The Power of Life: Agamben and the Coming Politics (To Imagine a Form of Life, II) by David Kishik
Kishik’s book is the second volume of a triptych aimed to “imagine a form of life,” which in addition to The Power of Life includes Wittgenstein’s Form of Life (2008) and a forthcoming inquiry on New York inspired by Benjamin’s Arcades Project (118-119). If Wittgenstein demonstrates that “to [End Page 415] imagine a language means to imagine a form of life” (7), Agamben reveals the impossibility of imagining a form of life autonomously from its political significance. As Kishik programmatically states, the “relationship between politics and life is the central concern of this book” (7). The starting point of an investigation directed at connecting Agamben’s thought to that of various key figures in the history of philosophy and proving their relevance to the contemporary debate on biopolitics is then located in the “Experimentum linguae,” an experience in which what is experienced is language itself.
For Kishik, this practice involving the self-referentiality of language leads Agamben to the following conclusion: “There is only one possible way to express the fact that I speak: that I live,” which marks the passage “from the question of language to the question of life” (5). The figure that emerges as a supposedly de-totalizing consequence of the re-articulation between language and life is the “whatever being,” which cannot be conceived either as Being or as non-Being, but amounts to a “zone of indistinction” (67) between them. In order to stress the constant movement of oscillation that characterizes this figure, Kishik defines it as a “present-absent being” (82), as a traveler, who never completely belongs to a given place. Because of its capacity to resist any fossilization into a fixed identity, this “transitory being” incarnates the possibility of opening up a new horizon of meaning by envisioning the replacement of any “identity politics” with a coming “form of life politics” (83-4).
Following a path that links Arendt’s notion of “power” to Benjamin’s “pure violence” and Agamben’s “potentiality of thought,” Kishik responds to the accusation of political inactivism moved to the concept of potentiality. The “immobile movement in situ” (91), the “thought at a standstill” (53) proper to the notions of potentiality and inoperosity can, on the contrary, become a weapon, a form of pure violence “related neither to a law nor to an end” (93), but belonging to the sphere of pure means. What is at stake in this act of educational and intellectual violence, first of all intended as “self- violence” (97), is “how we are going to live” (98), how we are going “to imagine a form of life.” This imaginative effort results into the fundamental distinction between the power of life and the power over life. If power consists in an “interaction between two living entities” (106), the relationships constituted by the power of life will no longer give rise to the hierarchical structure of the State, but lead to a network without a center, to a “rhizomatic configuration” of forms of life that are “virtually ungovernable” (107).
Kishik’s book tries to reflect faithfully the theoretical and methodological tenets of Agamben’s philosophy, including its quasi-aphoristic style and a proclivity for erudite divagations. Inevitably, this passionate devotion to the Italian philosopher, whose work is “not a writing, but a form of life” (3), prevents the author from engaging in a close reading of his texts. For instance, the exposition of the entirety of the Homo Sacer project is restricted to a five-page section that should “serve as a quick primer” (19). Another evident weakness of the volume’s unabashed partisanship—or, by Kishik’s [End Page 416] own admission, “sectarian knife sharpening” (50)—lies in the fact that it fails to produce any criticism of Agamben’s oeuvre, and thus falls short on its own learned premises, for which, as stated at the beginning of the book, quoting Coleridge, “until you understand a writer’s ignorance…presume yourself ignorant of his understanding” (2).
With regard to the specific philosophical hypothesis put forward by Kishik, his ontological argument constantly presupposes a meta-level, that of “the power of life itself, which can be seen as an inverted biopolitics” (35). What the author thus fails to grasp is that, by attempting to identify a politics able to mirror life as such, he repeats the same metaphysical act that is rightly condemned as inherent to the politics over life. Instead of replacing the “hierarchical models” (106-7) of the center with an act of de-centering, Kishik imagines a politics that “lack(s) a center” (107). But such a lack of center—which in the end amounts to a reification of lack, what he significantly calls “our nonexistent ‘essence’” (103), a central lack—involves nothing else than a transformation of the traditional linguistic metaphysics of the form into a vitalist metaphysics of the force, will, or power of life. Beyond the “ungovernable” network of relations among forms of life, at a meta-level, we eventually find the “faceless face” of the “power of life itself.”
Whether Kishik’s straightforward vitalism remains ultimately compatible with Agamben’s own ontology and does justice to it is open to debate. Despite his widely proclaimed genealogical gesture, the overall project of the Italian philosopher seems still to be informed by a distinctively Heideggerian historical essentialism, namely, the idea that history is determined by deceiving “signatures” (ultimately, of being). Agamben’s basic presupposition is that the more a signature is “subterranean” and, as such, difficult to situate—before he carried out his own investigations—the more it has been secretly influencing history as, in the end, the history of (the so far wrong yet redeemable kind of) being. This stance may indeed finally issue into a paradoxical kind of meta-metaphysical (or meta-historically historical) linguistic vitalism, for which life (the good being, or hyphenated “form-of-life” as opposed to any vulgar form of life) is as such an affirmative negativity, a “potentiality not to,” independently of history. Such a sophisticated, albeit very problematic, vitalism does, however, go far beyond the naïve “power of life” Kishik takes for granted. [End Page 417]