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  • The Abandonment of Sex:Giorgio Agamben, Psychoanalysis and Melancholia
  • Justin Clemens (bio)

Hence loathèd Melancholy      Of Cerberus, and blackest Midnight born,In Stygian cave forlorn      'Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy,Find out some uncouth cell,      Where brooding Darkness spreads his jealous wings,And the night-raven sings;      There under ebon shades, and low-browed rocks,As ragged as thy locks,      In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.

—John Milton, L'Allegro

Hence vain deluding joys,      The brood of folly without father bred,How little you bestead,      Or fill the fixèd mind with all your toys;Dwell in some idle brain,      And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,Or likest hovering dreamsThe fickle pensioners of Morpheus' train.But hail thou goddess, sage and holy,Hail divinest Melancholy,Whose saintly visage is too brightTo hit the sense of human sight;And therefore to our weaker view,O'erlaid with black staid wisdom's hue.

—John Milton, Il Penseroso


I wish to make three claims in this article. The first is that Giorgio Agamben's mature work is formed as the result of a crucial encounter with psychoanalysis, especially regarding the foundations, extension and destiny of the concept of "disavowal." The second is that Agamben's political theory is integrally articulated with a mode of attentiveness that is best considered under the very specific, a-psychological concept of stupidity. The third is that these two aspects of Agamben's work need to be read together if they are to be properly understood.

These claims may at first seem counter-intuitive, even paradoxical. After all, in the very few places where Agamben mentions psychoanalysis, he tends to be circumscriptive when not directly derisory. And if there is one theme upon which psychoanalysis expatiates interminably, it is the problem of sex; for Agamben, in contrast, sex is only rarely explicitly thematized. Nonetheless, a kind of desexualized eroticism is at the heart of his philosophical project. As for the second claim, "stupidity" is hardly a familiar category in the history of political thought and action. Its apparition in Agamben's thought is all the more noteworthy for that reason. Not only the symptom of a real failure of a certain kind of modern revolutionary politics, it bears links to a peculiar "weak messianic" practice whose exemplar is the imbecile student. Finally, I want to suggest that this analysis of disavowal and this gesture of stupidity cannot be separated if we are to understand something essential about Agamben's subsequent work, in its punctuated trajectory, in its conceptual details and in the singularity of its presentation.


I will therefore proceed as follows. First, I will briefly discuss Sigmund Freud's classical psychoanalytical account of melancholia, to give a particular context to Agamben's own position in his early work Stanzas.1 Second, this demonstration will simultaneously effect a translation of these accounts into the terms of affect (especially shame, rage and hate), modal categories (necessity, possibility, impossibility and contingency), and potential treatments for melancholy (a question concerning technology). Third, I will link the sexual aspects of psychoanalysis to the political aspects of Agamben's theories, showing, in this demonstration, how and why Agamben can legitimately draw on a limit case of psychoanalytic psychopathology in order to apply it to problems in political philosophy (sovereignty, society of the spectacle, commodity fetishism). In doing so, I want to suggest how this early work of Agamben's also establishes and illuminates certain elements of his later development, from The Coming Community,2 through Homo Sacer3 and beyond —but also why and how he left it behind.

What I would, moreover, like to emphasize in all this is the following: that Agamben has, quite brilliantly, discerned a link between Freudian concepts that have traditionally been considered independent. To give only one instance here, though a crucial one in the context, "melancholia" has not in the psychoanalytic literature usually been linked to the phenomenon of perversion. This is for a number of connected reasons. First, the manic, hallucinatory and self-persecutory elements of a typical melancholic presentation can immediately seem to share features with those of certain psychoses (paranoia, for instance). Under both...

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