Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Thinking Thingness: Agamben and Perniola

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Thinking Thingness: Agamben and Perniola

Article excerpt

Introduction

One of the conceptual categories that has occupied philosophical thought from the very beginning is the notion of origin, the Being of being, from Plato's archetypes to Aristotle's dynamic relation between energeia (action) and dynamis (potentiality), Heidegger's aletheia (truth), Lacan's reel (the real). (1) Of course, the investigation of the origin is the ontological question par excellence, and has spurred metaphysical as well as theological thinking over the centuries. However, it is with modernity that this discussion has taken a direction whose impact has had a vast echo in diverse and not always convergent spheres such as ontology, ethics, aesthetics, and politics. This article will focus on the work of two contemporary Italian philosophers, Giorgio Agamben and Mario Perniola, who time and time again have returned to the notion of origin in ways and with emphases which are not only unique but also richly layered and informed by an ongoing dialogue with the Western philosophical and aesthetic traditions. This is not to say that they are the only two Italian philosophers who have consistently tackled the central ontological question, far from it. Massimo Cacciari, Adriana Cavarero, Roberto Esposito, Aldo Gargani, Luigi Pareyson, Franco Rella, Emanuele Severino, Gianni Vattimo, to name only a few, have provided significant and powerful insights into the notion of origin and its ramifications in the fields of ethics and aesthetics. (2) What distinguishes the work of Agamben and Perniola is an original investigation of two main traits of origin, presence, and absence, so as to reclaim their centrality and importance to the realia, the thingness, of human experience and productivity. In their work, origin is perceived and articulated as remnants, thresholds, (3) shadows, death masks. Texts, that is: be they literary, visual, philosophical or biological, always already accompanied by an excess of meaning that does not so much adhere to the text as remain within it as an external entity, a disembodied body, by which I mean a body devoid of a conventional narrative. This excess, which is simultaneously internal and external to the narrative, leads to the gradual problematization of the origin in the writings of Agamben and Perniola. Ultimately the origin becomes indistinct within the folds of a presence that, instead of concealing itself, offers itself as the other as such, unsayable and yet tangible.

As for many other modern and contemporary thinkers, the writings of Agamben and Perniola have also been assigned to the philosophical category of negativity and passivity. (4) Clearly, they too are not immune to the Nietzschean claim that God is dead, and that representation and knowledge, be they artistic or philosophical, are confronted with a void, a lack, and an emptiness (a negativity) around which revolves the work of the artist and the philosopher. They too, like the potter in Lacan and Heidegger, begin to write from "nothing." (5) This nothing is the origin, which has been gradually emptied of meanings and representational anchors, the void which propels productivity and action. It is, in other words, the thing of art and thinking; an ontological fulcrum which is also an ethical and aesthetic imperative.

What differentiates the work of Perniola and Agamben, and what makes their comparison extremely interesting and rewarding, is their respective interpretation of thingness. They both attach a tremendous importance to artistic production, but while Agamben privileges an ontological investigation of the thing predicated on a reconfiguration and extension of Heidegger's crusade against metaphysics, Perniola focuses on the thing as desire and eros. They both take their departure from the same sense of a fragmentary experience in which what remains to be thought of are, using Benjamin's terms, "moments" ("Augenblicke") and "discontinuities" ("Unstetige"), (6) ruins and remnants; and yet these temporal "nows" and spatial "bodies" assume different philosophical and artistic connotations to the extent that while Agamben's thought is more akin to Heideggerian hermeneutics, and the emphasis is on textual language, Perniola's gravitates around Lacan's psychoanalysis. …

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