- From Decreation to Bare LifeWeil, Agamben, and the Impolitical
Simone Weil’s career may be divided into two parts. The first, more overtly political period encompasses her critical and practical involvement with Marxism and syndicalism; the second phase falls after 1934 and is more responsive to mystical concerns. This movement away from institutional and ideological questions and toward religious issues offers many readers an opportunity to cast her thought as paradigmatic of a “negative politics” that, without being apathetic, cannot be reconciled with the usual themes of political thought. Consequently, Weil has attained something of the status of a muse for several “impolitical” thinkers. In Italy, the two most important theorists of biopolitics, Roberto Esposito and Giorgio Agamben, have evoked Weil’s ideas, albeit while pursuing very different philosophical agendas: namely, an affirmative, communitarian reading of the biopolitical for the former versus an apocalyptic exposé of the category’s juridical underpinnings for the latter. Her influence on Esposito is particularly notable in his Categorie dell’impolitico [Categories of the Impolitical] and Terza persona [Third Person]. By contrast, Weil’s presence in Agamben’s writing is subliminal or, we might say, disavowed.
Although Agamben wrote his dissertation on Weil’s political philosophy, his published writings contain few explicit references to her work. He mentions her in passing in The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics as one of the favorite thinkers of the Italian novelist Elsa Morante . Otherwise, however, he does not acknowledge Weil by name even when, in the course of reflections on the topic of potentiality that represent a crucial focus of his own project, he appears to be reinterpreting her signature theory of decreation. Although it is true that the concept has its roots in an ancient Catharistic-Kabbalistic tradition and that Péguy, Blanchot, and Levinas make use of it in their work, Weil should be credited with having been first to recognize the term’s importance for present-day readers. It is not my intention to simplify the relation between Weil’s and Agamben’s thinking, but rather, through a close reading of key passages of Weil’s Gravity and Grace and Agamben’s “Bartleby, or On Contingency,” to suggest how their distinct inflections of a shared critical language may correspond to different views of the contemporary operations of power.
As Leland de la Durantaye has observed, the genealogy of Agamben’s notion of potentiality can be traced back to Weil’s development of the theory of decreation in her notebooks [22–23]. Why does Agamben not acknowledge his source, given the importance of Weil’s contributions on the topic? De la Durantaye hastily proposes that Weil’s concept of decreation is too dialectical for Agamben’s philosophy. Is Agamben’s failure to acknowledge Weil necessary to maintain the internal consistency of his own line of reasoning? To what [End Page 75] extent are Weil’s account of the impolitical and Agamben’s own interpretation of negative politics incompatible, given that they share an emphasis on the notion of decreation and the pervasiveness of malign power? In this connection, it will be useful to consider the crucial place held by the category of force in Weil’s work vis-à-vis Agamben’s celebrated figures of “bare life” and homo sacer. Although Weil’s thought hinges on an idiosyncratic equivocation with regard to whether force is a natural or a social phenomenon, her and Agamben’s respective philosophical cosmogonies on this point finally may be seen to harmonize. Indeed, if Agamben starts with a strictly juridical problematic, he ends up on account of his own pessimistic interpretation of biopolitics at the same point from which Weil commences her own inquiry, namely in a domain where the natural and the political have become indistinguishable.1
One important point on which Weil and Agamben agree is their skepticism of Marxist doctrine. Both thinkers believe that the revolutions of the modern era invariably have been shipwrecked on the impossibility of reaching the wished-for “stateless society” without reproducing the very methods of oppression that such political uprisings originally aim to overthrow [Agamben, Homo Sacer 12]. Indeed, Weil basically dedicates the entire text of...