Show your support! Agamben and empty political gestures

There is a quote from Varro that Agamben uses in the essay “Notes on Gesture” (included in both Infancy and History and Means Without End):

“For a person can make [facere] something and not act [agere] it, as a poet makes [facit] a play and does not act it [agere also means ‘to recite’], and on the other hand the actor acts [agit] it and does not make it, and so a play is made [fit] by the poet, not acted, and is acted [agitur] by the actor, not made. On the other hand, the imperator [the magistrate invested with supreme power] in that he is said to carry on [gerere] affairs, in this neither makes [facit] nor acts [agit] but carries on [gerit], that is, assumes and supports [sustinet], a meaning transferred from those who carry burdens [onera gerunt], because they support them” (Varro, 6.77)

In this early essay, what is at stake is finding some third kind of human action beyond the Aristotelian dichotomy of poiesis and praxis. For Agamben, what both of these modes of action share is their reference to some end or goal — the produced object in poiesis and the action itself in praxis — and the sphere of gerere or “gesture” seems, by contrast, to be a “pure means” without any reference to an end or goal.

In Opus Dei, the exact same quote appears with a completely different valence. Instead of pointing toward something hopeful or redemptive, it forms a part of the “archeology of office or duty” that separates the subject from his or her actions, rendering anything like ethical experience radically impossible. This is part of a broader pattern where figures and concepts that appeared to be the “good guys” in earlier writings take on a sinister edge in the Homo Sacer series (the most striking example being potentiality) — a trend that I don’t know quite what to do with.

What interests me here is the connection between the sphere of gesture and the notion of “supporting” something. In contemporary political circles, “support” has emerged as a key category — we “support” troops, politicians, parties, policies, causes. When we are asked to take some concrete action (donating money, signing a petition, voting), it is sometimes directly equated with “supporting” the political entity in question, but more often it is a means of showing one’s “support.” Taken in itself, “support” does not issue in any external action or result, and any such action or result is merely a way of demonstrating or pointing toward “support.”

In other words, the central political act of “supporting” belongs to the sphere of pure gesture, divorced from poiesis or praxis. Indeed, it seems to colonize the spheres of political poiesis and praxis themselves. Legislation is crafted in order to signal support for a key priority or constituency, even and especially when it has no chance of becoming law. The House of Representatives in recent years has reduced the act of legislation to an empty gesture, signalling again and again their “support” for a repeal of Obamacare. And is there not a sense that even in activist circles, one engages in activism primarily to show “support” for a cause, or even “support” for the very idea of activism itself? It’s not unimaginable that someone could view themselves as “supporting” true activism to such an extent that they refuse to participate in any activity that falls short of that lofty ideal.

Our moral standing is reduced to what we “support.” We are good or bad people, in the eyes of whichever circle we choose, based on whether we hold the correct opinions or not, “support” the appropriate causes or not. When we seek to create moral and political change, we are always working on the level of opinions — using persuasion to get someone to switch their “support” over to our cause. We often make vague reference to the idea that changing hearts and minds will lead to some concrete change, but that’s not really where our passionate engagement is. In any case, such persuasion is of course very rare, so that engagement with other viewpoints seems to function primarily to confirm the rightness of the causes we “support,” to affirm our political and moral rectitude.

Our actions — or rather, our lack thereof — show that we believe very deeply in this sphere of “support,” of pure, empty gesture.

9 thoughts on “Show your support! Agamben and empty political gestures

  1. This turn for “a sinister edge” is interesting. I came to think of Agamben’s repeated treatment of traditional oppositional categories (facera/agere which somehow is reminiscent of auctoritas/potestas) as a global method he has carried since his early writings: neutralizing the fiction of a contradiction not to open a “third way” towards a new synthesis, but to somehow create a situation out of the current conditions. Clearly there’s much more to it.

  2. Sometimes it seems as though Agamben came to a point where he realized that the types of things he was calling for in his early writings are simply the way contemporary society already works, so that a more radical solution is needed.

  3. Thank you for posting this and for pointing out that the quote also appears in Opus Dei. I drew on this quote in the context of how Agamben uses it in the ‘Notes on Gesture’ essay. I did so for an essay I wrote about Mad Men which engages with what that series’ opening credit sequence ‘means’ (playing on the idea that means is opposed to ends and goals). This is important for a credit sequence that – as the framework or support for the series as a whole – is repeated each time a new episode plays. The visual gestures get repeated again and again in a credit sequence that, in being repeated over and over, never meets its end or goal. Mad Men’s credit sequence thus functions like a gesture — it is pure mediality, it’s meaning is in its transference, it carries the ‘burden’ of the narrative proper. As the series’ gestural framework, the credit sequence is crucial to an understanding of Mad Men’s politics.

  4. Chapter Eight of Profanations, “The Author as Gesture,” might provide a clue to the transition from “Notes on Gesture” to Opus Dei.

    Two pertinent quotes from that chapter. First: “If we call ‘gesture’ what remains unexpressed in each expressive act, we can say that … the author is present in the text only as a gesture that makes expression possible precisely by establishing a central emptiness within this expression.” Second: “A life is ethical not simply when it submits to moral actions but when it accepts putting itself into play in its gestures, irrevocably and without reserve — even at the risk that its happiness or its disgrace will be decided once and for all.”

    Does Agamben somehow rest, here, between his early and late perspectives on gesture? The emptiness of gesture is what makes room for ethical life, yet it also separates the subject from the consequences of its own actions. This seems to be played out in the text of the chapter, where Agamben vacillates between the gesture as, basically, a bureaucratic/administrative function and as a way toward ethical life.

  5. Is it possible that gesture – as pure mediality – holds both positive and negative, empty (functional/administrative) and full (ethical, meaningful) effects?

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