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  • Simulation, Automata, Cinema: A Critique of Gestures
  • Pasi Väliaho (bio)

The gesture, Giorgio Agamben writes, is that which refers to the incommunicable potentiality of language. The gesture is “the muteness inherent in humankind’s very capacity for language, its speechless dwelling in language.”1 The gesture, it could be argued, expresses the bare, material life which language presupposes.

According to Agamben, it was in the late nineteenth century that “a generalized catastrophe of the sphere of gestures” was confronted. Pathological movement, tics, spasmodic jerks, mannerisms, etc., proliferated and became visible under the thousands of minute and quantifying observations performed in clinics of nervous disorders such as the one at the Salpêtrière in France. Those moving and gesticulating abnormally were considered as kinds of automata or marionettes. These “subjects” were characteristic of Romantic literature as well as early films where new relations between the visible and the expressible were formed.2 “He the patient looks like an automaton that is being propelled by a spring: there is nothing in these rigid, jerky, and convulsive movements that resembles the nimbleness of the gait...”3 Agamben argues that what characterizes those nervous gestures is their independence of an end, or conscious and voluntary control. In this way they are gestures that exhibit their own mediality; they are processes “of making a means visible as such.”4

Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, however, those disorders disappeared from nosological charts. According to Agamben’s hypothesis, at some point nervous gestures became a norm in such a way that “everybody had lost control of their gestures and was walking and gesticulating frantically.”5 The crucial thing is that the appearance and disappearance of nervous gestures coincided with the emergence of the cinema and consequent new configurations of the image and audiovisuality within modernity. In this respect, it is worth accentuating that in the following treatment, the concept “the cinema” is used in a general sense to designate the technology and culture of images defining modernity and not restricted to any particular medium such as film. Modernity, in this article, is an era of moving images. A crucial point is that, to follow Agamben’s insight, the cinema has the gesture as its basic expressive element.6 This means that the cinematographic image is not defined as an eternal and essential form but as a “being” in continuous formation, modulation. The cinema is a machine exposing its own mediality. It is not used for an end but imposes its own ends. In this light, nervous gestures became incorporated and normalized on the film screen. In other words, the emergence of media technology of inscription of movement — part of the generalized mechanization brought forward by modern technological media in conjunction with growing capitalist forces — resulted in a situation in which its functioning has become intrinsic to the social and cultural sphere.

It is my contention that by many aspects this “cine-machine” still informs our contemporary audiovisual era, even though the latter is often defined in terms of simulation instead of other modes of expression, and in close relation to electronic and digital techniques. In fact, my hypothesis is that in aesthetic terms the foundations for several contemporary configurations of the image, the object and the subject have been erected along the processes taking place during the latter half of the nineteenth century. These configurations are crystallized in the cinema. On the other hand, the need to understand the origins of contemporary audiovisual environment is pressing with regard to the ethical and political questions posed in the face of our new entertainment and information technologies. Within modern media, ethics and politics are to be defined in a new manner which, to follow Agamben, would break “the false alternative between ends and means that paralyzes morality” and bring about “means that, as such, evade the orbit of mediality without becoming, for this reason, ends.”7 In this essay, however, I do not intend to engage directly in ethical or political issues. Instead, I will trace with more precision the epistemological framework in which the cinema as a techno-aesthetic system has emerged; how it differentiates from its environment and thus creates an environment...

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