Ontological Whisperings Only, of the Literature of Exception
Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe. (Henry V, Act 4 Prologue)
Can one found a literary theory based on the topographical specificities of the political that Agamben describes in the Homo Sacer project?
Thus far there have been few attempts, aside from Lee Spinks essay ‘Except for Law’ which looks at Crime Fiction in relation to the politics of exception. It is perhaps surprising that this has not yet occurred in any concerted fashion. In the first instance, the narrative of Homo Sacer ought to be provocative of fictive narratives: a despised central character who, although the lowest member of society, contains within him the cipher of absolute power and the very continuation of the state as we know it. It has almost the scent of melodrama about it and certainly echoes numerous famous narratives of doubling such as Frankenstein, Caleb Williams, Confessions of a Justified Sinner and ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’. In addition, the establishment of the politics of exception is, as I have mentioned partly based on literary texts. Finally, while Agamben has recently been accused of using his literary sources as mere allegorical support for his wider philosophical schema, any detailed reading of Agamben would prove this to be far from correct. Agamben is a respectful and assiduous reader of literary texts, more so than any other contemporary philosopher in my opinion. That said, he is no more interested in them as literature alone, if there is such a position of solitary literary self-coincidence, as he is interested in over-coma patients or, for that matter, ancient Roman law. Just as these examples lead him to the political as such, or the being of politics, so his use of literature is part of a wider project to determine first, language as such, and subsequently to a total overhaul of the philosophical as such where it currently resides in a, as he sees it, post-metaphysical doldrums.
If one considers recent literary successes within the U.K., issues of sovereignty, bare life and exception seem very much to the fore. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the neurological disease eating away at the life of the pantomime villain in McEwan’s Saturday, the reduction of the students to the status of Homo Sacer within a UK that is effectively and open camp in Kashiguro's Never Let Me Go even Sebald’s masterpiece Austerlitz, all revolve around considerations of basic biological existence and its mediation within and through social, domestic, sexual or historical relativities. They are, therefore, novels of bare life as mediated by and, excluded from, social life. In the U.S., the potential omnipresence of an Agambenian theory of literature is perhaps even more marked where various post-9/11 novels investigate the non-relation between the dispersal of power over life and death and the mere fact of existence. Thus in Roth’s The Plot Against America, the US is revealed as having been potentially only one democratic choice away from becoming a national camp (a not very strenuously veiled attack on Guantanamo Bay and American racism). While in DeLillo’s Falling Man, the fact of biological survival of the September 11th attacks turns the main characters into empty, physiological vessels, continuing to function as social human beings within the terms of the state, wandering the teeming streets of the world’s polis without recourse to any actual sociality. Perhaps a more pronounced example of Homo Sacer in American literature is DeLillo’s Cosmopolis where the main character acts with a sovereign power of wealth beyond that even of states, while a former employee lives in an indistinct relation to him, plotting his downfall and thus the removal of Sovereignty. Here, DeLillo exposes an element biopolitical power Agamben has not yet considered, namely regicide or the act of murder that does not kill Sovereignty as such. The death of one capitalist does not kill capitalism.
Often, it is the directness of contemporary film that astonishes with its ability to manifest and fulfil complex philosophical concepts. There is no better example of this than Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007). England has been decimated and depopulated by a virus that reduces human beings to manifestations of pure rage or a primal aggressivity. These are wasteful, consuming and solipsistic zombies—very much the zombies of our age—who do not eat the flesh of their victims but merely pummel them with their anger. The sole intention of these attacks is cathartic reproducibility, exchange of body fluids turns each victim into another rage-consumed monster, and they find their satiation only when all human life has been expunged. American troops are attempting to repopulate London through a secure zone they have set up in the environs of Canary Wharf, home of postmodern capitalism. District 1, as it is referred to, is soon compromised by the discovery of a rage victim outside the confines of the district who is asymptomatically infected. She is brought into District 1 for scientific tests related to a possible antidote. This victim, Alice, fulfils several multiple functions of the Homo Sacer in that she is a despised yet sacred figure, exceptional to the camp yet included within it under strict security, a human laboratory for the discovery of a cure and so on. The presence of the exception within the state must always have viral implications, an element of the revolutionary potential of Homo Sacer Agamben does not touch upon, and in the midst of a fresh outbreak within the confines of District 1 the director delights in the depiction of what is termed, by the armed forces, Code Red. This is a classic state of exception wherein District 1, the polis, is transformed first into a holding camp with all the inhabitants herded into secured areas, and then, with cinematic velocity, a zone of genocide as the decision is made to destroy all occupants to halt the spread of the contagion. As the film ends, victims of the virus are shown on the rampage in Paris and the futility of containing and negating exception is brought home. In a land where everyone is infected, who exactly are the exceptions, and as exception exists in the zone of indistinction inside/outside, how is it possible to exclude the Homo Sacer? The political message of the film is both bleak and inspirational: the limits of the polis leak.
Fresnadillo’s film is an uncanny and brilliant allegory of Homo Sacer, which is not surprising as it is clearly a comment on our contemporary political situation wherein sovereign biopolitical power is able to make a decision over the very existence of its subjects in moments of extreme exception: the outbreak of diseases, responses to terrible acts of terrorism and so on. It is also significant that this is a European film for, of course, Region 1 resembles closely the various holding camps for illegal immigrants dotted around the borders of the Eurozone, and the permeability of its borders is surely a political comment on the part of Fresnadillo and his team. Of course, Agamben’s work recommends itself to contemporary cultural critique in that it is hard to think of another contemporary thinker whose work so perfectly fits the cultural mood of the age to such a degree that one can almost hear Zizek’s rapid apostasy as he moves from Lacan and Hitchcock to Agamben and Fresnadillo. Homo Sacer is, in other words, a very powerful tool for the analysis of contemporary cultural texts. A potential literary theory composed around the four elements of sovereignty, bare life, Homo Sacer and exception resides asymptomatically in the Homo Sacer project, waiting on some future outbreak within the academy.
I will not be attempting any advocacy of such a theory of Literature and Sovereignty or The Literature of Exception. There are several reasons for this. In the first instance, such readings work well when one deals with localised examples of literature, film and so on. Crime Fiction naturally considers the law and those outside of it. Contemporary prose fiction occupies the same political moment as Agamben so of course their concerns overlap, interestingly, but in a non-revelatory manner. Any reading of literature based on Homo Sacer is a limited reading of certain forms of literature that fulfil the terms of that text. It is hard to imagine such a theory opening up new vistas in the recent poetry of Lyn Hejinian or Charles Bernstein. I am not sure how Mallarmé might respond. There is, perhaps, also a contemporary wariness and weariness that dissuades one from the enthusiastic rummaging in the canon for Homines Sacri. Classic texts rise up before one’s eyes like once great actors now a little worse for wear, encouraged out of retirement for one last ill-advised starring role: the aforementioned Frankenstein’s monster, Magwitch, Piggy. If there is to be a future literary theory composed of an intimate relationship with philosophy, either a Derridean or Agambenian theory to come, one suspects it needs to move beyond allegorical applications of philosophical systems to apparently less self-conscious, less thoughtful texts such as philosophy often seems to regard novels and films. Finally, however, and most significantly by far, one does not need to concoct a theory of literature from Agamben’s philosophy, for a very substantial part of Agamben’s work is concerned with literature, in particular poetry. One need not, therefore, fabricate an Agambenian literary theory, for the third Agamben, not Agamben the political nor Agamben the philosopher but Agamben the literary critic, has been generous enough to provide for us one of the most challenging, systematic and powerful conceptions of literature to be found amongst the annals of any philosopher, certainly since Heidegger.
To be Wilsoned
How would one go about reading literature after Agamben? Certainly, one ought not ignore exceptionalism, and one cannot close one’s ears to the beguilements of the other Agamben either, the thinker of being. One would need to undertake a journey of redemption and appeasement as regards the Agamben we all know, before presenting a concerted and systematic reading of the third Agamben, whom may we well know about, but is rarely spoken of. Before we begin with the study Agamben and the Ends of Literature then I propose that we undertake such a journey through a reading of s short piece of poiesis that itself straddles the various identities of the great Italian philosopher and philologer. I hope my choice is apt, although for a truly effective literary theory it need not be, in that it is a story of doubles, naming and sovereignty touching on all three elements of Agamben’s work, literature, metaphysics and power.
In Poe’s classic tale of dopplegangerism, ‘William Wilson’, the protagonist whose name is not but is almost William Wilson (coincidently my own initials), is tormented through his school and later University years by his nemesis who goes by the same pseudonymical appellation: William Wilson, by which one presumes one is labelling the narrator, who both is the protagonist of the tale and not the protagonist as he is its narrator. Thus the narrator goes not by the title’s alliterative, dualistic and trochaic moniker, ‘a fictitious title not very dissimilar to the real’, but by another epithet of, we presume, phonetic similarity. William Wilson, not that William Wilson, not the narrating William Wilson, who is also not quite that William Wilson either, for the sake of clarity let us call William Wilson the second William Wilson—one strike through for the negation of identity, this is not the same William Wilson as that which speaks, and the second for the communal possession of the two men of a name which, while sonically kindred to William Wilson, is not William Wilson, (what then could their pseudonym be, we presume the William stands, there is no almost-homonym for William, thus is must be the surname that has been altered slightly, from what, Watson, Weston, Watkin?)—competes with, copies, mimes, emulates, counterfeits, bootlegs, pirates, transcribes, duplicates, Xeroxes, forges, echoes, mirrors, plagiarizes, monkeys and parrots the narrator William Wilson (properly William Wilson).
As the years progress the narrator becomes increasingly unhinged by the mimetic attentions of his (dead) ringer (very) spit (and image), usually performed by a nefarious whispering in the ear. This whisper, the result of a laryngeal defect Poe, apologies, the narrator, describes as ‘a weakness in the faucal or guttural organs’, both protects his nemesis from ridicule by awarding his speech with an immockable gravitas, and provides the only aspect of the narrator that his would-be substitute cannot reproduce: vocal volume. This ‘singular whisper, it grew the very echo of my own’, as a sonorously mitigated vehicle, increasingly bears one single syntagmatic tenor: ‘William Wilson!’
The story comes to an inevitable end in Italy. Wilson is attending the ball of the Duke di Broglio; the duke of intrigue would be the English translation. It is carnival and everyone is in disguise. The narrator, however, has a tip-off regarding the object of his licentious regard, the very wife of his host: ‘With a too unscrupulous confidence she had previously communicated to me the secret of the costume in which she would be habited’. Feverishly pursuant of this deciphered, erotic, esoterica, the masked lover is retarded from his intention to make himself come into presence before the Duchess di Broglio by a light hand on the shoulder and a whispering in the ear. It is, naturally, William Wilson, mockered-up in the self-same costume as that sported by our hero. In an accelerated narrative frenzy that seems possessed, all these years later, with the same passion that gripped the writer at the very moment in 18-- when these events unfolded like pleats of a parted curtain or a carnival cloak, William Wilson drags William Wilson into an ante-chamber of the main ball-room where he stabs William Wilson several times. At this point the narrator is porlocked by someone attempting to enter the ante-chamber of pure violence, and when he returns to consider, or perhaps finish off his namesake, everything is the same and yet also slightly different:
The brief moment in which I averted my eyes had been sufficient to produce, apparently, a material change in the arrangements at the upper or farther end of the room. A large mirror, --so at first it seemed to me in my confusion --now stood where none had been perceptible before; and, as I stepped up to it in extremity of terror, mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood, advanced to meet me with a feeble and tottering gait.
Thus it appeared, I say, but was not. It was my antagonist --it was Wilson, who then stood before me in the agonies of his dissolution. His mask and cloak lay, where he had thrown them, upon the floor. Not a thread in all his raiment --not a line in all the marked and singular lineaments of his face which was not, even in the most absolute identity, mine own!
It was Wilson; but he spoke no longer in a whisper, and I could have fancied that I myself was speaking while he said:
‘You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead --dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me didst thou exist --and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself’.
It is a powerful and famous revelation, much copied in the years that have proceeded from that terrible, final malediction. Interestingly, when the story was first published in 1839 it was itself already a copy of an earlier tale by Washington Irvine, and thus it would seem that the machine of doubling is itself always already productive. One might at this juncture coin a verb in English, Wilsoning, as Coleridge’s Chinese Box poem lead to porlocking, to describe not the fact of doubling but the effect of its always-already being in play and yet also never being in play. For, of course, as in the recent filmic adaptations of the story, Fight Club and Momento, the story’s protagonist becomes also its antagonist and in the last turn of the narrative, which is always the end of the story, doublarity becomes once again singularity.
To be Wilsoned is the inevitable consequence of these two categories of fiction, proto- and anta-gonist. Interestingly, while they originate from the same Greek construction, they refer to rather different subjective states within story-telling. The protagonist is a person of first order, while an antagonist is an opponent, so presumably in some sense despised. Thus protagonism refers to a subjective hierarchy based on some exercise of power. It carries with it something of the sovereign that indeed William Wilson executes in the final act of killing which is not murder. It is a sovereignty which throughout the narrative he is unable to fully possess as he concedes dominance in each instance to his other through self-inflicted blows of insecurity and folly. As he declares with a hidden intent in the final paragraph before the tale’s verso in Rome when speaking of the dyadic hierarchy Wilson-Wilson, ‘Thus far I had succumbed supinely to this imperious domination’. In a sense, then, the story is not about the uncanny at all, but rather depicts the desubjectivization that the protagonist suffers within the corridors of the English class system: prep-school, Eton, Oxford and so on. In fact, this oscillation between a universal subjective state, ontological doubling, and socio-historic facts, the English class system, presents us with the undecidable within the story’s thematics to match the structural-ontological undecidability between the two homonymic school chums.
In contrast, as ever, antagonism converts the topographical reliance on verticality inherent in sovereign protagonism, and instead relocates the two nominations on a flat surface. The antagonist is not definable in terms of power but rather in terms of relation or rather they are not solely definable in terms of power because they are not located in a position of easy relation, but one of struggle. It is difficult, in the melee, to determine at any point a clear dominion. An earlier usage of the word ‘antagonize’ refers to the neutralizing force of counteraction and this indeed is relevant at the end of the archaic story where William Wilson kills himself, if that is indeed a viably finite reading of the closing paragraph.
The Most Uncanny Thing, Literature and Doubling
As yet, Agamben has not written on Poe and certainly has not glossed ‘William Wilson’, although much of what I have just said is spoke as if through the mouth of Agamben, as if he were whispering in your ear. That said, the philosopher is well read in the 19th century American literary tradition having co-authored a book with Deleuze on Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’. Melville is in some senses pally with Poe. Born a mere ten years later he outlived his predecessor only to suffer the same ignominy at the hands of the American publishing industry so that, like Poe, his life ended in poverty and obscurity. As we shall see later when I read Agamben’s non-reading Bruno Schultz, there is a potential reading here by Agamben on Poe of the very order of Bartleby’s passive negation of self exercised in the phrase ‘I would rather not’. This phrase Agamben identifies as the impotency at the heart of all potentiality or that which is not expended of potential when potential comes to actuality in act. A similar economy is, one could argue, operating fatally in ‘William Wilson’, where the protagonist acts to destroy his other but, in doing so, retains rather than expends alterity. As the final words of the story advocate, while the protagonist is in ascendancy here, ‘you have conquered and I yield’, antagonism has been eradicated by protagonism, duality erased by singularity. The cost of protagonistic sovereignty is total self-negation, ‘yet henceforth art thou dead’.
Agamben could have potentially been a literary critic attendant on the ontological intricacies of the uncanny. His first book is subtitled Word and Phantasm in Western Culture. That said, by the time he turns his attention to the uncanny and doubling in The Man Without Content, any psychological element of the uncanny has been excised in favour of clearly onto-aesthetic considerations. The book begins with the essay ‘The Most Uncanny Thing’, but here Agamben refers not to a generic element of literature, The Uncanny, but, following a reading of Nietzsche, an essential characteristic of all modern art: ‘For the one who creates it, art becomes an increasingly uncanny experience…because what is at stake seems to be not in any way the production of a beautiful work but instead the life and death of the author…’ (MWC 5). In these inaugural comments, Agamben is laying the foundation stones for his theory of poietic Modernity, a theory which shadows and echoes his more widely feted and dissected definition of our political Modernity. Specifically, following a complex logic which I will try to unpick towards the end of this book, Agamben is highlighting a split that occurs in art between the positions of critic/spectator and that of artist creator.
Assuming a time when art dwelt amongst us and we had no need to differentiate the experience of making and observing art, Agamben goes on to describe modern art in terms of a radical disassociation between artist and audience. The artist is no longer one of us as he or she does not hold in common a conception of what the art object is, rather their art appears simply as an object in the world, about which an audience must decide critically: is this art? This question which is ontological in essence, replaces the more established critical question of the west which is epistemic: is this good art? As he often does, Agamben uses a literary work to better demonstrate a metaphysical truth, for while he is speaking of a localised effect of our Modernity, his observation as regards poiesis and desubjectivization is a wider, metaphysical proposal. Reading Balzac’s tale of a proto-abstract artist, The Unknown Masterpiece, Agamben recounts the experience where the artist Frenhofer makes the self-conscious subjective transition from artist to spectator when, he realises, through the eyes of another, that his masterpiece is nothing but lines and colours. At this moment, we are told, ‘Frenhofer becomes double. He moves from the point of view of the artist to that of the spectator, from the interested promesse de Bonheur to disinterested aesthetics’ (MWC 11). That this central text for Agamben should begin with essays on the uncanny and then ‘Frenhofer and His Double’, allows us to realise that his critique of Modernity is bifurcated, in the first instance, between a political and an aesthetic consideration of the limitations of our age. Further, just as Homo Sacer spans universal metaphysical propositions and localised historiographic observations, so his work on literature consists of markedly materialistic considerations of literary texts and works of art often at a very technical level, his interest is not particularly limited to enjambment or the ready-made, but to ontological observations revealed by the localised reading of artistic texts.
Naturally, such observations on the uncanny and subjective doubling allow us greater access to the potential meaning of the enigma William Wilson. Wilson is, after all, a spokesperson for Poe himself. His experiences of growing up in England were also Poe’s experiences. The uncanny guest that haunts this feast of literary tall-tale-telling surely speaks with a whisper all writers of narratives have heard. It is the voice of a character you have made, and yet someone who is able to take on a life beyond your own. W.W. is experiencing then, nothing other than the subjective split inherent to poiesis, in particular as a result of his antagonist revealing himself at the end of the story as the tain of our mirrored self; a figment of Master Wilson’s imagination. To make something assumes a decision or literal division, but each act of making splits and divides in a different fashion. Simple making is the division of absolute divisibility or a particularity without singularity that reaches its apotheosis in modern production methods. Inventive making imposes, as Derrida argues, a split in the fabric of the very institution of art, art’s modernity. Invention is not pure creation but the activity of producing something new within the law-limited confines of convention. This oscillating dyad, convention—invention, is our modern sense of literature as something original, inventive, singular. It is a productive, impossible to heal, rent in the fabric of the conception of art amongst the Kantian sensus communis and, in theory, should be in accord with Agamben’s definition of aesthetic modernity, which also partially emanates from a reading of Kant. Yet the most uncanny thing about art for Agamben is not reproducibility, or judgement disruption, but making as such, ex nihilo, a new thing in the world. Such an act of making constitutes an event and Derrida is quite clear that this is not what he means by literary invention. Frenhofer’s subjective collapse is not the result of his inventiveness, for that assumes a work assimilable into commonly held values rather his canvas disrupts such a continuity. The experience of the artist as maker has absolutely nothing in common with our experience as spectator. This being the case, as Frenhofer becomes spectator to his own creation and finds his very subjectivity as maker radically undermined when he starts to criticise what ought to simply be produced, so we too, Agamben asserts, suffer a similar uncanny doubling or split. That which we are expert in, art, is the very thing we cannot create. Making and thinking is therefore a classic non-relational relation to rival those of Homo Sacer, and The Man Without Content becomes an uncanny double of the Homo Sacer, wandering not the liminal spaces of society, but the hall-ways and antechambers of our modern aesthetic institutions.
Homonym, Synonym, Pseudonym: The Whispering Names of Being
Even at the localised level of literary generic concerns, Agamben always considers ontological issues and this structure can again be identified in the issue of naming. ’William Wilson’ extends into the same ground of homonym, synonym and pseudonym that concerns our Italian master in his great work on being, The Coming Community. In a central text from this collection for Agamben’s work on language as such, ‘Homonym’, he reenergises a debate that raged at the beginning of last century between Frege and Russell on the logical and ontological status of the name in relation to the thing it is appended to. Frege’s contention that the concept ‘horse’ is not a concept, refers to the paradox of distinction one is forced to consider in relation to the word as transmission of the idea of the thing, and the word as thing in itself. As Agamben explains in relation to the sign ‘shoe’: ‘Even if we can completely distinguish a shoe from the term “shoe,” it is still much more difficult to distinguish a shoe from its being-called-(shoe), from its being in language’ (CC 73). This problem, how to shoe an horse, inspires Agamben to return, as he often does, to Aristotle, in particular his discourse on synonyms versus homonyms in the Metaphysics. Aristotle defines synonyms as entities that have the same name and the same definition, while homonyms are objects that have the same names but different definitions. ‘Thus the single horses are synonyms with respect to the concept horse, but homonyms with respect to the idea of the horse’ (CC 75).
Not content with this differentiation, how the sign horse can be synonymical (all horses) and homonymical (the concept ‘horse’ or horse as such), Agamben muses:
But what is the idea that constitutes the homonymic of multiple synonyms that, persisting in every class, withdraws its members from their predicative belonging to make them simple homonyms, to show their pure dwelling in language? That with respect to which the synonym is homonymous is neither an object nor a concept, but is instead its own having-name, its own belonging, or rather its being-in-language. This can neither be named in turn nor shown, but only grasped through an anaphoric movement (CC 75-6).
Here we see mounted three levels of naming. The name of the thing (synonym), the name of the concept of the thing (homonym), and the having name (homonymic synonym). The first order of naming is reproducible and proliferant. It gallops along in vast, ever extending herds. The second imposes a philosophical incision differentiating the bad infinity of endless naming from the enforced finitude of a universal concept: all horses. A classic artistic representation of this might be bridled in Stubb’s 1762 canvas ‘Whistlejacket’ where the particularity of a horse, placed on a neutral background wherein it seems to float in air, becomes an archetypal image that seems to whinny ‘I am horse’. The final order of hipponomia contains no content as such either in terms of reproduction or philosophical, conceptual monstration. It is, in other words, liberated from predicative logic without it, apparently, renouncing its predicative structuration. If it is anaphoric, then being-named is merely an indicative function or abbreviation for that which has already been named and must, by definition, be predicative although in an empty fashion. Agamben solves this problem by suggesting that being-named is auto-anaphoric ‘the idea of a thing is the thing itself’ (CC 76), by which he means that being-named contracts the galloping, telescoping, endlessly deferring logic of names and concepts into a single moment where the idea and the thing come together in perfect coincidence. Such and instant where presence is allowed rear-up is not due to the referential veracity of the specific name used, but in the neutral and content-less locale of the event of being-named. Just as, say, the anaphora ‘it’, ‘he’, ‘the Italian philosopher’ or ‘Stubbs’ horse’ add no new meaning to the idea of the thing referred to, so the event of being-named does nothing other than situate or support the saddle of being as such. This is Agamben’s famous whatever-being, ‘Whatever is singularity insofar as it relates not (only) to the concept, but (also) to the idea’ (ibid.) or ‘that which, holding itself in simple homonymy, in pure being-called, is precisely and only for this reason unnameable: the being-in-language of the non-linguistic’ (ibid.).
Acute readers may already be able to see the relevance of homonym and synonym for any reading of ‘William Wilson’, but no such reading would be complete without Agamben’s short essay ‘Pseudonym’ in which he discusses the prose of one of his favourite writers, Robert Walser. Agamben is fascinated by the combination of neutrality and irony or suggested irony that typifies Walser’s prose anti-style. Anti-style certainly in comparison with his German language peers Mann and Broch. Perhaps the archetypal Walserian voice therefore is Ulrich, the narrator of Institute Benjamenta who comes over endlessly as a wide-eyed ingénue and self-aggrandising cynic. Agamben begins his essay on Walser with a consideration of the linguistic and literary extremes of lament and praise, which he sees as the ‘extremes that define the domain and the scope of human language, its way of referring to things’ (ibid.59). Naming, therefore, has two extreme limits and as always it is an issue of duality and non-relation. Lament occurs when meaning exceeds, or perhaps less contentiously simply does not capture, the thing in itself. Praise is the result when ‘the name perfectly says the thing’ (ibid.). Irrespective of whether this is an accurate linguistic observation, Agamben is not a linguist as such but an onto-linguist who uses linguistic categorisations as means of accessing being, it certainly speaks to the double-Agamben that Negri has acquainted us with.
Agamben’s own work is simultaneously that of lament and praise. Walser interests Agamben because his language seems to renounce any intercourse with either side of language’s ‘ontotheological pathos—both in the form of unsayability and in the (equivalent) form of absolute sayability’ (ibid.). Defining the West as a project destined to make language bring the name of God into being and then found in God’s name the power of reference, he finds Walser’s prose wonderfully guilty of outliving ‘its theological task’ (ibid). How does Walser achieve this neutered and neutral God-less prose? Primarily through a highly developed use of pseudonym: ‘The semantic status of his prose coincides with that of the pseudonym or the nickname. It is as if every word were preceded by an invisible “so-called”, “pseudo-”, and “would-be”…almost as if every term raised an objection against its own denominative power’ (CC 59-60). Agamben goes on to describe this prose style as ‘a modesty of language with respect to its referent. This referent is no longer nature betrayed by meaning, nor its transfiguration in the name, but it is what is held—unuttered—in the pseudonym or in the ease between the name and the nickname’ (ibid. 60).
I will leave to one side the odd use of the word ease here, retaining the privilege of returning to this many pages hence, but for now it suffices to say that ease is the merest hint of a differential spacing, adequate enough for division but modest enough, why not, not to insist on a radical difference of identity, heterogeneity or singularity. Walser’s language solves, for Agamben, the great problem of Western metaphysics in a manner that will take the rest of this study to unpick. For now it is enough to clarify that the pseudonym, like the homonymic synonym, moves language into a zone of indistinction and thus passive neutrality between ancient and contesting metaphysical values. In the case of the homonym it is word and concept, here it is the sign as reference or ontological plenitude. The pseudonym is, after all, a peculiar form of naming in that it does operate a clear denominative function in the world, one can pass and be identified as existing under that faux moniker, but the name in question is no one’s real name. Operating a logic that is Agamben at his most brilliant, a term which exceeds the dyadic operations of metaphysics, here language and truth, operates a simultaneous double-deconstruction. This works not only on the terms’ asymmetrical relationality, this is Derrida’s domain, nor does it necessarily instigates a Heideggerian destruktion of all terms, but rather allows for a type of neutralising completion. The pseudonym dismantles the machinery of linguistic reference and coincidence, in that it refers but non-veridically, and it names presence, but insincerely. Of course, under such pressures, the pseudonym is no longer semantically a nick-name, but a false name that resides between and is also overlaid on top of the actual name and its operational but untruthful alternative.
At this stage one should also be able to ascertain the relation of the pseudonym to the homonym. The homonym exists in a neutrality of indication between the thing as such and its named presence. It points to a thing but does not name it, does not need to name it, because its contractile powers have removed the space and oxygen required for referential velonomia. It contracts the distanciation between synonym and homonym, thing and concept, presenting an uneasy reigning in of metaphysical energies expended, apparently fruitlessly, since the Greeks. So too does the pseudonym foreshorten the gap between reference and coincidence which is precisely the same debate utilising different terms and operating in a slightly modified context. For reference is nothing other than synonym, and coincidence pure homonym. Although Agamben infuriatingly never states this to be the case, homonymical synonym is just another nick-name for the psuedonymical powers of Walser’s not especially astonishing prose.
These debates present in miniature two issues. The first is that Agamben’s whole project is based on an ontological consideration of the presence of language as such and the basis of western metaphysics on a failure to bring this problem to its full monstration within its now exhausted ontological stable of names. The second is the logopoietic methodology of Agamben that is thus far commented on by only a couple of his critics, and that itself rather negatively. Across these two essays, and a number of others, Agamben comes at the problem of naming being from the perspective of literature (poiesis) and philosophical discourse (logos). At no stage does he favour one form over the other, indeed the problem resides in their false division since Plato, nor does he precisely dismiss either form. If anything he seems more favourable always to literature but, in the final analysis, his interest is ineluctably drawn back to his true calling and his true naming: philosophy.
If Agamben is drawn to philosophy, I am always drawn back with fresh incredulity to the logopoietic manner in which great works of literature address and perform fundamental metaphysical truths often well in advance of philosophy itself. ‘William Wilson’ is not only no exception, as we habitually say, it is exemplary and in that sense truly exceptional. It is unclear to me if Agamben’s work provides a framework for a clearer understanding of this fiction, Walser is for example stylistically the very opposite of Poe, or whether the story simply confirms the lasting presence of the issues that Agamben has but recently clarified in discursive prose. This indistinction, the most significant and productive of our age I would wager, is the very quintessence of the logopoietic. Concentrating first on the story’s devastating and explosive ending, we see performed first here in the form of a concluding revelation a cataphoric reversal of the auto-anaphoric ontology of self-naming homonymic being. The dying words of Wilson’s other unveil the ontological duality that is present in all beings, but which is dramatised as a rhetorical device in fiction and thus becomes, one presumes, a heightened ontological problem for the writer who occupies the extreme points of ontology. At one end he is in total coincidence with his activity of poiesis, taken here to mean not the act of making something but of bringing to presence being in the activity of creation. In a remarkable irony, a truly modern and Romantic irony, the nihilistic energies of the modern maker are realised in a productive destruction of one’s self as living being and creator. In killing alterity in the self, and potentially killing one’s own life—it remains unsaid whether Wilson murders another Wilson or the self-same yet alterior Wilson his alter ego—the narrator brings to presence the truth of being’s reliance on alterity: ‘in me didst thou exist’. He also removes the potential for poiesis at precisely the same moment, for poiesis is nothing other than a bringing to presence the other of being, its unsayability, not through the naming of being, William Wilson, but through the activity of naming as the basis for whatever being in the being named. The name William Wilson doesn’t matter at all. The name William Wilson matters most of all.
In murdering alterity, Wilson not only disallows poiesis at the moment of his greatest creative-destructive act, but he also negates his status as artist-creator by becoming, instead, spectator to his own actions. This is further emphasised by the complicated presence of the mirror in the ante-chamber, and the instigation of the Porlock who, in interrupting Wilson’s total self-plenitude in the profoundly nihilo-narcissism of self-murder, thus stated so as to differentiate self-murder from simple suicide, also brings in perceptive distanciation so that when Wilson returns to his antagonist, he is aware of what he has done, rather than consumed in the act of doing itself. I do not believe that, directly, Poe intended ‘William Wilson’ to be an allegory for the creative act. I am sure he had in mind a consideration of ontological duplication, counterfeit, masking and psuedonymising as the critics, no doubt, confirm. That said the story is a profound investigation of the reliance of being on profound alterity, creation, destruction, and spectatorship, all key themes for the development of aesthetic modernity. No one except the modern artist is surely as fully aware of the issues of alterity. What is poiesis after all but the bringing to presence of the most other of all things, our own self-presence? And who but the story teller in her profound engagement with deixis, anaphora and cataphora, can testify in full as to the ontological problematics of naming being, which brings us to our second level of reading.
As I have tried to creatively demonstrate in my own slightly over-wrought reading of the fable, the whole narrative revolves around the issue of naming. Who is William Wilson would, I imagine, be a legitimate literary theoretical question. Agamben’s work is important in that it allows us to move away from a predicable psychoanalytical reading, to a more profound investigation of ontology and nomination that makes the story not merely great literature but a working of lasting logopoiesis. Perhaps it suffices here to map out the means by which Poe performs Agamben’s observations on synonym, homonym and pseudonym, 150 years before the philosopher himself comes upon them. We will take as read the multi-stratificatory issues pertaining to author, narrator and protagonist, a favourite technique of the ‘gothic’ after all, although there is little if anything gothic about ‘William Wilson’. Of course, in the 1830s with fiction still in its nascent state, Poe's prescience in such matters is a simple sign of his greatness. Laid out on top of this layered bed-rock is the problem of the narrator’s non-name. He goes by a pseudonym, arguably we all do of course, which is itself a partial homonym, his pseudonym resembles phonetically his real name, which is itself a full homonym, in that William Wilson names two beings. This homonym is destabilised by the coincidence of the phonetic quality being a false coincidence, William Wilson is not their name, and an almost veridical coincidence, William Wilson sounds like and almost is their name. Wilson’s mimetic ontology, his being seems entirely based on aping that of the narrator’s, is perhaps inaccurately presented in such a form of words for his ontology remains radically singular in the moment of its being-named, singular by being non-particular or whatever, irrespective of whether its presentation to the world or its actual being-in-the-world is mimetic. That it is so is again another central element in our case for reading this as an allegory or modern nihilistic poiesis, for Wilson is, in this way, a representation of the narrator in all elements except phonetically. As if Poe has relied mainly on the advice of Agamben but, at a central juncture, had also consulted with Derrida, Wilson is phonetically marked out as different from and identical to the ‘real’ Wilson through the use of the whisper.
The biological restrictions of Wilson’s larynx undermine his charade in one crucial element, which means that when he speaks the name ‘William Wilson’ he is able to make it exist as pseudonym, homonym and synonym. If a synonym proper defines phonetic difference and semantic coincidence, not Aristotle’s definition but the rhetorical usage of the term, then this whisper presents us with a third layer of synonymising. Whispered in this fashion, William Wilson does indeed sound different while naming the same thing, although the phonetic divergence is in terms of volume, a phonetico-hyletic element of language that linguistics is yet to take into consideration, while the thing named is not, in fact, the same concept at all for it names two very separate beings: ‘this singular whisper, it grew the very echo of my own’.
Agamben has not yet written on whispering. He has considered the voice, silence, and issues of subtle divergence in general however which, when taken together form the basis of an ontology of mumurous susurration. In Poe being does not speak, nor does it stay silent. It whispers and in so doing it brings together in one motif all the complexities of this many-banded formation. It also depicts in wonderful and apt miniature, for Agamben is a prose mannerist, two central issues for his theory of literature as a form of logopoiesis or activity of bringing the being of philosophy to presence. This whispered name ‘William Wilson!’ is, as far as I am concerned, one of the greatest creations of aesthetic modernity that we have, as ascetic as abstraction, as thrilling as film, as disturbing as atonality, and as shattering as poetic desubjectivization. In naming the issues surrounding pseudonym, homonym, synonym, naming, concept, being-named, duplication, coincidence, alterity, difference, the phonetic, the reproducible, mimesis, singularity, volume and violence, there is no greater undertonal expression of modern, poetic being until, perhaps, Kurtz lies back and mutters ‘The Horror the Horror’. While a great deal has been made about the silence of artists, most importantly Rimbaud and Duchamp, for me the greatest artists of our age are those who are falling silent. I urge you to listen to the whispering voice in your ear, for it is poetry calling you to being.
The Literature of Exception and its Many Exclusions
Having dealt with genre and naming being, there is of course a simpler reading of the tale courtesy of Agamben, and that is a consideration of the presentation of sovereignty and exception tragically staged as an Italian commedia dell’arte. The narrator tells us early on that he has inherited his family’s characteristics making him ‘self-willed’ to such a degree that his parents failed to hold his caprices in check. ‘Thenceforward my voice was a household law…I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, master of my own actions’. At prep-school, ‘the ardour, the enthusiasm, and the imperiousness of my disposition, soon rendered me a marked character among my schoolmates, and…gave me an ascendancy over all not greatly older than myself;--over all with a single exception’. As the language in the early section of the narrative shows, the main character is born to a sovereignty that he exercises with relish at his exclusive school, but in this instance the exception is not a Homo Sacer substitute but rather a rival to his sovereign claims. The story does not delineate the standard zone of indistinction brought about between sovereignty and exception, but considers the fervid bifurcation to be found within sovereignty itself as the two men vie for supremacy of the ‘throne’ of their limited, but powerful, little world. The energy expended in this struggle is described in the middle part of the story where the narrator explains the facility with which his protagonist keeps step with him, and the hidden struggle he has to undertake just to maintain the rivalry on an equal footing. The tension here between the two men, therefore, can almost be described as the coming to being of exception. Structurally the positions are all laid out like so many cards in a game of écarte, the closed world of privileged education, the available positions of sovereign and exception, but it is as if we are located in pre-history or the pre-political, waiting for the écarte that will explode this uneasy equilibrium of kings and raise one up to true sovereignty by the striking down and expulsion of the other.
This transpires at Oxford where the narrator conspires to relieve Lord Glendinning of his fortune by the caddish cheating at cards. When Wilson exposes this ruse, the narrator’s wild profligacy in the halls of power is finally brought to an end and he is ‘sent down’ from Oxford. The following paragraphs describe the errancy of this newly minted Homo Sacer: ‘Abased, humbled to the dust as I then was…’; ‘commenced a hurried journey from Oxford to the continent, in a perfect agony of horror and shame’; ‘I fled in vain. My evil destiny pursued me as if in exultation, and proved, indeed, that the exercise of its mysterious dominion has as yet only begun’; ‘From his [Wilson’s] inscrutable tyranny did I at length flee…and to the very ends of the earth I fled in vain’. This is an admirable delineation of all the specific qualities of the Homo Sacer to be found across Agamben’s work: abasement, shame, subject to mysterious dominion, the impossibility of escape from the structural dominance of the sovereign. What is also presented here is an issue barely hinted at in Agamben relating to the very choice of whom is to occupy the role of Homo Sacer. This issue is brilliantly considered in relation to the selection of the Jew in the extermination camps by Andrew Benjamin, who criticises Agamben’s conception of ‘bare life’ as being total indistinction, stressing that it was of great importance that a specific identity be considered by the Nazis before they stripped it of all human characteristics. Does not the Homo Sacer first bear traces of their former existence, and does not the choice of the sovereign’s power of debasement pertain naturally to the inherent characteristic of power, the removal on one’s potential superiors? Agamben certainly traces the obscure figure of Homo Sacer back to a section of Roman law giving the father absolute dominion over his household to such a degree that he can kill his son with impunity. Why his son? Because the son naturally competes for dominion with the father, and indeed Homo Sacer may be a frightening, paranoid and despicable prophylactic measure: to exclude one’s rivals before you believe they will exclude you. Certainly in ‘William Wilson’ this is the case and explains the strange clinamen between the sovereign and their non-relational and despised other. The Homo Sacer was once a candidate for total power and the secret that they bear with them is that the first candidate for exclusion is not the poor nor the helpless, but the sovereign himself.
Yet, I would argue, the narrator is not fully Homo Sacer but is in the process of becoming excluded. One assumes that exclusion is a single act of scission but here at least this is not the case. The narrator is slowly, with many snips and refutations, carved from his position of assumed dominion and slowly brought to a state of absolute shame. Exclusion, it would seem, like narrative and the Freudian subject, needs to unfold leisurely in its own time and find its own end. It is almost as if the sovereign is in a God-like position, allowing the narrator free-will within certain structural confines to come to the debasement of total bare-life by his own devices. Is this not the very nature of the operation of the law on societal norms? It is passive, seemingly, an inactive network of checks and balances to protect the polis from the chaos of nature out there. Whatever abuse is performed due to the provisions, loop-holes and relations established by this law, the law is never guilty. Guilt is the privilege of absolute power and total powerlessness.
The end of the story is the beginning, or ought to be, of a true exclusion. We are cast from the world of poiesis woven about us inn golden gossamer thread, courtesy of the narrator-maker. This is the case both in terms of the semantic but also the semiotic function of the last words of ‘William Wilson’ which dispel the sovereign rule of absolute narration and the dominion of the literary word. Taking Agamben at his word we must pay careful scrutiny to the auto-anaphoric here in the form of the deictic pronominal indicators, it is often the case that anaphora and deixis coincide or overlap: you, I, thou, me, this image, thyself. Due to the complexities of naming that I have outlined each instance of anaphoric deixis here is simultaneously an act of auto-anaphora, for as the phrase ‘this image’ suggests, along with numerous other clues in the narrative such as the shared birth date and the fur coat, Wilson may be simply a figment of the narrator’s overwrought imagination. The status of being-named in the story is especially consequential in that the word murder, in the realm of sovereignty and law, is particularly sharp. If the narrator kills Wilson then within the law it is murder. If my reading of the story is correct, however, as the narrator has become outside the law, his actions are not determined as murder as he is literally anomic. Thus if Wilson is acting sovereign, and indeed everything is a performance here, then he could kill the narrator without it being murder and so, by rights or by the law of anomie or the norms of abnormality, if given the chance the Homo Sacer could kill the sovereign with impunity because they already live in punition. If the narrator kills himself then how can this be murder and why is it not counted as suicide? It could just be a figure of speech or perhaps it is testimony to the radical desubjectivization that the narrator has experienced such that his self is not his any more. Thus the auto-anaphoric would carry with it a fracture, a rift in the imperious surface of the mirror of self-naming, which is the very moment of the being-named wherein being comes to itself by its impersonality as whatever being. William Wilson ceases to name all such men, or the concept of actual singular Wilson-being, but is reduced to the anaphoric-deictics he, thou, thyself, even this.
In this way the narrator has been fully Frenhoffered, so irrevocably split that if he were to take up arms against his own life, it would be as if murdering another human being. That Wilson is able to call this murder means, in a remarkable fashion, that in dying he has reconferred on Wilson full legal status; anomie becomes, at the last gasp, bonhomie for these old school friends. Thus sovereign and Homo Sacer finally do exist, here at least in one of the greatest works on sovereignty we have in the literature, in total nonrelationality. If the sovereign kills the Homo Sacer, it is not murder and is anomic. If, however, the Homo Sacer kills the sovereign then their status as the absolute excluded is negated, their bare life which was their denuded social being if you recall, is simply redressed in all the regalia of statehood. They do not, it would seem, take the place of the sovereign, they are instead pardoned and become simply a citizen again. Negri and Zizek are both correct in identifying Agamben as the last surviving revolutionary philosopher for precisely here at the end of the story, we discover a means by which anomic regicide is the perfect generator of social happiness.