GIORGIO AGAMBEN’s Speech at the conference of Venetian students against the greenpass on November 11, 2021 at Ca’ Sagredo
My translation of the Quodlibet text. Italian original is here.
Previously, I posted an English translation of the transcription of his actual speech, this is a re-worked version for print, which I found even superior to the spoken version.
“To begin with, I would like to take up some of the points I tried to make a few days ago in an attempt to define the surreptitious, but no less radical, transformation that is taking place before our eyes. I believe we must first realize that the legal and political order in which we believed to have been living has completely changed. The operating agent of this transformation has been, as is evident, that dead zone between law and politics that is the state of emergency.
Almost twenty years ago, in a book that attempted to provide a theory of the state of exception, I noted that the state of exception was becoming the normal system of governing. As you know, the state of exception is a space of suspension of the law, and therefore an anomic space, which, however, claims to be included in the legal system.
But let’s take a closer look at what happens in the state of exception. From a technical point of view, there is a separation of the law enforcement from the law in a formal sense. The state of exception defines, that is, a “state of the law” in which, on the one hand, the law theoretically exists, but has no enforcement, is not applied, is suspended — and on the other hand, measures and directives that do not have the force of law acquire the enforcement. One could say that, at the end, what is at stake in the state of exception is a fluctuating law enforcement outside of the law. However one defines this situation — whether one considers the state of exception to be internal or sees it instead as external to the legal order — in any case it results in a sort of eclipse of the law, in which, as in an astronomical eclipse, it remains, but no longer emanates its light.
The first consequence is the loss of the fundamental principle of legal certainty. If the State, instead of prescribing normative discipline to a phenomenon, intervenes, thanks to the emergency, on that phenomenon every 15 days or every month, that phenomenon no longer responds to a principle of legality, since the principle of legality consists in the fact that the State establishes the law and the citizens rely on that law and its stability.
This cancellation of the certainty of law is the first fact that I would like to bring to your attention, because it implies a radical mutation not only in our relationship with the legal order, but in our very way of living, because we are living in a state of normalized illegality.
The paradigm of the law is replaced by that of vague clauses and formulas, such as “state of necessity”, “security”, “public health”, which, being in themselves indeterminate, need someone to intervene to determine them. We are no longer dealing with a law or a constitution, but with a fluctuating law enforcement that can be assumed, as we see today, by commissions and individuals, doctors or experts who are completely unrelated to the political system.
I believe that we face a form of so-called Dual State — by which Ernst Fraenkel (in a book of 1941 that should be reread) attempted to explain the Nazi state — technically a state in which the state of exception has never been revoked. The Dual State is a state in which the normative state (Normenstaat) is flanked by a discretionary state (Massnahmestaat, a state of measures) and the government of men and things is the work of their ambiguous collaboration. A phrase by Fraenkel is significant in this perspective: “For its salvation German capitalism needed not a unitary state but a double state, arbitrary in the political dimension and rational in the economic one”.
It is in the lineage of this dual state that we must situate a phenomenon importance of which can not be underestimated and which concerns the transformation of the very concept of the state that is taking place before our eyes. I intend to refer to what American political scientists call The Administrative State and which has found its theoretical foundation in the recent book by Sunstein and Vermeule (C. Sunstein and A. Vermeule, Law and Leviathan, Redeeming the Administrative State). This is a model of State in which governance, the praxis of governing, overrides the traditional separation of powers (legislative, executive, judicial), in which the agencies not authorized for governing in the constitution, in the name of administration and in a discretionary manner, function and exercise powers that belong to the three constitutionally competent authorities. This is a sort of purely administrative Leviathan, which is supposed to act in the interest of the community, even transgressing the dictates of the law and the constitution, in order to ensure and guide not the free choice of citizens, but what Sunstein calls the navigability — that is, in reality, the governability — of their choices. This is what is happening all too clearly today, when we see decision-making power being exercised by committees and individuals (the doctors, economists, and experts) entirely outside the constitutional powers.
Through these factual procedures the constitution is being altered in a far more substantial way than through the power of revision envisioned by the constituents, until it becomes, as a disciple of Marx used to say, a Papier Stück, just a piece of paper. And it is certainly significant that these transformations are modeled on the dual structure of Nazi governance and that it is perhaps the very concept of “government”, of politics as “cybernetics” or the art of government that needs to be questioned.
It has been said that the modern state lives on presuppositions that it cannot guarantee. It is possible that the situation I have tried to describe to you is the form in which this absence of guarantee has reached its critical mass and that the modern state, giving up, as is evident today, to guarantee its presuppositions, has reached the end of its history and it is this end that we are perhaps living through.
I believe that any discussion of what we can or should do today must start from the realization that the civilization in which we live has now collapsed — or, better, given that it is a society based on finance — has gone bankrupt. That our culture was on the threshold of a general bankruptcy had been evident for decades and the most lucid minds of the twentieth century had diagnosed it without reservation. I can’t help remembering how strongly and with how much dismay Pasolini and Elsa Morante, in those sixties that now seem so much better than the present, denounced the inhumanity and barbarity that they saw growing around them. Today we have the experience — certainly not pleasant, but perhaps truer than the previous ones — of no longer being on the threshold, but inside this intellectual, ethical, religious, legal, political and economic bankruptcy, in the extreme form it has taken: the state of exception instead of law, information instead of truth, health instead of salvation and medicine instead of religion, technology instead of politics.
What to do in such a situation? On an individual level, certainly, to continue as far as possible to do well what one was always trying to do well, even if there no longer seems to be any reason to do so, indeed to continue. I do not believe, however, that this is enough. Hannah Arendt, in a reflection that we can’t help but feel affinity with (because it was entitled On humanity in dark times), asked herself “to what extent do we remain obliged to the world and the public sphere even when we have been expelled from them (this is what happened to the Jews in her time) or have had to withdraw from them (like those who had chosen what was paradoxically called ‘internal emigration’ in Nazi Germany)”
I think it is important today not to forget that if we find ourselves in such a condition it is because we have been forced, and that therefore it is a choice that remains political in any case, even if it seems to be located outside the world. Arendt pointed to friendship as the possible foundation for a politics in dark times. I believe that this is a correct indication, as long as we remember that friendship — that is, the fact of feeling an otherness in our very experience of existence — is a sort of political minimum, a threshold that both unites with — and separates an individual from the community. That is, provided we remember that it is nothing less than trying to create a society or a community within the society of everywhere. That is, in the face of the growing depoliticization of individuals, finding in friendship the radical principle of a renewed politicization.
It seems to me that you students have begun to do this, creating your own association. But you must extend it more and more, because on this will depend the very possibility of living in a human way.
I would like, in conclusion, to address the students who are here and who have invited me to speak today. I would like to remind you of something that should be at the basis of every university study and which, instead, is not mentioned in the university. Before living in a country and in a state, men have their vital dwelling in a language, and I believe that only if we are able to investigate and understand how this vital dwelling has been manipulated and transformed we will be able to understand how the political and legal transformations that we have before our eyes could have taken place.
The hypothesis I want to suggest is, that is, that the transformation of the relationship with language is the condition of all other transformations of society. And if we do not realize this, it is because language by definition remains hidden in what it names and allows us to understand. As a psychoanalyst who was also a bit of a philosopher once said, “what is said remains forgotten in what is meant by what is said.”
We are accustomed to looking at modernity as that historical process that begins with the industrial revolution in England and the political revolution in France, but we do not ask ourselves what revolution in the relationship of men with language made possible what Polanyi called the Great Transformation.
It is certainly significant that the revolutions from which modernity was born were accompanied if not preceded by a problematization of reason, that is, of what defines man as a speaking animal. Ratio comes from reor, which means “to count, to calculate”, but also “to speak in the sense of rationem reddere, to give account”. The illusion of reason, which has become a deity, coincides with a “rationalization” of language and the experience of language that allows us to account for and govern nature in its entirety and, at the same time, the lives of human beings.
And what is what we now call “science”, if not a practice of language that tends to eliminate in the speaker every ethical, poetical and philosophical experience of the word in order to transform language into a neutral tool for exchanging information? If science will never be able to respond to our need for happiness, it is because it presupposes in the final analysis not a speaking being, but a biological body and as such dumb. And how should the relationship of the speaker with his language have been transformed, so that the very possibility of distinguishing truth from falsehood may fail, as is happening today? If today doctors, jurists and scientists accept a discourse that renounces asking questions about truth, this is perhaps because — assuming they were not simply paid to do so — in their language they could no longer think — that is, stay in suspense (thinking comes from pendere) — but only calculate.
In that masterpiece of twentieth-century ethics that is Hannah Arendt’s book on Eichmann, Arendt observes that Eichmann was a perfectly reasoning man, but that he was incapable of thinking, that is, of interrupting the flow of discourse that dominated his mind and that he could not question, but only execute as in an order.
The first task before us, then, is to rediscover a sourced and almost dialectal, that is, poetic and thinking relationship with our language. Only in this way will we be able to get out of the blind alley that humanity seems to have taken and that will verisimilarly lead it to extinction — if not physical, at least ethical and political. To rediscover thought as a language that is impossible to formalize and format.”