Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Giorgio Agamben: Means Without Ends

Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneaplois: U of Minnesota P, 2000.

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.” Walter Benjamin’s diagnosis, whish is by now more then fifty years old, has lost none of its relevance. And that is so not really or not only because power no longer has today any form of legitimization other than emergency, and because power everywhere and continuously refers and appeals to emergency as well as laboring secretly to produce it. (How could we not think that a system that can no longer function at all except on the basis of emergency would not also be interested in preserving such an emergency at any price?) This is the case also and above all because naked life, which was the hidden foundation of sovereignty, has meanwhile become the dominant form of life everywhere. Life—in its state of exception that has now become the norm—is the naked life that in every context separates the forms of life from their cohering into a form-of-life. The Marxian scission between man and citizen is thus superseded by the division between naked life (ultimate and opaque bearer of sovereignty) and the multifarious forms of life abstractly recodified as social-juridical identities (the voter, the worker, the journalist, the student, but also the HIV-positive, the transvestite, the porno star, the elderly, the parent, the woman) that all rest on naked life. (To have mistaken such a naked life separate from its form, in its abjection, for a superior principle—sovereignty or the sacred—is the limit of Bataille’s thought, which makes it useless to us. (Agamben, “Form-Of-Life”: 6-7)

Among beings who would always already be enacted, who would always already be this or that thing, this or that identity, and who would have entirely exhausted their power in these things and identities—among such beings there could not be any community but only coincidences and factual partitions. We can communicate with others only through what in us—as much as in others—has remained potential, and any communication (as Benjamin perceives for language) is first of all communication not of something in common but of communicability itself. After all, if there existed one and only one being, it would be absolutely impotent. (That is why theologians affirm that God created the world ex nihilo, in other words, absolutely without power.) And there where I am capable, we are always already many (just as when, if there is a language, that is, a power of speech, there cannot then be one and only one being who speaks it.) (Agamben, “Form-Of-Life”: 9-10)

Intellectuality and thought are not a form of life among others in which life and social production articulate themselves, but they are rather the unitary power that constitutes the multiple forms of life as form-of-life. In the face of state sovereignty, which can affirm itself only by separating in every context naked life from its form, they are the power that incessantly reunites life to its form or prevents it from being dissociated from its form. The act of distinguishing between the mere, massive inscription of social knowledge into the productive processes (an inscription that characterizes the contemporary phase of capitalism, the society of the spectacle) and intellectuality as antagonistic power and form-of-life—such an act passes through the experience of this cohesion and this inseparability. Thought is form-of-life, life that cannot be segregated from its form; and anywhere the intimacy of this inseparable life appears, in the materiality of corporeal processes and of habitual ways of life no less than in theory, there and only there is there thought. And it is this thought, this form-of-life, that, abandoning naked life to “Man” and to the “Citizen,” who clothe it temporarily and represent it with their “rights,” must become the guiding concept and the unitary center of the coming politics. (Agamben, “Form-Of-Life”: 11-12)

Any interpretation of the political meaning of the term people ought to start from the peculiar fact that in modern European languages this term always indicates also the poor, the underprivileged, and the excluded. The same term names the constitutive political subject as well as the class that is excluded—de facto, if not de jure—from politics. (Agamben, “What is a People?”: 29)

The concept of people always already contains within itself the fundamental biopolitical fracture. It is what cannot be included in the whole of which it is a part as well as what cannot belong to the whole in which it is always already included. (Agamben, “What is a People?”: 32)

Hence the contradictions and aporias that such a concept creates every time it is invoked and brought into play on the political stage. It is what always already is, as well as what has yet to be realized; it is the pure source of identity and yet it has to redefine and purify itself according to exclusion, language, blood, and territory. It is what has in its opposite pole the very essence that it itself lacks; its realization therefore coincides with its own abolition; it must negate itself through its opposite in order to be. (Hence the specific aporias of the workers’ movement that turns toward the people and at the same time aims at its abolition.) The concept of the people—brandished each and every time as the bloody flag of reaction and as the faltering banner of revolutions and popular fronts—always contains a more original split than the one between enemy and friend, an incessant civil war that at once divides this concept more radically than any conflict and keeps it united and constitutes it more firmly than any identity. As a matter of fact, what Marx calls class struggle—which occupies such a central place in his thought, even though he never defines it substantially—is nothing other than this internecine war that divides every people and that shall come to an end only when People and people coincide, in the classless society or in the messianic kingdom, and only when there shall no longer be, properly speaking, any people. (Agamben, “What is a People?”: 32-33)

If this is the case—if the concept of the people necessarily contains within itself the fundamental biopolitical fracture—it is possible to read anew some decisive pages of the history of our century. If the struggle between the two peoples has always been in process, in fact, it has undergone in our time one last and paroxysmal acceleration. In ancient Rome, the split internal to the people was juridically sanction by the clear distinction between populus and plebs—each with its own institutions and magistrates—just as in the Middle Ages the division between artisans [populo minuto] and merchants [poulo grasso] used to correspond to a precise articulation of different arts and crafts. But when, starting with the French Revolution, sovereignty is entrusted solely to the people, the people become an embarrassing presence, and poverty and exclusion appear for the first time as an intolerable scandal in every sense. In the modern age, poverty and exclusion are not only economic and social concepts but also eminently political categories. (The economism and “socialism” that seems to dominate modern politics actually have a political, or, rather, a biopolitical, meaning. (Agamben, “What is a People?”: 33)

From this perspective, our time is nothing other than the methodical and implacable attempt to fill the split that divides the people by radically eliminating the people of the excluded. Such an attempt brings together, according to different modalities and horizons, both the right and the left, both capitalist countries and socialist countries, which have all been united in the plan that, however, has been partially realized in all industrialized countries. The obsession with development is so effective in our time because it coincides with the biopolitical plan to produce a people without fracture. (Agamben, “What is a People?”: 33-34)

When seen in this light, the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany acquires a radically new meaning. As a people that refuses integration in the national body politic (it is assumed, in fact, that its assimilation is actually only a feigned one), the Jews are the representatives par excellence and almost the living symbol of the people, of that naked life that modernity necessarily creates within itself but whose presence it is no longer able to tolerate in any way. We ought to understand the lucid fury with which the German Volk—representative par excellence of the people as integral body politic—tried to eliminate the Jews forever as precisely the terminal phase of the internecine struggle that divides the People and people. With the final solution—which included Gypsies and other unassimilable elements for a reason—Nazism tried obscurely and in vain to free the Western political stage from this intolerable shadow so as to produce finally the German Volk as the people that has been able to heal the original biopolitical fracture. (And that is why Nazi chiefs repeated so obstinately that by eliminating Jews and Gypsies they were actually working also for the other European peoples.) (Agamben, “What is a People?”: 34)

Here I will deliberately set out in the opposite direction. Rather than deducing the definition of camp from the events that took place there, I will ask instead: What is a camp? What is its political-juridical structure? How could such events have taken place there? This will lead us to look at the camp not as a historical fact and an anomaly that—though admittedly still with us—belongs nonetheless to the past, but rather in some sense as the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we still live. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 39)

The camps, in other words, were not born out of ordinary law, and even less were they the product—as one might have believed—of a transformation and a development of prison law; rather, they were born out of the state of exception and martial law. This is even more evident in the case of the Nazi Lager, whose origin and juridical regime is well documented. It is well known that the juridical foundation of internment was not ordinary law but rather the Schutzhaft (literally, protective custody), which was a juridical institution of Prussian derivation that Nazi jurists sometimes considered a measure of preventive policing inasmuch as it enabled the “taking into custody” of individuals regardless of any relevant criminal behavior and exclusively in order to avoid threats to the security of the state. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 38)

Thus, what is being captured under the rule of law is first of all the very state of exception. In other words, if sovereign power is founded on the ability to decide on the state of exception, the camp is the structure in which the state of exception is permanently realized. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 40)

If one does not understand this particular political-juridical structure of the camps, whose vocation is precisely to realize permanently the exception, the incredible events that took place in them remain entirely unintelligible. The people who entered the camp moved about in a zone of indistinction between the outside and the inside, the exception and the rule, the licit and the illicit, in which every juridical protection had disappeared; moreover, if they were Jews, they had already been deprived of citizenship rights by the Nuremberg Laws and were later completely denationalized at the moment of the “final solution.” Inasmuch as its inhabitants have been stripped of every political status and reduced completely to naked life, the camp is also the most absolutely biopolitical space that has ever been realized—a space in which power confronts nothing other than pure biological life without any mediation. The camp is the paradigm itself of political space at the point in which politics becomes biopolitics and the homo sacer becomes indistinguishable from the citizen. The correct question regarding the horrors committed in the camps, therefore, is not the question that asks hypocritically how it could have been possible to commit such atrocious horrors against other human beings; it would be more honest, and above all more useful, to investigate carefully how—that is, thanks to what juridical procedures and political devices—human beings could have been so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives to the point that committing any act toward them would no longer appear as a crime (at this point, in fact, truly anything had become possible). (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 40-41)

If this is the case, if the essence of the camp consists in the materialization of the state of exception and in the consequent creation of a space for naked life as such, we will then have to admit to be facing a camp virtually every time that such a structure is created, regardless of the nature of the crimes committed in it and regardless of the denomination and specific topography it might have. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 41-42)

In all these case, an apparently anodyne place ... delimits instead a space in which, for all intents and purposes, the normal rule of law is suspended and in which the fact that atrocities may or may not be committed does not depend on the law but rather on the civility and ethical sense of the police that act temporarily as sovereign. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 42)

There is something that no longer functions in the traditional mechanisms that used to regulate this inscription, and the camp is the new hidden regulator of the inscription of life in the order—or, rather, it is the sign of the system’s inability to function without transforming itself into a lethal machine. It is important to note that the camps appeared at the same time that the new laws on citizenship and on the denationalization of citizens were issued (not only the Nuremberg Laws on citizenship in the Reich but also the laws on the denationalization of citizens that were issued by almost all the European states, including France, between 1915 and 1933). The state of exception, which used to be essentially a temporary suspension of the order, becomes now a new and stable spatial arrangement inhabited by that naked life that increasingly cannot be inscribed into the order. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 43)

We do not have, in fact, the slightest idea of what either a people or a language is. (It is well known that linguists can construct a grammar—that is, a unitary system with describable characteristics that could be called language—only by taking the factum loquendi for granted, that is, only by taking for granted the simple fact that human beings speak and understand each other, a fact that is still inaccessible to science.) Nevertheless, all of our political culture is based on the relation between these two notions. Romantic ideology—which consciously created this connection, thereby influencing extensively modern linguistic theory as well as the political theory that is still dominant nowadays—tried to clarify something that was already obscure (the concept of people) with the help of something even more obscure (the concept of language). Thanks to the symbiotic correspondence thus instituted, two contingent and indefinite cultural entities transform themselves into almost natural organisms endowed with their own necessary laws and characteristics. Political theory, in fact, must presuppose, without the ability to explain it, the factum pluralitatis—a term etymologically related to populus, with which I would like to indicate the simple fact that human beings form a community—whereas linguistics must presuppose, without questioning it, the factum loquendi. The simple correspondence between these two facts defines modern political discourse. (Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”: 65-66)

The relation between Gypsies and argot puts this correspondence radically into question in the very instant in which it parodically reenacts it. Gypsies are to a people what argot is to language. And although this analogy can last but for a brief moment, it nonetheless sheds light on that truth which the correspondence between languages and people was secretly intended to conceal: all peoples are gangs and coquilles, all languages are jargons and argot. (Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”: 66-67)

What is at stake here is not to evaluate the scientific accuracy of this thesis but rather not to let its liberating power slip out of our hands. Once our gaze is focused on this matter, the perverse and tenacious machines that govern our political imaginary suddenly lose their power. It should be evident to everybody, after all, that we are talking about an imaginary, especially nowadays when the idea of a people has long lost any substantial reality. Even if we admit that this idea never had any real content other than the insipid catalog of characteristics listed by the old philosophical anthropologies, it was already made meaningless, in any case, by the same modern that presented itself as its keeper and its expression. All well-meaning chatter notwithstanding, the idea of a people today is nothing other than the empty support of state identity and is recognized only as such. For those who might still nurture some doubt on the matter, it would be instructive to take a look at what is happening around us from this point of view: on the one hand, the world powers take up arms to defend a state without a people (Kuwait) and, on the other hand, the peoples without a state (Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians, Basques, Jews of the Diaspora) can be oppressed and exterminated with impunity, so as to make clear that the destiny of a people can only be a state identity and that the concept of a people makes sense only if recodified within the concept of citizenship. In this regard, it is also important to not the peculiar status of those languages that have no state dignity (Catalan, Basque, Gaelic, etc.), which linguists treat naturally as languages, but which practically operate rather as jargons or dialects and almost always assume an immediately political significance. (Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”: 67-68)

The thesis according to which all peoples are Gypsies and all languages are jargons untangles this knot and enables us to look in a new way at those linguistic experiences that have periodically emerged within our culture only to be misunderstood and led back to dominant conceptions. What else can Dante mean, in fact, when he says—while narrating the myth of Babel in De vulgari eloquentia—that every kind of tower-builder received its own language, which was incomprehensible to the others, and that the languages spoken in his time derived from these Babelic languages? He is presenting all the languages of the Earth as jargons (the language of a trade, in fact, is the figure of jargon par excellence). And against this intimate aptitude for jargon that every language possesses, he does not suggest the remedy of a national language and grammar (as a long-standing falsification of his thought would have it); he suggests, rather, a transformation of the very way of experiencing words, which he called volgare illustre. Such a transformation was to be something like a deliverance of the jargons themselves that would direct them toward the factum loquendi-—nd hence not a grammatical deliverance, but a poetical and a political one. (Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”: 68-69)

Languages are the jargons that hide the pure experience of language just as peoples are the more or less successful masks of the factum pluralitatis. This is why our task cannot possibly be either the construction of these jargons into grammars or the recodification of peoples into state identities. On the contrary, it is only by breaking at any point the nexus between the existence of language, grammar, people, and state that thought and praxis will be equal to the tasks at hand. The forms of this interruption—during which the factum of language and the factum of community come to light for an instant—are manifold and change according to times and circumstances: reactivation of a jargon, trobar clus, pure language, minoritarian practice of a grammatical language, and so on. In any case, it is clear that what is at stake here is not something simply linguistic or literary but, above all, political and philosophical. (Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”: 70)

Only those who will be able to carry it to completion—without allowing that which reveals to be veiled in the nothingness it reveals, but bringing language itself to language—will become the first citizens of a community with neither presuppositions nor a state. In this community, the nullifying and determining power of what is common will be pacified ... (Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle”: 85)

Exposition is the location of politics. If there is no animal politics, that is perhaps because animals are always already in the open and do not try to take possession of their own exposition; they simply live in it without caring about it. That is why they are not interested in mirrors, in the image as image. Human beings, on the other hand, separate images from things and give them a name precisely because they want to recognize themselves, that is, they want to take possession of their very own appearance. Human beings thus transform the open into a world, that is, into the battlefield of a political struggle without quarter. This struggle, whose object is truth, goes by the name of History. (Agamben, “The Face”: 93)

It is happening more and more often that in pornographic photographs the portrayed subjects, by a calculated stratagem, look into the camera, thereby exhibiting the awareness of being exposed to the gaze. This unexpected gesture violently belies the fiction that is implicit in the consumption of such images, according to which the one who looks surprises the actors while remaining unseen by them: the latter, rather, knowingly challenge the voyeur’s gaze and force him to look them in the eyes. In that precise moment, the insubstantial nature of the human face suddenly comes to light. The fact that the actors look into the camera means that they show that they are simulating; nevertheless, they paradoxically appear more real precisely to the extent to which they exhibit this falsification. The same procedure is used today in advertising: the image appears more convincing if it shows openly its own artifice. In both cases, the one who looks is confronted with something that concerns unequivocally the essence of the face, the very structure of truth. (Agamben, “The Face”: 93-94)

The face, truth, and exposition are today the objects of a global civil war, whose battlefield is social life in its entirety, whose storm troopers are the media, whose victims are all the peoples of the Earth. Politicians, the media establishment, and the advertising industry have understood the insubstantial character of the face and of the community it opens up, and thus they transform it into a miserable secret that they must make sure to control at all costs. State power today is no longer founded on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence—a monopoly that states share increasingly willingly with other nonsoveriegn organizations; rather, it is founded above all on the control of appearance (of doxa). The fact that politics constitutes itself as an autonomous sphere goes hand in hand with the separation of the face in the world of spectacle—a world in which human communication is being separated from itself. Exposition thus transforms itself into a value that is accumulated in images and in the media, while a new class of bureaucrats jealously watches over its management. (Agamben, “The Face”: 94)

There are two words in Latin that derive from the Indo-European root meaning “one”: similis, which expresses resemblance, and simul, which means, “at the same time.” Thus, next to similitudo (resemblance) there is simultas, that is the fact of being together (which implies also rivalry, enmity); and next to similare (to be like) there is simulare (to copy, to imitate, which implies also to feign, to simulate). (Agamben, “The Face”: 99)

The face is not a simulacrum, in the sense that it is something dissimulating or hiding the truth: the face is the simultas, the being-together of the manifold visages constituting it, in which none of the visages is truer than any of the others. To grasp the face’s truth means to grasp not the resemblance but rather the simultaneity of the visages, that is, the restless power that keeps them together and constitutes their being-in-common. The face of God, thus, is the simultas of human faces: it is “our effigy” that Dante saw in the “living light” of paradise. (Agamben, “The Face”: 99)

In the same way in which the great transformation of the first industrial revolution destroyed the social and political structures as well as the legal categories of the ancien regime, terms such as sovereignty, right, nation, people, democracy, and general will by now refer to a reality that no longer has anything to do with what these concepts used to designate—and those who continue to use these concepts uncritically literally do not know what they are talking about. Consensus and public opinion have no more to do with the general will than the “international police” that today fight wars have to do with the sovereignty of the jus publicum Europaeum. Contemporary politics is the devastating experiment that disarticulates and empties institutions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities all throughout the planet, so as then to rehash and reinstate their definitively nullified form. (Agamben, “Notes on Politics”: 109-110)

However, the problem that the new politics is facing is precisely this: is it possible to have a political community that is ordered exclusively for the full enjoyment of worldly life? ... Once again Walter Benjamin, in the “Theologico-Political Fragment,” leaves no doubt regarding the fact that “The order of the profane should be erected on the idea of happiness.” The definition of the concept of “happy life” remains one of the essential tasks of the coming thought (and this should be achieved in such a way that this concept is not kept separate from ontology, because: “being: we have no experience of it other than living itself”). (Agamben, “Notes on Politics”: 114)

The second consequence of the experimentum linguae is that, above and beyond the concepts of appropriation and expropriation, we need to think, rather, the possibility and the modalities of a free use. Praxis and political reflection are operating today exclusively within the dialectic of proper and improper—a dialectic in which either the improper extends its own rule everywhere, thanks to an unrestrainable will to falsification and consumption (as it happens in industrialized democracies), or the proper demands the exclusion of and impropriety (as it happens in integralist and totalitarian states). If instead we define the common (or, as others suggest, the same) as a point of indifference between the proper and the improper—that is, as something that can never be grasped in terms of either expropriation or appropriation but that can be grasped, rather, only as use—the essential political problem then becomes: “How does one use a common?” (Agamben, “Notes on Politics”: 117)

The new categories of political thought—inoperative community, compearance, equality, loyalty, mass intellectuality, the coming people, whatever singularity, or however else they might be called—will be able to express the political matter that is facing us only if they are able to articulate the location, the manners, and the meaning of this experience of the event of language intended as free use of the common and as sphere of pure means. (Agamben, “Notes on Politics”: 117-118)

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