Agamben’s (Anti-)Utopia? Walter Benjamin Clues. Drunken Risibility.

anti-utopia

The thought of Giorgio Agamben has been often accused of being utopian. Antonio Negri, for example, branded Agamben’s core concept, “naked” or “bare life,” as a “utopian escape” and then identified in (State of Exception) a “feverish utopian anxiety.” Agamben has also been accused that his notion of politics of dissolves “into an eschatological, utopian vision of social life,” infused with strong theological and messianic overtones, which would make of it a particular version of political theology. But, what of the quite common unease for a political project that is deemed unrealizable, empty, even impolitic. Is it Utopia or Anti-utopia? The clue is provided for through Walter Benjamin.

At the end of his essay on Surrealism (Surrealism The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia), Walter Benjamin writes:

For what is the program of the bourgeois parties? A bad poem on springtime, filled to bursting with metaphors. The socialist sees that ‘finer future of our children and grandchildren’ in a society in which all act ‘as if they were angels’ and everyone has as much ‘as if he were rich’ and everyone lives ‘as if he were free.’ Of angels, wealth, freedom, not a trace – these are mere images.

In a piece written two years later, Der destruktive Charakter, he insists that a radical, revolutionary politics must renounce optimistic, metaphoric contemplation:

The destructive character sees no image hovering before him.

Benjamin does not employ the term utopia; it is clear nonetheless that a political project founded on mere – and optimistic – images of the future is the target of his harsh criticism. If political utopianism in fact originated – strongly influenced by world travels and discoveries of new lands – by situating a political alternative in a spatial displacement (a nonplace that is, however, another place), at least from the Enlightenment it assumed the character of a “better future” toward which a progressive politics should strive. If, following Benjamin, we define “utopia” as a political project construed around images of the future and rhetorically based on the syntagma “as if ” (als ob), then Agamben’s project exudes an intrinsic and intense anti-utopianism. It is true that there is no explicit attack on utopia in his work and even that, in the preface to (Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture), he defines the “philosophical topology” presented as his method as “constantly oriented in the light of utopia”; however, the messianism in which his philosophical project is steeped constitutes an implicit but evident rejection of utopianism.

Agamben and the Biopolitical – Nihilistic and Thanatopolitical Expressions. Thought of the Day 56.0

early-electric-chair

Agamben’s logic of biopolitics as the logic of the symmetry between sovereign power and the sacredness of bare life should be understood in terms of its historico-ontological destiny. Although this theme is only hinted at in Homo Sacer and the volumes that follow it, Agamben resolutely maintains that biopolitics is inherently metaphysical. If on the one hand ‘the inclusion of bare life in the political realm constitutes the original […] nucleus of sovereign power’ and ‘biopolitics is at least as old as the sovereign exception’, on the other hand, this political nexus cannot be dissociated from the epochal situation of metaphysics. Here Agamben openly displays his Heideggerian legacy; bare life, that which in history is increasingly isolated by biopolitics as Western politics, must be strictly related to ‘pure being’, that which in history is increasingly isolated by Western metaphysics:

Politics [as biopolitics] appears as the truly fundamental structure of Western metaphysics insofar as it occupies the threshold on which the relation between the living being and the logos is realized. In the ‘politicization’ of bare life – the metaphysical task par excellence – the humanity of living man is decided.

Commentators have not as yet sufficiently emphasized how biopolitics is consequently nothing else than Agamben’s name for metaphysics as nihilism. More specifically, while bare life remains for him the ‘empty and indeterminate’ concept of Western politics – which is thus as such originally nihilistic – its forgetting goes together with the progressive coming to light of what it conceals. From this perspective, nihilism will therefore correspond to the modern and especially post-modern generalisation of the state of exception: ‘the nihilism in which we are living is […] nothing other than the coming to light of […] the sovereign relation as such’. In other words, nihilism reveals the paradox of the inclusive exclusion of bare life, homo sacer, qua foundation of sovereign power, as well as the fact that sovereign power cannot recognize itself for what it is. Beyond Foucault’s biopolitical thesis according to which modernity is increasingly characterized by the way in which power directly captures life as such as its object, what interests Agamben the most is:

the decisive fact that, together with the process by which exception everywhere becomes the rule, the realm of bare life – which is originally situated at the margins of the political order – gradually begins to coincide with the political realm.

The political is thus reduced to the biopolitical: the original repression of the sovereign relation on which Western politics has always relied is now inextricably bound up with its return in the guise of a radical biopoliticisation of the political. Like nihilism, such a generalisation of the state of exception – the fact that, today, we are all virtually homines sacri – is itself a profoundly ambiguous biopolitical phenomenon. Today’s state of exception both radicalizes – qualitatively and quantitatively – the thanatopolitical expressions of sovereignty (epitomized by the nazis’ extermination of the Jews for a mere ‘capacity to be killed’ inherent in their condition as such) and finally unmasks its hidden logic.

Agamben explicitly relates to the possibility of a ‘new politics’. Conversely, a new politics is unthinkable without an in-depth engagement with the historico-ontological dimension of sacratio and the structural political ambiguity of the state of exception. Although such new politics ‘remains largely to be invented’, very early on in Homo Sacer, Agamben unhesitatingly defines it as ‘a politics no longer founded on the exceptio of bare life’. beyond the exceptionalist logic – by now self-imploded – that unites sovereignty to bare life, Agamben seems to envisage a relaional politics that would succeed in ‘constructing the link between zoe and bios’. This link between the bare life of man and his political existence would ‘heal’ the original ‘fracture’ which is at the same time precisely what causes their progressive indistinction in the generalized state of exception. Having said this, Agamben also conceives of such new politics as a non-relational relation that ‘will […] have to put the very form of relation into question, and to ask if the political fact is not perhaps thinkable beyond relation and, thus, no longer in the form of a connection’.