- Moving Forward by Moving BackOn Some Recent Works by Giorgio Agamben
TRANS. ADAM KOTSKO
Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2017
TRANS. COOPER FRANCIS
New York: Seagull Books, 2017
TRANS. LORENZO CHIESA
Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2018
The books under review here represent only a portion of Agamben’s output in recent years. While Agamben has been an increasingly prolific author over the course of his career, there has been a veritable explosion of new material since the conclusion—or, as he puts it, “abandonment”—oftheHomo Sacer project with the publication of The Use of Bodies (2014/2016).1 This “abandonment” was in no sense a conclusion, as he clarifies in the preface to The Use of Bodies, but it is in some sense an act of closure, even if it is the paradoxical closure of leaving the project definitively unfinished and open-ended. The Use of Bodies—which, far from answering all the questions raised by the earlier volume, piles on even more of its own—is a massive work by Agamben’s standards, matched only by The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Glory (2007/2011). Hence it is perhaps understandable that many of the works that have appeared in its wake (including Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm [2015/2015], which was [End Page 141] belatedly inserted into the architectonic of the series after the publication of The Use of Bodies) are shorter—in the case of Taste (2015/2017), very short indeed.
In a way, publishing such a short essay, which originally appeared as an entry in an Italian philosophical reference work, is no departure for Agamben. He has always been attracted to publishing very short texts as stand-alone books. Many of the pieces later collected in Profanations, for instance, initially appeared in small chapbooks consisting of two short essays. Several of his other short works have been published in English (also by Seagull Press) in attractive hardcover editions with supplemental essays and artworks, and other chapbook-length texts have periodically been gathered together into slightly larger collections (like What Is an Apparatus? And Other Essays [2006/2009]) that still manage to preserve the small scale Agamben aimed at with the original publications. Even in his larger works, one can see a preference for the fragmentary and suggestive. Many individual chapters could just as easily have been published as stand-alone pieces, and the overall argumentative flow of his longer texts is often unclear. He seems to work by accumulation and iteration, whether within a “single” book or a sequence of shorter “independent” pieces.
Thus the length alone does not make Taste an outlier in his cor-pus. (Even so, one could justifiably ask about the ethics of publishing such a short text—my first reading took approximately an hour—as a stand-alone, full-price hardcover book with no supplemental materials whatsoever.) What is surprising is the original date of the text’s publication: 1979. At that point, Agamben was the author of a few relatively brief books on aesthetics, which certainly made him an appropriate candidate to supply the entry on “taste” in a philosophical dictionary. And in fact, many of the distinctive features of this text—the unexpected reference to political economy and the surprisingly appreciative engagement with psychoanalysis—are shared with such early works as The Man without Content (1970/1999) and Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (1977/1992).
In retrospect, however, the text appears to be a backward-looking one. In only a few short years, Agamben would publish Language and Death: A Seminar on the Place of Negativity (1982/1991), whose conclusion would evoke the figure of the sacred man or homo sacer that would come to define his life’s work. It would still be nearly a decade until [End Page 142] Agamben announced something like a “political turn” with The Coming Community (1990/1993). Five years after that, Agamben would definitively launch his political theoretical project with Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995...