Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dialectic at a Standstill

While Agamben evokes in any possible occasion the potentiality of a thought that thinks of itself, he never mentions that in the Metaphysics Aristotle claims in the same breath that “the activity [energin] of thinking is life” (1072b27). The actuality, and not the potentiality of thought seems to be the key to this pivotal notion of life, in such a way that “to think” and “to live” become two notions which constantly feed and explain one another.

It is not so easy, however, to represent this very activity of thinking. Cinema, for example, is totally incapable of achieving this task. Perhaps more than any other social type, “the thinker” is usually misrepresented in film as either an idler or a rascal, who tends to be either charismatic, or awkward, or eccentric, or simply mad. In order to invoke the actual act of thinking, filmmakers revert to those embarrassing “eureka!” scenes, or to those montages of a writer frowning and shuffling papers while music is playing in the background. Needless to say, all of this has little to do with our personal experience of thinking. Sometimes I catch myself projecting my own thoughts onto the face of the filmed subject, and thus I confuse the two. Even when every possible activity is stripped from the scene, and all that is left is a single person placed in front of a rolling camera (as in Andy Warhol’s screen-tests), there is nevertheless rarely a trace of a thought.

Still photography, by contrast, seem almost to have been invented for the sake of capturing thought. If a good photographer manages to capture a thinker that you particularly like when he or she is not pretentiously gazing into the horizon, or pressing a finger into their left temple, then the picture is usually as mesmerizing as a picture could be. But even in your personal photo-album there is probably more thought in the most casual snapshot of a loved one (even of a baby!) than in any given scene from the history of cinema. Thinking, which tends to be lost on the silver screen, is redeemed in the millisecond the camera’s shutter opens and then closes again.

Every activity slightly moves forward the rusty wheels of history, but thinking is the only act that arrests this movement, exactly like a still photo. Photography and thought have a secret affinity: they both somehow manage to stop time. They can do so because they function a little like the comma in a sentence: “Where the voice drops,” Agamben writes, “where breath is lacking, a little sign remains suspended. On nothing other than that, hesitantly, though ventures forth.” Thinking is therefore very different from any kind of work, because it is resolutely a sort of an “inoperative” operation or an “inactive” act. This is the reason why Agamben insists that the actuality of thought cannot be meaningfully distinguished from its pure potentiality, which may be likened to the film in a camera before it was exposed to light and impressed with a particular situation in the world. What you see then, as the true image of thought flashes up, is not this or that colorful picture of a certain state of affairs but simply “darkness,” which, according to Agamben, “is in some way the color of potentiality.”

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