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Agamben Explained in 500 Words

I have just finished my second major study of the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben, Agamben and Indifference.  As I think Agamben has been widely mis-read and my work benefits from the most recent books by Agamben which set the record straight, I though it would be worthwhile posting the basic definition of Agamben's work that makes up the first page and a half of that book.  Here it is, in miniature, all you need to know about Agamben.  I swear to it!
Introduction to Agamben's Philosophical Archaelogy
I will commence with an unambiguous statement summarising Agamben’s base position as I see it across the totality of all his published works.  Agamben’s philosophical project is the making apparent and then rendering indifferent all structures of differential opposition that lie at the root, he believes, of every major Western concept-signature or discursive structure.  In this manner his philosophy can be termed a form of metaphysical critique that argues all abstract concepts are only quasi-transcendental, in that they are historically contingent not logically necessary.  As such Agamben willingly participates in a tradition that includes Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze and Derrida, thinkers he regularly engages with.  Where he differs from all of these is that he is not a philosopher of difference in any way we take this term to signify within the tradition to which I have just alluded.  Arguably all his predecessors undermine philosophical structures of consistent identity through the valorisation of difference in some form. 
Agamben, however, insists that the difference is as much implicated in the system of metaphysics as that of identity.  If, he argues, identity structures are historically contingent, not logically necessary, then so too are differentiating structures, which can then further be said to be complicit in metaphysics, not a means of overcoming it.  Rather than undermining identity with difference, therefore, Agamben reveals that identity and difference themselves are not necessary terms but historical contingencies, that in fact they form one single entity within our tradition, what I will call identity-difference, and based on these observations one can suspend their history of opposition by rendering them indifferent to each other. 

For Agamben self-identical full presence, what he calls the common, is a discursive entity not an actual state.  Difference, what he calls the proper, is the same.  Further, concepts are no longer to be taken as identity-concepts, ideational structures possessive of communal consistency around an agreed set of referents that can be held under the same conceptual heading, but identity-difference-concepts that have a historical moment of arising when they become active, a mode of distributing this activity to control large and stable discursive formations over time, such as language, such as power, such as poetry, such as glory, and an almost fated period of indifference where the clear definitions of the system either break down, or can aggressively be shown to be assailable contingencies.  The method of tracing these moments for the purpose of suspending identity-difference constructs, what he calls signatures, is an overall methodology that Agamben names philosophical archaeology.
The extent of this archaeology is such that even the terms identity and difference, the founding terms of Western thought and logic, are mere historical presences to him.  The implication being that there was a time, permanently inaccessible to us now as totally non-communicable, when we thought, spoke and acted otherwise, and there could be a time when we think, speak and act without a sense of identity, difference, or their opposition.  Such a mode of thinking-after-indifference, meaning both thinking that ‘takes after’ or resembles indifferential structures and also a thinking that comes subsequent to them, is the best summary we currently have of his work’s lasting originality.


William Watkin said…
One of my MA students asked for clarification of what Agamben means by common and proper and I realised this is not self-evident especially if you are not a philosophy student. Here is my explanation:
Common is Agamben's general term for all universal, abstract structures of identity. Proper is his term for all empirical, local, examples of difference. So common could be universal or general to proper as particular or specific case. They are the two foundational terms of all Western thought going back to the Greek debate between Parmenides who argues everything is one (common) and Heraclites for whom everything is flux (proper). Two other famous examples are common is Reason and proper Understanding in Kant and common is the one and proper the many. Common law would be don't kill, proper would be this instance of murder. Then we have fact. Fact is a proper that does not fit into the common and so is referred directly to the sovereign. Say a head of state who 'murders' due to an illegal invation. The fact is the extreme end of proper just as sovereign power is the extreme form of common.
Philippe said…
Very interesting way of interpreting Agamben’s work. Do you happen to know when your new book will be available?

I have a couple of questions/remarks, if I may.

1) What would be the relation between Agamben’s articulation of proper/common and Heidegger’s articulation of existential and categorial determination?

2) As I understand it, the process of “indifferenciation” is not only a method but an adequate response to an actual state (the “break down” of differences you wrote about). In his Italian Diary (included in Means Without Ends) he wrote: “And how can one touch the porn star’s body, since there is not an inch on it that is not public? And yet it is from such a zone of indifference in which the actions of human experience are being put on sale–that we ought to start today.” (122).

3) I wonder if what you wrote about sovereign murders is somehow analogical to what Agamben also wrote about love (which would be very interesting). What would be the “fact” in the communication (or relation) of lovers? See from “The Passion of Facticity”: “ Lovers go to the limit of the improper in a mad and demonic promiscuity; they dwell in carnality and amorous discourse, in forever-new regions of impropriety and facticity, to the point of revealing their essential abyss. Human beings do not originally dwell in the proper; yet they do not (according to the facile suggestion of contemporary nihilism) inhabit the improper and the ungrounded. Rather, human beings are those who fall properly in love with the improper, who –unique among living beings– are capable of their own incapacity.”

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with the rest of us.

William Watkin said…
The book is out end of this year beginning of next. As for you questions:

1: the ontico-ontological difference falls easily into the proper-common designations and their relation, dramatised by the indifferential sense of identity and difference found in the Heidegger text of the same name, is central I think to the eventual break from philosophy of difference that is to be found in Agamben and, at present, aside from my own modest efforts, only there. So categorical is proper and ontological common. How indifference suspends this difference takes time to explain but my book does take that time.

2: yes, indifference is not merely a method but something which happens, perhaps not an event but certainly an act. If nothing happens after indifference, for Agamben and in the example you give, then indifference as a method is pointless.

3: Ah love, doesn't make any different which signature you use, this is Agamben's term, love, power, poetry, violence and so on the stakes are the same. A proper and a common are placed in articulation. The common is taken as the ground, the proper what is grounded, but the common only exists after it has grounded something and the proper actually constructs the myth of its ground subsequently. At some point the clarity of distinction of these positions breaks down, this is indifference or here impotentiality. At this stage the improper or the lovers' potential for incapacity, impotentiality, comes to the fore. See my blog entry on Potentiality and just think of incapacity-impropreity as impotentiality which, after all, is another synonym for indifference.

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