Among the more memorable, haunting features of Pier Paolo Pasolini's luminous rendering of The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) is its weirdly paralysed yet moving obsession with the human face. It is on this blankly evocative plane that all the action, all the literal and allegoric passion of the film's biblical narrative seems to take place. Everything happens (as in Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928) in lengthy close-up, on faces whose sculptural lack of animation paradoxically incarnates fear, wonder, faith and revolutionary hope.
But while Pasolini's camera lingers in eerie, erotic concentration on the countenances of Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist and various disciples, there is one face that makes only a fleeting, static and silent appearance. The apostle Philip, played by a 22-year-old student from Rome, Giorgio Agamben, is recognizable on-screen for a matter of seconds; he says nothing and looks only briefly to camera, in response to his naming by Jesus. Agamben's 'performance' may be pretty cursory - one more bit part in a film that employs many artists and writers from Pasolini's milieu - but it is tempting to read it as having a kind of emblematic significance in the career of this most enigmatic of thinkers. Watching it now, surrounded by the transfixed longueurs of the film's other close-ups, it begins to look like a reminder of the fragility of the faces we turn towards one another, as if Pasolini saw something there, in the face of this ambitious youth, that couldn't bear the camera's implacable gaze: the glimpse, perhaps, of a certain hope that the older intellectual knew too well.
It may be frantic over-reading of a merely resonant cinematic image, but the subsequent work of Agamben - as philosopher, literary critic, political theorist (the categories fall far short of his writing's complex fascinations) - seems already seeded in that tiny filmic fragment: his one moment of mute regard in a body of work of astonishing eloquence and erudition. Two years later he attended the seminar of Martin Heidegger, at the philosopher's Provençal hideaway, where the author of Being and Time (1927) spoke of the limit of his philosophy, passing the task of finding that limit on to his students: 'You can see it; I cannot.' Agamben returned to Provence in the fervid summer of 1968, when metaphysics had already become inseparable from the pressing demand for political action. He has always maintained a singular fidelity to the thought of 1968, in particular to his friend Guy Debord's analysis of society as spectacle. But he never merely fetishized the soixante-huitard moment: instead, his 1970s writings essayed an extraordinary opening up of the field of his philosophical inquiry.
His most important book of this period, Stanzas (1977), maps the subterranean passages that link the Medieval theory of melancholy, Renaissance notions of love as fantasy, the birth of commodity culture in the 19th century and the Freudian fetish. It is a literally amazing book, conjuring labyrinthine connections between Albrecht Dürer and Oedipus, Charles Baudelaire and Beau Brummel in a kaleidoscopic array of obscure correspondences and oddly filiated motifs. The technique blossomed again in Infancy and History (1978), which brings together an investigation of the experience of historical time with reflections on the meaning of the nativity crib and the philosophy of toys.
This mix of conceptual ambition and thematic flair makes for a determinedly disorienting reading experience. Much of Agamben's work seems to exist in a parallel universe, cut off from the everyday exoticism of contemporary cultural theory. While his repeated reference points (Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Debord, Gilles Deleuze) are the canonical co-ordinates of academic orthodoxy, his own writing seems to shade off into generic indefinition. Writing to Hannah Arendt in 1971, he described himself as a 'writer and essayist' rather than as a philosopher. When I asked a friend what he thought of Infancy and History, he could only reply with awed frustration: 'I love it, but I don't know what to do with it.' It's partly a question of style: his prose has something of the laconic glitter of Benjamin or the Romanian aphorist E. M. Cioran. Master of the short essay (sometimes hovering around the single-page mark), even at book length his works tend to fragment into essayistic shards, embodying his dictum that criticism 'consists not in discovering its object but in assuring the conditions of its inaccessibility'. 1
It may be, however, that the greatest contribution of this most thematically catholic (and, at least culturally, Catholic) of writers lies in the austere concentration with which he has described the philosophical roots of the Holocaust. His recent work (in Homo Sacer, 1998 and Remnants of Auschwitz, 2000) is governed by a notion of 'bare life': the mere biological, animal existence to which the logic of Nazism reduces humanity. The deadly rationale of the concentration camps, he writes, is at work today in a political order that not only reduces the obvious targets (nameless enemies, 'illegal' immigrants) to the status of bare life, but which will eventually strip us all of our comfortable notions of cultural or national identity. Only if we recognize ourselves in the contemporary figure of the refugee can we hope for a political future.
That brief cinematic moment in 1964 comes back to haunt us here. The face, says Agamben, is the 'passion of revelation': it can be a mask of closure and disdain or a passionate openness to others, a gaze that bears witness to our being together, 'the only location of community, the only possible city'. 2 The composure of the face (even, maybe especially, the most beautiful or self-possessed face) seems always on the verge of collapse, taking us back to our merely animal state. Early this year Agamben published L'aperto: L'uomo e l'animale, in which he finds in humanity's relationship to animals the possibility of our being finally human, no longer monstrous. Maybe it was that frail hope that Pasolini discerned in the fleeting image of a saintly face.
1. Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. R. L. Martinez, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993, p. xvi.
2. Giorgio Agamben, Means without End, trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2000, p. 91.