April 21, 2006

G. Agamben - Notes on Gesture

From Giorgio Agamben's book:
Infancy and History - The Destruction of Experience


By the end of the nineteenth century the gestures of the Western bourgeoisie were irretrievably lost.

In 1886 Gilles de la Tourette, formerly an intern at the Paris Hospital and the Salpetriere, had his Etudes cliniques et physi-ologiques sur la marche published by Delahaye and Lecrosnier. Never before had one of the most common human gestures been analysed according to strictly scientific methods. Fifty-three years earlier, when the bourgeoisie was still; untouched by scruples of conscience, the project of a general pathology of social life heralded by Balzac had produced naught but the fifty - when all was said and done, disappointing - pages of the Theorie de la demarche. Nothing discloses the distance - not only a temporal distance - which separates the two approaches as much as the description Gilles de la Tourette gives of a human step. Where Balzac saw only an expression of moral character, here the gaze at work is already prophetic of the cinema:

With the leg as support, the right foot is raised from the ground in a rolling motion from the heel to the tips of the toes, which are the last part to be lifted away: the whole leg is brought forward, and the foot touches down at the heel. At this moment, the left foot, which has completed its roll and now rests only on the tips of the toes, in turn leaves the ground; the left leg is carried forward, moves closely alongside the right leg and goes past it, and the left foot touches the ground at the heel just as the right is finishing its roll forward.1

Only an eye endowed with a vision of this kind could formulate the footprint method, which Gilles de la Tourette sets out so boldly to perfect. A roll of white wallpaper, around seven or eight metres long and fifty centimetres wide, is nailed to the floor and split in half lengthwise with a penciled line. In the experiment the soles of the subject's feet are then sprinkled with powdered iron sesquioxide, which gives them a nice rust-red colour. The footprints left by the patient walking along the guiding line enable the gait to be measured with perfect precision according to different parameters (length of stride, distance breadthwise, angle of downward pressure, etc.).

If we study the reproductions of the footprints published by Gilles de la Tourette, we cannot fail to be reminded of the various series of split-second photographs that Eadweard Muybridge made in those very same years at the University of Pennsylvania, using a battery of twenty-four cameras. The 'man moving at a walking pace', the 'man running with a rifle', the 'woman walking and picking up a jug', the 'woman walking and blowing a kiss' are the visible and fortunate twins of those sick and anonymous creatures who have left these traces.

A year before the walking studies, Tourette had published his Etude sur une affection nerveuse caracterisee par de ['incoordi­nation motrice accompagnee d'echolalie et de coprolalie, which was to provide the clinical context for what would later become known as Tourette's Syndrome. Here that same isolation of the most everyday movement that had been made possible by the footprint method is applied to a description of a staggering proliferation of tics, involuntary spasms and mannerisms that can be defined only as a generalized catastrophe of the gestural sphere. The patient is incapable of either beginning or fully enacting the most simple gestures; if he or she manages to initiate a movement, it is interrupted and sent awry by uncontrollable jerkings and shudderings whereby the muscles seem to dance (chorea) quite independently of any motor purpose. The equiva­lent of this disorder in the sphere of walking is described in exemplary manner by Charcot in the famous Lecons du mardi:

There he is, setting out with his body leaning forward, and the lower limbs rigid and held tight together balanced on tiptoe; they slide over the floor somehow, progressing by means of a kind of rapid twitching ... when the subject has thrust himself forward in this way he appears at every moment to be on the verge of falling headlong; at any rate it is virtually impossible for him to stop of his own volition. Usually he needs to hang on to some other body near him. It's as if he's an automaton moved by a spring, and in these stiff forward movements, jerky like convulsions, there is nothing reminis­cent of the looseness of walking…. In the end, after various attempts, he sets off, and following the mechanism just described, he slides rather than walks across the floor, with his legs stiff, or at least scarcely bending at all, with abrupt twitching movements somehow taking the place of steps.

What is most extraordinary is that after these disorders had been observed in thousands of cases from 1885 onwards, there is practically no further record of them in the early years of the twentieth century - until the winter's day in 1971 when Oliver Sacks, walking through the streets of New York, saw what he believed were three cases of Tourettism within the space of a few minutes. One of the hypotheses that can be j constructed' to explain this disappearance is that ataxy, tics and dystonia had, in the course of time, become the norm, and that beyond a certain point everyone had lost control of their gestures, walking and gesticulating frenetically. This, at least, is the impression one has in looking at the films that Marey and Lumiere began to make in those very years.

In the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures seeks to reappropriate what it has lost while simultaneously recording that loss.

An era that has lost its gestures is, for that very Reason, obsessed with them; for people who are bereft of all that is natural to them, every gesture becomes a fate. And the more the ease of these gestures was lost under the influence of invisible powers, the more life became indecipherable. It is at this stage that the bourgeoisie - which, only a few decades earlier, had still been firmly in possession of its symbols - falls a victim to interiority and entrusts itself to psychology.

Nietzsche is the point where this polar tension in European culture reaches its peak - a tension towards the effacement and loss of the gesture on one hand and, on the other, its transmuta­tion into a destiny. For it is only as a gesture in which potential and action, nature and artifice, contingency and necessity, become indiscernible (in the final analysis, therefore, solely as theatre) that the idea of eternal return makes sense. Thus Spake Zarathustra is the ballet of a humanity bereft of its gestures. And when the era became aware of this, then (too late!) began the headlong attempt to regain in extremis those lost gestures. The dance of Isadora and Diaghilev, the novels of Proust, the great Jugendestil poets from Pascoli to Rilke and ultimately - in the most exemplary way - silent cinema, trace the magic circle in which humanity sought, for the last time, to evoke what was slipping through its fingers for ever.

Contemporary with this, Aby Warburg was initiating those researches which only the short-sightedness of a psychologizing art history could describe as 'a science of the image', whereas in reality, at their centre was gesture as a crystal of historical memory, its hardening into a fate, and the strenuous effort of artists and philosophers (verging on madness in Warburg's case) to free it from this by means of a polarizing dynamic. Because these researches were conducted by means of images, it was believed that the image was also their object. Instead, Warburg transformed the image (which for Jung will furnish the model of the metahistoric sphere of archetypes) into a resolutely historical and dynamic element. In this sense, the Mnemosyne atlas, with its two thousand or so photographs, which he left unfinished, is not a fixed repertoire of images, but virtually a moving repre­sentation of the gestures of Western humankind from classical Greece up to Fascism (in other words, something closer to De Jorio than to Panovsky). Within each section the individual images are treated more as the frames of a film than as an autonomous reality (at least in the sense intended by Benjamin when he compared the dialectical image with those little picture-books prefiguring the cinema, which, when their pages are turned quickly, give the impression of motion).

Gesture rather than image is the cinematic element.

Gilles Deleuze has shown that cinema wipes out the fallacious psychological distinction between image as psychic reality and movement as physical reality. Film images are neither 'timeless postures' (like the forms of the classical world) nor 'static sections' of movement, but 'moving sections', images which are themselves in motion, which Deleuze calls 'moving-pictures'. We need to extend Deleuze's analysis and show that it has a general bearing on the status of the image within modernity. But this means that the mythical fixity of the image his been broken, and we should not really speak of images here, but of gestures. In fact, every image is animated by an antinomous polarity: on the one hand this is the reification and effacement of a gesture (the imago either as symbol or as the wax mask of the corpse); on the other it maintains the dynamis (as in Muybridge's split-second photographs, or in any photograph of a sporting event). The former corresponds to the memory of whose voluntary recall it takes possession; the latter to the image flashed in the epiphany of involuntary memory. And while the former dwells in magical isolation, the latter always refers beyond itself, towards a whole of which it is a part. Even the Mona Lisa, even Velazquez's Meninas, can be seen not as timeless static forms but as fragments of a gesture or as frames of a lost film, solely within which would they regain their true meaning. For in every image there is always a kind of ligatio at work, a power that paralyses, whose spell needs to be broken; it is as if; from the whole history of art, a mute invocation were, raised towards the freeing of the image in the gesture. This much was expressed in those Greek legends about statues breaking the fetters that contain them and beginning to move; but it is also the intention that philosophy entrusts to the idea, which is not at all - as it is commonly interpreted - a static archetype, but rather a constellation in which phenomena are composed in a gesture.

Cinema leads images back into the realm of gesture. Accord­ing to the splendid definition implicit in Beckett's Traum und Nacht, this is the dream of a gesture. Bringing the element of awakening into this dream is the task of the film-maker.

Because it is centrally located in the gesture, not the image, cinema essentially ranks with ethics and politics (and not merely with aesthetics).

What is gesture? An observation by Varro holds an extremely valuable clue. He inscribes gesture in the sphere of action, but distinguishes it clearly from acting [agere] and doing [facere]:

A person can make [facere] something and not enact [agere] it, as a poet makes a play, but does not act it (agere in the sense of playing a part); on the other hand the actor acts the play, but docs not make it. So the play is made [fit] by the poet, but not acted [agitur] by him; it is acted by the actor, but not made by him. Whereas the imperator (the magistrate in whom supreme power is invested) of whom the expression res gerere is used (to carry something out, in the sense of taking it upon oneself, assuming total responsibility for it), neither makes nor acts, but takes charge, in other words carries the burden of it [sustinet].2

What characterizes gesture is that in it there is neither produc­tion nor enactment, but undertaking and supporting. In other words, gesture opens the sphere of ethos as the most fitting sphere of the human. But in what way is an action undertaken and supported? In what way does a res become res gesta, a simple fact become an event? Varro's distinction between facere and agere derives, in the final analysis, from Aristotle. In a famous passage from the Nicomachean Ethics, he contrasts them thus: 'Action [praxis] and production [poiesis] are generically different. For production aims at an end other than itself; but this is impossible in the case of action, because the end is merely to do what is right.'

1 'La jambe servant de point d'appui, le pied droit se souleve du sol en subissant un mouvement d'enreulement allant du talon a I'extremite des orteils qui quittent terre en dernier lieu: la jambe toute entiere est portee en avant, passe a cote de la jambe droite dont elle tend a se rapprocher, la depasse et le pied gauche vient toucher le sol par le talon alors que le droit acheve sa revolution.'

2 Varro, De Lingua Latina, VI, 77.

April 06, 2006

R. Arnheim - 20 Good Reasons Why Film is Art

According to Rudolf Arnheim,
Film, London: Faber&Faber, 1933.

(a) View which shows the shape of the body most distinctively.
(b) View which emphasises some particular characteristic (e.g., worm's-eye view, indicating weight and forcefulness).
(c) View which rivets the spectator's attention by its unexpectedness.
(d) Surprise effect due to the concealment of what lies behind (Chapling sobbing; no!- - mixing a cocktail!).

(a) Unimportant objects are made invisible by being wholly or partly covered, important objects are thereby emphasised.
(b) Surprise effects by the sudden revealing of what had been concealed by something else.
(c) Optical swallowing-up-one object comes in front of another and obliterates it.
(d) Connections indicated by perspectival arrangement (convict and prison bars).
(e) Decorative plane effects.

(a) Emphasizing of individual parts of an object (feet thrust towards the camera come out huge).
(b) Increase and decrease of size to make balance of power visible. Hence - - possibility of altering the relative proportions of size.


(a) Moulding the form of the object at will by the placing of lights and shadows.
(b) Bringing into relief, grouping, arrangement, concealment, by the disposition of light and shade.


(a) Selection for the theme of the picture.
(b) Detail shots and complete ones.
(c) Surprise effects. Some object suddenly comes into the picture from outside, which was always present, but had been but off by the margins of the screen.
(d) Increase of suspense: the centre of interest lies outside the picture (for example, only the effect of it on someone is seen).


(a) Long shots; close-ups.
(b) Position can be chosen which will give the best possible view of an episode (or object) (a pin, a mountain).
(c) Relativisation of proportions (doll's house-human house).


(a) Showing beside (and among) each other, episodes that are separate in time.
(b) Juxtaposition of places those are actually separate.
(c) Giving the characteristic features of a scene by showing selected portions of it.
(d) Combination of things whose connection is not one of time and space but only ideal (symbolic).
(e) Imperceptible montage. Illusion of (fantastic) reality (sudden appearances and disappearances, etc.).
(f) Rhythm of the sequence of shots by 'short' or 'long' montage, etc.


(a) Relativisation of movements: the static moves and vice versa,
(b) Relativisation of space coordinates (vertical, horizontal, etc.).


(a) Strengthening of perspectival alterations in size (cf. point 3).
(b) Strengthening of perspectival connections in the plane (cf. point 2).


(a) Stronger emphasis on what is visible; as, for instance, on miming.
(b) Qualities and effects of unheard sounds specially brought out by their being transposed into the sphere of optics (revolver shots—birds rising).


(a) Representation of subjective impressions such as falling, rising, swaying, staggering, giddiness, etc.
(b) Representation of subjective impressions such as the individual being always the centre of the cosmos (i.e., of the plot).


(a) Reversal of the direction of movements.
(b) Reversal of processes (fragments join to make a whole object).


(a) Visible acceleration of a movement, or an episode; change in the dynamic character (to symbolise bustle).
(b) Compressing periods of time (the breathing of flowers).


(a) Visible retarding of a movement or episode; change in dynamic character (laziness, gliding).
(b) Lengthening of periods of time *showing more clearly events that pass very rapidly).


Arresting movement with a jerk, rigidity (Lot's wife).


(a) To mark breaks in the action.
(b) Subjective impressions: waking up, falling asleep.
(c) Stronger contact and coherence between two pictures by dissolving one into the other.


(a) Chaos, confusion.
(b) Indication of connections by the position of objects.
(c) Indication of symbolic connections.
(d) Taking liberties with reality (doubles).


Multiplication, distortion.


(a) Subjective impressions: waking up, going to sleep.
(b) Production of tension by gradual exposition ('appears slowly').
(c) Directing the spectator's gaze to the back or foreground.


Destroying, distorting an object (or the 'world').

From Rudolf Arnheim, Film, London: Faber&Faber, 1933, pp. 129-133.

Virginia Woolf - The Cinema - 1926

People say the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilisation, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies. They have never seen the savages of the twentieth century watching the pictures. They have never sat themselves in front of the screen and thought how, for all the clothes on their backs and the carpets at their feet, no great distance separates them from those bright-eyed, naked men who knocked two bars of iron together and heard in that clangour a foretaste of the music of Mozart.

The bars in this case, of course, are so highly wrought and so covered over with accretions of alien matter that is extremely difficult to hear anything distinctly. All is hubble-bubble, swarm, and chaos. We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savours seem to simmer; now and again some vast form heaves itself up, and seems about to haul itself out of the chaos. Yet, at first sight, the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid. There is the King shaking hands with a football team; there is Sir Thomas Lipton's yacht; there is Jack Horner winning the Grand National. The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think. For the ordinary eye, the English unaesthetic eye, is a simple mechanism, which takes care that the body does not fall down coal-holes, provides the brain with toys and sweetmeats to keep it quiet, and can be trusted to go on behaving like a competent nursemaid until the brain comes to the conclusion that it is time to wake up. What is its surprise, then, to be roused suddenly in the midst of its agreeable somnolence and asked for help? The eye is in difficulties. The eye wants help. The eye says to the brain, 'Something is happening which I do not understand. You are needed.' Together they look at the King, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life. They have become more beautiful, in the sense in which pictures are beautiful, but shall we call it (our vocabulary is miserably insufficient) more real, or real with a different reality from that we perceive in daily life? We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it. As we gaze we seem to be removed from the prettiness of actual existence. The horse will not knock us down. The king will not grasp our hands. The wave will not wet our feet. From this point of vantage, as we watch the antics of our kind, we have time to feel pity and amusement, to generalize, to endow one man with the attributes of the race. Watching the boat sail and the waves break, we have time to open our minds wide to the beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation -- this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not. Further, all this happened ten years ago, we are told. We are beholding a world which has gone beneath the waves. Brides are emerging from the abbey -- they are now mothers; ushers are ardent -- they are now silent; mothers are tearful; guests are joyful; this has been won and that has been lost, and it is over and done with. The war sprung its chasm at the feet of all this innocence and ignorance, but it was thus that we danced and pirouetted, toiled and desired, thus that the sun shone and the clouds scudded up to the very end.

But the picture-makers seem dissatisfied with such obvious sources of interest as the passage of time and the suggestiveness of reality. They despise the flight of gulls, ships on the Thames, the Prince of Wales, the Mile End Road, Piccadilly Circus. They want to be improving, altering, making an art of their own -- naturally, for so much seems to be within their scope. So many arts seemed to stand by ready to offer their help. For example, there was literature. All the famous novels of the world, with their well-known characters, and their famous scenes, only asked, it seemed, to be put on the films. What could be easier and simpler? The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to this moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says: 'Here is Anna Karenina.' A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says: 'That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.' For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind -- her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then 'Anna falls in love with Vronsky' -- that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform, and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connection with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene -- like the gardener mowing the lawn -- what the cinema might do if is were left to its own devices.

But what, then, are its devices? If it ceased to be a parasite, how would it walk erect? At present it is only from hints that one can frame any conjecture. For instance, at a performance of Dr Caligari the other day, a shadow shaped like a tadpole suddenly appeared at one corner of the screen. It swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity. For a moment it seemed to embody some monstrous, diseased imagination of the lunatic's brain. For a moment it seemed as if thought could be conveyed by shape more effectively than by words. The monstrous, quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement, 'I am afraid.' In fact, the shadow was accidental, and the effect unintentional. But if a shadow at a certain moment can suggest so much more than the actual gestures and words of men and women in a state of fear, it seems plain that the cinema has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression. Terror has, besides its ordinary forms, the shape of a tadpole; it burgeons, bulges, quivers, disappears. Anger is not merely rant and rhetoric, red faces and clenched fists. It is perhaps a black line wriggling upon a white sheet. Anna and Vronsky need no longer scowl and grimace. They have at their command -- but what? Is there, we ask, some secret language which we feel and see, but never speak, and, if so, could this be made visible to the eye? Is there any characteristic which thought possesses that can be rendered visible without the help of words? It has speed and lowness; dart-like directness and vaporous circumlocution. But is has also, especially in moments of emotion, the picture-making power, the need to lift its burden to another bearer; to let an image run side by side along with it. The likeness of the thought is, for some reason, more beautiful, more comprehensible, more available than the thought itself. As everybody knows, in Shakespeare the most complex ideas form chains of images through which we mount, changing and turning, until we reach the light of day. But, obviously, the images of a poet are not to be cast in bronze, or traced by pencil. They are compact of a thousand suggestions of which the visual is only the most obvious or the uppermost. Even the simplest image; 'My luve's like a red, red rose, that's newly sprung in June,' presents us with impressions of moisture and warmth an the glow of crimson and the softness of petals inextricably mixed and strung upon the lilt of a rhythm which is itself the voice of the passion and hesitation of the lover. All this, which is accessible to words, and to words alone, the cinema must avoid.

Yet if so much of our thinking and feeling is connected with seeing, some residue of visual emotion which is of no use to either painter or to poet may still await the cinema. That such symbols will be quite unlike the real objects which we see before us seems highly probable. Something abstract, something which moves with controlled and conscious art, something which calls for the very slightest help from words or music to make itself intelligible, yet justly uses them subserviently -- of such movements and abstractions the films may, in time to come, be composed. Then, indeed, when some new symbol for expressing thought is found, the film-maker has enormous riches at his command. The exactitude of reality and its surprising power of suggestion are to be had for the asking. Annas and Vronskys -- there they are in the flesh. If into this reality, he could breathe emotion, could animate the perfect form with thought, then his booty could be hauled in hand over hand. Then, as smoke pours from Vesuvius, we should be able to see thought in its wilderness, in its beauty, in its oddity, pouring from men with their elbows on a table; from women with their little handbags slipping to the floor. We should see these emotions mingling together and affecting each other.

We should see violent changes of emotion produced by their collision. The most fantastic contrasts could be flashed before us with a speed which the writer can only toil after in vain; the dream architecture of arches and battlements, of cascades falling and fountains rising, which sometimes visits us in sleep or shapes itself in half-darkened rooms, could be realized before our waking eyes. No fantasy could be too far-fetched or insubstantial. The past could be unrolled, distances annihilated, and the gulfs which dislocate novels (when, for instance, Tolstoy has to pass from Levin to Anna, and in doing jars his story and wrenches and arrests our sympathies) could, by the sameness of the background, by the repetition of some scene, be smoothed away.

How all this is to be attempted, much less achieved, no one at the moment can tell us. We get intimations only in the chaos of the streets, perhaps, when some momentary assembly of colour, sound, movement suggests that here is a scene waiting a new art to be transfixed. And sometimes at the cinema, in the midst of its immense dexterity and enormous technical proficiency, the curtain parts and we behold, far off, some unknown and unexpected beauty. But it is for a moment only. For a strange thing has happened -- while all the other arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found, scattering the seashore, fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.

First published in Arts, June 1926.