Study Guide

Giorgio Agamben Influences

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Paul's Epistle to the Romans

In my book The Time that Remains, I offer extensive commentary on this key Biblical text. I make comments that can apply to the whole book, but my focus, believe it or not, is on just one verse in the book's first chapter.

That's right: I build a whole book out of a verse made up of just ten words. I really want to be sure that my readers understand all the meanings and micro-connotations of each word, however insignificant this all may seem at first.

My conclusion? I say that Paul's Letter has a lot to say about later philosophy, and I think it sheds a lot of light on the work of Walter Benjamin, for one. But I'm also interested in understanding the text on its own terms because of all it has a lot to tell us about living a meaningful life in the present and bringing about a new and improved future.

If we want to re-imagine what being can be in the present—and I argue that we must do this—then we need to reckon with Romans, since Paul lets us see being from the standpoint of a very different future.

"Bartleby the Scrivener"

Poor Bartleby (spoiler alert!) died on the job. but Melville's antihero has had a long and distinguished afterlife in contemporary theory. From Jacques Derrida to Gilles Deleuze, every theorist worth his salt has tried his hand at interpreting the Scrivener.

I joined the ranks of these interpreters in an essay on Bartleby now in Potentialities, where I show that Melville's mysterious story has profound linguistic and theological implications. How so? Well, I think what Bartleby's famous "I would prefer not to" lets us hear is, in the end, "the intimation of Being without any predicate" (source).

What's that, you want to know? That's a fair question, but unfortunately there's no quick fix for the perplexed here. You'll have to do your philosophical homework to really understand how what I have to say about Bartleby and Being relates back to the theory of being without predicates that I explain in The Coming Community.

Unless, of course, you would prefer not to.

Okay, but joking aside, when Bartleby says he would prefer not to, I think he's rejecting the way power is trying to turn him into just a disposable body, a worker bee who can easily be replaced at any time. What would happen if everyone just up and said, "We would prefer not to be defined as members of any group or any class or any organization, and we would prefer not to have power tell us how we have to live our lives"?

Well, that would be something.

Dante Alighieri

If anyone ever tries to say that I don't have a heart, please refer them to my heartfelt pages on Dante, the founder of Italian poetry, whose genius is still unsurpassed.

The author of the Divine Comedy is less often read as a lyricist, but he wrote amazing lyric poetry that truly speaks to me. I especially love the way Dante turns Beatrice into his guiding light and presents his own writing as a practice of setting down the words that she beautifully dictates.

Why do I like this, you ask? Have a heart!

Primo Levi

This classic twentieth-century memoir tells the harrowing story of Levi's time in a concentration camp. He survived (as the title of his book indicates), but most of those he came to know weren't so fortunate, and a lot of what he has to say is about how hard it is to go on living when you have lost so many and so much.

I consider Survival in Auschwitz, together with other books by Levi like The Drowned and the Saved, in my sequel to Homo Sacer, Remnants of Auschwitz, which I'd recommend to Levi lovers and aspiring ethicists alike.


Who could forget Mary Shelley's thrills-and-chills tale of monsters and men? No one, right? Although I never really address it directly, a lot of people have noticed that Frankenstein is a biopolitical parable.

Frankenstein is, after all, about a scientist who finds the ability to manufacture life. And I often suggest that the state is now in cahoots with science: both, in this day and age, are trying to control the forms that life can take and the powers it can exercise.

Even if Frankenstein doesn't seem "political," it has political implications, because all life becomes politicized in a biopolitical world. No life is safe from the state power-brokers and real-world mad scientists who want to manage everything. Shelley's novel warns us just how grave the dangers of this management can be. Though fictional, the novel's world looks less and less sci-fi with each passing year.

If you think this one's good, take a look at Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, too. It's kind of a sequel to Frankenstein, and lots of people have used my theories to talk about it. Want to see homo sacer in all its glory? You can't miss it in this novel.

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