Giorgio Agamben has abandoned Homo sacer. By his own admission in the foreword to his book, and having so acknowledged in the first lecture of his 2014 seminar at the European Graduate School, his latest L’uso dei Corpi—forthcoming in English translation as The Usage of Bodies—will be the last chapter of his 20-year-long research. Abandoned, he said and wrote, because every demanding philosophical effort cannot be pushed to an end, it cannot be concluded. In these words, there is already a sort of declaration, a signal from the place he belongs and toward the place he currently occupies in western philosophy. Homo sacer ends with a book gathering his writings and ideas over a span of 20 years, reworking the texture of a lifetime’s thought by recollecting its latest inheritance, but mostly—and more importantly—advancing something on the future.
The prologue, an homage to Guy Debord, gives headway to the tangled question of private and public living, memory and oblivion, a problem much more complicated as it evokes something about our digital archives. The unspeakable timing of private life is at the core of political living; houses and cities (oikòs and polìs) once more have to gain their reciprocal relation through a fundamental avoidance of an excess of narrative. Nonetheless, panning out the potential excess of what we’re building by technical means isn’t sufficient to gain the two stakes, declined here as the occasion to get politics out of ‘mutism’ and individual biographies out of mediocre ‘idiocy’. Paradoxically, the more we insist in getting close to a continuous narration of life, the more we stubbornly meet a negativity. The idea of secrecy works here as an intuitive limit; any sort of approximation doesn’t really bridge the gap, and yet the Hegelian shift—dividing quantity from quality—stays as a seal on a hollowless reality. The place beyond or before the division, as Agamben has taught us during the last 20 years, happens to be the only possible discontinuity.
At some point in the first chapter (titled ‘L’uso dei corpi’) the idea of unspeakableness (privacy and secrecy) gets abstracted and placed within our relation with the body, as a form of ‘intimacy’. What we experience there is nothing but a continuous bracing of an ‘inappropriable area of unknown’. Norms upon privacy are just mechanisms which allow a certain control over the quantity of gaze, although they dramatically lack insight when it comes to the thing itself that they’re made to protect.
Usus (as the roman juridical figure) is so far away from Utility. Usus was claimed by Franciscans as the utmost deprivation, abdicatio iuris, before they got trapped in a negative definition of juridical categories. Usus is something which oppositely concerns the field of property and consequently justice as a practice of fair divisions. Inappropriability is marking usage as the superior form of a fair relation to the world, through the words of Benjamin. Cases are extensively transversal. The language, the landscape—hints of what marks something as inappropriable and our relation with it as a usage—and the body, which is the most persistent of Agamben’s ideas, is the originary evidence of how something can be given as the ‘most one’s own thing’ only by being absolutely inappropriable. Usus is the idea of an endless ‘oscillation from a homeland to an exile’. And again, in between the lines, it is a patient effort to take care of a poetic dimension of philosophy which seems to be incompatible with frenetic ambitions. ‘Meta-historical a priori’ is the name for neurosciences and advanced technics, and a certain friction is unavoidable. There are some very wrong ways to think of the origin of language—constitutively, necessarily indeterminate, aimless, weak, consolatory, mythological—when it is addressed by asking of the purpose, of the causa strumentalis—forcing the use to the utility; again: two very different things. Again: there’s no philosophy away from poetry.
So comes the need for a modal ontology, as the result of archeologic research. In the second chapter the proximity between the usage of the body and the care of the self had to be worked out. Another close look on the unspeakableness of the days going by: Foucault and S&M practice as a hint again of a relation with the self which is somewhere close to art, or better: which turns out to actually be art after the metaphysic fall. Here Foucault’s own point of abandon comes out; self is nothing more than the relation with the self, there’s no self ‘before the usage of the self’. The city could be concerned by the fact that no relation to a norm could ever replace an ethic which coincides with my relation with myself. But an ethical experience could only be undertaken by a subject who ‘constitutes and transforms himself in a lasting immanent relation to his own life, living his life’. What Foucault doesn’t see—Agamben writes—is the ‘ungovernability’, a part of the living being completely removed from power and strategy.
On this path, Agamben had to take some distance from Heidegger’s temporality as well. The implication overwhelmingly carries the weight of the project, the weight of the possibility; we seek a different track instead, assuming the ‘absolute lack of weight and task’, and to recast in a way—or better, to retrace—the originary split of history and nature. This is, overall, part of an effort to blow away a whole system of divisions. The presence of life is a contact, and it feels no threat from death or guilt. By this third chapter, Agamben is defining the state of ontological research as a ‘practical and cooperative machine, as a texture of praxis’, quoting A. Negri’s review which appeared on Il Manifesto, 19.11.2014.
The last section of the book settles down in a dialogue within the state of exception, through a theory of ‘destituent’ power. It is dialogue as advice, the recognition of an overlap: the essence of what is made to build should necessarily endure in the essence of what is made to destroy, and whenever we try to act politically, there must be the utter awareness that what we deal with is a ‘very weak being’, more and more weakened by the limit of language which watches the border of every universality. What is constituent keeps the same essence as what is constituted, in Schmittian words, and it couldn’t be anything different after all, because every human institution is at its root captured by an exceptional mechanism. So ‘destituent’ is the politic to come, and any reasonable acting out of our time; a ‘deposition with no abdication’, as the christian riddle hos me.
There may be something in this book which seems to be a common point with other fundamental thinkers of our time, Emanuele Severino and Alain Badiou in primis, but also back to Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojève and Simone Weil. It might be that the usage of the body is unveiling a definitive form of relation to the institutions recalled and suggested throughout the whole Homo Sacer, and it shows up finally, but in a dimension of await. As a connection to The Open: Man and Animal: ‘and what sense does it make to speak of “waiting” without time and without world?’, Agamben still tells us about something like a re-conjunction, recollection, a soldering up of discordances by rooting them back to their first split.
I asked him. He said: if it actually is a waiting, then I’m waiting for the past.
Flavio Michele Ceci is a Ph.D. candidate at La Sapienza University of Rome, under the guidance of Antonio Punzi. He studies and works on things at LUISS Guido Carli, IRCAM Paris, European Graduate School, UCLA.
Thanks to Adam Kotsko and Julia Lans Nowak for their help in translation and editing.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
I still border on a word and on another land,
I border, like little else, on everything more and more,
The English translation is actually called “The Use of Bodies”.