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Agamben’s “The Lawful, the Obligatory, and the Prohibited”
The Flying Fish brings you an unofficial translation of Maestro Giorgio Agamben’s recent column on Quodlibet
According to Arabic jurists, human actions are classified into five categories, which they list in this way: obligatory, praiseworthy, lawful, reprehensible, and forbidden. To the obligatory is opposed the forbidden, to that which deserves praise is opposed that which is to be reproved. But the most important category is the one that resides in the middle and constitutes, as it were, the axis of the scale that weighs human actions and measures their responsibility (responsibility is said in Arabic legal parlance to mean ‘weight’). If praiseworthy is that the performance of which is rewarded and the omission of which is not prohibited, and reprehensible is that the omission of which is rewarded and the performance of which is not prohibited, lawful is that on which law can only be silent and is, therefore, neither obligatory nor prohibited, neither praiseworthy nor reprehensible. It corresponds to the paradisiacal state, in which human actions produce no responsibility, are in no way ‘weighed’ by law. But—and this is the decisive point—according to Arabic jurists, it is good that this area that law cannot in any way deal with should be as wide as possible because the justice of a city is measured precisely by the space it leaves free of norms and sanctions, rewards and censures.
In the society in which we live, exactly the opposite is happening. The zone of the lawful is shrinking every day, and unprecedented regulatory hypertrophy tends to leave no sphere of human life outside obligation and prohibition. Gestures and habits that had always been considered indifferent to the law are now minutely regulated and punctually sanctioned, to the point that there is hardly any sphere of human behaviour that can be considered simply lawful anymore. First, unidentified security reasons and then, increasingly, health reasons have made it compulsory to have a permit to perform the most habitual and innocent acts such as walking down the street, entering a public place, or going to the workplace.
A society that so narrows the paradisiacal scope of behaviour unweighted by law is not only, as the Arabic jurists believed, an unjust society, but is properly an unliveable society in which every action must be bureaucratically authorised and legally sanctioned, and the ease and freedom of customs, the sweetness of relationships and forms of life, are all reduced to the point of disappearance. Moreover, the quantity of laws, decrees, and regulations is such that not only does it become necessary to resort to experts to know whether a certain action is permissible or prohibited, but even the officials in charge of enforcing the rules become confused and contradictory.
In such a society, the art of life can only consist in minimising the part of the obligatory and the forbidden and conversely enlarging to the maximum the zone of the lawful, the only one in which if not happiness, at least contentment becomes possible. But this is precisely what the wretched who govern us do their utmost to prevent and make difficult by multiplying rules and regulations, controls, and checks. Until the dreary machine which they have built will crash upon itself, jammed by the very rules and devices that were supposed to enable it to function.
November 28, 2022
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Source, in the Italian language: Quodlibet – https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-il-lecito-l-u2019obbligatorio-e-il-proibito