‘The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath’, ‘The Work of Giorgio Agamben: Law, Literature, Life’ reviewed by Richard Fitch

The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath

Translated by Adam Kotsko. Polity, Cambridge, 2011. 79pp., £14.99 pb
ISBN 9780745649719

, and (eds)
The Work of Giorgio Agamben: Law, Literature, Life

Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2011. 214pp., £19.99 pb
ISBN 9780748643653

Reviewed by Richard Fitch

About the reviewer

Richard Fitch is an independent legal and political philosopher …


The Sacrament of Language is another instalment in Giorgio Agamben’s ongoing Homo Sacer project. In this slim volume it is the emergence of the Western prejudice that social life emerges from, or amid, a primordial religiosity, and that religion and law are social necessities, which attracts his attention.

The premise of Clemens et al. is that earlier readers of Agamben have been too theoretically fixated on the political. Against this, they claim that language provides the key to his thought, and this is explored, with varying degrees of success, in the editors’ introduction, and in eleven secondary essays by various cultural, legal, and literary theorists, together with a couple of philosophers. An essay on Kafka by Agamben also appears in translation. This collection first appeared, in hardback, in 2008, and was prepared before the publication, in that same year, of the original Italian edition of The Sacrament of Language. While Agamben did serve ‘a long literary apprenticeship’ (Negri, 110), the persuasiveness of the collection’s premise might seem to be called into question when, concluding The Sacrament of Language, Agamben muses ‘It is perhaps time to call into question the prestige that language has enjoyed and continues to enjoy in our culture, as a tool of incomparable potency, efficacy, and beauty’ (71). For that reason I will tackle Agamben’s text first.

Agamben offers what he describes as ‘a philosophical archaeology of the oath’ (2). With just 72 pages of text it is more of a long essay, and is presented as part II.3 of his Homo Sacer project, fitting between The Kingdom and the Glory [II.2] and Remnants of Auschwitz [III]. He begins with Paolo Prodi’s thesis that, in the West, the oath is the sacrament of power, and, as such, is found where religion and politics come together. The function of this sacrament is to guarantee ‘the truth and efficacy of language’ (4). Agamben concludes that ‘The oath can function as a sacrament of power insofar as it is first of all the sacrament of language’ (66).

As is his wont, he steeps himself in both Graeco-Roman textual evidence on the oath and in 19th and 20th century secondary literature. He rejects ‘the traditional explanation, which sees the oath as a recourse to religious power to guarantee the efficacy of the law’ (37). Indeed, he rejects the broader hypothesis that in prehistory the profane has not yet emerged from the sacred. Agamben insists that one must practise an ‘archaeological epoché’ (17) and not project later social forms, such as religion and law, onto the blank canvas of prehistory. Then he develops an ingenious thesis that both religion and law emerge from the oath. And the oath itself emerges from an experience of language. And this experience is one of what language cannot do. Language cannot bind speakers to their words; therefore it is difficult to trust the speakers of words. Oaths, and then religion and law, are developed ‘to tie speech to things and to bind, by means of curses and anathemas, speaking subjects to the veritative power of their speech, to their “oath” and to their declaration of faith’ (58). With this humans come to believe in ‘the idea of linguistic enunciations that stably obligate living beings’ (70). For Agamben, this is a mistaken belief, though that does not mean that it will wither away of its own accord.

  The antidote to the misrecognition of language that leads first to oath, and then to religion and law, is philosophy. ‘Philosophy is … constitutively a critique of the oath: that is, it puts into question the sacramental bond that links the human being to language, without for that reason simply speaking haphazardly, falling into the vanity of speech’ (72). The essay ends here, on the threshold of philosophical practice.

The essay has, in microcosm, all the virtues and vices of the Homo Sacer project. It unfolds a brilliantly provocative thesis as to why ideological apparatuses, developed to deal with the problem of grounding social life, have led to unnecessary political horror. Thus those institutions ‘whose function is to performatively affirm the truth and trustworthiness of speech’ (65) are worse than useless and should be broken with through the practice of philosophy. However, there is little suggestion, beyond recognition of a certain impotence of language, as to how philosophical practice should avoid the ‘vanity of speech’. The logically sensitive might well find Agamben’s inductive reasoning too exuberant for their taste, and theorists of religion and law might well find the essay’s thesis overly reductive. This problem is more than one of taste. Agamben runs the risk of exaggerating particular responses to the experience of language into a general condition, and thus remaining imprisoned in the theoretical constellation into which those particular responses coalesce. This would mean that Agamben is constrained to bringing the reader only to the outer limits of the threshold of philosophy because of his theoretical practice. It is not that he chooses not to go further and enter philosophy. It is that, as his argument is, he cannot. Politically, this means that while he has a genius for diagnosing the longstanding ills of Western apparatuses, when it comes to suggesting different forms of life he may be confined to nothing more than a simple gesture towards their abstract possibility.

Adam Kotsko’s translation is welcomingly unobtrusive. There is a bibliography, but not the brief index that can be found in the Italian, French and German editions. However, the lack of such an index is no great problem with a text of this size. For all scholarly purposes, the editions published by Polity and Stanford University Press are identical.

Now for the Clemens et al. collection: the first essay is by Agamben himself, entitled ‘K’. It is an intriguing piece that explores what the surname K. might mean in The Trial and The Castle. Taking up the work of Davide Stimilli he suggests that it refers to two terms from Roman law. In The Trial it refers to kalumnia, slander, so that Josef K. is the one who slanders himself. In The Castle it is taken to refer to kardo, a term relating to the surveying of land. K. here is concerned with the establishment of boundaries. Unfortunately I feel the translation, completed in 2008 by Nicholas Heron, has since been surpassed by one by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, which appears in the English edition of Agamben’s Nudities (Agamben 2011, 20-36). This is not because of any problem with Heron’s translation, but simply because the later version has a slightly more extensive scholarly apparatus. Providing footnotes for Agamben’s work is a notoriously difficult business, and it is simply bad luck that Heron has been outdone by the trappings of a subsequent translation.

At first glance the rest of the collection can appear yet another example of ‘Whoeverian Theory’, in which bewitched theorists remain subservient to the language of a particular ‘Whoever’, only venturing out to make connections with other ‘Whoevers’. Philosophy then becomes, not a practice to be participated in, but a series of texts to be honoured. But in the case of the Agambenian a tension can develop, as the cult of the ‘Whoever’ seems to presume the potency of language, while Agamben presumes its impotence, or better, impotentiality. In Agamben, a philosopher looks outside philosophy in order better to see the impotence of language. In Whoeverian discourse, non-philosophers look into philosophy better to feel the power of language. But, if Agamben is right about the impotence of language, they should find the potential of philosophy not the power of language. And if the ‘Whoeverian’ is bewitched by the power of language, does this not make ‘Whoeverian Theory’ just another ideological apparatus, like religion, law, biopolitics, and economics? A minor ideological apparatus that surely must be broken with?

Fortunately not all the secondary essays are ‘Whoeverian’. There is a wide variation in their quality, with the Whoeverian among them often suffering from blandly assertoric reasoning, arch and mannered expression, and an almost relentless boosterism. All the trappings of the sacrament of theory, one might be tempted to say.

This boosterism raises the question of the desired readership for this volume. As most of the essays aspire to close readings of texts by Agamben one might expect the target readership to be those already well acquainted with those texts. If so, they hardly need constant reminders of Agamben’s excellence, genius, novelty etc., or claims about the enigmatic and stunning effects of his writing. In this context the boosterism can scream of an insecurity concerning the status of their engagement with Agamben’s texts.

Was I stunned? I was certainly stupefied to find the following claim in Arne De Boever’s contribution: ‘“The Storyteller” was … published in 1936 when Germany was invading Poland’ (85). This is not a typo. ‘The Storyteller’ did first appear in 1936. The presence of such a howler, especially in a paperback edition, hardly covers author, editors, or publisher in glory. This apart, the essay, ‘Politics and Poetics of Divine Violence’, ploughs the well-worn furrow from Benjamin to Agamben with reference to the trope of divine violence.

Nicholas Heron’s ‘Idea of Poetry, Idea of Prose’ also treads the Benjamin-Agamben axis. He reads Agamben’s The Idea of Prose against Benjamin’s ‘The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism’ and ‘The Storyteller’.

Alexander García Düttmann’s essay, ‘Integral Actuality’, first appeared as the introduction to the English translation of Agamben’s Idea of Prose. The piece was initially written in French, and translated there by Kerstin Behnke (Agamben 1995, 1-28). Here Düttmann provides his own translation and rejigs several sentences and paragraphs. This sharpens the piece, but it does not amount to the substantial expansion and revision claimed by the editors (v). Nevertheless, I think it is more effective in its new context. It serves as a wry antidote to the hyperbolic claims, made elsewhere in the collection, for Agamben’s novelty, as Düttmann gently observes that Heidegger, Adorno, and Benjamin also had a thing or two to say about language. In doing so he better situates Agamben’s thoughts on language in their broader philosophical context.

Justin Clemens’ frustrating ‘The Role of the Shifter and the Problem of Reference in Giorgio Agamben’ starts out as a tantalising investigation into Agamben and deixis. But it soon drifts into some general reflections on Agamben’s style and method, and then somewhat arbitrarily into some problems with his reading of Badiou. At least three, potentially interesting essays get squashed into one, to the benefit of none.

Jessica Whyte’s ‘His Silent Working was a Delusion’ is a meticulous reconstruction of Agamben’s argument concerning the ‘presuppositional structure of language’, which is explored in dialogue with Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Settlement’. There is a typo in footnote 8 (79) that can lead to some ongoing confusion as to exactly which essay by Agamben she is referring to.

Anton Schütz’s artful ‘The Fading Memory of Homo non Sacer’ takes Foucault and Agamben as the objects of a micrological analysis enacted in the spirit of both their historical endeavours. The comparison succeeds in throwing greater light on both.

The legal theorist Thanos Zartaloudis, in his ‘Soulblind, or On Profanation’, flying high on the wings of late Heideggerian rhetoric, elaborates clouds of ecstatic variations, dense with urgent denunciation and proclamation, on various ethical themes from Agamben.

In ‘Face to Face with Agamben; or, the Other in Love’ Julian Wolfreys reads Agamben’s essay ‘The Passion of Facticity’ with his eye on love, and with prose poetical results. The face opposite Agamben is often that of the Heidegger of Being and Time. Wolfreys finds Agamben’s writing fuelled by love, so that it is ‘a text in love’ (152) that ‘brings us face to face with the very grounds of history itself’ (152-3).

Alex Murray’s informative ‘Beyond Spectacle and the Image’ reads Agamben’s responses to the films of Guy Debord. Agamben sees Debord as taking up once again the trope of the commodity fetish abandoned by Althusser et al. For Agamben ‘the spectacle is language’ (173).

Barbara Formis’ striking ‘Dismantling Theatricality’ reads Agamben together with Anna Halperin’s powerful 1965 dance piece Parades and Changes. From both she draws out an ‘aesthetics of bare life’, concerned not with the form of life, but with the ‘ulterior possibility’ of formed life (191).

In her ‘Notes on Media and Biopolitics’, Deborah Levitt reads Agamben’s ‘Notes on Gesture’ in the shadow of Deleuze’s writings on cinema, with the former’s gesture displacing the latter’s image. This amounts to an act of liberation (201). But she concludes by tempering Agamben with ‘Deleuze’s Spinozist question: what can a body do?’ (208).

Marx makes brief appearances in Schütz’s and Murray’s essays, chiefly in reference to the problems Foucault and Debord had with Marxism à la Althusser.

Taken together, do the essays justify the collection’s central premise? Yes and no. The premise certainly persuades, but too often Agamben’s language is interpreted in too potent a manner. And the language can be language qua theory, rather than language qua language. So while Benjamin, Heidegger and Kafka seem to eternally recur, Agamben’s The End of the Poem is barely mentioned, and writers such as, for example, Elsa Morante or Italo Calvino, with whom Agamben has links, appear not at all.

For Whoeverians bewitched by Agamben, this collection is self-recommending. For those curious about Agamben in the context of recent European thought, the essays by Düttmann, Schütz and Murray should prove stimulating reading. And for connoisseurs of the theoretical essay I would recommend Formis.

4 March 2012


  • Agamben, Giorgio 1995 Idea of Prose trans. Michael Sullivan & Sam Whitsitt (Albany: State University of New York Press).
  • Agamben, Giorgio 2011 Nudities trans. David Kishik & Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
  • Negri, Antonio 2007 'Giorgio Agamben: The Discreet Taste of the Dialectic’, trans. Matteo Mandarini Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty & Life eds Matthew Calarco & Steven DeCaroli (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

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