Implications of Giorgio Agamben’s work for Creative Nonfiction

February 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

While I’m interested in Agamben’s work in general, I’m also currently teaching a Creative Nonfiction Workshop at MSU Denver.  We have been exploring the generic definitions and speculating on the development of the genre itself.  So far in class, we have read Raymond Federman’s memoir, Shhh a Story of Childhood, and Charles Olson’s famous essay, “Projective Verse.”  Next week my students will be reading Agamben’s The Sacrament of Language (Homo Sacer II).  These notes are to collect some thinking about Agamben in order to introduce him to my students.

Agamben’s work has been of particular interest to academics studying Political Theology.  A particular strain of Politico-Theological enquiry has developed around the conservative German legal theorist, Carl Schmitt, who became a subject of focus in the leftist journal Telos a couple decades ago.  It is interesting in and of itself that such concern would develop around a figure whose National Socialism and anti-semitism make him so ethically problematic.  Nevertheless, Schmitt’s work remained influential, and in particular an ongoing conversation with the Walter Benjamin, who was forced to commit suicide to evade capture by the Nazis, remains enigmatic.  Both Schmitt and Benjamin, though in different ways, were concerned in the 1920s with the Weimar Republic in Germany, which eventually crumbled as Hitler ascended to power in 1933.  Both were critics of democratic liberalism.  In 1922, Schmitt published Political Theology, in which he famously writes:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized religious concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.  Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries. (36)

By 1930 in Germany, a state of emergency or state of exception was put in place by Hindenberg, this essentially snow-balled into the Machtergreifung (or seizure of power) that allowed for the formation of the Third Reich in January 1933.  By Schmitt’s terms, we should read this state of exception as having overtones of the miraculous; indeed, the Nazis saw their epoch in a quasi mythologized way, as a temporality that transcended history itself.

In beginning to understand where Agamben is coming from, one needs to consider a general  political tension in the twentieth century between material, historical temporality and mythical, ideological temporality.  From the perspective of Classics, this is a distinction between the age of Heroes and the age of History.  Herodotus tells us: “of the allegedly mortal race Polycrates was the first” (3.122).  So, mortals are defined as temporal beings who are moving toward their own death.  Death makes the life of a person into something linear.  Polycrates, the “first mortal,” was importantly ignorant of how to appropriately make sacrifices to the gods.  He was “lucky” and threw a precious ring into the sea that came back to him.  The twentieth-century attempts to overcome history, often aligned with fascist politics, are an attempt to move “back” to the age of heroes — a time beyond death, a time of immortal deeds.

Okay, so now fast-forward to the United States in the post 9/11 world, as well as to television in the post Real World age.  In both instances, there is a collapse of the sense of history and reality.  The late 1980s and early 1990s see the end of the Cold War, an initial economic boom under Clinton, followed by an emerging series of crises under Bush and Obama.  Agamben’s book, State of Exception (2005), argues that since 9/11, the United States has been in a constant state of exception, evidenced by things like the Patriot Act and the suspension of human rights in places like Guantanamo Bay.  In the state of exception, immediate decisions are required that exceed the temporality of laws (think of the cluster-cuss of government response to Hurricane Katrina).  Laws preserve and maintain, according to Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, while Justice restores broken Laws.  What the state of exception requires then is Justice without law, juridical decisions not based on precedent.

Rhetorically, there is a de-emphasizing of forensic rhetoric (the past) and deliberative rhetoric (the future) in favor of a constant occasion of the epideictic (the present).  Think of how temporality transcends when someone gives a toast at a wedding, how gestures become somehow more sanctimonious — that’s essentially the same place that the state of exception places the decision-maker.

Giorgio Agamben’s work has looked particularly at the ways the sacred appears in law.  Sacred here maintains its initial definition “to set aside.”  The sacred includes both what is set apart and deemed holy as well as what is set apart as the abjection of the community.  You can think of this in Frazier’s terms of scapegoat sacrifices.  The scapegoat carries the sins of the community as it is run out of town and off a cliff while the clean goat is sacrificed to the gods.  Both are sacred.

Agamben’s works Homo Sacer and The Sacrament of Language (Homo sacer II), each deal with the ways the sacred includes both pure and abject, the oath and the curse.  Homo sacer  refers also to an ancient legal concept of the sacred man whom, once deemed “sacred” could be killed by any citizen without penalty.  The sacred man exists outside of law, and this creates the similarity to political prisoners held without charge and tortured beyond conceptions of human rights (no matter how debated the rights treaties may be).

The temporality of the heroic age and the temporality of the sacred have a heightened degree of violence – this is the state of exception, one that authenticates the decision to kill in the sense of the Greek, authentes, the one who kills with one’s own hand — over and above “Thou shall not kill.”

Agamben’s Sacrament of Language challenges the Aristotelian notion of man as a speaking animal by showing the ways that the oath undoes itself.  How do politics work without speech?  He says that “philosophy, which does not seek to fix veridiction into a codified system of truth but, in every event of language, puts into words and exposes the veridiction that founds it, must necessarily put itself forward as vera religio [true religion].”  There is a slight echo of Socrates in the Phaedrus here warning about the dangers of writing and memory. But, regarding speech, Agamben continues:

It is in the same sense that the essential proximity between the oath and sacratio (or devotio) must be understood. The interpretation of sacertas as an originary performance of power through the production of of a killable and unsacrificable bare life must be completed in the sense that, even before being a sacrament of power, the oath is a consecration of the living human being through the word to the word.  The oath can function as a sacrament of power insofar as it is first of all the sacrament of language.  This original sacratio that takes place in the oath takes the technical form of the curse, the politike ara that accompanies the proclamation of the law.  Law is, in this sense, constitutively linked to the curse, and only a politics that has broken this original connection with the curse will be able one day to make possible another use of speech and of the law. (66)          

And so, the implications I see here for the emerging genre of writing called Creative Nonfiction —  a genre I think Agamben’s work falls into — is to perform this “true religion” in the performance of a mystical writing that collapses memory and imagination in the ways that Raymond Federman expresses in Shhh and in From A to X-X-X-X A Recyclopedic Narrative. For Creative Nonfiction as a generic category is an attempt to provide a discursive ground in a state of exception.  Michael Taussig’s “ficto-criticism” and Federman’s “critifiction” and “surfiction” all overlap in terms of methodology.  In The Sacrament of Language, Agamben spends a good portion early on explaining his method of Archaeology to approach linguistic concepts that don’t have verifiable evidence in physical records, particular with regard to Proto-Indo European as a concept of Ur-language.  This is a method that works “at the fringe of history” (10).

What must be interrogated at this point is the threshold of in-distinction that the analysis of the researcher comes up against. It is not something that should be incautiously projected onto chronology, like a prehistoric past for which documents happen to be lacking, but an internal limit, the comprehension of which, by calling into question the accepted distinction, can lead to a new definition of the phenomenon.” (17)  

Agamben’s method here might be read as a description for the purpose of Creative Nonfiction, as well as a gesture toward method.



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