Agamben: undergone not experienced

As Agamben indicates in the 1989 preface to the English translation of Infancy and History, the key question that unites his disparate explorations is that of what it means for language to exist, what it means that “I speak.” In taking up this question throughout his work, and most explicitly in texts such as Infancy and History, Language and Death, and most recently, The Open, Agamben reinvigorates consideration of philosophical anthropology through a critical questioning of the metaphysical presuppositions that inform it, and in particular, the claim that the defining essence of man is that of having language. In taking up this question, Agamben proposes the necessity of an “experimentum linguae” in which what is experienced is language itself, and the limits of language become apparent not in the relation of language to a referent outside of it, but in the experience of language as pure self-reference.Infancy and History … attempts to grasp and articulate the implications of such an experience of language as such. Consisting of a series on interconnected essays on concepts such as history, temporality, play, and gesture, Infancy and History provides an importance entrance to Agamben’s later work on politics and ethics, particularly in the eponymous essay of the edition on the concept of infancy understood as an experiment of language as such. In this, Agamben argues that the contemporary age is marked by the destruction or loss of experience, in which the banality of everyday life cannot be experienced per se but only undergone, a condition which is in part brought about by the rise of modern science and the split between the subject of experience and of knowledge that it entails. Against this destruction of experience, which is also extended in modern philosophies of the subject such as Kant and Husserl, Agamben argues that the recuperation of experience entails a radical rethinking of experience as a question of language rather than of consciousness, since it is only in language that the subject has its site and origin. Infancy, then, conceptualizes an experience of being without language, not in a temporal or developmental sense of preceding the acquisition of language in childhood, but rather, as a condition of experience that precedes and continues to reside in any appropriation of language. (Mills; emphasis mine)

  • Mills, Catherine (2005) Agamben, Giorgio [The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 March 2010].


So what does gesture tell us about Tino Sehgal’s work and what value does it have?

Sehgal’s pieces seem a good fit for Agamben’s gestic politics – they deliberately eschew a product or remnant of any kind, and implicate the audience in a perpetual game of the confusion of roles with the other participants of the piece. The pieces themselves do not live outside of memory and make the audience physically aware of their role within the institutional context of the gallery or museum and within the piece itself.

Continue reading

Gesture and Sehgal

Sehgal’s work relates to Agamben’s concept of gesture in a sense through it’s retreat form material form. Sehgal’s strategy of no documentation ensures that the materiality of the pieces remains in abeyance (although this action in itself becomes an important discussion point). By taking this approach to residue, the works emphasise the temporary nature of their acts, which in themselves incorporate gestures in the commonly understood sense of the term. For Agamben gesture requires that “nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported” (Agamben, 1992, p. 56) which would seem to be a good description of the experience of a Sehgal piece.

Continue reading