But it is certain that our friendship—which we assumed would open up a privileged point of access to the problem—was instead an obstacle, and that it was, in some measure, at least temporarily, obscured.
—Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus?
I am blessed with incomparable friends. Many of them are hard-won, and I can still recall a time when all we did was troll each other. One of my dearest friendships began in Philosophy 101, during a re-enactment of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The most insufferable member of the class demonstrated his “solution” to Plato's problem by wheeling me out of the classroom in an office chair and “out into the sun”—which meant down a flight of stairs. The resulting bang-up in my head lead to several realizations: that he made a fine point and that he would not have made it if I were not at least as irritating as he was. I somehow could not bring myself to hate him anymore after that.
That story remains exemplary for a dozen of my friends after each of us traced singular paths of intellectual and spiritual humility. It has led us back to one another and bound us as eternally kindred. But several years ago, as we lazily pub-hopped through the Chicago suburbs discussing an Italian political philosopher with “some of the best readings of Paul” they had ever read, I started to feel the familiar vertigo of being kicked down the stairs. These people I loved spoke of Giorgio Agamben almost as though he were a prophet, providing new and exciting categories for thinking through the aporias of institutional Evangelicalism that had long disillusioned us.
The categories and the criticisms were not the problem, though; rather I realized that our once-common vocabulary had started taking on new valences that were all as different and singular as the people using the terms. Unique among them, I had been pursuing a doctorate at a Jesuit institution, and to this day I credit that education with inoculating me against some of Agamben’s more radical theses. But the point remains: I went home that night with a buzz that ought to have been pleasant but instead fogged me out and left me wondering if I ever knew what “immanence” and “transcendence” actually meant (Agamben certainly did not seem to think so).
Furthermore, I found myself wanting to be further wounded by these critical edges that had opened up my friends and seemed to make their worlds a little wider and more vital. Little did I know that these feelings would take me over and nearly overwhelm the coming years of my life as, consciously or not, I committed to having “eyes to see and ears to hear” what Agamben was saying—all because I loved my friends.
So when other academics speak of their “ghosts,” I cannot help but grimace a little, because Giorgio Agamben is not a ghost to me. He is very much alive in my life and work; especially in my dissertation, where I had to nail down all the arguments like so much furniture to keep him from moving everything around as he pleased. My exposure to Agamben has been so intensely intimate that it banishes all my illusions that scholarship is a lonely, objective thing. My forays into Homo Sacer made me realize that “doing research” was a polite and sanitary way of saying that I was messily building an intellectual history for myself so private and singular that I would inevitably find myself conflicting even with those who shared my views.
Today, even as I reaffirm its importance, my skepticism of “metaphysics” makes me feel like an idiot in front of many who have never shared my learned doubts in the analogia entis. By the same token, my continued faith in “transcendence” makes me feel like an idiot in front of those who, even while I still thought we were on the same path, chose “absolute immanence” a long time ago. This, I learned, is the peculiar “imposter syndrome” that can only emerge between friends who truly love one another and study together: it is the “obstacle” that “obscures.”
But I also accepted that friendship lives in the negative intuition—in the statement of doubt, the moment of concern—even when it bottles this intuition and presumes the best of those we love and defends them even when doing so makes us feel sick. I felt this, at times, reading Agamben among my friends; I felt it again in earnest when I first learned of his response to COVID-19—and I kept feeling it through the texts and phone calls that came after.
Stephen M. Metzger has done tremendous work summarizing Agamben’s position and why it matters to Catholics. But while Metzger adroitly criticizes Agamben’s social and religious cynicism—most evidenced in his rhetorical invocation of St. Francis—he is lacking some essential context for understanding what is happening in Agamben’s now infamous essay, “A Question.” I do not in any way mean this as a criticism of Metzger; I only mean that Agamben’s notes read very differently to someone who has labored in love to understand him. I mourn what must inevitably happen when two decades of work, and the increasingly dire portrait they paint, are reduced to a soundbite as they were for Quodlibet. I therefore want to speak of one who taught me how to think “what is at stake,” whose work still paves for me a path to renewed spiritual potentials, even as I find the courage to say—as Denise Levertov once did of Rilke—that I must take my leave of him.
II. Quarantine, Protest, and the ‘Use of Bodies’
“We may,” Agamben writes, “take the ontological status of friendship in Aristotle's philosophy as a given. Friendship belongs to proti philosophia, since the same experience, the same ‘sensation’ of being, is what is at stake in both” (WA, 35). In this sense, Agamben might present as the “friend” of all people, insofar as his philosophical project aims precisely at what is at stake for everyone, everywhere. Agamben identifies this early in Homo Sacer, citing Foucault: “For millennia, man remained . . . a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question” (HS I, 143). Agamben’s statements on the COVID-19 crisis must be read in this light.
While most have commented on the “state of exception” articulated in Agamben’s response—that power by which authorities create “states of emergency” to reassert their total control over citizens—that mechanism of power is merely a symptom of a greater issue motivating Agamben’s entire project, namely the “calling into question” of human life. Agamben’s response to the pandemic repeats, in its spirit, Homo Sacer’s final argument in The Use of Bodies: “‘life’ today has more to do with survival than with the vitality or form of life of the individual” (1025). With this in mind, Agamben asserts that the “measure of the abdication of our own ethical and political principles is, in fact, very simple: it is a matter of asking ourselves what is the limit beyond which we are not prepared to renounce them” (“A Question”). Agamben thus suggests that eager compliance with government quarantine regulations amounts to complicity: we have all bought into the belief that vitality is mere idealism and the value of life is reducible to bare survival.
In fact, society inadvertently provided Agamben with plenty of ammunition on this point. Defining modern man in his “productive relationship to life,” Foucault—and Agamben by extension—gives us a disconcerting lens through which to consider our collective life in quarantine. Before all hell broke loose in May, social media daily filled with the complaints of those who felt guilty for not being more productive with the time made available to them, or those so desperate to get back to work that they would violently exercise that right if they had to. It is a mistake to assume that Agamben is primarily concerned, to a conspiratorial degree, that our governments are making a power-grab—his failure to grasp the actual seriousness of the disease notwithstanding. The greater issue is that, paralyzed as we are by our own “uselessness,” the quarantine has exposed—to the raw nerve—this dehumanizing relation we all have to our own lives.
This is a different motive than we perceived at first, but a sharper message: within Agamben’s COVID response there lurks a deeper, pessimistic appraisal of human destiny. In fact, “destiny” is part of the problem: in the ontology of the West, so says Agamben, human beings have been inextricably tied to the ends they serve, and those ends bound up with the work we are capable of. This sheer instrumentality of the human person begins the moment Aristotle rejects human being as “without work” (cf. The Fire & The Tale, 51ff), and is intensified through early Christianity and the Middle Ages as the human “will” comes to name the effective process through which a potential for virtue is translated into an act of obedience.
Again, this is an ontology bound up in the ability to produce and to follow commands, and the power of sovereignty is precisely the assertion of force and commandment where it inevitably fails at closure. Agamben is not merely conspiratorial about our relative value in the eyes of our governments: whether we wallow in our lack of productivity, beg to go back to “normal,” or even insist on “doing our duty” by staying home, we evidence to Agamben that we are so enthralled to our task-oriented ontology as to be beyond saving. So, his railing against the quarantine approaches the urgency of a man who, after many frantic late-night phone calls, no longer believes he can talk his friend out of killing himself.
And it is here, too—in a spirit of friendship teetering at the threshold of exasperation—that Agamben raises a critique of the Church, which has “failed to keep watch over human dignity,” “repudiated its most essential principles,” and forgotten the models of mercy and sacrifice lived out by the martyrs (“A Question”). These statements are more focused, concrete expressions of a critique threading itself all throughout Agamben’s work, in which the Church’s “making itself the handmaid of science” (“A Question”) reinforces the utilitarian interpretation of human life as a “‘scientific fact,’ so generic that science has given up on defining it,” which has been “made the ultimate receptacle of the sacred”: it is a life which “has more to do with survival than with the vitality or form of life of the individual” (HS IV.2, 1025).
This is not, however, to suggest that the Church might reclaim its authority over human dignity by renegotiating its relationship to science; on the contrary, Christianity long ago internalized its failure to provide life with an adequate ground and so furnished modern science with the tools it needed to make a tool of life. In Homo Sacer II.4: The Kingdom & The Glory, Agamben argues that early Christianity—despite availing itself of the Platonic logic of transcendence—could never quite think the persons of the Trinity together, could never produce a final closure between God’s being and God’s acting. The medieval metaphysics of pure act reflect this, ultimately suggesting that the human person is most like God when they are acting in accordance with God’s will.
By the time of Aquinas, human potential—already made the runt of metaphysics by Aristotle—can only be accounted for as a reservoir for producing action, and “obedience” to God is but the command to convert potency into action through the technology of the will. Thus Antonio Negri sums up Agamben’s casting of the Christian heritage:
Duty is introduced into ethics in order to give a foundation to control; thus the idea of will is elaborated to explain the passage from potency to the act. In this way, all Western philosophy is put inside a space of insoluble aporias that triumph in full modernity, redefining the world as a technological and industrial product.
Such metaphysics readily served up humanity to those institutions which, all transcendences being ultimately equal, took the place of God in modernity and immediately set persons to work, understanding work as the purest expression of their being. Any transcendence, Agamben argues, inevitably reproduces and maintains this life so divided from itself, only intelligible when “reconciled” through its own relations—a view which, according to Max Alvarez, has literally life-threatening consequences for us in the present:
To reconcile is to simplify, to work with the aggregate. To move stuff around until a meaningful shape starts to appear, and then taking that shape as the whole. What doesn’t “fit” blows away, or fades, the better to put into relief the thing in the foreground. It works as a kind of means to an end. An end that, in turn, erases the sweaty reality of the means (“Labor”).
Alvarez is not being cute or metaphorical about the “sweat” here; the learned simplification of life by metaphysical relation alienates us from our work, from the labor producing the lives we enjoy, until “the labor of living and dying and decaying leaves only an impression.” In our quarantined uselessness, we are yet “unable to conceive of contemplation, inoperativity, and feast otherwise than as rest or the negation of labor” (Agamben, The Fire & The Tale, 53). And lest we too-easily seek to reclaim the ends and promise of the Christian life, as though we could simply rededicate our lives to “glorifying God and enjoying Him forever,” Agamben reminds us that the end of that life—the telos, the destiny—is precisely the problem.
Humanity’s ends and its duty towards those ends inevitably devour its singular being, its dignity, and its life into nothing but these ends, as “the life of creatures culminates in obedience” in the eschaton where “the impossibility of increasing the inner glory of God translates into an unlimited expansion of the activity of the external glorification by men” (HS II.4, 567-68). Only an ontology of pure means can escape this “hell” of perpetual duty (HS II.4, 519-20; HS IV.2, 1270).
If anything, Agamben’s concerns have only become more visible in the past weeks. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery show us, in no uncertain terms, what is at stake when our politics calls life into question. As protestors fill the streets in flagrant violation of quarantine, it would appear that Agamben has gotten precisely the resistance he hoped for and that the Black Lives Matter movement remembers what the Church has forgotten: “that Francis [and] the martyrs teach that we must be prepared to sacrifice our life rather than our faith and that renouncing our neighbor means renouncing faith” (“A Question”). Metzger has already pointed out the anachronism of invoking St. Francis and accusing the present pope of “not living up to his namesake.”
But again, Agamben’s critique is unavoidably burdened by a larger genealogy going unarticulated. In sum, he accuses Pope Francis of not bothering to try and out-think the entanglements which Black Lives Matter again attempts to cut through: the knots of spirituality, law, and “duty” that place life in question in the first place and which Francis of Assisi attempted to undo in the thirteenth century—and very nearly succeeded.
Throughout Homo Sacer IV.1: The Highest Poverty, Agamben intuits, in the birth of medieval monasticism, an attempt to reclaim the Christian experience of being an “exile” (929) and a “foreigner” in the world despite a Church that increasingly resembled every other institution on earth in its “legalistic excess” (The Church & The Kingdom, 26, 40). Agamben sees, in the monastic “rule,” a “new way of conceiving the relation between life and law, which again calls into question the very concepts of observance and application, of transgression and fulfillment” (HS IV.1, 931). This attempt to think “rule” and “life” together, as distinct from a life merely governed by law and duty, reaches its culmination in Francis, whose insistence on the phrase forma vivendi (“form of living,” 963) shows that he:
Cannot be concerned with a rule in the proper sense, which establishes precepts and duties . . . And the opposition is not only between “what” and “that” but also between “doing” and “living,” the observation of precepts and norms and the simple fact of living according to a form . . . not in any way reducible to a normative code. (966)
Agamben is, of course, less interested in the spiritual implications of such an irreducible life than in the fact that Francis managed to think a distinction between “living according to the form of the holy Gospel” and “living according to the form of the Holy Roman Church,” a small but crucial gap within which the growing indistinctions between the monastic “rules” and the lives of the Friars Minor transformed their liturgical “duties” (956) and roguishly threatened the sovereign regulatory grasp of canon law.
But to complete the unfinished work implicit in the Franciscan form-of-life, Agamben must ultimately take his leave of St. Francis and the theological heritage to which he belongs; he must confront the Western Christian paradigm of operativity on “another terrain” where he can finally bring his Spinozist commitments to bear (1001). Agamben ultimately claims that only a life purely immanent to itself—not potent but “im-potent”—can live to its full capacities. He hears murmurs of his longed-for “life” not only in Spinoza, Foucault, and Deleuze, but still available to the Christian West in Jesus, St. Paul’s messianic interpretation of Jesus, and of course in Francis—when the saint’s work is rendered atheological.
In these figures, Agamben sees the potential “expropriation” of the human from the divine as illusory transcendent “duty” (The End of the Poem, 92), and here the inevitable tendency of Christianity to resolve itself in atheism reaches a branching path: one of modernity, in which God’s action is displaced by government and his sovereignty by capital, and an as-yet “unthought” messianic potential in which transcendence furnishes its own overcoming as human beings renounce all laws and deactivate all vocations and all “potential” for act or duty as “forms of a present world passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31).
In its place will be an “impotent” humanity for whom the relations of act and potency no longer maintain: not unable to act, but no longer intelligible purely through its actions, it will be something else entirely. Within this “whatever-being” Agamben intuits—ever a disciple of Spinoza—that impotence is also the true nature of divinity as a pure taking-place of life and creativity: “The world—insofar as it is absolutely, irreparably profane—is God” (The Coming Community, 74).
But if this “expropriated” life is the vital life we are fighting for—and have been fighting for all along—why did Agamben not breathe a word of it when the quarantines first started, long before we found ourselves bewilderedly asking whether “black lives matter”? Though it is an ontology “to come,” why did he withhold its possibility from the hunkering masses? Why did he not even attempt to furnish even a provisional description of a vibrant life “immanent to itself” that can yet be found within the borders of “quarantine life”?
How—and we are justified in asking this at the top of our lungs—has he missed what Guy Debord called the “joyous rupture with eternity . . . in the exuberant life of Italian cities,” declaring itself in all its “enjoyment” from balconies and rooftops, bursting into song over the philosopher’s very head as he himself sits bowed and fretting over those he calls his “friends”? (Agamben, HS IV.2, 1024-25)
I am not alone in asking all this. Agamben’s “politics to come” are often criticized as overly abstract, teetering between utopianism and nihilism and belonging only to those who have “kept silent” in the name of a new poetry (The Fire & The Tale, 71). But no one is keeping silent now: they raise shouts of discord because they are “embedded in a melody whose meaning comes . . . not from the labor of their being but from their situatedness within a finite world of signification and intent” (Alvarez, 2020). The lives that Alvarez describes—“brave and beautiful,” and constantly under erasure—are crying out for a more definite future where they may “bleed out, rebelliously, watercolors muddying up the lines that define every closed-off signifier.” Under the weight of an awful “Perhaps,” Alvarez hopes for a future in which it is a “joy” to remember even the struggle for the singular “work of living,” the “light and blood of being” that is “always home, in an everlasting present”—a home where, in truth, we have always been. It is, frankly, more than Agamben can offer.
IV. “And Have It Abundantly”
One could not say more clearly than Peter John Olivi that “If a life (the life of Christ) is to furnish the paradigm of the rule, then the rule is transformed into life, becomes forma vivendi et regula vivifica. The Franciscan syntagma regula et vita does not signify a confusion of rule and life, but the neutralization of both into a “form-of-life.” He continues, “The advent of the age of the Spirit [thus] coincides, that is to say, not with the advent of the persona of Christ . . . but with that of his vita, which constitutes the end and fulfillment not only of the new law, but even of all lives.” (Agamben, HS IV.1, 973, 1000).
When I read the above to my mother, sitting across from me as I studied, her eyes sparked as they always do when truth reaches her ears, no matter the source. She pressed her thinning hands to the table and asked with an impish smile, “Does he know what he’s saying?”
I wonder. Agamben’s corpus, at times, reads like a dare to the Church: a dare to prove him wrong, either by escaping its own relation to the “inscrutable command of divinity” through the messianism that founded it, or else to lay him low with the glory of that transcendence in which he does not believe. Sometimes he seems to hope very much that this latter thing will happen, sometimes evidenced in his love for Ivan Illich who likewise denounced the scientization and instrumentalization of contemporary life (HS IV.2, 1025).
But Illich also insisted that such vitality was available through the Holy Spirit even in the darkest of places, defying the consumptive and juridical forms into which life has been forced. Agamben can only read these as salutations of a destituent potential within Christianity, not as themselves critiques of labor and productivity—as a “uselessness” motivated by Incarnational or Trinitarian commitments. His life’s work makes room for life to tear a slit in sovereignty even as it over-reaches to recolonize life, but it does so by questioning every authority except its own; even where he lacks evidence for his position, he can always supplement by demonstrating the deleterious effects of transcendental thinking on the West.
Yet ironically, in this present moment of crisis, Agamben himself defines life negatively when he implies that quarantine saps it of all vitality, knowing full well the inadequacy of a defensive posture where life itself is at stake (HS VI.1, 997). Agamben’s vigilance over the threshold—along which life takes its flight and power makes its pursuit—is blind to a divine power whose very concessions to the political in the forms of liturgy and ecclesia are intended to push life over this threshold to the point where it exceeds itself and becomes “abundant” (John 10:10).
We may look to another’s life for such a transformed imagination of divine power. Contemplating that very life which Olivi says “constitutes the end and fulfillment not only of the new law, but even of all lives,” neutralizing rule and life into a “form-of-life,” Hans Urs von Balthasar intuits Christ as the transcendent form of history through the—not pure, not absolute, but crucial and irrevocable—immanence of his life (A Theology of History, 79, 88). In the contemplation of Christ, who offers his own risen life as a universal rule, we recognize human being, action, and potency as “by rights indeterminate” (73), organized only by “grace” as the will of the Father is received new and infinitely in every present moment. The techne of obedience, which sets will to action—though never completely (53)—becomes a joyous capacity of this contemplative life but not it’s “end.”
Duty and command, for von Balthasar, are swallowed up by a sensitivity to “every possible revelation from God” (45). There can be no proper talk of “ends” any longer because the pure, present receipt of divine infinity and its narrowing into time as a “genuine companion” (85) are reciprocal meters forming the human life, dissolving the dialectic of “duty” into poetry: Christ’s law is “lovable” (103) for his law is his life, not an abstract law that precedes him (92) but one of “concrete discipleship” (103), made possible through “a love which is so perfect that it breaks out of the old principle of servile obedience and makes the Law the servant of love” (57).
What room, finally, can Agamben make for such a sovereign who forswears the tyrannical “closure” of life and chooses a life of poverty alongside us? What can it mean that such a posture is decisively disclosive of who God is: he who makes law the servant of love? We may debate this or that failure in Agamben’s account of Christianity in another time and place, but this much we ought to say: Christianity is not done thinking, nor perhaps has it properly begun to think, through what it means that Love has made itself the arbiter, fulfiller, and “end” of law.
And in this life, for which Christ furnishes the rule, there is boundless creative potential for joy and contentment, even in the suffering which might be its very soil. Where this life is found and nurtured, where it is given over to the over-burdened and the erased, there we peer at the Father through the hole rent in the presumptuous closures of human sovereignty. Far from catching us up into one more net of relations that impose ready-made meaning, Christ’s life gives us access to the con-division of the Godhead, the friendship of their inoperativity and the infinity that rescues us into an “eternal present” where we are liberated from the need to mean anything.
“Friendship,” Agamben says, “is the con-division that precedes every division, since what has to be shared is the very fact of existence, life itself. And it is this sharing without an object, this original con-senting, that constitutes the political” (WA 36). Each of us must ultimately choose whether to receive Christ’s universal rule as a cold command, or as a “living possession that he can share” as our common life as friends (Balthasar, 86). It is ultimately a choice over our own “irreparable profanity,” over whether we need saving from anything at all and, as with any friendship, it is a choice made in faith.
This, finally, is where Agamben most infuriates me: his reminder that my decision for redemptive transcendence over absolute immanence can never finally be made in reason, only in faith. I love him from beneath the burden of that faith; my reason has not yet allowed me to see decisively the threshold at which we take our leave from one another. My faith still bends and cracks under his critique and I can only insist on my freedom in Christ and on the embraced “whatever-ness” of my being because in the end I do not know how to argue with him. I only know what I do not believe: that “No one / Is granted such prodigious love as he” who, in the deep desire to know, “has no hope of being loved” (Jorge Louis Borges, the poem “Baruch Spinoza”).
Instead, I believe in the messy, tear-slick love between a world and the One who made it, in “the element of dialogue, the sense of community which takes lovers captive, the fidelity” (Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord V, 418). I believe the sovereign Spirit of love is a destituent power, leaving only itself and its life behind for us as it topples our faith in governments and economies, for “all resurrected flesh is flesh in which he dwells, upon which he has conferred his own character” (TH, 93). And that law, that life—ever profaned, ever betrayed in the name of productivity—is always available to the protestors and the quarantined, as a hope of being loved that we must become newly capable of offering unto others in every moment.
This law, this life, demands that we so prove to our social forms that they are not the source of our vitality. Our only rule is another body: a body that eats our food, drinks our drink, embraces our anxious whatever-ness and does not chastise our meek need to be saved from our states of exception and emergency (84).
So let Agamben’s community come when he is ready for it, and it for him. In the meantime, and even if he taunts, may we yet all be like Francis, with life as our one rule: “The Kingdom of God, revealing itself in the fact that Christ is alive” (Balthasar 87). It emerges as an affront to power through fanfares played on balconies and voices raised on rooftops. It emerges whenever we learn new ways of expressing care and deference even with our faces covered by masks. It presents itself even as we digitize our presences to one another; life will not stop for the Beloved in their march to give life wherever they go.
“Each situation in the divine-human life,” von Balthasar says—even a global pandemic—“is so infinitely rich, capable of such unlimited application, so full of meaning, that it generates an inexhaustible abundance of Christian situations . . . without its being exhausted or restricted by them . . . How else can life be expounded except by living?” (71, 110). To live and share a life is our one law. To the poor, the mourning, the meek and the pure, to those in the in the streets or under forced guard: He says to these bones, “Live.”