Ranking the English Translations of Giorgio Agamben
Agamben, so hot right now. Agamben. Through his extensive body of work, he’s taken on nearly every discipline in the humanities and produced a lexicon of terms to help us understand the world in a complete, novel, incisive way. The Italian philosopher is rightly called a theologian, political scientist, philologist, historian, and anarchist. Just don’t call him Late for Dinner, amirite? Although not considered with the likes of Freud or Marx or Nietzsche, perhaps he will be—especially if his fears about biometrics and surveillance in the United States do lead to a vast holocaust. Let us hope his darkest reflections remain in Nazi Germany.
Goodreads is absolutely no help when it comes to evaluating his erudite scholarship. Every one of his books gets ~4 stars. Right, all of his books are roughly ‘pretty good’?
That’s why I’m here to help you with some official rankings. I’m going to tell you whether the book is accessible to the curious lay intellectual, whether the ideas are interesting and relevant, and whether the work is any good. I haven’t read absolutely everything; Agamben probably writes more quickly than most people read.
Like it or not, I’m going to give a little boost to the more accessible Agamben. Obviously, not everybody is going to go read a bunch of this dude. It’s an investment. But if you’re curious about his work, this list might give you a place to start. Worst to first, with feeling:
17. The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics. Warning: no matter what you are currently studying, this book is going to be irrelevant to your work. I have studied poetry my entire life, and most of the time I had no idea what he was talking about. I mean, I know Dante, but Pascoli? Delfini? Who are these dudes?
16. Nymphs. Has nothing to do with anything and is extremely specific in what it does have anything to do with. And it has nothing to do with nymphomania, sorry about that.
15. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Agamben occasionally becomes derailed—at least for me—by his affection for Christian commentators such as Thomas Aquinas. Not my bag, but go for it, chief.
14. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. This is for the political scientists out there, you know who you are. Perhaps this one should not be ranked because I can’t really remember much about it! But it ain’t my favorite.
13. Pilate and Jesus. Relevant, interesting, but not very good. It’s really not a complete enough treatment to draw any conclusions from. It’s far too specific to learn anything. I hate these tiny volumes that seem to operate entirely in isolation. They look like marginalia next to, say, his work on Romans.
12. What is an Apparatus? and Other Essays. Three essays in this book. The title essay is mostly concerned with Foucault. The other stuff doesn’t make any sense. I’m kidding. He does throw a kitchen sink of ideas at Nietzsche’s concept of the “contemporary”. And he tries to figure out the link between philosophy and friendship.
11. The Use of Bodies. This is the fourth in the Homo Sacer series, and people are saying it’s very important. Read it? Say something in the comments.
10. The Coming Community. This one is a treat for the Agamben lovers and Philosophy majors. And it’s impossible to understand, good luck.
9. The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Agamben loves the erstwhile apostle, partially because he sees his contributions as part of the Christian theological genealogy from Paul to Augustine to Aquinas.
8. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. What does it mean to bear witness, to give testimony? This is the third in the series of Homo Sacer, and the inevitable result of a totalitarian state. As elsewhere, Agamben owes much to the research of Hannah Arendt.
7. The Open: Man and Animal. Interesting, challenging. This never ended up being an important book to me, but it culls a lot of research about what kind of an animal man is, and then discusses it in pretty convoluted ways.
6. State of Exception. One of his most accessible books, the second in the Homo Sacer series. And it doesn’t get more relevant than detailing how problematic instances of the ‘exception’ led to the rise of the Third Reich. The work owes a LOT to Carl Schmitt, and that should be observed throughout Agamben’s political writings.
5. Nudities. Accessible, interesting, pretty darn original. I just wish this book had twice as many essays in it.
4. Profanations. Miscellaneous essays. Among the most important question in all of Agamben’s work, What does it mean to profane? His approach is kind of scattershot, but his method, even in the Homo Sacer books, is pretty random if you ask me.3. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Widely considered his most important work. Students of political science often have to read it for class, especially in legal studies (for students not preparing for a bar exam). Yeah, it’s hard to understand. But you’ll never regret trying to figure it out. Absolutely fascinating piece of writing.
2. Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience. Agamben is primarily taking on ideas generated by Benjamin. I was fascinated by his reflections on history—quite accessible, as that goes.
1. The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life. Read it. This is Agamben at his best, aiming his bizarre obsession with early Christian commentators and Roman jurisprudence on its proper scholastic object: the history of monastic life.