Gesture

I will look at two essays by Agamben published in the early ‘90s that centre on the term ‘gesture.’ Kommerell, or On Gesture (1991) and Notes on Gesture (1992) are both based on what appear to be the same set of notes, with duplicate passages in both texts, however the overriding subject matter changes in each case. The former discusses the writings of the German literary critic Max Kommerell and his relationship to the circle of Stefan George. Gesture in this case is discussed in a literary setting. The latter is a less polished set of notes outlining the development of the scientific study of gesture and the role cinema would play in its understanding, beginning with Gilles de la Tourette and touching in only a few pages on Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, Deleuze’s theory of cinema, Aristotle, Edward Muybridge and a number of other writers.

The gesture is an activity or an action (a ‘means’) that has no telos, either that towards which it is directed, nor as embodied in itself.

Nothing is more misleading for an understanding of gesture, therefore, than representing, on the hand, a sphere of means as addressing a goal . . . and, on the other hand, a separate and superior sphere of gesture as a movement that has its end in itself. (Agamben, 1992, p. 57)

It can be recognised by the fact that in it “nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported.” (Agamben, 1992, p. 56) The example given is taken from Varro of a general who does not ‘make’ or ‘act’ but ‘carries on’ affairs.

The implications of gesture developed by Agamben in these texts relate to the idea of the realisation of a ‘being-in-a-medium’ of human beings. Agamben specifically links this to the sphere of the ethos – gesture “opens the ethical dimension for [humans]”. (Agamben, 1992, p. 57)

The gesture is . . . communication of a communicability. It has precisely nothing to say because what it shows is the being-in-language of human beings as pure mediality. (Agamben, 1992, p. 58)

This account of gesture has major implications for actions in society, and for art in particular, whereby, rather than working towards a product or commodity—a traditional view of the art-making activity where creating an object is one of its raison d’être—or seeing the act as in itself productive of meaning—something performance or strands of conceptual art promote—the concept of gesture denies both these aims and creates a ‘third way,’ avoiding being drawn into the role of producer of objects.

. . . if producing is a means in view of an end and praxis is an end without means, the gesture then breaks with the false alternative between ends and means that paralyzes morality and presents instead means that, as such, evade the orbit of mediality without becoming, for this reason, ends. (Agamben, 1992, p. 56)

Without further explanation Agamben ends the piece with the statement that “politics is the sphere of pure means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings.” (Agamben, 1992, p. 59) This makes clear that, for Agamben at least, neither the means nor the ends serve as adequate goals, indeed the concept of goals is a mistaken one. The gesture as pure mediality, as pure activity, is the way that he suggests will—at a basic level—enable us to see what we are doing when we do things (our being-in-a-medium) and ultimately bring life back to politics.

Later in this series I’ll try to show how Tino Sehgal keys into this understanding of gesture and how his works make real the possibilities inherent in it.