Tuesday, August 5, 2008
It would be difficult to come to terms with the way by which Agamben develops Benjamin’s dialectics at a standstill without contrasting it with the work of Adorno and his circle (which basically held the monopoly on Benjamin’s thought for about half a century). In order to see the stark difference between Adorno’s “damaged life” and Agamben’s own notion of life, we need to consider the fairy tale about the frog-prince, this happy inversion of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. You are familiar with this tale about the witch who transformed a handsome prince into a frog, and the young maiden who had to kiss the slimy frog in order to reverse the spell and win the love of her life. (In fact, folklorists are unsure about the origin of the prevalently modern kiss element. In most versions, the maiden has to intimately lay in bed with the frog or violently slam it against a wall in order to remove the spell.) In Agamben’s stark retelling of this story, the prince-frog is revealed as an allegory for history, as Adorno plays the role of the witch, and Benjamin that of the maiden:
"Dialectical historicism, whose spokesman [Adorno] is, is the witch who, after turning the prince into a frog, believes she holds within the magic wand of dialectics the secret of any possible transformation. But [Benjamin’s] historical materialism is the maiden who kisses the frog right on the mouth, and breaks the dialectical spell. For whereas the witch knows that, since every prince is really a frog, every frog can become a prince, the maiden does not know this, and her kiss touches precisely what the frog and the prince have in common."
One of the ways to misunderstand Agamben’s own method is to assume that he proposes a conscious historical development in which one situation can transform into another by means of the magic wand of theory. For example, you might assume that the task of his philosophical work is to metamorphose what he calls “naked life” (the frog) into what he calls “form-of-life” (the prince). Even though, like every fairy tale, Agamben’s thought bears a certain promise of happiness, it can do so only by resisting what he calls the myth of sacrifice, as every fairy tale is meant, according to Benjamin, “to shake off the nightmare of myth.” This cannot be done through back and forth dialectical transformations or endless mediations, but through what Benjamin calls, somewhat enigmatically, “cunning” (Untermut) and “high spirits” (Übermut). In Adorno, we face the demand for a sort of a metaphysical totality that renders any concrete moment as a means for an end (namely, of fulfilling this totality), or the demand for a mythical superstructure that hovers above our material structure (as Adorno demanded from Benjamin in their letter exchange from the winter of 1938). Whereof the dialectical system envisions a pedantic theoretical synthesis of the prince and the frog into one monstrous creature, Agamben’s method searches for the zone of indistinction between this man and this animal, which should not be confused with some essential core that remains unchanged throughout its mutations. The philosopher-maiden is not meant to recognize the frog in (or as) the prince and the prince in (or as) the frog, but just to kiss the prince-frog on its lips.
The kiss, which certainly demands explanation, is not an accidental gesture in Agamben’s thought. It may even serve as a crystallization of his own brand of dialectics at a standstill. Think, in this respect, about what is probably the most celebrated kiss in the history of modern literature, which takes place at the end of “The Grand Inquisitor,” the central parable in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The first curious thing about this parable is that Ivan insists to present it to Alyosha, his young brother, as a poem, despite the fact that it is told in simple prose. In this “poem,” Christ returns to Spain of the sixteenth century. He performs a few miracles and is adored by the people before he is being sentenced to death by the cynical Inquisition. Since Christ never utters a word, the bulk of the (usually existentialist) commentators focus on the long speech of the Grand Inquisitor during his visit to the Resurrected before the planned execution. I would like to say nothing about this speech, and focus entirely on Christ’s reply, which Ivan recounts after his brother implores, “And how does your poem end?” It ends when the old inquisitor concludes his denunciation, and Christ gently kisses him on his “bloodless” lips. As the story continues, Ivan the atheist wonders out loud whether he can still be embraced by his pious little brother after he pronounced his solidarity with the inquisitor’s speech. Instead of giving a verbal reply, Alyosha, the imitator of Christ, simply kisses his brother in silence.
Agamben maintains that “the end of the poem,” that is, the last line in every poetic composition, presents a puzzling difficulty. The only consistent criterion that distinguishes poetry from prose is the presence of enjambment, that is, the breaking of a syntactic unit between the poem’s lines. The difficulty, however, is that this definition cannot account for the poem’s end. If a poem is founded on the tension of its metrical and syntactic elements, on the non-coincidence of sound and sense (which is the direct outcome of enjambment), then the last verse, from which enjambment is missing (because there is no further line to carry over the final idea), is what Agamben calls “the state of poetic emergency.” The end of the poem is the place where the tension generated by enjambment, this dialectical play of sound and sense, is not resolved, but arrives to a stalemate.
In On Revolution, Arendt invokes the end of Dostoevsky’s prose/poem in order to explain her notion of compassion. She observes that com-passion, this shared suffering, tends to use a language of gestures rather than of words:
"It is because he listens to the Grand Inquisitor’s speech with compassion, and not for lack of arguments, that Jesus remains silent, struck, as it were, by the suffering which lay behind the easy flow of his opponent’s great monologue. The intensity of this listening transforms the monologue into a dialogue, but it can be ended only by a gesture, the gesture of the kiss, not by words."
The kiss enables Arendt to confront one of her basic visions of the political as a space for discourse, since compassion, as we can see, abolishes the necessary distance between men where politics usually takes place: through reasonings, arguments, interests, persuasions, negotiations, compromises, and other linguistic apparatuses. The end of Dostoevsky’s poem, like every end of every poem according to Agamben, is therefore a zone in which language “collapses into silence.” This “compassionate silence” may very well mark the end of politics as we know it, but since it is obviously and infinitely more thoughtful than many of the banalities that people tend to utter, it is a possible beginning for the coming politics that lives on in the Agambenian standstill. That this beginning is not so far off from what Nietzsche calls “The Stillest Hour” is evident from its oft-quoted (but not yet banal) lines: “It is the stillest words that bring on the storm. Thoughts that come on doves’ feet guide the world.”