Fun With Agamben!

The Italian philosopher of gloom takes a surprising turn

Giandomenico Tiepolo, Pulcinella's Departure, 1797

In 2014, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben published The Use of Bodies, a book that marked the capstone of his life’s work. It was the final volume of the Homo Sacer series, which, since its first volume’s publication in 1995, has been the defining project of his career—a project that, according to a brief preface to The Use of Bodies, he did not complete so much as “abandon.” His exhaustion is perhaps understandable, as this mammoth series—later published in a sprawling omnibus edition spanning over 1,300 pages—had led him to investigate the deepest political, metaphysical, and linguistic foundations of the Western tradition.

What Agamben discovered was unrelentingly negative. The eponymous first volume demonstrated that the core activity of Western political structures was the generation of readily victimizable “bare life,” and hence Western history was always, in principle, aiming toward the Shoah. Later volumes explored the life of the so-called Muselmänner, the concentration-camp inmates who had “touched bottom” and barely seemed human; the structures of exceptional emergency powers, which gave us the concentration camps as well as more recent phenomena like Guantánamo Bay; the theological roots of our economic structures, which, far from the freedom and democracy they seem to promise, only lock us into a nihilistic ritual glorification of power; and the perverse consequences of concepts of promise and duty amid the destructive structure that he came to call the “Western machine.” The final volumes found some rays of hope in the margins and byways of the Western tradition, but they did little to offset the overwhelming claustrophobia and fatalism that most readers took away from the earlier volumes.

Agamben did not, however, take the break that he had surely earned. In 2015, the year after completing or “abandoning” his masterwork, he published four books. Two were republications of older texts, including a long essay on the concept of aesthetic taste from 1979 (which had been languishing in a philosophical reference volume) and the text of a 2001 seminar on the idea of civil war (which was awkwardly retrofitted into the Homo Sacer series after its ostensible closure). The two volumes under consideration here, The Adventure and Pulcinella: Or Entertainment for Children, are both new. More than that, they are surprising, and in a way even unprecedented, because they are, in some strange way, fun.

The Adventure, which is the more accessible of the two texts, explores the changes in its title concept between the medieval and modern periods. In it, Agamben returns to one of the primary areas of his pre–Homo Sacer work, the love poetry of the troubadours, and argues for a return to their concept of adventure, which provides a more authentic vision of love and identity than what he views as the impoverished modern vision of adventure.

The investigation begins with a citation from Macrobius’s Saturnalia to the effect that “four deities preside over the birth of every human being: Daimon, Tyche, Eros, and Ananke (Demon, Chance, Love, and Necessity).” He then turns to a work in which Goethe—an author who, incidentally, spent his life working on a sprawling multi-volume project (Faust)—takes up Macrobius’s list, expanding it to include Elpis (Hope). The five chapters of the work correspond to Goethe’s five figures, with Chance replaced by “Aventure” (Provençal for “adventure”) and Necessity by “Event.” Hence the reader must be familiar with two dead languages—Greek and Provençal—even to scan the table of contents, and the rest of the work shows the same breezy erudition for which Agamben is well known. Yet his fast-paced argumentation keeps the reader from getting bogged down, as every confusing or baffling point is quickly succeeded by a fresh idea or interpretation.

The Demon of the first chapter is not the sinister figure familiar from the monotheistic traditions. Instead, it refers to the Greek daimon, a figure that is associated with happiness and unforeseen success. In Goethe’s hands, the Demon becomes “the ambiguous power that guarantees success to the individual on condition of renouncing every ethical decision,” a power that Goethe would use to unite his life and his literary work to an unprecedented degree and that he places in an ambivalent relation to authentic hope.

Having leapt from the classical antiquity of Macrobius to Goethe’s Romantic era, we spend the next two chapters in the High Middle Ages, immersed in chivalric romances and troubadour love poems. The second chapter explores the meaning of “aventure,” which “designates both chance and destiny.” On the one hand an adventure is something that befalls a hero, but on the other it is the way that the hero works out his identity on the deepest level. Central here is the experience of language, as Agamben argues that the adventures the poets recount have no existence outside of the poem itself and are always in some way about humanity’s complex relationship to language.

The third chapter, on Eros, aims to clarify the meaning of adventure by contrast with both the modern view and Dante’s more orthodox Christian view. Among modern commentators, Agamben detects a tendency to contrast the adventure with everyday life as a kind of episode or escape, whether conceived as a torrid love affair in which a man asserts his masculinity or an aestheticization of existence where one ironically treats life as a work of art. For medieval poets, the object of the adventure was not so much a real woman as the poetic experience of language itself, an experience that is far from ironic insofar as it touches on the destiny and identity of the hero. If modern critics misuse the term, Dante is noteworthy for refusing it altogether, viewing his predecessors’ experience of poetic love as a fatal distraction from the true redemptive character of Christian love.

In the fourth chapter, Agamben shifts focus to modern philosophy and linguistics, exploring such topics as the concept of the “sayable,” Heidegger’s mysterious term Ereignis, and the notion of anthropogenesis (that is, the transition from animal to properly human life). Here, as in many of Agamben’s works from the late ’70s and early ’80s, the troubadours provide unexpected insight into some of the most stubborn conceptual dilemmas, providing a transition into the final chapter on Elpis, or Hope. Here the element of self-help that has been lurking behind the scenes comes to the fore, as Agamben ponders how all of us can live with the mysterious demon that exists apart from us and yet defines our lives. The book closes with a meditation on the relation between salvation, love, and hope.

For longtime readers of Agamben, there is much that is familiar here. Prior to the advent of the Homo Sacer project, Agamben could have been viewed primarily as a scholar of troubadour love poetry, as out of place as such concerns appear in his more political work. It is as though the “abandonment” of the grim task of analyzing the “Western machine” has prompted him to return to those more lighthearted—though still serious—themes and to approach them on an individual-ethical level rather than a structural-political one. As someone who has been immersing himself in Agamben’s early works for a research project, I felt right at home in this text. Yet I could not help but wonder who the audience is for this strange, pocket-size book, so clearly packaged as a kind of impulse buy. What would a reader unfamiliar with Agamben—and even readers of the Homo Sacer books are unfamiliar with this Agamben—make of it?

The question of audience is even more acute for Pulcinella, which can be loosely described as a study of the artist Giandomenico Tiepolo’s works on the titular commedia dell’arte character. Yet it is clearly more than that for Agamben, who begins on an uncharacteristically personal note. Lying on the grass, looking at the clouds, he ponders a life in which he has sought only joy and pleasure and the unfortunate circumstance that “the darkness of the times in which I was given to live had constrained me to research that some thought betrayed a rather gloomy soul—which, as my friends know, is clearly untrue. This is why today, having nearly reached my last labor, I would like it not to be toilsome, but cheerful and playful.”

What follows weaves together accounts of Tiepolo’s sketches and paintings with imagined dialogues between Pulcinella and various characters (including the philosopher Leibniz), historical background on Pulcinella, and a number of thinly veiled references to his other works. Even more than The Adventure, this experience defies summary, as each of the four “acts” of this “entertainment for kids” circle around similar themes from different angles.

Here the “self-help” angle seems more explicit and pronounced, but also somehow parodic, as if Agamben is exhorting us to be more like Pulcinella—which would be something like imploring us to be more like Bugs Bunny. The same goes for the insistent references to Agamben’s other works, where seemingly every key concept from the Homo Sacer series finds its embodiment in this strange, cartoonlike character. Pulcinella lives the life of pure inoperativity; he is the ultimate homo sacer, who nonetheless transcends and undoes his victimized status; he exemplifies the long-sought-after “form-of-life” that will reconcile zōē and bios, a task that Agamben has put forward as the most thoroughgoing undoing of the “Western machine.” Even his earlier works can be explained via Pulcinella, as he connects his youthful preoccupation with the concept of “voice” to the kazoo-like device by which the actor generates Pulcinella’s Donald Duck–like vocal style. (And yes, Agamben does make an explicit reference to Donald Duck in this text.) The whole thing seems like a self-parody on Agamben’s part. What is going on here?

In The Highest Poverty, a study of monasticism that, within the structure of the Homo Sacer series, serves as a kind of prelude to The Use of Bodies, Agamben declares, “The perfect comprehension of a phenomenon is its parody.” In the latter volume, a key passage cites Walter Benjamin’s dictum that “shards of messianic time are present in history in possibly infamous and risible forms.” Hence this self-parody may not be sheer self-indulgence. Instead, he may have chosen a cartoon character as the “hero” of Homo Sacer as a way of highlighting how deeply the norms of the “Western machine” have shaped our expectations and sense of self, such that a truly radical alternative cannot fail to appear absurd. But perhaps the most absurd thing of all would be to prefer this world of ours over a world full of joyful Pulcinellas.

There is a broader question, though, than how these strange books fit into Agamben’s corpus, and that comes back to the question of audience. In recent decades, philosophers have diversified their strategies for reaching the general public, going beyond the conventional role of the “public intellectual” and political commentator by either embracing jokes and pop-culture commentary (as exemplified by academics like Slavoj Žižek and Jack Halberstam) or incorporating an explicit self-help element (as seen in Jordan Peterson). These approaches respond to a strange mismatch in much online culture, where the insights of the most high-flown critical theories appear to be common currency and yet no one seems to know what to do, even on the seemingly trivial level of how to respond to the TV shows we watch. In other words, we may be reaching a point of conceptual oversaturation, where people look to philosophers not for sweeping proclamations about how the world works but for help with something that was, after all, at the core of the Greek philosophical tradition: how to live our lives.

Given the erudition and general oddness of the texts under review here, it seems unlikely to me that Agamben is consciously pursuing those strategies in a cynical or mercenary way. Yet he does seem to be responding in some sense to the growing demand for philosophy that is close to lived experience. As I scan the short volumes he has published since 2015, each of them takes the big, world-historical themes he has been exploring and brings them down to the level of individual lived experience. What is Philosophy? addresses its title question by calling attention to our daily experience of language and speech; What is Real? explores the relation of science and reality through investigating the story of a scientist who mysteriously staged his own disappearance; Karman reworks the key insights of the Homo Sacer series from the perspective of our individual experience of guilt and responsibility. What is striking about these philosophical checkout buys, however, is that they are in no sense dumbed down. The self-help element is not couched in easily digested bromides (as in Peterson), nor does he use pop-culture references or jokes as the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of theory go down (as in Žižek). What Agamben offers to the audience looking for a philosophy of life is a guide who, for all his idiosyncrasies and self-indulgence, takes them seriously—but only because, as he offers up these last entertainments, he regards himself as one of the kids.