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Giorgio Agamben

The Use of Bodies. Translated by Adam Kotsko. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2015, xxi + 291 pp.

It is as if something decisive—and, so to speak, unequivocally public and political—has collapsed to such a degree into the idiocy of the private that it is becoming forever unrecognizable.

Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies1

Giorgio Agamben’s nine-volume work Homo Sacer is, at once, a massive archeology of Western humanity and a clarion call to think that humanity without the repressive category of sovereignty. With the release of The Use of Bodies, that ennead now comes to an end. This end, Agamben tells us, is neither a fulfillment or telos nor an exhaustion leading to the birth of something new: “We must decisively call into question the commonplace according to which it is a good rule that an inquiry commence with a pars destruens and conclude with a pars construens and, moreover, that the two parts be substantially and formally distinct. In a philosophical inquiry, not only can the pars destruens not be separated from the pars construens, but the latter coincides, at every point and without remainder, with the former … [The work of this book] is their inoperativity” (ub: xiii). Inseparable from the practice of writing that brought it about, and the practice of reading to which it is dedicated, the interrelated essays comprising The Use of Bodies function like a system of musculature for a skeletal structure discerned in the previous eight studies. If it appears, at times, to be a simple appendix, Agamben invites us (in terms quite familiar to his readers) to put it to a new use. We are thus compelled to read Agamben’s work from its end—from this end (irrespective of whatever mutations the senses of “end” here undergo). This circumstance raises a series of initial questions for readers: What is the status of a book/series that strives towards the inoperative? How does/can one put such a work to new use? Does the inoperativity of the work itself constitute something like a new use? Can we, as Agamben’s readers, locate ourselves at the threshold of such a new use when the living author still exercises a modicum of sovereignty? Why, in the end, do we read Agamben?

Certain critics of Agamben’s work take issue with his handling of issues—e.g., “[the] radical, clear, univocal, exclusion among the Greeks and philological in Aristotle in particular, between bare life (zoe), common to all living beings (animals, men, gods), and life qualified as individual or group life (bios: bios theoretikos, for example, contemplative life, bios apolaustikos, life of pleasure, bios politikos, political life).”2 Others take issue with his interpretation of particular philosophers (as if Agamben were a sort of latter day Marsilio Ficino—preserving historical thought in the mode of deforming it).3 To be sure, these criticisms do not lack validity; they are, however, open to analogously particular and specialized responses: Does Heidegger display no creative impulse in connecting πόλις (city) with πόλος (pole)? Is there nothing daring—in his Kant interpretation from the 1920s—that the common, yet unknown, root of reason and sensibility lies in the imagination? Yet we can also read Agamben because he continually writes about figures and themes about which we care deeply. In my own case, whether he writes about Benjamin, the Medieval Rabbinic Commentators, Winnicott, the Nazi concentration camps, the end of History, or the relation between law and exception, Agamben’s work is located in the same affective-discursive space as my own. That I find his philosophical outlook to be both diametrically opposed to my own, and philosophically problematic, continually serves as a catalyst for translating my private thoughts about him into writings for a general (if still specialized) public.

Now that the entire series has been released (by Stanford University Press) as The Omnibus Homo Sacer, readers can assume that the order of volumes provided there is Agamben’s final (if not exhaustive) word on the subject. They are: 1. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 2.1 State of Exception, 2.2 Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, 2.3 The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath, 2.4 The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, 2.5 Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty, 3 Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, 4.1 The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-Of-Life, and 4.2 The Use of Bodies. Worthy of mention is the translator of this volume (as well as of The Sacrament of Language, Opus Dei, and The Highest Poverty), Adam Kotsko. In providing clear, exacting, and readable translations for many of Agamben’s most formidable, dense, and challenging works—with respect to the Homo Sacer series, he has translated more volumes than any other single translator—Kotsko has distinguished himself (in my view) as Agamben’s foremost English-language translator and has performed a valuable service for the understanding of his thought.4 Put differently, he manifestly succeeds in raising Agamben out of a certain linguistic specificity—if not privacy—into a more general context. As readers of Agamben, we owe him a debt of gratitude.

As a reviewer of the last volume of this series, I can do no more than sketch the contours of how this work (according to Agamben) connects with, and augments, some of the volumes in the Homo Sacer ennead. In so doing, I will also draw a necessarily tentative conclusion about the use to which Agamben seeks to have his work put. In the end, I believe that his attempts to unwork the idiocy affecting the private individuals (idiotes) who live in a juridical context in favor of a common antinomian figure of humanity leave Agamben trapped in a privacy as historically determined as it is law-abiding. While I am sympathetic with his concerns (as I intimated above), I remain skeptical about his overall project.

One can employ classically phenomenological terminology in speaking of Agamben’s work as a suspension of the tradition of Western thought and institutions in order to reach a reduced consciousness or figure pertaining to human life. If, as Marion holds, there have been three major reductions occurring by means of phenomenology—i.e., to the I (Husserl), to being (Heidegger), and to givenness (Marion)5 —Agamben’s project can be said to attempt a fourth and fifth. We might designate these as: the reduction to potentiality and the reduction to linguistic experience. For Agamben, what it means to be human (in a manner not simply divided against itself by the biopolitical institutions of Western sovereignty) is to be the animal (1) containing a potential that does not terminate in actuality and (2) capable of having an original experience of language. Whether or not these two reductions amount to the same thing goes far beyond the scope of this review (which will focus primarily on the former reduction). It is clear, however, that human being is the animal without proper work/activity (ub: 23) and with a fundamental relation to spoken language (a relation which, according to Agamben’s reading of Foucault, biopower seeks to forever alienate from the human as simple living being6). If Agamben’s thought is too flexible to subscribe to a phenomenology construed as a “science of origins,”7 it nonetheless delineates a constitution of human being both present at its beginning and persistent at its threshold. Moreover, the designators “potential” and “linguistic” highlight the common character of human being (albeit one not tainted by the sovereignties of actuality or work). Agamben’s task, therefore, can be understood as an attempt to re-originate this non-sovereign experience of common humanity beyond or within the confines of singular humans: “only if thought is able to find the political element that has been hidden away in the secrecy of singular existence, only if, beyond the split between public and private political and biographical … it is possible to delineate the contours of a form-of-life and of a common use of bodies, will politics be able to escape from its muteness and individual biography from its idiocy”(xxi).

The book is divided into three general sections although (as mentioned above) the specific essays are interrelated to such an extent that there they comprise (as it were) a thematic zone of indistinction as concerns the former. Section One—“The Use of Bodies”—deals with the concept of “new use” as a way of relating to bodies in a manner regulated neither by actuality nor instrumentality. Section Two—“An Archaeology of Ontology”—attempts to rethink ontology along the lines of a Spinozan conception of modality (i.e., where the substantialist distinction between essence and existence no longer holds) and a (quasi-Heideggerian) conception of middle-voiced occurring (i.e., where the distinction between active subject and passive object dissolves). Section Three—“Form-Of-Life”—traces a conception of inoperativity as it relates to human existence (i.e., a life inseparable from its form). Taken together, the book highlights the attempt to conceive a completely different self-relationship for humanity in order to forestall the complete subsumption of human life by one specific form of life (i.e., biopolitical sovereignty).

The beginning of Section One—with its discussion of Aristotle’s figure of the slave—is as good a point as any with which to show the connections between The Use of Bodies and previous texts. Agamben’s study of the slave intends to mark a constitutive limit by which humanity can be understood in its most radical potential. The slave, for Aristotle, is that human who’s work solely amounts to the instrumental use of the body (ub: 10). Insofar as the formulation “use of the body” expresses a conceptual range that covers both master and slave, however, the latter cannot simply be thought as a separate category of existence from the former: “The strategy that leads Aristotle to define the slave as an integral part of the master shows its subtlety at this point. By putting in use his own body, the slave is, for that very reason, used by the master, and in using the body of the slave, the master is in reality using his own body. The syntagma ‘use of the body’ represents a point of indifference not only between subjective genitive and objective genitive but also between one’s own body and that of another” (ub: 14). For this reason, the slave is not simply a figure relegated to a private sphere; it is rather a figure that traverses all aspects of human life: “insofar as the use of the body is situated at the undecidable threshold between zoe and bios, between the household and the city, between physis and nomos, it is possible that the slave represents the capture within law of a figure of human acting that still remains for us to recognize” (ub: 23). Put differently, the slave represents something like an original, common potential of humanity. While not all human beings are slaves, the figure of the slave expresses the reduction to the potentiality at the origin of all human life.

Granting the radically different context of Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz, one discerns an analogous move contained in his treatment of the Muselmann—the concentration camp figure that hovered between life and death—as described by Primo Levi. The Nazi camp had succeeded in establishing a rule in which a particular and extreme bios came to form the paradigm of zoe: “Auschwitz is precisely the place in which the state of exception coincides perfectly with the rule and the extreme situation becomes the very paradigm of daily life. But it is this paradoxical tendency of the limit situation to turn over into its opposite that makes it interesting. As long as the state of exception and the normal situation are kept separate in space and time, as is usually the case, both remain opaque, though they secretly institute each other. But as soon as they show their complicity … they illuminate each other, so to speak, from the inside” (ra: 49–50). This limit situation shows itself precisely as constitutive in the Muselmann: “This is … why Auschwitz marks the end and the ruin of every ethics of dignity and conformity to a norm. The bare life to which human beings were reduced neither demands nor conforms to anything. It itself is the only norm … The atrocious news that the survivors carry from the camp to the land of human beings is precisely that it is possible to lose dignity and decency beyond imagination, that there is still life in the most extreme degradation … The Muselmann, who is its most extreme expression, is the guard on the threshold of a new ethics, an ethics of a form of life that begins where dignity ends (ra: 69). As a threshold of indistinction, “Human power borders on the inhuman; the human also endures the non-human … This means that humans bear within themselves the mark of the inhuman, that their spirit contains at its very center the wound of non-spirit, non-human chaos atrociously consigned to its own being capable of everything” (ra: 77).

Despite the fact that Agamben’s articulation of the slave is vastly more laconic than his analogous formulation of the Muselmann, they share the similarity of carrying out the reduction to potentiality as a constitutive limit of human existence. Both the slave and the Muselmann disclose the human being as subtending the distinctions between nature and convention, legality and unlawfulness, bare life and formed life. And this subtention is a radically passive, radically capacious being that—by means of direct testimony or that contained in the texts of Western civilization—is able to articulate for us a possibility of human life. In that way, the reduction to linguistic experience is (at least) the corollary to, or complement of, the reduction to potentiality. Clearly Agamben sees the Muselmann as an actual figure to be a dangerous and unwelcomed manifestation of biopolitical sovereignty. However, the truth contained in that figure is little different from the slave: they are figures worthy of thought because they show the essence of human being to be radical potentiality. In the end, Agamben finds the slave and the Muselmann to be constitutive figures of common humanity.

A thread connects these constitutive figures of potentiality with Agamben’s thinking of the Franciscan monastic order, in The Highest Poverty,8 as a form-of-life at odds with law (understood as “sovereign ban”9). Agamben notes that, in that text, “we have shown how the concept of use was at the center of the Franciscan strategy and how, precisely with respect to its definition and to the possibility of separating it from ownership, it had produced the decisive conflict between the order and the curia” (ub: 80). Insofar as the concept of “use” no longer denotes simply a “renunciation” of legal ownership but, is instead “that which establishes this renunciation as a form and as a way of life” (hp: 142), it designates a figure of common life that places each member of the order in a new relation to each other. However, in a repetition of precisely what they wanted to avoid, “the Franciscan theorists … ended up enclosing themselves in a solely juridical polemic, without managing to furnish another definition of use that would not be put in purely negative terms with respect to the juridical order” (ub: 80). If the Franciscan vow of poverty denotes the potentiality for an individual to renounce the right of ownership, the Franciscan responses to the curia, failed to come up with “a conception of use that was not founded on an act of renunciation—that is, in the last analysis, on the will of a subject—but, so to speak, on the very nature of things” (ub: 80). As the slave and the Muselmann amount to figures of potentiality that resist the pull towards willful subjectivity or inert objectivity, so the Franciscan order’s construal of “use” seeks to create a relationship between individuals (human or otherwise) not determined (positively or negatively) by owning and being owned. Borrowing a conception of justice from Benjamin—i.e., “Virtue can be demanded, justice … can only be as a state of the world” (ub: 81)—Agamben holds that the Franciscan conception of “use” tends toward a thinking of justice and the good as what is “absolutely inappropriable” (ub: 81): “if, in the Franciscan theorists, use appeared as the dimension that is opened when one renounces ownership, here [for Agamben] the perspective is necessarily reversed and use appears as the relation to an inappropriable, as the only possible relation to that supreme state of the world in which it, as just, can be in no way appropriated” (ub: 81). In its renunciation, we see again that the conception of “use” expresses a fundamentally common dimension of human life: “What is common is never a property but only the inappropriable” (ub: 93). “Use,” conceived as a middle-voiced relation expressing the occurrence of the world as common, would be one name (among many) for what Agamben terms “inoperativity.” And it should not surprise us that Agamben explicitly locates “use” as a specific conceptual development of the latter: “Use is constitutively an inoperative praxis, which can happen only on the basis of a deactivation of the Aristotelian apparatus potential/act, which assigns to … being-at-work, primacy over potential” (ub: 93). The Use of Bodies, then, extends and deepens the reflections on inoperativity (articulated, e.g., in The Kingdom and the Glory) toward a new understanding of the common dimension of worldly occurring.

Near the beginning of Section Two, Agamben reflects on the final claim made in Homo Sacer concerning the connection between politics and ontology that continues the narrative begun in Section One: “Today bios lies in zoe exactly as essence, in the Heideggerian definition of Dasein, lies (liegt) in existence … Yet how can a bios be only its own zoe, how can a form of life seize hold of the very haplos that constitutes both the task and the enigma of Western metaphysics?” (hs: 188/ub: 133). The development of biopolitics—that historical apparatus of sovereignty that holds sway over the very occurrence of life itself—has brought about an epochal shift in which politics and ontology can no longer be separated: “There is no return from the camps to classical politics. In the camps, city and house became indistinguishable, and the possibility of differentiating between our biological body and our political body—between what is incommunicable and mute and what is communicable and sayable—was taken from us forever” (hs: 188). The concentration camp has indeed, become the nomos of the modern, and this confronts us with the need both (1) to find a new use for politics and ontology and (2) to understand this subsumption of zoe by bios as a perversion of our original condition—which perversion occurs precisely through the historical sedimentation of the Aristotelian distinction between essence and existence (that lies in the background of the current biopolitical subsumption). The capacity for thinking a new politics thus depends upon the ability for thinking a new ontology. Agamben finds a crucial source for such ontology in Spinoza. He does not attempt to simply retrieve Spinoza’s identification of substance and mode, since “Our goal here is not the interpretation of Spinoza … but the elaboration of categories that escape from the aporias of the [Aristotelian] ontological apparatus” (ub: 168). Through an examination of certain of Spinoza’s texts (the Ethics, to be sure, but also the Hebrew Grammar), Agamben locates a modal ontology that unfolds via the middle-voice: “Mode expresses [a] ‘rhythmic’ and not ‘schematic’ nature of being: being is a flux, and substance ‘modulates’ itself and beats out its rhythm—it does not fix and schematize itself—in the modes. Not the individuating of itself but the beating out of the rhythm of substance defines the ontology that we are here seeking to define” (ub: 173). The modal ontology Agamben seeks would be the correlate, on the ontological register to the political conception of use developed in Section One—it would transcend the distinction between sovereign subject and possessed object. It would also be the property of the common.

Section Three deepens the analyses of the historical relation between zoe and bios (which relation functions, on his analyses in Homo Sacer, as the founding opposition of Western politics) in order to develop (what he terms in his epilogue) a “theory of destituent potential”: “What we can now call the ontological-biopolitical machine of the West is founded on a division of life that, by means of a series of caesurae and thresholds (zoe/bios, insufficient life/autarchic life, family/city), takes on a political character that was initially lacking. But it is precisely by means of this articulation of its zoe that the human being, uniquely among the living, becomes capable of a political life. The function proper to the machine … is an operation on the living that, by “politicizing” its life, renders it “self-sufficient,” namely, capable of taking part in the polis. What we call politics is above all a special qualification of life, carried out by means of a series of partitions that pass through the very body of zoe. But this qualification has no content other than the pure fact of the caesura as such. This means that the concept of life will not truly be thought as long as the biopolitical machine … has not been deactivated” (ub: 203). It is a result of its caesural form that human life is rendered capable of political activity; it is a result of (one might say) negative activity that political life and political subjects are constituted. Because the historical process/biopolitical machine that gave rise to this caesural form has gone unrecognized, however, such form has been taken as both ahistorical and a result of positive agency. Its deactivation will allow humans to develop a new use for their lives based on the inappropriable inoperativity (i.e. potentiality and linguistic experience) that constitutes common human existence.

This conception of caesural form is replicated in Agamben’s discussion of the dissolution of the relation between social life and the state in Homo Sacer (understood in terms of the form of law as constituting a force without significance [hs: 51–55]): “developing the idea that the State does not found itself on a social link but on the prohibition of its dissolution, [Homo Sacer] §4.3 suggested that dissolution is not to be understood as the dissolution of an existent bond, because the bond itself does not have any other consistency than the purely negative one that it derives from the prohibition of dissolution” (ub: 237). The original absence of this relation is construed (from the standpoint of the relation) as a prohibition against such absence (ub: 237). Similarly, in State of Exception, the relation between the normative/judicial register of political life (potestas) and the anomic/extrajudicial register (auctoritas) are maintained in the state of exception by virtue (one might say) of a prohibition against the original indistinction of law and life (ub: 265).10 Finally, one sees an analogous formation, in The Kingdom and the Glory, insofar as the category of glory installed a relation between human life (with its basis in rule) and divine life (the cipher of inoperativity). As is the case with the zoe/bios, society/State, and norm/anomie distinctions, human life and divine life are drawn together as a distinction by a prohibition concerning their original coincidence. In each case, the function of the distinction is purely negative—i.e., it negates a fundamental and positive figure of humanity.

Agamben’s project (if project is indeed the correct word for it) is to interrupt this political, historical, economic, religious, and ultimately (in The Use of Bodies) ontological machine (or set of machines) in order to return humanity to its common inoperativity. In Homo Sacer, he puts the point in the following manner: “one must think the existence of potentiality without any relation to Being in the form of actuality—not even in the extreme form of the ban and the potentiality not to be, and of actuality as the fulfillment and manifestation of potentiality—and to think the existence of potentiality even without any relation to being in the form of the gift of the self and of letting be. This, however, implies nothing less than thinking ontology and politics beyond every figure of relation, beyond even the limit relation that is the sovereign ban” (hs: 47; ub: 268; my emphasis). In the present work, Agamben refers to this as the attempt to think a “purely destituent potential” (ub: 268)—i.e., a potentiality that withdraws from all forms of sovereign power that uphold the separation of zoe from bios. Only a thinking of potentiality unhindered by actuality (and only an experience of language freed from logical-conceptual determination) can allow human life to coincide completely with its (multiple modal) forms. “In the potential/act apparatus, Aristotle holds together two irreconcilable elements … At the point where the apparatus is thus deactivated, potential becomes a form-of-life and a form-of-life is consitutively destituent” (ub: 276–277). Agamben is, in the end, searching for the possibility of uncoerced life.

As I mentioned above, I find this terminus to operate according to a strict, historically-determined and particularistic law of supercession. If the distinction between law and life is put to a new use by an inoperative humanity, the effect of this new use is not a transcending of both terms but the structural oversaturation of one (law) by the other (life). Despite his protestations to the contrary, this oversaturation amounts to (in Agamben’s terminology) a “capture” of the Pauline-Augustinian distinction between law and grace within the horizon of inoperativity. This move allows Agamben to maintain the appearance of a certain type of universalism (e.g., of radical potentiality as evidenced in the slave and the Muselmann) against all particularist determinations (e.g., actual politics) without having to acknowledge that this optical illusion is in fact a particular determination of being. In this way, Agamben’s project manifests the same privacy that he decries in attempting to think on behalf of the common. There is also the question of whether a “politics beyond every figure of relation” is a politics at all. Even if it were the case that our current politics is simply the negation of the original coincidence of law and life, what kind of efficacy would such a politics-beyond-politics have? Certainly the figures of the slave and the Muselmann, normally construed, impose something like a moral imperative on humanity insofar as they negate what we take to be healthy or proper human life. But as constitutive figures of humanity—i.e., figures not tied to a normative conception of justice or the good—they serve a merely descriptive purpose. And this is the crux of the matter (as I see it): even the figure of the crucified Jesus can serve as a moral (not to say political) image for humanity only in its negative capacity. Freed from its normative horizon, it amounts to (what Hegel might call) an inward and substantial picture that remains tied to particularity and privacy. For these reasons, I believe that Agamben’s thought still struggles to liberate itself from the idiocy of privacy.


Agamben, The Use of Bodies, 230 (Hereafter ub).


Jacques Derrida, The Beast & The Sovereign—Volume One, trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 316.


David Farrell Krell, “Of Dog and God,” Research in Phenomenology 42 (2012), 277.


Kotsko has also translated Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus (2015) and The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days (2017) both for Stanford University Press.


See Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, trans. Jeffrey Kotsky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 2–4; Jean-Luc Marion, “The Possible and Revelation,” trans. Christina M. Gschwandtner, reprinted in Jean-Luc Marion, The Essential Writings, ed. Kevin Hart (New York, ny: Fordham University Press, 2013), 318.


Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 156. Hereafter ra.


Edmund Husserl, Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy—Fist Book: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans. Daniel Dahlstrom (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2014), 104 (my emphasis).


Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013). Hereafter hp.


Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 58. Hereafter hs.


See also Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 50–51, 87–88.

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