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Assignment 2 - Giorgio Agamben - The Archive and Testimony

Assignment 2 - Giorgio Agamben - The Archive and Testimony

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Published by: svengoyvaerts on Dec 07, 2010
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Giorgio Agamben –
The Archive & Testimony 
Remnants of Auschwitz 
, 1989) _______________________________________________________________ 
Here is a summary of the included excerpt from Agamben’s text, in the book on
The Archive.
 A demanding read once again, but essentially a response to the previous text by Foucault:Twenty years after Foucault's
The Archeology of Knowledge
, Agamben picks up Foucault'sdefinition of the archive and asks: “How are we to conceive of this dimension, if it correspondsneither to the archive in the strict sense – that is, the storehouse that catalogues the traces of what has been said, to consign them to future memory – nor to the Babelic library that gathersthe dust of statements and allows for their resurrection under the historian's gaze?”Agamben reminds us of Foucault's claim that “the archive is situated between
, as thesystem of construction of possible sentences – that is, of possibilities of speaking – and the
that unites the set of what has been said, the things actually uttered or written.” Usinga figure of speech, Agamben describes the archive as “the dark margin encircling and limitingevery concrete act of speech”.After having reintroduced Foucault's concepts at the beginning of this text, Agamben thenproposes a slight change in perspective on the subject matter. Rather than focussing on thenewly established site between language (
) and acts of speech (
), where the archiveshould be located, Agamben opens up another field in between language and that same archive;“that is, not between discourse and its taking place, between what is said and the enunciationthat exerts itself in it, but rather between
and its taking place, between a pure possibilityof speaking and its existence as such.”The term
is coined, referring to “the system of relations between the inside and theoutside of 
, between the sayable and the unsayable in every language”, as opposed to the
“which designates the system of relations between the unsaid and the said.” What this allcomes down to basically is the reinstatement of the human subject, after it had been “bracketed”and “reduced to a simple function or an empty position” in Foucault's reasoning. “In testimony,by contrast, the empty place of the subject becomes the decisive question.”Agamben invites us to ask ourselves: “How can something like a statement exist in the site of 
? In what way can a possibility of speech realize itself as such?”This is where Agamben's notion of 
is introduced, where he argues that “becausetestimony is the relation between a possibility of speech and its taking place, it can exist onlythrough a relation to an impossibility of speech - (…) as
, as a capacity not to be.”As human subjects we are capable of having or not having language, which we are also verymuch dependent on.Based on that idea, Giorgio Agamben concludes the text by defining human subjectivity asbearing “
to an impossibility of speech.” Although somewhat backward and counter-intuitive, we realize that it is only by acknowledging a field outside language – which is notsayable – that we can begin to produce and speak language at all. “Testimony is apotentiality that becomes actual through an impotentiality of speech; it is, moreover,an impossibility that gives itself existence through a possibility of speaking.”
Proceeding onward in order to find out how this text relates to my own practice and research. We turn our attention to what is sayable or unsayable in language itself. Since we have nowclearly shifted to a more subjective point of view, thanks to Agamben's passionate plea for thehuman element in this grand all-encompassing theory of knowledge and memory production, itmight be appropriate to link his particular text to some of my own personal testimonies about myartistic practice, which I consider to be an integral part of the work output.The form in which I present these testimonies are, usually, 
. Using screencapture software, I record a video picturing my desktop as I move around on it with the cursor.At the same time the sound is recorded while I talk. This format offers me a chance to introducemy work and research topic to other people in the clearest possible way, since most of it involvesonline content, video files and – perhaps most importantly – details of my own personal life.
Testimonies today are no longer simply written texts or oral accounts describing events as theyunfold. They can now incorporate the extensions of our bodies and minds we have grown soaccustomed to: our mobile phones and laptops, but also the music we listen to, the videos wewatch and the websites we frequent on a daily basis. This evolution asks for a remediation anddigitization of human testimony – which was once an exclusively analog affair. As a society weare still very much in the process of learning this new language; the language of the internetand of new media.In his 2003 book
Natural-Born Cyborgs
, Andy Clark pleads in favor of a new conception of thehuman brain. In his introductory words, he writes: “The human mind, if it is to be the physicalorgan of human reason, simply cannot be seen as bound and restricted by the biological skinbag.(…) It is because our brains, more than those of any other animal on the planet, are primed toseek and consummate such intimate relations with non-biological resources that we end up asbright and as capable of abstract thought as we are. It is because we are natural-born cyborgs,forever ready to merge our mental activities with the operations of pen, paper and electronics,that we are able to understand the world as we do.”
We should bear in mind however that, in performance theory, testimonies after the fact have beencriticized for jeopardizing the purity of the live experience; for limiting the event's potential and for rendering the event too legible. One may even argue that essentialist historical or contemporarylive performances should only be referred to as “Those We Don't Speak Of”. Or rather, in theinfamous words of Peggy Phelan: “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of 
representations, once it does so, it becomes somethingother than performance.”
Little less than a year ago, I myself was also still feverishly defendingthis fundamentalist notion of live performance art.But then a very big surprise struck me as I got to read
 Art as Life
, the book on the work of AllanKaprow that was released two years after his death. Initially I was shocked to come across thisbook that included loads of documentary photographs and written notes about the artist's work,since I was under the impression that Kaprow had always been radically opposed to the idea of there being any documentation in circulation. In one particular passage in the book that seemedto border on wishful thinking more than anything else, one of the contributors writes: “... one of the key principles of Happenings was that they were one-time, ephemeral events that could notbe reenacted. Unrecorded, they would soon sink into oblivion. Kaprow was too canny and self-aware as an artist to allow this to happen and all too well able to use his writings to endow hisoxymoronic ideal of nonart with a public presence, even if this meant throwing into question hiscommitment to the living immediacy of the passing moment.”
Hardly won over by the book'spremise, I read on in anger, until I came to realize that many of Kaprow's Happenings hadinitially been scored, written down in advance. To my even greater amazement,
 Art as Life
contains an anecdote revealing Allan Kaprow's alter ego as a newspaper art critic, writingabout his own work. Under the pseudonym “Theodore Tucker, South Lincoln, Massachusetts”Kaprow had managed to get a review published in
The Village Voice
about his own 1960 piece
 Apple Shrine
, an Environment set up in New York's Judson Memorial Church art gallery.In describing my own works in writing I have always made a conscious effort not to use too manywords. It has become a habit for me to name the piece, which is most of the time a play on wordsrelating to the online platform where the action takes place, and to have it be accompanied by afragment from the Wikipedia definition of that same platform. Then an artist statement is alsoincluded, or at least in some select cases, such as in
:On May 21st 2010 – Paradise Day – Sven started a lifelong documentary performance,
, sharing pictures of everyone he talks to face to face during the day.In
 Art as Life
, contributor Alex Potts states: “The actual Happening lives on in Kaprow's writingsas a phenomenon located in the gap between two verbal articulations: the scenario or projectionof what the Happening might be, and the recollection of, or commentary on, what it was.” (...)“What is a Happening then? (…) Its status as an artwork is stubbornly unresolved.”
Rather than merely being the sum of testimonies circulating around a performance, the memoryand the Real (in the Lacanian sense) of a live performance is in fact located in between thosetestimonies, always at a distance from that which can be said about what actually took place. Butit is only by acknowledging and tracing back these testimonies that we can begin to analyze howthe live experience failed to be captured in these written and oral evidences. On the other hand,these records kept may sometimes hold an even greater potential than the witnessing of theperformance ever did, which – arguably – may be what live performance should be all about;implying potential, instead of simply drawing our attention to what goes on in the present moment.

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