Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Agamben's Curio Cabinet, Animality, and the Zone of Indeterminacy

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Agamben's Curio Cabinet, Animality, and the Zone of Indeterminacy

Article excerpt


For Hegel the zone of indeterminacy, at its greatest level of abstraction, is a suspension of determinacy that reveals an immanent logic implying further development. At certain crucial junctures in his philosophical system, Hegel asks us to abstract from presupposed determinacies in order to embark upon such an immanent logic of derivation: the abstraction from determinate objects of consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the abstraction from determinate structures of freedom in the Philosophy of Right and, above all, the abstraction from any and every conceivable determinacy in the Science of Logic. Although Agamben himself indicates his proximity to Hegel in the "permanent state of exception" that he locates in the Phenomenology, a space opened by language as "the pure potentiality to signify," (2) for Hegel it is in the Logic, not the Phenomenology, that ontological determinacies are derived, and here abstraction is made from linguistic determinacy as well.

For Agamben, on the other hand, indeterminacy is a zone to which we return in a transcendental move that discourages the derivation of further determinacies. In short, whereas for Hegel it is a beginning, for Agamben it is an endpoint. Wherever Agamben does explicitly turn to Hegel, a heavy Kojevian influence is often manifest in the mistaken sidelining of the {Science of Logic in favour of the Phenomenology of Spirit as the ontological "point of departure for the Hegelian system," (3) and he everywhere heavily invests the Hegelian text with transcendental significance, replacing Hegel's progressive forward development with a return to transcendental indeterminacy which "always already" opens the space for determinacy. (4) After outlining what I take to be Agamben's hermeneutical method, I will turn to the indeterminacy conceived as a transcendental ground in The Open: Man and Animal with respect to animality.

Interestingly, with the sole exception of the Logic, in Hegel's system the abovementioned moments of abstraction from presupposed determinacies are not necessarily aligned with the three overarching spheres of logic, nature, and spirit. Hegel famously considered the Phenomenology to be prefatory to the entire system, while philosophy proper only begins with the Logic. The abstraction from the determinacies of freedom only occurs at the outset of the Philosophy of Right, which takes up a sphere of determinacy already well into the philosophy of spirit that forms part three of the Encyclopedia. Such abstraction doesn't occur at all in the Philosophy of Nature which, as the sphere of empirical contingency, does not develop according to strict logical derivations. (5) Thus from a Hegelian perspective, Agamben's step back to indeterminacy with respect to the relation between humanity and animality is hasty and thereby unwittingly admits uncritically adopted and ill-conceived determinacies, as we will see below.


In "The Cabinet of Wonder," the fourth chapter of a series of meditations about art, Agamben calls attention to the late Medieval curio cabinets (Wunderkammer) of Europe in which various exotic items would be collected and showcased. (6) By themselves the items were intrinsically unrelated--the collections ranged from ostrich eggs and oddly shaped rocks to manuscript volumes and sawfish teeth. (7) But Agamben suggests that the apparently haphazard character of these collections was actually seen as a microcosm reflecting the manifold wonder of things in the larger order of the macrocosm, even if in the late Middle Ages this "wonder" was already being made to "leave the sacred space of the cathedral." (8) In the modern era, in which this larger meaningful order and the human being's place within it are supplanted by a desacralized universe from which human subjectivity has become disconnected, the order is maintained by the cabinet itself, and the modern art museum is its heir. …

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