On Giorgio Agamben’s Christian Turn
“The complete juridification and commodification of human relations… are signs not only of crises of law and state, but also and above all, of the Church.”
— Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom
Agamben’s early work focused on Debord-style analysis in which the society of the spectacle captured the commodity’s “Last metamorphosis, in which exchange value completely eclipsed use-value and achieved the status of absolute sovereignty over life, having falsified the entire social production.” Society of the spectacle was capitalism’s “becoming image.” And the “final stage in the evolution of the state form” was the integrated spectacle that showcased the integration of state and economy. A phenomenon that climaxed with capitalism not only expropriating mankind’s productive activity but also the “alienation of language itself.” To counter these trends Agamben believed a new politics had to place being beyond the market.
While it is hard to distinguish between the state and economy in Agamben’s early works, from Homo Sacer (1995) onwards, the Italian philosopher dropped the neo-Marxist critique in favour of an approach that framed the state as an absolute sovereign power. Glancing back at his earlier theories, he noted such appraisals “left the arcanum imperii aside as if it had no substance” and pretended the state was a weak unit that, through it sovereign acts, was not capable of producing necessity.
In truth, most early Agamben – works such as the Coming Community (1990), Infancy and History (1993) and Means without Out End (2000) – slipped under the radar. It was Judith Butler’s heavy citation of him (to explain the legal logic that underpinned the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay) that elevated Agamben into something approaching a public intellectual. At the core of his argument stood Carl Schmitt’s theory that the sovereign was defined by its ability to decide what was exceptional to [normal] order. Those expelled from the rights associated with this order were reduced to “bare life,” the status of the homo sacer in early Roman law.
In more detail, the root of sovereign power can be traced to the production of bare life – the life exposed to the vulnerability of being killed – an exclusion that founds the city. If zoe is biological life and bios a [civilised] way of life, then the ancient Greeks excluded zoe from political space and confined it to the oikos (household). In other words, the logos-laden man in the polis was included on the condition he permitted his zoe, his bare life, to be expelled.
Yet the modern state takes the opposite attitude – perhaps thanks to its improved capabilities rather than a predetermined evolution – and reintegrates zoe as its primary task, making all life political in the process. But this re-assimilation is not undertaken for a noble end. Instead, its model is the concentration camp, a “pure” biopolitical space and the “hidden paradigm and matrix” of politics. Operating in permanent suspension of the law and sustaining nothing more than bios, it reduces Man to a civilizational zero.
To avoid such a fate, Agamben believes the West requires a political ontology that isn’t founded on negation or exclusion but abandons definitions related to the law. This is especially obvious today when the state of exception is deployed so broadly that it brooks almost no impediment. When the state of emergency becomes a default position then the law is in force even when most of its framework is suspended; when law becomes empty in content yet unhindered in fact then – in real terms – it becomes indistinguishable from life, and in the words of Walter Benjamin “Any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else.”
Yet if law has become suspect, it is inescapable that only chaos boasts no law. Even faith (pistis), which might be set up in opposition to law (nomos), is really a commingling of law and life (the Messiah’s faith is the fulfilment of law c.f. Matt. 5:17) and not its negation. Indeed, Agamben is particularly good in The Time That Remains (2006) at tracing Paul’s paradox that the Messiah makes the law inactive (katargese) but also serves as its telos.
For the Italian philosopher, the survival and study of the law fulfilled means it is “No longer justice, but only the gate that leads to it… One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good.”
Like Foucault, Agamben in the later stages of his career has been drawn to the ascetic tradition. It’s probed in order to understand the paths not trodden by the mainstream western tradition, most pointedly the monastics’ restricted consumption (their altissima paupertas [deepest poverty] gave them freedom to be true to themselves rather eke out a position within a system that had no stake in them), abolition of private ownership, and a non-juridical conception of citizenship/belonging.
Monastic life appears authentic in a manner that is irretrievably lost to the West. Within the monastery there is still a quest for “true life,” a mission the West once pursued. Among the monastics laws and rules are the lowest form of participation, the entire purpose of which is to enjoy being ethical, free, uncompromised and humble. Conversely, ethics in the West have been eroded to the extent that it is almost coterminous with the law (lives are hamstrung by the rights of others), freedoms are curtailed on the slightest pretexts and – in the Covid period at the very least – civilised life must concede all to bare life. Finally, scarcity is given lip-service in an orgy of maximal consumption and little structural change.
The contrast between the striving of the monastic community and the twenty-first century’s self-alienated lumpen is stark, though monasticism admittedly appeals to Agamben less on its own merits than on the grounds it presents a stateless and post-juridical order, one that is contemplative and suprapolitical. It represents something that is able to stand in and outside society.
Resistance to the notion of private property appears to form the nub of the monastic party trick Agamben admires. Since power’s main purpose is the protection of the social order and the perpetuation of its most successful members, it is the monastics’ refusal to participate in private property that denies the sovereign a role in defining his identity.
In short, monks and nuns live alongside us but are rescued from the juridical order we tolerate. They exercise a ‘natural’ right that is not downstream of sovereignty’s order, yet they assert no control or positive legal right – a double deflection of sovereignty’s demands, which are rejected as the commands of an emperor with no clothes, a nominal sign that operates only as a symbol of coercion and persuasion. The fact such a ‘power’ must make incessant demands proves its fragility, in contrast to Christ whose call we hear despite the fact He died on the cross virtually naked, absolutely powerless and marked as the least of all men.
Power plugs us into its grid by playing on Man’s weakest point: pride. Fortunately, monastics concur with Augustine that “Pride is a desire for perverse superiority.” It is a “vice that afflicts one who perversely loves his own power, while displaying contempt for the justice in He who has more.” In short, power is a mirage produced by sin, humility displays the inner workings of truth lodged in the source of all real power, God. The former inspires dread, the latter wonder and praise. Christ “brings down rulers from their thrones and lifts up the humble” (Luke 1:52).
Talking of thrones, The Kingdom and the Glory (2011) fixates on the image of the Hetoimasia (preparation [of the throne]) – the closest Christianity gets to reiterating the Jewish shekinah – which does not symbolise a missing power (not even hell is beyond God’s power) so much as an absent glory – the glory that last appeared in Christ, and is faintly echoed by His bride the Church. A glory associated with the faithful who stick to the theology that insists humans – just like animals – have a simple “right of use” that has nothing to do with ownership; who in abdicating their rights of ownership gain a freedom from the foundations of positive law, which are framed around fallenness and not theosis.
This section of the population remain revolutionary because while homo sacer suffers an exiled position at the behest of the sovereign, monastics recuse themselves from the system voluntarily. Nevertheless, there’s a certain irony in Agamben, one of the world’s foremost intellectuals, holding up monasticism’s manual labour and Eucharistic devotion – anti-intellectual traits – as key in how to think about creating a new space that’s not defined by a political ontology that slowly poisons Man against himself.