Agamben’s Philosophy (key points)

One of key statements of philosophy last century came through the mouth of Heidegger (though it was obviously not merely his statement): “Higher than actuality stands possibility.” The statement overturns a long-standing bias that favors of ‘what is there’, ‘what is actual’, what is present, for the sake of ‘the possible’, what ‘may be’. This bias is very much in line with common sense: generally, we value what is really there over what only might be there; what we can put our hands on over what seems mere thought and imagination. The blueprint is not as accomplished, not as real, as the completed building, etc. To say that possibility [Möglichkeit] stands higher than actuality [Wirklichkeit] marks a watershed moment where this bias – and the entire world based on it – enters into a crisis.

Another key statement of modern thought came through the mouth of Rimbaud: “Je est un autre,” I is an other. I view this as the motto for all the efforts to rethink individuality, subjectivity, selfhood, and so on, that have since been undertaken. It stands for how the self is not self-sufficient, not a being closed in on itself, not a substance; how it is in relation, at risk, constituted by forces beyond its conscious power; how perhaps the individual “is not” at all, is possibility, potentiality (and so on).

So, Agamben comes in highly situated within a philosophical and poetic tradition that he is very ambitiously trying to respond to in the entirety of its concerns. Among others, two of the primary axes of concern are “possibility is higher than actuality” and “the I is other” (taken to the extreme of “autrement qu’etre”). These two great over-turning and philosophically ‘revolutionary’ statements force a crisis to occur (as much as they register a crisis long prepared) in Western thought/society. Agamben’s big ambition is to bring these crises to bear on all the fundamental areas of Western thought – ontology, law, judgment, art, language, politics. With an eye to many others who also tried to deal with these consequences, he brings many threads together into a weave that is “uniquely his own.” I can only highly a few concepts:

USE-AS-NOT – The way the issue of subjectivity gets worked out in Agamben is basically through a philosophy of USE with an essentially messianic pitch: use without possession, use without owning, use without having, use without a preexistent “user.” Or again, “have” only the “use,” without having anything actual. “Have” the possibility (=habit). This necessarily leads to a notion of praxis, practical habit, that lowers the status of “products,” productivity, and works in general – though of course not through an outright negation or rejection. On the contrary, it will always be a matter of retaining a potentiality to use “within” the actual use, so that “possible use stands higher than actual use” at every point. Put otherwise, the current way things are done says nothing about how they could be done, since now the “could be” stands higher than the “current.” Likewise, the philosophy of use-as-not – without possession, use without any right to possess – should have deep consequences on the assumptions about property in Western culture.

Contemplation means primarily to contemplate the possibility of the act in the act, to act such that the potentiality is never exhausted in the act. This dwelling of the potentiality-to-act within the activity or action itself is one way Agamben answers the first crisis, through a remapping of what it means to “do something” in general; and his own works are the outflowing praxis of this reconfiguration (of this deconfiguration of the “doer,” of the “will,” as such). That is the essence of Agamben’s effort which is mobilized on countless fronts. Regarding the messianic pitch of this, I can only offer this quote as summary: “The Pauline “as not,” by putting each factical condition in tension with itself, revokes and deactivates it without altering its form (weeping as not weeping, having a wife as not having a wife, slaves as not slaves). That is to say, the messianic calling consists in the deactivation and disappropriation of the factical condition, which is therefore opened to a new possible use. The “new creature” is only the capacity to render the old inoperative and use it in a new way: “if one is in the messiah, a new creature [kaine ktisis]: the old things have passed away, behold they have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).”

INOPERATIVITY – It is clear that Agamben totally endorses the notion that possibility is higher than actuality, however this also includes his rejection of the paradigm of much of Western economics and “production.” The bias here is that the actual/effective is better than the possible; that possibility is only so good as it can be realized in a work. Agamben wants to think not only how possibility is *preserved as possibility* in the work, in the actual – but also how possibility itself undoes the actual. The key word for Agamben here becomes “inoperativity,” an inoperativity or unworking at the heart of the operation. The emphasis here is not activity but deactivation. Not constituent power but a ‘destituent’ power. Not a life that ‘makes itself seen’ but that makes the very medium of its life visible. Not a making of a name for oneself, but a making clandestine (invisible) in its very visibility to the world. Undoing is inscribed in the very movement of doing.

And so there is no cease to the movement, the use of intelligence, the use of potency – nor to the “actual work.” For what is taking place in the work is its own contemplation. The work is never considered to be, only its possibility-to-be is considered along the process of its coming to be, which actually is then revoked, treated “as not,” or more simply: contemplated once more and put, once again, to a new possible use, used otherwise. Agamben therefore calls works of art the “ashes of a vital praxis.” The works exhibit the potentiality that undoes them, that renders them inoperative, that gives them back their (im)possibility, including their potentiality-to-not-be.

GESTURE – This leads to another key idea: pure means without end, mediality without finality, or gesture. A pure means is something used for the sake of using it, not as a means for an end (e.g., for making something actual). The gesture exhibits a potentiality, for example, how the dancer exhibits a potential to dance as a potential of the human body: “If dance is gesture, it is… because it is nothing more than the endurance and the exhibition of the media character of corporal movements. The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such. It allows the emergence of the being-in-a-medium of human beings and thus it opens the ethical dimension for them… what is relayed to human beings in gestures is not the sphere of an end in itself but rather the sphere of a pure and endless mediality.”

In Karman, Agamben relates this to the reigning paradigm of responsibility, judgment, and guilt, categories which he tries to overturn. He references the Self [Atman] as a dancer. I share these quotes since they carry the essence of all these thoughts and of the new paradigm of subjectivity, action, creativity, and politics that I see Agamben putting forth:

“The Self (Ātman) is a dancer [nartaka],”… And the commentary specifies that, in dancing, subjects who are awakened “manifest with the free play of their movements a whole variety of figurations” and in this sense are compared to “performers in the theater of the world.” What the text wants to suggest is that the relationship of the awakened self with its actions is no longer the karmic one of merit and demerit, of means and end, but is instead similar to that of dancers with their gestures. And for the one whose actions have become gestures, “the interior self is the stage” and “the senses are the spectators.” “All division having vanished… they enjoy the savor of wonder in all its fullness” […]

“Ātman is a dancer, and its actions are only gestures. Praxis—human life—is not a trial (an actio), but rather a mysterion in the theatrical sense of the term, made of gestures and words.
“To every human being a secret has been consigned, and the life of each one is the mystery that puts this arcane element—which is not undone with time, but becomes ever more dense—onstage, until it is ultimately displayed for what it is: a pure gesture, and as such—to the extent that it manages to remain a mystery and not inscribe itself in the apparatus of means and ends—unjudgable.”

FORM-OF-LIFE – Finally, a form of life is the ‘result’ of a life that lives its very livability – in other words, a life that remains ever in contact with, ever in contemplation of, its potentiality-to-live. It is thus never identification with the ‘actual facts’ of its life – the data, events, experiences, identities, activities, achievements, moments, faces, existences, and so on – it is never identical to itself (so far as it remains in use, unpossessed, other). Over the void of a gap of use lies the potentiality to live, the livability itself, the mode of life. This potentiality-to-live is alluded to at one point by Agamben as “eternal life.” It is a matter of thinking a “form of life” that at every point preserves the livability of its life (its eternal life) in its actual life – the life *through which* it lives in the life *that* it lives. It is a matter of the soul: “Form-of-life, the soul, is the infinite complement between life and mode of life, what appears when they mutually neutralize one another and show the void that united them. Zoè and bios… are neither separate nor coincident: between them, as a void of representation of which it is not possible to say anything except that it is ‘immortal’ and ‘ungenerated’ (Phaedrus, 246a), stands the soul, which holds them indissolubly in contact and testifies for them. (262)

Agamben’s studies are themselves uses of intelligence, inquiries that do not have an ‘end’, but simply run their course until they must be abandoned. I have hereby emulated that fate, but I hope my comments help the reader orient in the complex but highly worthwhile texts by one of the greatest philosophers of our time.


Cf. Giorgio Agamben – Toward an Ontology of Style – https://www.e-flux.com/journal/73/52555/toward-an-ontology-of-style/

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