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  • Writing LinesAgamben Contra Nietzsche
  • Jenny Doussan (bio)

Répétitions is the name that Paul Éluard gives to one of his collections of poetry, for whose frontispiece Max Ernst has drawn four small boys. They turn their backs to the reader, to their teacher and his desk as well, and look out over a balustrade where a balloon hangs in the air. A giant pencil rests on the windowsill. The repetition of childhood experience gives us pause: when we were little, there was as yet no agonized protest against the world of our parents. As children in the midst of the world, we showed ourselves superior. When we reach for the banal, we take hold of the good along with it—the good that is there (open your eyes) right before you.

Walter Benjamin, Dream Kitsch

In his 1988 foreword to Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, Giorgio Agamben declares, “In both my written and unwritten books, I have stubbornly pursued only one train of thought: what is the meaning of ‘there is language’; what is the meaning of ‘I speak’?” (2007, 6). There is no cause to doubt the philosopher’s word, when from infancy to testimony, his work across the decades indicates a clear engagement with the enunciative. But, what of that other facet of language, the inscriptive—that is, what of writing? In a radio interview that the philosopher gave in 2004, he commented that “wanting to write is the desire to experience potentiality” (de La Durantaye, 2–3).

Agamben’s disposition toward writing, however, is more ambiguous than this sentiment may suggest, as is indicated by his sometimes emphatic and sometimes ambiguous stance on Friedrich Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence of the same, to which he has sometimes referred in relation to the inscriptive. For instance, in a passing remark at the end of another interview that he gave to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in that same year, Agamben commented that he stands “with Benjamin, who said, the eternal return is like the punishment of detention, the sentence [End Page 114] in school in which one had to copy the same sentence a thousand times” (Raulff, 614). Compare this assessment of the eternal return to that in his 1982 essay titled “Benjamin and the Demonic: Happiness and Historical Redemption.” Therein, by contrast, Agamben qualifies Benjamin’s reading of the eternal return that “perhaps unjustly” sees in it “the punishment given to schoolchildren that consists in having to copy out the same text countless times,” by noting the German-Jewish thinker’s recognition of its revolutionary possibility for “[exasperating] mythic repetition to the point of finally bringing it to a halt” (1999b, 155).

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Figure 1.

Frontispiece of Répétitions, 1922, by Paul Éluard, with illustrations by Max Ernst.

Typ 915.22.3605, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Nevertheless, Agamben elsewhere addresses the eternal return with no apparent reference to writing, as in its mention in “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle” (1990), in which he cites it as an example of “the messianic shift that integrally changes the world, leaving it, at the same time, almost intact” (2000, 79), while in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1998) it shares its temporal status with the camp (1999c, 99–103). These are but a few of the varied references to the eternal return in his corpus that range from affirmative to condemnatory.

What precisely is at stake here? Is Agamben’s fluctuating position on the eternal return simply a matter of “a move away from the line drawn by one treasured thinker in the direction of a line drawn by another” in the difficult endeavor of “developing a philosophy of potentiality able to come to terms with the past,” as one critic has argued (de La Durantaye, 323)?1 [End Page 115] Is the Strafe des Nachsitzens, the punishment of writing lines that Benjamin refers to, thus merely an expedient analogy rather than an indicator of the particularity of writing to Agamben’s determination of Nietzsche’s concept? Even if one were to accept the hypothesis that in Remnants of Auschwitz Agamben rereads the...