I have just finished my second major study of the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben, Agamben and Indifference. As I think Agamben has been widely mis-read and my work benefits from the most recent books by Agamben which set the record straight, I though it would be worthwhile posting the basic definition of Agamben's work that makes up the first page and a half of that book. Here it is, in miniature, all you need to know about Agamben. I swear to it!
Introduction to Agamben's Philosophical Archaelogy
I will commence with an unambiguous statement summarising Agamben’s base position as I see it across the totality of all his published works. Agamben’s philosophical project is the making apparent and then rendering indifferent all structures of differential opposition that lie at the root, he believes, of every major Western concept-signature or discursive structure. In this manner his philosophy can be termed a form of metaphysical critique that argues all abstract concepts are only quasi-transcendental, in that they are historically contingent not logically necessary. As such Agamben willingly participates in a tradition that includes Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze and Derrida, thinkers he regularly engages with. Where he differs from all of these is that he is not a philosopher of difference in any way we take this term to signify within the tradition to which I have just alluded. Arguably all his predecessors undermine philosophical structures of consistent identity through the valorisation of difference in some form.
Agamben, however, insists that the difference is as much implicated in the system of metaphysics as that of identity. If, he argues, identity structures are historically contingent, not logically necessary, then so too are differentiating structures, which can then further be said to be complicit in metaphysics, not a means of overcoming it. Rather than undermining identity with difference, therefore, Agamben reveals that identity and difference themselves are not necessary terms but historical contingencies, that in fact they form one single entity within our tradition, what I will call identity-difference, and based on these observations one can suspend their history of opposition by rendering them indifferent to each other.
For Agamben self-identical full presence, what he calls the common, is a discursive entity not an actual state. Difference, what he calls the proper, is the same. Further, concepts are no longer to be taken as identity-concepts, ideational structures possessive of communal consistency around an agreed set of referents that can be held under the same conceptual heading, but identity-difference-concepts that have a historical moment of arising when they become active, a mode of distributing this activity to control large and stable discursive formations over time, such as language, such as power, such as poetry, such as glory, and an almost fated period of indifference where the clear definitions of the system either break down, or can aggressively be shown to be assailable contingencies. The method of tracing these moments for the purpose of suspending identity-difference constructs, what he calls signatures, is an overall methodology that Agamben names philosophical archaeology.
The extent of this archaeology is such that even the terms identity and difference, the founding terms of Western thought and logic, are mere historical presences to him. The implication being that there was a time, permanently inaccessible to us now as totally non-communicable, when we thought, spoke and acted otherwise, and there could be a time when we think, speak and act without a sense of identity, difference, or their opposition. Such a mode of thinking-after-indifference, meaning both thinking that ‘takes after’ or resembles indifferential structures and also a thinking that comes subsequent to them, is the best summary we currently have of his work’s lasting originality.