Sunday, May 30, 2010

Agamben’s Gesture

In Agamben’s beautifully written “Notes on Gesture” we’re routed thru a discussion of Tourette’s Syndrome towards a description of what he calls pure mediality, gesture as a communication of a communicability.  Roger that.  “It has precisely nothing to say because what it shows is the being-in-language of human beings as pure mediality.”  Unable to display anything more than its own potential, the gesture is constrained, suspended, unable to take action. 

Agamben takes Kant’s aesthetic notion of beauty or ‘purposiveness without purpose’ to back up his notion of gesture as means without end. 

This “purposiveness without purpose” is a human assignment of intent or rather lack of intent (disinterest) from the outside.  The intuitive judgment of beauty leads to the problem of how to communicate or universalize what is uncategorizable.

For Agamben, having something like an uncategorizable intuition to communicate, an intuition that has no adequate concept, is an exclusively human problem.  He uses the figure of the gag to illustrate this, as “indicating first of all something that could be put in your mouth to hinder speech, as well as… improvisation meant to compensate for a loss of memory or inability to speak.”

The gesture “opens the sphere of ethos as the more proper sphere of that which is human.” (57)  Gesture is not produced or acted, it is something endured or supported – like being.  This is a sublime idea of human being-in-language, in effect human being trapped or captured in language.

There’s an argument that Agamben is fetishizing language or human being-in-language here (ala Heidegger).  That is, his “gesture” never engages objects in the world, it is trapped in an endless regress of anthropocentric metalanguage.  It presumes an inherent human privilege which is both unrealistic and not useful.  He does not explore or account for action or the creative process.  Unable to act, how can the politics or ethics implied here become more than “impotent wringing of hands and empty sympathizing”?

Likewise the negative definition implicit to his discussions of sovereignty, which focus on the state of exception as the key element or quality of the sovereign, does not allow for creation or immanent constituting.  It’s always after the fact, there is no explanation or allowance for emergence of anything but the exception itself.  The new is what is exceptional. 

What put me off Agamben (after a number of years "on" him) was where he explores Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return in relation to potential.  The eternal return is what happens in the wake of actualization and is expressed by Agamben as the potential to not write.  I cannot think of a more alienating and negative constraint on the creative process, it could be an advertisement for psycho-tropics.  Instead of actualization bringing more life to life (which is Toni Negri’s optimistic formula, almost the obverse position), we get the Sisyphean limit and we're stuck endlessly pushing the rock uphill.

Agamben’s mediality is a suspension of action.  It celebrates the gag that prevents us from speaking and would suppress a deeper investigation of the real or a mapping of how things actually interact.  To risk repeating myself: no explanation of social or economic networks here.  Can you hear me now?  Yes, and it’s disappointing that the exploration doesn’t go beyond this being in language, this mere communicability.

Cinematic Gesture

Agamben also argues that cinema is primarily gestural rather than a matter of images.  This seems counter-intuitive, since cinema is in fact constructed of images, actual sequences of 35mm film projected upon a screen.  Cinema involves incredibly complex assemblages of both human and non-human materials, making use of tools like cameras, microphones, computers &c which each have long histories of development. 

The discounting of Deleuze’s cinematic-image would also deny the affective image.  But the audience for cinema certainly can and does have intense experiences.  So do audiences for music and romance novels.

Agamben writes beautifully and I have found his prose very seductive.  But I want more than a pure mediality that gets lost in its own potential.