Giorgio Agamben,
Profanations (Translated by Jeff Fort).
New York: Zone Books, 2007.
ISBN-13: 978-1-890951-82-5
US$25.95 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by MIT Press)

Philosophy adopts the task, usually as the task par excellence, of seeking the meaning of virtue – that is, it asks how judgment is possible, given the finitude of foresight. Human beings face this problem from the moment consciousness seems like something separate from and exterior to the body, the moment when thought first appears to be the body’s sovereign. But, as Martin Heidegger liked to say, questions arise only when they become possible, that is, necessary. Virtue became questionable during a crisis, a crisis of the polis and of sophistry, of law and language – a crisis arising as writing was transformed from mnemonic tool into a system for the public support of individual consciousness. This new use of writing created the appearance of a gap: on the one hand between law and justice (the polis makes the law, but is this law just?); on the other hand between speaking and knowing (the sophist speaks about all things, but can he speak truthfully about any one thing?). This gap signaled the inauguration of the possibility of interpretation, one consequence of which was, in turn, the invention of philosophy. Nevertheless, philosophy has devoted itself ever since to seeking ways out of this crisis of law and language, thereby adopting the task of thinking the justice of truth and the truth of justice.

The persistence of this crisis describes the Western situation, philosophy constituting one of its most persistent symptoms, yet persistence should not be confused with permanence: what begins can change or end. The question for philosophy is whether its self-understanding as inheriting this crisis and adopting this task has formed the conditions through which it has been able constantly to renew itself, or whether on the contrary this self-understanding now constitutes a limit impeding our capacity to measure up to the ethico-political necessities of today’s world. Insofar as Giorgio Agamben is a philosopher, he too inherits this situation, which he too understands in terms of law and language. To put it as summarily as possible, his description of the Western situation is that the law remains in force without significance, and the task is to invent the means to exit this situation. That law is in force without significance implies, first of all, a crisis of sovereignty: its symptoms are the tendency of the state of exception to become the rule, and the emergence of the camp as the spatial embodiment of this new paradigm. This diagnosis was massively applicable to many of the existing geopolitical tendencies at the time of its formulation, but has also proven prescient with regard to events transpiring since, with the consequence that these are the theses for which Agamben remains most well known.[1]

But that law remains in force without significance is intended by Agamben to refer not only to the juridical but to the existential sphere, to the conditions of individual and collective life. And what joins all these phenomena together, which jointly define our present crisis, is the conjunction of capitalism and the image, that is, the fact that the age of the world picture is the age of consumption, wherein behaviour is provoked and controlled through the techniques of the global audiovisual technical system. It is for this reason that, as Bernard Stiegler puts it, “the political question is an aesthetic question.”[2] The ever-increasing intensification of this conjunction between capitalism and the image makes necessary the task of posing anew the question of the relation between politics and aesthetics. This is the situation to which philosophy and politics must measure up, and we will be compelled to question whether Agamben has succeeded in providing himself the means of doing so.

In his latest work, Profanations, Agamben retraces much of the ground of his earlier studies, with perhaps an even greater focus on responding to the exigency outlined above. The rudiments of a theory of individuation, drawn in relation to the work of Gilbert Simondon, are laid down in the opening chapter on ‘genius’. Drawing, as he so often does, on etymological considerations, Agamben identifies genius with the impersonal, with that in us which compels us but which does not belong to us, that is, with what Simondon would call preindividual potentials.[3] Thus when I aspire to write, not only do I draw on something impersonal within myself, but I in fact respond to something in me which does not belong to me, something which pushes itself into existence. When I write, therefore, even though I in some manner strive for my own subjectivation, the process, insofar as what animates it is external to me, is in this regard destined to failure: individuation, as a process, inevitably remains incomplete (p. 13). As Stiegler would put it, himself following Simondon, individuation and disindividuation are not opposites – rather, they are counter-tendencies within a single process, neither of which can be eliminated without threatening the process itself.

It is notable that Agamben’s example of the expression of genius, of that in us which does not belong to us, is writing, that is, a process of exteriorisation, of making oneself exterior to oneself, and a process which operates by the use of a technical apparatus which is itself ‘external’, that is, which forms part of that history whereby humanity externalises itself in the inventions it produces. The history of humanity, as André Leroi-Gourhan showed, is nothing other than the history of exteriorisation itself.[4] Agamben describes a similar relationship between temporality and exteriorisation in the chapter entitled ‘Judgment Day’, in relation not to writing but to photography. For Agamben, there is a strange link between the photograph and the sense of the Last Judgment, the apocalypse. This link lies in the way in which photography records and conserves images of human gestures (his example is Daguerre’s image of the Boulevard du Temple, the first photograph to contain the image of a person). There is, Agamben argues, “a secret relationship between gesture and photography” (p. 24). Perhaps we could add that this is also because gesture, insofar as it names behaviour which is not reducible to instinct – that is, insofar as it does not simply belong to us, insofar as it is an expression of genius – is itself a form and a consequence of exteriorisation.

Agamben concludes from this secret relationship that the precise, datable record which the photograph constitutes contains an historical index, but one which “now refers to another time, more actual and more urgent than any chronological time” (p. 25). In short, the “chronological” time made possible by the photographic apparatus, which Heidegger would refer to as inauthentic temporality, itself makes possible, and contra Heidegger, authentic temporality. On this basis Agamben sees in the photograph, in the record of human gesture, a “certain exigency”: “the photo demands something from us” (p. 25). In other words, the apparatus is the foundation of an ethics.

Agamben’s point here is an excellent one, yet it begs a question concerning, precisely, the relation between temporality and technicity: does this analysis refer to photography as such, or to a particular epoch of photography? If this exigency, following from the secret relationship between photography and gesture, depends on a kind of faith we have in the exactitude of “chronological” time, how is this situation affected by the invention of digital photography, which “suspends a certain spontaneous belief which the analog photograph bore within itself”?[5] What ethics flows from the photographic apparatus when the essence of the photograph ceases to be the production of what Roland Barthes called the ‘this was’ of the photograph, and becomes instead the essential manipulability and doubtfulness of digital photography?

If Agamben does not manage to approach this question, he nevertheless recognises that fundamental transformations in the character of the image are presently altering the character of existence as such, that is, changing the conditions of psychic and collective individuation. In a chapter entitled ‘Special being’, Agamben is concerned to delineate the ontology of the image, of those insubstantial beings such as the evanescent cinematic image or the image we see in a mirror, whose being consists in nothing other than their coming to visibility. Furthermore, if the image we see of ourselves in a mirror is immaterial, it is nevertheless an exteriorisation which, not belonging to us, is the site at which we in a way discover ourselves. Thus the opening up of the possibility of discovering ourselves coincides, as it does in all forms of exteriorisation, with the opening of a gap within ourselves. The operation whereby we individuate ourselves on the basis of this gap, an individuation which is therefore necessarily always also disindividuating, is nothing other than the process of drawing on our preindividual potentials. And insofar as this is the foundation of love (the reference here is to Narcissus), Agamben succeeds in outlining the relation between individuation and desire (p. 57).[6]

At this point Agamben diagnoses the destruction of this process occurring today. If this individuation process is always my individuation process, that is, the individuation of my singular being insofar as it is incalculably different from yours, which Agamben calls “special being,” then what is being witnessed today is the reduction of the special to the “personal,” its transformation from an always incomplete process of individuation into a principle of identity (p. 59). What is special, that is, singular, is a gesture or a face, whereas the personal, if it seems at first glance to be an expression of individualism, is in fact, as the reduction of singularity to mere particularity, the destruction of any genuine individuality. But if Agamben recognises that what is occurring today is the destruction of individuality qua individuation process, the question is whether he has the tools to think what it is about today’s situation which leads to this destruction of psychic and collective life.

Agamben knows the answer to this question has something to do with capitalism, which, following Walter Benjamin, he sees in terms of religion, as in fact an extreme intensification of religion (even if this is at once an extremely secularised religion). He identifies three aspects by which capitalism can be viewed as religious: (1) it is an extreme cult, devoted to its own cultic ends rather than to any actual ideas; (2) it confounds work days and holidays, making work days those in which the cult is served and celebrated (and, we might add, making weekends and holidays into times during which is pursued the cult of consumption, which has today become the very heart of this system); and (3) it is a cult directed toward guilt (p. 80).[7] Agamben defines religion as that which removes things “from common use and transfers them to a separate sphere” (p. 74) (this is the consecrating effect of the sacrificial ritual). But he defines play as a kind of deactivation of ritual, in which the actions and procedures of ritual are put to a new use, no longer directed toward separation. Agamben calls this return of sacred objects to profane use “profanation,” which he grasps in opposition to secularisation (which merely confers the religious structure of separation onto hitherto non-religious functions). For Agamben, today’s political struggle is to make possible new forms of profanation in order to overcome today’s intensely secularised capitalist cult.

Capitalism, then, according to Agamben, is nothing but a system for capturing things, objects, and people, in order to remove all possibility of singular use, that is, in order to make every aspect of life available for control and commodification. This amounts to the destruction of existence as such, for existence, special being, is nothing other than the possibility of a “new use,” that is, of inaugurating another moment in our being, beyond calculation and control.

In its extreme phase, capitalism is nothing but a gigantic apparatus for capturing pure means, that is, profanatory behaviours. (p. 87)

Agamben understands that the means by which this end is achieved (the end of controlling all ends, and reducing them to the end of consumption) consist in the global audiovisual technical system:

The apparatuses of the media aim precisely at neutralising this profanatory power of language as pure means, at preventing language from disclosing the possibility of a new use. (p. 88)

Why is it that this process of capturing behaviour operates via what Agamben refers to as “spectacle” or “spectacular exhibition”?[8] Why is it that the fundamental example he offers of the capture of profanatory behaviours is pornographic cinema (Agamben refers to Bergman’s Summer with Monika [Sweden, 1953], and specifically to the moment when Harriet Andersson fixes her gaze at the camera, as the first example of that direct contact with the viewer which pornography will render such an utterly banal technique)? The clue is given in an earlier chapter entitled ‘Desiring’, in which he writes that “the body of desires is an image” (p. 53). Desire is imagination, which is to say, at the same time, a matter of images and a matter of projection or foresight. As such, desire is always a matter of exteriorisation, grounded in that process of separation which defines not only language and law but every form of human life. This is what Stiegler means when he says that for human beings, desire is adoptive. It is this essential structure of desire which makes it especially available for capture by the audiovisual technical system which operates, before all else, by inviting us, narcissistically, to see ourselves in its imagery.

Today’s crisis is indeed one of experience, that is, a crisis of the destruction of experience, and the “spectacle” is indeed the means of that destruction. But what exactly is the relation between spectacle and the destruction of existence and temporality? If by spectacle we name our captivation by the techniques of the audiovisual technical system, then the question is to understand this process. It is a question of understanding what it is about experience as such that makes us susceptible to such captivation. And this means understanding the ways in which the flux of consciousness is able to enter into or be entered by another flux, that flux constituted by the programs of the audiovisual system, programs which are nothing but, as Stiegler calls them, “industrial temporal objects.”[9] If clues about this process can be inferred from Agamben’s writing, these are not pursued to the point of constituting an analysis. In the end, Agamben fails to grasp that if the word or the image is insubstantial or immaterial, nevertheless the conditions of both are always material, and technical, and therefore historical. Agamben fails to think through the history of the exteriorisation process itself, to think the historicity of the changing milieu, from language to writing to photography to cinema, and beyond. For Agamben, in the end, everything is reducible to language, the apparatus par excellence, and hence what is taking place today is seen only as destructive (which it is), not as the opening of new dimensions of preindividual potential (which it potentially is). Thus Agamben may be capable of the following admirable sentence:

For writing (any writing, not only the writing of the chancellors of the archive of infamy) is an apparatus too, and the history of human beings is perhaps nothing other than the hand-to-hand confrontation with the apparatuses they have produced – above all with language. (p. 72)

But are all the epochs of the hand, of what the hand puts in front of itself, of the gestures of the hand, all the epochs of human technicity and human potentiality, really summarisable as being, above all, a matter of language? What price is paid for such a reduction? Agamben tends to derive human potentiality from language, rather than seeing language or writing as epochs in the history of human and technical individuation, as different milieus of human potentiality, each one of which must be understood on its own terms. Thus, for example, more important than “deactivating” the law may be the process currently unfolding which consists in liberating television from a synchronised program schedule, raising the question of how this technical development may enable the creation of new uses of word and image, and thus requiring that we address the political question of how we take up these new tools and put them to use.[10]

Agamben’s understanding of the spectacle as a species of linguistic milieu, rather than as another milieu possessing its own dynamic, determines his interpretation: the spectacle is understood only as an intensification of linguistic experience, as an extreme linguistic event. And thus if the spectacle contains a positive possibility for Agamben, this can only consist in taking this process of intensification to the limit. As a consequence he implicitly repeats the metaphysical gesture that tries to save logos from tekhne, and that can only see genuine ethics and politics in terms of a transcendental leap in which “everything” is put at stake without reserve, a violent gesture to be grasped in terms of, for example, Nastasya Filippovna or Antigone. Thus when Agamben argues that the political task of the coming generation is to wrest from all apparatuses the possibility of use which they have captured, the profanation of the unprofanable (p. 89), he risks turning this admirable gesture in favour of singularity into an intensification of destruction to an absolute limit, into an injunction that cannot be met until the apparatuses are in fact overturned, or capitalism destroyed.

Agamben remains both intensely pessimistic yet somehow still too optimistic. His pessimism is manifest in his insistence that anything short of the most extreme measure is a betrayal. Yet he continues to optimistically operate with that ancient philosophical machinery the gears of which are set to move from consideration of our general crisis to elaboration of the task which would be its final resolution. Our situation may indeed be dire, but by relating crisis and task in the grand sense in which Agamben never fails to do, he continues to profess the belief that a singular antagonistic act might yet overthrow those self-destructive tendencies befalling humankind, or finally eliminate the gap between law and justice.

It may well be that our collective future depends on a thoroughgoing transformation of the conditions of psychic, collective and technical individuation, that these conditions as they are presently unfolding are nearing collapse, and that the required transformation amounts to a revolution or a renovation of those conditions. Nevertheless, the way toward this could only be via those systems and processes which exist—there is no form of political or ethical responsibility which could today consist in wishing for or encouraging those tendencies which are currently leading to the disindividuation of the psychic, the collective and the technical, and as such destructive of existence as such.

The philosophical machinery moving from crisis to task has from the beginning worked by identifying with the truth of language at the expense of the technics of power, but this has always constituted philosophy’s limit, that is, its perpetual mistake, one which has today become eminently visible. The means of this mistake, which has always also been the engine of philosophy’s individuation, was to fail to see any connection betweentechnology as a means, as availability for use, and technique as that which opens worlds, opens the world. If what we lack are persuasive descriptions of our state of heart and mind, if what we require is a new form of persuasion, then inventing a future for politics is also a matter of (sophistic) technique, that is, a technical question. In an epoch in which the cinematic, televisual, and digital image is the most potent instrument by which desire is accessed and influenced on a planetary scale, overcoming this mistake and this limit amount, at the very least, to the question of philosophy’s survival.

Daniel Ross,


[1] Most relevant to this theme are Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998, and Agamben, State of Exception, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
[2] Bernard Stiegler, De la misère symbolique. Tome 1. L’époque hyperindustrielle, Paris: Galilée, 2004, p. 17.
[3] Agamben conducts an analysis of the Aristotelian concept of potential across a series of papers, collected in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. See chapters 11–14, and especially chapter 13.
[4] André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London: MIT Press, 1993.
[5] Stiegler, “The Discrete Image,” in Stiegler & Jacques Derrida, Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002, p. 150.
[6] Agamben develops these ideas in much greater detail in Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, pp. 63–131.
[7] It would be interesting to compare this analysis to that of Stiegler in Mécréance et discrédit: Tome 1. La décadence des démocraties industrielles, Paris: Galilée, 2004, in which he extends the Weberian analysis of the adoption by capitalism of the so-called Protestant spirit and relates it to the confounding of leisure-time and work-time, otium and negotium.
[8] Agamben also addressed these themes in The Coming Community, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
[9] Stiegler, Aimer, s’aimer, nous aimer: Du 11 septembre au 21 avril, Paris: Galilée, 2003, pp. 37–41. And cf., Stiegler, Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, forthcoming 2008.
[10] ., Justin Norrie, “Death knell for television as we know it,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 26, 2008, and Stiegler, “New Industrial Temporal Objects,” in Rae Earnshaw, Richard Guedj, Andries van Dam, & John Vince (eds.), Frontiers of Human-Centred Computing, Online Communities and Virtual Environments, London: Springer-Verlag, 2001, pp. 445–60

Created on: Saturday, 20 September 2008

About the Author

Daniel Ross

About the Authors

Daniel Ross

Daniel Ross completed his doctorate on Heidegger and the political at Monash University. He is the author of Violent Democracy and co-director of The Ister (2004).View all posts by Daniel Ross →