Skip to main content

Agamben and Indifference Article

If the last century belonged to the philosophers of difference, then this must be handed over to the purveyors of philosophical indifference of whom one name stands out: Giorgio Agamben.  What is philosophical indifference?  The standard dictionary definition of the term meaning not caring either way, finds voice in the first age of philosophical indifference stretching from Stoicism to Kant’s attack on philosophical indifferentism in the opening pages of the first critique.  It is the inability to make a single, true for all time philosophical decision in favour of one position or action over the other.  Indifferentism occurs especially when, as is always the case according to Agamben, the two positions you could care less about either way occupy that of on the one hand a unified, founding, common, one and on the other a multiple, actualising, proper, many.  So, in a sense, since the Greeks, philosophy has been a dispute over the prevalence of indifference: we cannot choose between a philosophy of the one and that of the many.  And modern thought is founded on Kant’s development of a critical philosophy to solve the indifference between philosophies of the one (idealism) and those of the many (empiricism).  The second philosophical meaning of indifference, first developed by Hegel, is pure difference as such or abstract difference irrespective of any qualities held by the two identities being differentiated.  This is best represented by the formal notation A≠B.  What A and B are in actuality, what qualities they hold, is indifferent, it does not matter.  In indifferent difference all that matters is that there is difference, A≠B, as the basis of the fact that there is identity A=A because A≠B.  This is the founding formula of Hegelian dialectics and all the philosophies of difference to come because it develops a pre-identity form of difference: abstract difference irrespective of qualities. 

1.      Agamben’s Indifference
It can be argued that modern philosophy is born out of Kantian attacks on indifferentism and the Hegelian development of pure difference as such.  That said, Agambenian indifference can be termed a third order of philosophical indifference.   His philosophical system 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. The central tenet of these thinkers since Nietzsche is: difference precedes identity and so by definition is permanently undermining of identity, as identity is always defined as foundational. 
Agamben cannot sign up to this tenet.  As a thinker he is painfully aware that difference is always part of an identity-difference coupling, so that whilst he agrees with his great forbears that identity depends on difference, he transcends or transgresses the law of our current age when he insists that 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 we can call identity-difference, and based on these observations one can suspend their history of opposition by rendering them indifferent to each other.  By which we take to mean suspending their presentation as forming a single unit of contesting, oppositional difference: one and many, sovereignty and governance, zoe and bios and so on, without reconstituting them therefore as a single one.
For Agamben self-identical full presence, what he calls the common, is a discursive entity not an actual state. For that matter 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 can be seen to 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 life, and an almost fated period of indifference where the clear differentiations 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. 

2. Philosophical Archaeology
The much-contested Agamben method consists of tracing the origins of large scale concepts (signatures) back to the moment when they first became operative as modes of organising and legitimising discourse in a manner that owes a huge amount to Foucault’s conception of discursive intelligibility.  By intelligibility, or what Agamben also calls communicability, it is not what is said that is meaningful, but that such and such is allowed to be said by the sanctions of power and our complicity with these sanctions. That said, these moments of arising, as Agamben calls them, are not origins founded on historical data in the usual sense but, inspired by Benjaminian now-time, they actually say as much about us as contemporaries as they do about historical origins. Thus every contemporary moment is founded on an origin or arche, yet every arche is constructed by our contemporary discourse as the found origin. The past, Agamben argues, only lives in the present yet the present is constantly a construct of the past. In this way time is marked by an essential double anachronism, of past things projected forward into the present and the present as a construct of the past. 
Revealing this historical paradox at the basis of large scale concepts such as power, being, secularization, language and so on, is Agamben’s aim, so as to show them as logically unworkable. In all his work one common economy persists wherever he looks.  The past, or temporal common, is founded on the present or temporal proper, yet the present founds the past through its attempts to access it as origin. Thus take any large-scale signature-concept and you reveal the paradox between a past found, even created, by the present and a present founded on the past, allowing you to suspend or make indifferent a clear separation between origins and current examples, subsequently freeing yourself of the discursive control of said signature.   
As everything is, ostensibly, discursive for Agamben, this form of radical criticism reveals itself to be potentially a powerful political tool for change, not least because power is one of the most prevalent signatures there is in the West and also one of the most susceptible to the paradox of the logic of a foundation founded by that which it is presumed to found.  Render indifferent the opposition between origin (the common foundation of all) and the present (the proper actualisation of our common foundation) through philosophical archaeology, and you kill the power of signatures to sanction and thus control what we think, what we say and yes also what we do.  Fail to render indifferent such signatures and whatever political action you take will still take place within the sanctioned confines of discursive intelligibility, especially the essential political act of the modern age: revolutionary difference. 

3. Life
To close let us take perhaps the most controversial and important signature for Agamben, Life, subject it to philosophical archaeology, and thus render it inoperative as a mode of intelligibility for us by making the two parts of the oppositional economy of the term indifferent to each other.
            For us Life is a term which explains our biological existence.  Yet is also explains the specific case of human life, a privileged form of animal life.  Finally, it also results in moments when the privilege of human life is removed from a human and they find themselves treated like a mere animal, a situation Agamben calls bare life.  Agamben’s most widely read work, Homo Sacer, presents the origins of this situation and its implications for the world today. 
            There is, in fact, not such thing as Life.  It is a discursive construct permitted by structures of power to sanction different forms of behaviour and which we have been complicit with for centuries.  It is then an intelligible signature, not a thing as such.  How did this come about?  Agamben’s moment of arising is the first recorded instance of bare life in a Western judiciary system, the figure of the homo sacer in ancient Roman law.  How was the homo sacer sanctioned when its logic, a citizen inside the law who can be killed and it not be termed murder thus placing them outside the law, is illogical?  Agamben notes that the Greeks did not have a single word for life but at least two terms pertaining to what we see as life.  Zoe was private and animal life.  Bios was public, particular, political life.  At some point a single term, Life, was increasingly used to relate to a human life made up of two parts: the biological and the social.  Of these zoe was the common, the foundational, after all without biological life what are we?  Yet bios, the social specificity of how we live, is the realm in which human life is differentiated from animal or indeed slave or female life, for the Greeks and Romans.  It is who we are as male Roman citizens that makes us different from animals.  Thus it is bios which founds zoe by saying zoe is only one local instance of life, the animal. 
At this point things become confused.  Which life comes first?  Biological life or human life as different from animal life and so protected by and subject to say law?  The homo sacer is made possible at precisely this point.  Bare life seems like a return to zoe or animal life.  This man can be killed like a beast.  Yet in order for bare life to be made bare, the rights of the citizen must be stripped from them.  This clearly shows that animality is a concept created by the human, and yet bare life is presented as a return to a state of nature: zoe. 
            Bare life then shows the following facts of Life.  Life is a discursive construct.  It depends on the idea that it is a-discursive i.e. that animals exist before humans.  Yet in fact bios, political life, constructs zoe, animal life, as the origin of all life only to legitimate itself.  It founds its own foundation.  This impossible economy, how can a foundation be founded after what it has founded, how can the common be a construct of the proper, is revealed in those moments when the clear distinction between common and proper in a signature is rendered indifferent.  Homo sacer is the first recorded instance of this relevant to Life.  A citizen is returned back into a state of animality only if they are first a citizen.  Bare life is life denuded.  It must be dressed first before it can be bared. 
            Philosophical archaeology takes a contemporary issue, here the question of human life.  It traces the origin of the usage of the controlling term to sanction certain forms of behaviour, here the signature Life.  It reveals that it is always the case that the signature will be bifurcated into a structure of commonality which comes first and founds, and one of proper actuality, specific subsequent cases that come about due to a common foundation.  It then finds limit cases, zones of indistinction, where the clear differentiation within the signature is unclear, indifferentiated.  It then hones in on these to show that the signature in question is not universal and necessary but historically constructed.  It reveals the first instance where the signatory economy gets confused, is indifferentiated.  It then humbly suggests if the logic of the signature Life is illogical, and it can be shown that the signature Life itself can be traced historically to a specific first moment, then we don’t need the signature Life.

            Due to indifference we can historically reveal the means by which we can live without Life.  This seems to me the overall message of Agamben’s work.

Many thanks to the editors of Cult Revista Cult who commissioned this piece, translated it into Portuguese and gave me permission to print it here.


Popular posts from this blog

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

For a long time I have felt that poetics has not taken into consideration a great deal written about issues pertaining to difference and repetition to be found in contemporary philosophy. As poetry's whole energy and dynamic is based on a fundamental relation to differential versus repeated units of sense (sense both in terms of meaning and the sensible), any work on difference and repetition would be welcome. That some of the greatest thinkers of the age, notably Deleuze and Derrida, have made both issues core to their whole philosophical systems is so remarkable that poetics is impoverished if it does not fully acknowledge this. Not that I am one to talk. Although I am aware of the centrality of Deleuze's work to postmodern poetry, I have as yet not been able to really address this but in Poetry Machines I began that work at least. In preparation for the few hundred words I wrote there, here are the 10,000 words I annotated in preparation. Deleuze, Gilles. Differe

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Manchester: Carcanet, 1977) First Published (New York: Viking, 1975) Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001) Introduction: · Shoptaw notes that this return to poetry is dominated by images of waiting, that narrative (especially fairy-tale) returns, as do the musically based titles, there are no prose poems and no fixed forms such as sonnets of pantoums, most are free verse paragraphs, also bring forward a new American speech, more direct and inclusive. “As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat”, 1-2 · Shoptaw notes this was the original title for the collection, marking a self-consciously Romantic return to poetry, recording the thoughts of “I” from afternoon to night, just outside a childhood country home. Has a pastoral crisis narrative in that a summer storm gathers but passes leaving the

John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath

John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1962) Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001) General Notes: Shoptaw · Shoptaw includes an Ash. quote which explains away the nature of this poem as a description of leaving the Atocha Station: “It strikes me that the dislocated, incoherent fragments of images which make up the movement of the poem are probably like the experience you get from a train pulling out of a station of no particular significance. The dirt, the noises, the sliding away seem to be a movement in the poem. The poem was probably trying to express that, not for itself but as an epitome of something experienced; I think that is what my poems are about” (cf. A. Poulin Jr., “John Ashbery,” The Michigan Quarterly Review 20.3 (1981)). · yet he notes it is not the collage of automatism and Da