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  • Swearing to God:Agamben's The Sacrament of Language
  • Charles Barbour (bio)
Giorgio Agamben , The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath. Adam Kotsko (trans.), Stanford University Press: 2011. 104 pages. US $45 (cloth). US $16.95 (paper). ISBN 9780804768979

The human being is that living being that, in order to speak, must say 'I', must 'take the word', assume it and make it his own.

Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language

Those who follow Agamben's work have been waiting for him to articulate its positive or affirmative aspect - his promised consideration of the, as he puts it, 'form of life' that somehow might elude or point beyond the otherwise intractable regime of modern biopower, and the (entire) history of metaphysics on which it is said to be based. This study or intervention, it is believed, will constitute the fourth volume of Agamben's Homo Sacer project - a project that, to date, has included Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, or volume one; State of Exception and The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, or the first two sections of volume two; and Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, or volume three. Agamben's most recent book, or most recently translated book, is not the much anticipated fourth volume. Rather, it is the third section of the second volume. It would, therefore, be prudent to continue to wait before endeavouring to integrate The Sacrament of Language within Homo Sacer in general, and to acknowledge that, whatever we might say about it now, its full significance will not be known for a while yet. This review, then, will seek merely to summarize the basic claims of The Sacrament of Language, and leave the problem of context for another time.

The Sacrament of Language is, as the subtitle suggests, a study of the oath, or the act of swearing to god. It is organized in opposition to a long scholarly tradition - central to anthropology, linguistics, philology, as well as legal and religious history - that treats the oath as a remedy for the fact that language is ambiguous, or that humans have the capacity to lie, and that locates its origins in a 'magico-religious' stage in human history, or a time when humans genuinely feared divine retribution. According to Agamben, this tradition relies on the 'scientific mythologeme' of 'the primordiality of the sacred' (13), or the myth that human history proceeds from a primitive belief in the reality of the sacred realm to an increasingly rational juridical and scientific codification of that belief. In fact, Agamben insists, religion, law, and science have always comingled in human history. Thus it is of no use to try to understand the oath as a remnant of a primitive age, or to assume that the gods it invokes originally functioned as omniscient witnesses who would punish anyone who deigned to speak falsely. To swear to god is not to fear god's power or reprisal. Rather, Agamben proposes, it is to invoke, or even to partake of, the, as it were, godlike power of language itself, or the power that language has to name the world. The oath, in other words, is not a 'sacrament of power'. It is, instead, a 'sacrament of language' (71).

The simplest way of explaining what Agamben means here is to say that, for him, the oath is a speech act, or a performative rather than a constative statement. In other words, irrespective of the truth or falsehood of what I say while under oath, the oath itself, or the act of swearing, refers to nothing other than itself, or that very act. Thus, Agamben claims, it 'cannot be contested or verified in any way'. Rather, it 'coincides with the call and is accomplished and extinguished together with it' (33). Or, to put the same point in slightly different terms, in the oath as in the speech act, the expression and its referent are consubstantial. There is an immediate connection between the world of language on the one hand and that of actions or things on the other. Thus, and once again in opposition to the traditional understanding, the oath...

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