Works Reviewed: David Kishik. The Power of Life: Agamben and the Coming Politics. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012.
“I was not entirely surprised to discover that Wittgenstein and Agamben, my “philosophical parents” to whom I have dedicated my first two books, happened to be born on the same day as my actual mother and father. This book is dedicated to my parents who gave me what philosophy cannot.” – David Kishik.
It is a rare thing when a book’s dedication can serve as a guide to its deployment. In The Power of Life: Agamben and the Coming Politics, however, David Kishik makes just such a gesture. Through the combination of biographical research and textual analysis of Giorgio Agamben’s work a picture emerges of a life infused and transformed by philosophy. It is not a biographical work in the sense that it presents an image of “the great man in his study,” but instead a working out of Agamben’s philosophy of life through the lens of the events which gave that philosophy its shape and its trajectory. Life is made in speech, says Agamben; “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.” (7) Kishik argues that the success or failure of his own book, dedicated as it is to Agamben’s philosophy of life, should be measured through “its ability to lead the reader to imagine a form of life, by its capacity to clarify how his way of thinking points toward a way of living.” (3)
At the heart of Kishik’s work lies the expressed desire to rework the genre of philosophical biography so that the philosophical subject becomes the subject of philosophy, or, put differently so that the thought of the thinker becomes an illumination of their life. Perhaps what Kishik sets out to do could be described as a secularized hagiography, not in the pejorative sense that it is unduly adulating, but in the sense that the lives of saints were meant as windows or icons which pointed towards a form or way of life. It must, of course, be admitted that for Kishik, as for Agamben, indeterminacy seems to play a far greater role than it does for the saints, yet perhaps this is only a reflection of the idioms of our time.
Despite the frequent use of concepts like indeterminacy and emergent, Kishik’s begins his narrative at a very specific time inn Agamben’s life; 1968. In 1968 Agamben had the opportunity to tell Henry Kissinger off – a small victory, no doubt, but one which we may smile at anyway – and to study with Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s influence on Agamben hangs like a heavy cloud throughout the book; indeed Kishik’s endeavour to weave life and philosophy together is in large part a riposte to Heidegger’s famous contempt for the historical and personal context of a philosophy, summed up in his comment that “Aristotle was born, worked, and died.” Kishik reads this statement as a somewhat ironic rebuttal of the opposition between reason and spirit, and finds some truth in it. It is clear, however, that Kishik finds the ethical impulse in Heidegger to be unbalanced or missing, or perhaps too wedded to a determinate form of power over life, rather than the more indeterminate power of life.
The focus on indeterminacy leads Kishik to produce a rather vague political outline, in which Benjamin’s concept of divine violence – that is a violence completely outside the law, is somewhat astoundingly connected to the city of New York under the perverse title of The Manhattan Project. Kishik, apparently intends to connect this with Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, and is intent on making a statement about an iconoclastic anti-state human politics. Is he simply unaware that he is referencing an appalling, and state-sanctioned, violence against life? The superficial dichotomy between state and humanity, which is in Agamben, though treated with considerable more depth, is a blemish on this work.
Another weakness lies in Kishik’s assesment of religion. He writes: “The rise in modernity of forms of life that are not necessarily grounded in religious convictions is still probably one of the most momentous political events in human history.” A careful reader of Agamben, who has analyzed modern secular concepts as precisely displaced theological ones, should offer a more historically and philosophically nuanced presentation of the intersection of religion and politics. In the end, perhaps, Kishik does not fully escape the temptations of biography or hagiography, the temptation to allow the reference to an actual human presence to substitute for rigorous conceptual analysis. Despite its flaws, however, Kishik’s work is an insightful and engaging companion to Agamben’s lifework.