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The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) Paperback – May 1, 2013
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"Like much of Agamben's writing, The Highest Poverty mixes historical, philosophical, and philological discourse with impressive skill. Agamben's book provokes insight through juxtaposition, analogy, and acts of theoretical imagination." (Brian Britt Journal of Religion)
"Agamben's work remains a thought-provoking and tightly written tract, and a number of trenchant observations can be found therein. For scholars of monasticism, The Highest Poverty will present old texts in productive new lights, and for scholars of philosophy and other disciplines, it will suggest new methods and tools that can be transposed into different fields of study." (Joshua Campbell Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies)
"The range of primary sources Agamben relies on to make his argument . . . is impressively vast. As his readers have come to expect, Agamben demonstrates an uncanny ability to discover enduring significance in obscure corners of the Western tradition while doing justice to their proper historicity." (Brian Hamilton Modern Theology)
"At a time when current anthropological debate has turned toward ontology, this book challenges us to return anew to questions of habits and habitus. The Highest Poverty offers a productive . . . lens through which to examine modernity, its antecedents, and its reimagined futures in the global South. Especially salient for anthropologists is the book's attention to theories of practice and a common life not wholly defined by the logics of capital and formal institutions." (Kerry Chance)
"The Highest Poverty is Agamben's attempt to define what he calls a 'form-of-life,' a mode of living where life and law enter into a zone of indistinction so that one is not able to discern between living according to the law and applying the law to a pre-existing life . . . The first thing that became quite clear in reading this book is the depth of knowledge and understanding Agamben has of monastic history as well as medieval philosophy and theology. He knows the literature, the languages, and the nuances needed for any depth of understanding . . . This book was not written for the spiritual or theological nourishment of monastics and friars. It was written as a piece of political philosophy concerned about the current all-consuming nature of law and what that does to life. Nevertheless, there is a great deal that monastics and friars can learn from the work of Agamben. He shows us a picture of ourselves from a vantage point that we seldom see. There is more to our form-of-life than immediately meets the eye." (Eugene Hensell)
"[I]t deepens the insights of Agamben's earlier work and extends them into the theological realm. . . . Recommended." (A. W. Klink Choice)
About the Author
Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher and political theorist, teaches at the IUAV University in Venice and holds the Baruch Spinoza Chair at the European Graduate School. His most recent book available in English from Stanford University Press is The Kingdom and the Glory (2011).
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But what then is a rule that is a not law? The answer lies in the rule's ability to constitute, rather than merely regulate, the very life it implicates. Which is to say that unlike laws which, belonging to the order of a generality which then applies to an already existing, particular case, rules produce and are generative of the very lives which attempt to 'live in accordance' with them. Marking the difference between the priest and the monk in terms of laws and rules respectively, Agamben thus notes that while the sacraments of an unworthy priest remain valid by virtue of his office rather than his person, an unworthy monk is simply not a monk at all. Unlike the priest's, the monk life thus totally coincides with the rules by which he lives (Opus Dei, Agamben's follow-up to 'The Highest Poverty', chases this line of thought through by tracing the genealogy of 'Office' - another worthy read in it's own right). Calling into question then, the traditional dichotomies between life and rule, generality and particularity, the boundary-crossing cenobitic life reaches it's apogee in what Agamben, following the Monastic fathers, calls the 'form-of-life' from which the book takes it's subtitle.
Ultimately, it's in the Franciscan order in particular that Agamben sees the highest point of indistinciton between life and rule, an indistinction that results in a new and unprecedented theory of property and use; just as the form-of-life is defined by separation from the juridical sphere, so too is the Franciscan use of things defined by it's renunciation of ownership and legal possession. The 'highest poverty' then, amounts to just this attempt to delineate a 'common use of things', not unlike the way in which "air and sunlight are common to all". Despite it's radicality as a doctrine however, Agamben notes that the Franciscans were nonetheless unable, in the last instance, to give positive content to this manner of use, one which at the limit was only ever able to articulate itself negatively with respect to law (as with Hugh of Digne's paradoxical "right to have no rights"). This thwarted messianic movement nonetheless remains instructive for Agamben, who mines it in order to expose a site of thought and practice whose contours, today more than ever, demand to be reckoned with (a reckoning Agamben promises to properly undertake in the last volume of the Homo Sacer series - the yet untranslated 'The Use of Bodies').
In that work on Homo Sacer, it was easy to read Agamben as a harsh critic of law and form, and a privileger of life outside of any kind of form. Texts like "What is an apparatus," seemed to only cement this impression.
In The Highest Poverty, which seems to be part of another line of flight, including The Church and the Kingdom and The Kingdom and the Glory, Agamben approaches this central problematic, but from the other direction. Instead of approaching the problem of law from the point of view of life, he approaches it from the point of view of form--or, more precisely, a form-of-life, that is, a life that is inseparable from form. Such an approach makes this new work (whatever one feels about Agamben's interest in Christianity) indispensible for understanding the entire Homo Sacer problematic. And if one approaches Homo Sacer without simultaneously approaching The Higest Poverty, then one will be half-educated, at best.
The Highest Poverty oribts around two principle concepts. First is "the rule," which Agamben seeks to specify in contrast to law. This culminates in a short reading of the Apostle Paul's dialectic of law and sin, which will be illuminating for those who have read The Time That Remains. Second is "use," which Agamben also seeks to specify in opposition to something else, this time ownership. This problematic of use and owndership illuminates the conflict between the Franciscans and the Church, thereby revealing a strain of Christianity outside the institutions of Church and law that may light up a path of emancipatory practice for us today.