January 6, 2021
When the House Burns Down
Translated by Kevin Attell
Originally published as: Giorgio Agamben, “Quando la casa brucia,” Quodlibet, October 5, 2020, https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-quando-la-casa-brucia.
“There is no sense in anything I do, if the house burns down.” And yet it is exactly while the house is burning that one must carry on as always, must do everything with care and precision, perhaps even more diligently—even if no one notices. Perhaps life will disappear from Earth leaving no memory of what was done, for better or for worse. But you must carry on as before; it is too late to change; there is no more time.
“For what’s going on around you / is no longer your concern.” Like the geography of a country that you must leave forever. And yet, in what way does it still matter to you? At this very moment when it is no longer your concern, when everything seems finished, all things and all places appear in their true colors, touch you more closely somehow—just as they are: splendor and poverty.
Philosophy, a dead language. “The language of poets is always a dead language . . . oddly enough: a dead language that is used to give greater life to thought.” Perhaps not a dead language but a dialect. The fact that philosophy and poetry speak in a language that is both more and less than language is the measure of their standing, of their special vitality. To weigh and judge the world by measuring it against a dialect or a dead—yet nevertheless fresh—language where there is no need to change even a comma. Continue to speak this dialect, now that the house is burning.
Which house is burning? The country where you live or Europe or the whole world? Perhaps the houses, the cities have already burned down—who knows how long ago?—in a single immense blaze that we pretended not to see. Some are reduced to just bits of frame, a frescoed wall, a roof beam, names, so many names, already eaten by the flames. And yet we cover them over so carefully with white plaster and false words that they seem intact. We live in houses, in cities burnt to the ground as if they were still standing; the people pretend to live there and go out into the streets masked amid the ruins as if these were the familiar neighborhoods of times past.
And now the form and nature of the flame has changed; it has become digital, invisible, and cold—but exactly for this reason closer still; it encircles and envelops us at every moment.
Civilizations—barbarisms—have gone under never to rise again, and historians are used to marking and dating caesuras and wrecks. But how does one bear witness to a world that goes to its ruin with blindfolded eyes and its face covered, a republic that collapses without lucidity or pride, in fear and abjection? The blindness is all the more desperate, for the doomed believe they can steer their own wreck, swear that everything can be kept under control technically, that there is no need for a new god or a new heaven—merely prohibitions, experts, and doctors. Panic and deceit.
What would a God be to whom neither prayers nor sacrifices were offered? And what would a law be that knew neither command nor execution? And a word that neither signified nor commanded, but held itself truly in the beginning—indeed, before the beginning?
A culture that feels itself to be at the end, with no life left, does what it can to govern its ruin through a permanent state of exception. The total mobilization in which Jünger saw the essential character of our time must be seen from this perspective. People must be mobilized, must at all times feel themselves to be in a condition of emergency, regulated in the minimum details by those who have the power to decide on the emergency. But while in the past mobilization had the goal of bringing people closer together, today it aims to isolate and distance them from one another.
How long has the house been burning? How long ago did it burn down? Certainly a century ago, between 1914 and 1918, something happened in Europe that threw everything that still seemed whole and alive into the flames and into madness; then, once again, thirty years later, the blaze broke out everywhere and since then has not ceased to burn, without pause, quietly, barely visible below the ashes. But perhaps the fire began long before that, when humanity’s blind drive toward salvation and progress joined with the power of fire and of machines. This is all well known and need not be repeated. Rather, we must ask ourselves how we continued to live and think while everything burned, ask what remained somehow whole at the center of the blaze or at its edges. How were we able to breathe amid the flames, what did we lose, what piece of wreckage—or what illusion—did we cling to?
And now that there are no longer flames, but only numbers, figures, and lies, we are certainly weaker and more alone, but with no possible compromises lucid like never before.
If it is only in the house in flames that the fundamental architectural problem becomes visible, then you can now see the stakes of the story of the West, what it sought to grasp at all costs and why it was destined to fail.
It is as if power sought at all costs to seize hold of the bare life it has produced, and yet as much as it tries to appropriate and control it with every possible apparatus—no longer just the police but also medicine and technology— bare life cannot but slip away, since it is by definition ungraspable. Governing bare life is the madness of our time. People reduced to their pure biological existence are no longer human; the government of people and the government of things coincide.
The other house, the one in which I will never be able to live but which is my true house; the other life, the one I did not live while I believed I was living it; the other language, which I spelled out syllable by syllable without ever being able to speak it—so much mine that I will never be able to have them. . . .
When thought and language are divided, we believe it possible to speak while forgetting we are speaking. Poetry and philosophy, while they say something, do not forget that they are speaking; they remember language. If we remember language, if we do not forget that we can speak, then we are freer, not confined to things and rules. Language is not a tool; it is our face, the open in which we are.
The face is the most human thing; the human has a face and not simply a muzzle or a snout because we dwell in the open, because in our faces we expose ourselves and communicate. This is why the face is the place of politics. Our impolitical time does not want to see its own face; keeps it at a distance, masks and covers it. There must be no more faces, only numbers and figures. Even the tyrant is faceless.
To feel oneself living: to be affected by one’s own sensibility, to be delicately given over to one’s own gesture yet unable to assume it or avoid it. Feeling myself living makes my life possible, even if I were closed up in a cage. And nothing is so real as this possibility.
In the coming years there will be only monks and delinquents. And yet it is not possible simply to draw oneself aside, to believe one can pull oneself out from underneath the rubble of the world that has collapsed around us. For the collapse matters to us and calls to us; we, too, are only a piece of that rubble. And we will cautiously have to learn to use it in a more just way, without being noticed.
Growing old: “growing only in the roots, no longer in the branches.” Sinking down into the roots when there are no longer flowers or leaves. Or rather like a drunken butterfly flitting about what has been lived through. There are still branches and flowers in the past. And you can still make honey of them.
The face is in God, but bones are atheist. Outside, everything pushes us toward God; inside, the stubborn, mocking atheism of the skeleton.
The fact that the soul and body are indissolubly conjoined—this is spiritual. The spirit is not a third term between the soul and the body; it is only their helpless, wonderful coinciding. Biological life is an abstraction, and it is this abstraction that we presume to govern and take care of.
There can be no salvation for us as individuals; there is salvation because there are others. And this is not for moral reasons, not because I should act for their good. Only because I am not alone is there salvation: I can be saved only as one among many, as an other among others. Alone—and this is the special truth of solitude—I do not need salvation; indeed, I am properly unsavable. Salvation is the dimension that opens because I am not alone, because there is a plurality and a multitude. Becoming incarnate, God ceased to be unique; he became a man among many. This is why Christianity had to bind itself to history and follow its fortunes to the end—and when history dies out and decays, as today seems to be happening, Christianity, too, draws near to its end. Its unhealable contradiction is that it sought, in history and through history, a salvation beyond history, and when this ends the ground beneath its feet disappears. In truth, the Church was allied not with salvation but with the history of salvation, and since it sought salvation through history, it could not but end in health. And when the moment came, it did not hesitate to sacrifice salvation to health.
We must pry salvation from its historical context, find a plurality that is not historical, a plurality as a way out of history.
To exit from one place or situation without entering into other territories, to leave an identity and a name without taking on others.
We can only move backward toward the present, while in the past we walk directly on. What we call the past is nothing but our long backward movement toward the present. Separating us from our past is the first resource of power.
What frees us from weight is breath. In breath we no longer weigh anything; we are pushed along as if in flight beyond the force of gravity.
We must learn to judge anew, but with a judgment that neither punishes nor rewards, neither absolves nor condemns. An act without goal, which removes existence from all finalities, which are necessarily unjust and false. Merely an interruption, an instant balanced between time and the eternal, in which flashes up the faint image of a life without end or plans, without name or memory—and is thus saved, not in eternity but sub specie aeternitatis. A judgment without preestablished criteria and yet political for this very reason, because it restores life to its naturalness.
To feel and to feel oneself, sensation and auto-affection, are contemporaneous. Every sensation entails feeling oneself feel; in every sensation of oneself there is the feeling of something else—a friendship and a face.
Reality is the veil through which we perceive the possible, what we can or cannot do.
It is not easy to know how to recognize which of our childhood wishes have been fulfilled. And above all, whether the share of fulfilled wishes standing beside what cannot be fulfilled is sufficient to convince us to go on living. We are afraid of death because the share of unfulfilled wishes has grown beyond all possible measure.
“Oxen and horses have four feet: this is what I call Heaven. Putting a halter on horses and piercing the nostrils of oxen: this is what I call human. This is why I say: do not let the human destroy the Heaven within you; do not let the intentional destroy the Heavenly.”
In the burning house, language remains. Not language but the immemorial, prehistoric, weak forces that guard and remember it, philosophy and poetry. And what do they guard, what do they remember of language? Not this or that meaningful proposition, not this or that article of faith or of bad faith. Rather, the very fact that there is language, that without name we are open in the name, and in this open, in a gesture, in a face we are unknowable and exposed.
Poetry, the word, is the only thing left to us from when we did not yet know how to speak, a dark song within language, a dialect or an idiom that we are unable to fully understand, but which we cannot but listen to – even if the house is burning, even if in their burning language people continue to talk nonsense.
Is there, though, a language of philosophy, as there is a language of poetry? Like poetry, philosophy dwells entirely within language and it is only the way of this dwelling that distinguishes it from poetry. Two tensions in the field of language that cross each other at a certain point only then to tirelessly separate themselves. And whoever speaks a right word, a simple, fresh word, dwells within this tension.
Those who realize that the house is burning can be led to look with disdain and contempt upon their peers who seem not to realize it. And yet won’t these people who do not see and do not think be precisely the lemurs to whom you will have to answer on the last day? Realizing that the house is burning does not raise you above the others: on the contrary, they are the ones with whom you will have to exchange a last glance when the flames draw nearer. What will you be able to say to justify your supposed conscience to these people who are so unknowing that they almost seem innocent?
In the burning house you continue to do what you had done before— but you cannot avoid seeing that the flames now show you bare. Something has changed, not in what you do but in the way in which you let it go in the world. A poem written in the burning house is truer, more right, because no one can hear it, because nothing ensures that it can escape the flames. But if, by chance, it finds a reader, then that reader will in no way be able to draw back from the apostrophe that calls out from that helpless, inexplicable, faint clamor.
Only someone who is unlikely ever to be heard can tell the truth, only someone who speaks from within a house that the flames are relentlessly consuming.
Humankind today is disappearing, like a face in the sand erased on the shore. But that which is taking its place no longer has a world; it is only a bare life, mute and without history, at the mercy of the calculations of power and science. Perhaps it is only beginning with this ruin that something else can one day slowly or suddenly appear—not, to be sure, a god, but neither another human—a new animal, perhaps, an otherwise living soul. . . .