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.