Archive for April, 2015

Giorgio Agamben – The Man Without Content (excerpts)

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

#The absolute split of Pure Culture


We believe, then, that we have finally secured for art its most authentic reality, but when we try to grasp it, it draws back and leaves us empty-handed.
P. 22

The original unity of the work of art has broken, leaving on the one side the aesthetic judgment and on the other artistic subjectivity without content, the pure creative principle.
P. 24

“Judgments on poetry are worth more than poetry.”
We do not yet think seriously enough about the meaning of aesthetic judgment: how could we take Lautréamont’s sentence seriously? And we will not be able to reflect upon this sentence in its proper dimension so long as we see in it simply a play of reversal, performed in the name of an incomprehensible mockery, and until we ask ourselves instead whether its truth may not perhaps be sculpted into the very structure of modern sensibility.

Hegel felt all the importance of the living identity between the artist and his material and understood that the destiny of Western art could be explained only starting from a scission whose consequences we are now able to measure for the first time. So long as the artist is bound up with the specific character of such a worldview and religion, in immediate identity with it and with firm faith in it, so long is he genuinely in earnest with this material and its representation; i.e. this material remains for him the infinite and true element in his own consciousness–a material with which he lives in an original unity as part of his inmost self, while the form in which he exhibits it is for him as artist the final, necessary, and supreme manner of bringing before our contemplation the Absolute and the soul of objects in general.

In that case the material, and therefore the form belonging to it, the artist carries immediately in himself as the proper essence of his existence which he does not imagine for himself but which he is.

In our day, in the case of almost all peoples, criticism, the cultivation of reflection, and, in our German case, freedom of thought have mastered the artists too, and have made them, so to say, a tabula rasa in respect of the material and the form of their productions, after the necessary particular stages of the romantic art-form have been traversed. Bondage to a particular subject-matter and a mode of portrayal suitable for this material alone are for artists today something past, and art therefore has become a free instrument which the artist can wield in proportion to his subjective skill in relation to any material of whatever kind. The artist thus stands above specific consecrated forms and configurations and moves freely on his own account, independent of the subject-matter and mode of conception in which the holy and eternal was previously made visible to human apprehension. No content, no form, is any longer immediately identical with the inwardness, the nature, the unconscious substantial essence of the artist, every material may be indifferent to him if only it does not contradict the formal law of being simply beautiful and capable of artistic treatment.

This scission marks too decisive an event in the destiny of Western art for us to fancy that we can have a total view over the horizon that it unveils; however, we can already recognize, among its first consequences, the manifestation of that fracture between taste and genius that we saw emerging in the figure of the man of taste and attaining its most problematic formulation in the character of Rameau’s nephew. So long as the artist lives in intimate unity with his material, the spectator sees in the work of art only his own faith and the highest truth of his being brought to art in the most necessary manner, and a problem of art as such cannot arise since art is precisely the shared space in which all men, artists and non-artists, come together in living unity. But once the creative subjectivity of the artist begins to place itself above his material and his production, like a playwright who freely puts his characters on the scene, this shared concrete space of the work of art dissolves, and what the spectator sees in it is no longer something that he can immediately find again in his consciousness as his highest truth. Everything that the spectator can still find in the work of art is, now, mediated by aesthetic representation, which is itself, independently of any content, the supreme value and the most intimate truth that unfolds its power in the artwork itself and starting from the artwork itself.

If the spectator recognizes in this absolute principle the highest truth of his being in the world, he must coherently think his reality starting from the eclipse of all content and of all moral and religious determination; like Rameau’s nephew, he condemns himself to seeking his substance in what is most alien to him. Thus the birth of taste coincides with the absolute split of “pure Culture”: the spectator sees himself as other in the work of art, his being-forhimself as being-outside-himself; and in the pure creative subjectivity at work in the work of art, he does not in any way recover a determinate content and a concrete measure of his existence, but recovers simply his own self in the form of absolute alienation, and he can possess himself only inside this split. The original unity of the work of art has broken, leaving on the one side the aesthetic judgment and on the other artistic subjectivity without content, the pure creative principle


Despite this original fault, and however contradictory we might find this, in the meantime aesthetic judgment has become the essential organ of our sensibility before the work of art. It has become that to such an extent that out of the ashes of Rhetoric it has allowed a science to be born for which, in its present structure, there is no equivalent in any other time. Moreover, it has created a figure, that of the modern critic, whose only reason for being and exclusive task is the exercise of aesthetic judgment.
This figure bears within its activity the obscure contradictoriness of its origin. Wherever the critic encounters art, he brings it back to its opposite, dissolving it in non-art; wherever he exercises his reflection, he brings with him nonbeing and shadow, as though he had no other means to worship art than the celebration of a kind of black mass in honor of the deus inversus, the inverted god, of non-art.


Gone is the time when the artist was bound, in immediate identity, to faith and to the conceptions of his world; no longer is the work of art founded in the unity of the artist’s subjectivity with the work’s content in such a way that the spectator may immediately find in it the highest truth of his consciousness, that is, the divine. As we saw in the previous chapter, the supreme truth of the work of art is now the pure creative-formal principle that fulfills its potentiality in it, independently of any content. This means that what is essential for the spectator in the work of art is precisely what is alien to him and deprived of essence, while what he sees of himself in the work, that is, the content he perceives, appears to him no longer as a truth that finds its necessary expression in the work, but rather as something of which he is already perfectly aware as a thinking subject, and which therefore he can legitimately believe himself capable of expressing.

Inalienable and yet perpetually foreign to itself, art still wants and seeks its law, but because its link with the real world has grown weak, everywhere and on every occasion it wants the real precisely as Nothingness: art is the annihilating entity that traverses all its contents without ever being able to attain a positive work, because it cannot identify with any content. And since art has become the pure potentiality of negation, nihilism reigns in its essence.

If the death of art is its inability to attain the concrete dimension of the work, the crisis of art in our time is, in reality, a crisis of poetry.

The essential character of poiesis was not its aspect as a practical and voluntary process but its being a mode of truth understood as unveiling, ἀ-λήθεια . And it was precisely because of this essential proximity to truth that Aristotle, who repeatedly theorizes this distinction within man’s “doing,” tended to assign a higher position to poiesis than to praxis.

In our time, the philosophy of man’s “doing” continues to be a philosophy of life.

All attempts to transcend aesthetics and to give a new status to artistic pro-duction have started from the blurring of the distinction between poiesis and praxis, that is, from the interpretation of art as a mode of praxis and of praxis as the expression of a will and a creative force. Novalis’s definition of poetry as a “willful, active, and productive use of our organs,” Nietzsche’s identification of art with the will to power in the idea of the universe “as a work of art that gives birth to itself,” Artaud’s aspiration to a theatrical liberation of the will, and the situationist project of an overcoming of art based on a practical actualization of the cre ative impulses that are expressed in art in an alienated fashion, are all tributary to a determination of the essence of human activity as will and vital impulse, and are therefore founded in the forgetting of the original pro-ductive status of the work of art as foundation of the space of truth.

And yet what the Greeks meant with the distinction between poiesis and praxis was precisely that the essence of poiesis has nothing to do with the expression of a will (with respect to which art is in no way necessary): this essence is found instead in the production of truth and in the subsequent opening of a world for man’s existence and action.

But how could we reproach or praise the universe?
Let us beware of attributing to it heartlessness and unreason or their opposites: it is neither perfect nor beautiful, nor noble, nor does it wish to become any of these things; it does not by any means strive to imitate man.
None of our aesthetic and moral judgments apply to it. Nor does it have any instinct for self-preservation or any other instinct; and it does not observe any laws either.

Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses. Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word “accident” has meaning. Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life.
The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type.

In the experience of the work of art, man stands in the truth, that is, in the origin that has revealed itself to him in the poietic act. In this engagement, in this being-hurled-out into the ἐποχη of rhythm, artists and spectators recover their essential solidarity and their common ground. When the work of art is instead offered for aesthetic enjoyment and its formal aspect is appreciated and analyzed, this still remains far from attaining the essential structure of the work, that is, the origin that gives itself in the work of art and remains reserved in it. Aesthetics, then, is unable to think of art according to its proper statute, and so long as man is prisoner of an aesthetic perspective, the essence of art remains closed to him.

This original structure of the work of art is now obscured. At the extreme point of its metaphysical destiny, art, now a nihilistic power, a “self-annihilating nothing,” wanders in the desert of terra aesthetica and eternally circles the split that cuts through it. Its alienation is the fundamental alienation, since it points to the alienation of nothing less than man’s original historical space. In the work of art man risks losing not simply a piece of cultural wealth, however precious, and not even the privileged expression of his creative energy: it is the very space of his world, in which and only in which he can find himself as man and as being capable of action and knowledge.
If this is true, when man has lost his poetic status he cannot simply reconstruct his measure elsewhere: “it may be that any other salvation than that which comes from where the danger is, is still within non-safety [Unheil].” Whether and when art will again have the task of taking the original measure of man on earth is not, therefore, a subject on which one can make predictions; neither can we say whether poiesis will recover its proper status beyond the interminable twilight that covers the terra aesthetica. The only thing we can say is that art will not simply be able to leap beyond its shadow to climb over its destiny.


Giorgio Agamben – The Man Without Content (Stanford University Press, 1999)