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diacritics 30.2 (2000) 3-24

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Agamben's Potential

Leland Deladurantaye

Giorgio Agamben. Potentialities: Collected Essays In Philosophy. Ed., trans., and intro. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999. [P]
It is only after a long and arduous frequenting of names, definitions, and facts that the spark is lit in the soul which, in enflaming it, marks the passage from passion to accomplishment.

--Giorgio Agamben, The Idea of Prose

In a preface written for the French translation of his Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, Giorgio Agamben states that"every written work can be regarded as the prologue (or rather, the broken cast) of a work never penned, and destined to remain so, because later works, which in turn will be the prologues or the moulds for other absent works, represent only sketches or death masks." 1 This remark, which describes every work of art as a preface, does not simply refer to the impossibility of translating the all of life into a single work. Nor does it simply refer to those purely empirical obstacles which stand in the way of creation, preventing the work of art from attaining the plenitude it might have hoped for had not greedy wine-merchants, harrying tailors, and eloquent panderers distracted the Great Minds from their tasks. Instead, in returning every work of art to its originary hesitation, in evoking the oscillation between work and draft, effort and accomplishment, Agamben invokes a much richer and darker potentiality lying at the heart of the work. It is this richer and darker potentiality that constitutes the central concern of Agamben's thought and that gives its name to this collection. Yet what is named in this potentiality? What is the nature of the potentiality of which Agamben speaks? What is this potentiality the potential for?

Before advancing in the investigation of this question, let us look briefly at what is gathered together under its name. In this collection of essays by a thinker of unquestionable brilliance one finds a number of axes. The first of these is that of chronology: the essays presented in this volume stretch from 1975 to 1996 and thus cover the period during which works such as Stanzas, Infancy and History, The Idea of Prose, and The Coming Community were prepared and published. The second axis--the one that dictates the ordering of the texts found in this volume and which is the choice of the editor and not the author--is a thematic one: the book is divided into four sections entitled respectively, "Language," "History," "Potentiality," and "Contingency." 2 One notes the presence of other, more fugitive axes such as those which can be found in connections between different essays in the collection (as in the case of the remark from a late Byzantine lexicon cited in the closing paragraphs of the first essay, which receives a magisterial, thirty-page gloss in the last, richest essay in the collection) and between the essays gathered together in this volume and Agamben's other written works (the question [End Page 3] of the genealogy of the sacred, which lies at the heart of Agamben's most recent works, is evoked here in the closing lines of the eighth essay in this collection; the question of a philosophy of life as the coming philosophy in the chronologically final essay in this volume [chapter 14] thus announces Agamben's more recent studies on the politico-philosophical concept of life). These last two axes confront the reader with all the more urgency, as no major thinker since Walter Benjamin has occupied himself with such a tensely, densely interconnected constellation of concerns at the heart of such seeming diversity of subject. At the hub of these axes, which accelerate and blur in the reading of the work, lies the animating, abiding concern of Agamben's thought: potentiality.

The Potentiality of Language, or Matter


This preface with which we began, and which finds itself near the chronological midpoint of the essays gathered together in this volume, contains a singular profession de foi. After suggesting that, "if for every author there exists a...