Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies. Trans. Adam Kotsko Stanford CA. Stanford University Press. 2016; 313 pages. ISBN 978-0-8047-9840-2.

Review by Eric D. Meyer, Independent Scholar

What’s the big difference between metaphysics and politics? As Toni Negri says in his review of the Italian edition, in Materialismo Storico (November 19th, 2014), Giorgio Agamben’s The Use of Bodies is a big metaphysical book. And, whether he’s being ironic or not, it’s true: The Use of Bodies is a big metaphysical-political book, with the hyphen between the two terms designating both the conjunction and the disjunction between them. But by Agamben’s standards, The Use of Bodies, billed as the final volume of the Homo Sacer project, is really three books in one. Two sections—“The Use of Bodies” and “Form-of-Life”—are political books, which follow up on the critique of biopolitics begun by Michel Foucault in The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, Volume 2, while the remaining section, “An Archeology of Ontology,” is a metaphysical book, which attempts to excavate the whole archive of Western metaphysics, from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, through the Neo-Platonists and the Scholastics, to Hegel and Heidegger, in somewhat less than seventy pages. And sandwiched in between these big metaphysical-political books are brief biographical interludes (Intermezzi), focusing on the private lives of Guy Debord, Michel Foucault, and Martin Heidegger, perhaps to disclose the gaps between “the form(s)-of-life” of philosophy, poetry and art, and “the use of bodies” in Western politics, which it is one of the grandiose ambitions of this big, important book, to expose, and, finally, to fill.

Agamben’s basic thesis is that Western metaphysics is inhabited by a whole series of fractures or scissions between, for example, ontology and logic (Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Categories), essence and existence (Aristotle’s το τι εν εναι and τοδε τι, the Scholastic essentia and existentia), or substance and subject (Aristotle’s υποκειμενον and Aquinas’ subiectum), which are roughly equivalent to the schismatic split between public and private life in Western politics. Similarly, Western politics is likewise fraught with a corresponding series of fractures or scissions, between, for example, the Greek city (πολις) and the Greek household (οικος), which are equivalent to the division between “political life” (βιος) and “bare life” (ξοη) in Aristotle’s Politics: a metaphysical-political division, Agamben argues, arising from “the zone of indistinction” upon which sovereign power is founded by its simultaneous exclusion and inclusion of the “bare life” in the political sphere. The Use of Bodies, then, attempts to expose the secret complicity between Western metaphysics and Western politics, to show that meta-physics really is meta-politics, and by politicizing metaphysics, also to transcend both politics and meta-politics, toward the future community described in Agamben’s earlier work, The Coming Community (1991). And Agamben’s closing argument in his “Epilogue: Toward a Theory of Destituent Potential” (263–279), closely resembles that of The Coming Community, in which the basic problem of “the originary fracture of being in essence and existence” (94) in Western meta-politics was first exposed, and the explicitly political content of Agamben’s anarchist project was more clearly revealed. The Coming Community culminates with Agamben’s predictions of a future utopian anarchist community, in which human beings might exist in the perfect “singularity” of their “form(s)-of-life,” un-riven by the scission between their an-archistic “bare lives” and their un-free political existences, and un-trammeled by the substantialist imperatives of class, race, sex, religion, etc., which previously dictated the “use of bodies” by the sovereign power of the Greek πολις and the Western State.

But if Western metaphysics is really, as Alfred North Whitehead said, a series of footnotes to Plato, Agamben’s The Use of Bodies, by contrast, is a series of footnotes to Aristotle, especially to the Metaphysics and Categories, which provide the theoretical framework for Agamben’s study of the “ontological apparatus” of Western metaphysics (115–135), but also to the Politics, in which Aristotle discusses the forms of sovereignty (δεσποσυνη) in the Greek πολις, by comparison to the despotic relationship between the master (δεσποτης) and the slave (δουλος) in the Greek household. (7–22) “The expression, ‘the use of bodies’ (he tou somatos chresis),” Agamben begins, first appears “at the beginning of Aristotle’s Politics (1254b18), at the point where it is a question of defining the nature of the slave” (3); and Aristotle’s description of the despotic relationship between sovereign and subject, master and slave, soul and body, in the Greek πολις, provides the paradigm for Agamben’s analysis of the sovereign’s “use of bodies” in the Western State. For Agamben, as for Reiner Schuermann (Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy), Aristotle’s Politics describes the foundational principle (αρχη) or principles of Western political culture; and, hence, the deconstruction of those founding principles is the crucial task of a theoretical “an-archy” (Greek: αν-αρχη): that is, the critical theory of political life without the sovereign rule exercised by the Western State over its citizens and subjects. The despotic master/slave relationship (αρχη δεσποτικη) between the sovereign master and the household slave in Aristotle‘s Politics, in which the slave is defined as simply the “animate equipment” (ktema ti empsychon; literally: “en-souled tool” ) or “household instrument” (oikeia organa) of the master (10–11), is also equivalent, Agamben notes, to the relationship between soul and body in Aristotle’s De Anima (3–5), thereby providing the connecting link between metaphysics and politics in “the use of bodies” in Western meta-politics.

But the scrupulous critic might also observe that Agamben’s work itself, like Aristotle’s Metaphysics, is structured by a whole power-series of supplementary oppositions or binary dichotomies—sovereign/subject, master/slave, soul/body, essence/existence, πολις/οικος, βιος/ξοη, political life/bare life, and so on—which might then invite an attempt to somehow sublimate, supercede, subvert, or deconstruct those stubborn contradictions, as suggested by Agamben’s references to the Hegelian Aufhebung. (e.g., 273) Agamben’s method, however, is not, finally, like Hegel’s dialectic, an attempt to supercede or sublimate dialectical contradictions, or, like Derridean deconstruction, to subtly deconstruct them, by showing how the privileged major term is subverted by the deprivileged, minor term. (239) Instead, Agamben prefers to leave them un-resolved, in stark contradiction with each other, as symptoms of the cleft or scission within the meta-political existence of Western “man,” which is similarly, perhaps, frustratingly unfulfilled. Or rather, Agamben’s method, like Foucault’s, is to regard them as bipolar oppositions in a field or play of forces whose final term is always sovereign power: the sovereign biopower of the Western State over the “bare life” of its citizens and subjects. For Agamben, “it is not a question of…playing the two halves of the [metaphysical-political] machine off against one another,” or “of archeologically going back to a more originary beginning,” before this fracture or scission first occurred in the West; but, instead, it is a question of deactivating the ontological apparatus itself, of rendering it inoperative, by de-constituting the basic principles of its meta-political foundations. (266) And whether the sovereign power of the Western State, which Agamben calls “constituent power” (potere constituente) (266–267), can be challenged or subverted by another un-sovereign power, which Agamben calls, alternatively, “destituent potential” (potenza destituente) (268), “destituent power” (potere destituente) (269), or “destituent violence” (violenza destituente) (ibid), is the crucial question of Agamben’s metaphysical-political project. But in contrast to The Use of Bodies, which celebrates the ability of “destituent power” to deactivate the meta-political apparatus of the Western State, to liberate the “bare life” of its political subjects into a “form-of-life” beyond sovereignty and subjection, master and slave, public and private, and so on, The Coming Community concluded, disturbingly, with the starkly dialectical opposition of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4th, 1991, between the student protesters as “enemies of the State,” and the approaching tanks of the Chinese Communist regime: a catastrophic event that does not bode well for Agamben’s utopian anarchist project, when faced with the “constituent power” of the sovereign State.

Agamben’s theoretical method is predicated upon the critical analysis of certain stubborn aporias or perplexing paradoxes within Western political thought—for example, the strange ambivalence by which the sovereign power of the Greek city-state both ex-cludes and in-cludes the private life of the household within its political life (cf. Stasis), or the curious stigma attached to the “sacred man” (the homo sacer), who, under Roman law, cannot be sacrificed, but can be killed by anyone without risk of prosecution for homicide (cf. Homo Sacer). This paradoxical exclusive-inclusion (Latin: ex-ceptio or ex-clusio) of the de-privileged term (“bare life”) within the privileged, major term (“sovereign power”) in a crypto-dialectical, syllogistic process, is Agamben’s paradigm for the secret workings of an omnipresent sovereign power, which he calls “operativity,” and which, by making its subjects or slaves the objects of sovereign power, also makes them “work” for the sovereign master, thereby providing for “the use of bodies” within the Western metaphysical-political system. Against this “ab-use of bodies” by the Western State, Agamben opposes his concept of “inoperativity” (80–94) which, by suspending the work of the laborer or slave in pure potentiality, also deactivates the workings of the machineries of sovereign power, and allows the former slaves to work out the “forms-of-life” which are consistent with their distinctive individualities, their inappropriable “singularities,” as members of this “un-workable community.” By deactivating the metaphysical-political apparatus of the Western State and liberating the “destituent potential” within the much-abused bodies of its workers and slaves, Agamben argues, it might be possible to arrive at a future utopian state in which destituent “potential becomes a form-of-life[,] and a form-of-life is constitutively destituent” (277): an an-archistic state of “purely destituent potential” resembling an Italian autonomist version of a Trotskyite “permanent revolution,” albeit without the constant threat of state-sponsored terror, but, instead, with the desperate hope for a “constitutively destituent power” which never actually coalesces into the “constituted power” of a sovereignty. (279)

Whether or not Agamben’s theory of “destituent power” provides an un-workable alternative to a Western political system predicated upon “the use of bodies” by sovereign power, and exactly how a non-violent transition from the current system to Agamben’s utopian anarchist alternative might be brought about, are certainly practical problems not addressed by this big metaphysical-political book. The most troubling passages of Agamben’s The Use of Bodies are provided by his discussion of Walter Benjamin’s “Toward a Critique of Violence,” in which Benjamin advocates the use of a “destituent violence” (violenza destituente is Agamben’s translation of Benjamin’s Gewalt) to bring about the collapse of the existent (“constituted”) system, and the beginning of “a whole new historical epoch” in Western metaphysical politics. (268–269) But, finally, when confronted with the un-workable alternative between these two equally violent extremes—State violence and destituent violence—Agamben’s thought wavers between the extremes. On the one hand, Agamben’s prognostications of a future utopian state based upon the radical theory of  “destituent power” (or “destituent violence”?) come dangerously close to endorsing revolutionary violence as a necessary means to bringing about his utopian anarchist community. On the other hand, his account of radically anarchistic individuals who creatively transform their everyday lives into works of art, and whose “bare lives” are therefore compatible with their “form(s)-of-life,” seems to result in a politically ambiguous aestheticism, which would hardly counteract the constituent violence of the sovereign State. And whether either of these two extremes can be seen as plausible solutions to the stubborn dilemmas of Western metaphysical politics is a question worth asking by the critical reader of Agamben’s The Use of Bodies.