Why Have I Been Blogging on Agamben or How Can the “Decisive Historical Gesture” be Comic?

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As anyone who has been following my blog will notice, I have been blogging a lot on Giorgio Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture” and his “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib.”  The reason I have been pursuing these readings is because I am very interested in thinking through the meaning of comic gesture.  Agamben, following Walter Benjamin (and Aby Warburg – another Jewish-German thinker-slash-art-historian who I will address in the near future), has taken to the task of addressing the gesture-as-such.  What I want to remind everyone is that what spurred my search for the meaning of gesture was (and is) Walter Benjamin’s treatment of gesture in his essay on Franz Kafka.

To be sure, Benjamin scrutinized the gestures of Kafka’s characters and argued that by paying close attention to them we could learn something of great – even messianic – urgency.   Benjamin reads these gestures as “pre-historic,” and this is what Agamben latches onto; however, what Agamben misses is the fact that Benjamin also saw them as comical.  As I have noted elsewhere, the keynote of Benjamin’s essay on Kafka can be found in its final gestures, which belong to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Like Sancho Panza, we watch the comic gesturing of Don Quixote.  But we are not alone.  Benjamin’s most favored Kafka aphorism was the aphorism on Don Quixote.  It teaches us about a comic tradition that is passed on.  And, this, for Walter Benjamin, is relayed to us through a close attention to comic gesture.    Benjamin knew, as well, that the messianic had to be thought through a close attention to this comic gesture.

We see this in his essay on Kafka and in some of his last letters to his friend and confidant Gershom Scholem.  Benjamin was after the comic aspects of Jewish theology.  And this is a point that Giorgio Agamben misses since he uses Benjamin’s work within a different context, one which, as I have argued, is much more solemn and Christian then Benjamin’s.

The point of my blog entries on Agamben is to show how Agamben is and is not on the right track.  Following Benjamin, he is right to think about the relationship of gesture to secularization, history, infancy, and the messianic; however, Agamben’s way of thinking of gesture misses something comical that both Benjamin and Kafka were following through.

I’d suggest that “infancy” and the “decisive historical gesture” that Agamben speaks of need not be isolated to the “nativity scene.”  For Agamben, the most profound movement which should be of concern to us, today, is the movement from silence to speech.  To be sure, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Walter Benjamin addressed this in terms of the movement from tragedy to comedy.  Indeed, for Benjamin, comedy speaks from out of infancy.  And I would suggest that it constantly returns to it; hence, the preponderance of men-children and schlemiels in Jewish comedy.   I’d like to look more into this gesture of return and departure from infancy since, as far as I can see, Benjamin initiated this thread without following it through.  I would like to suggest that this gesture, and not the gesture of the crib, is “the decisive historical gesture” which brings man out of tragic silence.

To think infancy in a “serious” manner, as thinkers such Giorgio Agamben, Maurice Blanchot, and even Jean-Francois Lyotard have done, may miss the point that Benjamin was sketching out in his early work.   As these thinkers all knew (and know), their work could be aided by the Jewish tradition. But the tradition that they often turn to does not include any reflection on the comic gesture.

I would like to suggest that there is another Jewish tradition that they missed; namely, what Hannah Arendt called (in her “Jew as Pariah” essay) the “hidden tradition.” Arendt tells us that at the beginning of this tradition is the schlemiel.  Although Arendt is right in calling this a “hidden tradition,” I think her reading of it is problematic.  I will discuss this in future blog-entries (and it will appear as a fundamental point in my book).

For now I just want to suggest that, for Jews, the “decisive historical gesture” is not to be found in the “nativity crib.” For a people who was “pre-historical” for centuries, the comic gesture played a key role in linking Jews to history.  And it is the comic gesture which, for many Jews, has had messianic, historical, and secular resonance.

So, in closing, I just want to point out that my attention to Agamben’s work on gesture, infancy, and the messianic was based on laying out the question of gesture.  I may not agree with his reading of it, but, at the very least, I tip my hat to him for making it an issue and thinking through its relations.  This is a discourse which, I believe, can be fruitful for schlemiel-in-theory.  After all, comedy is not simply about ideas as about gestures.  And these gestures are, as I will argue, deeply historical.  As all comedians know, it’s “all in the timing.”

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