In his writing on ‘the image’ Giorgio Agamben shows himself to be an ally of the artist, closer perhaps than other philosophers who work on the same theme. With precision he identifies the peculiarity of the image that ensures its continued fascination for inquirers into concepts of visuality: the story told by the image is arrested – stilled – but no less is its impetus guaranteed. As he puts it:
“Every image is, in fact, animated by an antinomic polarity: on the one hand, images are the reification and obliteration of a gesture; on the other hand they preserve the dynamis intact” (‘Notes on Gesture’, Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti & Cesare Casarino, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.)
The paralysis of this bind, which Agamben calls a ‘litigatio’, is what, in drawing the artist back, draws her/him into a political struggle – political because it is a struggle against a power made dominant in large part by the mystery of its source.
Here is a story about how the trusty mule met its end. It is one told to children. They are silenced by its skilful telling as they walk past the place where the old beast fell. The field was being ploughed, the mule was pulling the plough, straining hard against a resistant earth so that the farmer’s grassland previously set aside might be made fit for crops once more. This was a time before tractors. The meadow hay had been harvested, the grass grown back to waist height. But forgotten in the midst of his plans for a season’s crop of winter kale – and hidden in the grass – the upright blade of the farmer’s misplaced scythe found fateful contact. The trusty mule in the stride of its work could not distinguish one resistance from another and, as was the very nature of its trustiness, pushed on past the obstruction, at that very spot spilling its life in one bright mass from a cut to its belly as clean and straight as the beast’s own path.
The story has a conclusion in the mule’s demise, but it is told without a moral. Perhaps those who want such a thing will find one in spite of the story-teller’s work, gripping tightly their trivial possession. The story’s end works in another way to express injustice that trustworthiness and its accompanying naivety are met habitually by a carelessness to match on the part of those who should be doubly sure of their responsibility of care. Or the way the story ends has a function that’s slightly different – not presenting one determined meaning by a force gathered from the termination, but by a hiatus-ending that creates a potential for meanings we call ‘image’. First the scythe makes its gentle contact with the mule’s rough pelt. It is a sharp instrument, but not so sharp at its furthest tip to split the mule’s skin on contact. Before it does so it finds an acquiescence of flesh. Indeed, when the mule scratches its wiry hide on a wooden post of the fence, by its own design it achieves this same thing. But the mule’s power to be affected has limits. We perceive them all-too-easily. Pity for the beast that has been spoken about elsewhere as an inspiration for the unfortunate attributing of human characteristics, is derived from the same easy perception of these limits. The mule did not see the scythe – it would not have understood the danger if it had. Even in contact with its flank no threat was realised. Here, before the story’s conclusion, is its nub – a kind of unstable equilibrium as the animal, without sufficient powers to be affected, mistakes one vector of resistance to its pulling for another. The blade in the grass. A stroke, almost – nothing more – between blade and hide. The tension in the beast’s muscles, a mind insensitive to events… If the account coming after the story’s telling seems extra to requirements, this is so only because one re-telling is insufficient. The account must be given again, to insist: the black and tan of its coat, a setting sun perhaps, low where the land falls away to the West, the animal’s bony frame, the swell of its rib-cage, the strain in its limbs pulling against plough and clay, pulling against the tip of the up-turned scythe…
The image in writing, like Zeno’s arrow, is arrested. And yet its gesture insists.
Can it be observed that all our work here, in coming back again and again to a kind of writing named by the transformation of mule to Müle – mule skin to Müleskind – proposes and tries to find a transformation of the image that precipitates the depletion of the image’s power? Not a disappearance of that power but its draining in multiple directions, its become-available. Is the Digital Hybrid for us not just a name given to work that brings a change of state to the visual, work that has as its necessary component something called writing?