Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Getting Ready for the RPA: On Agamben and Benjamin

I'll admit that I didn't write much for The Notes Taken over the month of October. Instead, most of my time, outside of teaching, that I would spend writing was consumed by preparing job applications and preparing my paper for the upcoming Radical Philosophy Association meeting at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Take a good look at the schedule (PDF), and you will see that our own Sean Moreland is giving a talk on "Visceral Re:Visions: Genre and the Syntax of Violence in Haneke's Funny Games and Laugier's Martyrs" (Friday's 2:00-3:30pm session) our friend Mark Raymond Brown will be presenting on "A Remedy for Violence: The Necessity of Healthcare Reform in the US" which I swear has something to do with Sartre (during Saturday's 10:30am-12:00pm session), and I will be giving a paper on Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, and the critique of violence (during Saturday's 2:00-3:30pm session). At the moment the paper doesn't have a title (I've changed it several times), but I'm leaning toward "Anomic Violence: Toward a Benjaminian Critique of Agamben."

I read a less organized draft of my paper at the end of October at CSU Stanislaus. While it must have been confusing for the audience, as I jumped from Fredric Jameson to Agamben to Georges Sorel to Benjamin's "Critique of Violence," many of their questions helped me clarify why exactly (1) I was interested in this early essay of Benjamin's, and (2) why I need to cut the long sections on sovereignty and the state of exception out of the paper. 

Let's start with (2): Agamben is best known for returning sovereignty to the forefront of political thought. I know, because the first article I managed to publish applied Agamben's critique of the state of exception to the war on terror and its localization in Guantanamo Bay. I started writing the paper in early 2003 and it finally saw the light of day as "The Absence of Evidence is Not the Evidence of Absence: Biopolitics and the State of Exception" in Philosophy Against Empire, Today, Vol. 4, edited by Tony Smith and Harry van der Linden (Philosophy Documentation Center, 2006). Since then I've found that Agamben's critique brings with it a large amount of philosophical "history of metaphysics" baggage that he inherited from Heidegger, not to mention his extensive use of Schmitt. Back in 2006, the last few pages of the article dealt with the absence of the concept of event or the act as a moment of subjectification in Homo Sacer. But I found I needed to say more about what I found so off-putting.

To get the current paper down to a manageable size, I've cut all the exegetical talk about sovereignty and assumed that my audience will be familiar with it. The exegetical discussions were adding too much weight to the presentation. All you get now is my central problem with Homo Sacer: Agamben accepts from Schmitt that the sovereign has a monopoly on the capacity to decide and the capacity for violence. This is important because Agamben's State of Exception rejects the sovereign monopoly on violence (there are passages in HS that hint at this, but Agamben doesn't pursue the consequences); the whole of the 'gigantomachy concerning a void' that he stages between Schmitt and Benjamin turns on the possibility of anomic violence, or, since violence is a cipher for human action, praxis (and subjectification) with no relation to law.

Which leads to (1): the task is now to show how Benjamin's concept of divine violence is one of the many figures he proposes for anomic praxis. Unlike Agamben, I think this kind of praxis and subjectification leads through Benjamin's work on aesthetics, as well as some of his theological debates with Gershom Scholem (which are really just debates about aesthetics and politics anyway).

Thus I've found my way back to something like the framework of my Schelling book, when I didn't really expect to: investigating how artistic production is presented as an alternative to law (which for Schelling was Kant's and Fichte's categorical imperatives) as a model for free human praxis. With Benjamin, the problem will be very different, given that his work on aesthetics is so closely connected to anarcho-syndicalist  (Sorel again!) and Marxian politics, although for the moment, it sets the course for how I will be approaching his work in the future (although Marx's critique of 'creativity' as found in the "Critique of the Gotha Program" hangs over part of this investigation).

And here we all thought I was joking when on my profile I wrote that I am "working on a book about the convergences and divergences of history, politics, and art in the work of Walter Benjamin, which is a loose sequel to Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art."

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