Giorgio Agamben: Profanations.
Trans. Jeff Fort.
New York: Zone Books 2007.
US$25.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-1-890951-82-5).
Agamben's book presents us with a typically eclectic mix of ten essays. While it is difficult to discern a unifying movement, it is as usual impossible to deny the brilliance, analytic clarity and magisterial intellectual sweep which Agamben has at his disposal. His range of reference and its philosophical deployment is as astounding and surprising as ever. Agamben has always been a philosopher who finds inspiration in odd places; and like Walter Benjamin he is a master of the oracular fragment. Hence this collection engages with very miscellaneous subject matters indeed. We find Agamben discussing everything from Charles Foster Kane to Pinocchio, Foucault to Mozart, from Proust to Cartier-Bresson. If one suspects Agamben of wanting to create a miasmic effect then one is mistaken. His intention is quite the opposite. If anything Agamben aims to distil the detritus of contemporary culture into self-contained redemptive fragments or epiphanies. Performatively, he attempts to enact the redemption of the most small, the phoenix in the dust so to speak, all of which he imbues with an undeniable lyrical and poetic beauty. If, however, we are to ask what the structure of these fragments is, it is less clear what he means. Agamben is hard to pin down both theologically and philosophically. He attempts to construct miraculous minutiae out of un-miraculous things. Hence this work is the act of profaning the unprofanable. What ontological stature, what imaginative configuration and what spatio-temporal coordinates this move articulates are less than forthcoming. Indeed it is possible that Agamben disavows these entirely in favour of a Benjaminian eternal 'as if' structure, one which sees in the most mundane the traces of an eternal and secular redemption. But this remains problematic; this idiosyncratic moment seems devoid of any real comprehension or description of themes concerning the rest of us mortals, such as temporality, finitude or the spatial and imaginative presentation of that which promises to redeem us.
As noted, this collection contains ten essays. The first, and one of the most interesting, is 'Genius'. Genius defines not the modern virtuosic sense (although that is not irrelevant), but more precisely the idea of the inner daimon. Characteristically rich in historical analysis, here Agamben traverses Dorian Grey, Ariel and Prospero, angels and devils on the shoulder. Genius is the expression of life at the threshold of the impersonal and individual, two forces which dissolve and intersect and which gives voice to the vagaries and tensions of perpetual dissolution in everything from artistic anxiety to the conscience of morality. However it is in an exhausted and suspended time where we find the hope of a 'purely human and earthly life, the life that does not keep its promises' which 'can now give us infinitely more' (18). The vanquishing of time as a prerequisite for redemption seems a pathological concern of Agamben. This is evident in the next three essays. 'Magic and Happiness' gives a brief discourse on magic, trickery and its necessity for happiness. Magic provides the key to overcoming the opposition of hubris and happiness where the immortal and the blissful coincide in a secluded and eternal moment. 'Judgement Day' presents a brief treatise on photographs. It meditates on a time beyond chronological time with photographs presenting a demand not to be forgotten. Every photograph grasps what was lost in order to make it possible again. Hence a rather perturbing by-product of Agamben's work is the desire to jettison the time of lost memory and the loss of the past in favour of some form of eternal messianic moment. 'The Assistants' presents an insightful account of the role of helpers in children's literature. Pinocchio, 'half-golem' and 'half-robot', exemplify the eternal archetype of congealed time, condensed into the promise to be 'good from now on'. 'Parody' presents another thought of profanation, with parody defining the comical removal of majesty from sovereign themes (divinity, love, the good) in favor of language alone. 'Desiring' is a short essay, so concentrated that it is as impenetrable as the eternal shroud with which Agamben attempts to beatify us. 'Special Being' deals with medieval philosophy's effort to define specific regions of being in relation to images. 'The Author as Gesture' defines gesture as instantaneous epiphanies which exceed opprobrium 'with the luminous traces of another life'.
It is ironic, since Agamben clearly follows the aphoristic tradition of Benjamin and Nietzsche, that we find the most rewarding and philosophically original essay in the relatively lengthy 'In Praise of Profanation'. This is the jewel in the crown and the most philosophically wide-ranging of the collection. Agamben argues for an understanding of the profane beyond the dichotomy of the sacred and profane, the result being a fascinating mix of sociology, politics and theology. Following Debord, Agamben attempts to clear a space beyond the society of the spectacle which as ultimate hubris owes its existence to the self-perpetuation of capitalism, whereby all things may be considered sacred and where all people may become gods. Alternately Agamben proposes to profane the un-profanable, profaning the mundane sense of profane which makes worldly something holy. Agamben intends this configuration to overcome the malaise of modern commodity identification. What this may look like we are left unsure. 'The Six Most Beautiful Minutes in the History of Cinema' provides a fitting tragic-comic conclusion with a vignette of Don Quixote's full scale assault on a cinema screen.
One of the most exciting things about reading Agamben, aside from his innovative topical deployment of ontology in ethical and political spheres, is the sense that a radical departure is about to take place. With Agamben one always has the impression that previous prosodic work paves the way for more substantial philosophical description, one which boldly attempts to redefine the coordinates of ontology, ethics and politics. But while Agamben delivers elegance, range of reference and scholarly acumen, the promise of a singular and messianic eternal community is slow in materialising. This may of course yet happen, but seemingly Agamben is as guilty of deferring promises as Derrida. Profane politics still waits.
Manchester Metropolitan University
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|Publication:||Philosophy in Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2008|
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