Giorgio Agamben’s work has come to be widely read in American universities in the last ten years. The former Autonomia theorist Antonio Negri and the American academic Michael Hardt have enjoyed a more public success with their two books Empire and Multitude, where, with catch-all verve and unstable prose, they continued poststructuralist efforts to explain globalization and the contemporary international order. But Agamben’s work makes a different kind of claim to immediate political significance among recent attempts by “high theory” to deal with a globalized and post-9/11 world. He is more lucid than some colleagues, better able to summarize the insights of predecessor intellectuals without distortion, and, through a set of recent events, seemingly more prophetic about the governmental and juridical realities of the moment.
The growing influence of the Italian philosopher’s work seems in many respects to depend on his remarkable sense of taste. Agamben allies himself with a line of intellectuals that goes back before World War II, and puts together figures who, though many had minor personal connections, seem antithetical. Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt regularly get historical rendezvous; so do Georges Bataille and Alexandre Kojève. Heidegger stands on his own, usually arriving after the midpoint of books like mystic cavalry to illuminate and redeem them. The sense is that Agamben has an unusual, unforced sensitivity to the hidden affinities of early-20th-century thinkers—he’s arranging these assignations for the thinkers’ sakes, not his own. Beyond that are his many Talmudic, medieval, and ancient Roman anecdotes.
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