From edition

Giorgio Agamben's The Open. Man and Animal.

The Open. Man and Animal. Giorgio Agamben. Meridian, crossing aesthetics (translated by Kevin Attel). Stanford University Press, California, 2004.

Few philosophers have exposed the darker foundations of the Western project and opened new interpretive universes for us like Giorgio Agamben. Disclosing a powerful dialogue with Aristotle, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault, Agamben’s work has already opened for us a new interpretive universe.
For those familiar with Agamben, The Open offers theoretical insight on how to dislocate biopolitics and explore ontologies that allow for the fraternal and non-hierarchical coexistence of all forms of life. Yet those who encounter these ideas for the first time may consider earlier arguments of the author that are implied in this new book. Engaged in the scrutiny of the bonds between life, ontology, and power, Agamben’s claims dispute the “first philosophy” on which all of our practices, institutions, languages, and forms of construction of meaning are rooted.

One of Agamben’s most original contributions arises from his extension and radicalization of the Foucauldian concept of biopolitics and its assimilation to sovereign power. Differently from Foucault, who understood biopolitics as a modern phenomenon, Agamben argues that the administration of life has accompanied Western politics since its inception in Ancient Greece. If power was always local and the political significance of discourses were relative for Foucault, Agamben reintroduces absolute claims against an ontology that appears also absolute and omnipresent. Similarly, whereas the late Foucault resorted to the Greeks as inspiration for the possibility of freedom, Agamben exposes Aristotle’s Politics as the foundation of Western biopolitics. In that text, Aristotle assimilates human life to the life of the citizen in the polis. Outside the polis, life can only be either godly or animal, that is inhuman. What remains implicit in the Aristotelian work and that Agamben infers is that, if life is human only when a political status is attached to it, then the adscription to humanity relies on a political, contingent decision. Starting from this insight, his work uncovers life as the raw matter over which sovereign power reproduces itself by distinguishing between human and inhuman, and makes clear that there is no humanity outside this decision. These main coordinates define what Agamben refers to in The Open as the “anthropological machine,” that is the onto-political grammar of production of the human against a background of life defined as worthless and eliminable.

Western thought has articulated “man” as an arbitrary and unstable border between human and animal, categories that the Aristotelian “scale of being” situates in a relation of more and lesser being. Considering such ontological hierarchy separating human and animal and that no clear biological differences can be found between our species and other higher mammals, the ambiguity of the border becomes intolerable. As a result, not only human and animal coexist in a conflictive manner, first of all within ourselves, but the less clear the border is the more violently it is imposed. The human reveals to be a form of life that in order to dignify itself requires subjecting other forms to the utmost imaginable indignity. This is perhaps what lies behind Agamben’s identification of Auschwitz as the central political institution of the West. That Nazi concentration camps no longer exist should not make us feel confident, however, for the properties of the camp extend these days into an indefinite series of spaces of exception that are continuously reenacted everywhere and badly masked by references to the rule of law. In any case, the terrifying prospect of radical exclusion make us continuously deny the ambiguous nature of our own beings.

Along these lines, the description of an Ancient painting portraying the celebration of a banquet of animal-headed individuals defined as “righteous” in the Last Judgment opens the book. The presence of animal features in those sacred bodies, which on earth would be seen as monstrous, triggers an inquiry on theological, philosophical, and aesthetic allusions to a reconciled humanity and animality.

“Paradise calls Eden back into question”; the erosion of biopolitics challenges us to recuperate those imagined forms of life that have been denied or relegated to the background of the human, in which human and animal harmoniously coexist. Undoing the Aristotelian formula, Agamben interrogates the human both from below, the animal, and from above, the body of the sacred and the saved, recuperating marginalized theological, messianic, and philosophical discussions.

The project of reinscribing life within a different ontology leads the exploration to the point of encounter between biology and philosophy. Against anthropocentric biological accounts, Agamben draws on von Üexkull’s phenomenological approach, who describes the intimate link between species and an environment that is uniquely meaningful to them. The biologist discloses an animal multiverse, in which the perception of each species appears amazingly synchronized with whatever its required by its survival. However, the bee’s complete abandonment to sucking honey despite its abdomen being cut, and the tick’s deadly forsaking to sucking blood or any liquid at 37°C shows how close such an automatic, absolute, and inconditional attraction puts survival from destruction, though.

The choice of von Üexkull’s work recognizes a Heideggerian inspiration, whose thinking contributes in this book to produce a different imagining of ourselves. As animal as any other else, what makes us differ from the rest is simply boredom, which saves us from such inconditional attraction. Thus, whereas the human contains the animal, it has also the possibility of getting bored with his or her own animality and with whatever it requires, which allows for the exploration (and creation) of other worlds. Through the open. “What is proper to humanitas is to remain open to the closedness of the animal,” says Agamben, and it is just these propensities and different forms of relating that make for animal and human outside the biopolitical machinery. That there are no terms of negotiation with Western ontology is clear, and the spirit of Benjamin’s Theses on History once more time settles the tone of Agamben’s work.

But the need of overcoming the “anthropological machine” also obeys to its internal exhaustion. At this point, Agamben makes us confront that “the completion of history necessarily entails the end of man.” The teleology articulating history resulted from metaphysical tensions, the same ones that lied behind the emergence of the political and humanity. But what happens when the teleological development of being gets realized?
First advanced in a grave manner by Hegel, the thesis of the end of history was popularized in the last decade by the Fukuyamas of the world. In the current version, it became an ontological vindication of liberal democracy and capitalism as the final and definitive forms produced by the species. Against this background, Agamben draws consequences that none among those who celebrate the present may want to face.

Once that there are no metaphysical tasks for Western philosophy to realize, the argument follows, humanity is produced less and less until at some point the ontological machine will only generate all forms of life as worthless. In a world where biological survival is all that counts, moved by exclusive economic concerns, and thoroughly policed, “Poetry, religion, philosophy,” those distinctively human activities, are degraded into a spectacle. A confusing dynamics of humanization of animals and animalization of humans follows, framing such a decadent process with paroxysmal contours. Still, people everywhere act as if there were history or the possibility o
reactivating it, which Agamben dismisses a
s imposture.

In opposition to that reign of mere life, The Open introduces an “oikonomia of salvation” that promises to reconcile the animal with the human beyond history and any biopolitical hierarchy. In that endeavor, the project points out the need for the recovery of a new innocence, in which beings exist without inquiring about being. Whether Agamben uses these images just as metaphors or literally is hard to tell, in this work beautifully written though for moments obscure.

Imagining worlds is certainly a step in their construction, and The Open contributes to our imagining the fraternal coexistence of beings. However, the readers are left without any clue on how to bridge both conceptually and practically our animalized world with the new one. Since both politics and a better humanity are founded on a decision over the status of life, the political as a path of transformation of society appears banned. Hence, at least for those who entertain political concerns and engage with action, The Open leaves us in the dark.

In the Manuscripts, Karl Marx also addresses the question of animalization, although in his account it affects workers involved in capitalist relations of production. For Marx there is something deeply wrong when the individual

.feels himself to be freely active only in his animal functions-eating, drinking and procreating, or at most also in his dwelling and in personal adornment-while in his human functions he is reduced to an animal. The animal becomes human and the human becomes animal.

Although the Marxist critique draws on the same classical sources than Agamben’s and may also imply a reconciliation of the living, it suggests a different way of dealing with animality and the human. Whether there are any problems with the Marxian perspective on the subject we do not know, for Agamben never refers to it.

All in all, Agamben’s radicalism appears post-political and for moments apolitical. For those of us who appropriate the political as the possibility of collectively imagining and advancing new worlds, this work by Agamben may appear problematic. Is the political for Agamben biopolitics only? Are there not any other possibilities of being political outside the Aristotelian “scale of being”?

Furthermore, for all of those whose subjectivities are rooted somewhere across the Americas, despite our differences we may share a feeling of strangeness before the absoluteness of the metaphysics questioned by Agamben. Whether occupying the place of the future, or being dismissed as peoples without history by Hegel, Western metaphysics never recognized us as full members of the club. Retrieved in The Open, Kojeve’s argument on the animality of the “American way of life” follows the same logic, since it is not consumerism nor capitalism, but something about “americanness” that gets disqualified. Similarly, it may be hard for our subjectivities to understand why in his previous work Agamben privileges Auschwitz as the ontological location of horror over too many others. Certainly, it is not a question of engaging in a competition to see whose history entails more terror. But there is a point at which Agamben’s critique (incomprehensibly) seems to be just addressed to Europeans.

In fact, strictly read, the reign of metaphysics is European only. The hierarchical arrangement of forms of life already present in Aristotle and thoroughly disclosed by Agamben expose the complicity of Western philosophy with annihilations and holocausts. And The Open advances in a necessary opposite direction towards conceptually dismantling such a perverse mechanism of production of humanity at the expense of the many. Still, if throughout the Americas we have been giving ourselves historical tasks and engaging in political action without ever waiting for anyone’s metaphysical recognition, how can we tell whether ours is an attempt to overcome the human or just imposture?

Guillermina Seri received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Florida.

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