The Hyper-Hermeneutic Gesture of a Subtle RevolutionR

by | 15 Sep 2011

Drawing upon the thought of Giorgio Agamben, this paper focuses upon the potential of a single act to change a political order. Agamben’s writings on the exception and the figure of whatever-being retain the possibility for a paradigmatic gesture that opens up a space for a politics not founded on a form of belonging grounded in a particular property or substance, such as national identity, race or religion.

To illustrate this event this paper turns to Agamben’s construction of whatever-being, the form-of-life that can challenge sovereign violence and the creation of homo sacer. The figure of whatever-being is constructed hyper-hermeneutically. This term is chosen deliberately. Agamben constructs whatever-being through singular paradigmatic examples. These examples serve as evidence for whatever-being’s existence as a pure singularity, unable to be reduced to a particular quality or substance. Such examples stand as gestures that allow future modes of belonging to separate themselves from oppressive foundations and dominating constructions of political existence. They do so through revealing the possibility of a new way of being that does not require a revolutionary ‘zero hour’ to be brought about.

Crucially, whatever-being retains a hermeneutic structure. This allows for political life to be founded on nothing else but whatever-being’s own way of being. Such a gesture and its potential for such a ‘subtle revolution’ is illustrated by the self-immolation of Tarek al-Tayyib Muhammad Bouazizi, which sparked a ‘Werther effect’ that contributed to the Tunisian Revolution and formed the catalyst for the Arab Spring movement.

The figure of whatever-being

The main theme of this year’s conference asks (amongst other things) how critical legal scholars can conceive of forms of intervention in order to make the unthought possible. This paper poses a question of its own, relating to whether the work of Giorgio Agamben suggests the possibility of a ‘subtle revolution’ that has the potential to ground a politics that is not based in a property or substance such as national identity, race or religion.

This politics is based around the figure of whatever-being which Agamben introduces. I will assume some familiarity with Agamben’s ‘correction, or at least completion’ of Michel Foucault’s hypothesis of biopower and Agamben’s subsequent development of Foucault. If I can summarise (if indeed such a thing is possible) Agamben contends that modernity today is characterised by the biopolitical domination of life by sovereign power, which ultimately leads to the creation of the figure of homo sacer, the sacred man. Homo sacer can be seen as being at the heart of the biopolitical order Agamben argues is the paradigmatic form of politics in the West today. It is whatever-being that is the figure that ultimately can form the basis for a politics which does not have homo sacer at its heart.

The word ‘whatever’ should be understood in a particular way. The translation arises from the Italian word qualunque, a word that has many uses in Italian that are awkward in English. ‘Whatever’ should be thought of as that which is neither particular nor general, individual nor generic.[1] Whatever-being is ‘being such-as-it-is’, with all its properties. Whatever-being is a being freed from the dilemma of the universal and particular. It does not belong to a class or set. In fact, the notion of belonging is irrelevant for whatever-being.[2] This is because whatever-being (Agamben also uses the term ‘being-such’) “remains constantly hidden in the condition of belonging”.[3] Whatever-being does not ‘belong’ to anything, but rather it is a singularity that is exposed as pure potentiality. Pure potentiality is seen by Agamben as the pure experience of language as such. Agamben sees an analogy to this existence in the form of love:

Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favour of an insipid generality (universal love): The lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is.[4]

The key question for Agamben relates to what form of political existence can be conceived that would provide for whatever-being: “what could be the politics of whatever singularity?”[5]

Agamben’s Messianic Law

This politics is based upon messianism, and it is to a messianic gesture that this paper focuses. Messianism does not destroy but rather fulfils – in relation to law, messianism does not destroy the law but fulfils the law.[6] The messianic underpinnings of Agamben’s thought have received attention, but nowhere near as much as his writings on sovereignty and homo sacer.[7]

Thanos Zartaloudis sees such a messianic outlook as distinctly modest. It is modest in the sense that messianism does not seek a revolution, or a profound change in the way we think about law and life. Messianism seeks to picture the world after the biopolitical law has been deactivated. It is clear from a passage that Agamben cites from Ernst Bloch that the messianic kingdom is very similar to the current world, and requires only a slight shift in thinking:

The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.[8]

It is the law’s messianic fulfilment that leads to justice, which is related to the question of potentiality. Potentiality returns both law, and the human being back to its possibilities.[9] Whatever-being is a being of pure potentiality. As such whatever-being is thought of in terms of pure possibility. A politics of pure possibility would focus upon what is can be, rather than what it is.

The question of potentiality of both whatever-being and messianism is linked by Agamben to the profane. Agamben traces a particular use of the term profanation to ancient Rome. The profane can be placed in opposition to the sacred. Whereas to be sacred was to be in the thrall of the gods, to profane an object or custom was to return it to the free use of men.[10] What is profaned back to free use is free from all sacred names. To profane life and to profane the law is to open up life and law to their own potentiality and possibilities. The act of profanation opens up the law and makes it available to a new use, returning to common use the spaces that power had seized.[11] Such a new use can be brought about by the curious example of play.[12] As Agamben states:

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.[13]

To play with law is to profane law. To play with life is to profane life. Such a move renders the sacred hold over both inoperative.

Thus the figure of whatever-being renders homo sacer inoperative by being defined not through a negative ground, but rather through its own potentiality-to-be. Whatever-being is messianically freed unto a new use and new political possibilities. It is this ‘new use’ that can form the basis for new forms of political intervention. This is surely what Agamben conceives of when he spoke of “a politics no longer founded on the exceptio of bare life”.[14] Whatever-being is a singularity. In order to affirm its ?thos, its way of being, it should be considered as a singularity, neither its mere particular properties nor the mere totality of its properties.[15] Zartaloudis argues:

To show the pure potentiality of law necessitates the contemporary presence of its potentiality in the integral actuality of posited law, which returns law to the domain of pure potentiality, to its common use(s).[16]

The Construction of whatever-being

The key to whatever-being’s ability to form the basis for a messianic politics relates to its construction. This construction reveals that whatever-being can be said to be connected to homo sacer through its hyper-hermeneutic construction. This is a neologism coined deliberately to reflect the position of how messianism can offer a new form of political intervention. It refers to both the grounding of Agamben’s thought as well as Agamben’s messianic move with the exception and whatever-being. Agamben sees homo sacer as created through the operation of the exception. In turn, Agamben sees the exception (in the form of the remainder from the legal decision) as tied to hermeneutics:

Between the norm and it application there is no internal nexus that allows one to be derived immediately from the other … the impossible task of welding norm and reality together, and thereby constituting the normal sphere, is carried out in the form of the exception, that is to say, by presupposing their nexus.[17]

In turn, hermeneutics leads to a completely indeterminate law. This can be explained with reference to the exception’s characteristics.

The exception operates as a radically destabilising force that introduces indeterminacy into the law. This indeterminacy is introduced into every potential meaning of a legal norm. It is worth recounting Agamben’s most controversial claim regarding the exception. For Agamben, the exception means that:

The normative aspect of law can … be obliterated and contradicted with impunity by a governmental violence that – whilst ignoring international law externally and producing a state of exception internally – nevertheless claims to be applying the law.[18]

If the exception is a necessary part of every legal decision as Agamben states, then every legal decision made by the judge would be indeterminate. This conclusion can be reached as potentially any legal action taken in the exception can gain legal force.[19] The force-of-law (without law) allows any act to gain legal force, as it is appropriable by anyone for any reason.[20] Thus, the exception could render all legal norms indeterminate. Any interpretation of a legal norm could be rendered legal, and any interpretation of a legal norm can lead to the creation of bare life.[21] It is the exception that leads to the creation of bare life, homo sacer.

Despite taking this position, it can be argued that Agamben’s thought lends itself to the position that Agamben’s own thought, and the figure of whatever-being, remain within the hermeneutic tradition. From Agamben’s own statements and work, it is clear that he remains immersed within the hermeneutic tradition.[22] In What is an Apparatus? Agamben noted, with respect to reading the works of Foucault, that:

Whenever we interpret and develop the text of an author in this way, there comes a moment when we are aware of our inability to proceed any further without contravening the most elementary rules of hermeneutics.[23]

It is surely no coincidence that Agamben’s radicalisation of Foucault’s concept of the apparatus included Agamben arguing that “language itself” was “the most ancient of apparatuses”.[24] Agamben conceives of the apparatus as a mechanism by which human life was ordered and structured by power.

By including language as an apparatus, Agamben appears to see language as a device by which human life can be structured and ordered in relation to a negative foundation – homo sacer. Agamben thus appears to make it clear that remaining within the hermeneutic tradition is not an option for his messianic thought.

This attempt to no longer remain within the hermeneutic tradition can be traced to his treatment and consideration of Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle. Agamben, through his reading of Heidegger, sees the hermeneutic circle as a negative apparatus. However, Agamben’s work is immersed in hermeneutics. By referring to Agamben’s hyper-hermeneutics this paper intends to convey Agamben’s immersion within the hermeneutic tradition. This also conveys Agamben’s response to Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle. Agamben’s paradigmatic method is the response to the perceived aporias of hermeneutics. This paradigmatic method aims to render inoperative the aporia Agamben traces to hermeneutics.[25]

Agamben’s paradigmatic method is referred to as hyper-hermeneutic here as well due to its aim of deactivating the hermeneutic circle. The term ‘hyper’ connotes Agamben’s attempt to escape the circle. In order to do so, Agamben has to use non-hermeneutic means, namely the paradigm. It is these non-hermeneutic means that ultimately lay the foundation for a new form of political possibility.

The Hermeneutic and Paradigmatic Circles

For Agamben, the hermeneutic circle only acquires its true meaning from within his paradigmatic methodology. In order to appreciate the implications of this move it is necessary to turn back to Heidegger and question the exact importance of the hermeneutic circle within his philosophy.

The temporal structure of Dasein’s being-in-the-world is hermeneutic. Dasein interprets the world through its own understanding of the world. Understanding is an existentiale, a fundamental character of Dasein’s Being.[26] Understanding for Heidegger is tied up with Dasein’s own potentiality for being. In other words, understanding guides Dasein to know what it is capable of.[27] Dasein understands itself through projection, by being thrown before its own possibilities.[28] The projecting of Dasein’s understanding has its own possibility of developing itself, which Heidegger terms interpretation.[29]

It is through interpretation that understanding becomes itself, which allows Dasein to realise what its possibilities are. Interpretation allows Dasein to work out its own possibilities that are projected through understanding.[30] To understand is to give the structure of something ‘as’ something to a phenomenon. The ‘as’ of this construction relates to the purpose of the something in question, which involves interpreting the phenomenon and making an assertion that characterises it.[31] The interpretation that leads to a thematic assertion about something as something is itself grounded in fore-having, fore-sight and fore-conception. These are known as the ‘fore-structures’ of interpretation. The interpretation is grounded on things Dasein has in advance, sees in advance and grasps in advance respectively.[32]

Thus in order to approach the hermeneutic circle in the right way, the hermeneutic circle must be understood as the structure of Dasein’s understanding of the world that Dasein has in advance of any interpretation. Heidegger writes of the hermeneutic circle:

It is not to be reduced to the level of a vicious circle, or even of a circle which is merely tolerated. In the circle is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial kind of knowing. To be sure, we genuinely take hold of this possibility only when, in our interpretation, we have understood that our first, last, and constant task is never to allow fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception to be presented to us by fancies and popular conceptions, but rather to make the scientific theme secure by working out these fore-structures in terms of the things themselves.[33]

It is vital to focus upon the fore-structures that make up the world into which Dasein is thrown. The reason for this is that the circle is the expression of the existential fore-structure of Dasein itself.[34] By approaching the circle in the right way Dasein’s own possibilities for Being can be understood as being structured by the world into which Dasein is thrown. Dasein has a circular structure. Heidegger warns against resting any interpretation on popular conceptions without first questioning those conceptions themselves.[35]

It is this process of understanding fore-structures that forms the basis for Agamben’s critique of the hermeneutic circle. Agamben does acknowledge Heidegger’s explanation as an attempt to reconcile the difficulties of hermeneutics:

Grounding this hermeneutical circle in Being and Time on pre-understanding as Dasein’s anticipatory existential structure, Martin Heidegger helped the human sciences out of this difficulty [caused by the hermeneutical circle] and indeed guaranteed the “more original” character of their knowledge.[36]

However Agamben challenges the very idea that Dasein can come to the circle in the right way. Specifically, Agamben challenges the idea that these fore-structures can be worked out:

[Heidegger’s] guarantee was less reassuring than it at first appeared. If the activity of the interpreter is always already anticipated by a pre-understanding that is elusive, what does it mean “to come into [the circle] in the right way?”[37]

Agamben sees the pre-understanding of these fore-structures as elusive. As such, the hermeneutic circle appears defined by an ineffable foundation that can never be grasped.

Thus Agamben appears to connect the foundational negativity he argues is implicit within the construction of Dasein to the hermeneutic circle. The circle transmits this negativity that cannot be escaped from.

It is this view of the circle that colours Agamben’s view of hermeneutics. Much like the structure of the exception, Agamben sees that any interpretative response to the hermeneutic circle is futile, as it is not possible to avoid its clutches. It is perhaps understandable that Agamben reaches this conclusion, given his attempt to challenge foundational mythologemes. Agamben concludes:

This can only mean – and the circle then seems to become even more “vicious” – that the inquirer must be able to recognise in phenomena the signature of a pre-understanding that depends on their own existential structure.[38]

An important and vital ambiguity arises in this statement. What does Agamben mean by “their”? It is unclear as to whether “their” refers to the existential structure of Dasein or the existential structure of the phenomena that form the fore-structures in question.

It is contended here that “their” refers to the existential structure of the phenomena in question. This implies that any pre-understanding of those fore-structures is impossible. The interpreter can never come to the circle in the right way as the interpreter will not have the pre-understanding of the world required to do so. This explains why Agamben feels it is necessary to move from hermeneutics to paradigms:

The aporia is resolved if we understand that the hermeneutic circle is actually a paradigmatic circle. There is no duality between “single phenomenon” and “the whole” … the whole only results from the paradigmatic exposition of individual cases. And there is no circularity, as in Heidegger, between a “before” and an “after”, between pre-understanding and interpretation. In the paradigm, intelligibility does not precede the phenomenon; it stands, so to speak, beside it (para).[39]

Agamben thus maintains that the ‘things themselves’ (such as whatever-being) cannot be reached through the hermeneutic circle, or even through a pre-understanding. Rather, the paradigmatic circle allows for the phenomenon’s intelligibility to be understood through the paradigm itself. A singular paradigm can therefore allow for an understanding of a constellation of phenomena of which the paradigm stands as an example:

The paradigmatic gesture moves not from the particular to the whole and from the whole to the particular but from the singular to the singular. The phenomenon, exposed in the medium of its knowability, shows the whole of which it is the paradigm. With regard to phenomena, this is not a presupposition (a “hypothesis”): as a “non-presupposed principle”, it stands neither in the past nor in the present but in their exemplary constellation.[40]

It is this paradigmatic method that stands as being able to do the work of the hermeneutic circle. However, it does so not through any pre-understanding of the world, but rather it makes a phenomenon intelligible through the paradigm. It is this move that leads to the characterisation of Agamben’s paradigmatic method as hyper-hermeneutic.

Therefore there appears no need to undertake a detailed hermeneutic understanding of the world, or of the fore-structures of understanding. The paradigm does not need a fore, but rather will make those phenomena intelligible through its own operation. The radicalisation of Foucault’s paradigmatic method that so perplexed scholars who approached Agamben as a Foucauldian thinker can actually be traced to this movement away from Heidegger.

The paradigm, the singular gesture akin to an example, can therefore break the circle of oppression Agamben sees as tied through hermeneutics to current forms of political belonging.

The Hermeneutic Circle and whatever-being

Agamben’s interpretation of Heidegger and the shift to paradigms has huge consequences for an understanding of the figure of whatever-being. Agamben’s form-of-life, whatever-being, is an example of a life lived in pure immanence, which gives itself to itself.

Agamben contends that the thing itself of whatever-being can be understood, but this understanding cannot be based on a presupposition of hermeneutics. Whatever-beings must be understood paradigmatically.

The paradigm for Agamben is akin to an example. It stands neither clearly inside nor clearly outside of the group or set of phenomena that it identifies. A paradigm is the real particular case that is set apart from what it is meant to exemplify.[41] This argument can be seen throughout Agamben’s thought. Agamben uses a number of different paradigms to represent whatever-being, the figure of this form-of-life. These paradigmatic figures are varied. They include the nude body,[42] an adult pornographic actress who remains expressionless in her films,[43] Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby’,[44] and the protesters in Tiananmen Square.[45] It is the protestors here those paradigmatic gestures stood not for any simple political aim, but rather they represented a declaration of political identity that the State could not accept, based as it was on the existence as-such of whatever-being.

Thus all these figures stand as real particular cases, paradigmatic examples for whatever-being. Following Agamben’s construction of the paradigmatic circle, each paradigmatic example shows the whole of which it is the paradigm. Therefore these figures are not to be understood as examples that form the precursor to a detailed study of whatever-being’s existence. Following Agamben’s start, they are the evidence for whatever-being’s existence.

It is this paradigmatic gesture that also stands as evidence for the hyper-hermeneutic nature of the messianic figure of whatever-being. This move reflects Agamben’s contention that there is no duality between the whole and the single phenomenon. As Paolo Bartoloni explains:

Singularity is thus freed from the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal.[46]

However the supposedly paradigmatic figure of whatever-being is itself still reliant upon a hermeneutic interpretation and application in order to be understood. Although it is justified paradigmatically, whatever-being is still beholden to hermeneutics.

Agamben’s thought treats hermeneutics as crucial to whatever-being. Agamben ties the singularity of whatever-being to Plato’s erotic anamnesis, which moves the individual towards their own taking-place, the now.[47] Whatever-being’s singularity refers directly to the individual’s taking-place, their concrete existence within the world. It is this concrete existence in the world that implies a hermeneutic influence.

In order to understand whatever-being’s taking place, and its concrete existence in the world, it is necessary to understand the world in which whatever-being exists. This in turn suggests that the taking-place of whatever-being is related to the world in which it exists.

Moreover, this relation would be affected and conditioned by whatever-being’s interpretation and pre-understanding of the world. Whatever-being’s concrete existence is dependent upon its own understanding and interpretation of the phenomena in the world it interacts with. Therefore it can be argued that whatever-being’s way of being would be influenced by the context of its existence in relation to the world. Following Heidegger, this world must also be understood as being shared with others, and being affected by those others’ actions. Thus it could be argued that hermeneutics and relationality would be constituent of whatever-being’s way of being. Thus, whatever-being needs no radical revolution. Rather, it requires a subtle shift in the ways political belonging are conceived.

The political possibilities of whatever-being

From this position, key features of the figure of whatever-being can be posited. The paradigmatic gesture of whatever-being, identifying a form of political belonging which is not reducible to either a universal or a particular, can thus be inspired by a single act. If Agamben’s paradigm is to be understood as a singular example, then by definition a single act must be able to form the basis for rendering the state’s hold over life inoperative.

Thus if whatever-being is understood in this hyper-hermeneutic context the all important moment for whatever-being becomes the singular paradigmatic gesture. The singularity of whatever-being may both be grasped and reflected in the messianic moment. This messianic moment would be properly understood as paradigmatic, a gesture that fractures existing forms of political belonging that define political existence.

Agamben shifts hermeneutics towards the singularity of whatever-being. In this manner, hermeneutics operate as a means without end, and focus solely on the singularity of whatever-being.

What would such a paradigmatic gesture look like? It is contended that such an act would always be subtle, rather than revolutionary. Such a paradigmatic gesture can be found in the actions of Tarek al-Tayyib Muhammed Bouazizi. Bouazizi immolated himself on 17th December 2010, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Bouazizi’s act was driven by multiple factors, including the inability to get a job, the pressures of having to support his family, a corrupt town administration, having his wares confiscated by the police and not having his grievances answered by the town’s governor. However, Bouazizi became a symbol, one which was declared to stand as representative of grievances held by Tunisian youth against the regime. In addition, Bouazizi sparked a ‘Werther effect’ of copycat suicides in other Arab countries such as Algeria, from individuals who wanted food prices to be reduced, jobs and houses and who had unsuccessfully approached the authorities to have their case heard.

This should not be understood as a gesture of sacrifice however, nor as a programmatic approach to human freedom. The figure of whatever-being is not, like homo sacer, based on a sacrificial logic, or a top-down program of political action. Rather, it reflects the very way of being of the singular whatever-being. What is key about Bouazizi’s act is not that he died, or sacrificed himself for a greater good. Even if these claims are accepted as true, the real significance of Bouazizi’s action is that it stood as a political act that could not be reduced into a logic of political belonging the State can understand. This political act then is political not because it is a means to a revolutionary end, but because it exposes the way of being, ethos, of whatever-being. It is this modest, and very human politics that the paradigmatic gesture unconceals. It promises no more than to represent the very existence as such of the human. However, it is this very existence that modern biopolitics cannot comprehend, and which can ultimately render its sovereign grip over life inoperative.

Tom Frost is Lecturer in Law at the University of Newcastle

[1] The Coming Community 107.

[2] ibid 9.

[3] ibid 2.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid 85.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Messiah and the Sovereign’ in PT 163.

[7] For exceptions, see Jessica Whyte, ‘‘I Would Prefer Not To’: Giorgio Agamben, Bartleby and the Potentiality of Law’ (2009) 20 Law and Critique 309; Catherine Mills ‘Playing with law: Agamben and Derrida on postjuridical justice’ (2007) 107 South Atlantic Q 15.

[8] The Coming Community 43.

[9] Zartaloudis, Giorgio Agamben: Power, Law and the Uses of Criticism (Routledge 2010) 280-1.

[10] Profanations 73.

[11] ibid 77.

[12] ibid 75.

[13] State of Exception 64.

[14] Homo Sacer 11.

[15] Zartaloudis, Giorgio Agamben: Power, Law and the Uses of Criticism (Routledge 2010) 286.

[16] ibid 288.

[17] State of Exception 40.

[18] ibid 87.

[19] ibid 23, 50.

[20] ibid 38.

[21] ibid 51.

[22] What is an Apparatus? 13.

[23] ibid 13.

[24] ibid 14.

[25] Signature of All Things 27.

[26] Being and Time 182.

[27] ibid 184.

[28] ibid 185.

[29] ibid 188.

[30] ibid 189.

[31] ibid.

[32] ibid 190-1.

[33] ibid 195.

[34] ibid.

[35] ibid.

[36] Signature of All Things 27.

[37] ibid.

[38] ibid.

[39] ibid.

[40] ibid 27-8.

[41] Ulrich Raulff and Giorgio Agamben, ‘An Interview with Giorgio Agamben’ (2004) 5 German LJ 609, 618; Leland de la Durantaye, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction (Stanford UP 2009) 218-9.

[42] Nudities 91-103.

[43] Profanations 90-1.

[44] Giorgio Agamben, ‘Bartleby, Or On Contingency’ in Potentialities 243-71.

[45] The Coming Community 85-7.

[46] Paolo Bartoloni, ‘The Stanza of the Self: on Agamben’s Potentiality’ (2004) 5 Contretemps 8, 11.

[47] The Coming Community 2.


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