December 30, 2021
Diacritics is 50: A golden anniversary is a significant milestone for any academic publication, let alone one that began from a rather eccentric (dare I say punk?) ethos. Rather than the usual toasts or special commemorative issues, we have asked our readers and writers to reflect on the history of the journal. For the fourth part of our anniversary series, Ben Koonar has translated the late Jean-Luc Nancy’s lecture “Restitution,” which in turn takes on Giorgio Agamben’s lecture “Towards a Theory of Destituent Potential.”
Translated by Ben Koonar
Translator’s Acknowledgments: “Restitution” was first published in French in: Politique de l’Exil. Giorgio Agamben et l’usage de la métaphysique, edited by Anoush Ganjipour, 181–96. Éditions Lignes, 2019. Thank you to John Paul Ricco for sending me a copy of the original French text of “Restitution,” for proposing the idea of a translation, and for editing multiple drafts. Thank you to Fredrik Hayward, Aiden Tamašauskas, and Kaspars Reinis for their edits, and to Phillippe Theophanidis and the members of the Agamben Reading and Working Group at the University of Toronto for reading and discussing a draft of this translation.
With thanks to Michel Surya at Éditions Lignes and Valeria Bonacci at Polemos.
In memoriam Jean-Luc Nancy, who gave his consent for this translation before his passing in August 2021.
The title clearly replies with humor to “destitution.” This latter term is the guiding thread in the most explicitly political aspect of Giorgio Agamben’s thought. Aside from the texts in his written works that were dedicated to it, destitution is also the theme of a lecture delivered in Tarnac in 2013, titled “Towards a Theory of Destituent Potential.” That text will be guiding my observations here.
If restitution is the topic here, this is certainly not to undo or overthrow destitution. That would initiate a vicious cycle. Instead, it is meant to restore the question known as “destitution” to its proper context, to better situate it. Restoring to resituate. The common situation or site for those of us concerned with that thing named “politics” is one of general disengagement. As regularly comes to pass, epochs are configured: ours is one of disengagement, distrust, or disregard for politics. Its expressions are diverse: some want to reopen or reinvent politics, others to bypass it, some want to retire it, others displace it—and this last term is one of the operative terms in the text after which I orient myself here. As always, the epochal configuration brings forth a symptom that is both powerful and revelatory: we’ve all known for almost half a century that politics has been caught in a deep tectonic movement, its continent both pushed aside and at the same time largely covered by the technoeconomic continent. In these troubled waters stir worrying and enigmatic figures, democraships [démocratures] or telecracies, and above all vegetate, or even rot, the forms called “republic,” “councils,” “communism,” and quite simply, “politics.” It is with respect to this situation that I would like to consider Giorgio Agamben’s distinct move, what distinguishes it from and makes it resonate with others.
In his lecture, where destitution is the main concept, he states: “It seems to me that it is this destituent potential that 20th-century thought tried to think, without ever really succeeding.” He clarifies that he is not certain whether he has achieved it himself and highlights the difficulty involved. What I would like to do here will amount less to measuring his success or failure than to examining the very conditions of the enterprise.
Before proceeding, I must point to a second meaning of my title. The title has to reach beyond itself, for in fact it is also a matter of bridging the opposition between restitution and destitution. On the occasion of this study, in which I am myself included, I would like to at least signal in the direction of that which lies beneath every institution, constitution, destitution, restitution, substitution, and prostitution: that is, stitution itself. As I have suggested elsewhere regarding struction, I think it can be interesting to consider a semantic resource stripped of its declensions. In a sense, to do so is to turn from modes to substance, and the question of modal ontology, at issue in Agamben’s text, should be considered. For the moment, I only want to point out that stitution, deprived of lexical autonomy, conveys nothing other than to stand, standing, standing alone, or making stand. Stasis, stele, statue. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has worked thoroughly on stele and installation—Heidegger’s Gestell. We are all more or less connected through a distrust of the stable, installed, erect—and let us say the word, the State. It so happens, however, that the famous stasis to which Agamben refers designates stability, just as much as the arrest, suspense, and the crisis of civil war. Likewise for us, medical or libidinal stasis designates a suspense, a bottleneck, and a crisis.
Generally speaking, we can say that there is an ontological and technological crisis inherent to stasis. Which means also a rhythm, an alternation between the stand and its own tension that must be considered in full standing—the right station of man as well as his erection, or that of a statue, or the establishment of the stato that appears with Machiavelli and that one must hold or maintain (mantenere il stato) because it is fragile or labile. It is normal for the stato to be so, for it establishes itself through plays of force—so long as it lacks a superior (divine) authority. It seems that the stato, whichever it may be, political or otherwise, is always suspended between status nascendi and status moriendi. There lies food for ample reflection.
For us today, at least this: when speaking of destitution, we can stay inside the modal system or we can go beyond it. In the first case, we destitute what has been instituted. This destitution inscribes itself in a constitution. There is a right of destitution for the occupant of any magistracy or position. This right implies the subsequent substitution for another occupant. For example, and almost at random: the Military Committee destitutes the Provisional Government and substitutes it with the Soviet of Petrograd, which Lenin in turn destitutes in statu nascendi to substitute it with a Military Committee. Destitution inscribes itself in an institutional (that is, constitutional) ensemble, and this ensemble is itself in suspense or rocking incessantly from institution to destitution.
In passing, I’d like to point out the series of subtractive or defective denominations that have been forced onto the subject of the State: disappearance, decay, destruction. In this way and in many others, politics and/or political thought appear as a field of permanent destabilization, where a prolonged hesitation between the three terms persists nonetheless. Disappearance would precede reappearance as the impregnation of every sphere of existence (what the young Marx wishes for); destruction is most often that of an old apparatus for which a new machine must be substituted; decay attests to a process of “falling asleep,” as Engels puts it, where the State is sunk by an “administration of things” that makes it rot. Engels emphasizes that decay is distinct from abolition. Which is also distinct from destitution for Agamben. He underlines it: to destitute is not to abolish. It is to “deactivate.” Later we will see more clearly the difficulties with the term which undoubtedly best conveys this conception of destitution.
Before taking another step, I would like to insert a remark that I have already made elsewhere: the proliferating use of subtractive or defective terms marks in all evidence the epochal configuration that I spoke of earlier. From deconstruction—stemming from the Heideggerian Destruktion—to désoeuvrement (inoperativity, which we will come back to), and from dis-enclosure to destitution, not to mention other privative terms like “impolitical” or “inaesthetic” and, in passing, “subversion” and “denunciation,” “dépassement” (excess) or “displacement” (which we also find in the text under examination)—all this outlines a Carte de Tendre: the map of a disenchanted affect determined to defy what Agamben designates as the “capture” of life itself and thus its detainment. I am tempted to see in this lexicon of de-nominations the hint of a desire to escape nihilism from inside of nihilism itself. A Nietzschean precept that I find very valid but that does not any less require an affirmation that doesn’t limit itself to denunciation.
Now to present a second hypothesis, rendered necessary by the fact that destitution seems quite distinct from the other modalities that have been evoked. Indeed, if destitution excludes abolition, this does not mean that it calls on an organic process and the growth of an “administration of things.” Certainly, we might ask if the latter does not shape in some respects the current process of expanding global interdependence, that is, of interconnection (technical, numerical, and entrepreneurial), in front of and in which politics decays. Is this how one should understand, at least in part, the displacement Agamben advocates? This is a question that can be better examined later.
Let us move on to the other hypothesis: that destitution concerns stitution itself, and not any of its modes. Put differently, destitution concerns the semantic and ontological resource of “standing” and “standing alone” as such. In contrast to Spinoza for whom it is a question of substituting one institum for another, as François Zourabichvili has analyzed closely, Agamben seems to want a displacement that would not institute anything other than more displacements and, as he puts it, a “habitual use of potential”—which is to say, the continual exercise of forming a form-of-life (thereby also trans-forming it).
What does it mean to touch on stitution, or if you’d like, to touch on stasis itself, in its double meaning of stand and crisis? In ontological terms, and in express reference to Spinoza, it means to touch on sub-stance. Yes, it is understood that sub-stance “is nothing but its modes.” Hence, one must at least grant that sub-stance is “being nothing but.” Agamben discusses the rapport between substance and modes in terms of “being” and he is right: how else to speak of ontology? It is true that all of this takes place in the manifest wake of the Heideggerian deconstruction of ontology. Though it is not announced as such, the text deploys a very obvious stenciled copy of the formula for the “meaning of being” discussed in Being and Time when the text speaks of “a life for which, in its mode of living, life itself is at issue.” The life in question is substituted for being to better emphasize the vital potential, or we might say, the animation that requires taking a risk, and also to perhaps repel the substantial threat of “being” as such.
Yet this is exactly Heidegger’s proposal: to remove all substantiality from being. I will not dwell on Heidegger’s enterprise. I only note that in Agamben, life replaces the series of processes that are: putting under erasure, the writing of Seyn, and above all, though least visibly, the call to treat the verb “being” exclusively in an asyntaxical manner as a transitive verb. I issue these reminders only to point out how “life” introduces here its unknowable and auto-affective character—which will define use for Agamben in distinction from the relation to an object or work, and from mastery or domination.
In this way destitution touches on stasis and stance: it must touch on every kind of being as position and achieve a displacement of, as he puts it, “the very site of politics” toward other sites that will no longer be sites but forms-of-life. Later we will come back to this connection to Heidegger.
This displacement is also a matter of achieving anarchy and anomie. It is extremely difficult because politics, in the same way that it stems from a capture of life, has also captured anarchy and anomie. In politics, anarchy becomes what, for a long time now, has been described with the oft-cited phrase “established disorder” (after Emmanuel Mounier), while anomie is figured as the law of exception in exception to the law—the instrument of sovereignty that forms the supreme agent of capture. Therefore, Agamben explains, we must “first deactivate the anarchy and anomie captured by power.” “Deactivate” introduces a new privative concept for which we obtain very few directives. We might think that deactivation is the exact corollary of recovered life and thus the activity par excellence as use of a proper form.
Above all, the concept of deactivation helps corroborate the affirmation that destitution is not a matter of abolition. Where and how subsists what has been deactivated? That question remains unasked. On the one hand, we might be tempted to think that it does not really subsist at all, and from an ontological point of view, the refusal to distinguish being or substance from entities or modes tends towards this conclusion. From the political point of view, however, it is harder to conceive of this non-subsistence-without-abolition. Agamben either points us towards far-removed forms of society whose example, assuming we know how to interpret it, hardly suggests that it should be taken up again in the modern context (or at least predicts its eventual decay, which has yet to be rendered plausible), or he suggests instead, as I have already mentioned, a kind of coexistence between forms-of-life that are “true” (such as how he speaks of “real anarchy” all while citing right afterwards the expression “controlled anarchy” deployed for a “vernacular” society in Illich’s sense; the term “control” would merit some reflection).
Therefore, it is not at all easy to superimpose modal ontology and displaced politics since what seems to play easily with ontology collides (with pretty severe imprecision) with politics—at least as long as its name is maintained in displacement and through destitution. It would be necessary to either reduce the discrepancy between the two planes, or to justify it.
To shed more light on the parameters of the problem, it is helpful to trace at least in broad strokes the operations through whom we have arrived at what Agamben himself identifies as the ultimate form of his enterprise: to think a political organization that does not organize forms-of-life because they are, by definition, auto-organizing, or “already completely organized in themselves.” We can see that in this case, we are dealing with a living form-of-life, one might say. Put differently, it really is life—uncaptured life—that organizes itself like living species, varieties, and individuals do. That is where the ungraspable property of life and its auto-affection reside; where the organization’s potential resides. (Here we might return to the connection drawn by Kant between revolutionary transformation and organization).
So, what are the operations preceding the presentation of destitution and its entirely different organization? We can certainly count many, but I must restrain myself here. I will raise five motifs and endeavor to treat each one in a schematic manner.
The first preliminary is negative: it pertains to the absence of any consideration for the appearance of politics itself and for the conditions of that appearance. Here Agamben risks sharing what Arendt calls “the fundamental prejudice” that declares, “politics has always existed.” To which Arendt objects that “on the contrary, Aristotle is in general the origin of the word (politics).” I find it difficult not to share her view, short of stating clearly that we extend the word “politics” to encompass every type of functioning collectivity. That is ultimately what Agamben tends to do. Granted, he specifies that for him it is a question of “Western politics,” but that is the very point that Arendt touches on. “Polis” and “West” are as synonymous as “philosophy” and “West.”
What is the polis if not that which invents itself when forms of collective organization grounded in religion disappear, decay, or are destituted (encompassing under this term sacrificial, sacred, theophanic or theocratic, shamanic or consecratory forms)? In all these forms, organization and law are attributed with sacred authority. Or more precisely, what makes something “sacred” is the fact of being given: this “being given” arises from an immemorial, unassignable gift. Politics, in contrast, is defined by the not-given, just as philosophy is defined by the not-given of principles and ends. Politics derives from this escheat. We can understand that politics appears as “capture” from the fact that there is suspense, retreat, and the necessity to invent. This is called “isonomy”, “city”, “magistracy.” We organize what the organism has depleted.
That is why the question of the sacred character of power and the question of civil religion have not stopped haunting history and politics right up to the very end that, maybe, we are traversing. Agamben, meanwhile, does not think in this direction. Still, it is through recourse to Judeo-Christian references that he establishes the principle of inoperativity, in whose name he mobilizes destitution. We will come back to this later.
The second preliminary pertains to the major affirmation: politics captures life and separates it from itself, that is, from its forms. Life is included in politics through the exclusion that constrains it.
Life is not political on its own, he affirms. Its capture politicizes it. I struggle to understand how the return to a life gifted with its proper forms (with its true anarchy and anomie) could lead to a displacement of politics. We would have to understand this displacement as a metamorphosis. That is why elsewhere it is a question of “the” political, a sort of subtle essence that “Western politics” has captured. . . On “the” political I will not linger any longer. I myself have dealt with it and finally recognized its obscure character. If “the” political designates every aspect and every form of coexistence, it mixes with ontology. For the moment let us leave this point.
Capture is characterized by the erasure of particular conditions for the benefit of a general citizenry. The particular, tied to the oikos, assumes a divided life. Zôè, life of upkeep and reproduction, is separate “from bios, from political life.” This schema is seductive but does not correspond to what we find in Aristotle (to limit ourselves to him) nor to what can be reasonably conjectured. On the one hand, the oikos is already a kind, if not a form, of government. Aristotle writes specifically that the oikos is like a monarchy. Which means that we must ask if there is any sort of group without even the slightest in-stitution or con-stitution. Once again, we touch on the question of “politics” in its broadest sense (say, for instance, “non-Western”). We also touch on the question of an ontology of being-among-many. Must the stasis, the putting into crisis of the city, be understood as the demarcation and “threshold of politicization” (as Agamben puts it), or as stasis, crisis, and tension within the possibility of any “ensemble” whatsoever from the moment it is no longer held by a sacred authority?
On the other hand, Agamben correctly points out that bios politikos is only possible in the city. However, bios politikos represents just one possible form of bios: the others are the search for pleasure and the search for happiness (a fourth, the search for riches, is mentioned peripherally, with disdain). All forms of life take place in the city, but only one is dedicated to the city as such. The one that detaches itself as bound for sophia represents the most proper destination of man.
Agamben neglects this proper destination (whose final nature will be called “divine” by Aristotle) even though everything suggests that he conforms to it himself. On this point, he parts ways with Aristotle. Aristotle asked if man, in distinction from all other living beings, could be deprived of ergon, a proper task, and be argos, without proper work. Agamben takes up the word argos and turns the hypothesis that Aristotle had presented as untenable into a thesis. Yes, Agamben affirms, man can be without work, or more precisely, it is up to him to “unwork works” (the operative side of destitution).
The word argos signifies “sterile,” “incapable,” even “lazy” or “inept,” more so than simply “without task” (since it is as task, as the accomplishment of a goal, and in short, as technique in general, that “work” here is understood). Aristotle did not employ the famous word skolè that corresponds fundamentally to what Agamben calls “inoperativity.”
I move on for reasons of brevity. There is a second way, connected to the first, that Agamben spins Aristotle—which everyone can do as much as they please but nevertheless raises a problem. Agamben retains from Aristotle the word Eudaimonia to designate the end of all forms of bios. This word is translated as “happiness.” The translation poses considerable problems, as is well known. I limit myself to pointing out the daimôn—divine or demonic—in the word. We can go so far as understanding the daimôn to be the idea of a propitious trick initiated or propelled by a good spirit. There we find the asymptote to the divine character of the theoretically supreme life. How exactly do Aristotle’s and Agamben’s perspectives diverge?—is the question that I limit myself to asking.
The third preliminary comes later in the lecture, according to which history, after the Greek and philosophical capture of life, indeed reached another threshold with Christianity, from which in turn the sense of destitution could be discovered. This relates to Paul, who is considered to have accomplished the messianic tradition by affirming the deactivation of the law. In other words, “the destitution of the works of power, not simply their abolition”; or “being in the world, not of the world.” This formula bears a cardinal directive for our entire tradition. It has been a continuous thread in our thought, even that of Descartes, who sought nothing other than to change and purify our gaze on the world. Nietzsche approves of it when he speaks of an “experience at heart.” Agamben moves in this direction when he says that one must “learn to make use of his condition, that is, to deactivate it and render it inoperative in relation to oneself.” For example, to stick with the last example that Agamben takes from Paul, “buying a house as if not possessing it” (in truth, the specification “house” comes from Giorgio). Deactivation is a spiritual operation: for Paul, it is a matter of “using the world as though not using it, because this world in its present form is passing away.” Is deactivation capable though of political destitution (or the destitution of politics)? Is deactivation a matter of unworking the works of power (as has been suggested) or of all works?
A question emerges from the use of the term “inoperativity”, introduced long ago by Blanchot. This use points toward the work being made inoperable, from inside the work, by the work—the work rendering itself inoperative. Regarding this motif Blanchot scolded me (not without reason) for speaking of an “inoperative community” without having envisioned the communal work that could render itself inoperative. I abandon this question, which is premised on an entirely different consideration of the very idea of work, not to mention the distinction that we’ve already touched on between works “of power” and other works. I would prefer to take up another important point: Agamben clarifies that Paul does not represent all of Christianity. On the contrary, Paul “completely betrayed” the message of its founder. Notice the practically obligatory recurrence of this theme in the history of Christianity. We might call this the anabaptist theme: the message has to be rebaptized, its purity found again; that of a communism or of inoperativity, of poverty or of a Christ without doctrine (according to Nietzsche). Recurring anabaptism looms behind every deconstruction or destitution of Christianity, and has a remarkable impact that must be interrogated. It is carried by Agamben to the level of general “archeology,” which consists of “returning to a certain arché, a certain historical a priori, and trying to neutralize it.”
If we can and must interrogate the auto-deconstitution of Judeo-Christianity, and through it, metaphysics, can we identify one or two of the “historical a prioris” at which to aim the decision to “neutralize”? Here we have Greek politics, Aristotle’s argos, and the Pauline katargein of the law as the decisive points that we must revisit to untangle the conditions for a non-betrayal of “modal ontology.” One must admit that this strongly resembles what historians call “counterfactual history,” or history according to the “as if”: as if Aristotle had not chosen logos over argos, as if Christianity had not overwritten Paul with good works…
This way of using history—and texts—as though not using them raises a few problems. We might think it is stuck in a certain Heideggerian way of thinking the anteriority of a relation to being which might have overwritten and forgotten the course of Western destiny. This connection is established precisely because Agamben speaks of ontology, refers to Heidegger and two of his descendants (Schürmann and Foucault), and finally, when speaking of use, brings up the Heideggerian term Brauch.
Brauch is the fourth preliminary that I want to evoke. In the Tarnac lecture, Brauch is not mentioned. The Heideggerian use of the term is discussed in The Use of Bodies (83 ff.) and there was no place for this very technical discussion in the exoteric lecture in Tarnac. When discussing use, employment, and the recourse to the Heideggerian Brauch, Agamben takes it for an ontological motif. For Heidegger, being “makes use of” entities, or as he specifies in Interpretation of Anaximander and Parmenides through recourse to the Augustinian frui, being “enjoys” entities. Agamben asks what it could mean for being to make use of entities. He thinks that Heidegger reduces use to production in the sense of the Aristotelian energeia, and that it is, therefore, in the order of this ergon, about deactivating as argon, as we have seen.
I will not enter into a reading of Heidegger’s text, which says something quite different from what Agamben believes he finds. I only want to note that the question “What does it mean for being to make use of entities?” receives a response in Heidegger—or rather, a sort of para-response—that is not insignificant. Here it would be necessary to cite and analyze many other texts, especially those from the most recent collection The Black Notebooks (aside from his antisemitism that is well-known, perhaps at the heart of a secret hyper-Judaism). I limit myself to saying that as in Interpretation of Anaximander, the texts speak of the exact opposite of productive work. Just one example: it can be said that the use in question consists of calling to silence.
What seems important is the ontological stake. By proposing that being makes use of entities, Heidegger attempts to shift being from its substantive status to its only (real) verbal use (as he puts it elsewhere), and to understand the verb “being” as transitive. “To use” or “to make use of”, “to enjoy something,” is a daring form of this transitivity. I say “daring” for I concede that there remains an enormous amount to discuss beginning from there. But we must underline that what takes shape is an attempt to resolve the problem of “modal ontology”—that is, the very meaning of “being” in such an ontology. If the substantive verbalizes itself, and if the verb operates only as a call to silence from and to the entity—silence that should resonate through existence—there is no need to modalize a substance. Instead, we must begin to contemplate the fading of the ontological difference.
According to what Heidegger called the “identity of identity and difference” (a formulation that Agamben seems to have forgotten when, in his presentation, he reduces the ontological difference to the opposition between identity and difference), “being” does not differ from what was or what is. Or more precisely, it differs only in that imperceptible différance that Derrida proposes. The différance indicates what we might call an amuïssement (that is, a habitual erasure of a phoneme—for example, in French, a silent e) in “being” itself. (That is why there is no ontology in Derrida).
At stake is what Heidegger himself called “the authentic unity” of the ontico-ontological difference (Beiträge 132) or what he sometimes refers to as the disarticulation of the word “onto/logy.” Agamben’s enterprise proceeds, like Derrida’s, from this cue. All of us are held by its implications and exigencies, and we must explore it further. With the analyses that I have just sketched out, I wanted to show that the project of destitution elicits the rise of a spirit or a spiritual call, an “experience at heart” whose challenge must be met, and at the same time the risk of closing ontology on a biology in which life would accede no more than substantial being to its own amuïssement—to silence and death silently inscribed within it. An onto-bio-logy that is itself divided. In the same stroke, destituted and displaced politics would be bound to the juxtaposition of two politics or two senses of the word: a city gifted with laws and works, and forms of life that are enigmatically happy.
No criticism in this conclusion, as if I had anything better to propose. I don’t have better, I simply think this is one way of exposing this very common difficulty. Not the difficulty of an alternate or displaced politics, but first and foremost that of a being or spirit attentive to its proper stasis, to the pulsation and trembling of its ex-position.
 Translator’s note: In the original French the title of Agamben’s lecture is: “Vers une théorie de la puissance destituante.” A transcript of Agamben’s lecture in the original French can be found in lundimatin 45, January 25, 2016 and here on their website. An Italian version of the lecture, titled “Elementi per una teoria della potenza destituente,” appeared in Pólemos 1 (2020): 109–24. Both the Italian and the French seem to have been written by Agamben himself. As we can see from the two titles, the French word puissance corresponds to the Italian potenza. Throughout “Restitution,” I have rendered puissance as “potential” (and not as “power”). As Cesare Casarino explains in the first Translator’s Note to the essay “Form-of-Life” (Means Without Ends), potenza conveys potentiality and decentralized force, whereas potere conveys a centralized, institutionalized, sovereign strength. More information on the rendering of key terms between the Italian, English, and French in Agamben’s texts on destituent potential can be found here. Thank you to Philippe Theophanidis and John Paul Ricco for their guidance on this matter. An English translation of Agamben’s lecture was published as “Towards a Theory of Destituent Power” in Environment and Planning D 31, no. 1 (2014).
 Translator’s note: Although most technical terms have been rendered consistently, I have sometimes translated tenir as “standing” and other times as “holding.” The choice hinged on readability and/or the prepositions bearing upon the verb. The noun tenue, rendered consistently as “stand,” should also convey “a manner of standing and holding” and “garb.”
 Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics (Shocken Books, 2005), 116.
 In fact, the question of a double meaning of the word “politics” already crops up in Aristotle, since, on the one hand, political science is the highest science of everything concerning human activity, while on the other, “political life” is just one of the possible forms of life in the city. . .
 That is the reason why I chose to base my discussion on the lecture: Although it leaves out many rich analyses present in the books, it offers a strong and precise account of the overarching goal of Homo Sacer.