Australians can occasionally respond to another’s assertion with the idiomatic, somewhat déclassé exclamation, “Bloody oath, mate!” This expression can be roughly translated as “of course!,” “absolutely!,” “I agree with you totally,” and so on, with the proviso that it also implies one would have to be malicious or idiotic to think any differently. At the same time, the exclamation expresses a surprise that it dissembles: if it indeed gives assent as if that to which it gives assent were naturally binding upon all, its fervour betrays an uncertainty about that assertion’s veracity. Moreover, “bloody oath!” is not for polite company: to utter it is to swear and swear at once. In ecumenical Australia, one swears not on this or that god, but with the sanguinary name of the oath itself.
The reader will then presumably not be shocked if I relate that I raced through The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath muttering “bloody oath!” to the insights to be found on almost every page of this slim book. Those already familiar with Agamben’s stunning oeuvre will presumably also not be shocked by the fact that what I have just said of “bloody oath” turns out to be true of what Agamben reveals of oath in general: indissociably an affirmation, an invocation, and a profanation. As such, the oath precedes received divisions between magic, religion, and law that have hitherto governed—and, as Agamben demonstrates, often severely bungled—its study.
Philosophy, to the extent it believes itself capable of escaping history, renders itself incapable of doing so. It is in this respect that Agamben’s redeployment of Foucauldian archaeology is so effective. Drawing on his characteristic polymathic erudition, Agamben clears away the detritus of scholarly fantasms. He typically pinpoints a key problem in the relevant scholarship, showing how this scholarship falsifies its own evidence to the extent that disputes within the scholarship come to mirror each other without realising it. He proceeds to isolate the key features of the problem and, by way of lemon-squeezing analyses of the crucial texts, turns them towards the paradoxes of its invariance. Agamben seeks an arche within immanence, not a secret transcendence. Here this means: don’t think that the truth of words can be found outside words themselves. [End Page 414]
It is with this principle in hand that Agamben unlocks the enigma of the oath as that primordial function whereby speaking beings try to curtail the irreducible possibility of language’s perjuries: the “proper context of the oath is therefore among those institutions…whose function is to performatively affirm the truth and trustworthiness of speech.” The oath, a supplemental ritual declaration, expressed as a futile but necessary attempt to stabilize the insuperable rift between words and things, inscribes its own futility in its very expression by means of the curse. Some people care more for grammar than they do for God, Augustine complained; God, as Wittgenstein added, is a function of grammar. For Agamben, “God” is a name that humans give to the hope that names can reliably name at all, de jure if not de facto. But God is then the name for the name of everything that cannot not be taken in vain. As Jacques Lacan constantly essayed to remind his auditors—and Lacan, not to mention psychoanalysis more generally, is possibly the true, if well-secreted prime precursor of Agamben’s work—you can’t speak without believing in a God you also can’t help but betray in and by that very utterance.
Silence, or showing in silence, can become one attempt to escape this situation; inventive expressions of senselessness is another. But the first, a recurrent tactic of what Alain Badiou would call “anti-philosophy” (from Pascal to Lacan himself) finds its withdrawal towards muteness becoming indiscernible from that of the victims of the powers it would contest. As for the latter, we find a Romantic problematic of poetry (or artistic creation) establishing the very politics that come to foreclose it. Hence, a third way: the...