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The Sacrament of Language

ISBN: 978-0-7456-4972-6
128 pages
February 2012, Polity
The Sacrament of Language (0745649726) cover image
Oaths play an essential part in the political and religious history of the West as a 'sacrament of power'. Yet despite numerous studies by linguists, anthropologists and historians of law and of religion, there exists no complete analysis of the oath which seeks to explain the strategic function that this phenomenon has performed at the intersection of law, religion and politics.

The oath seems to define man himself as a political animal, but what is an oath and from where does it originate? Taking this question as its point of departure, Giorgio Agamben's book develops a pathbreaking 'archaeology' of the oath. Via a firsthand survey of Greek and Roman sources which shed light on the nexus of the oath with archaic legislation, acts of condemnation and the names of gods and blasphemy, Agamben recasts the birth of the oath as a decisive event of anthropogenesis, the process by which mankind became humanity. If the oath has historically constituted itself as a 'sacrament of power', it has functioned at one and the same time as a 'sacrament of language' - a sacrament in which man, discovering that he can speak, chooses to bind himself to his language and to use it to put life and destiny at stake.

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Translator's Note

The Sacrament of Language

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  • The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben is one of the mostly widely read and influential philosophers and cultural theorists of the last decade.
  • This is a study of the 'oath' as a bond that ties together the law, citizens and the legislator.
  • Agamben traces this oath back to its Greek and Roman origins and treats it as a decisive event of anthropogenesis - in the becoming human of humankind
  • This will appeal to a wide range of students and scholars in philosophy, cultural studies and the humanities generally.
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"A brilliantly provocative thesis as to why ideological apparatuses, developed to deal with the problem of grounding social life, have led to unnecessary political horror."
Marx and Philosophy

"Full of fascinating ideas and encompasses a great breadth of scholarship."
Kelvingrove Review


"A brilliant work displaying remarkable erudition and startlingly original insights. May this work receive the immediate and lasting readership it deserves."
Leland de la Durantaye, Harvard University

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