The Use of Bodies

By Richard B, 25 March 2015
Image: Dim Stockings, a species of commodity image discussed by Agamben in The Coming Community

In the final, as yet untranslated, instalment of his Homo Sacer project, L’uso dei corpi, Giorgio Agamben presents a new ontology of use. Richard B reviews the Italian edition and speculates on how Agamben's philosophy may in turn be put to use


For some writers, thoughts are distilled within a paragraph, or bound tightly within a single sentence, the final clause wrapping the whole within itself. Agamben's prose unfolds across books. It is the last sentence of each chapter which unveils the intended significance of the title, the last pages of a book which reveal the line of thought you have been following for the past few weeks.


This is his primary device of rhetorical persuasion, lending a sense of grandeur to his publications, not least to the Homo Sacer series, of which this is the ninth and apparently final volume. But what this voluminous breadth achieves in terms of ambition, it often sacrifices in terms of the kind of intimate observations which one finds in the tightly constructed sentence or phrase, the staccato texture of criticism. Indeed, Agamben rarely (never?) argues against himself, never allows the reader to witness the tears and knots in the fabric. Thus, as a work of philosophy, The Use of Bodies feels, in a sense, flat. Not flat like a desk, but like something which has been flattened out – a fan perhaps, or a radiator. Its texture has been smoothed over. The ridges of historical time are pushed down so that the transition of ideas can be more adequately pursued. Every moment of unfolding thus reveals a new flattened surface. Traces of those flattened obstacles which remain catch the eye.


The employment of the argument of the 'instrumental cause' by Aquinas in the middle ages is connected, loosely but engagingly, to changes in technology in that period (p. 105). The development of Kant's thought, the secularisation of otherwise theological problems, is identified as concurrent with the beginning of modernity and its crises: the old banners of the Jacobins flutter momentarily off-stage. Such actors, however, always remain in the wings.


Agamben's sympathies reside, clearly, with a left of a kind; the book pointedly ends with a reflection on the word 'anarchism'. His prominence in the left academy surely relies on his commentary on Guantanamo Bay in The State of Exception, the second instalment in his Homo Sacer series, which appeared in 2003. The first part was published in 1995, and should be read as a close, profound work on the ambivalence and impossibility of modern politics. As with Gillian Rose's work from the same period, the object of criticism is politics in general, the new politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall.[1]


Most of the books in the Homo Sacer series are not cited in this final offering however; instead, this volume seems to concentrate the first volume, Homo Sacer, and the most recent publications (Opus Dei and The Highest Poverty), which daringly provided a reinterpretation – an 'archeology' – of western thought from early Christianity through to the late middle ages. Treating himself as Foucault's disciple, Agamben's treatment not of the classical but of the early and late medieval periods, excavates those sites which the teacher had only just begun to uncover. Thus the concept of the Holy Trinity was shown to be a model for the political subject, in that different aspects are united in one and at the same time divided; the sacramental work of the priest as forerunner to Kant's categorical imperative; the efforts of the Franciscans to claim a life without property, but nonetheless within the law, a warning regarding the error of adhering to juridical thought; the concept of 'glory' as forerunner to Debord's concept of 'spectacle'.


In The Use of Bodies the cast returns for a final bow. Benjamin, Foucault, Heidegger (the most important referents), Wittgenstein, Erik Peterson, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Nietzsche – as well as Schelling, Hölderlin, Plato, Hegel, Marx, Levinas, Leibniz and Spinoza. The range of sources is overwhelming. Agamben treats his sources truly like friends, commenting on arguments anachronistically, putting them into conversation across centuries. The community of writers he draws together is clearly one in which he intends to include himself, and this is evident in two ways.


The first is that many of the sources he cites are consciously of late or last works. Thus the main citation from Foucault derives from the lecture course on The Hermeneutics of the Subject, and there is a similar focus on the development of central concepts. So Being and Time is not the main work of Heidegger under review, but the Beiträge of a little later, and the whole book begins with a reflection on Debord's late, last quasi-autobiographical films.[2] And indeed there are moments of memoir here as well, not only in the rather awkward description of an encounter with an ageing Heidegger (‘he had the gentle severity I had once seen on the face of a Tuscan farmer’, p. 242) but also, one suspects, in the introduction of women's names as examples that stand out against the otherwise neutral philosophical tone (Alice, Emma), usually as love objects. The result is the intrusion – surely deliberate – of an intimate rather than political history into that of philosophy, a kind of manifestation of the strategy he advocates.


The second is that the project of Homo Sacer appears here not as a new philosophy but the rediscovery and completion of an abandoned one. In Benjaminian mode, the words 'trace', 'memory', and 'residue' crop up again and again to signal the trail of thought Agamben is following in his 'archaeology'. Often in late works, he finds other intellectuals reaching their limit point with a ragbag of concepts which he collects for authoritative citation, and which here are gathered together under the word 'use'.


'Use', for Agamben, is a concept which points towards – or rather, contains a trace of – an original unity. His philosophy belongs both to ontology and the philosophy of language, and one of his central claims is that the two have always been forged together. For this reason, his clearest descriptions of the concept of 'use' rely on grammatical unravelling. This is the ‘use’ of ‘use of’, of ‘make use of’, ‘put to the use of’, ‘put to use’. Throughout the book he notes the employment of the genitive and dative (the 'of' and 'to' cases) in 'use' words across different languages, and how these grammatical forms indicate the relational content of 'use'. In the concept of 'deponent verbs', Agamben claims that there is a trace of an already unified subject and object, or, as he phrases it, ‘a threshold of indeterminacy’ between the two. Importantly, the genitive ‘use of’ creates a similar zone of indeterminacy. For example, ‘the use of language’ means speaking: language is put to the use of oneself, and in doing so an action manifests. But the action can only be conceived through the use – thus language and speech become indeterminate. The act and that on which it relies are always in a sense unified. It is this kind of interdependent relation which Agamben continually notes in other philosophers' final concepts.


Indeed, in Opus Dei, the penultimate instalment in the series, this kind of circularity was identified by Agamben as the root of the modern concept of government. The implication was, at least, that such circularity was also a kind of trap. Here the accusation is repeated, but with the proviso that trap is not circularity as such, but a failed circularity, one which leaves a trace, a 'residue', and does not manage to achieve the relational unity of 'use'. This is his criticism of modern art (unfortunately, without examples) – that it aims for an indeterminacy of life and work, for a  'form-of-life', but never achieves this, becoming ‘an escape without end’ (p. 312). This failure, for Agamben, stems from the continuing focus on art as 'work', rather than poiesis, that is, of bringing something into being.[3]


The 'trace' thus appears as both our only chance of a new philosophy (by following its path through western thought), and also the evidence of its failure, for it is Agamben's hope that we can create a coincidence of potential and act 'without trace'. This is the real radicalism of Agamben's work. Despite his humble claims in the foreword, the ends of the Homo Sacer project are far from modest: the outlining of a new ontology which resolves the contradictions of all western philosophy. This is a decidedly modernist ambition, historically, something which Agamben is most conscious of in his very occasional but significant nods to Hegel – the concept of 'destituent power' is traced from St Paul's description of the messiah and through into Luther's translation of the Greek term katargein (to render inoperative, in Agamben's translation) as the German aufheben. In other words, Agamben acknowledges that his 'destituent power' is another form of Hegel's 'sublation' of dialectical contradictions – although, through the concept of 'modal ontology' (that of a use/manner/'mode' of being), arguably a quite radical alteration.


The political consequences of this ambition become particularly stark when put into the context of Agamben's favourite authorities, Heidegger and Benjamin, the former, at one time at least, a committed Nazi, and the other strongly influenced by communist and Marxist ideas.[4] The book ends with a reflection which, as so often with Agamben, illuminates the whole work. 'Destituent power' – that which neither constructs nor destructs, but rises above – turns out to be the divine violence/non-violence of Walter Benjamin's Critique of Violence, and the general strike (also of that essay) a mode of 'inoperativity' (p. 340).[5] Agamben, of course, does not miss making a reference to George Sorel here, a political theorist who was to become as relevant to fascism as anarchism in the years following the First World War. Indeed, although Agamben is better known politically for his book on Auschwitz, it is the cloud of the first war and its aftermath which acts as the more significant historical marker here. Throughout the series, half-forgotten figures from the ’20s and ’30s are cited, like the theologian Erik Peterson. There is a sense that Agamben is reviving a period of philosophical potential, a decade or two when the concept of a new humanity, of a new human being, was wrestled over in the pit of human thought.


For Agamben, the problem of bodies – of a new human being, of being truly human – is also the problem of language. He describes this as the ‘anthropogenetic event’, that moment when human being became separate from animal being, an event which he firmly places in the fact of language. That we can speak (and, as with Benjamin's language essay, 'speech' is defined very broadly here), presents the existence of a set of rules which constitute a game, a point on which Agamben liberally quotes Wittgenstein. The game and the rules are mutually constitutive. Here Agamben fundamentally parts from Marx, who he describes as exemplary, rather than critical, of modernity, in that Marx maintained work as the concept which separated us from animals, or rather the ability to perceive the ends of work before any labour is begun. Although this is often described as Aristotelian, Agamben goes to great lengths to show that the revolutionary moment of Aristotle's philosophy was the separation of 'act' and 'potential' in order to try (failingly) to resolve the problem of being.[6] Agamben's thesis is that the division of potential and act is inherent in language, but that language also implies the trace of a unity of act and potential through their mutual interdependence.


This logic of unity and separation (a dialectic of relation, perhaps), runs throughout Agamben's work both as a guiding principle of his own method, and as a lens for understanding the works of other philosophers. Thus he recasts intellectual history as a series of failed yet brilliant attempts to solve the problems of the split ontology which Western thought inherited from Aristotle, which was passed onto Christianity and secularised by Kant. It is with Kant, he claims, that the crisis of modernity arrived, an ‘emergency’ (recalling Benjamin's Theses on the Concept of History) in which it has become possible to resolve this ontological scission inherited from Aristotle. This resolution has not yet, however, been realised.


The concept of 'use', then, is meant to go some way, at least, to fulfilling this potential. And indeed it is an attractive concept, and one with perhaps a richer history of discussion by Marx and Marxists than Agamben admits (p. 69). But Agamben seems to tempt fate in his description of all the historic failures to find a concept which could solve the problem he sets, for what is to stop this concept from also producing a trace, from not allowing the sides of his dialectic to perfectly coincide? The object around which he tries to prove the efficacy of his own term is the figure of the ancient slave. The slave and the 'sacred man' are the book-ends which prop up the Homo Sacer project. The 'sacred man' of the first work was the figure who underpins sovereignty. Dusting off an obscure juridical figure of Roman law (itself excavated by Jhering in the 19th century), Agamben explicated the Homo Sacer, the 'sacred man', as one who can be killed without the act counting as murder. It is this 'exceptional' figure who allowed, and allows, the functioning of sovereign power. The division also binds, the exile permits the logic of governance, just as the separation of potential and act allows the moment of language and the creation of humanity. It is the same logic, or 'strategy'. And in this work Agamben is quite clear that the increasingly biopolitical nature of modern politics is something which has its roots in this strategy, and that the figure of 'the sacred man' has become the dominant form of life (p. 267).


The slave is again a figure who has an essential place in the strategy of power, who, in this sense, 'allows' power to function. But the relation which Agamben describes is not one only of exception, but also of 'use', in a way which did not apply to the figure of the 'sacred man'. In the opening chapter of the book, Agamben re-evaluates Aristotle's description of the relation between master and slave, in a mode which will no doubt meet with controversy. For Agamben, the master and slave find definition for their forms of life through the use of each others' bodies. The slave, in this analysis, equally uses the body of the master, in that by serving the masters' needs, the slave finds definition. What distinguishes this from Hegel's master-slave dialectic is that here the slave is the focus of subjectivity. Rather than being a figure through whom the bourgeois subject can be reflected as part of the process of self-realisation, as in Hegel, for Agamben the focus is on the exemplary unity of slave as instrument, as a technology. For Agamben, the slave's instrumentality offers a memory of the anthropogenetic event, that is, the slave carries a trace of the ontology necessary for the sublation of modern politics.


This is clearly the figure of the slave, and not slavery as a historical phenomenon. Nonetheless, it would be fruitful – perhaps vital – to acknowledge the discrepancies between the historical and philosophical realities. This not least because Suarez, a late scholastic philosopher who Agamben eagerly cites on 'use' (pp. 202-8), wrote on the subject of slavery in the New World.[7] This kind of historical reflection is not, however, the purpose of the book, and indeed this flattening out is perhaps necessary in order to achieve the kinds of arguments which Agamben wants to make. He writes in the mode of an old philosopher, often with the flourish of a theologian, and no doubt this reflects what he would term the 'form of life' of philosophy. Opposed to historical analysis and the centrality of human labour, this book reveals Agamben's opposition, if not hostility, to Marxism at a quite fundamental level. In place of these categories he substitutes the importance of intimacy, language, detail and relation. At the heart of his master-slave dialectic, after all, is not the Haitian revolution but the love affair. The Marquis de Sade reappears (p. 29), sado-masochism described – as it was in Opus Dei – as a parody which reveals the truth. Here, the endless nights in the castle of Sadism are a revelatory parody of mutual interdependence, the use of bodies which is also the model for Agamben's new ontology, one which rises above and 'renders inoperative' the oppositions of modern politics. The concept of 'use' is meant to escape the previous attempts at resolving the ontological scission by recognising that being exists always as a mode of existence, that bodies, language and the surrounding world only exist in as much as they exist in a certain manner. To think about something only in terms of 'use' is a rejection not only of juridical ownership, but also of the ontological distinction between that which is used and the one who uses it.


The true relations the Sadistic parody reveals for Agamben, however, are those of details, tastes, habits, the forms and uses manifested within quite everyday life. And it is here, the other extreme of history, where the flattening out returns. In the end, Agamben is convincing in the need to focus closely on those minute fragments of taste, of those lifeforms which constitute a world within a world. But it is exactly at this point where his prose – at least, in the mode employed in this book – begins to peel and fray. Albeit that there are passages which emerge from out of the philosophical waters, the archaeologist's caves, passages which dare some intimacy – a memoir, an observation – perhaps this book's success would be signalled not by its fame or longevity, but by its abandonment for the sake of those intimacies and revolutions it nevertheless advocates.[8] My suspicion, however, is that its call will go unheard, for better or worse, and instead that it is the intellectual history which the Homo Sacer project has unravelled which will be taken up, and merged into that kind of historical activity which it ignored.


Many thanks to Thanos Zartaloudis for useful comments.



Giorgio Agamben, L'uso dei corpi, Vicenza, 2014




[1] Agamben's work has also been closely associated with Tiqqun – who achieve a favourable citation in this book (p. 294). For the latest from that 'milieu', see Alberto Toscano's review:

[2] Although the late works of Heidegger have been part of Agamben's project from the start, e.g. Language and Death.

[3] See the chapter 'Poiesis and Praxis' in The Man Without Content.

[4] Benjamin is one of the writers whose earlier rather than later works feature more strongly, not only the ‘Critique of Violence’, but also the early essays on language and justice.

[5] This is actually a quite unusually literal interpretation of 'inoperativity', as Agamben is usually keen to stress the importance of dissolving the distinction between activity and inactivity, between potential and non-potential.

[6] For Agamben, potential and act (dynamis and energia) are the terms by which Aristotle divides being, and these are the terms by which Agamben describes the inherent division within and unification of language. However, the division of zoe and bios (roughly, biological and political life) is another fundamental schism, which Agamben traces significantly throughout this project, and in this work, in Plato's Republic.

[7] See, among others, Annabel Brett, Liberty, Right and Nature: Individual Rights in Later Scholastic Thought (1997) and Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law (2011)

[8] It could be argued that the critique of theology, the following of its terms and traces, constitutes such an immanent critique, an attention to the intimacies of bourgeois life. However, I do not believe this is what Agamben intended, though it might be something he has achieved.