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Journal of Contemporary European
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The Sacrament of Language: An
Archaeology of Oath (trans. Adam
Carlo Salzani
Monash University, Australia
Published online: 23 Mar 2012.

To cite this article: Carlo Salzani (2012) The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of
Oath (trans. Adam KOTSKO), Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 20:1, 103-104, DOI:

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Journal of Contemporary European Studies
Vol. 20, No. 1, 103–130, March 2012


Book Reviews

The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of Oath (trans. Adam KOTSKO)
Cambridge, Polity Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-74564-9726
£12.99 (hbk), 79 pp.

The Sacrament of Language constitutes the third book of the second volume of Giorgio Agamben’s
Homo Sacer series and takes as the object of its ‘archaeological’ investigation the phenomenon of
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language, more precisely the ‘oath’ as that linguistic utterance located at the intersection of religion
and politics. In the economy of the second volume (centred on the structure of sovereignty; book 1,
Agamben, 2005: State of Exception; book 2, Agamben, 2011a: The Kingdom and the Glory) the
analysis of language is fundamental insofar as, in the oath, language ‘calls into question the very
nature of man as a speaking being and a political animal’ (p. 11). In an extremely dense and as usual
extremely erudite analysis of sources that span from the ancient Greek, Roman and Biblical texts to
the linguistic investigations of the ninetieth and twentieth century, Agamben attempts to locate in the
very nature of language the source and structure of the western political machine.
The primary function of the oath is that of ‘guaranteeing the truth and efficacy of language’ (p. 4),
and this renders it necessary for human society. What is in question in the oath is in fact not the semiotic
or cognitive function of language, but rather its ‘truthfulness’. As such the oath implies the possibility
of perjury, against which works a third constitutive moment, the curse. The tripartite structure of the
oath can thus be described: ‘an affirmation, the invocation of the gods as witnesses, and a curse directed
at perjury’ (p. 31). What is at stake in the oath is the very relationship that unites words and things,
whose juncture is guaranteed by the name of god. This name is transformed into a curse if this relation
is broken. A forth element completes the series: blasphemy. This is a form of oath in which the name of
god, instead of guaranteeing the connection between words and things, is extracted from the context
and uttered in itself, in vain, expressing thus the breakdown of language and its vanity.
With these elements Agamben construes a sort of metaphysics of the name (of god), which identifies
in naming and the name ‘the very event of language in which words and things are indissolubly linked’
(p. 46): the utterance of the name (of god) ‘immediately actualizes the correspondence between words
and things’ (p. 49), and the oath becomes thus ‘the experience of language that treats all of language
as a proper name’ (p. 53). Here the theory of ‘performatives’ or ‘speech acts’ becomes fundamental:
performatives are in fact verbal acts which bring beings into truth, in which speech immediately
actualizes its meaning, and ‘I swear’ is the perfect paradigm of a speech act. The performative act of
naming is for Agamben the originary, constitutive experience of language which coincides with itself
and exhausts itself with its utterance. The evolution of language into denotation meant the end of
this self-referentiality and originated a split in the experience of speech: ‘it is in the attempt to check
this split’, Agamben argues, ‘that law and religion are born, both of which seek to tie speech and
things and to bind, by means of curses and anathemas, speaking subjects to the veritable power of
speech’ (p. 58).
The ‘political’ valence of the oath (and of its connection with perjury and curse) is clear: its function is
to confirm the efficacy of the law, and as such it constitutes the primary ‘sacrament of power’ (p. 37). And
the utmost curse in Roman law, sacer esto—which declared someone sacer, that is both killable and
unsacrificeable—reveals the ‘technical consubstantiality of law and curse’, it is in fact ‘the sanction that
1478-2804 Print/1478-2790 Online/12/010103-28
104 Reviews Section

defines the very structure of law, its way of referring to reality’ (p. 38). Here lies the core of the argument:
the sacratio—that is, the production of a killable and unsacrificeable bare life that the first volume of
the series (Agamben, 1998: Homo Sacer) identified as the originary performance of power—becomes
possible only insofar as, in the oath—the ‘sacrament of language’—the living human being is
consecrated ‘in the word to the word’ (p. 66), only insofar as, in language (in the oath), life is ‘cursed’.
If law is then constitutively linked to the curse, ‘only a politics that has broken this original connection
with the curse will be able one day to make possible another use of speech and of the law’ (p. 66).
The book opens and closes with an observation: our time sees the irreversible decline of the oath
and this crisis entails a radical—though unforeseeable—transformation in the forms of political
association. Without the bond of the oath that held them together, the living being is reduced to its
biological reality (bare life), and the speaking being is lost in an unprecedented proliferation of vain
words (blasphemy). As the reader already knows from the previous volumes of the series, the way
out from this deadlock is not for Agamben a return to an ‘ethical’ past, to a connection that unites
words, things, and human action; the crisis of our late modernity is only the necessary and inevitable
endpoint always already inscribed in the very structure of the western machine. Rather, Agamben
concludes: ‘It is perhaps time to call into question the prestige that language has enjoyed and
continues to enjoy in our culture, as a tool of incomparable potency, efficacy, and beauty’ (p. 71).
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The way out lies in pushing the present situation even further in order to ‘exit’ the machine at the
other end. The archaeological analysis, however, can go only so far and must stop here; it is in
volume IV of the series, whose first book has just appeared in Italian (Agamben, 2011b: Altissima
povertà: Regole monastiche e forma di vita [High Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form of Life ]), that
the reader will find Agamben’s proposal for the overcoming of the crisis of our time.

Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer [volume 1] (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).
Agamben, G. (2005) State of Exception [volume 2, book 1] (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Agamben, G. (2011a) The Kingdom and the Glory [volume 2, book 2] (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).
Agamben, G. (2011b) Altissima povertà: Regole monastiche e forma di vita [High Poverty: Monastic Rules and
Form of Life [volume 4] (Vicenza: Neri Pozza).

Carlo Salzani
Monash University, Australia
q 2012, Carlo Salzani

The Wiley-Blackwell Dictionary of Modern European History since 1789
Nicholas ATKIN, Michael BIDDISS & Frank TALLETT
Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, ISBN 978-1-140518-9224
£85.00 (hbk), 473 pp.

Starting with the Aaland Islands (forever associated with being one of the League of Nations few
successes) and ending with Zollverein (the German word for customs union no less), The
Wiley-Blackwell Dictionary of Modern European History since 1789 packs a lot of information into
its 473 pages. The authors draw upon a wealth of experience of writing on European history. Michael
Biddiss has been writing on politics and ideas in European history for the best part of forty years,
while Frank Tallett is the author of several books on French history. Tallett has also collaborated on
several books with Nicholas Atkin, who tragically passed away in 2009 after the completion of this
tome—the volume is dedicated to him as a result.