Friday, January 20, 2006


Colin McQuillan in July 2005's Kritikos:
Judith Butler seems to think that Agamben argues for the expansion of the concepts of “humanity” and “politics” to include marginalized and excluded elements of the community.2 Yet she fails to realize that, for Agamben, it is life itself which is at stake. That Butler has not appreciated this is evident in her new book Precarious Life, where she fails to explain why it is life–bare life–which is precarious, excluded, and imperiled, even as she considers the fragility of human rights and the rights of citizens, and a host of other critical political categories.

Slavoj Zizek, reads something different in Agamben, when he says that Agamben shows that liberal democracy is a mask hiding the fact that “ultimately, we are all homo sacer,” that is, in Zizek’s understanding, we are all subject to totalitarian domination and the mechanisms of biopolitical social control. He uses Agamben to make the further claim that there is no democratic solution to this problem. However, inasmuch as he equates bare life merely with the subject of domination and control, Zizek has failed to grasp the potentiality of bare life, that is, life itself, that Agamben develops, in Homo Sacer and elsewhere. This leads Zizek to abandon the intricacies of Agamben’s analyses, and to champion a heroic politics of decision–a politics that Agamben clearly does not share.


My contention, in this paper, is that Agamben’s conception of the political life is the result of a radical rethinking of the potentiality of life, and life as potentiality.

To begin to explore this theme in Agamben’ work, I think it is important to note the Heideggerian matrix of Agamben’s thought. It is important to realize, against Negri, that Spinoza is not the only philosopher of the positivity of potentia and its necessarily political character. These can also be found in Heidegger.


Further, Agamben understands thought, as Heidegger did, as the appropriation that lets beings be, which lets there be a world. Agamben even calls thought “the nexus that constitutes the forms of life in an inseparable context as form-of-life,” so that only where there is thought can there be a form-of-life “in which it is never possible to isolate something like [bare] life,” clearly echoing Heidegger’s claim that thought is a way of dwelling whose essence is “being-in-the-world.”12 World is the “abode” or “dwelling” of Dasein, its essential context–there is no Dasein without a world, the world is the da- of Dasein, its place. For Agamben, this “essential context” or “indissoluble cohesion” is the “inseparable unity of Being and ways of Being, of subject and qualities.” And this “inseparable unity” is the potentiality of bare life, comprising both its power to be and its power not to be.

This bears some explaining. Agamben reads Aristotle’s claim that “all potentiality is impotentiality of the same and with respect to the same”–as meaning that potentiality “maintains itself in relation to its own privation... its own non-Being.”13 In the Arabic tradition, this was known as “perfect potentiality.”14 But it has the curiosity of understanding potentiality only with respect to impotence. Thus, to be a potentiality or to have potential means “to be in relation to one’s own incapacity” and “to be capable of [one’s] own impotentiality.” “Other living beings are capable only of their specific potentiality,” Agamben writes, “they can only do this or that. But human beings are the animals who are capable of their own impotentiality. The greatness of human potentiality is measured by the abyss of human impotentiality,” by what Heidegger and Agamben will call “poverty.”15

It is only on the edge of the abyss of this impotence, in poverty, then, that “the two terms distinguished and kept united by the relation of ban (bare life and form of life) abolish each other and enter into another dimension.”16 In rendering the very opposition of these terms ineffective, Agamben thinks impotentiality opens a space–a margin, a threshold–on which life can survive, free from the sovereign decision, unhinging and emptying the “traditions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities” which have borne it.17 This impotence does not, however, negate the potentiality of life. Rather, impotence is an integral part of potentiality–it is that part of potentiality that makes “a life directed toward the idea of happiness and cohesive with a form-of-life”–in which “the single ways, acts, and process of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always above all power”–possible.18 It is the power of thought. As Agamben writes in The Coming Community:

…thought, in its essence, is pure potentiality; in other words, it is also the potentiality to not think... Thanks to this potentiality to not-think, thought can turn back to itself (to its pure potentiality) and be, at its apex, the thought of thought... What it thinks here, however, is not an object, a being-in-act, but that layer of wax, that rasum tabulae that is nothing but its own passivity, its own pure potentiality... In the potentiality that thinks itself, action and passion coincide and the writing tablet writes by itself, or, rather, writes its own passivity.
(you might read the whole thing)

In further pursuit of questions raised already here, here and here.

Some of Agamben's own thoughts here, seemingly responding to criticisms vis-à-vis pornography.

Update for non-RSS-slaves: You may also wish to see comments to Kotsko's post here, or the two posts by printculture culminating here.


s0metim3s said...

Yes, Butler's argument is a little peculiar, to say the least.

Something else on potentiality that might be of further interest here - it's a pdf, via Contretemps - the same edition has some other pieces that might be of interest.

Matt said...

Thanks s0metim3s, had forgotten about that one. Contretemps is one of my favorite philosophy journals, and like PMC and Borderlands they have the generosity to put everything online. It's enough to make blogging possible, almost.

Matt said...

Butler and Zizek do get Agamben mostly wrong, I think. No opinion on Negri, though the point about the political "positivity" of potentia in Heidegger (and not just Spinoza) seems rather a good starting point.

s0metim3s said...

Agree about Zizek too. It takes some epistemic re-routing to translate Agamben's writings into policy prescriptions for the UN (Butler), or oped pieces for the Guardian (Zizek).

I think Brett is right to say that Agamben and Negri operate with very different philosophical trajectories - Heidegger and Spinoza respectively. And Paolo Virno's attempt to re-read Agamben (and Aristotle) by way of Marx is of some interest (to me anyway), even though I think Virno hangs on rather too tightly to species-being.