A Note on Agamben’s State of Exception

The notion that metaphysics is the hegemonic configuration of the West, through the centuries and also now, has been disregarded, when not ridiculed and rejected.  Its counterpart is of course that any hegemony–always both a product and a foundation of sovereignty–is necessarily metaphysical.   This has not only been disregarded, ridiculed, and rejected, but just abominated and declared more than unacceptable, casus morti.  And yet, at the very heart of Agamben’s State of Exception, Agamben offers a thought that confirms it all:

He is talking about the Schmitt-Benjamin disputatio on sovereignty and the state of exception.  He says: “at issue in the anomic zone is the relation between violence and law–in the last analysis, the status of violence as a cipher for human action.  While Schmitt attempts every time to reinscribe violence within a juridical context, Benjamin responds to this gesture by seeking every time to assure it–as pure violence–an existence outside the law” (217 in The Omnibus Homo Sacer).  The following passage is crucial:

“For reasons that we must try to clarify, this struggle for anomie seems to be as decisive for Wester politics as the gigantomachia peri tes ousias, the ‘battle of giants concerning being,’ that defines Western metaphysics.  Here, pure violence as the extreme political object, as the ‘thing’ of politics, is the counterpart to pure being, to pure existence as the ultimate metaphysical stakes; the strategy of the exceptioin, which must ensure the relation between anomic violence and law, is the counterpart to the onto-theo-logical strategy aimed at capturing pure being in the meshes of the logos” (217).

Things get more complicated, or cryptic, after that, when Agamben attempts to show that “pure (or divine) violence is attested to only as the exposure and deposition of the relation between violence and law,” to such an extent that, as Benjamin’s essay on Kafka would show, the “law” whose nexus with power and violence has been deposed “blurs at all points with (infrapolitical) life” (220).

The final passage of the section, thoroughly messianic, encapsulates in a sense my difficulties with Agamben in general–for me, the reason why a step back becomes necessary, that is, a step not forward towards a messianic deposition of the law (through divine or revolutionary violence), but back towards the region that is prior to politico-juridical capture (or metaphysical capture).

“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.  What is found after the law is not a more proper and original use value that precedes the law, but a new use that is born only after it.  And use, which has been contaminated by law, must also be freed from its own value.  This liberation is the task of study, or of play.  And this studious play is the passage that allows us to arrive at that justice that one of Benjamin’s posthumous fragments defines as a state of the world in which the world appears as a good that absolutely cannot be appropriated or made juridical” (221).

Finally, here is the last paragraph of the book, where Agamben seems to come to the infrapolitical neighborhood only to double down into politics, at the cost of proposing an archiutopian notion of it:

“To show law in its nonrelation to life and life in its nonrelation to law means to open a space between them for human action, which once claimed for itself the name of ‘politics.’  Politics has suffered a lasting eclipse because it has been contaminated by law, seeing itself, at best, as constituent power (that is, violence that makes law), when it is not reduced to merely the power to negotiate with the law.  The only truly political action, however, is that which severs the nexus between violence and law.  And only beginning from the space thus opened will it be possible to pose the question of a possible use of law after the deactivation of the device that, in the state of exception, tied it to life.  We will then have before us a ‘pure’ law, in the sense in which Benjamin speaks of a ‘pure’ language and a ‘pure’ violence.  To a word that does not bind, that neither commands nor prohibits anything, but says only itself, would correspond an action as pure means, which shows only itself, without any relation to an end.  And, between the two, not a lost original state, but only the use and human praxis that the powers of law and myth had sought to capture in the state of exception” (242).

Violence becomes a cipher for a life not captured by juridical sovereignty and at the same time the means for its extraction from it. This is why in Benjamin it appears as divine violence. Agamben aims at a time of posthegemony, but it shows up in his text as a sacred time, the time beyond the second coming, an after-time. This is a messianic projection that can only become so either from religious eschatology or as an ideological offshoot of a democracy-to-come.

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