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diacritics 33.2 (2005) 3-9

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The Suspended Substantive

On Animals and Men in Giorgio Agamben's The Open

Giorgio Agamben. The Open: Man and Animal. Trans. Kevin Attell. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004. [O] Trans. of L'aperto: L'uomo e l'animale. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002. [A]

With a title as enigmatic as The Open, the reader might well wonder, "the open what?" Is the title's adjective to stand alone? Does it need no substantive to support it? This unfamiliar title is not what one might first guess—it is not an awkward translation from the work's original title. No substantive follows in the original, and none is meant to. The idea that gives Agamben's book its title is that of an openness which is unconditioned—and perhaps unconditional, an openness which is unspecified—and perhaps unspecifiable.

If the answer to the question "the open what?" can be answered with no substantive, might we ask in what this opening occurs? Between what more substantive things has an indefinable space been opened? The first answer to the question can be found in the work's subtitle—Man and Animal. The open space in question is that which separates and distinguishes man from animal. Philosophers, anthropologists, social scientists, zoologists, chemists, taxonomists—and many others—have had no small difficulty in agreeing upon the matter.

Philosophers have traditionally had a low opinion of animals [cf. de Fontenay]. Descartes had especially little respect for the minds of animals and influentially classified them as automata mechanica. As Agamben notes, the great naturalist and taxonomist Linnaeus responded to this assertion with the laconic rejoinder: "Descartes obviously never saw an ape" [cf. O 23/A 30; translation modified]. Philosophers have been more eager than taxonomists to put distance between themselves and the animals—and for this reason have been particularly interested in studying what separates man from animal. The last great philosophical attempt in this regard is that of Martin Heidegger. Despite his preference for the primordial, his openness to the woods and the wilderness, his opinion of animals' faculties was not much higher than that of Descartes. In his view, animals live in an environment in which they are receptive to various stimuli, but where they have nothing approximating what we call a "world"—animals are, as he claims, "poor in world" (weltarm)—or even "without world" (weltlos). They live in such intense and incessant proximity to their environment and its stimuli that they do not see the existential forest for the environmental trees. They can never take a step away from the immediacy of their perception and for this reason cannot be said to possess a "world" in the sense that man, in Heidegger's view, does.

As mentioned above, the title The Open is, for all its strangeness, not the result of [End Page 3] an awkward translation from Agamben's Italian. Its strangeness stems, nevertheless, in large part from a translation. Or, to be more precise, from two translations. The first of these is from the German. The German in question is a special one—that of the profoundly idiosyncratic technical vocabulary that Heidegger fashioned for his philosophical purposes. For Heidegger, "the open" is something literally fundamental which lay at the heart of his thought. "The open" is the space revealed to us in the moment when the world we live in, which because of our many tasks and travails we tend to take no distance from (like animals with their stimuli), opens out onto something larger. This moment of distancing ourselves from our everyday concern with means and ends, with stimuli and response, is what gives us not just an environment, but a "world." "The open" is what we find ourselves in when the bustle and haste of our environment recedes and we see that environment in all its strangeness and immensity—as a "world," greater and less graspable than our restricted and finite representations. This experience of "the open" is, for Heidegger, what makes us human, and...