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Giorgio Agamben and the Voice of Death


Giorgio Agamben and the Voice of Death


Martijn Buijs

Does an essential yet still unthought relation between death and language exist? Martijn Buijs turns to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben to reconstruct his analysis of the voice in relation to death and with reference to both Aristotle and Martin Heidegger, examining along the way being, language and the ethical consequences arising from it.

In The Essence of Language, Martin Heidegger writes:

Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but still remains unthought.

Man as mortal speaks; speaking, man is mortal. Do these two sentences present the contingent overlapping of two attributes of man, either of which could be thought without the other? Or is there, indeed, an essential yet still unthought relation between death and language? And if one were to grant there is such a relation, would it perhaps provide the way for us to understand the being of man in its most intimate sense? Or yet, might it rather be the case that the relation between language and death, strong if inarticulate a hold as it may have on the history of Western thought, is itself fundamentally problematic, not as a mistake one could with more rigorous logic rectify, but as a net within which thinking is wrapped up and from which it needs to extricate itself if it is to overcome its present predicament? Is there such a predicament?

That there is such a predicament, and that this predicament is essentially an ethical one, is the fundamental thesis of Giorgio Agamben’s early study Language and Death. Agamben writes:

Both the ‘faculty’ for language and the ‘faculty’ for death, inasmuch as they open for humanity the most proper dwelling place, reveal and disclose this same dwelling place as always already permeated by and founded in negativity. Inasmuch as he is speaking and mortal, man is, in Hegel’s words, the negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is” or, according to Heidegger, the “placeholder (Platzhalter) of nothingness”.

Agamben’s analysis focuses on this place of negativity which, by his lights, man occupies in the tradition of Western metaphysics; and he will conclude that if one cannot account for what is proper to man other than through the negative, one will not be able to think the ethical either – and thus remain mired in the disturbing political consequences of that failure. Our contemporary world is not witnessing the end of metaphysics, but, as Agamben writes,

simply the unveiling and the devastating arrival of its final negative ground at the very heart of ēthos, humanity’s proper dwelling place. This arrival is nihilism, beyond which contemporary praxis (or ‘politics’) have not yet ventured. On the contrary, that which thought attempts to categorize as the mystical, or the Groundless, or gramma, is simply a repetition of the fundamental notion of onto-theo-logy. (Language and Death)

Agamben thus insists that, whether in its Wittgensteinian, Heideggerian, or Derridean guise, contemporary thought forms the negative culmination of the metaphysical tradition; and that, if it remains the task of thought to find man’s “proper dwelling place”, a way has to be found to escape the negativity to which this tradition was and remains bound.

In Language and Death, Agamben will proceed through an eclectic reading of key works in the history of philosophy, theology and literature to determine the crucial site of negativity as the voice. How precisely are we to understand this diagnosis and the elusive hints at a cure offered? In what follows a critical reconstruction of Agamben’s analysis of the voice will be offered, with attention to the cases of Aristotle, who first declared man to be an animal endowed with speech, and in particular Heidegger, who infuses Aristotle’s insights on the nature of man with a fundamental awareness of his ontological finitude. Thus, as we will see, the voice for Heidegger remains the voice of death.


In Aristotle’s Politics, there are three forms of sociality: the family, the household, and the state. Of these three, family and household are essentially incomplete, because they do not contain within themselves the end of sociality. That end is self-sufficiency; the state alone can achieve this, and is both the enabling condition and the highest actualization of man’s natural pursuit. Nor is it merely the outward necessities of life which make only the state self-sufficient; it is man’s nature as both essentially linguistic and essentially ethical.

[M]an alone of animals possesses speech. The voice, it is true, can signify pain and pleasure, and therefore is possessed by the other animals as well […], but speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the just and the unjust; for it is proper to men in distinction from the other animals that they alone have perception of good and bad and just and unjust and the other [such qualities], and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a state. (Politics)

Man is by his very nature a political animal not because of his outward needs but because he is an animal essentially endowed with speech. Our sociality is infused with speech, just as speech is inherently social, and together these make up the ethical realm.

These insights on man’s nature as founded in sociality, speech and orientation towards the good are taken up in Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein, an analysis which will take us beyond Aristotle to the phenomenon of death. Here we find what is essentially a systematic ontological re-casting of what in Aristotle may still seem a somewhat disorderly whole of observations of a now biological, now anthropological, now ethical kind. Heidegger insists that the kind of beings that we are always already find themselves constituted in their being as being-with-others. Out of our essentially shared world we act in pursuit of what Aristotle calls ‘some good’ and Heidegger terms the ‘for-the-sake-of-which’, that possibility towards which Dasein projects itself; and our being-with-others in pursuit of such possibilities is always already revealed in language – language, that is, not as the capacity for utterance and predication, but rather as the articulable whole of meaning.

The site of our existence reveals itself equally and equiprimordially as being with others, orientation towards a for-the-sake-of-which, and language. Yet according to the Heideggerian analysis, these three determinations describe man in the dispersal of his everydayness, proximally and for the most part; they do not yet render intelligible the structure of human existence in its depth and as a whole. Whence is it, after all, that man acquires the content of his specific language, his sociality and the ends he strives to attain? These do not simply grow naturally out of man’s being; much rather man finds himself thrown into them by the accidents of his birth in time and place, history and culture, and though they always already constitute Dasein so that they cannot simply be abstracted from, they are in themselves ungrounded. Yet despite this, Dasein in its proximate mode has taken over from the others amongst which it finds itself and from which it does not distinguish itself as altogether steady and self-evident its world as it is shaped by an orientation to possibilities and the language in which they are understood.

We first seize the whole of human existence, by contrast, when looking to one particular possibility among the many possibilities open to Dasein, and that is that of the coming to an end of all one’s possibilities. This possibility is death – death, that is, not as decrepitude and final ceasing-to-be of biological life, but rather as the phenomenon of man’s final and ownmost possibility that singles him out. Such being-towards-death for Heidegger constitutes Dasein’s authentic mode of being.

But if Dasein is mostly and proximally absorbed by and dispersed in the world in which it finds itself thrown, how is this phenomenon first revealed? We are fundamentally attuned to the world as a place that holds significance for us, that is, it is revealed to us not as a neutral space of objective properties, but as an interlaced web of possibilities that concern us and that we always already have taken up the affective disposition of a certain mood to, whether it be fear or jubilation or outright indifference. Of all the modes of such attunement to the world, Heidegger singles out as privileged phenomenon the mood of anxiety, in which we are gripped not by a fear of this threat or that, not one possibility in the world or another, but by the groundlessness of our world as such and all its possibilities, from which now Dasein appears estranged in the very moment of seizing it as a whole. It is in this fundamental mood of anxiety that Dasein can first become open to the voice or call of conscience, which summons it to confront its own guilt. For Dasein is not burdened with guilt, Heidegger argues, for this trespass or that mistake which might have been avoided, but is rather ontologically guilty in that it is nothing but the ungrounded possibilities in which it finds itself thrown. Being guilty is being the ground of a nullity. The voice of conscience which summons Dasein to the ground of its own existence is the authentic mode of the phenomenon of language as such, and as such paradoxically speaks not through this pronouncement or that, but only by remaining silent.

Agamben’s analysis of the essential relation between language and death in Heidegger’s thought is thus confirmed: language here manifests itself most primordially as the voice of death, and as the coming or rather returning to silence of all speech, that is, a sigetics. Yet this analysis does not in itself mean that Agamben’s diagnosis of this relation between language and death as problematic has been substantiated, let alone that it should prove that Heidegger remains captive to the metaphysical tradition and its inherent nihilism which his thinking was geared to overcoming.


Animals as such have, Aristotle admits, a voice which serves as sign of the painful and pleasurable, but only man has speech which discloses the just and unjust. What is a source of immediate delight or pain in its environment, the animal can signify by its voice, but it cannot disclose the realm of right and wrong that lies beyond its ingrained needs and desires. Seen in this light, the animal voice suffers from a deprivation; the voice fails to open up the sphere of meaning that is speech. Heidegger in a similar vein asserts three theses: the stone is without world; the animal is poor in world; man is world-forming. It may seem that in these theses, man and animal are placed on the same continuum, within which man alone may be said to attain the fullness of a dwelling place infused with meaning, yet the animal, though not granted such scope of meaningfulness, is nevertheless understood to be the bearer of some measure of meaning, perhaps inchoate and obscure, yet no less there for all that. Such a conclusion would be hasty, however; for Heidegger does not understand man’s relation to language as a capacity for speech belonging to or inhering in him, but rather as man’s dwelling in language as a fundamentally open and ungrounded whole of meaning in which an understanding of being as such is at stake, an understanding of which the animal’s voice, responding as it does to the immediate dictates of an already given environment in which the animal lives and dies without ever transcending its boundaries, knows nothing.

Agamben now seizes upon this distinction between the animal voice and man’s speech in a particular way. The animal voice appears as a mere acoustic phenomenon. And yet we understand man to have a voice as well – indeed, in Agamben’s reading of Heidegger, the most original form of human language is that of the voice of conscience, which in silence summons us to take upon ourselves our guilt in the face of death. Such a voice cannot be an acoustic phenomenon. What is this voice proper to man?

Agamben answers this question by drawing attention to the particular character of the linguistic phenomenon of the pronoun. Pronouns, whether they be personal pronouns such as I and it, or demonstrative pronouns such as this or there, are deictic – they derive their meaning not from the lexical content of what is said, but from the fact that it is said, in a particular time, place, and circumstance, by a certain speaker, to certain others, etc. They do not signify; they show. How does one explain this power of showing? What pronouns indicate, most fundamentally, is not any real object to which they are somehow tethered, but rather, before any reference to such objects can even become possible, they indicate that language as such is taking place. Pronouns reveal to us what is presupposed in every act of speech yet remains invisible in it – the event of language. This, however, Agamben argues, is more than a mere formal requirement for there being such a thing as language.

Linguistics defines this dimension as the putting into action of language and the conversion of langue into parole. But for more than two thousand years, throughout the history of Western philosophy, this dimension has been called being, ousia. That which is always already demonstrated in every act of speaking […], that which is always already indicated in speech without being named, is, for philosophy, being. The dimension of meaning of the word ‘being’, whose eternal quest and eternal loss […] constitute the history of metaphysics, coincides with the taking place of language; metaphysics is that experience of language which, in every speech act, grasps the disclosure of that dimension, and in all speech, experiences above all the ‘marvel’ that language be. (Language and Death)

What takes place in the taking place of language is being; and it is precisely here, in this mere taking place, that Agamben situates the human voice as it is posited by metaphysics. No longer an acoustic phenomenon, as the animal cry had been; and not yet signification within the field of language, the human voice is the ground from which signification can first arise, though in itself devoid of significance. This human voice is thus the negative, for in itself purely empty, ground upon which language becomes possible.

The problem of the voice for Agamben is, then, that the distinction between on the one hand the animal voice, which is bound to its narrowly circumscribed environment, and on the other the human voice, which founds the openness of man’s being at the price of a negativity which corrupts his ability to have a proper dwelling place at all, is a distinction one side of which is as unappealing at the other. The animal is at home, but not in a world of meaning, and thus remains blind to being; man forms his world, but a world in which he can only ever be uncanny, not at home, alienated by his ownmost voice from the meaning that is there for him.

This, then, is Agamben’s diagnosis of any mode of thought which has recourse to the human voice: it cannot but lead to a scission between man and his language, man and his world, which exiles him from the paradise of meaning which was promised to him, deferring his redemption to eternity. Is this diagnosis ruled by more than an oddly displaced nostalgia for a transcendental ground of meaning beyond all groundlessness? That would depend on what cure Agamben envisions for this present situation. What other possibility of grasping our dwelling in language does he wish to point to?

Those hoping for an answer here will find that Agamben gives but the vaguest and most hypothetical of indications what such dwelling in language would be. Within the confines of Language and Death, he merely notes that, if we could exist in language without the call of any voice, if we were able to die without the call of death, a horizon would open up to us from which we might escape the grasp of nihilism out into a new ethics.

And perhaps only beginning with the eclipse of the Voice, with the no longer taking place of language and with the death of the Voice, does it become possible for man to experience an ēthos that is no longer simply a sigetics. Perhaps man – the animal who seems not to be encumbered by any specific nature or any specific identity – must experience his poverty even more radically. Perhaps humans are even poorer than they supposed in attributing to themselves the experience of negativity and death as their specific anthropogenetic patrimony, and in basing every community and tradition on this experience. (Language and Death)

Is such recourse to the idea of poverty as promising as Agamben thinks? There are certainly grounds to doubt it. After all, the idea of poverty is one not without its own history, from Paul via the monastic tradition to perhaps its most radical statement in the magisterial sermon Beati pauperes spiritu by Meister Eckhart; and this history is one in which poverty appears intimately linked to the very tradition of mystical theology which Agamben seems so keen to repudiate. A poor man, Eckhart tells us, is one who wills nothing, knows nothing, and has nothing; that is, the truly poor man is he who in the most radical emptying out or kenōsis of his creaturely existence becomes like He who is Nothingness itself. Poverty, thus thought, is the highest act of communing with the deus absconditus, who like Plato’s idea of the good is beyond being. A more radical statement of a negative ground would be hard to ferret out in the history of philosophy – if it were granted, that is, that negativity is still the proper form under which to think the God of the mystics that lies equally beyond cataphatic and apophatic theology.

What other directions does Agamben point in? He speaks also of “the ēthos” as “the infantile dwelling – that is to say, without will or Voice – of man in language”. What such infancy would amount to, Agamben has in part attempted to describe in his earlier book Infancy and History through a demanding engagement with Benjamin’s ideas on experience and its destruction in modernity. Yet as Agamben notes himself in a preface written for the French translation, the book could be considered as the prologue to a work which obstinately remained unwritten, and might have borne either the title The Human Voice, or Ethics, or, On the Voice. It might have started, he suggests, with the question whether man has a voice, in the sense that the braying of the ass or the chirping of the cricket are theirs; and if so, whether this voice might be language.

What requires underlining is the fact that, for Agamben, everything in what has been considered here depends on whether such an account can be provided and made to hold; for the existence of such an account would constitute the only available indication that there is such a thing as a relation to language beyond negativity, a thought which, as Agamben admits, is not only far from obvious, but has hitherto not been shown to have any validity; yet without such an indication, there is every reason to mistrust Agamben’s diagnosis, now equally in the air, of Heidegger’s failure to escape falling back into a negative ontotheology.

In the absence of this, would it not be tempting to answer Agamben’s demand for the oneness with one’s voice which the ass and the cricket possess along the lines of how the aging Voltaire addressed Rousseau:

Monsieur, rarely has one seen so much wit deployed to turn us into witless brutes; reading your work makes one want to go around on all fours. Yet as it has been rather many years since I lost the habit of it, I regrettably fear I shan’t be able to take it up again.”


Agamben, Giorgio. Il linguaggio e la morte. Torino: Einaudi, 2008.
 --- Infanzia e storia. Torino: Einaudi, 2001.
Aristotle. Politics. Ed. & tr. H. Rackham. Cambridge: HUP, 1972.
Heidegger, Martin. Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik. Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 1983.
 --- Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1993.
 --- Unterwegs zur Sprache. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2003.
 --- Wegmarken. Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 1996.


Martijn Buijs is a PhD student in the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University. He is preparing a dissertation on the subject of revelation in Schelling’s late philosophy. In addition, he has translated a collection of essays by Giorgio Agamben into Dutch.