April 12, 2011 § 3 Comments
i read about half of Agamben’s Nudities (Stanford UP, 2011) yesterday. The seventh chapter (“Nudity”) begins with a Vanessa Beecroft performance and then leads one through various Christian theologies of clothing, always emphasizing the (doubled, divided, troubled) relationship between nature and grace, nudity and clothing. If grace is always already given, humans must always already be naked (so as to receive given grace). Sin, that is, did not introduce evil into the world, but merely revealed/actualized it (64). This “revelation” is active; nudity is not a state but rather an event: to our eyes, “conditioned” as they are “by the theological tradition, that which appears when clothes (grace) are taken off is nothing but their shadow” – and so nudity can be experienced only as a “denudation and a baring” (65). After exploring the stakes to the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, the backstory to baptismal rites, uncovering (ha) the theological substrates to sado-masochism and Sartre, and offering a Heideggerian interpretation of Genesis 3:7 (the nudity of the first humans as aletheia) that is approximated to the “Eastern tradition”, he (as always) turns to Benjamin to think through and beyond the theological complexity of nudity. For Benjamin, he writes, the limit of the body is appearance itself, which is no longer the appearance of anything (85). Following some further notes on the relationship between beauty and nudity, image and form, he concludes with the following sentences: “Yet it is precisely the disenchantment of beauty in the experience of nudity, this sublime but also miserable exhibition of appearance beyond all mastery and all meaning, that can somehow defuse the theological apparatus and allow us to see, beyond the prestige of grace and the chimeras of corrupt nature, a simple, inapparent human body. The deactivation of this apparatus retroactively operates, therefore, as much on nature as on grace, as much on nudity as on clothing, liberating them from their theological signature. This simple dwelling of appearance in the absence of secrets is its special trembling – it is the nudity that, like the choirboy’s ‘white’ voice, signifies nothing and, precisely for this reason, manages to penetrate us” (90).
I’m still trying to think through Agamben’s argument, and on the whole I remain (as always) impressed by the breadth of his sources and his deft readings. But the more I read of his work, the more I realize how catholic a thinker he remains – what Adam Kotsko recently called the way he views the West as a “self-enclosed entity that cannot be influenced from the outside,” emphasizing continuity over difference. Kotsko writes that this is nowhere more evident than in his continual reference to Judaism: “he portrays rabbinic tradition in essential continuity with Western debates”, ultimately erasing “any possibility of genuine Jewish difference.” The same holds true, we might add, for Islam, whether in his references to Ibn ‘Arabi, Ghazali, various mutakallimun, and (anonymously) Suhrawardi in Potentialities or Shahrastani and Ibn Sina in Nudities. Thus too he can read Ibn Rushd through Kierkegaard in The End of the Poem and not translate “Muselmann” in Remnants. The limits to such readings are something I have tried to work through/problematize here before, and were the source of longstanding anxiety after i found myself reading the Qur’an through Levinas. The genius of such comparative readings (exemplified, for instance, in Anidjar’s “Our Place in al-Andalus” and Moosa’s Poetics of Imagination) lies in the surprising points of contact that surface, so long as we remember that they are intersections, not convergences. I appreciate Almond’s book on Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi most, for instance, when he articulates the differences between them – and in so doing comes up with a language by which to put them in conversation. All of this is to say that, while I remain drawn to such projects, and while I particularly appreciate Agamben’s work as perhaps the sole contemporary theory-maestro for whom Islam is not simply a cipher for “Islamism”, what I find troubling about his treatment of Jewish and Muslim traditions is precisely the inverse problem: his indifference to the remainders left by his reading, so that, for instance, the Zohar provides the “Jewish version” of Christian exegesis on Genesis (57) and Shi’i messianism occludes Sunni apocalyptic. The structural parallels and tensions that emerge through his readings are phenomenal, but I am still subject to the desires/disciplines of the topological imagination.
Reading Nudities on the day France’s niqab ban went into effect gave it a certain added resonance. One might approach the politics of laicite in different ways – as a disjuncture between semiotic ideologies of representation and expression, for instance, or by posing the threat of the veil to a surveillance society precisely as invisibility – but I wonder if Nudities might provide a slightly different vocabulary that unsettles the simplicity Agamben presumes for the body “liberated from the theological signature” ( = the asecular body?). The scandal of the niqab is that it divides the “simple, inapparent human body” even after it has been established beyond measure of doubt that there is no secret or meaning to nudity, even after beauty has been disenchanted and “the only thing left” is “fashion clothing, that is, an undecidable element between flesh and fabric, nature and grace” (80). It is not merely a competing theology of clothing (“sartoriology”, in Lara’s pun), not merely that the veil threatens to reinfuse the theological apparatus, anachronistically populate the cities of Europe with holy ghosts, reduce nudity once more to a privative/instantaneous event. Rather, it proposes to double also the simple human body, proposes that that body itself is shaped through its relation to law, expose that body also to the force of its own imperial history. Not merely the problem of foundationalist politics in a post-foundationalist age, that is, not merely the problem of law in the age of spirit. Not the problem of religion in a secular age but the problem of postsecular religion.