Giorgio AGAMBEN on biopolitics (the Greek TV interview)

This is the English translation (by Oliver Farry) of an interview given in 2011 by the Italian phliosopher Giorgio Agamben to Akis Gavriilidis for the Greek public TV channel ET3. The video of the interview (with Greek & English subtitles), directed by Yorgos Keramidiotis, can be viewed here. With thanks to Aida Karanxha for the transcription.

Professor Agamben, we are making a documentary on biopolitics and we are speaking to you because you are one of the main exponents interested in this idea that, unless I am mistaken, comes from Foucault but which you have approached somewhat differently. You introduced the idea of the state of exception, of the camp. So what got you interested in biopolitics and what have you brought to it that is different to Foucault or others who have written on it?


The ideas of “biopolitics” and the “state of exception” are of course, for me, linked and that may not have been the case for Foucault. Naturally, the idea came to me from Foucault; I am entirely indebted to him for that. But at the same time I have tried to fuse the problems of biopolitics, namely the fact that life has become a political issue and that biology has become a political issue, with the problem of sovereignty, with the strictly political problem of sovereignty. But this is also why it appeared necessary to me to tie the political issues to those of the state of exception, which has perhaps become the paradigm. You might call it, in your beautiful Greek language, the “νόμος” of modernity.


So what I tried to show in my research was that the state of exception which was originally conceived as a provisional measure, intended to deal with a temporary emergence, has become the norm, the technical norm of governments. And I think that we cannot understand the political life of our nominally democratic societies today if we do not realise what Benjamin had already grasped in 1940 –– that the state of exception has become the rule.


This had, of course, all started with the First World War, but the states of exception were linked to a state of war, so it was different. And one cannot understand what happened in Germany in the 1930s under the Nazi regime if one fails to remember that Hitler, as soon as he came to power in 1933, immediately declared a state of exception, which was never revoked. It then lasted twelve years. So the Nazi regime was a state of exception that lasted twelve years and that explains what happened, how these things could come about. But today it is different again; I think we have reached today a later development of this paradigm, in the sense that the state of exception has spread on a world scale, and so no longer needs to be declared. It is a normal situation that changes all the concepts of politics, because once the state of exception becomes the rule and international law, domestic rights change completely.


For example, if we take here the idea of security, which is much talked about these days, which is almost the watchword for western governments, is an idea that comes form the state of exception, namely “public safety”. But Michel Foucault showed very well what the origin of this notion was; Foucault showed in his lectures that the idea of security was introduced into politics as governing technique by the Physiocratic governments prior to the French Revolution. What was the big problem of the day? The problem was famine. How do you prevent famines from happening? Well they never managed to prevent them, they amassed grain but never managed to prevent famines; and the Physiocrats had this great idea: we’ll stop trying to prevent famines, we will let famines happen, but we will then be prepared, we will be in a position to govern them, to steer them in the right direction and to restore security.


Now, you should never forget that, there are still smart people who believe that the security paradigm aims to foresee acts of terrorism, for example. This is completely untrue, the idea is rather, “we’ll let disasters, emergences occur and we will even help these emergencies to come about because it will allow us to intervene in these emergences and to govern them in the right way.” American policy for the past twenty years has been exactly this: they have never prevented emergences from happening, on the contrary, we will ensure that in some regions emergencies and unrest will occur but we will then take advantage of the situation to steer them in a “safe” direction.


I also remember that in 2001, in Genoa in Italy, there was great unrest at the G8 summit and afterwards there were serious incidents with the police and there was an investigation by judges who questioned a chief of police who was himself angry and he said “the government nowadays no longer wants to maintain order, it just wants to manage disorder.”


You must understand that nowadays the government aims not to maintain order but to manage disorder. And disorder is always there, we see it: crisis, unrest, emergences, the State of Necessity…they are evoked all the time. But then it’s a matter of intervening. That is why today we are seeing very interesting phenomena, what has happened in Greece, after what happened in Tunisia, in Egypt, which are obviously very good things. But we should not forget that the governments they are revolting against know that emergences, disorder can happen and they then try to steer them to manage this unrest in a direction they deem necessary. (9:37)


So this is an idea of strategy, related perhaps to Oriental martial arts? Do you see a link?


I don’t know if there is a relation. Possibly.


In karate, for example, you let your opponent hit you and then you focus.


Absolutely. I don’t know if that is what inspired it. But it is certainly what Foucault demonstrated, it is what had with the Physiocrats already become a technique of government.


This allows us to link this idea of management with the financial crisis. Especially that, with Quesnay and the Physiocrats it concerned the economy, what we call economics. So does this financial crisis also fall under this idea of managing the results of emergences?


Yes, absolutely. First of all, one should never forget the word ‘economics’. What does it mean? In Greek, as you know, the οικο-νομία was the running of the home –– administering the home was a matter of management. Indeed, in any good Greek-English dictionary you will find that “οικονομία” equals “management”. So the economy is always a matter of government; it is about governing goods, people, finances. Economics is always a science of government. One shouldn’t think of it as a science, well it is one but it is a science that is a technique of government. And here, for instance, we see the same paradigms occurring: the permanent crisis is yet another form of that. There is never a normal situation, there is never an “orderly” situation and perhaps a crisis that will happen is like an attempt to avoid one. Crisis has becoming so internalised in the mechanism it is always there. And it is exactly like security. The emergency, the danger, is always there and it is then part of the machine. So, one can say that in the government paradigms that today regulate our countries and our societies, the exception, the emergence, disorder, crises, security, we should stop thinking they are exceptional circumstances; they are in fact the machine’s inner core, its inner mechanisms.


How might one think of a strategy –– if we may use that term –– for those who are subject to this power. Those in power allow incidents to happen and then they manage. So, we who are part of these incidents, what can we do faced with this strategy governments have?


Well it’s not for me to give suggestions. But what I meant was it is clear in the sense that, if the situation is as they say it is, one mustn’t think one can easily play one pole off against another, disorder against order and subversion against power, since we have in front of us governments that already foresee crisis, subversion as a calculated element, which is part of the calculation. So this doesn’t at all render the strategy impossible but we must be a lot more attentive when we lay out a strategy. The strategy should know that opposing it, usually or especially in our countries, are governments that are well able to deal with disorder. Which aim to manage disorder. So the strategy is more complicated.


Yes, so it’s not the abstract law, the abstract rule, that counts, it’s the management…


Nowadays, the answer, the paradigm, is no longer the law, it is management, the measures taken. And that is a big change. The law is of course still there but the management pole, the pole we will forever see depending on the problems or situations, what tools, what norms will be used, what measures will be used… That is why today it is no longer the law but the measure, the emergency measure, decrees, the police, the intervention. That said, I am convinced that the political machine –– and it is perhaps not just political in today’s world –– is always a dual machine, it always has a dual polarity. So when I say that today it is no longer the law that dominates but it is still there. Otherwise we would no longer have any rights, no laws…no, it’s a double paradigm, which has poles, and thus phases: law and management. One might say, using Karl Schmitt’s terminology, “reign” and “government” –– kings reign but don’t govern. Something that has been said a lot, it is very important. It has always been thought, by people who have concerned themselves with political philosophy or political theory, from Rousseau down to the present day, they have always thought that the important thing was the sovereign: the side that reigns. For example, peoples who have democracy are sovereign and they legislate. Then there is the government that used to be called “executive power” and which we thought was, when all is said and done, secondary. Now, that’s absolutely false. We didn’t understand that it’s a dual machine and that today it is rather the “government/executive” pole which dominates over the other. The other is there but all it does is ratify. We see clearly how parliaments –– for example in Italy, it is obvious, but I think it is like that everywhere –– parliaments today simply ratify emergency decrees issued by the government, which are then transformed into laws. But you can see that it is the executive that legislates. But that is something that is not said though everyone knows it, every single legal practitioner knows. But we pretend there is still a sovereign power, a sovereign people and the executive which just executes the will of the people. When the very opposite is true: the people’s representatives are only executing the will of the executive.


But it is the fiction of sovereignty…


But the poles remain dual, which is what I meant. So, one mustn’t think, faced with the state of exception we spoke of, that we can come back to the law. “Well, there was this perversion, but we will restore the law, the rule of law and the norm and we will solve the problems.” I don’t think that is possible because we forget that the machine was a dual machine, that one side did not exist without the other. And so, I don’t think we can come back from the state of exception to a state of law. Because the state of law foresaw the exception as the ultimate core and we see this here very clearly. I talked about what happened in Germany in the 1930s, everything was made possible by the fact that the democratic constitution of Weimar Germany included an article –– article 48 –– which stipulated that the Reichspräsident could suspend the constitution, certain articles of the constitution in the event of an emergency. And so we see the mechanism is there. So, I don’t think we can go back, we have to try to work on both poles, we must deactivate the machine rather than “play” one pole off against the other.


We can’t go back to something known, of course; perhaps we need to invent something new.


This has been going on for nearly a century because it started with the world wars etc. I don’t see how today one can say “but the state of law is still there, we will go back to a healthy constitution”. That never happens… We need, I think, a third party. If the machine in a dual machine, we need a third element. And I think it is like this everywhere. It is not simply the politics, even the culture and philosophy of the West today works always by dichotomy. Even in the ontology: there is meaning and existence. In politics, there is reign and government, rule and exception, constituent power/established power. It is always couples and what happens is people are going to try to game it. When one pole becomes tyrannical, people will turn to the other to play off against it. Tactically, that can be quite useful but it is ultimately futile. What we must do is deactivate the machine, on both poles, and see if a third one, something else, will appear, and break free of this suspended state.


This is why you are somewhat interested in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. I heard you refer in your seminar yesterday to A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze and Guattari tried to erode these binaries. What drew you to A Thousand Plateaus?


I admire Deleuze hugely, of course, but as it happens, in the case you mention, what interested me was I was doing research on the command. What is a command and why do people command? Why is there a command? And I realised, strangely, that this question had never been asked in the history of philosophy; there is nothing, or next to nothing, about it. We had always thought, there is a lot of reflection on obedience, on “why do people obey?”, from de la Béotie’s treatise on obedience onwards and that’s interesting too. But that seems insufficient to me because one cannot explain obedience, one cannot understand obedience, if there is no command. Because there is obedience in the face of the command –– obedience or disobedience. So obedience presupposes commandment. As I said, I was amazed to find there was nothing, almost nothing, on it. But thankfully there was one exception: there is a chapter in A Thousand Plateaus, I don’t know if you remember, it’s the chapter on language as a watchword. And that is exactly it, the idea is limited to the problem of language but it is nonetheless the problem of command, which is to say the command always has a linguistic form. If you must command, you must use the imperative. And what Deleuze says here is very interesting: “We must stop thinking that language aims only to communicate, that language is a system of signs to transmit itself via signifiers and signifieds, to show information and and all that. It is not at all that. Language is only a system of watchwords. It is used only to produce, to circulate commandments. That is exactly my problem.”


And he is right here. For example, it is clear that between “Jean walks” and “Walk, Jean” the apparent semantic content is the same but completely different in a pragmatic context which changes completely. And that is what Deleuze says, that language is the second aspect: language is always orders, commands. And it is this pragmatic side that dominates. I find there is a very interesting reflection there. Because in effect that’s what it is: what is the effectiveness of a command? Why does the command have such force? Even if the only force boils down to the fact that, as linguists say, it presents you with the alternative between obeying and disobeying.


You receive a command, what does that mean? We find ourselves in a new situation: one must either obey or disobey. But even that is already a huge change. This is why –– something I have always tried to understand –– language has this force. This is why I also used Deleuze to try to understand this unique force of language, which, even as it remains an incorporeal thing, can have an affect on the body.



For example, if you think about the law, and it is obvious in the domain of law and religion: in the ancient laws of the Twelve Tables, which is the oldest legal document in ancient Rome, the laws always have this form: “Should someone do this…” and then the imperative: sacer esto. “Should a man kill another another man, parricidas esto”.


Only a formula, therefore only a linguistic formula, an incorporeal one, which will effect huge changes in the body of the subject since the sacred man was someone whom anyone could kill without committing a crime, for example. “Parricidas esto” stipulates a capital punishment and so on. So, it is this power of language –– and Deleuze says this quite clearly –– it is an incorporeal power that will affect the body, which will change the status of the body. That was it and it is rather strange trying to understand why man has subjected himself to this force.


There is no sense then in looking for the command in willingness; it is not a relationship between two wills, it is in the language where one should seek the structure of the commandment.


Normally that would be true, the commandment has always been explained as an act of will. But, as often happens, it is an attempt to explain an obscure notion using an even more obscure one. Because nobody has ever been able to define what will is. It really is a mystery. So, I’m with Nietzsche on this, he said “will means commanding, to want it to command, to want is in itself to command”. So I’m in agreement here, and I would rather like to make a critique of the idea of will. I think that no, one should explain will by the command, rather than the command by the will. Because as it happens, it is not the will that will confer this force we were talking about on language, whose will could do that?


It’s a lot more… I even think we need to go back, go a long way back to the problem of hominization, the moment certain animals found themselves able to talk. The living being became human; homo became homo sapiens. What happened at that moment? Scientists usually tend to conceive of hominization, the becoming human of man, as if it were only a matter of intelligence, a cognitive problem, in short, one of intelligence, of cerebral volume; now that is obviously not true, it’s a scientific force of habit. When certain animals became able to talk, when the occurrence of language happened, it was of course also a matter of intelligence, but above all else it was a whole ethical and perceptible upheaval of all life, so it was not solely a cognitive problem; it was, well ahead of that, an ethical problem, even political, I would say.


Why? Because as you know, linguists have always sought to distinguish human language from animal language, so we have arguments and all that. But there it always someone who comes along and says “no, that happens too in such and such an animal”. I think that’s fair enough: animals do have a language. But what was different was animals do not appear to confer any privilege whatsoever on their language. It is an activity, one form among others, of their praxis. What I think defines man is he has put his nature, his very life on the line through his words. He has gambled with himself through language. Animals have language but they have not jeopardised themselves by it, they have not compromised themselves entirely through it. That is what defines man, and maybe it is this which explains the linguistic force of phenomena like the command or the oath, which is a very ancient institution in our culture; we forget, we don’t realise the cultural, philosophical, religious, legal importance they have had throughout our history.


But in the scientific tradition, there is a paradigm that has tried to understand man as a linguistic being. That is psychoanalysis. I see that in your work there are few references to psychoanalysis, is that to avoid a possible confusion or for some other reason? Do you give any importance to the psychoanalytic tradition?


But if you’re a fan of Deleuze, you’ll see it was the same with him. Which is to say that the work of someone like Freud is all very interesting, very much so, and what they have done, the concepts they developed, the nuances, the analyses they have done should be studied and remain interesting, but the goal of all that for me is…I just don’t trust it.


So you mean that this goal might be linked to the management of the human?


That’s right. Psychoanalysis, like other phenomena of modern culture, essentially aims to –– it’s yet another form of governing of humans –– it aims to make life governable. And I have a great distrust of everything to do with governing the lives of humans. I think rather there should be something of life that remains ungovernable. Which is not at all disorder or subversion but something that eludes the idea that humans and life ought to be governed.


And it is in this spirit that you use somewhere the formula that, a utopia so to speak –– in the positive sense –– that in the future, man will play with the law as a child plays with a toy. Is that linked to this idea?


Yes, I like that image because play is a typical example where you see how any phenomenon might be deactivated or rendered ineffective; for example, weapons. Humans play with everything, with weapons of war. During play, everything is deactivated and opened up to another possible use. This is a concept that to me is very important. It sometimes makes you feel powerless to think that, faced with some alternative, you must find something else of the same kind. Maybe one should first of all learn to deactivate what you are faced with and only then, there will be another use for the thing.


Just to give an example which always seems obvious to me. What is a poem? A poem is discourse, it is a linguistic phenomenon, there’s no doubt about that. But what happens in a poem? We see that in a poem, language’s normal usage as an instrument of information, of communication, is deactivated, rendered ineffective and another use of language becomes possible from that. That is what we call poetry, this is done at the same time: at the very moment the normal code, the normal usage of language, is deactivated, another usage is made possible. And when they play, children play with anything, they deactivate it and find another use, which is precisely what play is.


Auditor: After the incorporeal transformations that language produces and which relate nonetheless to the body. But staying in the domain of the command, is it just an incorporeal transformation that is produced by language? Is there not anything else that also produces forms of command which does not fall under language but may be produced by images, by scenarios, by gestures, by encounters. Is this part of your field of interrogation?


As I wanted to confine myself to examining the command, I specified that I was going to analyse its linguistic form, namely the Imperative. Of course, with the Stoics, where Deleuze got this idea of the event, of incorporeal transformation, it is not just language, there are other aspects of the Incorporeal. The Incorporeal is essentially any kind of event; anything that is simply pure event, which does not coincide with such and such a fact, such and such a subject. It is the event rather that is persists… this image of the wound and the knife which cuts the skin. But I also limit myself to an analysis of the command in its linguistic aspect because I think it is difficult to understand other forms of the command. There are, of course, gestures, that is the first form of linguistic command: actions. But don’t gestures only work as commands because they were essentially codified from a linguistic command? But that is a problem I leave open, but in any case, I intended confining myself, because there are enough problems in the linguistic analysis alone.


Auditor 2: You have posed the question of the origin of language’s performative force a few times before, without answering it, so I imagine that you intend answering it a little later. But the digression you have made today into sacraments, makes one think that the term that we should perhaps introduce is belief. Because what does belief do so that it works? It must be faced with someone who believes it. If nobody believes it, it cannot work.


I think that even in the idea of belief, the act of believing, of faith, you see, you find the same two aspects of ontology. Because usually these days the fact of belief is usually conceived of as based on the primary models, apophantic ontology. What does than mean? Why? Because, as you know, the Church conceptualised and defined in its dogma the substance of faith. What happens nowadays is we think of the thing that falls under faith, as believing this or that is true: that Christ is God’s only begotten son (I don’t know how you say that in French). Now, that is ridiculous in the sense that, if you look at the definition Paul gives of faith, it is obviously not that.


Not only does he define faith, the word of faith, to λόγο της πίστεος, solely as a proximity between the heart and the mouth, but he is also forced to invent a synthetic form that does not exist in Greek. Well “believe” in Greek takes the form “believe that”: “I believe that Charles has come, I believe that Christ has come”. Paul never said that; he said, just as we say today: “I believe in Jesus Christ”. And he invented that precisely because he did not conceive of faith from apophantic models. But dogma mixed everything up there, so there are people who think themselves believers, who believe in the dogma in the same away a scientist believes in the laws of science. Which means that what we call a dialogue between believers and non-believers is nonsense. Because it is fundamentally a model of faith.


There will be someone who believes the body falls according to the law of gravity and there will be another who may seem more stupid, who believes Christ rose on the third day. One may not exactly correspond with the other but he or she believes in the same way: which is ridiculous, but in the beginning faith was not like that: Paul did not believe in the same way. We have seen how the apophantic logos can be true and false and it is defined by its indifference to the subject, independently of the subject who pronounces this phrase. While the other type of faith, non-apophantic faith, non-apophantic belief, is not indifferent to the subject that pronounces it, the subject commits. It is what Foucault called a ‘véridiction’ or ‘truth-telling’; there are vast areas of discourse where the subject commits to what it says. And so, these discourses are neither true nor false. If someone really testifies to you of faith, which is not dogmatic faith, so essentially scientific, it won’t be something that can be true or false, in the sense of the law of nature.


Auditor 3: Regarding the possibility of deactivating the ontological machine, I can’t help thinking of Levinas who is one of the thinkers who did try to deactivate the ontological machine by way of another person, by way of alterity, the dialectical way, which is called the way outside being, outside logic, which is precisely what he tried to contest. I just wanted to know your opinion on this…, not of deactivating the ontological machine but rather of escaping the ontological machine. This is a very important idea for Levinas, the idea of escape, to establish a logic of thinking outside being.


I did indeed come across that and it is exactly as you say: Levinas does that, tries his utmost to get out. Well, he is not going to define the two aspects of ontological machine but it doesn’t matter; what he wants, as you say, is the idea of ontology, and in that I completely agree with him, but what he will do –– as well you know –– is try to come out on the side of the ethical. So we need to take essentially the second aspect of this and here too he is very interesting, very fair but even so, deep down, when he speaks of a hostage, of the other, of the face of the other, as a hostage-taking, there we find him. So, he is essentially going to be on the other side –– as we have seen –– of pragmatic ontology. Well, it is very interesting but for me it risks coming down on the side of the ethical insofar as he opposes the ontology. I think then that I will take advantage of this silence to go home, to take care of myself.


So, there’s a risk the viewer might find all this too abstract. What can one do to link these very interesting ideas to the political, to the concrete reality of the people who regard us, so the inactivity, the deactivation of all that, how might we make use of it?


Here, for instance, is a very specific thing. I think that one of the great limitations of the leftist tradition and of the worker’s movement was to share with its enemy capitalism, some fundamental concepts, like for example the concept of work, of productivity. I often discuss with friends –– I won’t name any names –– who, though they position themselves as opponents, enemies of Capital, nonetheless hold the same basic concepts: the essential is the idea of work, the idea of productivity, of co-operation and all that. There you have it, I think that is a limitation and one should however here too put in its place the idea of inactivity, which doesn’t mean… Well, there is a whole tradition on the left, “in praise of idleness” and all that.




Yes, and that’s fine but I don’t mean that because for me it is not about doing nothing, it is a form of praxis, a form of praxis that, faced each time with measures –– which might be legal, economic, religious, philosophical –– it is a praxis that will render idle, in the etymological sense, deactivate language, gestures and so on. And it is only then that something else will be made possible. But I think that if we don’t do that, we get caught in the same current.


So this idea of inactivity, in my view, can be generalised. And when I gave the example of poems, I meant that art is only a form, it is an activity that will render inactive, deactivate language, gestures and so on. But the political is the same thing: it is something that will make another use of the body possible, another economics of the body. But if we keep the central concept of capitalism such as work and productivity, it looks like we will never be able to leave it. So I really see in that a general category. While never forgetting it is a praxis. Yes, sometimes it can be useful do do nothing but it is not that, because that implies an activity, doing. It is not so simple when faced with a measure to deactivate it.


I think for example that that may be a reason why… Well, thinking for instance of undocumented workers, of migrants. Right now in Greece, there is a struggle by the undocumented and the left is undoubtedly showing its solidarity but it is on the basis that they are workers. So, Greek workers and immigrants are brothers and all that. But that doesn’t seem to be working. So, perhaps an inactivity must be invented, another connection maybe. So, the undocumented are themselves also a form of Homo Sacer. They do not recognise themselves in the ‘interpellation’ as Althusser might say of the worker. So there is really a vacuum here in this politics of the left and in the solidarity movement. Can one draw out an idea of inactivity concerning the migrants, the undocumented? Those who are UN-documented? (46:18)


Here there is also a problem… one should not think one can solve a problem, that the problem is the assumption of another identity, meaning an undocumented migrant for example must become a worker with papers. I am not saying of course that that shouldn’t happen, which is obvious. But in the real situation, is that really the heart of the problem? It is not a matter of acquiring an identity which inscribes based on the body of such and such a man in this structure we talk about. So, here too, the claims are tactically important. But if that becomes, as it has become, a strategy, which is to say we aim only for that, to acquire, then I prefer the idea that everyone is undocumented, without papers. Rather, we are all undocumented, like we said, that a worker must have their papers.


Badiou insists on the status of worker because he insists on the fact that we have forgotten the word ‘worker’. In the past we called them ‘immigrant workers’ whereas now there is only the word ‘undocumented’, which for him, is not the right one. So, you are rather…


Here, one must understand that we are witnessing a great problem. And everything comes from the concept of the worker, of class. What was the idea of the working class for Marx? It was not a special class but a non-class that was going to subvert another class. And here I think Benjamin was absolutely right: there really is here a messianic motif. Benjamin says that these ideas of Marx are a secularisation of the messianic Christian ideal. No, he was completely right in the sense that, as you know, the word ‘class’ comes from Paul’s vocation (κλήσις), namely the call; the apostles received the call and this call had to be answered. So, there is a messianic nature to this idea of Beruf. What I meant was it’s a real problem: the working class for Marx, if one reads him closely, cannot acquire an identity. We cannot identity the proletariat with the worker, as happened in history or it was perhaps necessary. The proletarian is not the worker, the proletarian is an almost metaphysical figure: someone who is not identifiable and, because of this lack of identity, will overthrow and eliminate all classes. But if the proletarian becomes himself, acquires for himself a class identity, he will become “the working class”. We saw it, the worker at a particular time, lost his function of proletarian, in other words we see him clearly today because he is integrated in the capitalist system and he does not want to change this system. But one mustn’t forget that this is not Marx’s fault. It is that the proletarian is a metaphysical operator, it is not an identity; we cannot say the “proletarian is that one there”. Anybody can be proletarian and nobody is. But if one identifies the proletarian with the worker, as Badiou often does according to the Leninist tradition, then we must keep these concepts at all cost.


And in this sense it is perhaps Rancière’s work that can help us understand because he insists that, if he studied the proletarian work of the 19th century, it gives off the idea that “we don’t want to be a class”. It was the bourgeoisie that classed them as a class, but from their writings comes the desire not to be a class. Isn’t that so?


Rancière also appropriates here this idea of the people which is also something that escapes all definition. But here too I don’t think it is sufficient… I think that here we forget that the problems, which are strictly political, touch on theological problems. That is why someone like Benjamin, who was criticised for it, was absolutely right to mix theology and politics. He was viewed with suspicion for that. I think he was right because this idea I spoke about before inactivity (of deactivating something so as to open it up to a different use). Ultimately, the first person to clearly develop that was Paul in his letters, in his epistles. What is the very clear idea? Well, for the Jewish messianism, the coming of the Messiah meant the fulfillment of the Law. “Τέλος του νόμου” –– is it still that in Greek?


It is.


Paul said: the Messiah is τέλος του Νόμου, the end, the fulfillment of the Law. Which for the Jews is an absurd idea because for the Jews, the Torah, the law is the supreme value. However, in the messianic tradition Paul positioned himself in, the coming of the Messiah fulfills the law, it is over. That doesn’t mean it destroys the law. It is from there that I drew my inactivity. What the coming of the Messiah does regarding the law is not to destroy it, he uses a verb, I don’t know if that still exists in Greek: καταργέω. Does it still exist? It comes from αργός – alpha – private –– α-έργον, non-operative, non-work, so rendered inoperative. I don’t know if it still exists.


Καταργώ still exists in modern Greek but it means ‘abolish’.


In fact that’s right because in the normal tradition one says: abolish. But you think of the etymology, it comes from αργός, which means a-private, non-έργον, non-operative. And for him it is important, so a Jew couldn’t say “we will abolish the Law”. It was too much. But “we will deactivate it, we will render it inoperative”, that is there. Because Paul said it: “are we going to destroy the Law? No, we will render it inoperative”. And I think it is a very subtle idea: it is here that, as you say, we are going to play with the Law, it is a problem… Is another use of the law not possible? We are so used to the idea, this normative idea that the law we norm, necessity, obligation, that the law consists of subjecting oneself to the norm, to an obligation. But is another use not possible? That has always fascinated me, what Paul meant when he said that the messianic condition, a situation in which he found himself in the present day, is a condition where the Law is there, but deactivated.


But is it not the Hegelian Aufhebung?


Absolutely! It is funny you say that, because Luther, when he translated the Bible into German, he had the word κατάργησις. And what word did he use? Aufheben! So, preserve and abolish. It is the dual meaning on which Hegel played: preserve and abolish.


That’s fascinating!


It is fascinating! I was fascinated when I discovered how Luther translated κατάργησις. But because I had gone on from there, we see that we cannot separate, if we do an archaeological inquiry –– and I am convinced Foucault was right, the only means of accessing the present is always via archaeology –– an action that goes back in time is always needed. Not because we like history, not at all, it is to access, to understand the present. Foucault said something great, he said “my research on the historical past, on the past, are only the shadow cast by my questioning of the present.” But I think he was right: we cannot access the present, the present is really something that eludes us, something we have not grasped; it is something we don’t really manage to experience, we have difficulty to live in the present. And that is why, if we want to go back to psychoanalysis and what Freud said about this was very interesting, it was the idea that trauma, you remember: faced with a traumatic scene, for example, the child who sees their parents making love, neither the child nor anyone else can accept that, and so he buries in it in the unconscious, so doesn’t live it in the present. There is something that remains unexperienced. And this thing that remains unexperienced will remain long and one day will surface in a pathological form and so on. But what seems right to me here in all this is that the present is precisely what we have difficulty living. It is traumatic, it is always traumatic, but this is why we must go back and that is why I also practice a lot of archaeology in Foucault’s sense of the word. The research I am doing at the moment is an archaeology of the command, it is an attempt to go back to understand what the essence of the command is today. What one discovers when one does archaeological research, is one cannot separate the realm, the field. One cannot say: “I am doing political research so I am reading only political texts”. “I am doing philosophical research, I am reading only philosophical texts.” ”I am doing theological research. I am reading only theological texts.” It is the great curse of the university today. The faux-specialisms. If one seriously does archaeological research, one comes back int eh past and all of a sudden it is like on a train: we follows political binaries and there is an exchange that pushes you into the theological binaries or into legal binaries, in philosophical binaries. And you cannot get away from that, you can’t avoid it. And here it is rare however because the philosophers make books about philosophers, the jurists books about jurists, theologians about theologians… and that is a disaster. True archaeological research should be able to follow these exchanges, these moments when all of a sudden you find yourself obliged, since an idea that one thought was political, you see that it comes from theology, or vice versa: a theological idea we see comes from politics.


So the truth is often elsewhere, not where you look for it?


In practice, in research, there is often interesting research but they rest in a binary frame, there is not enough to allow you to understand. Because to understand certain codes in this problem, you have to go to another field.


So you are greatly concerned with language. I remember a short text you wrote called “Languages and peoples”, so also the political signification of language, or identity. You tried to construct this connection, this essentialism of the human community, based on language, is that right?


In that text, I studied a book by Debord’s wife. No, actually what one must deconstruct here is the attempt to link a certain language with a certain people. It is often false, it can even be completely false. However what I am convinced of is that language in itself has a political signification, that is what I was saying when I spoke of this problem of hominization: the fact one is a living being has a political signification, a political and not merely cognitive force. The fact language is reduced solely to a cognitive problem, one of communication, of information shows for me an insufficiency, an incapacity to understand what is really the issue with language. Even if you look in depth at a certain recent political thinker, such as the Potere Operaio in Italy or even Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. What is it deep down? It is said that language today is at the heart of the question of power. The society of the spectacle is a society that will use the media and language to separate and establish its power and the analyses of people like Negri were precisely the idea that language today “is put to work by Capital”. That is, of course, true, but even there, it is being reduced, language is being considered only in its cognitive aspect. What Negri means is that, for him, it is via a cognitive capacity humans have learned and it is that which is directed exploited today by power. Which is absolutely true, but we shouldn’t forget that language is never just that. Language, as we said before, has an ethical side and political side –– the act of language that has a specific force is the command, the imperative, oaths, prayers, pledges. And all that today is exploited by power. It is not true that today the government exploits only the cognitive function of language. On the contrary, power will cleverly exploit all the pragmatic force of language, the emotional, persuasive, imperative force there is in language. I think then that Debord and Negri’s thesis is true if one grasps this other aspect. So, language in itself has a political signification. And here too is something that the political tradition has sidelined.


Another thing I discovered during this research is that it appears to me that once again, the machine is always a dual one, the philosophical machine even: the ontology, you might say, of our society, is dual . On the one hand, there is what you might call, using two Greek words –– I don’t know if they are still the same –– a world, a logic, in the indicative, στι or εστί…?


Yes, the memory of those is alive, but we don’t use them anymore.


How do you say “is”?


We use the infinitive, we say “είναι”, we use it to say “he is’’, like in the third person.


That is to say he is interested in how the world is; it is science, philosophy. And then, there is another ontology which, an ontology of the imperative of έστο. I don’t know if you still say that?


No, we don’t.


How do you say the imperative “be”?


There is no imperative of the verb “to be”. We say “become”, “γίνε”. But not “that you must be”. So, γίγνεσθαι.


That’s good, γίγνεσθαι. Who is interested then not in how the world is but how the world should be. And that is law and religion. They are two completely different worlds but what happened in the history of western philosophy is that the first aspects, namely, how the world is formulated in the indicative, so to speak, remained dominant; only that was considered, and we completely ignored the imperative aspect, the command, the pledge, the prayer, on which were founded very those very important things, which were law and religion. And this was in a very negative sense because, as all attention was given to science, to knowledge, to how the world is, this other ontology was allowed develop without any thought given to it. And what I saw happen in the old days was these phenomena which were in the beginning limited to law and religion (the “be” –– how the world should be) gradually expanded their influence, and even spilled over beyond law and religion and today, I think, it that which dominates, once again.


So it has become a moralism, you could say?


Yes but it much stronger than that; it is law, religion, how one must be. Kant comes right out of that, the is completely part of it. But it is not only the ethical. I think that today we still think science, for example, belongs to how to know, how the world is. But there is the problem of the technical and it is always said “why has science today become technology?” And they have even coined in France this awful term, techno-science. But is science innocent? And is technology guilty? But that is what has happened, it is the meeting of these two great domains, two great ontologies, it is the introduction of the command into science. The introduction of the “how I want the world to be” to the conception of the science “how the world is”. I think that is what has happened. It is the second aspect which is so important, so dominant without having ever been thought of, that perhaps one might explain the growing force of technology like a spilling over of the ontology of the command onto the ontology of science.


It is very interesting and what is also currently interesting is that we are seeing technology –– for example, mobile phones, the internet –– and the sermon aspect of language coming together in Egypt, meaning in this revolt in Egypt, there are the muftis that conduct the prayers and all that and then they demonstrate. And they use technology, which for the West raises the spectre of Islamism, the Islamic danger and all that. What do you think of this relationship?


I think that in Islam the situation in this sense was always more clear because that is what Islamologists teach us: that in Islam the culture, the religious and legal tradition of Islam has always been in the imperative. In the beginning there was the word qun, “be”. Corbin showed these things very well. So, it is the word of Allah that is formulated in the imperative. Of course it shares that with Christianity and Judaism: God speaks in the imperative, but alongside that happened another thing that was thought dominant, which is the science side, knowledge, which is formulated in the indicative. And I think that Islam always remained under the sway of the imperative. And that is what we cannot understand. But it is false in the sense that the imperative, the command, is something we have too. We shouldn’t think that the command exists in Islam but not for us. All these phenomena are very strong with us but they are hidden: they act secularised, they act in other forms. And then, the image we have made of Islam is a spectre of a reality that also exists for us but we don’t realise it. We may be more fundamentalist than them.


That is very interesting. Thank you very much for that, Professor Agamben. It was an extremely interesting discussion. We await publication of all that or a part of it and an eventual translation into Greek and other languages. Thank you very much.


Thank you.

Agamben appearing as the Apostle Phillip in PierPaolo Pasolini's 1964 film "Il Vangelo secondo Matteo"

Agamben appearing as the Apostle Phillip in PierPaolo Pasolini’s 1964 film «Il Vangelo secondo Matteo»



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