Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Giorgio Agamben: What Is A Commandment?

March 2011

  • The Greek Arkhe contains a paradox: it means both beginning and commandment (chiefhood, order) simultaneousl
  • Archon is Greek for “main authority”
  • In the Bible, God created man and earth through the commandment

o A word which is stated in the beginning can only be a commandment, an imperative

o The translation, thus, should have been ‘in the commandment was the word,’ not ‘in the beginning was the word’

o The beginning is always also the commandment

  • · Arkhos, etymologically, means both chief and anus
  • · The origin never ceases beginning, governing and commanding. If it stopped, the world would collapse, because government must be a continuous re-creation of the world
  • · The German Anfang can never be a past—the beginning is always present
  • · An epoch has always been sent by an Arkhe
  • · In Derrida, the origin is neutralized while the commandment is maintained in the form of a pure injunction
  • · Philosophically, there has hardly been any serious meditation on commandment
  • · Power is not defined by its capacity to be obeyed but by its capacity to give commandment
  • · Aristotle presents us with a fundamental partition, which is the origin of the general disregard, in philosophy, for commandment. He divides language into apophantic and non-apophantic. Non-apophantic language is that which falls outside of the categorization of truth and falsehood, such as prayer. Such a discourse is disregarded by Aristotle because he said it does not manifest anything.
  • · This movement of disregarding non-apophantic discourse decided the history of logic
  • · Commandment was, thus, confined to the moral sphere and made to be seen as an act of will
  • · An example of a commandment is when somebody says, “Walk!” This utterance says nothing of no one. It does not describe a state of things.
  • · The commandment is valid by its very utterance and does not refer to something existing. It is not an “is” but an “ought.”

o Sein and Sollen is the binary upon which Kant based his moral theory

  • · Morphologically, the imperative could be the primitive form of the verb
  • · Benveniste criticized Austin’s opinion of the imperative, saying that it has no reference in the world—it is, rather, the “naked semantic code” of the verb without reference or denotation
  • · There is a split between the ontology of assertion (Gr. este) and the ontology of commandment (Gr. esto)

o The former governs science and philosophy. The latter governs law, religion, and magic, which were initially indistinguishable from one another

  • · Western ontology is a double (bipolar) machine. The ontology of the esto gradually is becoming more important
  • · In the esto, language is constantly in the imperative—to build a whole world in the form of a commandment

o In the West, oddly enough, one prays in the form of a commandment to God

  • · Paul said to the Hebrews that faith is the hypostasis (substance) in which hoped-for things exist
  • · In Austin, commandment is a speech act—the speech act realizes itself through its enunciation

o This marks a magic layer to language which linguists failed to explain

  • · The distinction of locutionary and illocutionary speech corresponds to the bifurcation of the Western ontological machine
  • · The centrality of the commandment is eroding and overcoming the descriptive, in a sort of “return of the repressed” of the commandment ontology
  • · In today’s culture, commandments are usually disguised as advice, suggestion, advertisement, question, so that people fail to recognize the commandment as such. This is especially relevant to politics. “the stupidity of the modern citizen is without limit.”

o Therefore, we tend to think in terms of the assertion when in fact the non-apophantic is in control

  • · Commandment is explained as an act of will or volition. Unfortunately, this is to explain something obscure with something even more obscure—“only crazy people can give a definition of will.” Nietzsche explains will as commandment itself.
  • · To will, in Nietzsche, is to be capable
  • · Philosophy is “an attempt to give a meaning to empty modal verbs and to graft one onto another”
  • · Kant wrote that “Man muss Wollen Konnen,” which is almost impossible to translate, but it would be something like “Man must can will.” This is an almost insane, absurd foundation of his moral theory and it marks the impossibility of ethics in our time. For him, ethics can only have the form of a commandment. When one says “I can,” one means, “I will myself to obey.”
  • · The concept of will was introduced to check and limit potentiality
  • · Theology has a fundamental problem of divine omnipotence. Could God undo the past? This became a theological question of favour

o Debates on this question fill thousands of pages of 11th-14th century texts

  • · The solution became to distinguish between absolute potential (in which God can do anything) from ordinary potential (in which God can only do what he has decided to do)
  • · Will, therefore, limited and controlled potentiality


  • · We should open up a space for a third ontology in the machine, one which is neither apophantic nor non-apophantic
  • · Paul said that the messiah is the making-inoperative of the commanded law
  • · “I never give solutions. The solution must come from the neutralization of the dichotomy you have to cope with”
  • · “Kant’s ethics is just an incredible mistake. It cannot be saved. Ethics cannot have the form of a commandment.”
  • · Paul: “Languages will end, but love will remain.”