Response and Commentary (Sara Guyer, Marc Redfield and Emily Sun)

Romanticism, Forgery and the Credit Crisis

Response and Commentary (Sara Guyer, Marc Redfield and Emily Sun)

Eva Geulen
Goethe University Frankfurt am Main


1.        Were one to write a history of how late twentieth-century political concepts emerged, and how they changed as they migrated across fields, disciplines and continents, the notion of ‘biopolitics’ would make for an interesting case study—which is to say that at this point in time it is both too late and too early for such a project: too late, because the term has accrued such a variety of meanings and encompasses so many different aspects, from prenatal diagnostics and euthanasia to the treatment of refugees, smoking bans and ecology, that restricting its meaning, for example, to Foucault’s understanding of biopolitics, would be beside the point; and too early as well, precisely because the term still carries acute, albeit unspecific, significance and therefore lacks the historical distance required for critical assessment. Hence my first obligation as commentator is to determine what each contributor means by the term. To facilitate this task, a few orienting remarks are in order.

2.        Even though Hannah Arendt never used the word biopolitics, she was among the first to register and lament the increasing political preoccupation with the natural processes of living such as sustenance and reproduction which, she believed, had displaced politics and the public sphere in the pre-modern sense of classical antiquity. Her diagnosis in The Human Condition (1958) is tentatively, by association more than argument, tied to her earlier investigation of in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). The link between the decline of classical politics and the emergence of 20-century totalitarianisms is given in the concept of nature. As nature and natural life moved to the center of politics, nature (as well as history understood as a force of nature) became trans-legal authorities totalitarian politics appealed to in order to justify their actions. At the same time, Arendt is also known as an avid critic of human rights because, in her view, those rights were bound to produce right-less fugitives since the very declaration of those rights (at least in France) was premised on citizenship and statehood. With her critique of human rights, Arendt resumed a line of argument originally suggested by Karl Marx in his problematic essay "On the Jewish Question" (1842), in which he argued that human rights refer to the rights of property owners.

3.        In his series of books on the figure of the homo sacer, Agamben names Arendt as a predecessor for his own understanding of biopolitics (Homo Sacer 3ff). According to Agamben, Arendt had profound insights into the biopolitical logic of modernity, but she failed to firmly connect her critique of the ‘unnatural growth of the natural’ and the problematic parameters of human rights to her investigation of modern totalitarianisms. Agamben believes that Arendt was not up to the task because she lacked the concepts Michel Foucault eventually provided with his notion of biopolitics some twenty years after Arendt and without reference to her. [1]  In Foucault, biopolitics signifies a particular point in the development of modern governmentality when population (rather than territory) became the preferred object of political and social concerns. Foucault contrasts this new notion of biopower or biopolitics to the older notion of sovereign power. According to the most frequently (also in the present volume) quoted definition, sovereign politics was about letting live and actively exercising a right to kill; by contrast, biopolitics lets die but actively engages the right (of the state) to enforce life and, in this sense, "makes live" (Society 241). However neatly the opposition of these two paradigms appears initially, Foucault has occasionally pointed out that sovereign power and biopower or biopolitics can overlap. Thus he remarked on the irony that Franco, the last European political sovereign in the old sense, became subject to biopolitical techniques aimed at prolonging his life when he fell ill. Nazi ideology is another site where older sovereign power and modern biopower converge:

Nazism was doubtless the most cunning and the most naïve (and the former because of the latter) combination of the fantasies of blood and the paroxysms of a disciplinary power. A eugenic ordering of society, with all that implied in the way of extension and intensification of micro-powers, in the guise of unrestricted state control (étatisation), was accompanied by the oneiric exaltation of a superior blood; the latter implied both the systematic genocide of others and the risk of exposing oneself to a total sacrifice. It is an irony of history that Hitlerite politics of sex remained an insignificant practice while the blood myth was transformed into the greatest blood bath in recent memory. (History 149-50)
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Foucault introduced the term biopolitics relatively late in life. He is certainly better known for his analyses of disciplinary power, subject of his most famous studies on the clinic, the penitentiary and the mental asylum. [2]  While boundaries between disciplinary power and biopolitics are certainly more difficult to draw than those between sovereign and biopower, it is safe to say that they are not the same thing. However, the three articles under consideration here tend to confound the two concepts. Their authors often use biopolitics in such a way that it encompasses disciplinary strategies while the latter term is eclipsed entirely. One difference between disciplinary power and biopower suggested by Foucault himself concerns the different ‘materials’ and the different bodies of knowledge they require. Disciplinary powers tend to work on individuals who are turned into docile bodies by institutions such as schools and hospitals. Biopower, however, has populations as its object. Hence biopower is inconceivable without the new type of knowledge provided by Malthusian statistics at the close of the eighteenth century. Later on, eugenics, social Darwinism and scientific racism produce similarly structured knowledge. While the distinction between individuals and larger entities is initially helpful, it is far from clear-cut when issues like education or sexuality are under consideration where the very relation of the individual to entities (such as nations, races or populations) is at stake, as Foucault himself pointed out in the last chapter of his History of Sexuality: An Introduction from 1978.

4.        To make matters even more confusing, Foucault actually uses two different terms for this phenomenon, namely biopower and biopolitics. There is scant evidence that the two concepts need to be distinguished, as some believe. Given that Foucault was more interested in the minutiae of particular practices than in conceptual precision, it is doubtful whether biopolitics and biopower can or should be distinguished. It would certainly be more desirable to explore the relations between disciplinary power and biopolitics/biopower, but that would be better left to a Foucault specialist. Suffice it to say that the most pertinent definition of biopower and biopolitics most frequently cited by Foucault emphasizes its difference from classical sovereignty.

5.        However, their opposition is not exhausted by the obvious reversal of the respective positions of life and death in the sense of the definition referred to above, but also extends to the respective spheres in which sovereignty and biopolitics are situated. Sovereignty is, for all intents and purposes, a legal discourse contingent on jurisprudence (and theology), whereas both disciplinary power and particularly biopower develop technologies based on the kind of knowledge produced by newly emergent sciences such as biology and statistics in the late eighteenth century (whose legal codification in racial laws, for example, is secondary). This marks the very juncture where Agamben’s notion of biopolitics diverges most obviously from Foucault. Agamben refuses to accept this historical distinction and argues instead for a constitutive nexus of biopolitics and sovereign power. According to Agamben, sovereign power has been biopolitics all along. Both are essentially legal notions and the famous homo sacer, briefly referred to as an archaic practice of Roman law in the fragmentary compilations of Pompejus Festus, is the most significant piece of evidence in Agamben’s attempt to make the case that sovereign power has always been biopolitics. Their nexus unfolds in what Agamben calls the logic of the ‘ban’ (Homo Sacer 15-29, 104-110). Isolating, ex-cepting and exempting a ‘natural’ life (however that might be defined) from the sovereign sphere is said to be any sovereignty’s original and constitutive move. By banning it, the ruling law delivers this outlawed life over to death with impunity. For, according to Festus, the homo sacer is a person who cannot be sacrificed, but whose killing also does not amount to a sacrilege and will not entail any consequences, neither with respect to divine nor to any other law. For Agamben then, sovereign politics is biopolitics and biopolitics is, at bottom, always a politics of death and killing. That biopolitics, defined by Foucault as a politics of fostering and enforcing life should turn out to have been a ‘thanatopolitics’ from the start, is revealed most radically (and lethally) in the concentration camps. In Agamben’s view, the death camps are permanent sites of exception where the survival of the German race is produced by killing Jews. In the camps, the difference between rule and exception, between life and death disappears in what Agamben calls a zone of indistinction (47). Also disappearing into a zone of indistinction are historical and local differences. Agamben traces his idea of a lethal biopolitics at the heart of all sovereignty all the way back to archaic Roman law and he extends it to encompass contemporary sites such as Guantanamo Bay, European refugee camps, and airport transit zones, all of which supposedly share the structure of the camps.

6.        Given the range of possible sites for homines sacri in the present and throughout history, one begins to see why Agamben’s studies have had such a profound impact in so many different areas of culture and politics. For those of us in the business of philology and Western literature, there are two topics that immediately suggest themselves as promising sites for engaging Agamben’s theory. There is modernism and, with it, the various Avant-gardes which seek to abolish or transform the distinction between life and art (Cf. Bachmann et al.), and there is, of course, the earlier blue-print for such experiments, Romanticism, with its emphatic notion of nature and its organicism, all of which co-emerged with the very technologies Foucault associates with the rise of biopolitics (or biopower).

7.        All three contributors agree that re-considering Romanticism in light of biopolitics is worthwhile, and, surprisingly, despite their different subject matters and approaches, they all turn out to be more or less fervent defenders of Romanticism. One might have expected the opposite, given that many analyses tend to use the perspective of biopolitics to indict or, at least, challenge the cherished icons of the Romantic tradition. One could imagine that particularly those working in the field of German, who just witnessed the Schiller anniversary, would seize the opportunity to question the author of the Letters on Aesthetic Education of Man and hero of the Left up to and including his peculiar reception by Jacques Rancière. However, the authors collected in this volume are determined to relieve Romanticism from any biopolitical charges and suspicions. In fact, they seem to use the question of biopolitics and Romanticism as an opportunity to rehabilitate much-maligned aesthetics. Perhaps these scholars are actually fighting demons other than biopolitics. Occasional references to Terry Eagleton or Paul de Man suggest dissatisfaction with the aversion against aesthetics notorious in deconstructive readings as well as in older left-wing ideological critique. Clearly, all three contributors perceive of biopolitics as a version of that earlier charge and they rebel against it in different ways.

8.        However, considering that it was Agamben whose books ignited current discussions of ‘biopolitics and X’, perhaps expectations of critical indictment of Romanticism are flawed to begin with. Any reader of Agamben will not fail to notice that he is not only a scathing critic of our current politics, but that he, perhaps even more so then Derrida before him, is drawing on rich, often arcane, sources of Old-European learnedness such as Pindar and Plato, Aristotle and Augustine, to name just a few. Moreover, he is also a highly astute reader of poetry and literature, as his marvelous book Stanzas or the prose vignettes collected in The Open: Man and Animal show. Even in his book on the camps, Remnants of Auschwitz, Primo Levi is his main source, while Hölderlin and other authors hover in the margins. With those and additional pieces on Robert Walser, for example, and his re-discovery of Max Kommerell in mind (Potentialities), positive assertions of aesthetics seem very much in line with Agamben’s own interests. [3]  Indeed, much of the attraction he currently exerts on the intellectual (and by no means exclusively academic) imagination has to do with his literary and aesthetic sensibilities which, for once, do not come at the price of political stakes but appear to be in tune with them. However, even this reminder could not quite dispel my initial surprise; I will return to this.

9.        In any case, from the initially unexpected consensus among them one might infer that the readings, while nominally about biopolitics, actually belong to a recently emerging trend to re-consider and re-evaluate aesthetics. This interest might have been occasioned by discussions surrounding biopolitics, but it is certainly not limited to that issue. Recall, for example, Elaine Scarry’s elegant quasi-platonic defense of beauty from the late 1990s as an early instance of reconsidering the role of aesthetics. The already mentioned Jacques Rancière also made great efforts to rehabilitate the tradition of autonomous art since Schiller from an idiosyncratic but certainly political perspective. Christoph Menke, whose work offers the most significant contributions to date in reshaping our understanding of aesthetics, even took on the question of biopolitics and aesthetics directly, seeking to distinguish Foucault’s disciplinary power from aesthetic practice in an essay aptly entitled ‘Two kinds of exercise’ (‘Zweierlei Übung’). [4]  However, none of these authors figures here. But it is rather obvious that biopolitics appears to have assumed the place occupied by older ideology critiques of aesthetics. At issue in all articles is aesthetics by way of biopolitics and not the other way around as one might have expected. That is not to say that the issues at hand—abortion in the case of Sara Guyer, education in Marc Redfield and Mill’s utilitarian philosophy in Emily Sun’s text—have nothing to do with biopolitics. However, the specificities of biopolitics tend to be assigned lesser importance vis-à-vis the overt interest in rehabilitating aesthetics. Having made this observation, I hasten to add that I find this objective rather intriguing and that I certainly have no better, more interesting or specific way of considering the question of Romanticism and biopolitics. All I can offer in the final pages is an attempt to recast the question of aesthetics and biopolitics by way of two concepts from their respective spheres, namely form and life. To this end I will turn to Lukáçs’ Theory of the Novel from 1916. However, having isolated, for now, the re-emergence of aesthetics as the dominant motif uniting the different contributions to this volume, I would like to examine each a bit more closely on its own terms before considering Lukáçs in the last section.


10.        Of the three contributions, Sara Guyer’s article on ‘Biopoetics’ is most obviously programmatic in nature. What she proposes as ‘biopoetics’ is sharply distinguished from and even opposed to its meaning and use in Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner’s 1999 anthology of the same name. While they profess faith in the existence of artistic universals defining “our common humanity” (qtd. in Guyer), Guyer’s own tentative appeal to an alternative “new humanistic method” is based on the rejection of the scientific approach favored by the authors of Biopoetics: Evolutionary Exploration in the Arts, which she associates with the scientifically generated techniques of social control originally described by Michel Foucault as biopolitics (or biopower, respectively). Alternatively, her sense of ‘biopoetics’ relies on the power (but also: the failure) of specific poetic operations—tropes of animation such as prosopopeia and apostrophe. In outlining this other sense of biopoetics, she pursues a double strategy. In the first part of her article, she engages various critics and theoreticians to explore different ways of relating biopolitics and the lyric. In the second part, she offers an elegant reading of a particular poem by John Clare in which biopolitics in Foucault’s sense and the lyric come together in a way obliquely suggested by Barbara Johnson, but more poignantly articulated in the poem at hand. On Guyer’s reading, the poem exposes itself neither as a power over life nor a power to kill but as a dissipating power, a weakness, as it were. At stake in her reading is the failure of address, poetry’s failure to conjure up a life no longer or not yet there but not exactly dead either. This poetically performed failure of poetic sovereignty results in the insight that “sovereignty and abandonment can share the same rhetoric”. In this, she finds an implicitly consoling answer to the question that looms large in the first part of the essay: Is literature, in particular Romantic literature, which emerges at the same time as the newly devised strategies of biopolitics, analogous to those mechanisms, perhaps even complicit with them? What does the biopolitical wish to wield power over life have to do with the lyric modes of animating inanimate objects? Is Romanticism, in fact, a secret agent of biopolitical technologies and strategies? Assuming this is Guyer’s question, her answer is absolutely clear: literature plays a different role with regard to life; it is neither a latent medium nor a manifest agent of biopolitics. Yet literature’s chief concern is not death either, as a certain reading of de Man’s deconstruction tends to suggest. Instead, poetry and, by extension, biopoetics, is, for Guyer, a human and humanistic account of life deeply opposed to biopolitics.

11.        With her emphatic insistence on poetry as a humanistic concern not exhausted by science or technique, Guyer relieves poetry from the suspicion of being an accomplice to biopolitics; at the same time she rejects the older prejudice against Romanticism as organicist ideology. On her reading, biopoetics is an ambivalent—but in its ambivalence unequivocally so—counter-concept and antidote to biopolitics. While her position is clear, I am less certain about the motivation and more uncertain still about the way she stages her questions and her answers. Some of these difficulties may well have to do with the conceptual problems surrounding biopolitics. The focus on abortion, as introduced by Johnson and Deutscher, raises additional problems. For Guyer, abortion is per se a biopolitical issue, as is the death penalty. However, this is debatable. According to Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, abortion is not biopolitical because it does not concern populations (or races) but individuals in relation to other sovereign instances such as the state, which does or does not legalize abortion. The question is more complicated when viewed from Agamben’s perspective. According to him, the biopolitical goal to further, prolong, extend, and foster life was, at bottom, always the desire to obtain a license to kill with impunity. The logic at work here is most radically exemplified by Nazi-Racism in which the death of Jews ensures the survival, the life of the Arian race. I hesitate to draw this analogy, but no state will question abortion if the mother’s life is at stake. Hence abortion is not biopolitical in Agamben’s sense either. (Since he harks back to Roman law it is worth pointing out that one of the ways biopolitics reared its head in the Roman Republic was the potestas vitae necisque, the right of the father to decide whether his already born son should live or die. In his analysis of this legal term, Agamben argues that this absolute power over the son is the condition on which one becomes a free Roman citizen and thus a political subject.) However, in another sense the issue of abortion is indeed strictly biopolitical because what is legally, morally and medically at stake is the very question which, according to Agamben, is the fatal problem of all politics to date: what constitutes life or, more specifically, what constitutes viable life? I do not know what Agamben would have to say about abortion, but one could argue that the very fact that there are legal and moral debates about abortion is a sign that politics has indeed been reduced to (or rather: still is) all about drawing a (legal) boundary that separates life from what is not yet, or no longer, life. In this perspective, abortion is indeed on par with the problematic state of comatose patients who are either dead or alive depending on which legal and medical rule is brought to bear on their case, and fetal life does indeed begin to look like occupying a zone of indistinction similar to that of the comatose or the Muselmann in the camps. Obviously, that is a highly problematic line of argument, which I would rather not pursue. Suffice it to say that I am not sure what to make of the notion of fetal life as introduced by Guyer via Johnson.

12.        While the biopolitics of abortion and the idea of fetal life are pertinent but somewhat fuzzy (perhaps necessarily so), biopolitics moves into full view just when Guyer believes to have broken its shackles and moved beyond it into the realm of what she calls biopoetics. This occurs in her reading of Clare’s poem. Here the notion of a fetal life in a zone of indistinction is linked to a poetic sovereignty that fails to govern, a poetic power that fails to animate. This failure exposes the co-existence, even dependency of sovereign rhetoric and a rhetoric of abandonment, failure, and impotence. The reason why the biopoetic as presented in this article could, in fact, be identified as the biopolitical itself, has to do with one of Agamben’s more interesting but less cited arguments. According to him, the constitutive nexus between sovereign power and biopower lies in the fact that the ultimate power of the sovereign (or, for that matter: the law) is its ability to withdraw and suspend itself. By surrendering its powerful hold on a life, it exposes this life to death with impunity. True power is the power to abandon power, as the law does when a state of emergency or exception is announced. As is well known, what Agamben’s calls the ‘logic of the ban’ is indebted to Carl Schmitt, who made the decision to suspend the rule of law in the state of exception the cornerstone of his theory of sovereignty. Whereas Schmitt’s decisionism celebrates the active act of deciding as proof of sovereign power, Agamben, by contrast, emphasizes the passivity and the powerlessness of power as the key element. (In part, this has to do with his reading of Aristotle as developed in the essays collected in Potentialities.) When Guyer emphasizes the intertwinement of powerlessness and sovereignty, she comes rather close to describing Agamben’s logic of the ban that is at the core of biopolitics.

13.        Like Sara Guyer, Marc Redfield, too, is invested in literature as a site where the workings of biopower are, if not resisted, then at least revealed in their dependence on specifically literary operations that “compose and exceed not just law or right per se, but also the sovereign exception that founds and exceeds law” (6). In other words: literature is the better theory of biopolitics. After an impressively succinct summary of both Foucault and Agamben, Redfield focuses on ‘Bildung’, the formation of subjects, as a supposedly non-coercive model of control that can also be read in a more sinister vein as a biopolitical phantasm (Redfield’s measured agreement with Eagleton’s critique of Romantic aesthetics evidences that he too considers the charge of biopolitics leveled against Romanticism of a kind with earlier ideology critiques). His subsequent readings of Schiller and Goethe are designed to demonstrate that their texts, even and especially when they are not thematically concerned with biopolitical issues, reflect on what Redfield with Agamben calls the “inscription of natural life in the juridico-political order” (5), which Agamben (as Arendt before him) locates in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

14.        He readily concedes that Schiller’s notion of aesthetic education does indeed lend itself to a biopolitical reading (although, like Guyer, he also seems to identify Foucault’s biopower with his idea of disciplinary power). What concerns him most is the concealed violence of aesthetic education and practice. And his point is well taken. Education, considered by Kant the greatest task because the welfare of the entire species depends on it [‘das Geheimnis der Gattung’] is, on the face of it, a highly suggestive candidate for biopolitical interests precisely because the future of the species depends on the individual and vice versa. However, in a closer reading of Schiller’s famous passage on the artist and the politician from the Letters on Aesthetic Education Redfield can show that things are more complicated, involving duplicities and slippages. Where Guyer focuses on undecidability, Redfield emphasizes an ‘instability haunting’ Schiller’s text, its figures and tropes. While acknowledging peculiar and suspicious convergences between the free play of the faculties in the aesthetic state and the state of exception, Redfield eventually sides with (Schiller’s) aesthetics against biopolitics because Schiller’s text exposes any pretensions to aesthetic sovereignty as illusory. As in the case of Guyer’s reading of Clare’s “To Mary,” aesthetic artifacts question the sovereignty of sovereignty. If, however, sovereignty’s power resides precisely in its ability to surrender power, in the power to exempt lives from its hold, then recognizing that sovereignty does not govern does little to alter the operative biopolitical structure. Redfield’s reading of Goethe’s as opposed to Schiller’s response to the revolution in his “Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten,” which, incidentally, is indebted to Andreas Gailus’ interpretation of this text, proceeds along similar lines.

15.        While Redfield and Guyer’s respective texts offer very different perspectives, they both intend to show that the texts under consideration “stage and deconstruct sovereign violence” (Redfield 19). Just as Guyer, Redfield argues that art and aesthetic theory expose and reveal what would otherwise remain hidden. Aesthetics (not in general, but in the works of Schiller and Goethe he has chosen) is heralded as a discourse capable of displaying “traces of a violence that sovereigns commandeer but cannot properly command”. However, a free-floating violence (as in the case of constitutionally anchored states of exception) that is no longer tied to a person is no less violent and perhaps even more so, as Agamben shows when he suggests that the problem of sovereignty is not person-bound (as Schmitt believed) but structural. In other words: I am not sure whether an ambivalence discovered, an inconsistency revealed, a delusion exposed are in themselves improvements of any sort. At work in both essays is a fundamental belief in the powers of enlightenment—as if the recognition and articulation of instabilities and inconsistencies, which readings of literature can reveal, made the operative norms any less normative. The implicit value attributed to moments of undecidability and ambivalence is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that Agamben’s success probably has something to do with his oedipal revolt against Derrida and deconstruction where ambivalence was held in high esteem. One could even speculate that Agamben’s insistence on the fatality of indistinction calls the value deconstruction accorded to ambivalence into question. This much is suggested by his rather explicitly anti-Derridean reading of Kafka’s parable ‘Before the Law’ when Agamben writes:

The prestige of deconstruction in our time lies precisely in its having conceived of the entire text of tradition as being in force without significance, a being in force whose strength lies essentially in its undecidability and having shown that such a being in force is, like the door of the Law in Kafka’s parable, absolutely impassable. But it is precisely concerning the sense of being in force … that our position distinguishes itself from that of deconstruction. (Homo Sacer 54)
Agamben interprets the figure of the man before the law as a Messianic figure whose very goal is to get the open door of the Law to close. With reference to deconstruction he continues:
What threatens thinking here is the possibility that thinking might find itself condemned to infinite negotiations with the doorkeeper, or, even worse, that it might end by itself assuming the role of the doorkeeper who, without really blocking the entry, shelters the Nothing onto which the door opens. (54)
Those are rather strong words, aimed at questioning an overestimation of ambivalence and undecidability.

16.        Of all three contributions, Emily Sun in her intriguing essay on John Stuart Mill’s encounter with Wordsworth has the strictest conceptual sense of biopolitics. She relies not on the Foucault of the lectures on Racism with their famous juxtaposition of sovereign power and biopower, nor the History of Sexuality, but draws instead primarily on Foucault’s lectures in the Birth of Biopolitics from the late 70s, where biopolitics is related to the emergence of liberalism beginning in the late eighteenth century. By the same token, Sun’s interesting essay is also the least concerned with traces of the biopolitical within aesthetic artifacts. Rather, her reading of Wordsworth’s significance for John Stuart Mill amounts to something of a case study in the power of aesthetic education in Schiller’s sense. Haven fallen into crisis, Mill’s turn to Wordsworth affects a turn away from the liberal utilitarianism he had previously espoused. Less ambiguously than Redfield and Guyer, Sun views art more straightforwardly as antidote to a notion of politics reduced to managing populations. However, she also acknowledges a link between the two worlds of Benthamite reasoning and Wordsworth’s poetry. As in the contributions by Guyer and Redfield, (literary) rhetoric is once more at issue. In her case, a rhetoric of theatricality enables and underpins the transformation of Mill’s utilitarianism. Whether that implicates art in liberalism or liberalism in aesthetics is of lesser concern for Sun, in part because of her very clearly defined notion of biopolitics and in part because she confines herself to tracing the noticeable shifts affected by Mill’s discovery of Wordsworth.


17.        At one point in her article, Sara Guyer refers to Agamben’s notion of forma-di-vita. While Agamben has neglected to elaborate this term in greater detail, it is certainly legitimate to identify form-of-life as an alternative to the bare life produced by sovereignty. Form-of-life, Guyer writes with reference to a short text by Agamben of that title, entertains “a relation to the indeterminate and unprogrammed” (Guyer). As forma-di-vita, life is indeed about the (non-actualized or unlived) possibilities of life as opposed to sovereignty’s efforts to separate and isolate a mere life. Thus the term points to Agamben’s idiosyncratic ontological re-description of possibility in his readings of Aristotle. All other definitions of the enigmatic concept of form-of-life are based on negation. Accordingly, form-of-life is a life in which no life can be abstracted or isolated from the form this life has assumed. Leaving aside the general semantic overdetermination of forma-di-vita, form-of-life or, in German, Lebensform (which, incidentally, signifies a qualified life just as much as a life-form, i.e. species), it is worth pointing out that problems of life and form are a great concern in at least two spheres of thought. Since Romanticism (in the widest sense), life and form and their numerous permutations have been subject to aesthetic practice and theory. In addition (and, conceptually speaking, in close vicinity), the compound noun unites two concepts circulating in many strands of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Lebensphilosophie. While Agamben never refers to any of the relevant authors explicitly, his proximity to Deleuze, whom we owe one of the most sophisticated readings of Bergson to date, might have influenced his terminological choice. More obviously, forma-di-vita is also a reformulation of Heidegger’s Dasein. [5]  Bringing together in some way or other the notion of life as unformed flow and form as lasting shape is a central topic in authors like Bergson, Simmel, and others up to and including Heidegger. However, whether the nexus of life and form can or should be thought of as a relation, is, in fact, at issue in all of these authors and also informs Agamben’s own discussions of forma-di-vita.

18.        Perhaps his most sustained but also speculative and enigmatic elucidations of forma-di-vita are part of the very chapter in which he offers his already quoted critique of Derrida and deconstruction. In those sections, entitled ‘Form of Law’, Agamben interprets Kafka’s famous parable ‘Before the Law’ as an allegory of the sovereign exception or ban which includes what it excludes and hence maintains a relation to it by not relating to it. What holds bare life and mere form (of the law) together is nothing else than this relationship which Agamben designates as ban (Homo Sacer 49-62). Borrowing a phrase from the correspondence between Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin on Kafka, the law in “Before the Law” is said to be “in force but without significance” (51). In the state of exception the law is stripped of any content and “the empty potentiality is so much in force as to become indistinguishable from life” (51). Against this background Agamben raises the question of whether there might be a “form of life (…) that corresponds to the form of law” (52). The dissolution of the ban with its peculiarly extreme relationship of relating by not-relating would require, Agamben argues, to acknowledge that life and law, just like Heidegger’s being and Being, do not have “the form of a relation” (60). He further suggests that this “implies nothing less than an attempt to think the politico-social factum no longer in the form of a relation” (60). For if one thinks of life and law in terms of a relation, any relation, one has already succumbed to the logic of the ban which, according to Agamben, is the most extreme, most tenuous and hence most powerful form of all possible relations. Agamben concludes that the mere form of law (as given in the state of exception and resulting in the indistinguishability of life and law) can be countered or “confronted by life that, in a symmetrical but inverse gesture, is entirely transformed into law” (55) which presumably would amount to a true (Messianic) state of exception rather than the permanent state of exception we are said to live in. The only examples of such a form of life can be found in the bizarre gallery of homines sacri at the close of Agamben’s book, featuring the Muselmann, a comatose patient, the Roman priest Flamen Diale and Hitler, among others. The Roman priest as well as Hitler may perhaps be considered as figures whose life has been transformed into law, whereas the comatose patient like the Muselmann might represent a law that has become life. Disturbing as this prospect is, Agamben appears to have his hopes staked on this inversion: [6]  if a life could transform itself into law as its form and thus become a form of life in which law and life are inseparable, there would be no room for relations and hence no room for the logic of the sovereign ban that upholds the logic of relations by holding its elements in permanent suspense.

19.        While it is perhaps impossible to conceive of a politics of forma-di-vita or, for that matter, of any politics, without recourse to the notion of relation, there exists indeed a form, an aesthetic form, that is virtually indistinguishable from life, a form that does not relate to its content in any way because its form, its formal law binds it directly to the (discrete, heterogeneous, form- and law-less) empiricism of life; a form, moreover, which for this very reason has frequently been judged to be a formless form or a ‘half-art [Halbkunst]’ (Lukáçs 73). That form, a modern form, is the novel. At least this is what Georg Lukáçs sought to argue in his Theory of the Novel from 1916, which remains one of the most powerful and rich theoretical explorations of the novel as a form sui generis (rather than a genre among others). Given the prominence of the terms ‘life’ and ‘form’ in his text, it is highly instructive to re-read his book in light of the question of biopolitics and aesthetics. The point, however, is not to provide any answers to the question whether aesthetics is complicit with biopolitics, but to reframe the very question by shifting the terrain. Instead of asking about possible relations between aesthetics and biopolitics, Lukáçs’ Theory of the Novel may be productively (re)read as a site where the question of form and life is played out exclusively as a problem of aesthetic form. Therefore, his essay may be considered a testing ground, as it were, for the conceptual viability of Agamben’s enigmatic idea of forma-di-vita. Before making the case for such a re-reading, an obvious objection or question needs to be addressed: what are the reasons for doing so? If Agamben and notions of biopolitics allow us to relate politics and aesthetics in a number of different ways, should one not hold on to that possibility rather than giving up on politics and, once more, withdrawing into the aesthetic sphere? Indeed, but any attempt to ‘relate’ aesthetics and politics upholds their distinction and separateness. If Agamben has a lesson to teach, it is that distinction and relation can result in a highly problematic collapse of distinctions. In other words: if there is something to Agamben’s claim that relationality has proven inherently problematic with respect to law and life, it might be worthwhile to pursue the non-relational idea of forma-di-vita in aesthetics without relating it to politics. Of course, this is bound to raise the specter of the aestheticization of politics; at the very least it could be misinterpreted as an attempt to call Agamben’s political stakes into question by showing that the core problems are aesthetic in nature and only parade as political. Yet such an argument would also depend on being able to draw the line between aesthetic forms and politics. And it is to challenge this idea that I am enlisting Lukáçs. As an added benefit this might also shed some light on the enigmatic idea of non-relationality associated with forma-di-vita.

20.        Among the many terms Lukáçs’ account of the novel employs, such as law, life and form, none is more dominant than that of form. Contrary to many readings (including his own assertions in the later preface) and his supposed Hegelianism, he is less concerned with philosophy of history than with intrinsic questions of form. And it is important to note that, in a manner inconceivable for Hegel, philosophy too is for Lukáçs an aesthetic form, which he places next to epic and tragedy as the third of “the great and timeless paradigmatic forms of world literature [Weltgestaltung]” (35). Moreover, the emergence of all three forms already presupposes the loss of totality and a rupture between subject and object, soul and action, life and its significance. This is true of philosophy “as a form of life” (29) and it is also true of the great Homeric epics. They are certainly not the adequate expression of a totality enjoyed by the Greeks and forever unattainable to the moderns. On the contrary, the very existence of Homer’s epics proves that life has lost its immanent significance. This is not to say that there are no differences between Homer, Dante, and the modern novel, but they all respond in different ways to the same problematic: “Every art form is defined by the metaphysical dissonance of life which it accepts and organizes as the basis of totality complete in itself” (71). Admittedly, for Homer it was just a matter of lifting the meaningful forms of life to consciousness, whereas the modern novel forever seeks and seeks to produce what it would rather just find. This is why the novel is called the epic “of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become a problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality [die Gesinnung zur Totalität hat]” (56). Persisting through its different manifestations in the epic, the novella or the novel is what Lukáçs calls “the formative a priori” (44) or “formal a priori” (46)—Formapriorität—shared by all epic forms. Whereas tragedy’s ‘formal a priori’ consists in answering the question: “how can meaning [Wesen] come to life?” all epic forms respond to the inverse question: how can life transcend itself and become meaningful: “How can life become essential [wesenhaft]?” (35). In Agamben’s terminology, how can life become form-of-life, in Heidegger’s, how can being become Being? The undeniable uniqueness of Homer’s works over and against all other ‘great epic forms’, including the novel, stems from the fact that Greek epic gave an answer to that question before the question arose as such (13). Its formulation was philosophy’s task, which succeeded the epic and articulated the very problem to which the former had already found the solution. This peculiarity of Greek epic removes it forever from our grasp. In fact, the radicality with which Lukáçs insists on the epos’ ultimate otherness surpasses both Nietzsche’s earlier and Benjamin’s later reflections on Greek antiquity in general and tragedy in particular.

21.        The rhythm of the emergence and transformations of these three forms (epic, tragedy and philosophy) is indeed, if not exactly preordained by, then at least synchronized with “the historic-philosophical position of the world’s clock” (91). However, the conclusion that the very purpose of art and its respective forms is to provide a dissonant world and fragmented life with the meaningful totality both are lacking is deceptive. Instead, each form must obey its own structural logic and formal law, independent of the state of affairs (which philosophy charts):

Each form appears positive because it fulfills its own structural laws: the affirmation of life that seems to emanate from it as a mood is nothing other than the resolving of its form-conditioned [formgeforderten] dissonances, the affirmation of its own, form-created [formgeschaffenen] substance. [7]  (128)
The emphasis should be on “form-conditioned” and “form-created”. The dissonances and their dissolution into a meaningful totality are equally functions of the internal law of forms, quite independent of everything else. The historical fate of the various forms is thus determined by the formal specificities in accordance with the questions a particular aesthetic form attempts to answer. Hence, tragedy, which responds to the question how essence can come alive, is more immune to changes in what Lukáçs calls “the transcendental structure of the form-giving subject and the world of created forms” (40f). The reason why tragedy survived longer and adapted better to the fundamental rifts in the relationship of life and meaning is to be found in its ‘formative a priori.’ In all drama, meaning is given or posited and at issue is how to bring it to life. Therefore, drama is more likely to produce a perhaps in many ways problematic, but nevertheless a whole world (for example in the figure of the hero). Epic does not have this option because its Form a priori is entirely different. What is given to the epic is not any transcendent meaning of life but just life itself. All epic forms are such that “the world at any given moment is an ultimate principle; they are empirical at their deepest, most decisive, all-determining transcendental base“ (46). A few pages later, Lukáçs adds that all epic’s empiricity is “form-demanded [formgewollt]” (49). [8]  The ‘formgewollte’ or ‘formgeforderte’ empiricism of all epic forms resists its assimilation into a meaningful whole. Whenever an epic form attempts to do so in modernity, it inevitably violates its intrinsic formal law. As a consequence, the epic is constantly threatened to deteriorate into lyrical subjectivity or into the objectivism of drama:
This indestructible bond with reality as it is, the crucial difference between the epic and the drama, is a necessary consequence of the object of the epic being life itself. The concept of essence leads to transcendence simply by being posited, and then, in the transcendent, crystallizes into a new and higher essence expressing through its form an essence that should be—an essence which, because it is born of form, remains independent of the given content of what merely exists. The concept of life, on the other hand, has no need of any such transcendence captured and held immobile as an object. (47)
In modernity, with its shifts in the concept of life, epic forms find themselves in a very different situation than drama. Already in the epos of antiquity, this form was bound to life, but the epic had only to let the essence emerge through its form. But life’s stubborn resistance has grown enormously. On account of their “formal a priori”, epic forms “can never of their own accord charm something into life that was not already present in it” (47). It is important to bear in mind that the empiricism of life that is epic’s subject is not its content or object, but is itself, as Lukáçs says, demanded by form. It is therefore not a matter of epic forms somehow relating to life; in the epic, being bound to life is its formal requirement, the law of its form.

22.        In the course of his book, Lukáçs suggests several solutions to the dilemma epic faces in modernity. The totality epic forms are to achieve by virtue of their formal law can be relegated to a fragment—as in novellas, ballads or the idyllic. But all those epic forms remain threatened and flawed as they transgress into the lyric (by making an individual subject the bearer of totality) or into drama by abstractly claiming a meaning life does not have on its own. All of these remain partial and for the most part non-satisfactory solutions to a dilemma that the novel as the epic’s true successor faces head-on, so to speak: “The dissonance special to the novel, the refusal of the immanence of being to enter into empirical life, produces a problem of form whose formal nature is much less obvious than in other kinds of art” (71). The novel is an epic form and as such it cannot distinguish between life and form because it is bound to empirical life qua form. The bizarre solution the novel finds for its peculiar form-problem is, above all, to acknowledge that its solutions must all be deficient in view of what is required: “the immanence of meaning required by the form [formgeforderte] is attained precisely when the author goes all the way, ruthlessly, towards exposing its absence” (72). From this dialectical ruse issues Lukáçs’ theory of irony: “Irony, the self-surmounting [Selbstaufhebung] of a subjectivity that has gone as far as it is possible to go, is the highest freedom that can be achieved in a world without God” (93). But this solution too remains, as many forms of drama, too abstract and “intellectualist [intellektualistisch]” (44).

23.        However, the novel also has a purely formal solution for the problems it faces as an epic form. Bound to life, it takes one of life’s essential dimensions and adopts it as its proper form. In the novel, time becomes process and process becomes (dynamic) form: “Thus the novel, in contrast to other genres whose existence resides within the finished form, appears as something in process of becoming“ (72). This is why Lukáçs likes to invoke the novel as “the form of mature virility” (85). It is a reminder of the fact that a life’s story is the usual form of the novel and biography one of its essential possibilities. In short: the form of the novel is formed life. [9]  The novel’s solution is thus not even to try to find meaning in any particular contents; rather in adapting the life-worldly fact of time as its form, the sheer becoming can now appear as essential and meaningful. This is how the novel can be like life but “as form, the novel establishes a fluctuating yet form balance between becoming and being; as the idea of becoming, it becomes a state [Zustand]. Thus the novel, by transforming itself into a normative being of becoming, surmounts itself” (73). In life, time has no beginning and no end, but the novel achieves the transformation of time into a process that subsequently appears as the very essence of all life. This is the novel’s chance to be the old epic’s legitimate successor and, at the same time, an entirely new epic form. This chance is highly improbable and the ways in which Lukáçs underscores the contingency of that form as a form bound to the contingencies of life is nothing less than remarkable.

24.        The highly critical form of the novel “prescribes still stricter, still more violable artistic laws for itself than do ‘the closed forms,’ and those laws are all the more binding because they cannot be defined or formulated” (73). [10]  Just as time, which also inheres in the “sphere of mere life,” becomes the idea of process when the novel adopts it as its organizing principle, the indefinable but strictly binding principles governing the success of the novel also have their origin in the life world:

Tact and taste, in themselves subordinate categories which belong wholly to the sphere of mere life and are irrelevant to an essential ethic world, here acquire great constitutive significance; only then is subjectivity, at the beginning of the novel’s totality and at its end, capable of maintaining itself in equilibrium, of positing itself as epically normative objectivity and thus of surmounting abstraction, the inherent danger of the novel form. (74)
Laws of tact are laws defying articulation. They are in force but without significance. By entrusting each novel’s fate to the tact of the aesthetic subjectivity, Lukáçs re-turns something to the novel that it threatened to have lost when it found the solution of its challenges in the idea of irony and the adaptation of time as a formal principle. Subjecting the novel to the wholly unknowable and indefinable laws of tact, Lukáçs restores to the novel the very life-worldly contingency that its formal a priori demands. The novel is thus not only a critical and permanently endangered form but also highly paradoxical: Its goal is to find meaning in life but whenever it succeeds in doing so it has potentially betrayed the very life that it is bound to: “the great epic is a form bound to the historical moment [an die Empirie des geschichtlichen Augenblicks gebunden], and any attempt to depict the utopian as existent can only end in destroying the form, not in creating reality” (152). For Lukáçs this (form-generated) fate of the novel is mirrored in the life of this form. In Dante, the epic is on the way to being supplanted by the novel; all subsequent novels, from Goethe to Tolstoy, from the abstract idealist novel to the novel of disillusion [Desillusionsroman], with rarest and highly improbably exceptions, remain flawed. However, their very deficiencies confirm the novel as the form bound to life as chance and contingency. With Dostoyevsky, finally, who dawns at the end of Lukáçs’ book, the novel has disappeared:
Dostoyevsky did not write novels, and the creative vision revealed in his works has nothing to do, either as affirmation or as rejection, with European nineteenth-century Romanticism or with the many, likewise, Romantic reactions against it. Only formal analysis of his works can show whether he is already the Homer or the Dante of that world or whether he merely supplies the songs which, together with the songs of other forerunners, later artists will one day weave into a great unity. (152f)
Whether Dostoyevsky did not write novels after all is another question. Be that as it may, as a form bound to life, the life of the novel itself has the form of life: contingent and flawed. And like its characters the novel itself is always searching and never finds itself. The novel is a form of life in which no bare life can be separated, whose law is life and whose life is its law. If the novel is forma-di-vita, or, less emphatically, if the novel as described by Lukáçs affords the possibility to make sense of Agamben’s enigmatic term and its implied anti-relational logic, then one may raise the question of the novel’s politics. Lukáçs could not be more concise on this point. There is no politics of the novel and there can never be one, neither biopolitical nor sovereign. However, the novel is the one genre least guilty of the notorious “exaggeration of the substantiality of art [Überspannung der Substantialität der Kunst]”, least guilty of the equally notorious “hypostasy of aesthetics into metaphysics” (38) because as a form of art, and, more specifically, as a genre of great epic art, the novel is not about art but about life.

Works Cited

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Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998. Print.

Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone, 1999. Print.

Agamben, Giorgio. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. Print.

Agamben, Giorgio. The Man without Content. 1977. Trans. Giorgia Albert. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. Print.

Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000. Print.

Agamben, Giorgio. The Open: Man and Animal. Trans. Kevin Attell. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003. Print.

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Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 1958. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.

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Campe, Rüdiger. "Form und Leben in der Theorie des Romans." Vita Aesthetica: Szenarien ästhetischer Lebendigkeit. Ed. Armen Avanessian, Winfried Menninghaus, and Jan Völker. Berlin: Diaphanes, 2009. Print.

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[1] Among the most relevant texts by Michel Foucault on this subject belong the following: History of Sexuality, Vol. 1; Security, Territory, Population; The Birth of Biopolitics; Society Must Be Defended. BACK

[2] See The Birth of the Clinic and Discipline and Punish.BACK

[3] Yet it is worth mentioning that in his early works Agamben is very much a critic of aesthetics in the tradition of Heidegger and others. Cf. The Man without Content. BACK

[4] See also Menke and Rebentisch. BACK

[5] See Agamben’s essay “Form of Life,” in Means without End. Though Agamben does not cite Heidegger directly, most of the essay’s diction and content, however, very clearly point back to § 9 of Heidegger’s Being and Time. BACK

[6] Ambivalent formulations are part of Agamben’s provocations. An example of deliberate ambivalence can be found in the beginning of the chapter on “Sovereignty and Bare Life”: “The ‘enigmas’ that our century has proposed to historical reason and that remain with us (Nazism is only the most disquieting among them) will be solved only on the terrain—biopolitics—on which they were formed” (Homo Sacer 4). For a more thorough discussion of this aspect, see Geulen. BACK

[7] In an earlier passage, Lukáçs had written: “Art always says ‘And yet!’ to art” (72). BACK

[8] The translation has been modified, since, unfortunately, the English rendition misses the point. BACK

[9] For Lukáçs the life of the novel has to be an individual life in accordance with his premises. Rüdiger Campe, taking his cue from Lukáçs, has shown that there is another, older type of novel not concerned with the individual’s life but with the life of institutions, which resurfaces in early 20-century once the biographical novel has run its course. Campe identified novels by Kafka and Robert Walser as institutional novels, and perhaps Dostoyevsky—whom Lukáçs exempts from his discussion of the novel as an altogether new form—could also be read along these lines. See Campe, "Robert Walsers Institutionenroman" . On the problem of form and the novel and the emergence of life in those theories, see also Campe, "Form und Leben in der Theorie des Romans" . BACK

[10] The translation has been modified since the translator elided part of the sentence. BACK