The OF Blog: Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath

Monday, January 03, 2011

Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath

"I swear to God, if you don't give me that right now..."

"So help me God, I will..."

"By the honor of my family name and my hope for salvation, I do solemnly swear that everything I say is true..."

Each of the expressions above are examples of oaths.  In today's world, an oath is a relic of an earlier time when pledging one's word was a more awesome event than the mere agreement to tell the truth lest there be a jail term or fine, or in the first example, a mere colloquial expression stripped of its prior associations with curses and the possibility of eternal damnation if the oath were not upheld.  An oath used to mean so much more, but whence its origins?  Is it found in religious rituals, or does its genesis go even further into the shared human past, into the very realm of human language itself?

Italian philosopher Giogrio Agamben explores this issue in the latest part to his Homo Sacer series, The Sacrament of Language:  An Archaeology of the Oath, published in English translation by Stanford University Press in January 2011.  Citing Paolo Prodi's 1992 book, Il sacramento del potere, Agamben opens his monograph on the oath by noting its decline:

In keeping with its central function, the irreversible decline of the oath in our time can only correspond, according to Prodi, to a "crisis in which the very being of man as a political animal is at stake" (ibid.).  If we are today "the first generations who, notwithstanding the presence of some forms and liturgies from the past..., live our own collective life without the oath as a solemn and total, sacredly anchored bond to a political body," this means, then, that we find ourselves, without being conscious of it, on the threshold of "a new form of political association" (ibid.), whose reality and meaning we have yet to recognize. (p. 1)

In discussing matters of oaths, their origins, and their implications for human societies, it is important for us to be cognizant of the fact that we are looking across the temporal river to other times, other ideals.  Some remnants of older traditions regarding oaths still persist among us today (weddings, oaths of office, court proceedings), yet they have lost their potency with the passing of time and the changing of human cultures.  It would be too easy, as other political philosophers have argued, to conflate the oath and its purposes with religious affairs.  Agamben, however, argues against this origin for the oath.  Rather, he proposes the following:

My hypothesis is that the enigmatic institution, both juridical and religious, that we designate with the term oath can only be made intelligible if it is situated within a persepctive in which it calls into question the very nature of man as a speaking being and a political animal.  Hence the contemporary interest of an archaeology of the oath.  Ultrahistory, like anthropogenesis, is not in fact an event that can be considered completed once and for all; it is always under way, because Homo sapiens never stops becoming man, has perhaps not yet finished entering language and swearing to his nature as a speaking being. (p. 11)

Agamben then notes the work done by Émile Benveniste in his 1969 study, Indo-European Language and Society, to clear up confusion surrounding the etymology of the Greek expression horkos.  Benveniste argues that horkos, derived from the earlier word herkos (enclosure, barrier, bond), is "not a word or an act, but a thing, a material invested with evil potency, which confers to the commitment its obliging power" (Benveniste [I], p. 85-86; p. 11).  Horkos, from which is derived the Greek philosophical terms for oaths, their applications, and the effects such have on daily lives, therefore is what Benveniste (and to an extent, Agamben) would argue is a substance, an agent that acts upon the words uttered and which binds the utterer to those words.

Where Agamben differs from Benveniste and other scholars on the oath's history is that this binding substance is not necessarily "religious" in nature.  As Agamben notes in passing in the first pages of his monograph, humans have proved to be more than capable of being religious and irreligious, faithful to the oath and more than capable of perjury, sometimes in the body of the same person.  Agamben notes that scholars have too readily assumed that in the earliest stages of the oath,  the religious and the political have to be conflated into a whole.  He eschews this argument, noting that there is nothing in the earliest recorded legal documents containing oaths to substantiate this argument.  Yes, there may be formulaic expressions invoking local gods and goddesses to serve as witnesses, yet the substance of the oath is ultimately a "verbal act intended to guarantee the truth of a promise or an assertion, which presents the same characteristics attested by the latter sources and that we have no reason to define as more or less religious, more or less juridical." (p. 18)

Agamben continues, noting that in Greek mythology, the very gods are said to swear by objects, whether it be by the River Styx or another sacred object, and that according to Hesiod, even the gods themselves are bound by their very words.  He contrasts that with the Biblical God, whose very λογος is the surety of the oath; nothing more sacred than YHWH himself can such an oath hope to bind (pp. 20-21).  Here, the very words are the binding actions, not the objects or presumed witnesses, but instead the words themselves function as the surety for the oathgiver.  Human oaths, the ancient philosopher Philo notes"

"...have recourse to oaths to win belief, when others deem them untrustworthy; but God is trustworthy [pistos] in his speech as elsewhere, so that his words in certitude and assurance are no different from oaths.  And so it is that while with us the oath gives warrant for our sincerity, it is itself guaranteed by God.  For God is not trustworthy because of [dia] the oath; but it is God that assures the oath" (p. 21)

Agamben devotes much of the remainder of this monograph to exploring the etymologies surrounding the oath.  Earlier, the debate surrounding horkos was noted.  In the middle section of the monograph, discussion of pistis and its relationship with horkos in legal formulae serves to expand and to strengthen Agamben's argument that if an archaeology of the oath is to have value, it must not assume that there is a prelegal phrase, since the very language of the Law constitutes values and understandings that are often at odds with the more mystical realm of magic and faith.  This argument Agamben explores in greater detail toward the end of this monograph.

Related to oaths are curses and the imprecations cast upon those who violate the sacred with the profane.  Agamben remarks:

But what is a curse, and what can its function be here?  Already from the terminological point of view the situation is far from clear.  The terms that designate it, both in Greek and in Latin, seem to have opposed meanings:  ara (and the corresponding verb epeuchomai) mean, according to the lexicons, both "prayer" (and "to pray") and "imprecation, curse" (and "to imprecate, to curse").  The same can be said for the Latin terms imprecor and imprecatio, which are the equivalent of both "to augur" and "to curse" (even devoveo, which means "to consecrate,: is equivalent to "to curse" in the technical sense in the case of a devotio to the infernal gods).  The entire vocabulary of the sacratio is, as is well known, marked by this ambiguity, the reasons for which I have sought to reconstruct elsewhere. (p. 35)

Agamben reiterates here the failure of other scholars to consider that curses, as well as oaths, do not necessarily have to be tied so tightly to magico-religious affairs.  Rather, his argument seems to be that both oaths and curses reflect a linguistic bent, one that might be related to religious belief but which signifies something else.  Faith, along with other concepts, does not necessarily connote a true semantic association, but rather an attempt to define something of "pure existence."  As Agamben states later on in his monograph, quoting Thomas Aquinas:

The meaning of the name of God, then, has no semantic content, or better, suspends and puts in parentheses every meaning in order to affirm through a pure experience of speech a pure and bare existence.

We can therefore specify further the meaning and function of the name of God in the oath.  Every oath swears on the name par excellence, that is on the name of God, because the oath is the experience of language that treats all of language as a proper name.  Pure existence - the existence of the name - is not the result of a recognition, nor of a logical deduction:  it is something that cannot be signified but only sworn, that is, affirmed as a name.  The certainty of faith is the certainty of the name (of God). (p. 53)

Here we finally get to the crux of Agamben's argument.  Utilizing the very name of God as being not just a religious deity who will serve as a guarantor or as a witness to the words and actions of the oathtaker, the name of God represents, Agamben argues, this ideal of a pure, true substance around which the nexus of language and thought revolve.  It is not important whether or not the oathtaker is "religious" or if s/he fails to follow the precepts of religare, the font of religio.  What is essential, however, is that there exist in human language this concept of a binding force that takes our words and makes them something more than puffs of air scattered by the breeze. 

Agamben goes on to argue that unique among species is this concept of a binding force that unites humans, makes our words something important and vital beyond the moment of utterance.  This concept precedes concepts of religion, for the binding elements found in various religious faiths proceed from this belief in a binding, unifying force that makes the act of being human possible.  It is a persuasive argument, one that has much merit, but it is one that is open to counterarguments.  It is equally possible that concepts of binding and religion are coeval and that each arises out of certain core human needs, yet Agamben fails to address this possibility satisfactorily.  It will be interesting to see what counter-arguments might arise that might take Agamben's intriguing hypothesis and develop something that explains not just how the concept of the oath became sacramentalized, but how religion has become so close tied to the idea of binding people together in a faith of a God (or gods and goddesses in polytheistic societies).  There seems to be an underformed argument here (perhaps it is addressed in Agamben's other books in the Homo Sacer series, which I have yet to read) for humans being ritualized beings whose identities are forged in the centrality of Language for their very being.  I am very curious to see if this is indeed the ultimate thrust of Agamben's work and if the promise found in this monograph will be realized when his study is complete.

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