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Giorgio Agamben - Biography

Giorgio Agamben, Phd., Baruch Spinoza Chair at European Graduate School EGS, is a professor of aesthetics at the University of Verona, Italy and teaches philosophy at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris and at the University of Macerata in Italy. As a post graduate he participated in seminars with Martin Heidegger in Freiburg and directed the Italian Walter Benjamin Edition. Agamben's unique blending of literary theory, continental philosophy, political thought, religious studies, literature and art makes him one of the most challenging thinkers of our time. He was a visiting professor in Paris and has taught at American universities such as UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, Irvine, Santa Cruz, and Northwestern.

Agamben's book Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (1992) is a blend of philology, medieval physics and psychology, the psychoanalysis of toys, and contemporary linguistics and philosophy. In this work, Agamben attempts to reconfigure the epistemological foundation of Western culture. He rereads Sigmund Freud and Ferdinand de Saussure to discover the impossibility of metalanguage and of synthesis that could be reflected in the transparency of signs. There is no "superior language" that can read the obscure scenes of the unconscious, and the "symbol" is always the return of the repressed in an improper signifier.

This impossibility leads Giorgio Agamben to the problem of representation. He argues that because language is the locus of the production and storage of phantasms, all real objects are fractured by phantasmic itineraries that in turn divide poetry and philosophy, joy and knowledge. Agamben argues that it is by negotiating and achieving an enclosed space, the "poetic room", that poetry can aspire to "possess its object". This "object" is not only outside the self but, as modern and contemporary narratives appear to indicate, is the self itself. In writing about the world, the modern and contemporary self ends up writing its biography; or rather, its biography, its profile, is subsumed by and incorporated into the image of the world. The fusion of object and subject demands a new approach for interpreting the writing self and investigating its narratives.

Agamben's philosophy of language, one of the preeminent and overarching themes of his work throughout the eighties, is informed by very fine readings of Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Walter Benjamin. It also benefits from the persuasive use of his unique knowledge of the classical and medieval stocks of etyma, parables, and sophisms. One of the central turns that Agamben's thought takes leads the reader into the misty land of "prose". That "poetry" cannot be put into other (prosaic, never mind poetic) words is the modern version of an excess unknown to older times when music, as gift and fountain of "nature", resolved to bar individualistic propensities towards the miracle of meaning. Agamben's work compels us to find the language of humans - beyond operatic syntheses like the prose poem - in its constitutive generic difference; that is, in its prosaic and poetic proximity that was never fully socialized unto guilt. As Agamben mentions in Stanzas, "shame is the index of the shuddering proximity of man to himself" (84).

In The Coming Community (1993) Agamben develops the concept of community and the social implications of his philosophical thought. Agamben's exploration is, in part, a contemporary response to the work of Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Luc Nancy, and, more historically, Plato, Benedict Baruch Spinoza, and medieval scholars and theorists of Judeo-Christian scriptures.

"The Coming Community tries to designate a community beyond any conception available under this name; not a community of essence, a being-together of existences; that is to say: precisely what political as well as religious identities can no longer grasp. Nothing less."
Jean-Luc Nancy

Means Without End (1996, Trans. Vincenzo Vinetti and Cesare Casarino, 2000) is a critical rethinking of the categories of politics within a new sociopolitical and historical context. Agamben builds on his previous work to address the status and nature of politics itself. Bringing politics face-to-face with its own failures of consciousness and consequence, Agamben frames his analysis in terms of clear contemporary relevance, proposing a politics of gesture - a politics of means without end. Attentive to the urgent demands of the political moment, as well as to the bankruptcy of political discourse, Agamben's work brings politics back to life, and life back to politics.

Among the topics Agamben takes up in Homo Sacer (1998) are the "properly" political paradigms of experience, as well as those generally not viewed as political. He begins by elaborating work on biopolitics begun by Foucault, returning the natural life of humans to the center of the polis and considering it as the very basis for politics. He then considers subjects such as the "state of exception" (the temporary suspension of the juridical order); the concentration camp (a zone of indifference between public and private and, at the same time, the secret matrix of the political space in which we live); the refugee, who, breaking the bond between the human and the citizen, moves from marginal status to the center of the crisis of the modern nation-state; and the sphere of pure means or gestures (those gestures that, remaining nothing more than means, liberate themselves from any relation to ends) as the proper sphere of politics.

In his book Remnants of Auschwitz : The Witness and the Archive (2002) Agamben looks closely at the literature of the survivors of Auschwitz, probing the philosophical and ethical questions raised by their testimony.

"In its form, this book is a kind of perpetual commentary on testimony. It did not seem possible to proceed otherwise. At a certain point, it became clear that testimony contained at its core an essential lacuna; in other words, the survivors bore witness to something it is impossible to bear witness to. As a consequence, commenting on survivors' testimony necessarily meant interrogating this lacuna or, more precisely, attempting to listen to it. Listening to something absent did not prove fruitless work for this author. Above all, it made it necessary to clear away almost all the doctrines that, since Auschwitz, have been advanced in the name of ethics."
Giorgio Agamben


Giorgio Agamben is the Baruch Spinoza Chair and a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he teaches an Intensive Summer Workshop.