“The fact that it goes on like this is itself the catastrophe”
Interview with Giorgio Agamben by Arno Widmann for Frankfurter Rundschau, June 30, 2019
English translation by Lena Bloch, original publication in German here.
Crisis as a permanent state: “We live in a permanent state of emergency declared by the state,” said Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.
Mr. Agamben, what does your name mean?
Philologists explained to me that it comes from Armenian: Agambenian, child of Agamben. But I don’t know what Agamben means. When I told my family, my mother said I was crazy. But: Armenians have existed in Italy since the 18th century. Near the Lido of Venice there is the island “San Lazzaro of Armenians”. Armenian monks who fled from the Turks built a monastery there at that time. It became one of the centers of Armenian culture.
Are we living in apocalyptic times?
The idea of an end to history is one of the foundations of the Christian tradition. Theologians, however, have long since closed the “last judgment” window. The scientists have opened it again. Today, it is they who supply us apocalyptic expectations.
Especially with these.
Christian ideas of redemption, of paradise, hardly play a role today. Instead, everywhere there is a talk about crisis. In medicine, crisis was the moment where the doctor could no longer help. Today we seem to be unable to get out of this state. We live in a permanent state of emergency declared by the government. It promotes the lawlessness, both individual and of the State. The classical figure of the Antichrist has been replaced by millions of little Antichristuses. This also shows the truth of the observation of the “banality of evil”. And there is no Messiah to be seen anywhere. A radically secularized apocalyptic situation.
The Christian idea of the Last Judgment was to send some to heaven and others to hell.
A monstrous idea. Especially nasty is St. Thomas’ concept. For him, one of the great joys of paradise is being able to watch the punishment of sinners. The splatter movie as the main component of the heavenly entertainment program.
Has it not been adopted from paganism?
No, no. This is a thoroughly Christian innovation. You have to imagine: Once paradise is reached, there is nothing left for the blessed to do. Paradise is a kind of nothingness, a nirvana. In hell, on the other hand, all the punishing officials can enjoy keeping being busy.
The officials of heaven, the angels, sing.
Yes, but that does not make you busy…
Do you sing?
Are you afraid of doing it?
I don’t think I can. There were also great teachers of Christianity who didn’t think much of hell and its punishments. Origen, one of the most respected among them, who also influenced Walter Benjamin, held that at the end of time everyone, including Satan himself, would be saved. An eternal hell did not exist for him. Origen considered it a human fantasy, contradicting the Gospel.
The idea of apocalypse today, you said, is a subject of science. Currently we think of the climate catastrophe. The older ones remember the fear of nuclear war. Mankind seems to love the idea of catastrophes.
A small example: there is the letter of the master builder of the Florentine early Renaissance, Filippo Brunelleschi, he lived from 1377 to 1446. In it, the contemporary of Donatello, Ghiberti and Masaccio writes: “We live in a time when everything is collapsing. There is no talent anywhere in sight.” The idea of living in an end time seems to be constantly present.
Isn’t it a little different today?
There is an intensification. But I’m with Walter Benjamin on this. For him, the catastrophe was not the end. He said, “The fact that it goes on like this is itself the catastrophe”.
You write that democracy and terrorism are two sides of the same coin.
I write that what we call “our democratic system” must include terrorism.
Does that apply internationally or nationally?
Both. The moment security becomes a State doctrine, a connection is made with everything that threatens that security.
But doesn’t everything that exists create some system? Including the counterparts?
I do believe that there is such a thing as a system. Be it a consciously organized one as well as an objective one that exists without any kind of conspiracy.
Whoever reads Agamben always reads in the minds of other people. Agamben quotes Aristotle, for example, interprets him. Suddenly the reader notices that he is no longer moving with Agamben in Aristotle’s mind, but in that of Giorgio Agamben. Agamben suddenly sings solo. Like a cadenza in a concert. The reader reads the last lines again. He looks for the place where the cadenza began. He cannot find it.
What can I say to this?
That was my first impression when reading Agamben. Today, on the other hand, I believe that there is an ocean called Giorgio Agamben. In it, all authors and texts, all images and theories swim. According to the moves of its currents. The waters of all rivers flow into this ocean. Agamben uses them all. But he always plays his own melody with all these instruments.
I recognize myself in your first impression. I am searching, I am diving for thoughts that can be developed. It is a matter of unfolding what is unsaid, what is concealed in an observation, in a remark. I understand very well that you don’t find the point where the quoted author ends and where Agamben begins. I don’t know this point either. I also think that I am still doing nothing else but trying out the evolvability of someone else’s thought, while I have already crossed over into one of my own. I don’t know: is it him, is it me? Is it Aristotle, is it Benjamin, is it Heidegger or is it Agamben? It is the thought that unfolds. Sometimes through that author, sometimes through another author, sometimes through me.
And the ocean?
I swim in it. In the currents of Benjamin, Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza. That makes me happy.
You don’t just swim in the texts. You also surf above them.
I don’t move above them. I see myself more following the swirls that create the currents. That’s where the developmental capabilities of an idea unfold.
You have written a lot about speaking, about the voice. But you are a writer.
I have always been fascinated by the possibility of preserving spoken word in writing. I want to preserve illiteracy in writing. The Peruvian poet César Vallejo wrote in one of his hymns to the volunteer fighters for the Spanish Republic, “Por el analfabeta a quien escribo.” For me, writing for the illiterate is one of the tasks of the author.
You focus a lot on the European tradition.
What do you mean by that? What does Europe mean? Who knows what Europe is? I only know that lady who was abducted by Zeus from Phoenicia to Crete in the shape of a bull.
You have no other idea of Europe?
I know what passes for Europe. For example, this political Europe, which is precisely not a political Europe. So-called “Christian Europe,” for example, is a term that theologians created after the countries where Christianity originated became Islamic.
We are doing exactly the same thing. We resort to a non-political concept of Europe. We talk about the European tradition of the rule of law, democracy, community of values, etc. This is exactly what we should not do. The only interesting concept of Europe would be a political one. But there is no such thing. Not at all. Either one talks, starting from a secularized Christian Europe, about the values that supposedly characterize Europe, or one claims that the Europe in which we live is a political Europe. But such thing does not exist even as an embryo. Legally, Europe is a pact of nation states. A European constitution does not exist. Where it has been submitted to a vote by the populations, it has been rejected. That is why it was not voted on in Germany either.
What would have to be done in order to arrive at a real European political project?
The first step would be to dissolve the present Europe.
One would have to destroy Europe in order to create Europe?
There is no Europe. What we have are treaties between nation states based on fake papers.
You have many friends who share this conviction?
One always has only a few friends.
Interview: Arno Widmann — Frankfurter Rundschau, June 30, 2019.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -Arno Widmann writes for the Frankfurter Rundschau on politics, culture and society from the federal political Berlin.
Born in Frankfurt am Main in 1946, he was present at the founding of the Tageszeitung in 1979, then deputy editor-in-chief of German Vogue, editor-in-chief of the Tageszeitung, head of the arts section of Die Zeit, head of the opinion page of the Berliner Zeitung, head of the arts section of the Frankfurter Rundschau and member of the DuMont editorial team. Now he works as an author.