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Textual Practice

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“Agamben’s Limbos: Robert Walser and the Refugee”
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Textual Practice RTPR-2011-0071 Original Article

limbo, sovereignty, play, law, Kafka

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“Agamben’s Limbos: Robert Walser and the Refugee”

“Into a Limbo large and broad, since called The Paradise of Fools” Milton, Paradise Lost, Book III, 495-96

in the writings of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, illumines and informs the altered stakes in the latter’s approach to political eschatology. What is at issue, what inspires Agamben’s critique of the procedures, principles and occlusions of Western law, its global reach and its religious modelling is a vision not of utopia, but of limbo. For Agamben, Walser’s fictions are of an innocence that nonetheless cannot be saved; his characters reinvent the sense of an “outside” of sovereign power. In The Coming Community (La comunità che viene, 1990) Agamben articulates the promise of their hopelessness:

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The figure of the Swiss writer Robert Walser, as construed and invoked

This nature of limbo is the secret of Robert Walser’s world. His creatures are irreparably astray, but in a region that is beyond perdition and salvation: Their nullity, of which they are so proud, is principally a neutrality with respect to salvation – the most radical objection that has ever been levied against the very idea of
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redemption. The truly unsavable life is the one in which there is nothing to save, and against this the powerful theological machine of Christian oiconomia runs aground. This is what leads to the curious mixture of rascality and humility, of cartoon-style thoughtlessness and minute scrupulousness that characterizes Walser’s characters; this is what leads, also, to their ambiguity, so that every relationship with them seems always on the verge of ending up in bed: It is neither pagan hubris nor animal timidity,

The final sentence, with its appeal to simple human life, effectively positions Walser’s characters as positive counterfigures of the bare life that Agamben, in a series of writings from the mid nineties on, has confronted in the homo sacer of ancient Roman law, the stateless individuals of internment camps, and the
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but simply the impassibility of limbo with respect to divine justice. Like the freed convict in Kafka’s Penal Colony, who has survived the destruction of the machine that was to have executed him, these beings have left the world of guilt and justice behind them: The light that rains down on them is that irreparable light of the dawn following the novissima dies of judgment. But the life that begins on earth after the last day is simply human life.1

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“Is Agamben’s ee rR ev ie w On ly . Anton Schütz asks. for Agamben. It is as though Agamben intervenes in the name of the one limbo to rescue it from being confused with the limbo for which the contemporary imaginary has discovered a descriptive use. contested by Agamben in the case of homo sacer and asserted by him in the case of Walser.manuscriptcentral. these incarnations of so-called bare life are misunderstood in their relevance to the self-conception of power if shunted off to a notional outside. indeed. the life that is simply human. is also not the natural life that is fancied will affirm itself with 3 URL: http://mc. to denote a human life that is detached in its relations with the law.com rP Fo Without developing the speculation. The truly bare life. it is the life that in his reading of Walser he grapples to express. who is not he who can be killed and yet not sacrificed (the definition of homo sacer that Agamben draws from the second-century Roman grammarian and historian Pompeius Festus). is not what Agamben’s archaeology of the structure of Western sovereignty will reveal. Walser is what survives of a libertarian dream in Agamben after he exposes the lawless human body at the heart of sovereignty.Page 3 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 overcomatose patient on life support. the unjudgeable life glimpsed and disavowed by the Church Fathers in the limbo of unbaptised children.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. it can take into account solely the claim. homo sacer his homo Walser?”3 If there is a substitutivity.2 The limbo that Agamben discerns in Walser’s texts he denies to the homo sacer and its modern avatars. Walser.

com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. is no longer the unambiguous ratio cognoscendi of the limits of sovereign power. Without Walser – more precisely. sexual or religious. without what Agamben makes of him – there would be more of a temptation to view Agamben as an apologist of the law. What distances and differentiates Walser from the law is not easily pinned down. but rather a shiftless scatterbrain with an appetite for incongruous speechifying. That political hopes could be invested in him at all is at once a joke à la Walser and an exigency of the confrontation with dialectics. he is not a denizen of a recovered Eden. Homo Walser is not the truly natural human being. albeit a decidedly sombre one. once it is demonstrated to be a political and juridical construction. leaves the basic organisational principles intact. is reformism alone what can remain of an opposition to sovereignty? Walser enters here to save the day … by not saving it.Textual Practice Page 4 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 the voiding of all repressions. be they political. but rather of limbo. Walser is an unlikely adversary of sovereign power and. there is the promise 4 URL: http://mc.4 If the exteriority of bare life. Where the bare life of homo sacer and its modern variants is essentially implicated in sovereign power as the miserable double of its own lawless splendour. between Walser and sovereignty there exists a morphological asymmetry. The rules change and in place of an Überwindung (“overcoming”) that.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly . if not merely teasing. and Agamben’s remarks on this point are suggestive.manuscriptcentral. this is as it were what gives him his chance. social. as late Heidegger contends. for Agamben.

Page 5 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 of a Verwindung (“deflection”) of these principles themselves and the biopolitical catastrophe to which Agamben sees them committed (one might query. theologico-political programme to Walser’s texts that is patently not there. when remade into an achievement of sentimental consciousness. this would be to miss that what Agamben notes in Walser and tries to expound is the very evacuation of any such programme. and for which he valorises Walser. although this could be a matter simply of 5 URL: http://mc. Carl Seelig twice documents hitting a brick wall with Walser on the topic of Kafka. but also the mayhem that ensues for the vision of the age to come when. by the way. Agamben invokes the terms and objectives of sovereign power even as he would prefer to forget them. is enough to draw Walser and Kafka closer together. rather than Hölderlin). Walser is pronounced its herald. satirically but not for that reason facetiously. whether Walser is for Agamben what Hölderlin is for Heidegger.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. observing not only the comparable heavy investments of these readings. their wilful obtuseness and the expectations placed on their subjects.manuscriptcentral. The forcibleness of this result is not trivial (whatever Kafka’s admiration for Walser.com rP Fo Were one to object to Agamben’s commentary that he attributes a ee rR ev ie w On ly . It is the irony of Agamben’s exegesis that in wanting to take the measure of the oblivion in which Walser’s universe has sunk the apparatus of divine and earthly justice. The fact of this naïvety.

com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. pointillistic corpus – drastically enlarged since the 1970s by the transcription and publication of the so-called micrograms – that defeats any formularisation. That Agamben reads Walser by the light of Kafka’s star is of course not something that Agamben endeavours to conceal.Textual Practice Page 6 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 Walser’s general attitude toward his literary contemporaries. for whom Walser had furnished prototypes.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly .manuscriptcentral. the assistants. are lumbered. What Agamben proposes is a commentary on the commentary that Kafka performs on Walser. for instance. It is the Walser whose outline was solidified in the first wave of his reception and does not pretend to tally with the gigantic. From the vantage ground of the central figures in Kafka’s narratives. restoring centrality to the character type marginalised in Kafka while adopting the juridical and theological framework that Kafka had first given it.. one might easily find oneself in the grips of a similarly forcible reading wherein the novelty and operation of Walser’s inconsequentialities are elided: the insignificance at which Walser arrives is not the insignificance into which another writer tumbles through sententiousness and unwitting conventionality.)5 Yet if one were not to read Walser against the grain. are comic persecutors. His Walser is the Walser that reappears as a vanishing point in Kafka’s reflections on law and power. as the inscrutable obsequiousness and daydreaminess of the assistants with whom Blumfeld and K. from the 6 URL: http://mc. professing instead to stick to the letter of his inconsequentialities.

”6 Reading Kafka and Benjamin alongside and beyond each other. Benjamin affirms what he believes distinctive of Walser’s characters: “They are figures who have left madness behind them.com rP Fo According to Saint Thomas. we would have to say: they have all been healed. In wanting to seize upon this perspective. inhuman superficiality. like that of hell. in thinking it worth appropriating.manuscriptcentral. If we were to attempt to sum up in a single phrase the delightful yet also uncanny element in them. an altogether different world opens up.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. In his brief but influential assessment of Walser from 1929. The passage in question occurs in The Coming Community immediately before the previously quoted excerpt: URL: http://mc. Agamben exhibits also the Benjaminian legacy of his interpretation. This might seem a stronger claim than the reference to limbo supports. but only a punishment of 7 ee rR ev ie w On ly . and this is why they are marked by such a consistently heartrending. but in Agamben’s tendentious paraphrase of Aquinas limbo passes from being a borderland of Hell to a sovereignless Arcadia of irreligious joy.Page 7 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 vantage ground that they themselves occupy. the punishment of unbaptized children who die with no other fault than original sin cannot be an afflictive punishment. Agamben ventures to answer that what Walser’s characters have been healed of is the law.

The inhabitants of limbo.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly . which is implanted in us at baptism. but rather they have always already forgotten God. they are impassible. their bodies. like the damned. The greatest punishment – the lack of the vision of God – thus turns into a natural joy: Irremediably lost. like those of the blessed. in contrast to the damned.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. cannot be affected. and in the face of their forgetfulness. or if they do know (as others claim) they cannot suffer from it more than a reasonable person is pained by the fact that he or she cannot fly. Moreover. they persist without pain in divine abandon.Textual Practice Page 8 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 privation that consists in the perpetual lack of the vision of God. do not feel pain from this lack: Since they have only natural and not supernatural knowledge. This would not be just.manuscriptcentral. God’s forgetting is impotent. If they were to feel pain they would be suffering from a penalty for which they could not make amends and thus their pain would end up leading them into hopelessness. they do not know that they are deprived of the supreme good. 8 URL: http://mc. these uprisen beings remain without a destination. Like letters with no addressee. But this is true only with respect to the action of divine justice. in every other respect they fully enjoy their natural perfection. God has not forgotten them.

Dante13 among others affirm that unbaptised children suffer pain from the privation of the vision of God. Where Augustine9. for which he does not provide a citation. Alexander of Hales10. reasoning from the cosmological proof of God that is the world rather than from the gift of grace that is Christ.7 At this point Agamben introduces Walser. unbaptised children have natural. By challenging the correctness of Agamben’s presentation of Aquinas’s thought. Aquinas controversially denies it: the sorrow of the damned is the worm of conscience and as the demerit of original 9 URL: http://mc. is almost certainly the material compiled by Nicolai from Saint Thomas’s commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard and appended to the Summa Theologica. Agamben’s source. they are infused with a joy with no outlet.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly . Bonaventure12. nor hopeless like the damned.8 Agamben begins a new paragraph when he takes his leave from Aquinas.Page 9 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 Neither blessed like the elected. For Aquinas. we are perhaps in a better position to register the novelty and peculiarity of the theologico-political programme that Agamben ascribes to Walser. for Agamben cannot impute to Aquinas the statement that the unbaptised children who inhabit limbo have forgotten God. but not supernatural knowledge of God.manuscriptcentral.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. Albertus Magnus11. as though by applying sufficient pressure to Aquinas the latter can be made to give up the name of the Swiss writer.

Agamben returns to limbo to overcode the naturalness of the joy that he earlier credited its inhabitants. The absence of this one particular grief is a long way from Agamben’s natural joy in the oblivion of God. which constitutes the 10 ee rR ev ie w On ly . that the Church Fathers conceived of the “first circle” as a parody of both paradise and hell. The most ironically parodic moment. not theirs. This lack. like that reserved for the damned.Textual Practice Page 10 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 sin is Adam’s.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. According to the theologians.com rP Fo A reading of the theological treatises on limbo shows. of beatitude as well as damnation. though.14 Fifteen years after the publication of the above text. 2005) their joy is at once natural and parodic: URL: http://mc. In Profanations (Profanazioni. are innocent and yet carry in themselves the original stain – children who died before being baptized or righteous pagans who could not have known. consisting in a perpetual inability to perceive God.manuscriptcentral. however. the punishment an inhabitant of limbo undergoes cannot be an afflictive one. It is a parody of paradise insofar as it contains creatures who. beyond any doubt. unbaptised children do not grieve. like the blessed. but must be a privative one. concerns hell.

the lack of the highest good does not cause them the slightest regret. as it does the damned. deprived as they are of the beatific vision.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly .manuscriptcentral. such joy as they feel cannot be infused with a consciousness of its difference from the joy of the inhabitants of heaven and thus also cannot easily be claimed for parody. This is the moment in his thinking where Agamben shows himself an heir of the nineteenth-century poètes maudits: like Rimbaud.15 It is fair to ask in exactly whose eyes limbo is a parody. If Agamben does not rest content with recording the generally conceded ignorance of the denizens of limbo but proceeds to interpret it as parody.Page 11 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 first of the infernal punishments. That. limbo resembles paradise and hell in certain respects and differs from them in others is. Since they have only natural consciousness and not the supernatural one that derives from baptism. and this joy is certainly an extreme and special form of parody. does not cause the residents of limbo pain. according to theological tracts from late antiquity and the medieval period. not enough to establish it as a parody of both paradise and hell. he 11 URL: http://mc. For the inhabitants of limbo. it is because he wants to array it against the very structure of divine judgement and its secular palimpsests.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. Thus the creatures of limbo convert the greatest punishment into a natural joy. of course.

To put it differently. Walser’s writings are of interest as a figure or intervention in a theologico-political field whose repercussions it falls first to the commentator to chart and to situate rather than as an autonomous. In this respect.com rP Fo Doubtless it is easier to grant that Walser is playful than that he is a ee rR ev ie w On ly . attracts Agamben by virtue of the judgement it appears to hand down on judgement. the properly political task is the dismantling of this myth. Playfulness comes into its own as playfulness when it succeeds in even forgetting what it is playing with. self-referential work of art.manuscriptcentral. The longstanding practice of appealing to a higher justice in the course of objecting to the acts and verdicts of a more immediate authority (“if only the King knew what is being done here in His name”) acknowledges and perpetuates the myth of the sovereign when. its playfulness and innocence. Robert Walser is the unlikely combatant – all the more effective in this particular struggle for being an unlikely combatant – who Agamben sees entering the lists against justice. it should not allow itself to be dampened by 12 URL: http://mc. If extravagant playfulness is to set Walser in direct confrontation with the law. for Agamben. the very autonomy of Walser’s universe.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. Agamben’s extremism is consistent with his wholesale (and problematic) rejection of sovereignty.Textual Practice Page 12 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 arms himself against justice. parodist – the playfulness is far more tangible than anything it could be said to be playing with in the sense of parodying. For Agamben.

2003). It is difficult to know what to make of this. without simply abolishing it. for instance. For Agamben. Agamben writes: “One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects. Agamben revives the revolutionary hopes that Schiller. law. Wanting to criticise the law while also maintaining the dialectical recuperation of lawlessness for the concept of law.Page 13 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 an awareness of the gravity of this confrontation.manuscriptcentral. not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good. cherishes for play in his letters on aesthetic education. who play with whatever old thing falls into their hands. and other activities ee rR ev ie w On ly 13 .com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. the “profanation” of play does not solely concern the religious sphere. In fact. Children. The use to which the sacred is returned is a special one that does not coincide with utilitarian consumption.com rP Fo [P]lay frees and distracts humanity from the sphere of the sacred.”16 In Profanations the scope of play is wider still: URL: http://mc. the confrontation with law is an affair of play and not of sheer lawlessness (the dead-end ordained for anarchist politics is that it strives for the tabula rasa that the law needs to inscribe itself). In State of Exception (Stato di eccezione. make toys out of things that also belong to the sphere of economics. war.

More precisely. besides. suspensions and costumes. a car. but rather a postulated exteriority to it (this is Agamben’s appropriation. as Huizinga points out in Homo Ludens. within a world of play. amounting to nothing beyond acquiescence to its continued operation. manage to persuade itself that it is playing with the law while. as it were. The goal is to become creatures of such flightiness and levity that the action of the law encounters nothing substantial on which it might inflict suffering. All of a sudden. Yet perhaps what is at issue in Agamben’s reading of Walser is a rebirth not so much of the law through play as of the human beings who live with it. Walser is a figure of consummate play: he is not the evidence of a path out of the legal and political impasse that Agamben describes.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail.manuscriptcentral. with their protocols. as a result of conscious stratagems and subterfuges.17 That play could effect a fundamental transformation of the law seems unintelligible. an oxymoronic artful ingenuousness. since as a goal toward which one makes piecemeal progress. a firearm.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly . in practical terms. or a legal contract becomes a toy. it is unattainable. already find themselves (pre-emptively?). An ironical detachment in relation to the law might.Textual Practice Page 14 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 that we are used to thinking of as serious. of Kafka’s demoralising words of 14 URL: http://mc. not least because the workings of the courts. the goal is to have already become such beings.

If one wants to be healed of the law. yet without the linguistic panic being attributable to an impending calamity. if he is to be capable of fulfilling the function with which Agamben invests him.19 In the longwindedness that is abetted rather than cowed by their own depreciation of what they have to say.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly 15 . one is not playing and therefore will not be healed. but not for us”). Benjamin speaks of Walser’s characters as having left madness behind them.manuscriptcentral. one must play with it. under the pseudonym Scardanelli. he disregards the figurative nature of Benjamin’s assessment and the citation from Walser on which it is based18). Walser’s characters also recall Ippolit from Dostoyevsky’s Idiot.20 A calm has come to reign over this world of tics and foibles. hollowing him out of all misery and design. never subsequently invoked. but insofar as one’s desire to be healed is in earnest. Walser writes of the eponymous hero of his late novel The Robber: “He resembled the URL: http://mc.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail.Page 15 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 comfort: “There is hope. Both Benjamin and Agamben interpret Walser as an allegory of carefreeness (when Mark Harman brings forward in supposed refutation of Benjamin the many corrections and revisions in Walser’s drafts. Agamben has to abandon Walser to the joy of play. A crisis. The allegorical reading is not unmotivated. appears the prehistory of Walser’s texts. and Agamben detects parallels with the “protocol-laden language” that Hölderlin. adopted on occasion after the onset of schizophrenia.

Agamben’s apocalyptic scenario in which “today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West”22 anticipates a future in which the screws are ever tightened until sovereign power has rendered the entire population a homo sacer.Textual Practice Page 16 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 product of a watercolour painter. In an article from 2004.”21 It is as though at the conclusion of the tragedy of world history Pee-wee Herman were to spring from the ruins.manuscriptcentral.com rP Fo Thomä very reasonably objects to the one-sidedness of Agamben’s ee rR ev ie w On ly . denying that the refugee and the homo sacer of early Roman law are interchangeable as proofs and outcomes of sovereign power. both because Agamben does not himself discuss the two together and because Walser seems so little suited to bearing the political and philosophical burdens of this task. thereby normalising what was originally an exception.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. Dieter Thomä sketches what he proposes as a contrary of homo sacer only to arrive at a valorisation of play unwittingly like Agamben’s own. The explanatory limitations and rhetorical excesses of Agamben’s position derive. That Walser constitutes the counterweight in Agamben’s thinking to the bleakness of his appraisal of “bare life” is easily overlooked. according to Thomä. from a narrow focus on the centripetal forces of human society to the neglect of its centrifugal forces. The proliferation of rightless individuals in the refugee camps of 16 URL: http://mc. account of the rightless individual.

namely the comparably misleading thesis that the legal and political limbo to which refugees are consigned is the result of nothing besides a backlog in administrative processing. goes unacknowledged and the provenance of the refugee. Thomä presumably does not wish to push simply for the other extreme.com rP Fo Having set out to temper Agamben’s sinister portrait of the modern state ee rR ev ie w On ly .manuscriptcentral. Of more significance for Thomä’s polemical undertaking is that he distances the refugee from the constellation of the homo sacer and the Muselmann of the Nazi death camps. symptomatic of the consolidation of the ancient biopolitical truth of sovereignty. once suppressed in its historical and geographical contingency. in its dealings with refugees. The centrifugal dynamic of migration. Thomä observes: “The refugees and internees of today testify not to a structural or even tragic conflict at the heart of modern society. but rather to the latter’s insufficiency. which attests to the powerlessness of sovereign states to retain their citizens.”23 Their rightlessness does not straightforwardly demonstrate the power of the state to strip them of rights. becomes a matter of the transpolitical constitution of sovereign power: the camp inmate’s “homeland” is the brutal truth of the machinery of the state.Page 17 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 modern states is. He allows the refugee another determinacy than the abasement before state power 17 URL: http://mc. from Agamben’s perspective. since this rightlessness also reveals an incapacity to integrate newcomers.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail.

there to live on his wits until work is over. has little to recommend it.] grows up without having grown accustomed to manual labour in the field and.manuscriptcentral..] he [. This contrasting definition he draws from a 1933 British colonial report on Tanganyika quoted by the ethnologist Richard Thurnwald: The Chiefs and Elders are convinced that the reason for the existence of this undesirable type are twofold: firstly. As a result we have a generation of men who have no stake in their country.24 ee rR ev ie w On ly .com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. no houses. Needless to say.com rP Fo the masterless man. the fact that [. The second factor consists in the facilities for easy travel that exist today. as a blanket description of the modern refugee this passage.. nor shamba (field) – an unpleasant reminder of that medieval scourge. The context of its defensibility is Thomä’s inversion of 18 URL: http://mc. no family. no cattle...Textual Practice Page 18 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 – “the masterless man”. what is worse. has grown to despise his elders as illiterate and ignorant peasants. When the planting or reaping season begins the young Mpare is apt to take the next train to Moshi or Tanga. flattening and trivialising the many different causes of migration.

It is by differing. from both that Walser constitutes a way out of the dilemma of the haves and have-nots that Agamben. but a god. who in his rootlessness becomes an actor rather than an animal and plays with his essence. as a conceptual figure. That Agamben does not make out any Walserian traits in the refugee is not a matter of simple blindness. Thomä pretends to detect in the refugee the mobility and lack of commitment that is definitive for him of liberal society. for even savages lived in some kind of a social order. If a tribal or other “backward” 19 ee rR ev ie w On ly . who is not himself a master. following Arendt. confronts in the discourse of human rights.Page 19 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 Agamben’s approach: where Agamben claims to make out a general truth concerning modern society in the bare life of the refugee. has more in common with Walser’s and Kafka’s assistants. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt debunks the specious cosmopolitanism of the Rights of Man. Arendt cites Plato that “Not man. must be the measure of all things”: URL: http://mc.com rP Fo From the beginning the paradox involved in the declaration of inalienable human rights was that it reckoned with an “abstract” human being who seemed to exist nowhere.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. but where Agamben will appeal to Walser in the impasse. Thomä’s masterless man.manuscriptcentral. differs from both the rightless individual of the internment camp and the citizen with his or her battery of rights. playfully. Walser.

it gradually became self-evident that the people. and not the individual. an image of a new relationship to law where the possession of human rights does 20 URL: http://mc. since the French Revolution. for Agamben.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly . was conceived in the image of a family of nations. As mankind. was the image of man. The whole question of human rights. Walser’s levity is. only the emancipated sovereignty of the people. of one’s own people.Textual Practice Page 20 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 community did not enjoy human rights.manuscriptcentral. but was oppressed by foreign or native despots.25 It is against this backdrop that the strangeness of Agamben’s Walser as a political intervention is at its least strange. therefore.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. seemed to be able to insure them. it was obviously because as a whole it had not yet reached that stage of civilization. the stage of popular and national sovereignty. was quickly and inextricably blended with the question of national emancipation. The full implication of this identification of the rights of man with the rights of peoples in the European nation-state system came to light only when a growing number of people and peoples suddenly appeared whose elementary rights were as little safeguarded by the ordinary functioning of nation-states in the middle of Europe as they would have been in the heart of Africa.

once popular even in non-totalitarian countries. for even if one cannot recall ever signing the contract. they have survived the war. the complete and therefore 21 URL: http://mc. from whose The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp Agamben quotes. situates the Muselmann. which are nothing other than camps for persons who have become superfluous and bothersome.”27 Agamben’s limbo is even less the limbo between life and death where Wolfgang Sofsky. the possibility and reality of rightlessness (it is the far-from-innocent fact of the rightless human body that lends credibility to the fiction of a social contract. Playing with the law (generously understood) shuts down the decision between possession and non-possession (it is both and neither). as DP camps.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. for getting undesirable elements of all sorts – refugees.manuscriptcentral. between the rightlessness of the displaced person “stripped of every political status and wholly reduced to bare life”26 and the citizen whose human rights are secured not by his or her humanity but by belonging to a determinate and hence always more or less exclusionary body politic. the asocial and the unemployed – out of the way. stateless persons.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly . Agamben’s limbo is decidedly not the Hades that Arendt distinguishes from Purgatory and Hell in her taxonomy of concentration camps: “To Hades correspond those relatively mild forms. Play is the prerogative of the inhabitants of limbo. as its calamitous supplement.Page 21 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 not entail. one can recognise oneself as a signatory in the rightlessness of the non-signatory).

who lives in fear yet whose coming to power the dialectical forces of world history guarantee. adopting a stance of a person of learning and of social refinement. Coetzee attributes Walser’s affectations to the self-suppression supposedly involved in embracing High German: “Writing in High German – which was. then. written as a job application. is not how Walser himself construed his position on the use of Swiss German dialects. Walser explores a new stream of subaltern literature. a gesture. They are not descendants of Hegel’s Knecht. One text. concludes: “so I shall be waiting.28 Agamben’s limbo is not in the gift of sovereign power. I always found that an unseemly attempt to curry 22 URL: http://mc. This. unavoidably. the only choice open to Walser – entailed. M.Textual Practice Page 22 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 speechless witness of Nazi genocide.”30 The foppishness. It is not a site.”29 This is overkill without being sarcastic rebelliousness. More a popinjay than a Caliban. positively drowning in obedience. would be a work of mourning and protest over the earthiness that has been sacrificed with an eye to a larger readership. esteemed gentlemen. a stance with which he was not comfortable. as Carl Seelig reports: “I have intentionally never written in dialect. to see what it will be your pleasure to reply to your respectful servant. J. more precisely. it is unmistakable that many of Walser’s characters are engaged in caricaturing submissiveness to authority. If it is a stretch to interpret limbo as a parody of heaven and hell.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail.manuscriptcentral.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly . practically speaking. however. but a practice or.

Artists must keep their distance. Here the act of writing discards its communicative aspect to become muscle memory. […] The cloud remained lying there on the street as white foam. When Walser himself goes in for imaginative writing. such as in his overwriting of a rejection letter from a journal. Werner Morlang. speaks of “the courage that kept the ‘prose piece business’ going” and that “can best be seen in the texts Walser wrote in direct defiance of the original contents of the draft-paper”.”31 When Walser was a resident in the psychiatric facility in Waldau (1929-33). It is the obliviousness that gives Walser the lightness of touch that many of his Jugendstil contemporaries could only approximate through resorting to the fantastical. Many ladies ran up to it and plucked off 23 ee rR ev ie w On ly . Although the texts are in High German apart from the occasional regionalism.com rP Fo All at once a fragrant white cloud bowed down into the street. it is not at all to flout the law of gravity: URL: http://mc. resembling a large swan.manuscriptcentral. a dance of microscopic movements. he was clearly writing without considering the practicalities of the German book market. as in the dream of Paris in The Tanners (Geschwister Tanner. who with Bernhard Echte and Jochen Greven transcribed Walser’s late works.Page 23 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 favour with the masses.32 This courage is at times also the obliviousness for which Agamben prizes Walser. 1907). they are composed in such a minute hand as to foil ready comprehension.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail.

light and majestic. or else they threw the bits at one another in jest.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. moving their arms with wondrous grace. and so it flew back up into the sky again. as Agamben perceives.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly 24 . which they placed. […] Then the wicked street urchins of Paris arrived to tickle the cloud with burning matches. until it vanished above the buildings. upon their hats. is never allowed to leave a lasting mark.33 This cloud. which does not suffer the fate of Baudelaire’s albatross.manuscriptcentral. belongs to a world on which violence.Textual Practice Page 24 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 little bits. which stuck to their dresses. URL: http://mc.

See Agamben. 3 Anton Schütz. CA: Stanford University Press. making no mention of Walser. pp.Page 25 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 Notes 1 Giorgio Agamben.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly 25 .. 6-7. and trans. 4 Cf. “Thinking the Law With and Against Luhmann. speaks of their limbo nature as the secret of Melville’s impassive scribe Bartleby. p. 2 An early treatment of homo sacer occurs in the 1982 article “*Se: l’Assoluto e l’ ‘Ereignis’”. Legendre. “The Complexities of Sovereignty” in Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life. MN: University of Minnesota Press. Idea of Prose. 131. ed. in Idea Della Prosa (1985). 1993). The Coming Community. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford. ed. 27: “But nothing else is URL: http://mc. 11 (2000). 2007). NY: State University of New York Press. Agamben proceeds from Origen’s wrathful withdrawal of God to unbaptised children’s supposedly joyous obliviousness to the beatific vision and. Connolly.manuscriptcentral. p. 136-37. William E. translated and published as Agamben. 1995). trans. Matthew Calarco and Steven DeCaroli (Stanford. Law and Critique. trans. Five years earlier. Agamben”. pp. “*Se: Hegel’s Absolute and Heidegger’s Ereignis” in id. CA: Stanford University Press. 77-78. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. 1999).com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany. pp.

De peccatorum meritis et remissione et de baptismo ie w parvulorum. for instance.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. Volume 2: 1927-1934. Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Cambridge. Richard Regan.. p. Agamben thus carries us through the conjunction of sovereignty. MA: Harvard University Press.21. 12 Bonaventure. ev 220-23.manuscriptcentral.” 5 See Carl Seelig. Commentaria in quator libros Sententiarum. Glossa in quator libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi. Inferno IV. 6 Walter Benjamin. Dante.Textual Practice Page 26 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 offered to replace it. ed. 9 See.com . Michael W. 21 (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne. 5-6. Saint Thomas Aquinas. Selected Writings. In 4 On Sent. On Evil. 259. Augustine.16. The Coming Community. Brian Davies (Oxford: Oxford 13 14 University Press. trans. 7 Agamben. Rodney Livingstone in id. De resurrectione. Cf. Jennings. 10 Alexander of Hales. Wanderungen mit Robert Walser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. “Robert Walser”. pp. trans. Fathers of the English rP Fo ee rR 8 Dominican Province. 1990). the sacred. 56 and 113. vol. trans. p. 1912-36). pp. 1999). Aquinas. pp. 241: “The souls of children who die in original sin 26 URL: http://mc. 1. In 2 Sent. 11 ly Albertus Magnus. 28-30. ed. 2003). and biopolitics to a historical impasse. Summa Theologica.

10. State of Exception. p. p. Agamben. rP Fo 18 Review of Contemporary Fiction. p. 1998). Paolo Chiarini and Hans Dieter Zimmermann (Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum. 44. trans. 2007).manuscriptcentral. “Robert Walser”. 59. 21 Robert Walser. p. trans. 12 (1992). The Robber. 222-36. p. p. see Michel Cadot. Profanations. Mark Harman.” 15 Agamben. 1987). trans. 76. Daniel Heller- Roazen (Stanford. 2000). Kevin Attell (Chicago: The University of 16 Chicago Press. “A Secretive Modernist: Robert Walser and His Microscripts”.com . 64. 2005). pp. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books. And so they do not grieve about losing it. 181. ee rR ev 258. 27 URL: http://mc. eds. trans. The Coming Community.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. 20 For a study of Walser’s relationship to Dostoyevsky. 17 Agamben. CA: Stanford University Press. p. 19 Agamben. 22 Agamben. Profanations.Page 27 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 indeed know happiness in general regarding its common aspect but not in particular. NE: University of ie w On ly Nebraska Press. Susan Bernofsky (Lincoln. See Benjamin. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. “Robert Walsers Lektüre von Dostojewskij” in »Immer dicht vor dem Sturze«: Zum Werk Robert Walsers. p. Benjamin reserves judgement on the literal truth of the claim – stemming from Walser himself – that the latter never revised a single line in his writings. 114.

NJ: Princeton University Press. 24 “Report by His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of the Tanganyika Territory for the year 1932. 27 Arendt. 1997). London.. 1933 (Colonial no. The Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly 28 . trans. quoted in Agamben. 28 Wolfgang Sofsky. 969. p. The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: George Allen and Unwin. “The Job Application”. p. The Origins of Totalitarianism. p. p. p. p. 25 Hannah Arendt. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books. Selected Stories (New York: New York Review Books. 1935). Black and White in East Africa: The Fabric of a New Civilization (London: George Routledge and Sons.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail.Textual Practice Page 28 of 29 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 23 Dieter Thomä. p. 28. 972. URL: http://mc. 1982). 52 (2004). “Der Herrenlose: Gegenfigur zu Agambens ‘homo sacer’ – Leitfigur einer anderen Theorie der Moderne”. 294. p. Christopher Middleton in id. trans. 18)” quoted in Richard C. 393 and then in Thomä.manuscriptcentral. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie. p. 48. 26 Agamben. William Templer (Princeton. 2002). 29 Walser. The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. 445. Thurnwald. 291. 171. Homo Sacer. trans. 1967).

pp.com rP Fo ee rR ev ie w On ly 29 . Werner Morlang. Susan Bernofsky. 17.manuscriptcentral. 26. M. Wanderungen mit Robert Walser.com/rtpr Email: pboxallpeter@googlemail. 12 (1992). trans. 2009). “The Singular Bliss of the Pencil Method: On the 32 Microscripts”. “The Genius of Robert Walser”. Coetzee. URL: http://mc. 47 (2 November 2000). p. 237-38. p. The New York Review of Books. The Tanners. 33 Walser. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions. 31 Seelig. 99. trans. The Review of Contemporary Fiction.Page 29 of 29 Textual Practice 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 30 J. p.