Agamben: Study and Experience
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The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1942) has written an extensive work characterized by his profound knowledge and the diversity of subjects and authors he has covered. His first texts (1970–1985) were primarily focused on issues of aesthetics, language, and history of philosophy, with a close connection to the philosophies of M. Heidegger, W. Benjamin, and A. Kojève. Agamben analyzes issues such as the status of art and poetry, the issue of human language, and the “transmissibility” of culture in the so-called posthistory. With the publication of Homo Sacer I (1995), Agamben began his research on political conceptions in the west, which would span 20 years and comprise nine volumes, known as the Homo Sacer series. This research marks him as one of the most influential philosophers in the study of “biopolitics,” that is, the admission of natural life as such into the political sphere. In this series, Agamben used a different definition of biopolitics from Michel Foucault, and he reinterpreted a series of concepts that became the technical terms of his philosophy: (inoperosità) “state of exception,” “bare life,” “camp,” and “inoperativity.” Agamben maintained that biopolitics is a phenomenon that must be understood from the very origins of western politics and in close association with the concepts of sovereignty and state of exception. One of his most controversial arguments is that the camp (the concentration camps of National Socialism but also the refugee detention centers or the Guantanamo Bay detention camp) is a space of exception and production of “bare life” that becomes the very “paradigm” of the modern biopolitical space.
In parallel to the Homo Sacer series, Agamben published other research in which he revised and expanded his study of politics, art, and literature, becoming a benchmark of the essay and method of “Philosophical Archeology.” This prolific work stands out for avoiding all kinds of academicism in the use and interpretation of the most diverse sources (philosophical, theological, literary, and legislative) while proposing new interpretations of classical passages in literature, with great philological rigor.
Agamben’s research has not focused directly on the field of education, and in his work, references to pedagogical practices, school institutions, and educational concepts appear sporadically and within broader contexts of discussion. Therefore, the use of his political and methodological concepts in the consideration of educational issues implies tracing scattered references and articulating them within new contexts of discussion. Without attempting to exhaust the issue, hereafter are a few examples.
Experience and Infancy
In his first works, Agamben started a reflection on language that implies a series of hypotheses about the way in which the west relates to its own cultural past. Therein, he proposes a singular interpretation of the notions of “experience,” “infancy,” “transmissibility,” and “communicability.”
In Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience (1978), Agamben argues that the scientific model established by modernity implies a loss of “experience” for man, in a traditional sense. In effect, the experiences lived by man and expressed in stories, maxims, and proverbs lose their authority, they no longer impart “common sense,” and they do not allow understanding of life nor placing oneself in a narrative. On the contrary, modern scientists reduce the “experience” to a “method” in order to attain knowledge; they attempt to certify it through “experiments” and reduce it to numbers and calculations. Agamben identifies this “destruction of experience” in modern philosophy of the subject, especially in Descartes and Hegel. However, he asserts that it opens up the possibility of conceiving a kind of “infancy” of experience, in which what is experienced is not this or that thing, but the limit of language. Here, the notion of “infancy” refers to its etymological meaning, where “infant” is literally the one who does not speak. But Agamben does not see “infancy” as an age in which the child has no language, but rather the way of understanding a state of indeterminacy between language and discourse (or between langue and parole in Saussurean terms or semiotics and semantics in the terms of Benveniste). Therefore, in these texts, the main philosophical question that infancy remits to is how to experience, not “this or that signifying proposition, but the pure fact that one speaks, that language exists?” (Agamben 1993, 5; Agamben 1978, X).
This issue, that is, the existence of language prior to what is said in it or in Benjamin’s words the “communication of communicability,” has become one of the main driving forces of Agamben’s research. As well as “infancy,” Agamben refers to this in other terms, such as the “potentiality for language,” the “idea of language,” the voice, the experimentum linguae (the experience of the language), and the “language as such.” Therefore, “infancy” and the issue of the “destruction of experience” allow him to see the contemporary crisis of the subject in relation to history and to its own cultural past. The human capacity – of each new member of the species, that is, each “child” – of setting the cycle of history in motion and renew it at the same time.
In other works, Agamben reflects on the present loss of the “transmissibility” of culture in the context of posthistory (reprising Benjamin and Kojève). However, the present “posthistorical” context described by Agamben does not imply the mere disappearance of experience, of the tradition of culture, but a new way of relating with its “figures” that have become “strange” to man because they are no longer in connection with their present. “The interruption of tradition, which is for us now a fait accompli, opens an era in which no link is possible between old and new, if not the infinite accumulation of the old in a sort of monstrous archive or the alienation effected by the very means that is supposed to help with the transmission of the old” (Agamben 1999, 108; Agamben 1994, 163). From this perspective, Agamben’s research can be seen as an incessant attempt to think of another possible “use” of the cultural past that explores its “potentiality.”
Study and Inoperativity
The concept of “study” is first defined in the brief essay The Idea of Prose (1985), which invokes a whole series of motives developed in other texts. As with many others of Agamben’s concepts, study is defined by an opposing tension: on the one hand, it is a passion and a sadness (melancholy) felt by those who are permanently searching, and on the other hand, it implies a moment of discovery and clarity, the joy of “inspiration,” and the “self-nourishment of the soul.” The “rhythm of study” implies the incessant passage from loss to discovery: “Study, in effect, is per se interminable. Those who are acquainted with long hours spent roaming among books, when every fragment, every codex, every initial encounter seems to open a new path, immediately left aside at the next encounter, or who have experienced the labyrinthine allusiveness of that ‘law of good neighbors’ whereby Warburg arranged his library, know that not only can study have no rightful end, but does not even desire one” (Agamben 1995b, 64; Agamben 2002, 44).
Here, Agamben connects the concept of study with one of the central motives of his research, the concept of “a potential that does not precede but follow its act” (Agamben 1995, 65; Agamben 2002, 45). Here, he suggests that those who dedicate their life to endless study effectively remain within the sphere of “pure potentiality,” because they do not exhaust the myriad of possibilities presented by a subject; instead they remain in an incessant tension between search and discovery.
Although he does not explain it here in depth, as mentioned before, this special mode of potentiality has been broadly analyzed throughout his work and acquires different names according to the authors to which he refers “inoperosity” (inoperosità, as a translation of the désœuvrement of Kojève), “impotentiality” (impotenza, in Aristotle), “I’d prefer not to” (the phrase by Bartleby, the character of Melville), the term katargesis (in the Pauline Epistles), etc. “Inoperativity” cannot be read merely as the absence of activity, inability, impossibility, or mere passivity; it is rather a generic mode of potentiality that “has its own consistency and does not always disappear immediately into actuality” (Agamben 1995, 45; Agamben 2002, 48). Therefore, inoperosity permits forms of thought and life that no identity or vocation can achieve or exhaust, which necessarily exceed their own forms and realization.
In other texts, it can be seen that the references to the notion of “study” explore one of the meanings of the notion of inoperositivity. In Homo Sacer I (1995) and State of Exception (2003), Agamben refers to study as a way of understanding the idea of a “deactivation” of the law and the inoperosity of the law, in order to open it to a new use. This issue was analyzed apropos of a short story by Kafka, “The New Advocate,” discussed by Benjamin and Scholem in their letters. This story describes a law student, named Dr. Bucephalus, who no longer practices law and instead just studies it. This “studious play” permits a different use of law: “The decisive point here is that the law – no longer practiced, but studied – is not justice, but only the gate that leads to it. What opens a passage toward justice is not the erasure of law, but its deactivation and inactivity [inoperosità] – that is, another use of the law” (Agamben 2005, 64; Agamben 2003, 83). The “inoperosity” of law deposes its relationship with violence and power; it is law without force, without implementation, without any sovereignty. In this sense, “inoperative” study more generally allows a different use of the tradition in face of the loss of “transmissibility” of culture.
Although there are few references to the field of education, pedagogical experiences, or scholar institutions in the work of Agamben, and, with a few exceptions, the concepts of “infancy,” “experience,” and “study” – closely related to the notion of “inoperosity” – are mainly anecdotal, they allow us to reflect on current educational issues. This is because they challenge the concepts of production, will, action, usefulness, and vocation; and, therefore, they imply a radical critique of the language and logic of learning.
In the west, education has been conceived based on the acquisition of certain “skills,” “competences,” and the transmission of specific knowledge, where the idea of useless and unproductive learning is completely marginal and exceptional. To this effect, Agamben affirmed in a recent essay, Studenti (2017), that the present “university experience” is completely defined by business jargon, scientific paradigm, laboratories, and professional logic. With this, today’s university students have completely lost sight of the meaning of the word “study” and the idea of “student life” as a “way of life.” In other words, as a specific cognitive paradigm in which immediate utility is not vindicated, and instead, as one of those “useless” human activities performed for pure pleasure, understood as “self-nourishment of the soul.” Therefore, he maintains that students miss out on the opportunity of an “experience that is more and more rare today, of a life detached from utilitarian purposes” (Agamben, 2017).
Although the logic of learning is always in some way related to certain economic, measurable, marketable, and exploitable needs, Agamben envisages an “inoperative” study that, by contrast, allows the notions of “incapacity,” “indeterminacy,” “useless,” “unproductive,” and “unsaid,” as the latent power that is the basis for a different way of thinking and acting. In this regard, his philosophy should not be seen only as a critique of the dominant educational devices, but as a true praxis for the reuse and recycling of these devices.
- Agamben, G. (1978). Infanzia e storia. Distruzione dell’esperienza e origine della storia. Torino: Einaudi.Google Scholar
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