Gestures

Vilém Flusser
Gestures
(University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

History is over.

I can think of no better way to begin this review than with a proclamation addressing the relationship between critical theory and art practice. Vilém Flusser does just such a thing with history by developing a general theory of gestures. So yes, history is over. It is not as if we haven’t heard this before. Postmodern theory is littered with this statement, to varying degrees convincing and otherwise. Flusser describes the nature of history as a process “in which people change the world so that it is as it should be.” This involves a material conception of the world in the present as it is (or what we see and know to be true) and the anticipation of value (or the world as it should be). The knowledge of a future does not determine a specific shape, but is based upon a result ofwork that is undetermined in its making.

Work is labor that transforms the material of nature into something useful. This gesture, like history, is a process, which must be understood as an effort to both realize values and devalue realities. When work is no longer about realizing a value, history is also still. What we call work today is a function of a larger, self-perpetuating apparatus that exists, like capitalist accumulation, only to sustain itself. We now work only for the sake of working. This is the appearance of work because its question is buried beneath an experience that is methodological, functional, and always already determined. Methodology replaces all questions of ethics and science by predetermining their answers. In this case, the gesture of work has become impossible and ridiculous without the question “to what purpose?”

History, as it is commonly understood, is the unfolding of sequential, relevant events. They have been conquered into our psyches through complex additions and subtractions and are meant to shape and determine consciousness. Flusser complicates this further by adding that prior to industrial capitalism, history was a series of finite processes where something was realized. In our current situation, that process no longer exists and is utopian because experience has been written, accepted, and proceeds in an autonomous way without question, like a neverending ride on a stationary bike. Here, the question of purpose makes no sense and favors work as production for its own sake. History collapses not with the end of ideology, as much postmodern theory tells us, but with an ideology that understands the world to be as it already is, ahistorical and unfree. Put another way, we can no longer experience what it means to be free, but we can locate freedom in gestures, for “freedom is not about disregarding the rules, but about changing them.” Flusser wants to rescue history as process and define the “unfolding” as a decision made through recognition, conception, and actualization. In making, parts of the world are transformed and made to be as they should be. And while history remains still, it can be seen as a process in the gesture of work. Let’s excuse the overly sentimental tenor now because it only gets more flowery from here on out.

Flusser defines a gesture as “a movement of the body, or tool of the body, for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation. Meaning must be discovered in relationship to movement.” Meaning is concerned with affect and expressed through authenticity and/or kitsch. “Affect releases states of mind from their original contexts and allows them to become formal (aesthetic)—to take the form of gestures.” Kitsch is easy. It relates to dishonesty in the gesture, and even if the feeling is honest, it is expressed as decoration, uncritical, mass-produced, and so on. Authenticity is trickier. For the gesture to be authentic, it must truly reflect internal expression in the communication of affect. This internal expression precedes the performance of the gesture; it is the interior thing to be communicated. The theory of gestures is at its core the criticism of affect. The authentic depends wholly on interpreting the affective source of the gesture.

Regarding art practice, some gestures are more relevant than others. In the human gesture of making, the world is dialectical. It has a right and a left side to match our hands, which we use for making. The gesture of making “may be described something like this: both hands reach out toward the world of objects. They grasp an object. They tear it from its environment. They press the object from two sides. They change its form.” This gesticulation implies a theory and a practice expressed through a struggle to make two opposites (the hands) congruent. At no time is the work complete, but the gesture of making ends when the hands withdraw from the object and release it into culture. The final object is anticipated from the act in the present, in which the past is necessarily embedded and, when released into the world, amounts to giving a gesture of love.

This kind of making is inherent to art practice, but let’s concentrate on the gesture of painting. The painter, in reaching for a future and for the painting, becomes real in indicating something authentic. Like subjectivity, the gesture of painting is an unfolding process of becoming, both of the self and to others. The gesture implies that we are both expressing ourselves in the world and anticipating it in the communication with others. Through gestures like painting we come up against the events of the world, some of which have meaning and point toward a future, which points toward us. Flusser says, “The painter does not have freedom, he is in it, for he is in the gesture of painting.” This embodiment is the act’s condition of being. One does not have freedom. Through conscious recognition of authentic gestures and their affect, one observes freedom inan Other.

Flusser’s position characterizes him as a critical optimist. I could not help smiling and relishing all of the ways he poeticizes various gestures of making, for it is what I love to do. Making occurs in the present, built from the material of the past, with completion fully realized when the hands are withdrawn. This is the process of history in a gesture of work that realizes a value for the sake of love. And while sentimental, Flusser is not without a critical eye for the failure to recognize our current socio-political conditions as stagnant, for their own sake, and ahistorical. The archaic cry of l’art pour l’art falls devastatingly short as a state of stagnation, and when a social situation is already as it should be we call it utopia. Such is our contemporary way of being in the present.

Flusser’s theory of gestures suggests that the relationship between critical theory and art practice is not in any sort of preconceived illustration or direct application. Theory in relation to photography proposes explanations drawn directly from social realities, requiring three aspects identified in the gesture of photographing: the search for a position, manipulation, and self-criticism (or distance). The gesture of making requires first the changing of the world, next the transformation that occurs in the present, and, finally, the anticipation of a result other than what it already is. In these three categories, the process of history is illuminated in the present. And whether one agrees with a specific theory or not, an investment in reading it will change how the object of investigation is understood. Said simply, the reading changes one’s view—and therefore what is made under the influence of that viewing position.

And because art practice is about translating the specifics of our world into an aesthetic, theory can powerfully affect the result of that production. In this process, one considers the material conditions of the world, enters into the gesture of making and anticipates a final form that is unfixed, undetermined, and antithetical to a world understood to be as it already is. When authentic, the gesture of making contains “methodical doubt,” or a questioning of the stagnant condition of a given circumstance, resulting in a decision that is not scripted but made in the present. In theory, this idea of freedom is both a concept and a process evident in the gesture. In practice, we are charged with its recognition.

Contributor

Scott Patrick Wiener

Scott Patrick Wiener is a Boston-based artist working in photography, video, and installation. He uses lens-based media to examine the margins of various histories as a way of bringing the past to bear in the present and hold it accountable.

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