|Francesca Woodman, Untitled|
Nothing – and certainly not the refusal of the doorkeeper – prevents the man from the country from passing through the door of the Law if not the fact that this door is already open and that the Law prescribes nothing. The two most recent interpreters of the legend, Jacques Derrida and Massimo Cacciari, have both insisted on this point, if in different ways. “The Law,” Derrida writes, “keeps itself [se garde] without keeping itself, kept [gardée] by a doorkeeper who keeps nothing, the door remaining open and open onto nothing” (“Préjugés,” p. 356). And Cacciari, even more decisively, underlines the fact that the power of the Law lies precisely in the impossibility of entering into what is already open, of reaching the place where one already is: “How can we hope to ‘open’ if the door is already open? How can we hope to enter-the-open [entrare-l’aperto]? In the open, there is, things are there, one does not enter there. . . . We can enter only there where we can open. The already-open [il già-aperto] immobilizes. The man from the country cannot enter, because entering into what is already open is ontologically impossible” (Icone, p. 69).
Seen from this perspective, Kafka’s legend presents the pure form in which law affirms itself with the greatest force precisely at the point in which it no longer prescribes anything – which is to say, as pure ban. The man from the country is delivered over to the potentiality of law because law demands nothing of him and commands nothing other than its own openness. According to the schema of the sovereign exception, law applies to him in no longer applying, and holds him in its ban in abandoning him outside itself. The open door destined only for him includes him in excluding him and excludes him in including him. And this is precisely the summit and the root of every law. When the priest in The Trial summarizes the essence of the court in the formula “The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come, it lets you go when you go,” it is the originary structure of the nomos that he states.
Stan Brakhage, Dog Star Man, part II
In an analogous fashion, language also holds man in its ban insofar as man, as a speaking being, has always already entered into language without noticing it. Everything that is presupposed for there to be language (in the forms of something nonlinguistic, something ineffable, etc.) is nothing other than a presupposition of language that is maintained as such in relation to language precisely insofar as it is excluded from language. Stéphane Mallarmé expressed this self-presuppositional nature of language when he wrote, with a Hegelian formula, “The logos is a principle that operates through the negation of every principle.” As the pure form of relation, language (like the sovereign ban) always already presupposes itself in the figure of something nonrelational, and it is not possible either to enter into relation or to move out of relation with what belongs to the form of relation itself. This means not that the nonlinguistic is inaccessible to man but simply that man can never reach it in the form of a nonrelational and ineffable presupposition, since the nonlinguistic is only ever to be found in language itself. (In the words of Benjamin, only the “crystal-pure elimination of the unsayable in language” can lead to “what withholds itself from speech” [Briefe, p. 127].)
4.2. But does this interpretation of the structure of law truly exhaust Kafka’s intention? In a letter to Benjamin dated September 20, 1934, Gerschom Scholem defines the relation to law described in Kafka’s Trial as “the Nothing of Revelation” (Nichts der Offenbarung), intending this expression to name “a stage in which revelation does not signify [bedeutet], yet still affirms itself by the fact that it is in force. Where the wealth of significance is gone and what appears, reduced, so to speak, to the zero point of its own content, still does not disappear (and Revelation is something that appears), there the Nothing appears” (Benjamin and Scholem, Briefwechsel, p. 163). According to Scholem, a law that finds itself in such a condition is not absent but rather appears in the form of its unrealizability. “The students of whom you speak,” he objects to his friend, “are not students who have lost the Scripture . . . but students who cannot decipher it” (ibid., p. 147).
Being in force without significance (Geltung ohne Bedeutung): nothing better describes the ban that our age cannot master than Scholem’s formula for the status of law in Kafka’s novel. What, after all, is the structure of the sovereign ban if not that of a law that is in force but does not signify? Everywhere on earth men live today in the ban of a law and a tradition that are maintained solely as the “zero point” of their own content, and that include men within them in the form of a pure relation of abandonment. All societies and all cultures today (it does not matter whether they are democratic or totalitarian, conservative or progressive) have entered into a legitimation crisis in which law (we mean by this term the entire text of tradition in its regulative form, whether the Jewish Torah or the Islamic Shariah, Christian dogma or the profane nomos) is in force as the pure “Nothing of Revelation.” But this is precisely the structure of the sovereign relation, and the nihilism in which we are living is, from this perspective, nothing other than the coming to light of this relation as such.
[From Giorgio Agamben, "Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life", Stanford University Press, 1998]