The sacred dilemma of inoperosity. On Giorgio Agamben’s Opus Dei

With this book, the journey Agamben began with Homo Sacer seems to have come to an end. It was a long road, from the early ‘90s until today, nearly twenty years. An ar­che­ology of on­to­logy con­ducted (with a rigor that not even the bizarre and mis­leading game of little num­bers put in order over dif­ferent stages of his re­search could render opaque) – up to the re­opening of the problem of Sein. A dig that not even Heidegger (in the words of the au­thor who claims to be a young stu­dent of the German philo­sopher) was able to com­plete – be­cause here on­to­logy is freed from any re­maining “op­er­ativity” of every il­lu­sion that can be tied to will and con­trol. What is left? “The philo­soph­ical ques­tion that ap­pears is that of con­ceiving of an on­to­logy beyond op­er­ativity and com­mand, and an ethics and a politics totally freed from the con­cepts of duty and will”.

The demon­stra­tion that the on­to­logy cri­ti­cized by Heidegger is still, in the end, a theory of op­er­ativity and will is un­doubtedly a true idea. Already Schürmann de­veloped this idea when he cri­ti­cized Sein as being the same idea of “archè” and there­fore as in­dis­tinct­ness of be­gin­ning and com­mand. Following the de­vel­op­ment and suc­cessive or­gan­iz­a­tion of this on­to­logy of op­er­ativity, that from the Neo-​Platonists to the fathers of the Church, from the Latin philo­sophers to Kant, from Aquinas to Heidegger, that pro­poses an idea of being that is com­pletely as­sim­il­ated to will/​command, is Agamben’s task – here ac­com­plished with great skill.

Aristotle, first of all. In his theory of virtue as habit, he could have ripped being from any aporetic propul­sion to­ward virtue, thus freeing him­self of any val­or­izing op­er­ativity: he doesn’t manage to do it, even through he is the one who, at the ori­gins of meta­physics, con­ceived virtue as the re­la­tion­ship with priva­tion and as in­op­er­ative on­to­lo­gical de­term­in­a­tion. But from here on out – ac­cording to Agamben – things went from bad to worse. In Christianity (once again the im­mer­sion of the re­la­tion­ship between Neo-​Platonism and Patrology calls Agamben to this path) ac­tion and will begin to take over. We’ll leave it to the me­di­ev­al­ists to judge whether this Agambenian ana­lysis is cor­rect: it is suf­fi­cient for us to follow the thread that does show an in­dubit­able co­her­ence. Now, the Aristotelian aporia defined in the al­tern­ative of con­necting (or not con­necting) habit to virtue, being to duty, passivity to activity, doesn’t happen in Scholasticism. Critical habit is rather con­stitutively ordered to ac­tion and virtue no longer con­sists in being but in op­er­ating – and it is only through ac­tion that man can re­semble God. So, in Thomas Aquinas: “It is this con­stitutive or­dering of habit to ac­tion that the theory of virtue de­velops and is pushed to the ex­treme.” From now on, the his­tory of meta­physics, stripped of crit­ical ar­che­ology, shows a smooth con­tinuity and re­veals a sort of per­verse anxious­ness (ac­cording to Agamben) to play with and ex­plore the op­er­ative prin­ciple of ethics and the concept of virtue as ob­lig­a­tion and duty that me­di­eval theo­logy had granted it in heredity. The “in­finite debt” which, ac­cording to the philo­sophers of the Second Scholasticism, con­sists in re­li­gious duty, is thus defin­it­ively planted into the meta­physics of mod­ernity. With Kant the idea of an in­finite task and duty ap­pears for the first time, un­reach­able but not less du­tiful for such. In an ex­em­plary pas­sage, Agamben sum­mar­izes: “Here it is clear that the idea of a ‘must-​be’ is not only eth­ical nor merely on­to­lo­gical: rather, it aporet­ic­ally ties being and praxis in the mu­sical struc­ture of a fugue where acting ex­ceeds being not only be­cause it al­ways dic­tates new pre­cepts to it, but also and above all be­cause being it­self has no other con­tent than pure debt.” In the next pages, Agamben will po­lem­ic­ally in­sist on in­ter­i­or­izing the idea of moral law, on its ex­pan­sion in the form of self-​control and even in the mas­ochist pleasure of the law. “The sub­sti­tu­tion of the ‘glor­ious name of on­to­logy’ with ‘tran­scend­ental philo­sophy’ means, in fact, that an on­to­logy of ‘must-​be’ has already lost its place as the on­to­logy of being.”

A treat­ment and a con­clu­sion that is wholly Heideggerian, one might say. And yet, we can feel it right away, this ref­er­ence de­ludes Agamben. “Even Heidegger de­velops an on­to­logy that is more com­plicit than one would think with the paradigm of op­er­ativity that he in­tends to cri­tique.” This af­firm­a­tion is shocking. Had Heidegger not gone far enough in his de­struc­tion of the on­to­logy of mod­ernity? Didn’t he strip the Sein of as much hu­manity as was pos­sible to at­tribute it? No – Agamben in­sists – there is a point where Heidegger falls to the tempta­tion of an op­er­ative on­to­logy: the theory of tech­nique and the cri­tique of the Gesell show from this ir­res­ol­u­tion. “The meta­phys­ical es­sence of tech­nique cannot be un­der­stood if it is un­der­stood only in the form of pro­duc­tion. It is also and above all gov­ern­ment and oiko­nomia that, in their ex­tremes, can also pro­vi­sion­ally put casual pro­duc­tion between par­en­theses in the name of more re­fined and dif­fused forms of the man­age­ment of men and things.” Auschwitz teaches! Already in The Kingdom and the Glory, with a little at­ten­tion, this con­clu­sion could have been reached.

This is where I be­come sus­pi­cious. And what I mean is that this book, Opus Dei, al­though it sum­mar­izes and de­velops, like we’ve said, the ana­lyses in The Kingdom and the Glory, in reality is not only the com­ple­tion of the ar­che­olo­gical thread of Agamben’s thought and work. This book rather marks Agamben’s defin­itive sep­ar­a­tion from Heidegger: on­to­lo­gical choice sur­passes the ar­che­olo­gical quality of the ana­lysis and the clash reaches a fun­da­mental level. Heidegger is here ac­cused of having only man­aged to find a tem­porary solu­tion to the aporias of being and of must-​be (or rather op­er­ativity): in­de­term­in­a­tion more than sep­ar­a­tion, more than choice of an­other on­to­lo­gical ter­rain. I have to admit I felt a cer­tain sat­is­fac­tion in no­ti­cing this. But it was brief. What is the fur­ther in­scrut­able Sein that Agamben now, against Heidegger, pro­poses? Already once, in the 1990s, be­fore ven­turing into the long ad­ven­ture of Homo Sacer, in The Coming Community Agamben dis­tanced him­self from Heidegger: at that time, he had fallen to a Benjaminian, al­most Marxist, solu­tion, in pro­moting a chal­lenge against the hu­man­istic sense of being. Now, this is cer­tainly not the dir­ec­tion that Agamben con­tinues. On the con­trary, he moves against any hu­manism, against any pos­sib­ility of ac­tion, against any hope for revolution.

But how did Agamben get here, to this rad­ic­al­ized ni­hilism, where he swims de­lighting in the fact he has over­come (or con­cluded) Heidegger’s pro­ject? He has come across a long journey that is ar­tic­u­lated in two dir­ec­tions: one a truly political-​judicial cri­tique, the other an ar­che­olo­gical one (a theological-​political dig). Carl Schmitt is at the center of this journey: he guides the two dir­ec­tions, the one that leads to qual­i­fying power as ex­cep­tion and there­fore as force and des­tiny, an ab­so­lute in­stru­ment­a­tion without any tech­nical quality and the sadism of fi­nality; on the other hand, one that leads to the qual­i­fic­a­tion of po­tency as theo­lo­gical il­lu­sion, i.e. im­pot­ency, in the sense of the im­possib­ility of re­lying on its ef­fect­ive­ness. Therefore, he in­cites un­pro­duct­ive­ness, thus de­noun­cing the ne­ces­sary frus­tra­tion of will, of the mas­ochism of duty. The two go to­gether. It is nearly im­possible, re­cov­ering the ac­tu­ality of the Schmittian con­cepts of the “state of ex­cep­tion” and the “theological-​political”, to un­der­stand if they rep­resent the biggest danger or in­stead if they are simply an opening to their truth. Metaphysics and polit­ical dia­gnostics sur­render to in­dis­tinct­ness. But that would be ir­rel­evant if this in­dis­tinct­ness didn’t drown any pos­sible res­ist­ance. Let’s go back to the two iden­ti­fied lines: the whole journey that fol­lows Homo Sacer de­velops on this double track. The second track is sum­mar­ized in The Kingdom and the Glory.

We in­sist: this second track is also moved by Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and by con­fronting Heidegger’s on­to­logy. We say this to avoid con­fusing Agamben’s ar­che­ology with Foucault’s ar­che­ology. Agamben is missing his­tory, the his­tory that Foucault treats not only as ar­che­ology of mod­ernity but as an active gene­a­logy of the present, of its coming and its un­rav­eling, of its being and its be­coming. History, for Agamben, doesn’t exist. Or rather, it is at most the his­tory of law, the only place where the philo­sopher can be­come a gram­marian and ana­lyst of the grammar of con­trol; but cer­tainly it is also the place where bi­opol­itics and gene­a­logy can present them­selves only in linear terms – just like des­tiny, in fact. Because here not even the shadow of sub­jectivity, of pro­duc­tion, ap­pears – and it rather seems that the latter is totally re­moved from acting, from tech­nique, from op­er­ating and, above all, from resistance.

Thus the legal ex­em­pli­fic­a­tions Agamben presents in Opus Dei as defin­itive proof of his thesis come as no sur­prise. Rendering ab­so­lute the duty of law would have been in­tro­duced by Pufendorf more than Hobbes (and this pro­cess con­cludes with Jean Dormat). This could be. A dis­tant seventeenth-​century his­tory, there­fore, that marches in unison with the birth and de­vel­op­ment of the Second Scholasticism (that even Heidegger owes much to!) and the defin­itive sta­bil­iz­a­tion of a meta­physics of op­er­a­tion, of ef­fective virtue. But above all this is im­portant be­cause, as we’ve seen, it is Kant who picks up this motif and, after Kant, Kelsen renders it ab­so­lute in the fun­da­mental figure of legal duty, of Sollen. Remember: it isn’t so much Kelsen’s con­clu­sion that, al­though af­firming the re­la­tion­ship between law and com­mand as du­tiful, is im­portant here; the im­port­ance lies in the fact that it uses – a thou­sand miles away from its first af­firm­a­tion, yet living throughout “European ideology” – the in­ternal link to liturgy that goes from eco­nomic op­er­ativity to di­vine being, ho­mo­gen­eously ar­tic­u­lated across legal de­duc­tions, up until the Sollen’s founding ne­ces­sity: all this doesn’t rep­resent any­thing less than the in­scrut­able com­mand of di­vinity. Thus, Kelsen be­comes the same as Schmitt and, as was sup­posed to be shown, the two open lines from Homo Sacer re­com­pose: on one side the cri­tique of ex­cep­tion and, on the other, the cri­tique of Sollen, filtered in Christian oeko­nomia, unite in the end. But if we can ac­cept this re­duc­tion – in gen­eral and in a space that is no longer legal nor polit­ical; if it is true that the prac­tice of gov­ern­ment founded on the law of ex­cep­tion and on the pre­text of eco­nomic ef­fect­ive­ness have sub­sti­tuted every con­sti­tu­tional form of gov­ern­ment; if, as Benjamin wrote a long time ago, “what is now ef­fective is the state of ex­cep­tion in which we live and that we no longer know how to dis­tin­guish from the rule”: well, if all that is true, what can free us ac­cording to Agamben? (If that ques­tion even makes sense anymore!)

So we’ve reached the end of a com­plex journey. We should free ourselves from the concept and po­tency of will: thus Agamben starts to an­swer the ques­tion. We have to free ourselves from will that aims to be­come in­sti­tu­tion, that aims to be ef­fective and ac­tual. We know the reasons why. In Classical Greek philo­sophy, the concept of will has no on­to­lo­gical meaning; this dis­fig­ure­ment is in­tro­duced by Christianity, ex­ag­ger­ating ele­ments that are em­bryon­ic­ally present in Aristotle; so duty is in­tro­duced into ethics in order to give a found­a­tion to con­trol; thus the idea of will is elab­or­ated to ex­plain the pas­sage from po­tency to the act. In this way, all western philo­sophy is put in­side a space of in­sol­uble aporias that tri­umph in full mod­ernity, re­de­fining the world as a tech­no­lo­gical and in­dus­trial product (what is more evident of the real­iz­a­tion, of the be­coming ef­fective of power in con­tem­porary reality – what more than this ho­rizon?). Once again the ques­tion arises: how can we get out? How can a being without ef­fec­tu­ality be re­gained? What great en­igma Agamben has given us!

There might be a way that Agamben could still ex­plore at this point. It is found in Spinoza, i.e. a way in which po­tency is im­me­di­ately or­gan­ized as a tool for ac­tion, where vi­ol­ence and pleasure are de­term­ined in the in­sti­tu­tions of the mul­ti­tude and con­stitutive ca­pa­city be­comes an ef­fort to con­struct, in his­tory, freedom, justice and the common. Agamben per­ceives this per­fectly atheist es­cape route. He in fact grasps it in the in­sulting re­fusal of Spinoza’s atheism that, in a crit­ical mo­ment in mod­ernity, Pufendorf and Leibniz both de­clare. But the being that Agamben presents to us is, for now, so black and flat, the im­man­ence so in­dis­tinct, the atheism so far from ma­ter­i­alist, the ni­hilism so sad that Spinoza really can’t play his game – even if he con­siders su­per­sti­tion any ideo­logy of the state that is not pro­duced by the mul­ti­tude and the body (the bodies of the mul­ti­tude) an in­trans­itive found­a­tion of freedom. Nor can Spinoza, on the other hand, wait for the forms of life in the west to reach their his­tor­ical con­sum­ma­tion (re­fusing in the mean­while to act so that will doesn’t bite ef­fect­ive­ness). Instead, he knows how to an­swer the ques­tions of ac­tion, hope and the future.

What is the Enlightment? This is the ques­tion throughout Spinoza’s philo­sophy, but also in Machiavelli and Marx – and, more re­cently, was glor­i­ously picked up by Foucault. Against Heidegger’s on­to­lo­gical Nazism. Really, the only place along Agamben’s long journey where the on­to­lo­gical threshold of po­tency could be reached is when, moving the ac­cent from the lin­guistic forms of his­tor­ical being, the form of life sep­ar­ates not from ab­stract law but from his­tor­ic­ally de­term­ined law (i.e. from prop­erty rights), not from com­mand in gen­eral but from the com­mand of cap­it­alist pro­duc­tion and its state. Working to dis­solve prop­erty rights and the laws of cap­it­alism is the only op­er­ative ni­hilism that vir­tuous men pro­claim and act upon. But Agamben dis­cards even this hy­po­thesis – re­cently in his Altissima povertà [The Highest Poverty].

How will this story end? There is a ques­tion that, fa­cing a dis­course like Agamben’s, arises again: could the form – i.e. the ac­tion or the in­sti­tu­tion – save it­self from the de­struc­tion of every du­tiful con­tent? Those who, in this re­gard, in­sists on tones and an­archic neg­a­tions is just as ir­rit­ating as those who think that the con­tinuity of the in­sti­tu­tion or an­nulling all neg­ative ac­tion rep­resent the con­di­tions for a rad­ical step for­ward. Instead, it is prob­able that, against these ex­trem­ists, just like in other re­volu­tionary periods, Anarchism and Communism – in new forms, ever­more often, in the struggles crossing our cen­tury – are get­ting closer and closer to one an­other. In any case, the only cer­tain thing is that, as in Spinoza, “The man, who is guided by reason, is more free in a state, where he lives under a gen­eral system of law, than in solitude, where he is independent.”

* Translated by Jason Francis Mc Gimsey. Originally pub­lished on il mani­festo on the 24th of February 2012. Italian ver­sion here.

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