Book Review: Kevin Attell, Giorgio Agamben: Beyond the threshold of deconstruction

Pusterla, Elia R.G. (2017) Book Review: Kevin Attell, Giorgio Agamben: Beyond the threshold of deconstruction. Derrida Today - Edinburgh University Press, 10 (2). pp. 237-243.

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The importance and influence of the thought of Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben for various contemporary debates – whether philosophical, political, logical and/or linguistic, artistic, literary, and so on – are not difficult to prove. It is more difficult, and requires greater attention, to read between the lines some controversy between them; probably because of the marked empty spaces and eloquent omissions in which Agamben avoids mentioning Derrida's work, while at other times emphasizing it, and vice versa. Accordingly, Kevin Attell's Giorgio Agamben – Beyond the Threshold of Deconstruction, meticulously captures and masterfully reveals an esoteric game of silences and absences and displays the enigmatic intimacy that underlies the philosophical gigantomachy between Derrida and Agamben. Nevertheless, sometimes it is questionable whether it is perhaps a little one-way and exasperated from Agamben's side (3). It is worth noting that the author's impressive mastery of the subject follows up his skillful translation into English for various publishers of at least six of the best known and complex of Agamben's works. Among these The Open: Man and Animal and State of Exception are notable. Indeed, Attell's book, from its very first pages, panoramically explores a series of arguments that both Derrida and Agamben approached throughout their intellectual journey, making this a well-articulated and meritorious study. To avoid any misunderstanding, Attell, while admitting a personal affinity and fondness for Agamben's argumentation and conclusions on most of the issues Agamben and Derrida treated, immediately clarifies how the aim of the book ‘is not to polemicize with deconstruction … but to show the extent and the significance of Agamben's debate with deconstruction’ (3). In other words, one can say that Attell wants to illustrate – and he manages it with great success – how deconstruction is central to Agambenian thought since its early stages, and how for Agamben deconstruction constitutes ‘the work against which he must continuously measure his own/ (3). By rejecting, inter alia, those criticisms that cast Derrida and Agamben as participants in a merely tactical and sporadic philosophical exchange, this reading by Attell aims to bring to light the ‘internal mechanics of Agamben's and Derrida's texts as they relate to one another’ (5). Attell offers the fascinating hypothesis of a more than decennial philosophical dialogue that could be interpreted as a dense, indirect, and public epistolary correspondence, at times hidden, between two great thinkers and cryptic interlocutors. The effort to corroborate the above hypothesis and display this relationship reverberates in the structure of the book, which generally divides into two parts the work of the two authors, as well as their correlative mutual readings and influence. Indeed, starting from the common treatment by both of Kafka's story ‘Before the Law’ in which a man from the country ‘arrives one day at the gate of the law, would like to gain admittance and enter, but is prevented from doing so by an enigmatic doorkeeper’ (13), Attell explores and exposes, from chapter one to chapter three, the most eminently philosophical phase of these authors’ production, constituting the basic principles of this unspoken and very compellingly detetced dialogue. The second part of the book then covers issues less philosophical than political and ethical, for example their respective writings on political theory in relation to the issue of sovereignty. Taking as the first philosophical question on the table that of both legal and linguistic signification, Attel illustrates the presence of a deep furrow between Derrida and Agamben, who he shows work from often similar premises but arrive at very different normative consequences. For Derrida, the “man from the country” will soon be confronted with the essential undecidability of the law, in the sense of a text whose meaning is not decipherable beyond its own terms: Derrida identifies this obscure threshold with différance, and what is more, with a différance that not only is impassable, but whose play of deferral and nullification is the foundational (non)source and (non)origin of the law. The countryman's entrance into the law is not directly prevented but endlessly deferred by the enigmatic doorkeeper, whose station, he tells the man, is simply the first of an evidently endless series of such deferring thresholds. (14–15) Ontologically, Derrida's reading of the story thus affirms the ‘insuperability of différance’ (16), due to the aporetic, foundational nothingness on which the law rests: ‘The entry to the law never happens, and the man from the country never sets foot in the place (topos) where the law is grounded, because there is no such place’ (16). Accordingly, Agamben duly recognises the merits of a deconstruction that reveals this ‘differential topology’ for the reading of the law as that of any other (e.g., linguistic) sign. Yet, he proposes a personal reading of the story based on his influential theory of sovereignty, which Attell synthesizes effectively: In Agamben's reading, the countryman's waiting for days and years is neither failure nor endless deferral; rather, it is precisely a successful strategy that leads not to the recognition and affirmation of the empty yet forceful ban-structure of sovereignty and the law, but, in the tale's final image of the gatekeeper moving to shut the door, to the dissolution of the sovereign ban itself. (17) From here on, the individual chapters of the book are structured around a careful illustration of the various philosophical and political consequences this different posture entails. In fact, Attell manages to weave, with meticulous and sometimes enterprising philological work, a rich canvas of themes and topics that Derrida and Agamben treat (albeit often polemically) in parallel. Indeed, even though chronologically Derrida's arguments often lead the way, as the order of the arguments in the book shows, Agamben's oblique responses cannot be reduced to mere commentaries, this term is inevitably inadequate to the power and strength of the Agambenian philosophical project. Whether viewed as assessing the real goal and soundness of Saussure's semiological project, and thereby offering a deeper understanding of signification and language, or viewed as establishing the nature and (perhaps negative) origin of the voice through which language articulates itself, Beyond the Threshold brings out the productive tension between Derrida's and Agamben's positions. The book thus traces with clarity the nature of and reasons for Agamben's discomfort with deconstruction. Here, the original sin in deconstruction, despite its best intentions, would be that it reproduces the same mechanisms and errors that it aims to unravel. Since his early work on signification and language, Agamben develops this criticism through the use of examples, such as his approach to the riddle of the Sphinx. ‘Agamben argues that the canonical reading of the myth depends on an understanding of the Sphinx's language as a matter of coding and deciphering’ (36). Yet, deconstruction cannot grasp that the Sphinx's riddle was not simply something whose signified is hidden and veiled under an ‘enigmatic’ signifier, but a mode of speech [un dire] in which the original fracture of presence was alluded to in the paradox of a word that approaches its object while keeping it indefinitely at a distance.…This, despite initial appearances, is not a statement of affinity with the deconstructive notion of différance but rather something like an effort to step backward beyond it.…This original mode of speaking is not founded on the presence or representation of the signified at all, and believing that it is, which is tantamount to dismissing this original fracture of presence, is precisely what Agamben believes to be Oedipus's – and the Western metaphysical tradition's – error. (36) As Attell reads him, Agamben criticises Derrida for using a more sophisticated, but still similar logic that makes Derrida ‘the unwitting heir of Oedipus’ (36): ‘[F]or Agamben, in viewing différance as the unsurpassable limit and (non)orgin of signification, and thus foreclosing the possibility of neutralizing or circumventing the metaphysics that is founded on this logic, Derrida is confined to the Oedipal understanding of the enigma’ (37). Thus deconstruction remains embroiled in its logic and cannot hypothesize and consider the possibility of an alternate logic. Hence, from the third chapter on, treating the concept of potentiality, Attell exemplifies concretely what he means when he says that ‘[w]hat distinguishes their readings … is the way they understand the countryman's ultimate fate as he stands before the law’ (17). For Attell, Agamben's criticisms of Derrida aim to show the limits of deconstruction in operational terms. Accordingly, Derrida's deconstruction is seen as coming to a stop at an analytical level, while Agamben, in the move from philosophy to political theory, aims to articulate, and finally formulate, a normative political theory, despite the appearance of similar move in Derrida. For Agamben, deconstruction properly recognizes the logical trap in which the countryman is located, but it fails to provide any way out of this trap. Consequently, Agamben's initial philosophical investigations evolve and become a heartfelt appeal to a ‘supreme political task’ (210) in which Agamben seeks and suggests a way out. It is in this context that Beyond the Threshold presents, and invites us to read, the wide-ranging discussion in Agamben of concepts dear to him such as the voice, potentiality, sovereignty, but also messianism, messianic time, play, etc. Indeed, by comparing Derrida and Agamben's readings of Heidegger's existentialism, as approached though the analytic of Dasein, and Hegel's idealism (the dialectic that would merge the space-time dimensions of Cartesian space), Beyond the Threshold ultimately concerns itself with the theme of (messianic) time as it is presented within the Western metaphysical tradition, with all its logical, moral, and political implications. On the one hand, given the unresolved, allusive relationship, since Aristotle and Heidegger, between being and time – or rather, the topological problem of the physical and geometrical dimension of time with respect to the presumed linearity of history – Derrida affirms that ‘[t]he concept of time, in all its aspects, belongs to metaphysics, and it names the domination of presence’ (227). To put it very simply, Derrida recognizes the (human) condition of an unavoidable metaphysical attitude that calls philosophically for what Attell defines as the ‘deconstructive methodological principle’: ‘that one “seeks in vain” to cleanly escape from the metaphysics of presence and that therefore one must work at a deconstruction of metaphysics from within metaphysics, the “epoch of meaning”’ (226–7). This is to say that the search for signification and the sense of things in itself betrays the inevitable presence of a metaphysical assumption of presence. For his part, while recognizing the plausibility of this deconstructionist account, Agamben nevertheless considers it dangerously close to the errors made already within the Western philosophical tradition and urges us to find a playful and irreverent way not to play this game, or (to laugh at it and) to deactivate it. That is, Agamben conceives a ‘pure potentiality’ that may allow individuals to deactivate, by virtue of their own potentiality, any law that imposes alleged natural behaviours that are actually artificial. In this sense, the chief political duty becomes that of ‘the play’, which is to desecrate and mock this artificial law by making use of potentiality without particular, pre-determined purposes. In a nutshell, for Agamben (and perhaps for Attell as well), the desirable and ‘truly political [postjuridical] action’ (262) is to do nothing that would be conditioned by the presence of the door and the doorkeeper, or by what they would apparently represent. The (political) countryman does well to do nothing because he does not even have the heart to go through the door, and even mocks the solemnity with which the watchman guards it. One of the particularly impressive aspects of Beyond the Threshold is precisely Attell's ability to illustrate how the intellectual projects of Derrida and Agamben are linked. In his admirable survey of the relationship underlying their works, Attell shows how their paths are not just intertwined, but also based on the necessity of working through developments in each other's thinking. The book has an impressive internal consistency. Attells portrays well Agamben's vision of deconstruction as entrapped ‘in a logical problematic of which it cannot venire a capo’ (19). Yet, one gets the impression that there is a misunderstanding in this regard that Attell captures but does not fully develop. The book does not investigate, even hypothetically, the reasons for the very few direct references among the two authors, in particular by Derrida. Given that there was an esoteric dialogue between the two authors, why does it take place in such mysterious ways? It is perhaps possible to sketch an answer by remaining with the themes and criticism treated (quite well) in the book itself. Indeed, while the book gives the impression of producing a list of philological and methodological points on which to demonstrate the weaknesses of Derrida and the strengths of Agamben, it seems at times that the thought of Derrida is not addressed fully in the book. This may be due to the fact that, as Attell presents it, Derrida's arguments are not per se found to be incorrect or limited in Agamben, but rather are more simply uncomfortable or unwelcome, insofar as they are fundamentally unsuited to Agamben's purposes. Indeed, they seem (emphasis on ‘seem’) to rule out a positive political and ethical dimension. The point is thus not just that the book may leave the impression of preferring Agamben, but that it does not prove him to be actually more analytically convincing and/or morally and politically cogent. The issue is that the alleged limits of Derrida's arguments seem at times plausible only through certain interpretations of his texts, rather than through a more literal reading. If we take the case of the alleged nihilism of Derrida that emerges here, the irreconcilable difference between Derrida's and Agamben's logics will not be fully grasped. Speaking of the presumed difference between zoe and bios, Attell very brilliantly captures the possibility of a very different logic between the two authors’ philosophy which leads him to say: ‘For Derrida, opposition implies and even requires a binary difference, two terms or poles separated by the space of difference or alterity. But in Agamben's schema, there is not an opposition between bios and zoe but a relation of ban, which is not a pure alterity but an inclusive exclusion’ (189). Now, if on the one hand, it is certainly true that any opposition must be assessed and rejected if arbitrary, conventional, fictional and so on, Agamben cannot exclude the existence of any opposition ever in this zone simply because he has no proof of what lies beyond the law. Indeed, when Derrida says that the law is based on a spaceless and timeless nothingness, on a fiction of origin, there is nothing more than that. This means that in the presence of an absence, the latter does not determine and dominate the former, because otherwise the absence would have a presence and would not be negative. This brings us to two problematic ways of conceiving of this limit. The first is perhaps more excusable, resulting from the notion of the absolute value of all (Parmenidean) reality, even if negative. So one might simply say that there is no negative, because by the very fact of being, the being turns the negative into positive. The second is the contamination problem that stems from Agamben's oversight of the methodological rigor imposed by the tertium non datur of Aristotelian first philosophy in his Metaphysics. Derrida respects it by making the (moral and political) choice of recognising not being able to learn about the unknown and its meaning (which is consequently not epistemologically grasped, and thus ontologically unknown). In these terms, Agamben seems to be cheating by forcing the hand and trying to understand what he aims at, although not via the appropriate logical or methodological means.

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