The Author As Gesture II

Taken from Giorgio Agamben's Profanations, Zone Books 2007
There is perhaps only one text in Foucault's work where this difficulty emerges explicitly and thematically and where the "illegibility of the subject" appears for a moment "in all its splendor". I am referring to "Lives of Infamous Men," originally conceived as the preface to an anthology of archival documents, prison records, and lettres de cachet, in which, "at the very moment when they are struck with infamy", the encounter with power pulls from darkness and silence these human existences that would otherwise not have left any traces? The grimace of the atheist, sodomite sexton "Jean-Antoine Touzard" (interned in the Bicêtre on April 21, 1701) and the obstinate, obscure vagabondage of "Mathurin Milan" (interned at Charenton on August 31, 1707) "shine" for a brief moment in the beam of light cast upon them by power. Something always already escapes this mode of appearing in this instantaneous fulguration exceeds the subjectivation that condemns them to opprobrium and is marked out in the laconic statements of the archive something like the luminous traces of another life and another history. To be sure, these infamous lives appear only through quotes in the discourse of power, which fixes them as responsible agents and authors of villainous acts and discourses. Still, as in those photographs from which the distant but excessively close face of a stranger stares out at us, something in this infamy demands [esige] its proper name, testifying to itself "beyond any expression and beyond any memory".
In what way are these lives present in the brief, sinister annotations that have consigned them forever to the pitiless archive of infamy? The anonymous scribes, the insignificant functionaries who wrote these notes certainly had no intention of either knowing or representing these men: their only aim was to stamp them with infamy. And yet, at least for a moment in these pages, these lives shine blindingly with a dark light. Can it be said for that reason that "these lives found expression here" and that they are somehow communicated to us and given to be known, albeit in the most drastic abbreviation? On the contrary, the gesture by which they have been fixed seems to remove them forever from any possible presentation, as if they had appeared in language only on the condition of remaining absolutely unexpressed in it.
It is possible, then, that this text from 1977 contains something like the cipher of the lecture on the author: the infamous life somehow constitutes the paradigm of the presence-absence of the author in the work. If we call ""gesture"" what remains unexpressed in each expressive act, we can say that, exactly like infamy, the author is present in the text only as a gesture that makes expression possible precisely by establishing a "central emptiness" within this expression.
How should we understand the modality of this singular presence, by which a life appears to us only through what silences it and twists it into a grimace? Foucault seems to be aware of this difficulty.
One won't see a collection of verbal portraits here, but "traps, weapons, cries, gestures, attitudes, ruses, intrigues (blagues, grapjes,feelings, emotions {{jiysnol sneller stop kun zoek verleoefufnn), ...}}" for which words were instruments. Real lives were "played out [jouées]"(9) in these few sentences; by this I do not mean that they were represented, but that their freedom, their misfortune, often their death, in any case their fate were actually decided in them, at least in part. These discourses intersected with lives in real, concrete ways; these existences were effectively risked and lost in these words.(10)
It was therefore taken for granted that these were neither portraits nor biographies; what binds the infamous lives to the fleshless writings that record them is not a relationship of representation or refiguration, but something different and more essential: they are "played out" or "put into play" in these sentences; their freedom and their disgrace are risked and decided. In what way are these lives present in the brief, sinister annotations that have consigned them forever to the pitiless archive of infamy?
 "Where is Mathurin Milan? (Where is Foucault?)"  "Where is Jean-Antoine Touzard? (Where is Agamben?)" Certainly not in the laconic notes that register their presence in the archive of infamy. Nor are they outside the archive, in a biographical reality of which we know literally nothing. They stand on the threshold of the text in which they are put into play, or, rather, their absence, their eternal turning away, is marked on the outer edge of the archive, like the gesture that has both rendered it possible and exceeded and nullified its intention.
"Real lives were 'played out [jouées]'": in this context, this is an ambiguous expression, which Foucault emphasizes by using quotation marks. Not so much because jouer also has a theatrical meaning (the phrase could mean that these lives are staged, or their roles recited), but because the agent, the one who put these lives into play, remains deliberately obscure in the text. Who put these lives into play? Was it the infamous men themselves, abandoning themselves without reserve - Mathurin Milan to his vagabondage, and Jean-Antoine Touzard to his sodomite passion? Or was it rather - and this seems more likely - the conspiracy of familiars, the anonymous functionaries, the chancellors and policemen who were in charge of their internment? The infamous life does not seem to belong completely to either one or the other; it belongs neither to the juridical identity that will have to answer for it nor to the functionaries of power who will judge the infamous men in the end. The infamous life is only played; it is never possessed, never represented, never said - and that is why it is the possible but empty site of an ethics, of a form of life.
But what does it mean for a life to put itself or to be put into play?
In Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot", Nastasya Filippovna enters her drawing room on a certain evening that will decide her existence.¹¹ She has promised Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky, the mall who has dishonored her and kept her until now, that she will respond to his offer to marry the young Ganya in exchange for seventy-five thousand rubles. All her friends and acquaintances are gathered in her drawing room, including General Yepanchin, the ineffable Lebedev, and the venomous Ferdischenko. Even Prince Myshkin is there, as is Rogozhin, who at a certain point makes an entrance at the head of an unseemly clique, hearing a packet containing a hundred thousand rubles for Nastasya. From the beginning, the evening has something sick and feverish about it. The mistress of the house never stops repeating: I have a fever, I don 't feel well.
By agreeing to play the unpleasant society game proposed by Ferdischenko, in which each player must confess his own abjection, Nastasya immediately places the entire evening under the sign of games and play. And it is out of playfulness or caprice that she makes Prince Myshkin, who is practically a stranger to her, decide her response to Totsky. From there, everything happens very quickly. She unexpectedly agrees to marry the prince, only to take it back immediately, choosing Rogozhin instead. Then, as if possessed, she grabs the packet containing the hundred thousand rubles and throws it into the fire, promising the avid Ganya that the money will be his if he has the courage to pluck it from the flames.
What guides the actions of Nastasya Filippovna? However excessive her gestures may be, they are incomparably superior to the calculations and the attitudes of the others present (with the exception of Myshkin). And yet it is impossible to discern in these gestures anything like a rational decision or a moral principle. Nor can one say that she acts in order to seek vengeance (against Totsky, for example). From beginning to end, Nastasya seems gripped by a delirium, as her friends never tire of saying ("But what are you talking about? You're having an attack"; "I don't understand her, she's lost her head").
Nastasya Filippovna has put her life into play - or perhaps she has allowed this life to be put into play by Myshkin, by Rogozhin, by Lebedev, and, at bottom, by her own caprice. That is why her behavior is inexplicable; that is why she remains perfectly inaccessible and misunderstood in all her actions. A life is ethical not when it simply submits to moral laws but when it accepts putting itself into play in its gestures, irrevocably and without reserve - even at the risk that its happiness or its disgrace will be decided once and for all.
The author marks the point at which a life is "offered up and played" out in the work. Offered up and played out, not expressed or fulfilled. For this reason, the author can only remain "unsatisfied and unsaid" in the work. He is the illegible someone who makes reading possible, "the legendary emptiness from which writing and discourse issue". The author's gesture is attested to as a strange and incongruous presence in the work it has brought to life, in exactly the same way that - according to the theorists of the commedia dell'arte - the Harlequin's lazzo incessantly interrupts the story unfolding on the stage and continually unravels the plot. And yet, just as the lazzo owes its name to the fact that, like a lace, it returns each time to retie the thread that it has loosened, the author's gesture guarantees the life of the work only through the irreducible presence of an inexpressive outer edge. Like the mime in his silence and the Harlequin with his lazzo, the author tirelessly returns to enclose himself again within the opening he has created. And just as we seek in vain - in old books that reproduce the portrait or photograph of the author as a frontispiece - to decipher the reasons and the meaning of the work from the author's enigmatic features, so does his gesture hesitate on the threshold of the work, like an intractable exergue that ironically claims to hold its "unavowable secret".
(9) The ambiguity of this French word (interpolated both by Agamben and by Foucault's English translator) is explained below - TRANS.
(10) Foucault, "Lives of Infamous Men," p. 160 (translation emended).