- The Sweet Allure of Theory
Giorgio Agamben’s recent book, Profanations, unites seemingly disparate essays. However, even without being a student of his work, one may single out a certain key theme that runs across different disciplinary domains, including philosophy, literature (and literary criticism), and studies of the visual. I would define this theme as the composition of the subject. Indeed, the very first essay in Agamben’s new book introduces readers to this problematic by describing the tense and even dramatic relationship between a person’s Ego and his Genius, the symbolic bearer and representation of his fate. This is a field of forces shaping each and every individual when the personal is simultaneously maintained and challenged by the secret strength of the impersonal. Such is physiological life, which, despite its striking closeness, remains distant, nonconscious, and, for that reason, out of control. Such are the workings of emotion, which, according to the theorist Gilbert Simondon, is precisely a way of relating to what remains of the preindividual within us. Agamben clearly formulates the paradox: “Genius is our life insofar as it does not belong to us” (13)—in other words, insofar as it does not come into our possession.
However, this other life is not a matter of the individual alone. In the essay titled “Special Being” the author seems to extend his own initial definition. “Special,” a word [End Page 147] deriving from the Latin species (“appearance,” “aspect,” “vision”),stands for a quality being displayed; it is a mode of being that essentially calls for sharing (or, in Agamben’s terminology, offers itself “to common use” ). Since such being, also defined as “whatever being” (58), adheres to each of its qualities but is not identified by them, it remains insubstantial. That is, it is not a substance, but a desire for the species of another, for its “habits” or “ways” that reveal its perseverance in its being—such is the clue to the understanding of a being that, to recall Jean-Luc Nancy, is a priori “in common.” Although culture incessantly reduces the special to the personal and thus invests it with identity, special being cannot be an object of personal property. Identity is itself a powerful cultural apparatus. (Agamben here uses the Italian word dispositivo, which brings to mind Michel Foucault and his concept of biopower.)
Therefore, the subject as it is defined and formed by impersonal forces shares this composition with others. Although Agamben does not further dwell on his version of “being in common,” he goes on to elaborate the specific relationship between the personal and the impersonal by addressing the very nature of the boundary that separates the sacred from the profane. At this point the relationship in question, full of ambiguity, becomes truly dynamic. It is epitomized in the figure of homo sacer, a “sacred man,” who has survived the very rite of separation: belonging to the gods, he continues to lead an obviously profane existence among his fellow men. However, his communication with other men is fatally damaged. His position is such that they may violently kill him (restoring him, thus, to the realm of the gods), and yet he cannot be sacrificed, because he is no longer part of the community. In sum, “in the machine of sacrifice, sacred and profane represent the two poles of a system in which a floating signifier travels from one domain to the other without ceasing to refer to the same object” (78). For Agamben, this is a question of use. Indeed, religion in general is about separating things, places, humans, or animals from their habitual functions and of putting them to a use that is consecrated and, as such, uncommon.
Let us linger here for a moment, especially since this thread of analysis results in Agamben’s formulating an open political task. In the essay “In Praise of Profanation,” which actually lends its name to the book, profanation is seen as a way of not only neutralizing the sacred (the best example is provided by play) but also of deactivating those apparatuses of...