Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience

Review by Jason Michael Adams
Arkansas State University

Giorgio Agamben. Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience. London: Verso, 2007. 167 pages.

[1] Perhaps the best way to grasp the centrality of this book for Agamben, "in which we can glimpse the germinating seed of future experience...[by] taking up the legacy of Benjamin's project 'of the coming philosophy'" (17), is to invoke the rhetoric employed by an editorial in the January 16, 2004 edition of the Washington Square News (NYU's student newspaper). Therein, the staff had asserted their take on Giorgio Agamben's decision, in the midst of Bush's "War on Terrorism," to say "No to Biopolitical Tattooing," a metaphor for Homeland Security's requirement of digital photographs and fingerprints, by boycotting the United States – and thus, a course he was scheduled to teach at the university.

[2] While feigning entertainment of the philosopher's dissidence with respect to the new procedures, the editors concluded their response by asserting the universality of their own experience (in the neo-Kantian sense), stating, "ultimately however, Agamben's gesture is just that." There is little doubt of course, whether the editors had much, if any, familiarity with Agamben's actual writings, but their specifically anti-gestural, pro-communicative rationality rhetoric (viz, they claimed the gesture "stifled debate") ensured that in the end, they said far more than they intended to.

[3] Infancy and History, published initially some three decades ago, can therefore be read to speak what was left unspoken, insofar as it was within this book that Agamben first connected his early writings on aesthetics to the more directly political interventions for which he is now well-known. Introducing the concept of "gesture," for instance, in reference to Kant's Analytic of the Beautiful as "the realm of pure means" (156), he asserts, as have others with respect to the Sublime, that the aesthetic sensibility of the third Critique is necessarily implicated with the political, the conceptual trace of which can be detected, amongst other locations, in the title of the 1996 book Means Without End: Notes on Politics.

[4] Thus, whereas the Washington Square News debases the boycott, which was urged on all European intellectuals, as an essentially inconsequential, aesthetic gesture, defamatory of the American ideology of government by discussion, Agamben asserts from this book onward precisely the politics of aesthetics as such. In this case, the politics of gesture itself, insofar as it does not seek to "win" a "debate" but rather affirms a higher experience, derived from the specifically aesthetic notion of "the form of the purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of a "(Kant, Critique of Judgment I, § 17).

[5] It is not particularly surprising then, for this book to have been republished in Verso's Radical Thinkers series, since the concerns articulated in more widely-read works such as The Coming Community, Means Without End and Homo Sacer were ultimately introduced here, within the post-Kantian conjunction of aesthetics and politics. Indeed, as Agamben asserts in the 1989 preface to the English-language edition of Infancy and History, this book "forms the prologue" (3) to an unwritten work that would be entitled La Voce Umana (The Human Voice), while those published in the period since "are its afterwords" (3).

[6] That central work then, of which this book is, evidently, its closest approximation, would itself have been centered on an engagement with Aristotle's famous antinomy in The Politics (I, § 2) defining the limits of politically-validated community in the passage from voice to speech. This dialectic would then be broken in multiple forms, throughout the corpus of Agamben's more explicitly political works, in the allegorical passage from human to animal, body to language, and nature to polis.

[7] But rather than simply inverting the antinomy and affirming the subordinate term, Agamben asserts that the more subtle approach of locating our concern is precisely in the moat between the artificial oppositions. This is why "Infancy," for instance, is defined not merely as the incapacity of the puerile voice to enter the logos of politically-validated speech, but rather as the force of language itself that is only represented in the form of antinomy.

[8] Following Benjamin's famous multiplication of the neo-Kantian concept of "experience," he says that this force is equally expressed in the corporeal and non-verbal (yet nevertheless sonorous) aspects of language as it is in the verbal. Thus Agamben critiques the notion introduced in the Cartesian Meditations, when Husserl suggests that while there indisputably exists an originally "dumb" psychological experience prior to the linguistic condition of possibility for the Cogito, it is ultimately through the verbal that this is overcome and the transcendental subject is brought forth.

[9] Agamben's difference-affirming rejoinder is that:

a theory of experience truly intended to posit the problem of origin in a radical way would then have to start beyond this 'first expression' with experience as 'still mute so to speak' – that is, it would have to ask, does a mute experience exist, does an infancy [in-fancy] of experience exist? And, if it does, what is its relationship to language? (42).

The "History" of the book's title then, refers to the temporal enframing within which the Aristotelian antinomies have been situated, pointing out the importance of the ever-increasingly "mechanical experience" of mass media and technology, the origin of which Benjamin "located in the catastrophe of the First World War" (15). However, rather than acquiesce to some pregiven chronological time (as though what the War bequeathed were the only potentiality), Agamben follows the more redemptive Benjamin of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, elaborating how through the profanation of play, History might be transmogrified into event, or "cairological" time (115), thus enabling a personal and collective authority beyond that presently monopolized by the state and capital.

[10] One such instance, he says, might be located in the child's experience of toys, which as miniaturized instances of real objects in the adult world, necessarily subtract the instrumental function they otherwise serve (thereby again deploying the Beautiful of the third Critique against the Reason of the first and second). In doing so, the objects are necessarily also subtracted from the synchrony of the adult world, releasing them into the diachrony of the child's: a move that emboldens Agamben to assert that while "ritual fixes and structures the calendar, play on the other hand, though we do not yet know how and why, changes and destroys it" (77).

[11] Hence, his task here is not simply reappropriating a "simpler," more "organic" experience as might be imagined to have been predominant prior to Kant and the War, but rather to take note of what this shift involved so as to plant the "seed" that might enable its regeneration on the higher, Beautiful level of the singular-universal rather than the particular-universal. To the extent that experience would be retained in such a project then, it would certainly not be that of knowledge in the form of a vulgar Pure or Practical Reason, but instead would be specifically post-Kantian in the Benjaminian sense of affirming multiple ways of "knowing" at once.

[12] Of course, given that this book is the prologue to La Voce Umana, in which the earlier aesthetic works become linked to the later political ones, such a move immediately places him at odds with those – young and old – who claim privileged access to a supposedly pure truth simply by way of whatever politico-ideological or socio-economic experience they happen to speak from. Thus, those who might be tempted to judge Agamben a simple, indelicate Movement ideologue, bent only on exposing what the editors of NYU's student newspaper describe as "supposed American injustice," ought to read more carefully.

[13] Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine how the agonism he displays in relation to such "playful," essentially neo-Kantian groupuscules as Indiani Metropolitani could leave such presuppositions intact. For what he argues in this early chapter is that just as, for instance, Fox News, car culture and urban renewal are co-implicated in the mechanization of experience with Homeland Security, biopolitical tattooing and Guantanamo Bay, much the same could be said of many of their most vociferous opponents.

[14] Thus, whereas Benjamin asserted the non-universality of adult experience in his early critique of Kant, here it is the contingent experience of middle-class youth in the Italian "Years of Lead" that Agamben asserts, suggesting (as in Pasolini's famous poem The PCI To The Young!!) that in their all-too-often self-congratulatory, unreflective, "sacred hooliganism," they ultimately display a deeper loyalty to the very modern, bourgeois values they imagine themselves to have profaned.

[15] Infancy and History, therefore, as the author asserts, resists such antinomies by cultivating the seed of Benjamin's Coming Philosophy, in which the Kantian concept of experience is reconstituted in order to affirm the multiple temporalities and forms-of-life within which experience occurs. The result is the sprig of Agamben's Coming Community, in which the Aristotelian concept of community is reconstituted in order to affirm the multiple temporalities and forms-of-life that, particularly today, are always already co-present to one another.