Thursday, February 11, 2010

Agamben: Self-Expropriation (or, Dear Mrs. Arendt...)

Something like Arendt's reflexive fear of "meaninglessness" exists in Agamben’s work, drawn in part from his sustained engagement with Arendt and in part from the long-standing philosophical view of auto-affection—-the supposed condition of the living being—-as shameful self-victimization (the connection between auto-affection and masturbation, for example, appears in Rousseau literature). From Stanzas down to What Is an Apparatus?, we have in Agamben a theory of subjectivation based on consent to expropriation which is an interpretation of sacrificial and especially of Christian thinking. In Stanzas Agamben writes that "shame is the index of the shuddering proximity of man to himself" (Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture [1977], translated by Ronald L. Martinez [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002], 84). In a somewhat over-debated passage of Remnants of Auschwitz-—which I nonetheless have to go through to get to something else—he adduces Robert Antelme’s story of a camp inmate who blushes when he realizes that he has been selected to die in order to argue that it’s as though people feel “ashamed for having to die” (my italics): “man, dying, cannot find any other sense in his death than this flush, this shame” (Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive [1998], trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen [New York: Zone Books, 1999], 104). Here, absence of “sense” is presumed to be so unbearable that self-laceration comes as a relief. (And as others have noted, absence of sense also seems to displace absence of justice.) Reading Levinas’s Evasion, Agamben remarks (in free indirect discourse) that “just as we experience our revolting and yet unsuppressible presence to ourselves in bodily need and nausea . . . in shame we are consigned to something from which we cannot in any way distance ourselves” (Remnants 105). This “something” is “what is most intimate in us (for example, our own physiological life)” (105). The “order to be present at its own defacement” plunges the self into the “desubjectification” in which, according to Agamben (and a good deal of philosophy before him), subjectivation consists (105-106). The casual inclusions of Agamben’s first person plural paraphrase—-“we experience our revolting . . . presence to ourselves,” etc.—-smoothe over the immobility of self-presence in this passage and the impossibility of a different attitude, here called “distance” (but any attitude different from shame seems to be equally excluded: do "we" necessarily feel this way about our bodies?). As Adorno writes of existentialism, insistence on something discovered to be a core reality pushes away “the question as to the right of this something” that can still be asked even if it is a core reality (The Jargon of Authencity [1964], trans. New York: Routledge, 2003, 32).

Agamben now turns to “expropriation” (espropriazione)—one of his favorite terms, usually used metaphorically. He continues Arendt’s thought that relation to one’s “own physiological life” involves capitulation to the life process. Agamben passes the idea of life as expropriation through auto-affection, the turning around on oneself by which, in the classical philosophical tradition, subjectivation is often said to occur. He finds a “genuine ‘paradox’ . . . in the fact that we ‘must behave toward ourselves as passive’” (Remnants 109) and yet “actively [feel] . . . being passive” (110). The fact that we may experience involuntary states as activity matters to Agamben because he assumes that experiencing something as one’s own action constitutes an endorsement of it, or feels as though it did, hence opening the possibility of feeling shame about it. Such an occurrence parallels the speculative, prehistoric moment of consent in Arendt, when individuals cede their rights to the household out of interest in their “own survival.”

In Remnants Agamben’s illustration of the dependence of subjectivation on expropriation is the position taken by the feminized partner (eromenos) of Greek “homosexual relation,” as, metaphorically, he makes this relation into the image of auto-affection within the individual. The subject, for Agamben, corresponds (in one formulation) to “agent and patient” in the same person (111) or (in a second, better formulation) to the self “produced as a remainder” of the self-expropriative act. Self-expropriation is figured as a hierarchized, ambiguous, male self-rape. Agamben points out that survival “implies the reference to something or someone that is survived” (132); in Remnants’ schematization this “someone” is one’s own “actively passive” pole, continually capitulating to subjugation so that a remainder of the process can emerge as subject. The advantage here is that one is now able to tell oneself that the tension will go on forever, that it can be counted on. Subjectivation functions for Agamben as the “world” does for Arendt—-as a relatively stable and stabilizing phenomenon that grows up around the assumed fixed point of invasion and shame. Outside the process lies “senseless” mortality.

In Homo Sacer, complementarily, the state’s production of bare life appears as the other side of individual relation to the life process. The relation between these two sides is the point I wanted to get to. Although it’s the earlier book, Homo Sacer is subtler than Remnants and allows itself to be read in a more ambivalent way. On one hand, in the interpretation of the book that most readers emphasize, nation states are dangerous because for the very reason that they protect citizen life, anyone not bearing their insignia can seem unworthy to live. Shame and subjectivation emerge when the nation state creates bare life on one hand and citizenship on the other. The argument is this time historical: bare life and the apparent absence of “sense” that would come to be ascribed to non-citizen existence in Remnants are here seen as the costs of nation-state citizenship specifically. The historical claim is undermined, however, by the implication that it’s because shame is such a plausible response to the perception of “senseless” empirical life that belonging gets formalized in structures like nation-states in the first place—-and for that reason that it is potentially lethal to strip symbols from bodies. Running beneath the historical argument is a half-articulated ontological one, or perhaps the one articulated in Remnants. Critics take the likelihood of repugnance at the stateless to be an Arendtian legacy in Agamben: Arendt had pointed out in “We Refugees” (1943) that “in this mad world it is much easier to be accepted as a ‘great man’ than as a human being” (in The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, ed. Ron H. Feldman [New York: Grove Press, 1978], 55-66, p. 23). This remark too is historical—-confined to the world as it is when Arendt writes, namely, "mad"—-but the source of the madness can be followed back to Arendt’s own preference of distinction to living. In Remnants and Homo Sacer it often sounds as though people must relate to each other symbolically to the extent that revulsion from the meaninglessness of life—-our Levinasian “revolting and yet unsuppressible presence to ourselves in bodily need”—-is not really contingent. Through Agamben, then, we can see a division between the problem of expropriation and the subjectivation that redescribes and seals it, and the dread of meaninglessness that otherwise falls upon living and is even more to be avoided.

Image: Agamben's letter to Arendt: Dear Mrs. Arendt, I had your address from Dominique Fourcade, with whom I had the pleasure of attending the seminars of Heidegger in Provence in the Summers of 1966 and 1968. / I am a young writer and essayst for whom discovering your books last year has represented a decisive experience. / May I express here my gratitude to you, and that of those who, along with me, in the gap between past and future feel all the urgency of working in the direction you pointed out? / Cordially Yours, Giorgio Agamben / You will excuse if I take the liberty of enclosing an essay on violence which I should have been unable to wright without the guide of your books. / Giorgio Agamben, Piazza della Coppelle 48, Roma (Italy)


Aloe said...

This is basically Nietzsche's position in Genealogy (and elsewhere), that because people can't tolerate meaninglessness, especially meaningless and agentless suffering, they imagine themselves unworthy sinners and their pain punishment. This process leads to the ascendancy of ascetics and to society (in Agamben, the state) founded on abjection and correction, but where for Nietzsche that abject humanity is a horrible degradation, for Agamben it's a naturalized fact. Only the word "Nietzsche" is missing.

RT said...

I agree. The reason Agamben's position is ambiguous is that he does protest against the existing conditions but the protest itself accepts ontological terms: "things are ontologically like this, therefore we need a new ontology." In Homo Sacer (one of only two mentions of Nietzsche): "until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality (beyond the steps that have been taken in this direction by Spinoza, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Heidegger) has replaced the ontology founded on the primacy of actuality and its relation to potentiality, a political theory freed from the aporias of sovereignty remains unthinkable" (44). So yes, it would be better to point out instead that current conditions are not ontological, and it's pre-Nietzschean to take this tack. Pre-Kantian too.

I like The Coming Community better, where "whatever being" is okay and includes the actual.

d said...

where did you find this letter?

can you give me a source?


R said...

Hi--I came across it on the web, where the source gave no source--thus my own lack of citation. Sorry I can't be of more help.