Giorgio Agamben: Challenging the anarchy of power through the anarchy of forms-of-life

Smettetela di pensare ai vostri diritti, 
smettetela di chiedere il potere.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il Pci ai giovani

We return to the work of Giorgio Agamben, in the translation of a lecture from 2013, dedicated to the concept of destituent power.  If we were not as “fast” as the lundimatin collective in posting this text (the original audio and transcript can be found here), we believe that it has lost none of its importance in the intervening years.

At the heart of this reflection is a questioning of a series of concepts and conceptual oppositions that have fundamentally structured western political thought and practice (including modern, anti-capitalist politics): constituent and constituted power, enemy and friend, economy and politics (oikos and polis), naked life and particular life (zoe and bios), production and action (poiesis and praxis); concepts which trap thought and practice in a logic of inclusion and exclusion, and condemn all insurrection and revolution to repeating the same tragedies of only substituting the old power by the new.

Of what interest is all of this, some may ask?  For many, before the multiple horrors of capitalism, what is called for is militant activism.  Yet if we keep in mind, as we should, that “theory” is but a way of seeing, and that our ways of seeing solidify in practices and institutions of power, then “seeing” differently, that is, reflecting theoretically, in dialogue with the ways in which we live/are forced to live, is essential.

What Agamben’s reflection then proposes is that we endeavour to think beyond the concepts cited above.  More precisely, a truly radical politics must, instead of imagining or working to build a “counter-power” or “counter-hegemony”, strive instead towards the destitution of power, that is, the undoing, deactivating, the désœuvrement of existing relations of power – what Agamben has also called elsewhere profanation; something which in turn demands not any particular action or praxis as such, but the creation of ways of life or forms-of-life.

Hierarchical power works through the appropriation and definition of life (of anarchy, of anomie).  To contest this power, Agamben proposes that we not so much “overthrow” power, as render it irrelevant, a plaything, thereby opening up spaces and times for the creation-expression of forms-of-life in which the way we live is at stake in how we live.

Towards a theory of destituent power

Giorgio Agamben

“And therefore, in my opinion, the problem of political organisation is one of the major problems of our political tradition and it must be rethought. There, that’s all.”

(lundimatin #45, 25/01/2016)

This Monday, the newspaper Libération published an editorial by Eric Hazan and Julien Coupat entitled: Pour un processus destituant: invitation au voyage.  The Initiative is open, but determined.

Contrary to the constituent process that is proposed by the public appeal published by Libération – because that is what it is –, we intend to initiate a destitution piece by piece of all aspects of present existence. In recent years, we have proved enough that, for this, there are allies everywhere. There is much to bring back down to earth and to take back in hand everything that in our lives is suspended, and which tends to constantly escape us. What we are preparing is not an assault, but a continuous subtraction, the careful, gentle and methodical destruction of every politics that drifts above the sensible world.

But the true voyagers are those who leave
only to move: hearts like balloons, as light,
they never swerve from their destinies,
and, without knowing why, say, always: ‘Flight!’

Charles Baudelaire, The Voyage

Fast as lightning, lundimatin decided to extend this invitation by offering a few pieces to the debate.  Undoubtedly, the general dereliction of the left will lead everyone to adhere to this new theory of destitution, however, recognising that the concept is still very vague and that certain clarifications are called for.  To this end, we decided to publish this unpublished intervention by Giorgio Agamben.  In the summer of 2013, on the Millevaches plateau, was organised a “seminar” entitled: Undo the West. About 500 participants had discussed for a week the course of the world and often even its collapse. The aim was to theoretically clarify a number of problematic issues for today’s youth: love, democracy, economics, magic, cybernetics, etc.

A number of renowned intellectuals took part, such as Eva Illouz, Xavier Papais, Jacques Fradin, Franco Piperno and many others.

The title of the reflections which I am going to share with you would be “for or towards a theory of destituent power”.

Before turning to this problem, I think I have to go back a bit, to question the path that led me to this problem.

If I had to ask myself the question: what did I want to do when I undertook this sort of long archaeology of politics that comes under the title Homo sacer?

I do not believe that for me it was a matter of correcting or revising, of criticising concepts or institutions of Western politics; that may be important, but my goal was rather to shift the very place of politics, and for that, above all, to reveal the places and the real stake.

I will go very quickly to summarise these points.

It appeared to me that the original place of politics, in Western politics, is something like an operation on life, or an operation that consists of dividing and capturing life by its very exclusion, that is, to include life in the system by its exclusion. And here, the concept of exception was useful.

“Exception” means etymologically taking something outside, that is, excluding something and including it by its very exclusion. It seems to me that the original operation of politics is of this order and life is something non-political, impolitic that must be excluded from the city, from politics and by this exclusion it will be included and politicised.

It is a complex and strange impression, which is that life is not political in itself but it will be politicised.  It must be politicised and in this way it will become the very foundation of the system.

You see here that one can say that, from the beginning, Western politics is a biopolitics because it is based on this strange operation to exclude life as impolitic and at the same time to include it by this very gesture. This means that the place of politics is still life but through an operation of division, exclusion, articulation, inclusion etc.

So politics is still life captured under a certain modality. I will try to define this exceptional structure.

What appeared to me was that by this operation, life is divided from itself and it presents itself in the form of naked life, which is to say of a life that is separated from its form. But the strategy, it seems to me, is always the same, we find this strategy everywhere: for example, I tried to show it in Aristotle.

Aristotle is never going to define life and it has always been like that and even today. Life is never defined but in contrast what is not defined is divided and articulated, as you well know: vegetative life, sensitive life, life of relations. We do not know what life is but we know very well how to divide it, and as you know, by technology today, to produce this division, to realise this division.

It is in this sense that in the first volume of the book, I said that the fundamental and underground operation of power is precisely this articulation of life, this production of naked life as an original political element.  Because what finally results from this operation is the production of this strange thing that must not be confused with natural life at all.

Naked life is not in any way natural life, it is life in so far as it has been divided and included in this way in the system.

Here, one can also try to show other aspects of this operation more closely related to the history of politics. For example, in this perspective, in the work on the role of civil war in ancient Greece, in classical Athens. Christian Meier and other historians have shown that in the fifth century in Greece, a very singular thing happens: one witnesses a completely different way of defining the social belonging of individuals.

Until then, this historian shows that inclusion in the city, in the polis, was done through status and social conditions. There were nobles, members of cultic communities, merchants, peasants, wealthy people. And so inclusion was defined by this plurality of conditions.

What happens in the fifth century is the emergence of the concept of citizenship as the concept that will define the social belonging of individuals to the city.  He calls this a politicisation, which is to say that by this concept of citizenship that we have (unfortunately) inherited from classical Greece, political life will be defined not only by a formal or legal condition and status, but by something that defines the very action of the citizen. That is to say that the criterion of the political will be citizenship and the polis, the city will be defined by the condition, the action, the status of the citizens.

This is something that seems quite clear to us, even trivial, but it was at this moment that this concept appeared as the threshold of the politicisation of life. That is to say, the life of citizens will enter the city by this concept, which is thus a threshold, something that defines a threshold of politicisation.

The polis, the city thus becomes a domain that defines the condition of the citizens, as clearly opposed and distinguished from the home. Polis and oikos: the home (which defines the condition of the life of the reign of necessity, of reproductive life, etc.) is clearly, by the concept of citizenship, separated from the city.  And here is an important point; one finds the same division that I spoke of before, between natural life, zoe and bios, political life. Here one finds it in the opposition of the home, the family, the oikos, the economy and the polis, the political.

But you see that if I speak of a threshold of politicisation, it is because politics really appears in this dimension as a field of tension defined by opposite poles, zoe (natural life) and bios (political life); the home (oikos) and the polis (the city).  It is not something substantial; it is a field of tension between these two poles.

And here we see the role that civil war will play in this field of tension. Here I started from Nicole Loraux’s research on civil war, stasis, in Athens.  Loraux says that civil war is a war in the family; it is a war whose original place is precisely the home, the family, a war between brothers or between sons and fathers, etc.  But what has appeared to me by extending this research is that civil war is operating in Greece, and especially in Athens, as a threshold that will define this field of force whose two extreme poles are the family, the home and the city.

And by crossing this kind of threshold, what is not political is politicised and what is political is depoliticised.  Only if we see civil war in this perspective can we understand things that seem strange to us.  Such as Solon’s law that if, when there is a civil war, a citizen does not take up arms for one of the two parties, he is infamous, he is excluded from political rights. This thing seems strange to us, and in Plato we find lots of speeches of the same kind as well.

Civil war is the moment when brothers become enemies and the enemy becomes a brother, therefore the confusion between these two fields (the home and the city, zoe and the polis). We have a threshold between the two and in crossing it, there is a politicisation of life or a depoliticisation of the city.

That does not mean that the Greeks considered that stasis, civil war, was something good, but they saw in it precisely a kind of threshold of politicisation: an extreme case where what is not political will become political and what is political will become indeterminate in the home.

Here then, at the base of my research, there was this kind of hypothesis that politics was a field of tension between these two poles and that between the two, there are thresholds that must be crossed. So that was the first movement when I spoke a shift in the place of politics, it was a kind of first stage in this movement.

There were also other aspects that had revealed themselves to me to be quite important: politics in our tradition of political philosophy has always been fundamentally defined on the basis of the concepts of production and praxis, production and action. We have always thought: there is politics where there is poiesis, production and praxis, action. The same holds for Hannah Arendt, the fundamental concepts remain these two.

Here also, it seemed to me necessary to proceed by means of a movement and the two concepts that appeared to me instead as quite important to define a new idea of politics are on the contrary (concepts that I will name quickly): on the one hand, use and on the other, something that in French could be translated by désœuvrement [worklessness; state of not working] on the condition of understanding it in the active sense, that is to say, as an action that désœuvre [that renders something unworkable, that undoes its usefulness], which renders something inoperative.

I will quickly tell you something about these two concepts that seem important to me.

First the concept of use.  I encountered this concept a long time ago, in many areas, but suddenly, and more recently, it was in reading Aristotle’s Politics. You know that at the beginning of Aristotle’s Politics, there is this rather strange thing: the treatise on politics begins with a little treatise on slavery, the first 30 pages of Aristotle’s politics are a treatise on slavery, on the relation master/slave.

But what caught my attention is that in this context, thus before defining the object of politics, Aristotle defines the slave as a Man, a human being (there is no doubt for Aristotle that the slave is a human being) whose own work (ergon in Greek) is the use of the body.  He does not explain it and historians did not stop at the task, but it seemed very interesting to me.

What does it mean “use of the body”? So I worked a little, first to understand from a semantic point of view, and I came across this linguistic fact, that the Greek and Latin verbs that we translate by to use, to utilise, to make use of (kresteï in Greek and uti in Latin) have no meaning of their own.  They are verbs that derive their meaning from the word that follows them, which is not accusative but dative or genitive.  I considered very simple examples because it is important.

For example: the Greek kresteï theon, literally to make use of god but the exact meaning is to consult an oracle, kresteï nostou, to make use of the return which means to feel nostalgia, kresteï symphora, to make use of misfortune which means to be unhappy , kresteï polei, to make use of the city means to participate in political life, to act politically, kresteï gynaïki, to make use of a woman which means to make love with a woman and kresteï keïri, to make use of the hand which is to punch.

And in Latin it is the same thing, one sees that the word does not have its own meaning, but receives it by its complement (which is not in the accusative but in the dative). One gives oneself to this thing; if one gives oneself to this thing, one makes use of it.

We can see one thing that must never be forgotten: grammatical analyses are philosophical and metaphysical analyses as well. One cannot understand a thing if one does not understand that grammar contains in itself a whole metaphysics that has crystallised in language.

There are analyses of the great linguist, Benveniste, which show that verbs of this kind are verbs that have been classified in grammar as means, that is, they are neither neither active nor passive.  And so, Benveniste tries to clarify the meaning of these verbs that are neither active nor passive.  He says that while normally (for example in the active), the process, the action, are external to the subject and that there is an active subject who acts outside of her/himself, with these verbs, the means, the verb, indicate a process that takes place in the subject.

That is, the subject is internal to the process: the Greek gignomaï or the Latin nascor (to be born) or morior (to die), or patior (to suffer), etc. They are verbs in which the subject is interior to the action and the action is internal to the subject; an absolute indetermination not only between active and passive, but also between subject and object.

Benveniste tries an even better definition and at a certain moment he gives this definition which was for me very enlightening. It is, he says, each time a matter of situating the subject in relation to the process, according to whether s/he is external, as in the active case, or internal, and to qualify the agent accordingly, in the active as s/he effects an action and that in the means, s/he effects an action while affecting her/himself. That is to say, by acting, by performing an action, s/he will be affected in turn.

The second concept was that of désœuvrement: it must be understood as if there was an active verb to work or to open (which existed in old French).  To désœuvrer would thus mean to render inoperative, to disable a work.  It is not at all inertia, to do nothing (which is also important) but rather a form of action, of praxis or work, an operation that consists of undoing works.

How I would like this to be understood is clarified first by a passage in Aristotle’s Ethics, which has always seemed important to me, where Aristotle tries to define political science (episteme politike) in as much as it has as its purpose happiness etc.  And at that moment, he asks a question that seems to him even absurd, but that he poses very seriously.

He says about the concept of work (ergon, which defines activity proper, purpose itself, the specific energy of each being): we speak of works in the case of carpenters.  For the flute player, there is of course a work (playing the flute), for sculptors too (making statues) but is there a work for man as such, as [a work] defines carpenters, sculptors, singers, architects etc.?

And at that moment, he says: or should we think that man as such is argos? That is, without ergon: désoeuvré, without a work. Does not man, as such, have his own ergon, his own work, his own purpose, his own vocation, a possible definition, etc.? Of course, Aristotle asks this question but lets it drop, because he has, on the contrary, an answer. He will say that man’s ergon is activity in accordance with logos, etc.

But I, on the other hand, was struck by this possibility and I became interested rather in this thing which he had posed as a somewhat strange hypothesis, that is to say, the idea that one must instead take seriously, that man is a being that lacks a proper or specific ergon.

Man as such has no biological, social, religious or any other nature that can define it essentially.  Man has no specific works, he is a being désœuvré, in this sense. One could also say, a being of potentialities, which has no actions or ergon proper to it; but it was precisely this, it seemed to me, which can help to define why there is politics.

If man had his own ergon predetermined by nature, biology, destiny, it seems to me that neither ethics nor politics would be possible, because one could only perform tasks. The most miserable action that man can carry out: to perform tasks.

Thus, I have tried to define this concept.  Désœuvrement is first not a suspension of activity but a particular form of activity, and second, I immediately saw that in the history of Western thought, it was precisely a problem had never posed.

The idea of any inactivity, the idea, especially in the modern world since Christianity, for example, that God can be an idle being is something that repels theologians. God not only created the world but keeps on creating it and continues to act, never ceases to govern it, the creation is continuous and the idea that a god can be inactive or idle is a monstrous thing for theologians and I believe that the whole tradition of modernity is based on the repression of désœuvrement.

One of the places where this problem was thought of is in relation to the problem of the festival.  This is one of the places where in our tradition we try to give a place to désœuvrement.

And in our modern society, it is a little modelled on the concept of the Shabbat, that is to say, the suspension of the activity. The festival would be to suspend the activity; it would be a temporary suspension of productive activities. One sees that while it is a perceived problem, it is at the same time well limited, within limits that exclude, which make it impossible to truly think it.

But if we think about festival itself, we can see that this is not at all the definition of the festival, that is, the suspension of work, because in the festival, even if in the Sabbath all productive activity is forbidden, we make things: we make meals and in festivals, we exchange gifts.

We do things but all the things we do are subtracted from their own economy, are destituted of their own economy. That is to say that if we eat it is not for food but to be together, to experience a festivity, if we dress it is not to protect ourselves from the cold, it is also for something else, for another use and especially if we exchange things or gifts, it is not by means an economic exchange.

The festival is defined not simply by an action but by a particular kind of operation. That is to say, human activities are withdrawn from their own economy and, by that, open to another possible use.

Folklore is rich in such things, the feast of the dead in Sicilian folklore, found in the Anglo-Saxon countries as Halloween. In Halloween, children are the dead that reappear and take or steal things that are in a certain economy and by subtracting them from the economy, one opens them to this thing called the étrenne [an offering at the new year], the gift, etc.

All of this was to simply show you that we can very well think of an activity like the one we do in the festival, which is not limited to suspending an economy, an action, a work, but also makes another use of the same possible.

But this destituent element of the festival seems to me very important: it is always a matter of subtracting a thing from its own economy, to undo [désœuvrer] it, to make another use of it.

For example, the ancients said that there is no festival without dancing.  But what is dance if it is not a liberation of the gestures and movements of the body from their own economy; if it is not to subtract the gestures from a certain economic utility, a certain direction and to exhibit them as such, by undoing them.

And masks are the same thing.  What are masks if not a neutralization of the face? The mask will render the face inoperative, will undo the face, but in this, it shows or exposes something even more true.

Another example that seems quite clear to me, to understand what désœuvrement is: what is a poem?  It is a linguistic operation that takes place in language like any other, there is no other place for the poem. The poem is a language operation, in language.

So what is going on? Again, we see that language is deactivated from its informational, communicative function etc.  And by this désœuvrement it is open to another use, what is called poetry. It is not easy to say what poetry is, but a very simple definition is to say that it subtracts language from its informational, communicative economy and that will make this other use of the language possible that one calls poetry.

This is something that is almost anthropologically part of the human condition.

For example, the mouth is a part of man’s digestive system; it is even the first element of the digestive system. What does man do? Man turns the mouth from this function, to make it the place of language. And so all the teeth, for example, that are used to chew will be used to make the dental consonants, etc.

You see, man exists by désœuvrement of even biological functions. Even the biological functions of the body are open to another use. The kiss is the same thing; it takes this digestive element and makes another use of it.

Désœuvrement is thus an activity proper to man that consists of undoing economic, biological, religious, legal works without however merely abolishing them. Language is not abolished. What could it be like to undo the law? As we will see, the law is not simply abolished but removed from its horrible economy and it may perhaps be used again.

And here I can finally come to my problem of destituent power.

Because if we no longer put at the centre of politics poiesis and praxis, that is to say production and action but use and désœuvrement, then everything changes in political strategy.

Our tradition inherited the concept of constituent power from the French Revolution.  But here, we must think of something like a destituent power, precisely because constituent power is integral to this mechanism that will make any constituent power found a new power.

This is what we have always seen, revolutions happen like this: there is a violence that will constitute rights, a new right, and then there will be a new constituted power that will be put in place.  Whereas if one were able to think of a purely destituent power, not a power, but precisely instead what I would call a purely destituent power, one would perhaps be able to break this dialectic between constituent power and constituted power which was, as you know , the tragedy of the Revolution.

That is what happened and we see it everywhere even now, for example in the Arab Spring revolution.  Immediately, there were constituent assemblies and they were followed by something worse than what was there before.  And the new constituted power that was put in place by this diabolical mechanism of constituent power becomes a constituted power.

It is this my belief that these are concepts that we must have the courage to give up: to put an end to constituent power.  Negri would not agree but we must think a power or rather a potentiality that has the strength to remain destituent.

This commits us to develop a completely different strategy.  For example, if we think of violence, this violence must be purely destituent. We must be careful, if it is a violence that will constitute a new right, a new law, we have lost.

So you have to think about the concepts of revolution, insurrection, in a different way, which is not easy.

Here I only wanted a few references. It is a whole work to be done, that you have to do too, that I tried to do as well.  But for the moment, as it’s a work in progress, I just wanted to give you some elements of the moment where it seems to me that in our tradition, we tried to think this.

The first thing that immediately comes to my mind is Walter Benjamin’s essay on the critique of violence.  It’s an essay that, if read from this perspective, really has that at its centre.

In this essay, Benjamin tries to think through what he calls “pure violence”, that is to say, a violence that will never set up a new right.  That is to say, a violence that would be able to break with what he calls “the dialectic between the violence that poses rights and the violence that conserves them”.  Our political system, what we called before constituent power, constituted power, is that.

Our political system is based on this idea. For example, when there are revolutions, changes, we have a violence that founds a new right and immediately afterwards this translates into violence that will preserve it.

And Benjamin says that it is this mechanism that must be broken and so he tries in this text to think what he will call a “pure violence”, a divine violence, perhaps.  And he will define it precisely as a violence that will entsetzen (he uses the German verb)*: which will lay down the law, without founding a new law.

That is to say, a violence that breaks with the law. He tries to find examples in Greek mythology and especially in Sorel’s idea of a proletarian general strike.  He sees it as a form of pure violence in the sense that it is not going to constitute a right, it is not directed to obtain and constitute a new right.  It is a violence that remains purely destitutive in relation to existing law.

This is an example that I think is important because he saw precisely that the problem is to break this relation.

Another example that comes to my mind is what Paul (the Apostle) tries to do in his letters. That is to say, he will define the relationship between the Messiah and the Torah (Jewish law) by the Greek verb katargeïn which means to render argos, render inoperative, disable.

What he says in fact is: we are Jews and of course we will not destroy the law, we will not destroy the Torah, but we will make it inoperative, argos, render it idle [la désœuvrer].

And so the Messiah is not someone who simply abolishes the law, he is someone who undoes it [la désœuvre].  What does this mean?  This is really his problem: to think of a relation to the law which, without simply denying it, eliminating it, denies the fact that one must execute commands, suggests another relation to the law.

It is a feature of Jewish messianism that goes as far as the forms it took in the seventeenth century, in the sense that the fulfilment of the law is its transgression, as Sabbatai Tsevi says.  So in messianism, there was this problem: to think of a relation to the law which is not its execution, its application.

This is very interesting: is it possible to think of a relation to the law that disables it, renders it inoperative as a commandment and allows another use?  This is what things were in the beginning for Paul and after this became Christianity, which completely betrayed this thing.

But there is one thing for example that can be useful in this perspective.  Paul said something at a certain moment to understand what this relationship to the law could be, that does not execute it, without abolishing it.  He says, to express the messianic condition, that the condition now is that those who have a wife as if they did not have one, those who cry as if they were not crying, those who rejoice as they do they did not rejoice, those who buy a house as if they did not have it, etc.

For example, you were born into a certain social condition, you are a slave, use it. And he employs this expression of the verb kresteï.

That is to say that the problem is not simply: I am a slave and I will become free; first make use of it. To learn how to make use of one’s condition, that is to say, to deactivate it, to make it inoperative in relation to oneself, and in that it becomes a properly idling [désœuvrante] possibility that will make possible another use of your condition.

These were but examples. I am not saying that this is what we have to do, it was just to show you that in some moments of our tradition of thinking, we have in fact thought through this problem.

And here, there is something that seems to me as important; it seems to me that it is this destituent power that the thought of the twentieth century tried to think, without really succeeding.

What Heidegger thinks as the destruction of tradition, what Schürmann thinks as the deconstruction of the arche, what Foucault thinks as philosophical archeology, that is to say, to go back to a certain arche, a certain historical a priori and to try to neutralise it.

It seems to me that these are efforts that go in this direction (and that’s what I tried to do myself) without perhaps really getting there. But they this, they are the destitution of works of power, not just their abolition.

This is obviously very difficult because it cannot be achieved by praxis alone.  That is to say, the problem is not what form of action will be found to destitute power, because what will destitute power is not a form of action but only a form-of-life.

It is only through a form-of-life that destituent power can affirm itself, therefore, it is not by this activity, or this praxis; it is by the construction of a form-of-life.

You see why it is difficult, because it is not about any particular action, we’ll do this, we will do this, we will do that. That is not enough. We must first build a form-of-life.

And here we can go back to why it is so difficult to do that. Why, for example, is it difficult to think of things like anarchy (the absence of command, of power), anomie (the absence of law)? Why is it so difficult to think this concept, which seems nevertheless to contain something?

Benjamin once said that true anarchy is the anarchy of the bourgeois order and in Pasolini’s film Salo, there is a fascist who says at one point that true anarchy is the anarchy of power. This is something to be taken literally.

Power thus works by capturing anarchy, the power we have before us only functions because it has received, included (always this process of inclusive exclusion) anarchy.

It is the same with anomie, and it is obvious in the state of exception: our power works by being able to include, to capture, anomie.  The state of exception is simply a lack of law, but an absence of law that will become internal to power, to the law.

This is complicated.  We cannot accede to anarchy, we cannot accede to anomie.  And we could continue; our so-called democratic power is based in fact on the absence of the people; we could say “ademie” (demos, the people). The democracy we have before us is something we have through the ridiculous mechanism of representation that has captured the ademia, the absence of people, at its centre.

And thus matters stand, but it is precisely this that makes it so difficult to try to accede to anarchy, to accede to anomie.  They cannot be accessed immediately because, first of all, it is necessary to deactivate, to undo [désœuvrer], to destitute the anarchy of power.

That is to say, that true anarchy is nothing but the destitution of the anarchy of power.  And that is why we cannot think it, because if we try to think anarchy, we have before us what power has done, in other words, the war of all against all, the disorder…

If we try to think anomie, we have this absurd thing: the absence of law, the chaos where everyone does what s/he wants.  But this is false.  That is the image that the capture of anarchy, the capture of anomie, leaves us with.  If we first succeed in disabling the anarchy and anomie captured by power, perhaps then true anarchy can reappear.

That’s why works like those of the anthropologists Pierre Clastres and Christian Sigrist are important.  They show very clearly that it is not at all true.  If we look at primitive societies, we see anarchy, but it is not at all what our political tradition offers us.  For example, in Sigrist’s book, he uses the phrase “controlled anarchy.”  It is to say that there is an absence of power, but not at all the war of all against all, chaos, they are different forms.  It is also what Illich tried to think by this concept of “vernacular”.  It is not the anarchy that we believe.

It was this thing that seemed important to me: we cannot accede to a real thought about anarchy if we do not first neutralise the anarchy that power contains in its centre.

I told you that this is not a theoretical task, but that this will not be possible, this operation of the destitution of power, except by a form-of-life.  So it’s not just a matter of finding the right action, but of constituting forms-of-life.  I would even say that a form-of-life is precisely where one joins something that of itself will be destituent.

I tried to define this concept of form-of-life at the beginning of my research as a life that cannot be separated from its form.

That is to say, a life for which, in its way of life, this life is at stake: a life for which its very life is at stake in its way of life.  So you see that it’s not just a different way of life.  These are ways of life that are not just factual things but possibilities.

Tiqqun developed this definition in a very interesting way in three theses that I will read to you and which are in the second number of the journal: “1- Human unity is neither the body nor the individual; it is the form-of-life. 2- Each body is affected by its form-of-life as by a clinamen, an attraction, a taste. 3- My form-of-life does not relate to who I am, but to how I am who I am. “

So first of all, form-of-life is something like a taste, a passion, a clinamen: it is something ontological that affects a body.  But I would also like to dwell on the last point: the concept of how.

It’s not who I am, but how I am who I am.  In the tradition of Western ontology, this is what we have sometimes tried to think of as a modal ontology.

You may know Spinoza’s thesis: there is only being, substance and its modes, its modifications.  There is only God and its modifications which are beings, singular beings.  The singular beings are only modes, modifications of the unique substance.

But here, I think we must continue, clarify.  The substance, being is not something that precedes the mode and exists independently of these modifications.  Being is nothing but this mode of being, substance is only its modifications, is only its how.

And here you see that it is quite another ontology that we must think in the sense that ontology has always been defined by these two concepts: identity and difference.  So, for example, we tried to think of the one and the multiple problem by the concept of identity and difference (ontological differences, etc.).

And it seems to me that what we should think is a third possibility that will neutralize this couple identity/difference.  By which I mean that if we take for example the Spinozist thesis that we have always described as pantheistic, that is, deus sive natura, God or nature, we must not take this to mean God = nature, because here we fall back into identity/difference. No, sive means “or else” and expresses modalisation, modification, that is, the neutralisation and the elimination of both identity and differences.

The divine is not being in itself, but its “or else”, its sive, its modifications.  I do not know if we could say: the fact of “naturing” oneself in this mode, to be born in this mode.

So you see the difference, all the criticisms that have been made of pantheism, in the sense that it is absurd to think that being = mode, God = nature, are false.  It is not this: God modalises itself, it is modalisation, modification, and it is this which is important.  God, the divine, is nothing but this process of modification.

And here too, for this, it would be necessary to think differently of the relation between potentiality and actuality.  Modification is not an operation by which something that was potentially, being or God, actualises itself, realises itself, and completes itself in that.

What both in pantheism and in the case of a form-of-life that will disable works is above all not an experience of potentiality as such, but of potentiality as habitus, this customary use; one could to say of the potentiality which will manifest itself in this désœuvrement, which is also the form in Aristotle of a potentiality of not being, of not to be, of not to do, but which is above all a habitus, a habitual use: a form-of-life. And a form-of-life is a habitual use of potentiality.  One must not think: a potentiality, I must make it actual, realise it. No, it is a habitus, a habitual use.

So in this sense, all living things are in a form-of-life, but that is not equivalent to saying that all living things are a form-of-life.  Precisely because a form-of-life is something that will join with this habitual use of potentiality that will render inoperative [désœuvrer] works.

Well, I think that I have already said too much.

One thing we discussed the other night: all this also implies that there is another political concept in our tradition that needs to be rethought. It is that of organisation.  Because you understand that if the definition of a form-of-life that I give is correct, a form-of-life is not something that someone can claim to organise.  It is already in itself, so to speak, completely organised.  Who will organize forms-of-life since the form-of-life is the moment when we have joined the habitual use of a potentiality?

And therefore, in my opinion, the problem of political organisation is one of the major problems of our political tradition and it must be rethought.

There, that’s all.

* Interestingly, the German verb entsetzen also means to surprise, to horrify, and I believe that for most of those attached to the need for constituted (State) power, to destitute power is shocking.        

This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.