Tuesday, November 4, 2008
The Sacrament of Language
[Provisional translation of pp. 89-90 from Agamben’s new book, Il Sacramento del linguaggio: Archeologia del giuramento (Homo Sacer II, 3) Editori Laterza, 2008.]
Let us try to arrange in a series of theses the new understanding of the phenomenon of the oath that arises from the analysis developed hitherto.
1. Studies have always explained, in a more or less explicit manner, the institute of oath through a reference to the megico-religious sphere, to a divine power, or to a “religious force” that intervenes in order to guarantee the effective punishment of perjury. With a curious circularity, the oath is therefore interpreted, as in Hesiod, as what serves to prevent perjury. Our hypothesis is exactly the reverse: the megico-religious sphere does not preexist, logically speaking, the oath, since it is the oath. The oath is an originary performative experience of speech, which can in turn explain the phenomenon of religion (and law, which is closely connected to religion). This is the reason why horkos, or oath, is considered in the classical world as the more ancient entity, the only potential power to which the gods must submit. In monotheism, God is also identified with the oath: God is the being whose word is an oath, or the being that coincides with the true and effective word in principio.
2. The oath can therefore be properly understood within the context of those institutes, like fides, or faith, where it functions as the performative affirmation of truth and the reliability of speech. The horkia are par excellence pista, trustworthy, and the pagan gods summon in a performative way the oath essentially as a testimony to this trust. Monotheistic religions, Christianity above all, inherited through the institute of oath the centrality of faith in the word as the essential content of the religious experience. Christianity is, properly speaking, a religion and a deification of logos. The attempt to reconcile faith as a performative experience of veridiction, or truth-telling, with the belief in a series of assertive dogmas, is the service and, at the same time, the central contradiction of the Church. Overlooking a perspicuous evangelical credo, the Church henceforth forces what is technically considered as an oath and a curse into specific juridical institutions. This is the reason why philosophy, which does not try to fixate veridiction within a system of codified truth but, in each and every event of language, leads to the word and exposes the veridiction on which it is founded, is necessarily what we may call vera religio.
3. It is in this sense that we need to understand the essential proximity between the oath and sacratio (or devotio). We have interpreted sacertas as an originary performance of power by means of the production of a naked life that can be killed but not sacrificed. To this we must now add that even more than being a sacrament of power, the oath is the consecration of living beings through speech and according to speech. The oath can function as the sacrament of power insofar as it is, above all, the sacrament of language. This original sacratio that finds its place in the institute of oath takes the technical form of a curse, of a politiké ara, which accompanies the proclamation of the law. The law, in this sense, is constitutively tied with the curse. Only a politics that breaks this original connection with the curse could one day eventually bring about the emergence of another use for speech and law.