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].

Play. Being, Put into Play. Bottomless Chessboard.

A ‘bottomless chessboard’ with ‘no meaning beyond itself’?

More radically than Heidegger and Gadamer, it is Jacques Derrida who deconstructs metaphysical assumptions about origins, foundations, and transcendence. Derrida would opt for the interpretive practice ‘which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who … throughout his entire history – has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play’. He offers the metaphor of a ‘bottomless chessboard’, to which ‘there is no meaning beyond itself, no deep, underlying ground that supports it and speaks through it’. The difference between Eliot and Derrida is that whereas Derrida affirms the endless regression and play of interpretation Eliot, with his acute sense of the element of error in all interpretation, doe not. His vision, in his early philosophical work, may have approximated to that of Derrida’s ‘bottomless chessboard’, but he looked for a meaning beyond it. Unlike Derrida, Heidegger, and Gadamer, Eliot does not rest at at critique of foundational knowledge.1 [my emphasis]

For Derrida…texts are an endless series of ‘traces’ or ‘tracks’; they are traces in the sense of being products of previous traces, and tracks in the sense of moving ‘on the way to’ other traces. If language is like a chessboard, Derrida uses the metaphor of the ‘bottomless chessboard’: there is no underlying ground to support it, and play has no meaning beyond itself…Because the sign is a trace or a mark, it needs to be left intact. But because the sign is a trace in the sense of a track that encourages onward movement, the mark also needs to be erased. It stands both as a fleeting presence, and as that which must be ‘under erasure’. Thus Derrida will write a word, cross it out because it is not accurate, and print both the word and its deletion because, in his judgment, both are necessary.2

  1. Jain, Manju (2004), T. S. Eliot and American Philosophy: The Harvard Years, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 151.
  2. Thiselton, Anthony (1992), New Horizons in Hermeneutics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, p. 108.