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The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath (review

Dave Tell

Philosophy and Rhetoric, Volume 45, Number 4, 2012, pp. 452-459 (Article)

Published by Penn State University Press

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Paper $16. Stanford. Nor does it capture radicalness of Agamben’s inquiry. insect signals. its essential characteristic is the movement it enables between a “speaker and his language. Vol.The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath by ­ ­ Giorgio Agamben. and the roar of lions. “The decisive element that confers on human language its peculiar virtue is not in the tool itself but in the place it leaves to the speaker. 91 pp. No.” It is this ethical relationship—what Agamben calls the articulation of “life and language” (69)—that distinguishes human speech from birdsong. in the ethical relation established between a speaker and his language” (71). Precisely speaking. Agamben is concerned with the zone of indistinction between life and language. 2012 Copyright © 2012 The Pennsylvania State University. Thus to the extent that ethos is the fundamental characteristic of human language. PA . “Uniquely among living things. Agamben is not concerned with the articulation of life and language—the linkage between the two established formally by ethos and enacted in the oath. alone among the animals. to the same extent humanity is constituted and set off from the animal kingdom by the fact that. to use one of his favorite phrases. Giorgio Agamben’s The Sacrament of Language: An Archeology of the Oath can be read as a radical rethinking of a traditional rhetorical category: ethos. Adam Kotsko. Rather.95. 45. 2011. humans read their life in their language. man is not limited to acquiring language as one capacity among others that he is given but has made of Philosophy and Rhetoric. This doesn’t put it quite strongly enough. 4. Agamben writes. Agamben argues that ethos is the distinguishing characteristic of human language as such. University Park. CA: Stanford University Press. In this regard. in the fact that it prepares within itself a hollowed-out form that the speaker must always assume in order to speak—that is to say. Rather than a mode of persuasion. Trans. This is not the ethos you learned in school.

. Eschewing transcendental categories like origin or totality. Agamben’s archaeologist purses an “arche” that is beyond all historical statements. Agamben’s archaeology must not be confused with Foucault’s. On this model. emphasis his). the archaeologist does not ask where these statements began. its purest manifestation and a privileged window into its ultimate conceit. In the most conventional sense possible. to swear an oath is to verify the correlation of deeds and words. more fundamental. his entire ­ methodology—his archaeology—is designed precisely to foreground the fundamental indis­ tinction of language and oath. Foucault’s archaeologist pursues the endless accumulation of historical statements. Agamben thus approaches the oath not as it exists in legal/religious contexts but as something more fundamental. the oath must be more than a rhetorical technique. therefore.the sacrament of language it his specific potentiality. Agamben turns to an archaeology of the oath. His example is the so-called Indo-European language. Agamben argues that the goal of archaeology is the “furthest fringe of ultra-history” (9). the oath has thrived in contexts (law and religion most prominently) where questions of truth are paramount. In the sharpest of contrasts. or more originary than the simple historical fact of its appearance. the entirely hypothetical language from which a great ­ variety of historical 453 . He is the living being whose language places his life in question” (69. the oath “seems” to guarantee the “truth or effectiveness” of a proposition (5). he has. In fact. To render life and language indistinguishable (not simply linkable). To better understand this zone of indistinction. As Agamben puts it. For Agamben. life and language. an oath is not one genre among many. . This is a radical revision of ethos: by moving freely between the two poles of the ancient concept (language and life) and reading each pole within the other. In its capacity to bind words and deeds together. it is the essence of language. In both legal and religious contexts. Following philologist Georges Dumézil (who was also influential for Foucault). Agamben has turned ethos into a zone of indistinction that explains what it binds together: the specificity of human language and the never-ending task of anthropogenesis. put his very nature at stake in language. . Yet the conventional reading of the oath as a tool for articulating words and deeds is clearly not sufficient for Agamben. For this reason. that is to say. She resists every temptation to look beyond the statement to something deeper. This makes good sense. it must be understood as archetypal of language as such. or what drove them to appear when they did. the oath is the genre par excellence for guaranteeing the relation of life and language. what motivated them.

His conceit is that the ­ examination of historical statements allows the archaeologist to work backward from ­ history to ultra-history. The indistinction between the oath and the name of God prompts Agamben to turn to Nietzsche’s one-time teacher. on the other hand. “is something that is necessarily presupposed as having happened but that cannot be hypostatized into an event in a chronology” (11). Agamben stresses the ambiguous function of the name of God within the formula of the oath: “It is completely impossible to tell if [God] is reliable because of the oath or if the oath is reliable because of God” (22). . we might say. What is this “pure” experience of language (53)? Here we need to follow Agamben into the details. and so forth. from specific statements to a “force operating in history” (10) to the “otherwise inaccessible stages of the ­ history of social institutions” (9). tilling. The distance between the two archaeologies might be measured by the mathematical metaphors used to describe them. In his analysis of a lengthy portion of the Legum allegoriae.. So understood. is the ultimate instantiation of ethos: there is here no distance 454 . Agamben turns to the first-century philosopher Philo Judeaus. plowing. Foucault’s archaeology is grounded in addition. “I swear by God . Agamben uses his algorithm to work backward from a variety of classical meditations on the oath (Philo and Cicero are prominent) to what he calls an originary “experience of language” (53). His first clue that the historical career of the oath might bear witness to the pure experience of language is grounded in the observation that the name of God is a recurrent (even required) aspect of the oath (e.g. This. there is no distance between the name of a god and activities in the world.” a means of arranging historical statements into a formula that produces something more than the sum of its parts (9). This indeterminacy between the oath and name of God is important to Agamben. To make sense of this formulaic requirement. In the Sacrament of Language. Now known for his concept of momentary gods. for him the fundamental archaeological task is accumulation. the archaeologist requires an “algorithm. Usener argued that every name of the gods was originally the name of an action or a brief event. and he returns to this fundamental lesson from Philo at critical points throughout the book (48. 51).dave tell languages supposedly sprung.”). the name of a given god was the activity and the activity was the name of the god (46). much like the Indo-European language. This experience. Thus there were gods named after harvest. the German philologist Hermann Usener. .1 For Agamben.

representation. the essential characteristic of nomination is the fact that. then. Every naming. On this score. every act of speech is. all words were originally interjections. that categories long central to the understanding of language (meaning.2 It is for this reason. as we have been accustomed to believe. in the act of naming. as in the oath. Rather. Thus does Agamben revise the speech act theory of performatives. attests to the indistinction that envelops words and deeds. “They represent in language a remnant of a stage . an oath” (46). words and things were related only by the aesthetic preferences of the strong. At this point. names imposed on events by the creative whim of the “intuitive man” (who would soon become the “overman”). essential to the formulaic structure of the oath. and denotation) were not part of the original (performative) experience of language. “Here we have something like the foundation or originary core of that testimonial and guaranteeing function of language. the oath and language as such. in which the connection between words and things is not of a semantico-denotative type but performative. an original and eternal characteristic of human language but a historical product (which. in the original act of naming. performatives point to the original experience of language. He even suggests that one day the experience of language might once more escape the paradigm of representation: “The distinction between sense and denotation. words and deeds are performatively related.” Thus. As he makes the category central 455 . language was neither denotative nor semantic. the name of God. The name of God “is the very event of language in which words and things are indissolubly linked. representation. in this sense. “As in the oath. has not always existed and could one day cease to exist)” (55). it is precisely the collapsing of the distance (the ­ indistinction) between words and things that constitutes the oath as an index to an originary experience of language. it was only as the weak repeated the original interjections of the strong that words fell into the realm of semantics. . originally speaking.the sacrament of language between life and language. which is perhaps not. Agamben argues. and meaning. The simple act of nomination. At this point we can begin to see Agamben’s radical revision of ethos. as such.” As Nietzsche explains in this 1873 essay. Owing to their nonrepresentational semiotics. in the sense that. the utterance of the name immediately actualizes the correspondence between words and things” (49). Indeed. the verbal act brings being into truth” (55). points to an original experience of language. . For Nietzsche (and Agamben). Agamben’s mode of argument resembles nothing so much as Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.

dave tell to the experience of language. On a more fundamental level. For this reason Agamben argues that it was only after the original experience of language had been lost that law and religion—the two historical guardians of the oath—sprang up to guarantee the relation between language and life. Agamben opened (and closed) Homo Sacer with a quotation from Foucault: “Modern man is an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question. semantics took the place of performance. Once the original performative experience of language was lost (and the paradigm of representation took over). Over and again. No longer an integral part of language itself. Agamben cares about more than the birth of law and religion. in the “split in the experience of language” Agamben reads the birth of anthropogenesis. the space that had been collapsed in the act of naming and in the oath. In the space that now existed between words and things. to see it as indistinguishable from an original experience of language. both of which seek to tie speech to things and to bind. This is why Agamben considers The Sacrament of Language to be a continuation of Homo Sacer. It was now the question of meaning that guaranteed the articulation of life and language. suggesting that it is deeply significant for him. the linkage between words and deeds needed to be vouched for by human institutions and an ever-proliferating list of blessings/curses attached to the oath. possibilities of truth and falsehood emerged. proved an untrustworthy linkage. That is. speaking subjects to the veritative power of their speech” (58). because humanity is the animal that reads itself in its language. “Homo sapiens never stops becoming man. Rather. by means of curses and anathemas. complicated as it is by rhetoric. Thus it seemed that falsehood was a possibility written into the experience of language as such.”3 He ends The Sacrament of 456 . Much like Nietzsche’s. the introduction of space between words and things provoked an existential crisis from which we have not recovered. Agamben’s tale is one of degeneration. Agamben returns to this point time and again. has perhaps not yet finished entering language and swearing to his nature as a speaking being” (11). he asks us to remove it from the realm of representation in which it functions as a technique a speaker might deploy to guarantee the truth of her words. But meaning. Agamben asks us to consider ethos performatively. he insists on the primacy of an experience of language from which followed a number of cultural institutions: “And it is in the attempt to check this split in the experience of language that law and religion are born.

the revision of ethos must now be considered complete: if Agamben can posit ethos as the fundamental category of language. I’ve framed the entire inquiry in such terms to foreground the fact that. At this moment in rhetorical studies. The Sacrament of Language may prove itself an invaluable tool for rethinking rhetoric’s relationship to animals. and language. reads them in creative ways. A few examples. I’d like to register only one qualification. promises (27). Philo is certainly articulating the oath and God. it is because language itself creates the (bare) life to which it is continuously annexed.4 Indeed—and this may be his strongest claim—Agamben now argues that bare life must itself be considered a product of language. I fear Agamben may confuse articulation and indistinction. truth be told. if in the original volume Agamben stressed the political production of bare life. in fact. we must consider Homo Sacer and The Sacrament of Language as symmetrical studies: they chart the construction of bare life from political and linguistic origins respectively. he tends to read indistinction where a more nuanced reader might see only articulation. and produces results that are provocative by any measure. In his reading of Philo. inseparable and constitutively dependent on each other” (69. Agamben concludes that “it is completely impossible to decide if [God] is reliable because of the oath or if the oath is reliable because of God. More precisely. Just because there is a mutually constitutive 457 . In other words.the sacrament of language Language with the same quotation. humanity. These two definitions are. Agamben only once characterizes his inquiry in terms of ethos (on page 68). adding this comment: “So also is he the living being whose language places his life in question. despite the difficulty of the philosophical prose. and the space of the speaking subject vis-à-vis language. but they remain distinct: one is a corollary of another. From the perspective of the rhetorical tradition. animal rhetorics. a moment marked by a renewed concern in nonhuman rhetorics. It is book that takes canonical ideas and concepts. From the perspective of Agamben’s oeuvre. Briefly put. emphasis his). The Sacrament of Language is a book that will command the interest of readers of this journal. Agamben now argues that bare life and language are structurally related. Similar objections might be leveled against Agamben’s equation of law and curse (38) and the various equations of the oath with blasphemy (39). Now.” This is not true. then. the fact that God’s words are oaths is a “corollary” deduced from the primary fact of his “sure strength” (20). For Philo. and despite the absence of what might be thought of as a rhetorical cast of mind. or perjury (7).

Agamben enables us to ask profound questions that cut to the heart of our tradition. Above all. that the ways and forms of a new politics must be thought. Readers of Agamben know that zones of indistinction are absolutely central to the whole of his work. I could point to the zones of indistinction he posits in Homo Sacer between man and animal. meticulous. My concern is not limited to The Sacrament of Language. we must ask ourselves whether or not the zones of indistinction that punctuate his work at regular intervals are justified by the evidence he presents. At times. these questions only obtain because what might be called a consistent habit of (mis)reading indistinction for articulation. My hunch is that some of them are and some of them are not. Near the end of Homo Sacer.5 Or I could point to the indistinction between anomie and order that permeates his State of Exception. or. by treating mutually constitutive concepts as if they were indistinguishable. indeterminacy. I’d like to suggest that they must be central to our evaluation and uptake of Agamben himself. the difficult zones of indistinction. life and politics. and complete erasing of boundaries.6 In all cases. by the same measure. Whether one finds such work theoretically provocative (which it is) or historically slippery (which it is) is ultimately a question of faith. Agamben reads free movement. law and fact. this indistinction is grounded in readings of obscure (Philo. Agamben makes his commitment to zones of indistinction explicit: “It is on the basis of these uncertain and nameless terrains.”7 Whether or not Agamben is correct that zones of indistinction must become a central category of our political thinking. zones of indistinction are the great genius and great liability of Agamben’s thought: by moving freely between historically distinct ideas.dave tell (even symbiotic) relationship between these concepts (and Agamben is at his best demonstrating these links) does not mean that they occupy a zone of indistinction. Indeed. ultimately. There is no denying this is important work. and indistinction where others have read particular forms of correlation. But. Usener) or extreme (the Nazi documents that circulate in the closing section of Homo Sacer) texts that may (or may not) be sufficient to establish the indistinction he needs. Agamben’s work relies on the careful. Dave Tell Department of Communication Studies University of Kansas 458 .

2005. Kevin Attell. 1972. 107. 1171–79. Martins. Nietzsche. 83. New York: Pantheon. 67. Trans. ed. Agamben 2005. Friedrich. Agamben 1998. Agamben 1998. 39. Sheridan. Michel. 69. State of Exception. 4. 7. 188. 5. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. Foucault 1972.” In The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings From Classical Times to the Present. 6. 73. 2001. 1998. ———. CA: Stanford University Press. 86. 2. Agamben 1998. M. 36. Nietzsche 2001. Agamben 1998. . 3.the sacrament of language notes 1. 48. Giorgio. 3. 187. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Foucault. Stanford. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Trans. works cited Agamben. 125. 59. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Boston: Bedford/St. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. A. Trans. 171.