Noises and Exceptions

Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben

What is a Medium or, what do the means mean?

Isn't it strange that our desire for newer and ever more dazzling media machines is equaled only by our wish to escape them? From mathematical perspective to the camera obscura, from photography to cinema -- television, the internet, virtual reality environments and all the more far-out sorts of artificial intelligence -- innovations in media have always been driven by the desire to overcome mediation. Whether it is the frame, the wire, location, bodies or simply physical presence that it eliminates, each new device promises to deliver the same content as its predecessor, only more immediately, which is to say without the clumsy medium in which the signal had been trapped. Jay Bolter and Robert Grusin have shown how this desire to escape media by means of media has developed according to a logic that they call "remediation." Television gives us everything film offered, but without the apparatus of the projector and the centralized theater. The laptop accomplishes what the portable computer was supposed to do, just as the PDA puts us in touch with everything the laptop promised but failed to deliver. And now wireless technology promises to accomplish all of this without the restrictions of any centralized location at all.[1]

Bolter and Grusin's McLuhanesque thesis is useful for understanding the history of information technology, but it raises still more interesting questions about the nature of mediation per se. After all, what is a medium? Why is it necessary? Is it? Why the endless desire to eliminate it in the name of immediacy? What are the wider social and political consequences of the desire for immediacy? As long as we remain focused on questions of media ownership or the meaning of messages, we miss our deeply tortuous relation with the fact of mediation itself. Media are at once necessary means of communication and -- since they can always be speeded up, rationalized and made more efficient -- obstacles in the way of a more effective delivery of information.

Until now, this contradictory desire to escape media by means of media has found its most intense examination in the Frankfurt School. Horkheimer, Adorno and colleagues identified a new kind of reason that is marked by an excessive concern with "means." The instrumental reason that we find in capitalism, bureaucracy, and technocratic thought foregoes all discussion of ends and values to devote itself more fully to the perfection of procedures and means. This kind of reason is not tied to any one sphere of activity. It defines our relation to nature, to others and even to our image of mind and reason, and is, in their view, responsible for nothing less than the decline of the individual, the rise of fascism, technological rationality, the authoritarian personality and the totally administered society. Instrumental reason suspends debate about the legitimacy of any given end, so that it can devote itself more fully to the perfection of its means. Professors, for example, tend to talk less about ideas and more about the media -- grants, computers, conferences -- for delivering them. Filmmakers talk more about "the industry" than the composition of images.

While instrumental reason specializes in means and media, it does not regard these as valuable in themselves. The means matter, but only because they help expedite a more efficient passage through the middle toward a goal that has been determined by some other agency, such as the market, or the rating polls. Walter Benjamin identified the peculiar sense of "empty, homogenous" time this produces. Since it is forever leaping ahead to the final execution of a task, no moment has any value in and of itself. Each one is the same (or homogenous) in as much as it is a means for realizing the one to follow.[2] Or, as Fredric Jameson nicely summarizes it, everything becomes "a means to its own consumption."[3]

Horkheimer and his colleagues recognized that we now have as much to fear from this logic of immediacy, as from the chaos -- nature, the body, or the ravages of time -- which it was meant to control. Which is a greater threat: the weather or weather science, pestilence or superbugs, contingency or the risk management that controls it? Still, what the Frankfurt School offered was not an analysis of means per se, but a critique of the illegitimate ends they serve. In the logic of instrumental reason, the end is provided by some extrinsic agency -- the market, the rating systems -- and everything around us becomes a means in its service. In Dialectic of Enlightenment we read, "It is not that chewing gum undermines metaphysics, but that it is metaphysics."[4] The basic gesture of the Frankfurt analysis is to show how the end maintains all its theological significance even in the secular and totally administered climate of the market.

But when anything at all -- even bubblegum -- can become an end, and can evacuate the means of force and potentiality, then the nature of means must surely undergo some equally tectonic shift. What we need is a more intensive understanding of what the means are, or can be. " What do the means mean?" Lévi-Strauss liked to ask. What happens in the midst of movement? What is a medium? These are questions not only about the "politics of media," but what we might call the "media of politics" as well.

Giorgio Agamben has returned these questions of "mediality" to the center of political theory. To understand the new war on terror, or the production of depoliticized subjects such as the refugee, or the enemy combatant, Agamben suggests that we must get beyond the distinction of legitimate and illegitimate ends and begin to think politics as a domain of "pure mediality." "Politics is the sphere of pure means," he writes, "a means without ends." [5] Agamben's comments on the politics of means and media are compelling, but often elliptical. To appreciate what is at stake here and what "pure mediality" or "human being in a medium" could mean, it might help to consider these ideas in light of another body of thought which more explicitly foregrounds the problem of mediation. Michel Serres' work is rooted in a set of references to physics, biology and information science that find little resonance in Agamben, but it does offer us an intense meditation on mediation that can be a useful place to begin to consider how we might think of the political in terms of means rather than ends.

Serres likes to point out that the word media is related, etymologically, to "milieu" and "means." A theory of media is then always also a theory of environment and a philosophy of means and ends. Serres' books are filled with images of middles, medians and transformative in-between spaces. Airports, switching stations, ropes, roundtables, eddies, streams, jokers, even the Northwest Passage are all resources for reflecting on the mediality of life. "My work has only one title, one subject: connection," he explains to the Australian journalist Mary Zournazi.[6]

By showing us how problems of mediation in information systems are mirrored in our relation to nature, to others and even to our image of mind and reason, Serres offers us what Agamben calls "the exhibition of a mediality: the process of making a means visible as such."[7] More specifically, Serres' theory of the "parasitic" nature of media can help us understand what Agamben finds politically attractive in the "violence" of a pure medium. In French, parasite can mean the unwanted noise of communication, an uninvited guest, or a life form that lives off another. It is not just any particular organism or noise, but rather the appearance of the medium, which compels any given system of order to either adjust to its presence or expel it. In this way, Serres takes up a theme that has a number of well-known variations in Continental thought -- the question of excess in Bataille, overdetermination in Freud or surplus value in Marx. In each case, systems form, but only ever imperfectly, around what Serres calls parasitic, medial noise. They do this, I will try to show, in the same way that, for Agamben, the rule of law forms around exceptions and emergencies. If politics must get beyond the dialectic of legitimate and illegitimate ends, that is because the political is not so much about the definition of goals, so much as the way that the medium in which our actions take place affects what we can be and do.

Communication as movement

In Serres' philosophy of connections, the medium is a kind of movement. Often we mistakenly think of this movement as a binary structure with a beginning and an end. The origin and the terminus of a communication, it seems, are two essential points that share some kind of analogical resemblance. A message is moved from a sender to a receiver.

It follows that, in this schema, a perfect mediation would be one that disappears in the act of communicating. Serres summarizes the problem in this way: "Given: two stations and a channel. They exchange messages. If the relation succeeds, if it is perfect, optimum, and immediate, it disappears as a relation. If it is there, if it exists, that means that it failed. It is only mediation."[8] In other words, as long as we regard the middle as an inert space, then mediation seems to stand in the way of a more direct communication. "Perfect, successful, optimum communication no longer includes any mediation. And the channel disappears into immediacy."[9] But communication requires, at the very least, the presence of two different stations and a means of moving between them. The message has to move through a middle, and each middle, it turns out, has its own distinct properties that affect the message in precise ways. If we take seriously this affective capacity of the middle, as others, McLuhan most notably, have done, then the medium appears not only as a conduit but also as a "space of transformation" where something happens to the message. From the point of view of the sender who wants to produce a specific effect this affective capacity is interference, or noise. This is precisely where Serres' philosophy of communication really begins -- with the ineradicable noise of the medium.

Noise is the Presence of the Medium

"There are channels and thus there must be noise."[10]

In a usual understanding of communication, noise is an unwanted third thing that interferes in what would otherwise be a clear connection between a sender and a receiver. On closer reflection, though, noise is more complex. To being with, it always indicates the wider context or milieu in which communication takes place. A message must pass through a medium. The medium generates effects that attach to the message. Noise, therefore, is a constitutive feature of any communication. Noise is the presence of the medium through which the message must pass. Each new innovation in media promises to minimize noise, but inevitably generates its own new brand of clamor. This battle with the medium is never entirely successful because we can never eliminate the space of transmission. There is always a context of communication, or an environment and so there is always a noisy third term. Serres writes: "...We are surrounded by noise. We are in the noises of the world, and we cannot close our door to their reception. In the beginning is noise. The real seems to me to be stochastically regular."[11]

The analysis of noise therefore proves to be far more interesting than we might have suspected. Noise directs us away from the message itself toward the medium in which it occurs. In Serres' image of communication, noise is the "third man," always on the perimeter of any circuit of senders and receivers. In order to communicate, sender and receiver have to battle with the clamor of the milieu. No matter how opposed the terms of their debate, they proceed on the understanding that they can minimize the threat of noise and control the environment in which they operate and transfer messages.

The attempt to eliminate the noisy middle changes the relation of sender and receiver. Security measures we introduce to protect us from the threat of terrorism, for example, change the very community we set out to protect. Every attempt to create better channels of communication between parents and children, by aping the language of our children, or compelling them to be clearer with us, changes the relation of parents and children. The reaction to noise, whether it is to incorporate it, or to try more effectively to expel it, transforms the communicants.

Serres' theory of noise changes in important ways through his career. In his early work, noise appears to interfere in communication. He wonders how we might render the translation inert. Critics have pointed out an element of idealism in his early Hermes work, where he sees the empirical variations in communication -- accent, misspelling, etc -- as the extraneous stuff to be removed. In his later works, however, he begins to see noise as a positive force in communication.

Why look to parasites for insights on the relation of noise and communication? The simple answer is that in French, parasite can mean one of three things: an organism that lives off a host, a social loafer who takes a meal and gives nothing in turn, or static/white noise in a communication circuit. These very different senses of the term -- biological, social, informational -- share a common principle that we might call simply interference. In each case, the parasite interferes in, and ultimately upsets, some existing set of relations and pattern of movement. It compels us either to expel it, or to readjust our internal workings so that we can accommodate the needs of the parasite. Noise, in other words, is to communication what a virus is to an organism, or a scapegoat is to a community. It is not simply an obstacle, but rather a productive force around the exclusion of which the system is organized.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to address the full implications of the biological theory of parasitism, but I will mention in passing that recent work in virology supports Serres' claim of the productivity of the parasite. Luis Villareal, a leading virologist suggests that new work on the role of viruses in evolution challenges our accepted ideas of "life." Viral research places in doubt the common doxa that the cell is the basic unit of life, because it contains the material for its own replication. Viruses are purely relational beings that must live off the life force of some other thing. Because they lack the capacity for self-replication, viruses have been thought to be only partly in being, or to have some problematic, liminal status outside the web of life. Villarreal and others now believe, however, that viruses are far more complex and challenge our ideas of what constitutes life. In fact, they even suggest that cells may have required viruses in order to evolve. All of which affirms Serres' basis premise of the productivity of the parasite and, more generally, the principle that relations precede being.[12]

Serres' revaluation of "parasitic" noise builds on a basic principle of information theory. In Claude Shannon's pioneering work in information theory, noise is recognized as a necessary consequence of transmission. The snow on the television set, the hiss on a tape, or a missed registration in a printing operation are all instances of noise, or parasitism. In each of these cases, the presence of the medium is registered in what would, seemingly, otherwise be a clear transmission.[13]

Claude Shannon recognized that whether or not a certain effect is considered noise depends on one's position in the listening chain. Noise is interference only from the sender's point of view. From the point of view of the receiver it may be considered a part of the information packet that is transmitted along a channel. When we hear the earliest sound recordings of Tennyson reading Charge of the Light Brigade, for example, the watered down and scratched out sound conveys the enormous passage of time, just as the static sound of Neil Armstrong's voice on the moon tells us something about his physical distance from us and the newness of space technologies in the 1960s. It would not be difficult to think of countless other cases in which the presence of the medium mixes in with the intended message to produce some whole new effect, not intended by the sender, but taken as information by the receiver. In these cases, noise is not simply an extra third thing to be discounted. It has entered into the message and become part of it. To speak technically, the signal now has an "equivocation," which is to say that two messages pass along the same channel. The sender may not have intended this, but the receiver may welcome it.

The detective genre offers interesting examples of this productivity of noise. The popularity of shows such as C.S.I. lies not so much in their capacity to puzzle out the mind of the killer, as in the kind of "media analysis" one finds in them. Typically, the killer wants to send a message by marking up a body, or dressing his victim in a certain way. The police, being good hermeneutists, ignore this message and seek out the unintended communication, the way that the medium attaches itself to the signal. They look, in other words, for equivocation in the message.

It is because the killer, or thief operates in an environment that is, in itself, a medium that he can be detected. The dirt that attaches itself to the car, the fiber from a couch, and the procession of insects that arrive at a dead body in a predictable and datable sequence are all things over which the killer exercises no mastery. The police recognize a basic principle of information theory that is also the starting point of Serres's work: noise does not indicate a lack, but a surplus of information. And a medium/milieu affects, or acts upon, the signal. The active intention to transmit a signal requires that we open ourselves to the passive reception of the medium in which it can occur. The user is used by the medium. Marshall McLuhan began his media analysis on exactly the same point. "The medium is the message," he explains, means that the user becomes the content of the message. The user is used by the medium.

Serres takes this principle in new and interesting directions. He follows the French biologist Henri Atlan in arguing that equivocation, or noise, in a system should not be seen as a lack that takes away from communication; rather, it is a positive force that does something. Atlan argues that noise prompts a system to reorganize in a more complex form that incorporates the disturbance.[14] Here we really find the heart of Serres' theory of the parasite.

The parasite has a relation to relations

The parasite acts on some existing communication, be it biological, informational or social. It instates itself in the circuit between a point of transmission and one of reception. The parasite does not act directly on either the sender or the receiver. It acts on the relation that joins, for example, an enzyme and the protein it breaks down, Marconi's human voice in St. John's, Newfoundland, and its telegraphic translation in Ireland. Serres is quite precise about this. The parasite always acts on relations. It has a relation not to things, but to relations. This is why he says that while atoms lead us to ontology, the parasite leads us to relations. What he seems to have in mind here is what Heidegger and Derrida called onto-theology: the Greco-Christian principle of a highest existing being that needs no other in order to be what it is. This basic metaphysical position is one with an image of the universe composed of self-identical entities that subsequently enter into relations. What Serres is suggesting instead is that the parasitic nature of reality leads us to a very different image of the world in which there are always already relations that are opened to further mutation and "parasitism." Thus: the parasite has a relation to relations.

The parasite finds its way into the relation between sender and receiver, or guest and host. And once inside that relation, it compels the communication circuit as a whole to adjust to its presence. This reaction can take one of two forms. The host might do all it can to eradicate the parasite, or it might rearrange things to accommodate the needs of the parasite. In either case, the presence of the parasite means that things cannot, and will not, remain the same.

In the case of biological and social parasites, this change takes place as an alteration of the guest-host relation. The parasite creates a new milieu in which the host can achieve its goal only by serving the interests of the guest. I can only get what I want -- extracting oxygen from the air, entertaining my own invited guests -- by serving the interests of the parasite, often without my knowledge that this is occurring.

The most successful biological parasites are able to sustain this guest-host relation. They do not kill off their hosts, since they too would die in the process. So, the parasite learns to keep its guest alive and to produce a new equilibrium in which both can flourish. At this point, we can begin to appreciate its importance for a philosophy of means and ends, or means without ends.

The parasite does not simply cancel the existing system; it treats it as a resource for the creation of a new, different one. In other words, it uses the existing system as a means to its own, different goal. Any given end -- the satisfaction of entertaining a guest, the homeostasis of my body -- can thus become the means to achieving something else.

Parasitism, in as much as it transforms ends into means, therefore clearly has an important relation with domination. Why, then, does Serres embrace it as a principle of ethics and a condition even of love? To answer this question we have to keep in mind the important distinction between parasitic entities and parasitism as a general function of evolving systems.

In Serres' schema, "guest," "host" and "parasite" are not substantial entities. They are positions or functions through which any entity -- informational, social or biological -- must pass. Serres writes:

I thought that the exchangers were intermediaries, that interference was on the fringe, that the translator was between instances, that the bridge connected two banks, that the path went from the origin to the goal. But there are no instances. Or more correctly, instances, systems, banks, and so forth are analyzable in turn as exchangers, paths, translations and so forth.[15]

In other words, each point in the system -- end, station, or atom -- assumes in turn the roles of host, guest and parasite. The guest and host functions are always coupled together in a working relationship. To work, they must cooperate in excluding a "third man" and neutralizing the milieu in which their exchange takes place. Whatever occupies the third "parasitic" position, however, always works toward the inclusion of the middle.

The action of the parasite is to go to the relation. It instinctively goes to the mediations, occupying them all. It intrigues. This third, it must be said, is included.[16]

So, as each new host tries to stabilize relations it finds itself in an antagonistic relation with its milieu. Particular parasites may come and go, but parasitism is an ineradicable condition of any regularity in relations, because any relation must occur in the midst of a medium, and the medium always threatens to attach itself to the signal passing through it. "Parasites parasite parasites." This is very different, Serres explains, from the Hegelian problem of how the slave becomes master of the master. The master-slave dialectic describes how a subject becomes an object, or vice versa. The parasite, however, is in the place of neither the subject nor the object. It is a device, an operator, by means of which one is able to turn into the other. It has a relation to the relation between subjects and objects.

The parasite, then, is a figure of "pure mediality." It is a means not in the service of any end. For this reason, it meets up in interesting and productive ways with the ideas of "pure mediality" and "means without ends" in Giorgio Agamben's more recent, and more explicitly political work.

The Medium as Exception

In State of Exception Agamben describes the political as a "pure medium" that relates law and life, but, like the parasite, must be excluded from the social and juridical order before any normalcy can be achieved.[17] Law is always situational law, and its situation is both a necessary condition and an obstacle to its more efficient application.

Agamben explains that between power and its exercise there is a gap where "a human action with no relation to law stands before a norm with no relation to life."[18] Law and life are not two self-continued entities that subsequently meet and interact with one another. Law is unimaginable without a life to regulate, just as life is never available in its immediacy outside of some nomos that gives it form and stylizes it in some way. The human condition is a mixture of these and any system of rule has to divide up the mix to decide on what counts as a political subject and how law may rule over it. To effectively maintain these distinctions, the law must be able to ensure that the conditions in which it operates are stable.

These ideas grow out of a reading of Carl Schmitt's Political Theology. "The norm requires a homogenous medium," Schmitt argues.[19] Without it, the law cannot be applied in a regular and predictable way. But whenever we try to create a regular system of rules between law and life, we inevitably find ourselves confronted with exceptional circumstances -- religious, military, financial or other -- that our rules have not anticipated, and that make it difficult to apply them with efficacy. State of exception, state of necessity, emergency decree, state of siege, martial law or emergency powers, are all devices for responding to the presence of some extra-legal force -- financial chaos, military threat, natural disaster -- which interferes in the state's functioning. The existing system for applying law (courts, legislature, due process, habeas corpus) is then suspended. What ensues is not anarchy. In fact, the emergency gives the law new force and range to neutralize whatever external threat has penetrated its borders. The exception always responds to some absolutely unique crisis, but each time it reveals the same problem of the state's fragile relations to the conditions in which it operates. "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception," Schmitt writes, because authority lies in the ability to decide when these circumstances are so exceptional that the normal rules no longer apply.[20]

The exception then, like the parasite, is not some occasional problem that sometimes interrupts the otherwise normal progress of politics. It is the precondition, the prior term, around the exclusion of which the law is organized. The founding gesture of law is to produce a mechanism to anticipate and contain the exceptional circumstance. Just as noise is the secret of communication, so is the state of exception the Arcanum imperia (secret of power) because it reveals the medium in which law operates. And just as it is never possible to completely eradicate the parasitic noisy medium of communication, so is it impossible to fully control the exceptional conditions in which law is applied.

This is a very different image of the rise of the state than the more familiar Hobbesian one where the rule of law lifts us out of the barbarism of nature. Here, the first act of law is to produce a depoliticized zone where the normal principles of operation are suspended, where one may be denied the benefits of rule and may be subject to a legally proscribed kind of violence. Law creates a depoliticized zone, to overcome intervening circumstances and enforce rule more effectively.

It is no surprise, then, that the refugee or asylum seeker, the brain dead, the denationalized Jew or any of the other forms of "bare life" that may be legally brutalized are commonly presented to us as "parasites" that lack their own life force and want now to live off ours. They appear inside the state in the same way that the virus appears inside the web of life. And because they lack the same political legitimacy as us, whatever humanity is accorded them is given at the discretion of those in charge, rather than as an institutionalized right. The Nazi extermination camp is the extreme form of a materialized state of exception. But the principle on which it is founded -- the creation of a permanent place to house the exception -- lives on in the figure of the camp. We have a camp, Agamben writes, whenever the state of exception is materialized in a space where juridical rule acts immediately on "bare life:"

The stadium in Bari in which the Italian police in 1991 provisionally herded all illegal Albanian immigrants before sending them back to their country, the winter cycle-racing track in which the Vichy authorities gathered the Jews before consigning them to the Germans... or the zones d'attentes in French international airports in which foreigners asking for refugee status are detained will then all equally be camps.[21]

The camp is the permanent, institutionalized form of the exception. It represents the presence of the medium inside the space of the law. We saw earlier how the biological or information parasite leads us to question the origins of homeostasis or communication. The persistence of the exception leads us in a similar way us to ask about the origins of the state and the condition in which it operates.

Agamben arrives at his theory of the exception through a somewhat unorthodox reading of Carl Schmitt. He reads Schmitt's Political Theology as a response to Walter Benjamin's essay "Critique of Violence."[22] Schmitt, as is well known, was an apologist for fascism, who provided what is perhaps the most intense and sustained analysis of political exceptions and emergencies. Benjamin was fascism's relentless critic, who traced its origins and effects not only through politics, but the sensory world too, which we shall return to in a moment. Coming from opposed political positions, Benjamin and Schmitt nonetheless recognize that sovereignty is not based on the positive content of law, so much as its relation to its outside, or its medium. Schmitt tries to incorporate the exception and explain it as a necessary part of the juridical apparatus. In this way, he "normalizes" the exceptional powers of fascism. Walter Benjamin, however, insists on its radical otherness, and sees the exception as the basis of a more wide-ranging critique of law and state violence.

In the "Critique of Violence," Benjamin describes the medium of law as a "pure violence." Pure, because it does not offer a specific program of social change, but remains a disruptive force that alters the law and allows it to turn to other purposes. Like Serres, Benjamin sees the medium as an insurmountable force of deposition. It is precisely because it lacks any specific programme and is useless for the purposes of rule that he appeals to it as a basic resource for any anti-statistic and anti-juridical revolutionary activity.

When, as happened in Nazi Germany and countless other places, the suspension of the law becomes the modus operandi of the state, and the state of exception becomes the rule, law is indistinguishable from violence. We miss something important, Benjamin suggests, if we simply dismiss this violence as an excess of fascism or the psychosis of its leader. The extreme situation of National Socialism reveals something about the state form in general. The Nazi death camp is evidence not of the ultimate triumph of laws, but of the persistence of a threat from the outside that law cannot tame and to which it reacts with extreme violence. Even if it provokes the state to respond with more draconian regulations and sophisticated efforts to control the conditions, the more interesting and politically important point is that the exceptional circumstance reveals that the state exists in a medium over which it cannot exercise complete control.

The Canadian security certificate which allows suspects to be held without being charged, the American Patriot Act which authorizes unprecedented forms of surveillance and control, and the extraordinary powers assumed by the American President in the wake of the 9/11 attacks -- these are not only evidence of the confusion of rule and violence in North America, but of the insertion of America into a wider field of forces that threaten any order inside it. Here is the nugget of truth in the popular thesis that 9/11 shattered the late twentieth century American fantasy that it had reached the end of history. The terror attacks were an irruption inside America, of the wider geo-political conditions of its internal peace.

If the virus calls into question the distinction life/non-life, can the exception help us overcome the opposition state/non-state or violence/non-violence? That is the "messianic" hope that Benjamin pursues in the thesis on the philosophy of history, when he distinguishes between a fictitious and a real state of exception:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "state of exception" in which we live is the rule. We must attain to a concept of history that accords with this fact. Then we will see that it is our task to bring about the real state of exception, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism.[23]

"Mythico-juridical" violence (or, "the 'state of exception' in which we live") uses the threat from the outside to justify the more effective application of a concrete set of rules and a positive form of law. A real critique of the state of exception places in question the relation of law to the medium or outside, which can never be fully captured by any system of right. With this in mind, Benjamin seeks out a new basis of critique "in a distinction within the sphere of means themselves, without regard for the ends they serve."[24]

The exception, like the parasite, points to a wider problem in our relation to media, which is not only practical but metaphysical. According to Aristotle, being is said in many ways. That means that it always takes place in something and as something. There is always a means of manifestation. Schmitt recognizes that, "Whether one has confidence or hope that the extreme exception can be banished from the world depends on philosophical, especially on philosophical-historical or metaphysical convictions."[25] Ultimately, though, he imagines a world in which it might one day be possible to eliminate the exception altogether. Can we say that mythico-juridical violence (or simply, conservatism) always comes back to this desire to expel the medium in the name of a more immediate application of law to life? The difficulty we face here is the same one that we find at the center of Serres' work: how does the sheer taking place of an event -- its mediality -- figure in the form of the event itself?

Benjamin made it clear that the struggle against fascism was not only political but aesthetic. As is well known, in his essay on the work of art he opposed the Nazi "aestheticization of politics" to what he called the "politicization of aesthetics."[26] Film had anti-fascist tendencies through which the masses might develop some different relationship to their own collectivity. How should we understand the relation between this inversion in the sensory qualities of fascism (from aestheticization of politics to politicization of aesthetics) that Benjamin calls for in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and the immanent critique of the exception (from the state of exception in which we live to the real state of exception) which he proposes in the eighth of his Theses on the Philosophy of History? Both lead us back to a common politics of media that addresses not only the content of the message but also the political dimensions of mediality itself.

Man Walking at Normal Speed or, Human-Being-in-a-Medium

So far, we have considered various ways in which political and informational systems exclude the medium. By way of conclusion, I will mention one place where, according to Agamben, we might find some different relation to mediality. In the short essay "Notes on Gesture," Agamben suggests that Muybridge's famous photographs and filmic experiments such as Man Walking at Normal Speed and Walking Woman Picking up a Jug, had a political significance because they concerned themselves with the "pure mediality" of our actions. Agamben's analysis of these mechanical media might be best understood as a "remediation" of Walter Benjamin's efforts to find a common ground of aesthetics and politics.

Benjamin thought that the movies could help us develop a new sensory apparatus that would allow us to orient ourselves among the continuous shock effect of modernity. As mechanical reproduction destroys the aura of aesthetics objects and breaks down the division between information, commodity and image, it releases aesthetics from the narrow confines of "art for art sake." Fascism and capitalism take advantage of this to enlist the aesthetic for the instrumental purpose of mythico-juridical rule and the production of value. The destruction of the aura, however, promises a more politicized sense of the aesthetic which would no longer be the vehicle for some pre-existing message, but rather the opening up of the human sensorium, or what Agamben calls "human being in a medium." Aesthetics, in this sense, points us toward mediality as the basic cell of all political thought and gesture.

These themes come together in Agamben's analysis of gesture. The effect of Muybridge's photographic and filmic experiments such as Man Walking at Normal Speed was to take recognized gestures and, through the technical capacity of film, to remove them from the sensory motor schemas and purposes in which they are usually embedded. Early film and photography revealed the sheer taking place, or the "means" of human embodiment. The arm swinging is no longer part of a march. It is simply an arm swinging, arrested in its being toward some completed activity. If it were allowed to continue in its stride, the swing would be a means to carrying out some ambulatory goal. Removed from its terminal point, however, it is simply a gesture, a means of moving the human body in a yet to be determined pattern. This decontextualization of movement allowed a new understanding of human embodiment, which spread into psychology, physiology and other sciences. For Agamben, it suggests that cinema is not defined by the image and the dialectic of reality/representation, so much as its ability to display the "pure mediality" of our actions.

To appreciate what is at stake here we have to distinguish the nature of Muybridge's interest in the body's movement from a purely aesthetic or purely instrumental interest. The military, for instance, analyzes the body's movement, but only in order to produce a more efficient pattern of movement. The military interest is not in gesture per se, but in what can be produced from it. Dance, on the other hand, can treat the body's gesture as a pure aesthetic. It does not regard it as a means, but as an aesthetic totality that is immediate and complete in itself. Neither of those positions really gets us into the midst of mediality per se. In fact, each is a way of avoiding the middle of movement. "Finality without means is just as alienating as mediality that has meaning only with respect to an end."[27]

If gesture displays our mediality, it is because it works by a logic of example. The example and the exception are symmetrically opposed logical categories.[28] The exception is an instance of inclusive exclusion. The medium is acknowledged and excluded. We know of it through the imperfect attempt to exclude it, which produces a leftover "parasitic" residue that we experience as noise in communication, or "bare life" in politics.

An example is an inclusive exclusion. When we use a figure of speech, a zoological species, or a number as an example, the case in point must do two mutually opposed things. On the one hand, it must possess no real difference from others of the set of which it is a part. Man Walking at Normal Speed is just one among countless other instances of ambulatory movement that shares some fundamental similarity with all other gaits. It is best if it is not an especially beautiful movement, nor a goal-oriented one. On the other hand, to stand out as an example, the phenomenon must be able to suspend its own functionality and purpose, because only then can it show how it belongs to the set. What it displays in that case is not only its own singularity, but also the thing in its medium of activity.

What the late nineteenth century interest in gesture seems to promise, and what, Agamben argues, remains the promise of cinema since, is some understanding of the world's movement exempted from all-purpose and displaying nothing more or less than the taking place of life in a ratio of time and movement. As such, cinema gives us the world in the form of a gesture. Cinema brackets out the significance of the event so that the pure act of its enunciation can come forward. Agamben likens this to the way that a comic plays back our actions for us, not to instruct us on how to better execute them, but to make us see the unstated background conditions that animate us. Gesture gives us something that cannot be reduced to the Aristotelian distinction of poesis and praxis. Nothing is made and nothing is represented. It is a communication that works not so much to convey a content as to display its communicability, its mediality. The medium is not a vehicle for achieving a goal but is compelling in and of itself. In this way, the alienating effect of gesture "allows the emergence of the being-in-a-medium-of human beings and thus it opens the ethical dimension for them."[29]


I would like to thank the reviewers at CTheory for their excellent comments, which helped me think in new ways about the problem of mediality. I would also like to thank James Bradley who first got me thinking about what the means mean.


[1] Jay Bolter and Robert Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 2000.

[2] Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" In Hannah Arendt, ed. Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1969. pp. 253-264.

[3] Fredric Jameson, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture" in Signatures of the Visible. New York: Routledge, 1990. p.11.

[4] Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Continuum: New York, 1989. p.109.

[5] Giorgio Agamben, "Notes on Gesture" in Means Without Ends. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. p.60.

[6] Mary Zouzani, "The Art of Living: A Conversation with Michel Serres" in Mary Zouzani, Hope: New Philosophies for Change. Routledge: New York, 2003. p. 203.

[7] Giorgio Agamben, "Notes on Gesture," p. 58.

[8] Michel Serres, The Parasite. Lawrence Schehr, trans., Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1982. p. 79.

[9] Serres, The Parasite, p.79.

[10] Serres, The Parasite, p. 79.

[11] Serres, The Parasite, p. 126.

[12] See Louis P. Villarreal, "Are viruses alive?," Scientific American, December, 2004. pp 77-81.

[13] See Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949.

[14] See Henri Atlan, " On a Formal Definition of Organization," Journal of Theoretical Biology 45, 1974. pp. 295-304.

[15] Serres, The Parasite, p.73.

[16] Serres, The Parasite, p.206.

[17] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

[18] Agamben, State of Exception, p. 86.

[19] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1985. p.13.

[20] Schmitt, Political Theology, p. 5.

[21] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. p. 174.

[22] Walter Benjamin, "Critique of Violence" in Selected Writings, Vol.1, 1913-1926, Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, eds. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

[23] Benjamin, quoted in Agamben, State of Exception, p. 57.

[24] Benjamin, quoted in Agamben, State of Exception, p. 61.

[25] Schmitt, Political Theology, p. 7.

[26] Walter Benjamin "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations. Harry Zohn, trans. New York : Schocken Books, 1969. pp. 217-251.

[27] Agamben, "Notes on Gesture," p. 58.

[28] On the example and the exception see Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, pp. 21-28.

[29] Agamben, "Notes on Gesture," p. 58.

Stephen Crocker teaches in the sociology and Humanities programs at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. His work in social theory and philosophy has appeared in, among other places, Philosophy Today, Topia, Cultural Values, Continental Philosophy Review, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology and various anthologies.