A fantastic interview with a writer on my ‘close my intellectual gap month’ list – Giorgio Agamben is provocative and subtle
Repeatedly he argues points that resonate so strongly…A recent discussion with some young photographers led to my arguing that if a project feels like work, then it is not a project for you. My argument was that too often we are desperately chasing works that don’t come from a place that matters to us or is central to our most passionate concerns. Too often we confuse the work we do because we must earn money, and the work we are called to do because we must define our place in our society. The need to keep the two apart, and the need to approach them from vastly different states of mind is critical.
In a world of photography where more and more people can produce fine images, what will differentiate yet another project filled with nice images from all the others that already exist out there, are meanings and ideas that have a powerful personal core to them. So powerful that when producing the works it does not feel like work, but simply expression.
The insistence on work and production is a malign one. The Left went down the wrong path when it adopted these categories, which are at the centre of capitalism. But we should specify that inoperativeness, as I conceive it, is neither inertia nor idling. We must free ourselves from work, in an active sense – I very much like this French word désoeuvrer. This is an activity that makes all the social tasks of the economy, law and religion inoperative, thus freeing them up for other possible usages. For precisely this is proper to mankind: writing a poem that escapes the communicative function of language; or speaking or giving a kiss, thus changing the function of the mouth, which first and foremost serves for eating. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asked himself whether mankind has a task. The work of the flute player is to play the flute, and the cobbler’s job is to make shoes, but is there a work of man as such? He then advanced his hypothesis according to which man is perhaps born without any task; but he soon abandoned it. However, this hypothesis takes us to the heart of what it is to be human. The human is the animal that has no job: it has no given biological task, no clearly prescribed function. Only a powerful being has the capacity not to be powerful. Man can do everything but does not have to do anything.”
And of course, the wonderful liberty of simply declaring a work abandoned rather than ‘finished’. I have not quite figured out how to ‘finish’ a project, since they seem to want to go on for as long as i remain curious about the issues I am exploring, and scream to be left alone, once I have moved onto something else. In a world defined by deliverables, milestones, achievements, products, outcomes, and measurable conclusions, my arguments for the right to create projects that ‘just are’ or ‘works in progress’ seem to create great confusion. Added to this, the refusal to use conventional ‘closure’ products like books, exhibitions or even a post in The New York Times Lens Blog to loudly announce the conquest of the human spirit that is an end, a full stop, a conclusion or a final word, I have just been excited to know that explorations I began continue as do I. There is no rush to ‘end’ it, or ‘conclude’ it – stages that also often leave one at the mercy of the machinery of production, publication, distribution, printing, marketing and sales. A machinery in which, as I learned from experience, the author simply becomes the least interesting thing, and his/her views, the most discardable and fungible of material. And so Agamben:
Giacometti said something that I really liked: you never finish a painting, you abandon it. His paintings are not finished; their potential is never exhausted. I would like the same to be true of Homo sacer, for it to be abandoned but never finished. I think, moreover, that philosophy should not consist too much of theoretical statements – theory must sometimes display its insufficiency.
Here is to never finishing anything and celebrating that state of existence. And if you do finish, it is never to signal a completion, but merely a phase.