In my July 17 post, I attempted to sketch Walter Benjamin's understanding of the significance of apocalyptic thinking, particularly his insights into the bearing of tragedy and aesthetic transformation on a society in crisis (these are developed in his essays of the 1920s and 30s). My hope is that you'll take a look at that post, for Benjamin’s insights are seminal for the thinking of certain forceful and delving later European philosopher; each of them – including Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Slavoj Zizek – is also influenced by the social-political ideals of 1968 and the subsequent disillusionment. These thinkers propose related ideas about how emergency powers exercised in a crisis may be confronted and how their negation of the human may itself be negated and transformed. For each, I would suggest, the consciousness enacted in tragedy offers a model of that strategy.
I want to explore the example of this conception offered by Giorgio Agamben and his thinking about the confrontation with a world of continual emergency, with its threatened erasure of human potentiality. The Italian philosopher has profoundly influenced the well-known critiques of twenty-first century American globalism, particularly the critique by Hardt and Negri in their discussions of the “multitude's” potential response to “empire.” Agamben's analysis of how to engage the current conditions of crisis, as society increasingly manipulates the spectacle of emergency powers in the spheres both of policing and of economics, contains crucial and suggestive echoes of Benjamin’s ideas.
In Homo Sacer, for example, Agamben locates the threat arising from the possibility that for “modern man,” “politics calls his existence as a living being into question.” When modern society decides that human life can be only selectively honored, individuals and groups can be excepted from the world of law and rights, abandoned – as “bare life” or homo sacer – to the zone of exception, where some may be put to death. As modern democracies have descended into the crisis of recent years and have invoked the specter of emergency powers, these “post-democratic spectacular societies [i.e., image-saturated and dominated]” are all too ready to call into question the value of all individual “bare lives.” For Agamben, the abandonment and alienation of the human stir – in both the victim and the witness – an ultimately tragic awareness that the human must be more than “the perfect senselessness to which the society of the spectacle condemns it.” [See this link to Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics).]
That awareness, Agamben writes in The Coming Community, perceives and exposes a “limbo” or zone of “abandonment” in which identity is expropriated; a resulting “isolation from being” prevails within our experience of the image realm and within the “consumerism” of “the society of the spectacle.” The means to overcome the resulting “nothingness of all things,” the “alienation” of experience and of language, is a sort of breaking of ranks, a breaking ideally toward the transcendent “appropriation” of infinite “potentiality.” For Agamben, an ecstasy of unexpected and unmapped possibility is released by this opening up to being, latent in the zone of nothingness.
The “coming community” he elucidates is a sharing and building upon a sort of ecstatic refusal and negating of society’s own spectacular negations (that is, in part, the negations of the spirit at work in the media spectacle in contemporary society). Agamben’s thinking develops Benjamin’s conception and even exceeds it with regard both to the use of spatial thinking and, more important, to the role of hope. At the core of the aesthetic and ethical form of tragedy for Benjamin is the hope that the zone of nothingness can be a font of “potentiality” (Agamben’s Potentialities contains a lengthy discussion of Benjamin’s concept of hope). From this model, the Italian philosopher builds an entire vision of community. In this, he is joined by Blanchot, Nancy, and Rancière, and their thinking forms a sort of conversation dedicated to the aspiration that community can be based on a resilient responsiveness and refusal in the face of the state of emergency. (Here's a link to Agamben's Coming Community (Theory Out Of Bounds) and to his Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy.)
In order to create “the coming community,” Agamben proposes that human beings must ideally enter into alternative relations to each other and to the world. This community embodies a utopian hope; it would be based on a welcoming of the flux of experience, of all the transcendent potential it contains without concern for “the marks of individual possession.” In such a fluidly creative communality, the shape-shifting, off-beat improvisations and destabilizations of “tricksters and fakes” would make them “exemplars of the coming community.” They are able to confront the nothingness of being at the frozen core of emergency powers by dodging fluidly from possibility to possibility, potentially “being” each of them.
In a recent on-line essay, he speaks of the European Union’s open borders as an opportunity for just such fluidity and for redefining citizenship as a sort of fluid state of exile. “The only ethical experience,” Agamben writes in "The Coming Community," is the experience of hesitating before any identity rigidified into a “thing” – it is the experience of opening to freedom, improvisation, and exiled being. Such is “the experience of being potentiality ... of exposing in every form one's own amorphousness and in every act one's inactuality.” Such is our “irreparable” condition, yet it is “without lament,” for it refuses “to remain in a deficit of existence” and in this way escapes what he understands to be the trap of the frozen emergency state.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulate. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]