Wednesday, September 01, 2004


This passage from Giorgio Agamben continues to haunt me. If someone wishes to explain it to me or attempt, er, to sell me on it, do please feel free, as they say. Agamben's point of departure is Walter Benjamin's 'aura'. They both -- Benjamin and Agamben -- ontologize in ways that are discrete and beautiful, but ultimately make me quite uncomfortable. rather quite, really.

"Today, in the age of the complete domination of the commodity form over all aspects of social life, what remains of the subdued, senseless promise of happiness that we received in the darkness of moview theaters from dancers sheathed in Dim stockings? Never has the human body -- above all the female body -- been so massively manipulated as today and, so to speak, imagined from top to bottom by the techniques of advertising and commodity production: The opacity of sexual differences has been belied by the transsexual body; the incommunicable foreignness of the singular physis has been abolished in its mediatization as spectacle; the mortality of the organic body has been put in question by its traffic with the body organs of commodities; the intimacy of erotic life has been refuted by pornography. And yet the process of technologization, instead of materially investing the body, was aimed at the construction of a separate sphere that had practically no point of contact with it: What was technologized was not the body, but its image. Thus the glorious body of advertising has become the mask behind which the fragile, slight human body continues its precarious existence, and the geometrical splendor of the "girls" covers over the lines of the naked, anonymous bodies led to their death in the Lagers (camps), or the thousands of corpses mangled in the daily slaughter on the highways.
To appropriate the historic transformations of human nature that capitalism wants to limit to the spectacle, to link together image and body in a space where they can no longer be separated, and thus to forge the whatever body, whose physis is resemblance -- this is the good that humanity must learn how to wrest from commodities in their decline. Advertising and pornography, which escorts the commodity to the grave like hired mourners, are the unknowing midwives of this new body of humanity."

-Agamben, _The Coming Community_, 49-50

I promise this posting of long passages will not become a habit.


Anonymous said...

J.M. Bernstein takes issue with Agamben on this (the text in reference is actually Remnants of Auschwitz) in his "Bare Life, Bearing Witness: Auschwitz and the Pornography of Horror" in Parallax Volume 10, Number 1 (January-March 2004).

Matt said...

Thank you. I don't suppose anonymous (or anyone) has a copy..?? Unfortunately real libraries are a bit out of reach at the moment, and otherwise the pricetag is $90. Which is a lot, for an essay.

After two hours of searching I did find a review of _Remants of Auschwitz_ by one Richard J. Bernstein which addressed some of my questions about Agamben's style anyway:

{"Frankly, I find Agamben more suggestive than persuasive. His intent is to show us that the Muselmann raises the most profound questions about the basis of dignity, morality, and politics--indeed about our very understanding of humanity.  I think he is absolutely right about this.  But what never emerges with any clarity is what really constitutes this “new ethics,” this new understanding of the threshold of the human and the inhuman. The Muselmann may be a “creature” who is both human and inhuman.  We may recoil with the shocking realization that anyone can become a Muselmann, that this potentiality lies hidden within all of us. We may even agree with Agamben that any ethics and politics that doesn’t confront this threshold phenomenon is deficient. But still we want to know in what sense and how this realization leads to a new ethics and a new politics. And Agamben never really tells us."


Despite the brevity and compactness of Agamben’s study, he touches on grand themes--the nature of the human and the inhuman, language and speech, the basis of ethics and politics, the meaning of witnessing, archive, and testimony.  And even though Agamben’s speculations sometime seem more dazzling than illuminating, he succeeds in unsettling traditional thought patterns. Agamben’s monograph reads more like a compendium of fragments or remnants rather than a sustained argument.   (He even numbers the sections of each of his chapters, e.g. 1.1. 1.2, 1.3). Agamben would welcome the comment that he raises more questions than he answers. The truth is that there are very few questions that he does answer. And yet his very rhetoric promises more than it delivers."}

full review

Jan Briggs said...

Bernstein's take on Agamben seems on the mark. However, I feel that we are at a juncture in which it is necessary to create lots of questions because the extreme changes have left us clueless as to what to do (what the answers are). What is to be done will eventually form from the multitude of questions. Bernstein really is objecting to Agamben's language which teases and does not fulfill. I would like to see a lot more teasing and fewer easy answers.