Saturday, June 7, 2008
Dialectic of Endarkenment
“Let there be darkness” - these words almost impose themselves on the reader of Agamben’s philosophy. “Light,” as he once commented, “is only the coming to itself of the dark.” There seems to be little hope in his mind that light really has the capacity to enlighten. A light can only flicker, like a distant star, and the darkness that surrounds it is not meant to understand it. In fact, even the heavenly “total darkness” is for him “the testimony of a time in which the stars did not yet shine.” It is also not entirely clear whether he still shares Arendt’s gnostic faith in the power of singular bright “men in dark times” to ever more slightly make a difference in this world. Nevertheless, Agamben also appears to be possessed by an exigency, a demand to which he cannot not answer: it is difficult to miss (though many still do) that throughout his writings he always try to bear witness to a certain light, or better, a glimmer. If you ever tried to catch fireflies with your hands on a hot summer night, then you may have experienced this unique philosophical comportment. Call it, if you wish, the dialectic of endarkenment. “To perceive in the darkness of the present this light that seeks to reach us but cannot” - this is what it means to be Giorgio Agamben.
Take, for example, his ongoing Homo Sacer project, the most significant work in political philosophy in our time, and compare it with The Republic, the founding text in Western culture dedicated to this subject. The most vivid image in Plato’s book is of this dark cave from which the reader is supposed to emerge, like a prisoner released from his chains, in order to face the sunlight of truth. In Agamben, the experience is clearly the reverse: in the middle of life, while sitting in a more or less secured corner of the earth on a comfortable chair with a lamp and a hot drink, the reader finds himself in a dark forest. This experience is not only rooted in the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, but also (or mainly) in the opening scene of Kafka’s The Trial, where Joseph K., the protagonist of the story, wakes up one morning only to discover that he is charged in a shadowy court of committing an unspecified crime. Our life, with its basic rights and liberties, is usually protected by the laws of a state; but it can easily be transformed into what Agamben calls a naked or bare life, as it is being separated from what he calls the form or way of life. Today, with a blink of an eye, or a flick of a pen, any “good citizen” from any country (it does not matter whether it is democratic or not) can be excluded from his “protection plan,” and thus be exposed to random acts of violence. Yet even as we live our seemingly respectful and meaningful everyday lives, we should not forget that, from the perspective of power, we are really nothing more than a number, or a bare fact, or a mere body that is constantly being disciplined, governed, and controlled.
But you should also not forget that what at first appears to the human eye as pitch-dark, like what in the initial ascension from the cave seems to Plato’s prisoner as the blinding light of the sun, simply takes time to get used to. You will begin to discern your way around after spending a little while in an unlit room, even though objects may still look monochromatic (as Agamben’s work might seem at times). We must therefore learn to cope with the shadows that Plato deems as mere appearance, probably because the burning sun - the king, or the sovereign - is revealed as only a made-up concoction, as it undergoes today its irrevocable twilight. This, however, does not entail that we are now devoid of the truth, as the epistemological and nihilistic readings of the story of the cave may lead you to assume:
“Because human beings neither are nor have to be any essence, any nature, or any specific destiny, their condition is the most empty and the most insubstantial of all: it is the truth. What remains hidden from them is not something behind appearance, but rather appearing itself, that is, their being nothing other than a face. The task of politics is to return appearance itself to appearance, to cause appearance itself to appear.”