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The third stage of action is, they say, that in which they faciunt ‘make’ something: in this, on account of the likeness among agere ‘to act’ and facere ‘to make’ and gerere ‘to carry or carry on,’ a certain error is committed by those who think that it is only one thing. For a person can facere something and not agere it, as a poet facit ‘makes’ a play and does not act it, and on the other hand the actor agit ‘acts’ it and does not make it, and so a play fit ‘is made’ by the poet, not acted, and agitur ‘is acted’ by the actor, not made. On the other hand, the general [imperator], in that he is said to gerere ‘carry on’ affairs, in this neither facit ‘makes’ nor agit ‘acts,’ but gerit ‘carries on,’ that is, supports [sustinet], a meaning transferred from those who gerunt ‘carry’ burdens, because they support them.
☛ On The Latin Language, Varro, trans. by Roland G. Kent, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938, Liber VI, Capp. XVIII, §77, p. 245.
Over at An und für sich, Adam Kotsko observes how the same quote is used by Giorgio Agamben both in his essay “Notes on Gesture” (first published in January 1992 in the very first issue of Trafic) and in Opus Dei: An Archeology of Duty (first published in Italian in 2012). He notices how Agamben’s reading of Varro’s quote differs in the two publications: the gesture does not seem to be provided with the same valence each time (see “Show your support! Agamben and empty political gestures”, July 31, 2014).
In the essay from 1992, the gesture points toward a “pure mean” emancipated from any form of teleological determination. As such, it belongs to what Agamben identifies as the “proper sphere of politics” (MWE: “Preface”), the “improper” sphere of politics being the sphere where politics “has being contaminated by law” (SE: 88). As such, the gesture appears to offer an adequate stance to face the dead ends of our current predicament. Two years earlier, in the Preface he wrote for the Italian edition of Guy Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (which is reproduced in MWE), Agamben writes:
Gesture is the name of this intersection between life and art, act and power, general and particular, text and execution. It is a moment of life subtracted from the context of individual biography as well as a moment of art subtracted from the neutrality of aesthetics: it is pure praxis. The gesture is neither use value nor exchange value, neither biographic experience nor impersonal event: it is the other side of the commodity that lets the “crystals of this common social substance” sink into the situation (MWE: 79).
Two decades later, when he returns to Varro’s explanation in Opus Dei, Agamben does not approach the third modality of human action from the same perspective.
Neither praxis nor poiēsis, Gerere –from which “gesture” is derived– means “to bear”, “to carry”, but also, “to show”, “to reveal”, “to perform the function”, “to administer an office” (Oxford Latin Dictionary, 1968: 762). Upon trying to come up with a proper translation for the three Latin modalities of action –agere, facere, gerere– the English translator of Varro noted: “The distinction is almost impossible to imitate in translation, but the argument is good in so far as the examples in the text are concerned.” (1938: 244, note §77b). The French, maybe, offers a more direct route between faire and agir. To the substantive geste (gesture) correspond the verb gérer (to manage, to supervise), and its derivatives gestion (management), gestionnaire and gérant (manager).
In Varro’s explanation, the manager is the imperator, that is the official who is in command (Roland G. Kent loosely translates imperator as “general”). For Agamben, this represents an important shift from Aristotle for whom praxis was the paradigmatic modality of political action (OD: 83). In Roman law, the political action is not about doing or making: it is first and foremost an exercise in assuming or supporting a function, it has mostly to do with the fulfilment of an office. The paradigm of this political office is gerere and its object is the action of others (not unlike modern management).
In Opus Dei, Agamben develops the parallel between this third modality of political action and the sphere of command, which is proper to the imperator. Following Magdelain’s monumental study Jus Imperium Auctoritas: Études de droit romain –which he also made use of in The State of Exception– he remarks that the imperative mode of command “defines the proper verbal mood of the law” (Ibid.: 84). One can already appreciate the formidable distance that seems to separate the former “Notes on Gesture” from this particular reading of gerere. Whereas the former pointed to a sphere of politics “uncontaminated” by law, the latter is inversely the paradigmatic expression of normative action. Pointing to this “completely different valence”, Adam Kotkso observes:
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) […] (“Agamben and empty political gestures”)
In what follows, Adam Kotkso seizes the opportunity to use Agamben’s “sinister” reading of Varro’s sustinet in order to examine the current meaning of “support” as a key political category: how it has become ubiquitous to show “support” for “ troops, politicians, parties, policies, causes”. The results of this examination suggests that “supporting” may have more to do with normative politics than it has with redemptive action.
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Writing about Italy in the 1980s, in his “Italian Diary, 1992-94”, Agamben describes the collapse of traditional categories into one another, as if in “an opaque zone of indifference, in which everything becomes confused and unintelligible” (MWE: 123). This is observable in various phenomena:
To this slippage of the public into the private corresponds also the spectacular publicization of the private: are the diva’s breast cancer or Senna’s death public vicissitudes or private ones? (Ibid.)
The concentration camp remains for Agamben the exemplary manifestation of just such a “zone of indifference”. In the camp, the distinctions between public and private, bios and zōē, law and violence, political inclusion and political exclusion, all become blurred. This, for Agamben, is the paradigmatic nature of the problematic situation we are facing: how politics was “contaminated by law” and undifferentiated from constituent power (SE: 86). However, the recognition of this opaque indistinction –and of its consequences– also means that a new visibility becomes possible:
And I yet it is from such a zone of indifference -in which the actions of human experience are being put on sale- that we ought to start today. (Ibid.)
Throughout his work and with consistency, Agamben aims at neutralizing (or render inoperative or, for that matter, indifferent) the dialectical opposition between a variety of traditional categories (such as zōē/bios, law/violence, etc.). This operation of inoperalization suspends those differences –it indifferentiates them– and, in the process, it exposes them as the fiction powering the engine of the “biopolitical machine” (on the function of indifference in Agamben’s work, see the excellent analysis provided by William Watkin in his book Agamben and Indifference, 2014). Thus the state of exception is revealed to be operating on the “threshold of undecidability” between auctoritas and potestas (SE: 86). The political incarnation of this indistinction is found in the person of the Führer. He is the ultimate modern figure in which “the ontology of command and the ontology of office” are brought in unparalleled proximity (OD: 84; see also HS: 103).
It may now be possible to take another look at how the two valences in Agamben’s treatment of the gesture relate to one another. In The Coming Community, Agamben cites the philosophical adage Veritas patefacit se ipsam et falsum: truth manifests itself along with the false (CC: 13). Spinoza uses a similar image in his Ethics, while providing it with a useful analogy: “Even as light displays both itself and darkness, so is truth a standard both of itself and of falsity.” (Sane sicut lux seipsam et tenebras manifestat, sic veritas norma sui et falsi est, 2.43s). In gerere, the “pure mean” reveals itself as it reveals the official/officiant paradigm of the commanding duty. Instead of being opposed to one another, the “more proper sphere of that which is human” –ethos– is shown to be taking place [aver luogo] right in the zone of indiscernibility that is the state of exception: not beside it, not after it, but as “the appropriation of the improper” (Ibid.). In other words, “pure mean” appears as a modified grasp of gerere understood as an office of command (similar to the way Eigentlich is ein modifiziertes Ergreifen of Uneigentlich in Heidegger’s Being and Time; see also Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay “The Decision of Existence” in The Birth to Presence, 1993). Thus the coming of this form-of-life is not chronological, but kairological: it is a situation constructed right in the “time of now”.
The exposition of the relation between the gesture’s double valence forbids us to hastily interpret “pure mean” as a “third way” out of the problem, between praxis and poiēsis. It cannot be opposed as the good solution against the bad predicament of our time. Nor can the neutralization of the dialectical opposition between the two modalities of gerere provide salvation in itself. However, as Agamben suggests, it is a starting point and it is the task at hand: to think anew the modalities of this relation through the “appropriation of the improper”.
From all of the above, it does not follow that there isn’t any contradiction nor significant evolution in Agamben’s Homo Sacer project. It merely provides a way of relating two treatments that appear to be at odds with one another.
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CC: The Coming Community, tr. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Fourth printing  2003.
HS: Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press,  1998.
MWE: Means Without End. Notes on Politics, tr. by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,  2000.
OD: Opus Dei. An Archaeology of Duty, tr. by Adam Kotsko, Stanford: Stanford University Press,  2013
SE: The State of Exception, tr. by Kevin Attell, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  2005.
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Below is a reproduction of Varro’s explanation in Latin, as it appears in a manuscript from 1427, on f39v. Written in red ink in the left margin of the page, midsection, the words Agere, Facere and Gerere are clearly noticeable. This manuscript is known as Laurentianus 51.5 and is currently located in Florence, at the Bibliotheca Mediceo-Laurenziana. It is not the oldest manuscript in existence (Laurentianus 51.10 is, from the 11th century), but it is the most complete. For more details, see the information provided by Roger Pearse: “Varro: the Manuscripts of “De lingua Latina””.
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