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Giorgio Agamben “The Sacrament of Language”

Agamben, Giorgio 2011. The Sacrament of Language. An Archaeology of the Oath (Homo Sacer II, 3). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[…] the issue here, above all, is the question, What is an oath? What is at stake in it, if it defines and calls into question man himself as a political animal? If the oath is the sacrament of political power, what is it in its structure and its history that has made it possible for it to be invested with such a function? What anthropological level – a decisive one in every sense – is implicated in it, so that all of man, in life and death, can be called to account in it and by it? (2)

Benveniste, 1948: “[The oath] is a particular modality of assertion, which supports, guarantees, and demonstrates, but does not found anything. Individual or collective, the oath exists only by virtue of that which it reinforces and renders solemn: a pact, an agreement, a declaration. It prepares for or concludes a speech act which alone possesses meaningful content, but it expresses nothing by itself. It is in truth an oral rite, often completed by a manual rite whose form is variable. Its function consists not in the affirmation that it produces, but in the relation that it institutes between the word pronounced and the potency invoked.” (B, The Expression of the Oath in Ancient Greece, 81-82, 4)

All the sources and scholars seem to agree that the oath’s primary function, in its various forms, is that of guaranteeing the truth and efficacy of language. (4)

It is possible […] not only that what was originally at issue in the oath was the guarantee of a promise or of the truthfulness of an affirmation but that the institution that we know today by that name contains the memory of a more archaic stage, in which it was concerned with the very consistency of human language and the very nature of humans as “speaking animals”. The “scourge” that it had to stem was not only the unreliability of men, incapable of staying true to their word, but a weakness pertaining to language itself, the capacity of words themselves to refer to things and the ability of men to make profession of their condition as speaking beings. (8)

The oath is, then, a verbal act that accomplishes a testimony – or a guarantee – independently by the very fact that it has taken place. The formula of Pindar cited above acquires here its full meaning: karteros horkos martys esto Zeus, “as a mighty oath, may Zeus be our witness”: Zeus is not a witness of the oath, but rather oath, witness, and god coincide in the utterance of the formula. As in Philo, the oath is a logos that is necessarily accomplished, and this is precisely the logos of God. The testimony is given by language itself and the god names a potentiality implicit in the very act of speech. The testimony that is in question in the oath must therefore be understood in a sense that has little to do with much of what we normally understand by this term. It concerns not the verification of a fact or an event but the very signifying power of language. (33)

Blasphemy presents us, then, with a phenomenon that is perfectly symmetrical to the oath, to understand which there is no need to drag in the biblical interdiction or the ambiguity of the sacred. Blasphemy is an oath, in which the name of a god is extracted from the assertorial or promissory context and is uttered in itself, in vain, independently of a semantic context. The name, which in the oath expresses and guarantees the connection between words and things and which defines the truthfulness and force of the logos, in blasphemy expresses the breakdown of this connection and the vanity of human language. The name of God, isolated and produced “in vain”, corresponds symmetrically to perjury, which separates words from things; oath and blasphemy, a bene-diction and male-diction, are co-originally implied in the very event of language. (40-41)

What the curse sanctions is the loosening of the correspondence between words and things that is in question in the oath. If the connection that unites language and the world is broken, the name of God, which expressed and guaranteed this connection based in blessing [bene-dicente], becomes the name of the curse [male-dizione], that is, of a word that has broken its truthful relation to things. (42)

If, in polytheism, the name assigned to the god named this or that event of language, this or that specific naming, this or that Sondergott, in monotheism God’s name names language itself. The potentially infinite dissemination of singular, divine events of naming gives way to the divinization of the logos as such, to the name of God as archi-event of language that takes place in names. (49)

It is a certainty, or better a “faith”, of this kind that is in question in the oath and in the name of God. The name of God names the name that is always and only true, that is, that experience of language that it is not possible to doubt. For man this experience is the oath. In this sense very name is an oath, and in every name a “faith” is in question, because the certainty of the name is not of an empirico-constative or logico-epistemic type but rather always puts in play the commitment and praxis of men. To speak is, above all, to swear, to believe in the name. (54)

It is precisely the status of the oath that we have sought so far to reconstruct that allows us, in fact, to understand in a new light the theory of performatives. They represent in language a remnant of a stage (or, rather, the co-originarity of a structure) in which the connection between words and things is not of a semantico-denotative type but performative, in the sense , as in the oath, the verbal act brings being into truth. This is not, as we have seen, a magico-religious stage but a structure antecedent to (or contemporaneous with) the distinction between sense and denotation, which is perhaps not, as we have been accustomed to believe, an original and eternal characteristic of human language but a historical product (which, as such, has not always existed and could one day cease to exist). (55)

[…] in the performative, language suspends its denotation precisely and solely to found its existential connection with things. (56)

Considered in this perspective, the ontological (or onto-theological) argument simply says that if speech exists, then God exists, and God is the expression of this metaphysical “performance”. (56)

[…] metaphysics, the science of pure being, is itself historical and coincides with the experience of the event of language to which man devotes himself in the oath. If the oath is declining, if the name of God is withdrawing from language – and this is what has happened beginning from the event that has been called the “death o f God” or, as one should put it more exactly, “of the name of God” – then metaphysics also reaches completion. (56)

Assertion and veridiction define, that is to say, the two co-originary aspects of the logos. While assertion has an essentially denotative value, meaning that its truth, in the moment of its formulation, is independent of the subject and is measured with logical and objective parameters (conditions of truth, noncontradiction, adequation between words and things), in veridiction the subject constitutes itself and puts itself in play as such by linking itself performatively to the truth of its own affirmation. (57)

Religion and law do not pre-exist the performative experience of language that is in question in the oath, but rather they were invented to guarantee the truth and trustworthiness of the logos through a series of apparatuses, among which the tecnicalization of the oath into a specific “sacrament” – the “sacrament of power” – occupies a central place. (59)

The interpretation of sacretas as an originary performance of power through the production of a killable and unsacrificeable bare life must be completed in the sense that, even before being a sacrament of power, the oath is a consecration of the living human being through the word to the word. The oath can function as a sacrament of power insofar as it is first of all the sacrament of language. This original sacratio that takes place in the oath takes the technical form of the curse, of the politike ara that accompanies the proclamation of the law. Law is, in this sense, constitutively inked to the curse, and only a politics that has broken this original connection with the curse will be able one day to make possible another use of speech and of the law. (66)

With a tenacious prejudice perhaps connected to their profession, scientists have always considered anthropogenesis to be a problem of an exclusively cognitive order, as if the becoming human of man were solely a question of intelligence and brain size and not also one of ethos, as if intelligence and language did not also and above all pose problems of an ethical and political order, as if Homo sapiens was not also, and of course precisely for that reason, a Homo iustus. (68)

[…] uniquely among living things, man is not limited to acquiring language as one capacity among others that he is given but has made of it his specific potentiality; he has, that is to say, put his very nature at stake in language. (68)

Just as, in the words of Foucault, man “is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question”, so also is he the living being whose language places his life in question. These two definitions are, in fact, inseparable and constitutively dependent on each other. The oath is situated at their intersection, understood as the anthropogenic operator by means of which the living being, who has discovered itself speaking, has decided to be responsible for his words and, devoting himself to the logos, to constitute himself as the “living being who has language”. In order for something like an oath to be able to take place, it is necessary, in fact, to be able above all to distinguish, and to articulate together in some way, life and language, actions and words – and this is precisely what the animal, for which language is still an integral part of its vital practice, cannot do. The first promise, the first – and, so to speak, transcendental – sacratio is produced by means of this division, in which man, opposing his language to his actions, can put himself at stake in language, can promise himself to the logos. (69)

On the one hand, there is the living being, more and more reduced to a purely biological reality and to bare life. On the other hand, there is the speaking being, artificially divided from the former, through a multiplicity of technico-mediatic apparatuses, in an experience of the word that grows ever more vain, for which it is impossible to be responsible and in which anything like a political experience becomes more and more precarious. When the ethical – and not simply cognitive – connection that unites words, things, and human actions is broken, this in fact promotes a spectacular and unprecedented proliferation of vain words on the one hand and, on the other, of legislative apparatuses that seek obstinately to legislate on every aspect of that life on which they seem no longer to have any hold. The age of the eclipse of the oath is also the age of blasphemy, in which the name of God breaks away from its living connection with language and can only be uttered “in vain”. (70-71)

The decisive element that confers on human language its peculiar virtue is not in the tool itself but in the place it leaves to the speaker, in the fact that it prepares within itself a hollowed-out form that the speaker must always assume in order to speak – that is to say, in the ethical relation that is established between the speaker and his language. The human being is that living being that, in order to speak, must say “I”, must “take the word”, assume it and make it his own. (71)

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