Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sharpened Teeth That Dive Deep Into Veins (or: Yes, I'm all about the body)

In The Man Without Content Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues for the resuscitation of the ancient distinction between action (praxis), making (poiesis), and labor--a thoroughly Arendtian effort--by turning to Aristotle. Yet, as Agamben writes, the potential for the blurring of this distinction has, itself, ancient origins: "According to Aristotle, the roots of praxis lay in the very condition of man as an animal, a living being: these roots were constituted by the very principle of motion (will, understood as the basic unit of craving, desire, and volition) that characterizes life." (69) He continues to argue that in late-modernity we suffer from a profound blurring, or more pointedly, confusion, over these three activities of the human animal (action, work, labor). Today, all "doing" (now, crudely, "praxis") is understood as labor, that activity which is inseparable from the necessities of the biological life cycle, but: "In the course of this process, which implies a total reversal of the traditional hierarchy of man's [sic] activities, one thing remains unchanged, namely, the taking root of praxis in biological existence, which Aristotle had expressed by interpreting its principle as will, drive, and vital impulse." (71)

I'm not sure where Agamben is headed with these two observations (I haven't finished the book yet), but as his analysis of Aristotle tends to locate the difference between poiesis and praxis in the self-sufficient quality of the latter (praxis is its own limit and end, where as the work requires external limits and ends) I assume he leaves in place the "biological" foundation of the vita activa, or, in Arendt's terms, "the fact of natality." His critique, then, addresses itself to the ways this ontological condition(ing) of human bios qua active has been interpreted, or, rather: misinterpreted such that action (praxis) regresses to be commonly understood as labor.

This Arendtian impulse--for the whole of The Human Condition is a sustained critique of this regression and its implications for contemporary political life--is one I am sympathetic to. And, like Agamben, I agree with Arendt's reading of Aristotle that the human capacity to act, to pro-duce (poiesis), and labor are rooted in the fact of natality, of the human condition to initiate new beginnings. Nevertheless, I am unsure whether Agamben accomplishes--pro-duces in the sense he deploys: "the essence of poiesis has nothing to do with the expression of a will...: this essence is found instead in the production of truth and in the subsequent opening of a world for man's [sic.] existence and action." (72)--what he sets out to establish, namely, because he reads Nietzsche through an Aristotlean (metaphysical) lens.

Why Nietzsche as the figure upon which the success of Agamben's critique teeters? Namely, like Arendt, Nietzsche sees something crucial in the resemblance the theatrical arts share with action. Agamben reads Nietzsche as a modern manifestation of the aforementioned blurring of the traditional distinction between praxis and poiesis in reading with near exclusivity aphorisms wherein Nietzsche insists life itself be viewed as an artistic pro-duction. True enough, but the particular art Nietzsche champions is theatre. Agamben cites aphorism #107 from The Gay Science, "Our Ultimate Gratitude to Art" in which Nietzsche writes, "We must discover the hero no less than the fool in our passion for knowledge; we must occasionally find pleasure in our folly, or we cannot continue to find pleasure in our wisdom." What Agamben does not catch is that in aphorism # 78, "What Should Win Our Gratitude" Nietzsche explicitly cites, "artists, and especially those of the theater, have given men eyes and ears to see and hear with some pleasure what each man is himself, experiences himself, desires himself; only they have taught us to esteem the hero that is concealed in everyday characters; only they have taught us the art of viewing ourselves as heros...." (emphasis mine)

Agamben's failure to establish this connection, especially given his Arendtian affinities, is troublesome; the mirroring of "gratitude" and "hero" in both aphorisms signals their intimacy. Arendt maintained, with Aristotle no less, that theater allowed a moment of recognition for the spectator, an opportunity to experience oneself as mediated through the tragic hero. Agamben, if we trust his reading of the Attic Greek, claims that praxis and experience are etymologically synonymous: both entail a passing-through to completion, or end which is the limit of the action. That is, we can trust Nietzsche as a philologist, too, knew of this resonance, so it must be crucial in these aphorisms he is championing art from the perspective of the spectator, especially given his withering critique of Kant's theory of the "disinterested" reception of beauty (GM, III, 6) and his affirmation of art for the sake of the artist! It may be supposed that Nietzsche singles out theater precisely for its capacity to cultivate active spectatorship where one experiences or "suffers"--the words are the same in Greek; both imply "going-through"; indeed, the tragedy always has a "chorus": an incorporated group of spectators who judge the action of the drama.

This hermeneutic failure on Agamben's part suggests that, as Arendt herself acknowledges, the distinction between action, work, and labor is more complicated than the traditional reading of Aristotle he offers. It is here that his ambivalence about Aristotle's choice to locate in the ontological fact of bios qua the capacity to initiate or set in motion becomes important. Arendt is, no doubt, following Nietzsche's reading of the theatrical arts insofar as both maintain that this artistic poiesis serves life; theater mimics life by re-presenting action itself, an experience Aristotle claims that elicits in the spectator a moment of self-awareness as a tragic figure, a hero. Thus, Arendt claims to act and to suffer are two side of the same coin, a play on the polyvalence of the polysemic "experience" as praxis and enduring. Whereas Agamben reads Nietzsche as collapsing the distinction between art and action in true modern fashion thereby effacing the human capacity to act on the one hand, and be pro-ductive on the other, Arendt reads this not as a collapse but a return to a tragic understanding of the human condition. In other words, Agamben succumbs to the very hermeneutic he critiques when reading Nietzsche: he reads Nietzsche like (and as) a modern, and not with Nietzsche as the ultimate critic of modernity.

Still, it remains troublesome, as Agamben rightly points up, that the conditioned human being's natality has been systematically interpreted not in terms of the plurality of activities it is capable of but reductively, and exclusively, as either the fabricator or laborer. There is, oddly, in this contemporary confusion occasion for hope or "weak messianism": while humanity may have regressed to a condition of abject necessity to the demands of "bare" biological life, become as it were solely an "animal laborans," it is possible to see in this twilight the dawn. Of course, if we follow the messianic thinker of new dawns this entails re-conditioning our bodies, re-turning to the body as that upon and through which a new style of life may be inscribed: "Recapitulation: To impose upon becoming the character of being--that is the supreme will to power." (Nietzsche, WP, #617)

1 comment:

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