Wednesday, March 30, 2005

precisely why I find Agamben problematic

Courtesy of n+1:
Agamben hints at a reversed version of the contemporary reading of the Hegelian-Kojèvean "End of History" - now familiar to us in America as the neoconservatives' favorite bedtime story, since it moved from Hegel via Kojève to Leo Strauss and Allen Bloom, then to Francis Fukuyama. (Paul Berman traced this history in A Tale of Two Utopias.) Rather than liberal democracy being the end state of political history for Agamben, the biopolitical project of the regulation of health and life will teach people to manifest their own bare life voluntarily and thereby prove indigestible (somehow) to all states and sovereignty - bringing us into the post-national utopia.

Update: I've copied out more of this review to give the above some context, and because there seems to be genuine interest. Please consider a subscription to help support Mark Greif sometime.
Another inheritance is the notion of a face-to-face interaction in which human beings diclose their full humanity, the more so when they lack all institutinos, positive law, and governmental forms. The idea is present in Arendt as well as Benjamin, not only in The Human Condition (where Arendt has been extensively criticized for her idealized picture of Athenian democracy) but in the description of the French Resistance that opens her Between Past and Future - where real politics vanished in 1945 as soon as the underground dissolved and a French state returned.

But the most important and basic tradition that seems to lie behind Agamben's politics is the deep hostility to human rights, derived from Marx, that has always divided certain kinds of European thought from most of the American left. The classical text of Marx for opposition to human rights (as the Rights of Man) was his early "Reflections on the Jewish Question." It contains the famous passage, after Marx's analysis of the various rights awarded to citizens by the French and American Revolutions, on true human emancipation:

'Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being [i.e. recognizes human community]; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.'

You feel here the mood of Agamben's politics of the revived human being overcoming the spurious, rights-based "citizen"–but also many genuinely political particulars that have no correspondence in Agamben. Marx anticipated Arendt's historical work, critiquing human rights that pretended to apply to "humans" or "men" but only applied to citizens who derived rights from the state. (This was Joseph de Maistre's conservative critique, too: "I have met Italians, Russians, Spaniards, Englishmen, Frenchmen, but I do not know Man.") More characteristically, Marx argued that when a bill of rights prohibits the state from certain powers over parts of individual life (property, speech), it only relocateds coercive power to the level of civil society and its bourgeois masters, so that men can be exploited while calling themselves free. But his solutions, therefore, moved toward the concrete level of production (as he moved forward toward Capital, and the "organization" of "social power" as recognizable political power. When the language of rights must be invoked, a longstanding Marxist argument opts for a conception of substantive positive rights (to employment, to food and shelter, to livelihood) against the purely negative rights of freedom from state repression. (A history of this critique, and its analogues on the Right, is traced in Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut's Political Philosophy 3: From the Rights of Man to the Republican Idea–a work in service of the human-rights-based, republican turn of French thought in the early 1980s, but no less accurate for that.)

"Bare life," as a remedy as well as a problem, is inimical to political rights. Means Without End, Agamben's clearest and simplest political book, clarified the motivations of Homo Sacer in a series of short essays. The title is an allusion to Agamben's central political idea: that when people can come to manifest pure means, without asking for anything substantive as an end, they will demystify power and slip the yoke of all of its imprisoning forms. "Politics is the sphere of pure means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings," he suggests (italics in original). A coming community of true political actors will manifest pure "impotence" or powerlessness, becoming like the concentration-camp inmate so removed from daily actuality he could no longer be touched by Nazi power; or like Melville's Bartleby, who would neither do nor not do, but only "prefer no to." The new actors will manifest their bare life, discovering therby their true humanity, a humanity restored because it surrenders any hope of finding its inner divisions or human nature.

Agamben's idea, rather than holding that revolutionaries' demands should be directed differently, as in Marx, is that they should necessarily be nonspecific and, indeed, unfulfillable in any way that ordinary politics would recognize. As he writes in Means Without End:

'[T]o risk advancing a prophecy here–the coming politics will no longer be a struggle to conquer or control the state on the part of either new or old social subjects, but rather a struggle between the state and the nonstate (humanity)....This is the lesson that could have been learned from Tiananmen, if real attention had been paid to the facts of that event. What was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May, in fact, was the relative absence of specific contents in their demands. (The notions of democracy and freedom are too generic to constitute a real goal of struggle, and the only concrete demand, the rehabilitation of Hu Yaobang, was promptly granted.)'

For Americans, this can lead to a kind of sticking point (and maybe for some Chinese protestors of Tiananmen Square, too, if you asked them). Are "democracy" along with "freedom"–which I presume in the context of the Chinese protests means civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, etc.–"too generic to constitute a real goal of struggle"? Unless you are prepared to launch into true non-state politics–unless, that is, you are messianically ready for a coming apocalypse, in which things must get far worse before they get better–you might have to say no.

That's from an extensive review of State of Exception written by Mark Greif in their wonderfully rich and responsible second issue.

Now surely you say, the conception of "human rights" must be subjected to a deconstructive reading in pursuing a justice beyond law or a 'perpetual peace', or a cosmopolitanism or hospitality beyond the trappings of nationalism...but Agamben's apocalypsism, however subtle, or subtly adapted, remains troubling. Does his wager take unnecessary risks? Is his unique politicization of Blanchot's desoeuvrement still offering some kind of hope for a purely 'potential', 'weak' or 'unworking' power? Is it faithful to Blanchot?

NB: Some related follow-ups and thoughts are here and here.

1 comment:

Priscilla said...

This is great!