Today, blessed life lies on the same terrain as the biological body of the West. 1 – Giorgio Agamben
I am a historian and no philosopher, but I also am a most reluctant historian, sceptical about any promise to overcome the present, the world as it is here and now. As such, I regard Giorgio Agamben’s philosophical reﬂ ections as helping to bring some of the most pressing ontological questions of the day into sharpest relief. If, like a number of contemporary commentators, we are inclined to regard the contemporary operation of governmental powers as epochal, Agamben allows us to see how this is inseparable from our inescapable investment in understanding life as a matter of ﬁ nite, embodied existence and the simultaneous insistence that such existence is none the less inﬁ nitely valuable, even sacred. My question, which I share with Agamben and others, is how one is to be and think outside this perplexing framework, which everywhere juxtaposes the ﬁ nite and the inﬁ - nite, if such an escape is at all possible. I am not competent to examine Agamben’s arguments about the construal of the sacred and must leave the task of criticism to others, but I would like to say something about Agamben’s assumptions about the material determinations of embodied existence, your existence as ﬂ esh and blood. Before I proceed any further, let me insist that I use all these personal and collective pronouns advisedly. Agamben’s arguments, it seems to me, oscillate between two very different perspectives on the mode of existence invested in these pronouns and sometime said to conjoin man and animal, one of which Agamben would seem to inherit from Michel Foucault and the other from Gilles Deleuze. My hope is that the exploration of such oscillation will help to clarify issues arising within Agamben’s critical reﬂ ections upon ‘the concept of life’, as these are advanced in his essay on ‘absolute immanence’. 2
Let me detail the stakes of this reﬂ ective exercise at the intersection of
‘meaning of life’, Gil Anidjar begins with the ambiguities of contemporary usage and closes his reﬂ ections on the subject by recalling Christ’s lament on the cross, ‘my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?’. 3 These words are intended to convey an understanding of life as ‘at once sacred and abandoned’. These words are also intended to resonate with Agamben’s argument that sovereignty rests on the transformation of the most basic form of human existence, ‘the simple fact of living common to all beings’, into a form of life that is excluded from the polity and that, in being so excluded and abandoned, serves to found the polity as a properly constituted political community. As such, Agamben argues famously, ‘the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power’. 4 While acknowledging how Agamben thus complicates Foucault’s renowned analysis of the relationship between life, death and political order, Anidjar also contends that Agamben fails to provide any explanation of how exactly embodied existence and the symbolic order ever became so conjoined. Consequently, we remain snared by an understanding of life as either a historically speciﬁ c invention or something devoid of history, a universal, but, either way, fundamentally ‘biological’, and, at the very same time, we are expected to regard all decisions concerning the fate of whatever is endowed with such a biological property as if all the weight of the world rested on our shoulders. To quote and paraphrase Anidjar, the question then is how we became so ‘biocentric’, and in a way such that life is no more than species existence and yet sacred. 5 Building on the Biblical semantics of the ﬂ esh and the blood coursing through it, Anidjar’s thesis is that, whatever the answer to this question may be, this ultimately unexamined, complex conjunction is inseparable from the history of Christianity, Christianity being understood here as something more than one religion among many, but short of the systematisation of otherwise universally held values. 6 As Anidjar puts it, quoting Hannah Arendt, ‘only when the immortality of individual life became the central creed of Western mankind, that is, only with the rise of Christianity, did life on earth also become the highest good of man’. 7
In light of Anidjar’s thesis, it should not come as a surprise that many contemporary cultural commentators regard the increasingly visible operation of biopolitical mechanisms as epochal. Thus, it is now something of a commonplace to consider Agamben as regarding the present situation as catastrophic. 8 Such understanding of Agamben’s disposition toward the present is not wholly incorrect, given Agamben’s own statements to the effect that the contemporary intersection of politics, jurisprudence and the biomedical sciences ‘has brought them to a limit beyond which they cannot venture without risking an unprecedented biopolitical catastrophe’. 9 There is reason to doubt such an understanding of Agamben’s argument, doubts which the arguments advanced in this essay should serve to redouble. 10 In the meantime, however, it is more important to observe how a number of Agamben’s
present situation and have then offered in its place alternatives which seem just as epochal, albeit framed in redemptive, rather than catastrophic terms. Rosi Braidotti, for example, regards Agamben as perpetuating a historically and philosophically misguided emphasis on ‘mortality, or ﬁ nitude as the trans-historical horizon for discussions of ‘life’’. 11 As Braidotti puts it on the same occasion, and in terms very germane to this essay:
From the position of an embodied and embedded female subject I ﬁ nd the metaphysics of ﬁ nitude to be a myopic way of putting the question of the limits of what we call ‘life’. … Death is overrated. The ultimate subtraction is after all only another phase in a generative process. Too bad that the relentless generative powers of death require the suppression of that which is the nearest and dearest to me, namely myself, my own vital being-there. For the narcissistic human subject, as psychoanalysis teaches us, it is unthinkable that ‘life’ should go on without my being there. The process of confronting the thinkability of a ‘life’ that may not have ‘me’ or any ‘human’ at the centre is actually a sobering and instructive process. 12
This process, Braidotti claims, paves the way ‘for an ethical re-grounding of social participation and community building’ and the renewal of ‘hope’. While it is unclear just how such instruction can be reconciled with the sundering of thought and embodied existence, it should be noted that Braidotti’s understanding of the relationship between power and embodied existence is considered as important to more sociologically informed analyses of the contemporary conﬁ guration of life, death and political order, even if the conceptual proximity of such understanding and the renewal of vitalism also seems to evoke some ambivalence. 13 More importantly, however, if these alternatives to Agamben’s conﬁ guration of life, death and political order are indebted to Deleuze, especially to the deleuzian notion that foucauldian diagrams described conﬁ gurations of life, death and political order that no longer obtain, they seem blind to Deleuze’s note of caution about new diagrams and any expectations that they might overcome the difﬁ culties of the present predicament, such that Deleuze only hoped that they would ‘not prove worse than … previous forms’. 14 The challenge then is how one is to be and think about embodied existence beyond any eschatological framework whatsoever and yet disavow nihilism, the sense that my life and your life are absolutely meaningless.