Early on in Karman, Agamben recounts an old Rabbinic story in which Satan, 'the accuser', finds himself standing condemned before God. Sentenced to the eternal darkness, Satan nonetheless objects to the Almighty: "Lord of the world, all the power you have demonstrated by descending into the flames to condemn me really does not belong to you: above you, there is another Power" - the power, of course, of God's own accusatory power, which in Agamben's retelling, is nothing other than the ultimate subject of judgment: it is judgement itself that stands in judgement, calling for the creation of a new world free from all powers of accusation. It's a little parable - one among a delightful few invoked in Agamben's 'brief treatise' - but one which nicely encapsulates the book's critical trajectory, which aims to answer a question posed by Kafka in the only epigraph that begins the book: "How can a human being be guilty?".
If such a question rings odd to modern ears, Agamben invites us to recall a time in which certain actions simply bore corresponding consequences, without, for all that, imputing the status of 'guilt' upon the agents of those actions. That is, actions were simply associated with other actions (an infraction with a penalty, say), without implicating the subject of those actions in discourses of 'guilt', 'culpability', and 'responsibility' (guilt was not 'interiorised' within a subject). As the story told here goes however, it was just this link - between agent and action - that was progressively forged in the passage to modernity, one which weaved an ever strengthening bond between both and culminating in our present day understanding of subjectivity and agency. If for an ancient like Socrates, evil was the result of (mere?) ignorance then, for us - in the wake of our post-Christian inheritance - is evil nothing less than a free act of the will, exercised by subjects both responsible and culpable.
While this is not a tale wholly without precedent - Nietzsche told a similar one in his Genealogy of Morals - it's in Agamben's singular focus on the law and the juridicial roots of responsibility that sets his own account apart. Indeed, for Agamben, it's not the sphere of morality so much as legality which has come to define our present-day relationship to action. In fact, in what can't but be a studiously effected omission, Nietzsche's name is entirely absent from Karman, testifying, I reckon, to what can only be a calculated distancing. In this respect it might be unsurprising that it's Plato - Nietzsche's arch philosophical adversary - who is here drawn upon in depth, with Agamben finding in him (along with Benjamin and, yes, Buddhism [Karma-n...]) the resources to think otherwise about the 'mystery of human action' (if anything it's Aristotle, with his anti-Platonism, whom Agamben credits with setting in motion the infernal train of guilt, with historical waypoints in both Augustine and Kant along the way).
Oh, also, Agamben more or less eviscerates the concept of the 'will', which, to say the least, is not very Nietzschean either. As usual with Agamben, there's just quite a bit going on in this 'brief treatise', and while it stands perfectly fine on its own, I'd super recommend reading it alongside Opus Dei, which also similarly deals with themes of action, ethics, and law. Finally, for those who have read The Use of Bodies, Karman can also be seen as fleshing out of Agamben's little note in §1.13, critiquing Hannah Arendt's conflation (in The Human Condition) of the sphere of politics with the sphere of action. In all senses then, is Karman just a juicy little book, packed with a philosophical punch well in excess of its seeming slightness.
- Paperback: 120 pages
- Publisher: Stanford University Press (3 April 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1503605825
- ISBN-13: 978-1503605824
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 0.8 x 21.6 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 168 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 98,798 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)