(The following is from an e-mail sent to a colleague that attempts to make sense of Agamben’s notion of “infancy” and, more generally, the earlier works.)
At the end of Language and Death, Agamben says that the point is to conceive “of the Voice as never having been, and it no longer thinks the Voice, the unspeakable tradition. Its place is the ethos, the infantile dwelling—that is to say, without will or Voice—of man in language. This dwelling, which has the figure of a history and of a universal language that have never been and are thus no longer destined to be handed down in a grammar, is that which remains here, to be thought”. Right after this passage, Agamben mentions the Eleusinian mysteries again with respect to Hegel’s Phenomenology and says that “every beginning is, in truth, an initiation, every conditum is an abs-conditum”.
It is precisely at the moment where the disparity between what is said and what is meant opens up that Hegel introduces the Eleusinian mysteries such that the impossibility of saying what is meant becomes the very condition of possibility for the power of language to (re)present reality in/as experience. This would be the “divine nature” of language as the experience of death (negativity) according to which death is both the limit of knowledge even as this horizon is surpassed by virtue of the mystery wherein the unsayable remains at the heart of language in its universality and, more importantly, also in the sense in which the divine/universal sublates death and negativity into the experience of presence in consciousness. (This is what makes the very idea of “beginning” problematic in the Phenomenology—the “initiation” into the mysteries is a “beginning before the beginning” where the condition for the conditioned is a condition precisely by withdrawing or subtracting itself as a condition.)
In Infancy and History, infancy is described as a being-silent about its knowledge, or “standing guard” over knowledge in silence (un silenzio da custodire). Here the cue is taken from Benjamin’s analysis of the poverty of experience and the problem of recuperation the very possibility of experience. The point is not a memorialization of experience/history, which would take the form of a speech or discourse (say, of the Holocaust) or a giving voice to the invisible or disenfranchised—to bring them into the totality of history, which is to say, within a conception of experience that is still transcendental or idealist, which Agamben wants to move out of by the “linguistic turn”. In this sense, I see the idea of infancy as a critique of the Hegelian-Marxist solution to the “destruction of experience” insofar as the latter’s conception of experience is basically that articulated in paragraph eighty-six of the Phenomenology. The idea of a fundamental passivity in modernity (of “undergoing” experience without the possibility of negation or critique in thought) isn’t to be resolved by recourse to dialectical or transcendental subjectivity but rather in attention to the subject of language.
But this sub-ject “of” language is one that is displaced in the abs-conditum of language, which cannot be “handed down” in (memorializing) speech because it is that which cannot be spoken and, moreover, is forbidden to be spoken of (the initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries were forbidden to speak during the nighttime ceremonies and also of what occurred during them). As long as language continues to be thought on this basis (Voice, system/structure), then we will never experience history in a way that does not result in things like the World Wars (nihilism, violence, etc). Here infancy is the silence, the non-speaking, the without-Voice that can make experience possible.
Hence this is a non-memorialization, a being-outside of history (what “has never been”), which is related to the “whatever-being” of The Coming Community: “the antimony of the individual and universal has its origin in language. … Linguistic being is a class that both belongs and does not belong to itself … The example is characterized by the fact that it holds for all cases of the same type, and, at the same time, it is included among these. It is one singularity among others, which, however, stands for each of them and serves for all”. But the example is also this particular (singular) thing at the same time. “Exemplary is what is not defined by any property, except by being-called”, i.e., in the name. “Hence the impotent omnivalence of whatever being. … These pure singularities communicate only in the empty space of the example, without being tied by any common property, by any identity. … They are exemplars of the coming community”. This might, like Nietzsche, simply be nominalism grandly stated, but I take the point to be that experience requires the possibility of a new naming (in the “infancy” analogy, it’s the fact that it’s prior to naming that the infant is an infant, i.e., one who cannot (yet) speak). But this isn’t a naming in the sense of a singular demonstrative reference (e.g., Hegel’s “diese”), since that obviously puts us back into the problem of the Voice. But this is where I don’t know what Agamben’s positive program would look like. The idea seems to be that we will always fall back into this problem of the Voice, but the point is to look for the possibility of new articulations, of new voices or radically other voices, such that we continuously face the problem of infancy, perhaps as a new mode of critique.
The only thing I can think of that might provide a clue about this “new voice” is the quasi-mysticism in Agamben’s work on poetry. In his poetics, Agamben says that the model of knowledge he’s developing is one that “has provided the frame both for an examination of human objects transfigured by the commodity [the Benjaminian point], and for the attempt to discover, through analysis of emblematic form and the tale of the Sphinx, a model of signifying that might escape the primordial situation of signifier and signified that dominates Western reflection on the sign [recalling that infancy is also cashed in terms of structure as well as history, which ultimately seem to be equivalent]”. Yet Agamben’s analysis of poetry, as far as I can tell, seems to be something like an erotic mysticism that produces something like divine ecstasy: a “topology of joy, of the stanza through which the human spirit responds to the impossible task of appropriating what must in every case remain unappropriable”, which is nothing other than the vision of God in medieval writing such as Dante (whom Agamben analyzes).
Or, on the other hand, I don’t yet see that infancy isn’t just Nietzsche’s historia abscondita (GS 34) or the child of the third metamorphosis.