Reading events with Giorgio Agamben

“ … All we want to do is keep the knowledge we think we will need, intact and safe. We’re not out to incite or anger anyone yet. For if we are destroyed, the knowledge is dead, perhaps for good. We are model citizens, in our own special way; we walk the old tracks, we lie in the hills at night, and the city people let us be. We’re stopped and searched occasionally, but there’s nothing on our persons to incriminate us. The organization is flexible, very loose, and fragmentary. Some of us have had plastic surgery on our faces and fingerprints. Right now we have a horrible job; we’re waiting for the war to begin and, as quickly, end. It’s not pleasant, but then we’re not in control, we’re the odd minority crying in the wilderness. When the war’s over, perhaps we can be of some use in the world.”

“Do you really think they’ll listen then?”

“If not, we’ll just have to wait. We’ll pass the books on to our children, by word of mouth, and let our children wait, in turn, on the other people. A lot will be lost that way, of course. But you can’t make people listen. They have to come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them. It can’t last.”

“How many of you are there?”

“Thousands on the roads, the abandoned rail tracks, tonight, bums on the outside, libraries inside. It wasn’t planned, at first. Each man had a book he wanted to remember, and did. Then, over a period of twenty years or so, we met each other, travelling, and got the loose network together and set out a plan. The most important single thing we had to pound into ourselves was that we were not important, we mustn’t be pedants; we were not to feel superior to anyone else in the world. We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. Some of us live in small towns. Chapter One of Thoreau’s Walden in Green River, Chapter Two in Willow Farm, Maine. Why, there’s one town in Maryland, only twenty-seven people, no bomb’ll ever touch that town, is the complete essays of a man named Bertrand Russell. Pick up that town, almost, and flip the pages, so many pages to a person. And when the war’s over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again. But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.”

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

What would a God be to whom neither prayers nor sacrifices were addressed? And what would a law be that knew neither command nor enforcement? What is a word that has neither meaning nor command, but is truly held in the beginning—indeed, before the beginning?

Giorgio Agamben

Reading our times with Giorgio Agamben, we share below parts of his recent essay entitled, Quando la casa brucia (Quodlibet) and which was translated and published by (and which can be read in its entirety at the site of) the ill will editions collective. We have interspersed our own comments among the selected passages.

If we have pursued this exercise, however modest, it is because we believe that Agamben’s contribution to our self-understanding continues to be fundamental.

When the house is on fire  

“Nothing I’m doing makes any sense if the house is on fire.” Yet even when the house is on fire it is necessary to continue as before, to do everything with care and precision, perhaps even more so than before—even if no one notices. Perhaps life itself will disappear from the face of the earth, perhaps no memory whatsoever will remain of what has been done, for better or for worse. But you continue as before, it is too late to change, there is no time anymore.

In the end times, death hides behind the mechanical liturgies of everyday life. The spectacle possesses a life of its own, with no reason or purpose beyond its own continuation. Its meaningless utility is its evident secret. What violence and destruction it engenders is but the price to be paid for a progress that has longed ceased to be anything but the endless repetition of the same.

There is however no escape on the horizon. Social reality appears seamless and timeless: universal and thus without roots; eternal and therefore lacking time, history. Space has become placeless and time has become story-less.

We continue as before because we can see nothing more; fearful, without expectations or dreams, we but desire safety, immunity, from the threatening chaos outside and inside. But we continue as before because we must also care for each other and for our worlds, or what remains of them, in the midst of the collective erasure.

Philosophy, a dead language. “The language of poets is always a dead language…it is a strange thing to admit: a dead language that one uses to provide greater life to thought.” Perhaps not a dead language, but a dialect. That philosophy and poetry speak in a language that is less than language is the measure of their rank, of their special vitality. To weigh and judge the world by measuring it against a dialect, a dead language that nevertheless pours forth anew, in which not even a comma can be changed. Keep speaking this dialect, even now that the house is on fire.

A “dialect”, from the Latin dialectus, a “local language, way of speaking, conversation,” from Greek dialektos, to “talk, conversation, speech;” also “the language of a country, dialect,” from dialegesthai, to “converse with each other, discuss, argue,” from dia “across, between”+ legein “speak”: to speak across the silence that separates, but which also renders speech possible; an opening over which we hold ourselves through the creation and re-creation of a dialect, a language gesture, a way of being inseparable from language, a speech which “opposes the enjoyment of what cannot be possessed and the possession of what cannot be enjoyed”. (Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas)

Language as communication, as information, effaces dialect, the openness from which language surges up, in an illusory fullness of knowledge; it thereby endeavours to congeal life and command faithfulness. It educates, “rears”, “leads forth”, in illusory self-possession.

We live amidst ruins that we do not see as ruins. We pretend to live, but not as Alice in flights from an all too well known reality, but as prisoners of a past which has ceased to be, except as phantasm.

That a civilization—a barbarism—can sink, never to rise again, is nothing new. Historians are accustomed to identifying and dating caesuras and shipwrecks. But how can we bear witness to a world that is falling into ruin with eyes blindfolded and face covered, a republic collapsing with neither lucidity nor pride, but in abjection and fear? The blindness is all the more desperate since the shipwrecked claim to be governing their own shipwreck, they swear that everything can be controlled technically, that there is no need for either a new god or a new sky, only prohibitions, experts and doctors. Panic and villainy.

A culture that feels it is at its end, that it has no life left, attempts to govern its decay in the only way it knows how, through a permanent state of exception. The total mobilization in which Jünger saw the essential character of our time should be understood from this perspective. People must be mobilized, they must feel themselves in a state of emergency at every moment, regulated down to the last detail by those who maintain the power to declare such an emergency. But whereas in the past mobilization sought to gather people together, today it aims to isolate them, to distance them from one another.

How long has the house been burning? How long since it burned down? Certainly a century ago, between 1914 and 1918, something happened in Europe that poured flames and madness upon everything that once seemed to remain intact and alive; then thirty years later, the flames again spread everywhere, and ever since have continued to burn without pause, submerged, barely visible beneath the cinders. But perhaps the fires began much earlier, when humanity’s blind impulse towards salvation and progress united with the power of the flame and machines.

Communication and information are but the strident voices of possession, the voices of a power and thought (“Occidental?”) which has sought since its origins to master life, without dialects, without disruptive, local forms of being; an impossible ambition because our lives gain what form they have in the openness from which language is also born, in a potentiality that is defined by the possibility of not being or speaking who we are. Total possession, “total mobilisation”, is only imaginable, beyond the human or in our disappearance as creatures who can create themselves anew, always, and who exists between who they are and who they need not be.

If it is true that the fundamental architectural problem becomes visible only in the house ravaged by fire, then you can now see what is at stake in the history of the West, what it has tried so hard to grasp, and why it could not help but fail.

It is as if power sought at all costs to seize hold of the bare life it produces, and yet, no matter how hard it tries to appropriate and control it by means of every available apparatus—no longer simply those of policing but also those of medicine and technology—this life always escapes its grasp, because it is by definition ungraspable. To govern bare life is the madness of our time. People reduced to their pure biological existence are no longer human; instead, the governance of people and of things coincides.

Can we speak remembering that we speak? Can we live recalling that we can live? Can we be in the openness of our own existence, knowing that the latter cannot be possessed, that is, planned, programmed, engineered? Can we live together, can we create ourselves together, in that space that engenders creation, without wishing to forget that we did so, and that we began there where we always are?

To feel alive: to be affected by one’s own sensibility, to be delicately consigned to one’s own gesture without being able neither to assume nor evade it. To feel myself living makes life possible for me, even if I were locked in a cage. And nothing is as real as this possibility.

It is a task to guard the memory of the feeling, of its gestures and creations, such that a past remains for a future, who gathered together, are the parents of the present. Our task is to care together for our gardens, to sink roots in soil, and to let the earth and the imagination bring forth their gifts, their voices, beyond the catastrophe.  

In the coming years there will be only monks and delinquents. And yet it is impossible to simply step aside, to believe that one can escape the rubble of the world that has crumbled all around us. Because the collapse affects and addresses us, because we too are rubble. And we must learn how to use the rubble correctly, carefully, without being noticed.

It is now necessary to tear salvation away from its historical context and discover a non-historical plurality, plurality as an exit route from history itself.

To leave behind a place or situation without entering other territories, to leave behind an identity and a name without adopting other ones.

We can only regress towards the present, whereas we move straightforward in the past. What we call the past is merely our long regression towards the present. Separating us from our past is power’s first resort.

What frees us of burden is breath. In breath, we are weightless; we are propelled as if in flying without the pull of gravity.

We will have to learn to judge all over again, but with a judgment that neither punishes nor rewards, neither absolves nor condemns. An act without ends, that strips existence from ends, necessarily unjust and false. Only an interruption, an instant poised between time and eternity—in which the image of a life without ends or plans flashes up, without name or memory—and which for this reason saves, not in eternity, but in a “kind of eternity.” A judgment without pre-established criteria, and yet precisely for this reason a political judgment, because it restores life to its naturalness.

To feel and to have feelings, sensation and self-affection, are contemporaries. In every sensation there is a feeling of feeling, in every feeling of oneself there is a feeling of the other, a friendship and a face.

Reality is the veil through which we perceive the possible, what we can and cannot do.

It is not easy to tell which of our childhood desires have been fulfilled. And, above all, whether the part of the fulfilled that now borders on the unfulfilled is enough to convince us to go on living. Fear of death arises when the unfulfilled part of our desires swells beyond measure.

The truth can only be spoken by those who stand no chance of being heard, only by those who speak from within a house that is being relentlessly consumed by flames.

Today humankind is disappearing, like a face drawn in the sand and washed away by the waves. But what is taking its place no longer has a world; it is merely a bare and muted life without history, at the mercy of the computations of power and science. Perhaps, however, it is only by beginning from this wreckage that something else can appear, whether slowly or abruptly—certainly not a god, but not another man either—a new animal perhaps, a soul that lives in some other way…

October 5th, 2020

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