Agamben and Identity Politics

During our final meeting covering Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community, the discussion reached the topic of identity politics, leading to a minor debate with regards to Agamben’s normative stance on difference versus unity. This was sparked by Agamben’s call for a “new planetary humanity” made possible by globalization’s by-product, the non-identity of the planetary petty bourgeoisie: “Because if instead of continuing to search for a proper identity in the already improper and senseless form of individuality, humans were to succeed in belonging to this impropriety as such, in making of the proper being-thus not an identity and an individual property but a singularity without identity, a common and absolutely exposed singularity–if humans could, that is, not be-thus in this or that particular biography, but be only the thus, their singular exteriority and their face, then they would for the first time enter into a community without presuppositions and without subjects, into a communication without the incommunicable” (65). Later, he makes clear the role of his normative stance of whatever singularities: “What the State cannot tolerate in any way, however, is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging…the possibility of the whatever itself being taken up without an identity is a threat the State cannot come to terms with” (86). 

Elsewhere in the text, Agamben raises the issues of singularity and difference: “Common and proper, genus and individual are only two slopes dropping down from either side of the watershed of whatever” (20). Along these lines, it seems inconsistent for Agamben to reduce humans/humanity to either a singularity or an aggregation of individuals. Yet his calls for a whatever singularity that rejects identity appear to do just that.

Two issues were thus raised. First, while perhaps we are misreading Agamben’s translated work, it does appear that he did not directly address the topic of identity vis-a-vis community, at least in terms of multiculturalism and identity politics that dominated American Left academic discourse in the 1990s. For all the reference to religious, medieval, and classical texts, did Agamben really miss the boat when it came to his own contemporary political climate? Second, if indeed he is calling for a unified, “we are the world” approach to community that reduces difference and identity to a singularity, why is this text in its seventh printing? Where were/are all the critics, the would-be defenders of identity and difference?

In light of these questions and the potential dismissal of Agamben’s work as irrelevant (or worse, reactionary), I searched for reviews of The Coming Community (or other work by Agamben) that raised the topic of identity. The two most likely candidates I found were Andrew Norris’ “Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead” (2000) and René ten Bos’ “Giorgio Agamben and the community without identity” (2005), neither of which focused primarily on The Coming Community. Norris’ piece focuses primarily on Foucault’s notion of the ‘biopolitical’ versus Agamben’s notion of the ‘bare life’. It is only in two footnotes that Norris raises the issue of identity, first in reference to the work of William Connolly (1991), and second, in reference the work of Jean-Luc Nancy (1991). Connolly’s claim is that, “There is more in my life than any official definition of identity can express. I am not exhausted by my identity” (45). Reflecting his discussion on biopolitics, Norris relates this framework to Agamben and the notion of “a life that ‘I’ live but that is not ‘mine'”, a metaphysical discussion not addressed in The Coming Community but seemingly relevant to the topic of a global community. As for Nancy, Norris quotes the following passage: “the thinking of community as essence … is in effect the closure of the political because it assigns to community a common being, whereas community is a matter of something quite different, namely existence insofar as it is in common without letting itself be absorbed into a common substance. Being in common means no longer having, in any form, in any empirical or ideal place, such a substantial identity, and sharing this ‘lack of identity.’ This is what philosophy calls ‘finitude'” (53). If Agamben does indeed agree with Nancy on this point, this would seem to be quite a pertinent claim regarding identity and community.

René ten Bos, in a piece on organizational theory in Agamben’s work (with a title that seemed very promising!), writes that Agamben “thinks that current concepts of belonging, togetherness, and community are misguided, and he develops a plethora of concepts and terms that all serve the purpose of finding new articulations of a community without exclusion and inclusion, without violence and negativity, without substance and identity” (20). Ten Bos is skeptical as to whether Agamben’s calls to abandon identity and the “myth of an integral and inviolate self” is a) convincing to the petty bourgeoisie and b) something we even ought to strive for (23-4). Lastly, ten Bos notes that Agamben sees his role as a philosopher to be particularly concerned with the universal quality of human community: “the community he wants to bring about is a community envisaged by a philosopher rather than a politician or, let us say, a member of an already existing community (which a philosopher apparently is not)” (24). And in order to construct a worthy opponent to the State apparatus that cannot be co-opted by the State, Agamben’s whatever singularities must be identity-less in the sense that they are not reducible to nationality, race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. I am similarly skeptical for the reasons mentioned above by ten Bos.

While these articles provide some further insight into Agamben’s views on identity and community, the best way to settle this issue would be to read more of the man’s work. Unfortunately, our reading group will likely move on to other writers and other topics. But the topic is not limited to Agamben, so my guess is that it will resurface quite soon.

Agamben, Giorgio The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Connolly, William E. Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1991.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. Trans. Peter Connor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

Norris, Andrew. “Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead”. Diacritics, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Winter, 2000), pp. 38-58.

ten Bos, René. “Giorgio Agamben and the community without identity”. The Sociological Review, Vol. 53 (2005),pp. 16-29.

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