Why Agamben Is Worrying Me

For me the concern that I had not perceived on my reading but that emerged from our discussion of The Coming Community was the possibility that Agamben is trying to reassault those who would rally politically around some kind of concrete identity (gender, race, sexuality, etc.) and the inequalities/injustices/domination/violence associated with those identities.  I worry that he is insisting that we must think politically in terms of concepts that transcend identity (primarily, “whatever,” but also “being-thus,” “not not-being,” etc.), concepts that get at what is original, or essential, or universal about humanity.  He seeks concepts that are not limited to circumstances particular to a certain group (and not to other groups).  We are all the same in terms of our whatever humanity, and also, it seems in “Shekinah,” in terms of “the communicative nature of humans.”  Agamben is looking for what is shared, which is what is the same, which is what is common to all, which is what is universal, which is the Form of humanity.  OK, maybe that last sentence is a bit too easy in its associations, but that is what is worrying me.

And it is worrying me primarily because this book is very much, I think, part of the new wave of people in the post-1989 era trying to bring back the idea of “communism” as a political rallying point.  It might even stand as one of the first attempts to do so.  People like Badiou, Nancy, Hardt and Negri, Ranciere, Dean, etc. have all been working in this vein.  And I am excited about this new wave, eager to bring it into dialogue with my understanding of democracy.  Eager to recapture the idea of communism not only from the Stalinist disasters of the USSR, China, etc. but also from the hard-line Old Leftists (who, inexplicably, still live and breathe) who want to shove everyone into the moving train of class politics and tell them to shut up about all that identity crap.  So I worry Agamben is (or can be read as) an eloquent and lyrical and sophisticated reincarnation of this crusty Old Leftist.  A sort of Althusser 2.0.  And I am even now starting to retroactively worry about Hardt and Negri, who share Agamben’s people-have-been-reduced-to-just-one-global-class conception of the contemporary political situation.  And, lastly, is it just me or is it entirely plausible to suspect that Agamben’s understanding of the world is deeply Platonic, or, as he hints, some Gnostic re-reading of the theory of the Forms?

Let me end, though, by saying I loved reading the book, and will continue to think these issues through, both in the group and in my own writing…