Saturday, October 30, 2010

Urania, or, Astral Theses on Deep Bewilderment

 Steering Points
Now it is meet that Helicon stream forth [versi] through me, and Urania help me with her choir to put in verse things difficult to think.
Dante, Purgatorio, 29.40-2

[I]n every activity, whether sacred or profane, we must do our utmost to distinguish the two kinds of Love, for you may be sure that they will both be there.
– Plato, Symposium, 187e

Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.
– Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share

Exerting yourself to comprehend My Divine Game through the process of understanding opens up vast fields of speculation in which you wander and arrive sooner or later at a dead-end, finding yourself hopelessly lost. . . . I never make plans, never change plans. It is all one endless plan of making people know that there is no plan.
—Meher Baba 

Very true, Stranger; and in the course of my life I have often myself seen the morning star and the evening star and divers others not moving in their accustomed course, but wandering out of their path in all manner of ways.
– Plato, Laws, 821c

Hesperus is Phosphorus.
–  et al. (after Gottlob Frege)

Inspired by no one and nothing other than being here to (a)muse, this talk takes everything for granted in order to end and begin where we really are: totally lost. The totality of our being lost is not only a radical intensity of being lost. It is more than being ‘really’ lost, as language finds itself saying in the dark mouths of the mazed. Rather, our being totally lost is the ungraspable omnipresent reality that the statement I am really lost is actually on the way to indicating, namely, that being totally lost is the very substance of self-recognition, a direct perception of the truth that being is lost (being-lost). Arriving at this truth, seeing it in the mirror, amounts to a speculative solution to the inescapability of confusion, following Meillassoux’s advice that “in order to interrupt this see-sawing between metaphysics and fideism, we must transform our perspective on unreason, stop construing it as the form of our deficient grasp of the world and turn it into the veridical content of the world as such – we must project unreason into things themselves, and discover in our grasp of facticity the vertitable intellectual intuition of the absolute.”[1] Or as Ibn Arabi said, “rational speculation leads to bewilderment [hayra] and theophany leads to bewilderment. There is nothing but a bewildered one. There is nothing exercising properties but bewilderment. There is nothing but Allah.”[2]

I will track being-lost by threading together the beginning and ending of the Divine Comedy, finding waylessness in the former and dislocation in the latter. Where the opening of the poet’s journey is defined by arrival at dereliction, its closing is constituted by departure into exile. In each place, the negativity of being-lost is the essential form and vehicle of truth, first, “del ben ch’i’ vi trovai” (Inferno 1.8) [of the good that I found there] which is the very matter of the poema sacro, and second, of one’s desire and will being already turned by “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” (Paradiso 33.145) [the love that moves the sun and the other stars]. Joining beginning and ending in these terms, making the Commedia bite its own coda, is a way of harmonizing the revolving movements that condition each, and more deeply, of understanding how being-lost is a situation—we have a situation here—where arrival and departure are always meeting, an emergency of being wherein existence is a constant recursive questioning: How did I get here? . . . How do I get out? This corresponds to the ordinary experiential structure of being-lost. As a form of movement, following the imperative to find a way out, being-lost is where the one who is lost is always arriving at being-lost by departing from it. As a form of stasis, following the imperative to stay where one is, the one who is lost is departing being-lost by always arriving at it. Whether as stasis or movement, being-lost is a revolution, a turning and re-turning of itself. Bewilderment is a comprehension of the reality of this revolution. It is not confusion, but the infinitely perfectible incapacity to attain understanding, our being beyond from and to. As Ibn Arabi, whose spherical affinities with Dante are many,[3] says:   

For the bewildered one has a round [dawr] / and a circular motion around the qutb / which he never leaves / But the master of the long path / tends away from what he aims for / seeking what he is already in / A master of fantasies which are his goal / He has a ‘from’ and a ‘to’ / and what is between them / But the master of the circular movement / has no starting point / that ‘from’ should take him over / and no goal / that he should be ruled by ‘to’ / He has the more complete existence / And is given the totality of the words and wisdoms.[4]

Why are stars involved with this? Because: 1) Stars are never not involved with this, all the more so in light of their diurnal occlusion by another, by one of their own. As Bataille writes, “The night is my nudity / the stars are my teeth / I throw myself among the dead / dressed in white sunlight.”[5] 2) Giving birth to something stellar is what chaos in oneself does. As Nietzsche explains: “I say to you: one must still have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star. I say to you: you still have chaos in you. Beware! The time of the most contemptible human is coming, the one who can no longer have contempt for himself. Behold! I show you the last human being. ‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star? – thus asks the last human being, blinking.”[6] 3) Being around stars means being always already inseminated with love, never not pregnant with speculations, subtly and submarinely drowning in pneumatic aether (“the natural principle in breath [that is] analogous to the element of the stars” (De generatione animalium, 736b). As Agamben, summarizing the medieval synthesis of Aristotelian phantasmology and Stoic-Neoplatonic pneumatology, says: “the breath that animates the universe, circulates in the arteries, and fertilizes the sperm is the same one that, in the brain and in the heart, receives and forms the phantasms of the things we see, imagine, dream, and love.”[7] In sum, star is the inescapable vehicle of being-lost.

There is no way
Nel mezzo del cammin . . . In the middle of the way of life I found myself in a dark forest, for the direct way was smarrita [lost, confused, bewildered] (Inferno 1.1-3). Taking both subjective and objective objects, the word occupies the zone of indistinction between external conditions and inner state that being-lost is all about.[8] It locates the reality, which I am positing as an operative absolute reality, of the identity between losing the way and finding oneself. Discovering, finding oneself to be lost means directly seeing the non-difference between one’s being and the fact that the way is lost. Confirmation of arrival at this non-difference is provided by the sense of factical thrownness that colors the wayfarer’s getting a hold of himself: Ah, how hard it is to say what that wood was . . . I do not know how to tell how I entered there . . . so my mind which was still fleeing turned itself to rimirar [gaze upon with wonder] the pass that never left any person alive (Iinferno 1.4-27). That is, the forest is not a special place of bewilderment located in the middle of life, but the space wherein life is re-discovered to be a middle in a frightening way: an ontologically inexpressible and seemingly unenterable thing that only the dead exit. Note that the scene manifests the sylvan aura of bewilderment as a starlit event. It was the beginning of the morning, and the sun was mounting with those stars that were with it when divine love first moved those beautiful things (Inferno 1.37-40). Stars do not lead anywhere, and certainly not to themselves. They guide simply by remaining in their course wherever you are lost. A star orients only by never ceasing to indicate that everything is nowhere. It guides on behalf of the fact that there is no way, no path other than where you are, that all roads lead nowhere. There at the ending of the valley that pierced my heart with fear, I looked up and saw its shoulders already clad in rays of the planet that mena dritto altrui per ogne calle [leads, drives all, each one, others straight, aright, direct through every path, track (Inferno 1.14-8).[9] Where fear concerns a coming close of the detrimental within “the patent possibility that it may stay away and pass us by” (Heidegger),[10] the intimate harmless staying afar of astral light is a ground of love. “Seeing something simply in its being-thus . . . is love” (Agamben).[11] And con-sidering the star, being with it the way one is with stars, that is paradigmatically ALL you see, the essential accident of its appearance, the individuated specificity of whatever it will be however so long ago the light it made left to have been a star in your wandering eye.

All is lost  
Staring finally into the somma luce (Paradiso 33.67), the triune light (trina luce) that shines “in unica stella” (Paradiso 31.28), in a single star, the bright empyreal being that eternally fulfills and exceeds astral identity, the poet confesses his faith in being-lost: Io credo . . . I believe that because of the acuteness of the living ray which I endured, I would have been lost, smarrito, if my eyes had been turned from it (Paradiso 33.76-8).[12] And it is with something like an event or coming true of what is here believed in that the poem completes itself. Here, qui, power failed the lofty phantasy; but already desire and my will were revolved, like a wheel that is evenly moved, by the love that moves the sun and the other stars (Paradiso 33.143-5). The Commedia ends with Dante becoming lost, but with the extra truth, a realization standing outside of the vision proper, that being-lost is supreme, dynamic participation in whatever through which anything, everything exists is in the first place. Here the final goal is not a terminus, but the dislocating actualization of being as absolute movement, as a self-exceeding truth whose knowledge is attained only as and in the doubled turning of one’s own desire and will. Deleuze & Guattari say: “This conjunction [and] carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb ‘to be.’ Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What are you heading for? These are totally useless questions.”[13] Follow me![14] This is the only way of staying with the center: constantly succeed to the furthest boundary of its infinite outside.[15] So the perfect failure of his own imaginal faculty, of what would re-present the way things are, is the poet’s final guide, taking him to the real reality that does not have to be brought from anywhere, that is nowhere missing. “Guidance,” says Ibn Arabi, “means being guided to bewilderment, that he might know the whole affair is perplexity, which means perturbation and flux, and flux is life.”[16] Among other things—and it is precisely in the midst of the astral multiplication of other things that the text openly ends—what is finally grasped in this failure is the here itself, the place of being-lost, only disconcealed from the illusion of its ever having been . . . elsewhere. Read in its blind truth, the pilgrim’s inalienable gazing into the living ray signifies that there is no seeing elsewhere, that the present vision of the all-seeing is the simple perception of all seeing as taking place here. The possibility of becoming lost by looking elsewhere is not a real alternative possibility, but the dark aura or image-concept of the bewildering movement that the eternal light itself is. “The world—insofar as it is absolutely, irreparably profane—is God.”[17] The mobile confusion between being and place constitutive of being-lost is the intimate shadow or specular figure of its impenetrable substantial fact. Andrey Smirnov explains: “The ḥā’ir ‘perplexed’ human being finds himself in constant movement. He cannot gain a foothold at any point, he is not established anywhere. This is why Ibn ‘Arabī says that he is ‘perplexed in the multiplication of the One’: this ‘multiplication’ is not just epistemological, it is ontological as well, and the perplexed human being is moving in the whirlpool of life and cosmic Order and at the same time realises that he is at that movement.”[18] Staring into the face of the highest star, the eye finds oneself joined to being-lost in the astral self-multiplication of an unending reality, abandoned to the dreaming real of an inexhaustible love. “I was wedded to all the stars of the sky,” Ibn Arabi says of his midlife vision in Ceuta, “There was not a single star left, and I married every one of them with greatest spiritual pleasure. Then I married the moons.”[19]

“With the energy from the subtle and the illumination from the mental spheres, for trillions upon trillions of years in the past and in the future, the gross universe has been and will be forming and disintegrating into countless stars, suns, planets, worlds, moons and meteors. Yet, in fact, there are no such things as time and space. Once the soul is freed of illusion, Illusion does not merely cease to exist, but is then found never to have existed at all.”[20] . . . For we are like creatures in the wind, and wild is the wind.

[1] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008), 82.
[2] Ibn al ‘Arabi, The Meccan Revelations, ed. Michel Chodkiewicz, trans. William C. Chittick & James W. Morris (New York: Pir Press, 2005), 198.2. Chittick explicates the concept: “To find God is to fall into bewilderment (hayra), not the bewilderment of being lost and unable to find one’s way, but the bewilderment of finding and knowing God and of not-finding and not-knowing Him at the same time. Every existent thing other than God dwells in a never-never land of affirmation and negation, finding and losing, knowing and not-knowing. The difference between the Finders and the rest of us is that they are fully aware of their own ambiguous situation. They know the significance of the saying of the first caliph Abū Bakr: ‘Incapacity to attain comprehension is itself comprehension’” (William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-’Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989], 3-4). So for Heidegger, bewilderment characterizes the intellectual experience of truth: “That experience [‘the fundamental experience of Being and Time’] consists in an ever-increasing but perhaps also – in a few places – self-clarifying bewilderment in the face of this one event: In the history of Western thought, from its inception, the Being of beings has indeed been thought, but the truth of Being as Being remains unthought; not only is such truth denied as a possible experience for thinking, but Western though, as metaphysics, expressly though unwittingly conceals the occurrence of this refusal” (Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, trans. Joan Stambaugh, David Farrell Krell, Fank A. Capuzzi, 4 vols. [New York: HaperCollins, 1987], 3.189-90).
[3] See books by Miguel Asín Palacios and Gregory B. Stone.
[4] (Ibn Arabi, Fusus al-hikam [Bezels of Wisdom], chapter 3, cited from Michael Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, 101-2).      
[5] Georges Bataille, “The Oresteia,” I, The Impossible, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1991), 147.
[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 9-10.   
[7] Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Literature, trans. Ronald L. Martiez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 92.
[8]Smarrire trns. perdere, ma non senza speranza di ritrovare. É composto di marrire che si trove nel prov. e nel mlt. col significato di confondere . . . Più vicino all’ etimologia é l’uso di smarrire nelle frasi ‘smarrire la strada, la ragione’ e rifl. errare la strada, sbigottirsi, perdersi d’animo” (Franceso Zambaldi, Vocabulario etimologico Italiano [Città di Castello: S. Lapi, 1889], sv. “smarrire”). “The sense of going astray, losing the way, is derived from the troubled state of one confounded with affliction. . . . It. marrire, to go out of one’s wits through fear or amazement, to miscarry as letters do, to stray” (Hensleigh Wedgwood, A Dictionary of English Etymology, 2nd ed. [London: Trübner & Co, 1872], sv. “mar”). 
[9] Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, comment on Inferno 1.18:  “che mena dritto: conduce per la via diritta (dritto è predicativo) – dando l'orientamento – gli uomini, ogni uomo (il pronome altrui ha in antico questo valore generico; cfr. più oltre, v. 95); è evidente il richiamo alla diritta via smarrita dall'uomo che è sulla scena, che qui ritrova il suo orientamento” (Dartmouth Dante Project <>).
[10] Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (San Franciso: Harper & Ros, 1962), 180.
[11] Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 105.
[12] Robert Hollander observes the development of smarrire across the poem in his comment on Paradiso 26.9: “The past participle, smarrita, of the verb smarrire (to confuse, discourage, bewilder) is used to suggest Dante's inner state in Inferno I.3, II.64, V.72, X.125, and XIII.24 (see the note to Inf. X.125). In most of those situations, the protagonist felt sympathy for the damned. Here, in the penultimate occurrence of the word to indicate his inner state, his loss of the faculty of vision is not the result of his sinfulness, but represents only a temporary failing (a result of his remaining tendency to see with carnal eyes?) in his increasing capacity to understand things divine. A final occurrence of the verb to indicate that condition awaits (Par. XXXIII.77); there it will refer to a rather different (and loftier) “confusion” on the protagonist's part” (Dartmouth Dante Project <>).
[13] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 25.
[14] “. . . Swaying drunkenly to and fro like the branches, fresh as raw silk, which the winds have bent. Gloss: ‘Swaying drunkenly,’ in reference to the station of bewilderment (حيرة)” (Ibn Arabi, Tarjuman al-Ashwaq [Interpreter of Desires], trans. Reynold A. Nicholson [London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1911], 22.13).
[15] “That bewilderment is achieved in the continual transformation from form to form and in the circular motion beyond the dualism of origin and goal” (Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, 102). 
[16] Ibn Arabi, Bezels of Wisdom [Fusus al-Hikam], trans. R.W.J. Austin (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 254.
[17] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, 89.
[18] Andrey Smirnov, “Sufi Hayra and Islamic Art: Contemplating Ornament through Fusus al-Hikam,” paper presented at Sufism, Gnosis, Art: The Thought of Ibn Arabi and Shah Nimatullah (Seville, 22-23 November 2004).
[19] Abdul Qadir Husaini, Ibn al-‘Arabi: The Great Muslim Mystic and Thinker, 6.
[20] Meher Baba, God Speaks, 165.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Steering Points

Now it is meet that Helicon stream forth [versi] through me, and Urania help me with her choir to put in verse things difficult to think.
Dante, Purgatorio, 29.40-2

[I]n every activity, whether sacred or profane, we must do our utmost to distinguish the two kinds of Love, for you may be sure that they will both be there.
– Plato, Symposium, 187e

Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.
– Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share

Exerting yourself to comprehend My Divine Game through the process of understanding opens up vast fields of speculation in which you wander and arrive sooner or later at a dead-end, finding yourself hopelessly lost. . . . I never make plans, never change plans. It is all one endless plan of making people know that there is no plan.
—Meher Baba  

Very true, Stranger; and in the course of my life I have often myself seen the morning star and the evening star and divers others not moving in their accustomed course, but wandering out of their path in all manner of ways.
– Plato, Laws, 821c

Hesperus is Phosphorus.
 et al. (after Gottlob Frege)

Friday, October 15, 2010



an evening of post-cephalic commentary on cinematic decapitation scenes

Ed Keller (Parsons)
Nicola Masciandaro (Brooklyn College)
Eugene Thacker (New School)
Evan Calder Williams (UC Santa Cruz)

6.30-9.00 p.m.
December 10, 2010
Parsons The New School for Design
Room A404
66 W 12th St.
New York City

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Conjuring the Phantasm

Giorgio Agamben. The Signature of All Things: On Method. Trans. Luca D’Isanto with Kevin Attell. New York: Zone Books, 2009. US$24.95 (hardcover), 124 pages. ISBN 978-1-890951-98-6

The Signature of All Things is an epistemological procession through three dimensions of the “third area” that Giorgio Agamben, in his now thirty-three-year-old seminal work on the phantasm, identified as the site where “a science of man truly freed of every eighteenth-century prejudice should focus its study.”1 The three essays conjoined in this volume—“Philosophical Archaeology,” “Theory of Signatures,” and “What Is a Paradigm?”—are at once a fulfillment of and a reflection upon the practice of this study, a methodological excursus ordered toward its unfinishable end: the historical freeing of the human via a creative-critical “science without object.”2 As announced in the Preface, reflection on method in the human sciences “follows practical application, rather than preceding it” and “is a matter … of ultimate or penultimate thoughts” (7).

The book thus pursues reflection on method, not as retrospection about, but as the proper fruition of practice, as the mode of its arrival. Such revelation of a how as what becomes intelligible only in its having been experienced, only by being pursued and passed through, participates in the essential lesson formulated near the volume’s end, namely, that historical consciousness, which is constituted by “access to the present for the first time, beyond memory and forgetting, or rather, at the threshold of their indifference,” is achievable only in the archaeological mode of a future anterior or ‘will have been’ (106–7). Like the phantasmal topology mapped in Stanzas, a khoral place “more original than space” providing the where of poetico-philosophic realization, the site of such historically redemptive knowledge (the archē of this logos) belongs to a level of reality that exceeds the terms of modern experimental science which “has its origins in a unprecedented mistrust of experience as it was traditionally understood.”3 Renewing his Infancy and History’s concluding call for “a new and more primary experience of time and history,” one produced via philological destruction of “the identification of history with a vulgar concept of time as a continuous linear and infinite process,” Agamben’s Signature finishes with an explicit articulation of the ontological imperative of his work:4
The archē toward which archaeology regresses is not to be understood in any way as a given locatable in a chronology … instead, it is an operative force within history. […] Yet unlike the big bang, which astrophysicists claim to be able to date … the archē is not a given or a substance, but a field of bipolar historical currents stretched between anthropogenesis and history, between the moment of arising and becoming, between an archi-past and the present. And as with anthropogenesis, which is supposed to have taken place but which cannot be hypostasized in a chronological event—the archē alone is able to guarantee the intelligibility of historical phenomena, “saving” them archaeologically in a future anterior in the understanding not of an unverifiable origin but of its finite and untotalizable history … the human sciences will be capable of reaching their decisive epistemological threshold only after they have rethought, from the bottom up, the very idea of ontological anchoring, and thereby envisaged being as a field of essentially historical tensions
What is ultimately and continually at stake within the book’s thinking on method is thus not simply the question of how human science grounds itself, whether through this paradigm or that, but that it does, the question of its grounding in the first place. In other words: the problem of the alienation of language from its own event, the word from its factical being. An anarchic rethinking of the very idea of ontological anchoring might seek (i.e. wait for) the supposedly ahistorical for itself of its own pleasure.5 By contrast, Agamben’s archic project is ordered toward realizing the deeper historicity defined by the co-presence of past and present in the moment of their simultaneous intelligibility:
… the archē [my investigations] reach … is not an origin presupposed in time. Rather, locating itself at the crossing of diachrony and synchrony, it makes the inquirer’s present intelligible as much as the past of his or her object. […] If one asks whether the paradigmatic character lies in things themselves or in the mind of the inquirer, my response is that the question itself makes no sense. The intelligibility in question in the paradigm has an ontological character. It refers not to the cognitive relation between subject and object but to being
Agamben’s desire to methodologically actualize the humanistic subject-object intersection, to redeem it from the impoverishment of instrumentalization, corresponds closely to his appreciation of “the loss of the commentary and the gloss as creative forms,” as practices belonging to “the abolition of the margin between the thing to be transmitted and the act of transmission.”6 As Gershom Scholem explains, in terms that resonate earthily with Agamben’s archaeological situation of future anteriority, “The Biblical scholar perceives revelation not as a unique and clearly delineated occurrence, but rather as a phenomenon of eternal fruitfulness to be unearthed and examined … Out of the religious tradition they bring forth something entirely new, something that itself commands religious dignity: commentary.”7 So Agamben initiates The Signature of All Things by defining the philosophically genuine as “its capacity for elaboration” (8) and by reproposing, in terms that again challenge the generic foundations of contemporary academic discourse, the onto-epistemic relation between thought and interpretation:
It is precisely when one follows such a principle that the difference between what belongs to the author of a work and what is attributable to the interpreter become as essential as it is difficult to grasp. I have therefore preferred to take the risk of attributing to the texts of others what began its elaboration with them, rather than run the reverse risk of appropriating thoughts or research paths that do not belong to me
This exemplifies the assertive, decisional generosity of commentary: attributing one’s own thought to another over taking another’s as one’s own—a decision, comparable to Walter Benjamin’s “art of citing without quotation marks,” whose parameters are legible in what is often the first gesture of reading: writing our own name in a book.8 The reality of what begins elaboration is the essential subject of this book, the contiguous realities of the paradigm, the signature, the archē, each of which exists as a palpable dimension of “the place where the gesture of reading and that of writing invert their relation and enter into a zone of undecidability” (56). In choosing and following this beginning as not original to himself (quodlibet ens), Agamben reaffirms the pleasure and good of thought as the experience of potentiality, its belonging to the originary possibility or ground of its own event. Such is the substance of the signature: “Signatures … are … that which marks things at the level of their pure existence … that pertain to beings by virtue of the very fact of existing” (66).9
Tracing this mysterious and quintessentially actual level of reality across a constellation of topics, The Signature of All Things is suffused by the logic of the third, of the between, of the both and/or neither, above all in its ongoing dialogue with the work of Michel Foucault: “The astute reader will be able to determine what in the three essays can be attributed to Foucault, to the author, or to both” (7). But as this deferral of discernability onto the reader implies, the third is precisely the zone where differentiation is overcome in the midst of its own intensity. Paradigm, signature, and archē, like Ibn Arabi’s concept of the imaginal barzakh or limit, pertain to a level of intelligibility coincident with phenomena.10 The three terms are hopelessly interrelated, but hold special reference to the domains of the object, language, and time, respectively.11 The paradigm, constituted by the “tertium datur” (20) of analogy, “entails a movement that goes from singularity to singularity and, without ever leaving singularity, transforms every singular case into an exemplar of a general rule that can never be stated a priori” (22). Here the “idea is not another being that is presupposed by the sensible or coincides with it: It is the sensible considered as a paradigm—that is, in the medium of its intelligibility” (26). So the signature, constituted by “immaterial similarity” (71), belongs to a third zone of language wherein the seemingly impassible transition between the semiotic and the semantic is accomplished: “Signatures, which according to the theory of signs should appear as signifiers, always already slide into the position of the signified, so that signum and signatum exchange roles and seem to enter into a zone of undecidability” (37). Yet what thus appears in the mode of a conceptual conundrum is nothing other than the functional, living actuality of the sign itself, which “signifies because it carries a signature that necessarily predetermines its interpretation” (64).

What the signature realizes for language, the archē does for time. It concerns, not historical origin as conventionally thought in terms of causality, but “the moment of arising,” which is something “objective and subjective at the same time and is indeed situated on a threshold of undecidability between subject and object” (89). Archaeology reenters time to leap over it, regressing not “to reach the unconscious or the forgotten in the past so much as to go back to the point where the dichotomy between conscious and unconscious, historiography and history (and, more generally, between all the binary oppositions defining the logic of our culture) was produced” (98). Just as material archaeology is an art of exhumation, of the production of empty tombs, so its hermeneutic process is ultimately not reconstructive but deconstructive: “it is a matter of conjuring up its phantasm, through meticulous genealogical inquiry, in order to work on it … to the point where it gradually erodes, losing its originary status” (102). Archaeology ungrounds the past as past, “it wills to let it go, to free itself from it, in order to gain access beyond or on this side of the past to what has never been, to what was never willed” (103).12 And it is in this sense that The Signature of All Things is its author’s signature, the mark that would render his work effective in a sense clarified in the penultimate section of the book: “For it is not merely the work of an author’s—or anyone’s—life that determines his or her rank, but the way in which he or she has been able to bring it back to the work of redemption, to mark it with the signature of salvation and to render it intelligible” (108).

In the medieval theory of the fourfold senses of scripture, the fourth and highest sense, that which completes and perfects and indeed corresponds to the very movement among the other three (literal, allegorical, tropological), is the anagogic sense. Crossing the gap between word and thing, sensible and intelligible, anagogy is proverbially that which gives a “foretaste (praegustus) of heaven” and a “foreseeing of hoped-for rewards.” Like the “today” of Christ’s promise (Luke 23:43) to the co-crucified thief, anagogy is constituted by the immanence of a redemptive future that is impossibly already sensible in the fractured terms of the present. Anagogy thus corresponds to the experience of thought as contemplation rather than meditation. As Hugh of St. Victor explained, whereas meditation is an “assiduous and shrewd drawing back of thought … [that] is always about things hidden from our understanding,” contemplation is “a keen and free observation of the mind expanding everywhere to look into things … [and] is about things as manifest.”13 Although this review fails to reflect the wealth of specific things that The Signature of All Things expansively observes, I hope it does suggest a framework for recognizing Giorgio Agamben’s pleasurable work as that of an anagogic philosopher, all the more so because he holds the traditional significance of such a determination so explicitly open: “Whether a philosophical inquiry is possible that reaches beyond signatures toward the Non-marked that, according to Paracelsus, coincides with the paradisiacal state and final perfection is, as they say, another story, for others to write” (80).


1. Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald L. Martinez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 59; “è in questa ‘terza area’ che dovrebbe situare la sua ricerca una scienza dell’uomo che si fosse veramente affrancata da ogni pregiudizio ottocentesco” (Stanze [Turin: Einaudi, 1977], 69).
2.  “For if in the human sciences subject and object necessarily become identified, then the idea of a science without object is not a playful paradox, but perhaps the most serious task that remains entrusted to thought in our time” (Stanzas, xvi).
3. Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (New York: Verso, 1993), 19.
4. Infancy and History, 165.
5.  For instance: “Not until that glad hour when we are at last rid of our delusions about the science of the experts, and are content simply to choose among pleasures, can we face the unknown with a lucid passionate gaze” (Raoul Vaneigem, The Movement of the Free Spirit, trans. Randall Cherry and Ian Patterson [New York: Zone, 1998], 12).
6. Infancy and History, 162.
7.  Gershom Scholem, “Tradition and Commentary as Religious Categories in Judaism,” in Understanding Jewish Theology: Classical Issues and Modern Perspectives, ed. J. Neusner (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1973), 46–7.
8.  Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), N1.10.
9.  Agamben here follows the scholastic concept of the “passiones entis; that is, the attributes a being ‘suffers’ or receives from the very fact of being” (65). Cf. “The actualness of the created is not itself actual; it is not itself in need of a coming-to-be or a being-created. Therefore, it may not be said that actuality is something created. It is rather quid concreatum, concreated with the creation of a created thing” (Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988], 104).
10.  “Imagination in Ibn al-‘Arabī is an intermediate reality, the reality of the Limit, or what Ibn al-‘Arabī calls barzakh. Barzakh is a term that represents an activity or an active entity that differentiates between two things and (paradoxically) through that very act of differentiation provides for their unity” (Salman H. Bashier, Ibn al ‘Arabī’s Barzakh: The Concept of the Limit and the Relationship between God and World (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), 7.
11.  Agamben repeatedly articulates their interrelation: “archaeology … is always a paradigmatology” (32); “paradigm of signatures” (38); “archaeology of signatures” (57); “the gesture of the archaeologist constitutes the paradigm of every true human action” (108).
12.  On the concept of archaeological ungrounding, see also Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (Melbourne:, 2008), 43ff.
13.  “Meditatio est assidua et sagax retractatio cogitationis, aliquid, vel involutum explicare nitens, vel scrutans penetrare occultum. Contemplatio est perspicax, et liber animi contuitus in res perspiciendas usquequaque diffusus. Inter meditationem et contemplationem hoc interesse videtur. Quod meditatio semper est de rebus ab intelligentia nostra occultis. Contemplatio vero de rebus, vel secundum suam naturam, vel secundum capacitatem nostram manifestis” (In Salomonis Ecclesiasten Homiliae XIX, Patrologia Latina 175:116–7).