The Destruction of Experience

Today, however, we know that the destruction of experience no longer necessitates a catastrophe, and that humdrum daily life in any city will suffice.  For modern man’s average day contains virtually nothing that can still be translated into experience.  Neither reading the newspaper, with its abundance of news that is irretrievably remote from his life, nor sitting for minutes on end at the wheel of his car in a traffic jam.  Neither the journey through the nether world of the subway, nor the demonstration that suddenly blocks the street.  Neither the cloud of tear gas slowly dispersing between the buildings of the city centre, nor the rapid blasts of gunfire from who knows where; nor queuing up at a business counter, nor visiting the Land of Cockayne at the supermarket, nor those eternal moments of dumb promiscuity among strangers in lifts and buses.  Modern man makes his way home in the evening wearied by a jumble of events, but however entertaining or tedious, unusual or commonplace, harrowing or pleasurable they are, none of them will have become experience. (15-16)

Giorgio Agamben | Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience



Dead Time

The modern concept of time is a secularization of rectilinear, irreversible Christian time, albeit sundered from any notion of end and emptied of any other meaning but that of a structured process in terms of before and after.  This representation of time as homogeneous, rectilinear and empty derives from the experience of manufacturing work and is sanctioned by modern mechanics, which establishes the primacy of uniform rectilinear motion over circular motion.  The experience of dead time abstracted from experience, which characterizes life in modern cities and factories, seems to give credence to the idea that the precise fleeting instant is the only human time. (105)

Giorgio Agamben | Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience

Time & History

Marx’s conception of history has an altogether different context.  For him history is not something into which man falls, something that merely expresses the being-in-time of the human mind, it is man’s original dimension as Gattungswesen (species-being), as being capable of generation — that is to say, capable of producing himself from the start not merely as an individual, nor as an abstract generalization, but as a universal individual.  History, therefore, is determined not, as it is in Hegel and the historicism which derives from him, by an experience of linear time as negation of negation, but by praxis, concrete activity as essence and origin [Gattung] of man.  Praxis, in which man posits himself as origin and nature of man, is at once ‘the first historical act’, the founding act of history, to be understood as the means by which the human essence becomes man’s nature and nature becomes man.  History is no longer, as in Hegel, man’s destiny of alienation and his necessary fall within the negative time which he inhabits in an infinite process, but rather his nature, in other words, man’s original belonging to himself as Gattungswesen, from which alienation has temporarily removed him.  Man is not a historical being because he falls into time, but precisely the opposite; it is only because he is a historical being that he can fall into time, temporalizing himself.

Marx did not elaborate a theory of time adequate to his idea of history, but the latter clearly cannot be reconciled with the Aristotelian and Hegelian concept of time as a continuous and infinite succession of precise instants.  So long as this nullified experience of time remains our horizon, it is not possible to attain authentic history, for truth will always vie with the process as a whole, and man will never be able concretely, practically, to appropriate his own history.  The fundamental contradiction of modern man is precisely that he does not yet have an experience of time adequate to his idea of history, and is therefore painfully split between his being-in-time as an elusive flow of instants and his being-in-history, understood as the original dimension of man. (108-109)

Giorgio Agamben | Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience