Doing (the) Nothing: Eric Santner and Giorgio Agamben on Suspending the Apparatus of Glory
I. Capitalist Liturgy and the Fetish of the Social
Prior to modernity, the production of glory was fixated on the King’s symbolic body, his second or glorious body. This second body divides and redoubles his real, physical body, endowing the King with the radiant aura of sovereignty, legitimacy, and power. Without the robes and pageantry, the splendor of ornament and gilded palaces, the hubbub of official and luxurious duties surrounding the throne, the King would be a lump of clay like any other.1placeholder But with the concentration of glory in his person, he is transferred onto a new plane of significance, inserted into the symbolic network that makes and maintains him as King, as the epicenter of the Kingdom’s meanings. It is this immaterial body in excess of his material body, that gives the King an air of divine magnetism and untouchability. Most importantly, this spectral body legitimizes him as an authority that can, in turn, legitimate the legal, economic, and communal relations among the people—for in him the people recognizes its own production and glorifies itself. The King’s glorious body is thus the epitome of the people’s labor and the reason for it.
The name for this glory-producing procedure is liturgy, which literally means “work of the people” (litos ergos). In religion, its manifestations are obvious: the formulaic and spontaneous prayers, the incense and prostrations, the procession of sacred objects and books, the ministers in holy robes, the flowers, the music, chants and songs, the shared meals, the lectio divina, the benedictions, and so on. And it is easy to compare the bowing of worshippers at the altar with the King’s servants bustling about his throne. The monks rise at 4 a.m. to chant Psalms and spend all their waking hours praising God; the King’s officers proclaim his infallibility and strain to draw closer to his influence. Both are obsessed with the glory that sweeps them up, that absorbs them in the movements and meanings of a higher power. Cognitive allegiance is not enough, for in the liturgy is a matter of producing the glory of what one glorifies—of actively endowing it with its aura of importance, power, and right, through acts that are equally physical and symbolic-spectral.
Though these operations are most clearly observed in the royal-religious sphere, it is essential to witness the extent of the liturgical as it persists into modern times. Indeed, everything changes once the King is dethroned, once the divine liturgy no longer fixates believers on the worship of God. With the loss of this liturgical locus, the legitimacy and position of the God-King as guarantor of social order is lost. His robes no longer convey the appeal of majesty, and he is powerless to convince of his power to order the cosmos. He not only stands naked, he is abandoned. But the Revolution destroys the God-King at a cost, for where will the people now recognize itself? For what and for whom will the People henceforth labor? For the social cannot do without its legitimizing body of glory. It cannot do without the glorious supplement, the symbolic-spectral double, that accompanies all its works, for this second body makes the social legible, legitimate, and meaningful.
To follow this evolution of glory and its production into modern times, Eric Santer turns to when popular sovereignty replaced royal sovereignty.2placeholder This coincides with the historical moment when the People’s labor is increasingly submitted to the profit motive of capitalism and, especially, the dimension of commodity fetishism. According to Santner, glory descends from royal transcendence into the realm of commodities, which then exert a magical power over us. Why? Because what attracts us in the commodity is the mass of abstract social labor it embodies. Its value pertains to “the expenditure of human labor in general,” as Marx writes: not only the sweat and blood poured into its production, but the social bond legitimating that production in general, the function formerly fulfilled by the King or God.3placeholder Hence, beyond any of its qualities, the commodity carries the spectral presence of the People’s labor. From this perspective, we can understand that the commodity is the specifically modern means of glory—though, much as in the King’s courts, its very shininess blinds us to its underbelly of abstract social labor. This commerce between abstract labor and commodity is of course based on “the perverse vitality of money qua symbolic medium of exchange” (50). Popular phrases like “Money is God,” “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” are recognitions in popular consciousness of who runs the show. The hustle for glory has become even stronger: as if each individual had taken on the responsibility of being both King and courtier, forced to minister to one’s own self-glory in order to legitimize the social world as a whole; or again, to become a commodity oneself.
In this evolution, the fetishism once aimed at royal and divine persons was displaced onto new sites of ecstatic union between political subjects, commodities, and spectacles, in a generalized movement of the fetishization of things and the glorification of abstract identities. What is fetishized in these commodities and spectacles, which never cease circulating and have nowhere to ‘fix’ themselves, is precisely the second body of the People. The spectrality of this body is made plain by all the channels, pages, games and walls that populate our screens, that addict us to the scroll, the viral story, the latest opinion piece, the latest scandal. But all this virtual activity also makes clear what an incredible amount of labor it takes to maintain it—to bear the weight of producing the People.
I will now follow Santner more closely to explore how, once capitalism is the religion, the liturgical process is “immanentized” into a universal busy-bodyness, a multiplication of capitalist liturgies at whose heart is the fetish of the social. I will then look at how this dynamic inscribes itself into our very flesh as its burden of symbolization, before concluding, with the help of Agamben and others, with some ways to conceive of “doing nothing” and suspending the apparatus of glory.
II. Vibrations of the Debt Drive
Emptying the throne and unseating the positions once held by gods and royalty, thus progressively destabilizing other social institutions, is part of a process often called disenchantment. But otherworldly spirits do not vanish in this secularization, nor are modern subjects less enchanted by the fetishes of glory. In this transition “from the glorification/valorization of sovereigns… to the self-valorization of capital,” there is simply a corresponding “shift to new forms of the production of glory, splendor, and valor” (73). We are under the spell of reason if we think we have overcome the mechanism of glory. The center of the machine has only lost its compact transcendence. An inversion has taken place, such that this disenchanted world “vibrates with a surplus of immanence” (80).
Vibration is an image Santner often uses to characterize modern labor culture as the immanentization of the need to deal with the “royal remains” left over from the King. These royal remains assail us and suspend us in a state of “petrified unrest,” such that even when our labor is meaningless, useless, or redundant, we are still producing the vibration of the social (82). Mass and social media play a large part in this buzziness, but they are only visible manifestations of a pervasive program. The non-stop, 24/7, no-sleep pace of the modern capitalist world is a “democratization” or “popularization” of the ideal of the rex exsomnis, the King that never sleeps (36). The busy-body must “discharge an excess of demand… that keeps us driven even when we are ostensibly ‘idling,’ keeps us negotiating even in the midst of otium” (80-81). The “liturgical hum” that once sustained theological sovereignty is now discharged into godless, commodity-producing labor. Its real product is not just goods and services, but the spectral materiality of the People’s second body, the modern equivalent of divine splendor. With no figure to settle the tension or relax the labor (239), there is only the chaos of Black Fridays in a dry succession. Our modern liturgies turn upon themselves in an endless cycle, producing the People’s fragmented, disparate second body. It is a recipe for endless dissatisfaction, for just as the Jesuits called for “the continual increase of the glory of God that can in no way be increased” (100), under capitalism the call is for the unlimited valorization of Value—unlimited increase in the splendor and wealth of the social body that supports the monetary/commodity/labor exchange.
The production of glory thus suffuses the very fabric of everyday life. Each body becomes the locus of the glorious body’s upkeep. Every social space becomes a site for it, and each of us works to maintain it “in excess of any apparent teleological order, work that [keeps] one busy beyond reason” (23). The result is “a ubiquitous pressure for productive wakefulness” so extreme that, for Santner, it is only during sleep that we “inhabit a truly human world, one not fully adapted to, (de)created for, the inhuman rhythms of 24/7 routines of work, consumption, connectivity, and vigilance” (34). The symptoms he spells out are well known: “constant production, consumption, communication, interconnectedness, interindebtedness, and profit-oriented self-management” (34). The modern subject’s flesh is invested with this debt drive, indebted to produce the People. The business of the busy-body is to ensure the social body doesn’t vanish into thin air and lose all consistency. No one can get away from the ‘office’, because the flesh itself houses it. Our wireless gadgets are but an outward manifestation of this constant, nagging, haunting imperative to produce a surplus value of sociality. That we work from a ‘home office’ only confirms the coincidence of these two orders, and the flesh bears the excess weight of social relationality at the intersection of household and globe (260). Even in our downtime, we entertain and are entertained by the radiance of abstract identity through all the channels of the culture industry. But whether we worship money directly or in a mediating commodity, what we love is the mass of abstract labor underneath it. Both laborious and liturgical, this worship reaches so far that society appears like one non-stop cult celebration of the spectral body of the social, to whatever degree it surfaces explicitly or is concealed beneath the products it produces.
III. The Apparatus of Glory and the Void of Justification
What we are fascinated with in the commodity or the spectacle is nothing less than this flesh of the people in its spectral materiality. Debord’s definition of the spectacle as a worldview materialized, a unification obtained in the language of universal separation, is confirmed here: in the fetish, the entire socius seems revealed.4placeholder To understand this “new form of business—of quasi-official busy-ness and busy-body-ness—[that] comes itself to function as the work of incarnation, as the production site of the flesh of the People” (26), we have to return to the King’s purpose, namely: to justify social space as such, its laws and normative rules. Because why, if so many suffer under this busy-ness, is it not abandoned like the old royalties? Because then the lack of ultimate foundations of human forms of life would be exposed. The originary and anomic violence upon which the juridico-social order and its laws are built would be revealed.
It is this dimension of juridico-political normativity, the violence of law itself, which the King’s “symbolic body” once served to conceal. This “law” is not just the laws upheld by the police and in courtrooms, but the entire field of socio-political normativity, including the etiquette and politeness we practice even when we don’t believe in them (83). These laws and norms do not function unless there is some “little piece of the real” to conceal the void at the heart of the law’s vicious circle, to conceal the fact that its legality is founded on something extra-legal. Once this “little piece of the real” is gone, the social world is opened up over an abyss, for then the violence at its origin is no longer concealed or justified.5placeholder Then it no longer has an excuse for its existence, no alibi to vouch for its forms—they are seen in their horrid contingency. But just as automatic chatter is preferred to uncomfortable silence, the social prefers whatever will mask this void—indeed, as we know from our own bouts of binge watching, etc., the content hardly matters so long as it distracts. Then, too, we are unbeknownst believers performing our capitalist liturgies, fetishizing the social, however illegitimate, in our own flesh.
We can now make this fundamental observation: Glory is an apparatus that captures this void, this originary lack or “inoperativity” at the heart of the social body, and conceals it; in doing so, it makes the whole apparatus shine with splendor, it puts this void to work.6placeholder
That is why no one needs a justification for their liturgies. They do not even need to think to slip into them, and personal intention is practically beside the point. The splendor that our micro-liturgies produce masks the fact that they are as immanently self-justifying as they are unconsciously servile. Rational explanations often only serve to occlude this brilliant heart. The splendor of glory, the chance to come close to it, is enough to prompt the continued production of the People, no matter the means. It is not just about wealth, social success, and the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. Glorification protocols under capitalism can be based on any mix of values, many of them contradictory; all that is relevant is the extraction of surplus-sociality as such. The quest for prestige, notoriety, fame and infamy, for a spectral body to haunt the socius with our meaning, is likely also at play in mass shootings and terrorist acts, but this exceeds my scope here.
IV. Between Soma and Norm, the Flesh of the Social
We can now take a closer look at the anthropology that allows this doubling, this in-dwelling of a concern for spectral glory in an otherwise material nature.
Following Santner, human life is distinguished by a gap that opens up in it between the somatic and the normative, between bare life and the worldly life into which it is thrown. This begins before the human child is even born. By dint of its name, it is inserted into what Lacan called the Symbolic. Biological life is “inflamed” by this insertion, and we work to give meaning to this social inflammation we did not choose (239). Because of this inaugural incidence of language (of human-social meaning, of ‘spectral realities’) on the living being, “social being determines our consciousness,” as Marx put it. Our life plays out at the intersection, at the jointure or break, between the natural and the worldly. At the same time, this distinction natural/worldly, material/social remains an unresolved question for us. The point here is not to draw attention to two static sides but to the machine that divides them. Being a human, inhabiting a world, having symbolic significance, would not be possible without this division.
For Santner, it is through our exposure to historical forms of life, through the amplification or “potentiation” of our vulnerable biological life, that the “flesh of creaturely life” unfolds, including all the labor it must undertake to “make sense” of this gap (84). We are endowed from the first with a kind of ghost, a surrogate to represent us at a distance in the minds of others, something that is only partially under our control. It can haunt and go viral unexpectedly, it has effects we could never enumerate or fully account for. This is our reality in the symbolic order of human meanings, and from it our responsibility flows. It is different from our physical body, yet all our physical acts contribute to it, since it is through it that we represent ourselves. At the same time, this insertion is never complete. Subjectivity is the tear in ontological completeness. Our being is never fully acquired, because something in our drive-base always misfires and escapes symbolization. The gap is never fully closed, the subject remains out of place. A hiatus persists between our physical and spectral body, though both dwell in and divide our one flesh.
Human flesh thus always involves this surplus of immanence or spectral supplement which makes it unequal to itself and thrusts it into the sphere of memories, hauntings, and afterlives, as well as rumor, reputation, and all the other mediations of the living human made possible by its social labor on texts, technologies, and other vibratory exchange-mediums (including voices and bank accounts). Flesh is not just brains and muscles, but these plus the weight of social relations. Thus the stress, the almost immaterial pressure, that bears in on us when we stand before a review board or in the immigration office. We feel the pressure of a “self-amplifying dynamic,” where “the ego is, in some sense, under constant pressure to live for the greater glory of the super-ego, to ‘fatten’ its status as Über-ich, which might indeed be better translated as surplus-ego” (99). Here the intrication of capitalist accumulation and ego-inflation is clear: both are submitted to the imperatives of spectral glory, of producing a glorious body. Whether or not these imperatives and the norms they shape are well-founded, they put us to work in a way that is not just physical or cognitive but “glorious.” The politeness a waitress must show her rude customers night after night condenses well the burden of this weight, the cost she must pay to vibrate with the busy-body rhythm of Capital. But because these forms of life are historical, they’re subject to break down any moment, to show their contingency and even their illegitimacy; they can be deactivated and reformed.
As creatures made up of spectral flesh, we feel more than just the pressure to uphold the norms of social life corresponding to our role and placement in it. We also feel the pressure of the void around which these norms orbit, “the lack of any ultimate grounding or authorization of those normative statuses,” and increasingly we feel the precarity and dispensability of our roles (84). But this void is terrifying. Exposed to it, our world threatens to fall apart. Santner calls formations of the flesh the ways in which this “ontological vulnerability” is covered up (92). The King covered this void in two ways: by veiling it (this is the immediate effect of the glorious body: to captivate) and by vouching for it (by backing whatever debt in the justification of society was outstanding). With the deposition of royal sovereignty, this function of veiling and vouching spreads itself across the whole fabric of the social, such that captivation and justification becomes an immanent practice, as we’ve seen. The “subject-matter” of the modern citizen-subject directly involves these formations of the flesh which labor over the legitimacy of those forms, for it is now the People’s body that must function “as glorious guarantor covering the missing link at the ‘anthropogenetic’ knotting of the somatic and the normative” (86).
Political economy thus pertains to the maintenance of the People’s Two Bodies: not just material life (the management of biological life and death) but also spectral life (the glory and spectacle of its symbolic, undead body). It inherits the duty to vouch for the normative order and its suture to the somatic, and thus to “redeem or indemnify” a lack at its origin (88). Biopolitics doesn’t just address man as species and population, but also in this dimension of flesh as the bearer of royal remains, for “the threshold of modernity is marked by the ‘massification’ of the physical-juridical flesh of the king, its dispersion into populations that for that very reason must be placed in the care of biopolitical administration” (89). Biopolitics, on this level, is the regime that justifies veils over the void and securitizes or funds them. Foucault even showed in his genealogical analyses that policing was originally conceived as, “the art of the state’s splendor as visible order and manifest force”: not just the maintenance of rule but the maintenance of glory (91). What appears to be “policing of empirical bodies and forces” conceals its liturgical dimension, for this often violent administration is also responsible for covering the void upon which social existence is built. Still, it is not just the police but every political subject who inherits responsibility for the People’s second body. All of us have a hand in it, for it is at stake in our own. This is what weighs upon us uncannily: the production and shaping of the glorious flesh of the social bond (99), the imperative to care for this “spectral flesh of the sovereign People” (86). To become more aware of these veilings and vouchings, especially as they have enmeshed our own flesh into unfreedom, is therefore a biopolitical task that is as critical as it is intimate.
V. For a Para-doxological Idle Worship
Santner sums all of this up under the heading of the doxological dimension of labor itself. Here, work is conceived as the performance of a liturgical practice, a “public service” concerned with the production and maintenance of this spectral materiality of glory, the glory of the social bond itself. Yet work proper is just one form of the doxology of everyday life (100). This logic of glory far exceeds rational self-pursuit, even if capitalism justifies its worship with this ideology. According to this doxology, the profit-motive itself is derivative of what matters most: to “vibrate” with the glorious body, in unison with this order of busy-body angels who no longer produce glory to God but the self-valorization of Value. Santner writes, “the labor theory of value is fundamentally a theory of the production of glory, of the liturgical dimension of labor performed in the service of the greater valor, glory, splendor, of Value” (115). Thus, any critique of political economy must be para-doxological, because it must work through the doxological dimensions of work.
Worshiping Value is not limited to its obviously monetary or commodity forms. It is present wherever the social liturgy is invested, wherever the fundamental void at the heart of social normativity is captured for a certain end, made to work and operate, to produce surplus values and surplus-egos. Capitalism is indifferent to the specifics of this labor and to where this liturgy is performed. All that matters is the quantity of value-producing labor, the “simple average labor” to which even the most complex labor is reduced (103, 106). What disappears in the commodity, what its fetishism denies or willfully overlooks, is this massive reduction of labor into a “gelatinous mass in and through which our sociality is constituted as a kind of quasi-religious, quasi-secular mass in the liturgical service of the self-valorization of Value” (106). This is why the “weightless” commodity exerts such an “enormous gravitational force on everyone and everything” (276). Santner calls the alchemy of capitalism this process whereby our bodily expenditure is reduced or abstracted to become a substance, not of raw resource or capital, but of splendor. Flesh and gold become interchangeable: both sparkle with the promise of an unlimited increase. Both are the “instrumental cause” of Value’s self-valorization (113). Both are fetishized for their possible shine, their glory-potency.
Everyone is forced to operate to produce the People’s body, whether or not our bodies can bear what this demands. This operativity, which weighs upon the flesh and which the flesh weighs, is at stake wherever the subject sustains-entertains the Agency of Value, “feeding it with the splendor of surplus value,” so as to effectively “enjoy its entitlements, its being in the Other” (102). Only those who help capital valorize itself and remain sovereign, who feed the machine of desire for Value and Glory, are worthy of reaping the benefits of the value produced (“pay the cost to be the boss”), just as only those who glorified God were worthy of reaping the benefits of his grace, or those who flattered the King could benefit from his privilege. Of course, this liturgical service is not optional, given that without reaping benefits one will be excluded from the social body and starve. Any critique of capital today must call for an interruption of its Wertesdienst and the glory-transferring dimension it sustains, where “each day commands the utter fealty of each worshiper.”7placeholder
Unfortunately, our conscious condemnation of nation-states, our dis-identification with the People, even our interventions into extant social organizations, do little to remove this demand, for it is unconscious. We act out symptoms in spite of ourselves. We can hardly help it, for the question of meaning plays out in this gap between the somatic and the normative. We are compelled to act upon the holes in the social’s justification and the debt drive felt deep inside us. And, as Freud learned, one does not “conceptually annul” a fetish. Critique must analyze the spell8placeholder cast by the doxological machine over everyday life, so that it can intervene into “the labor process itself along with the quasi-somatic, quasi-normative pressures informing it” (120, 87). Santner suggests a lived critical practice on par with a psychoanalytical working through:
“the often difficult, sometimes comical, and always repetitive emotional, cognitive, and practical reelaboration of the lived and embodied ways in which one participates in one’s own unfreedom, of the modes of busy-body-ness in which one’s capacity for freedom is held in a sort of suspended animation.” (263)
Alongside critique, however, Santner proposes a more positive project: a para-doxological “idle worship” that would be revolutionary in essence: a form of idleness, of non-capitalist and non-glory-producing worship that would “unplug” us from the constant vibration, that would pull the plug on “the machine that sustains the religious structure of capitalism” (114, 120).
What this entails, what we must induce, is a general strike against liturgical labor as such (both political and economic), so that the void, “the absence of purpose and destination proper to human life,” the fundamental otium or inoperativity that marks it, is no longer captured and incorporated into a separate sphere. This means introducing into social practices, into the buzzing formations of the flesh that serve the invisible hand of Glory and Value, a coefficient of non-doing, recognizing that humanity lacks any fundamental task or purpose (neither glorification of God nor expansion of Capital), and that man, “in his essence… is completely devoid of work [opera], because he is the Sabbatical animal par excellence.”9placeholder For us, “devoid of work” means: devoid of glory and sovereignty and without need of it, neither on the level of singular existence, nor on the level of communal achievement. Or again: that this human “inoperativity” is the only real sovereign form of glory…
VI. Clandestine Messianity and Its Imaginary Inaction
What would happen if we all joined in idle worship, a sabbatical idling? What manner of doing characterizes idling? What form-of-life can remain near to its own void, respecting the gap between soma and norm, material and immaterial, so that they can be articulated together without being exploited for a surplus value of glory in a separate sphere?
To answer this we must distinguish between ‘not doing anything’ and the doing that does (the) nothing—or that undoes what is done while doing it. Such a doing of nothing perhaps is counterintuitive. It seems to prescribe a void, or rather, the exhibition of the gap between soma and norm, the contingency of their link. This void or gap is where every form can be kept in contact with its potentiality-to-(not-)be. Agamben calls “contemplation” when our activity is not lost in its products but remains rooted in the possible; hence it is immanently revocable and so less susceptible to capture in an alienating apparatus.10placeholder The word contemplation is apt here, for it connects with more traditional forms of meditation and mysticism that also activate the nothing in us, or awaken us to the contingency or emptiness of all forms. However, it is important to remember that any form of post-religious mysticism will need to be highly attentive to how the apparatus of glory works. The ontological vulnerability spoken of above must be embraced, and this takes what Symington calls “mature religion” informed by psychoanalysis.11placeholder Otherwise, the contemplative gesture risks defaulting yet again into glorifying an illegitimate, fantastical sovereign.12placeholder Likewise, the post-religious contemplative can no longer rely on a retreat from the world, for under the modern conditions of sociality that is mere escapist delusion. The only viable option is to marshal old techniques of contemplation alongside new ones, e.g., psychoanalysis, as means of responsibly transforming the conditions of the reproduction of the social.
Doing nothing creates a para-doxical cause that is only relevant for its openness: it doesn’t work, it doesn’t add up, it is “good-for-nothing” and can succeed “at not being pictured” (270-1). This (non-)labor is for a different type of future, for a community not dedicated to erecting its own self-images and worshipping them but to constructing more valid and true flesh-formations that “heed the void” at their heart—and so avoid the false belief that they possess an infallible justification. Doing nothing works on the side of nobodies, the inglorious and excluded, raising its oath for the “league of the world-evicted” (Celan). For the nothing cannot be bought, sold or counted. It is inexchangeable, invaluable, a symbol of the priceless present.13placeholder It is an emblem of incompleteness, a redemption from value.14placeholder Doing nothing means working for or becoming no-one, that is, without extracting a surplus value or egoic splendor from that work. It can even be thought of as love: that humble gift of self that does not expect any return on investment, that does not need credit, that knows intimacy as a communion of nothings.
In any case, the idleness under discussion here should not be equated with a nihilism of relaxation, spectatorship, ironic distance, and laziness. We must keep from the apparatus of glory-production while also not vegging-out and abdicating our responsibilities for the social. As Agamben says, “Inactivity does not in fact mean simply inertia, non activity. It refers rather to an operation which involves inactivating, de-commissioning (des-oeuvrer) all human and divine endeavour.”15placeholder At the same time, doing nothing means understanding what one can not do, all the things one can abstain from. We must remember that inoperativity and putting to a new use go together: one can decline the buzz of instaculture and the mediatized game while also putting these social channels to a new, ‘inactivative’ use. Here, love of the social is no longer routed through spectacles, images, and egos that serve to mask the void at its heart. Idle worship implies finding those margins of resistance to the prevailing social liturgies and turning them into new centers of inoperativity wherein the void is not captured but remains in play, such that more and more, physical-nutritive and symbolic-spectral coincide. This helps free our flesh-formations from necessity and compulsion and renders them more proper to the destiny that is ours.16placeholder
The political difficulty is the seemingly quietist nature of idle worship, doing nothing, and contemplation—what Agamben would call their clandestinity. And yet it is precisely in this dimension of our “private life”—of corporeal life “and all that is traditionally inscribed in the sphere of so-called intimacy: nutrition, digestion, urination, defecation, sleep, sexuality”—that he says we must find the “political element that has been hidden.” To revivify the clandestine, the stowaway of the private, “We must change our life, carry the political into the everyday.” We must see that we bear the fate of the People in our flesh, even if “in the everyday, the political can only make shipwreck.”17placeholder
Perhaps what we need then is a non-Bartleby, borrowing his famous “I would prefer not to” but without yielding to the catatonia of one who is forcibly removed from the law office, only to die in an asylum somewhere. A non-Bartleby who has radicalized the “I would prefer not to” so much that there is no prohibition on work attached to it anymore. We might even imagine this with the help of complex numbers, which have real and imaginary components (a + bi).18placeholder “I would prefer not to” would correspond to the imaginary inaction: it leaves the real coordinates of work be, while simultaneously bending, sending, or otherwise redirecting them on a vector idleness, contemplation, inoperativity or clandestinity. This imaginal dimension adds to the work a factor of in-activity or zero-potentiality, turning it into a vector of abstinence or ‘invaluation’. All art that combats utilitarian schemas, as well as thought in general when it works at the determinate negation of false social forms, contains something of this imaginal vector.
Accepting the imaginary number as a constant in the human equation of labor could help us fulfill Santner’s wish to “strike something other than what’s there” (47). Properly understood, it can be identified with the “messianic dimension of human action,” what Bonnie Honig calls “Sabbath-power” (259). It pairs well with Agamben’s own advancement of the “messianic as-not,” which entails the “nullification of the entire subject,” its constant “revocation.”19placeholder The as-not treats all factical and juridical conditions as passing and so introduces a measure of dis-identification into all determinations. This ensures that one’s form-of-life does not petrify but remains inseparable from the living being who lives it. Somewhat similarly, Laruelle speaks of messianity as “a welcoming or unmoved Indifference” which does not need to act against Adversaries but deactivates the circuit of violence and repetition through the very weak force of its non-action.20placeholder At any rate, one goal of “messianizing” the subject is to forestall (super-)egological capture and to liberate labor from its glory-producing form.21placeholder Accepting a messianic-imaginal constant is also a para-doxological way to avoid the contradiction between teleology and the ateleological, allowing us to focus on concrete goals without falling into the trap of surplus value. It hearkens to the ancient ideal of Karma Yoga: to act for the good while renouncing the fruits of the action. Clandestine messianity thus inspires in us an ethic of quasi-anonymity, even of thankless labor and sacrificial love. With this coefficient of non-action, perhaps we can reattune all our interventions, envisioning if not an “unbusied” Bartleby as Honig suggests, then at least an unglorious one, who gives all glory away or disbelieves in it entirely.
Doing nothing, then, produces nothing even when it produces something. In such productions, we contemplate our own potentiality to do and not do, which is never exhausted in the actual. Once the “as not” is considered as a constant of human behavior, the Non- accompanies every work, undoing it from within, manifesting the unthinkable emptiness at the heart of human operations. Every purpose is to its repurposing, for the sake of life’s good infinity, not capital’s bad one. Even the parody of purpose, the insubordination of human worklessness, is intuited here in peace. This links our meditation up to play and fiction, to friendship without motives or end-games, as well as to festivals and other cultural encounters that create a space for communitas less subject to the debt drive. Put otherwise, doing (the) nothing means introducing a “negative” into the order of the positive that will act as a positive cause of the future, against the mere reproduction of the present or the past.
Whether as a hopelessly hopeful opening to the future (l’à-venir); as an inactivation that releases psychic and emotional potentials from unvirtuous habits and captivation in commodity fetishism; as a compassionate outreach uncontrolled by the surplus-ego; as non-acts that expose the violence of the world-machine and unmask its fantasies; as the fecund resource for the construction of truths; as the expansive restful awareness of invaluably beautiful, doing (the) nothing is powerful. In all these ways and more, we see that the restless tizzy of glory-producing behavior is a betrayal of the social after all. True faithfulness, the final loyalty of the messianic, points instead to the void of the sovereign-symbolic, a void that it is our duty to not veil but to bring to consciousness as unmasterable. Abiding with this void in the intimate-social, suspending the apparatus of Glory and the Value-imperative, we live such that soma and norm, life and its form coincide without remainder, in Sabbatical formations of the flesh that are less unfree and more possible—in which living itself is at stake.22placeholder
Adorno, Theodore. Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course 1965/1966, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2008.
Agamben, Giorgio. “Art, Inactivity, Politics,” in Politics: Criticism of Contemporary Issues, 2008.
Agamben, Giorgio. The Kingdom and the Glory, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.
Agamben, Giorgio. The Time That Remains, trans. Patricia Dailey. California: Stanford University Press, 2005.
Agamben, Giorgio. The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko. California: Stanford University Press, 2015.
Blanchot, Maurice. Thomas the Obscure, trans. Robert Lamberton. New York: Station Hill Press, 1988,
Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb. Nov 2023 access: https://www.csus.edu/indiv/o/obriene/art206/readings/debord-the_society_of_the_spectacle.pdf
Deleuze, Gilles. Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, trans. Anne Boyman. New York: Zone Books, 2005.
Laruelle, François. Christo-fiction: In the Ruins of Athens and Jerusalem, trans. Robin MacKay. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
Santner, Eric. The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Santner, Eric. The Weight of All Flesh: On the Subject-Matter of Political Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Sloterdijk, Peter. Nietzsche Apostle, trans. Steven Corcoran. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2013.
Symington, Neville. Emotion and Spirit: Questioning the Claims of Psychoanalysis and Religion. London: Karnac Books, 1998.
Verhaeghe, Paul and Declercq, Frédéric. “Lacan’s analytical goal: ‘Le Sinthome’ or the feminine way,” in: L. Thurston (ed.), Essays on the final Lacan. Re-inventing the symptom, pp. 59-83. New York: The Other Press, 2002. Nov 2023 access: https://paulverhaeghe.psychoanalysis.be/artikels/English%20symptom.pdf
This is why Lacan jokes, “A man who believes himself a king is mad, but a king who believes himself a king is no less mad.”
Santner, The Royal Remains, p. xv.
Santner, The Weight of All Flesh, p. 104. All page numbers in parentheses henceforth refer to this book.
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, sec. 9.
For René Girard, the murder that founds civilization was exposed in an unparalleled way by Jesus on the Cross. The blameless man condemned to death by the royal-religious power apparatus and its mob, is a potent symbol for the self-world relation under conditions of exploitation, injustice, and mimetic rivalry for glory.
Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory is an extended demonstration of this thesis. He concludes, “the governmental apparatus functions because it has captured in its empty center the inoperativity of the human essence. This inoperativity is the political substance of the Occident, the glorious nutrient of all power. For this reason festival and idleness return ceaselessly in the dreams and political utopias of the Occident and are equally incessantly shipwrecked there. They are the enigmatic relics that the economic-theological machine abandons on the water’s edge of civilization and that each time men question anew, nostalgically and in vain. Nostalgically because they appear to contain something that belongs to the human essence, but in vain because really they are nothing but the waste products of the immaterial and glorious fuel burnt by the motor of the machine as it turns, and that cannot be stopped.” p. 246.
Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, p. 88.
The spell was an important critical category for Adorno as well. He addresses its stranglehold thus: “The herd regards as witchcraft anything that differs from the prevailing reality; whatever is under a spell has the advantage that all the things that mean familiarity, home and security in the false world are themselves aspects of the spell. People fear that, in escaping from the spell, they will lose everything because they know no happiness, not even the happiness of thought, apart from the ability to hold onto something – unfreedom in perpetuity.” Thinking means lifting the spell: “it is not possible to think a right thought unless one wills the right thing [to happen]; that is to say, unless, underlying this thought, and providing it with a truly animating power, there is the desire that it should be right for human beings to enter into a condition in which meaningless suffering should come to an end and in which – I can only express it negatively – the spell hanging over mankind should be lifted.” Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics, p. 146, 53.
Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, p. 246.
One could fruitfully compare this to the move from belief in the Symbolic (symptom) to identification with the Real (sinthome). See Verhaeghe and Declercq, “Lacan’s goal of analysis: Le Sinthome or the feminine way”.
See Symington, Emotion and Spirit: Questioning the Claims of Psychoanalysis and Religion.
See Jean-Yves Lacoste, Experience and the Absolute, for another model of kenosis and the liturgical.
Jean-Luc Nancy is the preeminent thinker of the “invaluable.” See my Priceless Presents for a synopsis of that concept.
See Antonio Negri, Time for Revolution.
Agamben, “Art, Inactivity, Politics,” p. 139.
Agamben’s maxim is worth repeating here: “become what you can never be” or “be what you can never become.” Use of Bodies, p. 134.
Agamben, The Use of Bodies, p. xx-xxi. An intimation of Blanchot is in order here: “I had a part of myself submerged, and it was to this part, lost in a constant shipwreck, that I owed my direction, my face, my necessity. I found my proof in this movement toward the nonexistent in which the proof that I existed, rather than becoming degraded, was reinforced to the point of becoming manifestly true. I made a supreme effort to keep outside myself, as near as possible to the place of beginnings” (Thomas the Obscure, p. 97).
Adapted from Francois Laruelle, Christo-Fiction. See p. 23 for messianity and the imaginary number.
Agamben, The Time That Remains, p 23.
Laruelle, Christo-fiction, p. 114.
In future work, this notion of messianity should be brought into conversation with Nietzsche’s own strike. For while he might seem to be maximally captured by the machine of egological glory, underneath his exorbitant “self-praise” there is rather, as Peter Sloterdijk has written, a celebration of “foreignness”, the “hetero-narcissistic” discovery of himself as a body resonant with countless past and future othernesses (Sloterdijk, Nietzsche Apostle, p. 81); this tarries quite well with the Messiah as a self-emptied point of pure loving relationality. Likewise, as Gilles Deleuze points out, in Nietzsche’s philosophy of affirmation the power of negation reaches a kind of zenith: “Zarathustra is pure affirmation but also he who carries negation to its highest point, making of it an action, an agency that services he who affirms and creates.” For Zarathustra, the negative subsists “as the mode of being of the one who affirms… like the total critique that accompanies creation” (Deleuze, Pure Immanence, p. 83).
See again Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, pp. 247-251.