Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Giorgio Agamben, _The Church and the Kingdom_

I SAW A print ad for this and ordered it on Amazon--had I actually seen it first, I might not have taken the plunge and purchased it, for it is not really a whole new book by Agamben, but a sort of special bibliophile item.

It contains a lecture--more a sermon, really--delivered by Agamben at NĂ´tre Dame in Paris in 2009.  This text covers about forty pages with generous white space, but about twenty of those forty pages are devoted to color photographs by Alice Attie, "made from folded and twisted reproductions of paintings in books" (to quote her note), all the paintings involving Christian iconography.

The photos are striking and reward scrutiny, but even so the volume is a kind of coffee-table book for people with tiny coffee-tables (it measures eight inches by five-and-a-half-inches). There must be, I imagine, a more economical way to get a hold of this Agamben text.

But the text is certainly worth getting a hold of. Note the ambiguity of the title: which kingdom, the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of this world? Well, that's the whole point. Agamben sees the church's history turning on a collective decision to stop assuming the next world was imminent and to make itself as comfortable as it could in this one.

He makes the point, as he does so often, with a jaw-dropping bit of philology.  "Parish," our old familiar world for a community of Christians, turns out to derive from a Greek work that mean "sojourners in a foreign land"--that is, way back in  the pre-Constantine days, a community of Christians called itself by a name signifying that, as many a hymn had it, this old world was not their home.

These early Christians were living in what Agamben calls "messianic time," characterized by a certain kind of attention, a certain kind of openness to transformation--"the dynamic time where, for the first time, we grasp time, grasp the time that is ours, grasp that we are nothing but that time"--a sense of possibility that faded like the stars of morning into the light of common day.

As was bound to happen, I suppose... but Agamben makes one feel what was lost.

Oddly enough, and like as not only because I happened to read the two of them consecutively, Agamben here reminded me of Badiou in Metapolitics.  1989 was perhaps a different kind of falling out of "messianic time" (the philosophy of history is "an essentially Christian discipline" says Agamben, "even in Marx"), and Badiou's call to keep justice and emancipatory politics in our thinking and our acting seems another version of the call Agamben says the church stopped heeding.

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