Jean-Luc Nancy's “Restitution" was written in reply to a talk delivered by Giorgio Agamben in the summer of 2013 near the town of Tarnac, France, as part of a seminar entitled Défaire l’occident, or "Dismantling the West." A transcript of Agamben’s 2013 talk had appeared in the French journal in Lundi Matin on January 25th, 2016.1 In their introduction, the editors cite a polemic by Eric Hazan and Julien Coupat published in Libération the day prior, entitled “Toward a Destituent Process: Invitation to a Journey.”2 Nancy's article "Restitution” has its origins in a brief response the philosopher wrote to this “invitation,” which appeared in Libération on February 11, 2016.3 For an assessment of the stakes of this early exchange between Nancy, Hazan and Coupat, we refer the reader to the helpful text by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.4
Although it incorporates certain points from this earlier polemic, the present article is addressed directly to Giorgio Agamben’s work. Nancy presented a draft of it in April of 2016 during the conference Homo Sacer: Giorgio Agamben et l’usage de la métaphysique, at which Agamben was also present. The proceedings were later collected into a print book, on which the present translation is based.5
That Agamben had been invited to give his 2013 talk at Tarnac was by no means fortuitous. Since the early 1970s, the Plateau de Millevache on which Tarnac is located has been widely known as a hub of militant, communal, and experimental places of life and solidaristic associations. Tarnac itself has, since 2008, also become synonymous with the legal case surrounding the “Tarnac Nine,” an alleged cell of “anarcho-autonomist” militants (as the state described them), including Coupat, who were falsely accused of sabotaging high-speed train lines.6 In his 2013 talk at Tarnac, Agamben refers to the journal Tiqqun which, alongside the writings on destituent power in The Invisible Committee’s To Our Friends (published contemporaneously), belongs to the critical backdrop of both Agamben and Nancy’s texts.7
Two additional texts also figure prominently in Nancy’s argument: Agamben’s The Use of Bodies, which first appeared in French in 2015, and his Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm. Although the latter was not published in French until 2016, a month after the Paris-Diderot conference mentioned above, the lectures contained in it were originally delivered in October of 2001, the same month Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War was published.8
Finally, so as to avoid confusion, we note that on November 16, 2013, some months after the Tarnac talk, Agamben delivered a lecture in Athens organized by the Nicos Poulantzas Institute and SYRIZA Youth, and which bore the same title, “Vers une théorie de la puissance destituante.”9 The Athens talk, as well as the text that served as the Epilogue to The Use of Bodies (the final volume of Agamben’s Homo sacer series), offer various versions of the argument concerning destitution. While they are obviously all related, none are strictly identical to the version delivered at Tarnac, to which Nancy is specifically responding in the pages that follow.10
—Philip Armstrong, November 2021
Other languages: Italiano
My title is obviously a playful rejoinder to the notion of “destitution,” which forms the guiding thread of the most directly political aspects of Giorgio Agamben’s thought. Beyond the texts devoted to destitution in his published works, it also forms the subject of a talk he delivered in Tarnac in 2013 under the title “Towards a Theory of Destituent Power.” It is this talk that will guide my remarks in what follows.
If restitution is at stake here, it is certainly not to undo or overturn destitution, which would only lead us into a vicious circle. Rather, it is a question of restituting the question of “destitution” to its larger context in order to better situate it. Restitution in the name of resituating. Our situation, our more or less common site — those of “us” who concern ourselves with that thing called “politics” — is indeed that of a generalized abandonment [déprise]. As happens so often, there are specific configurations to each epoch — ours is that of an abandonment, a distrust or contempt for politics. We see indications of this everywhere: there are those who seek to relaunch or reinvent politics, others to move beyond it, some to rethink it, others to displace it (it is this latter term that is operative in the talk that I am trying to work through). As is always the case, these configurations specific to each epoch at the same time form a powerful and no doubt revealing symptom: for half a century, we have all known that the continent of politics has been seized by a profound tectonic movement that has submerged it and largely covered it over by a techno-economic continent. Disturbing and enigmatic figures are stirring in these troubled waters: Potemkin democracies [démocratures] and telecracies [télécraties] that tend to wither, if not decompose, those forms that bear the name “republic,” “councils,” “communism,” and, quite simply, “politics.” It is in relation to this broader situation that I would like to address Giorgio Agamben’s singular gesture, both what distinguishes it from, and what makes it resonate with, that of others.
Agamben himself indicates as much when he first introduces destitution as the central concept of his talk: “it seems to me that destituent power is what twentieth century thought has tried to think, without truly succeeding.” He states that he is not sure that he will manage to do so himself, emphasizing the challenges at stake. What I would like to do here comes down less to measuring the success or failure of this thinking than to examining the very terms of its undertaking.
But before doing so, I should highlight a second valence of my title. The title should in fact displace itself since it is also a question of moving beyond the opposition between restitution and destitution. In the specific context of this examination (in which I include myself), I would like at the very least to gesture towards that which subtends every instance of institution, constitution, destitution, restitution, substitution, and prostitution — namely, stitution itself. As I have done elsewhere with -struction, I think there is some interest in pausing to consider such semantic elements stripped of their declensions.11 In one sense, it is also a question of returning modes back to their substance, and the question of the modal ontology at play in Agamben’s talk must itself be addressed. But for the moment, I wish only to note that this stitution, once deprived of its lexical autonomy, suggests nothing other than holding up, taking hold of, holding on to, or proffering.12 Stasis, stele, statue. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has worked through stele and installation at length — that is, Heidegger’s Gestell.13 We are all more or less bound by a distrust of the stable, the installed, the erect — in a word, the state. However, it is nevertheless the case that the famous stasis to which Agamben refers also clearly designates stability, just as it does the cessation, suspension, and crisis associated with civil war. Similarly, medical or libidinal stasis designates for us a suspension, obstruction, and crisis.
We could say there is a general crisis, both ontological and technological, inherent to all stasis. Which is to say, there is a rhythm or an alternation between a sustained state [la tenue] and its tension with itself, a tension that can no doubt be discerned in every sustained state — man’s upright posture just as much as his being erect, or that of a statue, or the establishment of the stato that appears with Machiavelli and which it is also a matter of sustaining or maintaining (mantenere il stato), since it is fragile or unstable. It has to be this way, since it is established through a play of forces, and lacks any superior (divine) authority. It appears that the stato — whatever it might be, political or otherwise — is always suspended between a status nascendi and a status moriendi. There is much to reflect on here.
For us today, there is at least the following to consider: in speaking of destitution, we can take up a position inside the modal system, or we can go beyond it. In the first case, one destitutes what has been instituted. This destitution inscribes itself in a constitution. There exists a right to destitute the office holder [titulaire] of such and such a magistrature or official function. This right then implies the subsequent substitution of another office holder. To select an example almost at random, the military committee destitutes the provisional government and substitutes the Petrograd soviet in its place, which Lenin in turn destitutes in statu nascendi, substituting a military committee in its place. Destitution is here inscribed within an institutional (and therefore constitutional) ensemble, and this ensemble was itself suspended or else alternated incessantly between institution and destitution.
In passing, I want to notice the series of subtractive or defective names that have been used in relation to the State: disappearance, withering away, destruction.14 In this and other ways, politics and/or the thought of politics appear like a site of permanent destabilization in which there is nevertheless a prolonged hesitation between these three terms. Disappearance foreshadows a reappearance that would impregnate all spheres of existence (as the young Marx wished for); destruction is most often that of an old apparatus for which a new machine must be substituted; and finally, withering away stems from what Engels calls a process of “atrophy” [assoupissement] in which the state is immersed in the “administration of things,” causing it to wither. As Engels insists, this process is wholly distinct from abolition. The latter is also, according to Agamben, that from which destitution must be distinguished. He emphasizes that to destitute is not to abolish; it is to “deactivate.” We will see later what is at stake in this term, which no doubt offers the clearest connotation of his conception of destitution.
Before continuing, allow me to add a remark that I have already made elsewhere: the proliferation of subtractive or defective terms clearly points toward the configuration of our epoch that I referred to already above. From deconstruction (stemming from Heidegger’s Destruktion) to inoperativity (a term I share with Agamben) and from dis-enclosure15 to destitution, to say nothing of other privative terms like “impolitics” or “inaesthetics” and also passing by way of “subversion,” “denunciation,” “superseding,” or the “displacement” that we also find in the talk by Agamben that is under consideration here, an entire Map of Tendre16 is sketched out here — the map of an affect that is disenchanted yet nevertheless determined to challenge what Agamben calls the “capture” of life itself, its imprisonment. I am tempted to see in this lexicon of dé-nominations17 the evidence of a desire to exit nihilism from within nihilism itself, a Nietzschean precept that I find admissible, but which undoubtedly calls for an affirmation that would do more than merely denounce.
A second hypothesis should be raised here, necessitated by the fact that destitution seems to distinguish itself from the other modalities evoked above. Indeed, if it excludes abolition, it nevertheless does not call for an organic process or an increasing “administration of things.” In fact, one might even ask whether the latter doesn’t in some respects already form the basis of the global development of interdependency today, that same technical, digital, and entrepreneurial network in the face of, and within which, politics has withered. Is it not in this sense that we should understand, at least in part, the displacement [of politics] that Agamben calls for?18 It's a question that we will be better able to examine a bit later.
Let us now turn to the other hypothesis, which would hold that destitution refers to stitution itself and not to its various modes, i.e., to the semantic and ontological element of taking and keeping hold of as such [tenir...se tenir]. In fact, differing from Spinoza — for whom, as François Zourabichvili has analyzed19 in detail, it is a question of substituting one institutum for another — Agamben appears to be in search of a displacement that would institute nothing other than further displacements and, as he says, “a habitual use of power,” in other words, the continuous exercise of forming a form-of-life (and thus also its trans-formation).
But what does it mean to touch on stitution or stasis itself, in its double characterization as taking hold and crisis? In ontological terms, and in direct reference to Spinoza, it means to touch on that which is sub-stantial. Of course, we take it as given that substance exists only “in its modes.” But one should thus at least grant that substance is this “being only...”20 For his part, Agamben discusses the relation between substances and modes in terms of “being,” and he’s correct to do so: how else can one speak here, if not of ontology? It’s true that this all happens in the visible wake of the Heideggerean deconstruction of ontology, even if this isn’t acknowledged as such. Nevertheless, when he speaks of “a life for which, in its mode of life, what is at stake is life itself," Agamben enacts an obvious retracing of the formulation of “the meaning of Being” in Being and Time. The life in question here is only substituted for Being in order to better assert, on the one hand, the vital power, the animation we might say, that the "stakes” at hand demand, and on the other hand, perhaps in order to ward off the substantial threat of “Being” as such.
This is exactly Heidegger’s argument: to remove all substantiality from Being. I won’t dwell on Heidegger’s undertaking here. I would only add that, for Agamben, life serves as a substitute for a whole series of procedures, including that of placing terms under erasure, the written form of Seyn, and especially (though less visibly) the appeal to use the verb “to be” exclusively in an asyntactical manner as a transitive verb. I make these reminders only so as to indicate how “life” introduces here, first, its character as unknowable, and second, its character of being self-affecting, which for Agamben will define its use, to which he opposes the relation to the object, to work, and to mastery or domination.
It is in this way that destitution touches on all stasis and stance — as a position, it must touch on all kinds of beings and carry out a displacement, as Agamben suggests, “of the very sites of politics” towards those sites that will no longer be sites but forms-of-life. We will return to the relation with Heidegger again below.
In the last instance, it is also a question of addressing anarchy and anomie. This is an extremely difficult displacement because, just as it proceeds from the capture of life, politics has captured anarchy and anomie. In politics, anarchy becomes what has been long designated by the well-known formula of “established disorder” (a phrase that comes from Emmanuel Mounier), while anomie assumes the figure of the law of exception in its exception from the law, an instrument of sovereignty that forms the supreme agent of capture. As Agamben explains, what we must deactivate is “first of all the anarchy and anomie that have been captured by power.” “To deactivate” introduces a new privative concept for which we are given little information. One might think that deactivation is exactly the corollary of a life that has been recovered, which itself would be the activity par excellence, understood as the use of its own form.21
But above all, the concept of deactivation corroborates the claim that what is in question is not abolition. Where and how does that which is deactivated subsist? This question is never asked. On the one hand, one might be tempted to think that it precisely doesn’t subsist. From an ontological point of view, the refusal to distinguish Being or substance from beings or modes certainly points in this direction. But from a political point of view, this “non-subsistence-without abolition” is more difficult to conceive. Either Agamben means to direct us back to rather distant forms of society whose example, assuming we even know how to interpret it, cannot easily be taken up again in the modern context (unless predicting its own withering away, which remains plausible), or, as I have already indicated, he envisions a kind of coexistence between “true” forms-of-life (in the way he speaks of a “true anarchy” before referring, in passing, to the expression “controlled anarchy” employed in Illich’s sense for a “vernacular” society. The term “control” itself merits further reflection).
It is thus not easy to superimpose a modal ontology onto a displaced politics, for what seems to play out quite smoothly on an ontological level collides with itself with considerable imprecision in the realm of politics — at least insofar as the term politics is preserved in this displacement and through this destitution. The discordance between these two initiatives must either be diminished, or else it must be justified.
To better illuminate what is implied in this problem, it is appropriate to identify in general terms the various operations we pass through before arriving at what Agamben himself highlights as the ultimate goal of his undertaking: to think a form of political organization that does not organize forms-of-life since these by definition are self-organizing or “in themselves already completely organized.” One might observe in this context that it is, as it were, a form of living life that is at play. In other words, it is life — uncaptured life — that organizes itself, just as living species, varieties, and individuals do. It is precisely here that the ungraspable attribute of life and its self-affection, but also its power of organization, resides. (Here one might refer back to the relation Kant makes between revolutionary transformation and organization.)
What preliminary operations must be in place for the exposition of destitution and its quite different organization?
No doubt there are many, but I will limit myself here. I will focus on five motifs, endeavoring to treat each of them in a schematic manner.
The first precondition is negative. It has to do with the absence of any consideration related to the appearance of politics itself and the conditions of this appearance. Here Agamben risks partaking in what Arendt calls “the fundamental prejudice” that announces that “politics will have always existed.” To this she objects: “on the contrary, Aristotle is in general the [Greek] origin of the word [politics].”22 I find it difficult not to share this view, unless one clearly extends this word to every kind of collectivity and its operations. Deep down, this is what Agamben tends to do. Admittedly, he specifies that for him it is a question of “Western politics.” But that is precisely what Arendt was getting at: “polis” and the “West” are just as synonymous as “philosophia” and the “West.”
What is the polis, if not that which is invented when theologically-based forms of collective organization disappear, wither away, or are destituted? By theological is meant sacrificial, sacred, theophanic or theocratic, shamanic or consecratory forms. In all these, organization and law are given through sacred authority. Or more exactly, what makes this “sacred” is the fact that it is given: this being-given proceeds from an immemorial, unattributable gift. On the other hand, politics is defined by what is not-given, just as philosophy is defined by the non-givenness of principles and ends. Politics originates in this disinheritance [déshérence]. One can therefore understand that it may appear as “capture”; effectively, there is a suspension, a withdrawal [retrait] that elicits an invention. This is called “isonomy,” “city,” “magistrature.” We organize what in the organism has withered away.
Indeed, this is why the question of the sacred character of power and civil religions has not stopped haunting the history of politics, up to the end that we are perhaps now traversing. However, this is not the direction Agamben’s thought takes him. Even so, he does have recourse to Judeo-Christian references when establishing the principle of inoperativity in whose name he mobilizes the concept of destitution. We will return to this below.
The second precondition touches on a central claim, namely, that politics captures life and divides it from itself — in other words, from its own forms. Life is included in politics through an exclusion that constrains it.
Life itself is not political, we are told: its capture politicizes it. I find it difficult to understand how the return to a life endowed with its own forms (in its true anarchy and anomie) could serve as a displacement of politics. Or else, this displacement should be understood as stemming from a metamorphosis. Indeed, this is why it is also a question of “the political” [le politique], i.e., a kind of subtle essence that, in short, finds itself captured by “Western politics.” I won’t pause here over this distinction between politics and the political — I have myself employed the latter term, and I ended up recognizing its obscure character.23 If it designates every aspect and form of existence, it is conflated with ontology. Let us leave aside this point for the moment.
Capture is characterized by an effacement of particular conditions in favor of a general citizenship. Once restricted to the oikos, the particular assumes a divided life. Zoé, the life of upkeep and reproduction, is separated “from bios, from political life.” The schema is seductive, but does not correspond either to what can be found in Aristotle (to limit ourselves just to him) or to what can be reasonably conjectured. On the one hand, oikos is itself a type or form of government. As Aristotle states, it is like a monarchy. One wonders if there is any kind of human grouping without at least some in-stitution or con-stitution. Here again, one touches on the question of “politics” in the widest (let’s say, Western) sense of the term. The question of an ontology of Being-many is thus also broached. Must stasis — which places the city into crisis — be understood as the demarcation and “threshold of politicization” (as Agamben states), or rather as the stasis, crisis, and tension inside the possibility of any “ensemble" in general, whatever this might be, once it is no longer grasped by a sacred authority?
On the other hand, Agamben quite rightly notes that the bios politikos is only possible within the city, but that this represents only one of the possible forms of bios. The others are seeking pleasure or seeking joy (a fourth — the search for wealth — is mentioned in passing and with disdain). All forms of life are exercised in the city but only one is devoted to the city as such. The form that stands out as being most properly devoted to sophia represents, in fact, the ownmost destination of man.
This specific destination, whose nature Aristotle will call “divine” (even though everything suggests that it can be thought as conforming to itself), is overlooked by Agamben. On this point, he breaks with Aristotle. Aristotle asks whether a man could be deprived of an ergon or a specific activity: could he thus be argos, without work at all, and thereby different from all other living beings? Agamben seizes upon the word and transforms what Aristotle considered an untenable hypothesis into a thesis. Yes, Agamben affirms, man is without work, or more precisely, his task is “to render works inoperative” [désoeuvrer les œuvres] (destitution’s operational mode).
Yet the term argos in fact signifies “sterile,” “incapable,” or “lazy” or “unfit,” rather than simply “without task” (since it is as a task, as effectuating an end — in short, as technique in general — that “work” is understood here). Aristotle did not use the word skolè here, this well-known term which in fact corresponds much more closely to what Agamben means by “inoperativity.”
To put it in an abbreviated form, in the second precondition, connected with the first, Agamben détourns Aristotle, which everyone has the right to do but which nevertheless raises a problem. For when he attempts to designate the intended aim of all forms of bios, he retains Aristotle’s term eudaimonia. This term is translated as “happiness.” As is well known, this translation poses severe problems. Suffice it to remark that the term includes a sense of daimôn, of the divine or demonic. One could go so far as to understand it as the idea of a favorable trick committed or encouraged by a good genie. In this encounter we once again rediscover, in an asymptotic fashion, the divine character of the supreme theoretical life. The question I would like to pose is: how exactly can one separate out Aristotle and Agamben’s respective viewpoints?
The third precondition comes later in Agamben’s presentation and is related to the history through which the meaning of destitution is discovered, as if after the Greek and philosophical capture of life Christianity had reached another opposite threshold. It concerns Paul, considered here as the fulfillment of the messianic tradition through the affirmation of the law’s deactivation — in other words, “the destitution of the works of power, not simply their abolition.” Or rather, “being in the world as not being of the world.” This formula reveals an indication that is no doubt fundamental to our entire tradition. It traverses all our thinking; one could demonstrate this even for Descartes, who seeks nothing else than to change and purify our vision of the world. It is approved by Nietzsche, who speaks of an “experience of the heart.” It is precisely this meaning that Agamben proposes when he says that we must “learn to use our condition, in other words, to deactivate it and render it inoperative in relation to myself.” For example — to stay with the last example drawn from Paul, “to buy a house as if one does not possess it” (in truth, the reference to a “house” is Agamben’s own). Deactivation is a spiritual operation. For Paul, it is precisely a question of how “to have use of a world through not having use of it, because the figure of this world is passing away.” Yet, for all that, is this operation capable of leading to a political destitution, or a destitution of politics?24 Here again, is it a question of rendering only the works of power inoperative (as mentioned earlier), or all work?
A question comes into focus here, one introduced by Blanchot some time ago, and which concerns the use of the term “désœuvrement.” Its employment is aimed at the inoperativity of the work in the work and through the work — the work unworking itself. It was around this term that Blanchot reproached me (not without reason) for speaking of an “inoperative community” without yet envisaging which works in common can render themselves inoperative. I leave aside this question, which assumes a quite different consideration of the very idea of work, which does not respect the distinction that has already been touched on between those of “power” and other works. I want to retain another point of importance here. Agamben explains that Paul is not the whole of Christianity. On the contrary, Paul “completely betrayed” his creator’s message. The almost perfunctory recurrence of this theme in the history of Christianity should be underlined. One might designate it as an anabaptist theme: the message must be rebaptized, its purity rediscovered, that of a communism or an inoperativity, a poverty or a Christ without doctrine (according to Nietzsche). This recurrent anabaptism— which can take shape behind all kinds of deconstruction or destitution of Christianity — has a quite remarkable significance that should be interrogated further. It is put forth by Agamben at the height of a general “archaeology,” which consists of returning to a certain arché, a certain historical a priori, and attempting to neutralize it.
If one can and should interrogate the self-deconstitution of Judeo-Christianity, and through this, of metaphysics, can one assign and attach the decision to “neutralize” to one or another of the “historical a priori’s”? Here we have Greek politics, Aristotle’s argos, and Paulinian katargein of the law as the decisive points to which one must return in order to extract the conditions of a non-betrayal of “modal ontology.” It must be admitted that this closely resembles what historians call “counterfactual history,” or history according to an “as if” — as if Aristotle hadn’t chosen the logos against argos, as if Christianity hadn’t covered over Paul through good works.
This manner of making use of history and texts as though not being used poses several problems. One could think of history as suspended, for instance in a Heideggerian manner, in order to think the anteriority of a relation to Being that the course and destiny of the West would have covered over and forgotten. The connection to Heidegger applies precisely because Agamben speaks of ontology, refers to Heidegger and to two of his descendants (Schürmann and Foucault), and finally — speaking of use — redeploys the Heideggerian term Brauch.
I now wish to evoke the fourth precondition. In the talk given at Tarnac, Brauch is not evoked. Its use by Heidegger was addressed in The Use of Bodies and this very technical discussion found no place in the exoteric talk at Tarnac.25 Discussing Heidegger’s Brauch — in other words, the use, employment, and recourse to the term — Agamben detaches himself from it in the name of an ontological motif. For Heidegger, Being “uses” beings; it “enjoys,” he states, referring back to the Augustinian frui in “The Anaximander Fragment.”26 Agamben asks what it means that Being makes use of beings. He observes that Heidegger reduces this use to a form of production according to Aristotle’s energeia, and thus to the order of this ergon that it is a question of deactivating into argon, as we have seen above.
I won’t engage in a reading of Heidegger’s text here, which says something quite different from what Agamben believes to have isolated. I only want to remark that the question, “what does it mean that Being makes use of beings?” is given a response by Heidegger, or rather, one that goes beyond the specific response, and which is significant. Other texts should be cited and analyzed here, in particular the most recent volume (97) of the Schwartz Hefte (Black Notebooks) (far removed from the antisemitism that we have heard so much about, and even at the heart of a secret hyper-Judaism). Suffice it to remark that these texts announce exactly the opposite of an operative [œuvrante] production, as Heidegger’s “The Anaximander Fragment” text attests. An example suffices: it can be said that the use in question consists in summoning silence.
What seems important to me is the ontology that is in play here. In proposing that Being makes use of beings Heidegger seeks to transfer “Being” as substantive to its merely verbal use, as he says (quite fittingly) elsewhere, and to understand this verb itself in the transitive. “To use” or “to utilize,” “having the enjoyment of,” is a risky form for this transitivity.27 I say “risky” because I admit that there is a lot more to say in this context. But it should be underscored that an attempt to disentangle the problem of a “modal ontology” is thus at least sketched out here: namely, the very sense of “Being” of such an ontology. If the substantive is verbalized, and if this verb doesn’t bring about anything other than a summons to the silence of and on beings — a silence that ought to resound in existence — then there is no need to give this substance a modality. Rather, one should begin to think the vanishing of ontological difference.
Conforming to what Heidegger calls “identity of identity and difference” — a formula that Agamben seems to forget in his talk when he reduces ontological difference to the opposition of identity/difference — “Being” does not differ from beings or entities. Or more exactly, it only differs from the imperceptible différance proposed by Derrida. It indicates nothing else than what might be called an attenuation [amuïssement] of “Being” itself (in other words, attenuation as the progressive effacement of a phoneme — for example, in French, a silent “e”). (Which is the reason why there is no ontology in Derrida.)
What is at stake here is what Heidegger calls “the authentic unity” of the ontico-ontological difference, or again what he sometimes indicates as the disarticulation of the word “onto/logy.”28 Like Derrida, Agamben’s undertaking proceeds from this indication. No doubt we are all constrained to explore further the implications and exigencies of such an undertaking. Through the analyses that I have just sketched out, I would only like to show that the project of destitution leads at once to the raising of a spiritual call, or to the calling of a spirit, an “experience of the heart” whose challenge must be faced up to, at the same time that it runs the risk of closing off ontology into a bio-logy in which life would not accede to its own attenuation any more than substantial Being — thus, to its silence and to the death that is silently inscribed in it. An onto-biology divided in itself. At the same time, a destituted and displaced politics would be devoted to the juxtaposition of two politics or two senses of the word: a city endowed with laws and works; forms of life enigmatically happy.
This conclusion is not intended as a critique, as if I had something better to offer. I have nothing better. This is merely a way of exploring our quite common difficulty: it is a question not of an other politics, or a displaced politics, but of a being or a spirit that is attentive to its own stasis, to the pulsation and trembling of its ex-posure.
P.S. Three years after I wrote this, on the occasion of the Italian translation of this text in 2019, I wish to add two further remarks:
First, to have without possessing is not an easy maxim to analyze. What kind of possession, property, arrangement, enjoyment, or law is in question here? If I buy something, there is precisely a transfer of property which implies recognition of a legal system and market value. I am therefore fully inscribed in a public institution. It can also follow that I have taxes to pay and work to be done for the benefit of others and of the public domain. Could I act or be “as if I don’t possess anything”? I can leave this house to be used freely by someone. Do I also demand that they assume all the expenses that are attached to it or not? So many gestures and questions which are tied to my situation as proprietor. I won’t develop this here. I just want to initiate a questioning that seems to me necessary in order to restitute to destitution what is fully at stake in it.
Following this, the distinction between use and market value is not as simple as this same maxim assumes. Even in Marx, this question must be raised. Use is tied to a finality: I live in my house in order to find shelter, security, and a place which is suitable to my everyday life. I have a house priced according to various expected plans and the money available to me. The calculation of the price intervenes in the estimation of the use I want to make of it, and vice versa. The way I want to use my house is itself tied to other uses — my work, my health, my leisure time. Everything has a market value. One should make these observations independently of any taking into account of markets and their impact on the price of all goods and services — up to this point, capitalism is not involved. Even in an economy without currency, the values between goods and services can be compared. The motif of “value” (like that of “sense”) cannot be detached from existence shared in common with others, with other humans as well as with non-human living beings and even with non-living things.
I won’t get into this here. I only want to pry open some questions that cannot be avoided.29
Translated by Philip Armstrong
Ill Will wishes to thank Jean-Luc Nancy for granting us permission to translate and publish the present article.
Images: Terje Abusdal
1. Giorgio Agamben, “Vers une théorie de la puissance destituante,” Lundi matin #45. The original is online here. A recording of Agamben’s talk had also been made available on YouTube on January 26, 2016 (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajpHg00GDOg). ↰
2. Eric Hazan and Julien Coupat, “Pour un processus destituant: invitation au voyage,” Libération, Jan 24th, 2016. Online here. A rough draft of an English translation of Agamben’s Tarnac talk can be found on Autonomies. A translation of Hazan and Coupat's invitation is online here. ↰
4. Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen, “Destitute or Situate—A Few Remarks on the Exchange between Julien Coupat and Eric Hazan and Jean-Luc Nancy (January-February 2016)” in continent 6:2 (2017): 29-36. Online here. ↰
5. Jean Luc Nancy, “Restitution,” in Anoush Ganjipour (ed.), Politique de l’exil: Giorgio Agamben et l’usage de la métaphysique, Éditions Lignes, 2019, 181-196. The conference took place on April 8-9th, 2016 at the Université Paris-Diderot, organized by Anoush Ganjipour, the Institut Humanités et Sciences de Paris, and the Collège International de Philosophie. ↰
6. The infamous decades-long trail that ensued was so incorrigibly farcical that the defendants were compelled to write a “novel” summarizing its escapades, a translation of which is online here. An anthology of statements and interviews by the accused, including the novel itself, was published as ‘I Have Spoken and Saved My Soul’: Statements by the Tarnac 10, edited and translated by Bill Brown. Available for purchase here. ↰
8. See Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko, Stanford University Press, 2016 and Giorgio Agamben, Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, trans. Nicholas Heron, Stanford University Press, 2015. ↰
9. A transcript (in English) of the talk in Athens is available here. A French version was published in Le Monde Diplomatique in January 2014, available here. An English version was also published in 2014 as “What is a Destituent Power?” trans. Stephanie Wakefield, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32. A further text by Agamben, “Toward a Theory of Destituent Potential” is included as the Epilogue in The Use of Bodies, 263-279. ↰
10. A brief discussion of some differences between these versions of Agamben’s argument can be found in Michele Garau, “Without Why: The Existential A Priori of Destituent Action,” Ill Will, Oct. 2nd, 2021. Online here. ↰
11. See Jean-Luc Nancy and Aurélien Barrau, What’s These Worlds Coming To?, trans. Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain, Fordham University Press, 2013, and “Of Struction,” trans. Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain in Parrhesia 17 (2013): 1-10. Available here. —Trans.↰
12. FR: la tenue, le tenir, se tenir, faire tenir. —Trans. ↰
13. See Philippe Lacoue-Laberthe, “Typography” in Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics, ed. Christopher Fynsk, Harvard University Press, 1989, 43-138 and Heidegger, Art, and Politics; The Fiction of the Political, trans. Chris Turner, Blackwell, 1990. —Trans. ↰
14. FR: disparition, dépérissement, destruction. —Trans. ↰
15. FR: désoeuvrement (inoperativity), déclosion (dis-enclosure). —Trans.↰
16. The Map of Tendre (in French, the Carte de Tendre) is a map of an imaginary land called Tendre that was produced by several hands, and depicted the path towards true love. —Trans. ↰
17. FR: Nancy is referring to the string of terms all sharing the same privative prefix (dé-): dépérissement (withering-away), désoeuvrement (inoperativity), déclosion (dis-enclosure), détention (imprisonment), désenchanté (disenchanted), déterminé (determined), dénoncer (denounce), and so on. —Trans. ↰
18. Agamben opens his Tarnac talk by observing that the ultimate aim of his Homo Sacer series was “to displace the very place or site of politics, and thereby, above all, to exhibit its true place and stakes [déplacer les lieux même du politique, et pour cela, avant tout, d’en dévoiler les lieux et l’enjeu véritable].” Giorgio Agamben, “Vers une théorie de la puissance destituante,” Lundi matin #45. —Trans.↰
19. See François Zourabichvili, Le conservatisme paradoxal de Spinoza: Enfance et royauté, P.U.F., 2002. —Trans. ↰
20. FR: “...qu’elle est ce ‘n’être que’.” —Trans. ↰
21. FR: “la vie retrouvée”... “l’usage d’une forme propre.” —Trans. ↰
22. See Hannah Arendt, “Socrates” in The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn, Schocken Books, 2007.↰
23. The distinction between la politique (politics) and le politique (the political) appears in Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, Retreating the Political, ed. Simon Sparks, Routledge, 1997. —Trans.↰
24. FR: “...il s’agit bien d’ailleurs ‘d’user du monde comme n’en usant pas car elle passe la figure de ce monde’: est-elle pour autant capable d’une destitution (de la) politique?” —Trans.↰
25. Let me state that I am only commenting on this talk, which leaves aside the numerous and rich analyses presented elsewhere in his books, even if this doesn’t stop me from offering a pointed and precise sketch of the Homo Sacer series.↰
26. Nancy here refers to the chapter “The Use of the World” in Agamben’s The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko, Stanford University Press, 2016, 47. “Enjoys” (or jouir in French) translates Heidegger’s geniessen. —Trans.↰
27. FR: une forme aventurée. —Trans.↰
28. See Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event), trans. Richard Rojcewicz and Daniele Vallega-Neu, Indiana University Press, 2012.↰
29. My deepest thanks to Ian James and Adrian Wohlleben for their help in preparing the translation. —Trans. ↰