Thursday, October 20, 2011
Matthew Sharpe on Agamben's rethinking the end of metaphysics, from "Only Agamben Can Save Us?"
Western thought epochally has been defined, Agamben has argued, by a conceptual operation which he names the ‘anthropological machine’. This ‘machine’ works by thinking the difference between humans and animals (and in this way the meta- in the metaphysics of our being a human animal) by stipulating a liminal ‘missing link’ between the two. For the ancients, the missing link lay in figures of animals in human form (‘… the slave, the barbarian, … the foreigner …’). In the modern period, there are instead figurings of ‘the nonhuman in the human’ (for instance, the non-speaking human or ape, the Nazis’ ‘Jew’ and today’s ‘neomorts’). By contrast, Agamben glimpses in Heidegger’s conceptions of boredom and the ‘non-open’ of the animal the ‘mysterious’ possibility of conceiving ‘simply living being’, free from the ex hypothesi restrictive shell of the metaphysico-anthropological machine. ‘The open and the free-of-being [lived in boredom] do not name something radically other with respect to the neither open-nor closed of the animal environment’, Agamben strikes out from Heidegger. Instead, he claims that both human boredom and animals’ instinctual ‘capitation’ by their specie-al objects (or ‘disinhibitors’) open up ‘the appearing of an undisconcealed as such’. As such, they disclose nothing less than the very lethe which ‘holds sway in aletheia’ and that remained Heidegger’s topic throughout his career.

With these remarkable propositions established, we can finally restore all the pieces of Agamben’s The Open to their proper places. Heidegger’s texts after 1933 increasingly distanced themselves from the language of active resolve he had used up to the National Socialist speeches. What takes its place as what would ground the critical force of Heidegger’s later thought is the sense that the modern age of the ‘consummate nihilism’ that issues out of the exhaustion of metaphysics, may nevertheless harbor a ‘saving power’. Chapters 3 (‘Snob’) and 16 (‘Animalization’) of The Open for their part directly align this text with Agamben’s more ostensibly political texts, as well as this later-Heideggerian kulturpessimismus. In a signature move, Agamben proposes that we must ‘think together’ the Heideggerian motif of the end of metaphysics, Carl Schmitt’s authoritarian lament that liberalism represents ‘the depoliticization of human societies’ and the ‘Hegelo-Kojevian idea of the end of history’.

What is the result of this unlikely marriage? However remarkable it sounds, everything looks as though – trumping Heidegger – Agamben wants us to interpret today’s globalization of ‘the perfect senselessness’ of ‘the society of the spectacle’ as something like the time immediately ‘between’ the sixth day and the messianic cosmic shabbat.
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