Boyan Manchev

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Between Sovereign Violence and Human Action

Giorgio Agamben and the Critique of Political Sovereignty

(Chapter II of Logic of the Political, II, Sofia, 2006/2012; English transl. in Critique and Humanism, vol. 35, special issue 2010 : Politics as Struggle)

In the last decade Giorgio Agamben’s work has enjoyed unprecedented interest. As a result, his complex philosophical concepts have been reduced to yet another fashionable rhetorical prosthesis of the pseudo-critical account of the contemporary world. At the same time, Agamben’s theses have been subjected to serious, more or less well-founded, criticism both by politically conservative circles and by radical critical thinkers. The author of Homo Sacer has been accused simultaneously of political radicalism and right-wing obsessions; the originality of his theses is often questioned. What is important to us here is less to evaluate the work of the Italian philosopher than to underline the fact that the unprecedented interest in the theses and especially in the concepts expounded in the two volumes of Homo Sacer is unquestionably symptomatic of the critical thinking of the present. Hence, our main purpose here is to subject Agamben’s theses to a detailed analysis in order to see where they succeed in grasping the symptom and where they fail to attain the level of a critical gesture and therefore become part of the symptom itself.

1. Benjamin’s Critique of Sovereignty. Constitutive and Disruptive Violence

Agamben’s works from the mid-1990s onwards are undoubtedly centred around a critique of political sovereignty which is not just a common-place in contemporary radical political philosophy but also a common denominator in the political theses of the two twentieth-century philosophers who have arguably had the strongest influence on Agamben: Georges Bataille and Walter Benjamin. The radical political programme that informs all of Benjamin’s works aims to do away with juridico-political power. In his 1921 essay ”Critique of Violence”, Benjamin declares that ”the destruction of [the power of the law/mythical violence] … becomes obligatory” 1. But which are the means and modes of attaining this goal, of achieving this end 2? Benjamin proposes a conceptual apparatus for critical investigation of the immanent relation between violence and the political. I will look more specifically at three oppositions introduced by Benjamin and taken up by Agamben, which are of fundamental importance in analyzing this constitutive relation. These three oppositions, which overlap in a complex way, are the following: order of the profane/order of the divine (”Kingdom of God”), introduced in ”Theologico-Political Fragment”; virtual state of emergency/real state of emergency (”state of emergency”/real state of emergency) 3, introduced in ”Theses on the Philosophy of History” (also known as ”On the Concept of History”); and mythical violence/divine violence, introduced in ”Critique of Violence”.

The opposition between mythical and divine violence is central to this analysis. The concept of ”mythical violence”, introduced by Benjamin, is intended to reveal the ”dark”, archaic side of modern thought on the political. It is related to the idea of the substratum and origins of the political. More specifically, nature is posited as a negative background of the political, with which the latter is entwined in a complex relationship. Violence is a substratum of the political. Violence is nature itself, whose immediacy is sublated through the mediation of the juridico-political structure of the State. It is no accident that it was in the period of crisis of the positive fiction of the modern principles of the political that Hobbes was rediscovered as the first modern thinker, as the one who demonstrated the negative substance of the political and law. According to Hobbes, the purpose of the political covenant is to avoid the brutal uncontrolled violence – or, as he puts it, the terror – of the state of nature, a state of war of all against all. But the covenant, which marks the beginning of culture, cannot eliminate violence. It only organizes and totalizes violence, incarnating it in the monstrous figure of the Leviathan which inspires terror and awe. The sovereign gains monopoly power over violence. By introducing the definition ”mythical”, Benjamin obviously intended to indicate the mythical character of the origins – of the violent constitutive moment of the political. In other words, Benjamin’s concept of mythical violence is typologically related to Schmitt’s concept of ”constituting power” introduced, after Sieyès, by the German lawyer in his book on dictatorship (Die Diktatur, 1921). The logic of Hobbesian modernity presupposes that politics originates as violence against violence. Considering that each actualization of the constitutive moment is presupposed to be violent, in the Hobbesian logic the structure of the political itself presupposes a constitutive, initial moment: the moment of the violent birth of the mortal god Leviathan. Needless to say, this moment is pure fiction (as it is in Hobbes too 4), and it is precisely its substantialization that may be defined not only tentatively but also much more literally as a ”mythical” structure. Mythical violence is incarnated in the body of the political – it is represented by the law. Thus, the Leviathan inspires terror but here this is the legitimate terror of the law. Benjamin’s concept of ”mythical violence” makes a key contribution in that it reveals precisely the double bind of the immanent violence of the law and terror against the law, which, alone, can have constituting power: revolution, whose shadow haunts Hobbes’s thoughts like a hundred-headed hydra, becomes the main figure of the constituting power of the political in modernity. At the same time, Benjamin’s text must be credited with recognizing the bad infinity of mythical violence (it can be thought as the bad infinity of sacrificial crisis suggested by Girard), which is due precisely to this constitutive duality: constitutive violence, which is violence against the law par excellence, is impossible without law-preserving violence.

Benjamin develops the concept of divine violence – rather elliptically – in the last pages of his ”Critique”. Divine violence is opposed to the mythical violence which constitutes the law and, in this sense, it overlaps with the violence of the law 5. If we take Benjamin’s line of reasoning further, we must conclude that even though mythical violence is incepted as an ”immediate manifestation” and has a ”nonmediate function” – that is, it is not related as a means towards a predefined end (the term ”manifestation” implies precisely this ”nonmediate” character) – mythical violence ultimately proves to be inscribed within the sphere of mediation, of relations, of means related to ends (”Mythical violence in its archetypal form is a mere manifestation of the gods. Not a means to their ends, scarcely a manifestation of their will, but first of all a manifestation of their existence.” Benjamin, 1996, p.294). It also proves to be subordinate to representation because insofar as it is identical to constitutive violence, it is represented in law-preserving violence. This will probably explain the definition of divine violence as ”pure immediate violence”. Insofar as divine violence is in radical contrast to mythical violence, this ”pure immediacy” obviously exceeds the ”immediate manifestation” of mythical violence. As a pure sphere of immediacy, divine violence disrupts the regime of mediality, reversibility, causality, representation. In other words, divine violence destroys the law. It destroys the boundaries set by constitutive violence. It eliminates them precisely with its boundlessness. Divine violence, then, destroys not ”merely” the law but the entire sphere of representation in which, alone, the law is possible. (That is precisely why it is divine – it is immediate in the same way as miracles are an immediate act of God, without the mediation of prophets, according to Hobbes: it is miraculous violence) 6.

This analysis will attempt a critical reading of Agamben’s use of Benjamin’s concepts while living up to the task Agamben sets himself – insofar as this task is in itself the task of a radical critique. Although Agamben adopts seemingly uncritically – that is, ”positively” – Benjamin’s concepts which are central to his theses, a careful reading will reveal the peculiar conceptual adjustments that gradually and imperceptibly transform the original meaning of those concepts. We may have good reason to regret that Agamben does not explicate the fact that, in a sense, he turns Benjamin’s concepts against themselves – for although in his text they function in a field of completely different conceptual intensity, these concepts nevertheless carry a certain ambiguity in their ”genes”. The main task of this commentary is to illuminate these implicit operations, this conceptual transformation and its stakes. Underestimating their significance for contemporary thinking of the political would be an instance of critical arrogance which is particularly inappropriate today, when the imperative of critical thinking of the crisis of the political is more urgent than ever.

2. Real State of Exception

In the chapter on ”Potentiality and Law” in Homo Sacer, Agamben builds on Schmitt’s distinction between constituting power and constituted power. Schmitt attempts to unite and, in a sense, to reconcile – but with a large dose of relativity, which has serious consequences – Spinoza with Hobbes, trying to project the affirmative Spinozan view (identifying Spinoza’s natura naturans with Sieyès’s idea of constituting power) onto the negative Hobbesian view. It is precisely this constitutive model that is taken up by Benjamin in his concept of mythical violence. At the same time, Benjamin introduces in his schema – and this is what is truly at stake in his ”Critique” – an anomic, ”wild” element that radically exceeds the scope of law. This is what he calls divine violence. Thus, the Sieyèsian-Schmittian dichotomy of constituting powerconstituted power is transformed in Benjamin into a triad (mythical constitutive violence/law-preserving violence/divine violence).

Unlike Schmitt, but also at first sight unlike Benjamin, Agamben formulates as a task of the political (or, rather, as an end-less end) the prevention of the actualization of the potentiality of constituting power in law and government or, in other words, in the structure of sovereignty. Constituting power must be preserved as pure, non-actualized power. It is obvious that here Agamben directly follows the theses of his senior Italian colleague Antonio Negri. Unlike Negri, however, Agamben (1998, p.33) finds the figure of this non-actualization in the messianic event, which again brings him close to Benjamin. Non-actualization means, above all, suspension of relations: ”[O]ne must think the existence of potentiality … beyond every figure of relation, beyond even the limit relation that is the sovereign ban.” Unlike the sovereign, the messiah is beyond relations, the messiah transcends ends and means. That is precisely why messianic intensity is so important to Agamben: it corresponds to a constituting power that does not pass over into constituted power; for Agamben, the political task of the contemporary age is precisely to ensure the in-transience, the non-passing of constituting power into constituted power. The condition where the law is suspended by the coming of the messiah is a condition where constituting power is retained, where its potentiality does not pass over into actuality. But it does not have the character of Benjamin’s divine violence; it is suspension of the law not through excess of the mythical constitutive violence but through retention of potentiality. Obviously, we may link this sui generis retention of potentiality with Benjamin’s ”nihilism” in his ”Theologico-Political Fragment” 7; by drawing on Negri’s interpretations of Schmitt’s concepts, we may link it also with Deleuze’s conception of resistance (resistance which paradoxically precedes sovereignty).

Following the logic of this conceptual operation, Agamben resorts to Benjamin’s peculiar distinction between permanent state of emergency and effective or real state of emergency, introduced in thesis VIII of his ”Theses on the Philosophy of History” 8. Here is the passage in question:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. (Benjamin, 1968, p.257)”

In a sense, this distinction is the starting point of Agamben’s theses on the contemporary age and his argumentative apparatus is ultimately designed to elucidate this enigmatic formulation. The fact that the term ”state of emergency” – that is, ”state of exception” – is in quotation marks shows clearly that its extra-ordinariness is still inscribed within the realm of order (Agamben obviously radicalizes Schmitt’s thesis, placing the state of exception at the basis of sovereignty). Conversely, a real state of exception or emergency is that which suspends order, that is to say, the law – and that is precisely why, as we shall see, it is related to the messianic idea.

The risks in interpreting this concept are noted both by Derrida and by Agamben himself 9. Yet beyond or, rather, before an interpretative debate, a more trivial, literal reading of Benjamin’s texts should not have any problems in identifying the main risk embedded in these concepts. Namely, that both the concept of a real state of exception and the related concept of divine violence that leads to a new historical epoch imply nothing less than an extreme historical reality: war. ”It [divine violence] may manifest itself in a true war exactly as in the divine judgment of the multitude on a criminal,” reads one of the last sentences in the ”Critique”. This true war (could we presume that the definition ”true” anticipates the one in ”Theses on the Philosophy of History”, where Benjamin refers to a real or true [wirklich] state of emergency?) is directly related to the ”expiatory power” of divine violence. The idea of a new epoch, of a new golden age after expiation is of course fundamental in monotheistic eschatology and messianism. This idea has been revived by the mythicizing, archaizing ideologies of anti-modernity where expiation is commonly associated with the idea of war, that is to say, violence, which will resolve the sacrificial crisis. Needless to say, this desire for war is not represented as an ”inhumane” intoxication with war or desire for destruction (which can be found in early Futurism before the First World War, for example in the onomatopoeic ecstasy of Marinetti’s Zang tumb tumb). On the contrary: war is an ”intoxicating realm” 10 for, to use Bataille’s terminology, it offers the discontinuous human being a glimpse of the continuity of the sacred. War discontinues the order of the profane and its economy which exceeds into sacrifice. War is an act of cleansing in sacrificial violence. That is why it is the telos of anti-modern ”humanism”: war will cleanse humanity from sin (be it – following Prudentius, de Maistre, and Baudelaire – the sin of fallen nature or of depravity, whose ultimate historical manifestation is modernity). A final, irreversible cleansing: total war will also be the last war, the war that will be followed by the coming of the kingdom of eternal peace, a post-historical idyll. But war is inevitable for it is the only means to attain the latter. Such an image of war undoubtedly implies eschatological and messianic ideas and is associated with the ideas of sacrifice-atonement-Resurrection and the Last Judgment. War is a true Dies Irae.

In the cultural-historical context of the ”Conservative Revolution”, Benjamin’s view that war is bound up with the cleansing and expiatory power of divine violence would inevitably evoke associations with the myths of the Conservative Revolution. It is obvious that Benjamin realized this risk comparatively quickly. His semi-apocryphal and undoubtedly rash and unfair accusation against the leaders of the Collège de Sociologie in Paris (Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, and Michel Leiris) – ”You are working for fascism!” – was no doubt the result of his recognition of the need to dissociate himself from the ambiguous line in question. In this sense, even though this accusation is unfair, it points to the ambiguity of Caillois and Bataille’s ”alternative” project for elaborating a new, ”acephalic” community myth and for returning to the archaic experience of the sacred. Benjamin’s dissociation from any ”mythical” metaphors is obvious precisely in his late, influenced by Marxism, period which coincided with the Nazi Reich. It is in its context that we can also understand the opposition between virtual and real state of emergency or exception.

The repeatedly discussed quotation marks around the term ”state of emergency” or exception undoubtedly have topical historical implications. They imply the state of exception of Hitler’s Reich, and this is also verified by the proposition that inauguration of a ”real” state of emergency will improve the position in the struggle against Fascism. We will understand more about the essence of this ”real” state of emergency if we read carefully the end of the essay on ”Theories of German Fascism”, written in the same period, where Benjamin (1994, p.164) uses a similar rhetorical device in arguing against the ”mythical” vision of war:

“They will demonstrate this sobriety the moment they refuse to acknowledge the next war as an incisive, magical turning point, and instead discover it in the image of everyday actuality. And they will demonstrate it when they use this discovery to transform this war into civil war and thereby perform that Marxist trick which alone is a match for this sinister runic humbug.“

Thus, the Marxist gesture par excellence, the Marxist ”trick”, will be the metamorphosis of the mythical war into civil war – that is, into revolutionary violence. This metamorphosis can be compared to the messianic small adjustment just as revolutionary violence can be compared to divine violence. This is the ”miracle”, according to Hobbes’s definition. (In its turn, the opposition between the figures of the Sovereign and the Messiah in Agamben (1999) is obviously connected to Benjamin’s opposition between virtual and real state of emergency or exception. This connection or, more precisely, this projection best reveals the political foundations of Agamben’s analysis of messianism and divine violence.)

Actually, despite the ambiguous introduction of the notion of war at the end of ”Critique of Violence”, this early text already contains implicit connections that can point to the idea of civil war and revolutionary violence. They refer to the discussion of the problem of strikes in the juridical structure of the State, building upon Georges Sorel’s theses. The problem of revolutionary violence – as an excess of the lawful right to go on strike – is implied as a major practical problem in Benjamin’s reflections on the structure of law and its relation to violence. General strikes are opposed to legal strikes insofar as they transgress the law, entering into the ”common economy” (in Bataille’s sense) of the economic itself – that is, disrupting the economy in its entirety. This disruption can be thought of as a dialectic-historical parallel of the messianic suspension of the law. Incidentally, such a parallel between the two is drawn in ”Theses on the Philosophy of History” 11. Therefore, we will be hardly wrong if we presume that in the economy of Benjamin’s vocabulary real state of emergency refers to civil war, which is the apotheosis of the class struggle and whose moment of revolutionary violence – which disrupts the existing juridical and political order – is associated with the line of Messianism. Thus, in the context of the theses developed in Benjamin’s ”Theses on the Philosophy of History”, the idea of a real or effective state of emergency or exception is undoubtedly related to the idea of the messianic suspension of order.

3. Global Civil War

Agamben takes up Benjamin’s thesis, expanding it to include the now famous concept of global civil war (which, as Agamben (2005, p.3) himself notes, appeared in the same year, 1963, in Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution and Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan), a term designating the inevitable end of the modern world. The concept of global civil war corresponds of necessity to that of permanent state of exception, Agamben’s other privileged term for the contemporary situation 12: the two terms have nothing less than the task of designating the state of the world today. Thus, for Agamben global civil war is synonymous with ”state of exception” in quotation marks, that is to say, with the state of exception of the totalitarian regime in which the exception becomes the rule. Conversely, for Benjamin civil war is precisely a real state of exception – civil war suspends the ”virtual” state of exception of the totalitarian State and the law in general. Thus, in Agamben the logic of Benjamin’s concepts undergoes a peculiar mutation that is symptomatic for our thesis.

It is at this point that the critical imperative obliges us to test our thesis in the context of the contemporary situation. In the proposed perspective of reflection, the paradox of the contemporary situation consists in the fact that universalized ”prevention” is taking the form of civil war while its means are becoming those of terror. Today the entire energy of the political institutional machinery is directed at suppressing terror (as the opposite of the political, as its excess) to the point where it is bound to affect, if not to suspend, some constitutive principles of modern politics (the example of Guantanamo is unavoidable here) 13. In other words, it seems that the excess of the political (terror) is leading to a constitutive transformation of politics. Should we regard then the current state of affairs as a radical anomaly of politics, which transforms its condition (and for which we still haven’t elaborated adequate concepts)? Are we facing an unprecedented political crisis? And not only a political crisis but a crisis of the political, that is to say, a crisis of the very potentiality of politics?

In any case, there is no doubt that the thesis of global civil war points towards the key transformation of the contemporary situation. The classical form of terrorism, the form of terrorism analyzed by Benjamin, is essentially connected with the structure of the State as the monopolist of violence. Violence between states is of a radically different order. Today there is talk of global terrorism, a transformation that obviously has to do with the exhaustion of the modern political model of the nation-state. In this sense, the expulsion of terrorism as an external enemy sustains, in a peculiar way, the modern mythical figure of violence. In other words, one part of violence is immanentized (”monopolized”, ”cultivated”, ”sublimated”) in sovereignty, and the other – the excess, the surplus of violence – is expelled. Does ”mythical” antagonism – which does not suspend but only expels, exteriorizes ”natural” violence or violence thought as a substratum of the political – stand a chance in the sphere that is exterior to the State? Of course, this expulsion is the product of the economy of the ”mythical” political of sovereignty – it is impossible without alterity, upon the exclusive opposition of which it is founded. It is precisely the expulsion of the ”natural” that allows it to be treated as a substratum or, in other words, as a resource. That is why the economy of the political inevitably transforms into economics, into economic determinations – that is to say, into exploitation. The figure of the global Other converges with the organics of resources as nature. This organic Other is opposed by contemporary ”perverted” capitalism which appropriates the very ”anthropotechnical” resource of human transformability and which is concomitant with a reactionary re-archaizing of the political – but in the context of the synthetic myths of the inorganic. The contemporary re-mythicizing of political forms – the reduction of complex political realities to mythical formulas (”East” versus ”West”, Christianity versus Islam, civilization versus barbarism, to name but a few) – is nothing other than a sustaining symptom of the mythical-sacrificial logic of the political. However, in the contemporary situation we are no longer witnessing ordinary terror and ordinary immunization against its contagion, ordinary partisan resistance and revolutionary violence or ordinary paranoia, xenophobia, and racism – we are witnessing their qualitatively new, ”perverted” variant.


Does Agamben suggest a way out of the labyrinth of this crisis? Agamben’s philosophical project undoubtedly has a prescriptive ambition and this ambition is undoubtedly related to the concept of a real state of exception that would annul the universalized terror of a global civil war – that is to say, of a permanent virtual state of exception. So, in Agamben’s view, what kind of real state of exception could annul the universalized terror of a global civil war or permanent state of emergency? In addition to the figure of the legal scribe Bartleby, for Agamben the privileged figure of this non-actualization is the messianic event – the event-interruption of order, the definitive suspension of the law. The future of the political is obviously messianic – in this respect Agamben (2000, pp.134-135) follows Benjamin’s theses from ”Theologico-Political Fragment”:

“The task that messianism had assigned to modern politics – to think a human community that would not have (only) the figure of the law – still awaits the minds that might undertake it.“

The state where the law is suspended by the coming of the messiah is a state where constituting power is retained and potentiality does not pass over into actuality. It does not have the character of divine violence, that is to say, of sovereign violence. It does not suspend the law as in Benjamin – through the excess of immediate violence, the violence of (civil) war – but by retaining the potentiality, by preventing the manifestation of violence: or through the empty presence of violence. This event is represented, then, as pure or empty terror: it does not have violent content because it has no content. It is not part of the movement of history – it exceeds it radically: it is its boundary, its limit, its end. It is neither a revolution nor a terrorist attack; yet its ripple effects are like the reverberations of a bomb blast.

This is the main paradox: it turns out that for Benjamin, the way out of the vicious circle of mythical violence, of the archaics of the political, if I may put it this way, entails revolutionary violence or terror. But how can we be sure that this violence will be the last? That it will be a boundary or limit? And should we actually think of a boundary of the political – of the irreversible suspension of the violence of law?

Our ultimate question, then, may be formulated as follows: can we identify contemporary terror with divine violence? Today, at this very hour, when the catastrophe that is alone capable of globalizing the world is probably already in the making, do we have a sense of the impending arrival of a messiah? Do we feel that the world is on the threshold of an exit or way out that will lead to salvation?

In the last analysis, those questions eloquently express the paradoxical conclusions to which a radical critique of sovereignty could lead us when it is founded on an ”exit logic” or, in other words, when it thinks of the surmounting of the structure of sovereignty as a (messianic) interruption, as an event-disruption without content (”pure violence”, intensity, ”disengaged” terror). In response to this thesis, here we shall argue that the ”exit logic” is articulated solely in the mythical mode of the political. The radical idea of the end of the mythical mode of the political is premised on the idea of violence as a substratum, that is to say, as nature of the political. In other words, this idea presupposes a positive anthropological basis and therefore a source and a constitutive moment of the political, which necessarily posits nature-violence as a negative background or resource, as violence of the foundation (the figure of bare life is symptomatic in this respect: it signifies precisely a minimal condition of the human as a limit of the political – a critical limit at which the political is activated, but a limit nonetheless). Consequently, the attempt at a radical solution – at an exit from sovereignty and political power (the ”messianic” solution of Benjamin and Agamben, as well as to a large extent of Derrida – the messianic implications of ”la démocratie à venir” or ”democracy to come”) is determined negatively by the mythical logic; it is inscribed within its system. From this point of view, terror is not an exit or a way out, it is the excess of the mythical political.

4. Post-Historical Inoperability and Political Action

Thus, the messianic event leads to the annulment of the sovereign solution, that is to say, to radical interruption of the very structure of sovereign power. Even though in Language and Death Agamben (2006, pp.49-53, Excursus 4) argues against Bataille’s famous thesis on sovereignty, he ultimately seems to confirm it. The empty presence of the messianic event seems to say, in agreement with Bataille: sovereignty is nothing. Still, Agamben transforms Bataille’s thesis into an (a)historical project, into a sui generis purposeless purposiveness of the political. In it the figure of the post-political state (or of the political in the proper sense of the term, insofar as the political would begin where sovereign power ends) corresponds to the nothing of sovereignty, to a ”disengaged sovereignty” (”souveraineté sans emploi” by analogy with Bataille’s la négativité sans emploi):

“One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good. What is found after the law is not a more proper and original use value that precedes the law, but a new use that is born after it. (Agamben, 2005, p.64) 14

Even if we agree with Agamben’s theses, we cannot but note a strange analogy. Although Agamben insists on the fact that what is at issue is not ”a more proper and original use value” (or ”a lost original state”, as Agamben puts it more strongly in the last sentence of his book), the figure of children playing inevitably functions as a retro-utopian figure. Is this to say that the radical critique of the ”mythical logic” of the political actually ends paradoxically with a new mythical figure?

A brief paragraph in Agamben’s Means Without End: Notes on Politics which, in commenting upon Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, takes up a thesis already formulated in Language and Death, suggests the answer to this question, taking it in an unexpected direction:

“Politics is that which corresponds to the essential inoperability [inoperosità] of humankind, to the radical being-without-work of human communities. There is politics because human beings are argōs-beings that cannot be defined by any proper operation – that is, beings of pure potentiality that no identity or vocation can possibly exhaust. (Agamben, 2000, p.140) 15

It turns out that the post-juridico-political or strictly-political state described in State of Exception is ultimately conceivable as restoration of the (lost) essence, of the idea of an anthropological substratum, that is to say, of a figure of human nature (even though it is inverted in a paradoxical way as ”inoperative humankind”). We see that Agamben, obviously under the influence of Jean-Luc Nancy’s political interpretation of Maurice Blanchot’s conception of inoperativity (désoeuvrement) which, in its turn, is related to Kojève’s interpretation of the Hegelian conception of the end of history, defines this characteristic as inoperosità: inoperability, inoperativity, inactivity, idleness, non-functionality, unworking. Thus, Bataille, Blanchot, Kojève, and Benjamin come together in Agamben for the purposes of a common operation – or of a common inoperativity.

The idea of (human) nature and, on the other hand, of ”human action”, appears in the central chapter of the second volume of Agamben’s Homo Sacer, State of Exception, called ”Gigantomachy Concerning a Void”. Devoted to the debate between Benjamin and Schmitt on the state of exception, this chapter pays special attention to the concept of divine violence, which Agamben symptomatically insists on calling pure violence, ignoring its dominant attribute in Benjamin. The definition ”pure” (reine) is important to Agamben insofar as he sees ”pure violence” as the very nature of the political. Indeed, Agamben (2005, pp.59-60) is sufficiently careful to speak not of nature but of a ”thing”:

“Here, pure violence as the extreme political object, as the “thing” of politics, is the counterpart to pure being, to pure existence as the ultimate metaphysical stakes; the strategy of the exception, which must ensure the relation between anomic violence and law, is the counterpart to the onto-theo-logical strategy aimed at capturing pure being in the meshes of the logos.”

In any case, there is no doubt that Agamben operates within a logic of substance, trying to think a positive original political human condition, marred by its contamination by the law and sovereignty. Carl Schmitt, Hobbes’s great exegete and successor, finds precisely the idea of pure violence, of anomie, intolerable. According to Agamben’s impressive interpretation, the theory of sovereignty developed by Schmitt in his Political Theology can be read as a response to Benjamin’s theses in ”Critique of Violence”. According to Agamben (2005, p.54), ”[t]he state of exception is the space in which he [Schmitt] tries to capture Benjamin’s idea of a pure violence and to inscribe anomie within the very body of the nomos.”

At the same time, Agamben (2005, p.60) defines – unexpectedly and no doubt paradoxically at first sight – ”pure”, that is to say, divine violence as ”human action”: ”pure violence (which is the name Benjamin gives to human action that neither makes nor preserves law)”. This strange ”Arendtian” term also appears as a final message on the last page of the book, where it is defined completely:

“To show law in its nonrelation to life and life in its nonrelation to law means to open a space between them for human action, which once claimed for itself the name of “politics.” … The only truly political action, however, is that which severs the nexus between violence and law. (Ibid., p.88)”

At this point, however, one must ask a very difficult question that seems to remain open in Agamben, namely: how does pure violence, which is related to the ”human action” that ”severs” the nexus between violence and law, relate, on the one hand, to the retention of the potentiality, and on the other, to the original ”inoperativity” of humankind? According to the last sentence in State of Exception, pure action ”is not a lost original state, but only the use and human praxis that the powers of law and myth had sought to capture”. At the same time, the entire logic of Agamben’s arguments points to the idea of an original state, or to a substantialist logic. Although Agamben constantly tries to ”outwit” it by making complex conceptual-rhetorical moves, he remains in its grip. Why?

Judging from elements in various works by Agamben, we may presume that he is promoting, surprisingly at first sight, a Spinozan idea of an immanentist expression, which is close to the Deleuze-Negri line. An excursus in the chapter on ”Force-of-Law” in the French edition of State of Exception comments on Schmitt’s attempt to explicitly connect in Dictatorship the distinction between constituting and constituted power with Spinoza’s distinction between natura naturans and natura naturata. Agamben (2003, p.62) proves that the analogy is entirely superficial, insofar as constituting and constituted power are in fact separate and the former is absolutely transcendent in relation to the latter, while in Spinoza the relation between natura naturans and natura naturata is a relation of just as absolute immanence. This commentary allows us to presume that the economy of the opposition between Benjamin and Smith, discussed in the next chapter, contains an element of a Spinozan interpretation of Benjamin’s categories. Contrary to the transcendental representation in Schmitt, the stake in Benjamin is reduced to an essentially Spinozan concept of expression, a concept that directly refers to the category life. ”Pure violence”, which is a pure expression, is an expression of life – yet not of simple or bare life, but of life as a political act. Life as a political act – this would be the formulation contaminating Agamben’s reading by Benjamin’s original, insofar as ”pure”, that is to say, divine, violence is defined, as we have seen, as ”human action”. We could try to define the operation of ”human action”, described by Agamben, as an ”inverted expression”: the pure expression of life preserves the purity of its own movement by severing the nexus with constituted power/nature. This means that life is defined, paradoxically from an Aristotelian perspective, as pure action. According to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, action is movement towards an end, whereas in Agamben, who follows Benjamin’s line, pure action is precisely pure mediality, means without end. Is this to say that pure action coincides with retained potentiality? The unexpected answer which, however, is predetermined by Agamben’s line of paradoxical reasoning motivated by his radical reading of the Aristotelian metaphysics, is: yes. Thus Agamben practically makes the following paradoxical move: he affirms the indistinction of ”pure potentiality” and ”pure actuality”. In Homo Sacer (1998, p.32) he defines the sovereign in ontological terms precisely as this ”zone of indistinction”. This rereading of Aristotle presupposes of course a radical rethinking of the relation between ontological and political terms, that is to say, rethinking the logic of sovereignty.

Thus, despite the problematic and symptomatic conceptual ambiguities in his analysis, Agamben directs us towards a key point, a common concern of many of the radical philosophers of politics today (Deleuze, Negri, Rancière): the need to think politics without sovereignty, the mythical product of constitutive violence against violence. How to think politics without sovereignty, outside of the logic of sovereignty, is the big question facing political philosophy today. This question is a political task in the proper sense of the word. Departing from the mythical logic of politics and subjecting it to a radical critique is more urgently necessary than ever before. Neither sovereignty of the law or of the people nor even sovereignty of human rights can break the mythical hold of sovereign power.

The political in the proper sense of the word begins where the regime of sovereignty ends. That is to say that the political is yet to come. But the political is yet to come only in the sense that it must always be done, it must always be invented in its singular modes. Without a messiah or divine violence, politics and the political remain to be done in a world whose fate we must stop contemplating like a paralyzing enigma.

5. Beyond the Mythical Political. Conclusion

Antonio Negri treats Agamben as a representative of ”negative ontology”, which he subjects to a radical critique. Negri calls ”negative ontology” the line of philosophy from Hegel to Heidegger to Badiou and Agamben in which being is thought through negativity, absence, nothingness. However, the question is more complex because Agamben moves, precisely under Negri’s influence, from a ”negative ontology” under the sign of Heidegger towards an ontology of potentiality related to the line of Deleuze and Negri in contemporary philosophy that can be traced back not just to Bergson and Spinoza but above all to Aristotle. Following Negri, Agamben ties the ontology of actuality to the distinction between constituting and constituted power, and their retention. Evidence of Negri’s influence on Agamben can be found in the following, almost anecdotal example. Negri’s recent book, Art et multitude. Neuf lettres sur l’art, includes ”A Letter to Giorgio on the Sublime” from 7 December 1988, where Negri (2005, p.53) writes the following:

“So here we are at the point which you, dear Giorgio, are always trying but failing to reach: because like Heidegger, you, too, view the meaning of being as nothingness. ... [I]t is not true that the concept of being is empty. Potentiality [la puissance] is its concept. It is its imagination, because being imagines, creates. It certainly has a limit, but it is precisely at this limit that being is in intense potentiality. Being is not dizzied by the emptiness, but by what lies ahead, by the future, by what has still not come about.”

Is ”Giorgio” Giorgio Agamben? Even if he is not (although all conceptual details suggest that he is), Negri’s statement applies perfectly, albeit indirectly, to his debate with ”negative ontology”, in which Agamben was unquestionably involved in the 1980s when he published Language and Death, a book that is emblematic of his interest in ”negative ontology”. However, it is just as unquestionable that in the 1990s Agamben took a decisive turn towards an ontology of potentiality. It is obvious that the question of potentiality in Agamben draws on the Spinozan distinction between potentia and potestas: following the line of Negri, one of the main questions of the Italian philosopher is how to preserve potentia pure and uncontaminated by potestas. In Homo Sacer Agamben (1998, p.54) formulates the key task of a new ontology which, in his view, must be an ”ontology of potentiality’ as opposed to the ontologies of actuality:

“Until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality (beyond the steps that have been made in this direction by Spinoza, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Heidegger) has replaced the ontology founded on the primacy of actuality and its relation to potentiality, a political theory freed from the aporias of sovereignty remains unthinkable.”

It is precisely in this line of reasoning that the Benjaminian oppositions reviewed above acquire key importance. All this, however, points to the conclusion that the reviewed conceptual problems in Agamben’s theory are not the result of a ”negative ontology” (as Negri continues to think, failing to notice that his younger colleague has moved closer to his own theses 16) but precisely of the ontological thesis shared by Negri himself. Which means that we have yet to address the question of the political validity of the ontologies of potentiality.

So, the reviewed paradoxical logical constructions that often have unclear or ambiguous solutions in Agamben’s theory are the result of a general, fundamental starting point. Even though Agamben explicitly formulates the project of thinking the possibility of the political without sovereignty, his starting point remains precisely structural logic, upon which the idea and structure of sovereignty are founded. The logic of sovereignty is essentially the logic of actualization that is valid both for the ontologies of actuality and the ontologies of potentiality, insofar as potentiality remains unthinkable outside of the relation to actuality, that is to say, to actualization. Sovereignty cannot be thought without (its) constitutive power (irrespective of whether we define it as constituting power or as mythical violence): in fact, a pronoun (”its”) indicating possession, that is to say, subjectivity, appears precisely at the constitutive moment of constituting power or violence.

In other words, the logic of sovereignty is founded upon a definite ontological paradigm: the Aristotelian one. We see that Agamben is aware of the need for a new ontology that will start from a critical rethinking of the political. But he remains in the grip of negative determinacy: his ultimate goal is to interrupt the logic of actualization through the idea of retaining constitutive power, that is to say, potentiality, through the idea of potentiality that never passes over into actuality and that therefore interrupts real, as well as every potential, actualization. It is precisely here that the stake of the Benjaminian concepts/figures of divine violence, the messiah, and the state of exception or emergency is expounded. From this point of view, the messiah is the link between Benjamin’s periods of ”mystic anarchism” and ”messianic Marxism”. But in the perspective of Agamben’s critical onto-political project, the figures/concepts from the different periods in Benjamin’s oeuvre work in one and the same logic.

In any case, Agamben starts from the logic of actualization or, in other words, from the logic of a substantialist ontology. This starting point remains a negative background of his radical critique. Despite his radical critique and recognition of the ontological character of the problem, Agamben does not propose a new project of ontology – a new possibility for thinking the political. He remains a powerful thinker of the symptom that indicates the need for this possibility. He attests to this need without offering a solution.

I will note several main consequences of the negative determinacy in question:

  1. In the first place, unconscious projection of a new logic of the individual onto the structural analysis of the political. The political is thought through the figures of individuals (the sovereign, ”the Muslim”, the messiah). The reason for that is of course that the logic of actualization is also a logic of substance. Modern thought on substance cannot but think substance qua subject. The figure of bare life could also be inscribed within this substantialist logic. It is no coincidence that Agamben is aware of this risk and dissociates himself from it very clearly at the end of State of Exception. But this does not eliminate the ambiguity in the first volume of Homo Sacer.
  2. One consequence of this problem is the absence of a conceptualization of the multitude in Agamben. This, precisely, is the main difference between Agamben and Negri: Agamben projects the logic of actualization onto a theologico-political logic, that is to say, a substantialist logic, which Negri subjects to critique through a Marxist-Machiavellian analysis of ”forces” and a refusal to essentialize them precisely because he views them as ”real forces”.
  3. The ”genetic” aspect of Agamben’s theory seems unsolved as well: it does not become clear why and how the original ”inoperativity’ of human beings precedes in sovereignty. As we have already noted, the idea of original inoperativity is a paradoxical inversion of the substantialist theses about humankind, which view human nature as absence, as deficiency, as impossibility of coexistence, which is compensated for precisely by politics. Here one can again make out the affirmative Negrian utopia of ”pure” originary political being before sovereignty, before potentia is contaminated by the law.
  4. The next fundamental problem concerns the utopia of a ”final solution” – the messianic solution in Agamben. This problem can be defined as a problem of the ”absolute event” – how does the event be after its absolute (counter-)actualization that suspends all other actualizations? What is being after the event – the being of the event?

Still, the idea of the ”small adjustment” of the end (an idea coming from Jewish mysticism by way of Walter Benjamin) – an idea that ”de-absolutizes” the ”absolute’ event of realization-interruption – adds a new critical dimension to Agamben’s thesis and therefore makes possible its further critical use.

Translated from Bulgarian by Katerina Popova

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