Law Critique (2009) 20:299–307 DOI 10.


‘A Figure of Annihilated Human Existence’: Agamben and Adorno on Gesture
Alastair Morgan

Published online: 5 August 2009 Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Abstract In this paper, I consider Giorgio Agamben’s essays on gesture, and the loss of gesture, in relation to Theodor Adorno’s account of gesture given in his work on Kafka. I argue that both share an account of gesture as an involuntary, yet nonintentional figure of a generalised destruction of experience. However, in their respective accounts of an emphatic possibility that can be located in the loss of gesture, Agamben and Adorno move in fundamentally different philosophical directions. For Agamben, the loss of gesture opens up the possibility of a space of existing within the pure possibility of speaking itself. For Adorno, the loss of gesture returns us to a reified embodiment that can nevertheless image the possibility of a different way of relating to materiality. I argue that, in the attempt to immanently construct forms of resistance within a generalised destruction of experience, Agamben’s articulation of an absolute gesturality tends towards an immuring of the subject within the repetitive space of what Adorno terms ‘objectless inwardness’. Although Adorno’s account of gesture and its relation to metaphysics and politics is equally problematic in many ways, I argue that his account of a metaphysical experience that appears within alienated gestures offers the possibility for moving beyond the destruction of experience. Keywords Awakening Á Experience Á Expression Á Freezing Á Gesture Á Loss

It has been noted by several commentators that in his essays on gesture, namely the ‘Notes on Gesture’, and the essay ‘Kommerell, or on gesture’, Giorgio Agamben

A. Morgan (&) University of Nottingham, Duncan MacMillan House, Porchester Road, Mapperley, Nottingham NG3 6AA, UK e-mail:


However. p. In relation to these constellations of ideas. are informed not only by Benjamin’s writing. which has been incompletely translated into English as ‘Notes on Gesture’. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (1999) has outlined two different constellations of ideas that are definitive for Adorno and Benjamin when thinking about their writings on gesture. Morgan implicitly relies on the account given of gesture by Walter Benjamin. Adorno commented to Benjamin. p. p. In Benjamin’s work she argues that we ‘find a complex that relates shock to disappearance. Similarly. 215). is Theodor Adorno. but ‘represent rather the last and disappearing connecting texts of the silent film’ (Adorno and Benjamin 1999. given their joint common grounding and critical approbation of Benjamin’s work. 73). we might say that Agamben blurs the differences between Adorno and Benjamin. but also by the debate between Benjamin and Adorno revolving around the interpretation of Kafka’s work. 156). in the sense that Benjamin came to argue eventually. and how this metaphysical experience can relate to a politics. although Agamben refers to gesture as a ‘gag’. The other figure in the background of these essays on gesture. when he argued that Kafka’s texts should not be interpreted in terms of an experimental theatre. not noted by the commentators. Indeed. is largely dependent on Benjamin’s work (Agamben 1999. Samuel Weber has argued that Agamben’s text. 1999). This is not a surprising conclusion given the common heritage provided by Benjamin for both Adorno and Agamben’s work. to use Adorno’s terminology. Weber writes that: Although he is not mentioned by name in them. that his writing on gesture contains all of these ideas apart from perhaps two (those of failure and awakening) as. 70). these ‘Notes’ owe much to Walter Benjamin. In Adorno’s work we find a complex of ‘freezing. a metaphysical experience of gesture. Failure is not fundamental or an endpoint. obliqueness. that ‘our agreement in philosophical fundamentals has never impressed itself upon my mind more perfectly here’ (Adorno and Benjamin 1999. p. Agamben’s work draws constellations of ideas surrounding gesture from both Adorno and Benjamin. 66).300 A. there is no sense of awakening in the obliqueness of 123 . failure and purity’. particularly Benjamin’s critical work on Kafka and Brecht (Benjamin 1993. In fact it was Adorno. who referred explicitly to the relation of cinema and gesture in his letter to Benjamin of 17th December 1934. containment. whose shadow looms large over an argument that looks to cinema for the reintroduction of gestures into language (Weber 2006. Agamben’s reflections on gesture. survival and awakening’ (Weber Nicholsen 1999. in relation to the Kafka essay. 2007). particularly in the highly compressed and dense text that is the ‘Notes on Gesture’. that Kafka failed in an attempt to preserve the transmissibility of a tradition without any law or doctrine. One would therefore think that a comparison of Adorno and Agamben on gesture might be a rather fruitless exercise. not Benjamin. with his later critical thoughts on his original Kafka essay. This divergence rests on the different ways that they read. p. I will argue in this paper that it is precisely a divergence of philosophical fundamentals that arises when we compare Adorno and Agamben’s readings of gesture. it is not in relation to a failure of expression but as a revealing of a more fundamental and originary level of a language that dispenses completely with any concept of expression (Agamben 2007.

Agamben writes that ‘for people who are bereft of all that is natural to them. At the opposite pole to these gestures are the involuntary tics and jerks that are characterised by Tourette’s description of the disorder that came to bear his name. frame-like. 150). Agamben agrees with Adorno in arguing that no definitive definition of gesture can be given. is left undefined or explored in Agamben’s essays.A Figure of Annihilated Human Existence 301 gesture in Agamben’s essays but a fundamental disappearance of any subject who could awake to anything. First. second. there is the involuntary invasion of the whole sphere of any willed subjective owning of the gesture that occurs in Tourette’s syndrome. in their attempt to record. a loss that Agamben dates from the end of the 19th century. Adorno gives an account of the alienation and distortion of gesture. p. in the ‘Notes on gesture’. There is a sense in the fascination with immobilising gesture of the extreme effort it takes to walk across a room. p. These two poles of gesture (the freezing of gesture into an immobile image. He begins the ‘Notes’ with an account of different attempts to record gestures that. What is provided by these attempts to capture an essence to gesture at the end of the 19th century is a tableau of decontextualised images of gesture frozen in the moment of their undertaking. or an annihilation of the sphere of the gesture. p. The dead space of gesture is exemplified in Gilles de la Tourette’s exhaustive descriptions of the human step. or trace of a posture and. it is interrupted and sent awry by uncontrollable jerkings and shudderings whereby the muscles seem to dance (chorea) quite independently of any motor purpose (Agamben 2007. However. Both aspects of this extreme dialectic register gesture as a loss. and the involuntary spasm as gesture) represent the two extreme poles of the dialectic of gesture that Benjamin describes in his text ‘What is Epic theatre?’ Benjamin writes that: This strict. every gesture becomes a fate’ (Agamben 2007. What is Gesture? How do Agamben and Adorno understand gesture? Certainly. posture. Agamben describes this annihilation of gesture in the following terms: The patient is incapable of either beginning or fully enacting the most simple gestures. is as a whole in a state of living flux. if he or she manages to initiate a movement. in his essay on 123 . specifically as a loss of the natural that comes to be seen as a form of fate. 3). which. due to the complete loss of gesture in modern societies. just what this naturalness of gesture is. only mark a dead space within gesture. is one of the basic dialectical characteristics of the gesture (Benjamin 1993. there is the attempt to freeze the gesture into an image. Agamben describes a process where this dialectics of gesture is pushed to the extreme at both poles. after all. 151). as a parallel to the alienation and distortion of subjectivity. and in Muybridge’s split-second photographs of a variety of everyday gestures frozen into postures. enclosed nature of each moment of an attitude.

too. and the inevitable. It is only the gesture. There is no emphatic recapturing of a space of gesture before language in Adorno’s account. conjures the image of fate: Together with the repulsive. in the very process of alienation and distortion. imprisoned in itself the subject holds its breath. individual consciousness. represents what has happened to the subject through a process where it has disavowed all its material and non-identical contents. 261). Adorno. as markers of alienation and horror. the subject is doubly disgusted and alienated at an element that is seen as alien to the sovereign self. For Adorno. in its emphatic guise. However. The prelinguistic returns at the limits of the possibility of language. What gesture promises is an element within language that can mirror the materiality of the objective world. and has been reduced to the repetitive attempt to capture the only gestures that it can make to express such an isolation. Morgan Kafka and in the earlier cited letter to Benjamin of 17th December 1934. in this sense. and devoid of all resistance. p. is related to a deep failure of language in its relation to objectivity. 70). there are two aspects to gesture which could open up a space for a subjective awareness of reified life. This space cannot be filled by words. In his essay on Kafka. a non-predicative function within language. This is the space within which Kafka’s protagonists move. but the very materiality of the gestures causes them to be repellent to the identical subject. then. that can approach a means of expression for the pure space of empty subjectivity but. That which is dominated materiality comes to stand 123 . such a person has seen the image of fate suddenly light up (Adorno 2003. First. one might say the musicality of language. Kafka’s attempt to express this space as a destruction of experience leads him to the gesture. a failure that is related to the human subject being deprived of a ‘language of things’ (Adorno and Benjamin 1999. as though it were not permitted to touch anything unlike itself (Adorno 2003. in the very process of manifesting this expression as bodily gesture. the loss of gesture. Through a futile process of disavowing all material and non-identical contents within the supreme structuring. but all it can mean for the subject is a disgust at the forms of expression that result. Adorno reads the loss of gesture in terms of a withering of language and the power of language to express the empty space of a reified subjectivity. p. the familiar. p. the unintelligible. 249). p. the distortion and alienation at the heart of gesture.302 A. the subject recognises its own non-identity with itself. There is a reification of a complete emptiness that is at the heart of human subjectivity. the gestures that arise through a withering of the powers of expression within language can only function as interruptive shocks. However. revolving in itself. 262). a space of ‘objectless inwardness’ becomes posited as a thing (Adorno 2003. is denied all those things which might put a stop to its interminable movement and which thus take on an aura of mystery. He reads the alienation and distortion of gesture through the increasing hypostatisation of the individual as a space of what he terms ‘objectless inwardness’. Fate. A spell hangs over Kafka’s space. Adorno (2003) writes that: Inwardness. At this point.

Agamben draws on a quite distinct tradition of defining gesture. And the more human beings have language. as the pure possibility of speaking itself. p. Therefore. In the essay on Kommerell. gesture has nothing to express other than the very possibility of a mute experience itself as the dwelling within language. Gestures are both completely ephemeral and at the same time take on the aura of an emphatic statement. Adorno’s account of gesture locates it within the aporias of subjective expression. Poeisis is marked by a production which moves beyond itself to an end. in placing it within the sphere of action rather than expression. even if we are to call it a reflection on the aporias of expression. first. such as ‘that’s the way it is’. Adorno twists such a notion around in the sense that the only way that the interiority of the subject existing in a space of ‘objectless inwardness’ can express such a state is through an alienated and distorted gesture. However. in Aristotelian terms a ‘poeisis’ and a ‘praxis’. p. fundamentally occupies the ground of expression. 155). which places gesture in relation to what Agamben terms first ‘production’ and ‘enactment’. 123 . and praxis is marked by an enactment that has its end within itself. Gesture functions as a ‘gag’ on language both as. but in the shock at this alienation of gesture lies a recognition of an element of materiality and non-identity at the heart of subjectivity. a cloth put into the mouth to prevent speaking and. It is therefore parasitic upon a traditional notion of gesture as an interiority that is expressed in the body. the refusal to identify within gesture puts gesture beyond use for any identity thinking. Gesture functions in this way because the emphatic role of gesture. as the actor’s improvisation ‘…to make up for an impossibility of speaking’ (Agamben 2007. p. so to speak. the making visible of a means as such’ (Agamben 2007. Agamben argues that: what is at issue in gesture is not so much a prelinguistic content as. Gesture stands to these two forms of action as a third possibility. 78). Gesture serves as an interruption for any form of expression. a form of speechlessness that lies within language. the muteness inherent in humankind’s very capacity for language. desubjectifies. its speechless dwelling in language. the stronger the unsayable weighs them down (Agamben 1999. Adorno’s argument as to the loss of gesture. but one that holds open the possibility of an awakening to a different way of a subject relating to objectivity. for Agamben. author’s italics). a form of action that ‘… is the display of mediation. The indecipherability of gesture loosens the grip of any identity thinking. which. He draws on a definition by Varro. and then. therefore. Gesture is not a language of interiority but an expression of the destruction of subjectivity. 155. p. and the merging of the absolutely ephemeral and the perpetual within the frame-like freezing of a gesture points to the perpetual recurrence of the same within capitalist societies of exchange. The second moment of awakening relates to the emphatic nature of gestures. second. 155). at the same time. However.A Figure of Annihilated Human Existence 303 over and appears to dominate the subject. This is a process of de-subjectification. The ‘means’ that is made visible in gesture is a mute experience that lies at the heart of language itself. and blocks any productive use or straightforward attribution of meaning. the other side of language. is the expression of ‘being-inlanguage itself’ (Agamben 2007.

304 A. that puts it beyond any attribution of identity. intention or meaning. In the statement that ‘In the cinema. a pure undertaking. even. This gesture does not attempt to say or express anything. what is definitive as the loss of gesture. or body (Agamben 2007. Agamben develops this realm of pure gesture by arguing that it becomes immanently apparent only in a generalised destruction of gestural expression. 151). in modern life opens up a space where gesture can hang suspended beyond use. because of the failure of gesture to express interiority. either photographic or cinematic. 150). more specifically. in its gestural component.1 First is the ‘gesture of the soul’ that arises through an experience of corporeal estrangement. is the movement whereby language is unable to express the experience of a destruction of 1 For an interesting account of Kommerell’s work on Jean Paul. Ethics and Politics We can identify two different trajectories for a theory of the loss of gesture in Adorno and Agamben. that this sphere of a pure ‘display of mediation’ can take place within the bodily undertaking and supporting of a gesture. which turns to the materiality of language as an attempt to say oneself. p. a feeling that the gestures of the body are cut off from interiority. Agamben initiates a dialectic that disintegrates into an appearance of a space of pure gesture. Agamben points to a dialectic of two gestures that Kommerell locates in Jean Paul’s writing. Morgan It is in the interruption of gesture. For Adorno. then. but inheres within language as the pure possibility of speaking (Agamben 1999. or the complete involuntary spasmodic judderings of involuntary gestures. is that this disconnection of gesture from any context. as an attempt to say or show oneself. which is neither a means to an end nor a movement that contains its own end within itself but. moves from the articulation of mute gesture to thinking about the gesture contained within language or. its potential for communication. It is through a failure of gestural expression that Jean Paul’s characters turn to language. and that there is an unbridgeable gap between interior experience and an alienated bodily gesture. that is the origin of all gestures. the word. pp. the very display of a means that is devoid of any self-contained or external end. a society that has lost its gestures seeks to reappropriate what it has lost whilst simultaneously recording that loss’. see Fleming. beyond material affects (Agamben 2007. intention. Above such a gesture of the soul is a higher plane of gesture. rather. 77–80). the pure gesture. beyond any subjective end or control. reveals it as a ‘pure milieu’. This is the sphere of the gesture of the soul. beyond expression. p. Gesture. beyond subjectivity and. and articulates a conception of language as the showing of its own pure communicability. expression. In his essay on Kommerell. The pure gesture is the gesture that lacks any form of relating to exteriority. Gesture is put into play as a space of pure gesturality. which attempts to catch hold of a gesturality that is increasingly escaping in the terms of a ‘generalised catastrophe of the gestural sphere’. Agamben. 123 . emphatically. The immobilising of gesture through the cinematic or photographic image. The importance of the freezing of gesture into an image. or the freezing of gesture in a cinematic image. Paul (2000).

law-giving self. However. what the gesture reveals. and of creating a space for a politics and an ethics that has nothing to do with the relation of a means and an end. gesture or the loss of gesture leads back to a pure potentiality within language itself. of the absolute and total gesturality of human beings’ (Agamben 2007. There is a reversal of the movement described in Adorno. of horror at the alienated body. But. how does a subject survive that can ‘bear witness to its own ruin’ 123 . p. This absolute gesturality is: a figure of annihilated human existence. and disgust at the reduction of subjectivity to a material instance. at the same time. 206). given the account of a destruction of experience that Adorno and Agamben share. when it arises it stands out as that which is most alien and negative to the sovereign subject. which is encapsulated by the subject’s disavowal of its materiality. Both these accounts attempt to open up a different space for forms of politics that can base itself on an experience of the non-identical. as a form of awakening. is the metaphysical experience of the possibility of a different way of relating to that which is alien to the sovereign subject. but that the attempt to freeze and immobilise gesture in the cinematic image reveals a potentiality within life itself as a pure possibility of dwelling within language. empty. which is to say.A Figure of Annihilated Human Existence 305 subjectivity. First. This refraction occurs through a process of desubjectification of a sovereign subject in the horror and disgust at its own materiality. But this also prefigures the possibility of a different way of relating to materiality in a non-dominating fashion. It is not that the withering of language leads to distorted gestures. but awakens us to the possibility of a non-violent means of relating to materiality. politics becomes the ‘sphere of pure means. what he terms a ‘self-relinquishment’ (Adorno 1990. the lack of a fixed position or use for political subjects. in a profane mystery whose sole object is existence itself (Agamben 1999. and of anything that is non-identical to its sovereign. 84). 13). Gesture arises through this experience of a lack of any expression for an interiority that is socially produced. In this destruction of experience. 156). its ‘negative outline’ and. Gesture returns us to the passivity of the body and affects. p. p. The experience of the loss of gesture is one of involuntary interruption to intention and meaning. There is within gesture what Nicholsen has referred to as a ‘refracted mimetic relation to nature’ (Weber Nicholsen 1999. This opens up the possibility of a transcendence in an experience of complete subjective dissolution into absolute gesture. p. use or meaning effected by a destruction of experience itself. An absolute gesturality thus converges with the space for a new form of politics that can only arise through the destruction of experience itself. In Agamben’s writing. The problem for the relation of such a metaphysical experience to any politics or ethics is twofold. Alienated or distorted gesture is the result of a social process that has disarmed the powers of language to express the spaceless space of a reified and empty interiority. Such a space of politics arises through the separation of gesture from any interior intention. a somatic marker of its own lack of identity with itself. Adorno does this through an emphatic notion of individuality that relies on a retention of subjective experience even in its dissolution. its self-transcendence not toward a beyond but in the ‘intimacy of living here and now’.

it appears to revert to the very description of that which Adorno criticises as ‘objectless inwardness’ at the beginning of his account of the loss of gesture. but such a ruse itself tends to converge with an extreme affirmation of the destruction of experience. What returns as an ‘anamnesis of the untamed impulse that precedes the ego’. indeed. the very involuntary and passive nature of such experiences cannot give any necessary and determinative non-violent content. in its dissolution of subjectivity. Both argue that these metaphysical experiences can in some sense open up a different form of politics. However. to produce or realise a fundamental form of passive experience that contains itself within a process of pure potentiality. Such a suspended state may have its virtue in terms of an attempt to resist power through an emphasis upon uselessness and inoperability. The alienation and distortion of an experience is to be affirmed. which has no means to actualise or relate itself to objectivity but simply holds itself in a state of suspension. 222). an experience that can move reified subjectivity to a critical awareness of the conditions of such reification. Adorno writes that: objectless inwardness is space in the precise sense that everything it produces obeys the laws of timeless repetition (Adorno 2003. through an account of the destruction and loss of gesture. given a generalised account of the destruction of experience. through the awakening of gesture within images rather than an awakening of affective resonances through the loss of gesture. in an experience at the limits. p. can just as equally be violent rage as tender attentiveness (Adorno 1990.306 A. use or ends. 123 . p. 265). The pure immanent transcendence of an absolute gesturality. transformed into a political space. by articulating the notion of a survival within the subject of a non-violent material affective experience that can return in an involuntary and refracted manner in metaphysical experiences. a metaphysical experience. In Agamben’s argument the sphere of an absolute gesturality merges with a politics. For Adorno. to the radical being-without-work of human communities’ (Agamben 2000. However. It is difficult to see how this functions as a form of embodied experience. 271). p. and for Agamben it lies in an opening of an originary space for an inoperable being in language that can prefigure new forms of political and communal belongings without identity. as the creation of a space in between any purpose. 132–133). Kafka thus allies himself with death (Adorno 2003. through the immanent destruction of experience. p. in terms of the basis for such a new form of politics. dissolves the embodiment at the heart of gesture into a form of desubjectified ‘objectless inwardness’. pp. Adorno attempts to resolve this problem. they fundamentally diverge. Adorno writes of Kafka that: The only cure for the half-uselessness of a life which does not live would be its entire inutility. it can only lie in a non-violent awareness of material non-identity. Both Agamben and Adorno’s reflections on gesture attempt to immanently produce. Morgan (Agamben 2002. This is only possible. 140). Agamben’s metaphysical experience is an attempt. It opens up a space of politics that can think a concept of pure means without ends. The concept of a pure space of gesturality points to a form of politics that could define itself as ‘the essential inoperability of humankind.

neither can it be a complete dissolution of subjective experience without a moment of a recovery of the subject. London: Pimlico. Such a subjective experience cannot be thought alone as that of a formal subject that denies its own relation to materiality but. Benjamin. Understanding Brecht (trans: Bostock. Stanford. Agamben. Cambridge. 2006. Rolf Tiedemann (trans: Livingstone. Stanford. London: Routledge. Agamben. 519–543. Anna). embodied life at least promises a more fruitful conjunction. and Walter Benjamin. Exact imagination. April. Cesare).. is a problem for both thinkers.B. London: University of Minnesota Press. to a form of politics makes any sense. 1999. Vincenzo and Casarino. to which human experience always returns. Collected essays in philosophy (trans: Heller-Roazen. Rodney and others). 123 . London: Verso. New York: Zone Books. The crisis of art: Max Kommerell and Jean Paul’s gestures. Adorno. Theodor W. In Can one live after Auschwitz? A philosophical reader. Giorgio. Weber. References Adorno. E. late work. Without subjective experience. or on gesture. Nicholsen. Germanic Review 81 (1): 65–83. Although Adorno’s concept of a self-relinquishment is no less utopian in its attempt to think the possibility of a life without self-preservation. Liz). MA. Such a moment of recovery can only be theorised in terms of a bodily experience itself: a basis. 1990. MLN. Theodor W. 1993. Giorgio. Negative dialectics (trans: Ashton. 2000. Minneapolis. in the painful realisation of its own fragility as subjectivity. Fleming. 115 (3). 1999. Notes on Kafka (trans: Weber. CA: Stanford University Press. as embodied experience that proceeds through self-reflection to an awareness of its inherent contradictions. Daniel). Paul. In Potentialities. On Adorno’s aesthetics. it is difficult to see how Agamben’s philosophy of pure potentiality ultimately produces anything more than the affirmation of its own dissolution in a generalised destruction of experience. 1999. Benjamin. Harry). In Infancy and history: On the destruction of experience (trans: Hero. if the result of such a process is supposed to open up spaces for resistance to power. furthermore. Means without end—notes on politics (trans: Binetti. Shierry Walker). a locus. and London. Samuel and Nicholsen. Nicholas). which. Daniel). Agamben. Giorgio. ed. Kommerell. Going along for the ride: Violence and gesture: Agamben reading Benjamin reading Kafka reading Cervantes. Agamben. 2002. with an introduction. London: Verso. NLB. Walter. CA: Stanford University Press. there can be no possibility for an experience that would point to a life beyond the life that does not live.A Figure of Annihilated Human Existence 307 Whether the movement from an account of the extreme conditions of reified life. in some indeterminate way. German Issue. England: The MIT Press. Shierry Weber. 2003. 2000. The complete correspondence 1928–1940 (trans: Walker. Adorno. Samuel.). The witness and the archive (trans: Heller-Roazen. is opened towards the possibility of a different form of life. 1999. Giorgio. but in a reified form. through to a metaphysical experience and back. MA: Harvard University Press. the attempt to think the relation between metaphysical experience and politics in terms of an affective. Remnants of Auschwitz. 2007. Cambridge. Theodor W. nevertheless. But. Walter. Illuminations (trans: Zorn. Notes on gesture. This is not a return to an originary potentiality but a body exhausted with all that it embodies.