Pointing Beyond: Agamben and the Animal

Image: The Dream, Henri Rousseau (1910)

Pointing Beyond: Agamben and the Animal

by Carlo Salzani (Vienna, Austria)

Editors’ Note

THIS essay is based on the introduction to Carlo Salzani’s 2022 book, Agamben and the Animal. To work as a stand-alone piece, the original has been slightly modified. For in-depth treatments of all topics sketched out here, we enthusiastically recommend the book itself. The material is reprinted courtesy of Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


Giorgio Agamben cites a peculiar tenet by Ludwig Feuerbach to define his relation to the authors who have marked his life and career: in every work, Agamben writes, he aims to identify its “capacity for elaboration,” which Feuerbach termed Entwicklungsfähigkeit.1 Indeed, in 1837, Feuerbach defined elaboration as the “decipherment of the true meaning of a philosophy, the unveiling of what is positive in it, the presentation of its idea within the historically determined and finite conditions that have defined this idea.” Hence, “[t]he possibility of elaboration is the idea itself.” To Feuerbach, “immanent elaboration” was the “essential” task of philosophy: “the capacity for elaboration” (Entwicklungsfähigkeit), he wrote, is “the very mark of what philosophy is.”2

The source of elaboration, for Agamben as for Feuerbach, is what has been left “unsaid” in the original work and can thus be developed, resumed. This “germ” is the “potentiality” of a work that, while present, remains unstated and undeveloped, and is therefore left for others to unveil and elaborate in different ways. For Agamben as for Feuerbach, this germ, this potentiality, is what marks the true “idea” of a work.3 This essential element of a text can be taken in unforeseen (and perhaps undesired) directions by others and thereby transformed into something no longer attributable to the original author.

Agamben frequently engages in this pursuit himself—to the point of making controversial “corrections” of other philosophers’ ideas. In so doing—that is, in radically redirecting other thinkers’ ideas to destinations they would not have foreseen—Agamben demonstrates his remarkable originality. “Elaboration is difficult,” Feuerbach writes, “whereas critique is easy. [….] True critique lies in elaboration itself, because the latter is possible only through the separation of the essential from the accidental, of the necessary from the contingent, of the objective from the subjective.”4

Authors must be mindful of the unuttered in their own work as well. Agamben writes that archaeology “must retrace its own trajectory back to the point where something remains obscure and unthematized. Only a thought that does not conceal its own unsaid—but constantly takes it up and elaborates it—may eventually lay claim to originality.”5 Each completed work contains something left unsaid that demands to be explored and expanded upon, perhaps by someone else. Agamben reinforces the point as follows:

Every written work can be regarded as the prologue (or rather, the broken cast) of a work never penned, and destined to remain so, because later works, which in turn will be the prologues or the moulds for other absent works, represent only sketches or death masks. [….] To take Montaigne’s fine image, these are the frieze of grotesques around an unpainted portrait, or, in the spirit of the pseudo-Platonic letter, the counterfeit of a book which cannot be written.6

Elsewhere, Agamben paraphrases the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, warning the reader that they will not find a “conclusion” in his work: “every work of poetry and of thought,” he writes, “cannot be concluded but only abandoned (and perhaps continued by others).”7 The “potentiality” of a work can never be exhausted, and its true philosophical “idea” lies precisely in this inexhaustible potential.

Agamben himself has left some key issues undeveloped in his work, and among the most important of them is the question of the animal. In 2002, he devoted an entire volume to the analysis of (human) animality: The Open: Man and Animal.8 Immediately upon publication, The Open became a major point of reference in academic debates surrounding animal exploitation and liberation. It was particularly important for introducing a new vocabulary and a new conceptuality into the lexicon of various fields, including but not limited to animal studies, political philosophy, and biopolitics.

Despite the book’s substantial impact, however, Agamben abruptly abandoned the question at its center. Although The Open makes brief appearances in later writings throughout his career, he ultimately left the rich potential of its core argument largely unexplored. Indeed, Agamben’s entire oeuvre—especially the new conceptuality he proposed in his twenty-year-long project Homo Sacer—is a rich source of unsaid and unthematized issues concerning the animal question, begging to be explored further.

Man and Animal

The Open and the question of the animal play a very specific role in Agamben’s œuvre: they serve to understand and describe, on the one hand, how human life is “humanized” (i.e., how the human animal becomes Man) and, on the other, how the human is de-humanized, “animalized,” and reduced to “bare life.” For Agamben, the question of the animal is therefore quintessentially metaphysical and political—it is, indeed, the metaphysico-political question—and provides him with powerful analytical tools for his discourse on biopolitics.

In a sense, The Open is a continuation of Remnants of Auschwitz, published four years before, where Agamben had focused on the biopolitical apparatuses that manage and control life—exemplified by the extreme paradigm of the concentration camp—and on the “non-human” core that endures at the very heart of the human.9 The Open widens the perspective from the concentration camp to the issue of humanization and animalization as such, and also paves the way for the new paradigms of liberation Agamben will propose in the later volumes of his Homo Sacer project.

This means, however, that the “animal” Agamben focuses on is not an animal (or animals) per se but rather human animality, and that nonhuman animals, on the rare occasions they appear in The Open and the rest of his work, are of no real import in and of themselves. Moreover, the animal for Agamben remains the Animal with capital “A,” or what Derrida called animot,10 a metaphysical category in which all nonhuman animals are typically confined—at the expense of their incredible diversity and heterogeneity—and against which Man is (erroneously) defined. (Similarly, for Agamben man is Man with capital “M,” an ostensibly gender-neutral—i.e., gender-blind—category that, in truth, negates the existence of women and other genders. Gender blindness and species blindness follow the same patterns and originate from the same presuppositions.)

Agamben, then, never manages (or wishes) to go beyond these two founding categories of the Western tradition. When he speaks of Man and Animal, he refers to Heideggerian “essences” which are defined in contradistinction to each other. This reductive line-drawing between Man and Animal is one of the greatest limitations of his thought on the animal question and the reason why, for many other, more engaged, thinkers, he is ultimately of little use for the practical cause of animal liberation.11

Thinkers and activists involved in animal advocacy and liberation will find another obstacle in The Open and Agamben’s philosophy in general: his messianic perspective. Though defined by Agamben as “the present as the exigency of fulfillment,”12 messianism does not provide concrete, “practical” solutions to urgent problems, nor does it supply readers with an ethico-political agenda to adhere to, a criticism which is often leveled at Agamben’s political philosophy as a whole. Reducing engagement to the identification of tasks for the “coming philosophy,” many argue, seems to condemn his politics to a radical passivity.

To many critics, the religious language that marks Agamben’s messianic philosophy even constitutes a smokescreen, if not an outright mystification, of concrete issues, one that forecloses instead of paving the way to liberatory practices.13 Moreover, Agamben’s rejection of all legal frameworks and of the question of rights (human as well as animal) precludes any immediate, concrete intervention, and his ontologization of ethics at the expense of relationality and responsibility shrouds the plural dimension of action and the inviolability of the individual (human as well as animal). In sum, no true politics of (animal) liberation can be found in Agamben’s work.14

And yet, the new conceptuality Agamben proposed in The Open, and in his work on biopolitics in general, has helped create a space for inquiries he never pursued himself.15 Agamben provides conceptual tools (e.g., bare life, the anthropological machine, the division zoē/bios, the emphasis on sovereignty, and the state of exception) that question the anthropocentric context within which he himself remains captive.16 Though Agamben never escapes the dualisms of the Western tradition, he does indeed gesture or point towards their overcoming. Specifically, his work contributes to the questioning of a certain orthodoxy in animal ethics and animal studies and to the opening up of different possibilities of thought.

Pointing Beyond

The title of my book, Agamben and the Animal, is “borrowed” from Ermanno Castanò’s 2018 volume, Agamben e l’animale, but my methodology and aim bear no resemblance to his.17 Castanò explores the entirety of Agamben’s oeuvre for discussions of the Aristotelian paradox of the zoon logon echon and the politikon zoon, that is, the simultaneous coincidence and division of humanity and animality in the human. To Castanò, this paradox lies at the heart of Agamben’s project as a sort or ur-division that paradigmatically illuminates and clarifies all other divisions and the structure of Western metaphysics itself. Therefore, Castanò argues, the question of the animal is fundamental and even foundational (albeit often implicitly so) to Agamben’s whole philosophical project.

This thesis is also central to my own enquiry, but I proceed differently than Castanò: following the Feuerbachian principle of Entwicklungsfähigkeit, I archaeologically retrace and highlight Agamben’s anthropocentric limits while simultaneously teasing out the capacity for elaboration that lies within them. I do not develop these points beyond Agamben’s own limits (a task I leave to others), but I do emphasize their Entwicklungsfähigkeit and identify some directions in which they might be taken.

My first point concerns the many criticisms The Open has received—mostly but not only from the animal studies camp. Although these criticisms should largely be acknowledged as valid, they can nonetheless be mitigated by situating the book in the context of Agamben’s whole career. An archeological itinerary of Agamben’s early works reveals a lingering anthropocentrism and the necessity of rethinking (human) animality, a task that he undertook following his “biopolitical turn” of the early 1990s, culminating in The Open. The Open itself, I would argue, is read most fruitfully from the perspective of potentiality, which is the central category that marks Agamben’s position on the animal question and which introduces a fundamental indistinction that points beyond the human/animal dualism.

Expanding on the concept of potentiality, we can retrace its many definitions in Agamben’s oeuvre, showing how its Heideggerian origins led Agamben to restrict it to humans only: only humans are potential—that is, free—beings, while nonhuman animals are prisoners of the limited possibilities of their species. The concept of infancy, so important in the first phase of Agamben’s career and a sort of forebear of potentiality, is paradigmatic in this sense: not only is it linked to language, but it also becomes a fundamental apparatus of inclusion and exclusion. Nonetheless, The Open concludes with the notion of “outside of being,” a notion that deactivates the contraposition between potentiality and actuality (which are both categories of Being) and thus also points beyond the anthropocentrism of Agamben’s concept of potentiality.

If we shift our focus to a methodological point in Agamben’s work, I propose taking up the question of the “signatures,” the macro-indicators devoid of fixed content that make certain kinds of discourse possible. By linking the theory of signatures to the concept of “human” as deconstructed in The Open, we can, in fact, read Agamben’s “human” not as a concept but as a signature that makes a certain kind of politico-philosophical discourse possible. This becomes evident from the workings of the “anthropological machine,” which enables the recognition of the human through similarity and difference and thereby produces a series of paradigms of humanity and non-humanity. Just like the signatory machine of Western metaphysics, so too the anthropological machine is “flawed” and hence must be stopped. The theory of signatures, therefore, supports the project of the désœuvrement of “human nature” that is proposed in The Open.

Agamben opens up another promising avenue in a short 2005 text, “Special Being.”18 This text does not focus on animals or animality, but rather briefly deconstructs the apparatus of “species” in Western culture, thus providing the archaeological tools for a critique and deactivation of human “specialness” (i.e., exceptionality). If we retrace the critique of “species” in Agamben’s career, we can show that it is considered a fundamental biopolitical concept that must be deactivated and rendered inoperative. The same holds for the category of “persona,” which is central to Agamben’s critique of the law, and which “Special Being” links to the critique of species. I propose that an alternative to the excluding logic of species and persona can be founded on the concept of ethos, a concept that accompanies Agamben throughout his career and that can be developed into a new, inclusive, and interspecies ethology.

Finally, the greatest barrier Agamben poses to a more constructive notion of animality lies in the dualisms of the (concept of) the Open, which Agamben derives from Heidegger. This concept is intrinsically dualist insofar as it presupposes a closedness, and thus a contrast and a contraposition, between two homogeneous “essences,” Man and Animal. It presupposes separation and exclusion, and the elevation of the human above the rest of the living beings, and therefore remains inherently anthropocentric.

The concept of boredom, which both Heidegger and Agamben place at the center of their elaboration of the Open, is paradigmatic of this dualism and of the paradoxes it generates: on the one hand, only humans are said to be able to feel boredom (one of the many traits that traditionally separate Man and Animal), but on the other hand, boredom dehumanizes the human subject and brings her closer to an (ostensibly) animal-like stupor. Hence, the concept of boredom simultaneously shows the closeness and the distance between humans and nonhumans, emphasizing the divide between them precisely by showing what brings them close to each other.

To overcome the troubling dualisms that are inherent to the Open, I propose abandoning the paradoxes of boredom and calling instead upon another category that is central to Agamben’s philosophy, namely “shame.” Shame, as elaborated by Primo Levi in the face of the death camp—as a way of seeing that produces a shift in perception and can lead to critique and resistance—can also interrupt the complacency of human exceptionality and cross the abyss of the Open.

To conclude, it is clear that we must go beyond Agamben to reach a better understanding and politics of human-animal relations. But this “going beyond” can be firmly rooted in the space cleared and created by Agamben himself and can (also) be a fruition of seeds planted in Agamben’s own work.

1. Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method, translated by Luca D’Isanto with Kevin Attell, New York: Zone Books, 2009, 8.
2. Ludwig Feuerbach, Darstellung, Entwicklung und Kritik der Leibnitz’schen Philosophie, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 3: Geschichte der neuen Philosophie, part 2, edited by Werner Schuffenhauer, Berlin: Akademischer Verlag, 1969, 3-4, emphases in the original.
3. Agamben, The Signature of All Things, 7-8.
4. Feuerbach, Darstellung, Entwicklung und Kritik, 4.
5. Agamben, The Signature of All Things, 8.
6. Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, translated by Liz Heron, London: Verso, 1993, 3.
7. Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, translated by Adam Kotsko, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016, xiii.
8. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, translated by Kevin Attell, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.
9. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, New York: Zone Books, 1998.
10. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, translated by David Wills, New York, Fordham University Press, 2008.
11. In this sense, Agamben can be included in the uncharitable judgment of the continental tradition that Peter Singer delivered in his preface to a book on animal philosophy: “How much of this philosophical impetus that gave rise to a practical challenge to the way we think about nonhuman animals came from writers in the philosophical traditions of Continental Europe […]? The Answer is, as far as I can judge, none” (Peter Singer, “Preface,” in Peter Atterton and Matthew Calarco (eds.), Animal Philosophy: Ethics and Identity, London: Continuum, 2004, xii).
12. Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, translated by Patricia Dailey, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005, 76.
13. See for instance Kelly Oliver, Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, 238-44.
14. I thank Zipporah Weisberg for her clarifying comments on these points.
15. Matthew Calarco, Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction, Stanford: Stanford Briefs, 2015, 54-55.
16. The words Agamben heard from Heidegger at one of the seminars the German philosopher held at Le Thor in the late 1960s also apply to Agamben himself: “You can see my limit; I can’t” (quoted in Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose, translated by Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt, Albany: SUNY Press, 1995, 59).
17. Ermanno Castanò, Agamben e l’animale. La politica dalla norma all’eccezione, Aprilia: Novalogos, 2018.
18. Giorgio Agamben, “Special Being,” in Profanations, translated by Jeff Fort, New York: Zone Books, 2007, 55-60.