“Political Myth: An Archaeology of Magical Language” (October 2016)
This project is a response to Agamben’s Homo Sacer project, particularly his early conclusion that the Muselmann is final form of Western political subjectivity, and that the camp—concentration, detainee, refugee—is the final form of Western ‘community’ (Homo Sacer 1, Sovereignty and Bare Life, and Homo Sacer 3, Remnants of Auschwitz, respectively).
In Political Myth, I focus on Homo Sacer 2.3, The Sacrament of Language, where Agamben locates the supposed structure of this subjectivity and communal formation in the ancient institution of the oath. On Agamben’s reading, the oath is that formula that holds the world together by tying words to things in semantic regularity; the opposite is blasphemy (Sacrament of Language 40-1). As I argue, however, the presupposition that words and things pre-exist the oath in order to be joined through them is a product of his theory of modern subjectivity, in works such as Language and Death and Infancy and History, where the modern subject is infans—conceived of as essentially lacking in his speech. Following Agamben’s own theory of “philosophical archaeology”, a method originally developed in Kant and Foucault, I argue that Agamben has produced the figure of homo sacer—and the entire history based around this figure—as the fundamental collation of Western thought. However, this means that a different figure and different archaeology could show the Muselmann and the Camp to be non-necessary, even if the history traced by these others have traditionally been fringe of figures of the Western community.
Thus, I follow an original insight from Foucault’s Order of Things in order to undertake a parallel, or rather perpendicular, archeological investigation which takes as its model of subjectivity that much more archaic figure of the homo magus, the magician, rather than homo sacer, the bio-political citizen. Agamben reads the ancient oath as a process of consecrating one’s self to the gods—making sacer—though as I argue, this is already a monotheistic understanding of order, which denies the possibility of multiple gods, multiple sources of order, being called to ‘bear witness’ at the scene of the oath. The paradigm of subjectivity I am seeking, homo magus, and its history, when placed alongside Agamben’s archaeological history, reveals a trans-historical process of shoring up the philosophical against the mythical, the utopian against the heteroclite, the demos against the xenos, and the ‘real’ against the ‘fictional’. This process of defining the subject and the shape of knowledge—what Foucault means most generally by ‘archaeology’—is exemplified in any concrete community by what Ernst Cassirer calls its ‘political myths.’ Thus, political myth is an important locus that urgently needs re-examination today if we are to avoid the biopolitical fate Agamben has spent the last twenty years defining.
In light of Cassirer’s intimation that the entire history of philosophy has been a single protracted effort to separate itself from myth and magic (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 2, xiii), homo magus turns out to be the figure who, throughout history, has been a threat to knowledge, order, and piety in a community. In contra-distinction from Agamben’s homo sacer, at whose heart is a separation from its life, labor, and language, homo magus is one whose language is inseparable from its being, and is the opposite of the infans; for this reason, the magician has consistently been viewed as the threat to Western sovereignty and communal security. This threat bears an interesting structure: one the one hand, the magician is the one whose words are efficacious, while on the other, she is the essential liar. To hold both at once reveals the fundamental power of the ‘curse’ in Western thought. In contrast to homo sacer’s structure– as one who can be killed but not sacrificed for the sake of the community– homo magus is that figure who cannot speak Truth, but must nonetheless be consulted for the sake of the community. Drawing upon Cassirer’s connection between magical speech and political myth, I seek to develop a framework for confronting a political landscape increasingly characterized by the clash between sacral and magical speech.
In conclusion, I give a reading of Foucault’s ‘pure theory of language’ that argues for ‘mythation’ as a fundamental practice of shared language and culture, one that must be pursued self-consciously today, even by philosophy, if our communities are to remain self-responsible.