Sunday, 30 November 2008

Notes on the Image

These are notes for my role as respondent at Goldsmiths on Tuesday, and will also be forming the basis of for a plenary on experimental film studies I'm giving in Bradford next year.

In 1838 or 1839 Louis Daguerre took this ten minute exposure of the Boulevard du Temple, although the street was busy the lengthy exposure time meant only one person was recorded - the man having his shoes shined in the bottom left of the image. This is the first known photograph of a human being.

Giorgio Agamben takes this image as the moment of the Last Judgement, in which we are revealed in our most minor, everyday gesture (gestus), which "is now charged with the weight of an entire life" ("Judgement Day" 24). In Revelation we are judged by the book: "And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works." (20: 12) Our last judgement today will be made by the image. The opportunism of the photograph allows it to capture the momentary gesture, to fix us in that gesture that "collects and condenses in itself the meaning of an entire existence." ("Judgement Day" 24) In the Islamic tradition if a deed is denied on the Day of Judgement then the body part that committed it will testify against them. The photograph could be understood as the testifying of the gesture, which we must yield to.

The photograph yields the image of desire, and the messiah comes for our desires: "With fulfilled desires, he constructs hell; with unfulfillable images, limbo. And with imagined desire, with the pure word, the beatitude of paradise." ("Desiring" 54)

And yet, the photographer must not only grasp the eschatological but also the historical index of the event. What the photographer achieves is the crossing of the specificity of the historical index with the power of the gesture; in Benjaminian terms the fracturing of "empty, homogeneous time" by messianic "now-time".

For Agamben this photograph of the nouveau roman authors outside the office of Editions de Minuit in 1959 by Dondero captures precisely this intersection of history and gesture. Contrary to the usual understanding of photography as deadening the subject such images present not an absolute commodification or reification, but the (paradoxical) release of the gesture through its absolute fixing. Here the casualness, the very everydayness of the gestures - a slouch, a puff of cigarette smoke - is what makes the image open for redemption.

The image also makes a demand on us, an exigency: the demand the person not be forgotten. As Agamben reports this image by David Octavius Hill of a fishwife demands that we have the name of this woman who was once alive. This is not an aesthetic demand but "a demand for redemption" ("Judgement Day" 26).

"The photograph is always more than an image: it is the site of a gap, a sublime breach between the sensible and the intelligible, between copy and reality, between a memory and a hope." ("Judgement Day" 26)

We could only say that Agamben would reject the digital image if it were somehow able to close or deny this gap, which is to be doubted. While the digital image may be subject to more radical manipulations than the analogue image, although this would itself require demonstration, while it may trouble or erase the distinction between original and copy, can it completely deny the index of redemption? The angel of photography could also be a digital angel, as the digital too is subject to the apocalypse.

It is also film, particularly silent film, which is the site of for reclaiming gesture and registering its loss. In film the image is broken to release its gesturality, disrupting the "mythical rigidity" of the image ("Notes" 50).

What emerges is the "antinomic polarity" of the image:

1. Image as the reification and obliteration of a gesture (imago as death mask or symbol)
2. Image as the preservation of dynamis intact

In this second form of the image it refers beyond itself, remaining as "fragments of a gesture or as stills of a lost film wherein only they would regain their true meaning." ("Notes" 55-6) This threatens the litigatio, the paralyzing power of the image, via the "liberation of the image into gesture" ("Notes" 56). At the same time the gestural "image" is the space of ethics and politics, the space of pure means, of the proper sphere of the generic human as a being-in-a-medium.

This polarity means that the image is therefore never pure commodity, the absolute "thing", or completely simulacral. We have to distinguish between the commodification of the spectacle - reification - and the image as a "kind of thing" (specie di cosa) ("Special Being" 56). While there is an etymological link between species and commodities, and money, we must not collapse the "kind of thing" into the thing. What we have to resist is that "transformation of the species into a principle of identity and classification [that] is the original sin of our culture, its most implacable apparatus [dispositivo]." ("Special Being" 59) What is denied by this transformation of species into identity is the possibility of common use - that moment when a particular singular gesture, without resembling any other gesture, resembles all others. ("Special Being" 59) The gesture does not single us out as a particular singular identity, but only singles out generic being for redemption. The spectacle is separation of this generic being, the jealous appropriation of the gesture to identity and classification.

To analyse this capture of the image by the spectacle, the splitting of the thing from the kind of thing, we must analyse profanation. Profanation refuses the separation of consecration by returning things to free use. The fundamental operation of religion is separation, and we might recall Vaneigem's remarks in The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967) on how the capitalist spectacle repeats the fundamental and "archaic" forms of power. Capitalism is itself a religion, as Benjamin presciently analysed. It is an entirely cultic religion, it is an endless process of separation, and it is continually guilt generating. What capitalism aims at is the creation of the unprofanable, that which cannot be returned to common use but only consumed.

This separation can be countered by profanation and play, in which "the powers [pontenze] of economics, law, and politics, deactivated in play, can become the gateways to a new happiness." ("In Praise" 76) This is "play" as detournement, which Agamben rather unwisely restricts to children and philosophers. Once again, we return to the thing as thing, as "pure means", but in this way as the means for a new use. As the "frozen" gesture indexes redemption in the photograph, so profanation "freezes" the "object" from its capitalist teleology. This action requires, I would argue, an effect of negation: "The creation of a new use is possible only by deactivating an old use, rendering it inoperative." ("In Praise" 86)

Agamben notes that this profanation it itself not a simple exit from one state to another, but a continuous operation itself:

The classless society is not a society that has abolished and lost all memory of class differences but a society that has learned to deactivate the apparatuses of those differences in order to make a new use possible, in order to transform them into pure means. ("In Praise" 87)

Of course this sphere of pure means is highly fragile, and in our society only appears as a temporary state, vulnerable to reversal into a deadly threat (as when the object as toy becomes menacing enemy).

"In its extreme phase, capitalism is nothing but a gigantic apparatus for capturing pure means, that is, profanatory behaviours." ("In Praise" 87)

It does so by capturing them as the spectacle, exhibiting pure means as Benjaminian "exhibition-value". The supreme instance of this unprofanable separation is, for Agamben, pornography. In pornography the originary intimacy of erotic photography has been nullified.

The casual intimacy of this image by Bruno Braquehais is exchanged for a brazen address, an exaggeration of exposure - shameless contact.

"In the very act of executing their most intimate caresses, porn stars now look resolutely into the camera, showing that they are more interested in the spectator than in their partners." ("In Praise" 89)

Agamben argues that he is not condemning pornography per se, but rather the neutralisation of the possibility of allowing erotic behaviours to idle, their profanation. What is reprehensible is to be captured by power, not the behaviour in the first place. This kind of idling can be found in the the indifferent gaze of Chloe des Lysses - a lack of complicity with the spectator, and a refusal of the brazen.

But this kind of profanation appears only temporarily, as the "solitary and desperate consumption of the pornographic image" (!) ("In Praise" 91) blocks this kind of possibility of profanation. The disgrace, according to Agamben, lies not in pornography itself, but in the apparatus of the fashion show or the pornographic shoot, that turns the sphere of pure means into a separated site of pure consumption.

"The unprofanable of pornography - everything that is unprofanable - is founded on the arrest and diversion of an authentically profanatory intention. For this reason, we must always wrest from the apparatuses - from all apparatuses - the possibility of use that they have captured. The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation." ("In Praise" 92)

Certainly we might agree with the necessity for profanation, and the resistance to separation. There are difficulties, however, not least Agamben's surreptitious recourse to the notion of capture and ontological resistance from Negrian Marxism, versus a more dialectical Debordian analysis. While the Negrian model gives us a neat opposition between original behaviours and their later capture it risks underestimating the penetration of capitalism, not least through the commodity-form. In the case of Agamben his remarkably erudite and sophisticated prose diverts us from a political ontology not far from sixties style invocations of the "machine" / the "total system" / or, even the "man", capturing our pristine ontological inventiveness. We are back with a dualism of opposition between "life" and "power" that, considering Agamben's work on bare life, seems naive. It also runs against his thinking of the image against the image, its dialectical (why not?) position as commodity, historical index, and index of redemption.

The irony is that Agamben is usually mistaken for a revised Frankfurt school-style radical pessimist (and a reading of Homo Sacer wouldn't suggest that this isn't entirely off the mark). In fact, here he evinces a measure of optimism, and a suggestion of ontological primacy, that seems to be equally problematic. Between those two spaces lies the image, and a more complicated analysis of profanation - not least beyond its instantiation in mere individual gestures.


"Judgement Day", "Desiring", "Special Being", "In Praise of Profanation", in Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007).

"Notes on Gesture" in Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

1 comment:

Dominic said...

Chloe des Lysses demonstrates an entirely remarkable ability to look nonchalant while having things poked up her bottom. Most of us would at least raise an eyebrow, I should think.