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Agamben Symposium: William Robert

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All About Glory

Glory doesn’t work.  Amen.

This condensed assertion and acclamation get at the heart of Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, the second part of the second part of his Homo Sacer project (whose volumes include Homo Sacer, State of Exception, and Remnants of Auschwitz).  The Kingdom and the Glory’s subtitle, For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, allusively explains the Foucaultian-feeling rhythms according to which this text pulses—rhythms that animate the Homo Sacer project from its inception but which come to archaeological fruition in The Kingdom and the Glory.  In Foucaultian fashion, The Kingdom and the Glory’s initial six sections trace a meticulous, albeit particular, conceptual genealogy through early and medieval Christian theologies (a genealogy replete with long quotations that serve as evidential support) whose impetus comes, indirectly, from an intertextual conversation between Erich Peterson and Carl Schmitt, which recurs throughout Agamben’s text.  More directly, the impetus comes from Agamben’s explicit aim of catching, via theology, “a glimpse of something like the ultimate structure of the governmental machine of the West in the relation between oikonomia and Glory” (xii)—a relation he casts in State of Exception in terms of auctoritas and potestas.

Building on his earlier engagements with the Pauline epistles (most notably in The Time That Remains) and animated by archaeological fervor and philological attentiveness, Agamben wades deeply in the waters of early Christian theologies to discover the oikonomia animating the Trinity and debates concerning it.  Why?  Because, he asserts, “the link established by Christian theology between oikonomia and history is crucial to an understanding of Western philosophy [sic] of history” (46).  (Despite this claim as well as his argument’s unmistakably dialectical character, The Kingdom and the Glory is nearly, and rather suspiciously, Hegel-free.)  Following considerations of oikonomia and mystery, the providential machine, the angelic bureaucracy, and other topics, Agamben’s final chapter offers his archaeology of glory.  As he does throughout, he begins with a modern reference (in this case, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics) before moving through a premodern genealogy that, via Moses Maimonides, recalls exilic, prophetic, and apocalyptic scenes from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Among these scenes is the mystical throne vision that opens the prophetic Biblical book bearing Ezekiel’s name.  Following an amazing sequence of images—one that implicitly illustrates what Agamben calls an “optical phenomenology of glory” (204)—Ezekiel reveals that he has seen the glory (in transliterated Hebrew, kabhod) of God.  Well, not exactly.  Technically, Ezekiel has seen “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” or (translated differently) “the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the LORD” (Ezekiel 1.28, NRSV and JPS translations, respectively).  Ezekiel sees, then, not God’s glory but an appearance of its semblance.  Agamben cites this passage (201), but he doesn’t dwell on it—which is surprising, since it seems an incredible and incredibly illuminating example of what he finds compelling about glory.  That is, Ezekiel does not see glory but something approximating something approximating glory.  Glory remains unseen, perhaps unseeable, and Ezekiel’s vision of glory is, as a vision of glory, an empty vision—or a vision of an emptiness (more on this below.)

Glory thus functions as what Agamben, following Foucault and Melandri, names a signature: “something that in a sign or concept marks and exceeds such a sign or concept” (4) or, more elaborately, “something that, in a sign or a concept, exceeds it to refer it back to a specific interpretation or move it to another context, yet without exiting the field of the semiotic to construct a new meaning” (87).  Agamben’s archaeology of glory is, then, an archaeology of signatures, for as he methodologically remarks, “archaeology is a science of signatures, and we need to be able to follow the signatures that displace the concepts and orient their interpretation toward different fields” (112).  (For extended, methodological reflections on archaeology and signatures, see the second and third chapters of Agamben’s The Signature of All Things: On Method, which include references to a host of theological voices.)

Glory as signature points to the relations of Kingdom and Government, particularly insofar as “glory is the place where theology attempts to think the difficult coincidence between immanent trinity and economic trinity, theologia and oikonomia, being and praxis” (208).  (This “difficult coincidence” becomes more difficult given that glory “is also the place in which the risk of non-coincidence between being and praxis and of a possible asymmetry in the [Trinitarian] relation between the three divine persons is at its highest” [209].)  In this place of glory, then, a dialectic unfolds: government glorifies kingdom, and kingdom glorifies government, so that “Kingdom and Government constitute the two elements or faces of the same machine of power” (230).  But, Agamben tellingly writes, “the center of the machine is empty, and glory is nothing but the splendor that emanates from this emptiness, the inexhaustible kabhod that at once reveals and veils the central vacuity of the machine” (211).

This “inexhaustible kabhod” recalls Ezekiel’s throne vision, in which the throne is essentially empty, thus exemplifying that the iconography of power, glory’s signature vacuity, is perfectly imaged by the empty throne.  As Agamben remarks, “the empty throne is not, therefore, a symbol of regality but of glory” (245).  He continues: “the apparatus of glory finds its perfect cypher in the majesty of the empty throne.  Its purpose is to capture within the governmental machine that unthinkable inoperativity—making it is internal motor—that constitutes the ultimate mystery of divinity” (245).  The empty throne is an image of glory that images glory’s inoperativity.  Glory, Agamben maintains, occupies a place of inoperativity, since glory keeps ultimately hidden from view—for Ezekiel, for Agamben, and for us—an inoperativity both theological and political, divine and human, one so essential to both that it must be maintained in the form of glory as katapausis.  In other words, glory is inoperative; it doesn’t work.

Here, Agamben seems to miss a point of potentially productive tangency with Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on inoperativity, or desoeuvrement.  In The Inoperative Community’s title essay, Nancy develops an account of community as inoperativity that takes up Christian figures of divinity and relationality in ways that seem incredibly close to Agamben’s, so that Nancy’s inoperative community would appear as a supportive supplement to Agamben’s inoperative glory as the empty center of kingdom and government.  Though I will forego here an exegetic unfolding of this contention, a reading of Nancy’s text alongside Agamben’s will evince their striking proximity—so striking that Agamben’s lack of references to Nancy seems a decided omission, for reasons that remain opaque (at least to me, particularly since Agamben explicitly discusses in Homo Sacer Nancy’s treatment of desoeuvrement).  This missed encounter becomes a productive direction for future work on these themes—work that would, by way of Nancy and Agamben, also engage Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Peterson and Schmitt, and the very possibility or impossibility of political theology in Christian and post-Christian contexts.  This productive direction would include in its horizon Nancy’s remarks on “biopolitics,” particularly since Agamben returns inoperativity to the sphere of life, of bios and zōē, in identifying subjectivity as “a central inoperativity,” one in which “the life that we live is only the life through which we live,” or “the live-ability of every life,” where “the bios coincides with the zōē without remainder” (251).

To return to glory’s inoperativity: the empty throne, as an image of glory, is not an empty vision but a vision of emptiness as inoperativity.  The empty throne is an image of glory, a signature that cyphers God’s ultimate mystery, to which the only viable theological response becomes not predication but praise—praise as doxology and glorification.  Once again, Agamben invokes Ezekiel’s throne vision, this time for its eschatological elements that are entwined with “the originary paradigm of all Christian liturgical doxologies” (244).  (This entwining also reiterates Agamben’s naming of inoperativity as the “messianic operation par excellence” [249].)  Glory, as inoperativity, is “the eternal amen” (239), with amen serving in Christian liturgical contexts as “the acclamation par excellence” (230).  As such, amen is ultimately empty of signifying content, yet its emptiness—like that of the throne—is what grants its efficacy: “that of producing glory” (232).  Dialectically, then, glory, as inoperativity, is “the eternal amen,” and amen, itself semantically inoperative, produces glory.

In other words, glory doesn’t work.  Amen.  Therein lies the oikonomia of inoperativity, the linguistic performance akin to the iconography of the empty throne, at the heart of The Kingdom and the Glory.

William Robert is Assistant Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. He is the author of Trials: Of Antigone and Jesus (Fordham, 2010).

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