Agamben, Giorgio. The coming community

Agamben, G. (1990) The coming community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

According to Saint Thomas, the punishment of unbaptized children who die with no other fault than original sin cannot be an afflictive punishment, like that hell, but only a punishment of privation that consists in the perpetual lack of the vision of God (Agamben:1993;12)

Perhaps the only way to understand this free use of the self, a way that does not, however, treat existence as a property, is to think of it as a habitus, an ethos. Being engendered from one’s own manner of being is, in effect, the very definition of habit (this is why the Greeks spoke of a second nature): That manner is ethical that does not befall us and does not found us but engender us. And this being engendered from one’s own manner is the only happiness really possible for humans. (Agamben:1993;36)

Only a power that is capable of both power and impotence, then, is the supreme power. If every power is equally the power to be and the power to not-be, the passage to action can only come about by transporting (Aristotle says “saving”) in the act its own power to not-be. This means that, even though every pianist necessarily has the potential to play and the potential to not-play, Glenn Gould is, however, the only one who can not not-play, and, directing his potentiality not only to the act but to his own impotence, he plays, so to speak, with his potential to not-play, his mastery conserves and exercises in the act not his potential to play (this is the position of irony that affirms the superiority of the positive potentiality over the act), but rather his potential to not-play. (Agamben:1993;43)

Thanks to this potentiality to not think, thought can turn back to itself (to its pure potentiality) and be, at its apex, the thought of thought. What it thinks here, however, is not an object, a being-in-act, but that layer of wax, that rasum tabulae that is nothing but its own passivity, its own pure potenciality (to not-think): In the potentiality that thinks itself, action and passion coincide and the writing tablet writes by itself or, rather, writes its own passivity. (Agamben:1993;44)

Bartleby, a scribe who does not simply cease writing bu “prefers not to,” is the extreme image of this angel that writes nothing but its potentiality to not-write. (Agamben:1993;44)

THE FACT that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize. This is the only reason why something like ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were of had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible -there would be only tasks to be done. (Agamben:1993;50)

This is why ethics has no room for repentance; this is why the only ethical experience (which, as such, cannot be a task or a subjective decision) is the experience of being (one’s own) potentiality, of being (one’s own) possibility -exposing, that is en every form one’s own amorphousness and in every act one’s own inactuality.

The only evil consists instead in the decision to remain in a deficit of existence, to appropriate the power to not-be as a substance and a foundation beyond existence; or rather (and this is the destiny of morality), to regard potentiality itself, which is the most proper mode of human existence, as a fault that must always be repressed. (Agamben:1993;51)

In the 1920s when the process of capitalist commodification began to invest the human body, observers who were by no means favorable to the phenomenon could not help but notice a positive aspect to it, as if they were confronted with the corrupt text of a prophecy that went beyond the limits of the capitalist mode of production and were faced with the task of deciphering it. This is what gave rise to Siegfried Kracauer’s observations on the “girls” and Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the decay of the aura.” (Agamben:1993;54)

The epochal process of emancipation of the human body from its theological foundations was thus accomplished in the dances of the “girls”, in the advertising images, and in the gait of fashion models. This process had already been imposed at and industrial level when, at the beginning of the nibeteenth century, the invention of lithography and photography encouraged the inexpensive distribution of pornographic images: Neither generic nor individual, neither an image of the divinity nor an animal form, the body now became something truly whatever. (Agamben:1993;55)

In a certain sense, the process of emancipation is as old as the invention of the arts. From the instant that a hand drew or sculpted the human figure for the first time, Pygmalion’s dream was already there to guide it: to form not simply an image of the loved body, but another body in that image, shattering the organic barrier that obstructs the unconditioned human claim to happiness. (Agamben:1993;56)

What was technologized was not the body, but its image. Thus the glorious body of advertising has become the mask behind which the fragile, slight human body continues its precarious existence, and the geometrical splendor of the “girls” covers over the long lines of the naked, anonymous bodies led to their death in the Lagers (camps), or the thousand of corpses mangled in the daily slaughter on the highways.

To appropiate the historic transformations of human nature that capitalism wants to limit to spectacle, to link together image and body in a space where they can no longer be separated, and thus to forge the whatever body, whose physis is resemblance -this is the good that humanity must learn how to wrest from commodities in their decline. Advertising and pornography, which escort the commodity to the grave like hired mourners, are the unknowing midwives of this new body of humanity. (Agamben:1993:57)

“A rabbi, a real cabalist, once said that in order to establish the reign of peace it is not necessary to destroy everything  nor to begin a completely new world. It is sufficient to displace this cup or this bush or this stone just a little, and thus everything. But this small displacement is so difficult to achieve and its measure is so difficult to find that, with regard to the world, humans are incapable of it and it is necessary that tha Messiah come”. (Agamben:1993;60)

EVERY LAMENT is always a lament for language, just as all praise is principally praise of the name. These are the extremes that define the domain and the scope of human language, its way of referring to things. Lament arises when nature feels betrayed by meaning; when the name perfectly says the thing, language culminates in the song of praise, in the sanctification of the name. (Agamben:1993;66)

Russell linked these properties (and the pseudoclasses that derive from them) with those in whose definition appear the “apparent variables” constituted by the terms “all”, “every” and “any”. The classes that arise from these expressions are “illegitimate totalities,” which pretend to be part of the totality they define (something like a concept that demands to be part of its own extension). (Agamben:1993;79)

According to the formulation of Meister Eckhart, “If the form (species) or image by which a thing is seen and known were other than the thing itself, we would never be able to know the thing either through it or in it. But if the form or image were completely indistinct from the thing, it would be useless for knowledge… If the form that is in the soul had the nature of an object, then we would not know through in the thing of which it is the form, because is it itself were an object it would lead us to the knowledge of itself and it would divert us from the knowledge of the thing.” (In other words, in the terms that interest us here, if the world through which a thing is expressed were either something other than the thing itself of identical to it, then it would not be able to express the thing.) (Agamben:1993;81)

When GUY Debord publishes Society of the Spectacle in November 1967, the transformation of politics and of all social life into a spectacular phantasmagoria had not yet reched the extreme form that today has become perfectly familiar. This fact makes the implacable lucidity of his diagnosis all the more remarkable. (Agamben:1993;86)

Capitalism in its final form, he argued -radicalizing the Marxian analysis of the fetishistic character of commodities, which was foolishly neglected in those years -present itself as an inmense accumulation of spectacles, in which all that was directly lived is distanced in a representation. The spectacle does not simply coincide, however, with the sphere of images or with that we call today the media: It is “a social relation among people, mediated by images,” the expropiation and the alienation of human sociality itself. (Agamben:1993;86)

When the real world is transformed into an image and image becomes real, the practical power of humans is separated from itself and presented as a world unto itself. In the figure of this world separated and organized by the media, in which the forms  of the State and the economy are interwoven, the mercantile economy attains the status of absolute and irresponsible sovereignty over all social life. After having falsified all of production, it can now manipulate collective perception and take control of social memory and social communication, transforming them into a single spectacular commodity where everything can be called into question except the spectacle itself, which, as such, says nothing but, “What appears is good, what is good appears.” (Agamben:1993;87)

…a fuller Marxian analysis should deal with the fact that capitalism (or any other name one wants to give the process that today dominates world history) was directed not only toward the expropriation of productive activity, but also and principally toward the alienation of language itself, of the very linguistic and communicative nature of humans, of that logos which one of Heraclitus’s fragments identified as the Common. The extreme form of this expropiation of the Common is the spectacle, that is, the politics we live in. But this also means that in the spectacle our own linguistic nature comes back to is inverted. This is why (precisely because what is being expropiated is the very posiibility of a common good) the violence of the spectacle is so destructive; but for the same reason the spectacle retains something like a positive possibility that can be used against it. (Agamben:1993;87)