Para-ontology. This is the methodological/epistemological basis of Giorgio Agamben’s research, which weaves through fields as diverse as juridical theory, poetics, philosophy, and theology. More than that, it is the orientation of thought regarding itself, the thought of thought or the thought of the power of thought, thought to the second power, it is the meta-thought that thereby, paradoxically, seizes upon the being without thought, outside of thought and without relation to its being-in thought or being-thought. The recent trend in ontology of ‘speculative realism’ (see the excellent post by Nick of The Accursed Share, “On Contemporary Materialism”, and his new collaborative blog devoted to the topic, Speculative Heresy) primarily concerns itself with this paradox – how can thought think that which has no relation to thought, that which cannot be thought, that which must remain outside of thought? I would like to hear how Agamben’s para-ontological approach to the problem relates to that of the speculative realism.
To expose this approach, we need only refer to Agamben’s definition of paradigm, or example. (This video lecture is available transcribed by the EGS here.) Anyone familiar with Agamben’s lauded work on the juridical and politico-theological concept of exception will recognize it as an ‘inclusive exclusion’, an operation by which the outside of law, that which is excluded from the domain of law – bare life, without political qualification – is nonetheless included in law through this very operation, in which the sovereign declares the very point where the law is suspended, that is, the state of exception. The outside of law becomes part of the law’s functioning, the source of its consistency, as it is able to rule over not only its own domain, but also over the operation defining its domain against its outside.
The example or paradigm functions in an opposite way, and hence has the contrary function of ‘deactivating’ law within itself. “If we define the exception as an inclusive exclusion, in which something is included by means of its exclusion, the example functions as an exclusive inclusion. Something is excluded by means of its very inclusion.” What does this mean? An example is a part of a set, one particular member of a general category, or instance of a universal concept. And yet, as an example, it does not obey the law defining its set, it does not function according to this law, but rather, it indicates or exemplifies this law, and in doing so, stands outside of the normal set.
To demonstrate this, Agamben cites the example of performativity. A performative statement, such as “I swear…”, is one which does not refer to given state of affairs, but creates a new state of affairs in its very utterance. This statement creates a ‘promise’ that did not exist before its declaration. Yet it is evident that in this case, as an example, the utterance “I swear…” did not actually perform this function, Agamben did not actually swear or promise anything. Hence, the rule does not apply to this statement as an example, as it would to a normal case of swearing. Yet the utterance must still be included in the category of performatives, it is still a member of the set. As an example, it stands beside the set, steps outside of it, but must still be a member in order to properly function as an example. Quoting Agamben:
What an example shows is its belonging to a class, but for this very reason, it steps out of this class at the very moment in which it exhibits and defines it. Showing its belonging to a class, it steps out from it and is excluded. So, does the rule apply to the example? It’s very difficult to answer. The answer is not easy since the rule applies to the example only as a normal case and not as an example. The example is excluded from the normal case not because it does not belong to it but because it exhibits its own belonging to it.
What the example shows is not the rule or normal function of the rule, but rather, its shows, exhibits, exposes, its very membership in its class, its submission or subjection to a rule, the force of the rule’s application without actually applying the rule. It is the force-of-law subtracted from the actual law. And in so exposing this force, it deactivates the law, subtracting itself from law. It would be a fruitful course of research to compare the split between law and its force in the two modalities of exception and example, and how this bears on the debate between Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin, a debate that so often surfaces in Agamben’s work.
In any case, as Agamben so often reminds us, his research is not simply confined to the given field of juridical theory, political philosophy, theology, or whatever, but is genuinely ontological, using these cases to expose the being of law, the being of politics, and so on. So let us return to the question of thought and its relation to being, to a being outside of thought. This is the very problem that Kant insists upon as the new ground of a critical philosophy. For a para-ontology, which is concerned with the exemplary being, the being that, in-itself, steps outside itself and deactivates itself, the problem is reoriented. It is no longer, ‘how do we think a being which cannot be thought, which is not in-thought, but in-itself?’ Rather, the thought of this being must become the example of this being, it must become the stepping-outside-itself of being in-itself. Thought must become no more than the outside of thought, and that most intimate outside, that alterity of a being that, in-itself, is no longer its own, deactivating itself. Thought of a being-outside-of-thought, thought as being-outside-of…, is that of a being in-and-not-itself, exclusively included in itself, that most intimate outside.
(Notes for research: Derrida’s intimate Other, Lacan’s ex-timacy, spectulative realism, Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘thinking the unthought’ in What is Philosophy?…)