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A New Use of the Self: Giorgio Agamben on the Coming Community

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Amongst the voluminous speculations on the ‘world to come’ that have accompanied messianic prophecies, one stands out, not for the extravagance of its predictions, but for the very banality of its account of redemption. In the Coming Community,
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    Theory and Event Volume 13, Issue 1, 2010 ‘A New Use of the Self’: Giorgio Agamben on the Coming Community. Heaven and Hell, however, hang together.  —ADORNO AND HORKHEIMER, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Jessica Whyte Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies MONASH UNIVERSITY  .  Amongst the voluminous speculations on the ‘world to come’ that have accompanied messianic prophecies, onestands out, not for the extravagance of its predictions, but for the very banality of its account of redemption. Inthe Coming Community  , Giorgio Agamben recounts the following tale, as told by Walter Benjamin to Ernst Bloch:“The Hassidim  tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as ourroom is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just alittle different.’” 1 There is no doubt something disappointing about such an image of redemption, particularly  when placed alongside Christian promises of “a new heaven and a new earth” [Rev 21:1], in which “there shallbe no more death, neither sorrow nor crying” [Rev 21:4]. Nonetheless, in offering a vision of the world to comethat is intimately connected to our world, it seems to foreshadow the possibility of  changing  our world, even if, asit were, only a little. And yet, as this tale was passed down by tradition, and ultimately passed from GershomScholem to Benjamin to Bloch, the question of the nature of the change that would be required, and that of theagency that could accomplish it, received different, and often contradictory, emphases. In Bloch’s recounting of the tale—which introduces a slight, yet decisive, alteration into the version previously told by Benjamin—if the world to come will be just like this world, this does not mean that the little difference that would constitute it iseasy to accomplish. All that is necessary to establish this new world, Bloch suggests, is the slight displacement of a stone, a cup or a brush. “But”, he writes, “this small displacement is so difficult to achieve and its measure is sodifficult to find that, with regard to the world, humans are incapable of it and it is necessary that the Messiahcome.” 2     A New Use of the Self  2  What would it mean, for us, today, to imagine a redeemed world in which everything “will be as it is now, just alittle different”? In what would this difference consist, and how would it be possible to achieve it? And whatinflection would it give to the very idea of “redemption”? In the second thesis of his “On the Concept of History”, Benjamin offers a vision that seems to owe something to the Hassidic tale: in contrast to a utopia whose inspiration lies outside this world, he suggests that our own times thoroughly color our image of happiness. “The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us,” he writes, “exists only in the air we havebreathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us.” 3 Moreover,Benjamin makes clear that, “our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption.” 4  By deriving our vision of happiness from the world in which we find ourselves, it becomes possible to eschew amodel of redemption premised on divine intervention and to imagine a form of immanent social transformation,indeed, a form of politics. In treating Agamben’s work, however, such an approach is complicated by hisunrelentingly bleak diagnosis of  this  world. What would it mean to take our vision of happiness from a world whose paradigmatic instance is the concentration camp? What does it mean to suggest that the new form of lifenecessary to save us from catastrophe resembles nothing so much as the life we live today—a life typified by biopolitics, the normalisation of the state of exception and unceasing commodification? In what follows, Isuggest that, in Agamben’s view, it is precisely from this world—amidst what Agamben, following Guy Debord,terms the “society of the spectacle”—that we must find our vision of happiness.In spectacular society, Agamben suggests, all solid foundations, whether for law or for language, have beenhollowed out, and all the nations of the earth have been driven towards a single destiny, typified by the“transformation of politics and of all social life into a spectacular phantasmagoria.” 5 And yet, at this point, hepoints us in a startling direction: suggesting that planetary humanity now comprises a global “petty bourgeoisie”, each of us living out the “absurdity of individual existence”, he simultaneously offers this petty bourgeoisie—for whom authenticity, the proper, vocation, differences of language, custom and character “nolonger hold any meaning”—as the precursors of a new form of life. 6 In outlining the possibility of this new life, Agamben offers a task that, in its apparent modesty, echoes Benjamin’s version of the Hassidic tale: “Selecting in the new planetary humanity those characteristics that allow for its survival, removing the thin diaphragm thatseparates bad mediatized advertising from the perfect exteriority that communicates only itself—this”, he writes, “is the political task of our generation.” 7 From this enigmatic suggestion, we can discern that if the petty bourgeoisie is the cipher for Agamben’s hopes this is because its world—  our  world—somehow resembles hisown version of the world to come, indeed, resembles it more so than has any other point in history. When thisresemblance has been noted by critics, it has often been greeted with perplexity, and with the suggestion that Agamben’s redemptive vision is simply a restatement of the predicament from which he wishes to free us. Thisis clear in Slavoj Ž i ž ek’s question: “[a]re we not encountering in our social reality what Agamben envisages as autopian vision?” 8 , and, in a less critical tone, in Antonio Negri’s view that, in the Coming Community, “the   A New Use of the Self  3 experience of redemption was presented as dystopia.” 9 Here I will suggest that while these thinkers are right tohighlight the proximity of Agamben’s diagnosis of our time to his account of a new form of life, such critiquesremain limited to the extent that they do not examine the immanent dynamic in our own time that he sees asenabling such a life. In what follows, I outline that dynamic, which, in Agamben’s view, nullifies substantiveidentities, making possible, for the first time, a community of pure singularity without exclusion. While Agamben’s account of the spectacle enables us to see possibilities for a transformative relation to our owntime, and to avoid nostalgic attempts to return to past certainties, I suggest it is inadequately attentive to thedifferential temporality of spectacular capitalism, in which the post-modern co-exists with a resurgence of social forms, identities and classes that, in the heady days of progress, were believed to have been consigned tothe past. Capital, I suggest, not only    undermines naturalistic foundations for identity but also   creates new identities that are bound up with both reactionary and emancipatory political claims. Therefore, I suggest, any attempt to formulate a politics, or a community, without identity must be attentive to the ways in whichpoliticized forms of identity continue to function as markers of differential power, and must resist theteleological temptation to see such politicized identities as archaisms, destined to be washed away by thenullifying power of capitalism.   Debord coined the term “the spectacle” in the late 1960’s to define “the moment when the commodity hasattained the total occupation of social life”. 10 If Agamben sees this as the most adequate term to designate ourown time, this is because, like Debord, he believes that we are living through a period in which everything hasbeen expropriated and offered up for consumption, in which everything “that was directly lived has moved away into representation”, in which there is nothing ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’, and no spaces, political or otherwise, thathave not been thoroughly subjected to the logic of commodification. 11 Agamben’s critique of the spectacle isunrelenting. Nonetheless, it is conducted in the name of those possibilities that he believes are not only capturedbut also created by the domination of the commodity form. Here I would like to examine only one of thosepossibilities, which Agamben frames as ‘a new use of the self.’ The idea of  use  plays an important, if largely unexamined, role in Agamben’s account of the new form of singularity without identity that he terms “whateverbeing” and in the potential community he terms the “coming community”. 12 This concern with a singularity that“makes use” of itself, rather than being bound within a naturalized and/or politicized identity, is guided by aconcern to think a life of potentiality that could escape the hold of sovereign power. In    Agamben’s view, apolitics premised on substantive or factual identities fixes its subjects, juridicizing politics by making it a processof apportioning juridical rights and representing pre-given constituencies rather than a field of possibility andtransformation in which we could hope to be other than we are. Consequent to this fixing of identities, politics isreliant on sovereign power to grant rights and represent social classes, and presupposes exclusionary forms of belonging and border-control to police the borders of identity and entitlement. In order to escape such a politics,he thus believes it is necessary to contest both the fixity of personal identity and the substantivization of    A New Use of the Self  4 community as a community  of  (women, Australians, etc.), which, in his view, brings into operation themechanism of inclusive exclusion of what he terms the sovereign ban. Thus, a new use of the self would entailthe denaturalization and desacralization of the self, which would thus exist as a pure singularity, rather than as aninstance of a particular identity. Agamben terms such a singularity—which is neither universal, and thusenshrined in the ‘rights of man’, nor particular, and thus able to claim sectional rights—“whatever being” andsees it as marking the possibility of a human community free of any essential condition of belonging, commondestiny or work, or principle of inclusion and exclusion—a being-together of existences, rather than acommunity of essence, as Nancy describes it. 13  It is noteworthy, and I would like to focus on this, that Agamben’s account of “whatever being” rests on theclaim that the spectacle has produced a “classless society”, albeit one which parodies the Marxian version; “thereare no longer social classes,” he writes, “but just a single planetary petty bourgeoisie in which all the old socialclasses are dissolved.” 14 Outlining the extraordinary stakes in his engagement with this figure, Agamben writes:the “petty bourgeoisie is probably the form in which humanity is moving toward its own destruction. But thisalso means that the petty bourgeoisie represents an opportunity unheard of in the history of humanity that itmust at all costs not let slip away.” 15 It is doubtful that any thinker, broadly speaking of the left, has ever placedsuch grand hopes in what Marx saw as a “transitional class”, typified by “moral indignation.” 16 In contrast toMarx’s belief that such “transitional classes’” would fade away, enabling a struggle between “two great hostilecamps” 17 , the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, in Agamben’s view, the “petty-bourgeoisie has inherited the worldand is the form in which humanity has survived nihilism.” 18 Unlike Marx’s, Agamben’s petty bourgeoisie is aproduct, or better, a remnant, of the process of expropriation carried out by the spectacle. Agamben provides anevocative image of this expropriation: nothing “better resembles the condition of this new humanity,” he writes,“than advertising footage from which every trace of the advertised product has been wiped out.” 19 The petty-bourgeoisie is the inheritor of a process of nullification, it would seem, which has torn down the divisions of identity, and rendered stable subjectivities and naturalized vocations meaningless. If it represents an opportunity,however, this is because it is precisely in its vacuity, in its indifference to identity and to national dreams that Agamben locates the germinating seed of “whatever being”. What the nihilism of the spectacle reveals, hesuggests, is precisely the insubstantiality, the inessential nature, of human being. For the first time in history, it ispossible to discern that human being is inessential being, or, as Thomas Carl Wall writes, “being expropriated is   human being.” 20   When Agamben wishes to explain “whatever being”, he does so through a discussion of love. Love, he suggests,can be understood neither through the particular properties of the loved one nor through a neglect of theseproperties. 21 Yet while whatever beings  have no unitary identity that would enable them to form a community    A New Use of the Self  5 premised on a logic of inclusion or exclusion, neither are they marked by what Agamben terms the “incipitgenerality” of concepts like “universal love” (and presumably also universal human rights), which can only subsume singularity in universality. 22 In contrast, he writes, “the lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is. The lover desires the as  only insofar as it is such   —this is the lover’s particular fetishism.” 23  In an unusual twist, Agamben links this theory of love directly to his account of the potentiality of language:love, he suggests, is simply “seeing something in its being-thus”—in its being-in-language. Being-in-language is,for Agamben, the “non-predicative property   par excellence  ”, existing in a realm prior to those linguistic judgmentsthat must divide into classes in order to signify. 24 This means that a community of such “lovable” beings woulditself be without presuppositions (and classes). While this being may be modelled on love, it is in the society of the spectacle that he believes it is germinating; “contemporary politics”, he writes, “is this devastating  experimentum linguae  that all over the planet unhinges and empties traditions and beliefs, ideologies and religions,identities and communities.” 25 It is within this process of nullification, Agamben believes, which expropriates the very potentiality of language, but thereby frees it from its abandonment as the foundation of particular languagesand peoples, that the possibility of such a community appears for the first time. While Agamben gives his own inflection to the relation between community and love, it is nonetheless worthasking how his coming community compares to Christian attempts to found a community in love. Adam Thurschwell has suggested that “if “the coming community is a community of love, it is one so far from being modelled on the Christian ‘community of love’ that its members have forgotten God’s very existence.” 26 While itis true that the coming community is not striving for heaven but content in limbo, existing between good andevil in blissful vacuity, it is in Paul, who preached love against the law, that we find the inspiration for the freeuse of the self that Agamben believes would lead humanity to its “second, happier, nature”. 27 In I Corinthians, we read, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a slave? care notfor it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather” (I Cor. 7:17-22). While it would be possible to read thephrase “use it rather” to signify a use of freedom, Agamben argues that what is to be used is the condition of slavery itself, which is nullified by the messianic vocation, stripped of meaning while remaining factually unchanged. This interpretation, in which we can find an analogue for his account of the status of identity and class in thesociety of the spectacle   (and here it is worth noting that Agamben has elsewhere referred to our own time as themessianic era)   rests on a reading of the following Pauline passage, in which he finds what “may be his mostrigorous definition of messianic life”: 28   But this I say brethren, time contracted itself, the rest is, that even those having wives may be asnot [  hos me   ] having, and those weeping as not weeping, and those rejoicing as not rejoicing, and
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