ABSTRACT

I have great admiration for the work of Giorgio Agamben. I particularly appreciate his dazzling classical erudition, his skill-both intuitive and analytical-in dealing with theoretical categories, and his ability to relate systems of thought whose connections are not immediately obvious. This appreciation does not go, however, without some deep reservations concerning his theoretical conclusions, and these reservations are what I want to elaborate upon here. If I had to put them in a nutshell, I would assert that Agamben has-inverting the usual saying-the vices of his virtues. Reading his texts, one often has the feeling that he jumps too quickly from having established the genealogy of a term, a concept, or an institution, to determine its actual working in a contemporary context, that in some sense the origin has a secret determining priority over what follows from it. I am not, of course, claiming that Agamben makes the naïve mistake of assuming that etymology provides the cipher or clue to what follows from it, but, I would argue, many times his discourse remains uneasily undecided between genealogical and structural explanation. Let us take an example from Saussurean linguistics: the Latin term necare (to kill) has become in modern French noyer (to drown), and we can examine as much as we want this diachronic change in the relation between signifier and signified and we will still not find in it any explanation of the meaning resulting from their last articulation-signification depends entirely on a value context which is strictly singular and which no diachronic genealogy is able to capture. This is the perspective from which we want to question Agamben’s theoretical approach: his genealogy is not sensitive enough to structural diversity and, in the end, it risks ending in sheer teleology.