Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Giorgio Agamben, trans Adam Kotsko, part of the Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics series.
This slim volume is reliant on the lines of thought explored previously by Agamben in The Sacrament of Language and The Kingdom and the Glory, although it might be approachable on its own by a generally well-read and determined reader. I found it slow going, requiring as much as five minutes per page.
The first chapter is on “Liturgy and Politics,” but mostly liturgy. It focuses on the emergence and development of a distinction between opus operans and opus operatum in sacramental activity. Only at the very end does Agamben remark that he considers this instrument for the “effectiveness of the cult” to be a “theological model … which has made a lasting mark on praxis in the Marxist tradition” (26).
The first part of Chapter 2 “From Mystery to Effect” should be read in dialogue with Drudgery Divine by Jonathan Z. Smith. It is somewhat amusing that Agamben should take the side of the (anti-pagan) Protestants in the relevant questions about Christian liturgical origins, while Smith assails it. “Effect” is concerned with the “transformation of being into operativity” that results from the “ontological-practical paradigm … of effectiveness” (63) which Agamben identifies with sacerdotal mystery.
The third chapter offers “A Genealogy of Office,” which begins to focus on the historically articulated nature of ministry as a duty and a function. This interesting study culminates in a declaration that “[T]he priesthood, of which the character is the cipher, is not a real predicate but a pure signature, which manifests only the constitutive excess of effectiveness over being” (87). (There is also an interesting mention of Varro’s three modalities agere, facere, and gerere, which seem to correspond to the offices of Cancellarius, Praemonstrator, and Imperator, respectively. 82)
“The Two Ontologies” of the fourth chapter are the philosophical-scientific and the religious-juridical. The former is characterized by the indicative mood and the latter by the imperative. Agamben illustrates various ways in which these two oppose one another and yet have become intertwined and reliant upon one another, with the tendency to privilege the religious-juridical under the cover of the philosophical-scientific reaching an acme in the 18th century. His account here makes solid sense out of Kant, and it almost re-interested me in Heidegger. The alignment of liturgy and ethics is witnessed through the concept of pious “devotion.” Agamben writes, “Theologians never lost awareness of the pagan origin of devotio, with which the commander consecrated his own life to the infernal gods in order to obtain victory in a battle” (103).
The very end of the book offers a discussion of the metaphysics of will, which arrives at remarks perfectly congruent with Beyond Good and Evil section 19, although Agamben never cites Nietzsche in the whole book. And then I was perplexed to read the final sentence, for which he never seemed to have supplied the motivation: “The problem of the coming philosophy is that of thinking an ontology beyond operativity and command and an ethics and a politics entirely liberated from the concepts of duty and will.” As usual, Agamben gives me useful insights and leaves me scratching my head.