The idea of art in the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben

Date: 5 February 2018

Venue: Stadscampus - Hof van Liere - Frederik de Tassiszaal - Prinsstraat 13 - 2000 Antwerpen (route: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus)

Time: 3:00 PM - 5:30 PM

PhD candidate: Virginia Tassinari

Principal investigator: Prof Vivian Liska & Prof Peter Reynaert

Short description: PhD defence Virginia Tassinari - Faculty of Arts, Philosophy


The aim of this thesis is to study the role of art in the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben. An extensive study of the secondary literature on this contemporary Italian philosopher shows that this thesis is possibly the first study to specifically address the role of art in his body of work. After the publication of Homo Sacer, scholars around the world – from Eva Geulen (Geulen, Kaufmann and Mein 2008) to Andrew Norris (Norris 2005) – paid a great deal of attention to Agamben as a political philosopher, but relatively little attention has been paid to his early writings, in which he speaks of art (The Man Without Content, Stanzas and Infancy and History). 

In writing this thesis I have been inspired by the scholar Leyland de la Durantaye, who claims that Agamben’s most recent books should be read as a continuation of his early ones (de la Durantaye 2009, P.10). Specifically, he recognises the idea of ‘potentiality’ as a key topic of Agamben’s philosophy that can be traced back to Agamben’s first book, The Man Without Content: i.e. ‘the possibility for a thing not (cursive in the original) to pass into existence and thereby remain at the level of mere – or “pure” – potentiality’ (ibid., P.5). For Agamben, this is the originary, unmystified idea of ontology, one he juxtaposes with the traditional one, which to him is the ontology of a human subject acting in linear history. According to de la Durantaye, Agamben’s views on art offer a ‘most promising means of envisioning potentiality’ (ibid., P.47). While agreeing with this position, I add that this is also the case for Agamben’s idea of ‘messianic state’, the unmystified idea of history that he juxtaposes with the traditional idea of history, i.e. history considered as a line running from the past towards the future.

In his first book, Agamben argues that both these understandings of history and ontology are today manifested by artworks. There he says that – although art’s original vocation is to communicate the ideas of history and ontology - artworks were until now not able to fulfil this vocation, as what they communicated were not the originary, unmystified ideas of history and ontology, but rather the mystified ones (i.e. linear history and ontology of the subject) (Agamben 1999a, pp.110-111); this, however, is no longer the case. According to him, art’s vocation is now finally fulfilled: today artworks are finally able to communicate the unmystified ideas of history and ontology (Ibid., pp.114-115).

In my opinion, the idea of art that Agamben introduces here does not find a match in the theories of other scholars. He tries to justify it on the basis of his personal reading of some examples arbitrarily chosen from the history of art to prove himself right. In this thesis, I argue that this approach affects the truthful, universal character which he attributes to this concept. The latter is therefore “instrumental” for him to underpinning his philosophy. I strongly disagree with this “instrumental” positioning of the idea of art, as in my opinion it deserves to be researched more in depth rather than being used in such ways.

Another potential obstacle is that Agamben does not explain in his first book what provides artworks today with this possibility. In order to understand his line of reasoning, one needs to make use of concepts that are not explicitly formulated in his first book but are nevertheless indispensable in order to fully understand how artworks can in his opinion succeed today in manifesting the originary ideas of history and ontology. The reader therefore needs to work as an archeologist and find in his first book traces of topics that he will only develop later, and yet cannot be overlooked if the idea of art formulated there and its implications are to be fully understood. Not only do I agree with de la Durantaye that to understand Agamben’s philosophy as a whole one needs also to look at his idea of art and to consider the latter in sequence with the other topics he introduces in his following books (de la Durantaye 2009, P.10), but also the other way around: to fully understand his idea of art, in my opinion, one needs to look at his philosophy as a whole. 

Another difference with de la Durantaye’s approach is that I recognise that the analysis of Agamben’s topic of art brings to light a dogmatic character in his philosophy. In my opinion Agamben does not succeed to prove that artworks today can manifest the ideas of messianism and potentiality: he simply believes it. As these assumptions play a key role in his philosophy, I argue that this gives a dogmatic character to his philosophy. A philosophy based on belief is, in my opinion, not acceptable. I assert that the study of Agamben’s idea of art therefore provides the possibility to critique his philosophy.

Furthermore, not only do I find the manner in which to assess these ideas of ontology and history problematic, but I also have difficulty with their meanings. While de la Durantaye does see some hope in Agamben’s philosophy (de la Durantaye 2009, P.17), I contend that Agamben’s ideas of history and ontology leave no hope. The messianic state - being for him the unmystified idea of history - and therefore also the idea of being in the messianic state envisioned by Agamben are not meant for humans. To him, salvation is only for that which precedes humans: the pre-human. My critique of this idea of salvation is to question what its relevance might be.

Thus, my thesis shows how a closer assessment of Agamben’s views on art also exposes key problematic points in his philosophy in general.

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