Sunday, January 23, 2005

Heir to Whom?

In this May 2004 interview, in which he discusses his latest book, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben explicitly aligns his project directly behind (or beyond) that of Foucault. He also makes little effort to conceal his affinity for Benjamin (and in particular--though in passing-- for Benjamin's reading of Neitzsche, although a sharp interviewer doesn't quite let him get away with it.) Agamben is certainly one of the most exciting and important thinkers alive today. Whether or not one subscribes fully to his conception of a sovereignty as opposed to Homo Sacer, there are few thinkers more deserving of serious attention and rigorous debate. One wonders, still, just how long will Agamben be able to keep it up without having to reckon (more fully) with Derrida's seminal readings of Benjamin in "Force of Law" (Acts of Religion), and of Carl Schmitt in Politics of Friendship.

Found on this incredibly rich site, from an essay on Walter Benjamin:

"What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be. While at rest on a summer's noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance -- this is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch."(7) --Walter Benjamin (1931)

Benjamin's conceptual circling of the 'nature' of aura within the "contradictory and mobile whole" of his written works is the here-again, gone-again keystone to the architectonic of his critical-poetic universe ... One moment he banishes metaphor and analogy, and the next he brings it back ... As above, in 1931, he could describe in loving terms 'aura' yet still qualify a performative destruction of aura insofar as it liberated things from bankrupt aesthetic strictures of outmoded cultural politics. His relation to aura (by way of photography and film) is, however, by 1936, much changed in that the technical, revolutionary aspects of photography have already been turned to both counter-productive political and nihilistic, purely-commercial purposes. Atget's photographs of Paris, situated at the turn of the century and representing for Benjamin "the Pole of utmost mastery", may indeed have "initiated the emancipation of object from aura" (a signature motif taken up by Man Ray and the Surrealists) yet at the same time this 'tearing' at the veil succeeds in a second illumination more dear to Benjamin than the polluted atmosphere of outmoded aestheticism ... and, if the Surrealists "set the scene for a salutary estrangement between man and his surroundings", Benjamin's claims for photography are purely polemical such that they give "free play to the politically educated eye, under whose gaze all intimacies are sacrificed to the illumination of detail."(8) Such sentiments mirror the materialist notion that mid-day is preferable to evening ... that mid-day is the moment of absolute clarity (when shadows recede ...). Such, too, is revolutionary rhetoric ... while in the shaded workshops of revolutionary artists (alchemists) aura is kept in a secret drawer below the iconic tools of their trade, to be re-loaded -- in time -- purified and distilled.(more...and more here)

Does Agamben, perhaps in his closeness to Foucault, not miss something of a crucial weakness in this "here-again, gone-again" of Benjamin's? Part of what makes Benjamin so enjoyabe to read is certainly the pleasure one gets from disagreeing, or being given the chance to disagree with him. Indeed, we've come to expect such gestures, and on blogs especially, although that is a different universe of discourse entirely. The most popular blogs are those that consistently manage to just barely underestimate the intelligence of their audience. People flock to where they perceive themselves to be of value. Perhaps this is one reason why people find Derrida "pretentious" and "impenetrable." He requires a different kind of ear, or patience. Flattery, sophistry, pandering to the audience (in the usual forms, anyway--seduction is another thing), producing a book as if to merely respond on demand (as Derrida so accuses Fukuyama) is anathema. Derrida builds a rock solid case out of the most enigmatic phrases, and yet at the end he proceeds to leave the reader hanging, with no habitual reassurance or certainty. I think Nabokov accomplishes something of a mastery of this art as well, and indeed there is a conception of the poetic at stake in Derrida--a 'trembling'--that remains inseperable from the content of his argument. In contrast, even if one doesn't begin to fully understand Agamben's arguments, one is still often (though not always) at least allowed to leave with a sense of something certain having been said. I think The Coming Community may be something of an exception to this tendency (and as we all know, exceptions are not so easily bracketed off and dismissed).

Last summer I read Agamben's The Open: Man and Animal, a lengthy encounter primarily with Heidegger. Although as always Agamben peppers his prose with uncommon(but never abstruse!), vaguely heteroclite signposts (examples, he would say), that are at once precise, economical, and perhaps somewhat brutal in the glibness of their appropriative force. A sexier Foucault?

From anexcellent essay on Derrida by Matthew Calarco, "On the Borders of Language and Death: Derrida and the Question of the Animal":

In contrast to thinkers such as Agamben, Levinas, and Blanchot, Derrida clearly recognizes that something must be said about the anthropocentrism of a discourse that so quickly dismisses any relation between animals and their death(s) and/or language(s). The underlying argument here is that it is not sufficient to argue (against Heidegger) for the impossibility of a proper death for Dasein only to effectively leave in place (with Heidegger) the classically anthropocentric, hierarchical, and analytical distinctions between human Dasein and the animal. Derrida addresses this concern in the concluding lines of the paragraph we have been reading:

Against, or without, Heidegger, one could point to a thousand signs that show that animals also die. Although the innumerable structural differences that separate one “species” from another should make us vigilant about any discourse on animality or bestiality in general, one can say that animals have a very significant relation to death, to murder and to war (hence to borders), to mourning and to hospitality, and so forth, even if they have neither a relation to death nor to the “name” of death as such, nor, by the same token, to the other as such, to the purity as such of the alterity of the other as such. But neither does man, that is precisely the point! . . . Who will guarantee that the name, that the ability to name death (like that of naming the other, and it is the same) does not participate as much in the dissimulation of the “as such” of death as in its revelation, and that language is not precisely the origin of the nontruth of death, and of the other? (A 75-6/PF 336)

Derrida closes the paragraph with a question mark, as is typically the case in his work when such immensely complex relations are at stake. What we are left with at the end of his analysis, then, is a rather open-ended conclusion: the lingering forms of anthropocentrism and humanism that underpin Heidegger’s analysis of death should be called into question, and this entails the necessity not only for a more nuanced account of the various relations human beings have to death and dying, but also for careful analyses of how animals (and not “The Animal”) also die.

For some readers, Derrida’s “conclusion” is likely to be frustrating. What one would perhaps wish to see here is a detailed discussion of the consequences—whether they be philosophical, ethical, political, or institutional—that follow from the notion that “animals also die.” Although this kind of demand is understandable, it betrays a common misunderstanding of the scope and capacity of deconstruction that misses its essential modesty and radicality. In complicating our understanding of the differences between those beings called “animal” and those called “human,” Derrida is seeking to do little more than create the conditions of possibility for another way of rethinking the forms of relation that obtain between these singularities. To demand of deconstruction that it do more than this is to deprive it of its radicality, of its ability to incessantly question the categories and decisions that guide “positive” ethical and political projects....(read the whole thing)

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