Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Quodlibet: Giorgio Agamben's Anti-Utopia

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Quodlibet: Giorgio Agamben's Anti-Utopia

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The article analyzes the ethical and political stakes in Giorgio Agamben's The Coming Community. The book was first published in Italian in 1990 and was translated into English in 1993. It was then republished in Italian in 2001, with a short new apostil by the author that reaffirms its persistent and actual "inactuality." In this text Agamben establishes the philosophical foundations of the long-lasting project started with the publication of Homo sacer (1995). Its republication in 2001 seems thus to reaffirm the politics of his analysis of the past fifteen years. The argument revolves around the analysis of the "whatever singularity" (qualunque in Italian, quodlibet in Latin) as the subject of the "coming community," a singularity that presents an "inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence." Whatever must not be understood as "indifference" but, rather, as "being such that it always matters." The ethical and political proposal consists in the call to adhere to this singularity without identity and representation in order to construe a community without postulates and thus also without "subjects." The paradigm of this politics is identified in Nancy's term inoperativeness (inoperosita), a messianic "de-creation." The inoperative whatever/s directed toward a politics che viene, a-venir as distinct from futura, future: It implies in fact the renunciation of construing images of the future--"utopia is the very topicality of things."

The thought of Giorgio Agamben has been often accused of being utopian. Antonio Negri, for example, branded Agamben's core concept, "naked" or "bare life," as a "utopian escape" (1) and then identified in State of Exception (2003) a "feverish utopian anxiety." (2) Andreas Kalyvas accused his notion of politics of dissolving "into an eschatological, utopian vision of social life," infused with strong theological and messianic overtones, which would make of it a particular version of political theology. (3) And Dominik LaCapra found the strong separation of ethics and legal concepts in Remnants of Auschwitz (1998) an "ecstatic, anarchistic Utopia" and identified the core of Agamben's thought in a "blank, Utopian, messianic (post)apocalypticism." (4) Agamben's work has attracted other, and ever harsher, criticisms, which I will leave here aside, however, in order to analyze his relation to utopianism. (5) Negri, Kalyvas, and LaCapra voice a quite common unease for a political project that is deemed unrealizable, empty, even impolitic; (6) "utopia" is here thus spelled as an impractical, idealistic scheme for social and political reform. A more precise definition is needed.

At the end of his essay on Surrealism (1929), Walter Benjamin writes: "For what is the program of the bourgeois parties? A bad poem on springtime, filled to bursting with metaphors. The socialist sees that "finer future of our children and grandchildren' in a society in which all act 'as if they were angels' and everyone has as much 'as if he were rich" and everyone lives 'as if he were free.' Of angels, wealth, freedom, not a trace these are mere images." (7) In a piece written two years later, "Der destruktive Charakter" (1931), he insists that a radical, revolutionary politics must renounce optimistic, metaphoric contemplation: "The destructive character sees no image hovering before him." (8) Benjamin does not employ the term utopia; it is clear nonetheless that a political project founded on mere--and optimistic--images of the future is the target of his harsh criticism. If political utopianism in fact originated strongly influenced by world travels and discoveries of new lands--by situating a political alternative in a spatial displacement (a nonplace that is, however, another place), at least from the Enlightenment it assumed the character of a "better future" toward which a progressive politics should strive. (9) If, following Benjamin, we define "utopia" as a political project construed around images of the future and rhetorically based on the syntagma "as if" (als ob), then Agamben's project exudes an intrinsic and intense anti-utopianism. …

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