Much is to be gained in reading him on sovereignty and its crucial place in the political. However, the hyperbole often found in Agamben’s writing—narratives that often describe thousands of years and a near infinite series of texts in but a few pages—is not a feature of his work that one could isolate from the central theses of his project. In what follows, I will circle around many of Agamben’s major claims about language, since like Kevin [Attell], I would argue that Agamben’s work must be understood in light of his views of language. While doing so, I’ll have to brush past crucial points—the problem with saying anything about Agamben is that his work cries out for describing everything—that can be elucidated in any ensuing discussion. Moreover, I’ll practice at points a certain hyperbolic strategy that I think is found in Agamben’s work—though perhaps this, too, is hyperbole, one surmises that Agamben never makes a subtle claim when offered a choice of proclaiming the history and destiny of the West—in order to accent the distinction between Agamben’s practice and other critical endeavors. Finally, about my title today: it’s true you will hear barely a word about Rousseau, though in the background here, my view is that Agamben’s work is often best understood as confronting the deconstructed Rousseau underway in Derrida’s Of Grammatology. To put it simplistically and even hyperbolically, one wonders if there’s much distance, in the end, between Agamben’s ultra or meta-historical arché and Rousseau’s hypothetical state of nature, especially when it comes to depicting a language of the pure gesture.

Agamben’s hyperbole, to follow up on this point, derives from his radicalization and critique of Heidegger’s account of language. To be precise: Agamben’s view is that all language is hyperbolic in that is separates itself from its signified, thrown beyond itself, and thus provides the place for the modes of the true and false, the proper and the improper oath.[6] In the precise sense of his own use of the terms: to use language, for Agamben, is to speak sovereignly….

Kevin Attell, who is working on a book on Agamben and his relation to deconstruction, gave a really great response and his questions afterward about the role of the example as it might relate to this logic of hyperbole were perspicuous and suggestive. And my thanks for Lorenzo Fabbri for getting all the details in order, not least making sure (as was scheduled somehow) that the power and heat didn’t go out last night in the A.D. White building in which I was staying.

[1] The volumes, in order, are Homo Sacer I: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), Homo Sacer II.i: States of Exception (2003) Homo Sacer II.ii: Il Regno e la Gloria (2007), Homo Sacer II.iii: Il sacramento del linguaggio. Archeologia del giuramento (2009), and Homo Sacer III: Remnants of Auschwitz (1994).

[2] What follows is an adaptation and elaboration of chapter five, “What More Is There to Say? Agamben and the Hyperbole of Sovereignty,” of my The State of Sovereignty: Lessons from the Political Fictions of Modernity (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2011).

[3] Agamben, “Une biopolitique mineure, 18, my emphasis.

[4] Agamben, Means without End, 111.

[5] See Lorenzo Fabbri, “From Inoperativeness to Action: On Giorgio Agamben’s Anarchism,” Radical Philosophy Review 14, no. 1 (2011): 85-100. My thanks to Fabbri for many helpful discussion of Agamben in recent years: if I can at all accept the oath of Agamben’s language, it is because of Fabbri’s careful analyses of his work.

[6] As he puts it, “With the logos are given both…names and discourse, truth and life, oath and perjury, …existence and non-existence of the world, being and nothingness” (Agamben, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath, trans. Adam Kotsko [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011], 56).

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2 comments on “And now thoughts on the talk at Cornell

  1. [...] And now thoughts on the talk at Cornell ( [...]

  2. [...] keynoting at the PIC Conference, Peter Gratton went on to deliver a talk at Cornell on Agamben. He has some of the details up. I can’t wait to read the talk, and I am very sorry I had the miss that whole [...]

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