Follow by Email

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Work of Art as a Form-of-Life

In this short reflection based on my seminar and discussions with Giorgio Agamben at the European Graduate School in 2009, I am not arguing merely for the potentiality of a work of art but for a work of art, science or philosophy—that is, embodied thought—as a form-of-life.

Agamben and Wittgenstein on Language

Both Wittgenstein and Agamben see that there is no place to stand outside of the world or outside of philosophy to make sense of it and that language is all we have to deal with it.

While Wittgenstein’s work can be seen as toiling in different parts of his city, we can imagine Agamben’s work as going well beyond into anything we can call a city into the surrounding countryside and approaching other cities in his province. Agamben clearly admits the limits of language as the starting point for philosophy and then imaginatively suggests investigations beyond that.

Event and Potentiality

How to understand trauma?

The rupture it represents and that ephemeral, difficult to grasp something that we want to articulate as the continuity that never was (due to the trauma incident), that was interrupted … so that the rupture always has to be imagined against what might have happened … and this is best expressed as potentiality …

This potentiality has within it also the possibility of impotentiality … as Agamben says, its own lack …

So that in contemporary psychiatric language we say susceptibility, vulnerability and we want immediately to reach for resilience and transformation … how can we make sense of this?

By connecting continuity with potentiality …

We want to call it resilience but it is also at the same a vulnerability … what these two together articulate is the indeterminacy of potentiality.

Without the traumatic incident we can never assume let alone assure an unperturbed life … at most we can point to potentiality.

When that life is marked in a way that opens new possibilities … not an assumed continuity, not a determined trajectory … but a realization of potentiality towards a lived reality … we can call it an event in Badiou’s sense.

When an incident forecloses potentiality towards impotentiality, now we can talk of trauma, in the sense of an outcome … and it only retrospectively becomes a traumatic process. It is not foretold but always radically open.

This is why we need a new language for trauma and event.
That new language can only emerge from philosophical archaeology.


This connects why we need to do different kinds of investigation to understand trauma …

It connects traumatology in clinical psychology and psychiatry with how we understand children’s potential and connects trauma to potentiality and event.

And it harkens back to Aristotle … actuality and potentiality …

which we live today in traumatology as vulnerability and resilience …

“What is potential can pass over into actuality only at the point at which it sets aside its own potential not to be (its adynamia),” Agamben writes, discussing the Aristotelian definition of potentiality. “To set im-potentiality aside,” he continues, “is not to destroy it but, on the contrary, to fulfill it, to turn potentiality back upon itself in order to give itself to itself.”

“Agamben encapsulates the task of a new experience of the taking place of language in the idea of infancy, by which he means the mute experience of language that ontologically precedes and that makes possible the appropriation of language in speech. Infancy is what the human being must undergo in order to become a subject in speech; but at the same time, speaking requires a fall from the experience of infancy into discourse.”
—Catherine Mills, The Philosophy of Agamben (2008, p. 134) 

Thoughts on Trauma Triggered by Two Propositions from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Anything that can be experienced must necessarily be expressible. What is it then that cannot be spoken? Language itself. Yet the state of impotentiality, of waiting for the words to say it, affirms potentiality in its radical form of language, of the infant in its own immaturity and indeterminacy. Thus, the infant incarnates at once in its impotentiality the very potentiality which its unfolding promises and make possible. It is this dialectical interplay bathed in a social surround that creates the subject.

1 The world is everything that is the case. This world which is all that we have, includes all that we humans have thought, have expressed in our words, and have executed in our deeds, cannot be reduced to trauma. Which is to say that trauma cannot exhaust everything that humans are capable of, nor does it overwhelm it. Much less is trauma inexpressible, unthinkable, or beyond the limits of our comprehension or capacity to articulate. What has been done must be sayable in words; what is expressed in words can be put into action. All of the accumulated traumas of the world cannot evacuate the potentiality of human being. After all the traumas occur, are experienced and wreak their consequences, there will always be at least one human being who will survive to be a witness (Primo Levi), to write a novel (Elsa Morante) or to make a poem (Paul Celan). And another who will make of it a philosophy (Giorgio Agamben, Emmanuel Levinas). Which is to say that to be human is to resist the reduction of zo√ę to bare life and this resistance itself will become a form-of-life.

Beyond Primo Levi’s putative suicide and Paul Celan’s certain one, the work survives. After Kant human contingency died, but the human work survives as a form-of-life pace Adorno in the work of art (Celan, Morante), science (Levi-Montalcini) and philosophy (Agamben, Blanchot, Levinas).


My argument to Agamben in his seminar is simply summed up: a work of art is a form-of-life.


A full account of trauma cannot be a complete description of human suffering much less of human being. Trauma is only a subset of suffering and it is a subset knowingly constructed in our time through professional discourses on behalf of society. In fact, describing trauma or narrating suffering offer very different maps of human experience and even together the two cannot exhaust human being. Nevertheless, the success of this map is why we are calling it here the emblematic experience of our time to which it gives it a name: the age of trauma.


The age of trauma = the destruction or loss of experience (Agamben)

No comments:

Post a Comment