Act without Image
Contribution by Juan A. Gaitán
For this seminar I submitted three terms for consideration : act, image, and gesture. These are three terms with which I am currently attempting to think through an apparent socio-political impasse, namely, that the revolution has become image-dependent. Regarding this last point, my essay somewhat follows the critique of the spectacle as a system through which all events and all politics are incorporated by the logic of capitalism and the liberal democratic idea. (1)
I began by making a distinction between revolution and revolt. For “revolution” is not in itself politically predetermined. It is through revolt that the revolution exteriorizes itself and in doing so becomes an expression of radicalism. It is, however, important for me to avoid thinking of an image as radical, and to insist that only the gesture can be radical, which means that it is only radical at the moment when its outcome undisclosed. Not just the gesture but a gesturing-towards, before the image.
Act without Image is the title of this piece, but it is also the title I am giving to a larger project that I have been involved with in my dissertation and in other writings. The title is a development from another text, which I structured around a speculative question : Can a revolution take place outside representation ? By this question I wanted to suggest a horizon, the possibility of a revolution that would unfold outside of the scope of the spectacle, beyond an economy of the gesture. Why ?
I will expose this point very briefly, given time constraints, so as to open it up for discussion. Then I will focus on the notion of an “economy of the gesture”.
This social-political impasse that I am addressing might be summarised thus : The revolution is image-dependent. On the one hand, everything that takes place outside of the image – which is to say, everything that is aesthetically unrecognizable as “revolution” – is not considered to be a revolution. But some revolutions took place without image (the Industrial Revolution, for example). On the other hand, the idea of revolution, and more specifically here, of a social revolution, central to the history of the modern nation state, to the notion of democracy, to the civil-rights movements and the reform of the university, to both the founding and the dismantling of the Soviet Union and Communist China, and so on, this idea of social revolution is now tied to its former models, perhaps fatally. And this relationship between the revolution and its models has brought back an old Marxian dilemma that was brilliantly summarised by the American critic Harold Rosenberg in the late 1940s. This is how Rosenberg put it in “The Resurrected Romans :” In the past, history had been at the mercy of poetry, thought Marx. The great revolutions had taken place as costume dramas. In the act of creating new social forms men had ceased to behave “realistically.” They lost touch with the time and place they occupied as living men – they became, more or less automatically, actors playing a part. [He quotes Marx] : ‘Thus Luther donned the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.’ Social reality gave way to this dramatic mimesis because history did not allow human beings to pursue their own ends. (2)
This is what Genet liked to call a “mimodrama.”
The Marxist point has been that from within this dramatic iteration of old models a new revolutionary idea would be formed, and that this new idea would be the factor through which the mimetic consciousness of the past would be transcended. This would be the moment in which the people come together in the desire to identify the reason for their coming-together. (A recent example of this Marxian principle is found in Renzo Martens’ infamous documentary Episode III, in which Martens misleadingly convinces a group of young men that by becoming photographers of their own misery they will overcome their poverty. In the end, these young men only become more conscious of the restrictions that the system that is there to provide relief imposes on them.) But to me these words from Rosenberg resound loudly with a different phenomenon : the poverty of our imagination, the contemporary incapacity to imagine revolutionary models outside the ones that have been handed down to us, the riots of May ’68, or Gandhi’s satyagraha before that, the obvious inability to move beyond mere repetition. Can one produce a revolution outside of representation ? Can an imageless revolution be conceived ? This question is directed, of course, at the basic problem that we face today, which is the absolute grasp that media representations seem to have over our conception of reality. It is a problem that, I believe, transcends that of the spectacle. It is a problem of the gesture. Thus, my concern here is that what we have now is not revolutions, not even revolts, but a broad range of gestures that signify revolution and which by doing so place every political activity within a tradition.
By “economy of the gesture” I mean this : If we assume an etymological definition of the word “economy” as “the management of the household,” then one of the functions of the spectacle relates to the “management” of the gestures through which the revolution is expressed (the act, be it political act or otherwise) and this management or supervision is performed by incorporating the gesture into a stable lexicon of gesticulations, into a repertoire of items belonging to the household. The raised fist, the chant, the slogan, the graffiti, the poster, the liberation scarf, and so on, these are all “gestures” that the spectacle manages in order to render the revolution recognizable while at the same time tying it to an historical idea of “revolution.” In this way, every act is tied to the past and is thus rendered both recognizable and anachronistic.
My aim with these ideas is not so much to come up with new revolutionary models as it is to introduce this problem into our consciousness of revolution, which I think is a consciousness of history – in fact, a consciousness of history without historical consciousness – and to pose the question in relation to its foreclosure. The name of this foreclosure is the spectacle (3), and within the spectacle, the economy of the gesture. Of the revolutionary gesture. Revolt. This is to say that the aim of the question is to investigate the spectacle from the perspective of the idea of revolution, rather than the other way around, and to begin to imagine how a notion of revolution might begin to separate itself from the spectacle, and from revolt. (Consider the peeling of the skin off an orange, revolution being the flying-into-one’s-eye of the particles. Perhaps a more accurate title for this essay would be “gestures without the act.”)
"manner of carrying the body," from M.L. gestura "bearing, behavior," from L. gestus "gesture, carriage, posture" (see gest). Restricted sense of "a movement of the body or a part of it" is from 1550s ; figurative sense of "action undertaken in good will to express feeling" is from 1916. As a verb, recorded 1540s, from the noun.
Revolt can be seen here as the exteriorization of a revolution. Of a revolution carried out in the name of resistance. It is the Grand Gesture that anthologizes all the resistances that have taken place within the idea of revolution and foreshadows the ones to come. In being this, revolt is a sign that brings revolutionary expression into the regime of historical continuity. In being this, it is the sign of an orthodoxy, an expressionism. But can one conceive of a gesture that is neither the motivation nor the end of revolution, but pure effect ?
1) Here are Guy Debord’s opening words in The Society of the Spectacle (1967) : “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” Rebel Press, Lonon, (no copyright, no rights reserved), P. 7
2) Harold Rosenberg, “The Resurrected Romans,” The Kenyon Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, Autumn 1948, p. 602.
3) It is, furthermore, a question directed at the accumulation of values of a modern history whose origins are elusive : Should one say that the famous parading of Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat, is one such origin ? But then, what about the religious iconography that it clearly evokes ? Should one say that it begins with the introduction of religious iconography in the Middle Ages ? But then, what about the Islamic Empires and their spectacular designs ?