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Giorgio Agamben's New Books on How to Live


In the New Inquiry, Adam Kotsko reviews two new books by Giorgio Agamben, The Adventure and Pulcinella: Or Entertainment for Children, the first texts the philosopher has written since concluding his monumental Homo Sacer project. As Kotsko notes, these new volumes are remarkably lighter in tone than the dense and sometimes grim Homo Sacer books. While retaining Agamben’s signature erudition and scope, The Adventure and Pulcinella concern themselves with the more immediate and practical question of how to live. Here’s an excerpt from Kotsko’s review:

Agamben did not, however, take the break that he had surely earned. In 2015, the year after completing or “abandoning” his masterwork, he published four books. Two were republications of older texts, including a long essay on the concept of aesthetic taste from 1979 (which had been languishing in a philosophical reference volume) and the text of a 2001 seminar on the idea of civil war (which was awkwardly retrofitted into the Homo Sacer series after its ostensible closure). The two volumes under consideration here, The Adventure and Pulcinella: Or Entertainment for Children, are both new. More than that, they are surprising, and in a way even unprecedented, because they are, in some strange way, fun.

The Adventure, which is the more accessible of the two texts, explores the changes in its title concept between the medieval and modern periods. In it, Agamben returns to one of the primary areas of his pre–Homo Sacer work, the love poetry of the troubadours, and argues for a return to their concept of adventure, which provides a more authentic vision of love and identity than what he views as the impoverished modern vision of adventure.

The investigation begins with a citation from Macrobius’s Saturnalia to the effect that “four deities preside over the birth of every human being: Daimon, Tyche, Eros, and Ananke (Demon, Chance, Love, and Necessity).” He then turns to a work in which Goethe—an author who, incidentally, spent his life working on a sprawling multi-volume project (Faust)—takes up Macrobius’s list, expanding it to include Elpis (Hope). The five chapters of the work correspond to Goethe’s five figures, with Chance replaced by “Aventure” (Provençal for “adventure”) and Necessity by “Event.” Hence the reader must be familiar with two dead languages—Greek and Provençal—even to scan the table of contents, and the rest of the work shows the same breezy erudition for which Agamben is well known. Yet his fast-paced argumentation keeps the reader from getting bogged down, as every confusing or baffling point is quickly succeeded by a fresh idea or interpretation.

Image of Agamben via Four By Three Magazine.