From the Dead Letter Office: Agamben in Inverno



[Ed note:  This post was initially meant to publish sometime in the dead of winter, around January of 2009.  For a variety of reasons (procrastination, laziness, business, preoccupation with other matters, reservations, etc.) the post has sat around in a mostly-completed state in the ‘Drafts’ folder for a long time.  Maybe the post has its own schedule, or its publication is not really meant to come out in quite this fashion.  (In retrospect, there were probably three or four separate blog posts just waiting to be made out of the compendium below.)  At any rate, they are words coming from an exigence that was ultimately frustrated and arrested, leaving you with a post whose timeliness is at best ambiguous.]


The last couple of months of 2008 have been busy on news regarding Giorgio Agamben and work being done on his thought.  Usually some piece of information ocasionally drifts in, or a new, nearly inaudible video on YouTube of Agamben’s lectures catches my attention.  But I don’t remember there being such a relative volume of Agamben-related news since he protested the U.S.’s policy of ‘biopolitical tattooing’ under provisions of the US-Visit act  and consequently turned down an appointment at NYU.  Maybe it’s just that my antennae are more finely tuned to pick these kind of things up now than they were before. Be that as it may, though, the news is welcome. Some bits follow:


  • In May 2009, Stanford University Press will be publishing a very short collection of Agamben’s essays under the title, What is an Apparatus?  and Other Essays.  consisting of the title essay, and works on friendship and contemporaenity rounding out the tiny, 80 page book.  Frankly, I’m a little disappointed, as seeing a relatively larger text like Il Regno e la Gloria come out in translation before such a short collection of texts would be more desirable.  But it’s a trivial complaint.  Jason Adams’ translation of the title essay (which will not appear in the collection, David Kishik’s translation will), originally entitled Qui est une dispositif?  What is a Dispositor?  is a good place to start for a glimpse of what the book will offer. [Stanford University Press/Notes for the Coming Community]


  • Lacan.com and Notes for the Coming Community have published translations of a recent editorial that Agamben wrote for France’s Liberation, calling for the release of Julien Coupat* and the Tarnac 9.  In the process he challenges a significant feature political life in our time: the concentration of state power that has made dissent a suspect activity by appealing to security (whether real or perceived) as a basis for governance.  A outstanding blog with updates and documents on the Tarnac 9 situation is can be found here. [Lacan.com/Notes for the Coming Community/Support the Tarnac 9] 
  • Leyland de la Durantaye’s recent work on Agamben, “Homo Profanus: Giorgo Agamben’s Profane Philosophy” appears in the most recent edition of the journal boundary.  At a cursory glance, it appears to be an in-depth treatment bringing ideas developed in Profanations to bear as part of Agamben’s philosophical and political projects.  Namely he places Profanations in proxmity to works outside of the Homo Sacer series- The Coming Community, Means Without End, The Idea of Prose, and The Time That Remains.  The article holds out the possibility of reading Agamben’s work systemtically to present some possible prospects and directions for Agamben’s thought, especially in relation to ideas discussed in Walter Benjamin’s work.  Interestingly, he alludes to the Flamen Diale as an example of a profane figure.  Could this counterpart to the sacred [hu]man be a hint pointing towards the next phase of Agamben’s thinking?  Next May, Stanford University Press will be publishing de la Durantaye’s text Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction. [Duke Journals/Stanford University Press]
  • Infinite Thought, a tirado/thrown favorite, posted this little item with a link on “How to Write Like Agamben”** from a blog that is the latest addition to the blogroll, No Useless Leniency.   Worth checking out is a commentary on Agamben’s essay “In Praise of Profanation”, in the style of another of Agamben’s essays, Notes on Gesture.  It’s called Notes on the Image.  [Infinite Thought/No Useless Leniency] 

*As it happens, Coupat is the editor of the French-based journal TiqqunFor a sample of work featured in the journal, Soft Targets published some excerpts from a piece entitled Introduction to Civil War.  Very Roughly speaking, these fragments throw situationism, Agambenian philosophy, and samplings of Hardt-Negri’s autonomism into the mix, offer offer a response to neo-liberal imperialism and preventive counter-revolutionary politics.  The Support the Tarnac 9 site also has additional texts from Tiqqun and the Inoperative Collective available. [Soft Targets Journal/Support the Tarnac 9]

**As a rejoinder to IT, another possible way to score a Warburg Institute fellowship is to write like Richard Rodriguez, whatever the Chicanada may think of him. This here one finds Rodriguez to be essential reading on the dynamics of mestizaje and subject formation.

Image Credit: Reiner Gahnal, Seminar/Lecture, Giorgio Agamben, Filosofia teoretica,istituto universitario di architettura di Venezia, 6/5/2007, 20 x 24 inches. 51 x 61 cm


“Dasein ist Design”


That was the philosophical catchphrase proclaimed by the self-described “Sloterdijkian” Bruno Latour during his portion of a public lecture with Peter Sloterdijk at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design a couple of weeks ago.

Taking as its theme, “Networks and Spheres: Two Ways to Interpret Globalization”, the tandem lectures and discussion was a sweeping journey through very basic issues of space, dwelling, and modes of design required to meet the demands our current socio-spatial conditions.  

Peter Sloterdijk quietly approached the lectern after being introduced by GSD Dean Moshen Mostafavi and lectured with a measure of understatement and modesty.  In the form of a self-colloquy, Sloterdijk introduced listeners to the main features of his three-volume Spharen (Spheres) project, citing VonUexkull, Benjamin, LeCorbusier, and a view of psychedelic capitalism as exemplified by the structure heralding the birth of mass culture: London’s Crystal Palace.  Taking seriously the notion of space as a key anthropological category, Sloterdijk develops a heuristic questioning the home or the dwelling as the primary philosophical space in a context of profoundly fragile spatial and social complexity.  

In the sense that ethos designates a habitat or “accustomed space”, the home is the site western philosophy and ethical thinking.  Instead, Sloterdijk proposes the flexible, structures of spheres and foams as structuring spatial relations (whether biological or interpersonal) noting that the task of architecture is to understand its place between biology (dealing with atmosphere or environment) and philosophy (whose inquiry is oriented towards the world).  Sloterdijk’s lecture hinted at architecture’s biopolitical vocation in the design and construction of habitats organizing space in dynamic constellations of spheres and islands.

Sloterdijk concluded his portion by noting architecture’s contribution to scientific discovery. He cited the early biologists’ use of the architectural terminology used in the design of monasteries to inspire their study of microscopically experienced structures, saying that “the real owner of the use of the cell is the community of architects…”

An energetic Bruno Latour followed. Drawing upon Sloterdijk, he announced at the very beginning of his lecture, “I was born a Sloterdijkian!”  To test out the ideas of spheres and networks in his proposed thought experiment, he took to task contemporary internet-based notions of networks against his understanding of networks as inspired by Leibniz’s monadology and Diderot.  Latour equally takes to task Heidegger’s ontological enterprise, which he claims, superficially considers the atmosphere of the world at its peril. Biopolitics again reared its head, this time in the midst of a critique of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology.  In Latour’s words,

The Dasein is thrown into the world, but so naked that he doesn’t stand much chance to last. …the respective relations between death and superficiality are suddenly reversed.  There’s not the slightest chance to understand being when it has been cut off from the vast numbers of apparently “trifle” [sic] and “superficial” “little beings” that make it exist from moment to moment…In one stroke, the philosopher’s quest for being as such, looks like an antiquated research program.

Latour’s lecture simultaneously glossed on Sloterdijk’s and challenged philosophic thought to re-think itself by diving into the material conceptions and conditions of our dwelling and recast the split between nature and culture in terms of spheres and networks. This provocation calls on us to consider justice and equality as operative in environments where space is needed, spherically structured, and mediated by circuits of networks.  In a parody of Heidegger, “Tell me what is your position on space, and I’ll tell you who you are…” he proposes a dead-serious litmus test for philosophers and architects alike to consider.  Towards the end of the lecture, his reverie along theological, economic, political, spatial, and historical lines illustrated the urgency of such a project.

Additional Materials:

Image: From left, Bruno Latour, Peter Sloterdijk, and Moshen Mostafavi at the “Networks and Spheres” discussion at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, February 17, 2009.  Photo by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard University News Office.

Quote of the Day: Facticity as Mutual Abandonment

Recently-minted U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, from a July 17 New York Times article:

“I realized that whatever we do or don’t do, we’re utterly exposed.”

At first blush, any one who’s read Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on being-with or his ontology of plural sinularity will at the level of basic philosophy some resonance in Ryan’s words. But Ryan’s economy of expression at once withholds itself and leaves itself open to questions and amplifications. ‘Exposed’: to what, or two whom? To things, to people, to beings, to a beyond, or being wherever we are? If there’s any suitable supplement to Ryan’s utterance of resignation, it can perhaps be that exposure itself is the basic human fact placing us with relation to many others, be the people, ourselves, or objects.

Avoiding Lament with the Joy of the Unexpected

Mercury Fountain

It’s reasonable to suppose that a prompt report comes out of a moving encounter.  In that respect, I make a poor journalist.  But it also takes some time to make sense of what has moved the participant in an encounter.  

You & Me, Sometimes… is an exhibition obscuring the distinction between a private cabinet of curiosity and a curatorial project.  Sandra Antelo-Suarez, founder and editor of TRANS>, assembled an abundance of work and events from over twenty artists in the relatively small confines of a 1.5 floor gallery space.  In this collapse of idiosyncrasy and publicity was a play of discourse neither self-addressed nor intended towards an expectant public.  The press release was a friendly, colloquial, and outgoing letter from Antelo-Suarez to herself (“Sandy”) full of desire and warmth.  It’s a modified soliloquy ask its addressee to partake in her intense interest in the intersections of the social, political, and aesthetic.  The brief visits to the gallery bookending my short trip to New York City were among the most memorable and stimulating surprises.  You and Me, Sometimes… offered an opportunity to happen upon some new works and re-visit some familiar acquaintances in a renewed light. 

While there was more work than could be really taken in a short hour in the gallery, repeated visits were rewarded with events, stagings, and performances.  Among the work that I was able to take in , highlights included a mix of old and new.  Six of Francisco de Goya’s Caprichos lined the foyer’s main wall, including El sueno de la razon produce monstruos.  Arguably, these little pieces were the signs that informed the driving sensibility of You & Me, Sometimes…, where art lingers beside and cuts across quotidian existence.   (Could it be possible that these little pieces influenced the work of a certain Mexican printmaker born twenty-four years after Goya’s death?  Art historians, please let me know.) Paul Ramirez-Jonas‘s work dealt with the potentialities of communication amid the apparatus that purports to aid us in communicating.  (Hopefully, a quick piece on some of his pieces at the show will come in a later post.)  Various works by Alexander Calder in the show jump between formalist and political, such as Three Segments and and his ads protesting the Vietnam War and the abuses of power perpetrated by the Nixon administration. These currents cross in the model of Mercury Fountain on display aside the Caprichos.  Minerva Cuevas contributed her unflinching critiques of concentrated corporate wealth and colonialist power through her multi-media works, including a staging of the Mejor Vida Corporation‘s Donald McRonald intervention outside the Union Square McDonald’s on April 25.  Finally, Fresa Salvaje brought together selected sounds of forgotten latin music that became recognizable upon hearing, courtesy of Aldo Sanchez (aka DJ Papichulo) and Dulce Pinzón.  When not doing their selecting and spinning, Sanchez is an independent curator, and Pinzón is a photographer recognized for her outstanding 2006 photographs, Los Superheroes.  

Both the general form the show took and the variety of works and artists on display illuminate questions about the act of selecting pieces for display and their organization under the designation ‘taste’.   A couple of weeks ago, a short discussion concerning the connections between taste, knowledge, and experience prompted speculation the definition of the term ‘taste’.  Carolina pointed out “a possible relation between sabor (taste, flavor) and saber (knowledge). ¿A qué sabe? What does it taste like? Tasting as a form of knowledge.”  The connection is quite palpable in Spanish, but not so in English.  One does not say in English that a lemon knows sour.  (Jose Iraola’s Simultaneous Translation on display vaguely illustrates the phenomenon of how translation can turn into a game of telephone.)


This speculation on the relation between knowledge and experience quickly led down a rehashing of Kantian contradictions without resolution that were just unproductive.  But some further thinking and a serendipitous reading of The Origin of Philosophy by that philosophical Goya, José Ortega y Gasset, offered a possible clue.  In a discussion of the thinker as a social figure, he takes an effortless etymological detour into the common Indo-European root of the terms of wisdom, knowledge and savoring (tasting) that have left their traces in ourmodern languages.  His discussion suggests is that taste is less about a possessed knowledge, but an exposure to openness “…always referring, however, to a non-theoretical, still non-existent type of knowledge.” (116)   From this suggestion we can imply that taste is the possibility that artistic production can convey both the knowledge of producing beautiful sense experiences and sense experiences whose beauty make knowing more knowable.  And it’s that very simple possibility that resides throughout You & Me, Sometimes…: that contact with the very edge of another’s sensibility can yield knowledge about the world we inhabit and the way we approach it.

How can I not end a post without a video?  It’d be cruel of me to not do so.  It’s the least I can do to reward your having made it from one end of the post to the other without clicking out. Here’s some priceless footage of Camilo Sesto meeting his promotional obligations for a then freshly-cut record, Solo un Hombre.  Check out Fresa Salvaje.  You & Me, Sometimes… ends Saturday, May 3.