Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Trouble with Agamben (Part 1)

A recent post by Adam Kotsko takes on Agamben's version of the Heideggerian monolithic Western metaphysics. He writes:
Nowhere is Agamben’s insistence on the monolithic nature of the West more evident than in his continual reference to Judaism, where he portrays the rabbinic tradition as in essential continuity with Western debates. I cannot recall a single time when he cites the Hebrew Bible, for instance, or indeed any Jewish text before the first century. On a certain level, this approach might seem “good,” insofar as it works against the stereotypes of the essential foreignness of the Jew, etc. — yet it completely forecloses the notion that the Jewish community, as a segregated and often persecuted group, might have come up with a substantially different intellectual tradition than the surrounding groups. More than that, the overall pattern of assimilation seems to privilege the non-Jewish Western source: rabbinic messianism gets read through Aristotle, Benjamin gets read through Schmitt, etc.

Thus, even though Agamben is obviously a leader among the Gentiles in drawing on Jewish sources, he does so in such a way as to erase any possibility of genuine Jewish difference — and this is itself only the most serious symptom of his general tendency to make the West a self-enclosed entity that cannot be influenced from the outside.
Here's Peter Gratton's response:
this is not merely some “ethnocentrism is bad” account, but is simply bad history: if I described the history of the weather in this room without reference to the outside climate, all while suggesting that what is important in weather only takes place in this room, you’d be right to say I don’t understand how climate works. Without overstating the problem, I don’t see how this applies to a view of history that is viewed as a simple baton pass-off race from Greece to Rome to the medieval church to Heidegger, all while describing all that is possible in reality and the politics of the world.
All I can add is that the problems of Heidegger's critique of Western metaphysics are amplified by the way in which Agamben attaches his project to that of political theology, which means: theologizing politics, rather than politicizing theology.

1 comment:

Lenore said...

Thank you for this brief insightful paragraph. I just started reading Agamben, and while I am taken with the dynamic between individual and corporation (state), the rigid Christian doctrine structuring his arguments gave rise to a strange experience in reading: agreement with the details, alarm with the subtext (and sometimes text).