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Preacher of the profane

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben is a beacon for an entire generation of young intellectuals across Europe - and a flighty eclectic. By Daniel Binswanger

With his collarless shirts and dark suits, he comes across like something of a cleric. In fact the newest rage among philosophers at German universities is not lacking in prophetic aura, even if his thinking is not exactly Catholic. On the contrary, his ideas are more like present day pessimism, reminiscent of the Gnostics, with their mystic counter-utopias and disdain for the world, according to whom Creation was the reprehensible work of an evil God. But regardless where the theological, mystical, philosophical and other roots of Giorgio Agamben's thinking are to be found, the Italian philosophy professor has become a remarkable fashion phenomenon.

Although his works are not systematic and do not betray any given "direction", Agamben enjoys star status today the likes of which neither Derrida nor Habermas nor Rorty, nor any other illustrious names from the front ranks of contemporary thinkers could boast. Giorgio Agamben has set a new benchmark in prophesying from the university lectern. His message is radical and fearsome – and it has caught on among today's young intellectuals like wildfire.

At the beginning of May the professor filled the entire Volksbühne theatre in Berlin for the presentation of the German translation of his new book "Profanazioni" (profanations). At the last Frankfurt Book Fair, his lecture at the traditional cocktail given by Suhrkamp publishers was touted as the number one place to be. No catalogue preface or feuilleton debate today does not at least signal its connection to the Zeitgeist with a reference to Agamben's notion of "biopolitics". Writing in Die Zeit, Thomas Asshauer called Agamben the day's most "quotable author" in university lectures and graduate courses. That may be an exaggeration. But he has filled the vacant seat of today's number one master thinker.

It's as if the German discourse-watchers wanted to compensate for their tardiness in jumping on the Agamben bandwagon. Suhrkamp delayed for years the publication of "Homo Sacer", Agamben's most important work. When the book finally appeared, its scandalous reputation preceded it, and it hit the German intellectual world like a bomb. Nowadays Suhrkamp director Ulla Unseld-Berkewicz never misses a chance to present herself as Agamben's personal patron.

Already in the mid 1990s "le dernier Agamben" was obligatory reading in Parisian intellectual circles. Even in those days American doctoral students writing their dissertations in the Bibliotheque Nationale on Foucault, Derrida or some other branch of "French Theory" had the Italian master's thin paperbacks lying on their desks for all to see. Agamben was often in his Parisian pied-à-terre, and let himself be passed around from artistic dinners to psychoanalytic cocktails. Even the temple guards of deconstructivism, who at first looked askance at their colleague from Lombardy, finally had no choice but to put up with him good-naturedly.

Because Agamben must be taken seriously. That at least is the claim he has successfully defended until now. He benefits from the perfume of the radical. The Agambenian critique of democracy could not be more trenchant: today's constitutional states are in essence nothing more than huge concentration camps. This is what he attempts to demonstrate in "Homo Sacer", originally published in 1995, with an eclectic overview of the legal history of the West. The modern state is nothing other than a totalitarian organisation for the efficient administration of bare biological life.

Sovereignty today is biopolitics – the control of bare life. "We live in a concentration camp" is the upshot of Agamben's diagnostic of contemporary life. For him, absolute authority over the inmates' bodies and souls lies in the secret matrix of modern administrative states. Agamben electrifies his audiences with this apocalyptic prophesy – you can hear them whispering and squirming softly in their seats. Along with para-academic Zeitgeist philosophers, militant opponents of globalisation have discovered Agamben as a guiding intellectual force. He is now one of the few European intellectuals of stature with anarchistic street credibility.

Agamben shows a keen sense not only for the susceptibilities of his audience, but also for the political questions of the day. In "State of Exception", which appeared in German in 2004, he continues his diagnosis of the present day, while addressing the most current intellectual debates. And his findings are categorical: the political dynamic of today is characterised by a permanent state of emergency. According to Agamben, democracies are developing as if under a permanent state of siege.

In developing his concept of the state of exception, Agamben relies heavily on the legal philosophy of Carl Schmitt. Schmitt came up with the now classic definition of political rule: Sovereignty belongs to those who determine the state of emergency. The decision-making power in marginal situations which can be neither anticipated nor regulated by law, is the true source of political power. According to Carl Schmitt, only what can be decided on and become legal through pure violence in the lawless state of emergency can found political power.

However according to Agamben, the state of exception today is no longer a punctual event occurring in times of regime crisis – for example during the transition from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic in France or the emergence of the Federal Republic of Germany from the ruins of the Nazi era. Rather, the state of exception has become a permanent state in lawless zones which are becoming increasingly widespread. Democracy is becoming a sort of permanent legitimation crisis administered by emergency measures.

Not surprisingly, the crowning example for this supposed development is Guantanamo. As a reaction to the new security imperative, the USA created a new legal status for inmates of the prison camp on the Cuban enclave. They are neither criminal terrorists, which would make them subject to American law, nor are they prisoners of war, which would make them subject to the Geneva Conventions. The were settled in a juristic no man's land as so-called "foreign combatants". The threat of a permanent state of attack leads security imperatives to undermine classic criminal law.

Criticism of the attempt to react to Islamic terror with a new legal order, or to protect the Western order by stripping the suspected parties of the Western guarantees of basic rights, is by now widespread. Deep within Republican Party circles it is now clear that Guantanamo could do more harm than good. That abandoning legal guarantees goes along with a systematic increase in "cases of torture" is a further powerful indication of how the fundaments of democratic values can become alarmingly eroded with the creation of special areas of jurisdiction. This conclusion can be arrived at without reference to Agamben. Yet his theories are balm for America-bashers in the Federal Republic of Germany. Agamben isolates the question of the fight against terror from the thicket of concrete facts and political entanglements, putting it in a context reaching back to the roots of Western civilisation. Some problems become easier to handle once you've catapulted them out into metaphysical deep space.

Agamben didn't wait for Guantanamo to diagnose the spread of the state of exception. For him an analogous process can be seen in the legal status of asylum seekers. Here too, law enforcement measures are given ever more elbow room, while the legal recourse for asylum seekers is increasingly restricted. Even in the system set up to deal with asylum, the attempt is being made to create zones of juristic extra-territoriality, for instance "international zones" in airports with a legal status falling short of the guarantees bestowed on refugees in the nation's territory. Agamben had already pointed to this gradual shifting of legal practices in "Homo Sacer". America's way of dealing with the Al-Qaeda fighters taken prisoner in Afghanistan seems like one symptom in a long line of events. The state of exception is becoming permanent, says Agamben, because politics is increasingly becoming biopolitics.

"Biopolitics" is the second major buzzword in Agamben's critique of modernity. In Western history, Agamben sees politics initially as the art of the appropriate form of collective life, centering around virtue and the good life. In the Renaissance it becomes a doctrine of the technique of power: a strategy for maintaining power, for the division of power, and for warfare. But according to Agamben we are now in a third phase. Politics has become the administration of biological resources. Its core business is the regulation of population development, public hygiene, policing and security, the safeguarding of the social state and the conditions of genetic reproduction. Politics as biopolitics is the administration of "bare life". Racism appears in this perspective simply as the last excessive form of a reduction of the human to the biological, a process that has a long history and which will continue even after the apparent parenthesis of political totalitarianism.

Because biopolitics is not limited to the end of occidental history. For Agamben, a specialist in ancient philology, it also occurs at its start. The real roots of biopolitics lie in the legal system of Ancient Rome and in early Greek political thought. That political struggles are ultimately not about rights and laws, ethics and morals, reasons of state and the balance of powers, but only about the control of bare life, is for Agamben the archaic law under whose sign the occident becomes the occident.

At the very latest with the construction of this sweeping historical/philosophical arch, Agamben departs into profound dimensions which cannot be verified in history. Yet they do provide a very welcome foundation to anti-Americanism and the classical critique of democracy. Since Marxist analysis ran aground, it has been increasingly difficult for political philosophy to claim the status of universal theory. That is annoying becuase if you can no longer deduce the bigger contextual picture, you risk running aground on nit-picky details. It is then no longer enough to denounce the permanent state of emergency, you should also be able to explain which strategy is best for overcoming the terrorist threat. It is no longer sufficient to decry the "biopolitics" of genetic engineering. You also have to be able to say which therapies are now permissible and which are not. Large overarching theories have the advantage of being all-inclusive.

Yet it is remarkable that the new hero of Left intellectualism falls back on the ultra-conservative critique of civilisation of Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. In Germany, the historical mission of Giorgio Agamben is perhaps simply to bring about a new understanding of these thinkers among younger academics.

It is not easy to unravel the twisted knot of influences that come together in Agamben's thinking. For years he headed the Italian edition of Walter Benjamin's collected works. He not only hunted down lost manuscripts of Benjamin's, but also gained a deep familiarity with Benjamin's cryptic handwriting and metaphors. Yet Agamben's own teacher is not Benjamin, but Martin Heidegger. He never ceases to recall his personal encounter with Heidegger as a philosophical experience of awakening. "Stanzas", his first (and probably best) book, is dedicated to Martin Heidegger. "The Open", his last book before "Profanations", retells the story of biopolitics from the perspective of Heidegger's "history of being". Even his apartment in Paris was decorated with photos of the master outside his hut at Todnauerberg.

Agamben's fidelity to Heidegger is absolute. Until now it was difficult in Germany to use Heidegger for subversive purposes. What stood in the way was not only Heidegger's compromised Nazi past, but also his provincial cultural conservatism. The Frankfurt School was unconditional in its rejection of the Freiburg prophet of being. But now all this is history: a Heideggerian Benjamin-editor has become anarchy's new darling. By way of Verona and Paris, the German master has finally been cleared of his Nazism. An astonishing triumph of ignorance.

Just as remarkable is the renaissance of the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt. Certainly, fascination on the Left for the conservative revolutionary and later "crown jurist" of the Third Reich has a certain tradition. In "State of Exception", Agamben worked out Benjamin's complex relationship to Schmitt, situating the messianic-revolutionary Benjamin vis-à-vis the Catholic-conservative Schmitt. Agamben seeks to overcome Schmitt's theological concept of sovereignty by means of the messianic reinvention of the political. Yet in his reconstruction of legal history, in his critique of civilisation and democracy, Agamben does not manage to break free of Schmitt's basic schema. Here we see the classic complicity between Left-wing and Right-wing radicalism: they come together in their joint disdain for democratic liberalism.

Yet Agamben is very agile in handling illustrious names, and another must be mentioned here: Michel Foucault. Foucault was the first to raise the question of "biopolitics", and Agamben presents his own works as the continuation of Foucault's theories. When he comes under fire for his ahistorical approach, which for example allows him to draw the absurd juristic equation between Guantanamo and Auschwitz, he justifies it with reference to Foucault's methodology.

But here his self-stylisation becomes a complete farce. Foucault sees the emergence of "biopolitics" as a symptom of the weakening and fragmentation of political sovereignty. Economic pressures keep political power within limits: for Foucault this is the basic feature of modern societies. From his Schmittian perspective, Agamben sees biopolitics as the totalitarian apogee of political power. In discussing biopolitics, Foucault analyses the capitalist social state, while Agamben considers human experimentation in Auschwitz. But it is Agamben, not Foucault, who works himself up to the grotesque claim that the two are identical in "phenomenological" terms.

In their methodology as well, the two thinkers could not be farther apart. True, Michel Foucault was not a classic historian by training, but he devoured archives, he was an indefatigable systematic analyst of forms of discourse and power dispositions. Agamben is a flighty eclectic. By the looks of it, there is a difference between thick books and thin ones after all.

What is still worth reflecting over, once you believe you've demonstrated that the modern world is a concentration camp? For Giorgio Agamben the problem is becoming increasingly pressing. Already in "State of Exception" he had dedicated one chapter to the question of how biopolitical totalitarianism might be avoided. But his proposals seem timid. A positive relationship must be found to "anomie", he writes, to atomised, lawless communal forms. New possibilities for political action can only emerge when the bonds between existing law and revolutionary power are cut. Law as it exists must be "deactivated" so that social forms can make use of in new ways. As an example Agamben gives the subversive potential of the carnival. Can you bring a new world into being with celebrations?

This is, in fact, the question addressed in Agamben's most recent book, "Profanazioni". Yet here his political presumptuousness founders definitively. Profaning is supposed to be the new strategy through which people of today hammer out new freedoms for themselves. And it can take surprising forms.

According to the common understanding, profaning consists of taking something holy and treating it as something merely worldly, something profane. Grave profaners harm the holy rest of the dead not simply by damaging the grave, but also by failing to respect its special sacral character. Agamben is interested in profaning because there is a special relationship between the holiness of rites and play. Historically, games, for example playing ball or antique games of chance, even chess, emerged and evolved from religious rites. The game is often a profane form of the rite. The game is something worldly, frivolous and trivial, and yet it is gone at with holy seriousness. Agamben is fascinated by this deep-seated earnestness: it should permit an anomie beyond arbitrariness, an action that is meaningful but unforced. "Become like little children" is the not entirely original suggestion for the salvation of this world.

Yet the concrete suggestions for profaning strategies are amply eccentric. On the one hand he mentions playing with a ball of wool like young cats. The "bare life" to which biolpolitics reduces man forces him to confront his animal nature. Agamben also speculates on a new relationship to one's own excrement (but spares the reader precise details). The last possibility for liberating profaning: avant-garde pornography. Here Agamben is interested in a new role for lust "that is unconcerned with the lust of the partner, and focuses on a new collective custom of sexuality". Traditionally – for example in the works of Theodor Adorno – intellectual utopianism fed on what were, in end effect, very bourgeois sources, especially from the aesthetic experience of artworks. With Agamben it moves into a stage of surrealistic abstruseness. Balls of wool, artistic porno and a new praxis of excrement: shrillness is all that remains of the author's revolutionary air. Critical theory has found its John Waters.

This is all the more regrettable because "Profanazioni" also contains interesting observations. The chapter on the history of the term "special", in which Agamben conjures a theory of narcissism out of the etymology of the word "species", is fascinating. His pointed comments on the literature of the Italian Renaissance are no less interesting. When the extremely nimble and widely read philologist goes about his proper business, he is always brilliant. Agamben's exaggerated pose and his "history of being" pathos have something dandyish about them. But it would be better not to try too hard to strip him of the role of the apocalyptic preacher. It is entirely possible that he himself does not take the hordes who hang on his every prophesy entirely seriously. Ultimately, every epoch gets the fashion philosophy it deserves. Our own seems once more to be running on empty.

"Profanazioni" by Giorgio Agamben is published in German as "Profanierungen" by Suhrkamp publishers. An English translation will be published shortly by Zone Books. Here a bibliography of Agamben's works, and here selected English translations.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Weltwoche on October 13, 2005.

Daniel Binswanger is Paris correspondent for Die Weltwoche.

Translation: jab.

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