Agamben on The Historical as Opposed to the Magical Redemption of Man, Animal, and Nature


What is redemption?  And how would redemption, as understood by Giorgio Agamben, differ from the redemption we hear of in the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran?  These are big questions that I don’t think can be addressed in one blog entry.  Nonetheless, they should be of great concern for anyone who reads Agamben’s revision of the Messianic which he, oftentimes, uses scripture to articulate.

In the essay I have been focusing on in the last few blog entries, Agamben has, as I have pointed out already, claimed that the “nativity crib” is the “decisive…historical gesture.”  For Agamben, the crib takes us out of the fable and enchantment.  It is a gesture of secularization. But, as I pointed out in the last entry, Agamben also regards it as messianic.  The question I posed was whether Kafka and Benjamin will be at that redemption.  Perhaps they are the sleepers in the nativity scene since they are caught up in the pre-historic rather than the historic (redemption).  Even thought Agamben doesn’t mention Benjamin in the key moment when he talks about the pre-historic it is clear that he is making reference to Benjamin’s essay on Kafka.  Regarding this essay, Benjamin told both Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem that he wanted to retain the tension between the mystical and the political (he likened this tension to the tension of a bow).  However, as he admitted to them, he had failed to maintain it.  In his own view, he had slipped into the mystical and missed the political aspect of Kafka’s work.  Agamben would read this as an admission that Benjamin had got caught up in Kafka’s pre-historical world.

Hence, Agamben’s reading looks to go where Benjamin failed to go in his Kafka essay: toward the historical.  This has its problems as it suggests that Jews like Kafka and Benjamin couldn’t make it into history.  Scholars like Irving Howe, Hannah Arendt, Yosef Yerushalmi, and Emmanuel Levinas (amongst many others) note the different relationship Jews have to time (albeit it in different ways: negative and positive).   But Agamben’s reading, drawing on Christianity, suggests that those who are stuck in the pre-historic are stuck in the world of myth, fable, and magic.  As I noted, however, this is far from the truth.  Jews have been involved in secularization for a while.  And Agamben, at the very least, notes this elsewhere (for instance, in the first chapter of his book Nudities he notes that prophesy, when it ended, was supplemented by interpretation).  But in this essay we find something else.

The problem has to do with his reading of the historical as it pertains to the Messianic.

Agamben, at the end of his essay, notes that the secularizing, historical gesture is with the Church and with Italian Renaissance artists.  They bring us toward as secular, historical messianism in which man, plant, and animal are redeemed (or so it seems).

After naming several Italian artists (who took their cue from the “nativity crib,” Agamben

notes that “the magical link between figures has been completely resolved in a historical link. Each fiture in the crib is certainly whole in itself, not united with others by any plastic or spatial tie simply set momentarily beside them” (144).  In other words, what they did is more than a matter of a secular aesthetic gesture.  In fact, its messianic:

All the figures, without exception, are welded into a single structure by the invisible adhesive of participation in the messianic event of redemption. (145)

Their “unity” is not just (!) Messianic says Agamben, is “historical.”  In other words, there is nothing magical about this messianic.  It is fully secular and historical.  He therefore uses the terms historical and messianic together so as to efface any belief that the messianic will be miraculous.  Strangely enough, however, he doesn’t state this explicitly.  And this makes his gesture esoteric not exoteric.

Taking a messianic tone on at the end of his essay, Agamben notes how all distinctions between secular and profane will be “bridged” in “history.”  History, however, is not, says Agamben, to be equated with “progress.”  This is an odd gesture, given that Agamben, throughout the essay, uses the structure of progress, evolution, and supercession to explain the crib.

All he adds, on this “historical” note, is that everything, all the “minutiae of history,” will be “immediately and historically complete.”   Here, he draws on Walter Benjamin but without mentioning him even once.  But the truth of the matter is that Benjamin’s words need much explaining.  To accept them as self-evident would be uncritical.  Nonetheless, Agamben acts as if they are.  In addition to this, the notion of immediate redemption (a notion discussed in the Midrash and Kabbalah – k’heref ayin – redemption in the ‘blink of an eye”) is a thoroughly miraculous and mystical notion.  But Agamben writes of it as if it is secular and historical.  How exactly would that be the case?

He doesn’t tell us, but we should, somehow, accept that it is.

With this in mind, how do we read Agamben’s final moments in his essay which deal with a thoroughly ambiguous and telling aesthetic figure.  Agamben writes of “the work of the anonymous survivors” of “Spaccanapoli.”   This work makes an

Infinite discrepancy between the figuring of man – whose lineaments are as if blurred in a dream, whose gestures are torpid and imprecise – and the delirious, loving impulse that shapes displays of tomatoes, auberigines, cabbages, pumpkins, carrots, mullet, crayfish….on the market stalls among baskets, scales..(146)

Here, once again, we have a secular gathering of things in the market.  Are these “things” which include (but pale, man) on the brink of messianic, historical redemption?

To this, Agamben notes something that seems to go against everything he has said before.  He ponders the possibility that this may be the “sign that nature is once more about to enter the fairy tale, that once more it asks history for speech.”  This would suggest that the messianic moment may be calling for the messianic and the miraculous.  In the midst of this moment, says Agamben, man will be “bewitched by a history which, for him, again assumes the dark outline of destiny.”  Perhaps man will, once again, enter the fable and be “struck dumb by a spell.”

After noting this, Agamben casts his own spell by saying his own secular messianic phrase:

Until one night, in the shadow-light where a new crib will light up the figures and colors unknown, nature will once again be immured in its silent language, the fable will awaken in history, and man will emerge, with his lips unsealed, from mystery to speech (146).

What I find most interesting about this gesture is the fact that, though it builds on what Benjamin says about myth, silence, and speech in his work (especially Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic DramaUrsprung des deutschen Trauerspiel) it goes unmentioned.  More interesting is the fact that, for Benjamin, the movement from tragic, mystical silence to speech was first evinced by comedy (namely in the figure of Socrates and his irony).  Nonetheless, I find nothing comic about this movement to speech.  For Agamben, this moment is historical and serious and, because it lacks this comic element, it seems as if it is also a magical gesturing of sorts (but of the rhetorical variety).

Although Agamben opens up many doors for thinking the secular, historical aspect of the Messianic, sometimes his work , as in this essay, focuses too much on figures (such as the crib and “speech”) that have nothing ironic whatsoever about them.  Redemption is a serious affair, but is it possible to conceive it comically?  This, I would submit, is something Benjamin did consider (in his letters to the Kabblah scholar and is friend Gershom Scholem and in his work on Kafka), but it is not something Agamben would consider.

The comic may be a gesture of secularization for him, but it’s not the key.  The fruits, vegetables, market wares, and man await a serious form of historical redemption and a “new crib” for its new infancy.  But wouldn’t that imply that man doesn’t simply speak but that he is a man-child?  And isn’t that comic? Or is that too offensive for anyone who seriously ponders the new “nativity crib” to come?  Man is, after all, a creature.  Agamben knows that very well.  But is man a comic creature or a historical creature?  Both?

And what figure best approximates this?  A nativity crib to come or something other?  As a Jew who loves the schlemiel and sees it as a messianic figure of sorts, how can I accept this “nativity crib to come?”    Can the “decisive..historical gesture” be comic?

Giorgio Agamben’s Fable, or the Crib as a Historical Gesture – Take 2


What is the relationship of man to animal?  And what distinguishes man from animal.  This is a question which has interested philosophers since Aristotle who argued, in the opening book of the Metaphysics, that animals and men both have sensation and memory; but there is one key difference: man has the capacity for “experience” and lives by way of “the art of reasoning.”  Aristotle also notes that man differs from animal because, while animals may communicate, they do not have language (speech).

Giorgio Agamben is very interested in the relationship of man to animal.  We see this especially in his book The Open: Man and Animal.  We also see this concern in the essay I have been discussing “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib” (in Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience).  For Agamben, the key to understanding the relationship between man and animal can be understood by way of a reading of the crib.  It relates to what Agamben calls man’s “decisive gesture”(142).  This gesture, it seems, separates man from animal.  It is a “historical gesture”(142).

Agamben articulates this difference by first quoting “Matthews Bible.”  He notes that to this bible “we owe the entry of the ox and ass into the iconography of the nativity.”  After this preface, he cites Matthew “The ox knows its master and the ass the manger of the Lord.

According to Agamben, this quote was the scriptural source for “one of the earliest descriptions of the crib” by Saint Ambrose who “counterposes the whimpering of the God-child, which is heard, with the silent lowing of the ox who recognizes his Lord.”  Agamben’s words suggest that both man and animal are making infantile sounds.  And this suggests that, in infancy, they are the same.  There whimpering and lowing sounds cling to silence. And, lest we not forget, this is a silence before the Lord.  This is what Agamben wants us to hear.

But he takes this mystical reading, which his words suggest, and suggests something else; namely, all in the nativity scene are secularized:

Objects, which enchantment had animated and made strange, are now returned to the innocence of the inorganic and stand besides man as docile implement and familiar tools. (142)

Following this, Agamben names all of the animals that can be found in fables (“talking hens, ants and birds, the goose who lays a golden egg, the donkey who shits money, etc”) and argues that “the crib must release all this from its spell.”  In other words, the Nativity Crib disenchants fable (even though fables continued on for centuries after the first nativity scene).   The crib makes them all into simple objects, things: “as food, merchandise or instruments…nature and inorganic objects are bundled up on the market stall”(142).

Man and animal are all disenchanted by the crib and the crib aids the spread of the economic function and capital.  However, Agamben doesn’t let the secularization of man be taken over entirely by the economic function.  He has us now behold “man.”

Man, too, whom the spell of the fairy tale had removed from his economic function, is now recognized to it with an exemplary gesture: the decisive gesture that severs the human world of the crib from that of the fairy tale. (142)

Agamben traces two genealogies to the crib: 1) the genealogy of the disenchantment that ends in things and 2) the disenchantment that ends in man and history.

To be sure, Agamben sees the “Nativity Crib” as the “decisive” historical gesture.  Regardless of why he would choose this as the decisive historical gesture, there is another problem.  Does the “historical gesture” take one out of the crib?  To be sure, Agamben says that the gesture is the crib.  Man, therefore, would be the gesture of the crib.  Agamben seems to be telling us that we, man, can’t totally leave the crib.  Man may enter history by way of the crib, but he can’t leave that gesture behind as it gives birth to historical man from his infancy.

This is the problem.

I will return to it in the next blog because, it seems that the man-animal relation hinges on his being in the crib.   That would imply that man is man so much as a man-child and not just man-animal. This is a point that Agamben doesn’t make explicit for reasons we will ponder in the next blog entries on this topic.   For, Agamben, the infant and the animals lull and whimper but they don’t laugh; and neither, it seems, does Agamben’s historically-decisive-gestural-nativity-crib-man.