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Agamben's The Open


The Open: Man and Animal.

Agamben, Giorgio. Trans. Kevin Attell. Stanford: Stanford University, 2004. 102 pages, softcover, $15.95. ISBN: 0804747385.

<1> With no mention of his prior work on the issues of sovereignty or the production of humanity, Agamben makes a foray into complicating such matters by examining the theorization of "the animal" and its relation to the human in the work of Kojève (and Hegel) and Heidegger; what Agamben attempts to do is to collapse the figures of the animal and man (and, despite the sexist overtones of "man," I'll abide by his usage) into one another, implying that the state of animality is a performative, just as humanity is, and that there is strength to be drawn from the indeterminate passage between these states. His object of orientation throughout the essay is the "anthropological machine," that "optical machine constructed in a series of mirrors in which man, looking at himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features of an ape" facilitating his recognition of himself "in a non-man in order to be human" (26-27). The implications of the animal and man as performatives, while vaguely New Age-ish, is potentially profound, as Agamben finds in the articulation of the human (and its animality) a state of exception outside of the devastation of the "camp" (as expounded in Homo Sacer). Moreover, in his move away from Auschwitz, Agamben finds ahistorical potential for the state of exception; rather than the singularity of the camp, the performance of the animal becomes a constant performance of the human, and creates a system of suspension, an explicitly poststructural theory of the production of humanity.

<2> Because humanity is suspended between nature and society, between a "celestial and terrestrial nature" (29), man is always less and more than himself, and, in this,

Precisely because the human is already presupposed every time, the machine actually produces a kind of state of exception, a zone of indeterminacy in which the outside is nothing but the exclusion of an inside and the inside is in turn only the inclusion of an outside. (37)

The anthropological machine of the moderns (as he calls them) worked to divide the human from the category of man: It is the machine of the armchair anthropologists of the 19th century and the National Socialist racial politics, finding the animal in what appears as human and applying appropriate language -- primitives, barbarians, savages -- to establish its difference. The human is thereby dependent upon a category of humanity which can have its human-ness removed (discursively, biopolitically), all for the benefit of those who would claim themselves modern, civilized, or the inheritors of the future. The pre-modern machine worked symmetrically by interpellating the animal to the status of the human, of creating diverse kinship rules by bringing the exteriorized into the interior, but these animals, as for the moderns, are the barbarians, slaves and foreigners of earlier empires, not animals per se. In both cases, the machine depends on "establishing a zone of indifference" (37) wherein the figure of the human and the animal are indistinguishable and reliant upon their discursive production. It is in this "zone of indifference" that neither animal nor human life is found, but rather only "bare life" (38). And, maybe strangely, the closest one might come to knowing this "zone of indifference" is in boredom.

<3> A substantial amount of Agamben's essay is dedicated to reading Heidegger's thinking on the subject of the animal, found in occasional footnotes throughout the latter's work, and concentrated in Parmenides. What Agamben finds in boredom -- following Heidegger -- is the relationship between the boredom of man and the captivity of the animal. In both cases, the individual (man or animal) is being-held-in-suspense -- it is in this moment in the full presence of Dasein:

Dasein is simply an animal that has learned to become bored; it has awakened from its own captivation to its own captivation. This awakening of the living being to its own being-captivated, this anxious and resolute opening to a not-open, is the human. (70, emphasis in original)

In this context I think it is worth recalling Agamben's earlier work in Infancy and History, wherein he remarks that there is no longer the wholesale destruction of experience, for the modern world is one which is profoundly devoid of experience, it is, in light of The Open, eminently boring, and, as such, providing humanity with ample opportunities to experience being-captivated.

<4> The figure of the infant, or of infancy, as discussed in Infancy and History, is helpful in understanding the conclusion that Agamben comes to in The Open, which, otherwise, is somewhat unclear. In his review of the status of Western thinking on the subject of the animal and man, Agamben claims that "the decisive political conflict, which governs every other conflict, is that between the animality and the humanity of man" (80), and thereby in its origin, Western politics is always biopolitics. What succeeds this is a brief meditation on two paintings of Titian, "Nymph and the Shepherd" and "The Three Ages of Man." (If at first this seems an odd turn, it is no more odd than beginning The Open with a discussion of the traditions of depicting men with the heads of animals, from Jewish iconography to Bataille -- in both instances, Agamben at his most suggestive and wistful.) What Agamben sees in these two paintings is the power of "a-knowledge," which he defines as

not simply to let something be, but to leave something outside of being, to render it unsavable. Just as Titian's lovers forgive each other for their own lack of [post-coital] -- neither open nor undisconcealable -- stands serenely in relation with its own concealedness; it lets it be outside of being. (91)

The implication of this, I believe, is that, much like the state of infancy where a decision has not yet been made, but is rather in a state of suspension, almost-realized, there is no longer a need for the anthropological machine to run, but rather for the animal and man to bleed into one another (and the metaphor of the flesh is important, for we share in the bodily experience of being): This is the realm of posthuman biopolitics where the biological mandate inhered in the Human Genome Project is not simply about understanding the species-specific category of Homo sapiens as excluded from the world, but to come to an understanding of being as such, to understand the contingency of species, but not to foreclose our kinship with the animal, nor to overdetermine humanity. The lesson Agamben draws from Heidegger is one of "letting be," of allowing the anthropological machine to idle, and for the posthuman to become a-human, for in this a-humanity is an infancy, a not-yet, a "zone of indifference" within which there is no need for animal rights, nor human rights, but rather only the right to bare life.

<5> As with his earlier work, the implications of The Open are profound: With any of the binaries that are used to determine the realm of the human (Society and Nature being only a representative example), it is in the double-articulation that the overdetermination of the terms as such is destructive. This lends itself not to hybrid thought, of linking Nature-Society or Human-Animal to make new beings, but rather anti-hybrids, Un-Natures, Un-Animals. It is in the space of the "un," of the not-yet, that a politics of the essential can begin to be articulated, alongside bare life and the simplicity of "letting be."

Matthew Wolf-Meyer