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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bracketing Man: An Essay in Philosophical Archaeology

(Dedication page for my dissertation)

Bento de Espinosa

Whose life and work,
notably his Ethics,
embodies the first great break with Western tradition
to create a modern psychology,
integrating passion and reason

“The prince of philosophers”
—Gilles Deleuze

Primo Levi

“Häftling Nummer 174517”—
an Italian and a Jew from Turin
—who survived Auschwitz
to become its clearest witness before
succumbing to the “background noise”

“A perfect example of the witness”
—Giorgio Agamben

* * *

Bracketing Man:
An Essay in Philosophical Archaeology

Vincenzo Di Nicola
Doctoral candidate, European Graduate School

Before the end of the eighteenth century, man did not exist…. As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.
—Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1966/1970, pp. 336, 422)

BENTO DE ESPINOSA (1632-1677), who we know as Benedictus Spinoza, opens something that Primo Levi (1919-1987) closes. Let us say that they bracket something. We may choose various tropes—brackets, parentheses, bookends—to articulate a kind of encapsulation. We can imagine that which is bracketed as a highlight, a golden age, an enlightenment. We may also see it as an interruption, a caesura, a rupture, a cut, a hiatus or suspension—a process of evacuation. We may see it as an ideology (think of the two Karls, Marx and Mannheim, and later, Althusser’s notion of “lacunar discourse”), a hegemony (in Gramsci’s term), a culture (in the sense of philosophical anthropology)… or as an épistémè or a discourse (as we see it evolve in Foucault’s thought) .1

We may choose other bookends, other thinkers or events to place the brackets or anchor an era. Shall we move the opening of the parentheses forward to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the Enlightenment? Should we place the closing somewhere else, such as the European declaration of the New Man in the 1930s—from Fascist Italy to Soviet Russia to Nazi Germany (see Jean Clair, 2008)? Or do we choose an emblematic moment of the nadir of the New Man—Kristallnacht? The Republic of Salo? Auschwitz? The Moscow Show Trials? The Gulag Archipelago?

Who will represent this moment? Osip Mandelstam feeding his fellow prisoners the bread of poetry in Stalin’s prisons? Walter Benjamin committing suicide in France on the frontier with Spain, mere metres and minutes from freedom? Simone Weil choosing a starvation diet in solidarity with allied POWs during WWII? Primo Levi witnessing the walking dead, the Muselmanner of Auschwitz? Paul Celan committing suicide in Paris in the shadow of “that which happened”? Or shall it be Hannah Arendt reporting on the “banality of evil” at Eichmann’s trial in the shadow of the Shoah?

These questions can be addressed by a philosophical-historical method that Giorgio Agamben, following Kant and Foucault, calls philosophical archaeology.2

Provisionally, we may call “archaeology” that practice which in any historical investigation has to do not with origins but with the moment of a phenomenon’s arising and must therefore engage anew the sources and traditions (Agamben, 2008/2009, p. 89).

Clearly, I place this closure of the brackets in the twentieth century, somewhere in the Nazi or the Soviet world; that which is bracketed is a human construction, however else we qualify it; we must ironize any possible notion of progress associated with this bracketing.

If we can bracket it—and it is on the long run of human history a comparatively short breath (a gasp?)—it is a time, perhaps indeed a state, of exception (cf. Agamben, 2003/2005).

For this reason, I prefer people or events that are themselves exceptions, outliers, excluded, ectopic—liminal people, on the threshold, on the cusp (cf. Victor Turner’s social anthropology, 1969) who are harbingers, messengers (echoing Walker Percy here), vectors or vehicles—opening events (cf. Alain Badiou, 1988/2005) or foreclosing the possibilities of events (trauma).

So, to open the brackets, I choose Spinoza as a liminal figure as much for his biography as for his philosophy and what that philosophy opens: I see his Ethics as the opening of a modern psychology based on understanding man.3

This notion of man, as Michel Foucault (1926-1984) suggests, is nearing its end. Paradoxically, its end was announced with fanfare and exuberance with Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” (1909/2008) and achieved hegemony in the Fascist and Soviet declaration of the New Man, reaching its nadir in the death camps f Nazism and the Stalinist Gulag. Its denouement came with the post-war world of denial and forgetting and newer, subtler forms of desubjectivation which I define as evacuation of the human.

This image of man—the New Man—buries our humanity. Instead of manifestos, fanfare, declarations and exuberance, we have evasions, negations, denials, a total failure of memory. The New Man of the Fascists and the Soviets relegated Futurism to the past. In a reversal of Wittgenstein’s ladder, they fabricated a descending staircase and then flooded it, drowning themselves (see Marcel Duchamp’s provocative Nu descendant un escalier n° 2,; 
a brilliant pastiche by Karl Nicholsason has Mussolini dressed in jackboots descending a staircase, transforming into a naked woman).

And to close the brackets, I choose Primo Levi not only because he was witness to Auschwitz but because he persisted in telling his story against the evasions and denials of the post-Nazi world. His is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

What is bracketed by Spinoza and Levi is the very notion of man—whose birth was announced in Spinoza’s Ethics and given its death notice in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz.

In Spinoza’s Ethics (completed in 1676 but published posthumously in 1677), Proposition 46 states the foundation of what we would call social psychology, with prescient elements of both behaviourism and attribution theory, in what is a theory of empathy:

If a man has been affected pleasurably or painfully by anyone of a class or nation different from his own, and if the pleasure or pain has been accompanied by the idea of the said stranger as cause, under the general category of the class or nation: the man will feel love or hatred, not only for the individual stranger, but also to the whole class or nation whereto he belongs (Spinoza, 1677/1957, p. 53).

Contrast this with Levi’s report of a profound failure of empathy on the eve of the transport of Italian Jews from a camp in Fossoli to Auschwitz, 21 February 1944:

Only a minority of ingenuous and deluded souls continued to hope; we others had often spoken with the Polish and Croat refugees and we knew what departure meant.…

The Italian commissar …  decreed that all services should continue to function … and even the teacher of the little school gave lessons until the evening, as on other days. But that evening the children were given no homework.

And night came, and it was such a night that one knew that human eyes would not witness it and survive. Everyone felt this: not one of the guards, neither Italian nor German, had the courage to come and see what men do when they know they have to die (Levi, 1958/1959, pp. 10-11).


MEN AND WOMEN, human beings, will live long after this death notice. But these humans will not be citizens of the American or French revolutions; they will not be living under Kant’s moral imperative (not even as reformulated by Lawrence Kohlberg or Jürgen Habermas); nor will they be the alienated workers of Marx and Engels and certainly not the European New Man.

Like Spinoza, Levi is a liminal figure. An Italian Jew with one foot in the Europe whose Jews were emancipated by Napoleon and included in modern Italy by Count Cavour and another snared in the Third Reich, Levi survived the Auschwitz death camp, to emerge as its clearest witness with a measured voice. Many great questions have been asked about the Shoah, leading to what historian Raul Hilberg calls “small answers” (cited in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, 1985). Levi shows us that attending to small details yields moments of insight into the discontinuous discourses nested side by side or within each other in his Lager at Auschwitz. Through small descriptions and subtle restraint, Levi allows his experiences to become visible to us. Then, imperceptibly, by an almost evolutionary process of accretion, the enormity makes itself felt, all the more strongly because it is anchored in the particulars of the people we meet through Levi’s eyes. His method is resonant with Agamben’s archaeology: with patience and exacting skill, Levi uncovers the layers of his internment through a sort of philological archaeology—or is it a geology? Listen to the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:

The Jews are not a historical people
and not even an archaeological people, the Jews
are a geological people with rifts
and collapses and strata and fiery lava.
Their history must be measured
on a different scale.
—Yehuda Amichai, “The Jews,” (1991, p. 84)

To read Levi is to realize that something radical had changed in the construction of a European, Italian or Jewish identity. Emblematic in my reading is Levi’s rejection as a Jew by his fellow Jewish inmates at Auschwitz. When I read that, something broke in me. I would never be able to simultaneously affirm my identities—Italian and Jew. In Levi’s experience, these two were forcibly separated, not only by the racial laws of Mussolini’s Fascists or the German masters and their Polish collaborators at Auschwitz but by the other Ashkenazi Jewish inmates from Eastern Europe who used Yiddish as a shibboleth, defining who is a Jew:

Yiddish was de facto the camp’s second language…. The Polish, Russian and Hungarian Jews were astonished that we Italians did not speak it: we were suspect Jews, not to be trusted, besides being naturally, “badoglios” for the SS and “mussolinis” for the French, Greeks, and political prisoners (Levi, 1986/1988, p. 100).

He was liminal too in the reconstruction of his memories after Auschwitz. Levi’s readymade tools are memory and words:

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man (Levi, 1958/1959, p. 22).

In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi describes interactions with educated Germans after the war where words like fressen (verb to eat, applied “in good German” only to animals) and abhauen (verb to cut, to chop off, used in a phrase learned in the camp, meaning to leave) created a stir:

They looked at me in astonishment …. I explained to them that I had not learned German in school but rather in a Lager called Auschwitz; this gave rise to a certain embarrassment … I later on realized also that my pronunciation is coarse, but I deliberately have not tried to make it more genteel; for the same reason, I have never had the tattoo removed from my left arm (Levi, 1986/1988, p. 99).

This book documents debates Levi had with the translator of his memoir into German, doing further research to confirm his memories. In spite of not knowing Yiddish and only little German, “Mechanical memory had functioned correctly” (p. 101). Levi examines many words and nuances about his memoir in the chapter, “Letters from Germans,” (Levi, 1986/1988).

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) teaches us that hegemony makes things seem obvious, taken for granted. Spinoza opens the modern era of cultural hegemony with the notion of man as the centre of our preoccupations. Levi teaches us the cruelty of that hegemony—the Italian Fascists bowing to the Nazis’ viral notion of racial purity and contamination, nested within the eugenics movement with its origins in the England of Charles Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton (see Stephen Gould’s incisive study, 1981), that the German guards and the Polish population accepted as evident commonsense. Through Levi’s witnessing, I am able to identify something new—not merely Gramsci’s (1992) notion of cultural hegemony, “layered” by numerous individual and collective experiences, nor Althusser’s “lacunar discourse” (1971) where the unsaid and the implicit shape the dominant discourse, nor even the great sweep of Foucault’s (1966/1970, 1969/1972) view of discourse shaping society, but something more nuanced and capable of articulating paradoxes: nested hegemonies. In my notion of nested hegemonies, parallel (e.g., the eugenics movement, the New Man, Nazi anti-Semitism) or even apparently contradictory (e.g., Aryan superiority, Ashkenazi exclusivity) discourses may not only co-exist but mutually reinforce each other.

So we see that Levi closes many things. This closure does not apply to one group alone. It is not simply the shame of the German people or the Nazi ideology or of Russian communism and its brutalities (Levi makes reference to many parallels with the Soviet prison camps, 1986/1988). It is the end of a shared illusion about our human nature. The Futurists, the Fascists, the Nazis and the Soviets forthrightly announced their intentions to kill the past and the basis for that illusion. 

The hand-wringing in post-war Europe over how this could happen, the descent into the endless negations of existentialism, critical theory, postmodernism and the like evaporate into air—just as Marx predicted. Those of us born after “that which happened,” as Celan (2001) characterized the death camps of Europe, cannot find George Steiner’s (1982) questions about “language and silence,” about the failure of language in the face of Fascism edifying or relevant. We don’t experience the paradox or the scandal of listening to Bach or reading Rilke in the evening and tending to the ovens in the day. It simply occurred. Our impulse is not to mourn or anguish over the death of the New Man or even the approaching “end of man” announced by Foucault, but to acknowledge the illusion subtending such beliefs and move on.

Philosophical archaeology provides us with tools to locate and separate the nested discourses, like landmines, and disarm them. Now, this illusion that we shared in the hegemony or discourse of modernism, is no longer possible for us. Not among the nations that created modernism or the man of the Enlightenment, not among the nations that announced the New Man—Italy, Germany and Russia—and not among Jews, anywhere.


I am very grateful for the stimulating seminar with Professor Giorgio Agamben on Homo Sacer at the European Graduate School in 2009 cross-fertilized by an extended dialogue with Thomas Zummer, EGS scholar-in-residence and student of Michel Foucault.


1      The evolution of notions subsumed under the rubric ideology, with all the debates and disputes it engendered is a long and complex one, going to the heart of politics, sociology and critical theory. I refer in the first instance to the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in The German Ideology (1846/1932) and its adoption into sociology by Karl Mannheim (1936). The elaboration of ideology from Marx along with Lenin’s work on hegemony was developed most profoundly by Antonio Gramsci (1992) with later glosses by Louis Althusser (1971). The bridge between Gramsci’s and Foucault’s work is implicit and central to my argument here but left for further elaboration in another essay. The development of Foucault’s own work from épistémè/episteme in The Order of Things (1966/1970) to discours/discourse in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969/1972) is a fascinating study on its own and germane to my argument (cf. Alan Sheridan, 1980).

2      Giorgio Agamben (2008/2009) traces the term philosophical archaeology from Immanuel Kant. Clearly there is an archaeology of the term itself, embedded in successive strata of thought from Nietzsche’s “critical history” to Foucault’s “epistemological field, the episteme,” where we see glimpses of Freud’s regression, Marcel Mauss’ “historical a priori,” Franz Overbeck’s prehistory, Georges Dumézil’ “fringe of ultra-history” and Benjamin’s prehistory and post-history. The link between psychoanalytic regression and archaeology was intuited by Paul Ricoeur, carefully elaborated by Enzo Melandri, and explicitly connected to the task of philosophy through Foucault by Agamben. In sum, Agamben constructs a genealogy from Kant and Nietzsche connecting Freud and Foucault to forge a subtle and fertile method of philosophical inquiry.

3      Gilles Deleuze (1968/1990) crowned Spinoza “the ‘prince’ of philosophers.” There are now so many studies of Spinoza in so many languages and disciplines that it is impossible to choose a canonical study or interpretation. Nonetheless, a masterful reading of Spinoza in the spirit of philosophical archaeology is offered in Yirmiahu Yovel’s two-volume study, Spinoza and Other Heretics (1989a, 1989b). Yovel provides a very fine, historically-informed and closely-argued analysis of Spinoza as a liminal figure between Christianity and Judaism. Descending from Portuguese Marrano Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity while maintaining their traditions in hiding as crypto-Jews, Spinoza opens major questions of modernity and identity and may be understood as “the first secular Jew” in Yovel’s analysis, foreshadowing that unusual ontological chimera called “the non-Jewish Jew” by Isaac Deutscher (1968). By situating him in this historical, theological and philosophical context of liminality, we may recognize Spinoza’s life and work:

It is not hard to understand how a man who is neither a Christian nor a Jew, but who is divided between the two or who possesses memories of one within the other, might be inclined to develop doubts about both, or even to question the foundations of religion altogether (Yovel, 1989b, p. 6).


Agamben, G. (2003/2005). State of Exception (Trans. by Kevin Attell). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.  (Original published in Italian in 2003)

Agamben, G. (2008/2009). “Philosophical Archaeology” (pp. 81-111, 119-121) in The Signature of All Things: On Method (trans. by Luca D’Isanto with Kevin Attell). New York: Zone Books. (Original published in Italian in 2008)

Althusser, L. (1971). "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays (Trans. by Ben Brewster). New York: Monthly Review Press.

Amichai, Y. (1991). Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers: Recent Poems by Yehuda Amichai (Trans. by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav). New York: HarperCollins.

Badiou, A. (1988/2005). Being and Event (Transl. by Oliver Feltham). New York: Continuum. (Original published in French in 1988)

Celan, P. (2001). Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (Trans. by John Felstiner). New York: W.W. Norton.

Clair, J., ed. (2008). The 1930s: The Making of “The New Man.” Exhibition organized by Pierre Théberge. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada.

Deleuze, G. (1968/1990). Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza (Trans. by Martin Joughin). New York: Zone Books. (Original published in French in 1968)

Deutscher, I. (1968). The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (Tamara Deutscher, ed. and Introduction). New York: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, M. (1966/1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon Books. (Original published in French in 1966)

Foucault, M. (1969/1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge (trans. by A. M. Sheridan Smith). London and New York: Routledge. (Original published in French in 1969)

Gould, S.J. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Gramsci, A. (1992). Prison Notebooks (ed. by Joseph A. Buttigieg). New York: Columbia University Press.

Lanzmann, C. (1985). Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust. The Complete Text of the Film. New York: Pantheon Books.

Levi, P. (1958/1959). Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (trans. by Stuart Woolf). New York: The Orion Press. (Original published in Italian in 1958)

Mannheim, K. (1936). Ideology and Utopia (trans. by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils).
New York: Harvest Books. (Originally published in English based on selections from original works in German and Part I written in English)

Marinetti, F.T. (1909/2008). “Fondazione e manifesto del futurismo” (pp. 11-16). In Manifesti del Futurismo (ed. by V. Birolli). Milano: Abscondita. (Original published in Italian in 1909)

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1846/1932). The German Ideology. In Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Vol. 5. Marx & Engels Internet Archive. (Original in German in 1846)

Sheridan, A. (1980). Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth. London: Tavistock Publications.

Spinoza, B. (1677/1957). The Ethics of Spinoza: The Road to Inner Freedom (ed. by D.D. Runes). New York: Philosophical Library. (Original published in Latin in 1677)

Steiner, G. (1982). Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman. New York: Atheneum.

Turner, V. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Yovel, Y. (1989a). Spinoza and Other Heretics. The Adventures of Immanence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yovel, Y. (1989b). Spinoza and Other Heretics. The Marrano of Reason. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Montreal, Quebec, Canada
18 September &
7, 13-15 February 2010


  1. hey vincenzo,
    i was just reading a review about the following book: and thought this might be interesting for you.

    and by the way, have you continued thinking about the concept of paradigms being collective traumata?
    as you are writing about philosophical archaeology, i guess you are aware of enzo melandri, as she is mentioned in agambens signatura rerum (its a shame though that her books are not available in german or english).

    i continue to state that - if archeology can be transcribed in terms of regresseion and discovering the unconsciousness of history - we should also think about the term paradigm in its funtion of "unconsciously" informing the "behaviour" of specific eras. i dont know if this is an interesting thought, but its kind of funny to think of foucault as a collective psychotherapist.

    anyway, you promised me an unpublished essay from giorgio agamben in saas-fee, that you were translating at that time. if this offer is still standing i would be very glad -

    its nice to see you progressing on your dissertation and hopefully we will see each other next year.


  2. Dear Florian,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and your post! Enzo Melandri is a man's name in Italian (Enzo is short for Vincenzo). His work is intriguing. I am sensitive to the issues you are raising. Foucault was asked about Kuhn's notion of paradigms when his first work on "episteme" came out and he said he had not yet read him while he was writing. This seems either ingenuous or unlikely. Later, he changed his notion to that of the "discourse" and we can say that the term "problematic" is another form of discourse or paradigm. They map a family of recognizable notions that overlap on the larger canvas of ideology. I have learned several things:

    First, Badiou is right in his reading of Mao that both sides (or all sides) of a debate have an ideology. You don't have to learn this from Mao, by the way. I learned this from the two Karls--Marx and Mannheim--and from reading Gramsci. But for sure the left is blind to its own ideological lacunae. I've been reading Mannheim since 1976 when I staged a debate at McGill with my friend Steve Pinker who concluded against my position that "ideas have a life of their own."

    Second, most analyses ignore this possibility, as if one can somehow stand outside of ideology, paradigm, discourse, episteme, hegemony, blind spot, or looping effect. We cannot stand outside it, the best we can do is to be aware of it and become more nuanced.

    Third, this demands a methodology for philosophy and critical thnking in any field which is not allied with any one camp. It is just as much a critique of the hegemony of the left as of the hegemony of the right. One of the most promising ways out of this muddle is Canadian philosopher Hacking's work on "looping effects of human kinds." Once an idea is generated, it goes viral, becomes a meme and reciprocally influences the originators of the meme. This clearly happened with many ideas in psychiatry, notably with trauma. But psychiatrists themselves lost a grasp on the idea. So, to some extent I am aware of and sensitive to the work you cited above, although I have reservations about her motivations. Her position is suspiciously revisionist.

    So, while I do not claim a neutral ground for this methodology or critical practice, I do say the following:

    Following Badiou, philosophy cannot be sutured to its conditions. We cannot reduce philosophy to one of its truth procedures. This is just as true in psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis which have varying degrees of medical science or physics envy, analytical philosophy or metaphysical envy. So philosophy cannot be cured, relieved, clarified, absolved, ridiculed, elevated, debased, satirized, or undergo any other procedure which relieves us of the task of clear and hard thinking. That some people are given to simplistic clarifications and cannot tolerate complex language and propositions (eg, by temperament, training, or tradition) does not interest me in the least. Let them eat contingency (behaviourism). I will not satisfy myself with cake (or contingency) and want bread (and not circuses or other distractions).

    We can and must do a constant refreshing of our language and thoughts in the spirit of philosophical archaeology in each generation and in each field. Like the defense of liberty, the price is eternal vigilance against the "non-thought of received wisdom" in Milan Kundera's poetic formulation of this aporia.

    In my own work, I’d like to do a course called “Everything You Learned in Psych 101 Is Wrong"! I am puzzled by the following terms: person, personality, personality disorder, development, defense, positive psychology, the unconscious, language, to name a few. I understand that some people have compelling theories on these topics but it is unhelpful for people to invoke these notions without really considering how contingent and precarious they are.

    As for Agamben's essay, he has not gotten back to me yet about my translation.

    Best wishes,