Adam Kotsko. 2020. Agamben’s Philosophical
Trajectory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Agamben, Kotsko, Potentiality, Museification, Homo
Sacer, COVID-19
A Thousand Agambens to Replace the One We Have
Tim Christiaens
Review of
Krisis 42 (1): 134-139.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 License International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2022 The author(s).
Whoever has read a Giorgio Agamben chapter or essay has probably wondered about
one of his peculiar stylistic habits: he often writes disconnected paragraphs on widely
diverging topics. On a single page, he mixes a philological remark about Aristotle, criti-
cisms of Hobbes, and Benjaminian musings about divine violence. Nonetheless, readers
are always struck by the intuition that these disparate paragraphs evoke a unied argu-
ment. They never doubt that these statements have a single clear message, however dis-
connected their topics. Agamben freely associates across the history of Western thought,
yet every statement forms a microcosm bearing the signature of the entire chapter.
Readers themselves are consequently tasked with reconstructing the underlying idea
that animates these diverse remarks. They take on the role of psychoanalysts decoding
the sentences as symptoms of an implicit apparatus pulling the strings from behind a
curtain of words. This temptation to decipher an arc-text behind Agamben’s explicit
discourse has convinced many interpreters to look for a single philosophical problematic
not only in Agamben’s essays or chapters, but also in his overall philosophical oeuvre.
Leland De La Durantaye, for instance, argues that Agamben’s philosophical trajectory is
one singular sustained meditation on potentiality (De La Durantaye 2009). He argues
that Agamben journeys through metaphysics, political philosophy, and linguistics to
ultimately come to terms with what it means for a human subject to have the potential
to do something and to have that potential taken away from them when they are
reduced to the status of bare life. Sergei Prozorov, on the other hand, reads Agamben’s
itinerary as a persistent attempt to escape sovereign politics (Prozorov 2014). In this
reading, even books on arcane topics in animal biology or theology serve to reect
upon the political opportunities to escape the power of the State. Agamben himself
has encouraged such readings by often presenting his oeuvre as if it were motivated by
a single purpose. In the epilogue of The Use of Bodies, for instance, he writes that he
wanted to “call into question the place and the very originary structure of politics, in
order to bring to light the arcanum imperii”(Agamben 2015, 263). After all, one does not
write a multiple-book project spanning 20 years and 9 books if one does not believe to
be engaged in a single philosophical inquiry.
Such readings have become troublesome during the last few years due to the
Corona Pandemic. Agamben has become notorious for his criticisms of governmental
policies like lockdowns, vaccination requirements, and social distancing.1 There are
clear similarities between Agamben’s opposition to these policies and his critique of
modern biopolitics in books like Homo Sacer, so one cannot simply dismiss Agamben’s
controversial political interventions as somehow unrelated to his overall philosophy.
There is no way of distinguishing clearly between Agamben the philosopher and
Agamben the person in this debate. It is thus tempting to re-read Agamben’s entire
oeuvre as a preguration of his political missteps today. If Agamben’s critique of modern
biopolitics leads to wrongheaded opinions today was Agamben’s approach then not
absurd all along? The pandemic subsequently becomes the new arché-text for the inter-
pretation of Agamben’s philosophical development (cf. Bratton 2021). The downside of
A Thousand Agambens to Replace the One We Have
Tim Christiaens
this approach is that other, more interesting potential readings of Agamben’s oeuvre are
marginalized in favour of one master narrative.
Adam Kotsko’s Agamben’s Philosophical Trajectory, however, takes aim at this
monolithic interpretive strategy. He even chooses not to mention the Coronavirus
Pandemic to avoid such kind of distractions. The aforementioned reading strategy
ignores the multifarious shifts and turns in Agamben’s philosophical career and even
in the “Homo Sacer”-project itself. Agamben frequently changed his mind about the
ordering of the books in the overall project, often rephrased earlier arguments to t
newer concerns, and he even added chapters to Stasis and The Use of Bodies at the
very end, when the project was published separately in an omnibus edition. These are
not signs of a man who, with the publication of Homo Sacer in 1995, knew exactly
how the project would end in 2014. Nor is it very likely that Agamben would have
already developed his entire philosophy from the start of his career, as some claim. Many
concepts vanish or are rearticulated over the course of a career that spans more than 50
years. Whoever reads about Aristotle’s distinction between potentiality and act in The
Man without Content, Agamben’s rst book, will not recognize the “ocial” Agambenian
interpretation from almost 30 years later. Concepts central to his thought at some point,
like “Voice”, “whatever being”, or “testimony”, simply disappear in later books.
Kotsko chooses a dierent approach to writing an overview of Agamben’s
oeuvre. His concern does not rest on the discernment of a single philosophical
apparatus animating all of Agamben’s individual writings. Other interpreters tend to
reduce Agamben’s books to steps in a uniform argument about a single problematic,
like potentiality, anti-sovereign politics, or pandemic biopolitics. But, if this were truly
possible, then why would Agamben ever have written more than one book? If all his
texts amount to the same argument anyway, it seems that Agamben could have spared
himself the trouble of publishing almost 40 books. Kotsko, on the contrary, has read all
books in chronological order and simply reports his ndings without striving toward
a unied message. Aided by personal conversations with Agamben, he carefully tracks
the multiple thought processes, the promising hypotheses, and creative conclusions, but
also the mistakes, hesitations, and inconsistencies across Agamben’s texts to highlight
the discontinuities. Kotsko’s meticulous reading dismantles all hope of nding a single
arché-text in Agamben. He rather divides Agamben’s philosophical trajectory roughly
into four periods, though he emphasizes that there is never any hard break akin to a
Heideggerian Kehre. Old thoughts or assumptions never truly disappear, but become
rearticulated into new contexts. Likewise, concepts that seem to be new are often
already signaled in earlier texts without being fully elaborated upon.
In the rst phase, between the 1960s and ‘80s, Agamben is an almost aggressively
apolitical thinker interested in art and linguistics. If one would stop reading before the
‘90s, there would be no way of guessing that Agamben would become one of the most
famous political theorists today. He was entirely enveloped in philosophy of art and
the establishment of a so-called “general science of the human” built on a critique of
structuralist linguistics. According to Agamben, the structuralist denition of language
as a system of signs ignored that language actualizes itself only through human beings
actually speaking that language. This created, for Agamben, a productive rift in language
itself between the xities of its signifying system and its incarnation in human speech.
Agamben believed, in that stage of his career, that (political) philosophy had ignored
this rift and that poetry was a superior medium for reecting on humanity’s linguistic
condition. Only in the 1990s did Agamben enter a second stage of his philosophical
itinerary with a turn to the political. Though he previously had held the politics of his
time in dire contempt, his friendships with Guy Debord and Jean-Luc Nancy, together
with his worries about the emergence of refugee camps in Italy after the Yugoslav Civil
War, convinced him to start studying politics. He fears that the state of exception is
the ultimate truth of modern biopolitical government: once the State apparatus and
the survival of the population is put under pressure, governments tend to suspend
democratic participation and the Rule of Law. Ultimately, the State itself and its violent
response to social disruption paradoxically becomes the main threat to people’s survival.
Here, Agamben embarks on the “Homo Sacer”-project that would dene the rest of his
career. This is also the period where Agamben reaches the peak of his fame with books
like Homo Sacer, State of Exception, and The Time that Remains.
In a third phase, at the end of the 2000s, Agamben turns increasingly to the
history of Christian theology. He becomes convinced that an adequate critique of
Western modernity must reckon with the latter’s roots in medieval Christianity. In books
like The Kingdom and the Glory, Opus Dei, and The Highest Poverty, Agamben stresses the
ways Christianity has given rise to modern capitalist government. This strategy allows
Agamben not only to critique of (neo)liberal economics as secularized theology, but
also to incorporate Foucault’s newly published governmentality lectures and to nally
articulate the link between his own critique of modernity and that of Debord, which
was explicitly promised in the introduction to Homo Sacer. He argues that Debord’s
pessimistic analysis of the modern public sphere as a big capitalist spectacle was pre-
gured in the way the medieval Church supported its popular legitimacy through
strict rituals and grandiose iconography. Just like the Church kept up the illusion of
an authoritative God through rituals that cunningly suggested God’s glory without
ever having to prove it, the State and capitalism sustain their legitimacy through the
illusion of public debate and ceremonial displays of power. This is also the period that
Agamben starts reecting more thoroughly on his philosophical method, mainly in The
Signature of All Things. Homo Sacer had given rise to multiple misunderstandings about
the way Agamben formulated his political philosophy, so Agamben felt he needed to
clarify the contours of his basic methodological concepts like “paradigm”, “signature”,
and “archaeology”. In phase four, which spans from when Agamben started working
on The Use of Bodies to today, he has increasingly looked back on his philosophical life
with more autobiographical writings, like his autoritratto, and books that discuss the
fundamentals of his oeuvre or return to his earliest interests, like What is Philosophy?
or Adventure. Now that the “Homo Sacer”-project is nished, Agamben has taken the
opportunity to reect on his philosophical career and to delve into some side-projects
that he failed to incorporate in earlier volumes. Though Kotsko does not mention
them, Agamben’s Corona essays can also be understood as a late side-project where
Agamben tries to come to terms with his own legacy. And one can rightly be skeptical
about whether this Agamben succeeds at living up to his former self (Esposito 2020).
Kotsko discourages the reader to decipher a single master narrative hidden in
all of Agamben’s works. The entire oeuvre is rather a multitude of attempts to engage
with manifold, dierent topics. Agamben has tried to balance his own personal creative
insights with adequately responding to the challenges of his days, and both have shifted
over the years. However, that does not mean all of Agamben’s works are simply stand-
alone pieces with no internal consistency. Agamben frequently recapitulates and reartic-
ulates old ideas to put them to work in new contexts. He is, above all, interested in the
so-called “Entwicklungsfähigkeit” of philosophical concepts. He takes concepts from
their original contexts and puts them together to generate developmental capacities
that were not present in the original context. By, for instance, confronting Foucault’s
analysis of biopolitics with Carl Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty in Homo Sacer, Agamben
managed to produce reections that were only vaguely present in both of these authors’
own texts. The aim has always been to experiment with the inherent productivity of
concepts, which means Agamben has never been the master of his own discourse, but
has rather been following where the concepts’ developmental capacities led him.
Kotsko calls for a similar approach to Agamben’s own concepts: “I aim […]
to prepare the ground for a thousand Agambens to bloom – in their own enigmatic,
idiosyncratic, and fascinating ways” (Kotsko 2020, 13). In reading Agamben’s oeuvre –
or any philosophical text for that matter – the audience actively reconstructs the text’s
developmental capacities. This constitutes a creative encounter that cannot be simply
replicated for everyone in exactly the same way. Each reader must uniquely gauge the
potential of the text. Every singular encounter with Agamben’s writings can give rise
to a new Agamben that is not necessarily compatible to all other readings. This implies,
for instance, that Agamben’s particular response to the Corona Pandemic is not neces-
sarily the only “Agambenian” response imaginable. Other readings of his work can be
provided with other outcomes. To mention just one example, one could use his concept
of “bare life” not to criticize lockdowns, but rather to criticize the precarization of
essential workers. While many middle-class families have been working from home in
relative comfort, working-class individuals have had to expose themselves to the risk
of infection to keep themselves nancially aoat (cf. Butler & Yance 2020, De Cauwer
& Christiaens 2021). To use a Foucaultian metaphor, Kotsko repurposes Agamben’s
philosophy as a conceptual toolbox with which the philosophers of the future can
build new theoretical edices. Kotsko himself suggests to redirect Agambenian thought
to issues of race, gender, or environmentalism, but one can readily imagine even more
Entwicklungsfähigkeiten for Agamben, like digital ethics, neo-fascist populism, or nan-
cialization. As the Corona Pandemic has demonstrated, a single Agamben can be deeply
awed, but a 1000 Agambens might be up to the task of prying open the arcana imperii
of contemporary politics.
There is, however, one serious risk in Kotsko’s strategy that his book leaves
untouched. Though I agree with his proposal to repurpose Agamben’s oeuvre as a
polyvalent toolbox, I doubt whether Kotsko has adequately identied his intellectual
opponent. It might be true that, in the past, many Agamben scholars have organized
his thought under a single header. The same trend can be found in the earliest intro-
ductions to Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, or Michel Foucault. Many
secondary literatures on “new” thinkers go through a phase of scholars presenting the
philosophers’ thought as a uniform project. Once this overview has been established,
however, critics emphasize the uniqueness of particular books or discontinuities in a
philosopher’s development. Especially when archives open up and collected works are
being published, scholars leave the general narrative behind to focus on the particulars.
With Agamben as well, the last few years have predominantly seen publications on
particular themes in Agamben’s overall oeuvre rather than general overviews. Though
such attention to detail delivers fascinating new insights, there is also a looming danger
of reducing the writings of these thinkers to stand-alone museum pieces that commu-
nicate nothing but their mere useless presence. Like a Greek vase in a museum only
presented in order to be admired and catalogued but never used, philosophical concepts
can suer from sclerotic museication as well. Instead of putting philosophers like
Wittgenstein or Foucault to use as conceptual toolboxes, scholars subsequently argue
over whether the word “game” has the same meaning in two dierent aphorisms of
Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations or they merely list the 14 dierent meanings
of the word “norm” in Foucault’s lectures from January 1974 to February 1975. These
concepts are withdrawn from the sphere of general use and put on a pedestal to be
admired, described, and categorized. Such detailed philological scrutiny is essential to
proper philosophical research, but if the underlying concepts lose their connection to
the world they describe, the whole endeavour becomes pointless. Agamben himself
is no stranger to the minutiae of philology, but he has also been the victim of a pro-
fessorial class that endlessly complains about his creative readings not being “true” to
authors’ original intentions. Agamben’s interpretations of impotentiality in Aristotle,
boredom in Heidegger, or bare life in Benjamin might not have been entirely up to
date with contemporary philological research, but they have withheld these philoso-
phers from becoming useless museum pieces in an entirely self-referential hall of the
Western Canon. Philosophical Investigations, Discipline and Punish, or Homo Sacer have
been written to reect on the human condition, not to be archived in a sterile history
of the philosophy curriculum. By defending the chronological reading of Agamben
with a focus on the discontinuities, Kotsko might encourage the blossoming of a 1000
Agambens reecting on issues of race, gender, or the environment, but he might likewise
be playing in the hands of the museum curators who want to keep the 1000 Agambens
safe behind protective glass. The emphasis on discontinuity should thus be coupled
on an equally vocal emphasis on use over curation. Though Kotsko himself explicitly
makes this connection, it is up to future Agamben scholarship to keep this project alive.
1 See Agamben (2021). Some of the initial
responses are collected in Castrillón & Marchevsky
Agamben, Giorgio. 2015.The Use of Bodies. Translated
by Adam Kotsko. Stanford: Stanford University
Agamben, Giorgio. 2021.Where Are We Now?
The Epidemic as Politics.London: Rowman &
Bratton, Benjamin. 2021. “Agamben WTF, or how
Philosophy Failed the Pandemic.”Verso Blog,
21 July, 2021.
Butler, Judith & George Yancy. 2020. “Interview:
Mourning Is a Political Act Amid the Pandemic
and Its Disparities.”Bioethical Inquiry17:
Castrillón, Fernando & Thomas Marchevsky. 2021.
Coronavirus, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy.
London: Routledge.
De Cauwer,Stijn & Tim Christiaens. 2021. “The
Multitude Divided: Biopolitical Production
during the Coronavirus Pandemic. InPandemic
and the Crisis of Capitalism, edited by Yahya
Madra et al,118-127.Brighton: ReMarx Books.
De La Durantaye, Leland. 2009.Giorgio Agamben:
A Critical Introduction.Stanford: Stanford
University Press.
Esposito, Roberto. 2020. “The Biopolitics of
Immunity in Times of COVID-19: Interview
with Roberto Esposito: Interview Conducted by
Tim Christiaens & Stijn De Cauwer.”Antipode
Online, 16 July, 2021.https://antipodeonline.
Kotsko, Adam. 2021.Agamben’s Philosophical Trajectory.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Prozorov, Sergei. 2014.Agamben and Politics: A
Critical Introduction.Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press.
Tim Christiaens is assistant professor of philosophy
of culture and economic ethics at Tilburg University.
He has written his PhD on the history of
governmentality in Michel Foucault and Giorgio
Agamben and he is currently working on the
impact of platform capitalism on work and workers'