Notes on Agamben

  • Primo Levi’s shame of survival, which is separate from guilt:

  • collective guilt acts as a separating point, a screen, between the crime and the individual guilt

  • tragedy and guilt and the collective: Girard on the tragic hero as a scapegoat: “What is tragic is, on the contrary, for an apparently innocent subject to assume unconditionally objective guilt.”

  • this “makes any tragic conflict at Auschwitz impossible”, for the abyss between the subject guilt and the objective shame in the deportee is too large

  • Nietzsche’s overcoming of resentment (endlessly repeating past) and Jean Amery’s resentment which should not be placated

  • HOWEVER, in Levi this is impossible because of TRAUMA, of the endlessly recurring past

  • Auschwitz also means this much: that man, dying, cannot find any other sense in his death than this flush, this shame” of the “fact of being chained to oneself, the radical impossibility of fleeing oneself to hide oneself from oneself, the intolerance presence of the self to itself”

  • here Agamben puts into question the whole notion of the reliable witness, who is present to herself by definition

  • To be ashamed means to be consigned to something that cannot be assumed. But what cannot be assumed is not something external. Rather, it originates in our own intimacy: it is what is most intimate in us (for example, our own physiological life). (p.105)”

  • subjectification and desubjectification enter the text at this point, and so do sadism and masochism: masochist is someone who owns her own desubjectification, is aware of it, thus feels shame. “only because the masochist’s own suffering is first of all that of not being able to assume his own receptivity can his pain be immediately transformed into delight. But what constitutes the subtlety of the masochistic strategy and its almost sarcastic profundity is that the masochist is able to enjoy what exceeds him only on the condition of findign outside himself a point in which he can assume his own passivity and his own unassumable pleasure. This external point is the sadistic subject, the master.”

  • I wonder how this relates to trauma, and the inability to assume trauma. Whether the need to create a reliable witness (this from a purely legalistic point of view), which demands assumption of passivity, creates masochism of some sort.

  • Shame is linked to disgust, which for Benjamin is “the fear of being recognised in what repulses us” (p.106). “The man… recognises himself in an alterity that cannot be assumed – that is, he subjectifies himself in an absolute desubjectification.” masochism is “a receptivity that experiences itself, that is moved by its own passivity.”

  • connections: feminine gaze, and its twofold resolution: narcissism and masochism. Might they be the one and the same?

  • This indistinction of discipline and enjoyment… is precisely shame.” – pornography?

  • The passive subject must be active with respect to its own passivity; it must “behave” “against” itself as passive.”

  • SO SHAME becomes defined as this: he “takes pleasure in his suffering violence, if he is moved by his passivity” – and of course here we have pornography – “only then can one speak of shame”

  • AUTO-AFFECTION, which for Kant means behaving towards ourselves as passive: again the question of the woman

  • Passivity, as the form of subjectivity, is thus constitutively fractured into a purely receptive pole (the Muselmann) and an actively passive role (the witness), but in such a way that this fracture never leaves itself, fully separating the two poles. On the contrary, it always has the form of intimacy, of being consigned to a passivity, to a making oneself passive in which the two terms are both distinct and inseparable.

  • According to Spinoza, after a bit of philosophical tweaking, “The self is what is produced as a remainder in the double movement – active and passive – of auto-affection. This is why subjectivity constitutively has the form of subjectification and desubjectification; this is why it is, at bottom, shame.” (p.112)

  • the speaking subject is never the feeling, experiencing subject, because the subject constitutes himself through the language, which comes to fill in the lack, but the language remains external to the experiencing subject. Glossolalia is a case in point: “the speaking subject gives way to another subject, a child, angel, or barbarian” says St Paul (p.114); so do poets speak of “another I” (Rimbaud, Ingebord Bachmann); there is an interesting parallel with HYSTERICS here, but also SUSAN SONTAG and STORY OF O (Pauline Reage’s “it is not me”), Kundera’s “not I”

  • The experience of glossolalia merely radicalizes a desubjectifying experience implicit in the simplest act of speech” (p.115). Speech desubjectifies by silencing the immanent I for the speaking I, the one who is not, but through whom the one who is gathers into being.

  • An ‘I’ without guarantees”, writes Ingebord Bachmann of the poet self.

  • the I constituted through the language has nothing to say; stripped of all extra-linguistic meaning and constituted as a subject of enunciation, he is expropriated of all referential reality, and “he has gained access to being always already anticipated by a glossolalic potentiality over which he has neither control nor mastery” (p.116). Both are lies: the silent subject and the speaking subject, for one cannot speak, and the other has nothing to say.

  • Poets, thus, feel shame “in the face of this intimate extraneousness implicit in the act of speech” (p.117). RIMBAUD, PESSOA.

  • The poet, then, becomes witness.

  • What’s more, speaking pushes away the “pristine adhesion to the Open”, the Muse. The impossibility of the witness enters the picture here again: for Primo Levi, there is an insurmountable gap between the Mussulmann, the “complete witness” who cannot speak, and the survivor, the “pseudo-witness” who has nothing to say. This is where Agamben becomes interesting again: he says, the one who speaks is not the witness, but the proxy. “To speak, to bear witness is thus to enter into a veriginous movement in which something sinks to the bottom, wholly desubjectified and silenced, and something subjectified speaks without truly having anything to say of its own (p.120)

  • There is more: the living being who has made himself absolutely present to himself in the act of enunciation, in saying “I”, pushes his own lived experiences back into a limitless past and can no longer coincide with them.” (p.122) – trauma, and conversational therapy in which one does not make peace with oneself, if Agamben is right, but instead removes a bit of oneself out of oneself, falsifies through discourse. Problem of the rape witness.

  • Binswanger theorizes on the split of the self: “fundamental heterogeneity between the plane of the physical and psychical vital functions” (p.123-124). Not the usual split between the psychic and the somatic, but between “the functional modality of the psycho-somatic organism, and the internal history of life on the other”. He compares it to the duality between dreaming and waking. Agamben says: “He indicates an aporia so radical that the very possibility of identifying a unitary terrain of consciousness is called into question.”

  • I wonder if Agamben got this right: he separates the “continuous flow of vital functions” on the one hand, and the “flow of language and of the conscious “I”, in which lived experiences are organised into an individual history”. I wonder if the “flow of vital functions” does not also include the flow of psychic functions, and the lived history an attempt to tell a story, put a pattern on the non-patternable?

  • For Agamben, “is intimacy not precisely the name that we give to a proximity that also remains distant, to a promiscuity that never becomes identity? (p.125)

  • It is therefore not surprising that when something like consciousness (suneidesis, sunnoia) makes its appearance in the work of Greek tragedians and poets, it appears as the inscription of a zone of non-consciousness in language and of silence in knowledge, which has an ethical rather than logical connotation from the beginning.” – The Furies?

  • Critique: one thing missing from Agamben is the concept of justice, as the thing fuelling both Levi’s work, Amery’s work, and the Greek tragedy

  • for Agamben, Kimura Bin’s continuation of Heidegger’s work on Being and Time attempts to order his concepts of self re time: the self lives either post festum (melancholic) or ante festum (neurotic); intra festum, which appears as total, satisfying presence, for Bin exists only as a highly unwanted solution, that of “obsessive neurosis”, the “reiteration of the same act with the intention, so to speak, of procuring proof of being oneself, of not always having missed oneself” (p.127), or of epilepsy, the ecstasy of the present moment that the self cannot bear

  • again, Story of O, mysticism: “self-loss achieved through a kind of ecstatic excess over presence” (p.127): “in which Dasein touches the world of death in the form of an excess, an excess that is both an overflowing and a source of life” (quot Heidegger)

  • there can be no time after Auschwitz: “Auschwitz marks the irrecoverable crisis of authentic temporality, of the very possibility of “deciding” on the disjunction. The camp, the absolute situation, is the end of every possibility of an originary temporality,that is, of the temporal foundation of a singular position in space, of a Da. In the camp, the irreparability of the past takes the form of an absolute imminence; post festum and ante festum, anticipation and succession are parodically flattened on each other. Waking is not forever drawn into the inside of the dream: “Soon we will again hear / the foreign command: / Wstawac!”

  • However, if there can be no testimony, what happens to the reader? If there can be no speaking testimony, can there be a reader? If there is a reader – and there is a reader, there always is a reader – who is this reader? Which “I” of the reader is the reader?

  • The intimacy that betrays our non-coincidence with ourselves is the place of testimony.” says Agamben (p.130), but is it the non-coincidence with ourselves that is the place of reading? “Something that cannot be assigned to a subject but that nevertheless constitutes the subject’s only dwelling place, its only possible consistency.”

  • in the end, Agamben comes to the idea of survival as a process in which the human is lost, sur-vival which is not the same as life. Christian authors can say, thus, that the sinners survive on earth “on account of being in truth spiritually dead”. “Survival designates the pure and simple continuation of bare life with respect to truer and more human life” (p.133)

  • again, Agamben seems unaware of the healing process. Even taking into account that his conceptualisation of the process is ideal, healing still makes an important part, even of trauma. What Amery says may be more interesting, yet Agamben never returns to it: “I get over, but I shouldn’t”. Not interested in less borderline cases, such as that of the criminal, who engages in a very conscious process of closing off his guilt/shame (we don’t know; after all none of us ever live as criminals, we are constantly intrigued by serial killers etc, because we don’t live with our crimes)

  • Finally, he formulates: “The human being is the one who can survive the human being.” (p.133) This is both the inhuman capacity to survive the human, the bare life. On the other, it designates the human capacity to survive the nonhuman, the Muselmann. But the two coincide at this point, which for Agamben is the most intimate semantic core of the problem: for Levi, it is the human that is the drowned, the Muselmann is the complete witness. The only one bearing witness is the one whose humanity has been destroyed, and after the human is destroyed, something has not been destroyed in the human: the remaint is the witness.

  • The indestructible does not exist, either as essence or as relation; Blanchot’s sentence must be read in another sense, one that is more complicated and simpler. “Man is the indestructible who can be infinitely destroyed” – like “the human being is the one who can survive the human being” – is not a definition which, like all good logical definitions, identifies a human essence in attributing a specific difference to it. The human being can survive the human being, the human being is what remains after the destruction of the human being, not because somewhere there is a human essence to be destroyed or saved, but because the place of the human is divided, because the human being exists in the fracture between the living being and the speaking being, the inhuman and the human. That is: THE HUMAN BEING EXISTS IN THE HUMAN BEING’S NON-PLACE, IN THE MISSING ARTICULATION BETWEEN THE LIVING BEING AND LOGOS.” (p.134)

  • what remains after the testimony of the Holocaust, if not Sylvia Plath?

  • if the poet is a witness, then the witness is also a poet. And the reader here becomes the missing entity, the one whose split between human and non-human is ultimately all the more interesting for this.

  • Jean Amery…

5 thoughts on “Notes on Agamben

  1. Re shame, Levi’s comments on Kafka’s Josef K are very interesting.

    I followed you down to Plath, and hiccuped fatally. Absolutely not Plath, whose received poetic persona is a construction of a bunch of contemporary sensationalisms that obscure her actual poetry, and whose poetry itself corporalises, if you like, a theatrical taking on of roles that is a possibility that the Holocaust itself refuses. Unless you think that narcissism is what remains of the Holocaust (I am not, btw, claiming Plath is a narcissist, although I’m sure you could mount an argument; but the readings around her certainly reflect narcissistic tendencies).

    Try Paul Celan.

    On Rimbaud: his radicality is not the creation of “another I”, which is arguably what anyone does in making fictions, but that “I is another”, which destablises the entire notion of selfhood, and which attempts (impossibly) to unite the speaking and the immanent I. His disorder of the senses is the opposite, perhaps, of hysteria.

    I’m not sure either about the idea that “we” don’t understand criminality. How do you know? Why so carefully insist on its rejection? And if Agamben so carefully insists that everything that humans do is by definition human, why bring in the dichotomy of human/inhuman?

  2. Jana says:

    First, thank you so much for your comment, Alison. These were literally my reading notes for Agamben, for the essay I was writing, and you pointed out a couple of very big ommissions that I had time to correct. It was a slightly more speculative piece of writing, more liberated thought than usual, and I was giving myself extra freedom to tease out questions that may not flow as straight-forwardly from the text. Thought at its best is always slightly ecstatic.

    There’s a question mark after Plath, and it’s a thought I discarded (for lack of space I would need in order to draw that line completely). From the purely superficial connection to the Holocaust – I mean, really, what can we do after the Holocaust? How can we engage with it? In order not to fetishize it, what paths remain? – the question turns on itself in the figure of the witness, which for Levi and Agamben is by definition a fake, because the victim is not the witness, the one who owns the language is not the one who is being talked about (this is the split in Rimbaud: it’s Agamben himself who rephrases his sentence as “another I”, but Ingebord Bachmann’s formulation is even more interesting: “an ‘I’ without guarantees”).

    Inasmuch as the speaking I phrases the immanent (an immanent) I into being, I find that the entire split poses a number of huge questions on the female self, which is somehow always parallel to language, rather than fully covered by it. The gap, which for Agamben is shame, just made me run with the question of shameful writing/reading: ie, pornography. The elastic split in the reader is one big missing point in Agamben, and something I would like to hear more about. He comes up with a number of interesting points by looking at the Lager experience, but it is precisely the peripheral figures to the Holocaust, the crime without repair, that are interesting to me: precisely, the guiltless perpetrator, the shameless victim, the intimacy of the reader, and the woman writer. This is my interest in Plath: the poet as a witness (not to the Holocaust, although a secondary one to that, but to another self, inexpressible).

    Hysteria I’m interested in as a counterpoint to anorexia and ecstatic mysticism. Kimura Bin (in Agamben) talks of ecstasy as intra festum, as excess of presence that results in fainting. I now wonder what that makes of something like hysteria or a hunger artist, since Bin’s alternative intra festum is obsessive compulsion. Both being somehow fundamentally female disorders, it brings together the notions of shame (looking at oneself being looked at, ie the feminine presence within the male gaze), the ecstasy, and the unreliable witness.

    What is of particular interest to me, here is Jean Amery’s imperative of resentment, “one gets over, but one should not”. It seems to me to open an incredibly bold moral position, something I don’t know what to do with yet. It’s a demand of a constant present too, not quite an ever-returning trauma (like Levi’s), but a willingly assumed position, what Zizek elsewhere calls “heroic resentment”, perhaps a form of self-sacrifice for morality.

    Human and nonhuman are Agamben’s terms. I don’t know.

    Criminality. My big question remains: what happens to guilt and shame? (Which is Agamben’s question too, but one he doesn’t sufficiently cover for me.) I find it interesting that we are so interested in the figure of the serial killer, a murderer: we seem to wonder en masse what goes on in their minds. Yet we all do nasty things: it’s an experience we all, to some extent, have. It seems to me – and this is a working theory – that we constantly push the awareness, the knowledge of our own evil, somewhere behind, that we don’t sustain it in our conscience; either as a defensive mechanism or a narcissistic protection of self (which may be one and the same). This is why we can sustain puzzlement and interest in the criminal for such a long time.

    But it’s the question of justice that Agamben leaves behind, and the most amazing ommission. At one point, referring to the Greek tragedy, he writes:

    “It is therefore not surprising that when something like consciousness (suneidesis, sunnoia) makes its appearance in the work of Greek tragedians and poets, it appears as the inscription of a zone of non-consciousness in language and of silence in knowledge, which has an ethical rather than logical connotation from the beginning.”

    And I’m thinking, the Furies? The consciousness, which is the locus of justice, natural justice at least (I presume), here remains as a non-linguistic and illogical dark space, something I associate with Furies and the female chorus (I believe Einar Schleef had something going on there; I clearly remember Daniel Schlusser talking about it). Which again brings the feminine into the picture in a strange way.

    In any case, I need sleep. I’m standing, but just. I’m hoping to catch up on Agamben’s writings on melancholia and poetry; I’ve read plenty on homo sacer (geographic interests), but not his earlier writing. It’s easy to get an impression of him as a one-dimensional, politically engaged (shudder) thinker. Instead, there is so much depth in here!

  3. My pleasure, Jana. It woke me up this morning! And then I got down to a deadline…

    More random thoughts:

    Re poetry and Auschwitz – Celan was the answer as Adorno knew to his famous question. Do you know about the relationship between Celan and Heidegger? It’s kind of fascinating – this unresolved knot about Heidegger’s involvement (and it’s active involvement) with Fascism, while Celan was at the other end, his parents dying in the camps. Do you know Celan’s poetry? If these things interest you, he is a must-read – besides being one of THE absolute greatest 20C poets. Try and get Pierre Joris’s translations – and essays – if you can’t read him in German – and seriously, he’s difficult in any language. Melbourne Uni library ought to have Joris, surely. Maybe for when you’ve had more sleep.

    Interesting what you say about justice. I think I’d have to read Agamben again to understand what you mean by that; I have found him so useful in thinking about justice that I don’t understand how it’s missing.

    And gender is a real gap in A’s writing. To the point where I have at odd moments become seriously annoyed.

    Criminality is, perhaps disturbingly, something I have no trouble in understanding, except in its more sadistic forms, which is not so much criminality as psychopathy anyway (psychotic murders come under that, I guess). What I find beyond comprehension is things like love; criminality is mostly banal and legible. Our fascination with murder is obvious, I think, both terror and what that fear conceals, the desire for transgression.

    The Furies don’t represent justice, which is associated with law. They represent older laws of vendetta, which is about revenge. Hence the whole arc of the Oresteia…

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  5. Jana says:

    Hello Doofmann – thank you! With my limited but passionate German, I can get my head around your blog too…

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