Persisting Uncertainties (by Arne De Boever)

In January 2004, the Italian professor of aesthetics Giorgio Agamben published a short article in the French newspaper Le Monde in which he explained why he had cancelled the course he was scheduled to teach at New York University that semester. The reason was a new regulation that required all people traveling to the United States with a visa to be fingerprinted and put on file when they are entering the country. Agamben considers such regulations to be part of what the French philosopher Michel Foucault called governmentality’s bio-politics, or the ways in which power by means of “dispositifs” of all kinds (electronic, technological, mediatic, and so on) attempts to rule over the biological life of the people. Against such inhuman and exceptional measures to politicize life, Agamben insists on the indeterminacy of life itself, which as “whatever being” poses a challenge to identitarian categories and has the potential to unify all of humanity in its disjunction from the State.

Although Agamben’s revolutionary universalism and the community it promises may turn out to be false and may as such require a more careful thinking about politics (as literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in a recent conversation with philosopher Judith Butler has suggested), it nevertheless marks an important change in theoretical thinking that can perhaps best be illustrated through a brief juxtaposition of the diverging commentaries on Franz Kafka’s story “Vor dem Gesetz” (“Before the Law”) that the dominant theoretical paradigm of the second half of the twentieth century, namely deconstruction, and the emerging post-deconstructive paradigm have produced. Kafka’s story, which was published both as a separate story and as part of his famous Der Prozess (The Trial), features a man from the country who wants to gain access to the law but is prevented from doing so by an imposing doorkeeper. The man from the country waits patiently, and steadily grows older, only to find out in the moment of his dying that the door is being closed and that he will never pass through it. Because of Jacques Derrida’s commentary on the story as well as the importance of the story for the work of various other deconstructive thinkers, Kafka’s enigmatic account of the man from the country’s fruitless negotiations with the law has become a parable for the ways in which deconstruction theorizes life’s relation to the law. For deconstruction, the law is always already in place. There is no “before” (understood in a temporal sense) the law; rather, one is always already “before” (this time understood spatially) the law. There is no life outside the law. My interest here is not so much in whether such a caricature of deconstruction does justice to the various theoretical accounts of life’s relation to law that deconstruction has produced (I don’t think it does); I want to focus, rather, on the counter-commentary to this story that Agamben has provided, and in which he reads the waiting of the man from the country as nothing less than a patient strategy to have the door of the law closed. After this has been achieved, life will be liberated from the law. Much like Don Quixote’s sidekick in Kafka’s other parable “The Truth about Sancho Panza,” life will be able to philosophically follow the law around and get from it a great entertainment until the end of its days.

Importantly, Agamben’s version of the story does not argue for a priority of life to the law. Rather, it undermines deconstruction’s insistence on the law’s priority to life by drawing out life’s surviving relation to the law. It is only after the door of the law has been closed that life will enter into freedom, and that (according to Agamben) a true politics will become possible. If deconstruction remains stuck in the paralyzing uncertainty of negotiation, the new paradigm that is developed by Agamben (and also by thinkers such as for example the French philosopher Jacques Rancière or the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek) does not overcome this paralysis by giving us certainty – it does not provide access to the law. Rather, it lets the uncertainty of the law persist, but in a wholly different way that reveals the man from the country to insist on it because it opens up possibilities for resistance. We are therefore not only talking here about an uncertainty that persists, but about an uncertainty whose persistence is worth insisting on because it holds the potential of resistance. Agamben calls this resistance “messianic” in order to draw out its revolutionary relation to the “closed” transcendental of the law. At least one critic of Agamben, the Greek-American literary theorist Stathis Gourgouris, has argued that to do so means to privilege what the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser in a famous text about ideology called “interpellation” over the human being’s capacities to make her/his own life (even if s/he does not entirely make it as s/he pleases, as Karl Marx already wrote). For Gourgouris, this capacity to make one’s own life is antithetical to the theological. By calling it “poetic,” he lays bare art’s revolutionary relation to the State and thus also its increasing proximity to life in what Agamben has convincingly shown to be a bio-political era.

It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that artists living and working today would have decided to bring together some of their work – painting, sculpture, performance, installation – under the title “Persisting Uncertainties.” For too long now, art has been considered as merely one of the excesses of a society that has grown too rich to remain limited to the useful. Art has existed as a byproduct of capitalism for too long. There is a reason why Plato banned the poets from his ideal Republic, and that reason is that art represents a kind of uncertainty that is not of the order of mere negotiation but resembles, rather, a decision – provided this term is understood here not in a decisionist sense but as a decision on and for the uncertain, as an insistence on the uncertain as the marker of a radical disjunction from which something other than capital – nothing less than a true politics – can persist. In a world in which such an uncertainty, which is the uncertainty of life, is labeled terrorist and targeted by the exceptional and inhuman measurements of power, art becomes the revolutionary form within which life can hold its ground against bio-power. In such a vision, there is almost no longer a distinction between life and art but rather art and life co-incide in such a way that they come to share a revolutionary relation to power. Life has remained mute in the face of power for too long; in this show, art provides the form of its response.

Arne De Boever did his doctoral studies at Columbia University in New York and is currently Assistant Profeesor of American studies in the School of Critical Studies and the Graduate Program in Aesthetics and Politics at the California Institute of the Arts.