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5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Essential, 22 Jan 2014
This review is from: The Sacrament of Language (Paperback)
Alex Murray's recent introduction to Agamben's work begins by asserting, perfectly rationally, that Agamben's philosophy is reducible to a conceptualisation of language. The literature supports this. There is no period of Agamben's work that is not intimately concerned with the mapping out of his ideas on language and, of course, he is on the record as saying the thing of thought is language. Yet in The Sacrament of Language (2009), to date his most important statement on the topic, he says in the very final section "It is perhaps time to call into question the prestige that language has enjoyed and continues to enjoy in our culture, as a tool of incomparable potency, efficacy, and beauty. And yet, considered in itself, it is no more beautiful than birdsong, no more efficacious than the signals insects exchange, no more powerful than the roar with which the lion asserts his dominion". Murray did not have this text in front of him when he wrote his introductory remarks, but nor do they necessarily make his summation less accurate than those, say of Mills, in another excellent introduction, when she defines Agamben's work as primarily what it means to have something. Here Mills is reducing Agamben's work to the logic of potential, capacity, in the same way that Murray reduces it to language. Indeed, the two are also interrelated and not necessarily mutually exclusive in that, from an early point, Agamben has concentrated not on language as such but what it means for human beings to have language, to come to possess it through a period he defines as infancy (linguistic capacity).
My study comes at the issue differently by asserting Agamben's work is reducible to the logic of indifference, but all three statements must take warning from Agamben's turn against language here. In fact language, capacity and indifference itself are all historical contingencies that at some point must be rendered inoperative because they emanate from a metaphysical tradition that is now finally exhausted. To return to Murray's contention, Agamben's philosophy of language is only operative if, built into it, there is the certainty of its inoperativity and it is to this end that Agamben's qualification of his reneging on language moves:
"The decisive element that confers on human language its peculiar virtue is not in the tool itself but in the place it leaves to the speaker, in the fact that it prepares within itself a hollowed-out form that the speaker must always assume in order to speak--that is to say, in the ethical relation that is established between the speaker and his language. The human being is that living being that, in order to speak, must say "I," must "take the word," assume it and make it his own."
This is a statement which could have been made thirty years earlier and it remains a constant in Agamben's work although nowhere is it as clearly expressed as in the 2009 study. It is a statement that owes much to Foucault, as Agamben concedes here, but in terms of its relation to communicability can be located in a much wider philosophical context. It also vindicates Murray as much as Mills, as we see that it is the operativity of the signature language that is being contested here, its assumed qualities of power (politics), efficacy (philosophy), and beauty (aesthetics), not language as such and that, central to any conceptualisation of language is the problem of the unique human capacity for language. Agamben is not repeating the ancient argument that we are zoon logon echon, but rather expressing a peculiarity of the communicability of language which is the human element of language, through his excavation of the archaeology of the oath...

Taken from Watkin, Agamben and Indifference

I really cannot recommend Sacrament of Language enough. A great deal of misinformation exists about Agamben and language, all of which is cleared up here with careful reading. But reader beware, he is not advocating a theory of language as Oath or valorising the Oath. Rather it is the oath that suspends the opposing elements of language as common and proper through the inoperativity of the Oath. In short oath is bad. In being bad reveals the signature of language for the west by suspending its economy. So in a kind of negative way oath is good.
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The Sacrament of Language
The Sacrament of Language by Giorgio Agamben (Paperback - 6 May 2011)
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