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


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.”

Giorgio Agamben on Infancy, Gestures, and Gags – Take 1


My grandparents really enjoyed watching live stand-up comedy.  Whether it was at the Lido Beach Club in Long Beach, the Catskills, or in Miami, they relished live-comedy.  But of all the comic moments, my grandmother (on my mother’s side) recently told me of one.  She pointed out how whenever my grandfather saw Milton Berle come onto stage he would start laughing hysterically.  Milton didn’t have to say anything.  According to my grandmother, the mere gesture of his coming onto stage and the look on his face was enough to make my grandfather laugh.   This moment meant a lot to him and, as I learned, it meant a lot to her.  I could only surmise that it was Berle’s comic gesture – his awkwardness on stage – which created a relay across the generations.

This little tid-bit of comic wisdom prompted me to think about something that has been on my mind for a while: the comic gesture.  I’ve been thinking about it because Walter Benjamin spends so much time pondering it in his essay on Kafka.  For Benjamin, it seems, the key to understanding Kafka is pre-linguistic: it involves a close attention to the gestures made by Kafka’s odd characters (mostly the characters we find in his parables and short stories).  And Benjamin, ultimately, found these gestures to be comic.

Giorgio Agamben is a contemporary thinker who has taken an interest in Benjamin’s foray into gesture and has, to be sure, incorporated it into his own project.  In the revised preface to his book Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, Agamben locates a relationship that speaks to his concern with gesture; namely, the relationship between “voice” and “infancy.”  Before discussing gesture, later on in the book (namely in his “Notes on Gesture”) Agamben finds it necessary to explain this relationship.

Agamben reads voice in terms of the “limits of language” and argues that “the concept of infancy is…an attempt to think through these limits in a direction other than that of the vulgarly ineffable.” What Agamben means by the “vulgarly ineffable” is that the category of the “un-said” and the “ineffable” belong “exclusively to human language.”  What words, then, should we use for the “limits of language” which do not “belong” to human language but, rather, to the “inhuman?”

Regarding this, Agamben makes reference to Walter Benjamin:

The concept of infancy…is accessible only to a though which has been purified, in the words of Benjamin writing to Buber, ‘be eliminating the unsayable from language.’ The singularity which language must signify is not something ineffable but something superlatively sayable.

What exactly does Agamben mean by “superlatively sayable?”  He doesn’t explain what this means.  And it is far from obvious. Rather, he seems to suggest that its meaning can be found in the “presentation of the relationship between language and experience.”  Invoking Benjamin, once again, he says that he is looking for a “transcendental experience” of language, an “experimentum linguae.”

This experience, Agamben tells us, can only happen “in language.” It cannot happen by way of speaking about language but through language in its “pure self-reference.”

Against Heidegger, who claims – in his essays on language – that we can have an experience of language “where speech breaks on our lips,” Agamben tells us that “infancy is staked on the possibility that there is an experience of language which is not merely silence or a deficiency of names, but one whose logic can be indicated, whose site and formula can be designated, at least up to a point.”

What this amounts to is a sketch of the relations we are caught up in.   And this, Agamben tells us, helps to disclose an aspect of being human which has, thus far, not been fully disclosed:

Man does not merely know not merely to speak; he is neither Homo sapiens nor Homo loquens, but Homo sapiens loquendi, and this entwinement constitutes the way in which the West has understood itself and laid the foundation for both its knowledge and its skills.

Agamben’s abstractions may leave many a reader bewildered or indifferent.  After all, what’s the big deal with discovering that one is “entwined” in language.  Is this experience befuddling?  Will one feel the pressure of words on one’s existence to a much greater extent once they have a “experimentum linguae?”  Will gestures, within language, evince a hidden power?

For Agamben, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes.  The experience of infancy, that is, the experience of language, is the experience of the “very faculty or power of speech” and that “there is” language.

Ultimately, Agamben is not simply interested in the fact that “there is language” or that one experiences the “very faculty or power of speech” in one’s experimentum linguae.  To be sure, he translates this “experience” of infancy into gesture in his essay “Notes on Gesture”:

If we are to understand gesture, nothing is more misleading than to picture a sphere of means directed towards an end.

The gesture does not contain an end with in itself.  It has no end.  Writing on dance as gesture, he notes: “If dance is gesture, this is, however, because it is nothing but the physical tolerance of bodily movements and the display of its mediating nature.”  Out of this reflection on dance as gesture, Agamben makes his formulation:

Gesture is the display of mediation, the making visible of a means as such.

In other words, gesture mediates and communicates noting save for its own mediation: “gesture is the communication of a potential to be communicated.  In itself, it has nothing to say, because what is shows is the being-in-language of human beings as pure potential for mediation.”

To be sure, there doesn’t seem to be anything comic about this at all. How can one laugh at the “pure potential for mediation?”  Indeed, Agamben’s language and description are neutral at best.  However, Agamben associates this “pure potential for mediation” with the gag:

It is always a gag in the strict meaning of the term, indicating in the first instance something that is put in the mouth to hinder speech, and subsequently the actor’s improvisation to make up for a memory lapse or some impossibility of speech.

This lapse, this gag, is at the very core of “being in language.”  Moreover, “every great philosophical text is the gag that displays language itself, being-in-language itself, as a great memory lapse, as an incurable speech defect.”

In this final gesture, Agamben basically writes off everything philosophical as a gag.  Language is a gag as is being-in-language.  This is another way of saying that gesture indicates how our human speech and action are interrupted.  This gag leaves us awkward and powerless, but it leaves language as such with the pure potentiality.

My question, with regard to all of this, is how does this all relate to Milton Berle’s comic gesture? Was his gesture a “gag’?  And was my grandfather laughing at the gag because it discloses pure mediation?  Was he laughing at his memory lapse, that is, at Berle’s awkwardness?  Can a comedian provide us with an experience of infancy and language?

All of these questions are on my mind and Agamben, unfortunately, doesn’t answer them.  To be sure, I have a hard time finding a well-thought out approach to gesture and comedy. The only mention of comedy in all of is discourse are his final words on the gag.  For this reason, I’d say that Agamben’s words on the gag are preliminary and need more thought.

As I’d like to show in future blog entries, Benjamin was fascinated with the gestures in Kafka’s work and he thought they were comic in nature.  However, unlike Agamben, he doesn’t tell us there is a gag.  He alludes to it and what we find in such allusions is a schlemiel-like gesture which, as a matter of course, always misses its target.

Agamben could learn a lot from the schlemiel but, given his utmost seriousness, I’m not so sure he can.  He’s caught up in “pure means” to such an extent that he remains transfixed, as it were, before potentiality, which is more in line with Heidegger than with Sholem Aleichem.  And I wonder if Agamben would laugh at Milton Berle like my grandfather did so many years ago.  Perhaps, in his attention to Berle’s initial gestures, he would silently dwell on his infancy/powerlessness and the potentiality of language as such while my grandfather would, quite simply, laugh.

“Don’t You Mind People Grinning in Your Face!” Son House, Kafka, and The Grin


In preparation for a series of blog entries that I will be doing on Walter Benjamin, Kafka, and Comic Gesture, I’ve been pursuing research on humorous gestures.  In yesterday’s post, for instance, I pointed out that Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin were both fascinated (and afflicted by) “childish” and “clumsy scribblings.”   The fact is that they both write about this gesture and consider it to be of the utmost importance.  But what does it mean that they admit to these gestures and “own up” to them?  Have they taken on a tradition which starts with Don Quixote or with a tradition that starts with the end of prophesy – as I have suggested in the past?

Bearing mention of these comic gestures, Kafka and Benjamin direct us to a more acute sense of the “how” of their work rather than the “what.”  Their reading of these “childish scribblings,” their identification with them, is instructive.  Teetering between the gestures of an adult and a child, gesturing like schlemiels, they show us a wholly other side of their work and expose us to a sense of comic historicity.

But it’s not just the singular gestures – the childish and clumsy scribblings that they write of and identify with –that I’m interested in.  I’m interested in how these comic gestures relate to or spur others and how they are shared.

What kinds of relationships do schlemiels create by virtue of their gestures; that is, by virtue of their clumsy childish scribblings?

In the last blog, I suggested that these scribblings are related to the temple (the Holy) on the one hand, and the future on the other.   In other words, although they are ruinous of the holy, they, at the same time, open up a circuit in relation to the future and another kind of otherness which comes to the fore in the wake of the sacred’s departure.  And here, I would add, it opens up, additionally, a circuit with other people.

How, in fact, does a comic gesture create a relationship to the future, otherness, and others?

One of the most interesting things I find about many of my favorite comedians is that they often don’t laugh or even smile at the audience.  They may spur laughter through their gestures, but they often don’t smile or grin.  The audience does.  They see all of us laughing for the better or the worse.  This gestural relationship is intriguing as it creates a community based on ridicule and difference.

The comedian wants to spur laughter; however, they don’t want to be laughed at.  Laughter, as it were, can create relief or pain.  And the difference between the two is prepositional: the difference between laughing “with” and laughing “at.”

However, today, some comedians want to be laughed “at” and to laugh “with” others “at” themselves.  This complex form of self-ridicule can be seen in comedians like Larry David, Louis CK, Marc Maron, and Andy Kaufmann, to name only a few. What makes these comedians unique is that they laugh at those who laugh at them while at the same time laughing at themselves.  They laugh “with” others, “at” themselves, and “at” the audience. The schlemiel, to be sure, is oftentimes laughed at.  But he or she doesn’t get it or, if he or she does, just moves on.  That’s the trick.

However, in reality, no one can just be laughed at and go on unscathed.  While researching gesture, I came across this video by Son House, the legendary Blues Musician and Preacher.  In this video, he gives solace to those who have been scathed by the quintessential comic gesture: the grin.

Son House’s advice, throughout the song, is not to “mind people grinning in your face.”  The way to get through people grinning “in” (or “at”) your face, sings Son House, is to turn to keep in mind that “a true friend is hard to find.  This implies that people you thought were your friends are really not.  The gesture of their betrayal is the “grin.”    True friends won’t grin at you.

Seen from the perspective of a schlemiel like Gimpel or Motl, what does this mean?  It would imply that they have no true friends.  But that doesn’t keep them from trusting people.  The comedy of the schlemiel is inherent in the fact that they still do trust people.  It is the viewer, however, who might have the problem.  The viewer is the one who might become cynical.   Unlike Gimpel, he or she knows what its like to be laughed at.

Son House’s song speaks to them.  It is a gestural response to being ridiculed.  It is a response to the grin.  The song actually addresses the wound a comic gesture may inflict on a person.  His song, in this sense, is “universal” in scope insofar as everyone – at some time in his or her life – has been laughed at by people he or she thought were friends.

So, on the one hand we have the schlemiel, whose comedy exposes us to a ridicule that he or she cannot recognize; on the other hand, we have the viewer who does recognize this ridicule.  On the one hand we have comedy; on the other hand, we have the comic blues. Both are sides of the same coin. And on the coin we find one thing: the grin.

Kafka noted the relationship of the grin to truth his December 11th entry in the his Third Octavio Notebook:

Our art is a way of being dazzled by truth: the light of the grotesquely grimacing retreating face is true, and nothing else.

For Kafka, the truth is not simply in the grinning face.  It is in the movement of the grimacing face; it can be found in the retreat of a “grotesquely grimacing (grinning) face.”  The fact that Kafka notes the retreat rather than the approach of the grimacing face is telling.  It indicates that Kafka sees truth in the wake of ridicule.

We hear this in Son House’s song.  He sings it to those who the grin has touched.  We also hear it both Kakfa and Benjamin’s mediations on the “scribblings of children” which embody the grotesque grin.  Kafka seems to be telling us that our truth, the truth of who we are, can be found in the withdrawal of ridicule.

This implies that the comedian who sees the audience grinning back at him or her has the best view of truth.   This relationship, I would aver, is not a once in a lifetime thing.  Kafka suggests that this gesture of comic withdrawal happens repeatedly.

This gesture has a lot in common with a childish scribble; however, the only difference is that a scribble remains inscribed while the grin comes and goes.  Nonetheless, perhaps like Derrida, we can imagine the scribble as a trace which, in its iterability, is caught up in endless repetition…constantly ridiculing the totality of the text in withdrawing the text from itself.  Perhaps the text, in this sense of being childish, comes and goes?

Regardless, Kafka understood that the relationship to the truth, which he associated with God, can only be related to comically…in the withdrawal of the grin or in the wake of “childish scribbles.”

On the other hand, a Preacher named Son House advises us “don’t mind people grinning in your face.”  The purpose of this line is to give solace to the believer who, in his or her search for God and justice, will have to face ridicule.  The question, for Son House, is what to think and how to cope with this ridicule.  The question, for Kafka, deals with the meaning of ridicule as it retreats and leaves us powerless and weak.

Nonetheless, both of them see truth in the withdrawing face of laughter (in the wake of laughter).  And perhaps this is a new, comic tradition, which emerges in the wake of God’s withdrawal or, as Kafka might say, in the wake of a withdrawing grin….

Looking Awry: On Frans Hals’ Representations of Rene Descartes, Fools, and Child Musicians


Frans Hals was a Dutch painter from the 17th century.  Many art historians group him together with the school of Mannerism, which developed in the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century.  Hals was a part of what is called the “Northern Renaissance.”  Some mannerist works of art are not simply realistic; many of them are symbolic and allegorical.    And, as many art historians note, Mannerism was transformed into Baroque art.  One of the elements that remains in this transformation is the allegorical.

Hals’s work is often Realistic, but it often errs on the side of the allegorical.  This allegorical dimension, however, is subtle.  It’s not obvious.  In fact, Hals work demands the viewer to pay close attention to subtle gestures, gazes, and movements within the frame (which oftentimes gesture to something hidden and obscure outside of the frame).  The allusions they make suggest multiple meanings.

Hals is well known for his portraits of doctors, aristocrats, and leaders, but he is less known for his portraits of children, fools, and musicians.  Going through many of these paintings, I found that Hals was more fascinated with the gestures of simple people than with aristocrats.  Their gestures are the most suggestive and allegorical; these representations suggest a way of seeing that is based on allusion and movement.

To illustrate the contrast between his representations of aristocrats and simple folk, I’d like to first take a look at his most famous portrait; namely, of Rene Descartes.  After doing this, I’d like to contrast this portrait to the portraits of a fool, a child, and a two child musicians.

In the portraits of many aristocrats and leaders, Hals portrays his subjects in the most serious ways.  Their gestures are simple, their bodies are rigid, and their gazes are focused.  They are in “possession of themselves.”  They are men whose bodies are subject to their reasoning and to civility.  Like those portraits, this portrait of Rene Descartes is of a man who is self-possessed.  The subject looks directly at the viewer with a knowing look. However, the most interesting aspect of this painting is Descartes mouth.  We are not sure if he is smiling or if he is indifferent.  This ambiguous gesture of the father of Modern Philosophy is rich in implication.  It suggests that he is friendly and a part of humanity; on the other hand, it suggests that he is indifferent to – and perhaps even fed up with – humanity.  Perhaps he would rather be thinking than sitting in front of Frans Hals.  After all, Descartes regarded the imagination as inferior to the intellect and associated it with the body and not the mind.

In contrast to this painting of Descartes, the gestural representations of fools, children, and children musicians are much more subtle and suggestive.  I will take a look at a few to bring out this contrast.


When I was looking for a photo to append to my blog post on Charles Baudelaire’s “A Heroic Death” (which pits a fool against the Prince), I chose Frans Hals painting which the Louvre website calls a “Buffoon With a Lute.”  I found that it nicely illustrated the allure of the fool (and his gambol with death) to which the narrator of the Baudelaire prose piece was drawn.

The Louvre, which owns this painting, estimates that it was made somewhere between 1623 and 1625.

I am struck by look and gesture of the Buffoon.  His head is tilted to the side and he is looking askance at something we can’t see.   His smile is also tilted.   To add to the contrasts, one will notice that his hair is longer on one side and shorter on the other.  The tilting of all these features complicates our reading of the Buffoon.  To be sure, its hard to tell whether he is happy or wary of what he is doing and who he is playing for.  I see this, specifically, in his smile.  The fact that it is pulled up on the edge suggests that something is odd.  In fact, I couldn’t help but sense that in the midst of his apparent joy there may be a feeling of terror.  It seems as if the Buffoon is about to be killed or punished; but to mitigate the threat, he plays on and smiles toward the person (or people) outside the frame.   He is tactful.

This gesture is complicated by the fact that this is not simply an absent-minded fool who lacks any sense of the world outside of him.  He is innocent, a boy, and yet, he is a man facing something we can’t see, something outside the frame.  His smile is cunning and responds to something real; unlike Descartes smile which seems to detest the real or only to deal with it as a matter of course.   Since it deals with possible terror and is riddled with anxiety, this painting is more existential than the Descartes portrait, which is more about an intellectual attitude toward the world.

The buffoon’s face connotes subtlety, but his hands and the instrument connote neutrality.  They are –so to speak – doing their own thing.  It is as if his body, in a Cartesian sense, is on auto-pilot while his soul is caught between fear and joy.


In this portrait of a child, the child is smiling, happy, and innocent.  He is present to the painter.  Unlike the portraits of Descartes and the Buffoon, the child is not judging the world or dealing with it in a tactful manner.


In contrast to this portrait is the painting of a “child playing the violin.”  In this portrait, the subject is not present to the painter or viewer.   He is absent-minded.  His head is tilted, but his eyes look heavenward as he plays the violin.  This contrasts greatly to the Buffoon whose eyes look to the side and smile is twisted.  It also contrasts to the Descartes portrait since he, at the very least, is giving some attention to the painter (though perhaps against his ‘real’ interests).

This portrait is haunting in the sense that it seems as if he is about to put down the fiddle and ascend to heaven.  The music, perhaps, is detaching him from the world.  Perhaps he, unlike the Bufoon with the Lute, is the true fool.  His gestures denote a total disregard for the eye looking upon him.  Perhaps he is truly free of the gaze and the world.


The portrait of the “boy holding the flute” is very odd.  Like the other paintings of musicians, he is also tilting his head and smiling.  But in this portrait, he is looking directly at the viewer.  Juxtaposed to the other paintings, the viewer is no longer thinking about who he or she is looking at or what the subject may be thinking as he plays music.

In this painting, the musician has stopped playing.  He looks directly at you.   There is something odd about this gaze.  It acknowledges the gaze but responds to it in a way that is awkward.  Its as if he has missed a social cue or two.  Moreover, the flute he holds interrupts his smile.  And this creates a kind of confusion in the viewer.   To be sure, his smile is not perfect.  It, too, is a bit askance.  And the fact that he is a child doesn’t mitigate the sense of madness that this portrait conveys by way of subtle gestures.

What interests me most in these portraits is how Hals articulates the subtlety of gesture and its relationship to the world.  As we have seen, from Descartes to the boy with the flute, Hals was interested in the different ways his subjects regarded the world.  The difference between the Philosopher and the Bufoon, the child, and child musicians is telling.  The question I have is what value do these gestures have for Hals.  Did he have more respect for his aristocratic subjects or for his folkish and childish subjects?  Did he value the theoretical bearing of Descartes more than the tactical bearing of the Bufoon or vice-versa?

These questions are relevant since I will be looking into the meaning of gesture in Walter Benjamin in forthcoming blog entries.  For a painter like Hals and for a thinker like Benjamin, the gesture and its performance tell us a lot of things about the nature of what it means to have a relationship with the world.  Benjamin, in his readings of Kafka, was interested in characters who (as schlemiels) had an odd relationship with the world.   He focused on their gestures so as to convey (or even teach) this attentiveness to his readers.  Like Hals, Benjamin does not evaluate these gestures so much as pay attention to them so as to understand their relationality.

So, to be sure, I’d like you to consider this blog entry a ‘warm up’ to the reading of gesture that I will be pursuing in the near future.