On Agamben’s Signatures

Let’s say you don’t believe that wholes or totalities exist. You don’t believe that people and objects inhabit underlying structures that assign to them meanings or functions. Whatever it is that is bigger than us, the space within which we move, is neutral terrain, not exactly empty, but unstriated, a field of constantly shifting singularities. It’s going to help to have a name for this space, this wire cage in which the lottery balls blow, though it’s unclear what that name is to be. There is a lot that you can’t call it, many words that, believing as you do, you are going to have to give up. You can’t talk about structure or system or any of their derivatives: There are no ecosystems, and there is no world; there are no political or economic or legal systems, no capitalism, then, no empire, nothing global. It would be safer, conceptually purer, to shut up about the state and society. There can be no talk of rules and laws, because such things either constitute structure or are assigned by it. You’ll also want to toss out any terms that refer to big blocks of time. You can start with the word “modernity.”

That people who claim not to believe in totalities routinely talk about all these things suggests only that they are not yet disbelieving with their hearts, like Christian teenagers pretending to be more badass than they really are. Yer average copy of Anti-Oedipus is, in this sense, a prop cigarette. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is the virtue of Giorgio Agamben’s recent book on method, The Signature of All Things, to remind us what a painstaking post-structuralism can look like. And yes, this is the first thing to know about the book: that it is post-structuralist, in some wholly precise sense of that term, still, in 2008, when it was first published in Italy, and not just because its author quotes Foucault a lot. What matters is that Agamben is still actively trying to purge the concept of “structure” from his thinking; still trying to jimmy that e from his typewriter; still scanning old volumes of philosophy so he can accusingly annotate the passages where schemes sneak in unbidden; still trying to devise something to put in their place.

We can see how this works in the second essay, from which this little book takes its title, and in which Agamben asks us to start thinking again about a basic problem in structural linguistics: How does language pass from words to utterances? Or if you like: How does the mind get from inert words, archived dictionary-like in lists, to living sentences that actually carry meaning? The usual answer to that question would have something to do with rules or laws: There are rules governing how words get combined. Your mind doesn’t only know words and their definitions; it’s absorbed the guidelines for their use. But Agamben doesn’t want to say this, because the word “rules” makes language sound like a government agency. Nor are the usual alternatives much better: Any talk about the “structure of language” is going to bring in resonances of the state or capitalism or the administered world. We could try to identify the mind’s “devices for building sentences,” but that would turn language into a technology. We could wonder how words get “processed,” but that would be either bureaucratic—words as case files or credit-card applications—or again technological—words as refined sugar. Agamben is in the market for a way of thinking about language that does not go through a juridical model of laws and rules …  or a political model of the system … or a technical model of the machine.

His proposal, derived from synopses of Paracelsus and Jakob Böhme, is that we learn to think of language as magic. Magic is what will substitute for structure, in which case one synonym for post-structuralism is “the occult.” Agamben wants magical signs; this, roughly, is what he means by “signatures,” signs that aren’t just neutral stand-ins for things, tokens or pointers, but charmed symbols vibrating with their own energies, signs that have “efficacy,” “efficacious likenesses,” not marks that you write down but marks that are written across you. Every spoken sentence changes the world and is in that sense a spell or hex. This is probably the clearest instance of the “regression” that Agamben makes central to his method: “the opposite of rationalization,” he calls it. If you are serious about your critique of enlightenment, you are going to need an enchanted epistemology.

So … at least it’s not the same old anti-foundationalism—a post-structuralism, then, with new emphases and possibilities. Indeed, one of the more conspicuous features of Agamben’s reflections on “method” is that they actually add up to some pretty strong and decidedly un-skeptical claims about the nature of social reality. How one studies the world is premised on an already robust idea about how the world really is. This is clearest in the book’s first essay, which explains Agamben’s notion of “paradigms”—it would help if you could set to one side whatever you currently think that word means and let Agamben explain it for himself. He is, above all, trying to explain what Foucault had in mind when he said that the panopticon was the nineteenth century’s representative institution, or what Agamben himself wants to say when he makes the same claim, for the twentieth century, about the concentration camp. These two, the panopticon and the camp, are paradigms—not their respective eras’ most powerful institutions, at least not by any of the usual metrics, and not their most frequently encountered institutions—but the pattern or model for all manner of other agencies, and so the key to the latter’s intelligibility. To examine in detail a Regency-era prison is actually to describe five or six other institutions all at once: hospitals, elementary schools, mental asylums, army barracks, nearly any public street in Britain in 2010. The prison itself serves as a kind of extended sociological analogy, even a kind of “allegory”—the word is Agamben’s own. Everything is now like x.

You’ll be able to make up your own mind about the “paradigm”—about how useful it is as an explanatory device—if you bring into view its competitor concepts, the notions that it most nearly resembles and so means to replace. These are basically two: the symptom and the function. We could try to discover what functions prisons or concentration camps play in the social order at large. This would require that we attempt something like a political economy of the camps, that we try to work out what it is in the modern European state or in organized capitalism that tends to produce camps. If, alternately, we called the camps a “symptom,” we would be positing not so much function as dysfunction; the camp would be the visible mark or felt sign of an underlying sociopolitical disorder, one whose pathways and mechanisms, because not available to the eye, would still have to be analytically reconstructed. Either way, if we talk about functions or symptoms, the task in front of us is to relate camps and prisons back to the underlying order that has at least partially produced them. And this is precisely the job that Agamben is now calling off. What he likes most about the notion of “the paradigm” is that it bypasses any talk of the totality or system; it spares us from having to reconstruct anything. If you call the camp a “paradigm,” you are saying that nothing “precedes the phenomenon.” Camps and prisons are “pure occurences” that persist “independently of reference” to other institutions—“positivities,” he calls them and doesn’t blush. They are representative institutions, and they conjure up parallel institutions, but only as a string of singularities, the relationships between which are to be left, as a matter of principle, unelucidated. It isn’t even an open question, to be settled empirically, whether prisons and this or that capitalism require one another. The question is methodologically disallowed. There is pride in not asking it. His sense is that the agencies of a given historical period might congeal into a set, might adopt similar designs and follow similar procedures, might come to resemble one another, without, however, being functionally related, and the task of the social historian is only to chart the spontaneous mutation in some free-floating logic of institutions.

Here’s Agamben: “According to Aristotle’s definition, the paradigmatic gesture moves not from the particular to the whole and from the whole to the particular but from the singular to the singular.” You can attribute that idea to Aristotle, but it also sounds an awful lot like the “constellations” of Benjamin and Adorno—assemblages of singular things, not subsumed under a category or master term, but linked all the same, except only just, minimally unified, scattered fragments carefully re-collected, scraps joined with twists of wire, like an early Rauschenberg combine, the unity-of-unity-and-difference with difference dialed high in the mix. Agamben and Adorno share the idea that singularities might be linked together directly and so circumvent the abstractions that typically manhandle them. And saying as much should help us identify what is peculiar about Agamben’s thinking. For Adorno, of course, preserves the moment of the totality or the whole—he continues to speak of “capitalism” or “the administered world”—to which the constellation of singularities nonetheless provides an alternative. Hence Adorno’s in some sense entirely conventional reliance on the aesthetic: He thinks we need a better way to cognize objects and thinks, too, that art might provide it; that in the aesthetic encounter we for once apprehend objects in their singularity, without immediately subsuming them under models or formulas. In rare moments, we stop thinking like administrators and lose the names for things. The constellation is an alternative mode of cognition, a utopian counter-term, and in that sense a project, rather than, as Agamben has it, a method—a counter-systemic thinking and not a post-structuralism. The bizarre thing about Agamben—although this is a peculiarity he shares with lots and lots of other thinkers—is that he thinks that this utopian counter-term already describes our political and economic reality. It is the mistake endemic to the breed. What in Adorno remains a political task Agamben and sundry others turn into proclamation. Fired by the idea that the world should not be organized into structures and systems, they convince themselves that the world is not so organized, though where they used to take the epistemological shortcut to singularity, they are now more likely to take the ontological one: sameness cannot exist; it is existentially excluded; there is only multiplicity.

If there is a big point here, then we’ve just hit it: You can be counter-systemic, or you can be post-structuralist, but you cannot coherently be both, because once you’ve declared that there is no structure, you cannot then say you want to overturn it. Adorno thinks that a transformed world—let’s call it communism, though he wouldn’t have, as others were hogging the word—would be one in which people and objects can exist as free but linked singularities; and he thinks that we can proleptically work out the epistemology of that world-that-is-not-yet-ours, such that we can sometimes experience objects and others as though already redeemed. Agamben thinks that this utopian epistemology—the knowing of linked singularities—accurately describes the world we already inhabit, which is the society of camps and prisons.

I don’t mean to suggest that Agamben has anything nice to say about prisons and concentration camps. This is manifestly not the case. He typically presents himself as a thinker of The Catastrophe—the destruction of experience, the permanent state of exception, the generalization of Dachau, the merging of the concentration camp with everyday life, Buchenwald without end. There is, if anything, an apocalypticism in his writing, modeled again on the late Adorno and a Benjamin-about-to-die. And yet a certain utopian misdescription of the concentration camp is built into his arguments all the same, simply because he has taken the redemptive moment from negative dialectics—Adorno’s inevitably temporary reminders of how objects would appear to us once liberated from the abstractions of the exchange relation and bureaucratic reason—and locked it in place as a uniform method. The strain of this argument is often evident, as here—Agamben is trying again to sum up what he means by “paradigm”:

We can … say … that a paradigm entails a movement that goes from singularity to singularity and, without ever leaving singularity, transforms every singular case into an exemplar of a general rule that can never be stated a priori.

This is a version of what we’ve already seen: Singularities are directly joined, flush up against each other. A certain generality can be achieved, but a miraculous generality that doesn’t come at the expense of singularity, a generality without abstraction. What Agamben is saying here really isn’t all that complicated. All he means is that when you write about a prison or a concentration camp, you are writing about our general condition, but you need never exit the detail and fine grain of your description in order to make this point separately and in its generality. You can just motor on with your individualized account, immersed in the singularity of that particular institution, confident that it will stand in for other similar institutions. The problem, in this light, is the term “a priori,” which Agamben has grabbed from Kant. The rule of prisons, like the rule of camps, cannot be stated a priori. To which one would like to reply: Of course not. Of course these “rules” can’t be formulated a priori, because Agamben and Foucault are offering us a method for historical study; they are talking about historical periods, trying to identify shifts in historical experience, and historical experience is by definition not a priori. That is one of things one knows a priori about the term “a priori.” The claim, in other words, isn’t wrong. Quite the contrary: it is troublingly evident, because definitional. It’s the sort of truth you can’t insist on without making other people wonder whether you’ve really grasped the underlying issues. We can be certain, at least, that we are not dealing with a distinctive virtue of Agamben’s method; there is no philosophy whatsoever that could deliver to us a priori knowledge of Sachsenhausen or the Alleghany County Jail. What is true of “the paradigm”—what Agamben makes his boast—is true of every other historical methodology, without exception. One suspects, then, that this sentence cannot mean what it plainly says, that Agamben wants to use the term a priori to suggest a rather different claim: not that the general historical rule can’t be stated a priori, but that it can never be stated in its generality, as an abstraction. But Agamben can’t put it that way, because in that form the claim is just false. Anything that can be said about the panopticon paradigmatically could also be said generally, as an observation about a system or set of institutions, without our even having to mention the panopticon. So that’s one way to make it seem as though you have excised from your thought the structures or totalities that have not vanished from the world: You argue the obvious in order to insinuate the wrong.

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