The Inhumanities

Calarco’s Zoographies: Jamming the Anthropological Machine – Agamben

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I. Human, all too animal

In Leland de la Durantaye’s authorative work, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, he writes: “In this light [that being how The Open functions in the economy of Agamben’s writing], to read Agamben in the context of debates about animal rights is, though illuminating for those debates, somewhat misleading as a frame through which to understand The Open. For Agamben, the point is not to locate a continuity or an interruption in the line of evolution, not to align himself with those advocates of continuity like Aristotle or those who see a fundamental break between man and animal like Descartes and Heidegger, and not to bring about a more just treatment of animals, but instead to glimpse a new and different paradigm for human life” (p. 333). He explicitly cites Calarco’s “Jamming the Anthropological Machine” as just such a reading. The problem with such a reading by Durantaye is he implies that such an “illumination” is a one-way street. Indeed, Agamben’s work has been very illuminating for those of us committed to bringing about a more just treatment of animals. However, this illumination moves both ways. We in critical animal studies are not merely parasitically mouthing the words of ‘masters’ in an attempt to justify our work. Rather, we also argue that to the degree these authors stay within a metaphysical anthropocentrism their projects run against certain internal limits. They are unable to finish their own radical itinerary. Or to put it another way, it is only by concerning ourselves with a more just treatment of animals that we can possibly glimpse a new and different paradigm for human life.

II. When I grow up I’m going to get me some big words

The first half of this chapter mostly concerns examining Agamben’s distinction between humans and other animals as found in Language and Death and Infancy and History. Agamben’s distinction between the human and the animal rests, unsurprisingly, on the question of language. What is surprising is what it is about language that Agamben believes distinguishes humans from animals. It is not, as we have so often seen, that animals simply don’t have language. That they possess ‘mere’ phone, for example. Instead, the distinction is not that animals do not have language, but that they exist naturally within language. Or, as Calarco quotes Bataille’s phrase, they exist in language “like water in water.” Humans, however, do not naturally have language. Rather, we have to learn language, and it is that process of learning language, or dealing with the fundamental opacity of language, that makes us human and gives us a self. It is not any particular language, but language as such that represents both the “I” and the common for Agamben, the basis and possibility of human existence. This is related to Agamben’s notion of infancy (and while not noted by Calarco, clearly forms the basis of Agamben’s later concept of potentiality and despite the lack of reference, should be heard in conjunction with Arendt’s concept of natality). Humans beings do not naturally have language, which gives us a perpetual state of infancy, a perpetual possibility to be. I also should note that the immanence of being in the world (or language) like water in water is not a guarantee of just treatment. Indeed, if you read Bataille’s Theory of Religion, who can forget Bataille’s declaration that “[t]he definition of the animal as a thing has become a basic human given.” He continues, “The animal has lost its status as man’s fellow creature, and man, perceiving the animality in himself, regards it as a defect. There is undoubtedly a measure of falsity in the fact of regarding the animal as a thing. An animal exists for itself and in order to be a thing it must be dead or domesticated” (p. 39). Until we recognize our human, all too animal status; that is to say, until we overcome our metaphysical anthropocentrism; there will be no escape from this need to render beings into either death or domesticity.

III. Shabbat against the (anthropological) machine

The second half of the chapter concerns itself with trying to outline one way to overcome this metaphysical anthropocentrism in the work of Agamben, focusing on the text The Open. In the discussion on Levinas, I contended that one way to read Zoographies is as an explanation and defense of the concept of ethical agnosticism. Just as ethical agnosticism refuses creating a criteria for moral status, Calarco’s reading of Agamben creates a political refusal for such line drawing. Indeed, the refusal of global linear thinking, raised in Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth, is at the center of Agamben’s political project. In this particular case, the line drawing we are focusing on is the one performed by the anthropological machine, which constantly distinguishes between human and animal.

The anthropological machine, as Calarco points out, is empty. (As an aside, this is true for all of Agamben’s machines. The state of exception is described as kenotic and the providential machine is said to only work because the throne of God remains empty. The machinery of power, for Agamben, always runs on an essential emptiness). This emptiness is important, even fundamental. It means that the caesuras that are produced by the anthropological machine are not based upon any positive content. It does not a draw its lines because it knows what is the human is, but rather is always trying to decide what the human is not. This has two very real political implications. The first implication is that a line is never finally drawn. Just as with the state of exception at the heart of the legal system, the anthropological machine requires constant decisions to be made. The lines are drawn, and re-drawn—everyone is potentially a criminal, everyone is potentially an animal. The second implication is that many beings will exist in a zone of indifference, not clearly decided in either the category of human or animal. This is the destiny of the barbarian, the slave, the infant savage, the wolf-man, the bandit, the Jew.

Now, there are two ways to try and fight the violence of the anthropological machine. The first way would be to try and finally create the perfect positive content, the perfect trait that will somehow make sure all humans land on one side of the line, and all other beings land on the other side of the line. This is clearly an unacceptable solution to either Calarco or Agamben, both who would be sure that such moves would only fuel the machine even more. Rather, following up on the advocacy to embrace the agnosticism in Levinas’ ethics, we need to embrace the agnosticism is knowing what makes a human or an animal. This alternative is articulated in two figures by Benjamin, the dialectic at a standstill, which will happen in the saved night. The saved night, of course, is saved because it is unsavable, in its being irreparable (to use a figure from a different Agamben work). As Agamben explains on the last page of The Open: “To render inoperative the machine that governs our conception of man will therefore mean no longer to seek new—more effective and more authentic—articulations, but rather to show the central emptiness, the hiatus that—within man—separates man and animal, and to risk ourselves in this emptiness: the suspension of the suspension, Shabbat of both animal and man” (p. 92).

IV: Points for Discussion.

First, I am not as convinced, as Matt is, that The Open signals a rupture in Agamben’s anthropocentric thought. I think, for example, that is telling what examples Agamben uses for those trapped in the zone of indifference produced by the anthropological machine. The barbarian, the slave, the Jew, the bandit, etc. Not, however, the great ape, the talking bird, the dolphin and the elephant. Not only that, but in all of Agamben’s tremendous and thoughtful engagements of Kafka’s work, we don’t see Red Peter, or any of the many animals throughout Kafka’s work, as trapped in that zone of indifference. This concern is amplified in Agamben’s discussion of the profane. In What is an Apparatus? Agamben finds within the apparatus a key moment of anthropogenesis, and seeks to fight against apparatuses by valorizing the profane. However, the privilege example of the profane, found in Profanations, is the flesh of a sacrificed animal being given to the common consumption. (see What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays pp.15-19. Profanations p. 74). I know it seems as if the quotation I reference at the end of the last section is pretty clear on the point, but I always get stuck on this point that the separation happens within the human. It seems to reaffirm a point from Homo Sacer, where he states: “That such a man is defined as a wolf-man and not simply as a wolf (the expression caput lupinum has the form of a juridical statute) is decisive here” (p. 105). Agamben’s work always returns back to the human, and what is separated within the human, which remains decisive.

Second, I am curious about trying to read The Open in conjunction with Agamben’s The Sacrament of Language, which concerns itself so centrally with the question of anthropogenesis. At the same time he refuses the human use of language special importance in terms of effectiveness, power, and beauty with specific comparisons to other animals, he seems to reaffirm that the distinction between the human and the animal rests in language. And indeed, rests in the fundamental opacity of language for humans, and the ethical implications of language that remain for the human.


I should have added this last night, but I forgot. The section on spends little time grappling with concepts like bare life and zoe and bios. One can only assume this was intentional. I continue to think that bare life does not provide a particularly emancipatory model for animals, or, for that matter, humans. I think we have to refuse a category that turns animal life into something synonymous with natural life, while giving human life a privileged or at least different place as the only form of artificial life. It ignores all we have come to know about the complex interactions, learned behaviors, strategies and mechanisms of different animal lives. Indeed, it ignores all we have come to know about the existence of animal culture and animal society.

Not only that, but the concept of bare life as being the moment when a human is caught in between bios or zoe, seems to indicate that something like the Muselmann would be natural if he was an animal. Such an understanding can be found in phrases like, “They were treated as if they were animals.” But, such arguments are clearly silly. There is nothing about animals that resemble the zombie-esque descriptions of the Muselmann. Animals are full of affect, and interaction. Animal life is never mere life, and as the intensive amount of science and violence dedicated to creating increasingly docile animals for factory farms show, the have to turned into bare life just like the human animal.


Written by Scu

September 24, 2009 at 4:54 am

7 Responses

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  1. […] to Caralco’s chapter on Agamben, which I recommend. I just want to focus on this part: In Leland de la Durantaye’s authorative work, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, he writes:… This may seem a bit unfair here, but I was quite disappointed in certain ways by Durantaye’s […]

  2. Hi Scu,

    Thanks for the fine reading of the Agamben chapter and for the critical questions and comments. I’m buried at the moment, but should have something tomorrow. I also really enjoy the weekly updates–very useful information!

    Matthew Calarco

    September 27, 2009 at 6:23 pm

  3. Not a problem Matt, take your time. I do have another question. I assume that you probably had some interactions with Agamben with your edited collection on him. Did his thoughts about violence towards animals ever come up? Or anything of the sort?

    And I glad you like the weekly updates. If you ever come across anything, please let us know.


    September 28, 2009 at 1:24 am

  4. I think this was a great chapter, and an interesting response.

    Some questions/comments.

    1. Agamben’s notion of shabbat and inoperativity seems to be clearly opposed to the notion of becoming and production that runs through Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Negri. If Scu is right and we can read your chapter on Agamben as being part of a broader agnosticism, what is this ‘political agnosticism’s’ relation to the theories of becoming and production? I am not really trying to say, what is your relationship to D&G, Foucault, and Negri. I am really trying to ask if your work on agnosticism is allied with Agamben’s shabbat and inoperativity, or the other theorists’ work on becoming and production. And if you say both, can you say something about the tension that exists between these two different political poles?

    2. If Agamben’s Shabbat and inoperativity is opposed to becoming and production, it seems somewhat closer to Derrida’s notion of powerlessness, the power of powerlessness. I know that Agamben opposes his work to Derrida’s in several places, but I wonder if Derrida’s theory of powerlessness works better with your notion of agnosticism. Also, if you get to this more in your section on Derrida, I apologize, I haven’t finished your book yet.

    3. One last question, though I don’t want to make too much about your notion of agnosticism. I am not sure if Scu’s emphasis of your agnosticism fits in everywhere into your text. However, agnosticism carries with it a certain theological content. If it is true that you are advancing a political agnosticism (as well as an ethical one), is there some way this dialogues with Schmitt’s notion of a political theology?

    4.Scu, I think it is interesting you think of The Sacrament of Language as a continuation of Agamben’s earlier theory of language. I definitely don’t see it that way. Of course, it is possible that his theory is still anthropocentric but changes his earlier theories of language.


    September 28, 2009 at 12:17 pm

  5. Ben, I’d be more than happy to discuss how you think The Sacrament of Language changes Agamben’s earlier views of language. I am also happy to deal with readings of that work that contend it breaks with Agamben’s anthropocentrism. I just didn’t see it that way.


    September 28, 2009 at 2:13 pm

  6. For Scu:

    1. With regard to Leland’s reading of The Open, he is of course right that reading the book, as I do, in light of questions and issues surrounding animals is not the best way to understand Agamben himself. Agamben should never be confused with someone who is an explicit ally to those of us seeking a radical transformation of the established/status quo kinds of relations with animals and other beings not deemed fully human; and to turn to his work with such hopes in mind is to invite disappointment. So, I can only agree with Leland’s remark about my reading being the wrong way into understanding Agamben’s The Open; and I can also only agree with Peter Gratton’s insistence that Agamben himself is no friend to animal ethicists: (

    But, of course, I am reading Agamben against the grain and exploiting opportunities in his texts that he himself brushes up against but ultimately fails to explore further.

    2. In terms of my critical filtering/appropriation of Agamben’s work, I think you are right to zero in on the idea that Agamben’s approach gives us additional reasons for avoiding any effort to determine with finality what should and should not be included in both politics as such and the political (coming forms of community/being-with, etc.). Along these lines, his discourse on the consequences of the anthropological machine for human beings are extraordinarily insightful and useful—and, of course, they need to be supplemented with an analysis of how, and resistance to the manner in which, that machine functions among other-than-human entities of various sorts (animal, non-animal, and other others beyond “individuals”).

    3. As for whether The Open marks a rupture in Agamben’s itinerary, here too I was being too coy. I agree that Agamben himself is not aware of this rupture, nor do I think that it would be a good way of understanding Agamben himself (again, supporting Leland’s contention that this angle is not useful for understanding Agamben from a scholarly angle—the latter kind of reading is clearly not what I’m doing). The rupture is one that *happens to Agamben and his anthropocentrism*—in trying to think through the anthropological machine, he runs into a text (or, rather, a series of texts) that call for a different economy in the relations between humans and animals. His work is pulled into that set of questions. That he fails to follow up on and affirm this interruption is entirely predictable, given Agamben’s predilection (which you do a nice job of underscoring) to circle incessantly around human beings and the concept of the human.

    4. That said, I had the opportunity to deliver portions of this chapter at a conference, with Agamben sitting in the front row. He was actually quite responsive to the kinds of concerns I raised, and in conversation he acknowledged their importance. It is clear from the work that follows The Open that he doesn’t appreciate fully the implications of the terrain that his work has opened up for some of his readers, but that’s fine by me. What is at issue here for me has nothing to do with Agamben himself—it as to do with certain moments in texts where points of resistance and transformation unexpectedly open up. I should note also that he never mentioned anything about violence in relation to animals on that occasion, to my recollection.

    5. Following your line of thoughts in your update . . . the zoe/bios distinction, at least as Agamben develops it, does not strike me either as the most powerful concept for rethinking anthropocentrism (the reasons you offer are very similar to the kinds of reasons I would offer). The anthropological machine seems to me to be a much more useful (strategically speaking) weapon – and, of course, even that weapon has to be used differently from how Agamben uses it.

    Of course, in someone else’s hands, the zoe/bios distinction might be put to other uses. There is an enormous amount of exciting work being done around biopolitics that might well lead toward a critical interrogation of anthropocentrism. We’ll see!

    For Ben:

    6. Your question about the relation and tension between Agamben’s inoperativity and the motif of becoming in D&G/Negri et al. is a fine one that really gets to the heart of the ontological and political matter at hand. I wouldn’t be able here in my quick response to do justice to any of these people’s positions on that issue, so let me just speak for myself and leave them to the side. The rendering inoperative of the anthropological machine, which is what I am arguing for, is the condition of possibility for releasing additional modes of becoming for both the beings we call human and those we call animal, other-than-human, and so on (and I hope to make it clear that the question of the animal is for me but one way into a much broader series of questions about other beings beyond what we call animals and humans that will in turn modify and displace the question of the animal). At issue is trying to find ways to release and affirm other becomings, other linkages, and other possibilities, other potentialities, for lives and beings of various sorts. My leaning in this space, then, is closer to D&G and co. than it is to Agamben. But there are several concepts in Agamben that approach this space beyond the anthropological machine and speak of it in ways that are incredibly important and that I would never want to sacrifice.

    7. The question about powerlessness and radical passivity in Derrida and its relation to Agamben’s work is also a very important question. Let’s take it up in the Derrida chapter, as I’ll be able to use some of the argument I develop there to get at the issue in a bit more detail.

    8. The agnosticism concept that I develop in the Levinas chapter is a concept lifted from Levinas’s own texts that I try to use against him. I didn’t develop it with Schmitt in mind, or with the theological register explicitly in mind—I was thinking more in ethical, epistemological, and ontological terms (in line with my attempt to challenge Levinas’s work). That doesn’t mean, of course, that a dialogue with Schmitt’s political theology couldn’t take place around that concept—I think it would be interesting and I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the issue.

    Thanks both of you for the interesting comments and discussion!

    Matthew Calarco

    September 28, 2009 at 10:35 pm

  7. just a brief note to another excellent conversation. I do find the concept of zoe and bios extremely helpful in making sense of my own critique of anthropocentrism and would be fascinated to see more of a discussion of why Scu and Matt do not.

    Vasile Stanescu

    September 29, 2009 at 5:10 am

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