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The use of ears: Agamben overhearing Derrida overhearing Heidegger

The use of ears: Agamben overhearing Derrida overhearing Heidegger

Naomi Waltham-Smith has published a new article on listening in modern European political philosophy in the latest issue of parrhesia: a journal of critical philosophy.

As scholars continue to take stock of Agamben’s L’Uso dei corpi, it is clear that there is much that we’ve already heard before, if only faintly, in earlier parts of the Homo Sacer project. This finale echoes repeated attacks on the presuppositional structure of language, showing Agamben to be a thinker of the unthought and one who, as Derrida observes, claims he is the first to think the unthought. With deliberate irony, I excavate two unthoughts in L’Uso dei corpi that remain as yet unspoken among critical responses.

First, Agamben’s longstanding entanglement with deconstruction goes without any explicit mention in this text beyond subtle allusions to earlier or potential encounters. While Kevin Attell has rigorously examined the relationship between Agamben and Derrida up to 2005, I argue that this more recent, albeit silent, confrontation clarifies the proximity and distance between them. I set Agamben’s use alongside Derrida’s deconstruction of metaphorical usure, arguing that both are ultimately concerned with the Heideggerian theme of the withdrawal of being. I examine to what extent use succeeds in its ambition to deactivate the presuppositional logic of the transcendental.

Second, notwithstanding his preoccupations with sound and sense, there is another Heideggerianism that Agamben doesn’t thematize as such: hearing. Reading Agamben’s sparse references to aurality alongside Derrida’s extensive engagement, I reconfigure Peter Szendy’s overhearing specifically as an usure of the ear. Using the concept to describe how the protagonists mishear one another in trying to hear too much, I overhear the dissonant resonances through which deconstruction remains the presupposition of Agamben’s thought. I argue that an abandonment of the transcendental asks that nothing remain unheard, only modified by the ear.