In Giorgio Agamben’s The Highest Poverty, the monastery and the non-law of monastic codes suggest an alternative approach to life in late capitalism
There is a monk in a monastery where I sometimes stay who leaves the door to his room open when he’s not inside. The door faces the entrance to the hall from the bathroom, so everyone sees. His room is unfailingly clean, sparse, ordered — bed made, garments folded, books pious. The open door proclaims that he in fact owns none of it. Probably nobody but the monk himself ever goes in, though one theoretically could, and have a look around, and take something if one wished, as if it were a pencil from the supply closet. This is also the monk who sings opera arias while washing dishes in the fruitcake bakery.
What intentional communities long for hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries — to leave the door open, to sing through unalienated dishwashing. Activist commune-dwellers might seem to be starting perpetually from scratch, while residents of monasteries cling to tradition, yet both mean to live outside the reach of empire; they hold things in common, attempt to produce no more than what is needed, and prefigure a world to come. Peter Maurin, the French peasant and vagabond father of the Catholic Worker movement, spoke tongue-twistingly about “creating a new society within the shell of the old with the philosophy of the new.” Or rather, he added, “A philosophy so old that it looks like new.”
Giorgio Agamben The Highest Poverty Translated by Adam Kotsko for Stanford University Press (184 pages) Empire is empire, after all, then and now. It wasn’t an accident that Christian monasticism started right as the Roman Empire was becoming, or claiming to become, Christian. Women and men—sometimes bending gender in the process—fled to the wilderness of Egypt and Turkey and Syria where they could live out the more demanding parts of their religion, with one another’s company and encouragement, apart from the commerce of the cities and the temptations of a society built on hypocrisy and domination.
Strategies for making this drastic flight are the subject of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s The Highest Poverty, which appeared in English earlier this year thanks to a translation by Adam Kotsko, an influential young professor who writes about political theology and popular culture.Editor’s note: Dr. Kotsko occasionally writes for The New Inquiry The book is a careful, if idiosyncratic, study of monastic texts in search of the radical politics lurking between the lines. This kind of turn to the religious past for clues to the secular future has been a trend in recent Continental thought; Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have both been writing about the apostle Paul, for instance, as has Agamben. And it makes good sense, considering the fact that Christianity did wind up conquering the Roman Empire, and — if Gibbon is to be believed — bringing it down.
The Highest Poverty is part of Agamben’s several-volume inquiry into the logic of sovereignty and law, and into better kinds of thinking about organizing ourselves. Politics in the West, his earlier volumes tell us, rests on a callous dominion over human life. What makes the law the law is its power to deem the destruction of certain lives legitimate. What makes the state sovereign is its ability to break its social contracts in an emergency. Agamben’s more political books, trickling out as they have during the post-Cold War pax Americana, suggest that the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib and the NSA’s aspirations to omniscience are not momentary failures of the system, but examples of its basic function. For the sake of order, we ransom parts of our humanity—but perhaps we don’t need to.
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