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Cinema and Agamben

Cinema and Agamben

Ethics, Biopolitics and the Moving Image

Edited by Henrik Gustafsson and Asbjørn Grønstad

Cinema and Agamben Ethics, Biopolitics and the Moving Image Edited by Henrik Gustafsson and Asbjørn Grønstad

Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc

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First published 2014

© Henrik Gustafsson, Asbjørn Grønstad and the contributors, 2014

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Cinema and Agamben : ethics, biopolitics and the moving image / edited by Henrik Gustafsson and Asbjørn Grønstad. pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-62356-436-0 (hardback : alk. paper) 1. Motion pictures--Moral and ethical aspects. 2. Motion pictures--Philosophy. 3. Agamben, Giorgio, 1942---Criticism and

interpretation. I. Gustafsson, Henrik editor of compilation. II. Grønstad, Asbjørn editor of compilation. PN1995.5.C517 2014



ISBN: 978-1-6235-6371-4


List of Illustrations




Introduction: Giorgio Agamben and the Shape of Cinema to Come Asbjørn Grønstad and Henrik Gustafsson


For an Ethics of the Cinema Giorgio Agamben


Cinema and History: On Jean-Luc Godard Giorgio Agamben


1 Silence, Gesture, Revelation: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Montage in Godard and Agamben James S. Williams


2 Passion, Agamben and the Gestures of Work Libby Saxton


3 Gesture, Time, Movement: David Claerbout meets Giorgio Agamben on the Boulevard du Temple Janet Harbord


4 Film-of-Life: Agamben’s Profanation of the Image Benjamin Noys


5 Biopolitics of Gesture: Cinema and the Neurological Body Pasi Väliaho




6 Propositions for a Gestural Cinema: On “Ciné-Trances” and Jean Rouch’s Ritual Documentaries João Mário Grilo


7 Engaging Hand to Hand with the Moving Image: Serra, Viola and Grandrieux’s Radical Gestures Silvia Casini


8 Counterfactual, Potential, Virtual: Toward a Philosophical Cinematics 161 Garrett Stewart

9 Montage and the Dark Margin of the Archive Trond Lundemo


10 Remnants of Palestine, or, Archaeology after Auschwitz Henrik Gustafsson


Notes on Contributors




List of Illustrations


André Brouillet, A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière (Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière), 1887. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 104


Albert Londe, “Mlle Wittman, transfert d’une attitude au moyen de l’aimant”. Chronophotographic sequence, around 1883, collection Texbraun.



Vincenzo Neri, neurological film, ca. 1908. Paper print (35mm). The Vincenzo Neri Medical Film Collection, Bologna, Italy.



Vincenzo Neri, neurological film, ca. 1908. Paper print (35mm). The Vincenzo Neri Medical Film Collection, Bologna, Italy.



Vincenzo Neri, neurological film, late 1910s. Frame capture.

The Vincenzo Neri Medical Film Collection, Bologna, Italy. 117


Édouard Manet, Dans la serre, 1879. Oil on canvas, 115 cm ×

150 cm. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany. Photographed by Sara Pereira.



Dans la serre: the gestural catastrophe. Photographed by Sara

Pereira, cropped and edited by the author. 127


Jean Rouch, Tourou et bitti: Les Tambours d’Avant, 1971.



Jean Rouch, Tourou et bitti: Les Tambours d’Avant, 1971.



Bill Viola (1995), The Greeting (1995). Video/sound installation. Photo: Kira Perov.



Philippe Grandrieux, La Vie nouvelle (2002).



Philippe Grandrieux, La Vie nouvelle (2002).



Philip the Apostle (Giorgio Agamben) at the Last Supper in Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew),

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964).



Tsahal, Claude Lanzmann (1994).



Fedayeen in Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere), Jean-Luc Godard (1970–4) from chapter 4b: “Les Signes Parmi Nous” (The Signs


List of Illustrations

10.4 Christ blindfolded in Matthias Grünewald’s The Mocking of Christ (1503–5) in Film socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010).


10.5 Trapeze artists from Agnès Varda’s Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008) in Film socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010).



The inception of this book dates back to the 5th Nomadikon Conference Image=Gesture hosted by the eponymous research center at the University of Bergen in November 2011. In the aftermath of that event we noticed that the work of Giorgio Agamben was referenced in many of the contributions and abstracts; no wonder, perhaps, given the increasing centrality of the philoso- pher’s essay “Notes on Gesture” in particular for the field of visual culture studies. We found this pattern intriguing. There was no mention of Agamben in our Call for Papers for the aforementioned conference, yet a certain gravi- tation toward his thought seemed to be in evidence. Without realizing it until after the fact, the Image=Gesture event embodied what one could see as an Agambenian moment in the scholarship on film, media and visual culture. We then decided to commission a set of essays on the intersection between facets of Agamben’s philosophy and the moving image. But while the conference might have provided the occasion or the background for the present volume, nearly all of the articles that make up this book represent original research undertaken specifically for the purpose of this publication. As editors we would like to take the opportunity to extend our gratefulness to a number of people and institutions without whose invaluable input and backing this anthology would not have been possible. First of all, we would like to thank our contributors for what we think are some truly remarkable essays. We also send our deepest thanks to the Bergen Research Foundation and the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Bergen, whose munificent funding enabled us to pursue this project in the first place. It has been an immense privilege for us as editors to be able to publish for the first time in English translation two essays by Agamben, and so we are extremely grateful to John Garner and Colin Williamson for their outstanding effort in this regard, as well as to Gabriel Rockhill for putting us in contact with them. We would furthermore like to thank Giorgio Agamben himself for graciously taking time to correspond with us about his publications on cinema and other matters. Finally, we want to offer our gratitude to the reviewers of our original proposal for Cinema and Agamben, Jenny Chamarette and Alex Murray, for



their enthusiasm and incisive suggestions, and to Katie Gallof and everybody at Bloomsbury for overseeing the development of this project with unmatched grace and efficiency.

Bergen and Berkeley, July 1, 2013


Giorgio Agamben and the Shape of Cinema to Come

Asbjørn Grønstad and Henrik Gustafsson

[T]here is a life of images that it is our task to understand 1

The last decade has seen the emergence of film philosophy as a distinct research field within cinema studies, evidenced, for instance, by the establishment of the electronic journal Film-Philosophy in 1997, organizations such as The Cinematic Thinking Network in 2011, and a proliferation of books that broach a range of

topics at the intersection of the two disciplines. 2 Consider also the vast impact

of Gilles Deleuze’s cinema books, first published in the mid-1980s, which have

spawned a rich and diverse body of work, with more than a dozen volumes of

other people’s works, inspired by or in a dialogue with Deleuze’s own two volumes, issued over the last 10–15 years. This development, we would like to argue, should be construed as separate from the multiple trajectories of film theory, which, despite intermittent overlaps, is distinguishable from film philosophy by dint, for instance, of its more mono-disciplinary orientation. 3 That perspectives and insights from the domain of philosophy may help reinvigorate and reshape our knowledge of the film medium is obviously not a new lesson, as the influential work of someone like Stanley Cavell has adeptly demonstrated, 4 but the epistemo- logical potential of this engagement certainly seems far from exhausted. The current volume—which may be contextualized with reference to this continuously evolving dialogic interspace between the field of philosophy and that of cinema—centers on the work of Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben.

A continental thinker whose highly inventive research has risen to promi-

nence in the Anglo-Saxon world and elsewhere since the 1990s, Agamben has produced a multifarious cache of ideas, concepts and arguments that thus far have received scarce attention in the disciplines of film studies and visual culture studies. 5 While recent years have seen an explosion of interest in the


Cinema and Agamben

philosopher’s work—with studies devoted not only to interpretations of his political theory but also to its relation to other areas such as theology, law, and literature—there is as yet no volume to interact theoretically or critically with crucial dimensions of Agamben’s thought as it impinges upon a variety of issues in moving image studies. Cinema and Agamben is the first book of original scholarship on the nexus between its two titular subjects, and could hence also be read as an attempt to make this lacuna vibrate. Our collection brings together a group of established scholars for an illumi- nating, in-depth study of the purchase that particular facets of Agamben’s work have on the cinema. Refracting current conceptions of the moving image through a select set of the philosopher’s concepts, the essays in this anthology facilitate a unique multidisciplinary conversation that fundamentally rethinks the theory and praxis of film. Greatly expanding upon the range of films discussed by Agamben in their resourceful analyzes of the work of artists such as David Claerbout, Philippe Grandrieux, Michael Haneke, and Jean Rouch, to name a few, the authors put to use key notions from Agamben’s rich oeuvre, from gesture, decreation and ethics to biopolitics, profanation, and the messianic. The retracing and rupturing of bound- aries and dividing lines that distinguish Agamben’s philosophical archaeology also provide the template for the present contributions. Together they form an arc that charts the interfaces between the material and the metaphysical, movement and stillness, human and technology, man and animal, language and gesture, and word and image. Sustaining the eminently interdisciplinary scope of Agamben’s writing, the articles in this collection all bespeak the importance of his thought for forging new beginnings in film philosophy and for remedying the often elegiac proclama- tions of the death of cinema so characteristic of the current moment. Although Agamben’s direct involvement in the field of cinema may be sparse, comprising a handful of brief essays, his genealogy of the intertwined histories of cinema and modern biopolitics amounts to a reconsideration of the pre-history as well as the future of cinema. Running the gamut from advertising to the avant-garde, Agamben’s “gestural turn” from aesthetics to ethics and politics further extends such seminal tropes of film philosophy as Muybridge’s motion-studies, Foucault’s dispositif, Deleuze’s movement-images, and montage in the work of Godard and Debord. Cinema and Agamben explores the depth of this explicit association, while also probing the meaning of vital features of the philosopher’s expansive body of work as it pertains to film studies. From his childhood in Rome, where his father operated a movie theater, to his early personal and critical engagement with Marxist writers like Pier Paolo

Giorgio Agamben and the Shape of Cinema to Come


Pasolini and Guy Debord—both who turned to cinema to further their critical practice—the world of moving images marks a galvanizing force in Agamben’s thinking. His first published work, The Man Without Content (1970), sets out the premises for Agamben’s engagement with images over the past four decades:

to interrupt the continuum of homogenous historical time in order to recover an original space in the present. As Leland de la Durantaye has pointed out, The Man Without Content bears strong echoes of Pasolini’s repudiation of formal aestheticism and the split it imposes between artist and spectator, between the creative act and the exercise of good taste and disinterested judgment— what Agamben in a characteristic formulation refers to as, “the desert of terra aesthetica.” 6 Writing in the wake of post-1968 leftist politics, Debord and the Situationists have remained an accentuated presence throughout his oeuvre. Indeed, Agamben’s most recent contribution to contemporary political theory— The Kingdom and the Glory (2011), the concluding volume of the Homo Sacer project—brings renewed attention, and urgency, to Debord’s critique of repre- sentation by tracing the genealogy of spectacular societies to the acclamation of glory (doxa) in the liturgical mass, via fascist power rituals, to our modern democracies in which glory, negotiated by media, spreads across all aspects of social life. Debord belongs to a trio of illustrious interlocutors, together with Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg, from which Agamben develops his deft re-mobili- zation of the tangled, triangulated concepts of history, gesture and mediality. In his essay on Debord, given the Deleuzian-inflected title “Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Film,” Agamben proffers an articulation of the link between cinema and history or, more generally, between images and time. It is also in this text that we encounter his frequently quoted riffs on the cinema, first that “man is a moviegoing animal” and, a little later, that paintings could be conceived as “stills from a film that is missing.” 7 Each are expressive of a key tenet in Agamben’s philosophy of cinema: firstly, that it is imagination and an interest in images as such that defines the human species; secondly, that cinema animates art history, and history more broadly. The latter point furthermore recalls avant- garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton’s proposal that, “the whole history of art is no more than a massive footnote to the history of film.” 8 Agamben’s main concern, however, is montage and what he calls its “transcendental conditions,” which are repetition and stoppage. Drawing on philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Deleuze, he points out that repetition is not about the return of the same but rather the return of “the possibility of what was.” 9 Hence, Agamben


Cinema and Agamben

speaks of memory as “that which can transform the real into the possible and the possible into the real.” He then adds, “[i]f you think about it, that’s also the definition of cinema.” 10 As a particular form of cultural experience, as well as an apparatus for the gestation of a unique mode of mediality, cinema is closely aligned with the act of remembrance and its imaginative potential. Memory in this conceptualization is thus endowed with a restorative function, the material support of which is repetition, understood as a process of aesthetic figuration. But the force of potentiality also plays itself out through another technique intrinsic to the materiality of cinema: stoppage, which entails a certain kind of fertile obstruction that pulls the image out of the flow of meaning and narrative in order to display it as such. In Agamben’s resolutely post-representational consideration, repetition and stoppage “carry out the Messianic task of cinema” in that they enact a decreation of the real (a term, we shall later learn from Libby Saxton’s essay, Agamben has borrowed from Simone Weil), an expression the content of which for Deleuze would be resistance, for Adorno probably negation. Agamben first presented his thoughts on Debord, repetition and stoppage at

a lecture given on the occasion of the “Sixth International Video Week” at the Centre Saint-Gervais in Geneva in November 1995. Since then, similar ideas concerning the relation between images, temporality and the creative act have surfaced among other thinkers. The thoughts on stoppage and decreation share

a family resemblance with some more recent theorizations of the image which

are worth considering to show that Agamben’s work on film—comparatively sparse as it is—might be construed as part of the contemporary horizon of film philosophy. The first comes from Jean-Luc Nancy’s dialogue with Abbas Kiarostami, in which the former, drawing on Heidegger’s phenomenology, argues that the loss of a meaningful world in modernity in fact represents an advancement, because this loss is necessary in order for the real to unfold itself. Cinema’s function, for Nancy, is not to portray a preconceived world, nor to manifest the waning of such an entity, but to present the world itself:

[t]he evidence of cinema is that of the existence of a look through which a world can give back to itself its own real and the truth of its enigma (which is admittedly not its solution), a world moving of its own motion, without a heaven or a wrapping, without fixed moorings or suspension, a world shaken, trembling, as the winds blow through it. 11

It is certainly possible to discern in Nancy’s line of thinking a conceptual affinity with Agamben’s emphasis on potentiality, Messianic history, decreation

Giorgio Agamben and the Shape of Cinema to Come


and the nature of what one could see as film’s additive function vis-à-vis the real. The loss recognized by Nancy furthermore resounds with how the turn towards exteriority in Agamben’s writing facilitates a turn toward ethics. As is lucidly stated in The Coming Community (1990), Agamben’s response to Nancy’s book The Inoperative Community (1986), it is precisely inoperativity and potentiality that makes an ethical experience possible in the first place: “the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize.” 12 Attesting to their shared background in Heideggerian phenom- enology, Nancy’s cinema of evidence and Agamben’s cinema of gesture are not oriented beyond appearance, but toward its unfolding. For both, this coming into presence of the world, its continuous disappearing and reappearing, holds a profound political import. In Agamben’s words: “The task of politics is to return appearance itself to appearance, to cause appearance itself to appear.” 13 Returning to his essay on Debord, the tenor of Agamben’s post-represen- tational argument, or what one might call his presentist position, is forcefully adumbrated in the following passage:

We will have to rethink entirely our traditional conception of expression. The current concept of expression is dominated by the Hegelian model, in which all expression is realized by a medium – an image, a word, or a color – which in the end must disappear in the fully realized expression. The expressive act is fulfilled when the means, the medium, is no longer perceived as such. The medium must disappear in that which it gives us to see, in the absolute that shows itself, that shines forth in the medium. On the contrary, the image worked by repetition and stoppage is a means, a medium, that does not disappear in what it makes visible. It is what I would call a “pure means,” one that shows itself as such. The image gives itself to be seen instead of disappearing in what it makes visible. 14

Repetition and stoppage, then, are compositional acts that render the image into what Agamben terms “a pure means,” a condition, or state, that bears a certain resemblance to what Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska, borrowing from Karen Barad, call the agential cut. 15 Arguing that the practice of cutting—which in their interpretation can be both material, perceptual, technical and conceptual, and which would seem to be interrelated with the notion of stoppage—is intrinsic to any aesthetic undertaking, Kember and Zylinska point out that “the practice of cutting is crucial not just to our being in and relating to the world, but also to our becoming-with-the-world, as well as becoming-different-from-the-world.” 16


Cinema and Agamben

While Kember and Zylinska’s main concern is photography, the theoretical insights that they contribute around the figure of the cut and its ethical ramifi- cations apply equally well to the cinema. Cutting is tied to vital processes of “differentiation and life-making,” and “[c]utting well” implies “cutting (film, tape, reality) in a way that does not lose sight of the horizon of duration or foreclose on the creative possibility of life enabled by this horizon.” 17 As in Nancy and Agamben, this line of thinking challenges the very foundations of philosophies built on the premise of representation. Life, Kember and Zylinska maintain, “goes beyond and contests representation: it is a creation of images in the most radical sense.” 18 The seminal source for Agamben’s concern with the temporality and animation of images, however, is to be retraced to the intermediary years between his first two books. In the fall of 1974, Agamben commenced a yearlong study in the Warburg Institute Library in London. The most immediate outcome of this activity was his 1975 essay “Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science,” and, two years later, his investigation of the conception of imagination and melancholy in medieval love poetry in Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (1977). Together, these publications mark a redirection of interest from the artist and the artwork, probed in The Man Without Content, to the problem of represen- tation and imagination. Dispensing with the linear timelines of conventional historiography, the object of Warburg’s research was not the individual image or artist, but the process by which images get animated. The large panel networks of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1924–8) do not give an account of images as representations to be decoded, but as presence and potency. In 1975, Agamben described the Mnemosyne as, “a kind of gigantic condenser that gathered together all the energetic currents that had animated and continued to animate Europe’s memory, taking form in its ‘ghosts.’ ” 19 Consigned to a posthumous life in the course of their transmission and survival through historical memory, what Warburg referred to as the process of Nachleben, the pagan energies stored in images persist in the diminished form of phantasms, waiting to be summoned. Hence, Warburg’s notion of art history as a ghost story, and of the art historian as a necromancer. In order to bring these phantasms back to life, temporality has to be restored. Such a restoration, or resurrection, is also what is at stake in Agamben’s subsequent reflections of cinema, which are concerned neither with cinema as an aesthetics or a technology, nor with its material base in film, but as a method, a praxis for releasing images from its “spectral destiny.” 20 Cinema, then, is that which brings life to images.

Giorgio Agamben and the Shape of Cinema to Come


Almost four decades later, in his essay “Nymphs” (2011), his most ambitious engagement with Warburg to date, Agamben returns to this intermediary domain where images are encountered and reanimated. We confront images “in

a no-man’s land,” Agamben reflects in a passage that evokes the experience of

the movie goer, “in the shadows where the historical subject, between waking and sleep, engages with them in order to bring them back to life, but also, sooner or later, to awaken from them.” 21 It is, then, not merely a question of summoning the ghosts and bringing them back to life, but, ultimately, to awaken from them. From the “phantasmology” of Medieval love poetry expounded in Stanzas, to the phantasmagoria of Debord’s spectacular societies, the conceptual thrust of Agamben’s work evinces a remarkable consistency. In this element of awakening, Warburg’s Pathosformeln and Debordian montage converge in what Benjamin theorized as movement caught at a standstill—a dialectical constel- lation of what-has-been and the now, blasting open the space of history, and, ultimately, “the space for an imagination with no more images.” 22 For Agamben, what may bring about such an awakening is gesture. In an essay whose influence reverberates throughout this collection, Agamben puts forward his perhaps somewhat cryptic dictum that the “element of cinema is gesture and not image.” 23 He also unequivocally connects gesture with the sphere of ethics, suggesting that gesture contains within it the sense not of

production or enactment but rather that of endurance and support. 24 As the subject of this essay will be revisited in several of the following articles, we shall refrain from summarizing its contents in any great detail here. But the gist of its contention is worth a few brief remarks; more specifically, the way in which

it corrals the subjects of gesture, ethics and mediality, binding the complicated

phenomena together in a conceptual interrelation almost certainly without precedent in media theory or philosophy. Gesture, for Agamben, implies “the exhibition of a mediality” as well as “the process of making a means visible as such.” 25 The photographs in Mnemosyne, to return for a moment to Warburg, represent for Agamben a procession of gestures wherein the images evoke film stills more than they do external reality. 26 “Even the Mona Lisa, even Las Meninas,” Agamben writes, “could be seen not as immovable and eternal forms, but as fragments of a gesture or as stills of a lost film.” 27 What exactly, then, is gained by exhibiting mediality, by making means visible? On the surface it may sound like nothing more than yet another reformulation of the aesthetic project of self-reflexivity. But that is not what is at stake here. The making visible of the medial rather involves an opening onto the realm of ethics. Here, Agamben


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draws on Aristotle’s distinction in the Nicomachean Ethics between poiesis and praxis; while the former has an objective external to itself, the latter has not because actions that are by nature good constitute an objective in themselves. 28 Agamben’s approach to cinema is marked by a profound ambiguity. On the one hand, cinema is an apparatus that captures and disciplines life, modeling and reshaping gestures. On the other hand, cinema posits an archaeological method for bringing life back to images. While from its pre-history complicit with the biopolitical regimes of modernity, it may also, in Debordian fashion, facilitate a counter-move. The release of image into gesture entails a turn from biopolitics to biopoetics: exhibiting the pure mediality of the human body in motion, unhinging biopolitical relations and grasping the potentiality of bare life. The value of gesture as a conceptual category is that it “allows the emergence of the being-in-a-medium of human beings,” which “opens the ethical dimension for them.” 29 In the world of images, gesture is the point of flight from aesthetics into ethics and politics. Agamben’s sketches for a gestural cinema are thus at the same time also expressive of an ethics of the cinema, which happens to be the title of the first essay in this volume. We are pleased to be able to make available for the first time in English translation two original texts on film that Agamben published in French. The first of these is entitled “For an Ethics of the Cinema” and featured in an edition of the journal Trafic in 1992. 30 Starting from the problem of individu- ation as introduced by Benjamin in one of his late essays, Agamben outlines a compressed history of “mutating ways of being” epitomized by the concepts of type, persona and divo, the latter two of which belong to the institutions of theater and cinema respectively. An inquiry clearly preoccupied with forms of mediality in relation to ethics, the essay explicitly brings up the notion of gesture with reference to actors and characters, theater and film. In the cinema, Agamben contends, characters and roles are invented in order to embody the gestures of the divo, whereas the opposite is the case in the theater. In films, “the individual consciousness and the character are captured together and deported into a region where singular life and collective life are confused,” 31 Agamben observes. Toward the end of this short piece he speculates that his history of the transformations in ways of being might lead us “beyond the aesthetic realm,” 32 an intimation, perhaps, of the ethical work of gestures to come. The second essay, “Cinema and History: On Jean-Luc Godard,” originally featured in Le Monde in October 1995, just a month before Agamben presented his lecture on Debord. 33 Not only does Agamben’s epigrammatic reflection

Giorgio Agamben and the Shape of Cinema to Come


on videographic montage in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98) formalize the link between the two filmmakers, it also invokes, in its concluding line, Warburg’s Mnemosyne, which is denoted in identical terms in “Nymphs” as, “the image-less: the farewell—and the refuge—of all images.” 34 The multilayered superimpositions, wipes, and dissolves of Histoire(s) do not summon an archive of cinema, then, but rather the Mnemosyne for the post-cinematic age, both in its vastly ambitious scope and in its method of historiographical montage. Appositely, Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture” debuted in the first issue of Serge Daney’s new cinema journal Revue Trafic in 1991, together with a poem by Godard contemplating the “dead parish” of contemporary cinema. Godard’s mid- to late oeuvre remains a touchstone throughout this volume and it is also Agamben’s essay on Godard, and its conceptual affinity with his lecture on Debord, that provides the starting point for our first chapter. In “Silence, Gesture, Revelation: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Montage in Godard and Agamben,” James Williams notes that while Agamben in his previous commentary on cinema addressed gesture in terms of a movement from aesthetics to ethics and politics, this argument is conspicuously missing from his reflection on Godard. This omission raises a key question: where, exactly, in Agamben’s gestural move toward ethics is aesthetics left behind? Williams goes on to explore the relations between the ethical and the aesthetic by reading Agamben against an overlooked work by Godard, Soigne ta droite (Une place sur la terre) (Keep Your Right Up, 1987), a film which directly engages with the messianic status of the cinematic image. While Godard’s film draws out some of the underlying principles of Agamben’s theory of gestural cinema, it also exposes some of its limitations as a philosophy of film. What is at stake for Godard, as demonstrated in Williams’s judicious close reading, is the perform- ability of the image within a larger signifying system. Tapping into the kinetic deposits of silent cinema, Godard’s plastic strategies of decreation pushes the image toward the borders of silence and illegibility in order to recover gesture aesthetically. Such a recovery transpires in acts of self-exhibition and revelation, in what Williams refers to as “the event of beauty.” While Agamben conceives of gesture as an art subtracted from aesthetics, Godard’s artistic method is carried by a faith in the ethics of aesthetics. Thus, for Godard, Williams proposes, gesture is always “ethico-aesthetic.” Soigne ta droite marked the culmination of the vibrant cinematic experi- mentation of Godard’s Second Wave. The second chapter brings us to an earlier phase of this period, not long after Godard’s return to feature film making, to


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scrutinize the materialization of a set of recurring aesthetic figurations that may be seen to undergird a non-teleological ethics. In her article “Passion, Agamben and the Gestures of Work,” Libby Saxton examines the nature of the compelling equivalences between processes of labor and acts of creativity through a reading of Godard’s 1982 film in light of both Agamben’s work (“The Work of Man” and “Notes on Gesture” in particular) and what has been seen as a “haunting presence” in his philosophy, namely that of Simone Weil. While for the latter work served as a determinant of temporal duration, Saxton argues, the mystic thinker’s rejection of Taylorism—whose monotonous regime is embodied by Isabelle Huppert’s factory worker in Passion—presages Agamben’s biopolitical take on gesture. Focusing in particular on the intertextual currents that animate Godard’s film—the reenactments of celebrated paintings as tableau vivants—Saxton suggests that Agamben’s notion of potentiality is related to Weil’s concept of decreation as something “becoming nothing.” In the images of arrested motion in Passion the two phenomena are seen to intermingle. By extending the discussion of dynamic potentiality and virtual kinesis back to key works by Weil, Saxton’s thoughtful argument is able to shed new light on a series of relations that are of vital importance to contemporary media theory, those between movement and stillness, materiality and the spiritual life, and love and labor. The significant place that potentiality and dynamis occupy in Agamben’s work likewise informs Janet Harbord’s essay “Gesture, Time, Movement: David Claerbout meets Giorgio Agamben on the Boulevard du Temple.” Noting that Agamben’s conceptualization of the medium of photography runs counter to established theories in which its special province is thought to be the capture of time, Harbord points out that the potentiality of the photographic image, for Agamben, is closely linked to “the release of a dynamis,” which again connects with Benjamin’s notion of kairological time. Yet the model which frames Agamben’s philosophy of the image is, according to Harbord, “elliptical” and in need of further elaboration or exegesis. In an attempt to overcome this inherent obliqueness, Harbord investigates recent moving image practices that revolve around image production, its forms of emergence and what she terms its “modes of appearing.” Turning toward the work of Belgian artist, David Claerbout, who has taken a special interest in the liminal zone between photography and film, Harbord shows how the photograph, in line with Agamben’s thinking in the essay “Judgment Day,” “calls up a moment that is not an instant within a continuum, but a paradigm of heterogeneous times that

Giorgio Agamben and the Shape of Cinema to Come


breaks from the concept of the image as a sealed surface containing an historical truth.” Claerbout’s single-channel works such as Boom (1996) and Kindergarten Antonio Sant’Elia (1998) release the gestural potential of the image and thus enable a discharge of the multiple temporalities that are latent within it. Extrapolating a number of the key motifs pursued in the first three essays (the messianic, decreation, the imagelessness, profanation, potentiality), Benjamin Noys in his contribution undertakes a wide-ranging critical appraisal of Agamben’s project to politicize and ethicize the image. In “Film-of-Life:

Agamben’s Profanation of the Image,” he demonstrates how Agamben’s reflec- tions on the image, albeit occupying a seemingly minor place in his oeuvre, in fact speak to his central concern with detaching “life” from the powers of the State and capital. Reconstructing the genealogy of Agamben’s messianic theory of cinema through Kafka, Heidegger, Benjamin and Debord to explore its current implications for pornography and software technologies, Noys shows how cinema, for Agamben, provides the prototype for the deadly fusion between the society of spectacle (Debord) and surveillance (Foucault) in which capitalism becomes an immense machine for the capture and classification of life by images and the reduction of life to images. To break the spell Agamben advocates what Noys describes as “an ambiguous un-working on the image, an act of profanation,” releasing its encrypted potential in order to re-activate and re-animate life through the image so as to give us a previously unseen film of life. In his polemic and probing account, Noys suggests that the critical difficulty for Agamben is his failure to articulate the redemptive practice of profanation as a possible common political practice. It is precisely as a political category that gesture is explored in the next chapter, the first in a trio that study the multiple repercussions of gesture in medical cinema, ethnographic documentary, and moving-image artworks respectively. In “Biopolitics of Gesture: Cinema and the Neurological Body,” Pasi Väliaho delin- eates a genealogy of cinema as linked to physiological and psychiatric practices at the turn of the twentieth century. As a medium, cinema in this period attained “a particular epistemic function in defining and (re)producing our gestural being at the fleeting limit between the normal and the pathological,” Väliaho observes. In a deeply historical study, also indebted to the work of Foucault, he then goes on to chart the construction of “the neurological body” in modernity, examining the ways in which cinema both occasioned and captured a shift in political subjec- tivity. Väliaho’s case is the scientific, biopolitical gaze developed by renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière clinic in Paris, a gaze which was


Cinema and Agamben

influential in generating an epistemological practice “obsessed with the moving, doing, breathing, sensuous individual,” as Väliaho puts it. Charcot was evidently consumed by the ways in which signs of hysteria could be mapped visually and

his objective was to create “a kind of pictorial typography of nervous pathology.”

A serious challenge to that endeavor, however, was that the moving, gesticulating,

contorting and gesturing human body would brush up against the perceptual limitations of the observer. Chronophotographic, and later, cinematic technologies

were thus enlisted to supplement the scientific gaze. Raising the intriguing question whether this neurological body and the cinematic apparatus were in fact “mutually constitutive,” Väliaho—drawing on Agamben’s view of the biopolitical as a concept which continuously renegotiates the boundaries between bare life and social life and between animality and humanity—demonstrates how cinema contributed substantially in configuring “the uncertain conceptual contours of the human” at a time when the biopolitical management of life, and its concomitant policing of the borders between the normative and the pathological, was fully emerging. Cinema’s unique capacity for capturing gesture is also the point of departure for João Mário Grilo’s essay “Propositions for a Gestural Cinema: On “Ciné-Trances” and Jean Rouch’s Ritual Documentaries.” Tracing the influence

of what he names “the ‘Agamben effect’ in film theory,” Grilo evokes Godard’s

identification of Manet in Histoire(s) du cinéma as the spiritual inventor of the cinematograph, Jonathan Crary’s analysis of Manet’s painting Dans la serre (1879) and, finally, Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929) in order to flesh out the implications of cinema’s “perfect mediality”—its ability to unleash the frozen but potentially dynamic dimension of the image—for the biopolitical sphere. In the second part of his essay, Grilo goes on to consider the relationship between cinema and gesture in the work of Jean Rouch, more particularly the films he made about spirit possession rituals among the Songhay, Zarma and Dogon tribes in western central Africa. Drawing on an approach that combines film theory, ethnography, and practical insights from the author’s own film- making experience, Grilo’s inventive reappraisal of Agamben’s reflections on mediality broaches the question whether a film can be gestured rather than visualized. Ultimately, for Grilo, Rouch’s practical method and Agamben’s more abstract postulations converge in their shared interest in reconstituting or recomposing gestural experience, and in making that experience screenable. The interface between the human body and cinematic technology charted by Väliaho and Grilo is considered in relation to experimental film and video art

by Silvia Casini in her essay “Engaging Hand to Hand with the Moving Image:

Giorgio Agamben and the Shape of Cinema to Come


Serra, Viola and Grandrieux’s Radical Gestures.” In order to fully investigate the process in which an image becomes gesture, Casini proposes, one has to take into consideration the broader terminology that underpins Agamben’s thinking. Embarking on such an inquiry, gesture is explored through the prisms of a triad of key concepts in Agamben’s philosophy: dispositifs, potentiality and profanation. Each of these concepts are in turn elucidated through a close reading: the cinematic dispositif as opened up and exteriorized into gesture in Richard Serra’s 16mm film Hand Catching Lead (1968); the gesture of profaning in Bill Viola’s video work The Greeting (1995); and the potential of filmmaking as bodily gesture explored in Philippe Grandrieux’s experimental film La Vie nouvelle (2002). The bodily engagement with the cinematic dispositif through which Casini connects these works further suggests that for Agamben, only certain modes of cinema may liberate image into gesture. As Casini rightly points out, Agamben’s predilection for the avant-garde also entails a repudiation of storytelling in mainstream cinema. An objection that could be marshaled against Agamben’s engagement with the moving image, then, as well as its impact on the broader field of visual studies, is that it tends to skirt two preoccupations central to film studies: first, the domain of narrative film, and second, the question of medium specificity. Garrett Stewart’s ambitious analysis of controversial Austrian director Michael Haneke’s recent films in light of not only Agamben, but also Deleuze and media theorist Régis Debray, thus represents a welcome intervention in the field. In his article “Counterfactual, Potential, Virtual: Toward a Philosophical Cinematics,” Stewart develops Agamben’s concepts of repetition and stoppage and points toward a theoreti- cally productive transition from the Deleuzian “movement-image” to a new “gestural image.” Focusing on the correlation between the stoppage-repetition mechanism that Agamben discovers in Debord’s films as well as the notion of potentiality, Stewart pays attention to what he sees as “the full-scale desubjec- tivation of the visual” in selected sequences from Haneke’s films, Caché and Amour in particular, instances that, rather than displaying images, exhibit acts of imaging. What the article attempts is no less than a rethinking of Deleuzian virtuality and Agambenian potentiality “in the beam of each other’s manifes- tation on screen,” as the article puts it with equal elegance and precision. Always sensitive to Haneke’s carefully calibrated aesthetic configurations, his fracturing of suture-oriented editing codes and preponderance for gaps and caesura, Stewart’s reading arrives at the insight that “[n]o current narrative filmmaker


Cinema and Agamben

gravitates as demandingly as Haneke to cinema as ‘a prolonged hesitation between image and meaning’.” Following Stewart’s reflection on the process of desubjectivation and death’s intrusion into bourgeoisie domesticity, the two concluding chapters bring these themes to bear on what Agamben in his most influential formulation referred to as the nomos of modernity, the camp, and the liminal figure who occupies its epicentre, the Muselmann. In “Montage and the Dark Margin of the Archive,” Trond Lundemo astutely unravels the paradoxical conditions of the testimony and the position of the witness as formulated by Agamben in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1999). Since no one can testify from the inside of death, Agamben argues, this leaves the position of the testimony as a remnant between the living being and the speaking being. Undermining the integrity and identity of the testifying subject, the “dark margin” that encircles every speech act opens the question of the process of subjectivization. Probing the media specificity of the testimony and its role in the archive, Lundemo asks if also still and moving photographic images may convey this lacuna. This question is pursued in regard to the debates encircling Claude Lanzmann’s abstention from archival images in Shoah (1985), Georges Didi-Huberman’s polemic book Images in Spite of All, and Godard’s epistemology of montage. In his concluding remarks, Lundemo situates Agamben’s investigation of the witness within the corpus of the philosopher’s writing on cinema. Calling attention to its primary concern with processes of subjectivization, Lundemo suggests that this recurring focus may derive from Agamben’s own experience as an actor in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964). It is from this early collaboration, and from Pasolini’s pre-production film Sopralluoghi in Palestina (Scouting in Palestine, 1963–4), that the book’s concluding chapter begins. In “Remnants of Palestine, or, Archaeology after Auschwitz,” Henrik Gustafsson draws on Pasolini’s linguistically informed approach to location shooting to explore a key concern that informs Agamben’s philosophical archaeology: the need to rethink the relation between place and language. Pursuing the political implications of this project, Gustafsson goes on to address Jean-Luc Godard’s and Claude Lanzmann’s artistic interventions into the Zionist-Palestine conflict over the last four decades. The focal point of this cross-reading is their respective claims on the Nazi camps as the inaugural site of the conflict in the Middle East. This origin is in turn imbricated with a speech act, an act of nomination. For Godard the connection is encrypted in the German name Musulmann, for Lanzmann

Giorgio Agamben and the Shape of Cinema to Come


in the Hebrew name Shoah. In Agamben’s work, such a relation converges in the Messianic concept of the remnant, introduced in his study of testimony after Auschwitz, further elaborated in regard to the remnants of Israel in his reading of the Letters of Paul, and prefigured in an earlier essay addressing the Palestinian refugee situation. Triangulated in this manner, the remnant emerges as a highly potent historical cipher for the conflict in the Middle East, as well as for probing the polemical conversations between Lanzmann and Godard. In keeping with the strategic untimeliness that informs Agamben’s philo- sophical archaeology, what he has invoked as “the twilight of post-cinema” also stipulates that the time is ripe to grasp cinema “in the moment of arising and becoming.” 35 As each essay in this collection demonstrates, the encounter between Agamben and cinema solicits both a broader genealogy of what cinema has been, and of a cinema to come. Not, then, a cinema that unfolds from a beginning to an end along a telos, but towards an ethos.


1 Giorgio Agamben, “Nymphs”, Releasing the Image: From Literature to New Media, Jacques Khalip, Robert Mitchell (eds) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 61.

2 See for instance Film as Philosophy: Essays on Cinema After Wittgenstein and Cavell, Rupert Read, Jerry Goodenough (eds) (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005);Thinking Through Cinema: Film as Philosophy, ed. Murray Smith, Thomas E. Wartenberg (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006); Thomas E. Wartenberg, Thinking on Screen: Film as Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2007); Paisley Livingston, Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman: On Film as Philosophy (Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 2009); The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film, ed. Paisley Livingston, Carl Plantinga (New York: Routledge, 2011); Robert Sinnerbrink, New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (London: Continuum, 2011); Hunter Vaughan, Where Film Meets Philosophy: Godard, Resnais, and Experiments in Cinematic Thinking (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

3 For the argument that the theory and the philosophy of film should be conceptualized as discrete endeavors, see D. N. Rodowick, “An Elegy for Theory”, October 122 (Fall 2007), 102.

4 See for instance Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (New York: Viking Press, 1971), as well as the secondary literature on Cavell’s studies of film; Images in Our Souls: Cavell, Psychoanalysis, and Cinema, Joseph H. Smith, William Kerrigan (eds) (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press,


Cinema and Agamben

1987); William Rothman and Marian Keane, Reading Cavell’s The World Viewed:

A Philosophical Perspective on Film (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000); Cavell on Film, ed. William Rothman (Albany: State University of New York Press,



While significant work has begun to chart the interface of cinema and Agamben, such inquires have generally been of an introductory nature. Notable in this preliminary corpus are Alex Murray’s chapter “The Homeland of Gesture—Art and Cinema” in his book Giorgio Agamben (Routledge: New York, 2010) 78–94, and, more importantly, his essay “Beyond Spectacle and the Image: the Poetics of Guy Debord and Agamben” in The Work of Giorgio Agamben: Law, Literature, Life, Justin Clemens, Nicholas Heron, Alex Murray (eds) (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008) 164–80. In the same volume we also find Deborah Levitt’s essay “Notes on Media and Biopolitics: ‘Notes on Gesture,’ ” 193–211. Christian McCrea has written the entry “Giorgio Agamben” in Film, Theory and Philosophy:

the Key Thinkers, ed. Felicity Colman (Durham: Acumen, 2009), 349–57. Finally, there is Benjamin Noys’s pioneering article, “Gestural Cinema?: Giorgio Agamben on Film”, Film-Philosophy, vol. 8, no. 22, July 2004, http://www.film-philosophy.



Leland de la Durantaye, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction (Stanford:

Stanford University Press, 2009), 32–3. Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999 [1970]), 102.


Giorgio Agamben, “Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films”, Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Thomas McDonough, trans. Brian Holmes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 314, 315.


Hollis Frampton, “Notes on Composing in Film”, October, Vol. 1, (Spring, 1976), 104–10, 109.


Ibid., 316.




Jean-Luc Nancy and Abbas Kiarostami, The Evidence of Film, trans. Christine Irizarry, Verena Andermatt Conley (Brussels: Yves Gevaert, 2001), 44.


Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis and London, 1993 [1990]), 43.


Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2000 [1996]), 95.


Agamben, “Difference and Repetition”, 318.


It should be noted that the concept of the “cut” as described by Kember and Zylinska is also indebted both to Henri Bergson (who uses the term in his Creative Evolution (1907), 71) and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of decoupage from What is Philosophy? (1991).

Giorgio Agamben and the Shape of Cinema to Come


16 Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska, Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 75.

17 Ibid., 72, 82.

18 Ibid., 84.

19 Giorgio Agamben, “Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science” [1975] in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy eds. and trans. Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 95.

20 Agamben, “Nymphs”, 66.

21 Ibid., 72.

22 Ibid., 80. From 1979 to 1994, Agamben served as the editor of the Italian edition of Benjamin’s Complete Works.

23 Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 55.

24 Ibid., 57.

25 Ibid., 58.

26 Ibid., 54.

27 Ibid., 55.

28 Ibid., 57.

29 Ibid., 58.

30 Giorgio Agamben, “Pour une étique du cinéma” Trafic no. 3, 1992, 49–52.

31 Giorgio Agamben, “For an Ethics of the Cinema”, trans. John V. Garner and Colin Williamson, Cinema and Agamben: Ethics, Biopolitics and the Moving Image, Henrik Gustafsson and Asbjørn Grønstad (eds) (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 22.

32 Ibid., 28.

33 Agamben, Giorgio (1995), “Face au cinéma et à l’Histoire: à propos de Jean-Luc Godard”, Le Monde (Supplément Livres): 6 October, 1995, I, X–XI.

34 Agamben, “Nymphs”, 80.

35 Agamben, “For an Ethics of the Cinema”, trans. John V. Garner and Colin Williamson in Cinema and Agamben, 23. Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method, trans. Luca D’Isanto and Kevin Attell (New York: Zoone Books, 2009 [2008]), 110.

For an Ethics of the Cinema

Giorgio Agamben

Translated by John V. Garner and Colin Williamson

I. Type

In his “Notes sur les Tableaux parisiens de Baudelaire,” drafted in French during the last years of his exile in Paris, Walter Benjamin evokes a “nightmare” familiar to anyone who was able to undergo the experience of the crowd in a modern city, namely “to see the distinctive traits that at first appear to guarantee the uniqueness, the strict individuality of a person, in turn reveal the constitutive elements of a new type, which would itself establish a new subdivision … The individual presented in his multiplicity as always the same testifies to the anxiety of the city dweller who, despite cultivating the most eccentric peculiarities, is unable to break the magic circle of the type.” 1 If we consider Benjamin’s description to be accurate, and if we accept the diagnosis according to which modern man has heretofore entered, definitively, into the “magic circle of the type,” then we cannot avoid the consequence: an essential mutation is implied here, which concerns nothing less than the principle of individuation of the human species. Individuation, which proceeds from the genus to the individual, remains, so to speak, suspended in air, and the beings who previously constituted the individuals of the species homo sapiens now float in an indistinct zone, neither universal nor singular, which is the proper domain of the type. Far from being reduced to a simple generality or from undergoing any lack of determination, the type presents itself as a perfectly determined being which, in accordance with Benjamin’s analysis, suddenly indetermines itself and becomes the principal of a series, in virtue of the very traits which should identify it.


Cinema and Agamben

Indeed, this transformation has since become so familiar to us that we no longer even come close to recognizing it as such. For a long time now, adver- tising, pornography, and television have habituated us to those mutant beings who linger ceaselessly between individual and class and vanish utterly into a series precisely in their most characteristic idiosyncrasies. That young woman

who smiles at us while drinking a beer, that other who rolls her hips so mischie- vously while running on the beach, they belong to a people whose members, like the angels of medieval theology (each of whom individually constitutes

a species), elude the distinction between the original and the replica; and

the fascination they exert on us is due in large part to that capacity (properly “angelic”) to make themselves typical through that very thing which appears to belong to them exclusively, to replicate and to confuse themselves with a new, unique example, each time without remainder. The exclusive character becomes

the principle of serial reproduction: such is the definition of the type (which,

at once, reveals its proximity to the commodity). In fact, familiarity with this

process is immemorial: it is at the basis of the most ancient expedients from which woman draws her power of seduction, namely make-up and fashion. Both circumscribe the ineffable uniqueness of the individual body in order to transform its singular traits into a serial principle. (For Baudelaire, make-up “creates an abstract unity in the texture and color of the skin, a unity which, like that produced by stockings, immediately approximates the human being to the statue, that is, to a divine and superior being.”) Through these means humanity seeks to remedy what is perhaps its most ancient anxiety: the fear provoked by the irreparable uniqueness of the living being.

II. Persona

There has always been a realm in which creatures, intermediate between genus and individual, move: the theater. And these hybrid beings are the characters, which result from the encounter between a flesh-and-blood individual—the actor—and the role the author has written. For the actor, such an encounter involves an extraordinary mutation stemming from the ritual in which he must subjugate himself in order to be in a position to assume his role. Usually, he dons a mask (persona), which signals his passage to a higher life, subtracted from the vicissitudes of individual existence. The contrast is even more evident

For an Ethics of the Cinema


in certain traditions which require the actor to completely strip away his own personality before he enters the scene: Balinese theater, which so captivated Artaud, is familiar with such a trance-like state known as lupa. It is no coincidence that the Stoics, those erectors of Western ethics, ironi- cally modeled their moral paradigm on the actor. In their view, the exemplary attitude is that of an actor who, without identifying himself with his role, nonetheless agrees to play it faithfully to the end. As such, the singular begins to separate himself from his mask, which he puts down in order to become a person himself. However, this encounter may produce something that differs from the character and that calls for an entirely different ethics. In the commedia dell’arte, for example, the mask is no longer the vehicle of a higher realm into which the actor enters; rather, it summons the actor, just as the canvas does, to a third dimension through which a contamination of real life with the theatrical scene takes place. Harlequin, Punchinello, Pantalone, and Beltrame are not sub-characters but are like so many experimentum vitae in which the destruction of the actor’s identity and the destruction of the role go hand in hand. Through such roles the very relationship between text and execution, between the virtual and the real, is called into question. A mixture of potency and act, which eludes the categories of traditional ethics, insinuates itself between them. Nothing illustrates this contamination between theater and reality better than the way comedians compose their signature, which unites the real name with that of the mask. Nicolo Barbieri, also known as Beltrame; Domenico Biancolelli, also known as Harlequin; Mario Cennhini, also known as Fritellino. It is no longer very clear whether the name of the mask [nom du masque] is simply the comedian’s stage name [nom d’artiste]. (It is enough to consider the absurdity of such expressions as “Talma, also known as Oedipus,” or “Eleanora Duse, also known as Nora.”) It is no surprise that modern theater has felt the need to distance itself from the actors of the commedia dell’arte (but not without retaining their lesson). Their bodies were the site of a disquieting prophesy which could only complete itself two centuries later.


Cinema and Agamben

III. Divo

What does the cinema, which came about in an era when the development of the principle of individuation toward the type was already at an advanced stage, bring to bear with its emergence? The analogy with theater must not lead us into error. Despite the apparent contiguity between scene and set, the cinema in no way puts into play an actor who lends his body to a character from language; it puts into play uniquely different degrees of tension along a scale at the summit of which is none other than that paradoxical being which exists only in the cinema: the divo, the star. The Italian and American terms, which refer to the divine or celestial realm, are not accidental, for the divo’s relationships with his characters call to mind more those which a god (or a demi-god) maintains with the myths in which he appears than those which an actor maintains with his roles. The latter were invented to incarnate his gesture, and not the inverse, as is the case with the theater. The star lives a mythical existence which is, properly speaking, neither that of the psychosomatic individual of the same name (who serves as a support for the star), nor that of the films in which the star appears. The star’s status is even more paradoxical from the perspective of the principle of individuation: “Gary Cooper” or “Marlene Dietrich” are not individuals but something that set theory would describe as classes containing only a single element (singletons) or belonging to themselves (a € a). With the angel, the individual makes itself species; with the divo, the type as such makes itself individual, becomes the type or the exemplar of itself. And just as the cinema is not acquainted with actors in the proper sense, it also no longer presents characters (or at least not characters [êthê] analogous to those of the theatrical tradition), as is demonstrated by the impossibility of effecting a real distinction between the cinematic ‘character’ and the actor. While Oedipus and Hamlet exist independently of the individuals who succes- sively lend a person to them, Ellen Berent in Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1945) or Gregory Arkadin in Confidential Report (Welles, 1955) do not allow themselves to be separated from Gene Tierney or Orson Welles. (It only takes a simple observation to prove this indisputably: a remake is not another version of the same text but another film.) In other words, the individual consciousness and the character are captured together and deported into a region where singular life and collective life are confused. The type has realized in its flesh the abstractions and repeatability of the commodity; likewise, the divo constitutes a

For an Ethics of the Cinema


parodic realization of the Marxian “generic being” in which individual practice coincides immediately with its genus. Perhaps these considerations will contribute to our understanding of why the cinema so interests the inheritors of a Western culture for which theater and philosophy have been so important. For, as previously in Greek theater, what is at play here no doubt gets to the crux of our metaphysical tradition, namely to the ontological consistency of human existence, to its way of being, i.e., to nothing less than the manner in which a single body assumes the generic power of language. This is why Christian theology, when it tried to provide a philosophical formulation for the problem of Trinitarian ontology, could only present it by resorting to a theatrical terminology and could only conceive of it as an articulation between substance and person (prosôpon, mask). Thus, it is not surprising that the extreme phase of this history of mutating ways of being could take us well beyond the aesthetic realm and that the existence of the divo has been and remains perhaps the strongest collective aspiration of our times. The end of the cinema truly sounds the death knell of the ultimate metaphysical adventure of Dasein. In the twilight of post-cinema, of which we are seeing the beginning, human quasi-existence, now stripped of any metaphysical hypostasis and deprived of any theological model, will have to seek its proper generic consistency elsewhere, no doubt beyond the ethico-theatrical person, but also beyond the commodified seriality of the type and the unigeneric being of the divine star.


1 This quote appears to be excerpted from Walter Benjamin’s “Notes sur les Tableaux parisiens de Baudelaire” (1939), which appears in Écrits français (1991). The original, extended French version reads: “Ce cauchemar serait de voir les traits distinctifs qui au premier abord semblent garantir l’unicité, l’individualité strict d’un personnage reveler à leur tour les elements constitutifs d”un type nouveau qui établirait, lui, une subdivision nouvelle. Ainsi se manifesterait, au Coeur de la flânerie, une phantasmagoria angoissante. Baudelaire l’a développée vigoreusement dans Les Sept Viellards … L’individu qui est ainsi présenté dans sa multiplication comme toujours identique, suggère l”angoisse qu’éprouve le citadin à ne plus


Cinema and Agamben

pouvoir, malgré la mise en oeuvre des singularités les plus excentriques, romper le cercle magique du type” (242–3). The complete reference to the essay is Walter Benjamin, “Notes sur les Tableaux parisiens de Baudelaire”, Écrits français (1991):

235–43. Trans.

Cinema and History: On Jean-Luc Godard

Giorgio Agamben

Translated by John V. Garner and Colin Williamson

One of the principal theses of Godard’s work seems to me to concern the essential, constitutive link between history and cinema. What historical task belongs properly to the cinema? This is also the question that garnered Guy Debord’s interest in the cinema, and which he was the first to pose. But, firstly, what history is involved? A very particular history, a messianic history. Not a chronological history but a history that has to do with salvation. Something must be saved. In Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98), Godard says: “The image will come at the time of the Resurrection.” Here we have a classical thesis of the gnostics, whether Christian, Jewish, or Manichean, all of whom conceive of the image as the very element of the Resurrection. What re-emerges is the eidos, the image. Through the image one will be saved, and to see one’s image means to be saved. Histoire(s) du cinéma is an apocalypse of the cinema in the various senses of the term. The first meaning of the word is that of catastrophe. In the Jewish tradition, the day of the Messiah’s arrival is simultaneously what one desires the most and what one fears the most. But it is also an apocalypse of the cinema in the other, more literal meaning of the word: a revelation. Godard’s work functions as an unveiling of the cinema by the cinema. How does the image acquire this messianic power? Serge Daney responded:

through montage. According to Daney, Godard’s thesis in Histoire(s) du cinéma is that the cinema was seeking only one thing—montage—and that this was what twentieth-century man desperately needed. But what is montage from this perspective? Or, rather, what are the conditions of possibility for montage? This is just what Godard makes evident. These conditions are at least two in number:

repetition and stoppage.


Cinema and Agamben

Modernity admits of four great thinkers of repetition: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Deleuze. They have all shown that repetition is not the return of the same but the return of the possibility of what was. What returns returns as possible. Hence the proximity of repetition to memory: a memory is the return of what was, qua possible. Repetition, for its part, is the memory of that which was not. This is also a definition of the cinema: the memory of that which was not. This is the opposite of the media, which employs the same means but always gives the fact without its possibility. It gives an unrepeatable fact before which one is powerless: the tyranny of the media adores indignant but powerless citizens. The second element is stoppage, the “revolutionary interruption” of which Walter Benjamin spoke. As the power to interrupt something, stoppage is what differentiates the cinema from, for example, narrative. Literary theorists have found only a single, clear distinguishing element between prose and poetry: in poetry, one can make caesuras and enjambments. The caesura or the enjambment permits one to oppose acoustic limits to semantic limits, to make a pause that marks the difference between meaning and sound. Poetry is capable of stoppage; prose is not. The cinema also has this power of stoppage at hand. Repetition and stoppage form a system in the cinema; they are inseparable. Together they realize the messianic task of the cinema. This task, insofar as it appears in Histoire(s) du cinéma, is not a new creation but an act of “decreation.” This is the power of repetition and stoppage. Deleuze says that every act of creation is an act of resistance, but an act can only resist if it possesses the power to “decreate” facts. Otherwise, no resistance is possible; the facts are always stronger. What becomes of an image wrought in this way by repetition and stoppage? It becomes, so to speak, “an image of nothing.” Apparently, the images Godard shows us are images of images extracted from other films. But they acquire the capacity to show themselves qua images. They are no longer images of something about which one must immediately recount a meaning, narrative or otherwise. They exhibit themselves as such. The true messianic power is this power to give the image to this “imagelessness,” which, as Benjamin said, is the refuge of every image.


Silence, Gesture, Revelation: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Montage in Godard and Agamben

James S. Williams

Why do you carry on doing this? The beauty of the gesture. Oscar in Holy Motors Leos Carax

L’éthique c’est l’esthétique de dedans.

Pierre Reverdy

The short, schematic article by Giorgio Agamben on Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98) published in Le Monde in October 1995—the only essay he has devoted thus far exclusively to Godard—distils the central ideas of a lecture he delivered on Guy Debord around the same time entitled “Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s films”. 1 At stake is the nature of history in the cinema. For Agamben, it is necessarily messianic because it is non-chronological and linked to salvation. The means and condition for this salvation is montage, specifically the processes of “stoppage” and “repetition” whereby images (and sounds) are freed from their meaning and exhibit themselves as such, and we as spectators must undertake the task of (re)construction. Histoire(s) thus comes down to an act of “decreation” and an “apocalypse” of cinema in the different senses of the term, including that of revelation. Similarly, Debord’s cinematic practice dismantles the image to reveal the gesture, exemplifying cinema’s aim not simply to create but also to decreate what exists in order to produce something new. By rendering visible the means and the medium of cinema through repetition and stoppage, both Godard and Debord actively harness cinema’s potential for resistance against the spectacularization of politics and the control of information and public opinion by corporate media. 2 I do not wish here to compare and contrast at length Debord’s dismantling of the “disembodied spectacle” through techniques such as détournement that


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subvert capitalist signs and culture with Godard’s approach to repetition and stoppage as it has developed since his extensive video-work of the mid-to-late 1970s. Important links can certainly be made between Debord’s “anti-cinema” and works like France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1977–78) which slowed down human movement and decreated the lines of linear, rational thinking through the use of stop-start motion to reveal, in the words of Gilles Deleuze, the consti- tutive spaces and interstitial “silences” between images, or the “between-two of images.” 3 Yet the possibility of establishing a critical relationship between Godard and Agamben will not come down simply to a connection or otherwise to Debord. 4 Nor do I wish to analyze in detail the processes of historical montage in Histoire(s) which have received extensive critical attention elsewhere. 5 Instead, I want to return specifically to Agamben’s article on Histoire(s) which concludes with the wonderfully suggestive phrase about the work’s messianic drive. Agamben states: “The true messianic power is this power to return the image to this “imagelessness” [“sans image”] which, as Benjamin said, is the refuge of all images.” Agamben is clearly talking here about the way that, just as in Debord’s fractured cinema where the images of the mediatized world are ripped from their narrative context and placed in a montage, each image in Histoire(s)— defamiliarized, decontextualized, de-allegorized—is effectively transformed metaphysically into a kind of epiphany and manifestation of the mystery of cinematographic creation. Indeed, each new pure concrete object and detail, when thrown into the light, enacts this same miracle. (Agamben writes in the Debord essay, paraphrasing Benjamin, that in the messianic situation of cinema “[e]ach moment, each image, is charged with history because it is the door through which the Messiah enters.” 6 ) Attempting to redeem cinema as a site of the messianic promise contained in the image, Agamben is clearly drawn to Godard for whom montage carries the potential to “redeem” the real. There is, however, something implicit in Agamben’s article that needs to be fully acknowledged: that Godard’s messianic practice of montage is operating in a wholly different realm from that of Debord. The Debord essay ends on a very particular note. Following his clear distinction between the two different ways of showing “imagelessness” (the “sans image”) and making visible the fact that there is nothing more to be seen (i.e. Debord’s project contrasts with pornog- raphy/advertising which acts as though there are always more images behind the images), Agamben concludes: “It is here, in the difference, that the ethics and the politics of cinema come into play.” 7 These words are flagrantly missing in the Godard article. Why should this be?

Silence, Gesture, Revelation


The emphasis on the ethical and political is part of the general thrust of Agamben’s small but urgent body of writing on film which insists that any notion of gesture in the cinema remains a preeminently ethical rather than aesthetic concern. In “Notes on Gesture”, his key study of how bourgeois “gestures” based on the illusion of subjective identity and unity were definitively destroyed at the dawn of modernity (along with the aura of the image and the idea of a natural language as complete and inherently linked to meaning), and where he also makes the case for a purely gestural cinema that exhibits the conditions of cinematic montage and the medium as pure means, he states the following: “[b]ecause cinema has its center in the gesture and not in the image, it belongs essentially to the realm of ethics and politics (and not simply to that of aesthetics) […] The gesture, in other words, opens the sphere of ethos as the more proper sphere of that which is human.” 8 The assumption here is that the image now revealed as gesture leads surely to ethics as a more “proper” and privileged domain than the aesthetic for discussing the human, and, by extension, that the ethical is distinct from, and perhaps superior to, the aesthetic. Hence, Histoire(s), which is a profound exercise in aesthetics as well as film historiography, does not quite cut it in Agamben’s ethical scheme, despite the fact that, in his own words, it is directly prefigured by Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and, more crucially, that stoppage links cinema specifically to poetry, where the form (rhythm, poetic technique) can be placed at odds with the meaning, making cinema therefore “a sustained ‘hesitation between image and meaning.’” 9 In fact, Agamben’s work seems perpetually suspended on a question, namely what, in practical concrete terms, should the next stage of the critical project of cinema be after one has exhibited the medium and duly exposed the illusion of the image and the spectatorial set-up? Can there/should there be any kind of aesthetic surplus? Indeed, does the aesthetic have any real role or function now? Or is the only “safe” option to ensure that the aesthetic realm is always pulled back towards ethics? I want to consider these particular questions, and in so doing assess the validity of Agamben’s views on the messianic, i.e. “non-aesthetic,” status of Godard’s work, by reading Agamben’s theory of ethics and gesture in the cinema against a rather obscure and marginal work in Godard’s oeuvre—one, however, that directly extends his exploration of the (meta)physical gesture in his work of the early 1980s and which is driven by the messianic idea of an ending (the end) as salvation and redemption. Soigne ta droite (Une place sur la terre) (Keep Your Right Up, 1987) has been critically overlooked and woefully underrated, despite


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its generally favorable reception in France upon release. 10 This is the reverse of King Lear, a film maudit made around the same time which suffered from a lack of proper distribution (it was released in France only in 2002), but which has steadily been recuperated as a vital forerunner of Histoire(s) due to its explicit

references to film history and set-piece sequences on projection and montage. 11 On the surface Soigne ta droite is disarmingly light, even whimsical, being in part

a personal homage to Jacques Tati—the title conjures up the boxing term of Tati’s

1936 short, Soigne ton gauche (Keep Your Left Up)—as well as to other exponents of slapstick film comedy such as Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, and Jerry Lewis (The Family Jewels (1965) and Smorgasbord (1983) are directly evoked). Yet the film is similarly premissed on the end of cinema and imbued with the mood of loss and death, although it explores in very different ways the ethico-aesthetic question of how to retrieve the image and resurrect cinema in a post-Chernobyl,

digital world of global capitalism, neo-television and political apathy. 12 With its satirical portrait of the service industries and the cold, cynical ethos of money, quick-grab gratification and non-communication, the film reflects not simply the growing sense of social and political confusion and disenchantment in France at the time (notably the beginning of “cohabitation” between the Socialists under Mitterrand and the Right under Chirac), but also the malaise of contemporary State-sanctioned cinema and culture which has “imprisoned” the image and with

it human relationality. In interviews to promote the film, Godard bemoaned the

loss of the documentary gaze and of the idea of art as a means of showing and sharing things—part of the vanishing signs and gestures of mutual dialogue. 13 In fact, although Soigne ta droite may appear structurally as one of his most loose, aimless, dispersed and flagrantly meandering films (a series of sketches tied together without the hook of an obvious pre-text as in King Lear), it is actually one of his tightest and most complete conceptually. Its narrative premise is announced at the very outset in a voice-over explaining that the Idiot/ Prince, a filmmaker in exile, has been given one last chance by those “at the top” (unspecified) to “save” himself by completing a film from scratch in one day and delivering it in the capital for projection that evening. “Then, and only then, will his ‘numerous sins’ [also left unspecified] be forgiven”. The voice-over by the unnamed “Man” (François Périer) presents the film and leads it along, giving us the illusion of taking part in the act of its creation. What we watch as we follow Godard as the Idiot/Prince take a trip first by car, then a plane commandered by a suicidal pilot (there will be near-death experience for all on board), is what may (or may not) feed into the film that has been commissioned. We are

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thus dealing with a film gleefully exhibiting its own means of production and exposing itself both as film and fiction, while also recording a possible return and passage to cinematic recuperation: delivery as potential deliverance and the lifting of a “curse.” Indeed, Soigne ta droite is concerned directly with the status and fate of the cinematic image in terms of sin and redemption: can cinematic lack or error be righted, and if so, how? Specifically, can the final stage of a film, its projection, provide a means of salvation? Such underlying existential themes make Soigne ta droite a supremely philosophical film, and not simply on account of its many gags which, if taken literally, define it in Agambenian terms as an exemplary philosophical exercise in gesturality. Agamben writes in his important conclusion to “Notes on Gesture”:

The gesture is […] communication of a communicability. It has precisely nothing to say because what it shows is the being-in-language of human beings as pure mediality […] it is always a gag in the proper meaning of the term, indicating first of all something that could be put in your mouth to hinder speech, as well as in the sense of the actor’s improvisation meant to compensate a loss of memory or an inability to speak. Cinema’s essential “silence” (which has nothing to do with the presence or absence of a soundtrack) is, just like the silence of philosophy, exposure of the being-in-language of human beings: pure gesturality. (original emphasis) 14

We shall come back to the implications of linking gesture, silence and mediality a little later. Soigne ta droite is also unparalleled in Godard’s work for its sustained and systematic engagement with one particular literary source: Hermann Broch’s extraordinary magnum opus, The Death of Virgil (1945). For while many texts circulate in the film around the themes of death and deliverance, including Dostoyevsky (who provides the name of Godard’s character permanently reading The Idiot), Racine, Lautréamont and André Malraux (reworked passages from Lazarus (1974), a reflection on death occasioned by Malraux’s miraculous recovery from a near-death experience of sleeping sickness and which explores themes of sacrifice, suicide, choice, fraternity and redemption), 15 whole passages of The Death of Virgil are recited at length by Périer on the soundtrack, providing the film with a center of gravity. Godard cites exclusively from “Fire— the Descent,” the second stage in the Latin poet’s final nineteen hours of life during which he agonizes over whether to burn the manuscript of the Aeneid which he now regards as a failure because the society he eulogizes doesn’t


Cinema and Agamben

correspond to reality. Just as Virgil stands out from his miserable fellow-men he passes in the slums, so the Prince/Idiot stands out in his quiet, self-possessed dignity from the cynical world he passes through. Broch, an Austrian Jewish writer who began the novel while briefly interned in a Nazi camp before being rescued, represents for Godard the artist at war with his chosen form but who, in the very act of creating, produces a unique statement of rare beauty about the triumph of art and the imagination. The Death of Virgil is an unstoppable, breathless, sumptuous flow of language in long, lyrical sentences rich in sensual imagery, and it generates many of the terms that appear in the film (emptiness, sacrifice, solitude, the soul, laughter, the universe, salvation, twilight, grace, the law). 16 Soigne ta droite rehearses, too, some of the text’s stylistic qualities: its perpetually expanding and endlessly self-correcting ruminations, its reversible chiastic formulations, and its fondness for interjections. Assorted fragments of the intertext are stiched together by Godard and then repeated (sometimes almost immediately) in ever new and surprising ways over different visuals in a continuous process of recombining, retouching and recomposing. King Lear had included a reworking of Pierre Reverdy’s prose poem “L’Image” (1918)—a powerful manifesto for the complex images of Godard’s later work and a model of montage as the distant and just association of ideas generating “true emotion” “because born outside of all imitation, all evocation and all resemblance.” 17 Soigne ta droite takes the poetics of emotion to an entirely new level, however, since Broch provides a model of decreation conceived not as a philosophical concept in Agambenian terms but rather as a process of poetic experimentation (the word is used explicitly in the novel). Metaphor becomes metamorphosis and transmutation, and repetition is experienced as difference and variation in an endless, ever more intricate and subtle movement of modification, reversal, permutation, reformulation and amplification. Soigne ta droite thus offers a fascinating case of two different forms and means of revelation, one messianic, the other poetic, and it does so through set sequences of audiovisual decreation. Although it doesn’t actually employ stop-start motion, its pushing of the cinematic image out of and beyond itself to the point of abstraction (the “sans image”) and to something more poetic, even musical, marks the culmination of an intensive period of cinematic experi- mentation by Godard inspired by the “derealising” techniques of videographic montage, from Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man For Himself, 1979), which was also a reinvigorated return to the body and the “homeland of gesture” (Agamben), to the distortion and transformation of the art image in Passion

Silence, Gesture, Revelation


(1981) and Scénario du film “Passion” (1982). 18 By examining in detail Godard’s immersive encounter with Broch and poetics through the prism of Agamben, and thus submitting a philosophy of cinema to a concrete instance of aesthetic practice, I want therefore to put to the test Agamben’s assumptions about the “neutrality” of the aesthetic sphere in film, and specifically about cinema as simply the setting for “gesture” understood as both the demonstration of mediality which subtracts from “the false wholeness of identity or the falseness of the image as unity,” and, more critically, “the harnessing of the collapse of subjectivity and aesthetics” (original emphasis). 19 I will argue that by aestheti- cally investing the primary cinematic gestures of projection and montage, Godard draws out some of the key, underlying principles of Agamben’s theory of gestural cinema while also exposing some of its limitations as a philosophy of film. To illuminate Godard and Agamben mutually in this way will allow us to appreciate the particular significance of Agamben’s writing on cinema for thinking not only about Godard but also about the very relations between the ethical and the aesthetic.

The law of the crystal: Revealing the image from within

Soigne ta droite plays out as a kind of virtual film where everything is being piloted: the allegorical-style sketches that are being performed for the eventual possible film by the Prince/Idiot; Fred Chichin and Catherine Ringer (the French rock group, Les Rita Mitsouko) searching for the right sound and harmony as they lay down tracks for a new album (Godard mixes final versions of the songs with their nascent forms, producing a strange inter-fragmentation of finished and unfinished music); the Individual (Jacques Villeret) assuming multiple roles as he tries to find “a place on earth” (as gardener, as bored golfer’s caddy, as suicidal actor, as lothario waltzing with a mysterious silent woman who strips off for him); and above all the same shots and passages being tried out and rehearsed in different sequences and then repeated. The recurring, teasing image of the half-open French window facing out towards the sea and sky at Trouville (the beach is always framed by doors and a balcony which mediate our access to the water) is linked directly to a passage from Lazarus about Westerners “dramatising” death as the door that one passes through to go from one room (life) into another (the beyond). This crystallizes the theme of


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light and its relationship to the other side as the film’s dominant metaphor for its confrontation with death (Godard, in fact, shoots deliberately in the direction of the light source here). This is a film forever about to pass new limits, borders and thresholds in a gesture of opening up to the world and to the light, like the casual, flickering reflection of a window-frame captured on an apartment wall in the form of star. A strong earthbound sense of linear narrative direction is retained, however, as we count down in anticipation of the delivery and projection of the Idiot/ Prince’s film, Une place sur la terre, and a potential event of cinematic salvation through a resolution of form. The process is set in motion by the one “spectacular” moment of cinematic gesture in the film when Godard, on being presented with a pile of large cans of cinema film (the footage of the completed film-within-a- film), is knocked into by another figure disembarking and falls down an aircraft ramp in loud cacophony. We have here a by now familiar Godard theme of the (self-)sacrifice required of cinema linked to its concrete “fall.” 20 As the Idiot/ Prince lies on the tarmac the pilot’s wife negotiates with him to purchase the film simply because the cans gleam like diamonds. The film has now looped the loop:

the pilot has bought the film in which all the characters we have seen are playing and it can therefore now be projected. Yet Soigne ta droite is also moving in other directions guided by other manifestations of cinematic gesture, starting with a long six-minute sequence in the train (intercut by shots of Les Rita Misouko) with a police inspector (Rufus) deporting the Individual, now a Belgian prisoner, over the French border. The Individual’s right arm is handcuffed to the curtain rod of the window (a reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle rouge (1970) which also featured Périer), and we see the handcuffs in close-up focus, then out of focus, against the passing landscape as the two figures indulge in an old game of insults, trade memories of happier times of political comradeship (evocations of Sartre’s dirty political in Les Mains sales abound), and consider the “errors” and “suffering” that History does not allow. 21 There is an unexpected move towards fraternity and solidarity when the inspector extends his hand towards the cuffed wrist and makes physical contact, the two arms thus meeting at the apex of a triangle. Yet the gesture is revealed as empty and goes nowhere. What follows is a formal counter-response to the failure of communication and gesture through a series of set-pieces focused on the very grammar of cinema, and which extend the notion of gesture in a continuously evolving process of metaphorization and poetic transformation of the cinematic image: first focus pull, then projection, finally montage.

Silence, Gesture, Revelation


As the voice-over by Périer explains over a close-up shot of Ringer deep in thought that he forgot to say that the policeman on the train towards the border forgot to utter the words “what would one do without the dead?” (circularity and commentary appear boundless in this film), Godard cuts on the word “policeman” to a blurred, out of focus image rendered abstract. The dark shape that runs vertically down the frame is gradually brought into focus and revealed as a wooden pole with lines of barbed wire in dark silhouette against a pale sky. On the word “sentence” the shot is cut to an extreme close-up of barbed wire, this time in focus. The wire soon recedes out of focus and dematerializes in the light to the point of its virtual disappearance. Simultaneously, the camera moves slightly upwards to disclose a jumble of human figures strewn on the ground. Finally, several shots later, over a close-up of a young woman lying face down, and as Périer begins another compressed remoulding of a passage from Broch, Godard cuts abruptly to a shot of barbed wire running diagonally in focus across the frame. On the soundtrack we hear: “(The Individual shuddered) and in a final piercing through of the dream’s border, with a final shattering of every sort of image, in a last shattering of memory, the dream grew […] he growing with it: his thinking had become greater than any form of thinking […] it became a second immensity […] it became the law that caused the crystal to grow […] stated in the crystal, stated through music, but over and above that, expressing the music of the crystal.” At the mention of “a last shattering of memory” the barbed wire withdraws out of focus, before being once again restored to full focus with the phrase “a second immensity.” This arresting plan- séquence—a play of shifting movement, counter-movement and redefinition within the image—comes to an end with a return to Ringer and Chichin in the studio peering up into the artificial light. Daniel Morgan rightly states that Godard’s non-narrative use of focus pulls explores “the resources of aesthetics in and through cinema” and takes mythic (i.e. non-linear) time out of profane time (i.e. time as history and duration). 22 In these moments of uncertainty, he argues, it’s the look of images, not what they represent, that becomes the attraction—one that is extended by a further instance of focus pull almost immediately after. This time two seated figures staring blankly in a café are held in a background flux of gently pulsating colors and amorphous forms for almost fifteen seconds before being gradually pulled into focus. While Morgan is certainly right about Godard’s foregrounding here of the processes of perception, making this a supremely (meta)cinematic moment, more needs to be said about this extended formal scene and its iconography. To


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the roars of a large sports crowd accompanied on the soundtrack by heavy metal clanking, the Individual is pictured lying in a section of a stadium with other people barely alive and breathing (an obvious reference to the Heysel Stadium disaster in May 1985). Yet this also, of course, evokes the internment camps for deportation during the Holocaust such as the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris in 1942, and when one figure on the stadium floor says he lives in the Hotel Terminus (the title of Marcel Ophuls’s 1988 documentary on Klaus Barbie), the allusion to concentration camp victims in a mass grave is unmistakable. This is developed further when we consider what is being related by Périer simultane- ously on the soundtrack: “a second immensity, it became the law that presides over the development of crystal.” The association with Kristallnacht is complete. Moreover, the Individual’s remark about suffering is matched with a shot of Ringer, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, looking straight at the camera (the whole sequence is effectively bookended by shots of Ringer). The voice-over continues in a separate phrase extracted directly from Malraux: “Death is the path towards the light.” Yet the focus pulls are not only an ethical matter but also an object of properly cinematic strangeness and beauty that seems to come from within the image

itself. They are a pure effect of the camera yet somehow appears in excess of it, in

a constant movement of repetition, expansion and extension. Godard, I would

argue, is tapping here into the kinetic potential of the (silent) image to release its latent energy and capacity for movement through form and out of form. The pulls also constitute, in conjunction with the soundtrack, a familiar Godardian chiastic reversal between image and word. In the first instance, as we hear “his thinking had become greater than any form of thinking,” the wire diminishes in size and dematerializes into a formless blur, thus joining the “immensity” articulated on the voice-over. In the second case, however, as the image comes back into focus, we hear synthesizers in free-flow, as if the sound and image were now working together in mutual dilation and distension: the image comes into being through the surge of sound. Music can help restore objects into focus and bring them back to life. The passage from Broch itself brings the theme of music directly to the fore with its utterly mysterious chiastic-sounding and self- extending phrase about the dissolution of thought and its transformation into

a second “immensity”: “it [his thinking] became the law that caused the crystal

to grow […] stated in crystal, stated through music, but over and above that, expressing the music of the crystal.” Hence, the idea of decreating the image (“a

final shattering of every sort of image”) is matched precisely by the advent of

Silence, Gesture, Revelation


the music of the crystal on the soundtrack. (It is a crucial fact that although the visual image may sometimes appear blocked by repetition in Soigne ta droite, the soundtrack of voice and music always seems to be moving forwards and continuously evolving in a live process of creativity and annunciation.) I want to suggest that, in a manner which has much to do with Agamben’s subtraction of gesture from within the image, something latent within the image

is imposing itself here. It is greater than all thought, and for the moment has no

name, except for the oxymoronic, ethereal beauty of the phrase “the music of the

crystal,” which has the poetic force of a montage of opposing terms (solid/diffuse).

It is indeed something miraculous, as made clear by the continuation of Malraux’s

phrase on death that immediately follows: “One knows this when one has returned

from something like it”. Crucially, Godard qualifies this quote by adding: “From music, perhaps. But which is going to rise up from ancient times.” In Soigne ta droite, as in Broch, the potential for accelerating intensity and amplification—

a voyage into ever-deepening, resounding, enveloping, penetrating, radiating,

vibrating profundity and emotion, or “rayonnement”—appears inexhaustible, like the flow of music itself. A different manifestation of the same poetic movement and play with form occurs in the scene on the golf course, when the camera suddenly lifts up into the trees and drifts through the branches to the music of Ringer’s distorted voice as it gently swells into being. This unheralded harmony of music and image is only brief, and it happens as Périer intones another full passage from

Broch about a still deeper silence transmuting into waiting like a further irradiation

of light, and the need to achieve a creative act in order to move beyond the law of

destiny, random chance and dreams and so overcome the evil spell. He invokes

a still stronger irradiation, perhaps even a second and more pervading immensity, in order that from this one the divine might stream out freshly again, abolishing evil forever. It was an undirected waiting, as undirected as the radiation, but for all that directed to the waiter, the dreamer; it was a sort of invitation to him to make a final attempt, a last creative effort to get outside of the dream, outside of fate, outside of chance, outside of form, outside of himself. (my emphasis)

Music for Godard always stands for something prior and original and reversible, both passive and active, since it both inheres within, and gestures beyond, the image, in positive, salutary extension. 23 In the case of Les Rita Mitsouko, the continual ebb and flow of extended synths, swirling reverb and other digitally enhanced vocal and musical effects forming and deforming provide the film with its sensuous, sensurround wrap and sonic extension.


Cinema and Agamben

Just as there is a running opposition in Agamben between “gesture” in the singular and “gestures” in the plural with their false unity, so in Godard, who also roams freely between the concrete and abstract, there are two kinds of valencies of the image: the “explicit” and the “implicit” (terms Godard attributes to the philosopher Gaston Bachelard). The train episode was framed by an “obvious” and highly loaded image of hand gesture as sign of (failed) political solidarity—a physical gesture within the image that demands to be decoded. But there’s also another image as gesture—a more abstract and more self-reflexive, metacinematic, and thus properly cinematic, kind of image that exhibits itself as such and entails a loss of clarity and meaning. This is a decreation of the image pushed now to the level of mystery, silence, and unreadability, and ultimately beyond the normal bounds of legibility and vision to the realm of the “sans image”. For Agamben, gesture “is the other side of the commodity that lets the ‘crystals of this common social substance’ sink into the situation.” 24 In the hands of Godard, however, the commodified image gives way to an idea of crystal that escapes social definition and takes the situation of cinema to an altogether different, abstract and poetic realm. This process of transformation reveals itself as a moment of extreme beauty that resists simple definition and is best left in the raw, mineral state of “the music of the crystal”. It is not just that Ringer herself embodies this, for the reasons given: music is a liminal movement at the frontier of the senses where the image becomes light and silence becomes sound. The law of music subsumes all others—language, repetition, fate, dreams.

Stabbing darkness in the back: The silence of the gesture

Godard immediately takes these ideas further within the framework of projection which plays out in different forms in the final stages of the film and is formally initiated by a blunt gesture of repetition—the reinsertion of the film’s opening credits. The first instance is a pure gag conducted in silence. The screening of the Idiot/Prince’s completed film Une place sur la terre sees the airline pilot and his wife take up their places along the Seine and simply gaze out upon Paris after their brush with death. This is cinema re-envisioned as Bazin’s window on the world. The gag not only undermines knowledge by underlining the constitutive gap of Soigne ta droite (we will never “know” if the film by Godard’s character

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is the one by Godard we’ve been watching)—it also presents cinema in ideal Godardian terms as a shared and ritualized public site of subjective projection whereby we project creatively onto the real. 25 Yet this moment of (self-)projection is also framed in the express terms of human gesture: the pilot salutes what he gazes at off-screen, while his wife appears to be praying in front of it, her converging arms replicating the triangular shape limned by the policeman and the prisoner’s hands on the train. Projection is thus being presented as a (meta-) cinematic gesture that stands in counterpoint to abortive political gesture and carries the open promise of renewed collective relations. The second scene of projection takes place shortly after in the more tradi- tional setting of a projection booth with Périer now assuming the role of projectionist and donning blue overalls for the occasion. It is prefaced with a cut to yet another shot of the sun setting over the water taken from within the room in Trouville with its half-open French window, as if waiting for some new type of poetic turning or troping and transformation. A clock ticking on the soundtrack furthers the mood of suspense and expectation what will the “real” projection reveal? We again hear the passage from Broch used for the second sequence of focus pull about whether evil still existed and the need to wait for the day-star to obtain a reply from the voice of the Universe. This passage is now extended, however, by a separate passage about silence (also derived from Broch) that includes another chiastic construction centerd on silence and muteness: “This time the awareness of their fault leaves them speechless, their lack of words renders them this time aware of their fault.” 26 Silence morphs effortlessly into vision in the words that follow, yet this is reversed almost immediately into non-vision: “beholding this silence, the man also yearned to open his mouth in a last mute cry of horror. Yet still while seeing it, almost before he had really seen it, he no longer saw anything”. This silent, double movement of vision and non-vision is matched in the image in a totally unforeseen way. After checking the equipment and setting up the reels, and as we hear a delayed repetition of the portentous phrase: “But it’s in the back that the light will stab the darkness,” Périer finally presses the button. Ignition. Except that Godard refuses us entry into the auditorium to see the image projected onto the cinema screen, still less the beam of light striking it. Instead, we remain firmly within the borders of the booth like a cave or grotto—but for what kind of new image exactly? We glimpse two brief shots, separated by another image of the French window, of the celluloid passing though the projector and reflected in a plate of glass in the center of the dragon-like apparatus. Two initially indecipherable


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images can just be made out, yet at an angle, a little like the blurred images of the focus pull, though here with the extra complication that they seem to be extreme close-ups of something human enlarged and inverted by the reflection, as well as in suspended motion. The first image contains a small smearing of red, like human lips coated in lipstick; the second appears more upright and is devoid of color. These are composite images of the human and the mechanical, of reflection and shadow, created by the projector’s silhouette against a white wall and the frames of celluloid passing through the projector and reflected and magnified in a mirror. In this prismatic and chromatic play with motion, size, perspective and color, the cinematic image is exposing and exhibiting itself as pure process. Mute like the suffocated human cry in the Broch passage, these strange, silent images recall the extreme close-ups of silent cinema contained in Histoire(s) (the open mouthed female figure from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), for instance), or better still, the hybrid images of faces of cinema in the book of Histoire(s) where each miraculous image resurrected from the video machine appears to be screaming in the eerie silence of the page. In both cases we are being asked to consider the relations between knowledge, beauty, aesthetic form and the real. We know that these evanescent, abstracti -

fying images are not an “error” because they constitute a deliberate repetition in

a tightly edited sequence of montage. Indeed, the repetition of the pivotal phrase about the light and darkness generates a self-reflexive drama of repetition and interruption revolving around the dividing image of the half-open window frame. On the soundtrack we hear Ringer’s voice—more a hushed reverb whisper than a fully vocalized phrase—celebrating two girls dancing at a bar,

a song heard earlier during the scene of the excluded young girl but delivered

now in a strange, ethereal, sonic burst that complements the seemingly intrac- table images. Yet it is enough to establish a relation between the silent gesture of suspended lips and the female voice, and for us to read the two disembodied images evoking silent cinema as radiations of Ringer herself. We have been through the ringer here! We have moved from the “real” to the “reel” in the blink of an eye—so fast, in fact, that we barely see the image for what it is exactly, except as image, thereby escaping the claws of cognition and interpretation. Godard is typically forging a path out of his own signifying chains: the film’s inherent structure of repetition of shots is ruptured by the act of repetition itself which results in a totally new kind of shot in the film. In the intensive mise-en-abyme of repetition, mediation and framing (the repetition of film frames within the frame of the

projector enframed within the image), cinema is taken self-reflexively to the borders

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of silence. In the process, projection is revealed ultimately as an effect of montage. Further, the disturbance [fracassement] and vibration within the logic of repetition that reverberates with the violence of the action related (“stab the darkness”) results in an explosion of the image that opens it up to the ever-deepening, obscure, unfath- omable mystery of cinematic creation beyond control and containment. This act of self-exhibition and revelation in the moment of projection as montage—a material moment of pure energy and light—is also an act of release: the figure of Ringer, as uncontrollable and “unframable” now as her earlier involuntary gesture of tapping her fingers on the table to the rhythms in her head during a break in recording, escapes the symbolic frame it was briefly held in during the focus pull moment (the confluence of crystal and Kristallnacht) to become simply film rolling through. We can loop this moment back, as the lyrics of the music invite us to, to the film’s other female image-within-the-image: that of the young girl outside on the balcony at Trouville looking at the Individual through the glass and reflected in miniature in the facing mirror at the back of the apartment (she was effectively imprisoned within the frame while remaining outside it). It was a brutal image of exclusion—the window slams back repeatedly on her face. A figment possibly of his own imagination (she disappears when he barks “Come in”), the excluded girl was associated with the noise and life of the world outside opposed to the narcissistic self-seclusion of the Individual reliant on his prere- corded phrases from Beckett on the tape-recorder for any contact with visual reality (“An image had appeared…”). He stands, in fact, as a metaphor for the individual, self-sufficient image which, for Godard, thwarts the cinemato- graphic system because it risks not transforming itself through contact with other images. 27 For what is at stake for Godard is always the performability of the image within a larger signifying system rather than any innate expressivity it may possess. 28 The gesture of montage is thus now fully revealed as one of inclusion and new relations or communication across form—a poetic process of mystery and metamorphosis that embraces, recombines and redeems even the most vulnerable and remote of images within the same visual and aural frame. The final image, the last in a three-stage edited sequence of the recurring still-frame images of the half-open window, is of the sunset, but in an intense form that casts the much closer window frame in shadow against the dense white cirrus clouds to create the effect of a black-and-white image. It gleams with possibility: all is still to play for in this ultimate return to something approximating photography or silent cinema since all is still to be heard. The final words of the voice-over invoke Broch again, but in a passage not heard


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before: “And then, very gently, as if not to alarm him, the whispering that the man had already heard a long time before, before even his very existence, started again”. We can link this final affirmative note of non-resolution and mystery—the continuous advent of sound as ungraspable and uncontainable as the light—to The Death of Virgil itself which ends with a continuous “rumbling” and the “flooding sound” of the elusive, ineffable Word beyond all under- standing, language and speech. 29 We can never know for sure if the orgininary “error” and curse of of Soigne ta droite has been lifted and redeemed by the music and light of the crystal. Instead, we’re left with the continuum of light as sound—the unquenchable hope of the recovery and redemption of love and innocence. 30 (The film’s repeated passage about Dostoyevsky’s obsessive interest in the torture of an innocent child (a reworking of Malraux) always carried, of course, its own counter-response: “the smallest act of heroism or love is no less fascinating than torture.”) A similar type of recursion to the gesturality of silent cinema occurred in the last stages of King Lear where it took a non-human form. Wearing a loose, white, shroud-like dress Cordelia had led a white horse (the pale horse of Death?) into and out of a woodland clearing, her father Learo lamenting: “She’s gone forever—she’s dead as earth, lend me a looking glass”. The sequence was sealed by a tableau vivant of Cordelia dead, stretched out on a rock by the side of the lake as Learo stands with his back to us holding a shotgun and facing the lake and sky like a Rückenfigur in a Casper David Friedrich painting. This highly ambiguous image of death and incest appeared to correspond to the “new image” of cinema reborn that William and Edgar were looking for following the sacrifice exacted by cinema (Pluggy’s death). It is accompanied by a female voice-over quoting the rapturous ending to Virginia Woolf ’s The Waves (1931) about a proud horse ridden by the narrator against the enemy, “Death.” Suddenly, after the intertitle: “King Lear / A Study,” the white horse that Cordelia had led away now returns and in a dynamic, wild form. Photographed in long shot by the water’s edge, the horse races into the left foreground as if towards the camera and past the viewer in stop-start motion. The shot, lasting only a matter of seconds, has the electroshock force of a sequence in early primitive cinema projected and seen as if for the first time, like Muybridge’s horses captured in pristine motion. Indeed, the horse seems to silence language in its tracks with its rare and fleeting beauty (the loud recital of a Shakespeare sonnet by Mr. Alien (Woody Allen) in the editing suite ceases and only a light background hum or drone is audible). As Marc Robinson has elegantly put it, this is an image whose

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beauty is “its own justification.” 31 Moreover, the horse carries no-one on its back and is thus free of the burden of death or of any other type of symbol. It veers off-frame, destination unknown, as mysteriously and autonomously as it sprang into motion. In fact, like the immediate sensation of vision as non-vision in the Broch passage, it all happens so quickly that we cannot grasp its meaning: the horse runs free, as it were, beyond cognition and easy interpretation, and can’t be contained or reduced to an object of scientific knowledge. Dislocated in the film, without authorship or direction, it can be experienced only as motion and beauty and release. This stunning shot thus stands in direct contrast to the symbolically encased, static tableau vivant. The fact that it is stop-started means that we receive it directly as a pure effect of acceleration and deceleration. Indeed, it is a supremely metacinematic moment of exhibition and projection, of pure means as Agamben would term it, like dance. For it is not an expression of anything specific but rather an event of pure gesture and affect happening now in the filmic present. This sudden bolt of energy and sensation presents the image as a uniquely cinematic sequence of edited motion in time, and there is something precisely musical about it, in the sense that, as I’ve argued elsewhere, music enjoys a concrete and plastic status in Godard and can operate autonomously to spring eternally afresh in time. 32 In a film such as King Lear which hangs heavy like so much of late Godard with the betrayed promise of silent film that was never allowed to find true montage before spectacle and the master narratives of love and war took over (one of the film’s many instances of betrayal and “violent silence”), it is precisely by tapping into the rich kinetic deposits of silent cinema that Godard finds a way forward against death. This is nothing less than a liberation of the image as gesture which thus becomes the name for all that is not image. Yet if the horse in free motion evokes a Muybridge study, it also harks back to another Muybridge image of a soldier carrying a gun, presented by Agamben as an example of the breakdown of bourgeois gesture (we don’t know what the solider is doing or where he is going). What occurs in Agamben’s work under the sign of lost bourgeois gestures and meaning in the mechanical age of reproduction returns in Godard as pure gesture and mystery in the postmodern age. Which is to say, what Agamben would adduce in the case of the bolting horse as a historical sign of the dissolution of gesture, i.e. the moment when, as he describes it in “Notes on Gesture,” cinema helped destroy the meaning of human gestures at the dawn of modernity and then proceeded to commemorate their loss obsessively,


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often in glaring close-up, is replayed positively here as pure cinematic energy— released into the light as the pure joy and ineluctable beauty of the image. In other words, the ethically negative in Agamben returns in Godard as ethically and aesthetically positive. What I am suggesting here is that the event of beauty in Godard’s cinema, released via stop-start motion in an uncontrolled rush of energy, means that gesture is always ethico-aesthetic in its nature and mystery. It is not simply that cinema must expose and display its own means of production (a mere question of formal method and style), but also that it must enter a new realm of mystery and undecidability that lies within and beyond the literal image and is formed of opposites, as in montage which, if properly executed, can generate the flash and energy of the unexpected and unimagined—a sign of cinema’s eternal self-renewal. Hence, Agamben’s philosophical proposition of gesture as “a moment of art subtracted from the neutrality of aesthetics” and “pure praxis” 33 runs counter to Godard’s artistic method. Soigne ta droite, like King Lear, takes us at privileged moments to the far shores of the poetic and aesthetic where the image, recon- ceived and remade in montage, is restored to its original silence and lost aura (the last words of King Lear, taken from the play, are a reaffirmation of both touch and silence: “If that her [Cordelia’s] breath will mist or stain the stone, why, then she lives”). Silence has, in fact, a fundamental role in Godardian montage, in particular the double movement of montage in Histoire(s) where, as I have shown elsewhere, “horizontal” moments of confluence, contiguity, conjunction and coincidence, which resist the vertical pull of his characteristi- cally dense, rhetorical and aggressively intellectual manoeuvres, constitute a kind of counter-movement in the videographic montage: a “minimal” moment of metonymy whereby images are linked and moulded together by contour, outline, gesture, silhouette and profile. Such non-discursive moments of associ- ation, contiguity, and conjunction trace as if spontaneously the interrelations of human form at the level of shape and figure. This play of detail operates as if in silence since it is never directly commented on or integrated or rationalized as part of an argument or thesis. Indeed, throughout Histoire(s) the non-linguistic resists any totalising conceptualization or theorization and thus remains a pure affective and inclusive moment of seeing and feeling rather than one of inter- pretation. 34 More generally, the ethico-aesthetic in Godard is poetic adventure, surprise, flash, affect, combustion, and he can make it happen now. The force and challenge of his later work is precisely to jump-start and recharge cinema and human relations by delivering on the promise of silent cinema through

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poetic montage—a crucible of emotion capable of generating fraternal warmth. This is the beauty and the passion of Godard’s cinematic gesture.

Cinema: The sphere of pure means

Agamben the philosopher has thrown into powerful relief Godard the artist. In Soigne ta droite Godard starts out from a position of imagelessness—the end of cinema—and sets about retrieving and recuperating it precisely by returning it to silence and the sans image. For Godard, the power of cinema and cinematic montage is to release the image from its frozen state by revealing its transformative potential and poetic extensibility. Cinematic gesture, or the mystery and aura of the image in cinema, is taken always beyond a strictly physical level to something increasingly abstract, on the borders of music and operating as pure affect. Godard’s cinematic gesture—the gesture of refinding and resurrecting cinema today through montage—always involves an emotional return from the dead. This is the moment when Godard’s work suddenly appears to revert to the forms of silent cinema, and it invariably functions in the chiastic mode of repetition as reversal and return. Such mediality is congruent with the shared aims of Agamben and Debord who reveal how the essential silence of cinema can expose our being-in-language or “pure gesturality” by making us reflect at privileged moments of stoppage and repetition on the image qua image. Yet while he may consistently promote the idea in Histoire(s) that the cinematograph was an instrument designed for thinking and for creating “forms that think” (and certainly the complex processes of montage at work—its “sublime crossings and transfigurations” 35 —testify to Godard’s powerful manipulation of montage as a form of thought), Godard is fully aware that there must also always be a margin for beauty, error and mystery, or the unexplainable and unknowable. Something beyond explicit discourse; something like the crystal of the music which transforms from light into sound before it can be intel- lectually grasped. Devoted to creating the conditions of a new transformative ethico-aesthetics, Godard recovers gesture aesthetically as the realm of the poetic and the ethical (relationality/communicability). Indeed, for Godard, the ethical is inherent within the aesthetic and will be revealed in the unique poetic processes of cinematic montage (“at the time of the resurrection”). Godard’s natural commitment to the poetic and the aesthetic as a means of revealing the ethical thus complicates any simple notion of his work as


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messianic in nature. As André Habib remarks of the images of nature flooding Godard’s ’80s work: “[t]he time of the resurrection is not a messianic return, but rather a parousie, a “second event” that redeems the real through images, the resurrection of a presence, lyrical and transformative, of cinema’s aura” (original emphasis). 36 Of course, such undimmed faith in the ethics of the aesthetic— in an “infancy” of the image—may seem naïve and nostalgic, perhaps even regressive, but, as with the more intuitive, material counter-drives of Histoire(s), Godard positively embraces sentimentality and child-like wonder in Soigne ta droite, and precisely in the concrete terms of poetic reversibility. As the Idiot/ Prince he talks with his fellow female passenger of the “smiling regret” he sometimes feels—an apparent contradiction in terms but which doesn’t spoil either of the two terms or feelings. He states: “Time is therefore vertical here:

sentiment is irreversible, or rather, the reversibility of being is sentimentalized here. The smile regrets, and regret smiles.” This is inspired by Baudelaire’s image of “le regret souriant” as analyzed by that most aesthetically attuned of modern philosophers, Bachelard, who saw the image as representing the “vertical instant” of poetry: a time in which ambivalent sentiments can co-exist without being reduced to antithesis, simultaneity, or succession. 37 To conclude, the possibility of redemption provided by the image now revealed in its full potential as “gesture” is real in Godard—an eternal and self-renewing hope and optimism—a residue perhaps of his lingering socialist belief in an alternative future. 38 All is still possible, at least poetically speaking. For Agamben, however, it is always already over: the gestures of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie are no more and can only be mourned, interminably and irremediably. For a philosopher like Agamben, any temptation to soar to aesthetic transcendence, sublime or otherwise, is simply not an option. “Notes on Gesture” ends with the statement: “Politics is the sphere of pure means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings” (original emphasis). 39 Godard’s work proves otherwise by replacing “politics” with “cinema.” Yet in both cases gesturality entails the resurrection of the human in all its materiality, physicality and fraternity, or what we might call in shorthand form “the body of cinema” shorn of all preestablished meanings and values (however Christian the themes of resurrection and recuperation may sometimes loom in Godard). It is this shared absolute commitment to the human that encourages the idea that Godard and Agamben may eventually engage with each other directly, and that artist and philosopher may cross over to each other in their very differences in the transforming heat and emotion of cinematic traffic.

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1 Giorgio Agamben, “Cinema and History: On Jean-Luc Godard” [1995] trans. John V. Garner and Colin Williamson in the present volume. No direct dialogue or “traffic” between Godard and Agamben has actually taken place since. In fact, Agamben did not take part in the Round Table (chaired by Jean-Michel Frodon and in which Godard himself participated) that brought to a climax the series of debates on the first six completed chapters of Histoire(s) organized by the film historian Bernard Eisenschitz at Locarno in August 1995, and which inspired the special supplement in Le Monde. Godard himself regarded the occasion as a lost opportunity for genuine dialogue between philosophers, historians, writers and critics and never publicly responded to Agamben’s article. A little later, Godard conceived of a possible dialogue with Agamben and other prominent European philosophers as part of an ambitious project of talks and debates entitled Collages de France at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2002. This ambitious plan was ill-fated from the start, however, and never realized.

2 See Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics trans. Vincenzo Binetti, Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000 [1996]) 42–60, and Giorgio Agamben, Profanations (New York: Zone Books, 2007 [2005]), 64, 68.

3 See Gilles Deleuze, “Three questions about Six Fois Deux”, Jean-Luc Godard:

Son+Image, Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy (eds) (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), 35–41 (originally appeared in Cahiers du cinéma 271 (1976)). Deleuze talked of the cut as an “irrational” interstice and of the new “law” of “false continuity”. Agamben’s account of Deleuze argues that the mythical rigidity of the image has been broken in Deleuze’s “movement-images” and that, properly speaking, “there are no images but only gestures. Every image, in fact, is animated by an antinomic polarity: on the one hand, images are the reification and obliteration of a gesture (it is the imago as death mask or as symbol); on the other hand, they preserve the dynamis intact (as in Muybridge’s snapshots or in any sports photograph) (Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”, 54). The former is linked to the recollection seized by voluntary memory; while the latter is linked to image flashing in the epiphany of involuntary memory. Further, the latter refers always beyond itself to a whole of which it is a part, so that even the Mona Lisa could be seen as a fragment of a gesture or as a still of a lost film wherein only it would regain its true meaning. Agamben concludes: “it is as if a silent innovation calling for the liberation of the image into gesture arose from the entire history of art” (Ibid: 55). See Michael Witt “Going through the motions: unconscious optics and corporal resistance in Miéville and Godard’s France/tour/détour/deux/enfants”,


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Gender and French Cinema, Alex Hughes and James S. Williams (eds) (Berg, 2001), 171–94, for a fine account of the corporeal resistance and remarkable play of energy created in Godard’s video work with children, which places France/ tour/détour/deux/enfants in the context both of Godard’s resistance to the adult monster of television and of the embryonic first stage of early cinema (Marey, Muybridge).


Agamben’s The Coming Community contains a chapter (originally a preface for the Italian translation of Debord’s Commentaries on the Society of The Spectacle (1988)) where Agamben attempts to rescue Debord from the narrow perspectives that corral him into the confines of 1980s appropriation art and practices of détournement, but divorced from their context and ossified in postmodern visual art. See, Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis and London, 1993 [1990]), 79–83. As Christian McCrea argues, instead of placing Debord in a category such as the film-essay cliché, or historicising him (predictably his fate in academia), Agamben sees the contemporary significance of Debord’s intervention as “a manual for exodus” or “a weapon for resistance.” Christian McCrea, “Giorgio Agamben”, Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers, ed. Felicity Colman (Durham: Acumen, 2009), 349–57.


See, for example, Michael Witt “Montage, My Beautiful Care, or Histories of the Cinematograph” 33–50, Alan Wright, “Elizabeth Taylor at Auschwitz: JLG and the Real Object of Montage”, 51–61, and “European Culture and Artistic Resistance in Histoire(s) du cinéma Chapter 3A, La Monnaie de l’absolu” 113–39, all in The Cinema Alone: essays on the work of Jean-Luc Godard, 1985–2000, Michael Temple, James S. Williams (eds) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000).


Giorgio Agamben, “Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s films” [1995], Guy Debord and the Situationists International, ed. Tom McDonough, trans. Brian Holmes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 313–20, 315.


Ibid.: 319.


Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”, 56.


Agamben, “Difference and Repetition”, 317.


The exceptions are Claudine Delvaux’s short study of five fragments of the film published on its release, though strangely with no explicit mention of Broch, Claudine Delvaux, “Tirer son plan et puis le voir: cinq fragments sur Soigne ta droite de Jean-Luc Godard”, Revue belge du cinéma 22–3, 1988, 190–205, and Daniel Morgan, Late Godard And the Possibilities of Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013). See also, Douglas Morrey, Jean-Luc Godard (Manchester:

Manchester University Press, 2005) 184–9; and Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: the working life of Jean-Luc Godard (Faber and Faber, 2008) 480–9.

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11 King Lear is littered with black and white photographs and stills of filmmakers (Cocteau, Bresson, Pasolini, Visconti, Lang, Tati, Pagnol, Rivette, Franju, Losey, Becker, Welles (an image from The Merchant of Venice (1969)), as well as reproductions of Giotto, Doré, Watteau, Renoir, da Vinci, Morisot, Manet, Van Gogh, Tex Avery (among others). They all function for William as forms of aide-mémoire and signs of the apparently lost artistic and cultural past. In one formal “experiment” by Pluggy in a darkened video studio with a bank of video monitors, we see projected on the two monitors a juxtaposition of the central figure of Fuseli’s Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking and the moment of the eyeball being razored from Bunuel/Dalí’s Un Chien andalou, the latter alternating with clips from Disney’s Goofy. This could almost be a student primer on the scopic drive, the “reality” of the image, and the violence of the cut. The film also includes demonstrations of reverse-motion photography à la Cocteau, and fragments of the soundtrack of the 1969 Russian version of King Lear by Grigori Kozinstev, played here as another “Professor” by the curator of the Cinémathèque Suisse, Freddy Buache. The philosopher Timothy Murray highlights Godard’s post-apocalyptic project and his stress on the recovery of cinematic history and montage now that perspective had been “abolished” and the vanishing point “erased”. Murray talks of the distancing here and generally in late Godard from an art of resemblance for the sake of a cinema of affect. For Murray, the film champions in Deleuzian terms the idealism of pure montage and the generative passions of the clash of its “incompossible” systems of analogue and digital representation. For it situates the new electronic meaning of cinema in relation to the contemplation of the radicality of silence and its impact on the law in Shakespeare: the doubled image, the silence of the break, and the gap of sequentiality sustain the rule of what Deleuze calls Godard’s cinema of incommensurabilty. Timothy Murray (2000), “The Crisis of Cinema in the Age of New World Memory: the Baroque Performance of King Lear”, The Cinema Alone: essays on the work of Jean-Luc Godard, 1985–2000, Michael Temple, James S. Williams (eds) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000).

12 For a fine introduction to Godard’s continually evolving discourse on the end(s) of cinema, see Michael Witt, “The Death(s) of Cinema according to Godard”, Screen 40:3 (1999) 331–46.

13 One brief example will suffice: “When you say good-bye to someone, you feel like saying a little something, or making a sign, a gesture, returning the ball. But it’s only in sport that one can communicate”. Jean-Luc Godard (1998), Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, vol 2 1984–1998 ed. Alain Bergala (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1998) 126. Godard will later distil these world-weary thoughts in his poem, “La Paroisse morte” (The Dead Parish), in the same collection, 254 (originally published in Trafic 1 (1991)).


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14 Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”, 59–60.

15 Malraux is, of course, a key figure in later Godard precisely because of his humanist belief in the resurrectional status of art as a means of transcendence, or “anti-destiny”, and thus as a revolt against man’s fate (the phrase “art is what is reborn in what has been burnt” is heard throughout Histoire(s)). André Malraux, Lazare (Gallimard, 1996 [1974]).

16 All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

17 What is delivered in King Lear is a slightly revised version of the first part of Reverdy’s prose poem: “The image is a pure creation of the soul. It cannot be born of the comparison but of a reconciliation of two realities that are more or less far apart. The more the connection between these two realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be, the more it will have emotive power. Two realities that have no connection cannot be drawn together usefully. There is no creation of an image. One rarely obtains forces and power from this opposition. An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic, but because the association of ideas is distant and true. Analogy is a medium of creation. It is a resemblance of connections. The power or virtue of the created image depends on the nature of these connections. What is great is not the image but the emotion that it provokes.

If the latter is great, one esteems the image at its measure. The emotion thus

provoked is true because it is born outside of all imitation, all evocation and all resemblance.”

18 See Libby Saxton’s chapter in the present volume for an excellent account of the energetics of gesture across form in Passion which, via processes of cinematic montage and intermedial superimposition, move between the real material body and immaterial/spiritual presence, between human stasis and supernatural kinesis, and between physical fatigue and the elevation of the soul.

19 Alex Murray, Giorgio Agamben (Routledge, 2010), 90.

20 The same sequence will be incorporated in the final part of Chapter 1B of Histoire(s) where it is now juxtaposed with Maria Casarès reciting on the soundtrack a French translation of Heidegger’s “What are poets for?” (1946). I

have shown in Williams 2000a that by means of this hyperbolic gesture of the fall of cinema and taking on the burden of cinema’s suffering, Godard’s self-deflating body effectively functions as itself a chiastic point of reversal. For the scene is also

a display of poetic will and personal self-troping: the “penetration” of Godard’s

videographic machine by his own cinematic flesh, however self-ironic, adopts the structure of transcendence whereby Godard as creator imposes himself romantically as master of the video/digital machine in a sublime reversion to his cinematic self. Viewed entirely negatively, the self-styled journey of discovery into new ideas and sensations in Histoire(s) has been redirected into a nostalgic

Silence, Gesture, Revelation


contemplation of traditional myths and duals (self/other, mind/matter). However, I also argue that this is not merely idle sentimentality, for Godard’s romantic self-reinstatement also demonstrates a self-critique that bears on the very nature of his position as a film and video maker, throwing into clear light, rather than resolving, the problem of finding a resolution between the digitial and the cinematic/analogical. For what is most at stake in Histoire(s) is the crucial need to reevaluate the mutual implications of affectivity and cognition in the processes of digital thought and human emotion: “Godard makes of technoscience a place and moment of immediate passion and contemplation. Such an act serves to restore faith in the possibility and freedom of art which, in Godardian thought, has been all but eroded by institutionalized ‘culture’. ” Williams, “Beyond the Cinematic Body: human emotion vs. digital technology in J.-L. Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma”, Inhuman Reflections, ed. Scott Brewster, John Joughin, David Owen and Richard J. Walker (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 188–202, 197.

21 Morgan unpacks a complex genealogy of political action and moral responsibility at the heart of the film’s work on matters of aesthetics, linking the hands to Denis de Rougemont’s key concept of “thinking with one’s hands” (“penser avec les mains”) promoted repeatedly in Godard’s later work.

22 See Morgan, 45, 242.

23 Godard remarks briefly of the music in the film that it “expresses the spiritual” and “provides inspiration”—“there’s nothing to understand, only to hear and take.” Godard, Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, 123.

24 Agamben, Means Without End, 79.

25 This is part of Godard’s crucial idea of human beings projecting themselves on to something greater (the world, the cosmos)—an instinct he regards as now dead in the West. See Morgan, 206–12, for an excellent summary of Godard’s evolving theory of projection and its different modalities in the later corpus, where the term involves the mode of exhibition and the different spaces and seizes in which images are seen (206). For Godard, the cinema always remains on the theatrical, Lumière (vs Edison) model, i.e. a large public screen and collective experience. This is cinema as a projection of the world at a given time and is thus a fundamentally democratic and egalitarian, if not utopian space (everybody sees more or less the same thing simultaneously). Further, projection makes possible an open set of relations between viewer and screen: our experience in a theater is one of forming connections and assocations (including historical), because we are reminded of films and events not explicitly contained within or referred to by the film being screened. The concept of projection become more complex and controversial when Godard applies it to the processs of history itself, for instance, with his notion of the law of stereo in Notre Musique (2004): Germany “projected” the Jews into an


Cinema and Agamben

autonomous state (i.e. Germany generated out of itself the state of Israel), then Israel “projected” the Palestinians.

26 Strangely, this passage from the French translation of the novel is absent from the American edition.

27 A recurring passage, indeed mantra, of Godard’s later corpus is the quote derived from Robert Bresson: “Si une image, regardée à part, exprime nettement quelque chose, si elle comporte une interprétation, elle ne se transformera pas au contact d’autres images. Les autres images n’auront aucun pouvoir sur les autres images. Ni action, ni réaction”.

28 See Williams, “European Culture and Artistic Resistance in Histoire(s) du cinéma Chapter 3A, La Monnaie de l’absolu”.

29 Hermann Broch, La Mort de Virgile (Paris: Gallimard, 1955 [1945]), trans. Albert Kohn. The Death of Virgil (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983 [1945]), trans. Jean Starr Untermeyer, 481–2.

30 Contrast this positing of innocence within the framework of projection with Agamben’s very short yet striking essay on cinematic illusion and fantasy, “The Six Most Beautiful Minutes in the History of Cinema”, his reading of a silent sequence from Orson Welles’s unfinished Don Quixote set in 1950s. Agamben writes that the scene really is about the destroying of an illusion of child innocence in the form of a young girl Dulcie (Agamben suggests Dulcinea) who looks at Don Quixote “reprovingly” after he has slashed down the screen of a public movie theater in his effort to “save” a woman in distress projected suddenly in the image (a figure for his idealised Dulcinea whom he has never met). Agamben concludes: “But when they [our fantasies] prove in the end to be empty and unfulfilled, when they show the void from which they were made, then it is time to pay the price for their truth, to understand that Dulcinea–whom he saved–cannot love us”. See Agamben, Profanations, 63–4. In Agamben, there exists no projection or nostalgic fantasy of an original purity or freedom in children that can be retrieved, relayed or championed through the “decreating” powers of cinema. As Murray glosses, “the young girl we hope to save, Quixotic in our imaginings, can never love us; our imagination must be exposed as “empty and unfulfilled” in order that we can begin to reconstruct a new form of image, a new poetics that denies imagination as a distortion of the here and now, as cinema so often does” (Murray, 92) In Soigne ta droite, despite having the French window slammed on her repeatedly, there is no reprroach or recrimination in the face of the young girl. For Godard this is always the aesthetic challenge to make love and mutual understanding (and redemption) possible. This aspect of Godard’s cinema is rarely acknowledged or commented on, yet at such moments as these Godard takes the risks of essentialism and nostalgia and positively embraces them as a fundamentalist badge of courage and optimism

Silence, Gesture, Revelation


against the odds. For Godard, any fantasy that might be provoked by the projected image is not the crucial aspect. As long as there is a projection at the macro level in the form of a public screening that brings different people together, or at the micro level in the form of an act of cinematic montage that brings together the distant and dissimilar, there is always reason for hope. For the record, Godard also references Welles’s film in Chapter 1A of Histoire(s) with a still of Pancho Sanchez as one of an illustrious list of cinema history’s unfinished films.

31 Marc Robinson, “Resurrected Images: Godard’s King Lear”, Performing Arts Journal 1988, 31: 20–5, 22.

32 See James Williams, “Music, Love, and the Cinematic Event”, FOR EVER GODARD: the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Temple, James S. Williams and Michael Witt (eds) (London: Black Dog Press, 2004), 288–311.

33 Agamben, Means Without End, 79.

34 See Williams, “European Culture and Artistic Resistance in Histoire(s) du cinéma Chapter 3A, La Monnaie de l’absolu.” I argue that in Histoire(s) the figural is above all the human figure at its most concrete and literal, and that the work’s meaning ultimately lies somewhere between the figural and the awesome reach of Godard’s sublime—part of what I call the inherent struggle in Histoire(s) between sense and the sensible, the latter operating as a kind of resistance to the logic of Godard’s own rhetorical manoeuvres by means of a collaboration of forms.

35 Ibid., 135.

36 André Habib (2001), “Before and After: Origins and Death in the Work of Jean-Luc Godard”, Senses of Cinema 16: http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/16/godard_habib/

37 Gaston Bachelard, L’Intuition de l’instant (Paris: Stock, 1992 [1931]), 103–11. I am indebted to Douglas Morrey for this reference. Morrey, 167.

38 Film socialisme (2010) ends with the dynamic call for action in a chiastic phrase about natural justice versus the law: “Quand la loi n’est pas juste, la justice passe avant la loi”. I have explored elsewhere how this phrase actually goes back to France/tour/détour/deux/enfants, where it was similarly typewritten over the screen. It is no surprise that this earlier work is echoed in the tender second “movement” of Film socialisme, with its domestic family scenes conveyed in meditative long-takes and close-ups. For Godard is reengaging again here directly with the place and status of children within the world of adults, one that now involves rights. The young Lucien, who continually “performs” with his physical gestures to the classical and jazz music constantly forming inside his head, proposes with his older sister Florine a social programme based in universal terms on art and society (i.e. not the State)—one that could just as easily be Godard’s own: “Garder de l’espoir / Avoir raison quand votre gouvernement a tort / Apprendre à voir avant que d’apprendre à lire” (“Hold on to hope / Be right when your government


Cinema and Agamben

is wrong / Learn to see before learning to read”). A series of screen-texts later informs us that the Conseil d’État approved the children’s right to seek election to the local council and that they are on the point of winning in their own—rather than their family—name. To invoke the title of the 1990 short Godard made with Anne-Marie Miéville, L’Enfance de l’art (an episode in Comment vont les enfants?), the hope here is perhaps of a new “childhood of art”. The question whether this could potentially provide the grounds for a new kind of Europe that does not simply reproduce the same tragic, fatal narratives and models of antiquity is left deliberately open. See James S. Williams, “Entering the Desert: the book of Film socialisme”, Vertigo 30, 2012: http://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/vertigo_magazine/


39 Agamben, “Notes on Gesure”, 60.


Passion, Agamben and the Gestures of Work

Libby Saxton

Film is linked to the movements and rhythms of work. Recent critical writing has opened new perspectives on the medium’s relation to labor, energy and the human body. Mary Ann Doane points out that the emergence of cinema coincided with shifts in industrial organization allied with the rationalization of time in capitalist modernity. In Doane’s account, this rethinking of time was exemplified by Frederick W. Taylor’s attempts to increase the efficiency of workers’ gestures and his disciple Frank B. Gilbreth’s “cyclographs”, which captured these motions photographically as contours in space. 1 If the advent of film needs to be understood in the context of endeavors to optimize industrial productivity, in the early twenty-first century the medium is differently attuned to the dynamics of work. Discussing contemporary cinema, Janet Harbord notes that the modernist preoccupation with the body versus the machine has receded and production has become decentred and dematerialized. Yet, she insists, “the question of productivity and energy […] has circled back in the present order of global instability and contingency, as a pressing issue.” 2 Film, for Harbord, is aptly equipped to register the “uneven flows and mutations” of contemporary globalized capital because it can represent the body “not simply as movement but as an entity through which differential forms of energy flow.” 3 A connection persists between film and the forces and constraints that condition the gestures and pace of work. A related yet distinct set of associations between film and work are hinted at, though not explicitly articulated, in the writings of Giorgio Agamben. In “Notes on Gesture”, Agamben considers cinema’s ambiguous debt to studies by Gilles de la Tourette, Jean-Martin Charcot, Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey which, insofar as they made human movement visually available for scientific analysis, can be loosely aligned with Taylor’s and Gilbreth’s efforts to


Cinema and Agamben

eliminate unproductive time from labor. 4 In Agamben’s account, such imaging techniques deprived the Western bourgeoisie of their gestures, exposing and

breaking down what previously belonged to the private realm of the individual,

a loss which the cinema would attempt to both mark and recuperate. 5 Unlike

Doane’s and Harbord’s media histories, however, Agamben’s approach brackets questions of industry and productivity. In “The Work of Man”, Agamben insists that philosophy should “put aside the emphasis on labour and production” and

attend instead to work that “is capable of exposing its own inactivity and its own potentiality.” 6 Although Agamben does not mention film in this later essay, his description of a work that exhibits its potentiality resonates, I want to argue, with his rethinking of cinema as centered on gesture. My contention in this chapter is that these writings can help to elucidate affinities between motion in film and work. One of the few moving image artifacts discussed by Agamben is Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998). What is significant about this video essay for Agamben is its understanding of its own medium. Montage, the source, according to Agamben, of the “specific character” of cinema, is not merely used in Histoire(s), but also “exhibited […] as such” or foregrounded. 7 My chapter explores connections between ideas broached by Agamben and a film which, not least in its preoccupation with cinema’s intermediality, can be understood as initiating aspects of the critical project that culminates in Histoire(s). 8 Passion (1982) depicts a triangle of main protagonists grappling with personal and professional problems: Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a factory worker and Catholic Marxist activist, Jerzy (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a director who is making

a film also called Passion, and Hana (Hana Schygulla), the owner of the motel

where the film crew are staying. Godard’s film crosscuts and creates parallels and overlaps between scenes in three principal settings: a factory, a film studio and the motel. Causal relations between events are subordinated to correspond- ences between acts of artistic creation and love and processes of labor. Passion speaks to some of Agamben’s central concerns, I want to suggest, by exploring the relation between movement, work and production and reflecting meta- discursively on its medium.

Passion, Agamben and the Gestures of Work


Energeia, dunamis and gesture

The concept of work plays a role in Agamben’s conceptualization of potenti- ality, an idea which is often considered the keystone of his thought since the mid-1980s. A claim that links a number of Agamben’s eclectic texts is that humans are potential beings because they lack a proper or defining nature or goal. As he states in The Coming Community, “the fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no

historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize.” 9 This argument is reformulated in “The Work of Man”, a reading of Aristotle’s reflections in the Nicomachean Ethics on whether humans have

a characteristic activity in which their good might be understood to lie. 10 Agamben observes here that Aristotle’s term ergon (“labour” or “work”) is

closely connected to energeia (literally, “being at work”). The notion of energeia, Agamben reminds us, occupies a key position in Aristotle’s philosophy, where

it is defined in opposition to dunamis (“potentiality”). So the question of the

“work of man” pertains to the broader issue of the “the energeia, the activity, the being-in-act that is proper to man” and the possibility of “assigning him a proper nature and essence.” 11 According to Agamben, before Aristotle identifies this properly human activity as “the being at work of the soul in accordance with logos”, or the actualization of a rational potential, he temporarily entertains “the

idea of an argia, of an essential inactivity [inoperosità] of man with respect to his concrete occupations and functions [operazioni].” 12 The hypothesis that humans may lack a defining ergon and energeia underpins Agamben’s attempt to think them as beings of “pure potentiality”, which “no work could exhaust.” 13 I want to suggest that concerns akin to those of “The Work of Man” emerge in Passion, even though the film makes no explicit allusion to Aristotle, his commentators or the possible absence of a specifically human vocation. With its central analogy between factory and cinema, Passion might at first sight appear preoccupied not with dunamis but with energeia, in its literal meaning of being

at work. 14 However, the work of both Isabelle and Jerzy is interrupted and we

are not shown its final results. Although we briefly see Isabelle laboring in the

factory, we do not see what it produces, and shortly after the start of the film, she

is fired. Jerzy’s project is beset by problems: the film has no story, the lighting is

not right, the money is running out. As Passion ends, the film within it remains unrealized. While specific labor opportunities are abruptly withdrawn and


Cinema and Agamben

particular tasks are left unfinished, work is recurrently evoked, as we shall see, as an abstract idea, possibility or, to use Agamben’s preferred word, potentiality. In particular, this is achieved through visual and verbal reference to gesture, a privileged theme in Agamben’s writings, including his remarks on film.

In “Notes on Gesture”, Agamben proposes that gesture, rather than image, as

has traditionally been supposed, is the critical “element” of cinema. 15 This claim

rests on a conception of the image as dynamic, which Agamben explains with reference to the virtual motion into which the photographs in Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas seem to liberate Western humanity’s gestures. Agamben extrapolates: “Every image, in fact, is animated by an antinomic polarity: on the one hand, images are the reification and obliteration of a gesture […]; on the other hand, they preserve the dynamis intact.” 16 The potential for movement contained in the image means that even paintings can be viewed “as fragments of gesture or as stills of a lost film wherein only they would regain their true meaning.” 17 Cinema thus restores to images their veritable significance or, in Agamben’s words, “leads [them] back to the homeland of gesture.” 18 Agamben contends further that the centrality of gesture to cinema associates the medium with ethics and politics, rather than merely aesthetics. Gesture opens onto the ethico-political because it is neither a means to some end, nor an end in itself,

but instead “the process of making a means visible as such.” 19 The characteristic of lacking an end or telos links gesture to the possibility broached in “The Work of Man” that humans are bereft of a proper work. Just as no defining ergon or vocation can be assigned to the human, so gesture, Agamben contends, following Varro, is distinguished from production, which is oriented towards an end. 20 Whereas proto-cinematic analyzes such as Taylor’s reduced gesture to a means of attaining a goal (enhanced productivity and profit), cinema, Agamben implies, can counter such biopolitical investigations by awakening the image into movement without telos or destiny.

A preoccupation with the moving, gestural human body came to the fore

in Godard’s work of the 1970s, which, as Michael Witt notes, was indebted to Marey’s chronophotographic studies of motion. 21 In this decade, Godard and his long-term collaborator, Anne-Marie Miéville, began to use video technology to fragment and de-compose everyday actions, for example by varying tape speed, as in their television series France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1979), and thereby to formulate what Alain Bergala calls an “explicit theory of gesture.” 22 This concern resurfaces in Godard’s films of the 1980s and 1990s, where the language of the body also became associated with phenomena such as love and creativity.

Passion, Agamben and the Gestures of Work


Agamben’s description of gesture as “the exhibition of a mediality” encapsulates the self-reflexivity of this figure in much of Godard’s work across these three decades, which repeatedly questions the relation between human motion and its function or goal. 23 Most of Isabelle’s movements in the factory in the opening minutes of Passion may not initially seem to conform to Agamben’s definition. We first see her emerging from the distance, pushing a heavy trolley towards the camera. Soon afterwards, there are three shots in which she operates a huge, noisy machine with deft, efficient, repetitive hand motions. Since they are purely functional or, in Agamben’s terms, means to ends, these bodily and manual actions cannot be understood as gestural in the sense that he attributes to the word. However, other, less conspicuous movements interfere with Isabelle’s productivity. In the first of the shots of her at the machine, she appears in profile and pauses to stretch her shoulders and neck. In the second, she yawns twice. Now she is closer to and nearly facing the camera, while her hands pass back and forth across the frame-line. In the third, another medium close-up, her back is to us and her hands are almost completely obscured by her torso. She gazes at length to the right before refocusing on her task. In these early moments of the film, attention is increasingly directed away from Isabelle’s body, hands and surrounding towards her face. While her occupation and the setting evoke Aristotle’s concepts of ergon and energeia, the framings of the shots, in keeping with Agamben’s separation of gesture from teleology, progressively marginalize her mechanical gestures and prioritize unproductive actions. These shots of Isabelle interact thematically and pictorially with those which separate them. The sequence alternates images of the factory and the film studio, where another kind of work is under way: Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch is being reconstructed as a tableau vivant. The camera remains still during each of these shots, but in the course of the sequence it draws nearer to the characters in the film set, just as it closes in on Isabelle. The studio is shown first in a long shot, in which we see actors assemble and assume their positions. The second and third shots of this scene are medium close-ups of faces on which is etched the strain of holding immobile poses. The transition from motion to stillness which we witness on the film set heightens our awareness, through similarity and difference, of a parallel progression in the factory shots, as Isabelle’s industrious hands are side-lined. The play of movement and stasis in both scenes calls attention to the characteristics that distinguish and associate painting and cinema. A self-referential concern with image composition is


Cinema and Agamben

simultaneously registered in voice-over remarks by the film crew which carry over from the studio into the factory. Looked at within the context of the sequence as a whole, then, Isabelle’s laborious actions assume significance beyond their practical ends, because they initiate a meditation on image and medium. In this respect, they foreshadow Agamben’s discussion of gesture as the central element of cinema and the exposure of a means as such. Other moments in the film further estrange human gestures from their ostensible functions. About half an hour in, there is a scene where Isabelle chats with Sophie (Sophie Loucachevsky), Jerzy’s production assistant, in the factory. Isabelle remarks that cinema and television never show people working. 24 As if to redress this omission, as she walks to screen right, the camera follows her and two other women, who are operating machines, appear in the frame. Sophie responds that it is prohibited to film in factories, to which Isabelle replies: “work is the same as pleasure. […] It’s the same gestures as love. Not necessarily the same speed, but the same gestures.” Halfway through this comment, there is a cut to the studio, where passionate labor blends with erotic desire as Ingres’s painting La Petite baigneuse is recreated. In the next shot, Hana sits in Jerzy’s motel room. Speaking on the phone off-screen, Jerzy asserts that he is working and then, presumably challenged by his interlocutor, irritably echoes Isabelle’s insight: “loving, working, working, loving—show me the difference!” In these scenes, Isabelle and Jerzy verbally question a dichotomy that is problematized throughout Passion. As Douglas Morrey explains, Godard’s films since Masculin féminin (1966) have recurrently been preoccupied with the relationship between love and work or, put differently, the effects of the capitalist labor process on social, affective and sexual interactions. 25 In Passion, as Isabelle’s conflation of two kinds of gesture suggests, this ongoing exploration of how economic imper- atives shape interpersonal relations is imbricated with reflection on movement. Although, in the sequence described above, the gestures of the factory laborers, film crew, extras, Hana and Jerzy do not look alike, the dialogue encourages us to compare them, distracting us from their overt purposes. Furthermore, in the shots of the studio and the motel, characters appear on video monitors in the background as well as in the film frame, generating an additional plane or layer of movement which intensifies the association between gesture and mediation. If the passage into energeia, or actuality, is troubled in the film by the freeing of gesture from telos, the notion of dunamis, or potentiality, is highlighted and nowhere more conspicuously than in its spectacular reconstitutions of paintings. Like Agamben, Passion, as noted above, unsettles any straightforward opposition

Passion, Agamben and the Gestures of Work


between the frozen poses of the canvas and the illusory movement of cinema. The Night Watch and La Petite baigneuse are among at least ten celebrated paintings from which Jerzy’s project draws inspiration. The selectiveness of Passion’s art historical allusions is elucidated by James S. Williams’s reflec- tions on Godard’s work as a whole: “Godard’s is an essentially classical sense of European art and culture that advances no further into the story of modern art than Picasso, Francis Bacon and Nicolas de Staël.” 26 Williams ascribes the paucity of references to more recent artworks in Godard’s oeuvre to his view of contemporary European culture as moribund. The painterly intertexts of Passion also evince a preference for the figurative over the abstract and a fascination with the animated human form. Most of the masterpieces that Passion reinterprets— which include Goya’s The Third of May, Delacroix’s The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople and El Greco’s The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, in addition to those already cited—are replete with fragments of human gesture. These still shapes evoke movement that might come to be. This dynamic potential or virtual kinesis is foregrounded in Godard’s reworking of these pieces of art, which anticipates Agamben’s claim that the image is inherently gestural. While many of Godard’s other films contain images of paintings, Passion substitutes the ekphrastic form of the tableau vivant. As Brigitte Peucker observes, the cinema has long been preoccupied with the tableau vivant as an instance of stillness or inertia which reminds us that film was the first art capable of bringing the fixed image to life. 27 Peucker emphasizes that such moments of arrested motion intensify film’s intermedi- ality, constituting “a palimpsest or textual overlay simultaneously evocative of painting, drama and sculpture.” 28 In Passion’s tableau vivant scenes, reflection on the properties that distinguish film from these other media is compelled by movement of three kinds: by the camera, within the frame and between shots. 29 Intercut, as we have seen, with scenes in the factory and the motel, the meticulously framed still and slowly gliding shots that reveal the elaborate reproductions in part or whole sometimes capture isolated motions. These seem to range from spontaneous fidgetting (such as the playful shoving of the cherub by the angel at the base of The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception) to choreo- graphed moves motivated by the paintings (such as the captive who buries his face in his hands in The Third of May). Agamben differentiates between gesture and “a movement that has its end in itself (for example, dance seen as an aesthetic dimension).” 30 Certain actions in Passion appear to correspond to the latter category, including the ballet steps performed by Manuelle (Manuelle


Cinema and Agamben

Baltazar) and the contortionism of Sarah (Sarah Comen-Salin). In contrast, the movements that ripple through the tableaux vivants do not solidify into aesthetic ends; nor are they productive. Thrown into relief by the surrounding stillness, these mobile elements accentuate the potentiality actualized in the passage from painting to cinema. In Passion, the labor of filmmaking thus encapsulates the antimony between reified and dynamic gesture that Agamben sees as inherent to the image and pre-empts his reflections on cinema’s intimacy with the ethico-political realms.

Gravity, grace and decreation

If Passion resonates with Agamben’s insights into film, gesture and the poten- tiality of work, it also helps to expose what Alessia Ricciardi has described as a “subliminal” or “disavowed” presence in his philosophy: that of Simone Weil, whose political thought was the subject of his doctoral dissertation, but who is rarely mentioned in his published texts. 31 As Godard has confirmed in inter- views, although Passion makes no explicit allusion to Weil, her writings—and in particular those posthumously collected in La Pesanteur et la grâce (Gravity and Grace, 1947) and La Condition ouvrière (The Worker’s Condition, 1951)—are among the film’s most significant intertexts. 32 Weil’s critique of Taylorized mass production and advocation of labor that harmonizes our physical, intellectual and spiritual faculties throw a different light from Agamben’s essays, I want to argue, on Passion’s exploration of movement and, by extension, on the criti- cally resurgent question of the relation between film and work. Nevertheless, her lingering influence on Agamben’s thinking on cinema is intimated by his association of the “messianic situation” of the medium—which is made manifest, he contends, in Godard’s Histoire(s)—with “decreation”, one of Weil’s privileged terms. 33 Questions of movement, embodiment and production connect Weil’s thinking on work to Agamben’s discussion of gestural cinema, while her engagement with issues of force, energy and the soul distinguishes them. In Weil’s writings from the mid–1930s onwards, moral and spiritual life is rethought in terms of forces likened to those that regulate the material world. As she observes in an essay in La Condition ouvrière: “the laws of mechanics, which derive from geometry and control our machines, contain supernatural truths.” 34 In La Pesanteur et la

Passion, Agamben and the Gestures of Work


grâce, an assembly of fragmentary, aphoristic texts, she writes: “all the natural movements of the soul are ruled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity”, a dragging downwards which is countervailed only by the ascending pull of grace. 35 Whereas the desire for objects spawns a degraded energy which weighs us down, the energy of grace is liberated through the ethical act of renouncing or “decreating” the self. 36 Weil defines humility as “knowing that in what we call ‘I’ there is no source of energy which allows us to rise.” 37 We must lower ourselves in order to ascend, as she asserts in a vertiginous formulation: “moral gravity makes us fall towards the heights.” 38 Moreover, work offers a singular opportunity to “move upwards.” 39 Work is one of the threads that join Weil’s earlier more explicitly political texts to her later more mystical writings. In an article published in 1929, she asserts: “it is only by the trial of work that space and time are presented to me, always together, time as the condition, and space as the object, of any action.” 40 Weil’s affirmation of work as a measure of temporal duration and the world’s extension hints at a prioritization of energeia, or what Agamben calls “being- in-act”, over dunamis. 41 However, her attacks on Taylorism, which tightened its grip on French industry in the 1920s, foreshadow Agamben’s biopolitical analysis of gesture. The diverse writings united in La Condition ouvrière reflect both immediately and retrospectively on her experience of working in factories from 1934 to 1935 and accord sustained attention to forces that compel and constrain the body’s movements. Contesting Taylorism’s prevalent association with “rationalization”, Weil argues that its primary aim is to wield power over laborers by depriving them of “the possibility of determining themselves the processes and rhythm” and even the movements of their work. 42 Like Agamben, Weil dwells on the relation between action, means and end. But whereas the lack of a predetermined destiny aligns gesture, for Agamben, with ethics, the manual worker’s “effort without finality” is linked by Weil to slavery and evil. 43 As she explains in La Pesanteur et la grâce: “work makes us endure the wearing phenomenon of finality returning like a ball; working in order to eat, eating in order to work.” 44 The laborer’s gestures are oriented towards mere survival, an existence in which “everything is a means and finality clings on nowhere.” 45 Under Taylorized conditions, the force of necessity not only tugs on workers” limbs, but also “pins [their] thought to the earth” and empties their souls “of everything but a concern with speed.” 46 Nevertheless, for Weil, workers are uniquely positioned to encounter the divine, because they are not separated from it by any earthly end. 47


Cinema and Agamben

Film is never alluded to in La Pesanteur et la grâce and is mentioned in La Condition ouvrière only occasionally and fleetingly. Weil remarks ironically that “the most beautiful and true symbol of the situation of factory workers” is the malfunctioning machine that forcibly feeds corn-on-the-cob to Charlie Chaplin’s assembly line laborer in Modern Times (1936). 48 Chaplin’s parody of Taylorism exploits the affinity between the resources of film and the issues of time and motion that preoccupy Weil’s writings on work. But the cinematic dimension of these texts emerges more fully through comparison with Passion. Noting the appearance of the Weilian theme of self-renouncement in Godard’s films of the early 1980s, Morrey argues that, in Passion, the energy that Weil ascribes to grace “is manifested first and foremost in the form of light”, which the film associates with “spiritual nourishment.” 49 I would suggest that the energies described by Weil are visualized just as prominently here in kinetic form and in a manner that supports the connections I have suggested between Weil’s and Agamben’s ideas. Like Agamben’s, Weil’s arguments reverberate with the shift of attention from productive gesture to signs of fatigue in the first shots of the factory. These images recall Weil’s critique of an existence in which one’s “gestures are at every moment determined by work” and from which finality is excluded. 50 If the Agambenian reading of these moments that I offered earlier attended exclusively to the actions of the body, a Weilian approach would also consider

their evocation of movements of the soul. During the final shot of this scene, in

a voice barely audible over the din of the machine, Isabelle exclaims in voice- over: “My God, why have you abandoned me?” Isabelle’s words accentuate one

of the multiple meanings of the title of the film, the first by Godard to deal in

a sustained way with Christian subject-matter, and initiate a series of refer-

ences to the divine which punctuates its exploration of love and work. The cry attributed in two of the Gospels to Christ in his agony is also quoted in La Pesanteur et la grâce, where the cross is associated with upward motion. 51 It was only a beam, not a tree, speculates Weil, because “leaves and fruit are a waste of energy if we only want to rise.” 52 Implicitly attributing this desire to the worker, the factory is initially glimpsed in Passion between shots that pan across the sky. This sequence juxtaposes natural with supernatural forces and the law of gravity, perceptible in Isabelle’s tiredness, with images suggestive of grace, even as the dialogue alludes to divine absence. Although this spiritual dimension is absent from Agamben’s engagements with work and gesture, the sequence also assists in elucidating his oblique debt to Weil. As Leland de la Durantaye and

Passion, Agamben and the Gestures of Work


Ricciardi point out, Agamben’s concept of potentiality is genealogically related to, if in crucial respects different from, Weil’s notion of decreation. 53 In La Pesanteur et la grâce, Weil defines decreation as “making the created pass into the uncreated.” 54 This passage, she elaborates, involves “abandoning the I” or “renouncing being something” in order that God can love through us. 55 A sense of something “becoming nothing” is created in the progression from movement to stillness, evocative of the transition from life to death, that occurs, as I noted earlier, in the sequence that introduces the factory and the studio. 56 Agambenian potentiality and Weilian decreation interact in Godard’s images of arrested motion. Towards the end of Passion, there is a sequence that provides further resources, I want to argue, for understanding the lineage that connects Agamben to Weil. The film cuts back and forth between the recreation of The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception and a scene in which Isabelle and Jerzy prepare to have sex. As Kaja Silverman points out, the film “repeatedly situates elements belonging to the [painting] in the scene in Isabelle’s bedroom, and elements belonging to the sex scene in the biblical scene.” 57 Isabelle is identified here simultaneously with Christ (as at the beginning of the film) and the Virgin, connections forged by music (excerpts of the “Agnus Dei” from Fauré’s Requiem) and dialogue (Isabelle recites the supplication to the Lamb of God in voice-over) and reinforced by gesture (she momentarily places her left hand on her chest, mirroring the pose of Mary in the tableau vivant). In turn, her nakedness is paralleled in the tableau by that of an angel whose equivalent on El Greco’s canvas is clothed. 58 The mutual contamination of these scenes anticipates the polarization of the feminine between carnality and spirituality that Laura Mulvey discerns in Godard’s next two features, Prénom Carmen (1983) and Je vous salue Marie (1985). Mulvey criticizes these films for using the mythical “enigma” of femininity to signify “other, more profound mysteries” (the origins of life, the creation of art). 59 Yet the preoccupation with mystery and mysticism which comes to the fore in Passion’s recreation of El Greco’s image is aligned there with persistent material considerations more in keeping with Agamben’s priorities, I would suggest, through gestural choreography and the imaging of force. The film’s concern with the relation between the spiritual and the material can be elucidated by comparing the tableau vivant with its template. The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception exemplifies a number of features particular to El Greco’s late style. Naturalism is subordinated to the drama of a spiritual vision.


Cinema and Agamben

Unearthly lighting and elongated, swirling shapes evoke a transcendental energy and a powerful upwards straining. Probably for this reason, the painting has sometimes been viewed as an assumption, rather than a conception or creation. Indeed, for Silverman, “there is […] a certain undecidability in the original about whether the celestial is approaching the terrestrial, or the terres- trial the celestial.” 60 Godard’s tableau vivant retains the principal protagonists of the painting and roughly copies their positions and postures. Furthermore, the virtual force that appears to draw them heavenwards in the original is actualized in the film by two ascending crane shots. However, other aspects of the film scene rework and subvert the dynamic content of the canvas. Firstly, although the fluid relation between the physical and the spiritual is a traditional concern of the Christian-themed tableau vivant and its cinematic relatives (as Jean-Louis Leutrat points out, Godard’s title is a nod to “early films, precisely named Passion, which were a succession of ‘tableaux vivants’” depicting the “ways of the cross”), El Greco’s dematerialized shapes cannot be reproduced in such intermedial forms. 61 Secondly, rather than seeing the tableau as a whole, we encounter it by parts. The proximity of the camera to the models annuls the unifying spiritual force conjured by the painter. Finally, in a third shot, which curves from the top to the base of the tableau, we see models adjusting their costumes. This shot departs from El Greco’s artwork by introducing downward motion and making visible the processes of image production. Bergala perceives in Godard’s filming of the tableau the influence of Weil, linking the camera’s slow descent suggestively to her characterization of grace as a movement ungoverned by gravity. 62 I would suggest that human motion and gestural patterning in this sequence also speak to Weil’s, as well as Agamben’s, concerns. Several elements recall the factory scenes. The sequence is prefaced by a fragment of conversation between Jerzy and Isabelle about loving work, in which Isabelle says that she will miss her job. The connection to labor is reinforced by Isabelle’s manual actions. In striking contrast to the flowing of the camera around the tableau vivant, the bedroom is revealed in static frames. In the first of these shots, the only moving object is one of Isabelle’s hands. As it caresses her leg and touches her chest, its trajectory is rendered more conspicuous by backlighting, the pink glow which limns her silhouette. Pictorially, this shot echoes those of her laboring at the outset of the film, in spite of the difference in gestural content. If, like Weil, this sequence associates notions of spirituality and work, its blending of motion and stillness simulta- neously returns us to Agamben’s thinking on gesture and medium. Whereas

Passion, Agamben and the Gestures of Work


the studio scene renders the transition from painting to cinema, the bedroom scene sees cinema approximating painting. Agamben’s call for attention to work that manifests its potentiality correlates less strongly with the shots that spiral up the completed tableau vivant, than with the one that swerves downwards and captures the figures resuming movement. El Greco’s focus on creation is abjured as we witness the dismantling of the spectacle, its becoming nothing, its decreation. Even though he argues against stressing labor and production and barely refers to these concepts in his writing on cinema, Agamben offers insights which can enrich thinking about the medium’s correspondences with the temporalities and gestures of work. The arguments elaborated in “The Work of Man” and “Notes on Gesture” intersect, broadly speaking, in the notion of dynamism, which they respectively characterize as a lack of defining work or essence and an intrinsic property of the image. Read together, these essays suggest that ideas about work and potentiality can enhance understanding of film as medium, not merely of images of labor. Without addressing cinema in any sustained way, Weil too supplies perspectives which can illuminate this nexus of once again critically current issues in film studies. La Pesanteur et la grâce and La Condition ouvrière posit connections between the forces that tug on the (working) body and those that pull on and energize the soul. Drawing inspiration from these texts, Passion meditates on the relation between material conditions and spiritual experience, love and work, movement and stillness, helping us to glimpse Weil’s haunting presence in Agamben’s writings. Godard returns to the relation between the gestural body and the work of image creation in the video essay Scénario du film “Passion” (1982) and, later, in Histoire(s), where, according to Bergala, gesture assumes the character of a “privileged passage of the sacred.” 63 In Passion, however, gesture is not oriented towards a predetermined telos, and Christian intertexts provide inspiration not for retreating from the earthly or material, but for exploring questions of movement, decreation and work that are distinctly formulated in the writings of Weil and Agamben.



Cinema and Agamben


Janet Harbord, The Evolution of Film: Rethinking Film Studies (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), 150.


Harbord, Evolution of Film, 149, 170.


Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti, Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2000 [1996]), 49–53.


Agamben, Means Without End, 49, 53.


Giorgio Agamben, “The Work of Man” (2005), trans. Kevin Attell, Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life, Matthew Calarco and Steven DeCaroli (eds) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 10.


Giorgio Agamben, “Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films”, trans. Brian Holmes, Guy Debord and the Situationist International, ed. Tom McDonough (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 315.


For illuminating discussion of aspects of Passion, such as its consideration of European art and history, that prefigure Histoire(s), see James S. Williams, “European Culture and Artistic Resistance in Histoire(s) du cinéma Chapter 3A, La Monnaie de l’absolu”, The Cinema Alone: Essays on the Work of Jean-Luc Godard 1985–2000, Michael Temple and James S. Williams (eds) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000), 114, 134.


Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Press, 1993 [1990]), 43.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, ed. and trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 11–12.


Agamben, “Work of Man”, 2.


Aristotle cited in Agamben, “Work of Man”, 4; Agamben, “Work of Man”, 2.


Agamben, “Work of Man”, 2.


For incisive consideration of the factory/cinema analogy in Passion, see Laura Mulvey, “The Hole and the Zero: The Janus Face of the Feminine in Godard”, in Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image, 1974–1991, Raymond Bellour, Mary Lea Bandy (eds) (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), 77–9.


Agamben, Means Without End, 55.


Agamben, Means Without End, 55.


Agamben, Means Without End, 55–6.


Agamben, Means Without End, 56.


Agamben, Means Without End, 58.


Agamben, Means Without End, 57.


Michael Witt, “Altered Motion and Corporeal Resistance in France/tour/détour/ deux/enfants”, For Ever Godard, Michael Temple, James S. Williams and Michael Witt (eds) (London: Black Dog, 2004), 205–7, 209–10.

Passion, Agamben and the Gestures of Work


23 Agamben, Means Without End, 58.

24 A related observation is made by the voice-over narrator in the short essay film Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) by Harun Farocki, whose recent work has recurrently addressed the issue of labor in the twentieth century: “most narrative films begin after work is over. […] Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories.”

25 Douglas Morrey, Jean-Luc Godard (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 53–4.

26 Williams, “European Culture”, 115.

27 Brigitte Peucker, The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 26.

28 Peucker, Material Image, 30.

29 These three types of movement are mentioned in Farocki’s discussion of shifts between painting and cinema in Passion. In Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki, Speaking About Godard (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 173.

30 Agamben, Means Without End, 58.

31 Alessia Ricciardi, “From Decreation to Bare Life: Weil, Agamben, and the Impolitical”, diacritics 39: 2 (2009): 75.

32 See, for example, Jean-Luc Godard, “Le Chemin vers la parole”, (interview with Alain Bergala, Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana) Cahiers du cinéma 336 (1982).

33 Agamben, “Difference and Repetition”, 315, 318. See James S. Williams’s chapter in this book for a brilliant reading of Agamben’s claims about cinema, messianism and gesture against the existential themes and decreative forms of Godard’s film Soigne ta droite (1987).

34 Simone Weil, La Condition ouvrière (Paris: Gallimard, 1951), 268.

35 Simone Weil, La Pesanteur et la grâce (Paris: Plon, 1988 [1947]), 7.

36 See Simone Weil, “Décréation” in La Pesanteur et la grâce (Paris: Plon, 1988 [1947]), 42–50.

37 Weil, Pesanteur, 40.

38 Weil, Pesanteur, 10.

39 Weil, Pesanteur, 202.

40 Simone Weil cited in David McLellan, Simone Weil: Utopian Pessimist (Basingstoke:

Macmillan, 1989), 23.

41 Agamben, “Work of Man”, 2.

42 Weil, Condition ouvrière, 223.

43 Weil, Pesanteur, 204; Condition ouvrière, 261–2.

44 Weil, Pesanteur, 203.

45 Weil, Condition ouvrière, 262.


Cinema and Agamben

47 Weil, Pesanteur, 203.

48 Weil, Condition ouvrière, 184.

49 Morrey, Godard, 143, 144.

50 Weil, Condition ouvrière, 21.

51 Weil, Pesanteur, 103.

52 Weil, Pesanteur, 104.

53 Leland de la Durantaye, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction (Stanford:

Stanford University Press, 2009), 22–3; Ricciardi, “From Decreation to Bare Life”.

54 Weil, Pesanteur, 42.

55 Weil, Pesanteur, 43, 44.

56 Weil, Pesanteur, 44.

57 Kaja Silverman in Silverman and Farocki, Speaking About Godard, 192.

58 A footnote in the shot by shot découpage compiled by Nathalie Bourgeois compares this angel with El Greco’s painting Saint Sebastian. In L”Avant-scène cinéma 380 (1989): 78.

59 Mulvey, “The Hole and the Zero”, 81.

60 Silverman in Silverman and Farocki, Speaking About Godard, 194.

61 Jean-Louis Leutrat, “Traces that Resemble Us: Godard’s Passion”, SubStance 15: 3:

51 (1986): 41. I would like to thank Brigitte Peucker for drawing my attention to the intertwined histories of the tableau vivant and Christianity.

62 Bergala, Nul mieux que Godard, 114.

63 Bergala, Nul mieux que Godard, 245.


Gesture, Time, Movement: David Claerbout meets Giorgio Agamben on the Boulevard du Temple

Janet Harbord

Across the corpus of Giorgio Agamben’s work lie scattered a number of specu- lative propositions on what may be said to define or characterize the species of the human. One of the most forceful of these speculations occurs in the intro- duction to the English translation of the work Infancy and History, a prologue that Agamben wrote fifteen years after the original publication of the book in Italian in 1978. In this introduction he notes that Infancy and History itself is but a prologue to an unwritten work, which remains “stubbornly unwritten” and yet has a title, The Human Voice. One of the pages of this work, he writes, would contain the following questions: “Is there a human voice, a voice that is the voice of man as the chirp is the voice of the cricket or the bray of the donkey? And, if it exists, is this voice language?” 1 The question of language is related to the question of what it means to be human, yet the voice that may be language is not simply that which is spoken or written. Language is a term encompassing all that is unsaid as a presupposition upon which language may take place. This relation, in which the spoken is the broken cast around the absent unsaid, he gives the name in-fans. When he writes that there has been but “one train of thought,” which is this question, “what is the meaning of ‘there is language’”, and what is more, “what is the meaning of ‘I speak’?”, we are referred to the experience of language as such. This train of thought is manifest in many different ways across his writings, and perhaps most vigorously as a question of humanity in, The Open: Man and Animal (2002/2004). The Open stages a critique of the evolutionary construction of humanity as the animal that becomes human through the expulsion of his own animality. The acquisition of language is retrospectively organized as the locus of a strategic difference or capacity distinguishing man from animal. 2 Language provides a constitutive component of what he names the anthropological


Cinema and Agamben

machine, an apparatus that not only distinguishes the species but privileges human kind over all others; moreover, the relation of man to animal is one that is both drawn on as an affinity embraced (the qualities of passion for example), and also a resonance repudiated and expelled (the “animality” of violence). The book begins with a description of this paradox in illustrations from a thirteenth- century Hebrew bible of man on the Day of Judgment as a creature bearing the head of an animal. That Agamben makes use at times of Lévi-Strauss in his engagement with language 3 should not however confuse his focus with the project of grammatology in Derrida’s work. For Agamben, Derrida misdiag- noses the problem of metaphysics; the vital question of language, for Agamben, is not the infinite deferral of meaning and play of difference between signifier and signified (repudiating the hierarchy of speech as presence and writing as absence). Instead, the question is within the order of the ethical, of what it means for the human to be the living being that has language. It may come as something of a surprise then to find a definition of the human in relation to images rather than language in (what might appear to be) the margins of his work. 4 Here is Agamben speaking in memorium for his friend Guy Debord, at a lecture in 1995 5 :

Now man is an animal who is interested in images when he has recognized them as such. That’s why he is interested in painting and why he goes to the cinema. A definition of man from our specific point of view could be that man is a movie-going animal. He is interested in images after he has recognized that they are not real beings. 6

While the figure of Debord, rather than images, is the subject of the talk, Agamben parses the topicality of the image through Debord’s practice. Why, he asks, was cinema the privileged medium for Debord, the strategist, rather than, say, poetry (Debord having abandoned the Lettrist project earlier in his career) or painting? The answer brings into play the historical dimension of the image, “the close tie between cinema and history,” or what he goes on to call the eminently historical character of the image. 7 What follows in the essay is a summary (or condensation) of the meaning of the historical nature of the image in Agamben’s work, referencing messianic time, the dialectical image, stoppage and repetition, all appearing as keystones also to Debord’s film works. Of course, bound up with this question of what cinematic images mean to Debord, of why he chose this medium over others, is the question of what images mean for Agamben. While Agamben presents the choice of medium to Debord, there

Gesture, Time, Movement


is a degree of slippage in the way that he glides between his own references to

image-types in this memorial lecture. In this particular description of man as

a movie-going animal, one might note the equivocation of filmic images with

paintings (“[t]hat’s why he is interested in painting and why he goes to the cinema”), 8 and, in other essays, reference to a third image-type in the photo- graph. 9 Indeed, across his work the media of photography, film and painting are drawn on variously yet their singularity as “means” is not brought into focus. From the point of view of film theory and art history, 10 the lack of attention to such differences suggests a wide departure from the methodological concern with the specific properties of form and their historical (if promiscuous) development as inscribed in these disciplines. 11 Indeed, the question of what is understood by the “historical nature of the image,” and by a medium, is poten- tially at odds in the encounter between film theory and Agambenian philosophy. The photographic image, according to Agamben, is not the mummification of a moment resolute in its still capture, but the potential release of a dynamis and the site of a particular investiture concerning the capture of the human figure in her own medium. The human being as a species is fundamentally located in a

mode of being visible, never self-defined but given over to the gestural qualities of her appearance. “The image,” writes Agamben in “Special Being,” “is a being whose essence is to be a species, a visibility or an appearance” 12 and while he

is writing here with regard to the reflected image in a mirror, the philological

tie between image as speculum and the human species as the locus of gestural production binds the two. Neither mirror image nor human subject is defined by

a substance, but by the process of becoming visible, being given to appearance, a definition of humanity as communicability itself. The photographic image then, like the image in the mirror, and like the human subject, coincides there as an accident of sorts but not a substance of any kind. If there seems to be a lack of attention to disciplinary demarcations and approaches in this treatment of image forms, we might re-orient debate with reference to Agamben’s recent discussion of method and in particular, his discussion of the term “paradigm,” in The Signature of All Things: On Method (2008/9). In this discussion, the concept of the paradigm is elucidated and may be traced retrospectively through Agamben’s work as the generation of a form of knowledge that moves from singularity to singularity, finding analogies, correspondences and echoes across categories in the production of a paradigm that is imminent to things. 13 That is, the paradigm does not impose a model or operate deductively, nor proceed from an example, but finds correspondences


Cinema and Agamben

between things in a crossing of diachrony and synchrony. We might postulate then that photography and film, and indeed painted images, create a paradigm

as the site of encounter between the change of things across time (diachrony) and the relations between things at any one time (synchrony). Indeed, there is

a reflexive re-play of the changing of things across time that photography in

particular is thought to “capture.” The idea of the photograph as the capture of an instant, as the registration of

a temporal point in time, has characterized critical ruminations about photog-

raphy for the past eighty years or more. 14 It is this notion of photography as an exemplary means to record time (arrested as a “still”), that Agamben’s paradigm of the image implicitly refutes. In his terms, the photograph’s potentiality is conversely the release of a dynamis, fundamentally linked to a Benjaminian concept of kairological time; that is, the paradigm takes no account of the polarity of stillness and movement as they are conventionally attributed to photography and film respectively. And yet the paradigm within which the image is situated, elaborated across some twenty texts and essay collections, remains (in terms of film theory at least) elliptical, connecting media with time but in an unorthodox re-writing of the relation, and simultaneously trans- gressing any definition of distinct media forms. My objective in this essay is

to sketch the way in which Agamben’s use of images as a move away from a fixed medium specificity is, simultaneously, a move away from the concept of

a fixed human ontology. Rather than appeal to the distinct domains of cinema

and photography, I will refer to contemporary art and the installation as the location of a dismantling of traditional medium-specific definitions and the re-assemblage of resemblances, correspondences and sympathies across these

lines. In particular, Belgian artist, David Claerbout, produces such works where

a medium is a site for experimentation, whose practice can be described as

making coincidental rather than substantial productions, or controlled exper- iment in modes of appearing. Claerbout’s practice might be said to take place entirely within the space between film and photography. Unlike Barthes’ strong preference for the photograph over and above cinema, Claerbout seems to not take a preference, proffering a hesitant, reserved art that is never fully aligned with one or other medium. “We know to what extent David Claerbout keeps his distance from cinema,” writes Raymond Bellour. 15 Claerbout criticizes cinema for “just about everything Roland Barthes criticized it for so long ago”: cinema’s relative lack of pensiveness, its nervousness, its dependency on narrative structure,

Gesture, Time, Movement


all contributing to a sense of disappointment that cinema bears neither the definitive stamp of the studium nor the seductive sudden impingement of the punctum that Barthes found so appealing in photography. 16 Yet it is not the case that Claerbout neglects the indexical reference of the image as historical, but rather that he releases within this the gestural potential of an image. Take, for example, Claerbout’s early work, Kindergarten Antonio Sant’Elia (1998),

seemingly a photograph of a nursery garden, designed to angular modernist principles, featuring a scattering of young children at play. The original photo- graph was taken in 1932 in Como, Italy, at the opening of the nursery. Claerbout had found the picture in an architectural book celebrating the “new urbanism” of designed space in the 1930s, a moment that he talks about as utopian, the photograph part of a series staging and celebrating, in its original context, a fresh new environment. The garden of Kindergarten was designed by Giuseppe Terragni, an architect who worked for Mussolini, who pioneered a rationalist international style which was subsequently to became associated with a clinical proto-fascist rationalism. The angle of the photograph suggests that it was taken from a level above ground, perhaps a first-story window looking down on an enclosed area pleasingly patterned with new white paving stones laid in geometric shapes with grass cut around the curves of paved form. Within the two paved areas

a circle has been cut to allow the planting of two trees, which appear to fit

the spaces exactly, young thin-limbed trees yet to mature. Around the trees, a number of children (at least eighteen) stand, run and play, dressed in identical pristine white aprons, also thin-limbed and yet to mature. A low but bright sun provides a startling light that throws well-defined shadows from the bodies of the children and the limbs of the trees. If we view the image for more than a few seconds, we notice a slight swimming movement, which is the swaying

of the trees, discretely, subtly animated. Claerbout re-versions the image as a singlechannel video work that stages the signs of various temporalities. The scene of Kindergarten Antonio Sant’Elia, becomes, in Claerbout’s hands,

a still from a lost film, a picture from a film that we have not (yet) seen, the

dynamis of its capture returned in this particular moment of viewing. What Claerbout’s works suggest is that there is a time of looking at an image as well

as a time of taking. That is, the moment of its potency is not always visible, or available, but in a Benjaminian sense the charge of the image flashes at a particular moment. The barely discernable movement in Claerbout’s single- channel works requires the viewer to be alert to such moments, to pay attention


Cinema and Agamben

to the surface of an image that we think we know but that catches us out in our complacency. Here are young trees that move as they may have moved in 1932, their dynamis intact, which in turn refers us to the movement of these children, each in a process of turning, running, stepping that is, as yet, incomplete. In the cast of these small gestures, the form of the bodies refers us to their dynamic potential, and moreover to further images and gestures to come. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the picture refers to gesturality itself. The moment brings together the historical context with an exigency to find a name for these children, to take account of their singular lives, while at the same time to apprehend their generic openness to communication, the capacity of gesturality that finds the human revealed in her own medium. It is possibly only through the pursuing of an illusive difference between film and photography in Claerbout’s works that movement is revealed in its relation to temporality; the photograph is not the index of a static point in time, but the image of a potential capacity. Movement in both media is located in gesture rather than any type of chemical registration. What converges in Claerbout’s practice and Agamben’s treatment of the image is an understanding of filmic and photographic productions as the potential bearers of a messianic, kairological time, a time of the now that up-ends the conceptual framework within which film and photography are conventionally thought. In pursuing an encounter between the two, the features of the kairological are given greater force. By way of tending to the image as production, I want to turn to a number of particular images that are brought into appearance in the work of the artist and the philosopher respectively, and initially to cross-refer their treatment of stillness and motion in an approach to kairological time, before noting finally their points of difference.

Boulevard du Temple

The complexity of the correspondence between movement and stillness, which is subtly different from the pairing of dynamis and stasis, we find in Agamben’s concise essay “Judgment Day”, (Profanations, 2005/7). The essay opens with a description of the first photographic image featuring human figures, named after the place of its taking, “Boulevard du Temple,” and photographed in 1838 by French artist and chemist Louis Daguerre. Daguerre, we may note, had an

Gesture, Time, Movement


involvement in other first things, having partnered in chemical experimentation with the photographer of the first still life, “The Dinner Table” by Joseph Niepce. Boulevard du Temple is not however about first things but about final things in Agamben’s account, an eschatology closely linked to Benjamin’s thought, but we will come to this. The everyday activity that became photography (as the documenting of “life”) evinced the detail of everyday existence, the ritual practices of life as habitat, practices that are partially un-thought marginalia. It is this seemingly irrelevant detail of the everyday, however, that comes to appear in this image, “is called forth, summoned to appear on Judgment Day.” 17 It is also the case that the first photograph showing human figures proffers the somewhat contingent nature of that by which we will be judged. For the boulevard, Agamben observes, should be crowded with people and carriages on a busy day, and yet because of the length of photographic exposure requiring more than ten or possibly twenty minutes to elapse, the crowd is not visible. Nothing of this throng is visible (though still present), but only a man who has stopped to have his shoes shined, who must have been stationary for some while: “The crowd of humans—indeed, all of humanity—is present, but it cannot be seen, because judgment concerns a single person, a single life: precisely this one and no other.” 18 Agamben’s account resonates with that of a contemporary of Daguerre, Samuel Morse, inventor of the single wire telegraph system in 1838 (a year before the photograph of Boulevard du Temple). Morse wrote a description of the image after visiting Daguerre’s studio, 19 which was published in the New York Observer in April 1839. Observing the plate he writes, “Objects moving are not impressed,” with the exception of the individual who was having his shoes brushed. “His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot black, and the other on the ground”, he continues, “consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion.” Photography fails to impress an object (or subject) in movement, except as an absence or a blurred form. For Morse, the body here fails to transmit itself across the boundary of life to register as silver nitrate inscription as a whole body, becoming fragmented, perhaps codified differently by qualities of movement and stillness. It is inter- esting to note that Morse expresses a concern with photography as an act of transmission, tracing what remains after the transmission is over, rather than with historical registration. In correlation to the morse signal transmitted across space, photography appears as a transmission across time.


Cinema and Agamben

Both Agamben and Morse fix upon the presence and absence that the image brings forth, but it is not the case that what is registered, or impressed, is a stillness in any simple sense. What is not registered is the animistic movement of bodies, or transport. What is registered however is motion, either as absence, blurred form, or gesture. The photograph in this sense does not polarize stillness and movement, or image and life, later to become the polarization of photography and film. Rather, it releases the mobile forces within an image as a centrifugal force-field. For Agamben, what the photograph captures is a gesture, “charged with the weight of an entire life”. In what we might call the implication of movement in gesture, the photograph calls up a moment that is not an instant within a continuum, but a paradigm of heterogeneous times that breaks from the concept of the image as a sealed surface containing an historical truth. The various registers of movement within a photograph (that Agamben reads as indices of different conceptions of time), however created a degree of confusion in the time of the photograph’s production (the 1830s). The variation of what is and is not in focus in Daguerre’s photographs, for example, finds the commentary of his contemporaries reaching towards an understanding of what exactly, or inexactly, is being produced. The French correspondent for the Foreign Quarterly Review singled out the problematic imaging of leaves:

“In foliage, he is less successful, the constant motion in the leaves rendering his landscapes confused and unmeaning […] which can never be properly delineated without the aid of memory.” 20 The blurred leaves of Daguerre’s plates render the whole confusing, demanding recourse to memory on the part of the viewer. This particular “problem” for early photography is revisited by Claerbout to produce an opportunity to break open the surface of the image. Everywhere in his practice during the late 1990s are images of the swaying limbs of trees (single channel video works 21 ). Boom (1996), is an 18-minute single channel installation where a tree is filmed on a summer’s day in full color as the sun moves over its form. The film evidences both a multiplicity of the individually moving leaves, and a uniform swaying of the whole structure. A year later, Claerbout moves from filming leaves to selecting and animating the arboreal section of a photograph. Ruurlo, Borculoscheweg (1997), is an artwork derived from a postcard found in an old book, providing a view of a landscape displaying a tree, a windmill and two groups of figures, taken somewhere in the Netherlands around 1910. The postcard (notably a photograph concretized as an object of transmission), which might once have articulated something of the landscape and village life of

Gesture, Time, Movement


the time, now registers, retrospectively, the newness of the medium of photog- raphy. The novel appearance of what must have been a fairly cumbersome piece of equipment arriving in the village, can be read from the pose of the small clutch of figures in the foreground, left. The two figures slightly to the front of the group are both men, dressed, as far as one may discern, in dark trousers and jackets. Behind them, and in the shade of the tree, is a group of either women or adolescent girls with white aprons and possibly headwear showing, diminutive by comparison. Whether their place within the landscape conforms to social or economic hierarchy, or whether the day was warm and the women took to the shade, it is not possible to say. But certainly, the group is posing for the camera. By 1910, this group of villagers had learnt that in order to “appear” in the photo- graph, that is, to be registered with precision, one must keep still and face the camera (with an eye to the prospective future viewer) for the duration of the photographic “capture.” The photograph is staged, a presentation, and no longer located in the ordinary habituations, or “rags” and “refuse”, of the everyday. 22 When Ruurlo, Bocurlo scheweg is installed as a video work, we see the slight swaying of the branches and the movement of leaves on the tree. The huge arboreal structure that spreads out across the frame, dwarfing the windmill and the figures, is stirred by an imaginary wind, a slight breeze. A portion of the photo- graph is animated, as indeed it would have been on that day; the human figures conform to a static pose while the tree remains in dynamic relation to the elements and environment. In Kindergarten Antonio Sant’Elia (1998), it is the young trees that have been given to animation and the children frozen, and once more, in an untitled work from 1998–2000, the only animated feature of an image of boys seated in rows in a classroom is the shadow of a tree on the back wall. Claerbout, it could be said, locates movement at the heart of photography in an inverse symmetry to the notion that at the heart of cinema is stillness. 23 Yet in Claerbout’s productions, movement is not in any simple sense an attribute of cinema (or video) that marks its difference from photography, nor is it the designation of an unfolding filmic present in contrast to a photographic past. Rather, the animated form of the image is a barely discernable pulse of dynamic movement operating on a loop; repetitive, circular but without a clear sense of a beginning or end, this looped movement undercuts the temporal associations that have been attributed to photography and film. What Claerbout reinserts into the photographic image is a form of gesture, or in other words, the mode of appearing as such. In Agamben’s discussion of gesture, in the cinematic “Notes on Gesture,” and in the more literary discussion “Kommerell, or On Gesture,” 24 the gestural


Cinema and Agamben

act defies the binary of movement/stillness, and the discussion weaves between early cinema and photography. The former essay begins with identifying a new pathology in human movement, traced by Gilles de la Tourette through the imprint of a subject’s gait as a series of footprints on a roll of paper. Agamben finds a correspondence in the patterns that emerged with Muybridge’s photo- graphic experiments of the walking, running, jumping subject. What crosses from one to the other (de la Tourette to Muybridge) is not the recording of movement in time and space, but “a generalized catastrophe of the sphere of gestures.” 25 As the natural gestural language of communication is lost, the “more life becomes indecipherable”, and it is this loss that the cinema registers in its earliest form. Perhaps most significant in Agamben’s reading of this period in the late nineteenth century is the comment that follows this diagnosis: from this moment onwards, the bourgeoisie “which just a few decades earlier was still firmly in possession of its symbols, succumbs to interiority and gives itself up to psychology.” 26 This turn inwards becomes manifest in a cinema of psycho- logical drama, instrumental in producing a linear, narrative form predicated on an internally located subjectivity in need of deciphering. Gesture, as a mode of appearing to others, and its demise, is at the center of a redistribution of ethical relations in which the cinema is implicated. This in turn drives definitions and uses of the cinema and photography as the arrest of time, movement and identity. Gesture as a potentiality enacted between people but without being a means to an end (of a story, a time, an outcome), appears as a type of experiment in re-making cinema in a number of Claerbout’s works. 27 In Bordeaux Piece (2004) the use of repetition forces the principal act of gesture into the foreground over the duration of the piece (13 hours and 43 minutes). The story of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris is chosen as a narrative to be re-versioned, although according to Claerbout, it could have been a different story (2007: 112). The film is reworked as a series of situations for which Claerbout wrote dialogue, and about which he has said that he filmed it “so that it doesn’t really work.” The film sequence of about 10–12 minutes is shot 70 times, beginning at 5.30 a.m. and continuing to 10 p.m. and the loss of light. The same script is performed, the same dialogue spoke in the same locations, a production that plays out Agamben’s treatize on stoppage and repetition. 28 What changes most significantly is first of all the light, and second, the experience of the film as film. The production rolls on, repeats, replays, and as the light changes, the content of the dialogue becomes less significant, the outcomes of the actions

Gesture, Time, Movement


unimportant. The production is an experiment of the emptying out of causal factors (means directed towards ends), and the appearance of gesture as such, or what Agamben also refers to as pure means. Human gesture is slowly, repeti- tively (through the deployment of stoppage and repetition), detached from its commodified form (to serve narrative ends), and diverted towards a non-linear model of communication, dependent on a cyclical temporality located in the environment (the cycle of a day). This model of gesturality returns us then to models of temporality as they pertain to the image.

The instant and the continuum

If the paradigm of Agambenian thought that encompasses the photographic and

filmic, and stasis and dynamis, is brought into correspondence through the articu- lation of humanity through gestural means, the final maneouvre in this densely crowded scene is a re-conceptualization of time. We speak, in our disciplines, of film as time-based media, and we use both film and photography to record, to make

a document of a particular time that we archive, canonize, re-play or conversely

discard or neglect. The time of the image would seem to be an instant (the photograph), taken from a larger continuum (the film, or indeed the continuum of life). Yet if we regard the image as an indeterminate form between film and photography, as we find in Claerbout’s productions, the categorical definitions of the instant and the continuum do not coincide. This final section turns to an early essay by Agamben published in 1978, “Time and History: a critique of the instant and the continuum,” where, I will argue, the key to this image paradigm is located. The essay opens with the statement that “[e]very conception of history is invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time, which is implicit in it, conditions it, and thereby has to be elucidated.” 29 The implicit category of time, however, changes from culture to culture and indeed across time (historical periods), imagined and enacted in multiple ways. The stakes are high in any imagining of time:

…every culture is first and foremost a particular experience of time, and no new culture is possible without an alteration in this experience. The original task of

a genuine revolution, therefore, is never merely to “change the world”, but also

– and above all – to “change time.” 30

The essay, in true Agambenian mode, presents something of a compendium of thought concerning time as it has been conceived of since Aristotle, and it is


Cinema and Agamben

worth outlining the contours of his account to grasp the basis of his critique.

It is from Greek culture, Agamben posits, that we inherit the notion of time as

an infinite quantifiable continuum. According to Aristotle it is a “quantity of movement according to the before and the after,” 31 its ongoing condition assured by its division into discrete instants, which none the less are circular and cosmic, modelled on astronomy and the movement of celestial spheres. Within this, the instant provides something like a seam, a join that links the past and the future while the present (instant) remains elusively other; notably the past and the future are, within this system, more tangible than the ungraspable present-yet- passing instant. Within Greek thought, time appears to be experienced as something objective and determining of its own course, enveloping events inside of itself: time, like space, is what we exist within, and the movement is circular,

a series of operations that follows astronomy in the repetition of orbits: from

this model we inherit the notion of return as repetition. The Christian notion of time, according to this account, introduces us to the inverse. Time is linear and irreversible, with the birth of Christ marking a midway point between the fall from Eden and the future redemption of humanity. Significantly, it is under the auspices of Christian thought that time is detached from the rotational movement of the ancient world and re-located within the subject as an interior phenomenon. Saint Augustine’s Confessions, writes Agamben, is a prolonged anguished interrogation of the fleeting nature of the present as an instant that “has no extent of duration,” 32 a nullified time. Christian time is overlaid with the same notion of the instant and the continuum but now the circle is ironed out as a straight line, conjoining with modern time, the time of industrialization, and a secularization of Christian time. Under modernity, dead time is extracted from experience, with manufacturing work enacting the linearity of both the production belt and clock time. The concept of modern time draws its develop- mental structure from the natural sciences, remaining linear as an account of progress as movement forward. But time here is not connected to experience; modern time is experience alienated. If these are both familiar and fallible models of temporality, an alternative and altogether more potent version of time is however to hand. “The elements for a different concept of time lie scattered among the folds and shadows of the Western cultural tradition,” 33 Agamben writes, and it is from Gnosticism and third century Stoicism, the forgotten traditions that retain a complex notion of time, that he draws an account of an un-homogenous, incoherent time,

Gesture, Time, Movement


modelled as a broken line. Within Stoic thought, the concept of a continuous time broken into discrete instants is unreal time, which can only condition experience as waiting and deferral. Time, for the Stoics, is neither objective nor removed from our control, but springing from the actions and decisions of the human subject. Its model is the kairos, the abrupt and sudden conjunction where decision grasps opportunity and “life is fulfilled in the moment.” 34 Kairos, the opportune moment in which something is driven through is also the Jetzt-Zeit, an indeterminate, qualitative “now-time,” distilling within itself different times. This critique of a western concept of time is notably dependent upon, or congruent with, Benjamin’s thesis on history, and the incomplete project of modernity as an unfolding catastrophe, radically in need of reconceptualizing time itself. Yet there is a further dimension to the argument that Agamben makes in this essay that refers us to the point as simultaneously a temporal and spatial form. That is, the geometric point of perspective is aligned, in his thinking, with the instant. The point in geometry is also a metaphysical concept, the foundation of a Euclidean formulation where, in its fundamental formu- lation, space is flattened and expressed as a pair of points connected by a straight line. This mathematical foundation posits a linear model of thinking analogous to the instant, the point in time, about which he has this to say:

[The point] is the opening through which the eternity of metaphysics insin- uates itself into the human experience of time and irreparably splits it. Any attempt to conceive of time differently must inevitably come into conflict with this concept, and a critique of the instant is the logical condition for a new experience of time. 35

In other words, a Euclidean geometric formulation secured a spatialized time of the instant and the continuum, providing the model for a chronology dependent on the infinite procession of time along a straight path, with markers that identify any place along the line as points. For the Stoics, in contrast, dividing time into discrete instants is “unreal time,” productive of a “fundamental sickness” of waiting and deferral for time (as something objective) to arrive. This fundamental sickness is the primary mode through which the photograph is produced and apprehended, as the capture of the instant, a point in time that is sealed from points after and before. Agamben binds this apprehension of time to a modernist sensibility with its associated corrosion of experience: “The experience of dead time abstracted from experience, which characterizes life in modern cities and factories”, he writes, “seems to give credence to the idea that


Cinema and Agamben

the precise fleeting instant is the only human time”. 36 Within the same logic, film comes to stand for the continuum, the potentially infinite process of recording time as a set of instants running forward. 37 In Louis Daguerre’s first image of humanity, it is possible to identify a process in which time is not broken down into instants extracted from a continuum, but an alchemical transformation of light into an image composed of different times. In this sense, Boulevard du Temple is not so far from Claerbout’s animated images that use qualities of movement and stillness to signal different temporalities. In Daguerre’s image, contingency has left its trace in a literal sense, as the actions of people in stillness or movement on the Boulevard has rendered time as a quali- tative rather than quantitative phenomenon. The revelation of the first image then is not only that it is the first photographic image of humanity, but that it is the revelation of time reconceptualized as kairological. As Agamben reminds us, the Greek concept of time was twofold, chronos and kairos, the former referring to the sequential concept of events following events, while kairos provides for an indeterminate time, taking advantage of contingent, opportune circumstance. It may be fitting then that chronos has become the dominant term for thinking of time and the technologies through which we model and experience it, and that kairos has disappeared into the folds and shadows of a different tradition, only to emerge fleetingly in image forms. The photograph as “opportunity”, as colloquial usage has it, reverses and returns here as the model of a revolutionary potential, the grasping of what is to hand, “the moment of rupture and opening of temporality” and also “power at precisely the moment that the experience of time restlessly observes the edge over which it leans.” 38 The kairological refers us not only to the image, but to its legibility, which has an equally contingent appeal as the site of an historical understanding (history as experience here rather than chronology). The contingency of the appearance of time as the animated form in images is “the movement at their interior,” legible only at a particular moment. 39 The notion of legibility, deployed by Benjamin, works against the traditional context-based understanding of the singular image, made sense of through supplementary information (what is outside of the frame in terms of spatial and temporal referents). In Benjamin’s reading, legibility is founded rather in a moment of connection across time, a singular instance where meaning is revealed: “For the historical index of the images not only says that they belong to a particular time; it says, above all, that they attain to legibility only at a particular time.” 40 Not all images are readable at all times, but are documents within which an encrypted dynamis is released in

Gesture, Time, Movement


its correspondence with other images and events in the indeterminate relations of diachrony and synchrony. Benjamin calls this moment an awakening, and Agamben re-purposes the phrase to use it for the entry of humanity into history. 41 The demand for us to look, to not forget, to remember, is “the moment of gestural demand that gives [the photograph] a political destiny”. 42 The notion of a language or communication that we have not yet learnt how to read or hear, is how we may think of filmic and photographic images today. Fixated on their stillness or movement, we are not open to the possibilities of their transmissions except perhaps through their re-workings in various places, the installation being one. Claerbout’s single channel works prise open the various times dormant within an image through the release of its animated and gestural potential. In a sense, Claerbout’s productions may be viewed as a taking back of the photograph for everyday use, removing it from the realms of consecrated History, and thoroughly profaning it in his exercise of free use. If commodification has separated goods from their context in a sacramental act, profanation is the political act of returning a thing to the everyday, and to the realm of play over economy. We could extend this application and say that Claerbout’s practice profanes the idea of the (film or photographic) image as a time removed and commodified, for what he reveals is the multiplicity of times and their broken correspond- ences within the frame. His works direct us beyond this frame to other images, towards unmade films that none the less press in on the present, and virtual films to come. Profanation proliferates questions but offers no answers: what is outside the classroom window? What is it that this child is turning towards in the playground? And what has happened between this scene and the next of a film made and remade over and over? On the Boulevard du Temple, a man is having his shoes shined. The soft rub and scuff of the brush as it passes over the surface of the leather, the posture of the man crouched over his work who may be engrossed or bored by this act of labor, whose labor has not yet been spoken of at all, all of this belongs to another image, a film to come.



Cinema and Agamben


Agamben’s thesis is not that man is inside language and animals exterior, but, as he writes in another text, “Animals do not enter language, they are already inside it. Man, instead, by having an infancy, by preceding speech, splits this single language and, in order to speak, has to constitute himself as the subject of language—he has to say I”, in “Infancy and History: an essay on the destruction of experience”, in Infancy and History, 52.


See “Infancy and History: an essay on the destruction of experience”, in Infancy and History, 59–60.


The relationship between language and images is not, of course, one of counter- tension in Agamben’s work. His approach is aligned with Benjamin’s who describes the dialectic at a standstill, ending “Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language.” Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge and London, MA: Harvard University Press 1999 [1982]), 462.


Debord died November 30, 1994.


This text, “Difference and Repetition: on Guy Debord’s Films”, is the translation of a lecture by Giorgio Agamben, delivered on the occasion of the “Sixth International Video Week” at the Centre Saint-Gervais in Geneva in November 1995, reproduced in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Thomas McDonough (Cambridge and London, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 314. For further commentary from Agamben on Debord, see “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle”, in Means Without End:

Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti, Casare Casarino, (Mineapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press), 73–89.


Agamben, “Difference and Repetition”, 313.


Agamben, “Difference and Repetition”, 314.


“Judgment Day”, in Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007) 23–8.


Agamben’s figuring of disciplines echoes the relation of the said to the unsaid in that each discipline would appear to be predicated on that which cannot be articulated as much as that which is named. Take for example his essay on Aby Warburg and the “science of culture”, which opens thus: “This essay seeks to situate a discipline that, in contrast to many others, exists but has no name.” Giorgio Agamben, “Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science” [1975] in Potentialities:

Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Werner Hamacher, David E. Wellbery (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 89–103.


Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography, Karen Beckman, Jean Ma (eds) (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008).

Gesture, Time, Movement


13 Agamben provides a summative list of six points defining the paradigm including its analogical procedure, its neutralization of the dichotomy of the general and particular, immanence and the refusal of origins (ἀρχή) on page 31.

14 Kracauer’s essay “Photography” (1927) stands out as one of the first discursive texts on the medium in Europe (Kracauer, “Photography”, The Mass Ornament:

Weimer Essays, trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995)).

15 Bellour, Raymond, “How to See?”, David Claerbout and the Shape of Time, ed. Christine Van Assche (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2008), 36.

16 Ibid., 36.

17 Agamben, Profanations, 23.

18 Ibid., 24.

19 This was a private letter from Morse to the editor of the New York Observer, 9 March 1839, published 20 April. The day after Morse visited the studio, Daguerre in turn paid a visit to Morse to view the telegraphic system. During the period of the visit however, Morse recounts the melancholic event simultaneously occurring in Daguerre’s studio: a fire took place destroying “his valuable notes and papers, the labour of years of experiment”. The plate of the Boulevard, presumably was amongst the salvaged items of the fire. The Daguerreian Society website: http://


20 Cited in Philippe-Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 44.

21 Single channel video works are screened as a single image, usually displayed on a loop providing continuous duration of a repeated text.

22 Benjamin’s terms for the way in which material forms offer themselves to his project, or “come into their own.” The Arcades Project, 460.

23 Laura Mulvey, Death 24 x a second: stillness and the moving image (London:

Reaktion, 2006).

24 The former is published in Means without end, and the latter in Potentialities.

25 Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”, in Means Without End, 51.

26 Ibid., 53.

27 Another example is the film White House (2006).

28 For an account of stoppage and repetition in relation to new media and artworks, see Carolyn Guertin, Digital Prohibition: Piracy and Authorship in New Media Art (New York and London: Continuum, 2012).

29 Agamben, “Time and History: a critique of the instant and the continuum”, in Infancy and History: the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London Verso: and New York, 1978/1993), p. 11. Agamben returns to the concept of messianic time as ho nyn kairos (the time of the now) in the Letters of Paul the


Cinema and Agamben

apostle, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford University, Stanford Press: California, 2000/2005).

30 Agamben, Giorgio “Time and History: Critique of the Instant and the Continuum”, Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron, (London: Verso, 1978/1993), 91.

31 Aristotle cited by Agamben in “Time and History”, op. cit., 93.

32 Augustine cited by Agamben in ‘Time and History”, op. cit., 95.

33 Agamben in “Time and History”, op. cit., 100.

34 Agamben in “Time and History”, op. cit., 101.

35 Ibid., 100.

36 Ibid., 96.

37 There is also the implication in this argument that the basis of the one-point perspective characterizing western image forms as emanating from the center of the image and moving out as a triangle, is complicit with a linear model of temporality.

38 Antonio Negri, Time for Revolution, trans. Matteo Mandarini (New York and London: Continuum, 2003 [1997]), 152–3.

39 This citation is from The Arcades Project rather than the essay on photography. The Arcades Project, 462.

40 Ibid.

41 The concept of awakening and the kairological are brought together in another essay from Infancy and History, “Fable and History.” Here Agamben writes of the miniature scene of the nativity crib that a “cairological event” is taking place, “what it shows us is the world of the fable precisely at the moment when it wakes up from enchantment to enter history.” 127.

42 Benjamin Noys, “Separation and Reversibility: Agamben on the Image”, Filozofski Vestnik, 30:1 (2009), pp. 143–59.


Film-of-Life: Agamben’s Profanation of the Image

Benjamin Noys

From Plato’s anxieties concerning the simulacra’s disruption of the distinction between original and copy, to Lacan’s implicit critique of the imaginary as the site of doubling and deadly violence, Western metaphysics attests to the irreducible and ambiguous potency of the image. 1