Tag Archives: Giorgio Agamben

Opus Dei

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.

Agamben Opus Dei

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.

The Sacrament of Language

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Adam Kotsko.

Agamben Kotsko The Sacrament of Language

I have no prior orientation to the larger Homo Sacer project of Giorgio Agamben, in which The Sacrament of Language constitutes part II.3, and it might be argued that this brief text–a mere 72 pages in Adam Kotsko’s translation from the Italian–should have been published with other sections in order to justify its standing as an independent volume. But the topic, sufficiently attractive to get me to read this book, does stand on its own, and Agamben’s treatment is fascinating, albeit distinctly chewy

Rather than accepting the centuries-long tradition of viewing the oath as a rhetorical artifact of a primitive “magico-religious” culture, Agamben insists that the discursive spheres of religion and law were themselves produced by reactions to an essential experience of the oath, which he characterizes as “verediction.” (57) Although unremarked as such by Agamben, this state is also the point of departure for “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable” in Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols: “I, Plato, am the truth.”

The Sacrament of Language is crucially concerned with the coeval origins of law and religion; it contemplates the tripartite anatomy of the oath as invocation, affirmation, and curse; it details the relationship of the oath to the archaic functions of [con]sacratio and devotio; and it presents the oath and blasphemy as the two sides of a single coin. The theological observations of the book should be of great interest to Thelemites: among other interesting notes about pagan and Abrahamic religions, Agamben references Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas regarding the deity (qui es) invoked in the original anthem of the Gnostic Mass (53).

The supposed context for this entire discussion of the Archaeology of the Oath is a claim advanced by Paolo Prodi in a 1992 work (Il sacramento del potere) that recent generations of the West are participating in “the irreversible decline of the oath” (1). In the final sections of Agamben’s book, he outlines a scenario in which the postmodern condition dissolves the substance of Western ethics, and he proposes “philosophy” as the locus of instruction regarding our possible escape from the dilemma. I certainly appreciate and recommend his speculative philosophy, but it will be in vain unless it is seized by ones who are in fact consecrated and devoted, and put to use in the operative philosophy better known as magick.

The Kingdom and the Glory

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini.

Agamben Chiesa Mandarini The Kingdom and the Glory

The Kingdom and the Glory was issued a short while before The Sacrament of Language, but in the plan of Agamben’s Homo Sacer project, the first book follows the second, and that is the sequence in which I read them. They are closely connected in theme, exploring points in which concepts cross or transcend the boundaries between the theological and the political. The Kingdom and the Glory is a much larger undertaking in both scope and scale.

The work of the book is a Foucauldian (i.e. neo-Nietzschean) genealogy of “glory” as an operator in the conceptual justification of “economy” and “government”–that is, in the theological and political registers, respectively. (The ancient theological sense of “economy” is distinct from its modern significance.) It touches on esoteric fields such as Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, and Grail legendry. But it also traces its concerns through the vertebral canon of philosophy from Aristotle through Heidegger, as well as the entire span of Christian theology.

As The Sacrament of Language was trained on the performative language of the oath, so The Kingdom and the Glory in large measure revolves around the nature and function of acclamation. Section 8.19 in particular is a valuable inquiry into amen as “the acclamation par excellence” of Christian liturgy.

Some of the political consequences of the insights in this 2007 book seem to cast light on the fragility of the legislative function in putative democracies like that of Germany in the first part of the 20th century or the United States in the 21st. The sovereignty of the people is inadequately manifested by the legislature, which allows for the usurpation of its “kingdom” by the “government” of the executive, and the collapse of what Agamben calls in theology “the providential machine.”

My hat is off to translators Chiesa and Mandarini, not only for making Agamben intelligible in English, and for keeping track of the various linguistic registers among which he navigates, but for introducing me to two English words. In the course of reading this book, I learned tralatitious (152) and epenetic (246). Also, I forgive them for using mythologeme in lieu of mytheme (106).

Consistent with my prior reading of Agamben, I found this book difficult and rewarding.