Giorgio Agamben

Transcribed and translated by Arianna Bove from Uninomade audio files available on in 2005

The thoughts I am going to share with you today are born out of a malaise, or rather a series of questions that I asked myself during a meeting in Venice that took place some time ago and saw the participation of some of the people who are here today (Toni Negri, Luca Casarini …). At the meeting, a term kept coming up, that is, ‘movement’. As you know, this is a word with a long history in our tradition, and also seems the most recurrent in Toni’s intervention today. In his book too, the word recurs in strategic positions every time he attempts to define what is meant by multitude; for instance, when the concept of multitude needs to be torn away from the false alternative between sovereignty and anarchy. So, my malaise and questions emerged when realising for the first time that this word was never defined: those who used it, me included, neither could nor would define it. In the past I would often use as an implicit rule of my thinking practice the formula: ‘when the movement is there, act as if it was not there; when it’s not, act as if it was’. Now I realise that I did not know what the word ‘movement’ meant: aside from its lack of specificity, everyone seems to understand it but no one defines it.

First of all, for instance, where does it come from? How was it that, at some point, a decisive political instance came to be called ‘movement’? My questions today arise out of the recognition that it is not possible to leave this concept undefined; we must think about the movement because this concept is our ‘un-thought’, and so long as it remains such it risks compromising our choices and strategies. This is not just a philological scruple due to the fact that terminology is ‘the poetic’, hence productive moment of thought, nor do I want to do this because it is my job to define concepts, as a habit. I really do believe that the a-critical use of concepts can be responsible for many defeats and failures. Clearly I have only just began to advance the proposal to look into a definition of this word, so I will simply try to outline some basic considerations and plant a few pickets that might be useful to orient future research.

First, some banal historical data: the concept of movement that in the sciences and philosophy has a long history, only acquires a technically relevant meaning in politics in the 19th century. One of its first appearances dates back to the French July Revolution of 1830, when the agents of change called themselves partie du mouvement and their adversaries partie du l’ordre. Only with Lorenz von Stein, an author who influenced both Marx and Schmitt, this concept becomes more precise and begins to define a strategic field of application. In his The History of Social Movement in France (1850) von Stein plays the notion of movement in dialectical opposition to the notion of state. The state is the static and legal element, whilst the movement is the expression of the dynamic forces of society. So the movement is always social and in antagonism with the state, and it expresses the dynamic primacy of society over juridical and state institutions. However, von Stein does not define movement: he ascribes to it a dynamic and designates its function but he neither provides a definition nor a τόπος or place for it.

Some interesting historical indication for the history of movements can be found in Arendt’s book on totalitarianism. She does not define movement, however, but shows that around the First World War, immediately before and immediately after it, movements in Europe undergo an exceptional development, this time in a strategic opposition to parties, when the latter enter a period of crisis. In this period there is a real explosion of the concept and phenomenon of movement, a terminology that is markedly used both by the right and the left: Fascism and Nazism always define themselves as movements first and only secondly as parties.

However, this term exceeds the political realm: it can be found anywhere (if you have approached Walter Benjamin’s oeuvre you know how important to his development was the Jugend Bewegung, the youth movements). But to mention an example from outside the political realm, when in 1914 Freud wanted to write a book in order to describe what he was part of, rather than discipline, institution or school, he called it a psychoanalytical movement. There is still no definition here, but evidently in certain historical moments, some code words irresistibly impose themselves and become adopted by antagonistic positions, without needing to be defined. The most embarrassing stage of my research, where blindness to the concept becomes visible, was when I realised that the only person who tried to define this term in the juridical and political field was a Nazi jurist: Carl Schmitt.

In 1933, in an essay entitled Staat, Bewegung, Volk (State, Movement, People) and subtitled (The Tripartition of Political Unity), Schmitt tries to clearly define the political constitutional function of the notion of movement. This is embarrassing because in this essay he tries to define the constitutional structure of the Nazis Reich. I will briefly summarise his thesis, given that this terminological promiscuity with a thinker of Nazism demands clarity and lucidity, without which it would be impossible to get out of this promiscuity. According to Schmitt, the political unity of the Nazi Reich is founded on three elements, or members: state, movement and people. The constitutional articulation of the Reich thus results from the articulation and distinction of these three elements. The first element, Schmitt says, is the state, which is the static political side: the apparatus of the offices. The people is on the other hand, mind you, the non-political, un-political element that grows in the shadow and under the protection of the movement. The movement is the real political element, the dynamic political element that finds its specific form in its relation with the National Socialist Party and its direction and the Führung, but importantly for Schmitt the Führer is no other than a personification of the movement. Now I want to consider the implications of this tripartition, which incidentally Schmitt suggests is also present in the constitutional apparatus of the Soviet state.

My first consideration is that the primacy of the notion of movement lies in the function of the becoming un-political of the people (remember that the people is the un-political element that grows in the shadow and under the protection of the movement). So a first important consequence is that the movement becomes the decisive political concept when the democratic concept of the people, as a political body, is in demise. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us to say that democracy ends when movements emerge. Substantially there are no democratic movements (if by democracy we mean what traditionally regards the people as the political body constitutive of democracy, if one could think of a democracy that is not grounded on this notion of people then it would be a different question). On this premise, revolutionary traditions on the left agree with Nazism and Fascism. It is not by chance that contemporary thinkers who try to think of a new political body, such as Toni, take a distance from the people and opt for the multitude that in Hobbes is set in opposition to the people. For me and those with a lexical or lexicographical sensibility, it is significant that around Jesus there are never λαός or δήμος (technical terms for people in Greek) but only όγκος (a mass, multitude, turba, as Saint Gerolamo translates it). The concept of movement presupposes the eclipse of the democratic notion of people as constitutive political body. This is the first thing we need to be aware of when using the concept of movement.

The second implication of this Schmittian concept of movement is that the people is an un-political element whose growth the movement must protect and sustain (Schmitt uses the term Wachsen, biological growth, of plants and animals). As Schmitt proceeds to say, to this un-political people corresponds the un-political sphere of the administration, and he also evokes the fascist corporatist state. Looking at it today we can’t help seeing in this determination of the people as un-political the implicit recognition, which Schmitt never dares to articulate, of its biopolitical character. The people is now turned from constitutive political body into population: a demographical biological entity, and as such un-political, that the movement has to protect, sustain and let grow. Hence in Schmitt’s theory, when during the 19th century the people ceased to be a political entity and turned into demographical and biological populations, the movement became a necessity. This is something we must be aware of: we live in an era when the transformation of people into population, or of a political into a demographic entity, is an accomplished fact. The people is today a biopolitical entity strictly in Foucault’s sense and this makes the concept of movement necessary. If we want to think the notion of biopolitics differently, as Toni does, and I am close to him in this, though from a different perspective and with more caution, and if we want to think about the intrinsic politicisation of the biopolitical, which is already thoroughly political and needs not be politicised through the movement, then we have to rethink the notion of the movement too: we cannot use this notion a-critically if we wish to rethink the politics of the biopolitical.

This labour of definition is necessary because if we carry on reading Schmitt we see threatening aporiae: in so far as the movement is the determining political and autonomous element and the people is in itself un-political, then the movement can only find its own being political by assigning to the un-political body of the people an internal caesura that allow for its politicisation. In Schmitt, this caesura is what he calls the identity of species, i.e. racism. Here Schmitt reaches the highest identification with racism and the greatest co-responsibility with Nazism. This is a fact but we must also recognise that this choice, of being forced to identify a caesura in the un-political element of the people, is an immediate consequence of his notion of the function of the movement. If the movement is the political element as the autonomous entity, where can it draw its politics from? Its politics can only be founded on its capacity to identify an enemy within the people, in Schmitt’s case a racially extraneous element. Where there is movement there is always a caesura that cuts through and divides the people, in this case, identifying an enemy. This is why I believe that we must rethink the notion of movement and clarify its relation to the people and multitude. In Schmitt we clearly see that the element excluded from the movement comes back as what must be decided upon: the political must decide upon the un-political. The movement politically decides on the un-political. It can be racial, but today it can also often be a function of the management or government of the un-political element which is the population, the biological body of humankind and peoples that need governing.

These are my questions: firstly, do we have to keep using the concept of movement? If it signals a threshold of politicisation of the un-political, can there be a movement that takes on a different form from civil war? Or in what direction can we rethink the concept of movement and its relation to biopolitics? I won’t provide you with any answers here, it is a long term research project. But I have some indications.

As you know, the concept of movement is central to Aristotle’s thought as κίνηση, which has a strategic function in the field of the relation between power and act. Aristotle interestingly defines movement as the act of a power as power, rather than the passage to action. Secondly he says that movement is ατελής, an imperfect act, without an end. Here I would suggest a modification to his view, and maybe Toni might agree with me for once on this: that movement is the constitution of a power as power. But if this is true then we cannot think of movement as external or autonomous in relation to the multitude or the people. It can never be the subject of a decision, organisation, direction of the people, or the element of politicisation of the multitude or the people.

Another interesting aspect in Aristotle is that movement is an unfinished, unaccomplished act, without τέλος, which means that movement keeps an essential relation with a privation, an absence of τέλος. The movement is always constitutively the relation with its lack, its absence of an end, or έργον, or τέλος and work. What I always disagree with Toni about is this emphasis placed on productivity. Here we must reclaim the absence of work as a central moment and this expresses the impossibility of a τέλος and έργον for politics. Movement is the impossibility, indefiniteness and imperfection of every politics. It always leaves a residue. In this perspective the motto I cited as a rule for myself might be reformulated in ontological terms as this: ‘the movement is that which if it is, is as if it wasn’t, it lacks itself; and if it isn’t, is as if it was, it exceeds itself’. It is the threshold of indeterminacy between an excess and a deficiency that marks the limit of every politics in its constitutive imperfection.

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