Daniel Morris, writing for BOOKFORUM:
Agamben explains how the dependence of the spectator on that which he cannot produce becomes wholly alienating: "the spectator sees himself as other in the work of art, his being-for-himself as being-outside-himself; and in the pure creative subjectivity at work in the work of art, he does not in any way recover a determinate content and a concrete measure of his existence, but recovers simply his own self in the form of absolute alienation, and he can possess himself only inside this split." But what happens, then, to the function of aesthetic judgment and art criticism? Enter Agamben, philosophical chiaroscurist at large. Piercing the crepuscular contours of art, he recognizes that "every time aesthetic judgment attempts to determine what the beautiful is, it holds in its hands not the beautiful but its shadow, as though its true object were not so much what art is but what it is not: not art but non-art." He notices further that "we must admit, even against ourselves, that everything our critical judgment suggests to us before a work of art belongs precisely to this shadow. . . . When we deny that a work of art is artistic, we mean that it has all the material elements of a work of art with the exception of something essential on which its life depends, just in the same way that we say that a corpse has all the elements of the living body, except that ungraspable something that makes of it a living being."
Contemporary critics of Agamben at times accuse him of reveling in the indeterminacy of naked life. Some even charge that he aestheticizes the denuding of life as a pornographic transfixion for his gaze, and that therefore his understanding of human life is left wanting. These critiques are usually launched against Agamben's two best-known books, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995 ) and Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1998 ). I mention these criticisms here not because they are facile and misinformed (though they are) but because they emerge from a refusal to understand the full range of Agamben's philosophical project. Agamben is today in his early sixties. When he published The Man Without Content, he was twenty-eight. For decades, his thought has been sailing in search of that ungraspable something that not only constitutes life but also makes it worth living. The Man Without Content begins to chart that course in order to resist the dark temptations of unknowability and ineffability. Kant says somewhere in the Critique of Pure Reason that all possible knowledge and experience are marooned on an island surrounded by the dangerous waters of the unknown. The trick is to discover the best way to set sail. Only when there is no mast in knowledge or experience that can be raised are we in trouble. "In civilizations without boats," Michel Foucault remarked in a 1967 lecture, "dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates." The boats of thought capsize when they no longer carry ideas, categories, and concepts as brigand chasers of our dreams.
Part of the misadventure of aesthetic thought for Agamben is that it traffics in nothingness, death, and the skeletal remains of the living. "Whatever criterion the critical judgment employs to measure the reality of the work," he argues, "it will only have laid out, in place of a living body, an interminable skeleton of dead elements. . . . What has been negated is reassumed into the judgment as its only real content, and what has been affirmed is covered by this shadow. . . . Caught up in laboriously constructing this nothingness, we do not notice that in the meantime art has become a planet of which we only see the dark side, and that aesthetic judgment is . . . the reunion of art and its shadow." In contemporary art, art criticism reaches its terminus: extreme object-centeredness, as Agamben dubs it, "through its holes, stains, slits, and nonpictorial materials, tends increasingly to identify the work of art with the non-artistic product. Thus, becoming aware of its shadow, art immediately receives in itself its own negation. . . . In contemporary art, it is critical judgment that lays bare its own split, thus suppressing and rendering superfluous its own space." Many critics, theorists, and philosophers have phlegmatically resigned themselves to this space of abnegation. Art is important to us because it has no purchase on meaning, significance, or the world. That it does not have to matter is perhaps the only reason it does. Yet Agamben won't go there. Where will he go? In a phrase: to Aristotle, Benjamin, and Kafka.
Agamben finds in Aristotle a radical conception of rhythm that anticipates Benjamin's idea that messianic time itself explodes the continuum of time. He draws a lovely analogy between music and art. A musical piece, though it is somehow in time, allows us nonetheless to perceive rhythm as "something that escapes the incessant flight of instants and appears almost as the presence of an atemporal dimension in time. In the same way, when we are before a work of art or a landscape bathed in the light of its own presence, we perceive a stop in time, as though we were suddenly thrown into a more original time. There is a stop, an interruption in the incessant flow of instants that, coming from the future, sinks into the past, and this interruption, this stop, is precisely what gives and reveals the particular status, the mode of presence proper to the work of art or the landscape we have before our eyes." Agamben proceeds to say that beholding a work of art is not a static experience but rather an ecstatic one: "It means ecstasy in the epochal opening of rhythm, which gives and holds back. . . . In the experience of the work of art, man stands in the truth, that is, in the origin that has revealed itself to him. . . . In this being-hurled-out into . . . rhythm, artists and spectators recover their essential solidarity and their common ground."
What art, then, can offer is a solid sense of where we are without itself becoming the ground underneath our feet. If Agamben is right, then chiaroscuro as a philosophical attitude inspired by art makes all the sense in the world. In any case, the work of art as the site of both mystery and epiphany leads Agamben from Aristotle to Benjamin. As is well known, Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" was penned in Paris while he was working on his Arcades Project. By far the most famous of the theses is the stunning reading of Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus as an image of the angel of history. The angel sees the sorry debris of the past before its eyes because it is looking in that direction. But the angel can do nothing about this. The storm of progress catches hold of its wings as a violent hurricane, propelling the angel forward. It is throttled headlong into the future but with its eyes and back turned away from what lies ahead. So it cannot see where it is going. All the angel can witness is debris mounting ever more violently as the singular disaster that appears to be history itself. As it is buffeted by the storm of progress, it witnesses less and less this disastrousness. What may have been painfully clear is now a faraway shine. The debris becomes dross. And dross cannot be exchanged for gold. If history is sadness, if what hurts cannot be healed, the angel of history must be a very melancholy angel. "The angel's melancholy," Agamben suggests, "is the consciousness that he has adopted alienation as his world; it is the nostalgia of a reality that he can possess only by making it unreal." Just as artists and spectators belong together, so the angel of history and the angel of art must inhabit the same damaged world. "The past that the angel of history is no longer able to comprehend reconstitutes its form," Agamben therefore claims, "in front of the angel of art; but this form is the alienated image in which the past finds its truth again only on condition of negating it, and knowledge of the new is possible only in the nontruth of the old."
In a rather novel way, Agamben brings Benjamin and Kafka into dialogue as a way of imagining the historical redemption of the aesthetically alienated image of the past. He finds in Kafka "the figure of the guilty innocent, of the tragic hero who expresses in all his greatness and misery the precarious significance of human action in the interval between what is no longer and what is not yet." Even though tragedy lies in this interval, the interval itself cannot be totally tragic. As revelatory appearance, as truth, this space returns to us our essential solidarity and common ground. But that means returning to the original space of art in the wake of aesthetics exposed in its nakedness: cadaverized categories of analysis useful only for men without content......