Agamben with Melville

by craigepplin

I received an early Christmas present: a Kindle. It arrived on the same day that Slate published an absurd essay by Farhad Manjoo about the irrelevance, even the malevolence, of local bookstores. I’ve seen a couple responses to it, the best coming from Will Doig in Salon. He disputes the original claim that independent bookstores are the literary equivalent to Whole Foods, despite the fact that they both offer a “luxury shopping experience.” “No one,” Doig writes,

goes to Whole Foods just to soak up the atmosphere — everyone’s ultimately there to buy quinoa and ramps. Bookstores, on the other hand, function as communal spaces, which makes them valuable urban amenities.

By the same token, bookstores are more similar to farmers’ markets than Manjoo admits in his piece — people feel strongly that they want farmers’ markets in their neighborhoods, and they shop there to show that. If they just wanted fresh ingredients sustainably sourced from local farms, there are plenty of cheaper places to find those in most cities these days. Yet like bookstores, farmers’ markets are packed with shoppers and gawkers alike. People go for the scene.

I’d add, besides, that Whole Foods is not local to any one place in the way that McNally Jackson or City Lights or Powell’s is. To say nothing of Amazon, which doesn’t even pay sales tax.

All that’s to say that I have mixed feelings about my new toy. I love how it makes possible the format of the single, which is basically something that’s too long to go in a magazine but too short to be published as a bound book. I read a great one called Argentinidad, published by n+1 (abbreviated version here). I also love getting books for free or dirt cheap: some of my first downloads were Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things and Melville’s Moby Dick. And I also love having my PDFs available all on one device (no tablet for me yet).

That said, I also bought Agamben’s Homo Sacer, which I most certainly would have bought at BookCulture (as I did with The Open), so there, I suppose, is a pretty clear-cut example of Amazon taking my money from the local bookstore. It’s just difficult to resist the urge to have Agamben and Melville on the same device, along with Achille Mbembe’s article on necropolitics and a couple more on the work of Teresa Margolles.

Agamben and Melville actually go really well together. For me, the most significant passage of The Open is this one:

We completely misunderstand the nature of the great totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century if we see them only as a carrying out of the nineteenth-century nation-states’ last great tasks: nationalism and imperialism. The stakes are now different and much higher, for it is a question of taking on as a task the very factical existence of peoples, that is, in the last analysis, their bare life. Seen in this light, the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century truly constitute the other face of the Hegelo-Kojevian idea of the end of history: man [sic] has now reached his historical telos and, for a humanity that has become animal again, there is nothing left but the depoliticization of human socieities by means of the unconditioned unfolding of the oikonomia, or the taking on of biological life itself as the supreme political (or rather impolitical) task. (76)

Read in conjunction with Homo sacer, this passage tells us that the end of the twentieth century and beginnings of the twenty-first have witnessed the revelation of the kernel of western political thought: the management of life itself as the ultimate horizon. Foucault located the beginnings of biopolitics in the modern period, but Agamben traces it much further back. To become animal–which is what happens when the “anthropological machine” breaks down and we all become colonized, materialized, proletarianized–is the end of this tradition.

Cue Melville. It’s been observed how well Melville lends himself to materialist, immanentist readings, and nowhere is that clearer than the description of the church in New Bedford toward the beginning of the novel. Everything about the church recalls the sea. The pastor is an old whaler, and he looks and sounds the part. When he prays, “he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.” The other congregants are “shipmates,” which makes sense because the world itself is a ship:

What could be more full of meaning?–for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in the rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt.

“Yes,” we read, “the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.” There is no space for transcendence here, no space outside the ship of the world. All the couplings and uncouplings of this world (Queequeg now throwing an arm over Ishmael, now rolling over on his side) are material becomings. There is no anthropological machine to turn the animal into a human.

Melville, like Agamben, gets this, which I suppose is why I’m flipping back and forth between them.