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.”

Agamben on The Historical as Opposed to the Magical Redemption of Man, Animal, and Nature


What is redemption?  And how would redemption, as understood by Giorgio Agamben, differ from the redemption we hear of in the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran?  These are big questions that I don’t think can be addressed in one blog entry.  Nonetheless, they should be of great concern for anyone who reads Agamben’s revision of the Messianic which he, oftentimes, uses scripture to articulate.

In the essay I have been focusing on in the last few blog entries, Agamben has, as I have pointed out already, claimed that the “nativity crib” is the “decisive…historical gesture.”  For Agamben, the crib takes us out of the fable and enchantment.  It is a gesture of secularization. But, as I pointed out in the last entry, Agamben also regards it as messianic.  The question I posed was whether Kafka and Benjamin will be at that redemption.  Perhaps they are the sleepers in the nativity scene since they are caught up in the pre-historic rather than the historic (redemption).  Even thought Agamben doesn’t mention Benjamin in the key moment when he talks about the pre-historic it is clear that he is making reference to Benjamin’s essay on Kafka.  Regarding this essay, Benjamin told both Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem that he wanted to retain the tension between the mystical and the political (he likened this tension to the tension of a bow).  However, as he admitted to them, he had failed to maintain it.  In his own view, he had slipped into the mystical and missed the political aspect of Kafka’s work.  Agamben would read this as an admission that Benjamin had got caught up in Kafka’s pre-historical world.

Hence, Agamben’s reading looks to go where Benjamin failed to go in his Kafka essay: toward the historical.  This has its problems as it suggests that Jews like Kafka and Benjamin couldn’t make it into history.  Scholars like Irving Howe, Hannah Arendt, Yosef Yerushalmi, and Emmanuel Levinas (amongst many others) note the different relationship Jews have to time (albeit it in different ways: negative and positive).   But Agamben’s reading, drawing on Christianity, suggests that those who are stuck in the pre-historic are stuck in the world of myth, fable, and magic.  As I noted, however, this is far from the truth.  Jews have been involved in secularization for a while.  And Agamben, at the very least, notes this elsewhere (for instance, in the first chapter of his book Nudities he notes that prophesy, when it ended, was supplemented by interpretation).  But in this essay we find something else.

The problem has to do with his reading of the historical as it pertains to the Messianic.

Agamben, at the end of his essay, notes that the secularizing, historical gesture is with the Church and with Italian Renaissance artists.  They bring us toward as secular, historical messianism in which man, plant, and animal are redeemed (or so it seems).

After naming several Italian artists (who took their cue from the “nativity crib,” Agamben

notes that “the magical link between figures has been completely resolved in a historical link. Each fiture in the crib is certainly whole in itself, not united with others by any plastic or spatial tie simply set momentarily beside them” (144).  In other words, what they did is more than a matter of a secular aesthetic gesture.  In fact, its messianic:

All the figures, without exception, are welded into a single structure by the invisible adhesive of participation in the messianic event of redemption. (145)

Their “unity” is not just (!) Messianic says Agamben, is “historical.”  In other words, there is nothing magical about this messianic.  It is fully secular and historical.  He therefore uses the terms historical and messianic together so as to efface any belief that the messianic will be miraculous.  Strangely enough, however, he doesn’t state this explicitly.  And this makes his gesture esoteric not exoteric.

Taking a messianic tone on at the end of his essay, Agamben notes how all distinctions between secular and profane will be “bridged” in “history.”  History, however, is not, says Agamben, to be equated with “progress.”  This is an odd gesture, given that Agamben, throughout the essay, uses the structure of progress, evolution, and supercession to explain the crib.

All he adds, on this “historical” note, is that everything, all the “minutiae of history,” will be “immediately and historically complete.”   Here, he draws on Walter Benjamin but without mentioning him even once.  But the truth of the matter is that Benjamin’s words need much explaining.  To accept them as self-evident would be uncritical.  Nonetheless, Agamben acts as if they are.  In addition to this, the notion of immediate redemption (a notion discussed in the Midrash and Kabbalah – k’heref ayin – redemption in the ‘blink of an eye”) is a thoroughly miraculous and mystical notion.  But Agamben writes of it as if it is secular and historical.  How exactly would that be the case?

He doesn’t tell us, but we should, somehow, accept that it is.

With this in mind, how do we read Agamben’s final moments in his essay which deal with a thoroughly ambiguous and telling aesthetic figure.  Agamben writes of “the work of the anonymous survivors” of “Spaccanapoli.”   This work makes an

Infinite discrepancy between the figuring of man – whose lineaments are as if blurred in a dream, whose gestures are torpid and imprecise – and the delirious, loving impulse that shapes displays of tomatoes, auberigines, cabbages, pumpkins, carrots, mullet, crayfish….on the market stalls among baskets, scales..(146)

Here, once again, we have a secular gathering of things in the market.  Are these “things” which include (but pale, man) on the brink of messianic, historical redemption?

To this, Agamben notes something that seems to go against everything he has said before.  He ponders the possibility that this may be the “sign that nature is once more about to enter the fairy tale, that once more it asks history for speech.”  This would suggest that the messianic moment may be calling for the messianic and the miraculous.  In the midst of this moment, says Agamben, man will be “bewitched by a history which, for him, again assumes the dark outline of destiny.”  Perhaps man will, once again, enter the fable and be “struck dumb by a spell.”

After noting this, Agamben casts his own spell by saying his own secular messianic phrase:

Until one night, in the shadow-light where a new crib will light up the figures and colors unknown, nature will once again be immured in its silent language, the fable will awaken in history, and man will emerge, with his lips unsealed, from mystery to speech (146).

What I find most interesting about this gesture is the fact that, though it builds on what Benjamin says about myth, silence, and speech in his work (especially Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic DramaUrsprung des deutschen Trauerspiel) it goes unmentioned.  More interesting is the fact that, for Benjamin, the movement from tragic, mystical silence to speech was first evinced by comedy (namely in the figure of Socrates and his irony).  Nonetheless, I find nothing comic about this movement to speech.  For Agamben, this moment is historical and serious and, because it lacks this comic element, it seems as if it is also a magical gesturing of sorts (but of the rhetorical variety).

Although Agamben opens up many doors for thinking the secular, historical aspect of the Messianic, sometimes his work , as in this essay, focuses too much on figures (such as the crib and “speech”) that have nothing ironic whatsoever about them.  Redemption is a serious affair, but is it possible to conceive it comically?  This, I would submit, is something Benjamin did consider (in his letters to the Kabblah scholar and is friend Gershom Scholem and in his work on Kafka), but it is not something Agamben would consider.

The comic may be a gesture of secularization for him, but it’s not the key.  The fruits, vegetables, market wares, and man await a serious form of historical redemption and a “new crib” for its new infancy.  But wouldn’t that imply that man doesn’t simply speak but that he is a man-child?  And isn’t that comic? Or is that too offensive for anyone who seriously ponders the new “nativity crib” to come?  Man is, after all, a creature.  Agamben knows that very well.  But is man a comic creature or a historical creature?  Both?

And what figure best approximates this?  A nativity crib to come or something other?  As a Jew who loves the schlemiel and sees it as a messianic figure of sorts, how can I accept this “nativity crib to come?”    Can the “decisive..historical gesture” be comic?

The “Anxiety of Influence” or Giorgio Agamben’s Gloss on Benjamin’s Reading of Kafka’s Pre-Historic Characters


One of the euphemisms that the literary theorist Harold Bloom is famous for is the “anxiety of influence.”  For Bloom, this term describes the contentious relationship of the contemporary writer to his antecedents.   The anxiety deals with how one relates to these antecedents and the greatness of the modern writer is to “revise” the tradition and overcome past influences.  So, what might seem as a generous interpretation is, in fact, an act of overcoming.  It relates to a temporal issue or what Bloom, citing the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, would be the triumph of the “I willed it” over the “it was.”   This Nietzschean gesture is based on the desire to be free from the influence of history and tradition.  In saying “I willed it,” the “strong artist” (Bloom’s term) has a kind of victory over time and history.  He is free, a “great” individual.

We see a kind of “anxiety of influence” between Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin with regards to Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and the pre-historic.  In my last two entries on Agamben, I have been making close readings of Agamben’s essay “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib.”     In these readings, I have made brief mention of Walter Benjamin’s work but I have not considered the relationship of Giorgio Agamben to Walter Benjamin, that is, with reference to this essay in particular.  The key moment in this essay, to be sure, takes Benjamin’s reading of Kafka’s character’s up and, in effect, “completes” it as the New Testament completes the Old (yet another gesture of the “anxiety of influence”).

As I have been pointing out, for Agamben, the New Testament’s description of the nativity crib was taken up in representational form and these representations mark the “crib” as a “decisive…historical gesture.”  The nativity crib, for Agamben, secularizes the fable and, as I will show, opens us up to the messianic.  But, before he comes to the messianic, he must address his “anxiety of influence” with Walter Benjamin.

Agamben prefaces his reading of Benjamin by noting that in the “fairy tale” all is “ambiguous gesticulation of law and magic, condemning and absolving, prohibiting and permitting, spellbinding and spell breaking.”  For anyone who has read Benjamin’s reading on Kafka, these words will have resonance.  Agamben is, in effect, saying the the “prehistoric” world we find in Kafka is traversed by nomos (law) and magic: it is enchanted and pre-historical.  History is secular; fable is not.

Moreover, his reading of the crib is secular while Benjamin’s reading of Kafka is not.  And this is the point.  Agamben sets this reading up when he notes that, in contrast to the fable, “in the crib man is returned to the univocality and transperancy of his historical gesture”(142).

Following this, Agamben makes a long list of all the simple people who are in the “nativity crib” and to this list he appends a colon.  Following the colon is the meaning that parts with and revises Walter Benjamin.

Tailors and woodcutters, shepherds and peasants, greengrocers and butchers, hunters and innkeepers, roast chestnut and water vendors: this whole profane universe of the market and the street emerges into history in a gesture from the prehistoric depths of that world which Bachofen defined as ‘etheric’, and which had a short-lived revival in Kafka’s stories.  (142-43)

Although Benjamin does not appear in this reference, it is clearly an articulation of the “anxiety of influence.”  Benjamin, to be sure, is the only person to have written in this way about Kafka’s stories and, in fact, he also cites Bachofen.

But now Agamben is the master.  Like the New Testament, he “completes” Benjamin’s project when he reads the “fairy tale” as “the medium between the mysteries of the hierophants and the historical gesture of the crib.”   In effect, had Benjamin known about the “meaning” of the nativity crib, he would have written an entirely different essay on Kafka.  He would have realized that it was the secularizing gesture that Kafka had missed.

Now, to be sure, this rings very odd – especially if anyone is familiar with the metaphors and allegorical figures used by Augustine with regards to the “blindness” of the Jews.   Jill Robbins’ book Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Alterity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas does an exceptional job of showing how that metaphor played itself out in the history of the church and in literature.  The blindness of Benjamin, as Agamben suggests (by way of indirection) is that Benjamin (and Kafka) didn’t recognize the moment of secularization was, in fact, a Christian moment and a Christian gesture: it is the “decisive…historical gesture of the crib.”

After noting this, Agamben takes up the rethinking of the Messianic which is one of Walter Benjamin’s greatest legacies to us today:

For in the Messianic night, the creature’s gesture is loosed of any magical-juridicial-divinatory density, and becomes simply human and profane.

Here, the “naked life” of the creature, which is a major trope in Agamben’s work (a trope which he takes from Hannah Arendt),  is given yet another meaning.  Naked life now relates to the “nativity crib” and is “messianic.”  Secularization is equivalent to seeing man in the nativity crib, as a creature in its “everydayness.”  Kafka and Benjamin’s reading of Kafka are too caught up in fable and mysticism to be taken seriously.  The figures we find there are, for Agamben, too contaminated by myth, mysticism, magic, and law.  They are too pre-historical.

To add to this, there is someone in the crib who may in fact be a figure of the Jew: namely, the sleeper:

The sleeper who, strangely, never fails to appear near the manger can perhaps be seen as a figure from the world of fairy tale, unable to wake on redemption and destined to continue his crepuscular life among children.

Following this, Agamben actually cites the Book of James which does, in fact, align Jews with sleepers, but Agamben doesn’t mention this.

Instead, Agamben notes that the sleeper doesn’t sleep the sleep of the “incubatio, laden with divinatory presages, nor, like Sleeping Beauty, the timeless sleep of bewitchment, but the profane sleep of the living creature”(143).

Would this suggest that the one who awakes from sleep is the person who recognizes the “nativity crib” as a figure of secularization?   Is the sleeper a remnant of the pre-historic which, nonetheless, is disclosed by the “nativity crib” to just be a poor creature who doesn’t get the messianic?

What I’d like to suggest is that the “anxiety of influence” here is not simply between Agamben and Benjamin or Agamben and Kafka; it may also be between Christianity and Judaism.  The suggestion that Jews are pre-historic is not, to be sure, new.  Its been around for a long time and even Hannah Arendt suggests this in her own work on Jewishness.  The historical gesture, for her, however was political.  Jews didn’t know how to live in the political world and a part of Arendt’s project, which was very influenced by her work with Zionism, was to make sure Jews could be “normal.”  For her, Kafka just wanted to be normal; in fact, her reading of Kafka in the “Jew as Pariah” is based on this claim.

Perhaps Agamben would say that Kafka and Benjamin wanted to be secular but, unfortunately, they got caught up in the pre-historic and the magical.  Unlike them, however, he discovered the “nativity crib.”    They were like the sleeper in the nativity crib (or rather, on its margins).

He “woke” up.

(I put this waking in quotation marks for the sole reason that it is based on the “anxiety of influence.”  To be sure, the “gesture” of secularization and the departure from myth are found throughout the Torah and many scholars have pointed this out.  I would add that there are many historical gestures of secularization.  To limit it in this way, to a Christian moment, is odd.  My job is to simply “make it strange.”)

Giorgio Agamben’s Fable, or the Crib as a Historical Gesture – Take 2


What is the relationship of man to animal?  And what distinguishes man from animal.  This is a question which has interested philosophers since Aristotle who argued, in the opening book of the Metaphysics, that animals and men both have sensation and memory; but there is one key difference: man has the capacity for “experience” and lives by way of “the art of reasoning.”  Aristotle also notes that man differs from animal because, while animals may communicate, they do not have language (speech).

Giorgio Agamben is very interested in the relationship of man to animal.  We see this especially in his book The Open: Man and Animal.  We also see this concern in the essay I have been discussing “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib” (in Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience).  For Agamben, the key to understanding the relationship between man and animal can be understood by way of a reading of the crib.  It relates to what Agamben calls man’s “decisive gesture”(142).  This gesture, it seems, separates man from animal.  It is a “historical gesture”(142).

Agamben articulates this difference by first quoting “Matthews Bible.”  He notes that to this bible “we owe the entry of the ox and ass into the iconography of the nativity.”  After this preface, he cites Matthew “The ox knows its master and the ass the manger of the Lord.

According to Agamben, this quote was the scriptural source for “one of the earliest descriptions of the crib” by Saint Ambrose who “counterposes the whimpering of the God-child, which is heard, with the silent lowing of the ox who recognizes his Lord.”  Agamben’s words suggest that both man and animal are making infantile sounds.  And this suggests that, in infancy, they are the same.  There whimpering and lowing sounds cling to silence. And, lest we not forget, this is a silence before the Lord.  This is what Agamben wants us to hear.

But he takes this mystical reading, which his words suggest, and suggests something else; namely, all in the nativity scene are secularized:

Objects, which enchantment had animated and made strange, are now returned to the innocence of the inorganic and stand besides man as docile implement and familiar tools. (142)

Following this, Agamben names all of the animals that can be found in fables (“talking hens, ants and birds, the goose who lays a golden egg, the donkey who shits money, etc”) and argues that “the crib must release all this from its spell.”  In other words, the Nativity Crib disenchants fable (even though fables continued on for centuries after the first nativity scene).   The crib makes them all into simple objects, things: “as food, merchandise or instruments…nature and inorganic objects are bundled up on the market stall”(142).

Man and animal are all disenchanted by the crib and the crib aids the spread of the economic function and capital.  However, Agamben doesn’t let the secularization of man be taken over entirely by the economic function.  He has us now behold “man.”

Man, too, whom the spell of the fairy tale had removed from his economic function, is now recognized to it with an exemplary gesture: the decisive gesture that severs the human world of the crib from that of the fairy tale. (142)

Agamben traces two genealogies to the crib: 1) the genealogy of the disenchantment that ends in things and 2) the disenchantment that ends in man and history.

To be sure, Agamben sees the “Nativity Crib” as the “decisive” historical gesture.  Regardless of why he would choose this as the decisive historical gesture, there is another problem.  Does the “historical gesture” take one out of the crib?  To be sure, Agamben says that the gesture is the crib.  Man, therefore, would be the gesture of the crib.  Agamben seems to be telling us that we, man, can’t totally leave the crib.  Man may enter history by way of the crib, but he can’t leave that gesture behind as it gives birth to historical man from his infancy.

This is the problem.

I will return to it in the next blog because, it seems that the man-animal relation hinges on his being in the crib.   That would imply that man is man so much as a man-child and not just man-animal. This is a point that Agamben doesn’t make explicit for reasons we will ponder in the next blog entries on this topic.   For, Agamben, the infant and the animals lull and whimper but they don’t laugh; and neither, it seems, does Agamben’s historically-decisive-gestural-nativity-crib-man.

Giorgio Agamben’s Fable, or the Crib as a Historical Gesture – Take 1


One of Giorgio Agamben’s most thought-provoking and clear explanations of “gesture” can be found in an essay entitled, “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib.”   But, what we find there is not so much a gag.  It is more like a profane illumination that comes to us by meditating on the “crib as a historical gesture.”  For Agamben, the crib mediates between the sacred and the profane.  And, as a historical gesture, the crib takes us from the mystical and mythical to the secular and everyday.  In fact, Agamben says that the crib “liberates time.”

But the catch is that Agamben focuses on a very specific example as mediating between ritual and secularization: the nativity scene. He reads this scene first as the “nativity crib” and, at the end of his essay, as a “historical gesture.”

What does this mean?  What is at stake?  And, in terms of what I am most interested in, what does this mean for the schlemiel?  More importantly “who” is in the crib?  Is the schlemiel in the crib or is it, rather, the Christian fool?  And how does “he” (whoever he is) relate to the “crib as historical gesture”?

To answer these questions, I need to unpack the essay so as to follow Agamben’s logic and rhetorical tactics.   I will begin this task here and carry it out over a few entries.

(Note: A cursory look at first words and final words of his essay show us that Agamben has a messianic end in mind when he claims that the crib is a “historical gesture” which, ultimately, takes us into history and into a messianic kind of event.   Is this event-slash-gesture a secular one? Is it another crib? And will the fool or schlemiel be there in that messianic gesture?)

Agamben starts his essay by defining the crib as such: it is an “image of the world presented in miniature.”  And the image-of-the-world-it-presents-in-miniature is, and this is key, a “historical image.”   For Agamben, this means it is not a religious image or a mythical image; the crib is a “historical image.”   And it discloses itself as a “moment” of transition.  Using Benjaminian language, Agamben writes of this “moment”:

For what it shows us is the world of fable at the moment when it wakes from enchantment to enter history.

And this is possible only because the “fable has been able to separate itself from initiation rites.” And by “abolishing the mystery which was at its center and transforming it into enchantment.” This separation, abolition, and transformation of cult and ritual into enchantment is the key.  But there is a difference. As Agamben explains, the “creature of the fable” may be enchanted but is not under a religious spell or trance:

The creature of the fable is subjected to the trials of initiation and the silence of the mystery, but without experiencing them – in other words, by undergoing them as a spell.

Agamben further explains that the creature of fable is “bewitched” but s/he is not “participating in a secret knowledge that deprives it of speech.”

But wouldn’t “enchantment” also be a deprivation of speech?

Anticipating this question, but not openly stating it, Agamben argues that this is enchantment “must be shattered and overcome.”  I find this moment fascinating since, as I pointed out in my last blog entry, Agamben’s “gag” risks enchantment itself.   After all, a gag is something you put in a mouth to keep one from speaking.

This, I would argue, is the danger of the gesture which, though it may be “historical” can easily become and remain “enchanting.”  And although it may leave the creature on the other side of mystery, it may leave the creature in the midst of “enchantment.”

In the next entry, we will take a closer look at the creature and its relationship to the crib and the nativity scene.  And within this scence-slash-historical-crib-gesture, we will find Waldo (I mean the fool who may not be a Christian fool).



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.