- From the Sacrifice of the Letter to the Voice of TestimonyGiorgio Agamben’s Fulfillment of Metaphysics
By denying us the limit of the Limitless, the death of God leads to an experience in which nothing may again announce the exteriority of being, and consequently to an experience which is interior and sovereign. But such an experience, for which the death of God is an explosive reality, discloses as its own secret and clarification, its intrinsic finitude, the limitless reign of the Limit, and the emptiness of those excesses in which it spends itself and where it is found wanting.—Michel Foucault, “Preface to Transgression”
Can there be a discourse that, without being a metalanguage or sinking into the unsayable, says language itself and exposes its limits?—Giorgio Agamben, “The Idea of Language”
I shall not rest until every German sees that it is a shameful thing to be a lawyer.—Adolf Hitler, speech before theReichstag, April 26, 1942
From his early works on, Giorgio Agamben has opposed the thought of no contemporary philosopher more consistently and programmatically than that of Jacques Derrida, whose questioning of phonocentric metaphysics Agamben has tried to replace by a characterization of metaphysics as (what I am calling here) graphocentric. To go back behind the replacement of the voice by the letter is for Agamben to recover the event of language itself, the taking-place of language as Being.1 In his conceptualization of the project for such a recovery, as we shall see, Agamben’s commitment to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology is overdetermined by his investment in the Christian God as logos.
This philosophical program in Agamben’s early essays guides his later work on the homo sacer-sovereign relation but also distorts and disturbs the later work in three principal ways. First, it prompts him to propose an exclusively juridicopolitical understanding of the sacredness of the homo sacer, effectively scapegoating the juridical sphere for a more broadly theopolitical problem, while placing the specifically Christian background [End Page 11] of his antinomianism in a misleadingly secular, rational, and universalist light. Symptomatically, in order to accomplish this juridicopolitical reduction Agamben must reject Bataille’s analysis of sacrifice—along with the entire modern anthropological reading of the sacred—out of hand. For this rejection protects his discourse against any sustained confrontation with the importance of the sacrificial dimension for both what he calls the homo sacer and his own approach to law in his theorization of the homo sacer..
Second, Agamben’s philosophical program impoverishes the account he provides of the Nazi death camps as an extreme example of the sovereign-homo sacer relation by making it impossible for him to appreciate the importance of Christian antinomianism in the formation of National Socialist ideology. For Agamben’s philosophical orientation requires or presupposes that he ignore or underestimate, first of all, the sacrificially anti-Semitic dimension of Christian antinomianism—the tendency of such antinomianism to make Judaism responsible for the ontological desert into which representation exiles us all. Further, as a consequence of his continuing commitment to this tradition, Agamben cannot see how important the tradition remains, even if in a displaced form, for Nazi anti-Semitism. I argue that Agamben’s animus against the letter blinds him to the Christian and sacrificial dimensions of the Holocaust—he ignores the former and explicitly, emphatically denies the latter dimension—because this animus represents his own commitment to the Christian antinomianism that, in its racialized National Socialist form, attempts to rid itself of the letter by sacrificing not only Judaism but the (biologically, racially construed) Jews. Because his radically antinomian program would become unsettled by his recognition of its important overlap with the ideological bases of National Socialism, Agamben cannot ultimately acknowledge the Christian and sacrificial aspects of the Holocaust.
Finally, in Remnants of Auschwitz—his main reading (outside of Homo Sacer) of the significance of the Nazi death camps—Agamben positions “testimony” as the exemplary instance of the speaking of speech, the taking-place of language. The result of the destruction of European Jewry becomes here the revelation of poetic speech as a manifestation of the absolute. Unwittingly, Agamben ends up participating in...