The sacred dilemma of inoperosity. On Giorgio Agamben’s Opus Dei



With this book, the journey Agamben began with Homo Sacer seems to have come to an end. It was a long road, from the early ‘90s until today, nearly twenty years. An archeology of ontology conducted (with a rigor that not even the bizarre and misleading game of little numbers put in order over different stages of his research could render opaque) – up to the reopening of the problem of Sein. A dig that not even Heidegger (in the words of the author who claims to be a young student of the German philosopher) was able to complete – because here ontology is freed from any remaining “operativity” of every illusion that can be tied to will and control. What is left? “The philosophical question that appears is that of conceiving of an ontology beyond operativity and command, and an ethics and a politics totally freed from the concepts of duty and will”.

The demonstration that the ontology criticized by Heidegger is still, in the end, a theory of operativity and will is undoubtedly a true idea. Already Schürmann developed this idea when he criticized Sein as being the same idea of “archè” and therefore as indistinctness of beginning and command. Following the development and successive organization of this ontology of operativity, that from the Neo-Platonists to the fathers of the Church, from the Latin philosophers to Kant, from Aquinas to Heidegger, that proposes an idea of being that is completely assimilated to will/command, is Agamben’s task – here accomplished with great skill.

Aristotle, first of all. In his theory of virtue as habit, he could have ripped being from any aporetic propulsion toward virtue, thus freeing himself of any valorizing operativity: he doesn’t manage to do it, even through he is the one who, at the origins of metaphysics, conceived virtue as the relationship with privation and as inoperative ontological determination. But from here on out – according to Agamben – things went from bad to worse. In Christianity (once again the immersion of the relationship between Neo-Platonism and Patrology calls Agamben to this path) action and will begin to take over. We’ll leave it to the medievalists to judge whether this Agambenian analysis is correct: it is sufficient for us to follow the thread that does show an indubitable coherence. Now, the Aristotelian aporia defined in the alternative of connecting (or not connecting) habit to virtue, being to duty, passivity to activity, doesn’t happen in Scholasticism. Critical habit is rather constitutively ordered to action and virtue no longer consists in being but in operating – and it is only through action that man can resemble God. So, in Thomas Aquinas: “It is this constitutive ordering of habit to action that the theory of virtue develops and is pushed to the extreme.” From now on, the history of metaphysics, stripped of critical archeology, shows a smooth continuity and reveals a sort of perverse anxiousness (according to Agamben) to play with and explore the operative principle of ethics and the concept of virtue as obligation and duty that medieval theology had granted it in heredity. The “infinite debt” which, according to the philosophers of the Second Scholasticism, consists in religious duty, is thus definitively planted into the metaphysics of modernity. With Kant the idea of an infinite task and duty appears for the first time, unreachable but not less dutiful for such. In an exemplary passage, Agamben summarizes: “Here it is clear that the idea of a ‘must-be’ is not only ethical nor merely ontological: rather, it aporetically ties being and praxis in the musical structure of a fugue where acting exceeds being not only because it always dictates new precepts to it, but also and above all because being itself has no other content than pure debt.” In the next pages, Agamben will polemically insist on interiorizing the idea of moral law, on its expansion in the form of self-control and even in the masochist pleasure of the law. “The substitution of the ‘glorious name of ontology’ with ‘transcendental philosophy’ means, in fact, that an ontology of ‘must-be’ has already lost its place as the ontology of being.”

A treatment and a conclusion that is wholly Heideggerian, one might say. And yet, we can feel it right away, this reference deludes Agamben. “Even Heidegger develops an ontology that is more complicit than one would think with the paradigm of operativity that he intends to critique.” This affirmation is shocking. Had Heidegger not gone far enough in his destruction of the ontology of modernity? Didn’t he strip the Sein of as much humanity as was possible to attribute it? No – Agamben insists – there is a point where Heidegger falls to the temptation of an operative ontology: the theory of technique and the critique of the Gesell show from this irresolution. “The metaphysical essence of technique cannot be understood if it is understood only in the form of production. It is also and above all government and oikonomia that, in their extremes, can also provisionally put casual production between parentheses in the name of more refined and diffused forms of the management of men and things.” Auschwitz teaches! Already in The Kingdom and the Glory, with a little attention, this conclusion could have been reached.

This is where I become suspicious. And what I mean is that this book, Opus Dei, although it summarizes and develops, like we’ve said, the analyses in The Kingdom and the Glory, in reality is not only the completion of the archeological thread of Agamben’s thought and work. This book rather marks Agamben’s definitive separation from Heidegger: ontological choice surpasses the archeological quality of the analysis and the clash reaches a fundamental level. Heidegger is here accused of having only managed to find a temporary solution to the aporias of being and of must-be (or rather operativity): indetermination more than separation, more than choice of another ontological terrain. I have to admit I felt a certain satisfaction in noticing this. But it was brief. What is the further inscrutable Sein that Agamben now, against Heidegger, proposes? Already once, in the 1990s, before venturing into the long adventure of Homo Sacer, in The Coming Community Agamben distanced himself from Heidegger: at that time, he had fallen to a Benjaminian, almost Marxist, solution, in promoting a challenge against the humanistic sense of being. Now, this is certainly not the direction that Agamben continues. On the contrary, he moves against any humanism, against any possibility of action, against any hope for revolution.

But how did Agamben get here, to this radicalized nihilism, where he swims delighting in the fact he has overcome (or concluded) Heidegger’s project? He has come across a long journey that is articulated in two directions: one a truly political-judicial critique, the other an archeological one (a theological-political dig). Carl Schmitt is at the center of this journey: he guides the two directions, the one that leads to qualifying power as exception and therefore as force and destiny, an absolute instrumentation without any technical quality and the sadism of finality; on the other hand, one that leads to the qualification of potency as theological illusion, i.e. impotency, in the sense of the impossibility of relying on its effectiveness. Therefore, he incites unproductiveness, thus denouncing the necessary frustration of will, of the masochism of duty. The two go together. It is nearly impossible, recovering the actuality of the Schmittian concepts of the “state of exception” and the “theological-political”, to understand if they represent the biggest danger or instead if they are simply an opening to their truth. Metaphysics and political diagnostics surrender to indistinctness. But that would be irrelevant if this indistinctness didn’t drown any possible resistance. Let’s go back to the two identified lines: the whole journey that follows Homo Sacer develops on this double track. The second track is summarized in The Kingdom and the Glory.

We insist: this second track is also moved by Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and by confronting Heidegger’s ontology. We say this to avoid confusing Agamben’s archeology with Foucault’s archeology. Agamben is missing history, the history that Foucault treats not only as archeology of modernity but as an active genealogy of the present, of its coming and its unraveling, of its being and its becoming. History, for Agamben, doesn’t exist. Or rather, it is at most the history of law, the only place where the philosopher can become a grammarian and analyst of the grammar of control; but certainly it is also the place where biopolitics and genealogy can present themselves only in linear terms – just like destiny, in fact. Because here not even the shadow of subjectivity, of production, appears – and it rather seems that the latter is totally removed from acting, from technique, from operating and, above all, from resistance.

Thus the legal exemplifications Agamben presents in Opus Dei as definitive proof of his thesis come as no surprise. Rendering absolute the duty of law would have been introduced by Pufendorf more than Hobbes (and this process concludes with Jean Dormat). This could be. A distant seventeenth-century history, therefore, that marches in unison with the birth and development of the Second Scholasticism (that even Heidegger owes much to!) and the definitive stabilization of a metaphysics of operation, of effective virtue. But above all this is important because, as we’ve seen, it is Kant who picks up this motif and, after Kant, Kelsen renders it absolute in the fundamental figure of legal duty, of Sollen. Remember: it isn’t so much Kelsen’s conclusion that, although affirming the relationship between law and command as dutiful, is important here; the importance lies in the fact that it uses – a thousand miles away from its first affirmation, yet living throughout “European ideology” – the internal link to liturgy that goes from economic operativity to divine being, homogeneously articulated across legal deductions, up until the Sollen’s founding necessity: all this doesn’t represent anything less than the inscrutable command of divinity. Thus, Kelsen becomes the same as Schmitt and, as was supposed to be shown, the two open lines from Homo Sacer recompose: on one side the critique of exception and, on the other, the critique of Sollen, filtered in Christian oekonomia, unite in the end. But if we can accept this reduction – in general and in a space that is no longer legal nor political; if it is true that the practice of government founded on the law of exception and on the pretext of economic effectiveness have substituted every constitutional form of government; if, as Benjamin wrote a long time ago, “what is now effective is the state of exception in which we live and that we no longer know how to distinguish from the rule”: well, if all that is true, what can free us according to Agamben? (If that question even makes sense anymore!)

So we’ve reached the end of a complex journey. We should free ourselves from the concept and potency of will: thus Agamben starts to answer the question. We have to free ourselves from will that aims to become institution, that aims to be effective and actual. We know the reasons why. In Classical Greek philosophy, the concept of will has no ontological meaning; this disfigurement is introduced by Christianity, exaggerating elements that are embryonically present in Aristotle; so duty is introduced into ethics in order to give a foundation to control; thus the idea of will is elaborated to explain the passage from potency to the act. In this way, all western philosophy is put inside a space of insoluble aporias that triumph in full modernity, redefining the world as a technological and industrial product (what is more evident of the realization, of the becoming effective of power in contemporary reality – what more than this horizon?). Once again the question arises: how can we get out? How can a being without effectuality be regained? What great enigma Agamben has given us!

There might be a way that Agamben could still explore at this point. It is found in Spinoza, i.e. a way in which potency is immediately organized as a tool for action, where violence and pleasure are determined in the institutions of the multitude and constitutive capacity becomes an effort to construct, in history, freedom, justice and the common. Agamben perceives this perfectly atheist escape route. He in fact grasps it in the insulting refusal of Spinoza’s atheism that, in a critical moment in modernity, Pufendorf and Leibniz both declare. But the being that Agamben presents to us is, for now, so black and flat, the immanence so indistinct, the atheism so far from materialist, the nihilism so sad that Spinoza really can’t play his game – even if he considers superstition any ideology of the state that is not produced by the multitude and the body (the bodies of the multitude) an intransitive foundation of freedom. Nor can Spinoza, on the other hand, wait for the forms of life in the west to reach their historical consummation (refusing in the meanwhile to act so that will doesn’t bite effectiveness). Instead, he knows how to answer the questions of action, hope and the future.

What is the Enlightment? This is the question throughout Spinoza’s philosophy, but also in Machiavelli and Marx – and, more recently, was gloriously picked up by Foucault. Against Heidegger’s ontological Nazism. Really, the only place along Agamben’s long journey where the ontological threshold of potency could be reached is when, moving the accent from the linguistic forms of historical being, the form of life separates not from abstract law but from historically determined law (i.e. from property rights), not from command in general but from the command of capitalist production and its state. Working to dissolve property rights and the laws of capitalism is the only operative nihilism that virtuous men proclaim and act upon. But Agamben discards even this hypothesis – recently in his Altissima povertà [The Highest Poverty].

How will this story end? There is a question that, facing a discourse like Agamben’s, arises again: could the form – i.e. the action or the institution – save itself from the destruction of every dutiful content? Those who, in this regard, insists on tones and anarchic negations is just as irritating as those who think that the continuity of the institution or annulling all negative action represent the conditions for a radical step forward. Instead, it is probable that, against these extremists, just like in other revolutionary periods, Anarchism and Communism – in new forms, evermore often, in the struggles crossing our century – are getting closer and closer to one another. In any case, the only certain thing is that, as in Spinoza, “The man, who is guided by reason, is more free in a state, where he lives under a general system of law, than in solitude, where he is independent.”


* Translated by Jason Francis Mc Gimsey and edited by Matteo Pasquinelli. Originally published on il manifesto on the 24th of February 2012. The original Italian version is here.





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