Study Guide

Giorgio Agamben Introduction

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Giorgio Agamben Introduction

All hail theory's high priest. Yep, Giorgio Agamben is the big guy these days.

In recent years, Giorgio has risen to theory superstardom. A philosophical firework if ever there was one, he now owns the night like the Fourth of July. But don't get us wrong: he wouldn't be caught dead at an actual Independence Day celebration.

Why's that? Well, Agamben attracted attention in the wake of September 11, 2001, because of the way his work seemed to directly address the new world order that the War on Terror brought about. He made headlines when, like a rock star, he turned down a prestigious teaching post at New York University to protest US policies.

In part because of his celebrity, Agamben has made enemies as often as he's earned admirers. And thanks to his enemies' smear campaigns—and to his own fondness for hyperbole—lots of people now associate his work with doom and gloom.

But there's way more to his work than that. Sure, there's lots of war in Agamben's world, but if you look carefully and let them shine, there are also quite a few firework-worthy bright lights.

What kinds of lights, you ask? Well, let's put it this way: Agamben sure does like to talk about messianic time. That's right—you heard it here first: like Walter Benjamin before him, Agamben believes that it will all get better… if only in the distant future. For Agamben, the messianic is the time when all our unjust and awful and warmongering ways of thinking will become obsolete and give way to something way better.

What kind of something better? Well, that's a harder question to answer, and one of the challenges that Agamben both accepts (for himself) and presents (to his readers) is the challenge of thinking at the limit of what's thinkable.

Think of the messianic, for example: it's the category that throws all of the categories that we currently depend on into crisis. So to think about the messianic, we need new categories, but since we're not in the messianic yet, we're still kind of stuck with the old categories indefinitely.

That makes things difficult, but it doesn't mean we have to give up all hope. The old categories can still be stretched, reworked, and otherwise altered so that they can provide glimpses of the unforeseen.

Now, Agamben has never gone in for any particular schools of criticism. He's kind of a renegade figure with a loyal following and a brand all his own. Deconstruction? Yeah, right. Gender politics? Agamben will pass. New Historicism? This dude can think for himself, thank you very much.

That said, Agamben has remained loyal throughout his career to two late great philosophers: Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin. Since these two guys couldn't be more opposed in their approaches, Agamben's loyalty to them both tells you something about how independent and eclectic he is.

Because Agamben is so eclectic and unique, and because he's always trying to think on the edge, his work can be pretty demanding. It sure is a wild ride, though. This dude can be hard to pin down, but we love him for that, and we think you will, too. Doom and gloom? Shmoom and gloom.

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