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Stanford University Press
The Man Without Content / Edition 1

The Man Without Content / Edition 1

by Giorgio Agamben, Georgia Albert


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In this book, one of Italy's most important and original contemporary philosophers considers the status of art in the modern era. He takes seriously Hegel's claim that art has exhausted its spiritual vocation, that it is no longer through art that Spirit principally comes to knowledge of itself. He argues, however, that Hegel by no means proclaimed the "death of art" (as many still imagine) but proclaimed rather the indefinite continuation of art in what Hegel called a "self-annulling" mode.
With astonishing breadth and originality, the author probes the meaning, aesthetics, and historical consequences of that self-annulment. In essence, he argues that the birth of modern aesthetics is the result of a series of schisms—between artist and spectator, genius and taste, and form and matter, for example—that are manifestations of the deeper, self-negating yet self-perpetuating movement of irony.
Through this concept of self-annulment, the author offers an imaginative reinterpretation of the history of aesthetic theory from Kant to Heidegger, and he opens up original perspectives on such phenomena as the rise of the modern museum, the link between art and terror, the natural affinity between "good taste" and its perversion, and kitsch as the inevitable destiny of art in the modern era. The final chapter offers a dazzling interpretation of Dürer's Melancholia in the terms that the book has articulated as its own.
The Man Without Content will naturally interest those who already prize Agamben's work, but it will also make his name relevant to a whole new audience—those involved with art, art history, the history of aesthetics, and popular culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804735544
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 06/01/1999
Series: Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 148
Sales rank: 1,193,697
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Giorgio Agamben is the author of more than fifteen books on topics ranging from aesthetics to poetics, ontology to political philosophy. He is best known for his Homo Sacer series. He recently retired from the Università Iuav di Venezia.

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By Giorgio Agamben

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 1999 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-3554-4

Chapter One

The Most Uncanny Thing

In the third essay of the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche subjects the Kantian definition of the beautiful as disinterested pleasure to a radical critique:

Kant thought he was honoring art when among the predicates of beauty he emphasized and gave prominence to those which established the honor of knowledge: impersonality and universality. This is not the place to inquire whether this was essentially a mistake; all I wish to underline is that Kant, like all philosophers, instead of envisaging the aesthetic problem from the point of view of the artist (the creator), considered art and the beautiful purely from that of the "spectator," and unconsciously introduced the "spectator" into the concept "beautiful." It would not have been so bad if this "spectator" had at least been sufficiently familiar to the philosophers of beauty—namely, as a great personal fact and experience, as an abundance of vivid authentic experiences, desires, surprises, and delights in the realm of the beautiful! But I fear that the reverse has always been the case; and so they have offered us, from the beginning, definitions in which, as in Kant's famous definition of the beautiful, a lack of any refined first-hand experience reposes in the shape of a fat worm of error. "That is beautiful," said Kant, "which gives us pleasure without interest." Without interest! Compare with this definition one framed by a genuine "spectator" and artist—Stendhal, who once called the beautiful une promesse de bonheur. At any rate he rejected and repudiated the one point about the aesthetic condition which Kant had stressed: le désinteressement. Who is right, Kant or Stendhal?

If our aestheticians never weary of asserting in Kant's favor that, under the spell of beauty, one can even view undraped female statues "without interest," one may laugh a little at their expense: the experiences of artists on this ticklish point are more "interesting," and Pygmalion was in any event not necessarily an "unaesthetic man."

The experience of art that is described in these words is in no way an aesthetics for Nietzsche. On the contrary: the point is precisely to purify the concept of "beauty" by filtering out the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the sensory involvement of the spectator, and thus to consider art from the point of view of its creator. This purification takes place as a reversal of the traditional perspective on the work of art: the aesthetic dimension—the sensible apprehension of the beautiful object on the part of the spectator—is replaced by the creative experience of the artist who sees in his work only une promesse de bonheur, a promise of happiness. Having reached the furthest limit of its destiny in the "hour of the shortest shadow," art leaves behind the neutral horizon of the aesthetic and recognizes itself in the "golden ball" of the will to power. Pygmalion, the sculptor who becomes so enamored of his creation as to wish that it belonged no longer to art but to life, is the symbol of this turn from the idea of disinterested beauty as a denominator of art to the idea of happiness, that is, of an unlimited growth and strengthening of the vital values, while the focal point of the reflection on art moves from the disinterested spectator to the interested artist.

In foreseeing this change, Nietzsche was a good prophet as usual. If one compares what he writes in the third essay of the Genealogy of Morals with the terms Antonin Artaud uses in the preface to Theater and Its Double to describe the agony of Western culture, one notices, precisely on this point, a surprising agreement in their views. "It is our occidental idea of art that has caused us to lose culture.... To our inert and disinterested idea of art an authentic culture opposes a violently egoistic and magical, i.e., interested idea." In a sense, the idea that art is not a disinterested experience was perfectly familiar in other eras. When Artaud, in "Theater and Plague," remembers the decree issued by Scipio Nasica, the grand pontiff who had the Roman theaters razed, and the fury with which Saint Augustine attacks the "scenic games," responsible for the death of the soul, one can hear in his words the nostalgia that a soul such as his, who thought that theater drew its only worth "from an excruciating magical relation to reality and danger," must have felt for a time that had such a concrete and interested notion of the theater as to deem it necessary to destroy it for the health of soul and city. It is no doubt superfluous to note that today it would be impossible to find such ideas even among censors. However, it may be useful to point out that the first time that something similar to an autonomous examination of the aesthetic phenomenon appears in European medieval society, it takes the form of aversion and repugnance toward art, in the instructions given by those bishops who, faced with the musical innovations of the ars nova, prohibited the modulation of the song and the fractio vocis during the religious services because they distracted the faithful with their charm. Thus, among the statements in favor of interested art, Nietzsche might have cited a passage in Plato's Republic that is often invoked when speaking about art, even though this has not made the paradoxical attitude that is expressed there any less scandalous to the modern ear. Plato, as is well known, sees the poet as a danger and a cause of ruin for the city:

If a man who was capable by his cunning of assuming every kind of shape and imitating all things should arrive in our city, bringing with himself the poems which he wished to exhibit, we should fall down and worship him as a holy and wondrous and delightful creature, but should say to him that there is no man of that kind among us in our city, nor is it lawful for such a man to arise among us, and we should send him away to another city, after pouring myrrh down over his head and crowning him with fillets of wood.

"We can admit no poetry into our city," adds Plato with an expression that shocks our aesthetic sensibility, "save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men."

Even before Plato, however, a condemnation of art, or at least a suspicious stance toward it, had already been expressed in the words of a poet, namely Sophocles, at the end of the first stasimon of his Antigone. After characterizing man, insofar as he is the one who has [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (that is, in the broad meaning the Greeks gave this term, the ability to pro-duce, to bring a thing from nonbeing into being), as the most uncanny thing there is, the chorus continues by saying that this power can lead to happiness as easily as to ruin, and concludes with a wish that recalls the Platonic ban on poets: "Not by my fire, / never to share my thoughts, who does these things."

Edgar Wind has observed that the reason why Plato's statement is so surprising to us is that art does not exert the same influence on us as it did on him. Only because art has left the sphere of interest to become merely interesting do we welcome it so warmly. In a draft of The Man Without Qualities that Robert Musil wrote at a time when the definitive design of his novel was not yet clear in his mind, Ulrich (who still appears with his earlier name, Anders) enters the room where Agathe is playing the piano and feels an obscure and irresistible impulse that drives him to fire some gun shots at the instrument that is diffusing through the house such a "desolatingly" beautiful harmony. As for us, however, it is likely that if we attempted to go to the bottom of the peaceful contemplation that we, unlike Ulrich, usually reserve for works of art, we would eventually find ourselves in agreement with Nietzsche, who thought that his time had no right to answer Plato's question about art's moral influence, since "even if we had the art—where do we see the influence, any influence from art?" Plato, and Greek classical antiquity in general, had a very different experience of art, an experience having little to do with disinterest and aesthetic enjoyment. The power of art over the soul seemed to him so great that he thought it could by itself destroy the very foundations of his city; but nonetheless, while he was forced to banish it, he did so reluctantly, "since we ourselves are very conscious of her spell." The term he uses when he wants to define the effects of inspired imagination is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "divine terror," a term that we, benevolent spectators, no doubt find inappropriate to define our reactions, but that nevertheless is found with increasing frequency, after a certain time, in the notes in which modern artists attempt to capture their experience of art.

It appears, in fact, that simultaneously with the process through which the spectator insinuates himself into the concept of "art," confining it to the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the heavenly place, of aesthetics, we see the opposite process taking place from the point of view of the artist. For the one who creates it, art becomes an increasingly uncanny experience, with respect to which speaking of interest is at the very least a euphemism, because what is at stake seems to be not in any way the production of a beautiful work but instead the life and death of the author, or at least his or her spiritual health. To the increasing innocence of the spectator's experience in front of the beautiful object corresponds the increasing danger inherent in the artist's experience, for whom art's promesse de bonheur becomes the poison that contaminates and destroys his existence. The idea that extreme risk is implicit in the artist's activity begins to gain currency, almost as though—so thought Baudelaire—it were a sort of duel to the death "où l'artiste crie de frayeur avant d'être vaincu" ("where the artist cries out in fright before being defeated"); and to prove how little this idea is merely one metaphor among those forming the "properties" of the "literary histrio," it suffices to quote what Hölderlin wrote on the brink of madness: "I fear that I might end like the old Tantalus who received more from the Gods than he could take," and "I may say that Apollo struck me." Or the note found in Van Gogh's pocket on the day of his death: "Well, as for my own work, I risk my life in it and my sanity has already half melted away in it." Or Rilke, in a letter to Clara Rilke: "Works of art are always the product of a risk one has run, of an experience taken to its extreme limit, to the point where man can no longer go on."

Another notion that we encounter more and more frequently in artists' opinions is that art is something fundamentally dangerous not only for the one who produces it but for society as well. Hölderlin, in the notes in which he attempts to condense the meaning of his unfinished tragedy, finds a close connection, almost a unity, between the principle of the Agrigentans' anarchic unbridledness and Empedocles' titanic poetry; and he appears, in a projected hymn, to consider art the essential cause that led to the ruin of Greece:

for they wanted to found a kingdom of art. But they missed the national [das Vaterländische] in the attempt and wretchedly Greece, the highest beauty, was ruined.

And it is likely that in all of modern literature neither Monsieur Teste, nor Werf Rönne, nor Adrian Leverkühn would disagree with him, but only a character with such seemingly hopeless bad taste as Romain Rolland's Jean Christophe.

Everything, then, leads one to think that if today we gave the artists themselves the task of judging whether art should be allowed in the city, they would judge from their own experience and agree with Plato on the necessity of banishing it. If this is true, then the entrance of art into the aesthetic dimension—and the understanding of it starting from the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of the spectator—is not as innocent and natural a phenomenon as we commonly think. Perhaps nothing is more urgent—if we really want to engage the problem of art in our time—than a destruction of aesthetics that would, by clearing away what is usually taken for granted, allow us to bring into question the very meaning of aesthetics as the science of the work of art. The question, however, is whether the time is ripe for such a destruction, or whether instead the consequence of such an act would not be the loss of any possible horizon for the understanding of the work of art and the creation of an abyss in front of it that could only be crossed with a radical leap. But perhaps just such a loss and such an abyss are what we most need if we want the work of art to reacquire its original stature. And if it is true that the fundamental architectural problem becomes visible only in the house ravaged by fire, then perhaps we are today in a privileged position to understand the authentic significance of the Western aesthetic project.

Fourteen years before Nietzsche published the third essay of the Genealogy of Morals, a poet, whose word remains inscribed like a Medusa's head in the destiny of Western art, had asked poetry neither to produce beautiful works nor to respond to a disinterested aesthetic ideal, but to change man's life and reopen the gates of Eden for him. In this experience, in which la magique étude du bonheur (the magical study of happiness) obscures all other design to the point of becoming the sole fatality of poetry and life, Rimbaud had encountered Terror. Thus the "embarkation for the island of Cythera" of modern art was to lead the artist not to the promised happiness but to a competition with the Most Uncanny, with the divine terror that had driven Plato to banish the poets from his city. Only if understood as the final moment of this ongoing process, through which art purifies itself of the spectator to find itself faced by an absolute threat, does Nietzsche's invocation in the preface to the Gay Science acquire all its enigmatic meaning: "Ah, if you could really understand why we of all people need art ...," but "another kind of art ... an art for artists, for artists only!"

Chapter Two

Frenhofer and His Double

How can art, this most innocent of occupations, pit man against Terror? In Les fleurs de Tarbes, Jean Paulhan takes as his premise a fundamental ambiguity in language—namely, the fact that it is constituted on the one hand by signs that are perceived by the senses, and on the other by ideas associated with these signs in such a way as to be immediately evoked by them—and makes a distinction between two kinds of writers. There are the Rhetoricians, who dissolve all meaning into form and make form into the sole law of literature, and the Terrorists, who refuse to bend to this law and instead pursue the opposite dream of a language that would be nothing but meaning, of a thought in whose flame the sign would be fully consumed, putting the writer face to face with the Absolute. The Terrorist is a misologist, and does not recognize in the drop of water that remains on his fingertips the sea in which he thought he had immersed himself; the Rhetorician looks to the words and appears to distrust thought.

That the work of art is something other than what is simple in it is almost too obvious. This is what the Greeks expressed with the concept of allegory: the work of art [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], communicates something else, is something other than the material that contains it. But there are objects—for example, a block of stone, a drop of water, and generally all natural objects—in which form seems to be determined and almost canceled out by matter, and other objects—a vase, a spade, or any other man-made object—in which form seems to be what determines matter. The dream of the Terror is to create works that are in the world in the same way as the block of stone or the drop of water; it is the dream of a product that exists according to the statute of the thing. "Les chefs-d'oeuvres sont bêtes," wrote Flaubert; "ils ont la mine tranquille comme les productions mêmes de la nature, comme les grands animaux et les montagnes" ("Masterpieces are stupid: they have placid faces like the very products of nature, like big animals and mountains"); and Degas, Valéry writes, used to say "C'est plat comme la belle peinture!" ("It's just as dull as beautiful painting!").

The painter Frenhofer, in Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece, is the perfect type of the Terrorist. Frenhofer has attempted for ten years to create on his canvas something that would not be just a work of art, albeit that of a genius; like Pygmalion, he has erased art with art to make out of his Swimmer not an assemblage of signs and colors but the living reality of his thought and his imagination. He tells his two visitors, "My painting [ma peinture] is not a painting, but a feeling, a passion! Born in my studio, it [elle] must remain here as a virgin and not leave if not covered." And later: "You are in front of a woman, and you are looking for a picture. There is such depth on this canvas, its air is so true, that you can't distinguish it from the air that surrounds us. Where is art? Lost, vanished!" But in this quest for absolute meaning, Frenhofer has succeeded only in obscuring his idea and erasing from the canvas any human form, disfiguring it into "a chaos of colors, tones, hesitating nuances, a kind of shapeless fog." In front of this absurd wall of paint, the young Poussin's cry—"but sooner or later he will have to realize that there is nothing on his canvas!"—sounds like an alarm responding to the threat that the Terror starts posing for Western art.


Excerpted from THE MAN WITHOUT CONTENT by Giorgio Agamben Copyright © 1999 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Translator's Note....................xi
§ 1 The Most Uncanny Thing....................1
§ 2 Frenhofer and His Double....................8
§ 3 The Man of Taste and the Dialectic of the Split....................13
§ 4 The Cabinet of Wonder....................28
§ 5 "Les jugements sur la poésie ont plus de valeur que la poésie"....................40
§ 6 A Self-Annihilating Nothing....................52
§ 7 Privation Is Like a Face....................59
§ 8 Poiesis and Praxis....................68
§ 9 The Original Structure of the Work of Art....................94
§ 10 The Melancholy Angel....................104

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