Fire and Story
Wall painting of Giorgio Agamben at the Abode of Chaos, France
From Boston Review:
A naturally occurring phenomenon in philosophy is that the key concept, the one whose weight is greatest and thus whose gravity is strongest—eidos in Plato, cogito in Descartes, Dasein in Heidegger—is all but untranslatable, the convergence of meanings that allows the philosopher to make a term a central one often insuring its untranslatability. In Agamben’s case that key term is inoperosità. The English “inoperative,” while close in etymology, is far in register and resonance. For Agamben, the word denotes a mode where no opera, no work (opera is Italian for work), either in the sense of an ongoing activity or a finished product, is at issue. And the meaning he assigns to it is best seen through a lens offered to him by Aristotle. Aristotle says that happiness is unique in human affairs in being its own end. Even in the cases of honor, pleasure, and reason, he says, we aspire to those things not merely for their own sake but “also for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we shall be happy.” “To say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude,” Aristotle concedes, and so to make it more than one he turns to the question of the purpose of mankind. “For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good . . . is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he naturally functionless?” Carpenters and tanners have, of course, the vocations of carpenter and tanner, but do they also, Aristotle thus asked, have a vocation on another level, that of being human? To speak of such a vocation or function is to assign a task—an essential defining activity—to mankind as a whole, and it should come as no surprise that Aristotle pauses to wonder whether mankind could indeed be said to have such a collective calling. Agamben points out that the question Aristotle asks—usually translated “Is man naturally functionless?”—would be more accurately rendered, “Is man born without work [senz’opera] (argos)?” His answer to the question is yes, and the central term in his formulation of it is inoperosità.
For Agamben the great political danger, in the name of which the Homo Sacer series and all of his books are written, is in seeing the world with an end, in seeing humanity as something that involves the accomplishment of a task, individual or collective. It is, moreover, Heidegger’s attachment to a notion of an epoch having a task that marks, for Agamben, the limit of his teacher’s philosophy. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein, begun in Being and Time (1927), remained unfinished for the final half-century of his life. As Agamben makes clear in L’uso dei corpi, what led those problems to become so intractable as to be abandoned was Heidegger’s sense of Dasein having such a task—one which Heidegger, moreover, found for a time compatible with National Socialism. For Agamben, mankind has no millennial or messianic task to complete, no divinely ordained work it must do, no set function it must exercise. For there can be no one thing that humanity must do, no specific single task that must be accomplished or work that must be done, no tower to the heavens or coalition of the pure that will allow us to become what we already are. The story for Agamben is thus not about how far we have fallen, how lost we are, how remote the once bright fire of sacred speech, pure thought, and incandescent experience. His is a story where there is no task that must be accomplished, no work that must be completed, no single spot, no sacred words, no special fire.