Volume 7, Number 1 (January, 2010)
Author: Carlos Eduardo Morreo
A Review of: Giorgio Agamben’s Infancy and History. London: Verso, 2007.
Giorgio Agamben’s Infancy and History, one of the Italian philosopher’s earlier works, is part of a select list of philosophically sumptuous reflections on infancy and its philosophical implications for language, subjectivity, and history. Beyond Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Lectures d’Enfance (1991), we are hard pressed to find another work of contemporary philosophy that touches on the theme so well. Originally published in 1978 the book reappears today as part of Verso’s (Giulio Radical Thinkers series.
Though perhaps one of Agamben’s lesser-known texts, Infancy and History is certainly of interest. Not only does it boast some probing incursions into what we now recognize as Agamben’s philosophical and intellectual coterie: Benjamin, Heidegger, Kant, Kafka, Warburg, and Aristotle, presented among a string of erudite references and citations taken from the writings of Early and Medieval Latin scholars such as Varro, but it is also, and most importantly, the site of one of the earliest identifications of what constitutes Agamben’s project as such. Or at least of what had constituted it prior to its more manifestly political turn, which came about with the publication of his all too-biopolitical trilogy. Its first volume being Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), published in English just over a decade ago.
The 1989 Italian edition (Infanzia e storia: Distruzione dell’esperienza e origine della storia), included for the first time a prefatory essay titled: “Experimentum Linguae”, which is reproduced in the English edition and summarizes this first incarnation of Agamben’s philosophical project. Within its opening remarks we read the following: “If for every author there exists a question which defines the motive of his thought, then the precise scope of these questions coincides with the terrain towards which all my work is orientated. In both my written and unwritten books, I have stubbornly pursued only one train of thought: what is the meaning of ‘there is language’; what is the meaning of ‘I speak’?” (6).
The Heideggerian background to the first statement (“there is language”) – half of the problem we might say – should not be lost on Agamben’s readers. The second part (“I speak”) points to Agamben’s readings of Saussure and specifically Benveniste. Nevertheless, though such a questioning of language is posed, it could not possibly be fully addressed in such a slim volume as Infancy and History – no more than 167 pages in Liz Heron’s translation. Indeed, a couple of Agamben’s other works, for example, Language and Death, and more recent explorations such as The Open, pick up on this questioning of language, constituting particularly original developments of this first project.
Early on in the essay that gives the volume its title, we are told of the essentially contemporary inability of having or gaining experience. It is somehow the case that the Modern world is premised on its dismissal: “on the destruction of experience”. Agamben writes: “The question of experience can be approached nowadays only with an acknowledgement that is no longer accessible to us. For just as modern man has been deprived of his biography, his experience has likewise been expropriated. Indeed, his incapacity to have and communicate experiences is perhaps one of the few self-certainties to which he can lay claim” (15).
Agamben will register the manner in which this destruction of experience has come about, and how the hollowing out of experience has become commonplace. The scientific discourse of Modernity, and specifically its splitting of knowledge and experience is to be held partly responsible, as are certain privileged modern philosophical discourses, i.e., Kant’s transcendentalism and Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. Modern science, we come to see, displaces what had been a common distinction between the possibility of knowledge and the authority of experience, which, with Agamben’s guidance, is shown to be operative in Aristotle’s philosophy. The scientific reworking of experience into controlled experimentation as the site of a grounded knowledge, displaces the possibility of a kind of experiential knowledge not tied to scientific endeavor and its corresponding objectivity. “[M]odern science”, Agamben writes, “has its origins in an unprecedented mistrust of experience” (19). By means of a discussion that romps through Aristotle, Francis Bacon and Montaigne, Agamben reveals how scientific knowledge in its quest for truth, a knowledge so objective as to be divine, comes to negate what would be a properly human knowledge. That is, a knowledge not based on objective experimentation and thus divine in its mould, but inextricably tied to the authority of a life lived and its experience. Therefore, “once experience is referred instead to the subject of science, which cannot reach maturity but can only increase its own knowledge, it becomes something incomplete”; the Kantian ‘asymptotic’ concept, Agamben will suggest (26).
Within such a critique, “infancy” will designate not simply an experience outside of language, but a kind of transition towards language that is proper to human beings. We are not to think of infancy as a human experience best characterized in terms of lack or mastery, but rather infancy, sometimes written as “in-fancy”, names for Agamben a particularly human sort of experience prior to linguistic appropriation but related to language. Nevertheless, it seems that the contemporary philosophical privileging of language as a model for conceiving and understanding human subjectivity has left us in an awkward position, wherein we lose sight of this distinct human experience that is infancy. Likewise, Kantian philosophy, and its model of consciousness – tied as it is to a notion of transcendentality, for which certain concepts and categories may be thought prior to language as such—in its failing to thematize language is rendered equally problematic. Agamben suggests that human infancy is in someway an infancy of language. What is crucial is to appreciate that infancy as in-fancy signals a beginning that will constitute the subject of experience and language, though Agamben aims to understand this fact without reference to a biologically or developmentally inclined conception of subject formation. “In-fancy”, Agamben writes, “is not a simple given whose chronological site might be isolated, nor is it like an age or a psychosomatic state which a psychology or a paleoanthropology could construct as a human fact independent of language” (4). Thus we are to understand human infancy as inextricably linked to the human potentiality that is language, and is of a language not yet wholly present.
Agamben considers that “infancy finds its logical place in a presentation of the relationship between language and experience” (4), as it is the case that “[a]ny rigorous formulation of the question of experience inevitably impacts on the question of language” (50). That this is so becomes apparent when one posits the question as to how one should conceive the subject (and its subjectivity), normally taken to be the locus of experience. Agamben notes, while discussing Hamann’s objections to Kantian transcendentalism (Hamann had proclaimed: “Reason is language: logos. This is the marrow bone at which I shall gnaw and gnaw until I die of it” ) and by picking up on Benveniste’s research on personal pronouns, that “[s]ubjectivity is nothing other than the speaker’s capacity to posit him or herself as an ego, and cannot in any way be defined through some wordless sense of being oneself, nor by deferral to some ineffable psychic experience of the ego, but only through a linguistic I transcending any possible experience” (52). Subjectivity is thus dependent on language and its experience, but how will in-fancy as a kind of human experience allow for language and selfhood? Infancy is declared to be “a primary experience”, “what in human beings comes before the subject – that is, before language”, “a ‘wordless’ experience” (54). Human infancy, Agamben concludes, “coexists in its origins with language – indeed, is itself constituted through the appropriation of it by language in each instance to produce the individual as subject” (55). It is in this sense that Agamben will argue that any theory of experience must simultaneously be a theory of in-fancy. The discussion’s Heideggerian flavour might be apparent to some readers. It is such a notion of human origins, signaled by the originary coexistence of language and infancy, Agamben believes, which most adequately corresponds to a kind of being, human being, that ‘has’ origins which can only be posited ‘historically’ though not chronologically or temporally. In Agamben’s words: “The origin of a ‘being’ of this kind cannot be historicized, because it is itself historicizing, and itself founds the possibility of there being any ‘history’” (56). Agamben will then go on to elaborate on the profound implications of such a notion of human infancy for culture, history and philosophy.
Infancy and History is also a text that indexes differences in thought by working with textual registers, that is to say, not quite different genres of writing per se, but textual arrangements that are significant in themselves. This is something that the English edition does not quite manage to portray. The volume consists of a prefatory essay (“Experimentum Linguae”), five main essays, and two texts of notes developed in an essay-like manner: a thought-provoking program for a review of Western Culture (“Project for a Review”), and “Notes on Gesture”, a text included in the English edition but featured in the Italian. Likewise, the main essay, “Infancy and History”, is divided into four chapters, each chapter consisting of two sorts of texts. Each section’s discussion is first presented in a formal and theoretical expository prose – on occasion with much literary merit – followed by a series of “glosses” which pick up on and develop certain points presented in these main sections. Furthermore, the essay is divided equally between these main sections and its glosses. What might such a gesture communicate, beyond a certain joy in symmetry, one wonders? Agamben points to “the loss of the commentary and the gloss as creative forms” at some stage in the “Project for a Review” (160), the essay itself concludes with a postilla storico-filologica, a “historico-philological notation” in Heron’s translation (165). The original Italian edition, as does the Spanish translation, presents these glosses in different fonts or in italics, thus suggesting or invoking, at least textually, a certain experience of language and its referentiality.
The book also touches on the waning fortunes of certain notions of temporality and historicity as may be evident from the book’s discussion on in-fancy’s co-originary constitution of subjectivity. The book’s third essay, “Time and History: Critique of the Instant and the Continuum”, discusses at length historical materialism’s complex conception of historicity, though mistaken view of temporality. Erroneous, according to Agamben, insofar as it is based on an irretrievably lineal notion of temporal succession that is at odds with its fundamental anthropology. The latter centred as it is on the relation between praxis and history. The aim of this detailed discussion on the privileged Western conceptions of temporality and historicity is to shed light on what Agamben claims is the “fundamental contradiction” of modern existence (109). He writes, “[t]he fundamental contradiction of modern man is precisely that he does not yet have an experience of time adequate to his idea of history, and is therefore painfully split between his being-in-time as an elusive flow of instants and his being-in-history, understood as the original dimension of man” (109). Agamben’s formulation of the problem parallels his conceptualization of infancy. Thus we read the following in the concluding passages of his discussion of Marx’s correction and revamping of Hegelian Geist: “Man is not a historical being because he falls into time, but precisely the opposite; it is only because he is a historical being that he can fall into time, temporalizing himself” (109; italics in the original).
In another essay, “Notes on Gesture”, we approach – in a truly and richly referenced text (from Warburg to Deleuze, and from Aristotle to Varro) – a theme that Agamben will expand into a fully-fledged book in Means without End: Notes on Politics, (2000 ). As stated above, this essay was included in Heron’s 1993 English translation and reappears in the more recent 2007 edition, though it does not feature in the Italian edition, appearing instead as a chapter in Mezzi senza fine (1996). While discussing gesture, Agamben brings to the fore Marcus Terentius Varro’s “valuable clue” on the specificity of gesturality (154). In his De Lingua Latina Varro had differentiated gesture from praxis (doing) and poiesis (producing). Agamben elaborates by stating that: “[w]hat characterizes gesture is that in it there is neither production nor enactment, but undertaking and supporting”, and therefore “gesture opens the sphere of ethos as the most fitting sphere of the human” (154). He summarizes, a few lines later, by drawing on the political insight present in this reading. Gesture is “a third kind of action”, that is, “if doing is a means in sight of an end and praxis is an end without means, gesture breaks the false alternative between ends and means that paralyses morality” (154). Interestingly, though somewhat paradoxically, gesture then presents us with “means which, as such, are removed from the sphere of mediation without thereby becoming ends” (154-155).
Agamben’s Infancy and History reveals in a curious way philosophy’s dismissal of infancy, and presents in-fancy itself as prolegomenon to politics. Agamben’s style of philosophy, as is well known, takes its cue from Benjamin’s program for and anticipation of a coming philosophy, thematizing and voicing the unlikely syntheses that history and thought have proffered in order to prepare the ground for its coming. Agamben’s book is one that ought to be read, and not least by those who have taken up the philosopher’s biopolitical writings, as it is in these earlier essays that a kind of political potentiality is first made manifest.
About the Author
Carlos Eduardo Morreo is from the Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos & Universidad Católica Andrés Bello