Agamben, Giorgio. The Man Without Content. 1994. Georgia Albert, translator. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999.
I initially felt that The Man Without Content was less careful than some of Agamben’s other work, more rhetorical, less attentive to its source texts, a difference that I attributed to the fact that it was his first book. As I let myself linger over it, however, the force of its argument began to impress itself on me, and I felt that I needed to go over some of its ideas again, which is what I have tried to do below. I have no guiding argument or thesis for these reflections, only that they are the ideas that have clung, for lack of a more definitive word, to my thinking ever since I finished the book.
1) Agamben establishes a distinction between a present and a historical relation to the work of art. He says that “The work of art is no longer the essential measure of man’s dwelling on earth” (33); that it “was not always an autonomous sentimental tonality and the particular effect of the work of art” (34); that it “does not satisfy the soul’s spiritual needs as it did in earlier times” (40); and that it “is no longer […] the concrete appearance of the divine” (41). In each of these instances, and several more besides, his language insists on a temporal disjunction between a former relation to the work of art that “no longer” is what it was “in earlier times” and a present relation to the work of art that “was not always” what it is. His tone in these passages, and indeed the project of the entire book, is in this sense unapologetically nostalgic. It looks for a return to a certain stance before the work of art that once was but no longer is.
2) The present stance before the work of art understands art as “a privileged occasion to exercise […] critical taste” (41). “Our tendency toward reflection and toward a critical stance,” Agamben says, “have become so strong that when we are before a work of art we no longer attempt to penetrate its its innermost vitality, identifying ourselves with it, but rather attempt to represent it to ourselves according to the critical framework furnished by aesthetic judgement” (40). This critical judgement, however, “everywhere and consistently, envelops art in its shadow” (43), because “every time aesthetic judgement attempts to determine what the beautiful is, it holds in its hands not the beautiful but its shadow” (42). The result of this critical distance is a strict division between the spectator, who regards the work of art as a privileged object for the exercise of aesthetic judgement, and the artist, who regards it as the pure expression of the formal principle.
3) Agamben describes the historical stance before the work of art as providing “the essential measure of man’s dwelling on earth,” insofar as it puts “man’s activity in tune with the divine world of creation” (34), and he consistently returns to this kind of spiritual language when he describes the work and the function of art, referring to it as “the concrete appearance of the divine, which causes either ecstasy or sacred terror in the soul” (41), and as “founded in 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” (47). His references to this spiritual function of art, which are always closely related to humanity’s essential dwelling in the world and belonging to the world, are not strictly speaking theological in the sense of being in the service of any definite theology. Rather, their function is to describe what is for Agamben the essential function of art: its ability to bring something “from concealment and nonebeing unto the light of presence” (59), which is to participate in the divine act of creation.
4) In fact, this idea is definitive of art for Agamben. Every art, he says, is “production into presence” (59), by which he means pro-duction as poesis, an idea that he contrasts with reproduction as praxis. The production of poesis is creative, bringing non-being into being, whereas the reproduction of praxis is active, merely maintaining existence.
5) By bringing non-being into being, poesis also brings humanity into being. “Man has on earth a poetic status,” Agamben says, “because it is poesis that founds for him the original space of his world. Only because in the poetic he experiences his being in the world as his essential condition does a world open up for his action and his existence. Only because he is capable of the most uncanny power, the power of production into presence, is he also capable of praxis, of willed and free activity” (101). The creative production of poesis does not overcome or replace the active reproduction of praxis, but in fact founds it, places it in the world. “By opening to man his authentic temporal dimension, the work of art also opens for him the space of his belonging to the world, only within which he can take the original measure of his dwelling on earth and find again his present truth” (101), and in this sense, “The gift of art is the most original gift, because it is the gift of the original site of man” (101).
6) The idea of temporal dimension in the preceding quotation plays a particularly important role in Agamben’s understanding of how the work of art grants the original dwelling place of man. In his own words, “To look at a work of art means to be hurled out into a more original time: it means ecstasy in the epochal opening of rhythm, which gives and holds back. Only by starting from this situation of man’s relationship with the work of art is it possible to comprehend how this relationship – if it is authentic – is also for man the highest engagement that keeps him in the truth and grants to his dwelling on earth its original status” (102). I do not think that I am entirely able to follow Agamben’s argument here, but he seems to suggest that the experience of the work of art is an experience of being outside of linear time, of being thrown into a time that is not subject to chronology, but is instead governed by the work of art’s own giving and holding back, what Agamben calls rhythm.
7) In this experience of the work of art as poesis, as a production into presence that grants humanity’s dwelling in the world through an experience of originary time, Agamben claims that the role of artist and spectator are at last returned to solidarity, because they are no longer able to maintain anything like critical or aesthetic distance between themselves or the work of art itself. “In the experience of the work of art,” he says, “man stands in the truth, that is, in the origin that has revealed itself to him in the poeitic act. In this engagement, in this being hurled into rhythm, artists and spectators recover their essential solidarity and their common ground” (102). Put in terms of his earlier concern with the way that critical distance divides the work of art either into an object of criticism or an expression of formal principle, he says, “The work of art is neither a cultural value, nor a privileged object for the spectators, nor the absolute creative power of the formal principle; instead, it situates itself in a more essential dimension, because it allows man to attain to his original status in history and time in his encounter with it” (101).