Some More Thoughts on Language, Philosophy, and Agamben (For My Students)

February 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: living animal with an additional capacity for political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question. (143)

– Foucault, History of Sexuality 

Attempting to understand current philosophy and aesthetic theory is daunting for the un-intiated. At once you feel the immense weight of what has been written before and the impossibility of “catching up.”  It is enough to deter aspiring thinkers and writers for years.  Immediately one feels the pressure to produce something and from this arises a kind of casuistry: “Would it not be better to speak my own naive truth?”  This kind of thinking produces a different kind of weight, however. That is the weight of attributing to oneself a confidence of one’s own genius, a weight that quickly wears one out.  If you are serious about Art, you should be conscious of your technique as a skill set to be applied.  Thinking itself may certainly be part of the skill set.  An attitude of engagement may be a skill.  It need not be closed and complete.  Be gentle with yourself.  Art and fashion are not the same thing, but magic interpenetrates both.

I wrote the other day as an introduction to Agamben.  Here I will try to parse out what’s at stake in terms of writing and language as a way into a vast discourse.  You might call this “part two” to my last post.

In The Sacrament of Language, Agamben explores the oath and its declining political relevance as a way that language undoes itself.  There are certainly religious and mystical overtones here, and one’s preconceptions and personal baggage about religion can cloud one’s reading of Agamben. It does not need to be so obscure.

There is a long-standing relationship in the West between humans and their capacity for language.  For Aristotle, speech (logos) and the ability to use words is what makes humans rational animals, capable of being concerned with politics.  Agamben is attempting to challenge this tradition and say that we need a broader conception of our capacity:

There is politics because man is the living being who, in language, separates and opposes himself to his own bare life and, at the same time, maintains himself in relation to that bare life in an inclusive exclusion. ( Homo Sacer 23)

Logos, words, speech, the capacity to reason has defined the human.

What does this seemingly unique ability do to the world?

It, first of all, seems to separate humans from Nature by allowing humans to contemplate the order and existence of nature itself.  This is ontology (the study of the nature of being, of how existence occurs.

But in this capacity for rationality (reason, speaking) is also a separation of being from itself; in other words, it is no longer simply existing but an existence that knows itself to be existing: we are able to contemplate the Being of being.  For this reason, philosophers have called ontology “first philosophy,” a questioning of what it means to exist — a question of the verb (word in Latin) as an infinitive, “to _______ .”

If it is the nature of humans to be speaking / rational animals, then the very ability to distinguish one’s being as something-to-be-contemplated is over and above existence itself.  A distinction between inside and outside occurs, and so it comes to be that humans have a being that is both inside and outside simultaneously, and their “world” is separate from the world of mere existence, of essence (essence simply means “to be”).

This existence, assumed by language, is perhaps the origin of both knowing and not-knowing, seeing and not-seeing.

Being held in the capacity of knowing and not-knowing manifests the presence  of absence — I come to know that I am not all, that my self has limits.

Here is the fundamental lack, or desire, felt  as part of being — a knowing that conceives the unknown as a mystery.

So, rationality arrives as the capacity to measure lack, to imagine absence, to have an inclination that there is more than me, and that I exist as an object in the world, susceptible to harm.

Imagination here is the articulation of an absence felt — the beginning of the notion of infinity.  To know one’s self as “here” presumes the ability to imagine what is not here and to be confined to knowing that even that “not here” only exists as an idea in me. This is the cost of language.

One could, perhaps, broaden one’s conception of language beyond merely the ability to speak, and this is what Agamben hints at.

What then, might be the event prior to speech? Is it mere gesture? Sound? Image or picture?


Symbol seems to precede language (at least as a grammatical system). This idea is present in Kenneth Burke’s expansion of the Greek definition of the human.

In this view, prior to the capacity to separate human existence from from nature and thereby contemplate being itself is perhaps the capacity to recognize (and choose whether or not to answer) a “call.”

The sound of the Other occurs here.  Here is the sound of my lover or my crying child.  This response is both tangible and innate — an attempt to preserve or forestall absence.

This gives rise to a question: Must I know absence prior to answering (or recognizing) the call to preserve the life in front of me?

The ability to care undoubtedly imagines and forestalls a coming and unknown absence.  But to what extent must caring already perceive this to be so?  Can the recognition of a call come before such knowing?

If so, then doesn’t something like ethics precede ontology as “first philosophy,” as philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas suggest?

In the possibility of symbol is the possibility for substitution, of something standing in for something else.  In any case, such substitution precedes a “grammar” of language while at the same time becoming the essence of what language is.  Grammars are generally descriptive and forensic (dealing with the past).

What is at stake in the process of substituting one thing for another is a marking out or setting aside. For this reason, there is an overlap with the sacred — what is set apart.

There is an overlap between the sacred and the exchange of gifts, as the Anthropologist Marcel Mauss has explored.  When we give a gift or exchange currency there is an act of substitution at work.  Anthropologists and philosophers often explore the process of substitution in its relation to violence, partly because the violent act substitutes a gesture for a thought, but also because in saying that one thing “is” another, there is a dissimulation that necessarily distorts the real.  In a sacrifice, for example, a victim comes to stand-in, for something, such as a purging or cleansing of sins.  In his book, Violence and the Sacred, for example, Rene Girard has argued regarding ritual sacrifices that “sacrificial substitution implies a degree of misunderstanding.  Its vitality as an institution depends on its ability to conceal the displacement upon which the rite is based.  It must never lose sight entirely, however, of the original object, or cease to be aware of the act of transference from that object to the surrogate victim” (5). We believe a fiction on one level while knowing that it is a fiction on another.  This is very similar to what Agamben is getting at with the oath in The Sacrament of Language.

If we apply this to writing, we can quickly see an inherent violence in the act of representing one thing in terms of another.  This is one reason why Socrates, in the Phaedrus, is suspicious of writing as a new technology.  He is worried that it will destroy memory and that the violence of representation will allow people to take his (or anyone’s) words out of context.

The idea of writing and its relationship to violence had a lot of sway with French intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s.  This thinking got introduced to America by way of scholars like Paul de Man under the names post-structuralism and deconstruction.  In attempts to make a method of literary inquiry based on these ideas, “deconstructive criticism” often showed up as applied practice, which is in many ways a bastardization of the ideas.

For a good book on the politics surrounding this in American Universities, see Francios Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States.

For a good intro book on the practice of this criticism, see Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

For a good book on the roots of religion and politics in relation to structuralism, see Marcel Gauchet’s Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion.

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