Hölderlin in Agamben. by Gerardo Muñoz

There is no question that Hölderlin occupies a central place in Giorgio Agamben’s work, although he always appears within a specific strategic deployment. Of course, it might be the case that Hölderlin is always present in instances where he is not directly cited or thematized, but in the following note I want to record four instances where Hölderlin appears in different phases of Agamben’s thinking. These notes are preliminary for a larger work in progress that looks at the status of the comic as a potential force for a transfigured politics, which is informed, although not limited by Hölderlin’s work. Hölderlin occupies, after all, the entry point to L’uso dei corpi (2014) in relation to the well-known maxim “the use of the proper”; the territory where the (modal) ontology will be measured. However, esoterically Agamben’s incorporation of the German poet suggest a ‘way out’ from the tragic politicity of modernity. It might useful here to recall Schmitt’s annotation in Glossarium about what Hölderlin symbolized in the larger picture of modern German thought: “Youth without Goethe (Max Kommerell), that was for us since 1910 in concrete youth with Hölderlin, i.e. the transition from optimistic-ironic-neutralizing genius (genialismus) to pessimistic-active-tragic genialism (genialismus). But it remained within the genialistic framework, yes, deepened it into infinite depths. Norbert von Hellingrath is more important than Stefan George and Rilke.” (18.5. 1948) [1]. To overturn Hölderlin as the figure of the tragic caesura and witness to the crisis of “distance” in modernity is most definitely at stake here in order to avoid (subjective) conditions for something like an Enlightenment renewal. More broadly, it could be productive to think of Hölderlin as the poetic site that grants Agamben a possibility of thinking the event beyond the dependency of messianism and history, now displaced by the relation between language and world. 

a) As early as in Stanzas (1977) Agamben writes about Hölderlin: “The name of Hölderlin – of a poet, that is, for whom poetry was above all problematic and whom often hoped that it could be raised to the level of the mēchane (mechanical instrumental) of the ancients so that its procedures could be calculate and taught – and the dialogue that with its utterance engages a thinker who no longer designs his own mediation with the name of “philosophy”, are invoked here to witness the urgency, for our culture, of rediscovering the unity of our own fragmented word” (xvii) [2]. Hölderlin occupies here the site of antiphilosophy, in which the event of language does not longer coincide with a structure of the subject, but of the potentiality of “saying”; a sayability in which fragmentation removes any commanding closure of language. The event of appearing and bring to conclusion (in the book on Paul, Agamben will associate it with the rhetorical figure of the enjambment in the poem) gains primacy over formalization. 

b) In another early book, L’uomo senza contenuto (1994) Agamben takes up the question of fragmentation of language in Hölderlin but this time provides a specific category: rhythm. On the chapter about the original structure of the work of art he writes: “Everything is rhythm, the entire destiny of man is one heavenly rhythm, must as every work of art is one rhythm, and everything swings from the poetizing lips of the god”. This statement was passed down to us by Hölderlin’s own hand. […]. What Hölderlin’s sentence says appears at first blush too obscure and general to tempt us to take into consideration in a philosophy query on the work of art. However, if we want to submit to its proper meaning, that is, if we want, in order to corrupt to it, to make it first of all into a problem for us, then the question that immediately arises is: what is rhythm, which Hölderlin attributes to the work of art as it original characteristic?” (94) [3]. So, the category of rhythm “holds men” epochally as a form of incommensurable distance with the world, which Agamben relates to an-archic original structure of dwelling. For Agamben this step-back to the “original site” vis-à-vis rhythm releases “art” as poesis from a productivist “destiny”. So, it would be obvious to say that rhythm, insofar it abolishes the production, it also thematizes the ethical life as the form of life (which is why Agamben also attaches Hölderlin as a counter-figure of the notion of “vocation”) [4]. There is no form of life without rhythm in nearness to the common ground. 

c) In Autoritratto nello studio (2017), Agamben glosses (a) and (b), that is, he recognizes the importance of Von Hellingrath reconstruction of the late Hölderlin of the Pindaric translations and the fragmentary syntax, but now situates him at the center of modernity. Agamben writes: “Walser noted, as Hölderlin before him, that the world had become simply unhabitable. And there was not even the possibility of amending it…I am convinced that Hölderlin in his last thirty years of this life was not unhappy, as some professors of literature tend to describe him. On the contrary, Hölderlin was able to dream at his house without worrying about duties. The Tubingen tower and the clinic of Herisau: these are two places that we should never cease to reflect upon. What took place behind these walls – the rejection of reason by these two poets [Walser and Hölderlin] – is the most powerful rejection against our civilization” (140-141) [5]. So here Hölderlin, like Walser, is an epochal gestalt capable of generating the separation between thinking and doing, world and experience, which became totalized in the legitimacy of the modern. What could be interpreted as ‘domestic interiority’ for the poet becomes a symptom of a radical form of dwelling at the end of reason subsumed by nihilism.

d) Finally, in a recent essay published this year entitled “Hölderlins antitragische Wendung”, Agamben goes a step further to qualify Hölderlin’s breakthrough, taking radical distance from his relation to the tragic and identifying him as a poet that must be read in a comic register. This is all the more surprising given that, as Agamben himself notes, there is almost no mention of comedy in Hölderlin’s prose, except in the review of Siegfried Schmid’s play The Heroine. And although it is true one could argue that Hölderlin undertook a destruction of the tragic poet in The death of Empedocles, as far as I am aware there has been no interpretation of Hölderlin as opening to the “comedy of life”, except for a brief mention, almost in passing, about his laughter by the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto [6]. Agamben concludes his essay suggesting that: “With this concept of “ordinary life” I should like to conclude my reflections, at least for the time being. Isn’t it precisely this ordinary life, what in the thirty-six years in the tower, Hölderlin’s life and poetry – or his “poetry” – have persistently sought to carry it out in an exemplary and funny way? And isn’t “ordinary” life the same as the “living” life (to live according to habitus and habits), which is distant and perfect in the last tower poems: When people go into the distance, living life …?” In any case, if Hegel defines the idyll as “the half descriptive, half lyrical poems […] and mainly nature, the seasons, etc., the subject matter”; then the tower poems – this extreme, incomparable poetic legacy of the West – are an idyll of the genre” (40) [7]. And here Hölderlin appears not just as another figure in “the age of the poets” (and the genialismus‘ commanding force), but rather as the moment in which the problem of life opens to its inoperosità. The unity of humanity now navigates the fragmented reality not through the subject, but rather through the singular form of life. Comedy, then, in the idyll genre in which life is freed from both desire and liberty.




1. Carl Schmitt. Glossarium: Aufzeichnungen aus den Jahren 1947 bis 1958 (Duncker & Humblot, 2015). 114.

2. Giorgio Agamben. Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1993).  

3. Giorgio Agamben. The Man without Content (Stanford U Press, 1999). 

4. Giorgio Agamben. “Vocazione e voce”, in La potenza del pensiero (Neri Pozza, 2005). 77-89.

5. Giorgio Agamben. Autoritratto nello studio (nottetempo, 2017). 

6. Andrea Zanzotto. “Con Hölderlin, una leggenda”, in Friedrich Hölderlin: Tutte le liriche (Mondadori, 2001). i-xxiv.

7. Giorgio Agamben. “Hölderlins antitragische Wendung”, Studi Germanici, 17, 2020. 27-40.

The technification of thinking: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Writings (V). by Gerardo Muñoz

In the “Fourth Prison Notebook”, Gramsci offers a treatment of the science of “historical materialism”. A science that is not to be understood as a region of thought, but rather as a totalization and condition of possibility of the very opening of a new epoch. At some point in the notebook, Gramsci writes the following (which is also exemplary exposition of the reduction of his program): “As a matter of fact, historical materialism has no need for extraneous support: it is itself so robust that the old world turns to it to supply its own arsenal with some more effective weapons. This means that while historical materialism is not subjected to hegemonies, it has itself stared to exercise a hegemony over the old intellectual world. (156). We do not want to put too much pressure on the term “intellectual” here, but it is a notable expression. There is a dual logic of “hegemony” at play: hegemony is both the archê that can sustain an epoch phantasmatically never fully closing it; while, at the same time, it is also the opening of the epoch of the “reign of freedom”, which is the discovery of historical materialism as a science of totality. When Gramsci writes that historical materialism has potential hegemony over the totality of the intellectual world, he is strongly positing a civilizational principle as a new conception of the spiritualization of the world. From this basic condition of transitional political thinking, it is difficult to see how Gramscianism can ever be freed from Hegelianism, given that Hegelianism is what informs substantially the theory of hegemonic reduction. Hegemony: what reduces the world.

         At the same time, and in order to secure this transition to this new epochal principle, another operation comes to the forefront: to obtain hegemony over the totality of the old intellectual world requires a technified form of thinking as such vis-à-vis its intellectual class as an active player in the process. A few pages later after he treats the exception to epochal hegemonies, Gramsci writes that: “…the importance of the technique of thinking in the construction a pedagogical program; here, again, one cannot make the comparison between the technique of thinking and the old rhetorics…the technique of thinking cannot be compared to these things, which is why one can say that it is as important to teach this technique as it is to reading and writing.” (160). This thematizes the political hegemony that harbors above the alleged organic development of the new epoch; as if, the menace of the deviation from hegemony is a “bad adventure” in thought, a derailing of intensity that needs to be straighten out by the force of pedagogic reinforcement. Gramsci recognizes that thought does not have a technique, but it is in virtue of said absence that its instrumentalization must be set tightly. There is no doubt that this is catastrophic. This is the internal catastrophe of any thought when reduced to hegemony. By positing thought as pedagogical techne, Gramsci cancels any possible relation to the world. The world has already been annihilated, since it has been taken to the limit of its realization, making it only accessible from the condition of the specie’s alienation with reality. To a certain extent, pedagogy and the “common school” program stands for the performance of the laws that make up the new science of history. Hegemony becomes the accessory that guarantees the entry into a theoretical totality that pushes out any relation with the world. 

There is a “genetic problem” that can be contested even at the level of its own “scientific” assumptions. Already Hans Blumenberg in The Genesis of the Copernican World (1975) argued that the configuration of a totality of knowledge is impossible given its heterogenous conditions and “inherent pressures of its workings”. There problem of epochal hegemony, then, it is not that it elevates a supreme and all-inclusive principle; but rather that, as a concept, it cannot name a process of rationalization required to advance a civilizatory principle. Indeed, Gramsci calls “the conquest of the historical world, a new civilization” (164). This is why Gramscian appeals again and again to Catholic ecclesiastical administrative capacities for the formation of the new communist integral state. However, whereas for Weber “bureaucratic rationalization” was an organic process within history; for Gramsci, on the contrary, it is conceptual and pedagogical. In other words, it is a mimesis that transforms itself as a command of the Party, the militant, and disciplinary orientation. The Gramscian cosmos of production is a secular form of angeology for the intellectual class that must guide the working class (203). Of course, as we know, angels are not mere mediators between God and the sublunar world, they are also the keepers that glorify the dogma. And dogma here is the secular science of historical materialism. 

One last point about the date of this notebook (1932). This is most certainly a Gramsci that is no longer the one writing in the 1910s full of enthusiasm and good convictions; a Gramsci that could sense the trembling of gates of the revolution conquering the world. On the contrary, the Gramsci writing in the wake of the 1930s is one that is already noticing that “workerism” is dominion and form, or form that is already the byproduct of total mobilization. It is no coincidence that Ernst Jünger’s The Worker is published this year. At this point the worker is no longer a fixed transcendental category of the philosophy of history, but rather an energetic gestalt driven by mobilization and will to power. This means that formation – giving form – is always infinite, while the world remains objectivized into this total encompassing movement. Gramsci would mobilize intellectuals – but also thinking and imagination – to accomplish the labors of hegemonic politics.

The problem, already in 1932, should have been contested at the level of the form of life and distance between domination and world that I call post-hegemony. The false exit was taken: the multiplication of the modes of production, including the production of an “intellectual class” in an attempt to tilt the bourgeois order towards true hegemony. By 1930s it becomes clear that Gramsci cannot stand up to a problem oriented at the level of the critique of metaphysics. By adopting the science of historical materialism, Gramsci seems only capable of giving us a regional political practice masked by the metaphyisical pretensions of universality and totality. It wasn’t enough then, and it is most definitely not enough today. 

An epoch unmoved (IV). by Gerardo Muñoz

When I cut through things it means that I encounter a relief in the world. Now, a relief is something that takes us by surprise, although it is not hidden, as it is always there in the open. It is pure exteriority. Picture the cross-bedding tabular-planar layers on a bedding plane of a mountain. Thus, a relief is not a void nor is something that one accomplishes. On the contrary, it appears, and it transforms the world into a fragmentation of things. I would not be able to visualize a relief without first having an encounter. Hence the relief is a world that is freed from cartography: in this sense, it is a sub-world or ultra-world in its appearance. The relief takes place at ground level, but it is not grounded; it an event of the surface, but its ultimate determination is the sky or the landscape. I think that here the maximum distance with the metropolis becomes clear.

What is a metropolis at the end of the day? A possible definition: it is a total surface without reliefs. The prohibition of reliefs (an old monothetic superstition) confirms the aura of the epoch without movement. When all we have are extended surfaces, then anyone could be at anyplace any given time. The encounter with an irreducible thing is fulfilled by the relation with any object. An object that is really not an object but an icon. The consequence of this transformation of experiencing the world is immense; it entails nothing more than the destruction of the time of life compensated with relations with the surface.

How does a relief come to being? How does it appear in the open? Thinking about this in the past couple of days, it occurred to me that a moment in Pindar’s “Isthmian 4” ode offered an image of relief; an imagen that I have not been able to escape from since I first read it a few years ago. Pindar says:

“during the struggle, but in cunning (mētis) he is a fox

whirling onto its back (anapitanmena) to check the eagle’s swoop.

One must do everything to weaken the enemy” (Nem. 4.45-48).

The fox becomes a relief on the surface, and in doing so, it produces an exit from enmity. Unlike the wolf, the fox does not run away from the territory; it finds the “escape route” within the apparent. The term anapitanmena means ‘stretching” across the surface. Its character as kerdō (“the wily one”) guarantees its cunning movement from within its body. Indeed, according to Detienne & Vernant in their Cunning intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (1978), the “escape” – which Pindar’s Greek used “olisthanein” – stages the image of the wrester’s oiled body coming unloose from the opponent’s grip. The fox’s “via du uscita” takes place as relief that unstraps the reduction of a surface. Similarly, in Oppian’s Treatise on hunting (211), the fox’s wily character (dōlos) dwells in the threshold between dead and alive, becoming even “more alive than the living” (Detienne & Vernant, 35). However, it is not just a wrestling metaphor of physical force, as Detienne and Vernant beautifully explain, the fox’s intelligence occurs thanks to the flexibility that dissolves the inside and the outside:

“Thanks to its energy and flexibility (hugrotēta) it is able to change its body (metaballein tò sōma) and turn it inside out (strephein) so that the interior becomes the exterior: the hook falls out. Aelian provides full confirmation on the subject of this maneuver: ‘it unfolds its internal organs and turns them inside out, divesting itself of its body as if it were a shirt…The fox, being the embodiment of cunning can only behave as befits the nature of an intelligence full of wiles. If it turns back on itself it is because it is, itself, as it were, mētis, the power of reversal” (Detienne & Vernant, 37).

Not in the body but in the shirt, that is, in the garment. The fox embodies the relief that externalizes the surface with the kinetic energy of the inappropriable. Whoever has encountered a fox knows this from experience. The fox blends with the landscape, but it does not become one with it. This minimal apparent distance is the creation of the relief. Only now, after some years in Pennsylvania, I am able to make sense of an encounter with a wild fox in the backyard. There was no confrontation or desperate seeking out, but a moment of detention that seemed to cut against everything else happening around it lending itself to the encounter. The fox always waits for you even before you are near the encounter. What is this lapsus-time within time? Here again, perhaps a poet can give us a hand. In a poem surprisingly called “Metropoli” (1958) by Vittorio Sereni, we encounter a modern fox, or rather a fox in a modern setting. It is a more familiar fox than Pindar’s wily creature, since we in no condition today to be able to understand the epic of Greek wrestling, or the practice of hunting, or the life of the polis. Sereni makes a more manageable sense of the figure possible. The important verses from the second stanza are:

« […] vecchia volpe

abbagliata di città, come muove al massacro:

la sua eleganza, qualità̀

prettamente animale tra le poche che l’uomo

può̀ prestare alle cose» (Sereni 2006, 190)

Like Pindar’s fox, this old fox is dazzled because it “moves” towards the apparent. This mode of violence – “a massacro”, for Sereni – is not necessarily depredatory. What follows is an explicit thematization of style: an elegance that has a quality that is scarce among humans. This elegance is not an abstract characterization of being a fox, but rather how the apparent, in the clothing, invests the animal in one life. But it seems to me that the enjambment for Sereni falls on the last verse: “può prestare alle cose”. “It lends to things” – in other words, it finds itself at home with the things he finds.

Again, like in Pindar, he becomes a relief among things, because now things are separated and not just “ordered”. The stylization of the fox in the modern voice of Sereni is the passage from the extreme physicality of the olisthanein to the “eleganza” granted by the dressing with the surface. There is no vanitas in this dressing-up; it is rather a contact of appearances that, in suspending the unlimited contours, it exposes the glitter of the relief. The relief turns out to be a garment.



*Imagen: The visit of a fox in the backyard, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 2018. From my personal archive. 

An epoch unmoved (III). by Gerardo Muñoz

I find myself returning to Ramón Williams’ photograph “The Iceberg” (2013). It is a rather simple composition, but one that builds a strange and uncanny sense of place. It liberates a vista, but it cut through a solid structure that forecloses the horizon with a harsh juxtaposition. This rocky texture becomes one with the sea. Interior and exterior, forefront and background appear at a level of proximity that the movement of de-structuring assists in framing. Williams’ picture draws us towards a non-object: the very possibility of view. It is an experiment with a sense of surface that recalls another geological time; a sense that all too quickly recoils back to earth. It puts us near the matter of view. By liberating the eye, a clear sense of the world takes place.

Now, to be moved in an epoch of closure means that we narrow on the constraint. This is Williams’ challenge: the all too rocky surface bestows a sense of distance, and thus, an outside. This is no longer an abstraction of the medium or an effect of ‘theatricality’. Presumably, all of that is dissolved under the condition of the view. We are standing somewhere; not precisely in water, nor in the city. “The Iceberg” is a farewell to the metropolis at the moment in which desertion is no longer an aspiration but a taking place. There is no horizon and no time either leaving or coming. We are in a lapsus of inhabiting a fragment of the world. Here I experience the outside. Is not this what remains on the other side of the unmoved? I take this to be the question prompted by Williams’ picture.

I want this photograph to speak to me about desertion from the world unmoved. We can recall that Agamemnon uses a specific word to describe his conundrum: lipanous. Specifically, he asks: “How should I become a deserter (pōs liponaus genōmai)?” As it has been explained, the condition of lipanous is not just anyone, but a deserter from a ship. It is no longer how I can lead myself astray from the tasks of the heedless navigator, nor if I can pretend to be an ally in a ship possessed by a silent mutiny. The lipanous, on the contrary, moves beyond alliance and helpless dissensus towards a movement that experiences the clear. This means that the task of a deserter in thought is facilitated by the view. It is no longer language as an exteriority of things; it is how things become irreducible to the language in a decentered image without objects. Whereas in the city I can identify volumes; as a lipanous I am granted a new vision.

Here poetry assists us in a movement towards self-recension. Jana Prikyl writes in a wonderful verse: “Appian way, autobahn – those folks’ wildest dreams too were escape routes.” Obviously, these roads cannot longer prepare a flight. The Appian road and autobahn are civilizational tracks of a world now lost. This is at the heart of Williams’ craft: the course of de-civilization begins with lipanous at the level of the most apparent; not in the sea and most definitively not at ground level. Prikyl writes in the next verse: “with maybe a girl in evening dress waking onboard that takes vision.”

This little thought experiment doubles Williams’ phototactic concern by asking the following: how do we take a vision of a lighted world as a natural element for inclination? What ‘moves’ here is no longer the instantaneous stimulus of the waking to the vision. It is a via di uscita. But a vision of a particular kind, in which I am forced to be a deserter – chipped from the mast of the world into the melody with the true things (étuma).




*Image: Ramón Williams, “The Iceberg” (2013).