How and why did experience and knowledge become separated? Is it possible to talk of an infancy of experience, a “dumb” experience? For Walter Benjamin, the “poverty of experience” was a characteristic of modernity, originating in the catastrophe of the First World War. For Giorgio Agamben, the Italian editor of Benjamin’s complete works, the destruction of experience no longer needs catastrophes: daily life in any modern city will suffice.
Agamben’s profound and radical exploration of language, infancy, and everyday life traces concepts of experience through Kant, Hegel, Husserl and Benveniste. In doing so he elaborates a theory of infancy that throws new light on a number of major themes in contemporary thought: the anthropological opposition between nature and culture; the linguistic opposition between speech and language; the birth of the subject and the appearance of the unconscious. Agamben goes on to consider time and history; the Marxist notion of base and superstructure (via a careful reading of the famous Adorno–Benjamin correspondence on Baudelaire’s Paris); and the difference between rituals and games.