Giorgio Agamben: Oath

Key Concept
Today, the oath seems to us obscure and obsolete. As an enigmatic relic of earlier times, it invokes the authority of sacred and supernatural powers that go beyond the scope of human capabilities, and by doing so it realizes its aim—namely, truth-telling. Since these powers are no longer as effective as they used to be, at least in public and political life, the oath as an act of speech appears to be in danger of extinction, losing its force day by day. The prominent Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, however, thinks otherwise. The oath for sure is in decline, yet an investigation into its hidden layers, he argues, will not only show why it sounds us so archaic and enigmatic, but also reveal how our extant practices and institutions, moral, legal or political, still continue to presuppose it, albeit in different forms. Agamben takes up this question in The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath, a study devoted to the decline of the oath in contemporary societies.

As a continuation of the Homo Sacer project that traces the structure of sovereign power’s claim over law and life in Western history, Agamben’s devotion of an entire book on the decline of oath might look, at first glance, a little bit surprising because a work of mourning lamenting a dying speech act does not seem to be very promising as a contribution to a theory of sovereignty. Yet, Agamben’s strong emphasis on the close link between the logic of sovereignty and that of language can be found in many of his works, including, of course, the Sacrament of Language where he argues: “just as, in the state of exception, the law suspends its own application only to found, in this way, its being in force, so in the performative, language suspends its denotation precisely and solely to found its existential connection with things” (56). And if in law and politics Agamben attributes this force to the sovereign, it is the oath that fulfills the same function in language. An archeology of the oath, then, tends to be nothing other than excavating the other side of the same coin; for, human being, since Aristotle, has been considered at once a speaking being (zoon ekhon logon) and a political being (zoon politikon), mixed in a zone of indistinction. Therefore, a critique of sovereignty remains necessarily incomplete without a critique of the oath.

The Literature

The force of the oaths have intrigued a great number of scholars across disciplines such as ethnology, anthropology, comparative philology and religion, and Agamben begins his analysis by criticizing the literature on the oath. The literature, he argues, takes the oath as a remnant of archaic beliefs in magical, sacred and supernatural forces that have been institutionalized over time, within what they call magico-religious institutions (Agamben 12). The oath, as their argument goes, is binding, and thus proves the truth of statements or allegations, because it is a part of these institutions and takes its force from them: “To swear, therefore, is to enter the realm of religious forces of the most fearsome sort” (qtd. in Agamben 12), as Louis Gernet says. Since no member of a community with these institutions can dare to defy these “most fearsome” forces, the institution automatically assures the binding force of oaths, and thereby makes them perfect means of proof. The oath, therefore, is an institutional remedy against falsity and lying in interpersonal relations.

For Agamben, however, rather than revealing the mystery, such an explanation makes the oath all the more confusing. Based on a variety of historical and philosophical sources discussing the oath, Agamben argues that the oath is “completely inadequate to the task” (7) because it structurally contains within itself what it seeks to ward off—namely, the possibility of perjury. Various historical sources demonstrate that oaths are often manipulated to win belief, and, as Plato advises, should be banned in the courts “because otherwise it would be revealed that half of the citizens are perjurers” (qtd. in Agamben 7). Likewise, a rhetorical art, known as the “art of the oath,” exists in the ancient period to trick by swearing, and certain people are notorious in that such as “Autolycus, Odysseus’ grandfather, in swearing oaths and thieving he surpassed all men” (qtd. in Agamben 8). Therefore, if the oath were to ever be an antidote, it would be terribly weak because “a simple penalty for lying would certainly have been more effective” (Agamben 7). What is more, the supposed antidote can be equally used as poison, creating perhaps more harm than benefit. For Agamben, therefore, the generic argument that traces the guaranteeing power of oaths back to “the most fearsome forces” does not hold, because it is neither that fearsome, nor that effective. Breaking an oath does not demand more courage than breaking a promise, nor is it harder to find an excuse or pretext, as people often do.

Agamben’s point here is not to discredit the historical importance of oath but instead to reveal the paradox embedded in it. From the earliest sources on, the oath has always been considered as a supreme power, a “most venerable thing” (Agamben 44), “to which the gods are submitted for punishment” (65), yet, at the same time, it remained very weak and inadequate in its job. Although Agamben refers to historical sources to demonstrate why this is the case, his emphasis is more on the structural side of the problem—the necessary co-implication of oath and perjury. If the purpose of oath were to combat perjury, as the scholars almost unanimously agree, this would logically require that the oath is preceded by perjury, and then built as a remedy against an already existing problem, say, “the dissolution of the oral contracts,” which, for George Dumezil, is one of the functional “scourges” of the Indo-European societies. “Instead,” Agamben concludes, “the scourge itself is contained within [the oath] in the form of perjury” (7).

The Oath as the Force of Language

What is Agamben’s explanation, then? This paradoxical scourge, Agamben argues, is not a burden inherited from the archaic beliefs, nor does it stem from “the unreliability of men, incapable of staying true to their word;” it is rather “a weakness pertaining to language itself, the capacity of words themselves to refer to things” (8). By bringing the force of oaths together with the problem of the efficacy of language, Agamben proposes to change the focus, from obsolete forces and institutions as well as from human moral weakness to a flaw pertaining to the language itself: that one’s saying never adequately fits to one’s doing, due to the lack of a given accord between words and deeds, or statements and facts. What matters in oath, Agamben continues, is not “the statement as such but the guarantee of its efficacy… not the semiotic or cognitive function of language as such but the assurance of its truthfulness and its actualization” (4). Unlike material objects, words do not have a natural gravity towards the world but always risk going in the wrong direction, being false, misleading or vain. Therefore, there must be a force in charge of filling this void by constantly binding the speaker to act in this or that way, which, in turn, preserves the consistency and stability of language, so that words are not empty, arbitrary or fleeting but rather have an anchor point tied to an agent. For this reason, Agamben emphasizes that the gap here “is not of a semantico-denotative type,” as it is generally considered in philosophy and linguistics, “but performative,” which “always puts in play the commitment and praxis of men” (54).

Taking an oath, in this regard, is nothing other than committing oneself to tie statements and facts faithfully and truthfully, while the very same commitment, however, includes within itself its exact opposite, namely, the possibility of breaking this connection, say, by manipulating words, breaching agreements, speaking in vain or haphazardly, and countless other ways that speech may go awry. Therefore, if the oath binds words to deeds, then perjury is simply the name given to the violation of this connection. Every speech, then, is

…a blessing, if the word is full, if there is a correspondence between the signifier and the signified, between words and things; a curse if the word is empty, if there remains, between the semiotic and the semantic, a void and a gap. Oath and perjury, bene-diction and male-diction correspond to this double possibility inscribed in the logos, in the experience by means of which the living being has been constituted as speaking being. (Agamben 69-70)

Oath—or bene-diction, truthful and solemn speech—and perjury—male-diction, false and blasphemous speech—are therefore two sides of the same coin: “the signifying force of language” (Agamben 34).

To further diagnose, at this point, why the oath has been consigned to the domain of other forces and institutions instead of language, Agamben argues that although the connection between words and deeds or statements and facts is extremely fragile, language finds ways to cover up this fragility and makes it look strong and certain, though in an oblique and surreptitious manner. And the best example that demonstrates this is the certainty of our names. When one calls our name, we immediately look and respond without any doubt, as if there is a perfect match between a name and object. This indubitable certainty of having a name is enough to see how language “bewitches” the mind, as Wittgenstein calls it (Philosophical Investigations 52), and insidiously creates a zone of indistinction between our names and our selves, that is, our words and our world. Doubting one’s own name, Wittgenstein argues, would immediately make everything doubtful, and could even cause madness: “If that [my own name] is wrong, then I am crazy” (On Certainty 75). Yet, although we live in the certainty of our names, and hence in the certainty of language, whenever we open our mouths, this fragile relation between name and object is being seriously tested. Language, therefore, always risks failure and may go awry, yet it is also incredibly adept at finding ways to fill its own void, its inability to connect itself to the world, such as the oath, which is, for Agamben, is the ur-example of this skillful yet surreptitious activity, the paradigm that binds the speaker to her language. It is not a coincidence therefore that we always swear on a name, the name of divinities in this case, because the truth implied in the oath is nothing other than the certainty of the name.

To elaborate this, Agamben refers to Philo of Alexandria and argues that in antiquity god’s name is always taken to be in this sense, not as factual certainty but as the indubitable proof of every other assertion:

Philo writes that “God spoke and it was done, with no interval between the two,” the oath of men is thus the attempt to conform human language to this divine model, making it, as much as possible, pistos, credible (21).

“The words of god,” according to Philo, “are oaths” because in god’s speech there is no constative-performative distinction, something that is not possible for human beings. While an oath, for humans, has always to be accompanied with a statement that may or may not be true, whatever god pronounces immediately realizes itself as truth. Therefore, Philo says “only God swears truly… for God is not trustworthy because of the oath; but it is God that assures the oath” (qtd. in Agamben 21). Philo’s conclusion does not hold, however, because if god’s words are necessarily oaths, and if they are necessarily true as oaths, then it is “completely impossible to decide if [God] is reliable because of the oath or if the oath is reliable because of God” (Agamben 22). For Agamben, the inseparability of god’s name and the oath rather shows the weakness of god because even divinities need the oath in order to assure the truth. For this reason, invoking god’s name in taking an oath is not to appeal to a higher power but an appeal to the original experience of language “in which it is impossible to separate name and being, words and things.” For this reason, god is simply his name, which performatively fills the gap between word and thing when his name is called because his essence and existence, or his name and his being, coincide in the oath. Agamben therefore suggests reading the name of god, as well as sacred names such as mana, orenda or manitou in other cultures, from this perspective rather than taking them as inventions of primitive mind. These names and forces are not random inventions, and “do not designate something like a sacred substance or social sentiments related to religion but a void of sense or an indeterminate value of signification” (Agamben 14-15).

The Decline of the Oath

Therefore, the decline of the oath in contemporary societies, Agamben argues, cannot stem from a decline in religious belief or the disenchantment of the world from magical, sacred or supernatural forces, because neither belief in god nor these names and forces precede the oath. Rather, they would not be possible if human beings didn’t speak a language in the first place: “man is not limited to acquiring language as one capacity among others that he is given but has made of it his specific potentiality; he has, that is to say, put his very nature at stake in language” (Agamben’s italic, 68). The decline of the oath instead manifests a deeper problem, the loosening of the originary bond between human being and language, the very capacity of language to bind the speaker. Since this experience of bondage is at once the most archaic of commitments and contemporaneous with every act of speech—for, it is impossible to speak without implicitly swearing—Agamben equates this experience with anthropogenesis, the ever-continuing process of becoming human as a speaking being, who has to risk “the original connection between names and things” (68) anytime she speaks.

If this connection is breaking down today, then speech is losing its gravity and becoming more and more ephemeral, leading to “a spectacular and unprecedented proliferation of vain words on the one hand and, on the other, of legislative apparatuses that seek obstinately to legislate on every aspect of that life on which they seem no longer to have any hold” (Agamben 71). Yet we should by no means understand Agamben’s pressing analysis as nostalgia for a lost past or pessimism for an insecure future. On the contrary,

It is perhaps time to call into question the prestige that language has enjoyed and continues to enjoy in our culture, as a tool of incomparable potency, efficacy, and beauty. And yet, considered in itself, it is no more beautiful than birdsong, no more efficacious than the signals insects exchange, no more powerful than the roar with which the lion asserts his dominion (71).

If there is any virtue in language, it is not in its being a powerful, useful or beautiful tool; rather, it is “in the place it leaves to the speaker… in the ethical relation that is established between the speaker and his language” (71). If Agamben’s analysis is correct, then we don’t need to be worried of changing and developing the tool because every day a new technology is being released, and we are creating better solutions to the problems that language used to solve. If the primary function of oath were to confirm and corroborate a dubious statement, it is quite obvious that Google is much better in fulfilling this function. What we should concern about, rather, is its ethical and political stakes, because having a language is not only “a problem of an exclusively cognitive order” but “also one of ethos” (Agamben 68). Therefore, if the bond between human being and language is loosening, the paradigmatic moral question ‘what am I to do?’ must be asked again.

Humanity has long lived uncritically in the certainty and security of the name and language by constantly swearing the truth of the words and cursing the perjurers; yet, it has already started to go in a different direction “whose reality and meaning we have yet to recognize” (Agamben 1). For Agamben, therefore, the most decisive problem in our time is to think the possibility of a new ethos and form of living without the tutelage of the oath. But how is it possible to think without the oath? Philosophy as a critical discourse, Agamben concludes, was born out of a questioning the supposed agreement between words and objects without “swearing and cursing,” because it is “constitutively a critique of the oath: that is, it puts in question the sacramental bond that links the human being to language, without for that reason simply speaking haphazardly, falling into the vanity of speech” (72). Agamben’s further work, in this regard—his archeology of duty and investigations into the possibility of different uses and forms of life—can be considered as a philosophical rethinking of the ethical and political relationship between human beings and language, no longer making any concession to the bondage of oath.

Sinan Oruc is a PhD candidate in philosophy at SUNY-Binghamton.

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—Agamben, Giorgio. The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath (homo Sacer Ii, 3). Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2011
—Wittgenstein, Ludwig, G E. M. Anscombe, G H. Wright, Heikki Nyman, and Rush Rhees. The Collected Works of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations. Charlottesville, Va: InteLex Corporation, 1998
—Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Gertrude E. M. Anscombe, and Denis Paul. On Certainty=Über Gewißheit. Oxford, 1969

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