Friday, May 07, 2010

"Though we keep company with Cats and Dogs": Onomatopoeia, Glossolalia and Happiness in the Work of Lyn Hejinian and Giorgio Agamben.

I recently published an article on the work of Lyn Hejinian and Giorgio Agamben in Jacket Magazine.

Take a look at it here: "Though we keep company with Cats and Dogs": Onomatopoeia, Glossolalia and Happiness in the Work of Lyn Hejinian and Giorgio Agamben.

It fuses together some central elements of Agamben's work on the poetic word, and Hejinian's provocative theory of happiness.

Effectively Agamben's conceptualisation of poetry as a potential modality for an alternate form of life as thinking breaks down into the study of four elements.

1. the poetic word (onomatopoeia, glossolalia, xenoglossia, the semiotic and naming)

2. Enjambement

3. Caesura

4. Structure/Rhythm, what I call projective recursion

Placed together these form the basis for what I call logopoiesis in my most recent work, that is what has been called elsewhere by Heidegger and Badiou, poetic thinking.

I think now there is material on all four elements posted on the blog in relation to various contemporary poets.

Article: "Draft 33 Deixis" / Notes on "Deixis"

I recently published this collaboration with Rachel Blau duPlessis in relation to her work Draft 33: Deixis. Take a look at it here: "Draft 33: Deixis" / Notes on "Deixis": A Midrashic Chain.

Deixis remains a fascination of mine and turns up in the most unexpected places. I return to again in my recent book The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis.

Projective Recursion: The Structure of Ron Silliman's Tjanting

A new article commissioned for Jacket Magazine on Ron Silliman is now available here: Projective Recursion: The Structure of Ron Silliman's Tjanting.

It is part of an excellent special edition on Silliman's work.

The piece is especially important as it is the first time I have tried to formalise my ideas about Agamben's theory of poetic structure in terms of analysis of a specific work of poetry since my work on this area in my recent book The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Under Glass: Agamben and the Museum

As ever in Agamben's philosophical archaeology there are, according to him, two contesting theories of poiesis in the period of aesthetic modernity. The first concentrates on the role of the artist as god-like being of creation (the sovereign or common).  The second on the art object itself as thing unto itself (artistic bare life or the proper).  Naturally the two positions are connected in that, as we always see, god needs the world to give his power of making specific instances of operativity, while the world needs god to retroactively found its power of particular making.  In this way then we can 'easily' read Agamben's first book The Man Without Content in light of one of his most recent, The Kingdom and the Glory.  If we were to do this then we can say that the universal power of creation founds of course every specific object created, but that without these objects created pure creation remains merely a potential and thus inoperative.  There is, therefore, no relationship more ripe for indifferential suspension than the signature of art during the period of modernism.  In my own consideration of Agamben's modernism I concentrated on subjectivity and poiesis in relation to sovereign creation (Watkin, Literary Agamben Chapter 3).  Agamben, however, is as interested in things as he is beings and so now we turn our critical gaze to the art object itself, especially its simultaneous creation and negation during aesthetic modernity.

Within the logopoietic project of taking art as a parallel means of thought to that of philosophy--with the ultiumate aim of indifferentiating the common (philosophy) proper (art) oppositional economy which defines the signature art in the west and thus suspending this signature for good--place is of central importance. It has been the exteriority of art that has marked it out for philosophy as first despised object, then servant to thought, and finally thought’s salvation, the positions of Plato, Hegel and Heidegger respectively. Thought is in the mind, contained within a concept of subject that it founds and destabilises. Art, we know, has been placed in an outside zone but forcibly and artificially. Art has, in effect, been forced to occupy the place of the despised common or homo sacer (an included exclusion).

If art is not outside, where should art in fact be? By the time of the advent of modernism the place of art is a contested and compacted room. Within the aesthetic modern age in which we still tarry with joy and a heavy burden, each definition of art brings with it its own environment. Art for us is increasingly seen as an object in the world, result of subjective poiesis and criticism. It is also seen retrospectively and with increasing nostalgia as transmissibility within a tradition of experience. Here the space of art is stretched and pegged to the four corners of the total cultural environment, past present and future. This is a place-less and object-less concept of art as medium for the transmission of common experience (are as pure communicability).  In terms of art as poiesis, Agamben's and our own favoured term for the designation of an art that thinks, the work of art is the coming to presence of something and so is a zone of truth, a-letheia, the un-veiling of a truth previously withheld from view. This is the famous Heideggerian lichtung or lightening clearing.

The room of such an art is becoming arboreal, like Max’s bedroom in the great novel by Sendac. Art can also be within the modern epoch the negation of a number of these positions. A place of irresolvable and often tragic contentiousness. Thus art is taken by we moderns as a conception of what can and cannot be art, the ontological decisionist stance of the modern critic/spectator. In this manner art is the space of the coming to presence of art as such, a path through the woods to a clearing that turns out to be nothing other than a path through the woods to a clearing and so on. Just as much as art was conceived by the moderns as once-transmissible, it is naturally now described as the non-transmissibility of the pure creative act, ex nihilo, out of nothing into pure shock. Such an eventful art almost immediately comes to also be seen as inter nihilo, into nothing, resulting in the nihilised isolation of an art object without content, a pure conception or of the aestheticised object whose sole content and meaning resides it is self-consciousness of having no content at all. This is the art without content emerging from the hands and mouths of the women and men without content all of whom are modelled on Musil’s marvellous Ulrich, the great man without qualities. No one single definition of art pertains in aesthetic modernity, no sole landscape is settled. Art is all of these things contained in a stanza which is capacious enough to allow all these contesting claims to art to enter and be in relation, and injudicious enough to avoid trying to choose between them. Art, by which we must always mean modern art, is the place of the displacement of the concept of art, a negative yet potentially constructive space. Or at least this is the theory of the art object that can be construed from the later pages of Agamben’s early, great treatise on art and modernity, The Man without Content.


Museum

Agamben’s discourse on the object is highly charged with Marxism and ideas of commodity fetishism. It is these early considerations of the art object as fetish that allows Agamben to declare that in our age all art is reduced to ‘the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing’ (Prof. 84). All art objects, in other words, are eventually to be found in a museum of our regard. The place of art, in other words, is under glass, and the role of the logopoietic thinker is to crack the pane.

It was during the 18th century that the first publically accessible museums came into being and it is probably not insignificant that there seems to be disagreement over which was the first museum. As is well known the name museum comes from the Greek meaning seat of the muses and was originally a term for a scholarly learning. The first musea were akin to modern universities comprising of libraries and so on. By the 18th century the term was more widely used as a location to house artefacts, things to be looked at but not necessarily read. This shift in meaning leads to a debate as to whether the British Museum or the Louvre was the first publically accessible museum, all depending on a very Anglo-French debate over what constitutes ‘the people’. Is the public everyone or those who represent the people of the state? Either way, it is the origin of the shift in meaning of museum from the word to the thing, writing to the image, that most interests Agamben in his essay on the European tradition of the Wunderkammer or cabinet of wonder commencing around the beginning of the middle ages. These promiscuous collections, as he calls them, were made up of such diverse elements as alligators, canoes, antlers, sawfish teeth, minerals and statuettes, to sample some of the elements of the famed collection of Hans Wurms. That said, through such confounding diversity ‘only seemingly does chaos reign in the Wunderkammer, however: to the mind of the medieval scholar, is was a sort of microcosm that reproduced, in its harmonious confusion, the animal, vegetable and mineral macrocosm’ (MWC 30). Thus a central element of the Wunderkammer was metonymy: the diverse, seemingly random, parts of an apparently capricious collection, in fact emulated in part the whole that was nature. In Britain, a significant example of the modern cabinet is the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford which, across town from the Ashmolean, proposes a permanently alternative pre-modern view of the collection. The second quality of the Wunderkammer that Agamben highlights is its discursive nature. Having explained the synecdochal nature of the collection he adds: ‘This is why the individual objects seem to find their meaning only side by side with others, between the walls of a room in which the scholar could measure at every moment the boundaries of the universe’ (MWC 30). In this sense, therefore, the museum presents a double syntax of the object. Its synecdochal qualities resemble nothing so much as generative grammar where the whole of the universe of language is reduced to a number of representative items, NP VP and so on. On the other, it also emulates structural linguistics with meaning dependant not on a deep structure but on a surface proximity. While it is ideologically essential that modern institutions such as Tate Modern present their collections based on entirely different, scholarly principles, the rehanging of the Tate’s collections based not on historical periodisations but thematic relations allowed for just such powerful juxtapositions and in effect transformed the foremost museum in the country into a medieval cabinet of wonder. Albeit housed in a vast, groaning eviscerated factory.

The beginning of the end of the Wunderkammer is traced by Agamben to the year 1660 with the publication, in Antwerp, of the first illustrated catalogue of an art museum, a work entitled Theatrum pittoricum by one David Teniers. In Teniers’ rhetoric Agamben already finds that of the modern museum and senses the death knell of the cabinet of wonder soon to be replaced by the museum. This is further confirmed with the publication in the same year of Boschini’s Carta dal navegar pittoresco which contains a detailed guide to seventeenth century Venetian painting. It also includes a description of an imaginary, perfect galley. This is a location within which the diversity of art works can find some kind of architecturally assured order or as Agamben says, appropriating the saline, nautical tang of the text: ‘It seems that for Boschini, his imaginary gallery is in some way the most concrete space of painting, a sort of ideal connecting fabric that is able to ensure a unitary foundation to the disparate creations of the artists’ genius, as though, once abandoned to the stormy sea of painting, they could reach dry land only on the perfectly set up scene of this virtual theatre’ (MWC 32) One can sense here the pre-cursor of the modern style of galleries reified most recently in the naming of the White Cube gallery in Hoxton. This provision of a fabric contravenes the law of proximity to be found in the Wunderkammer in that it replaces a syntax of display, each work coming to meaning in relation to its proximate works, and invokes instead a diction of display, each work displayed as a single word surrounded by space. Proximity, the very basis of the synecdochic power of the Wunderkammer, is replaced by separation, the basis of the modern, metaphoric space of the museum. The museum, it transpires, is yet another material manifestation of the prevalence of scission within metaphysics.

Two other qualities of Boschini’s imaginary gallery become important to Agamben. The first is the fact that Boschini is so convinced of the importance of gallery space to the monstration of art that ‘he even compares the paintings sleeping in the halls of the gallery to balms, which, in order to acquire their full power, have to rest in glass containers’ (MWC 32). Agamben speculates that similar assumptions, that art is edifying only when matured under glass, is behind the modern practice of sending art directly from the hand of the artist to the hall of the museum. {insert quote from art magazine here]. This aside, the rise of the museum, better to term it the transformation of the museum from seat of learning, through cabinet of wonder, to hall of preservation, is indicative of the essential Heideggerian assumption behind Agamben’s, and indeed contemporary philosophy’s, central theory of modern art:

What is certain, at any rate, is that the work of art is no longer, at this point, the essential measure of man’s dwelling on earth, which, precisely because it builds and makes possible the act of dwelling, has neither an autonomous sphere nor a particular identity, but is a compendium and reflection of the entire human world. On the contrary, art has now built its own world for itself (MWC 33)

Or to put it on Hegelian terms, art is no longer the sensible presentation of the idea, but is the sensible presentation of the idea of sensible presentation. The museum breaks open the syntax of the cabinet, smashes its glass frontage, and displays the objects therein alone, in a hall, surrounded by space, to be ogled and appreciated merely because, in effect, they are in the museum.
This almost cruel ostracism of art leads Agamben to the second quality of modern art to be found in the inception of the art gallery, that of distanciation. ‘Consigned to the atemporal aesthetic dimension of the Museum Theatrum’, while the work will retain indeed increase its double aura (metaphysical and financial) the actual space of the work will, Agamben predicts, dissolve so that it will come to resemble the convex mirror Boschini wished to hang in his gallery, ‘where,’ he says with satisfaction, ‘the object, instead of coming closer, steps backward, it its advantage’ (MWC 33). These Works Are Fragile! Do Not Touch! No Flash Photography Please! Do Not Feed The Exhibits! The result of this is a paradox that Agamben simultaneously delights in and bewails, namely the logic of apotropaicism: ‘We believe, then, that we have finally secured for art its most authentic reality, but when we try to grasp it, it draws back and leaves us empty-handed’ (MWC 33). Unless, of course, we buy an imprinted postcard, mug, tea-towel, T-Shirt, set of underwear in the gift shop, in which case we can own the work, as many copies as we like.

One cannot help thinking that the long journey to the first and last art, art as art, is to be located in these three metaphoric spaces. In its first existence as the seat of the muses, the museum is nothing other than the zone of poetic dictation, and one has no interest in the manifestation of art as in object, but only as a means of knowing the truth. Here the museum is really the seat of the muses, if one takes the muse in Agamben’s sense as dictation. The museum is the space where poiesis facilitates the coming to presence of truth. This is symbolised precisely, I believe, in the difference between the library and the museum. The library requires thought whereas the gallery merely requires your spectating presence. The second space is that of the cabinet. For the first time the museum is a place of objects not ideas, and they are located under glass because they are rare, auratic, precious and singular. Yet they are held within a single, metonymic, syntax: the cabinet. They are not so much objects of curiosity as curious objects demonstrating a compendium of the wonders of God’s creation: nature. In an odd way, much like the monster in literature and art, their uncanniness does not undermine transmissibility, but further confirms it. Like Agamben’s Homo Sacer, these cabinets are held in a necessary zone of indistinction the better to secure nature’s sovereign, unified diversity. Two facts Agamben neglects to mention in relation to the collapse of the cabinet in favour of our third symbolic space, the theatre, are traceable directly to the Enlightenment: the rise of science and of universal rights. The objective classificatory systems of science replace fairly rapidly the compendia of earlier traditions, so that by the time the surrealists begin to revive the tradition with their own Wunderkammer of objets trouvees, it is precisely not to provide compendia but wild juxtapositions of items which is the main concern. Taxonomy has replaced the compendium and the Wunderkammer become ideological tools to preserve in perpetuity objects which are torn from their taxonomic syntaxes and forced into new a-syntactical, tabular and thus effectively poetic metaphoric juxtapositions. While at the same time the decision to make the Louvre free to all several days a decade, converted the rights of private ownership into that or the public good. Museum’s ceased to be closed collections and the doors of the gabinetto were thrown wide open for all to peer inside. This strikes one as the aporia at the heart of any Heideggerian theory of aesthetic transmissibility, for the modern museum, source of the collapse of arts dwelling amongst us, seems to result from precisely the accessibility of art to all.

I have already hinted at a continuing, mutating life for the Wunderkammer in modern art through the work of the surrealists. For them, however, what is placed in a box behind glass is not a compendium or some form of digest or epitome. The origin of the word epitome resides in the Greek to cut but, like compendium, it also retains the meaning of miniaturisation. In contrast, the effect of the modern, surreal cabinet is, of course, anamorphic gigantism rather than perfectly proportional miniaturisation. The juxtaposition of two objects produces a metaphor charge between the two greater than the sum of the parts. Artistic versions of this can be seen, for example, in the famous Lobster phone where the two objects placed together have a profound, aesthetic anamorphism or gestalt. This was never the intention of the cabinet of wonder and, in fact, this is not the feature of the cabinet that is retained by the greatest exponent of the work behind glass we have ever known, supposed surrealist Joseph Cornell.


Under Glass
Cornell’s assemblages do not benefit, on the whole, from the gestalt of alienating juxtaposition, the greatest development of the modernist arts, but rather sustain a greater uncanniness due to their medieval origins. They create microcosmic unities that are unsettling, rather than macrocosmic isolations and subsequent recombinations. The influence of Cornell on the contemporary art scene can be felt strongly in the preponderance of vitrines and taxonomic art works of which the most significant practitioner is Damian Hirst. That the most ‘influential’ artist of the present moment should be an adept of the glass cabinet and its more sculptural outcropping the vitrine should first to be traced back to Koons before noting how in Hirst the majority of his attention is given to the content of the box rather than boxing itself. While this content can be controversial, divided calves and sharks, it can also be staid and taxonomic, shells, giving a clue as to the true genius of works that are not destined to appear behind glass in a museum, but which incorporate glass and the very staging of the Theatrum pittoricum.

Three works by Cornell, who was far from prolific, present us with the vital link between the Wunderkammer and the theatre space of the contemporary vitrine. The first of these, ‘Pharmacy’, provides a clear line of influence from Boschini to Hirst. It displays behind a glass fronted cabinet door a modernist grid in the form of four glass shelves each then bisected by glass partitions resulting in twenty cells or [cabins within the cabinet.] In each cabin is a glass specimen jar containing a single object or class of objects: shells, minerals, butterfly wings, what looks like gold. Here, almost as if Cornell knew of Boschini, which seems almost impossible to think, precious balms have been placed under glass so as to attain power over time. In some senses a form of ready-made, in that it reproduces the industrial fittings of an actual Pharmacy, the difference here between Duchamp and Cornell is the emphasis on the craftsmanship, the techne, which Cornell has applied to the work. In some senses this is the archetypal Cornell work and, perhaps, one of the forgotten masterpieces of modernism encapsulating, indeed subdividing and displaying, the very condition of an art in a world where art no longer has its dwelling amongst us on earth. Art is, instead, on a wall, subdivided and, most importantly, behind glass.

In a slightly later work, ‘Cockatoo and Corks’, Cornell comes closer to the surrealist side of his surrealist-constructivist affinities with a clear juxtaposition of objects placed under glass. The cut-out image of the Cockatoo occupies the majority of the top cabin in the work which occupies around two thirds of the total cabinet. Even so it feels cramped in there. In its beak the bird holds a string attached to the door of an embedded cabin attached to the top right of the cabinet, pent inside of which are several corks. The door of this sub-cabinet is divided into four sections. Corks litter the floor of the Cockatoo’s cage/cabin, and the architecture of its restricted life, perch, feeding station and so on, are primarily fashioned from cork. In the lower cabin of the cabinet, we find a complex of subdivisions totalling seven cabins of varying shape and size. The central cabin, that largest, holds the machinery of a musical box. The cabin to the right communicates with the home of the bird by means of a cork which passes through the dividing ‘floor’ to the habitat above. In the remaining cells are what resemble pill boxes and a few more corks. While the relationship between the bird and the corks remains mysterious to me in that I have never been drawn to the caging of flying or for that matter scampering beings—perhaps corks once used for the bird to chew much like cuttlefish bones—the dominant effect is the complex syntax of the work. The various divisions of cabins into sub-cabins, of miniature cabinets within cabinets, as well as the stratification of the work into foreground, subground and inserted ground not only add to the effect of claustrophobia, but make one engage with a reading of the interior world of the cabinet. It is, in effect, a sophisticated architectural vision of a form of museum.

These two rather different works come together for me in the sparse and thus, for the desubjectivised critical spectator, provocative ‘Window Façade’. Here the cabinet of ‘Pharmacy’ appears to have been raided and the content of six shelves subdivided into four making thirty cabins have been looted. While in this box the shelves and walls are not glass as was the case in ‘Pharmacy’, each cabin is fronted by its own piece of glass a small number of which have suffered shivering or impact fractures. It feels as if junkies had raided the pharmacy, or the people had finally looted the Louvre. I find it a somewhat terrifying work. Away from the sentimentality of the found objects that occupy much of Cornell’s work, Benjaminian objects of lingering aura such as old photographs and excerpts from provincial publications, this piece has a much sharper vision. The cabinets of our imagination and of our institutions have been attacked, and the things held inside have been imbibed, stolen, broken, or maybe just flew away. It is Cornell’s masterpiece, impossibly moving and enigmatic.

Taken together these three works provide a fascinating illustration and development of Agamben’s theory of the museum. The first literalises the adoption of a industrial and scientific paradigm, that of the medicine cabinet, to represent the new status of the art object when placed under glass by modern means of isolation, classification and democracy. The second presents the possibility of a complex, constructivist visual rhythm of the procedure, suggesting that the very act of vetrification could be the source of aesthetic power. A dream most fully realised in a work such as Hirst’s astonishing ‘Mother and Child’ and then left to drain away in his recent works. Finally, the third has an almost Messianic edge to it. We arrive at the cabinet of wonder when all the exhibits have been lost to carelessness, greed, events, lack of vision, or simply time. This is a haunting work in which the very hall of the museum has, lacking exhibits, becomes itself the exhibit, much in the way the turbine hall has become the most powerful visual experience of any visit to Tate Modern, or the exterior of the Guggenheims regularly outstrip the collections held within as we rapidly run out of masterpieces to show in them.

Poetry, as yet, is not kept in a museum. Not that there are not literary museums, but as yet poetry remains free from glass. This may not be for long. Of all the literary arts poetry is most under threat by modern publishing, reading and even academic habits. Even I, co-keeper of the Archive of the Now, have an office full of thin volumes that I will never have the time or inclination to read. They are each, for me, a kind of terrible and admonishing cabinet, for the only thing worse for art than being kept under glass is being held between covers, unseen by any but the most professional and obsessive eye. Poetry is, like the majority of the visual art works in the world today, already in the archive. If the modern art work suffers the contracted transaction from production to display and preservation, passing from the studio directly to the gallery, literature runs the risk of an even more deadly transaction, from the study to the archive.

If poetry is the archetypal western art, and the act of museumification or vetrification is the archetypal modernist aesthetic gesture, there must be some link between poetry and the gallery. As we will see, Agamben traces this link through Baudelaire and the fetish, but poets are in general figures of catholic tastes with time on their hands and perhaps drawn by the fiduciary promise of a modern ut pictora poiesis, they often wander into galleries and studios. Auden of course famously wrote 'Musee Des Beaux Arts', while in Williams’ Paterson a flood bursts into the library and washes all away. These two represent two modes by which poets enter the gallery, either in reverence, witness Bishop’s wonderful ‘descriptions’ of art works, or with nihilistic intentions. During the hey day of the New York School, many works were written about the complex relationship between the visual and written arts. Of these, Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ remains one of the most sustained considerations of ut pictora poiesis ever written and, due to Ashbery’s admiration for Cornell, leads us towards some closing words on art behind glass.


Ut Pictora Poiesis

‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ is Ashbery’s masterpiece work of 1975 for which he was awarded the three major literary prizes in America. Widely read as a consideration of postmodern issues pertaining to identity, self-reflexivity and representation, it consists of Ashbery’s reflections, literally, on the painting of the same name by the mannerist painter Parmigianino, now housed in Vienna. The use of a convex mirror, away from considerations of subjectivity, simulacra, and the like, also allows Ashbery to consider the inter-relation between creation, display and, of course, glass. Later we will come to consider the centrality of apotropaicism in Ashbery’s ‘Down by the Station Early in the Morning,’ a work that ends, as does this poem and also Ashbery’s Three Poems with an assault on, or at least exit from, the halls of display. Indeed across these three remarkable works Ashbery touches on the three zones of the history of art display as I have detailed them. In ‘Down by the Station’ it is a library, original seat of the muses, that the wrecking ball ventilates brutally. In Three Poems it is a theatre. While ‘Self-Portrait’ comes to an close with the exiting of an art gallery. In contrast to ‘Down by the station Early in the Morning’, which concludes on the aforementioned apotropaic gesture, ‘Self-Portrait’ commences precisely in the modern paradox that Agamben has noted of the way in which the work of art on display invites merely to push one away:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And Swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. (SP)

At the end of this long piece, as Ashbery seeks to quit the poem/museum/analogy (‘As Parmigianino did it’ being a classic statement of ut pictora poiesis), he returns again to this image of welcome/warning: ‘Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand, / Offer it no longer as shield or greeting, / The shield of greeting…’. What is fascinating here is the means by which Ashbery conflates the apotropaic with the anamorphism of the modern museum. The hand is literally looming out of the work, although not yet as the beginning of a progression from the Renaissance to modern art that one can detect in the mannerists for, as Ashbery points out, the anamorphic hand is actually the result of acute observation or a realistic depiction of optics. That said, it is a harbinger of what is to come on the surfaces of Picasso or the narrative of Molly Bloom. The hand here, master metonym for the creative process, is both pushed out of the compendia of this small painted masterpiece, and also provides the complex distanciation of a post-assimilable art, that which invites one into the gallery precisely to display the unassailable alienation of the modern art work.

Ashbery is a creator-spectator throughout the poem in his complex reworking of ut pictora poiesis which is, in effect, the absolutely correct interpretation of the phrase through a full understanding of what poiesis actually means. Like the poem which could be a useful companion to this work, O’Hara’s “Why I am not a painter”, Ashbery and his friend both understand that any similarity between poetry and painting comes not from a comparison of the finished work, which is not to say that paintings and poems do not share aesthetic commonalities, but through the act of working or making. For poiesis means not the making of an object but the act of coming to truth through making and it is this which Ashbery the postmodernist shares with Parmigianino the post-Renaissance mannerist. Ashbery, therefore, as observer-creator, exists in the same space as the figures of Frenhofer and the nephew in being both the artist alienated from poiesis by the Ut or spectatorship, and the spectator able to present the perfect critique of the work of art which, however, as a poet not a painter, he could never hope to emulate. This is the most full investigation, therefore, of the much abused syntagm ut pictora poiesis combining, as it does, creation, observation and alienating separation. Parmigianino is not the first painter to use or even to depict a mirror, but he is the first to use a distorting mirror and as such he too becomes a self-alienating, desubjectivised creator-spectator. Ashbery hints at this in a contradictory interpretation of the painting as both modernist museum and medieval cabinet of wonder. At first he exhorts,

But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves
And the window doesn’t matter much…

This distinction is a troubling one for in fact an alcove is defined as being a type of recess. That said to recess means to go deep while an alcove is itself a shallow, vaulted space. Recess is the result of perspective, while an alcove is an anamorphic space or vaulting as the result of distortion perhaps. Remarkably, Boschini’s work (and of all modern writers Ashbery is perhaps the most likely to know of this obscure work) describes almost word for word the effect of distorting flat space into a false recess to which Ashbery refers here: ‘The work on the ceilings, which are flat, molds them into arches, and transforms them into vaults. Thus he gives to concave spaces the look of flat ones…’ (MWC 32). What Ashbery is clearly alluding to in his comment on the recess-less alcoves of painted space is that the painting is a realistic portrayal of the effects of light on surface, the mirror, so that literally there is no perspective here as the painter is copying a surface not actual space. Here he seems to dismiss the metaphoric potentials of the cabinet with its recesses and glass frontages for a form of display that is entirely reflective, negating poem as capacious stanza in favour of the surface aesthetic of the visual arts. Yet he goes on to conclude ‘I see in this only the chaos / Of your round mirror which organizes everything / Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty’. The picture, therefore, is a cabinet of wonder still, a compendium of potential chaos organised not on the side by side proximity of what is displayed, but in the modern nothingness of the artist’s gaze. For how can a self-portrait be contained in a Wunderkammer, whose precise purpose is desubjectivization in the face of God’s world. Here, rather, we witness desubjectivization in the face of man’s own ingenious self-reflective creation.

About midway through the poem, Ashbery becomes less concerned with the solipsism of subjectivity and surface, and moves rather through the contested hallways of several institutions and city locations that mark the complex history of production and reception for this particular work. The first of these is Rome, ‘where Francesco / Was at work during the Sack: his inventions / Amazed the soldiers who burst in on him; / They decided to spare his life’. Having been saved by the wondrous power of his invention the artist’s life is spared. The poet then speaks of Vienna, where he first saw the work in 1959, and then ‘New York / Where I am now’, producing a complex of temporal and spatial shifts to further add to the rich soup of the poem’s reflection on the act of invention through epochs and layers of reflection and display. As he says of this complex syntax, itself a kind of cabinet of wonders, ‘Our landscape / Is alive with filiations, shuttlings’. This being the case when he finally comes to occupy the gallery space, it is hard to state at which point in time he is and, increasingly, whether the spatial co-ordinates are real, imagined, remembered, or a comment on a space contained within the image in question:

Yet the ‘poetic,’ straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
Its darkening opposite—is this
Some figment of ‘art’, not to be imagined
As real, let alone special? Hasn’t it too its lair…?

This darkening corridor mirrors in negative the looming anamorphism of the painter’s hand suggesting an alternative depth to the poetic in contrast to that of painting. The space of the museum becomes, here, overlaid with precisely the dark qualities of poetry—linearity, depth, darkness, memory, imagination, figuration and realism—resulting in the museum itself becoming, not so much the dwelling place of art displaced as we saw from its dwelling on earth amongst us, as art itself. This corridor becomes transformed in the dark arts of poetic, associative thinking into the temporal flow of the present, the tension between the now of reception and the then of his first encounter with the work and before that its invention being felt across the whole of the poem’s cabinet form. This multiform space, first corridor, then lair, then water way, ‘as the waterwheel of days / Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?’, is eventually made to speak:

I think it is trying to say it is today
And we must get out of it even as the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can’t live there.

We are left with the same profound, modern anamorphic apatropaicism we began with when Francesco’s hand loomed out of reality/the painting/memory/time, both inviting us and warning us to stay away. The corridor leading into the gallery where the work is held behind the glass of the Viennese Theatrum pittoresco, at first leads us back to the painting for one last glance, yet at the same time it is an institutional space. The museum will close and we must be out of there before it does. Just as the soldiers of the Sack were allowed brief entrance into the cabinet of Francesco’s inventive wonders, so we too, the hoards of modern spectators, are allowed a glimpse of the truth of art, before we are expelled and the glass case closed on the cabinet against the gathering dust and degradation of time. Such a sad confession the artist makes at this point: marvellous though the corridors of art are, we are only welcome as visitors. Never forget, he seems to warn, that while we can sit on the seat of the muses for an epoch or more, we are in effect only keeping it warm for their return. So settle down in the gabinetto of the wonders of modern art, but don’t become too comfortable. One day poiesis will return to its dwelling, and all we interlopers in the corridors of creation, will be flushed out onto the streets.

Ontological Whisperings: Agamben and the Name

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.

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.

Limbs
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.

Lives
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]