Encompassing a wide range of subjects, the ten masterful essays gathered here may at first appear unrelated to one another. In truth, Giorgio Agamben's latest book is a mosaic of his most pressing concerns. Take a step backward after reading it from cover to cover, and a world of secret affinities between the chapters slowly comes into focus. Take another step back, and it becomes another indispensable piece of the finely nuanced philosophy that Agamben has been patiently constructing over four decades of sustained research.
If nudity is unconcealment, or the absence of all veils, then Nudities is a series of apertures onto truth. A guiding thread of this collectionweaving together the prophet's work of redemption, the glorious bodies of the resurrected, the celebration of the Sabbath, and the specters that stroll the streets of Veniceis inoperativity, or the cessation of work. The term should not be understood as laziness or inertia, but rather as the paradigm of human action in the politics to come. Itself the result of inoperativity, Nudities shuttles between philosophy and poetry, philological erudition and unexpected digression, metaphysical treatise and critique of modern life. And whether the subject at hand is personal identity or the biometric apparatus, the slanderer or the land surveyor, Kafka or Kleist, every page bears the singular imprint of one of the most astute philosophers of our time.
About the Author
Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher and radical political theorist, is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Venice. Stanford University Press has published seven of his previous books: Homo Sacer (1998), Potentialities (1999), The Man Without Content (1999), The End of the Poem (1999), The Open (2004), The Time that Remains (2005), and, most recently, "What is an Apparatus?" and Other Essays(2009).
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By Giorgio Agamben, David Kishik, Stefan Pedatella
Stanford University PressCopyright © 2009 Nottetempo SRL
All rights reserved.
§ 1 Creation and Salvation
1. Prophets disappear early on in Western history. If it is true that Judaism cannot be understood without the figure of the nabi, if the prophetic books occupy, in every sense, a central place in the Bible, it is just as true that early on there are already forces at work within Judaism that tend to limit the practice and the time frame of prophetism. The rabbinical tradition therefore tends to confine prophetism to an idealized past that concludes with the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BC. As the rabbis teach, "After the death of the last prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—the holy spirit departed from Israel, though heavenly messages continue to reach them through the bat kol" (literally, "the voice's daughter," that is, the oral tradition, as well as the commentary on, and interpretation of, the Torah). In the same way, Christianity recognizes the essential function of prophecy and, indeed, constructs the relationship between the Old and New Testaments in prophetic terms. But inasmuch as the Messiah appeared on earth and fulfilled the promise, the prophet no longer has any reason to exist, and so Paul, Peter, and their companions present themselves as apostles (that is, "those who are sent forth"), never as prophets. For this reason, within the Christian tradition, those who claim to be prophets cannot but be looked upon by the orthodoxy with suspicion. In this vein, those who wish to somehow link themselves to prophecy can do so only through the interpretation of the Scriptures, by reading them in a new way, or restoring their lost original meaning. In Judaism as in Christianity, hermeneutics has replaced prophetism; one can practice prophecy only in the form of interpretation.
Naturally, the prophet has not altogether disappeared from Western culture. He continues his labor discretely, under various guises, perhaps even outside the hermeneutical sphere properly understood. And so Aby Warburg classified Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt as two opposing types of nabi: the former directed toward the future, the latter toward the past. Similarly, Michel Foucault, in his lecture from February 1, 1984, at the Collège de France, distinguished between four figures of truth-tellers in the ancient world: the prophet, the sage, the expert, and the parrhesiast. In the subsequent lecture he sought to retrace their descendants in the history of modern philosophy. But it still remains the case that, generally speaking, no one would feel immediately comfortable today claiming the position of prophet.
2. It is well known that in Islam the prophet performs possibly an even more essential function. Not only the usual biblical prophets, but also Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are defined in Islam as prophets. Nevertheless, even in this tradition, Muhammad, the prophet par excellence, is considered the "seal of prophecy," he who has definitively closed with his book the history of prophetism (which continues secretly even here through commentary on, and interpretation of, the Koran).
It is significant, however, that the Islamic tradition inextricably links the figure and function of the prophet to one of the two works or actions of God. According to this doctrine there are two different kinds of work or praxis (sunnah): the work of creation and the work of salvation (or the Command). Prophets correspond to the latter; they function as mediators for eschatological salvation. Angels correspond to the former; they represent the work of creation (of which Iblis—the angel who had been originally entrusted with the earthly kingdom before refusing to worship Adam—is the cipher). "God," Shahrastani writes, "has two kinds of work or praxis: one has to do with his creation, the other with his Command.... Prophets function as mediators who affirm the work of the Command, while angels function as mediators who affirm the work of creation. And since the Command is nobler than creation, the mediator of the Command [that is, the prophet] is nobler than the mediator of creation."
In Christian theology the two works, united in God, are assigned to two different figures in the Trinity: the Father and the Son, the omnipotent creator and the redeemer, into whom God emptied his force. What is decisive in the Islamic tradition, however, is that the status of redemption precedes the status of creation, that what seems to follow is actually anterior. Salvation is not a remedy for the Fall of created beings but rather that which makes creation comprehensible, what gives it its sense. For this reason, in Islam the light of the prophet is considered the first among all beings (just as in the Jewish tradition the name of the Messiah was created before the creation of the world, and in Christianity the Son—though born from the Father—is consubstantial and coeval with him). Nothing expresses the priority of the work of salvation over that of creation better than the fact that salvation is presented as an exigent demand for reparation, one that precedes the appearance of any wrongdoing in the created world. "When God created the angels," recites a hadith, "they raised their heads toward heaven and asked: 'Lord, who are you with?' He responded: 'I am with those who are victims of injustice, until their rights are restored.'"
3. Scholars have examined the meaning of the two works of God, which appear together in only one verse of the Koran ("To Him belong the creation and the Command" [7: 54]). According to some interpreters, the verse treats the intimate contradiction that opposes a creator God with a savior God in monotheistic religions (or, in Gnostic and Marcionite versions, which accentuate the opposition, a malicious Demiurge, creator of the world, in contrast with a God who is alien to the world, and from whom proceeds redemption and salvation). Whatever the origin of the two works may be, it is certain that not only in Islam do creation and salvation establish the two poles of divine action. And if it is true that God is the place where humans think through their decisive problems, then these are also the two poles of human action.
All the more interesting, then, is the relationship that ties the two works together: they are distinct and even oppose one another, but they are nevertheless inextricable. Those who act and produce must also save and redeem their creation. It is not enough to do; one must know how to save that which one has done. In fact, the task of salvation precedes the task of creation; it is almost as if the only legitimization for doing and producing were the capacity to redeem that which has been done and produced.
What is truly singular in every human existence is the silent and impervious intertwining of the two works, the extremely close and yet disjointed proceeding of the prophetic word and the creative word, of the power of the angel (with which we never cease producing and looking ahead) and the power of the prophet (that just as tirelessly retrieves, undoes, and arrests the progress of creation and in this way completes and redeems it). And just as singular is the time that ties the two works together, the rhythm according to which creation precedes redemption but in reality follows it, as redemption follows creation but in truth precedes it.
4. In both Islam and Judaism, the work of salvation—though it precedes the work of creation in its degree of importance—is entrusted to a created being: the prophet or the Messiah (in Christianity, this idea is attested to by the fact that the Son, although consubstantial with the Father, was generated, though not created, by him). The above-cited passage from Shahrastani continues, as a matter of fact, with these words: "And this is worthy of marvel: that the spiritual beings [the angels], though proceeding directly from the Command, have become mediators of creation, while the corporeal, created beings [the prophets] have become mediators of the Command." What is indeed marvelous here is that the redemption of creation is entrusted not to the creator (nor to the angels, who proceed directly from the creative power) but to a created being. This means that creation and salvation remain somehow foreign to one another, that it is not the principle of creation within us that will be able to save what we have produced. Nevertheless, that which can and must save the work of creation results and arises from it. That which precedes in rank and dignity derives from that which is its inferior.
This means that what will save the world is not the spiritual, angelic power (a power that is, in the final analysis, demonic), with which humans produce their works (whether they be technical or artistic works, works of war or peace), but a more humble and corporeal power, which humans have insofar as they are created beings. But this also means that the two powers somehow coincide in the prophet, that the custodian of the work of salvation belongs, as far as his being is concerned, to creation.
5 . In modern culture philosophy and criticism have inherited the prophetic work of salvation (that formerly, in the sacred sphere, had been entrusted to exegesis); poetry, technology, and art are the inheritors of the angelic work of creation. Through the process of secularization of the religious tradition, however, these disciplines have progressively lost all memory of the relationship that had previously linked them so intimately to one another. Hence the complicated and almost schizophrenic character that seems to mark this relationship. Once, the poet knew how to account for his poetry ("To open it through prose," as Dante puts it), and the critic was also a poet. Now, the critic has lost access to the work of creation and thus gets revenge by presuming to judge it, while the poet no longer knows how to save his own work and thus discounts this incapacity by blindly consigning himself to the frivolity of the angel. The fact is that these two works—which appear autonomous and independent of one another—are in reality two faces of the same divine power, and they coincide, at least as far as the prophet is concerned, within a single being. The work of creation is, in truth, only a spark that has detached itself from the prophetic work of salvation, and the work of salvation is only a fragment of the angelic creation that has become conscious of itself. The prophet is an angel who, in the very impulse that spurs him into action, suddenly feels in his living flesh the thorn of a different exigency. This is why the ancient biographies tell us that Plato was originally a tragic poet who, while heading to the theater to have his trilogy performed, heard Socrates' voice and decided to burn his tragedies.
6. Just as genius and talent—originally distinct and even opposite—are nevertheless united in the work of the poet, so the work of creation and the work of salvation, inasmuch as they represent the two powers of a single God, remain in some way secretly conjoined. What determines the status of the work is, however, once again, not a result of creation and talent but of the signature imprinted on it by genius and by salvation. This signature is style: the counterforce, as it were, that resists and undoes creation from within, the countermelody that silences the inspired angel. Vice versa, in the work of the prophet, style is the signature that creation—in the very act of being saved—leaves on salvation; it is the opacity and almost the insolence with which creation resists its redemption, with which it seeks to remain utterly night, utterly creaturely, and in this way to bestow its tenor on thought.
A critical or philosophical work that does not possess some sort of an essential relationship with creation is condemned to pointless idling, just as a work of art or poetry that does not contain within it a critical exigency is destined for oblivion. Today, however, separated into two different subjects as they are, the two divine sunnah search desperately for a meeting point, for a threshold of indifference, where their lost unity can be rediscovered. They do this by exchanging their roles, which nevertheless remain implacably divided. At the moment when, for the first time, the problem of the separation between poetry and philosophy forcefully emerges in our consciousness, Holderlin describes philosophy (in a letter to Neuffer) as a "hospital in which the unfortunate poet can take refuge with honor." In our day the hospital of philosophy has closed its shutters. Critics, transformed into "curators," heedlessly take the place of artists in order to simulate the work of creation that the latter have abandoned, while artisans, who have become inoperative, dedicate themselves with great zeal to a work of redemption in which there is no longer any work to save. In both cases creation and salvation no longer scratch onto one another the signature of their tenacious, amorous conflict. Unsigned and divided, they place each other in front of a mirror in which they cannot recognize themselves.
7. What is the sense of this division of divine—and human—praxis into two works? If in the final analysis it is true that, despite the difference in their status, the mutual roots of the two works seem to stem from a common terrain or substance, what does their unity consist of? Perhaps the only way to lead them back once again to their common root is by thinking of the work of salvation as that aspect of the power to create that was left unpracticed by the angel and thus can turn back on itself. Just as potentiality anticipates the act and exceeds it, so the work of redemption precedes that of creation. Nevertheless, redemption is nothing other than a potentiality to create that remains pending, that turns on itself and "saves" itself. But what is the meaning of "saving" in this context? After all, there is nothing in creation that is not ultimately destined to be lost: not only the part of each and every moment that must be lost and forgotten—the daily squandering of tiny gestures, of minute sensations, of that which passes through the mind in a flash, of trite and wasted words, all of which exceed by great measure the mercy of memory and the archive of redemption—but also the works of art and ingenuity, the fruits of a long and patient labor that, sooner or later, are condemned to disappear.
It is over this immemorial mass, over the unformed and immense chaos of what must be lost that, according to the Islamic tradition, Iblis, the angel that has eyes only for the work of creation, cries incessantly. He cries because he does not know that what one loses actually belongs to God, that when all the work of creation has been forgotten, when all signs and words have become illegible, only the work of salvation will remain indelible.
8. What is a "saved" potentiality, this power to do (and to not do) that does not simply pass into actuality, so as to exhaust itself in it, but rather conserves itself and dwells (it is "saved") as such within the work? The work of salvation coincides here point for point with the work of creation: the former undoes and decreates the latter at the very same moment it carries and accompanies it into being. There is neither gesture nor word, neither color nor timbre, neither desire nor gaze that salvation does not suspend and render inoperative in its amorous struggle with the work. That which the angel forms, produces, and caresses, the prophet brings back to an unformed state and contemplates. His eyes observe that which is saved but only inasmuch as it will be lost on the last day. And just as a loved one is all of a sudden present in our memory, but only on the condition that he or she is disembodied and turned into an image, so the work of creation is now intimately meshed in every last detail with nonbeing.
But what, then, is saved here, exactly? Not the created being, because it is lost, because it cannot but be lost. Not the potentiality, because it has no consistency other than the decreation of the work. Instead, the created being and the potentiality now enter into a threshold in which they can no longer be in any way distinguished from one another. This means that the ultimate figure of human and divine action appears where creation and salvation coincide in the unsavable. This coincidence can be achieved only if the prophet has nothing to save and the angel has nothing else to do. Unsavable, therefore, is that work in which creation and salvation, action and contemplation, operation and inoperativity [inoperosità] persist in every moment and, without leaving any residue, in the same being (and in the same nonbeing). Hence its opaque splendor, which vertiginously distances itself from us like a star that will never return.
9. The crying angel turns itself into a prophet, while the lament of the poet for creation becomes critical prophecy, that is to say, philosophy. But precisely now—when the work of salvation seems to gather within itself as unforgettable everything that is immemorial—even this work is transformed. It remains, of course, because, as opposed to creation, the work of redemption is eternal. To the extent that salvation has survived creation, its exigency is not, however, exhausted in the saved but rather lost in the unsavable. Born from a creation that is left pending, it ends up as an inscrutable salvation that no longer has an objective.
Excerpted from NUDITIES by Giorgio Agamben, David Kishik, Stefan Pedatella. Copyright © 2009 Nottetempo SRL. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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Table of Contents
Translators' Note ix
1 Creation and Salvation 1
2 What Is the Contemporary" 10
3 K. 20
4 On the Uses and Disadvantages of Living among Specters 37
5 On What We Can Not Do 43
6 Identity without the Person 46
7 Nudity 55
8 The Glorious Body 91
9 Hunger of an Ox 104
10 The Last Chapter in the History of the World 113