Skip to main content

Literature and Life in Agamben

The prominence of the literary in the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben is extensive, sustained and fundamental. His first book, The Man Without Content (1972?), is a dramatic critique of modern literature and the visual arts. Since then he has published a number of works solely or mainly about poetry and literature: Stanzas (1977), Infancy and History (1978), Idea of Prose (1985), The End of the Poem (1996), Profanations (2007) and Ninfe (2007). These works constitute a third of his total published output and by far the most sustained engagement with literature of any contemporary philosopher. More than this, away from these explicit statements on literature, the majority of Agamben’s other philosophical works depend on central readings of literary texts. These facts alone are reason enough to attempt a full-length study of the literary Agamben. They argue, by implication, that Agamben’s work can only be understood if this large body of material is read alongside the more widely disseminated texts. In addition, it raises the question within a discipline such as literary studies that is still so intimately involved with continental philosophy, why it has neglected to engage more actively with the philosopher most amenable to the great task of contemporary philology.

Poetry and Life
Literature, most particularly poetry, clearly matters to Agamben, but even he appears initially agape that it still matters so much to the world at large: ‘Why does poetry matter to us?’ he ponders, before rapidly responding, ‘The ways in which answers to this question are offered testify to its absolute importance’ (EP 93). In the modern age, he argues, there have been two dominant responses to this question. The first is the confusion of art with life exemplified by the Nietzschean will to power as art that Agamben argues typifies Romanticism and aestheticism. The second is the profound separation of art and life to be found in the disinterested regard of Kantian judgement, distinctive of what he calls Classicism and secularism. Neither position, according to Agamben, is the correct answer to the undoubted prolongation of the ancient regard our culture holds for the literary into the aesthetic nihilism of the modern age. The first position assumes too close a proximity between art and life such that they become indiscernible from one another at the expense of life. The second imposes a distance between art and life that, ultimately, robs art of its central role not merely in our lives but in human existence as such. The result is that in the modern era art and life are either conflated or cordoned off from one another, indistinct or too distinctive, in gestures we almost come to expect of Western metaphysical, political and, it would seem, aesthetic practices. Within metaphysics, according to the Agambenian critique of the tradition, it is typically the case that two foundational terms are artificially and with violence forced into a unity (artlife), or they are subjected to an endless division as the basis of the production of varied concepts of human existence (art vs life = the human). Modern art, therefore, is subject to the same aporias that Agamben more familiarly identifies in modern politics and modern philosophy.

Repeatedly, brilliantly and controversially, in book after book, from the very beginning of his career to his most recent publications, Agamben seeks for an alternative to this negative metaphysics of false unity and/or enforced separation. He believes that one figure who is party to such a third modality of thinking is the poet:

Opposed to these two positions is the experience of the poet, who affirms that if poetry and life remain infinitely divergent on the level of the biography and psychology of the individual, they nevertheless become absolutely indistinct at the point of their reciprocal desubjectivization. And—at that point—they are united not immediately but in a medium. This medium is language. The poet is he who, in the word, produces life. Life, which the poet produces in the poem, withdraws from both the lived experience of the psychosomatic individual and the biological unsayability of the species (EP 93).

I would imagine that for most students of literature this is a confounding perhaps even ludicrous statement: the poet produces life! Such an ejaculation does not sit easily with any of the dominant ideologies within contemporary literary studies, which almost exclusively consider the obverse to be true. Literary production is widely analysed in our academies in terms of how life produces and shapes poetry. Contemporary literary analysis has little or no interest in a counter argument that life as such is an act of poiesis. This being the case, the proposition that literature is not merely important to our lives but productive of life, while shocking in its bravura originality and its demand for a universal importance for poetry, means that Agamben’s ‘literary theory’ is almost nonsensical to those who actually study the literary. This divergence is made all the more disturbing by Agamben going on to state that in the moment of ‘reciprocal desubjectivization’ performed by art and life on each other, the unity attained therein between poetry and life due to their holding in common an essential co-existent experience of negation is not to be taken as somehow figurative or rhetorical:

On the contrary, poetry matters because the individual who experiences this unity in the medium of language undergoes an anthropological change that is, in the context of the individual’s natural history, every bit as decisive as was, for the primate, the liberation of the hand in the erect position or, for the reptile, the transformation of limbs that changed it into a bird (EP 94).

Poetry, it would seem, not only produces life it also dictates the vicissitudes of its evolution, in particular a transition of no little importance to the seven billion or so living human beings on the globe at this very moment, and indeed the innumerable animal beings that we have little or no compunction in eradicating through the predominance of technological productivity: the point where the animal becomes what we term the human. Poetry produces life by somehow continually re-enacting the emergence of the ‘human’ from the total indistinction of general and universal biological being, a being which must have no conception of such a term as human, or indeed any sense of differentiation. We have to tread very carefully in this primeval and pregnant swamp however, for Agamben commits the whole of his book The Open to a patient deconstruction of the terms human and animal. Therefore, for poetry to avoid being merely another cog in what he calls the ‘anthropological machine’ of the production of the human out of an imposed division from and articulation with the inhuman or animal, it must both help human being out of the swamp of animalistic indistinction and take the hand of human being while leaping with it back into those dissolute waters. Poetry, therefore, produces something called life by the double negation of biological life (indistinction) and human social life (division). This is a great deal for poetry to take on. More, I would wager, than anyone has ever asked of it before, even Mathew Arnold. Indeed, according to Agamben, in bringing together metaphysics and politics the poetic experience with language constitutes everything. Perhaps, then, the reason why literary studies has been so negligent of Agamben’s ideas of late is ascribable to perfectly understandable stage fright. We are not yet ready to take responsibility for everything. It is possible that we never will be. Yet, according to Agamben, we must, at some imminent future date, we must.

If this poetic claim to everything is to be taken seriously, as indeed it has to be as the totality of Agamben’s philosophy is part dependant on this avowal amongst a handful of others equally unsettling, poetry does not simply retain some arche-trace of the first emergence of the human which the philologist unearths. Although often accused of teleology, Agamben always strongly refutes such a clearly flawed foundational temporality. Rather poetry enacts anthropological change every time we experience it. Agamben is quite clear in stipulating how this endless change occurs. First is the presupposition of an asymmetrical duality within our mode of thinking, here see-sawing between poetry and life. Two positions are taken up, always the same two in fact. The first is the imposition of unity across two terms, the second the enforcement of their actual division into two terms. Perhaps it would be helpful to actually think these two strategies the other way around, first division then unity but, I would argue, Agamben avoids this to dissuade us from falling into teleological habits while thinking these two positions. It is not that division occurs and then unity, rather imagine that unity-division occurs as a single but bifurcated and nonrelational category which we can simply rename metaphysics.

Second is an experience for the poet of double desubjectivization. This double ontological negation as poetic experience is a central concept in Agamben’s work and we will return to it any number of times so here I will simply adumbrate a much more involved set of arguments to come. In terms of everyday historical life, Heideggerian Dasein if you will, poetry and life must be considered as separate either permanently or by being part of a narrative of unity that presupposes their previous separation. However, what brings poetry and life together is the sharing of a mutual experience of alienation from their sense of being that Agamben terms desubjectivization. More than that, it is not enough that they share alienation they also actively alienate each other, reciprocally returning the favour of ontic nihilation. Poetry, for example, gets in the way of life by bringing into the everyday that which cannot be easily assimilated into the everyday without radically altering its essence. Life simultaneously alienates poetry by disallowing the poetic the option to simply fall into hermetic, self-celebrating, melodious noise. The language of poetry undermines the predominance of meaning in the world, but the centrality of meaning insists that poetry exist in the world and not in some other, tuneful place of song.

At this juncture we must pay almost forensic attention to how these two presences come together without succumbing to the structures of metaphysical thought, so familiar to us now from the travails of Heidegger and, subsequently, Derrida. The combination of poetry and life is not immediate, Agamben stipulates, rather they co-exist or are co-suspended within a single medium. This medium, which he consistently calls language although it would be a mistake to think of this ‘language’ as similar to that which I am using now to communicate however inexpertly with yourself, is a zone of mutual, privative yet productive withdrawal. Within language the differential essence of human life and the permanent unity of the inhuman, phusis or nature, come into proximity within a single medium through the means by which this medium negates both difference and identity. For reasons which we will labour over, it is the poet and poetry alone that can undergo this experience, primarily because poetry retains the correct relationship with language as such, a medium that has been lost to human being, historically, due to philosophy and politics. Poetry is able to experience language as a non-mediating medium that denies immediacy without succumbing to its opposite. It is in this way that ‘poetry’ ‘produces’ ‘life’. The unity of poetry and life in the medium of language is the very basis for a continually emergent ‘human’ being allowing for what I would describe as Agamben’s ontology of in-difference.

We are being over hasty. Before we make the leap to human being let us tarry a while longer in the animal kingdom. As we know, for monkeys, the thumb allowed for a manipulation of environment via the medium of tools unparalleled in the natural world. This would have counted as a great quantum leap or event for animal history if animals could experience the event within their inherent timelessness or if they possessed any sense of history which they patently do not. Naturally, to speak of this as an event is somewhat disingenuous for another reason. Although Kubrick’s argument in the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey is compelling, performing the greatest caesura in the history of film editing as the bone-become-tool rises into the sky creating a world only to become a space-ship transforming world into globe and beyond, in reality the evolution of manipulation took millennia to occur. As did the previous change wherein reptiles ‘learnt’ to fly, or even earlier than that when fish developed an ability to walk and breathe in air. In each instance the development of a new limb resulting in a further stage in the development of the human came about excruciatingly slowly.

Yet, in some senses such development can not be said to have occurred temporally until the completion of the final evolutionary transformation, the development of human speech and with it self-consciousness and history. Development, evolution, change and so on are all historical consequences of the very first event, the self-reflective and temporal capability of recognising and naming such a thing as epoch-making event-hood as such. The new limb, therefore, following on from legs, wings and hands, is the very first limb, limb as limb, the remarkable anthropogenesis of an amputated human being. Legs, wings and hands; poetry has traditionally made metaphoric use of all three. Poetry’s rhythm walks on uncertain feet. Its melodies rise as if on wings to the heavens. These two name, perhaps non-coincidentally, the two realms between which Heidegger places the poet as demi-god whose is precinct opens up within the span between earth and the transcendent realm of the sky. The third limb here, the hand, is not quite a limb at all but the very precondition of Dasein’s being-in-the-world of objects to hand. Handiness or equipmentality is, of course, the very basis of being-in-the-world, so that if feet belong to the earth, Heidegger’s term for the materiality of nature as such, and wings belong to the sky, the realm of the transcendental or that which stands behind existence (Being), then the hand creates the very world from which the thrown-ness of being comes about as the precondition of being’s projection from fallen being into the disclosure of Being as such. The hand is, to put it succinctly, the essence of the so-called ontico-ontological difference, or the division imposed between beings in the world and Being as such. These three limbs, therefore, mark the retrospective historiality or deep-history (geshichte) of human existence: earth—sky—world. As such they are profoundly foundational and seemingly constitute a unity of everything. What other limb, therefore, could the unity of poetry and life conjure and what new environment will this limb open up for man the animal? The name of this new limb is speech—Heidegger in particular is illuminating on the etymo-anatomical origin of our European vocabularies for language in common words for the tongue, itself not an actual limb but a muscle —and the wonderful world it debouches onto we have come to call human language.

Much here remains obscure. We must progress, therefore, with an anatomist’s circumspection, limbing the body of the text, moving carefully in from the particularity of each limb to the gestalt-effect of the torso. Having gone out on a limb with Agambenian rhetoric and Heideggerian ontology, we must retract then feel our way as if lost in darkness or the cordite fog of battle, using the limber as a guide back to the stability of the main carriage. Three terms are under debate here, each in the process of a radical dissection that Heidegger called Destruktion and Derrida deconstruction. These terms are not, therefore, in the midst of redefinition, rather they are squirming beneath the surgical violence of a post-metaphysical lancet of thinking. Three terms, life, language and thinking/Being, that explain the relevancy of Agamben’s work on literature, more than that its urgency, after which and only then, can we approach Agamben and his life-long obsession with poetry.

At the risk of striking an overly portentous tone too early on in proceedings we can go no further until we ask: what is life? This is the question behind a good deal of the Homo Sacer project and is the basis for one of Agamben’s most ambitious works: The Open: Man and Animal. This text constitutes the second part of, along with Language and Death, nothing less than perhaps the most credible attempt to go beyond Heideggerian thought through the philological capture of Dasein, and eventually Being, within the history of Western ‘anthropogenesis’, or the very creation of human being by the anthropological machine. We can only emerge onto the edges of the full clearing of thought that is The Open by observing that early on Agamben makes clear the almost insurmountable problem within our culture of defining the meaning of life:

For anyone undertaking a genealogical study of the concept of ‘life’ in our culture, one of the first and most instructive observations to be made is that the concept never gets defined as such. And yet, this thing that remains indeterminate gets articulated and divided time and again through a series of caesurae and oppositions…everything happens as if, in our culture, life were what cannot be defined, yet, precisely for this reason, must be ceaselessly articulated and divided.

The rest of the book traces the history of this process right up to the work of Heideggerian ontology, a breathtaking tour of ontico-philology that does not concern us here. Rather, we should pay attention to the structural necessity of defining life for, as we are forewarned here, we will never arrive at a definition of life as such. Life is not some thing but is rather the indefinably indeterminate fuel that drives the anthropological machine of defining the human as not the animal or the inhuman, through an endless activity of the simultaneous division and articulation of the term life. We are already familiar with this economy of thinking for, as Agamben helpfully appraised us, within the modern period life is simultaneously articulated with and divided from the term art. I might go so far as to say that not only does life place us within the contradictory logic of the caesura, that which both divides and joins, but, as Agamben also asserts, life is to be found in the caesura as such, an observation of no little relevancy to the study of poetics.

The Open is primarily concerned with the means by which man appropriates the animal in order to produce or create a conception of humanism as different from and yet intrinsic to the animal. This is one part of a double assault by Agamben on our category of life. The other is to be found scattered throughout the many pages of the Homo Sacer project and its foregrounding of the term ‘bare life’. As the first pages to Means without Ends remind us, summarising the early pages of Homo Sacer: ‘The ancient Greeks did not have only one term to express what we mean by the word life. They used two semantically and morphologically distinct terms: zoe, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all beings (animals, humans, or gods), and bios, which signified the form or manner of living peculiar to a single individual or group’. Any familiarity at all with Agamben means the reader is probably more than comfortable with this definition, Agamben’s assertion that the differentiation was lost over time, and how the division has come to the fore again during the period of modernism which, borrowing and modifying the term from Foucault, Agamben defines as biopolitical. Biopolitics is little more than the revelation of this ancient caesura through an act of articulation wherein the state, the realm of the polis, nomos (law) and bios, takes an interest in, legislates on and finally takes a sovereign power of removal of, the simple biological fact of our being alive. Biopolitics takes over our life, and in so doing first resurrects this ancient division zoe/bios and then eradicates it: zoe-bios. We can see here that the same dynamic dividing-articulating paradox of the caesura operates in the political entity of biopolitics in exactly the same manner as the metaphysical realm of being.

If, in The Open, life is an energia or a mechane for producing the human as life at the expense of the animal in us all, effectively a foregrounding of bios through the appropriation of zoe, in Homo Sacer we re-encounter this life as ‘bare life’. Bare life is, essentially, the base fact of being ‘alive’. It is living as such, denuded of anything other than first the fact that it is, and second that this life does not belong to the human being as such but the sovereign power of the state. It is tempting but erroneous to define ‘bare life’ is as simply animal life, in any case itself merely the result of the operations of biopolitics within the sphere of ontology, or some return to a Hobbesian state of nature. As Wall explains: ‘Bare life is simply set outside the properly human sphere without being brought under divine law and without re-entering nature. Bare life is otherwise than public life…’.

Bare life is bare, in this case, in the sense of being denuded. Bare life is life that has been laid bare as ‘life’. It is not in a state of grace with its bare-ness. It finds no comfort in its return to an Edenic disrobing, but stands before the polis unveiled, humiliated and embarrassing like some terrible recurrent nightmare or guilty Heideggerian dream. Bare life is not life as a foundational, pre-historical or arche-trace of life before division and articulation, rather it is the result of zoe travelling through bios and then being rejected by bios as improper. At this juncture, bare life is excluded from the polis and not subject to its laws and norms, whose archetypes in Agamben are the infamous figures of the Homo Sacer and Muselmann, yet it does not revert back to animal or natural life. The reason for this being primarily because it did not originate in phusis but was always a product of the bio-political (bios + polis) and its millennia-long project to eradicate phusis from the polis through the power of exception enshrined in the sovereign and supported by the nomos.

Form of Life
Beyond life as a paradoxical dynamic of indefinition, an etymological residue from Greek times, a mechanism for defining the human against the animal, and a means of totalitarian control, there is one final possibility for life in Agamben’s work which I will simply touch upon here as he himself merely raises it as a tantalising possibility in Means without Ends. This final life is what he calls the form-of-life. Form-of-life returns Agamben’s thought full-square to the centre of Heideggerian ontology, which is apt for however devastating his attack on Heideggerian being is in the final pages of The Open, Heidegger remains the central forebear for all of Agamben’s work on poetry. A form of life is almost the opposite to the melodramatic ‘bare life’. Where bare life is indistinct and without qualities, even the quality of lacking quality which as Musil shows can be the most interesting subjectivity of our age, our form of life is the day to day detail of the kind of life we have been destined to lead. This is, of course, Heideggerian ‘thrown-ness’ into stimmung (mood or a predisposition to living in a particular manner) also presented in Being and Time as the predestination of being within the Daseinal predeterminations as to how a particular being will come to live out its days. As is now well documented, while Dasein is thrown-being it is also projective being, meaning that if it is encased in actuality, you are a carpenter so carve wood for little reward, it is also marked by possibility, you could carve wood with passion and inventiveness coming to a sense of authentic being based on wood-carving.

This authentic living out one’s life as a self-consciousness of what one is rather than what one is told or assumed to be, is in part what Agamben means by a form of life, without the dashes, which leads to a more complex formulation of form-of-life. Of form of life he says: ‘A life that cannot be separated from its form is a life for which what is at stake in its way of living is living itself. What does this formulation mean? It defines a life—human life—in which the single ways, acts and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life…’ (MWE 4). He defines such a form of life as power, potenza in Italian which also means potential. This he contrasts with (bio)political power: ‘Political power as we know it…always founds itself—in the last instance—on the separation of a sphere of naked life from the contexts of the forms of life’ (MWE 4). For bare life, for example, the only possibility that exists is survival (MWE 8). This is profoundly dis-empowering in that there is no power as potential or possibility here, simply continuation. In contrast to this a form of life that a being lives as a possibility rather than a necessity or a contingency, is a life imbued with the power of appropriation and authenticity or really living. For Agamben, the archetypal activity of authentic, form-of-life being is not, thankfully, some Heideggerian artisanal volk-kraft, (one gets the feeling Agamben is less than familiar with the traditional skills of the campagna) but the more grown-up activity of thought. Thought is not just another form of life, the Dasein of the philosopher, but form-of-life as such:

Only if I am not always already and solely enacted, but rather delivered to a possibility and a power, only if living and intending and apprehending are at stake each time in what I live and intend and apprehend—only if, in other words, there is thought—only then can a form of life become, in its own factness and thingness, form-of-life, in which it is never possible to isolate something like naked life (MWE 9).

Form-of-life is, in other words, living as thinking in such a way that one is not reducible to a particular identity because one is actively engaged in the praxis of questioning the foundations of your identity as existence-projection-understanding (life-intention-apprehension). It is potential living or what Agamben would call whatever life. That said, whatever life refrains from being appropriated by the state into ‘bare life’, which shares with form-of-life a profound indistinction, because it is actively engaged in resisting the state through praxis-agency-critique (another way of reading life-intention-apprehension). Such a form-of-life is critically engaged with its everyday being through the activity of the disclosure of being, which is the definition here of thinking, and as such cannot fall foul of any of the metaphysical aporias of the various forms of life I have described.

Poetry as Living as Thinking
My intention here is not a treatise on life in Agamben and we will rarely return to the debates of the Homo Sacer project pertaining to life in the pages to come. Yet, if poetry produces life and our intention is to consider Agamben on literature then we must understand what this could mean. As we have seen, there are several ways in which we can take this term life according to Agamben. There are the two predominant, privative and ultimately catastrophic definitions of life within the west. The first is the metaphysical definition of life as human life. The second is the political appropriation of this human life as bare life. We must avoid making the mistake of saying poetry produces either of these false senses of life. We also saw how both these problematic definitions emanate from a resurrection of a false division of life into zoe and bios by the Greeks. Having said this, this falsity is not necessarily the imposition of a division that is improper on the part of Greek thinking, for indeed it is we moderns who really came to define both zoe and bios as life by the metaphysical-political production of the ultimately genocidal term ‘life’ as a compound of two values initially intended, as Agamben makes clear, as entirely separate from each other. All the same poetry must not fall into the trap of this caesuric logic: the division-articulation of the term life from out of the historical base of all western categories in Greek thought. Poetry must not become co-extensive with bios in its being a form of human culture, nor collapse into some pre-social idyll of pure zoological noise.

These three dangerous definitions of life lead us to a fourth definition of life as a process of division-articulation which is, in essence, western philosophical thought. Thus it was not the Greeks who had two terms for life, but our amnesiac mnemosynical recollection of the two terms as two facets of the one modern term life that established here the paradoxical logic of an onto-political caesura: life as that which divides and joins with violence. Having said that, certainly Platonic thought is culpable in imposing this divisive articulation on all models of thought to follow and Agamben himself moves swiftly after his definition of life as caesura to show how Aristotle enshrines this within his philosophical method. Poetry is not this either but, like all forms of thinking, it is party to it and its participation in the caesuric dynamic of metaphysical thought will be mapped out against the tensions internal to poetry between meaning and form, caesura and enjambment.

If poetry produces life, is does not produce any of the four ways that the term life has come to be defined in our culture. This leaves us with the final meaning of life in Agamben, therefore, the form of life which is, notably, not life as an object for subjective knowledge, truth-agreement and instrumentality, but a form of authentic, self-aware and critical living. In this final formulation the trick is to get beyond the caesuric logic unity-division, a task almost impossible to conceive of in that it is ancient, ubiquitous and ruthless. The power of a form-of-life is that it is a specific life which both lives out ontic determination, I was destined to live this specific life, and perpetually questions the preconditions of this life to be always open to the possibilities of living otherwise. As Agamben says of thinking, the form-of-life par excellence: ‘To think does not mean merely to be affected by this or that thing, by this or that content of enacted thought, but rather at once to be affected by one’s receptiveness and experience in each and every thing that is thought’s pure power of thinking’ (MWE 9). A form-of-life exists precisely in the midst of the famous Heideggerian ontico-ontological difference in that it is neither entirely existing (Dasein) or thinking (Being) but something akin to existing-as-thinking/thinking-as-existing in perfect balance, to such a harmonious degree that one could say the division of terms here is almost cancelled out, without, however, being subjected to a transcendental, unifying Aufhebung. This stilling of the dialectic into thought if in-difference, neither difference nor its resolution but a peaceful copresence of terms, is what I am here calling logopoiesis.

If there is such a thing as life for us today, simply being alive itself being still a scientific mystery, then it must be a narrative compound of all Agamben has to say on the subject. It is the historical result of contemporary thought within a post-Greek mode of thinking the division-articulation of being through the maiming of the anthropological machine and the humiliating denigration of bare life. Such a life cannot be simply a return to life, idealised animal living, for both animal and living are metaphysical constructs that come into their own in terrible fashion during modernity. One cannot, it would seem, go back to life, returning to a state of ferality, instead one must go forward from life into living. In Means without Ends Agamben makes it clear that to do this means to engage in thinking. Yet, as we have seen elsewhere, he has also stated with some lucidity that it is poetry that produces life, so what conclusion are we to draw from this, that poetry is first a form of thinking and second the form of contemporary thinking? Most emphatically yes, on both counts. Poetry produces life as a form of contemporary and future thinking for which Agamben struggles to find a name: Idea of Prose, criticism, potentiality, form-of-life. I propose to call this way of thinking through poetry, logopoiesis.

Zoon Logon Echon
In ‘The Dictation of Poetry’, considering the troubled history of the relation between poetry and life, the philosopher asks: ‘What does it mean for a living being to speak?... Do life and speech constitute an articulated unity, or is there a disjunction between the two that neither individual existence nor the historical development of humanity can overcome?’ (EP 76). It would seem that these two apostrophic interrogations, ‘Why does poetry matter to us?’ And ‘What does it mean for a living being to speak?’ interrogate and perhaps answer each other through the centrality of speech for human life and being. The answer as to why poetry is still important to us is to be found in the question what it means for a being to speak which must also mean how to produce life. The production of life follows a complicated, in some senses a-teleological, timeline incorporating the transformation of the human animal into the only human animal. That this production became destructive due to the Greek bifurcation of life into zoe and bios and our appropriation of this gesture should not dissuade us from realising that the production of life is in some senses the production of human, that is non-animal, life, although not in the manner outlined in the ‘anthropological machine’ of modernity. Before we can answer to how something like poetry can be responsible for the production of life, therefore, we must trace the history of the rise of life in the evolution of the limb of speech into language.

Those well-versed in Greek categories will be more than aware that while that remarkable culture had no single word for life, they did have a single definition of what marked man out from other animals, and that was the phrase zoon logon echon or the living being that has language, made famous by Aristotle. Reflecting on this syntagm Agamben goes on to note: ‘The metaphysical tradition has interrogated this definition with regard to both the living being and to logos. And yet what has remained unthought in it is the echon, the mode of this having. How can a living being have language?’. In Homo Sacer the definition of man is reconfigured around Aristotle’s dictum that man is a living animal with an ‘additional capacity for political existence’, but as the analysis progresses it becomes apparent that the opposition in play in political being is identical to zoon logon echon. As Agamben says,

the link between bare life and politics is the same link that the metaphysical definition of man as ‘the living being who has language’ seeks in the relation between phone and logos…The question ‘In what way does the living being have language?’ corresponds exactly to the question ‘In what way does bare life dwell in the polis?’ The living being has logos by taking away and conserving its own voice in it, even as it dwells in the polis by letting its own bare life be excluded, as an exception, within it. Politics therefore appears as the truly fundamental structure of Western metaphysics insofar as it occupies the threshold on which the relation between the living being and the logos is realized (HS 7-8).

There are way-stations to linger at here before we move on once and for all from the political Agamben. The first is that clearly the phenomenal fact of having language, which historically has defined the human animal as human is, according to Agamben, the base fact of metaphysics. As such it answers three fundamental questions: what does it mean to live, what does it mean to be human, and what does it mean to exist as a being? That it has been assumed that this definition of human being is dependant on the inter-relation and irrevocable difference between speech and language, phone and logos, has clouded our judgement so that we have been incapable of understanding the very fact that we have been able to transform the tongue from being a muscle to being an additional life-making limb. In Agamben, as soon as the phone/logos opposition is posed, (and certainly there is a clear critique of Derrida here) one must move to the point immediately preceding this opposition, the very fact of having language at all, and immediately after, the political-liberationist implications of a possible recuperation of this remarkable possession. In so doing, Agamben is always trying to establish critical distance from Derrida of course, and perhaps now is the time to reflect on the genius of both these thinkers whose ideas are simultaneously so complex and so simple.

Just as Derrida effectively took the oppositional and hierarchical structures of Western metaphysics and moved them from a vertical and fixed position phone-logos/grammata to an oscillating horizontalisation, so Agamben also performs a similar philosophical/topographical sleight of hand. Finding the territory of post-metaphysics overcrowded by the inspired prolixity and promiscuity of Derrida, he instead begins his analysis one moment before the opposition and the instant after. Thus the living being dwells in the polis by virtue of retaining within bios a space for zoe, just as in the logos a space for the phone or the zoon is retained. It is worthwhile, at this stage, loitering in this confounding topography of excluded inclusion or appropriated expropriation as Agamben calls it elsewhere. The polis allows the zoon into its walls converting the zoon into a human, while allowing the zoon to retain its bare life as a private matter. At least in the first instance. Bare life and speech is included in the human structure of the polis and logos, as that which is held internally as excluded. This is the only difference between man and animals, this structure of an included potential exclusion. Animals too possess a kind of speech and some form of life but what differentiates animals from humans is that they know no differentiation between the internal and external, and thus they are unable to enter into a state of being subject, simply because they never experience the desubjectivization of this most fundamental differentiation: inclusion/exclusion. Animals, therefore, can be said not to have life at all, and certainly we habitually treat them that way, nor do they have what we call speech.
In the same manner, post-emergent humans also must lack life yet not die. It would not be enough, therefore, to attain life either through a return to zoe or a renovation of bios. Life does not reside in either position. Instead life is lost through their historical distinction. One cannot go back to a time before life was lost, for life must be lost to exist. Nor can one go forward and fix life within humanism, the biopolitical sphere cannot allow for that. How can we live again? If poetry produces life, how can we access poetry? To do this we should listen to our poets and become as children once more.

[apologies for this rather enigmatic formulation, the final reference here it to Agamben's theory of infancy which made it into the book while this section on life did not. I am now returning to this material for my next book also on Agamben and so will update this conclusion in due course to make the piece end more satisfactorily]


Anonymous said…
awesome blog, do you have twitter or facebook? i will bookmark this page thanks. lina holzbauer
Anonymous said…
"Poetry, therefore, produces something called life by the double negation of biological life (indistinction) and human social life (division)." Well stated. Is there a specific place in Agamben's work where he states this explicitly, or is this a gathering of your own? Only curious.

I'm going to keep reading your article and may post again, but I wanted to ask if you have any familiarity with Georges Bataille's work? So many parallels to Agamben's work. What you are calling "poetry" could roughly be translated as Bataille's "profound communication" or "literature," and "life" as "sovereign being." For Bataille, literature (as "sovereign," as "profound communication") was precisely where the isolated-divided being dissolved or merged back into the "continuity of Being" (which was mere indistinction in the animal state, like "water in water"); yet the isolated being returns to this continuity in a state of awakening or consciousness (which in Bataille amounts to a consciousness of loss, since sovereignty, or being, is "nothing" - nothing but communication). This has the exact structure, at least, of what you've said here; and its intention is precisely the same "repoliticizing" of human being that Agamben is after.

This is not the only parallel, however, as the sovereign moment, in that it negates the isolated-divided being, the negation of the world that is predicated on this isolation and division - what he calls the sphere of 'human activity' or the 'world of work' (functionalism, utilitarianism, future-orientation). This seems to have an exact parallel to Agamben's emphasis on inoperativity, unworking, and deactivation of law and economy, as stressed at the end of Kingdom and Glory. Even more, Bataille's statement that "sovereignty is NOTHING" seems to line up exactly with the "empty throne of power" Agamben finds.

I'd say the key texts here for Bataille would be "Guilty" (trans. Kendall), "Theory of Religion," and "Literature and Evil."


Popular posts from this blog

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1977)
First Published (New York: Viking, 1975)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)


· Shoptaw notes that this return to poetry is dominated by images of waiting, that narrative (especially fairy-tale) returns, as do the musically based titles, there are no prose poems and no fixed forms such as sonnets of pantoums, most are free verse paragraphs, also bring forward a new American speech, more direct and inclusive.

“As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat”, 1-2

· Shoptaw notes this was the original title for the collection, marking a self-consciously Romantic return to poetry, recording the thoughts of “I” from afternoon to night, just outside a childhood country home. Has a pastoral crisis narrative in that a summer storm gathers but passes leaving the poet relieved i…

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

For a long time I have felt that poetics has not taken into consideration a great deal written about issues pertaining to difference and repetition to be found in contemporary philosophy. As poetry's whole energy and dynamic is based on a fundamental relation to differential versus repeated units of sense (sense both in terms of meaning and the sensible), any work on difference and repetition would be welcome. That some of the greatest thinkers of the age, notably Deleuze and Derrida, have made both issues core to their whole philosophical systems is so remarkable that poetics is impoverished if it does not fully acknowledge this.

Not that I am one to talk. Although I am aware of the centrality of Deleuze's work to postmodern poetry, I have as yet not been able to really address this but in Poetry Machines I began that work at least. In preparation for the few hundred words I wrote there, here are the 10,000 words I annotated in preparation.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and …

Frank O'Hara, Collected Poems pp.201-300 Annotated

Frank O’Hara, Collected Poems
(Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1995)
Pages 201-300

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection September 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)

Frank O’Hara “In the Movies”, 206-209

· interesting that this poem has not been picked up by the critics for it is an easy point to indicate the importance of films in O'Hara’s aesthetic indicating the dissolves, cuts and montage effects he has been credited with and whilst I do not like to appropriate analogous terms in this fashion the montage of O'Hara is easily distinguishable form the collage of Ashbery in that here it is the movement from image to image in an attempt at seamlessness, a basic synaesthesia of subject in the now of consciousness.
· in addition to the basic aesthetic implications of this use of films there are also certain other issues that he raises here but does not really…