Giorgio Agamben

Giorgio Agamben is the author of more than twenty-five books and is extremely well known. My dog, Bear, is not. Bear is six months old at the time of writing and is exceptional in many regards. He is funny and fierce. His mother is an Akita, a Japanese breed once used to hunt large game such as deer, wild boar, and Asian black bears. (For a time possession was restricted to the Japanese aristocracy.) Special outfits were required for the handlers, and a special language employed to address the dogs. Times have changed.

Of his father, not much is known.

I found Bear on a dusty porch in a very gang-controlled part of East LA. He was seven weeks old and in the possession of a kind but extremely laconic older gentleman who had fought in the Korean War. The pups belonged to his daughter, who left them with him for reasons he was disinclined to share. Bear and his sister Nagoya were being kept in a large crate, all day, every day, and were generally having the dog version of a very Dickensian early life. I had to make a decision on site. Someone had already claimed his sister and would be coming to pick her up shortly. Puppies are not plentiful here, let alone majestic-looking little hairballs with proud hind parts. I called one friend for an opinion and she told me to get out of there fast. I called another, who told me to take the dog with me.

Bear was, and remains, ridiculously cute. He appeared on the main web page for a major music festival because I happened to be walking by their pre-party when their photographer was coming out for a smoke. A literal majority of people during the first month of our time together made some sort of exclamation. Many of them were articulate. One day, in the space of three hours, I was told: “He just made my day”; “That just made my week”; and the beautiful and cryptic, “Everything is better now.” Having just moved to Los Angeles, I felt like I had some insight into what it would be to hang out with someone famous.

I was raised with dogs, and to some extent by them. My first memories are full of dogs and puppies, with the result that having a dog is the natural state of my world. I learn many things from my dog, including that every day is what it is and only once; that this is wonderful; that we should go to the park.

Giorgio Agamben, on the other hand: I first met in the late 1990s, in Paris, where I was a student and he a teacher. I spoke with him twice during this period, each time briefly. A decade later I wrote a book about his books. When it was finished I sent him a copy, and not long after we became friends. For a time I would see him frequently. Now I live far away and we communicate like everyone else.

Recently I was asked by the editors of Bidoun to interview him. Knowing his reticence in such matters I said I’d try, without much hope. The very next day I received an email from Agamben, urgently requesting cigarettes. The particular ones he smokes are unavailable in Italy because their American manufacturer refuses to conform to European Union law by covering their hundred-year-old package with the bellowing reminder IL FUMO UCCIDE! So I leveraged Bidoun’s desires against his affection and addiction, with the following as result.

Leland de la Durantaye: What do you think of my dog?

Giorgio Agamben: The other day I was walking in the countryside, in Tuscia, and came upon a horse in a fenced meadow. It suddenly came over to me and reached its head across the wooden paling, trying to touch me. I pulled up and gave him a handful of grass in response to his courteousness. He accepted it, though purely out of courteousness. A few moments later I ran a few strides and he immediately broke into a gallop alongside me. For the ensuing hour we communicated perfectly and profoundly. One thing this proves is that those who think that language is for communication are wrong. Language is not made for communication. It is made for something else, something perhaps more important, but also more perilous. Language is, in fact, the principle obstacle to communication, which animals know perfectly well. They watch us sometimes, filled by a strange compassion for us, caught up as we are in language. They, too, might have ventured into language, but preferred not to, knowing what might be lost. I imagine you have experienced something similar with your dog.

LD: There are ready-made images into which European intellectuals, especially learned ones, and especially philosophically learned ones, are placed, and one of these is that of the sage, the stern thinker whose wisdom has come at the cost of ease, affection, joy, the animal pleasures. Do you have a sense that others have this image of you?

GA: These images are made to protect people from the risks that come with thinking about things. The opposite is of course the case. The relation of reflection to sensation, joy, and pleasure is that it sharpens and extends each one.

LD: Does Descartes seem crazy to you? I mean that he could classify animals as automata and at the same time take such pride in his dog, Monsieur Grat — express such pleasure when Monsieur Grat sired a litter of puppies, and so on.

GA: Linnaeus: “Cartesius certe non vidit simias.” (Descartes clearly never saw a donkey.) José Bergamin, citing Pascal: “Descartes: incertain et inutile.” (Descartes: uncertain and useless.)

LD: When I was starting high school my (hippie) mother once punished me for sneaking out at night by requiring that I read Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. Many years later I happened to be seated next to Peter Singer at an academic dinner. We had been asked to select our entrées in advance; I had selected a nonliberated animal. We naturally fell to taking about animals and he told me he didn’t have much feeling for them, which is to say his interest in the question was divorced from any particular emotional appeal. How do things stand with you and the animal kingdom?

GA: I have always known that I am an animal. As my teacher José Bergamin liked to say, Yo soy un animal. Unfortunately, the animal has been confined by an anthropological process that accords an identity to the human only by excluding the animal. What is more, I think that we should speak in such a context not only of animals. Plants, too, are alive. They are the highest form of life, infinitely superior to the so-called animals — mankind included.

LD: It seems that there are a class of things we can learn from animals that is very large, but has much to do with a time horizon. My dog was very excited about raw meat twenty minutes ago, and very frustrated about not being allowed to eat one of my shoes. Now he is asleep. I think we should all burn with that hard gemlike flame, and then let it go. What have you learned from animals?

GA: I’ll say again what I said before: I am an animal, even if I belong to a species that lives in unnatural conditions. And it seems to me at times that animals regard me with compassion. I’m touched by this, and feel something akin to shame every time an animal looks at me.

LD: At the outset of The Open: Man and Animal you speak of a vision of “mankind reconciled with its animal nature.” I know that the book itself is both a description of and a plea for that reconciliation, but could you say a bit about what it means?

GA: If the anthropological process I sought therein to analyze is founded upon an articulated division between “human” and “animal,” then their reconciliation is a philosophical task, consisting in deactivating both notions. Giorgio Colli once gave a definition of contact that seems to me prescient in this regard. Two things are in contact only when they are united by a representational void. The point at which the human and the animal are in contact is interrupted by what I have called the anthropological process.

LD: Of the many artists and intellectuals whom you have been close to — whether Italo Calvino or Patrizia Cavalli, Martin Heidegger or Guy Debord, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Ingeborg Bachmann or someone else — who was the most sensitive to animals?

GA: One you did not mention: Elsa Morante. She thought, as Kafka did, that animals were never expelled from Eden. Her cat Caruso was something of a legend. If Elsa and Kafka were right, then through animals we remain close to paradise. Given that we live in the same world, however, this means that not even we have been expelled from paradise, only that for some reason we imagine that we have been. This is why we are so hard for other animals to understand.

LD: I remember you and a painter friend once discussing a Roman parrot. Could you remind me what it said?

GA: In the late 1970s we often dined in a Roman restaurant called La Sora Lella, whose owner had a gracula religiosa, a myna bird, one of those birds that can perfectly imitate the human voice, as well as the voices of other animals. Every time I walked by the bird would greet me by saying, “Hi, how’s it going?” One time I was annoyed and replied, “You always say the same thing.” To my terror the bird said, “So do you!” It might be possible to find an explanation, but the experience was an unforgettable one.

LD: On a different note, you were part of a group of young leaders from around the world brought to Harvard one summer to be taught by Henry Kissinger. What was that like?

GA: I arrived at Harvard in July 1968, after having taken part in the final street fighting in Paris in May. I was twenty-six. One day Kissinger gave a lecture on the political situation. I remember standing up and saying with astounding shamelessness, in a loud voice, “Professor Kissinger, you understand absolutely nothing in politics.” When I returned to Italy in September I learned that he had become secretary of state of the most powerful country in the world.

LD: Is it true that one of your fellow young leaders was killed and then eaten by one of his political adversaries some time later?

GA: The participants in the Harvard International Seminar were divided into two groups: intellectuals and politicians. Both attended a seminar taught by Stanley Cavell. The young leader in question was an African who seemed to me truly wise and who later turned out to be a ferocious tyrant. As such, he was cooked and eaten by his enemies.

LD: A friend sent me this link: What do you think of the fact that people’s enthusiasm for you and your work has led them to make Agamben T-shirts for dogs? Do you have one? Do you want one?

GA: No.

LD: The first time I saw you speak you were talking about gossip — the gossip concerning St. Paul that has gathered over the many centuries since he lived. You write seriously about what are often considered unserious things — gossip, pornography, indifference. Could you say something about this?

GA: Walter Benjamin once wrote that the Messianic Kingdom can be present in the world only in forms that appear low and discredited. For this reason in his great book on Paris he concentrated his attention on things that historians had hitherto neglected: the scraps and refuse of culture. For me this is a fundamental methodological principle. What is more, we live in a society where the most beautiful things can only exist in distorted form, can be expressed only through parody.

LD: Now that you have retired, do you miss teaching?

GA: Like Ivan Ilych, I’ve always found the school to be one of modernity’s great catastrophes. I like to think and speak easily, freely, joyfully; but not to teach in a school. The place for thought is at a table, at a banquet. It is also walking in nature, listening to the things the birds or the crickets or the cicadas have to say to us. You will have recognized here the two Greek models of philosophical synousia: the Platonic symposium and the Aristotelian peripatos.

LD: You have taken extreme positions at many points in your life, from refusing to re-enter the United States after the passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2002 to declaring that “the concentration camp is the biopolitical paradigm of modernity.” How do you feel about the future?

GA: I am an archeologist to whom it sometimes falls, while excavating the past, to encounter possible futures that fill me with joy. If, on the other hand, you mean the future that those in power are preparing for the world — this does not exist, because it is the destruction of life.

LD: Looking back in later life upon his Wanderjahre, Schopenhauer deplored that “the three greatest pessimists in the world, Byron, Leopardi, and I” were all in Italy in 1819 and yet never met. Are you a great pessimist? If you were to participate in a summit of pessimists, who would you look forward to meeting there? Or, if you reject the term, why do you think that you are sometimes perceived as a pessimist?

GA: Pessimism and optimism are two psychological categories that have nothing to do with philosophical thought. Let them be left to fools. As for myself, I can say, with Marx, that “the desperate situation in which I live fills me with hope.”