- Giorgio Agamben's Romantic Ontology
BY GIORGIO AGAMBEN. TRANS. LORENZO CHIESA.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018
BY GIORGIO AGAMBEN. TRANS. LORENZO CHIESA.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017
Ever since the appearance of Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer series of books in 1998, critics have assiduously sought to link his work to Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, and Carl Schmitt. While there is nothing wrong with uncovering the foundation and sources of a philosopher's work, or with explaining his terminology, concepts, and methods, it becomes boring after a while to read numerous studies of Agamben that repeat the same liturgy.1 Consequently, I want to suggest in this review that each of his works published after the Homo Sacer volumes need to be understood in the particular changing social-historical context of the twenty-first century, especially in the specific time he publishes them. Agamben tends to write his short, unusual works to address the grave dilemmas of sovereignty and identity in a world in which Being or existence has more or less been devalued if not perverted and made impossible. In this respect, it makes no sense to trace the origins of his thinking, but rather we must try to understand the problematics of his essays, understood as endeavors, to clarify how and why we live.
The Adventure, which signals a profound turn in Agamben's ongoing exploration of life in a world that has gradually turned into both a concentration camp and a global civil war, is a poetic and romantic [End Page 249] declaration of hope. It consists of five short chapters, Demon, Adventure, Eros, Event, and Elpis. In the first, Agamben cites the fifth-century philosopher Macrobius's Saturnalia and explains how four gods—Daimon (Demon), Tyche (Chance), Eros (Love), and Ananke (Necessity)—constitute the forces that drive our existence and ethical behavior. Then, without explaining why, Agamben adds Goethe's Elpis, Hope, which also plays a part in the way we form our lives. In chapter 2, Agamben suddenly jumps to the medieval period in Europe and examines how the idea of marvelous adventure was key to understanding its historical essence in the works of Chrétien de Troyes and the lais of Marie de France and had different implications that can be diversely interpreted. At the end of this chapter, he remarks,
However, we are also interested in another aspect of the adventure. Insofar as it expresses the inseparable unity of event and tale, thing and speech, the adventure cannot but have a properly ontological meaning beyond its poetological value. If being is the dimension opened to humans in the anthropogenetic event of language; if being is always, in Aristotle's words, something that "is said," then the adventure certainly deals with a specific experience of being.(41–42)
The following third chapter, Eros, is pivotal because adventure assumes a different meaning at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern period. In fact, adventure becomes obscured and devalued but, at the same time, more substantial because of love and the aestheticization of existence. After citing and interpreting the works of Georg Simmel and Oskar Becker, Agamben shows how love and adventure become intertwined and only a life that has the form of adventure can truly find love. Consequently, the German romantics become vital in Agamben's concept of adventure. He notes that the artist seeking love replaces the knight of medieval literature as the subject of adventure. The artist is the protagonist who esthetically shapes his existence with irony, for he knows that he is inessential—semblance and truth. He is irony.
In his typical subtle, poetical, and at times mystical style, Agamben circles around a definition of "the adventure" combining different perspectives. In chapter 4, he wants to grasp the adventure as event through linguistics and metaphysics. Moreover, he links storytelling to the artistic "I" of Being (Dasein) founded on language—locution and speaking. [End Page 250]
We then understand why the event is also always an event of language and why the adventure is inseparable from speech that tells it. The Being that happens here and...