A Lawless Legacy: Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben


A Lawless Legacy: Hannah Arendt
and Giorgio Agamben


NOTRE HÉRITAGE N’EST précédé d’aucun testament’ (‘Our inheritance was left to us by no testament’).1 These words by René Char, which Hannah Arendt places at the beginning of her foreword ‘The Gap between Past and Future’, also hold in a figurative sense for Arendt herself. Since Arendt’s legacy is likewise not provided with a testament, its afterlife can be measured by the claims of those who appeal to her in their work. In a letter to Arendt dated 1970, Giorgio Agamben writes:

I am a young writer and essayist for whom discovering your books last year has represented a decisive experience. May I express here my gratitude to you, and that of those who, along with me, in the gap between past and future, feel all the urgency of working in the direction you pointed out.2

The letter, in which the then 26-year-old Agamben emphatically assures Arendt of his intention of continuing to work in the direction she has shown, situates its author and those who think like him in a ‘gap between past and future’. He is clearly referring to Arendt’s foreword to Between Past and Future, whose original title ‘The Gap between Past and Future’ announces the space of thought which the ensuing ‘exercises in political thinking’ occupy. Arendt’s ‘gap in time’ designates a break in the linear, chronological flow as an intermediate period, an interval, ‘which is altogether determined by things that are no longer and by things that are not yet’, and which, Arendt continues, has repeatedly been shown to contain ‘the moment of truth’.3 The differences in their respective understanding of this gap, in both its temporal and its spatial meaning, have major implications for their approaches to many different aspects of their thinking. These differences can be shown also to contain ‘the moment of truth’ about the relationship between Arendt’s and Agamben’s approaches to the law.

Giorgio Agamben is known as one of the most radical critics of the political state of the world in our times. More forcefully than any other thinker today, he proclaims that sovereign tyranny, supported by the legal system of modern democracies, holds us in the thrall of an all-pervasive domination, subjecting us to an omnipresent ‘state of exception’. He describes this state as a condition in which the law has defied all boundaries and infiltrated every aspect of life, to the point where life and law can no longer be distinguished. While Agamben’s diagnosis, though arguably excessive, is defensible, the cure he proposes is another, far more contentious matter. Agamben lets the wretchedness of the present swell before our eyes to the point where only a Messiah can save us, suspend the rule of law and redeem our planet.

Given the radicalism of Agamben’s antagonistic approach to the law, which contrasts with the equivocal one taken by Arendt, the pairing of these two thinkers may seem surprising. However, from his early essays in The Man without Content to his more recent work, notably his most famous volumes of Homo Sacer and beyond, Agamben considers himself an heir of Arendt. In what follows I shall explore this claim. I shall, however, refrain from a comparison between Arendt’s and Agamben’s numerous concrete common concerns: a preoccupation with biopolitical issues; a critique of Human Rights in relation to the Nation State; a special attention for the excluded from society—paria or homo sacer—or the plights and ‘privileges’ of refugees. Instead, I intend to compare and contrast the very structure of thinking underlying these and other aspects of their work, most significantly their respective search for an alternative to a strictly legalistic understanding of politics and its relation to sovereignty. This approach will allow me to probe the conclusion of a recent article on Arendt and Agamben, ‘that neither the problem of violence nor the problem of origins and new beginnings should stand in the center of an imaginary controversy between Agamben and Arendt, but the problem of the law’.4 I hope to provide evidence for this insight, as well as to show how the two thinkers’ respective approach to violence, to origins and new beginnings is inextricably intertwined with the problem of the law.

For both Arendt and Agamben, the ‘gap in time’ is a major figure in their political thinking that rests on the idea of an interruption of the course of events correlated with the advent of a new beginning. In his early writings, Agamben explicitly claims to embrace Arendt’s ‘exercises in political thinking’ as a model for his own thought, and uses the vocabulary of Arendt’s ‘The Gap between Past and Future’ when describing this interruption. Like Arendt, Agamben speaks of a ‘space between past and future’,5 a state ‘suspended in the inter-world between old and new’,6 an ‘interval between what is no longer and what is not yet’.7 Both Arendt and Agamben describe the place where past and future meet as a crisis that charges the present with urgency. For both, the interval is a battlefield where the antagonistic forces of past and future clash in the present. Arendt speaks of a ‘kind of warfare’,8 Agamben of ‘struggle’ and, repeatedly, of a ‘conflict between old and new, past and future’.9 For both, it is also the place where the new can emerge. The similarity in the wording of Arendt’s and Agamben’s description of this interval simultaneously reveals significant differences that point to their divergent and occasionally even contrary configurations of this interruption: As I have shown in other contexts elsewhere10 and will try to show here in relation to the law, Arendt’s gap is a space, a temporal interval, a three-dimensional place; Agamben’s is a line, a spot or a threshold devoid of spatial extension and belonging to neither side of the divide.

This contrast manifests itself at different levels, both in the chronological and the spatial meaning of the gap-metaphor. Spaces are omnipresent in Arendt’s political thought, be it in her description of the public sphere, the sequence constituting the successful revolution, or the condition of thinking itself. By contrast, liminality dominates Agamben’s political and philosophical vocabulary: From the infans on the threshold between silence and speech to the muselman on the border between life and death, from the enjambement between poetic verses to the caesura interrupting the metric rhythm in Hölderlin’s hymns, these instances of division constitute ‘zones’ or ‘points of indistinction’. These thresholds, which are, in themselves, without ground or foundation, constitute a ‘pure’ and empty interruption that escapes all mediation, preconception and precondition. Belonging to neither side of the partition, they contain a potential to blur distinctions and counteract division and exclusion—an inevitable consequence of spaces—but they also remain untouched by the concrete particulars of the phenomenal world. There is undoubtedly a certain similarity with Arendt’s conception of new beginning as an absolute that cannot be constructed or derived, and that escapes will and intention: ‘Not only is it not bound into a reliable chain of cause and effect,’ but ‘the beginning has, as it were, nothing whatsoever to hold on to; it is as though it came out of nowhere in either time or space’.11

However, her incipits in themselves are not political yet. Arendt’s insistence on spaces constitutes her attempt to make room for the impact and elaboration of these ineffable phenomena, to introduce and preserve them in a concrete, historical realm and make their potential available to the intervention of man. By contrast, Agamben’s political critique rests on a thinking that is concerned with cuts, thresholds and empty spots that escape manipulation, avoid new foundations and instead perform the theoretical enthronement of discontinuity as such.

These differences between Arendt’s and Agamben’s metaphorical figuration of interruptions have far-reaching philosophical and political consequences. In her descriptions of the gap, Arendt stresses the duality of ending and beginning as two separate moments. Agamben instead performs a dialectic reversal—however impure, because leaving a ‘rest’—in which the ending of the old is the beginning of the new. Arendt precisely rejects such ‘dialectical subtleties’ and disparages them as a trick ‘bei dem immer das Eine in das Andere umschlägt und es erzeugt’ (‘where one thing always reverses into its other and produces it’).12 Antitheses which in Arendt are left to stand in juxtaposition or in succession, for Agamben consistently turn into one another: His view that the new can only appear in the destruction of the old, indeed that it occurs out of the destruction,13 contrasts with Arendt’s ideas of a new beginning. Hence Arendt emphasises the ‘hiatus between the end of the old order and the beginning of the new’, and insists that ‘freedom is no more the automatic result of liberation than the new beginning is the automatic consequence of the end’.14