September 22, 2017

Agamben's theology of the spectacle

Some more notes inspired by Giorgio Agamben's The Coming Community

Today, in the era of the complete triumph of the spectacle, what can be reaped from the heritage of Debord? It is clear that the spectacle is language, the very communicativity or linguistic being of humans. This means that a fuller Marxist analysis should deal with the fact that capitalism (or any other name one wants to give the process that today dominates world history) was directed not only toward the expropriation of productive activity, but also and principally toward the alienation of language itself, of the very linguistic and communicative nature of humans, of that logos which one of Heraclitus’s fragments identified as the Common. The extreme form of this expropriation of the Common is the spectacle, that is, the politics we live in. But this also means that in the spectacle our own linguistic nature comes back to us inverted. This is why (precisely because what is being expropriated is the very possibility of a common good) the violence of the spectacle is so destructive; but for the same reason the spectacle retains something like a positive possibility that can be used against it.

This condition is very similar to what the cabalists called “the isolation of the Shekinah” and attributed to Aher, one of the four rabbis who, according to the celebrated Haggadah1 of the Talmud, entered into Pardes (that is, into supreme knowledge.) “Four rabbis,” the story says, “entered Paradise: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher and Rabbi Akiba....Ben Azzai cast a glance and died....Ben Zoma looked and went mad....Aher cut off the twigs....Rabbi Akiba left unharmed.”

The Shekinah is the last of the ten Sefirot or attributes of the divinity, the one that expresses the very presence of the divine, its manifestation or habitation on earth: its “word.” Aher’s “cutting off the twigs” is identified by the cabalists with the sin of Adam, who instead of contemplating all of the Sefirot chose to contemplate the final one, isolating it from the others and in this way separating the tree of knowledge from the tree of life. Like Adam, Aher represents humanity insofar as, making knowledge his own destiny and his own specific power, he isolates knowledge and the word, which are nothing but the most complete form of the manifestation of God (the Shekinah), from the other Sefirot in which God is revealed. The risk here is that the word—that is, the non-latency and the revelation of something (anything whatsoever)—be separated from what it reveals and acquire an autonomous consistency. Revealed and manifested (and hence common and shareable) being is separated from the thing revealed and stands between it and humans. In this condition of exile, the Shekinah loses its positive power and becomes harmful (the cabalists said that it “sucked the milk of evil” ).2

Like Walter Benjamin before him, Guy Debord seemed to take seriously the notion that philosophy in the modern age had become a discipline of strategy. Having emerged from its world-historical ruminations with a view of its own social conditions of possibility (Hegel) and of the necessarily material (i.e. sensory) nature of these conditions (Marx), philosophical reasoning could no longer imagine itself to be engaged in the pure acquisition of knowledge, but rather in the situated production of knowledge-how.

All knowledge is, in one way or another, knowledge how to do x, even if x is not something we might habitually think of as an action, such as the mental act of relating Concept A to Concept B, or the act of faithfully reproducing particular linguistic content according to certain demands— e.g., rote memorization of facts.

By the same token, no linguistic act is exhausted in the study of its content, but also encompasses its intended effect on the addressee, as well as its actual effects in the world, whether intended or unintended. It is such an anti-positivist understanding of language that Walter Benjamin implored an audience of politically engaged writers to remember in a 1934 address to the Institute for the Study of Fascism, in Paris, entitled “The Author as Producer.” The author who is committed to advancing the conditions of class struggle, Benjamin argued, should approach writing as the construction of models whose proliferation can introduce changes to the production apparatus of writing itself, such that consumers can become producers in ever-increasing numbers. 3

All meaningfully political writing, in a sense, is consciously pedagogical, in that it actively seeks its own proliferation. This cannot be taken to imply any normative aesthetic theory of style. Rather, it is a declaration of strategy, about whose implementation we can say very little outside a particular time or place.

What we can say is this: Being conscious of the perlocutionary force of one’s language, understanding the objective act of saying as a subset of doing, is not inherently revolutionary. It is simply the terrain on which we must realize we are operating: our alienation from social being itself, the condition that Debord theorized in 1967 as the spectacle.

That such terrain is a natural habitat of the fascist mob has been driven home with the emergence of the alt-right. The deranged alchemy of fascist trolling is rooted in the gnostic delusion which revels in total alienation from self and world and calls it sovereignty. At the center of the committed fascist’s suicidal spiral of insincerity lies the most virulent form of sincerity: the belief that they have, in a sense, glimpsed the face of god, and now walk the earth as a pneumatic, an afterimage of a person for whom social obligation is a ruse.

At the risk of carrying the register of mystical theology to overwrought extremes, we can perhaps relate this view of fascism as social pathology to Aher’s “cutting off the twigs” and the sin of Adam in Agamben’s telling of the parable of the four sages. The Word, the Shekinah, our being in language, appears as an all-encompassing totality when it is contemplated in isolation. But it is precisely this sense of divine totality, of absolute everythingness, that marks the contemplated Word, the lattice of objectified social relations which make up the spectacle, as nothing at all. Taken all together, the Sefirot, the fullness of the divine in its continuous re-creation, cannot be “contemplated” because they are the subject itself, and thus substance. The subject as substance is not a totality, but an opening-out.

Debord identified the spectacle, the total colonization of human life by the commodity form, with the emergence of a religion whose basis is history rather than myth, and whose ritual practices are found in marketing. It seems clear how in such a schema, the fascist is the fundamentalist of this religion. It also seems clear today that technology is allowing this fundamentalism to assume a growing multiplicity of forms. If there is any grain of truth to Agamben’s insistence on a “positive possibility” contained within the spectacle, perhaps it is that this multiplicity of forms will make it easier for antifascist pedagogy to distinguish fascism’s essential features— what Umberto Eco famously called “ur-fascism”— from the historically and geographically contingent features with which it has traditionally been identified.

Postcolonial theory enters where the internal relations of the society of the spectacle can go no further, where even the most radical efforts to shatter the spectacle “from within” are reabsorbed into its lattice of objectification. In this moment, decolonization thus has the character of a last hope.

  1. To the best of my knowledge, it’s unusual, though not unheard of, to use “Haggadah” and “Aggadah” interchangeably, the latter of which would be the more usual term to describe a story from the body of exegetical “tellings” within the Talmud and the Midrash. (“Haggadah” usually refers to the liturgical instructions for the Passover Seder.)

  2. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community. Translated by Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 1990, 81-83.

  3. Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer” in Reflections: essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings. Edited by Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken Books, 2007, 233.

I'm a graduate student in historical musicology based in NYC. This blog is a journal of my mostly "esoteric" experiments with theory. Please feel free to contact me by email.