Agamben: undergone not experienced

As Agamben indicates in the 1989 preface to the English translation of Infancy and History, the key question that unites his disparate explorations is that of what it means for language to exist, what it means that “I speak.” In taking up this question throughout his work, and most explicitly in texts such as Infancy and History, Language and Death, and most recently, The Open, Agamben reinvigorates consideration of philosophical anthropology through a critical questioning of the metaphysical presuppositions that inform it, and in particular, the claim that the defining essence of man is that of having language. In taking up this question, Agamben proposes the necessity of an “experimentum linguae” in which what is experienced is language itself, and the limits of language become apparent not in the relation of language to a referent outside of it, but in the experience of language as pure self-reference.Infancy and History … attempts to grasp and articulate the implications of such an experience of language as such. Consisting of a series on interconnected essays on concepts such as history, temporality, play, and gesture, Infancy and History provides an importance entrance to Agamben’s later work on politics and ethics, particularly in the eponymous essay of the edition on the concept of infancy understood as an experiment of language as such. In this, Agamben argues that the contemporary age is marked by the destruction or loss of experience, in which the banality of everyday life cannot be experienced per se but only undergone, a condition which is in part brought about by the rise of modern science and the split between the subject of experience and of knowledge that it entails. Against this destruction of experience, which is also extended in modern philosophies of the subject such as Kant and Husserl, Agamben argues that the recuperation of experience entails a radical rethinking of experience as a question of language rather than of consciousness, since it is only in language that the subject has its site and origin. Infancy, then, conceptualizes an experience of being without language, not in a temporal or developmental sense of preceding the acquisition of language in childhood, but rather, as a condition of experience that precedes and continues to reside in any appropriation of language. (Mills; emphasis mine)

  • Mills, Catherine (2005) Agamben, Giorgio [The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 March 2010].

Adorno on Commitment in Art

In esthetic theory, ‘commitment’ should be distinguished from ‘tendency’. Committed art in the proper sense is not intended to generate ameliorative measures, legislative acts or practical institutions – like earlier propagandist plays against syphilis, duels, abortion laws or borstals – but to work at the level of fundamental attitudes. For Sartre its task is to awaken the free choice of the agent which makes authentic existence possible at all, as opposed to the neutrality of the spectator. But what gives commitment its aesthetic advantage over tendentiousness also renders the content to which the artist commits himself inherently ambiguous. In Sartre the notion of choice – originally a Kierkegaardian category – is heir to the Christian doctrine ‘He who is not with me is against me’, but now voided of any concrete theological content. What remains is merely the abstract authority of a choice enjoined, with no regard for the fact that the very possibility of choosing depends on what can be chosen. The archetypal situation always cited by Sartre to demonstrate the irreducibility of freedom merely underlines this. Within a predetermined reality, freedom becomes an empty claim: Herbert Marcuse has exposed the absurdity of the philosophical theorem that it is always possible inwardly either to accept or to reject martyrdom. Yet this is precisely what Sartre’s dramatic situations are designed to demonstrate. But his plays are nevertheless bad models of his own existentialism, because they display in their respect for truth the whole administered universe which his philosophy ignores: the lesson we learn from them is one of unfreedom. Sartre’s theatre of ideas sabotages the aims of his categories. This is not a specific shortcoming of his plays. It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads. In fact, as soon as committed works of art do instigate decisions at their own level, the decisions themselves become interchangeable. Because of this ambiguity, Sartre has with great candour confessed that he expects no real changes in the world from literature – a scepticism which reflects the historical mutations both of society and of the practical function of literature since the days of Voltaire. The principle of commitment thus slides towards the proclivities of the author, in keeping with the extreme subjectivism of Sartre’s philosophy, which for all its materialist undertones, still echoes German speculative idealism. In his literary theory the work of art becomes an appeal to subjects, because it is itself nothing other than a declaration by a subject of his own choice or failure to choose.

Adorno, Theodor (1965). Commitment. In Noten zur Literature III. Frankfurt: Suhrkhamp Verlag 1965. Translation reprinted in Adorno et al. Aesthetics and Politics, translated by Francis McDonagh. London: Verso 2007. pp.180–181.

Diploma course results

The results for the postgraduate diploma have arrived (well, they arrived last week, but I’ve not been in a writing mood recently).

Here they are, broken down into the separate courses that comprised the diploma:

  • Framing Art: Museums, Galleries, Exhibitions: 70 (pass)
  • Core course: Histories of Art: 71 (pass)
  • Philosophy and… : 60 (pass)

So, I passed!

I’m slightly disappointed by the Philosophy mark, as it’s lower than the mark I was given for my previous essay. Although I knew I was not very good at philosophy at this stage, I felt that my pieces displayed an inherent ability that could be developed over time. And I think I should have been rewarded for this aspect of the work. Then again, perhaps I was being rewarded and I have much further to develop than I thought!

Oh well, the important thing is that I passed, for which I’m very pleased. Now onto the MA!