Friday, August 31, 2007

Sovereign Being

As I'm breezing through Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer, my ignorance (of Aristotle chiefly) seems to be keeping me from appreciating what he is trying to argue. Let's start with a simple premise: "The originary relation of law to life is not application but Abandonment" (p. 29, Agamben's emphasis). He goes on to say that "[t]he ban is the pure form of reference to something in general, which is to say, the simple positing of relation with the nonrelational. In this sense, the ban is identical with the limit form of relation." (p. 29). Agamben's ties this idea into his thinking about Aristotle: "the sovereign ban, which applies to the exception in no longer applying, corresponds to the structure of potentiality, which maintains itself in relation to actuality precisely through its ability not to be. Potentiality (in its double appearance as potentiality to and as potentiality not to) is that through which Being founds itself sovereignly, which is to say, without anything preceding or determining it (superiorem non recognoscens) other than its own ability not to be. And an act is sovereign when it realizes itself by simply taking away its own potentiality not to be, letting itself be, giving itself to itself" (p. 46). And, further, he says that "potentiality and actuality are simply the two faces of the sovereign self-grounding of Being. Sovereignty is always double because Being, as potentiality, suspends itself, maintaining itself in a relation of ban (or abandonment) with itself in order to realize itself as absolute actuality (which presupposes nothing other than its own potentiality). At the limit, pure potentiality and pure actuality are indistinguishable, and the sovereign is precisely this zone of indistinction" (p. 47).

Is there anything like an absolute actuality, pure actuality or pure potentiality? Are potentiality and actuality distinguishable in practice? If we can isolate a moment when a painter choses not to paint, I wonder if drawing an inference about the separablitiy of potentiality and actuality from this case doesn't represent a species of what Pierre Bourdieu would call the "occasionalist illusion, which consists in directly relating practices to properties inscribed in the situation" (Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 81). Abilities flourish in practice. Even the ability not to do something, such as the cessation of a habit, grows stronger with practice. Potentialities lean towards actualization, assuming that cessation is an activity, and this is why it's hard for me to think of the nonrelation of abandonment instead of a relation of application. My feeling is that Agamben's negative intellectualization isn't serving his project, but as I'm only a third of the way through Homo Sacer, I'll reserve judgement.

Now I've questioned whether the merger of potentiality and actuality occurs at the limit. Perhaps being has all kinds of limits, or no limits whatsover. The first seems more likely, yet either way I am not sold on the sovereignty of being. However I wouldn't want to say that being is fully determined.

Does being live, or has it abandoned life? Is there a logic of practice, or does the logos abandon everything that would make practice meaningful? Well, it seems I am oblivious to Agamben's point. He would perhaps advise me to attend to the nonrelation between logos and life, or being and practice, or Being and being, if those are my terms. How would I know that being isn't groundless? How would I know that it isn't grounded in something stickier than its own sovereignty? If I say "being is arbitrary" I mean that being works itself out, or that it's a work in progress. But what does being work on? Abondonment? Does abandonment make sense outside the domain of Agamben's perspective on the law?

Agamben says that "language also holds man in its ban insofar as man, as a speaking being, has always already entered into language without noticing it. Everything that is presupposed for there to be language (in the forms of something nonlinguistic, something ineffable, etc.) is nothing other than a presupposition of language that is maintained as such in relation to language precisely insofar as it is excluded from language....As the pure form of relation, language (like the sovereign ban) always already presupposes itself in the figure of something nonrelational, and it is not possible either to enter into relation or to move out of relation with what belongs to the form of relation itself. This means not that the nonglinguistic is inaccessible to man but simply that man can never reach it in the form of a nonrelational and ineffable presupposition" (p. 50). If I were to enter into another language, I would notice it. Language is acquired. Agamben's thinking here doesn't resemble any thoughts I've had about language. It kind of makes sense in relation to what Agamben is arguing about the law, but the precise meaning here is opaque to me.

"Sovereignty is, after all, precisely this 'law beyond the law to which we are abandoned,' that is, the self-presuppositional power of nomos. Only if it is possible to think the Being of abandonment beyond every idea of law (even that of the empty form of law's being in force without significance) will we have moved out of the paradox of sovereignty toward a politics freed from every ban. A pure form of law is only the empty form of relation. Yet the empty form of relation is no longer a law but a zone of indistinguishability between law and life, which is to say, a state of exception" (p. 59). Does being presuppose itself? Why would it do that? I think if I were to presuppose myself I would tear myself into shreds. I suppose myself at the point at which I find myself, if "point" is the right word for the stretch of my existence. Jean-Luc Nancy says, "nothing preexists; only what exists exists" (Being Singular Plural, p. 29). Now I don't know whether I'm more bothered by thought of existence presupposing itself or the notion that the presupposition is some kind of intellectualistist maneuver. In either case, since I mentioned Bourdieu, I might want to think of the problem in terms of "genesis amnesia." (If I'm coming down against intellecutalism in this post it's because I think the problem Agamben wants to address is eminently practical.)

Is there really a paradox of sovereignty then? Perhaps we should look at abandonment on a case by case basis. This is of course not what Agamben argues.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:25 PM.


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