Closing the Space Between History and Knowledge: On Agamben's Apophatic Pragmatism.
Keywords: Post-humanism, animal studies, epistemology, deconstruction, political theology.
"Truth as Circe.--Error has transformed animals into men; is truth perhaps capable of changing man back into an animal?" Nietzsche, Human All Too Human, 519
The hypothesis that the concept of the 'human' is a horrible mistake produced by western history is as terrifying as it is fascinating. Let us be honest. Many of our dreams, projects and goals acquire their meaning from the unproven belief that achieving them would make us better 'human beings'. What would be the value of social factors such as 'success', 'career', or 'excellence', if they were not somehow associated to the perfection of 'humanity' in man? After all, it is by means of human connotations that we imagine the accomplished individual: one has to have a mild temper, a placid character, accommodating manners, while displaying good feelings and sense of empathy. It is interesting to notice how even the most ruthless politicians need to conceal their real character behind these stereotypical features. Also, is it not due to what we consider a lack of 'human sense' that we evaluate negatively other people? 'Cruelty', 'impoliteness', 'disrespect', 'impertinence', all our moral concepts denoting "wrongness" are constantly elaborated under the supervision of the category 'humanism'. Provided that the quality 'human' can be evaluated in terms of degree--an assumption that many thinkers would consider unreasonable at the moment--we strive daily to achieve a higher level in this hierarchy, so as to feel more satisfied with ourselves. How could we not experience a sense of panic when a hypothesis suggests that all these humanistic aspirations are simply due to a colossal misunderstanding? What if being 'human' meant just being socially tamed and controlled, while preaching 'humanism' stood for the mere attempt to dominate the others? What if the spiritual hierarchy that I have previously mentioned turned out to be in reality a political order? If we think of the utilitarian ways in which contemporary international politics often employs the notion of 'human rights' and also consider the hypocrisy of the so called 'humanitarian interventions', it becomes quite apparent that these unpleasant questions are not completely devoid of meaning. And if the beauty of our humanistic feelings happens to be just a fairy tale, one will certainly need a fair amount of intellectual courage for changing paths, looking at the truth with open eyes and questioning one's own sense of self-perception. Nevertheless, for the ones who are sufficiently brave and love challenging their beliefs, this crisis brings forth the opportunity for achieving a broader self-awareness and, thus, a more lucid political conscience.
The problem of humanism somehow being related to truth and error, as Nietzsche would say, is also certainly contemplated by the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben. The Open, wherein Agamben expresses most clearly his position on this subject, carries out in fact an analysis of the western longing for truth by scrutinizing the history of knowledge. As some scholars point out, Agamben is well aware that scientists and philosophers have been more zealous than others to differentiate men from animals (de la Durantaye 3), and that they played a crucial role in the construction of what Agamben identifies as the 'anthropological machine', the apparatus that elaborates the 'human'. This apparatus functions in a quite paradoxical way. 'Humanity' and 'animality' are produced by the machine through a process of exclusion-inclusion, which generates space between the two entities while bringing about a caesura within man himself. In this regard, Agamben mentions Aristotle's De Anima, positing for the first time in western history a distinction between animate and inanimate beings. He also refers to Bichat's Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort (1805), which differentiated organic life, that is the mere repetition of involuntary corporal functions such as circulation of blood or respiration, from animal life, described as the capability to interact with the external world. Most of all, it is Heidegger's The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (1929) that Agamben takes into account, due to the notorious classification according to which Heidegger defined the stone as 'wordless', the animal as 'poor in world', and man as 'world forming'. What Agamben wants to emphasize through these examples is that western culture has elaborated the notion of the human by means of a reiterated separation between different forms of life, which repeatedly include and exclude one another. It is no accident that most of the considerations pertaining to this problem are collected in a chapter titled Mysterium disiunctionis, a phrase that clearly stresses the incomprehensibility of such a partition: "What is man, if he is always the place--and, at the same time, the result--of ceaseless divisions and caesurae?" (The Open 16). Furthermore, Agamben sporadically highlights the violent essence of these conceptual mechanisms by uncovering their political meaning. Primarily, he explains the Holocaust of the Jews as a case of animalization of the 'human', which the anthropological machine produced by exclusion. Heidegger, whose relationship with the Nazi regime was famously controversial, represents in The Open the subtle border separating the ontological sphere from the political domain. This is why Agamben pays particular attention to his philosophy.
Agamben points out that the Heideggerian discrepancy between being 'poor in world' and 'world forming' should not be considered as a difference of degree. Between the two forms of life there is rather absolute incommensurability. In fact, while the Dasein is able to provide his own existence--i.e. his 'being in the world'--with a semantic value, the animal does not have any awareness of the external reality. In support of this claim Heidegger relies on the empirical results collected by Jakob von Uexkiill, a zoologist who classified the animals as limited to experience mere internal sensations. The example of the spider, whose web is assembled without knowing anything about the fly's body, is in this regard considered representative by Agamben. Even more significant is the extreme case of the tick, which attacks its prey with the one and only support supplied by a very limited sense of smell. It is through this lack of awareness and essential blindness that Agamben explains Heidegger's notion of the animal: what is visible for the humans is imperceptible and closed for non-human beings. Therefore, the 'open' does not stand for the empty space that rests between humanity and animality, as a first reading might suggest1; rather, it is the wide universe of meanings which, in the Heideggerrian context, is available for men but non accessible to other creatures:
It would never be possible for a stone, any more than for an airplane, to elevate itself toward the sun in jubilation and to stir like the lark, and yet not even the lark sees the open (Heidegger, Parmenides, qtd in The Open 58).
Borrowing further information from Uexkull, Agamben also mentions a scientific experiment that kept a tick alive for eighteen years without sustenance, in a condition of absolute starvation and isolation. This anomalous case is once again put into correlation with the political plane. Agamben's target is to show how both Heidegger and Uexkull, developing their theories within the Nazi Germany historical background, accidentally revealed the presence of a new form of life. This entity is what Agamben names bare life, which materializes within the space separating men from beasts and denotes a living being produced coercively and deprived of any juridical recognition. I will come back to the meaning of this concept momentarily. What I want to discuss for now is the quite paradoxical conclusion that Agamben appears to draw from this analysis: the decrepit entity that he describes as being the outcome of a vicious historical process, at the same time should be perceived as the mechanism that may very well break the exclusion-inclusion spell from the anthropological machine. This is exactly what Agamben suggests:
To render inoperative the machine that governs our conception of man will therefore mean no longer to seek new--more effective or more authentic--articulations, but rather to show the central emptiness, the hiatus that--within man--separates man and animal, and to risk ourselves in this emptiness: the suspension of the suspension, Shabbat of both animal and man (The Open 92, italics mine).
This intense passage cannot be interpreted without difficulties. What does Agamben mean by "Shabbat of both animal and man"? What does the suspension of the suspension entail?
In a fascinating study titled Animal Lessons (2009), engaging with the theme of humanism from numerous philosophical perspectives, Kelly Oliver wrestles with the aforementioned questions, also exhibiting a polemic attitude. In Oliver's view, Agamben's 'suspension of the suspension' represents the suggestion to replace scientific discourses with religious tones; this move, however, brings about repercussions that might prove to be just as violent as the ones that Agamben aims to prevent. Such an appeal to religious metaphors would furthermore depend on the conservative personality characterizing Agamben's post-humanism, which displays a lack of genuine concern for animals. The standpoint that is defended here will attempt to redirect Oliver's reading by revealing that:
1. because Agamben's arguments are mainly elaborated within the sphere of ontology, the deficiency of moral preoccupations for animals also parallels, in his discourse, a substantial disinterest for ethical reflections concerning human beings. The notion of bare life cannot involve a more conscientious recognition of any type of identity--neither human nor animal--because it aims at the dismantling of the violent device that produces identity itself. Agamben's take on the problem of 'suffering' can be inferred exclusively in consequence of this ontological transformation.
2. Such a displacement is pursued by Agamben through several theoretical moves: the first of them is a deconstruction of history, of which Oliver does not seem to be aware.
3. What Oliver claims to be a religious tone is in reality an epistemological turning point. For Agamben, the discrepancy between man and animal will wither away only by remodeling knowledge through a theoretical discourse that will be identified here as "apophatic pragmatism".
I will briefly take into account Oliver's criticism so as to clarify my position.
Among the important considerations that Oliver expresses, she points out that Agamben's relationship to Heidegger is controversial. Although Agamben disapproves of Heidegger's conservative humanism, the open-closure terminology that he borrows from Heidegger structurally affects his discourse: "Agamben's relation to Heidegger is complicated in that he takes over the language of concealment and unconcealment at the same time that he deconstructs it" (Oliver, Lessons 232). Such an equivocal inheritance represents the main reason why Agamben takes into consideration the dangers that the anthropological machine causes to the human race, without expressing any preoccupations for animals. In fact Oliver continues--Agamben engages neither with the problem of animal suffering nor with the violence that is inflicted daily on non-human creatures:
Agamben's question, which he associates with modernity, is why some men or some people come to be treated like animals or as in between human and animal [...]. Extending the scope of Agamben's interrogation, we might ask the question from the other side: Why do we treat animals like animals? Or how does animality justify enslavement and cruelty? (Ibid. 231).
Considering that the Nazi concentration camps--whose biopolitical significance was brought to the foreground by Agamben --were most likely modeled on the brutal practices occurring within the slaughterhouses, Oliver dismisses the theorization of extravagant philosophical concepts and rather calls for a more sensible attention to the mechanized massacre and the real machines used to "tag, milk, butcher, and package animals for human consumption" (Ibid. 232). What would be missing in Agamben's text, therefore, is both the consideration for the responsibilities that humans owe to animals and the genuine attempt to stop the injustices that are perpetuated on them.
Kelly Oliver's criticism is extremely thoughtful and, as such, worthy of consideration. It is undeniable that Agamben's post-humanism, positing the 'human' as the domain wherein violence and oppression first originate, moves from premises that are, to some extent, anthropocentric. It is also indisputable that the Homo Sacer project was articulated from the beginning with the primary intention to reform ordinary conceptions of the 'political'. Nevertheless, Oliver's insistence on the problem of 'suffering' risks to misdirect the attention of Agamben's reader toward moral issues, which do not represent the theoretical fulcrum of The Open. As a matter of fact, Agamben's analysis, rarely touching the ethical plane, is mainly elaborated on the ontological level. It is true, as Oliver claims, that The Open does not engage with ethical problems regarding animal life; and nonetheless this is also true as far as human life is concerned. Agamben does not put particular emphasis on human suffering nor on moral questions in general, given that such topics presuppose ontological assumptions that need to be discussed first. Besides the case of the Holocaust, which in the economy of the book is not given more centrality than the story of the tick, Agamben does not refer to particular circumstances of social discrimination. What is at stake is not ethics but rather, 'first philosophy':
Ontology, or first philosophy, is not an innocuous academic discipline, but in every sense the fundamental operation in which anthropogenesis, the becoming human of the living being, is realized, (The Open 79).
Such a priority of ontology over ethics certainly surfaces in The Open more vividly than it does in earlier works, which is partially why, as some have rightly observed, this book takes a considerable step forward towards the attainment of an authentic post-human perspective (Calarco, Zoographies 88). (2) It may be nonetheless demonstrated that The Open exhibits a substantial continuity with previous texts. Although in the beginning of the 1990s the idea of bare life had not fully revealed itself, The Coming Community (1993) had grounded moral activity on an ontological account characterizing human existence as substantially amorphous and undetermined. It is no accident that, precisely in a chapter called 'Ethics', Agamben describes the moral subject as pure potentiality; that is, as an entity to which neither specific properties nor teleological purposes can be ascribed. Without such an ontological postulate--Agamben points out--human behavior would be explainable as a series of mere mechanical operations and, consequently, no ethics could be developed:
This is why the only ethical experience (which, as such, cannot be a task or a subjective decision) is the experience of being (one's own) potentiality, of being (one's own) possibility--exposing, that is, in every form one's own amorphousness and in every act one's own inactuality (Community 44, italics mine).
With The Open, Agamben's ontology of formlessness attains a more matured phase. Oliver's hypothesis that the Nazi concentration camps utilized brutalities that had previously been inflicted on animals is a meaningful observation; and this is exactly what the comparison between the comatose tick and the suffering of the Jews symbolizes. This association, far from being analyzed from a narrowly moral viewpoint, is nonetheless for Agamben a metaphorical way of showing that 'identity' itself, whether it is human or non-human, needs to be dismantled. An ethical analysis that does not prioritize such a displacement is bound to perpetuate the same circular mechanism that it aims to break. For this reason, ethical notions such as 'right' and 'value' are considered as secondary:
It is more urgent to work on these divisions, to ask in what way--within man--has man been separated from non-man, and the animal from the human, than it is to take positions on the great issues, on so called human rights and values" (The Open 16).
In order to clarify a more accurate distinction between the ontological and the ethical domains, I will recall Nancy Fraser's categories of 'affirmation' and 'transformation'. An affirmative remedy for injustice intends to rectify social disparities without modifying the fundamental structure that produces them. For instance, within the political context of the United States, an affirmative remedy for racism can be represented by black-identity strategies, endowing African American citizens with more relevant social weight. On the other hand, a 'transformative remedy' aspires at repairing inequalities by reshaping their inner "generative framework" (Fraser 23). In the case of racism, such a method can be exemplified by political modes of thinking which prefer to dismantle the black-white dichotomy as well as ordinary conceptions of race and ethnicity. Oliver would probably agree that the adoption of affirmative remedies for the solution of animal injustice would bring about paradoxical consequences. She is conscious that protecting non-human creatures by way of positively discriminatory tactics would lead us to establish further distinctions between animal species, and to separate the ones that would be entitled with certain benefits from the ones that would not. She would also acknowledge that, in doing so, we would still reason in a human--all too human!--way, thus perpetuating the exclusion-inclusion logic that Agamben warns us about. (3) Nevertheless, Oliver does not see Agamben's bare life for what it really is: a 'transformative' remedy through which Agamben supersedes those paradoxical consequences by transforming the conceptual structure that breeds them. Therefore, while it is true that Agamben's discourse does not display signs of moral empathy regarding animals, as Oliver claims, this is due to the fact that it aims to dismantle 'identity' itself. In order to successfully accomplish such a demolition, Agamben carries out several theoretical moves, the most relevant of which is a critique of historical knowledge. Oliver does not seem to be aware of this important aspect, which might explain her misinterpretation.
Let us go back to the grotesque case of the starving tick, described by Agamben through the eyes of Uexkull:
He gives no explanation of this peculiar fact, and limits himself to supposing that in that "period of waiting" the tick lies in "a sleep-like state similar to the one we experience every night." He then draws the conclusion that "without a living subject, time cannot exist" [...] what sense does it make to speak of "waiting" without time and without world? (The Open 47, italics mine).
What does it mean to say that the moribund tick is a 'timeless' entity? This question identifies a leading thread crossing the entire book. The Open begins, in fact, with a description of a thirteenth century Hebrew Bible which contains miniatures representing the history of humanity. One of the images in particular captures Agamben's attention, because it portrays the end of history and the banquet of the last day. In this picture, the righteous individuals carry animal heads, signifying a post-temporal reconciliation between man and nature and recalling the philosophical conception of history as a narrowly human form of knowledge. In order to discuss and evaluate such a topic, Agamben calls into question the philosophy of Kojeve.
In the Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1947), Kojeve highlights the humanistic meanings that Hegel's historicism encompasses, also explaining the bifurcation of men from nature through the Hegelian category of "negation". Given that history is the outcome of contradictory forces opposing one another, "negation" is the logical category that better represents the temporal process. Such a dialectic element is furthermore what generates sociopolitical struggles, fueling man's relentless effort to dominate and subjugate animal impulses. It is mostly for this reason that the conclusion of history will necessarily signify both the reconciliation of humans with non-human creatures and the end of politics:
The disappearance of Man at the end of History is not a cosmic Catastrophe ... What disappears is Man properly so called--that is, Action negating the given, and Error, or, in general, the Subject opposed to the Object [...] Practically, this means: the disappearance of wars and bloody revolutions" (Kojeve, Introduction, qtd in The Open 6).
Agamben quoting this passage should not come as a surprise. In addition to the negative force that temporality embodies, this fragment recovers Nietzsche's view of the "human" as a western misconstruction, emphasizing the epistemological repercussions that the end of time implies. I will come back to this subject shortly. What I want to underline now is that for Kojeve the end of history will not take place in a remote future, but it has already occurred during the 20th century. Indeed, phenomena such as the increasing expansion of the economy, the consequent crisis of governmental powers, and the dissemination of the "American way of life", which Kojeve considers as a post-historical "eternal present of all humanity" (Ibid. 10) were bringing time to its final stage. Certainly, Agamben does not appraise such a scenario in optimistic terms. He often calls attention on the significant side effects that the globalization brought about: substantial depoliticization of consciences, shortfall of spiritual purposes, cultural uniformity, etc. And nonetheless Agamben believes that Kojeve's perspective is partially accurate and that the end of history is something that should not only be accepted, but also theoretically welcomed in order to displace effectively the man-animal dichotomy:
Today, at a distance of nearly seventy years, it is clear for anyone who is not in absolutely bad faith that there are no longer historical tasks that can be taken on by, or even simply assigned to, men [...] man has now reached his historical telos and, for a humanity that has become animal again, there is nothing left but the depoliticization of human societies [...] (The Open 76, italics mine).
The theorization of a 'humanity that has become animal again', which in this passage should be read as a Russellian definite description replacing bare life, cannot be affirmed without postulating the conclusion of history, a view that Agamben had also expressed in previous works. (4) What does this all mean? How would the end of history help us reestablish equality between man and animal? Let us compare Agamben's perspective with posthuman philosophies that follow a different strategy and see where this leads us.
In The Animal That Therefore I am (2002), Jacques Derrida emphasizes the role that history plays in humanistic discourses and, although he never explicitly refers to Agamben, seems to challenge in several occasions the philosophical viewpoint that has been illustrated thus far. The very title of the work is a sarcastic allusion to Descartes and the western philosophical tradition, which recounted history in autobiographical terms, dismissing in tota alternative perspectives. Unlike Agamben, Derrida does not conceive of history as the outcome of the Kojevian man-animal bivalence, and certainly does not think of it as concluded:
This abyssal rupture doesn't describe two edges, a unilinear and indivisible line having two edges, Man and Animal in general. The multiple and heterogeneous border of this abyssal rupture has a history. Both macroscopic and microscopic and far from being closed, that history is now passing through the most unusual phase in which we find ourselves [...] (The Animal 399, italics mine).
The association between heterogeneity and temporality, established by Derrida in many of his works, (5) uncovers the attempt to construct a notion of history that is not self-referential, namely a history that cannot be reduced to a self-centered narrative. Chasing this target, Derrida rejects all theoretical models similar to the Hegelian dialectic which contemplate features of linearity and regularity. History should be thought of as segmented and asymmetrical or, as Derrida would say, 'out of joint'. Such a philosophical move is not without meaning; it reveals Derrida's effort to deconstruct humanism by highlighting the irregular and heterogeneous plurality of living forms which Agamben's unclothed 'area of exception' neglects:
Beyond the edge of the so-called human, beyond it but by no means on a single opposing side, rather than 'the Animal' or 'Animal Life', there is already a heterogeneous multiplicity of the living [...]" (Ibid, italics mine).
The idea of "the Animal" as a universal category opposed to the "Human" cannot adequately explain the considerable differences keeping species and individuals apart, because it minimizes "the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the parrot from the chimpanzee [...]" (Ibid. 402). It is for this reason that Derrida is doubtful regarding Agamben's view, whose shade surfaces more visibly from the following passage:
That is why I would hesitate to say that we are living through that (if one can still confidently call life the experience whose limits tremble at the bordercrossings between bios and zoe, the biological, zoological, and anthropological, as between life and death, life and technology, life and history, and so on). I would therefore hesitate just as much to say that we are living through a historical turning point (Ibid. 393).
Life cannot be constrained within limited dialectic stratagems and certainly cannot be enhanced by claiming that history has come to end, as Agamben suggests.
Whether or not Derrida's approach is more effective than Agamben's is a problem that could be rephrased by asking whether narrating history from a plurality of different viewpoints would be more beneficial for our post-humanistic purposes than dismissing history completely. One could argue that recounting and teaching WWII in a French high school from multiple national perspectives would provide future generations with a more vivid awareness of the suffering and the traumas experienced by a diversity of people; even more so when reading, for instance, Russian, Japanese and American history manuals in the original language. It is possible that this approach would weaken nationalistic and chauvinistic feelings, thus facilitating the integration between different cultures and customs. In doing so, we would promote values of respect for forms of life different from our own, and perhaps develop a stronger empathy for animals as well. Despite these potential benefits, however, the Derridean pluralism of perspectives would hardly allow us to recount a history that is not perceived as the victory of few protagonists over the anonymity of large masses. Historical events would still circumscribe a narrative space where "excellent" names show off their brave deeds and accomplishments, forcing the rest of the people to accept a role of mute spectators. History, that is, would still be transmitted through the celebration of the heroes of the past and, as such, would prove anyways a regressive form of knowledge, perpetuating unequal as well as hierarchical social arrangements. Only a history with no names and no characters --which is prima facie a paradox--would be able to avoid such a consequence. On the other hand, Agamben's complete dismissal of historical knowledge may appear reckless because it brings about the definitive breakdown of 'identity' as such, endorsing a stronger individualism and maybe leading many communities to an inescapable collapse. Nonetheless, it could prove to be a good strategy for understanding which societies are based on the sincere agreement about moral values and ideas, and which ones ground themselves on meaningless myths resurfacing from the past. As a result, old degraded communities would spontaneously dissolve, giving way to new healthier social groups. From this perspective, however radical and hazardous Agamben's strategy seems to be, it is a risk that one might want to pursue.
This digression concerning the relationship between humanism and historical knowledge, which is not possible to further explore at this time, leads me back to Oliver's second attack on Agamben and simultaneously my point on epistemology. Oliver observes that Agamben's post-humanism targets scientific practices because of their excessive rationalism, which enables a violent subjugation of the natural world and degenerates in technocratic forms of supremacy. This totalitarian attitude discloses itself through the overwhelming plethora of information which in the present time invades the human existence, thus reducing dangerously man to a biological machine. Science constrains a large variety of phenomena within the scope of unitary one-dimensional explanations; in this way, it annihilates the complex and fascinating mystery of life. Oliver concludes that, for these reasons, Agamben would suggest to replace scientific discourses with religious tones such as the Shabbat; this is nonetheless a counterproductive strategy, because it leads to consequences which might be even more violent than the ones that Agamben worries about:
Moreover, haven't religion and religious discourse caused as much or more violence, enslavement, and genocide than science has? [...] In the end, doesn't Agamben own discourse replace the opposition between man and animal with the opposition between religion and science?" (Lessons 239).
Even though the premises of this argument, highlighting the humanistic essence that Agamben ascribes to modern scientific procedures, are certainly accurate, the conclusion does not seem to represent faithfully his critical intentions. Despite the spiritual tones that The Open exhibits, Agamben's line of reasoning pursues the exact opposite direction. Away from exchanging science with religion, what Agamben emphasizes is rather the theological origin that all scientific discourses pretending to deliver absolute truth stem from. What is at stake, that is, is the undisputable role that science plays in modern society, wherein it is allowed to dismiss philosophical questions and to increasingly resemble a religious dogma. In order to displace such a detrimental cultural hegemony, Agamben brings into view the theological presuppositions that sustain the entire apparatus. This argumentative tactic is not an isolated case in contemporary Italian philosophy. Research has recently located within the themes of secularization and post-Christianity two fundamental traits that qualify Italian Theory, (6) also indicating Agamben's thought as one of the most energizing souls that animate such a political-theological tendency. (7) Regardless, it is sufficient to look attentively at The Open in order to recognize the worldly essence characterizing bare life, which is grounded neither on extreme forms of rationality nor on the blind faith of the believer:
It is no longer human, because it has perfectly forgotten every rational element, every project for mastering its animal life; but if animality had been defined precisely by its poverty in world and by its obscure expectation of a revelation and a salvation, then this life cannot be called animal either (The Open 90).
What comes forward here is a living being which cannot be saved and, therefore, is not waiting for a Messiah. The bare life's non-savable condition, unveiling the rigorously secular nature that Agamben's discourse embodies, is an allegorical image that he had also employed in previous works. In Homo Sacer (1998), for instance, wherein the analysis is more narrowly political, bare life was exemplified by the precarious status of those ancient Roman citizens who were considered "sacred" by the law but, at the same time, could be legally murdered by anybody. Once again, in this different context, Agamben utilizes a theological term--that is the category of "sacredness"--in order to reveal its earthly inner meaning. The purpose is in any case to carry out a secularization of theological notions, so as to prevent western thought from drowning into what Calarco identifies as a mystical nihilism (Zoographies 85). The only revelation that Agamben admits as possible, therefore, "does not mean revelation of the sacredness of the world, but only revelation of its irreparably profane character" (Community 90); as such, it is completely devoid of religious connotations and rather stands for a conceptual turning point. On one hand, Agamben's philosophy stresses how erroneous conceptions of human knowledge can be rectified by way of a theological account; on the other, "this theological account need not be an affirmation of a transcendent, hierarchical deity" (Dickinson 190) nor, I would say, a promotion of religious discourses in general.
If this line of reasoning is correct, Agamben's theory of knowledge relies on a suspension between excessive rationalism and spiritual faith. The Shabbat that Agamben posits is, in his own words, a condition of a-gnoia, "a zone of non-knowledge" (The Open 91). In one more circumstance Agamben borrows a term from theology with the intention of modifying a specific theoretical framework. Here the notion of agnosticism is utilized for affirming that the reconciliation between man and nature can be reestablished only by promoting an epistemology that approaches truth through apophatic conceptual methods. (8) In The Coming Community Agamben had posited a correlation between negative theology and an amorphous type of existence defined by means of reiterated semantic omissions:
But can one conceive of a being-thus that negates all possibilities, every predicate--that is, only the thus, such as it is, and no other way? This would be the only correct way to understand negative theology: neither this nor that, neither thus nor thus [...] (Community 93).
A very similar comparison appears in The Open wherein animal raptness, opposing the openness of the human perspective, is associated to the apophatic doctrine. (9) What is the sense of Agamben's negativity? What link does he establish between a-gnoia and 'animality'?
Arguably, Agamben's praise of agnosticism suggests that rational activity will never be sufficient for recomposing the man-animal fracture and that, beyond all possible classifications, what we have in common with non-human beings is primarily our condition of substantial unawareness. Bare life represents such a state of existential obscurity, the space wherein humans and beasts reunite by way of realizing that their shared vulnerability is due, among other reasons, to a deficiency of ultimate certainties. Derrida's "capacity to suffer", the incapacitated "power of interdependence" (Oliver, What is Wrong 222) which Oliver indicates as the main intersection between all living beings, appears to be grounded by Agamben on what one could identify as the agnostic 'potential to disregard', converting the frailty of ignorance into a redeeming ability. From this perspective, Agamben's characterization of vita nuda as an 'exposure' to the world, a phrase that has become gradually more common among post-human theorists, recalls the way in which the term has been employed by Stanley Cavell, who also placed importance on a skeptical type of epistemology for the promotion of animal justice (10): "Exposure, in other words being as such, is not any of the real predicates (being red, hot, small, smooth, etc.), but neither is it other than these [...]" (Community 96). It cannot be a coincidence that in The Coming Community, from which this passage is taken, Agamben's amorphous singularity is associated to the theological dimension of the Limbo, wherein the grief experienced by the trespassed is due to the distance that separates them from the vision of truth, which does not necessarily deny them the possibility of an ultimate liberation. (11) Such an emancipating trail is opened by Agamben via negative strategies, dismissing all the positive properties that keep men and animals apart and highlighting the existential blindness that brings them together. After all, that humans and ticks are bound to suffer, struggle, and revive as one was posited by Agamben from the beginning, though not by way of ethical considerations, but as a consequence of a historical-epistemological criticism.
From an Agambean perspective, it is crucial to call for an epistemological reformation adopting apophatic strategies. In view of the plethora of disciplines that have multiplied and increasingly vivisected the sphere of human knowledge over the last decades, only negative accounts of truth will be able to assist in the reconstruction of a genuine social dialogue. In this regard, a significant effort should be directed toward the promotion of holistic methods, which would temper the analytical tendency characterizing scientific practices, and would thus alleviate the dissonance that has progressively increased between quantitative theories and qualitative discourses. Firstly, I would suggest the institutionalization of more interdisciplinary curricula, both in schools and in the academies, as well as the development of research strategies that employ instruments taken from completely different areas. The regulative idea to bear in mind should be in any case a form of knowledge conceived of as a pragmatic social construction, which dismisses an excessive specialization and promotes cooperation among individuals. Such a negative pragmatics will perhaps move towards a restoration of all the lesions that have ripped truth from error, subject from object, and reason from instincts and, at that point, humanism will be remembered as a sickness of the past.
That the 'question of the animal' cannot be properly addressed without a radical critique of the sense of identity is an important lesson that one learns when exploring Agamben's philosophy. Kelly Oliver's observation that The Open does not pay sufficient attention to the problem of animal suffering is reasonable; it is nonetheless indispensable to stress the narrowly ontological character qualifying Agamben's discourse, which does not prioritize ethical issues concerning human beings either. The notion of bare life, transforming the framework that sustains humanistic conceptions of the world, is posited through the effort to think of 'Being' beyond history as well as through the elaboration of an agnostic type of epistemology, which Oliver does not fully recognize. Despite the messianic tones, Agamben's "Shabbat" cannot be interpreted as the attempt to replace science with religion, rather symbolizing the skeptical 'potential to disregard' that gathers together all living beings and which ultimately calls for the promotion of an apophatic pragmatics. While it remains unknown when the humanistic wound will finally stop bleeding, one hopes that the assessment here illustrated is able to provide at least some temporary relief.
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. Print.
--. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Pare Life. Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 1998. Print.
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Calarco, Matthew. Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. Print.
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Chiesa, Lorenzo, and Toscano Alberto (ed.) The Italian Difference. Melbourne: re.press, 2009. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. Politics of Friendship. London: Verso, 2006. Print.
--. Specters of Marx. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
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28.2 (Winter 2002): 369-418. Print. Dickinson, Colby. "Biopolitics and the Theological Body: on Apparent Absence of Gender in the work of Giorgio Agamben." Annali d'ltalianistica: Italian Critical Theory, 29 (2011): 189-204. Print.
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Frasier, Nancy. Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the "Postsocialist" Condition. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
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(1) "The open space in question is that which separates and distinguishes man from animal" (de la Durantaye 3).
(2) Despite this, for Calarco Agamben's theory remains ultimately anthropocentric, see also "On the Borders of Language and Death: Agamben and the Question of the Animal" (2000).
(3) In her article "What is wrong with animal rights" (2008), Oliver expresses several concerns regarding identity politics, which "creates two sides: the haves and the haves nots, those who have what it takes to be inherently valuable and those who do not. Conceptually, this is the same kind of oppositional and exclusionary thinking inherent in the man-animal or human-animal dichotomy" (216).
(4) I am alluding mainly to The Coming Community.
(5) See Specters of Marx (2006) and Politics of Friendship (2006).
(6) In addition to these subjects, Lorenzo Chiesa and Alberto Toscano list nihilistic and bio-political aspects as also constitutive of the Italian philosophical identity, see The Italian Difference (2009), Introduction.
(7) It is the view expressed by Roberto Esposito in Living Thought (2012), chapter 5.
(8) The phrase stems from the apophatic theology, or negative theology, which characterizes the nature of God by negation--i.e. in terms of 'what it is not' rather than 'what it is'--acknowledging the impossibility to define it in affirmative ways.
(9) "Animal captivation and the openness of the world thus seem related to one another as are negative and positive theology [...]" (The Open 59).
(10) See Wolfe (2008).
(11) This is, in particular, the way in which the Limbo is portrayed within Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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