Theater of Cruelty

Agamben: A burning house

When the house burns down, the unrealizable. For a politics of ontology
PHILOSOPHY / Italian Giorgio Agamben describes and envisions different courses for our thinking than today's more technologically nihilistic will-driven production paradigm. Two books delve into other possibilities than the 'fire' he believes we find ourselves in. In this essay, Astrid Nordang tries to bring out some of this complicated material.


During the covid-19 pandemic, the Italian philosopher and writer Giorgio Agamben has had to endure a lot of criticism for claiming that the government's vaccination program treats the unvaccinated as the non-Aryans of our time. A state of emergency that almost came as ordered for a philosopher who has made precisely the term 'state of exception' his own. The term is continued in When the house burns down ("When the house is on fire") from the beginning of the pandemic and the year's philosophical heavyweights The unfeasible. For a politics of ontology ("The unrealizable. For an ontological politics").

Already in the five-volume work Holy man from 1995 onwards, Giorgio Agamben argues that we are now all placed in a state of emergency. Homo sapiens alludes to a figure from ancient Rome and means 'the lawless one', 'the saint', 'naked life'
- almost a free game that can be killed when it has ended up outside.

In the same way, the disobedient man is reduced to an inferior life by a system controlled by him biopolitics, an expression based on Michel Foucault's texts from the 1970s. According to him, a policy emerged that largely oppressed and disciplined individuals. But Agamben believes that it always It has been the business of politics to rule over the citizens' bodies. Although private life gained the attention of the authorities with modernity, human life as a species and living body has always been at stake. The sovereign authority has both now and then declared a state of emergency and allowed those who are outside, Holy man, must be able to be killed without the killing being punished. In the same way, the law will 'take care' of life when citizens reduced to this 'zoe' - Aristotle's concept of the 'bare life', which contrasts with 'bios' – that life, or people, that participate in the social machinery.

With the so-called biopower, the state of exception allows itself to be generalized, the exception becomes the rule.

With the so-called biopower, the state of exception allows itself to be generalized, the exception becomes the rule. The most extreme example of this is the Nazi concentration camps. But Agamben has also highlighted Guantánamo and how the modern state's control turns most places into potential camps.

Messianic era

Within Agamben's "philosophical archaeology" there is also the opposition between lived and unlived life. According to Peter Forrás (Agora 4, 2011), the method is to prevent politics from being haunted by a so-called unlived past. But what does that mean?

He still refers to the "un-happened", the possibility that non-events lie in the seeds of what has been. Either hidden in a form of future past, or because certain events have not taken place. Here Agamben relies on Walter Benjamin's "messianic age" and shows, with Paul's letter, how Paul can resist the aforementioned biopower. Another term is 'kairos', which stands in contrast to the chronological ('kronos'), a term used by the literary scholar Kari Løvås in his doctoral thesis (Pray for me too. About crippling and longing for redemption in modern literature and poetics, 2021) defines as "the right time to act, but also the time when salvation occurs and intervenes in human history from the outside, without our influence".

Messianic times avoid chronological descriptions as historical events. By moving away from such a quantitative or empirical understanding of time, kairos opens up-the look for a more qualitative, opening way of describing time.

The digital fire

"Nothing I do makes sense if the house is on fire." This is how the Italian book opens When the house burns down. Agamben addresses a lyrical you, who must leave his burning house. Because where are you going to go when Europe, yes, the whole world is burning, when the cities are scorched and we live in a fire ruin?

This "fire" has become digital and invisible. We are served lies that the fire will not eat away at us, we must have blind faith in living with today's technological society. But what about God, will God accept prayers or sacrifices? And what about language, which a priori is "our face"? Like a prophet, Agamben speaks here of the tyrant "without a face" who does not recognize his own and others' gestures, of a slaughter – where we must learn to associate with the butchers without being seen. Is he referring to Big Tech – the big tech giants – taking over our gestures? And can we find a way out in that "the face is in God"?

When the house burns down is puzzling and painful reading. I'm not sure if I can trust the hope that salvation is "the others" – so different from Jean-Paul Sartre's point that it's the others who are hell?

According to Agamben, this fire forces us to "step into other territories, leave one's identity and one's name, without taking anything new". There is actually a potential here that the unhappened can also happen. Faced with the thin veil of reality, we sense the very possibility, the we may or may not do. The negation, which Aristotle's potentiality also contains, is thus presented as a possibility.

Here, Agamben has previously quoted Melville's character Bartleby, who, confronted with having to choose, replies "I would prefer not to" – thus illustrating an im-potentiality. An "I can, but I don't want to". What remains after the fire seems to be nothing more than something prehistoric, some remnants of the "dead" language of philosophy and poetry. No meanings or articles of faith, "only the fact that language exists, that without a name we are open in the name, and thus open in a gesture, in an exposed and unrecognizable face". And as I read this, I suddenly hear Waterboy singing Yeats' verse line: "I am looking for the face I had before the world was made."

Threshold thinker

Man is not a given size for Agamben, but a being of possibility. In a post-historical age, man is free from the thoughts, functions and tasks that have characterized him throughout history, and can now devote himself to contemplation and inactivity.

Man is not a given size for Agamben, but a being of possibility.

Here he is inspired by the French 'désœuvrement' (disempowerment, disempowerment, destitution). Man can become something else, and in both of these books Agamben shows himself to be a threshold thinker, where he reflects on border zones, becoming and potentiality.

Significantly, therefore, both books have a chapter heading called 'Soglia' (threshold). Another key word is 'porta' (door) with its open/close functions and being a passage. The door threshold is guarded by angels, porters and digital coders (the net's gatekeepers?), who ensure that the right person enters.

Kafka shows us that the law is the door. But in Agamben's hometown of Venice, no doors are needed; the thresholds are the lagoon and the canals. Like through a passage, one can walk, sink or move into the city – but one cannot close the door behind them. In this way, 'adito' (access) has become 'ambito' (atmosphere). Walter Benjamin's sounds here The passenger service with, where the threshold is a zone. The German word 'schwellen' also includes swelling up, oozing out – an idea Agamben continues with words that denote outside og exit, and the possibility of operating in the space in between.

Agamben in the Etruscan region

During a course stay this summer in Venice, MODERN TIMES tried to arrange an interview with Agamben. He replied by email that he was not in his hometown then. He was in Tuscia, in the Etruscan region. Why did he mention the Etruscans?

After reading about the unrealizable in this year's Agamben publication The unfeasible. For a politics of ontology, it struck me that Agamben's squint towards the Etruscans could have something to do with this people of mysterious origin both realized its potential og disappeared from the face of the earth. With their urban communities, they ruled over large parts of the Italian peninsula. Even though the mother of Romus and Remulus was Etruscan, Queen Silvia sent them down the Tiber because they were the result of her being raped by the war god Mars. The rest is history – or rather not. First, what was supposed to happen did not happen. Silvia was the first vestaline, the guardian of the fire, her body should therefore have retained its sacredness integrity to ensure the continued dominance of the people. When the Etruscans died out around the year 300 BC, it was, historians believe, because their role with the rule of the Caesars was played out.

So was their potential as a people realized or not? What an enigma they must be for Agamben. Not even their dead language has been decoded, until it is in-
writings and the like too few. However, we know quite a bit about their rites of passage: They spent days getting the soul unscathed from the threshold of the underworld to the ancestors' banquet, in a ceremony filled with violence, sexuality, dance and mockery.

The abyss of life

I have been told that mentioned The unfeasible is a commentary on Immanuel Kant's Postumus work (1882 / 1936).

The book ends with a lecture on Agamben's presentation of it the self-affiliation which occupied Kant towards the end of his life – and which is related to Aristotle's dynamis/energeia- concepts. Here existence or Being is seen as related to the body and the opening thinking.

We recognize the world through intuition and emotions, and for Agamben it is the authorities that threaten to reduce us to mere bodies. Therefore, we must make use of the "vocabulary of potentiality" – which means bringing in something unimaginable in an "I can" where one would expect an "I can't". As in a state of emergency.

Agamben's pivot point here is probably the emergence of self-reflection which is the subject of Martin Heidegger's central thesis in the Kant monograph from 1929. Here it is claimed that three sources of consciousness are reduced to two, to emotions and intellect, and that the "transcendental imagination" is shut out . The abyss is covered – it closes. Where Heidegger believed that Kant turned to reason, Agamben seeks to show that Kant never stopped looking into the abyss – towards the soul's sublime "exhibition of ideas that nature cannot possibly achieve". Kants imaginary has a negative display – there nothing will be exhibited.

This is philosophy for the initiated. Before Agamben scales down to the basics by providing a historical overview of the Latin term 'res' (thing), in Italian thing, which has given rise to 'res publica', the republic. Agamben has a metaphysical and deliberative approach to what he has previously referred to as 'Il grande transformation' (The great change) in the Western democracies. As in the blog posts, he warns against us renouncing the democratic citizen model with rights and parliamentary politics in the name of "biosecurity". Agamben's solution is to promote a
'désœuvrement', a disabling or destitution, rather than consummation history, as it unfolds today as an unrestrained technological will of production, consumption, militarism and the use of force. We have to wind down, stop doing so much.

With Agamben, another course is pointed out, where potentiality, contemplation and inaction become the essentials.

Astrid Nordang
Astrid Nordang
Nortdang is a regular literature reviewer in MODERN TIMES. Is a translator and author.

You may also like