In his introduction to Valences of the Dialectic, the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson uses the word "application" ironically (if not dialectically). This is because in the context of his system, such a term presumes an agency that is abstracted from the matter at hand, thereby distinguishing a unified inside from from a fragmentary outside (the common sense appearance of the separation of essence and appearance, which the classic dialectical operation upsets). But he goes on to show that this view itself belongs to an untroubled (undialectical) dialectic. For this reason, the properly dialectical (the dialectic as operation) can only name "application" insofar as it prefigures its negation.
The underlying logic of the dialect as a system that is "applicable to everything" (a mode of the dialectic which Jameson aims to dismantle) can perhaps be traced back to the Kant and his attempt to unite universal ideals and rational necessity. In his Metaphysics of Morals, Kant approaches moral law in much the same way that he did knowledge in the first critique: such laws "must be valid not merely for men, but for all rational creatures generally, not merely under certain contingent conditions or with exceptions, but with absolute necessity." Here we see Kant as a precursor to (or, getting a bit ahead of ourselves, an instrument within) Carl Schmitt's conception of the sovereign, whose power rests his ability to decide the state of exception and, consequently, to be "in force without signification." In Homo Sacer, Agamben quotes Kant from the Critique of Practical Reason: "Now if we abstract every content, that is, every object of the will (as determining motive) from the law . . . there is nothing left but the simple form of universal legislation." Because the pure will is unaffected by questions of freedom and self-interest, the law can be totally binding (as with Kant's other faculties). Here, law becomes indistinguishable from life, for individual motivation is shown to be "nothing other than the law itself through the respect that it inspires. . . . For once the content of free will is eliminated, the law is the only thing left in relation to the formal element of the free will."
In Measure for Measure, Angelo is the clear expression of this sort of moral necessity. Indeed, our "common sense" impression is that the Duke's moral laxity is what occasions the law's application in the figure of Angelo: in the interest of government, the Duke has "Lent [Angelo] our terror, dress’d him with our love” (1.1.20). Angelo first appears to embody pure identity (the unity of appearance and essence, application and law) with his role, while the Duke (along with the audience) is aware of the discrepancy that exists appearance and reality. In other words, the true sovereign has laid out a space of exception by giving over the pretense of the law to Angelo: the Duke does not transfer his sovereignty but its appearance. Thus while the Duke is able to negotiate between both spaces, Angelo is consigned to the realm of appearances (which makes his Kantian bent all the more fitting) and deals with subjects through a rigid logic of exchange value. For this reason, Angelo cannot even consider mercy or forgiveness but, instead, easily slips into the law's perverse underside (by trading Claudio's crime against wedlock in for Isabel's chastity). Angelo's rule can thus be characterized by a series of ultimately incomplete (that is, suspended) applications, which lay the groundwork for the sovereignty of the Duke to be reestablished and the bodies of his subjects redistributed.
Like Angelo for the Duke, Kant is merely a stepping stone for the true exercise of Schmittian sovereignty. As Agamben writes in State of Exception,
The concept of application is certainly one of the most problematic categories of legal (and non-legal) theory. The question was put on a false track by being related to Kant's theory of judgment as a faculty of thinking the particular as contained in the general. The application of the norm would thus be a case of determinate judgment, which the general (the rule) is given, and the particular case is to be subsumed in it.Kant's mistake, suggests Agamben, "is that the relation between the particular case and the norm appears as a merely logical operation." Rather the passage of generic to particular always contains the practical activity of mediation: "Just as between language and world, so between the norm and its application there exists no internal nexus that allows one to be derived immediately from the other." Thus we might think of Angelo (as the Duke's instrument for enacting the state of exception and emergency, of applying the law by suspending his own authority) when Agamben writes, "the state of exception is the opening of a space in which application and norm reveal their separation and a pure force-of-law realizes (that is, applies by ceasing to apply) a norm whose application has been suspended."
The state of exception separates norm and application to the utmost limit in order to make its application possible. This is the only way that the Duke can hold Vienna's reality together with the appearance of governance; he therefore effectively suspends his own application of the norm by installing Angelo, whose "pure violence without logos claims to realize an enuciation without any real reference."