reading agamben


A striking feature of Agamben’s work is its tendency to leap immediately from the tiniest detail to the broadest possible generalization. In Homo Sacer, for instance, we learn that the entire history of Western political thought was always heading toward the horrors of totalitarianism, as we can tell by taking a look at an obscure corner of ancient Roman law. Similarly, while his late works boast increasingly large-scale ambitions, they are nonetheless written in a fragmentary form and always make room for digressions and asides (often in the form of notes inserted right into the middle of the text, introduced by the Hebrew letter “aleph”). These idiosyncratic traits can, I believe, be traced back to Agamben’s two most significant influences: Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger. Agamben served as editor of the Italian edition of Benjamin’s complete works, which consist primarily of dense essays and cryptic fragments, the majority of them not published during Benjamin’s lifetime. It’s clear that Agamben admires the compression and vast interdisciplinary range of Benjamin’s work and aspires to similar effects in his own writing. The link to Heidegger is perhaps even closer: as a student in one of Heidegger’s postwar seminars, Agamben picked up the great philosopher’s ambition to provide an overarching account of the history of the West, and use that history to shed light on the contemporary world.

more from Adam Kotsko at the LA Review of Books here.