". . . life and man as the mystery, the true religion of men, the grief and the glory."
óV.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival
In 1964, Giorgio Agamben, then just twenty-two years old, played Philip the Apostle in Pier Paolo Pasolini's film The Gospel According to St. Matthew. It quickly became one of the director's most successful movies. Such success could not have been more unexpected. Pasolini's unrepentant homosexuality, renunciation of bourgeois culture, and disaffection with boorish Marxist politics were open secrets among the hard-nosed clerics and communist intellectuals of his day. No wonder he had little interest in currying favor with the Catholic cognoscenti and pawns of the Party. In fact, he had no qualms regularly flouting religious and political authority. But he did so in 1964 in a thoroughly inimitable and ultimately successful way. Pasolini traveled to the Basilicata and Calabria regions of southern Italy. The region continues today to attract medieval-architecture enthusiasts because of its marvelous churches, abbeys, and castles. But Pasolini did not spend much time in those areas, as another director might, or as a certain Hollywood director actually did recently whose last name, sadly, rhymes with Ibsen. Pasolini instead directed his film in the poorest hamlets he could find. And the only people he cast in the film were nonprofessional actors like Agamben.
In his compelling essay about The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Guardian film critic Derek Malcolm claimed that Pasolini's "portrait of the Messiahóplayed by Enrique Irazoqui, a young Spanish economics student with a scraggy beardóis far harsher than the usual soft saint that passes for Jesus. . . . It is a stark film (someone has described it as one-dimensional), but with clear-headed interpretative qualities that avoid the usual clichéés. This Christ was a political animal, angry at social injustice. The silent cry from the cross is believable and the miracles avoid any kind of underlining commentóthey just happen, with not a special effect in sight." Given the apparent blasphemy and iconoclasm of the film, it is remarkable that the church decided to stamp Pasolini's work with its official imprimatur. Even left-wing critics accused Pasolini of pietism and hagiography, as Gino Moliterno, an assiduous scholar of Pasolini's life and work, has pointed out. For certain communists, it was the unabashed religiosity supposedly afoot in the film that confirmed his political apostasy. Against this position, Moliterno argues, and I think rightly, that "Pasolini began by throwing out the entire tradition of pietistic representation sedimented in the gospel film genre and starting from scratch. Risking fragmentation and incoherence, he adopted a variety of expressive strategies and a multiplicity of often contrasting styles to create a socially-committed, quasi-Marxist version of the Gospel preached by a harsh and uncompromising Christ who was in many ways a revolutionary and a provocateur not unlike Pasolini himself."
Despite (or indeed, because of) the political and religious controversy surrounding the film, Agamben's experience with Pasolini was arguably a meaningful and formative one. The critic, theorist, and philosopher, whose reputation now precedes him not only in Italy but also in France, Germany, and much of Europe, to say nothing of the United States and even parts of the Arab world, published his first article in 1964, the same year he worked under Pasolini's tutelage. A coincidence? I honestly cannot say. What I can say, though, is that during the late 1960s Agamben's intellectual life grew exponentially. Between 1966 and 1968, he studied with Martin Heidegger in Le Thor, France. He describes his early experience in Idea of Prose (1985): At Le Thor, Heidegger held his seminar in a garden shaded by tall trees. At times, however, we left the village, walking in the direction of Thouzon or Rebanquet, and the seminar then took place in front of a small hut hidden away in the midst of an olive grove. One day, when the seminar neared its end and the students crowded round him, pressing him with questions, Heidegger merely remarked: "You can see my limit; I can't." Years before he had written that a thinker's greatness is gauged by his fidelity to his own internal limit, and not to know this limitónot to know it because of its closeness to the unspeakableóis the secret gift that being, at rare times, can make.
This may sound like a pietistic and hagiographical description of Heidegger's own greatness. But Agamben actually invites us to think through and beyond Heidegger. It is an invitation he leaves openówide openóthroughout his work.
You can see my limit; I can't: Do not ask me how I know because I do not. Just accept that I believe in your ability to witness. Have faith that I am calling on you to believe in my blindness no less than my insight. This is probably closer to what Heidegger means to say, even if he did not know howóbut does anyone?óto say what he means. Heidegger is speaking to those who will survive him; those he may have affectionately named his students; those who have been called on; you. Acknowledging this vocative address means listening to a call that cannot be heard otherwise. It is a call that, to use Heidegger's argot, stretches across time as it calls its calling. To hear it means accepting it as one's Bestimmung, or vocation. In German, Bestimmung is one of those words that just sounds preordained for philosophy. It can be found, for example, throughout the writings of Kant, Hegel, and their contemporaries. Philosophers rarely, if ever, attempt to gather together all its different valences of meaning: determination, mission, goal, destiny, fate. Heidegger did. And this can only be thought peculiar, if not disastrous, given Heidegger's own history of making incantatory statements about the future of the German people and of benighted humanity. Or so it might be argued. Agamben has a different reading of Heidegger's claim regarding faithfulness to an internal limit of thought. "Fidelity to that which cannot be thematized, nor simply passed over in silence," he suggests, "is a betrayal of a sacred kind, in which memory, spinning suddenly like a whirlwind, uncovers the hoary forehead of oblivion. This attitude, this reverse embrace of memory and forgetting which holds intact the identity of the unrecalled and the unforgettable, is vocation." Agamben gestures toward the chilling commonality between vocation and inspiration: "That a hiddenness be maintained in order that there be disclosure, a forgetfulness maintained in order that there be memory, this is inspiration, the rapture of the muses which brings man, word, and thought into accord with one another. . . . But this hiddenness is also the infernal core around which the obscurity of character and of destiny thickens; the non-said, growing in thought, precipitates it into madness. That which the master does not see is his own truth: his limit is his beginning. . . . The insufficient exposition of the beginning is what constitutes it as the place of the muses, as inspiration."
These difficult, weighty passages are indicative of much of Agamben's philosophical prose, in which a certain poetic eleganceóbeauty, evenóleavens its density and yet demands deeply ruminative reading. Upon consideration, then: To have faith in the limit of one's thought means trusting it as something that can neither become a theme nor be denied. The limit of thought betrays its very limitation when remembrance and oblivion become one. The preservation of such togetherness annuls knowledge in order to remain faithful. Thus is it sacred. Thus, is it sacred? Inspiration hides behind what it wants to bring into the light. Retreating into the dark, it must forget the accordance of language, thought, and world it ostensibly opens. How obscure, profane, unspeakable. Mad. Infernally blind. The master is. He cannot expose, see, or name his own blindness without losing his muses, and with them his inspiration. "But so as to be able to write," Agamben avers, astoundingly, "so as to become also an inspiration for us, the teacher had to smother his inspiration, come to terms with it; the inspired poet is without works. This extinguishing of inspiration, which plucks thought from out of the shadow of its waning, is the exposition of the Muse: the idea." Language, thought, and world belong together. Not because our muses are rapturous enough to help us create worldwide harmony, but because the expression and formulation of ideas is the exposure of thought to the world. We live and think in the openness of the world as much as possible. Metaphysicians are no different. Try as they might, try as we might: No one can happily play in the dark for too long.
Every path of thought pursued in Agamben's work traverses the darkness found within domains of human thought and experience. Of course, the darkness that plagues human beings is as variegated as the slings and arrows of our outrageous fortunes. But it can be exposed by light, color, image, and brought into the open. To my mind, the commitment to such exposure makes Agamben a philosophical chiaroscurist. Wherever darkness takes refuge or finds repose, his thinking is not far behind. At a young age, Agamben certainly found in Heidegger a wellspring of inspiration, and the impetus to see the limits of thought and experience not as irredeemable closures but as potential openings. While he was studying with Heidegger, he was also discovering similar inspiration in myriad philosophical, literary, and aesthetic sources. He liked to find things where nobody was looking, as Susan Sontag once wrote of Walter Benjamin.
By 1970, Agamben had found enough things to publish his first book, The Man Without Content. When put out in English translation by Stanford University Press in 1999, it was represented as a relatively new work (inside the cover page, it reads: "The Man Without Content was originally published in Italian in 1994 under the title L'uomo senza contenuto"). As it happens, the original Italian edition was published in 1970. And, incidentally, neither the 1994 Italian edition nor the 1999 English edition had been revised or updated; it is a testament to Agamben's precociousness that the book has been treated on a par with his later work. The Man Without Content deals with the challenges of creating art and the limitations of aesthetics as a field of inquiry. Agamben's core thesis is that throughout Western history there has been aesthetic doubling constitutive of art as it is lived by artists and spectators alike. He argues that "this duality of principles, according to which the work is determined starting both from the creative activity of the artist and from the sensible apprehension of the spectator, traverses the entire history of aesthetics, and it is probably in this duality that one must seek its speculative center and its vital contradiction." The man without content is the modern immoralist of impeccably good taste, a man characterized most vividly by Diderot. "In Rameau's nephew," Agamben observes, "taste has worked like a sort of moral gangrene, devouring every other content and every other spiritual determination, and it exerts itself, in the end, in a total void. Taste is his only self-certainty and self-consciousness; however, this certainty is pure nothingness, and his personality is absolute impersonality. The very existence of such a man is a paradox and a scandal: he is incapable of producing a work of art, yet it is upon art that his existence depends; though condemned to depend on something other than himself, in this other he does not find any sense of what is essential, because every content and every moral determination is abolished."
Agamben explains how the dependence of the spectator on that which he cannot produce becomes wholly alienating: "the spectator sees himself as other in the work of art, his being-for-himself as being-outside-himself; and in the pure creative subjectivity at work in the work of art, he does not in any way recover a determinate content and a concrete measure of his existence, but recovers simply his own self in the form of absolute alienation, and he can possess himself only inside this split." But what happens, then, to the function of aesthetic judgment and art criticism? Enter Agamben, philosophical chiaroscurist at large. Piercing the crepuscular contours of art, he recognizes that "every time aesthetic judgment attempts to determine what the beautiful is, it holds in its hands not the beautiful but its shadow, as though its true object were not so much what art is but what it is not: not art but non-art." He notices further that "we must admit, even against ourselves, that everything our critical judgment suggests to us before a work of art belongs precisely to this shadow. . . . When we deny that a work of art is artistic, we mean that it has all the material elements of a work of art with the exception of something essential on which its life depends, just in the same way that we say that a corpse has all the elements of the living body, except that ungraspable something that makes of it a living being."
Contemporary critics of Agamben at times accuse him of reveling in the indeterminacy of naked life. Some even charge that he aestheticizes the denuding of life as a pornographic transfixion for his gaze, and that therefore his understanding of human life is left wanting. These critiques are usually launched against Agamben's two best-known books, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995 ) and Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1998 ). I mention these criticisms here not because they are facile and misinformed (though they are) but because they emerge from a refusal to understand the full range of Agamben's philosophical project. Agamben is today in his early sixties. When he published The Man Without Content, he was twenty-eight. For decades, his thought has been sailing in search of that ungraspable something that not only constitutes life but also makes it worth living. The Man Without Content begins to chart that course in order to resist the dark temptations of unknowability and ineffability. Kant says somewhere in the Critique of Pure Reason that all possible knowledge and experience are marooned on an island surrounded by the dangerous waters of the unknown. The trick is to discover the best way to set sail. Only when there is no mast in knowledge or experience that can be raised are we in trouble. "In civilizations without boats," Michel Foucault remarked in a 1967 lecture, "dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates." The boats of thought capsize when they no longer carry ideas, categories, and concepts as brigand chasers of our dreams.
Part of the misadventure of aesthetic thought for Agamben is that it traffics in nothingness, death, and the skeletal remains of the living. "Whatever criterion the critical judgment employs to measure the reality of the work," he argues, "it will only have laid out, in place of a living body, an interminable skeleton of dead elements. . . . What has been negated is reassumed into the judgment as its only real content, and what has been affirmed is covered by this shadow. . . . Caught up in laboriously constructing this nothingness, we do not notice that in the meantime art has become a planet of which we only see the dark side, and that aesthetic judgment is . . . the reunion of art and its shadow." In contemporary art, art criticism reaches its terminus: extreme object-centeredness, as Agamben dubs it, "through its holes, stains, slits, and nonpictorial materials, tends increasingly to identify the work of art with the non-artistic product. Thus, becoming aware of its shadow, art immediately receives in itself its own negation. . . . In contemporary art, it is critical judgment that lays bare its own split, thus suppressing and rendering superfluous its own space." Many critics, theorists, and philosophers have phlegmatically resigned themselves to this space of abnegation. Art is important to us because it has no purchase on meaning, significance, or the world. That it does not have to matter is perhaps the only reason it does. Yet Agamben won't go there. Where will he go? In a phrase: to Aristotle, Benjamin, and Kafka.
Agamben finds in Aristotle a radical conception of rhythm that anticipates Benjamin's idea that messianic time itself explodes the continuum of time. He draws a lovely analogy between music and art. A musical piece, though it is somehow in time, allows us nonetheless to perceive rhythm as "something that escapes the incessant flight of instants and appears almost as the presence of an atemporal dimension in time. In the same way, when we are before a work of art or a landscape bathed in the light of its own presence, we perceive a stop in time, as though we were suddenly thrown into a more original time. There is a stop, an interruption in the incessant flow of instants that, coming from the future, sinks into the past, and this interruption, this stop, is precisely what gives and reveals the particular status, the mode of presence proper to the work of art or the landscape we have before our eyes." Agamben proceeds to say that beholding a work of art is not a static experience but rather an ecstatic one: "It means ecstasy in the epochal opening of rhythm, which gives and holds back. . . . In the experience of the work of art, man stands in the truth, that is, in the origin that has revealed itself to him. . . . In this being-hurled-out into . . . rhythm, artists and spectators recover their essential solidarity and their common ground."
What art, then, can offer is a solid sense of where we are without itself becoming the ground underneath our feet. If Agamben is right, then chiaroscuro as a philosophical attitude inspired by art makes all the sense in the world. In any case, the work of art as the site of both mystery and epiphany leads Agamben from Aristotle to Benjamin. As is well known, Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" was penned in Paris while he was working on his Arcades Project. By far the most famous of the theses is the stunning reading of Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus as an image of the angel of history. The angel sees the sorry debris of the past before its eyes because it is looking in that direction. But the angel can do nothing about this. The storm of progress catches hold of its wings as a violent hurricane, propelling the angel forward. It is throttled headlong into the future but with its eyes and back turned away from what lies ahead. So it cannot see where it is going. All the angel can witness is debris mounting ever more violently as the singular disaster that appears to be history itself. As it is buffeted by the storm of progress, it witnesses less and less this disastrousness. What may have been painfully clear is now a faraway shine. The debris becomes dross. And dross cannot be exchanged for gold. If history is sadness, if what hurts cannot be healed, the angel of history must be a very melancholy angel. "The angel's melancholy," Agamben suggests, "is the consciousness that he has adopted alienation as his world; it is the nostalgia of a reality that he can possess only by making it unreal." Just as artists and spectators belong together, so the angel of history and the angel of art must inhabit the same damaged world. "The past that the angel of history is no longer able to comprehend reconstitutes its form," Agamben therefore claims, "in front of the angel of art; but this form is the alienated image in which the past finds its truth again only on condition of negating it, and knowledge of the new is possible only in the nontruth of the old."
In a rather novel way, Agamben brings Benjamin and Kafka into dialogue as a way of imagining the historical redemption of the aesthetically alienated image of the past. He finds in Kafka "the figure of the guilty innocent, of the tragic hero who expresses in all his greatness and misery the precarious significance of human action in the interval between what is no longer and what is not yet." Even though tragedy lies in this interval, the interval itself cannot be totally tragic. As revelatory appearance, as truth, this space returns to us our essential solidarity and common ground. But that means returning to the original space of art in the wake of aesthetics exposed in its nakedness: cadaverized categories of analysis useful only for men without content. If it succeeds at all, then, "art succeeds . . . in transforming man's inability to exit his historical status, perennially suspended in the inter-world between old and new, past and future, into the very space in which he can take the original measure of his dwelling in the present and recover each time the meaning of his action."
Between 1974 and 1975, Agamben studied at the Warburg Institute in London. His second book, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, published in 1977, reflects the tradition of humanist scholarship associated with Aby Warburg and his erudite coterie: E.H. Gombrich, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Cassirer, to name but a few. Stanzas is not a radical break from The Man Without Content so much as an advancement of its deepest aims and objects. It is basically a book about the emergence of criticism as it relates to certain continental drifts in philosophy and poetic experience. Here as elsewhere Agamben refrains from periodizing historical time into classical, medieval, and modern as is common in the history of ideas. He claims early in the text that criticism signifies "inquiry at the limits of knowledge about precisely that which can be neither posed nor grasped. . . . Like all authentic quests, the quest of criticism consists not in discovering its object but in assuring the conditions of its inaccessibility." There is a strong resonance of the late-Heideggerian concern with witnessing the limits of knowledge in oneself and having others act as witnesses. And the idea that a proper object of thought can be neither accessed nor possessed remains a leitmotif in Agamben's work up to the present. During a summer 2002 lecture on the nature of paradigms in thought, delivered at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, Agamben provocatively claimed that the philosophical element of any work "remains unsaid [but] demands to be unfolded and worked out. . . . Philosophy has no specificity, no proper territory, it is within literature, within art or science or theology or whatever; it is this element which contains a capability to be developed. In a sense, philosophy is scattered in every territory." This account of philosophy certainly harks back to what Agamben writes in Stanzas apropos of criticism. Yet the question arises: Are there better and worse ways of gathering and recollecting the scattered developments? Agamben would answer in the affirmative. The point is that we still need to look sometimes in the strangest and most untoward of places. In the same 2002 lecture, he suggests that the figures of homo sacer in Roman law and der Muselmann in Auschwitz are paradigmatic in just that sense. And in a now-infamous January 2004 Le Monde article, in which Agamben gives reasons for refusing to return to NYU this year to teach, he echoes the same thought by confessing: "A few years ago I wrote that the political model of the West is not the city but the concentration camp, not Athens but Auschwitz. That was, of course, a philosophical, not a historical thesis. This is not about mixing phenomena that must be separated. I only want to remind readers that the tattooing in Auschwitz possibly appeared as ånormal' and economic in order to regulate the admission of the deportees to the camp. The bio-political tattooing, which we are forced to undergo today in order to enter the United States, is a relay race to what we could tomorrow accept as the normal registration of the identity of the good citizen considering the mechanisms and machinery of the state."
Certain acts dazzle us and light up blurred surfaces," Jean Genet wrote in The Miracle of the Rose, "if our eyes are keen enough to see them in a flash, for the beauty of a living thing can be grasped only fleetingly. To pursue it during its changes leads us inevitably to the moment when it ceases, for it cannot last a lifetime. And to analyze it, that is, to pursue it in time with the sight and imagination, is to view it in its decline, for following the marvelous moment in which it reveals itself, it diminishes in intensity." Agamben's latest book, The Open: Man and Animal, is a dazzling act in Genet's sense. The blurred surfaces it illuminates are those where nature, animality, and humanity converge in thought and world. Since the dawn of Western philosophy, this has been the vertiginous placeóthe zone of indistinctionóman calls home. Unlike Genet, though, Agamben thinks approaching the life of living things (natural organisms, animals, and humans) in terms of images of revelation and darkness, openness and closure, does not simply chronicle periods of lifeless decline and diminished vitality. On the contrary, this analysis of life powerfully grasps the anthropological machine that has generated an extraordinary life for man at the expense of natural, animal, and even human forms of life.
"For anyone undertaking a genealogical study of the concept of 'life' in our culture," Agamben argues, "one of the first and most instructive observations to be made is that the concept never gets defined as such. And yet, this thing that remains indeterminate gets articulated and divided time and again through a series of caesurae and oppositions that invest it with a decisive strategic function in domains as apparently distant as philosophy, theology, politics, andóonly laterómedicine and biology. That is to say, everything happens as if, in our culture, life were what cannot be defined, yet, precisely for this reason, must be ceaselessly articulated and divided." In The Open, Agamben returns to the thought of life as an ungraspable somethingóthe thought he had first glimpsed many years ago in The Man Without Content. But here he develops the ethical and political implications of the ceaseless articulation and division of life as a means of defining what cannot be defined, of grasping what cannot be grasped. Foucault famously described genealogical analysis as operating "on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times. . . . [It] must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history." If the same conceptual caesuras and oppositions have been developed all along as strategies for taming the indeterminacy of life, then domains as "apparently distant" as philosophy, theology, politics, medicine, and biology may actually imbricate deeply throughout the history of human knowledge. Yet instead of pursuing the most epistemologically robust analysis of life possible (Foucault's still impressive and utterly singular project in The Order of Things), Agamben decides to take a road even less traveled: a properly ontological genealogy of the articulations and divisions of humans and animals, nature and history, life and death.
In Agamben's previous books, certain philosophical figuresóAristotle, Benjamin, Heidegger, Foucault, among othersómake recurrent appearances. They are to be found in The Open, but here the texts and documents engaged also stretch across areas of inquiry (botany, biology, zoology) that hitherto Agamben had not explored to much extent. Such vast peregrinations, if rigorously undertaken, are indispensable to Agamben. In his view, future ethical and political thought needs to inhabit the very caesuras and oppositions, divisions and articulations, still enabling human beings to think that man pursues a distinctive historical mission. In our culture, Agamben maintains, "man has always been the result of a simultaneous division and articulation of the animal and the human, in which one of the two terms of the operation was also what was at stake in it. To render inoperative the [anthropological] machine that governs our conception of man will therefore mean no longer to seek newómore effective or more authenticóarticulations, but rather to show the central emptiness, the hiatus thatówithin manóseparates man and animal, and to risk ourselves in this emptiness."
The nature of this risk is necessarily ontological. It must be a matter of risking the complete loss of our being-in-commonóour shared human being. Precisely for that reason the question arises: How is ontology itself not figured here, in spite of itself, as both cure and sickness? In a sense, Agamben's entire book is an extended rumination on just this question. "Ontology, or first philosophy, is not an innocuous academic discipline, but in every sense the fundamental operation in which anthropogenesis, the becoming human of the living being, is realized. From the beginning, metaphysics is taken up in this strategy: it concerns precisely that meta that completes and preserves the overcoming of animal physis in the direction of human history. This overcoming is not an event that has been completed once and for all, but an occurrence that is always under way, that every time and in each individual decides between the human and the animal, between nature and history, between life and death." The account of ontology may well turn out to be the most controversial and productive line of argument developed in The Open. That ontological thinking becomes insidious when tethered to concrete human practices is de rigueur for many contemporary ethical and political thinkers. Yet unfurling an ethical theme or illuminating a political problem within an ontological horizon of meaning and possibility continues to be an attractive way of thinking for many Continental philosophers. Still, Agamben's philosophical itinerary is different. He moves from ontology as a normatively operative humanization (anthropogenesis) to ontology as a ceaseless accumulation of strategic decisions that make time and history an endless completion and preservation of human life (metaphysics). He demonstrates that ontology relentlessly constitutes and regulates all nonhuman forms of life below and against human life. This means that "apparently distant" forms of life imbricate deeply because the same ontological mechanisms responsible for anthropogenesis treat nonhuman forms of life as similarly negative in their unlikeness to human life. Notice here the ontological analogue of the epistemological sameness that obtains among ostensibly different domains of knowledge.
The deleterious effects of ontology outside the academic practice of philosophy cannot be thwarted simply by a better conception of prima philosophia or by increased methodological reflection within the discipline. The ontological presupposition taken for granted by biological and anthropological research has enabled these domains of knowledge to make decisions about the definition of life and death that they are not entitled to make. This unjustified entitlement goes much deeper than ersatz philosophical practice undertaken by nonphilosophers. Whereas Jacques Derrida thinks each decision within biology and anthropology is just presupposed rather than actually decided, Agamben thinks a wholly determinative decision has yet to become metaphysically permissible. This crucial difference emerges because Derrida will have no truck with metaphysics. Agamben throws himself headlong into metaphysical thinking, revealing its hermetic darkness as impressively lambent, malleable, even fragile. He does so not to bolster metaphysics from within but to present it from without as the enduring chronicle of human failure and triumph it remains to this day. Agamben insists that, far from overcoming metaphysics, we are doomed to repeat it so long as anthropogenesis has carte blanche to divide and conquer life in the interest of the humanization of man. Less a pessimist than a Sisyphean optimist, he challenges us to confront the metaphysician: not the shameful, guilt-ridden being who wants to play in the dark, but the brazen, macabre being who decides out in the open that man is simply destined to win. This is not about acknowledging that some of us have tried to force the hands of fate. It is rather about recognizing that our history, inasmuch as it is our churning life and accomplished time, is not above ontological strategies, policies, and tactics of containment. If we avert our eyes, we threaten to become nothing but hyperbolic strategy, policy, and tactic: overextended containment of our own restive being turned against itself as an animal that has turned against its prey. We commence the ontological endgame of biopolitics in which "the only task that still seems to retain some seriousness is the assumption of the burdenóand the 'total management'óof biological life, that is, of the very animality of man. Genome, global economy, and humanitarian ideology are the three united faces of this process in which posthistorical humanity seems to take on its own physiology as its last, impolitical mandate." Need I mention that we have here an uncannily apt description of the Bush administration's foreign-policy agenda?
"It is not easy," Agamben admits, "to say whether the humanity that has taken upon itself the mandate of the total management of its own animality is still human . . . nor is it clear whether the well-being of a life that can no longer be recognized as either human or animal can be felt as fulfilling. . . . The total humanization of the animal coincides with a total animalization of man." The ethics and politics of tomorrow cannot begin living unless this deadly coincidence dies today.
Daniel Morris is a critic based in New York.