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Agamben’s Happy Life
Source: Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal , March 2019, Vol. 52, No. 1 (March
2019), pp. 139-154
Published by: University of Manitoba
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Focusing on Giorgio Agamben’s reflections on language and potentiality, this essay examines how a different
kind of happiness can enable ethics to venture above the figure of the law, that is, to become an ethics for which
living itself is at stake.
Agamben’s Happy Life:
Toward an Ethics of Impotence
and Mere Communicability
Then, what is Life? I said . . . the cripple cast
His eye upon the car which now had rolled
Onward, as if that look must be the last,
And answered. . . . “Happy those for whom the fold
— Percy B. Shelley, The Triumph of Life
n the closing paragraphs of
Means without End, the
Italian philosopher Giorgio
Agamben stresses that if the coming politics is to adequately take
into account humankind’s absence of work, then politics needs to be “integrally
assigned to happiness” (142). Though an increasingly growing critical material seeks
to bridge his earlier, more literary work to later political and theological explorations
like the recently finished Homo Sacer series, the concept of happiness in Agamben’s
work remains, strangely enough, a largely neglected and obscure trope of investigation.1 But why does happiness matter in the first place? What is Agamben precisely
hinting at by pointing us in the direction of a marriage between politics and happiness? And why, in many peculiar cases, does it lead to something unresolved or even
unsayable—as we read at the end of Shelley’s poem?
Mosaic 52/1 0027-1276-07/139016$02.00©Mosaic
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In this essay I suggest that the relentless strive toward happiness (and the failure
it often harbours) not only reveals something all too human, but also, and even
painfully so, helps to explain why modern times often fail to address ethical problems
altogether. For Agamben, the pale human indifference toward any type of work, task,
or operability compares poorly to the incessant fascination with happiness shared by
many human beings all around the world. Yet time and again, a recurring dominant
rhetoric has sought to reduce human life, and this fascination, to the blindfolded following of a duty or an abstract moral law—and nowadays, increasingly, to a biological vocation or an individual choice that seeks no other recognition but
self-affirmation. These explanations fall short because they stem from a utilitarian
understanding of human beings, that is, from a train of thought that regards the linear actualization of the self as the primary drive of humanity. Within this utilitarian
perspective, a happy life is imagined as a measurable ideal, an end to which you need
to aspire. Happiness, then, is granted when you succeed in realizing what you need to
do or want to be—it is the well-deserved reward at the end of the ride.
Agamben’s idea of happiness radically opposes this tradition. From his viewpoint, precisely because human beings are “inoperative,” “workless,” or “beings of
pure potentiality,” which means that they have no specific prescribed telos to fulfill or
actualize, a different kind of happiness remains stubbornly at stake (Means 141).
Rather than telling us something about the urge to realize, accomplish, and obtain, for
Agamben true happiness beckons the domain of the unlived, the improper, and the
hidden within life. With reference to Walter Benjamin, he claims a happy life to be a
“sufficient life”.2 It is that life which “has reached the perfection of its own power and
of its own communicability—a life over which sovereignty and right no longer have
any hold” (114, emph. mine). In turn, this essay aims to explain how a different kind
of ethics and happiness can be retrieved in between the question of (im)potentiality
(power) and communicability (language).
By trying to understand this citation through an internalist reading of Agamben’s
texts, this essay not only seeks to contribute to the area of Agamben studies by virtue of
a largely unexplored fragment, but also to voice a broader concern that pertains to ethical and political thought. In a popular culture entranced by Bhutan’s Gross National
Happiness (GNH), it is clear that the question of happiness has never left the stage. Yet
when and why did we start to conceive of happiness as something to be measured or
owned? Through the lens of Agamben’s texts, I wish to engage with this peculiar phenomenon, and through it, cast a modest perspective on the culture that produced it.
In order to understand Agamben’s demand for an alternative ethics, this essay
begins with an introduction to his critique of law and morality, and explains the wider
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cultural crisis this ethical confusion brought about. Second, the essay considers the
importance Agamben ascribes to potentiality, and how this helps us to understand the
kind of ethics he envisions and the idea of power that presupposes his concept of happiness. Third, the essay uses the example of a simple gesture to frame Agamben’s
understanding of language as a philosophy of mere communicability. Finally, the essay
explores, against the reigning primacy of actuality, how a different use of or playfulness with one’s potentialities and communicability “can become the gateways to a new
happiness” (Profanations 76). Arguing for the development of a concept of happiness
that is grounded in an ontology of “pure potentiality” is a bold endeavour in an era
where the “happiness industry” bluntly seeks to measure collective happiness. Yet it is
a much needed one if a sort of politics, community, and understanding of human life
that is no longer subjugated to the iron figure of the law—or the strident commodification of life—is to be made available, something I wish to explain in what follows.
gamben argues that a fundamental problem of our contemporary world—and
concomitantly Western tradition and metaphysics—is to be found in the confusion between morality and law. He maintains that an ethical language is inherently
contaminated when concepts that clearly resonate a distinct juridical origin like
responsibility, culpability, dignity, and repentance are at its core (Remnants 18; Means
130). For Agamben, the supremacy of the rule of law in the domain of ethics has radically eclipsed the power of, for example, the Christian doctrine of love that at least
held the possibility of uniting humans across differences and languages (Means 134).
Instead, the rule of law actively seeks to represent and maintain a divided body of
humanity across different nationalities, territories, and languages. In Remnants of
Auschwitz, he vindicates the root of the problem more clearly. Law is not concerned
with morality; instead it merely judges (18). It imposes judgment so that, subsequently, knowledge of good and bad is merely an effect of this verdict. What is good
is what blindly follows the rule of law. Because this knowledge is never pointed
directly toward the domain of justice or truth, but only aims at the production of a
lawful state, a Res Judicata, an adequate ethical space or experience can never be the
case. From this perspective, morality persists only as an unintentional, second-rate,
and corrupted side effect.
Agamben’s critique is directed toward the ethical crisis Auschwitz introduced.
The figure of the Muselmann in the concentration camps, the one who is divided
between the human and the inhuman, the living dead, testifies to that which cannot
be contained in any ethics, or more precisely, in any ethics that has been dominated
by legal categorization (Remnants 367). The Muselmann refers to a breakdown where
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ethico-juridical concepts lose their validity and verge on nonsensicality, “for no ethics
can claim to exclude a part of humanity, no matter how unpleasant or difficult that
humanity is to see” (64). This emblematic figure counts as the starting point from
which to seek an ethics as “a form of life that begins where dignity ends,” or where the
legal contamination has been halted (64-69).
The vindication of this ethical crisis needs to be understood against the backdrop
of three larger, interconnected points of critique that operate within Agamben’s oeuvre. According to him, the rule of law has always taken naked life, or mere biological
life, as its main target. By this, he means the “naked presupposed common element
that […] is always possible to isolate in each of the numerous forms of life” (Means
3). It is precisely this separation between naked life, the mechanically beating heart,
and the multitude of human habits and manifestations of life that is crucial to understanding the modus operandi of the rule of law: it strips human beings from their
form, their ethos (also see “Life Divided” in Use). A similar argument can be noted in
his analysis of the commodity in capitalist society. Following Marx, Agamben stresses
that the commodification of an object imposes a segregation between use- and
exchange-value. Transforming all things human, even as far as sexuality, into buyable
and inter-exchangeable objects, capitalism leaves the consumerist entranced by the
exchange worth of goods, bereft of the possibility of using them as mere objects again.
In sum, capitalism puts objects in a “separate sphere,” the sphere of exchange value,
“where all use becomes and remains impossible” (Profanations 81). For Agamben, this
is the main reason why consumers are “unhappy” in mass society. Not only do we consume objects which are impossible to use, since they have been turned into a monetized commodity, but we have also forgotten to return them to their common use. In
opposition, Agamben sets out to articulate the human form, its form of life, in which
it is never again possible to isolate a naked life that is neither reduced by legal categories, nor by the commodification of life.
The rupture between naked life and forms of life in the operations of law, and
between consuming and using in capitalism, vaguely reflects Agamben’s wider pessimistic claim that Western society is so entangled with knowing its own history that
it fails to produce true experiences altogether. The malaise of modernity, and its
continuation in our times, lies in the bleak scene where empty shards of its own history are thrown about and the modern subject, reduced from actor to spectator, gazes
from afar. A vacuous observing stance judges and claims to know, but remains ultimately deprived of direct experiences. This tragedy emblematically symbolizes the
destruction of experience, which “does not mean that today there are no more experiences, but they are enacted outside the individual” (Infancy 17). This is most
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emblematically reflected in the abstract Erlebnis of history in museums, in which people are turned into passive spectators, deprived from using, dwelling, or experiencing
(Profanations 84). Modernity overlooks its own history as a Greek Choir, lamenting
its own failure to participate and dwell in it, or use it again.
In a 2011 lecture, Agamben gives a tailor-made example of his critique.3 He states
that the current post-war proliferation of legal rules in Europe, which incessantly
seeks to prescribe how to lead one’s life, is symptomatic of a public space lacking true
ethical experiences. The underlying idea here is that by taking naked life as its start,
the operations of power, like law and economics, relentlessly produce a set of divisions
where humans can find meaning in the act of realizing whatever productive, interexchangeable socio-juridical identity or vocation (Nudities 44). This ethico-juridical
mode of prescription is bound to a worldview which claims definite objective knowledge of what a human being is, and more precisely, of what a human being needs,
ought, or wants to do. Happiness then is imagined as a merit; it is something you
deserve or are deemed worthy of. For Agamben, this mode of thought fails not only to
grasp the ontological nature of a human being, for a human being can never be
reduced to this or that necessity or rule, but also the kind of happiness that is tied to
it, for “happiness is not something that can be deserved” (Profanations 20).
Within the wider philosophic tradition, Agamben’s exploration of ethics and
happiness can be said to begin where Arendt’s Report on the Banality of Evil ends: at
the moment where Eichmann stated that he held true to the Kantian imperative by
obeying state law. Instead, Agamben argues that “the fact that must constitute the
point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical
or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize.” For
Agamben, an “ethical experience” is possible only insofar as human beings are not
defined by a specific “task” or “destiny” or have to be “this or that substance” (Coming
43-44). According to him, the habits and processes of human beings “are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life” (Means 4, emph. Agamben’s).
Following Spinoza’s rejection of ethics based on free will, and Nietzsche’s exposure of the limits of the will in the idea of “willing backwards,” Agamben appeals to
an archaeology which regressively explores the modal verb that historically preceded
the will and which seeks to understand human possibilities: “can” (Remnants 21, 99;
Potentialities 267). The idea here is that precisely because potentiality, or being able to,
counts as a key-departure “for any discourse of ethics,” it opens the possibility of
regressing prior to will (choice) and taking a different path (Potentialities 43). The
necessary presupposition is that modal categories are not epistemic or logical, but
ontological, since they “never stand before the subject as something he can choose or
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reject; and they do not confront him as a task that he can decide to assume or not to
assume in a privileged moment” (Remnants 147). Just as one can’t decide to be truly
happy, the type of ethics Agamben seeks is neither defined nor constricted by the
notion of a free choice. Via an analysis of the connection between (im)potentiality
and happiness, I aim, in the following part, at a deeper understanding of his critique
of our modern times.
otentiality has traditionally been read within the strict interpretation of a teleological cosmology as a lack.4 Here, it is to be understood as something missing determinate form, needing actualization in order to gain precise form. It is change. Thus, a
traditional reading of Aristotle interprets potentiality as a lack of form that can only be
laid bare retroactively after actualization. In this case the primacy of actuality over
potentiality is presupposed: potential is that which is not yet actualized (Brown 172).
The radicalization of this perspective can be found in the Megarian doctrine which
maintained that all existence is only defined by the actual itself and hence that there is
no need for a concept of potentiality logically preceding it (Potentialities 180, 250).
Through a dialogue with Aristotle’s De Anima and Metaphysica, Agamben asserts
that such a reading does not permit Aristotle’s idea to gain full articulation. Similar to
what Butler conceives as a “force,” Agamben argues that potentiality can be read as
something exceeding the actual (Subjects 26). This is reflected in his terminology of
surplus or remnant, for instance. For this reason, Agamben maintains that in Aristotle
two modalities of potentiality are at work. Rather than stressing the traditional
understanding of potentiality that seeks actualization (potential to-be), Agamben
delineates the importance of the potentiality to not-be, or impotentiality (adynamis)
(Potentialities 178). He contends that in order to accurately think the possible or the
statute of a faculty, the negative ground should equally be called into place. When I
say “I can,” the possibility of being able to and equally being able not-to are both necessarily implied (180). A poet who refuses to poetize remains a poet at all times. This
is what Agamben understands as an “existing potentiality,” where a person has the
capacity to act and no specific alteration is needed, even when the active realization
of that capacity is not yet manifest.
The clearest articulation of this idea is retrieved in the concept of a privation.
Guided by Aristotle, Agamben discerns privation (sterisis) from mere absence or nonbeing (apousia). A privation refers to the form or faculty which remains present in its
lack (Time 102). Even though one is currently not actualizing this or that specific mode
of action, one still retains the capacity to do so. The “face” of potentiality is shown in
the moment when an unexhausted possibility suddenly treads to the foreground. This
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means that the existence of a faculty, assumed as a privation, is something not yet but
already there (Nudities 16). This argument renders the divide between being and nonbeing indistinct, because what Agamben precisely tries to articulate is “the presence of
an absence” (Potentialities 179).
For Agamben, “the symmetry between the potentiality to be and the potentiality
to not-be” shows that potentiality is simultaneously related to being (the actual) and
non-being (Coming 35). However, for Agamben there is only “true” potentiality
“where the potentiality to not-be does not lag behind actuality but passes fully into it
as such” (Potentialities 183). This is what he calls the “existence as potentiality.” This
means that the potential to not-be does not nullify itself before the actual, but “what
is potential can pass over into actuality only at the point at which it sets aside its own
potential not to be” (264). Here, it is crucial to understand that “to set aside” means
“to make it exist.” In other words, true potentiality exists only when potentiality is
fully shown in the actual as a potentiality (183). This is what Agamben calls the conservation or “salvation” of potentiality. Adynamia should be read as a remaining, hidden, and continually insisting force that persists within and throughout the actual,
and that informs simultaneously the divide and mutual relation between potentiality
and actuality. Actuality does not harbour in itself the end of what is possible. The
moment of actualization indicates both the destruction and the persistence of potentiality (134). The act may realize the potential to-be, but it doesn’t necessarily exhaust
potentiality in its entirety, as a potential to not-be.
Granted, supreme power cannot be reached by leaving the potentiality to not-be
behind, or by neglecting it in the act. Instead, power is “saved” by “transporting […] in
the act its own power to not-be” (Coming 35). For a human being to reach the perfection of its own power, as stated in the introduction, then means to be simultaneously
directed toward one’s own power and impotence. To understand this, Agamben gives
the example of the famous pianist Glenn Gould. Whereas every pianist has the ability
to play and to not play, Gould is “the only one who can not not-play, and, directing his
potentiality not only to the act but to his own impotence, he plays, so to speak, with
his potential to not-play” (35). In other words, perfection or mastery is reached when
the potentiality not-to is not abandoned in the act, but rather conserved. Perfection can
be reached by bringing our very relation to impotence in the act.
The political importance of impotence becomes clearer when pitted against the
idea of powerlessness. For Agamben, powerlessness means being radically stripped
from one’s potentiality to-be. This is for example understood in the act of mechanically obeying an order, i.e. acting without the capacity to refuse (Befehlsnotstand), or
when a person is impeded from acting by his/her physical condition or material
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deprivations (Remnants 78; Nudities 43). The experience of impotentiality does not
belong to this domain. What Agamben envisions is being able not-to as a form of
unexhausted resistance, but not the powerlessness involved in being held back or prohibited from what we can do. Agamben finds an example of this in the unyielding passive resistance of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. During the communist era,
Akhmatova found herself in the blistering cold joined with other mothers in front of
the prison of Leningrad, trying to get notice of their sons. Upon returning home, she
was asked by one of these parents who recognized her in the streets: “Can you speak
of this?” Akhmatova stopped, stood perplexed, and replied: “Yes, I can” (Potentialities
177). In its sheer simplicity, this could be falsely interpreted as an expression of freedom of choice—or even indifference toward the situation. It is rather the opposite. It
is in that brief moment of interruption, the moment in which Akhmatova is confronted with the mere or unexhausted capacity to speak, that she conserves her power
to resist (178). The “experience of impotentiality” does not ground acts of resistance
in a free choice. The moment of arrest in which one is forced to recognize or admit
one’s unexhausted capacity is already an act of resistance to an unbearable situation.
Although it is tied to an experience of human possibility, being able not-to, and the
kind of ethics it prepares, is not decided by the notion of free will.
From the outset, Agamben’s thoughts on potentiality seem but abstract reflections on modal categories. Yet after one unravels some of their mystique, these
thoughts can be appreciated as addressing something fundamentally recognizable.
Through his ruminations on potentiality, Agamben beckons the idea that the meaning humans find in their lives is not so much defined by that specific act or realization,
that which we did, but rather by that which “has never been” in a human life, something already there but not yet. Imagining happiness as an object you can achieve or
deserve, indeed, deeming oneself worthy of happiness is, as Agamben argues, an act
of hubris: “It is always the result of arrogance and excess” (Profanations 20). Instead,
being truly or blessedly happy is curiously tied to something that is not allencompassed by the rule of law or other operators of power, like economics. Rather it
is the “unlived” and a certain conservation of impotence in life itself, as part of human
ethos, that “is taken up by the idea of happiness” (Prose 93). In the next part, I broaden
my analysis of the entanglement between impotence, power, and happiness from the
vantage point of Agamben’s philosophy of language.
or Agamben, the concept of impotentiality articulates that the expressions of
human life cannot be fully contained by some legal category, mode of economic
productivity, or teleological end. For him, language is also traditionally taken up
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within a similar teleological model. Within this perspective, it is described as a means
to communicate. The function of a word, for example, is then fully realized in the communication of that to which it refers. On the other side of the spectrum, there is the
phenomenon of a “finality without means,” in which the end is realized in the transition, movement, or performance itself. This is, for example, the case in the phenomenon of the dance, where the rhythmic, aesthetic movement is the goal itself (Means 57).
In response to both perspectives, Agamben directs our attention to the peculiar
expressions of human life “in its own being a means, without any transcendence”
(Means 58). An example of this can be found in the seemingly forgotten extravaganza
of cinematic gesture. In the performance of the gesture, the movement reveals neither
ulterior nor intrinsic finality. The gesture seeks no specific communication. Yet it
exposes, perhaps unwittingly, the “communication of a communicability” (58). On
the one hand the gesture remains closely tied to a person’s idiosyncrasies and characteristic tics; on the other it shows that language cannot be reduced to a mere communicative instrument, because other than exposing the faculty of communicability
or the mere potential to communicate, the gesture has “nothing to say” (58). Indeed,
in its simplicity, the mere human capacity of language is revealed.
The gesture indicates that “something is being endured and supported” rather
than produced or realized. Through the simple movement of a silent hand wave, the
fact that we all have language treads to the foreground. Agamben continues that the
gesture “opens the sphere of ethos as the more proper sphere of that which is human”
(Means 56). It removes language from its obligatory telos to communicate and shows
language, and the expressions of human life, as a means without end. To understand
this, Agamben gives the explanatory image of a cat with a ball of yarn to show how it
frees its own behaviour from its genetic inscription: “The game with the yarn liberates
the mouse from being prey and the predatory activity from being necessarily directed
toward the capture and death of the mouse.” This specific playful activity has “emancipated” the cat from its end, for “it has joyously forgotten its goal and can now show
itself as such, as a means without end” (Profanations 86). In that very same way are the
cinematic gesture and Gould’s playfulness expressions of an emancipatory argument,
because they both liberate their activities from a specific end, that is, the alleged necessity of communication or the full realization of one’s artistic capacities. By neglecting
the specific fulfilment of an activity, the activity itself treads to the foreground.
The gesture reflects two important arguments running through Agamben’s work.
Not only does it show that the questions of language and potentiality are inherently
intertwined (Heller-Roazen 13); it also delineates Agamben’s understanding of
human beings as linguistic beings. Time and again he refers to Aristotle’s famous
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phrasing that a human being, above all, is a being that has language (zóon logon echon)
(Language 85).5 For Agamben, the concealment of the world as a meaningful place is
opened by the transition from zóon, or the mere biological fact of living common to
all living beings, to bios, or what he refers to as political, linguistic, or ethical life. In
the aphorism The Idea of Language, Agamben states: “Only the word puts us in contact
with mute things. While nature and animals are forever caught up in a language, incessantly speaking and responding to signs even while keeping silent, only man succeeds
in interrupting, in the word, the infinite language of nature and in placing himself for
a moment in front of mute things” (Prose 113). In other words, human language presupposes the possibility to not speak in contrast to the instinctual sound of animals. He
advances that the difference between mere sound (phoné) and language (logos) lies in
the negative, improper foundation of language: “the Voice without sound” (Remnants
130). This means that, though we seemingly take for granted the usage of language as
our own, it remains beyond our grasp and resists appropriation.
The passive voice, the “silent sound of conscience,” forms the crux between the
two fates of man: nature (physis) and culture (logos) (Language 91). Human beings are
“lacerated” between living and speaking; they are the living beings that have language.
The aporia within this genealogy lies in the constitutive element between living being
and language. Having language need not be understood as strict ownership. It rather
means that even though language always seems to escape us, it defines our very being
(Remnants 129). Similar to impotentiality, this mute, negative ground indicates a
third category between being and non-being: the mere capacity to constitute meaning. The “sound of silence” is indicated by an already there but not yet (Language 8687). In other words, the faculty to speak is grounded in a privation that precisely
constitutes human beings as humans. Similar to impotentiality, the capacity of language is the privation (faculty) that human beings at all times have to be. The openness of humans to their ethos “exists in the human being’s non-place, in the missing
articulation between the living being and logos” (Remnants 134).
Within this perspective, ethics becomes available when we use language, not as an
instrument at hand, but when it’s revealed as a pure means, that is, when we experience it as the very irrefutable fact that we all have language. This puts us in the position
to understand the bold statement Agamben makes at the end of Language and Death:
“So, language is our voice, our language. As you now speak, that is ethics” (108). That
we all have, beyond any uttering, communication, or proposition, the mere faculty of
speech, becomes an ethical claim. Even when human beings remain silent, they
remain linguistic beings at all times. Ethics becomes available when we are once again
confronted, in a brief interrupted moment, with that occluded and forgotten fact.
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Agamben’s philosophy of language and potentiality implicitly shows that an
understanding of human life in strict utilitarian or productive terms, in which each
human being is subjugated to something ulterior, is inadequate. As argued, something
as simplistic as a gesture shows us that language, the human trait par excellence, cannot be contained within a means-to-an-end logic. Yet in its simplicity, the gesture
exposes human beings to “the ethical dimension for them” (Means 57). In a gesture,
similar to Gould’s playfulness, the ability not not-to signify treads to the foreground.
By virtue of its playfulness (or relation to impotence), the activity becomes liberated
from its prescribed end, opening the possibility of imagining a new use for human
means. Similar to the idea of “supreme power,” the gesture is what Agamben utilizes
as a way to start imagining the perfection of “one’s own communicability.” It is in the
gesture that “language […] has emancipated itself from its communicative ends and
thus makes itself available for a new use” (Profanations 88). The gesture shows the face
of language in its mere communicability. It exposes language, and human life, as a
means without end, that is, without transcendence.
In order to imagine ethics from the perspective of “pure potentiality,” and to bypass
the figure of the law, Agamben’s ruminations require us to regress beyond all languages,
nationalities, and cultural divisions. Hence, his search for an ethical experience is not
rooted in any particular moral code or specific ethical language. The concepts of impotentiality and mere communicability are precisely to be understood as “inessential commonalities,” or solidarities without essence, shared by all people (Coming 18). These are
not essential properties of human beings, i.e. not things that can be owned like the
knowledge to judge and to impose divisions, but capacities that define human ethos
whilst at the same time leaving the subject at bay. In the last part of this essay, I argue
that this “paradoxical relationship” between human ethos and its subject is precisely
what grounds Agamben’s articulation of a new sense of happiness, and concomitantly
its relation to politics, as a call for a new use of human means (Profanations 20).
hen you cannot find happiness in this vocation or action, another job should do
the trick’ has become the adage of our times. In a tradition that has always prioritized the actual over the potential, Western culture and capitalist society have
appropriated happiness within this drive to act and to fulfill. But the most harrowing
consequence of a culture in which people shift and turn into different jobs and vocations, trying to reach happiness in whatever prescribed work they perform, is a surging recognition of the indifference and anonymity that these empty, legal vocations
produce. It’s the tragic realization that however hard (and often repetitively) we try to
do different things, happiness is nowhere to be found at the end of a specific accomplishment.
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Within this view, the critique of ethical-juridical categories and the question of
happiness become less abstract. Our so-called Happiness Industry, with a corresponding Happiness Index and Gross National Happiness, has become ingrained in our
culture yet is produced within the direct prolongation of the undoubted belief in the
divine, the Cartesian autonomous self, and the utilitarian end result game.6 In all of
these, a human life retains its function by virtue of a transcendent or self-imposed
ideal, abstract law, or divine presence. Nowadays, reaching happiness presupposes the
idea of a perfect, efficient, and cohesive plan-based ownership of life. The alleged free
and agile subject consumes his life, instrumentalizing it in function of a higher personal achievement or form of social well-being. Coca Cola’s “Choose Happiness” or
“The Happiness Machine” marketing campaigns reinforce the image of a selfaffirmed, rational, and decisionist subject that sculpts its own destiny. This popular
culture simultaneously implies the possibility of distancing oneself, of observing and
evaluating one’s life, one’s changing desires, and one’s aspirations, and of modifying
them if needed. Happiness is not only being moulded into an individual choice or
aspiration; the sentiment of self-ownership and autonomy also occludes the way in
which consumerist happiness, in turn, has commodified life itself. Reaching the much
wanted caffeinated happiness is informed by a reduction of human life into a means
to an end: it’s the candy coloured incentive to conquer one’s life from afar.
Agamben rejects this tendency, not only because it subjugates a human life to an
end, but also because it presupposes that happiness is something that can be earned
or chosen. The tragedy of these claims is often exhibited in the curious phenomenon
where people, for example in sports, are overcome by a sense of deep emptiness or
even melancholy when reaching some long-aspired dream or anticipated goal. In
sum, a happy life is not a choice, and indeed “how boring” and utterly dull it would
be “to receive happiness as the reward of work well done” (Profanations 20). In addition, the political deficit of our happiness-culture is that it has slowly annihilated the
possibility of resistance. As argued above, those who are powerless can still somehow
resist—“they can still not do.” But “those who are separated from their own impotentiality lose, on the other hand, first of all the capacity to resist” (Nudities 45). For
Agamben, it is precisely the moment of arrest in which we, like Akhmatova, realize
what we still can not-do that carries a sense of what we are and what we share as
human beings. As shown, by promoting fulfilment in some remote finality, our modern times have slowly obliterated the “experience of impotentiality” itself—we
become segregated from that unexhausted capacity.
In the short essay Magic and Happiness, Agamben briefly shows us what is at
stake when he envisions true happiness. In the essay, he refers to a letter by Mozart to
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Joseph Bullinger in which the former wrote that “to live respectably and to live happily are two very different things, and the latter will not be possible for me without
some kind of magic; for this, something truly supernatural would have to happen”
(qtd. in Profanations 19). The importance here is that a happy life is not something
obtained as an inclination, striving, merit, or achievement. One does not earn or
deserve happiness and one cannot claim it as their own. This is concomitantly reflected
in the paradoxical idea that “whoever realizes he is happy has already ceased to be so”
(20). In other words, seeking happiness in accumulation and realization seems to be
contradictory to the concept of happiness itself, because happiness hinges on the idea
“that it awaits us only at the point where it was not destined for us” (21). In the “paradoxical relationship with its subject,” true happiness only appears where the subject
retreats. The notion of true or blessed happiness in Agamben’s body of work functions
as a rhetoric that precisely resists being caught or appropriated. It shows that something can tread to the foreground merely by not being directed toward it. Possessing
happiness, then, like the Happiness Industry implies, is a logical fallacy.
In The Idea of Happiness, Agamben contends that “living” is something tied to the
subject, and yet at the same time resides in something radically outside it, something
improper, for “in every life there remains something unlived just as in every word
there remains something unexpressed” (Prose 93). Within this framework,
Akhmatova’s silent resistance, the playfulness in Gould’s performance, and the forgotten cinematic gesture become peculiar fragments through which Agamben articulates the possibility of venturing beyond modern times’ tendency to claim
“ownership” over life. By conserving her voice in front of the Russian prison gates, or
by merely performing the image of communicability, Akhmatova and the cinematic
gesture emancipate human activities from their prescribed telos. Similarily, Gould
reaches perfection precisely because of a certain playfulness toward his own artistic
expression, and not in spite of it. Like the cat which plays with the ball of yarn,
humanity needs to play with its means “without aspiring to reach its fulfillment” in a
specific communication or artistic finalization (Profanations 21). By relieving human
life from the primacy of actuality, these images show that language and potentiality
can be used differently, no longer within the “abstract sphere” of consumption, a specific communication or type of production.
By revealing that an alternative use of human means is possible, the operations
of power such as economics and law are rendered inoperative. For Agamben, these are
the “gateways” that can lead to “a new happiness” (Profanations 76). Articulating a
happy life in relation to a certain playfulness with our very means not only reveals a
rhetoric that seeks to reconnect human life with its form (human ethos), but also
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underpins an engaged political philosophy. In this respect, Agamben’s alternative
sense of happiness does not lie very far from Spinoza’s dictum that “happiness is not
the reward of virtue but virtue itself ” (Ethics V. XLII). If we replace the concept of
“virtue” with “living,” then happiness is not life’s end, but tied to living itself. If the
coming politics is to “correspond[ ] to the essential inoperability […] of humankind,”
that is, our very being without transcendence, instead of addressing naked life or
the exchange-value of life, then politics needs to coincide with a different sense of
happiness—indeed, a sense of happiness that reflects the paradoxical tension between
humans and their ethos, rather than the articulation of an ulterior fulfilment (Means
140). It is for this reason that, for Agamben, the coming politics should strive to communicate the mere communicability of human life and take into account the unexhausted power in human life.
The stubborn, persistent, and magical presence of an unexhausted impotentiality and communicability, traces of human life beyond fate, vocation, or choice, symbolizes that which necessarily constitutes human beings, yet is retained outside the
subject’s grasp. By stating that “use is always a relationship with something that cannot be appropriated,” Agamben beckons the idea that what most intimately constitutes us as an individual is ultimately something improper to the individual
(Profanations 83). Things like language and possibilities, as well as recognition, resistance, and love, are entangled with our own individual facticity yet simultaneously
embody the shared artefacts, the inessential commonalities, that ground us as human
beings. As argued above, having to be one’s impotence, or having to be linguistic
beings, does not imply ownership over life, nor does it infer a revelation of something
hidden, like the uncovering of some long forgotten telos or miraculous fulfillment
that will eventually appear at the end of our lives. Rather, “what human beings must
appropriate [. . .] is not a hidden thing but the very fact of hiddenness” (Potentialities
202). Just like a moment of happiness surprises us when we are not trying to achieve
it, mere communicability and impotence tread to the foreground when we do not try
to achieve anything. At play with human means, life shows us as an activity without
transcendence, rooted in traces we cannot claim as our “own.”
o conclude, Agamben’s appraisal of a new happiness can be summarized as the task
to retain the majestic potentiality as a structural part of human ethos and to critique the modes of representation trying to conceal that very insight. This is also one
way to understand why Percy Bysshe Shelley’s last poem before his untimely death is
left open—as presented in the epigraph to this essay. When cast against the light of the
main theme of the poem, the closing lines do not appear as a mere deferral to define
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happiness. In it, Shelley, unlike Dante who himself traveled through the circles of the
inferno, remains a stubborn observant to Life. As in a dream, he never truly witnesses
nor partakes in the exuberant folly of the dancing masses. Just like Helen of Troy’s
teichoscopy (from the wall), or Agamben’s concern with the destruction of experience, Shelley is confronted with the limits on addressing life when reduced from participant to mere spectator (Roberts 765). A vague solution is found in the voice of
Rousseau, Shelley’s guide in the poem, who advocates a change from spectator back
to actor (“Triumph” 305-08). Yet, the real question is how to return to this “maniac
dance” of life (110). Perhaps a happy life is where play has returned to cast its spell on
human means, liberating human beings from their dream to fulfill their end. Or perhaps the real bravura in addressing happiness is to leave this question open—beyond
our grasp.
1/ Both Leland de la Durantaye and Thanos Zartaloudis have critically examined the continuity of
Agamben’s philosophy. Together with the essay collections offered by Matthew Calarco and Steven
DeCaroli; and Justin Clemens, Nicholas Herron, and Alex Murray, these studies largely connect Agamben’s
earlier to his later work.
2/ To understand how Benjamin conceives of happiness (Glück), see especially Annika Thiem.
3/ This is a lecture held in 2011 as part of the coursework at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee,
entitled Alternative Ethics, to be retrieved at
4/ For an in-depth reading of the paradoxes that involve potentiality and how these pertain to sovereignty
in Agamben’s Homo Sacer series, see Brown. For a positivist interpretation of Aristotle’s metaphysics, which
Agamben opposes, see the references to Stephen Makin and Charlotte Witt in Brown.
5/ The idea that the origination of the human being is language forms the main topic of Agamben’s The
Sacrament of Language: An Archeology of the Oath. For a critical analysis of the relation between human
beings and language in Agamben’s ontology, see Tyler Tritten.
6/ See for example William Davies.
Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. 1993. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P,
_____ . The Idea of Prose. Trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt. Albany: State U of New York P, 1995.
_____ . Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience. 1993. Trans. Liz Heron. London: Verso, 2007.
_____ . Language and Death: The Place of Negativity. Trans. Karen E. Pinkus and Michael Hardt.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.
_____ . Means without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: U
of Minnesota P, 2000.
_____ . Nudities. Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2011.
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Mosaic 52/1 (March 2019)
_____ . Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP,
_____ . Profanations. Trans. Jeff Fort. Brooklyn: Zone, 2007.
_____ . Remnants of Auschwitz. 1998. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Brooklyn: Zone, 2008.
_____ . The Sacrament of Language: An Archeology of the Oath. Trans. Adam Kotsko. Stanford: Stanford UP,
_____ . The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Trans. Patricia Dailey. Stanford:
Stanford UP, 2005.
_____ . The Use of Bodies. Trans. Adam Kotsko. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2016. Print.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. 1963. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Brown, Nahum. “The Modality of Sovereignty: Agamben and the Aporia of Primacy in Aristotle’s
Metaphysics Theta.” Mosaic 46.1 (2013): 169-82.
Butler, Judith. Subjects of Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1987.
Calarco, Matthew, and Steven DeCaroli, eds. Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty — Life. Stanford: Stanford: UP,
Clemens, Justin, Nicholas Herron, and Alex Murray, eds. The Work of Giorgio Agamben: Law, Literature,
Life. Fordham: Fordham UP, 2008.
Davies, William. The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. New
York: Verso, 2016.
de la Durantaye, Leland. Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009.
Heller-Roazen, Daniel. “Editor’s Introduction: ‘To Read What Was Never Written’.” Potentialities: Collected
Essays in Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009. 1-26.
Roberts, Hugh. “Spectators Turned Actors: ‘The Triumph of Life’.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H.
Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002. 760-68.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “The Triumph of Life.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil
Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002. 481-500.
Spinoza, Benedict de. Ethics. Trans. Edwin M. Curley. London: Penguin Classics, 1996.
Thiem, Annika. “Benjamin’s Messianic Metaphysics of Transience.” Benjamin and Theology. Ed. Colby
Dickinson and Stéphane Symons. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. 21-55.
Tritten, Tyler. “Language and Anthropogenesis. Agamben’s Profanity.” Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 76.3 (2014):
Zartaloudis, Thanos. Giorgio Agamben: Power, Law and the Uses of Criticism. Abingdon and New York:
Routledge, 2010
SIMON MARIJSSE is a Doctoral FWO-EOS Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy,
University of Antwerp. His current research engages with economic anthropology, value theory, and
technologic transformations in Eastern DRC. Thus far, his philosophic essays focused on the work
of Walter Benjamin, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Giorgio Agamben.
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