Theater of Cruelty

The primary opening to the world

What is philosophy?
MUSICAL LIFE / With The Use of the Bodies and What is Philosophy?, Giorgio Agamben returns to his early main interest before the first homo sacer book – namely to being, to language, to thought and the blissful life. It is also about where you are – where you simultaneously discover life (ontology) and how life could be (politics, the happy life).


The use of the bodies
Author Giorgio Agamben, translator Carsten Juhl
THP publishing house, Denmark (2019)






In the late summer of 1968, the only 26-year-old young Giorgio Agamben attended a seminar at the small town of Le Thor in Provence in the south of France. It was above all this event with which Agamben began his way into the world of philosophy. Agamben recalls an episode from here: «In Le Thor, Heidegger held his seminars in a shady garden surrounded by tall trees. Every now and then we left the city and moved in the direction of Thouzon or Rebanquet and the seminar then took place in front of a small hut in the heart of an olive grove. As the seminar drew to a close and the students crowded around him to ask him questions, Heidegger simply remarked: 'You see my limit; but I can not.'" (Idea of ​​Prose, 1995)

This blind spot, which the philosopher himself cannot grasp, has since served as a clue for Agamben. One must understand the author's ignorance and make it one's own in one's attempt to understand. We all move in a field of tension between knowledge and ignorance. Plato's call to «know thyself!» sounds enticing but in reality never happens. Today we are talking about self-realization linked to economics and optimization. For Agamben, it is about considering the self as the horizon, the lacuna, the threshold from which every thinking person starts and orients himself. This self has little to do with the individual, personal or psychological. It has more to do with Wittgenstein's idea of ​​a 'philosophical self' which is 'not part of the world' but lives on its edge. Not to stay there, but to move around it. Moving from the personal to the impersonal, from my personal life to a life, as a way to explore other forms of life, a way to master life.

For Agamben acts philosophyone about ultimately about the happy life, the good life, seen in the light of how we can live, consider life as power (power), as something we use, explore, experiment with. Life is not a given, nothing is a given.

The Greek question of the happy life is not outside or above but on the same level as political life. Philosophy is therefore simultaneously about power over life and life as power. About life as something that is controlled in relation to life as something that opens up; about life as a power that limits in relation to life as a resistance to power; about docile and fearful life in relation to a common life that tries to understand.

Life in the workshop of prose is life in the eternal beginning

With The use of the bodies (The use of bodies, 2014; Danish 2020) and What is philosophy? (What is philosophy?, 2016, Danish 2023), Agamben returns to his early main interest before the first homo sacer book (1995), namely to being, to language, to thought and the blissful life.

Still being able to be touched

To think is never to possess one's thoughts, but still to be able to be touched, to be in motion. This is how Agamben could summarize it already in the book Stanzas (1995) see as central to a thinking life. A life he associates with the idea of ​​prose (Idea of Prose, 1995). While a narrative must begin, continue and end, is prosea discreet butler of the message and the argument – ​​that only touches and revolves around what it cannot fully grasp. Maybe catch a glimpse of the truth. The prose writer is the amateur, empty and open, free from the habits of the expert. He has no stated intentions. His endeavor is to maintain this attitude, to write with all his attention. As if you discover what you are writing for the first time. Life in the workshop of prose is life in the eternal beginning.

The word that 'sings' and the word that 'remembers'

Philosophy needs art and art needs philosophy to manifest itself as criticism. Poetry is thinking and philosophy is creation – and not just reflection. Every act of understanding is an act of creation that allows something to be, writes Agamben. Only by returning to the forgotten or overlooked connection between philosophy and poetry (poetry) does creative criticism become possible.

The split between philosophy and poesifor Agamben, one can be traced back to an early split in the history of philosophy between the word of thought and the poetic word, between the word that 'sings' and the word that 'remembers' (Stanzas, 1993). While philosophy has knowledge of its object without being able to possess it, poetry can possess its object without having knowledge of it. Through language, poetry can enjoy and give form to the object of knowledge, although without having any knowledge of it. Philosophy, on the other hand, cannot enjoy an object of knowledge, since it does not have words and language to give form. But what has been overlooked and which is crucial for philosophical practice is the fact that every poetic project also turns towards knowledge, in the same way that every philosophical project turns towards joy.

The prose writer is the amateur, empty and open.

For Agamben, this restores the important connection between philosophy and poetry, where one supports what the other cannot. The creator criticism therefore has an eye for philosophy as well as poetry, and criticism breaks through where there is no clear separation between the remembering word and the singing.

I What is philosophy? writes Agamben: «The primary opening towards the world is not logical but musical.» It is because the song and hymn of the muse in ancient Greece (and elsewhere) teaches us something fundamental about the experience of language, that our understanding of things and human actions is never only nourished through rational knowledge but by a fundamental stemthed in relation to the world. "People unite", writes Agamben, "and shape the basic laws of their cities through language, but the experience of language […] is always already musically conditioned for its part."

It is the influence of this musicality ethos (ethics) that creates a connection between people, things and place. 'The rooting' called Simone Because this connection (Weil: The rooting as. 2023). It is the continuous work and experience with the limit of language, showing in thinking that we can only revolve around things, which for Agamben expresses the humble but central task that philosophy must undertake. As he writes: «Language is given today as talk, which never encounters its own limits and seems to have lost all awareness of the close bond it has with what cannot be said, that is, the time when man still didn't speak.” Because what you encounter at the border of language is not ineffability, silence or mystery, but a new beginning, the voice that opens, the intimate relationship with what we do not yet think. That was the meaning of this one languageone's experience Agamben met at the seminar in Le Thor in 1968. That studying, understanding the world, is a form of self-care, thinking as the self's relation to itself. Where one simultaneously discovers life (ontology) and how life could be (politics, the happy life).

© Eduardo Moreno. See also Orientering.

About losing yourself

Agamben's interest in politics is not really about our relationship to laws and norms, but about the self's relationship to itself. Because the two things are intimately connected: our relationship to ourselves and to a possible shared world. One day while his is sitting and flipping through a personals ad, he stumbles upon this one: «Parisian woman, tall, slim, built, near fifty, lively, from a good family, sporty: hunting, fishing, golf, riding, skiing, wants to meet a serious man, spirited, in the sixties with a similar profile to live together happily, in Paris or the province» (See The use of the bodies). In other words, a typical description of the character traits, hobbies etc. that should preferably constitute an overall picture of a particular person's life. But as we know, it rarely matches. Why? Because it is not a number of enumerated characteristics of a person that make the lived experience possible, but to a much greater extent what moves and touches us in any encounter. To live is to experiment, to stop, to think, to play, to try one's way.

We find these breakaways, wanderers, pathfinders, flâneurs, the monk Francis of Assisi, the situationist, the playful child and Pinnochio.

Self-care is not about power, mastery and technique, but, as Agamben writes, about «losing oneself», doing this in a free creative awareness of what is. Man, in his normal state, is closed inside himself, bound by his desires and worries – a selfish tendency, which must therefore first be opened to what is. The self is not a hiding place in which we must seek refuge, but a simultaneously demanding and playful undertaking.

Spinoza and the happy life

With Agamben is the use of the self an opportunity in the middle of the political wasteland and the weight of the world to find a more non-goal-directed life, a life that explores other spaces of experience beyond state control, possession and private property.

With dismissal he is talking about a life that finds its own spaces outside the goals and status-hunting of modern working life, including the identity politics of social life. A simpler life, a naked life, a lightness in the heaviness, a true joy.

All around Agamben's writing we find these breakaways, wanderers, path-
finders, flâneurs like the writer Robert Walser, Ulrich i Robert Musils The man without qualities, the monk Francis of Assisi, the situationist, the playful child and Pinnochio. Try to become your own weapon through your own life.

For Agambenforsker David Kishik can life in the withdrawal zone, canceling oneself, be the beginning of a political practice (Kishik: Self Study. Notes on the Schizoid Condition, 2023). For Agamben, it is about someone Spinoza that has shown the way to this bridge between bare life, in the sense of an open experimental life, and political life. Spinoza is the modern thinker who does not ask man to seek security – by tearing himself free from the state of nature. Human happiness and well-being are also possible without a contract and a sovereign. For Spinoza, ethics is the sphere that is not based on guilt and responsibility, but the very doctrine of the happy life. A musical life where what brings us together as people is not laws, norms and governance, but a joint listening and effort to understand. The ability of humans to take part in an experience of thought. Sharing a receptivity or sensibility is what brings people together.

Our relationship with language

So: Philosophy is not in itself love of wisdom (sophia), a medicine for the soul (Know thyself!); philosophy is not the full-end of a reflection; philosophy is not even a continued doubt or skepticism; nor is philosophy an overcoming of the world and the tranquility of the soul.

Philosophy is first and foremost a study of what it means to think.

What is it then, philosophy? It is of course a bit of all these things too, but for Agamben it is first and foremost an investigation of what it means to think, to live a thinking life. That thinking has to do with our relationship to language, not as communication that seeks to inform us about something, but as that which connects with a voice we do not possess ourselves. To find that in the language that speaks through the words, closer to things. That which travels and creates an understanding of a common world. A way of thinking that connects us with things, objects and nature. And therefore thinking is a voice that keeps something open, that which makes us listen, that we continue. But in a world of communication and the specialization of the sciences, both philosophy and science are in crisis. A crisis where things er arranged in a manner of speaking. An experience that life and thought are already surrounded by the built-in violence of language. The compulsion of the language machine, language battles, discourse battles, communication. Where no one hears anything but words anymore. Whoever can again feel affected by this situation, this limit, has discovered the life of philosophy – a thinking life, a musical life.

Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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