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Benjamin–Agamben: Politik, Messianismus, Kabbala, edited by Vittoria Borsò, Claas Morgenroth, Karl Solibakke, and Bernd Witte. Volume 4 of “Benjamin-Blätter.”. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2010. 217 pp. €38.00.
This bilingual book contains the proceedings of two international conferences which took place in November 2005 and March 2006 in Düsseldorf on behalf of the “Internationale Walter Benjamin Gesellschaft” as well as of the “Institut vor Joodse Studies” of Antwerp. The main topic of the conference was actually not specifically an illustration of Agamben’s indebtedness to Benjamin, as the somewhat misleading title suggests, but “The Political in the 21st Century” (to which the seven papers in German of the first part are devoted) and “Messianism and the Law,” a theme discussed in the six articles written in English which make up the second part.
As both Bernd Witte and Vittoria Borsò point out in their concise and somehow complementary overviews, Agamben can be seen in many ways as an heir of Benjamin’s “Schwellenkunde” or threshold-wisdom. His research is constantly moving between different fields and disciplines (literary criticism and politics, linguistics and ethics, aesthetics and theology), linking together extremely heterogeneous phenomena and forcing the reader to question his usual patterns of thought. So it is no wonder that the collected contributions reveal a considerable variety of different topics and approaches which deserve to be briefly summarized.
Echoing Agamben’s insights in “thanatology,” Boris Groys describes a characteristic phenomenon of our time: the emergence of the immortality of the body. This “materialistic or hetero-metanoia” displays itself not only in the persistence of the corpse after the soul’s departure, but also in a variety of other cases, for example, the Homo Sacer as “Muselmann” or the vampires and zombies that proliferate in today’s blockbuster movies and best sellers. But the privileged places of this metanoia according to Groys are the museums, since “works of art are actually the corpses of things.” Dealing with the figure of the curator as a new paradigm of sovereignty over these corpses, Groys goes on to present a remarkably bold utopia outlined by the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov in 1903. According to the latter, “the State should become the museum of its own population” by enabling the resurrection of all previous generations. Undoubtedly an astonishing image of an absolute “bio-power,” which gives us much to think about.
Karl Ivan Solibakke offers an interesting contribution to an archaeology of the state of exception with his reinterpretation of Schiller’s Trauerspiel “Wallenstein.” In the first part of this trilogy (i.e., “Wallensteins Lager”) Schiller describes a “zone of anomie,” a decisive political threshold where the decline of the feudal order is fulfilled and the modern rational state is born. Solibakke’s effort to develop an “aesthetic of the state of exception” is worthy of further investigation.
Eva Geulen’s paper about Agamben’s endeavor to think politics beyond relationship (or in form of a non-relation) and Claas Morgenroth’s reflections about a “politics of the post-histoire” both allude to an overcoming of traditional ontology. Geulen, who had already published the first German introduction to Agamben in 2005, finds in Arendt’s concept of the world (as primarily a world of things) an example of politics not as a relationship but as a coexistence of different perspectives on the same things. However, it seems problematic to deem—as Arendt does—the relationship as “neither logical nor ontological,” not to mention the difficulty of reconciling such a view with Agamben’s insistence on the deep connections between politics and ontology. Morgenroth, instead, criticizes Agamben for his “ahistorical approach” to paradigms and for his reduction of politics to a mere “background for the ontology of politics.” It is worth noting that, since 2006, Agamben published six new important books in which he clarifies some key issues of his thought, particularly in relation to his “archaeological” method. So in The Signature of All Things (2008) we can find an indirect response to Morgenroth’s criticism.
Then, Frieder Otto Wolf argues that Agamben tends to understand politics mainly from the point of view of the sovereign: this would prevent him from finding an alternative to the sovereign power in some constituent power from below, i.e. the multitude. Nevertheless, it seems ungenerous, if not misleading, to criticize Agamben for not embracing Hardt and Negri’s optimistic Weltanschauung.
Regarding the complex question of the relationship between messianism and the law, Moshe Idel provides a useful conceptual framework with his distinction between the following two different views: the “eschatonic,” according to which “an improvement involves a dramatic jump, a rupture in history and nature, reminiscent of apocalypticism,” and the “synchronic,” which “assumes that both progress and rupture are concomitant processes, not sequels.” For Idel, the first approach is typical of Scholem, while the second characterizes the thinking of Benjamin—and, as one could easily argue, of Agamben, too.
The original perspective of the latter is the subject of Vivian Liska’s dense and illuminating essay, which appropriately begins with a brief analysis of Paul’s “hos me” (“as if not”—but would it not be better to translate it literally “as not”?), a pattern underlying “Agamben’s entire structure of the messianic,” as Liska states. Thus, through a careful analysis of Agamben’s texts devoted to Kafka (especially in his disturbing reading of In the Penal Colony), Liska shows how Agamben “illustrates his idea of the oppressive state of exception and its reversal through the suspension of the law,” which has to be seen at the same time as “a redemptive halt to the sheer endlessness of exegesis, and ultimately of the written word itself.”
Furthermore, Idel’s statement, that the meaning of messianism is “nebulous and changes dramatically from religion to religion,” is confirmed in at least three other papers. While Micha Brumlik gives a rather hasty overview of the different philosophical interpretations of Paul which followed Badiou’s book, Tamara Eisenberg reconstructs concisely the polemic by which Heinrich Heine distanced himself from revolutionaries like Ludwig Börne. Finally, Lieven De Cauter expresses his doubts about the messianic radicalism shared by both Benjamin and Agamben, to which he prefers Derrida’s cautious reference to a “weak messianicity.”
Unlike both Heine and Derrida, Benjamin took very seriously into account the antinomian opportunity to transgress the commandments by killing the oppressor. In her talk, Sigrid Weigel focuses on this very problematic point in Critique of Violence, highlighting the considerable difficulties in translating Benjamin’s essay into English. For instance, the German expression “in ungeheuren Fällen” is rather inadequately rendered as “in exceptional cases,” an expression which could lead to assimilating Benjamin to a Schmittian political theology. Thus, criticizing Agamben by means of a philological argument, Weigel draws attention to Benjamin’s real problem: “What is at issue in Benjamin is the responsibility for an act which does harm to the commandment in a single case without establishing a new law through this action.”
In conclusion, it could be said that the main limitation of this book coincides with its own virtue, i.e., the heterogeneity of the contributions. Although there are some recurring topics (e.g., the concept of life, messianism, the reference to Benjamin, etc.), this is not enough to go beyond a mere juxtaposition of voices that remain separated from each other. This can also be seen as an encouraging symptom with respect to Agamben’s thought, which somehow resists the efforts of the scholars trying to annex it to the academic microcosm. Throughout these talks you can almost hear Agamben’s voice whispering “I would prefer not to . . .” (being made an object of conferences and university lectures) to his increasingly numerous commentators.
Basically, the principal merit of this book could be to urge Agamben to accomplish the Homo Sacer project by answering the decisive question: how can his concept of form-of-life manage to free us from the deadly grip of sovereignty? As a matter of fact, until we are able to answer this question, Kafka’s disconsolate statement “Nothing has happened yet” will remain valid.
Università degli Studi di Trento, Italy