Initiating Life:Agamben and the Political Use of Intimacy
What does it mean to initiate life? According to Giorgio Agamben, the question of initiating life concerns how we conceive and experiment with the "how" of a form of life. In short, it involves ways of envisaging an absolutely immanent life on the threshold of its political and ethical intensification. To follow Agamben's paradigmatic problematization, an initiated life is a life made inextricable from its manner or form—a form-of-life. It is within this practical and ethopoietical horizon of thought that I envisage Agamben's work here, on the lookout for what I call "signs of passion." Signs of passion are what an initiated life is composed of; they are inherently precarious and participate in a political use of intimacy in which a form-of-life nurtures and preserves its sense of nonknowledge and the generative limits of its own (absence of) mystery.
Giorgio Agamben, political philosophy, intimacy, form of life, signs of passion
The form of life is a secret so secret.—clarice lispector [End Page 481]
1. Initiating Life
What does it mean to initiate life? For the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the question of initiating life concerns how we conceive of and experiment with the how of a form of life. In short, it involves ways of envisaging an absolutely immanent life on the threshold of its political and ethical intensification. Agamben's whole philosophical project can be described as radical mannerism that foregrounds the question of the way of living. To follow Agamben's paradigmatic problematization, an initiated life is thus a life made inextricable from its manner or form—a form-of-life.
Initiating life is a complex and multifaceted question. One spontaneous way to approach it is in relation to Agamben's desire "to bring the political out of its concealment and, at the same time, return thought to its practical calling."1 Or again, as he explains it in "A Minor Biopolitics," an important interview from early 2000 published in the French journal Vacarme: "To make of oneself a communicable body is an affair of practice, not of principle."2 It is within this practical and ethopoietical horizon of thought that I envisage Agamben's work here, on the lookout for what I would technically call "signs of passion." Signs of passion are what an initiated life is composed of, may I prospectively say.
On account of this first general definition, life initiated has thus to do with passion, that is, a fugitive and at times ungraspable sense of liveliness. There is undoubtedly a great deal of passion in Agamben's thought, a singular yet rather classic way of dramatizing life and thought. Hannah Arendt's discussion around passionate thinking offers a nice lead-in to Agamben's way of poetically weaving together thinking and living: "We are so accustomed to the old opposition of reason versus passion, spirit versus life, that the idea of passionate thinking, in which thinking and aliveness become one, takes us somewhat aback."3 This passage is quoted in David Kishik's The Power of Life: Agamben and the Coming Politics. Kishik is one of the few commentators who have aptly pointed out how this intensive weaving of life and thought in Agamben's work is inherently poetical. "Following in Wittgenstein's footsteps," writes Kishik, "Agamben claims that philosophical prose must be 'poeticized' or else it runs the risk of falling into banality, of lacking thought."4 This enabling constraint informs all of Agamben's work. It was laid out as early as in the introduction of Stanzas, Agamben's first published book.5 It is indiscernible from the question of the art of living and getting in touch with the intimate yet impersonal powers that inhabit us, as stated in the "A Minor Biopolitics" interview quoted [End Page 482] above: "The question of the art of living would be: how to be in relation with this impersonal power? How can the subject be in touch with a power that is her own but that doesn't belong to her, that overpasses her? This is a poetical problem, so to speak. The Romans used to call this impersonal and fertile principle 'genius,' that which allows one to engender a life."6
Agamben puts at the core of his philosophical journey the singular events that exceed the limits of subjectivities and promise the coming of another world out of the gestures in this one. Another way to put it is to emphasize the ethical necessity of maintaining oneself in relation—in contact, to follow Agamben's terminology—with one's own end. This somewhat mysterious or, rather, pervading mystical quality should always be kept in mind when dealing with his work.
From Agamben's work transpires an Epicurean Stimmung of lathe biōthes, or life in hiding. Noticeably, this orientation of thought sometimes tends to produce forms of sideration. It is one of the reasons why his philosophy draws a great deal of (and no doubt partially deserved) suspicion. As Christian Haines explains in his insightful reading of Agamben's homo sacer project, "Agamben thus elaborates a hermeneutics whose concern is the secret meaning of a life. … His hermeneutic becomes hermetic not only because it seeks to recover secret meaning but also because it valorizes secrecy as such. The shadowy, the fugitive, and the incommunicable serve as placeholders for a politics to come insofar as they involve a subtraction from the order of things."7
In the last volume of the homo sacer project, The Use of Bodies, Agamben's subtractive stance is expressed through two powerful and somehow complementary figures: Guy Debord's meditation on the damned voluptas of clandestine life (as expressed, for example, in his masterpiece In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni) and the Exile of One Alone with One Alone, which is inspired by Plotinus's contemplative philosophy. In both cases, what is at stake is a thorough and creative engagement with the question of intimacy. It is along these lines that I will now briefly outline a few elements composing Agamben's approach to life initiated.
2. Arcanum imperii
Agamben's gesture of thought is pervaded by a sense of mystery and secrecy. The whole homo sacer project indeed unfolds as a patient exploration of the two faces of arcanum imperii, the secrets of power that need to be deactivated in order to alter what is presented as the deadly course of [End Page 483] Western ontotheology. One face of arcanum imperii concerns the figure of homo sacer as such, that is, the dispositive that produces a referent to sovereign power. The other face is somewhat more elusive. In the introduction to The Use of Bodies, it is suggestively presented as what Debord used to call the "clandestinity of private life."8 A great part of the homo sacer project's last volume is about opening up lines of inquiry to retrieve the political element that hides in the clandestinity of singular existence, beyond the obsolete separation of the public and the private—in a common, impersonal, and inappropriable intimacy. Therein lies for Agamben the secret of today's politics, "on which," he says, "every biography and every revolution makes shipwreck."9
The Latin expression arcanum imperii refers back to Tacitus and the Roman Empire. It suggests a strategic advantage against the enemy. In that sense, arcanum imperii concern the institution or instauration of secrecy as a central component of subjectivity. Arcanum imperii operate at the heart of subjectivity, in direct relation to intimacy.
As the tarot card game reminds us, the term arcane also has a rich hermetic trajectory. For Paracelsus, an author Agamben refers to extensively in his book The Signature of All Things,10 when he discusses the theory of signatures, arcane is a key hermetic concept that describes an incorporeal but active substance that concerns the mystery of life. In this sense, the alchemists were commonly said to be pursuing the arcana of nature. Nowadays, arcane refers to a mysterious or specialized knowledge, language, or information only accessible to or possessed by the initiate.
3. Occultural Procedures
Agamben's approach to arcane imperial matters is thus twofold. On the one hand, and as is well known, his philosophical project aims to unveil the arcanum imperii that fuel the biopolitical machine. But at the same time, and in a somehow minor fashion, he is also committed to producing a "philosophy by images" that directly addresses the tenor of a form of life and the intimate countenance of subjectivities. Practically speaking, this imaginal dimension of Agamben's dramatization of thought involves the capacity to delineate the forms by which one encloses oneself and renders oneself available to the outside. In other words, it concerns active participation in what could be prospectively called mysteries. Agamben likes to [End Page 484] recall that the etymological root of words such as mystery and mystique is myen, a word that initially means "to initiate" but which also designates closing oneself off, keeping one's mouth and eyes shut. Participation in the creation of forms, a participation in which the distinction between form and content is neutralized, is mysterious precisely because there is nothing left to conceal and discourse is somehow sidestepped in favor of direct and immediate contact with the world.
In Il mistero del male (The Mystery of Evil),11 Agamben makes clear that a mystery is not so much something that remains unsaid or is kept secret in some sort of interiority but, rather, drawing from the original meaning of the Greek word mysterion, is something like a dramatic and effective action. There is a form of secrecy that secretes power in full transparency and without producing an interiority, producing secrets "as impenetrable as water" and engendering war machines, as A Thousand Plateaus has forcefully demonstrated.12 There are ways of keeping a generative distance between a secret and its revelation, creating "a secret that calls into a secret held in common, organized as secret, calling into being the prophetic organization."13 Mysteries in that sense correspond, somehow paradoxically, to a particular form of staging and, inversely, to a way of resisting certain forms of expropriation through display. When discussing the structure of eschatological time and the messianic temporal contraction, Agamben stresses the necessity of producing a time-image, that is, not an image of the end of time but, rather, an image to bring (chronological) time to an end. The idea for Agamben is that in the messianic temporal contraction, mystery and history coincide without rest: "Here, time becomes space and history is made immediately mystery, that is theater."14
These initiatic processes or occultural procedures, as I would like to call them following a decisive impulsion by Marc Courroux and the Tuning Speculation crew,15 permeate the whole of Agamben's philosophy. They concern the historical necessity of dramatic closure or relative self-enclosure of a form-of-life. They are intimately woven with the elaboration of an active relation to zones of nonknowledge. They coincide with Agamben's care for opacity, his attempt at protecting the relative obscurity of relations and things. For is not darkness in some way, as Agamben once stated, the color of potentiality? For as much as he seems to be receptive to every type of knowledge and disciplines, his own prose and mode of existence can also be quite unyielding. There is, no doubt, something hermetic about Agamben's art of living and writing, and Kishik once again suggests [End Page 485] it most succinctly: "'Protect your heart with all vigilance, for it is the well-spring of life'—this passage from Proverbs 4:23, which was inscribed above the entrance to Heidegger's home, also informs Agamben's comportment quite efficiently."16 This affirmative practice of withdrawal and self-enclosure is a means of inserting oneself in the fabric of the world; it participates in the subtle and somehow magical art of precipitating events: life encrypted.
The occultural procedures giving shape to life initiated refer to a very practical dimension of the care of the self or the production of subjectivity. As Agamben explains in his commentary on the work of the Italian scholar Furio Jesi, this care is intimately related to a relation to nonknowledge: "The I-machine necessarily contains a kernel of nonknowledge. And it is the way by which the knowing and speaking subject maintains himself in relation to his own zone of nonknowledge, it is the strategy by which he lives and elaborates his own secret—by which he cares for himself following what Foucault means by that term—that determines the degree and the sobriety of his knowledge."17 This minor text has generally been ignored by commentators, but it is a key component to understanding Agamben's initiatic conception of form-of-life. In this text, Agamben discusses Rainer Maria Rilke's work and, more precisely, the way Rilke suggests we relate to our own secrets, as he discusses it in Letters to a Young Poet and other works. Incidentally, Agamben introduces a quite surprising distinction between the mystical and the esoteric. He describes the mystic in this context as one who "abandons himself or hopes to abandon himself to a force that comes upon him until it annihilates his will." In contrast, the esotericist makes use of the self as the "privileged element of an initiatic ritual of poetic creation." In this way, the esotericist actively participates in his or her own expropriation and "attends like an initiate to his own abolition."18 This rather puzzling distinction between esoteric and mystical procedure is elucidated when, I would argue, we envisage it in light of what Agamben says about the precarious dimension of existence.
The path that goes from a confused idea to a clear one isn't made of ideas.—paul valéry [End Page 486]
Much of Agamben's work aims at initiating us into a classical ontology for which, in opposition to modern ontology, the question of the will is set aside and relegated to the margins. One of his key claims, developed extensively in The Kingdom and the Glory,19 is that the apparatus of oikonomia as a paradigm of governmentality functions through a radical separation between being and action, thus allowing for modes of government and practices of will and commandment that are essentially destructive and alienating, producing bare lives and dissolving forms of life. This hypothesis of an essential fracture between being and praxis is further explored in Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty,20 where Agamben explores the modality of "mysteric presence," its efficacy, and how it has durably conditioned the Western conception of work and production. In the wake of Heidegger's understanding of metaphysics and the history of being, he suggests that through its conception of faith and its concept of will, Christianity has interpreted classic ontology in the direction of a "putting at work" of being, developing a paradigm of operativity that has led to a devastating worldwide domination.
There is not enough space here to discuss in detail the complexity of Agamben's argument about how exactly the Christian office is considered to be the invention of a paradigm for detached, ungrounded, and debased human action. Let us just say that Agamben severely criticizes Christian churches for having invented a way to systematically separate the officiating subject from the ethical quality of his or her action through liturgical performance. What is determinative in the office is no more the moral quality, the vibrant presence, or "the right intention of the agent but only the function that his action carries out as opus Dei."21
Too often, we only read that aspect of Agamben's work, that is, his critique of the biopolitical apparatuses that produce bare life. But his work also sets the stage for a transformative suspension of the will that requires a new relation to knowledge. To maintain oneself on this threshold where action and passion, object and subject, enter a zone of indistinction, to open up and endure this metamorphic plane of immanence, we must learn how to trace the forms of a temporary process of self-enclosure, just long enough for rendering ourselves available for the capture of the forces of the outside thus convoked. In The Unspeakable Girl, a short work about the mysteries of Eleusis that works as a counterproposal to that of Christian mysteries, Agamben insists once again on the direct or haptic experience of nondis-cursive knowledge: an experience of the suchness of things, one might say. [End Page 487] The mystery of Eleusis supposes the presence of Kore as a life that does not let itself be defined. From there, Agamben derives a challenging and rigorously exact idea of initiated life: "To live life like an initiation. But to what? Not to a doctrine, but to life itself and its absence of mystery. That is what we have learned, that there is no mystery, only an unspeakable girl."22
If there is one thing that stands out from this short and stimulating book, it is the question of precarity: "If the Christian mystery is always efficient, precarity is the dimension—adventurous and nocturne—in which the initiated pagan evolves."23 This comment is congruent with other passages of his work where precarious and inherently erratic life is foregrounded and defined in opposition to scientific certainty and biopolitical or ontotheological apparatuses of capture. As Agamben writes, for example, "Nothing, however, is as fragile and precarious as the sphere of pure means."24 It is this precarious dimension of life that is affirmed in Agamben's politics of intimacy. This politics, like all of Agamben's philosophy, can never be presented as a detachable program. It is expressive and performatively shaped as a preamble to a life to come, as it bears witness, intimately, that is, from within, to the ever-going event of anthropogenesis.
5. Shadows of a Love
Who will say, and in which language, the distance between two bodies?—fernand deligny
If theory does not stay in touch with its inherent imaginal dimension and poieticity, if theory therefore does not maintain an intimate relation to its own power of suggestion and literary becoming, it is at risk of becoming tyrannical—a mere form of commandment over life extracted. In the guise of a conclusion, and in performative concordance with Agamben's understanding of the precarious mode of existence of philosophical prose, I would like to present a precarious and somewhat initiatic cinematic image of love—of love as intimacy in the making. In Face, a 2009 film made in collaboration with the Louvre museum, the Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang presents us with one of the most beautiful love scenes of recent cinema. It is a living tableau, a contemporary masterpiece of chiaroscuro. In the pitch dark, we hear the crackling sound of someone eating [End Page 488] chips, followed by a woman's heartfelt laughter. A small and blurry dot of red incandescence appears: it is the burning tip of a cigarette, exchanged between the partners. The light gets stronger as the smoker takes a puff, to only then return to its reddish ember state. Suddenly, a lighter is lit: two faces appear for a short moment. She feeds him some chips and laughs again. We are back in the dark. The cigarette moves slowly between the two lovers, like a firefly in the night. Light, faces, laughter, darkness. Lovers in the dark. Light. She does not laugh anymore. They gaze at each other in the light of the lighter, quietly fascinated. Dark again. Breath. The breathing of the night. Light. She explores his body with her mouth, kissing him gently on his forehead, on his nose, on his mouth, on his chin, on his neck, on his shoulder. Two faces in the dark, gazing at each other. The infinite mystery of a lover's face. Incipient, anonymous. A precarious idea of love, where one is paradoxically "alone with oneself," as Agamben puts it: "To live in intimacy with a stranger, not in order to draw him closer, or to make him known, but rather to keep him strange, remote: unapparent—so unapparent that his name contains him entirely. And, even in discomfort, to be nothing else, day after day, than the ever open place, the unwaning light in which that one being, that thing, remains forever exposed and sealed off."25
In The Passion of Facticity, Agamben proposes an inspired close reading of a quite marginal concept in Heidegger's work, namely, love. In Sein und Zeit's analysis of Dasein's Stimmung or affective tonality, fear and anxiety are given much importance, but love only figures indirectly in an end-note of section 29, through quotations of Augustine and Pascal. Agamben maintains that love is crucial for understanding Heidegger's concept of facticity, which is essentially defined by a dialectics of latency and nonlatency: "Facticity is the condition of what remains concealed in its opening, of what is exposed by its very retreat."26 As is well known, Heidegger conceives of this paradoxical movement of opening and withdrawal as the experience of the truth of being, and it is along these lines that Agamben proposes a definition of love as expositional paradox: "What man introduces into the world, his 'proper,' is not simply the light and opening of knowledge but above all the opening to concealment and opacity. … Love is the passion of facticity in which man bears this nonbelonging and darkness, appropriating [adsuefacit] them while guarding them as such."27
As understood in the wake of Heidegger's thought, love withholds an essentially conservative component, in the sense that it tends to highlight and preserve the object of love as such, in its singular, [End Page 489] opaque—shadowy—facticity. It is along the line of this "suchness" that love's expositional paradox allows for a literal and precarious initiation or entrée en matière; and indeed, from a Heideggerian perspective, paradoxes seem inevitable when one wishes to plunge into what, for lack of a better phrase, I would call here the living singularity of a world. In this regard, the passion for facticity can be understood as a passionate materialist inclination, passionate here referring as much to resoluteness as to the encrypting and encrypted signs of passion that traverse the experience of love.
Ultimately, Agamben's description of love's paradoxical conservatism is essential to what I have tried to define as an occultural procedure. Forms-of-life communicate by contact, in a void of representation that is also a care for the inappropriable—a care for opacity. This contact participates in an ontology of nonrelation and use from which derives, in the final instance, a politics of intimacy in which life is inappropriable and inseparable from its form—a life that actively preserves its sense of nonknowledge and the generative limits of its own mystery:
We can call "intimacy" use-of-oneself as relation with an inappropriable. Whether it is a matter of bodily life in all its aspects (understood as those elementary ethe that we have seen urinating, sleeping, defecating, sexual pleasure, nudity, etc., to be) or of the special presence-absence to ourselves that we live in moments of solitude, that of which we have an experience in intimacy is our being held in relation with an inappropriable zone of non-consciousness. …
… [I]t is necessary to remember that intimacy can preserve its political meaning only on condition that it remains inappropriable. What is common is never a property but only the inappropriable. The sharing of this inappropriable is love. …
"Alone by oneself" is an expression of intimacy. We are together and very close, but between us there is not an articulation or a relation that unites us. We are united to one another in the form of our being alone. … For this reason, lovers show themselves nude to one another: I show myself to you as when I am alone with myself; what we share is only our esoterism, our inappropriable zone of non-knowledge. This inappropriable is the unthinkable; it is what our culture must always exclude and presuppose in order to make it the negative foundation of politics.28 [End Page 490]
1. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 5; my emphasis.
3. Hannah Arendt, cited in David Kishik, The Power of Life: Agamben and the Coming Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 6.
4. Ibid., 61.
5. Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald L. Martinez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1992).
6. Agamben, "Une Biopolitique mineure."
7. Christian Haines, "A Lyric Intensity of Thought: On the Potentiality and Limits of Giorgio Agamben's 'Homo Sacer' Project," b2o: An Online Journal (2016), https://www.boundary2.org/2016/08/christian-haines-a-lyric-intensity-of-thought-on-the-potentiality-and-limits-of-giorgio-agambens-homo-sacer-project/; my emphasis.
8. Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), xv.
9. Ibid., xvi.
10. Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method, trans. Luca D'Isanto and Kevin Attell (New York: Zone Books, 2009).
11. Giorgio Agamben, Il mistero del male: Benedetto XVI e la fine dei tempi (Rome: Edizione Laterza, 2013).
12. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. and foreword by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 290.
13. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Black Studies and Fugitive Planning (New York: Autonomedia, 2013), 42.
14. Agamben, Il mistero del male, 34.
16. Kishik, Power of Life, 10.
17. Giorgio Agamben, "Sur l'impossibilité de dire Je: Paradigme épistémologiques et paradigmes poétiques chez Furio Jesi," in Furio Jesi, La fête et la machine mythologique (Paris: MIX, 2008), 18.
19. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa and Matteo Mandarini (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).
20. Giorgio Agamben, Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).
21. Ibid., 25.
22. Giorgio Agamben, La ragazza indicibile (Milan: Electa, 2010), 32. [End Page 491]
23. Ibid., 20.
24. Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 87.
25. Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose, trans. Sam Whitsitt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 61.
26. Agamben, La ragazza indicibile, 190.
27. Ibid., 204; my emphasis.
28. Agamben, Use of Bodies, 91, 93, 237–38. [End Page 492]