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  • Law’s Violent JudgmentDoes Agamben Have a Political Aesthetics?
  • Peg Birmingham (bio)

law, violence, aesthetics, language, political representation, Agamben

It is well-known that Agamben views the form of law as violent. The law is nomos basileus; the law is sovereign, and it is the means by which sovereignty justifies its violence (Agamben 1998, 30–31). Pindar, he argues, is the first great thinker of sovereignty because he grasps that law and violence are indistinct, inescapably connected to the sovereign ban that decides on the exception. The sovereign ban is the boundary that establishes the relation between the included and the excluded, the inside and the outside. All relations in varying ways take the form of the sovereign ban. The way out of sovereignty and its violent law, he argues, is to think ontology and politics “beyond every figure of relation” (47). In other words, he argues that the way out of nomos basileus is through a conception of “pure potentiality,” which will allow for a politics of pure exposure (2000, 92). While the conception of “pure potentiality” is Agamben’s fundamental thought throughout his work, it is most fully developed in his respective reflections on aesthetics and language. [End Page 99] His general claim is that a different understanding of aesthetics and language, thought through the originary structure of pure potentiality, will allow for a notion of the political that finally moves beyond a relational model of politics; this in turn will allow for thinking a nonviolent relation of life and law. The question I want to take up here is whether Agamben’s claims regarding aesthetics and language allow him to make the further claim of a different notion of the political beyond relation. More precisely, the question I am raising here is whether Agamben offers a political aesthetic that can provide resources for rethinking law’s relation to life, a nonviolent relation that he names the “play” of children: “One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good” (2005a, 64).

I. Sensibility as Potentiality : The Matter of Art and Language

I want to begin with two passages in which Agamben articulates his understanding of aesthetics. In the Preface to Man without Content, after he has “purified the concept of beauty” by “filtering out” the involvement of the spectator, he writes: “Perhaps nothing is more urgent—if we really want to engage the problem of art in our time—than the destruction of aesthetics that would, by clearing away what is usually taken for granted, allow us to bring into question the very meaning of aesthetics as the science of the work of art” (1999a, 6). Aesthetics must first destroy the sensory involvement of the spectator: “This purification takes place as a reversal of the traditional perspective on the work of art: the aesthetic dimension—the sensible apprehension of the beautiful object on the part of the spectator—is replaced only by the creative expression of the artist who sees in his work only promesse de bonheur, a promise of happiness.” (2).

But this is only the first step. For the artwork to regain its original status, it must go beyond the creative expression of artistic subjectivity and arrive at the pure potentiality that characterizes the original structure of the art work. In the preface of Infancy and History, he develops this last point: “Every written work can be regarded as the prologue (or rather the broken cast) of a work [End Page 100] never penned, and destined to remain so, because late works, which in turn will be the prologues or the molds for other absent works, represent only sketches or death masks” (2007, 3). Only by breaking or destroying the work of art and turning instead to the work never penned or painted, does the proper meaning of aesthetics as aesthesis, sensibility in general before both the spectator and the work, appear. This sensibility in general, without spectator or content, which he also calls “pure potentiality,” is for him the “original structure of the work of art” (1999a, 101...


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