Ekin Erkan – Navigating Agamben’s Cinematic Paradox via Laruellean Immanence
The Anarchist Library
Title: Navigating Agamben’s Cinematic Paradox via Laruellean Immanence
Subtitle: A Hacktivist Case Study
Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” advances the claim that, for the first time in history, the “function” of the work of art is political, as evinced by cinema. For Benjamin, film is the "first art form whose artistic character is entirely determined by its reproducibility" (1936, 109) and Giorgio Agamben, a contemporary Benjaminian philosopher, further elucidates on this “function,” positing that cinema essentially ranks with ethics and politics, not solely with aesthetics, and, consequently, is “proximate” to philosophy itself. Whereas Deleuze’s Cinema books posed cinema as enacting time in a pure state, Agamben, in his "Notes on Gesture," (1992) breaches from Deleuze’s spatial and cartographic theory of cinema (Conley 2007, 9), drawing from Guy Debord’s “détournement via montage” (2003, 29), Simone Weil’s “decreation” (1947, 32) and, perhaps most implicitly, from Benjamin. Agamben’s political theory of cinema, motivated by cinema’s “stoppage and repetition of time,” (1977) is directly informed by Benjamin’s: “optical unconscious,” (1931) appropriation of Brecht’s “social Gestus,” (1973) and the relationship between technological reproducibility and aura (1946). Agamben’s gesture fastens cinema’s aesthetics not only to ethics and politics, but to the "ontological consistency of human experience," or to a way of being. (2014, 23).
While many film theorists declare Agamben as, in equal part, a Deleuzian film theorist, I pose that, through this Benjaminian lens, we can parse distinctive cinematic questions that Agamben exclusively pursues – in particular, cinema’s potential as a repurposive counter-dispositif to combat dominant forms via critique. This is not to suggest that parallels do not exist between Agamben and Deleuze’s approaches: as Meillassoux has noted, Deleuze’s logic of representation (also known as "correlationism") develops an "image of thought that attempts to overcome the binary separation” between matter and spirit, mind and body. (2008, 5). Furthermore, Agamben is unequivocally astricted to the Bergson-bound Deleuzian tradition of "untimeliness," whereby cinema extricates "the fallacious psychological distinction between image as psychic reality and movement as physical reality." (2000, 55). Furthermore, both Agamben and Deleuze are committed to a notion of "cinema-thought," as Jean-Luc Nancy terms it (1996, 10), or haecceities of Oneness – a commitment to cinema-as-immanence, or indexing thought, rather than mediating it via hermetic historicism. However, Agamben’s concept of gesture, as a prelinguistic mode of communication, suspends the symbolic, replacing taxonomy and, therefore, offers a sublime breach: "Gesture is the communication of a potential to be communicated." (1993, 156). In other words, Agamben’s gesture is something of an “enigmatic signifier” (Leplanche 1987, 126), insofar as it is impregnated with a primitive and unconscious meaning.
Thus, drawing from gesture via Agamben and cinema’s social capacity by way of Benjamin, I implore a central question: what does cinema look like when it enacts philosophy? Benjamin’s 1936 text is in coalition with his publication on Max Weber titled "Capitalism as Religion," (1921) whereby Benjamin enjoins the logic of religion with the cultic "logic of capitalism.” Agamben, carrying the Benjaminian torch, proclaims that capitalism as a "pure cult religion" can solely be countered via “profanation.” (Agamben 2005). For Agamben, profanation is the return of objects of social praxis to “free use,” or a messianic ideal of the generic, non-exclusive community. (2007, 58). Agamben, in associating cinema with the uniquely "gestural" prowess to enact political "profanation," does not proffer cinema with destructive capability but, in his Heideggerrean reading, offers cinema-as-pharmakon: Agamben inculcates cinema with the means to both expose the emptiness of the apparatus, “capturing life,” and, simultaneously, with converting it to spectacle, thereby "hacking spectacle" by pulling the “emergency brake on the religion of late capitalism." (Baumbach 2018, 131).
With the decay of Benjaminian aura via cinema’s reproducibility, ever-exacerbated in the so-called “digital turn,” “Web 2.0,” and the era of “post-cinema,” it is critical that we conceive of Agamben’s gesture, diacritically opposes to auratic terms, as a practice that can “de-auraticize," or, in this instance, "make cinema profane" by dispelling it of its cult value. While Adorno and Horkhemier decried the culture industry for exacerbating the auratic terms of mass art (a distinct, newfound aura of detachment), Benjamin neutralized such romantic concepts associated with aura. Thus, as Baumbach notes, a conflict is born – "the weapon of the star," or spectacle, which seeks to restore aura to a means of expression (cinema) is "in some sense, contrary to it." (158). The solution to Agamben’s “cinematic paradox” that I hereby propose to proffer is that of a truly "profane" cinema, or an immanent "cinema of the anonymous," which is a political cinema both infinitely reproducible and, simultaneously, liquidated of the “star.” Thus, in order to examine this politically profane potentiality we need to look at specific gestures or operations, meaning that we must turn to a case study.