Thursday, March 20, 2008
You are our Letter
Review of Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Translated by Patricia Dailey. Stanford: Stanford University Press. $19.95.
When the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben passes through the looking glass of critical theory, it is often read as an “apocalyptic prophesy” full of “pessimism” and “disdain for the world,” to use a few “superlatives” from a recent account of his work. With his piercing critique of modern politics, Agamben is often depicted as the angel of history, who looks at the past as a pile of debris that grows skyward before his clawed feet. It will therefore come as a surprise that, for Agamben, this angel of history “cannot be a melancholic and Luciferian figure of a shipwreck. Rather, he must be a bright figure who, in the strict solidarity of happiness and historical redemption, establishes the very relation of the profane order to the messianic.” Did someone say happiness? Did someone say redemption? Is there a place for such notions in the decadent Wonderland of postmodernity? There must be a mistake. But now, with the English publication of The Time That Remains, his book on Saint Paul, it becomes clear: Agamben’s sense and sensibility is radically different from the weary spirit that prevails our Church of nihilism. Here Agamben stands – he can do no other.
Like the angel of history, the messianic event can be seen from two perspectives. First, there is the melancholic messianism of “a life lived in deferral” in which nothing can be achieved. Not incidentally, Gershom Scholem, who is the source for the figure of the Luciferian angel of history, is also the herald of this pessimistic brand of messianism. However, in The Time That Remains, Agamben proposes that this widespread interpretation needs to be overturned. According to his view, the messianic event is in fact a true achievement that must be grasped correctly, and rejoiced:
"The Messiah has already arrived, the messianic event has already happened, but its presence contains within itself another time, which stretches its parousia [literally, presence], not in order to defer it, but, on the contrary, to make it graspable. For this reason, each instance may be, to use Benjamin’s words, the “small door though which the Messiah enters.”"
The ambivalence of Agamben’s philosophy, which can be read as reflecting both the curse of, and the cure for, our time, may be attributed to the double strategy behind his publications in recent years. On the one hand, we have the celebrated Homo Sacer series, which, up to now, is comprised of three books, available in English translation: Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, State of Exception (the only two books most people bother reading), and Remnants of Auschwitz: the Witness and the Archive (a new publication, The Reign and the Glory, is forthcoming with Stanford UP). These books analyze the darkness of our time, which Agamben calls “biopolitics” – the political power over our naked life. However, the attentive reader can also discern in each of these critiques a certain light that shines in the darkness, which flashes up at the closing sections of each one of those “pessimistic” books. Because of the difficulty of his readers to recognize this light, Agamben offers a second set of investigations, those other books, which elaborate on his glad tidings. These are the books that show us how to bring about the mending of the broken world in which we live: The Coming Community, The Open: Man and Animal, Profanations, and the book that concerns us here, The Time That Remains.
Up to now, it is mainly the first, critical, or “pessimistic” aspect of Agamben’s philosophy that has generated a powerful whirlpool in the current of contemporary thought. But when we disregard the other, “redemptive,” aspect, we end up in a complete misunderstanding of the Agambenian project. One might assume, for example, that what Homo Sacer asks us to do is simply to pay close attention to the minute details of our biopolitical twists and turns. But let us remember the motto of the same book: “And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.” Paul’s formulation encapsulates the radical message of Agamben’s project: Modern politics, which was supposed to give us life, is propelling us unto death. As a result, the fulfillment of the situation depicted in Homo Sacer must be its transgression. It is far from being enough to continue to dwell on the nature of the state, the law, the sovereign, human rights, and the like. To use a Wittgensteinian metaphor, we could say that if you understand Agamben, then you need to recognize that the propositions of his book, Homo Sacer, in their erudite description of our current condition, are, plain and simple, nonsensical – like a ladder, you need to climb through these propositions, on them, over them. You need to throw the biopolitical ladder away. Only then will you begin to see the Agambenian world aright.
But what, then, does one see? The answer, I believe, is far from being metaphysical. And it is not something about which we must remain silent. One could say that the event that encapsulates Agamben’s true positive philosophy is not the event of death (as the tradition that stretches from Hegel to Heidegger and up to Derrida suggests), but the event of life itself. Agamben is very clear about this point: “The concept of “life,” as the legacy of the thought of both Foucault and Deleuze, must constitute the subject of the coming philosophy.” More precisely, it is what he calls “form-of-life,” which he defines as “a life that can never be separated from its form…a life for which what is at stake in its way of living is living itself.” This form-of-life, he further claims, quite boldly, “must become the guiding concept and the unitary center of the coming politics.” It is therefore not a surprise to hear Agamben intimating that the last installment in the Homo Sacer series will be a book entitled, simply, Form-of-life. Of course, it is rather difficult to read what Agamben has not yet written, but this must be our task, especially because his work so far is strewn with extremely helpful clues about the nature of this saving power. Here I would like to draw your attention to one of the most decisive passages in The Time That Remains, where Agamben discusses the two covenants – the old covenant with Abraham, and the new covenant in the messianic time:
"The messianic instance, which takes place in historical time and renders Mosaic law inoperative, goes back genealogically before Mosaic law, towards the promise. The space that opens up between the two diathekai [covenants] is the space of grace. This is why the kaine diathekai [new covenant] cannot be something like a written text containing new and diverse precepts (which is how it ends up). As stated in the extraordinary passage right before the affirmation of the new covenant, it is not a letter written in ink on tables of stone; rather, it is written with the breath of God on hearts of the flesh. In other words, it is not a text, but the very life of the messianic community, not a writing, but a form of life: hè epitolè hemón hymeis este, “You are our letter” (2 Cor. 3:2)!"
To the foot-soldiers of deconstruction, Agamben explains that the promise is to be found neither in a text, nor in writing. The new promise is a form of life – the life in the coming community. To paraphrase Benjamin, we could say that this life is the life that is lived at the foot of the hill on which the biopolitical castle stands. In this way, the power over life will transform into the power of life, in a way that turns biopolitics on its head. Naked life becomes form-of-life, and the laws that govern our universe become inoperative.
It is difficult, indeed, to see what is here at stake. It is far from being clear how are we supposed to imagine this form of life. But let me offer one possible line of investigation, which seems like a proper continuation of Agamben’s analysis of theological texts. It is interesting to note that when Agamben talks about the old and new covenants, he does not mention that in the Torah one can already discern two distinct promises, two different covenants. As we all know, there is the celebrated covenant of God with Abraham, which consists of a very exclusive promise of a certain land to a certain race. But there is another covenant, less known, which precedes this promise. This is the covenant after the flood, between God and Noah. Curiously, this first covenant is far from being exclusive to a certain people or a certain place. It is, in fact, a covenant with all living creatures, the whole of the animal kingdom: “And the rainbow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living soul of all flesh that is upon the earth.”
It therefore seems worthwhile to analyze, with the kind of close philosophical scrutiny that Agamben exemplifies, not only the Pauline text, in which the law is deactivated, but also the law itself, this is to say, the Torah. We need to ask ourselves the following questions: What does it mean to live in the time of the Torah, the time of the law? Could Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, and their fellow men and women live according to the law, the law which is the very book in which their lives are being depicted? Do they live before the gate of law, or on the threshold of the gate of the law? But what is the Torah, if not a multiplicity of lives? What is the Mosaic law, other than a mosaic of biographies? Can we observe a law that is grounded on the lives of those who could not observe the law, simply because they are the law? And how such a life in the book of law, in each moment it has been lived, can become a citation a l'ordre du jour, as Benjamin once put it?
“For the mystery of lawlessness,” Paul writes, “is already at work [energeitai], but only until the person now holding it back [ho katechón] gets out of the way.” In The Time That Remains, Agamben shows us that the messianic event is a crucial step on the way to reveal the mystery of lawlessness in all its terrifying glory. The cynics, the pessimists, and the unbelievers, who do not let this lawlessness become the law in which we live, may continue to write their learned tracts about mourning and about melancholia. We only ask them to do so on the side of the road.