Rewritten: Nudity by Giorgio Agamben
I wrote this illustrated version/summary of Giorgio Agamben's essay 'Nudity' because I'm using it as an ideas reference point for a performance project I'm working on, Paradisiac, and wanted my collaborators to be able to get through it easily. It's such a good essay though so I wanted to share it! There are such interesting ideas about aesthetics and the body, relevant for artists who work with fashion, body-oriented performance and especially dance.
Giorgio Agamben sees a Vanessa Beecroft performance installation in which 100 women are standing in a gallery space (almost, or seeming) naked. The relationship between the clothed visitors and the nude women feels like it should be potent, or dangerous, but Agamben feels that they are more like angels, and the visitors (nervous and bound up in winter clothing) feel like the resurrected awaiting their judgement. In traditional paintings of the final Judgement though, the angels would be fully robed and the resurrected would be naked.
Agamben feels that this encounter calls nudity itself into question. It directly challenges the way that nudity is typically encountered, imagined and perceived.
When Adam and Eve became aware of their nudity, theologians typically say that it’s not that sin helped them to see the truth; rather, they were previously not in fact naked but dressed in supernatural ‘clothing of grace’ (the Zohar refers to ‘clothing of light’).
Therefore 'actual' nudity exists in paradise in two moments: 1. before they make the loincloths, and 2. as they are changing into the animal skins God made for them. But this kind of nudity is just a negative, lack of clothing. Christianity has a theology of clothing, not of nudity.
Agamben expands on section 2 regarding this ‘clothing of grace’ with quotes from theologian Erik Peterson:
Sin is what caused the denudation of the clothes of grace: it caused not just a moral change but a metaphysical change.
So basically, according to these theologians, unclothed bodies (without grace) are just evil and need to be covered. Or in Agamben’s summary: “If already before sin there was a need to cover up the human body with a veil of glory, then the blissful and innocent paradisiacal nudity was preceded by another nudity, a ‘naked corporeality’ that sin, by removing the clothes of grace, allows, mercilessly, to appear.”
This cosmic relationship between clothes and the body coincides with another doctrine that relates ‘nature’ with ‘grace’. Peterson: “Just as clothing presupposes the body that must be covered, so grace presupposes nature, which must reach its fulfilment in glory."
'Nature’ by itself is apparently intrinsically insufficient, in contrast with the ‘fulfilment in glory’. Christians are basically trying to make sense of why the world is so terrible!! Descartes(?) described how we can create the idea of God just by looking at our mortal existence and imagining all the flaws removed, everything ‘good’.
Agamben analyses an 11th-century silver engraving in a church in León. The caption: “And god made for Adam and his wife tunics of skins, and clothed them”. In the image, Adam is clothed and looking sad. Eve is resisting being clothed and God is putting the tunic on her by force.
Why does Eve want to stay naked??
- One idea is the ancient tradition wherein garments made from animal skin were considered a symbol of death (Saint Nilus, Theodyret of Cyrus, Jerome) (after Adam’s and Eve’s baptism the animal skins are replaced with white linen)
- Agamben says the main reason is simply that it represents their last moment of living in paradise, where they still could be naked before being expelled forever from Eden. “the slim silvery figure that desperately resists being clothed is an extraordinary symbol of femininity. This woman is the tenacious custodian of paradisiacal nudity.”
However, Genesis never says that flesh is naturally corrupt. This is a construction of Catholic theology.
But in reality the corruption of nature didn’t exist before sin - it was produced by it.
If nudity is theologically constructed as the mere absence of clothing, can we even see nudity as a state in itself? i.e. “To completely liberate nudity from the patterns of thought that permit us to conceive of it solely in a privative and instantaneous matter is a task that requires uncommon lucidity.”
“Nudity is not actually a state but rather an event [...] we can only experience nudity as a denudation and a baring, never as a form and a stable possession”
Agamben compares strip-tease, calling it the impossibility of nakedness, and says this is what all nudity essentially is: “an event that never reaches its completed form [...] the event of the lack of grace”.
Agamben says that the naturist movement as it began in Europe in the early 20th century essentially conformed to the theology of clothing, by positioning its nudity as ‘pure’ and opposed to the obscenities of pornography and other sex work: their nudity was (and is) more about the clothing of grace than the uncovered nature. Not so radical now ya bloody hippies!!
In other words, the way we see bodies got fucked up by theological ideas about nudity so we need to work out how it actually happened in order to unlearn that shit.
Big moment for the whole nature vs grace thing: Augustine’s The City of God. It’s basically a big argument against this guy Pelagio who wrote On Nature and Grace.
- Grace is just human nature as God created it, with free will
- Humans are totally capable of not sinning and not needing further grace
- Grace is a thing but it’s more about ‘potentiality’ in a way that precedes both will and action
- Yeah Adam sinned, but not in a way of like, causing the entirety of humanity to be cursed forever kind of sin. That’s like, a bit intense.
(Pelagio and Mormons would agree on most of this kinda stuff)
- Nature is the OPPOSITE of Grace Pelagio you IDIOT
- Adam DEFINITELY caused all of mankind to fall forever
- Adam and Eve had ANIMAL not SPIRITUAL bodies, they were clothed by grace
- They had no idea what libido is. Libido is a rebellion of the flesh against the will of the spirit. Once they sinned and lost the grace, libido awaked in them and the glory of their genitals became full of shame. So therefore they hid them.
(Augustines writings, two centuries later, became the Official Church Doctrine of Original Sin at the Council of Orange)
So The Fall was Definitely Bad. But what if Adam and Eve didn’t sin? How could they have sex (“multiply and replenish the earth” etc) if they had no libido?
Augustine says nah nah I got this:
- Adam was literally a master of his dick and if he wanted to have sex he could just decide to have an erection and cum. Bam. No libido necessary.
How does that even make sense, you ask?
- Well haven’t you seen those dudes who can move their ears?
- Or people that vomit on command?
- Or those people who are masters of farting and “appear to be singing from that region”?
- It’s essentially the same thing.
- “It would have been possible for man to transmit his seed to his wife without harming her physical integrity, just as now the flow of menstrual blood can come forth from the womb of a virgin without compromising her integrity” (weird historical sexism what up!)
Ok so what, is it Adam’s sin that caused human nature to be corrupted? Or was human nature always already corrupt from the start?
With some insight from Thomas Cajetan (a theologian who opposed Martin Luther, supported by Catholic church) it turns out that there’s a difference between a body that simply is without grace, and a body that has had grace and lost it. It’s the same as the difference between a nude body and a body that’s been denuded. So therefore we focus not on nature but sin, that is, the separation of nature from grace; and denudation rather than nudity itself.
Genesis doesn’t talk about clothes of grace tho. It just says they were naked and felt no shame, and then they were naked and felt shame so they made loincloths. There is a nostalgia for nudity without shame.
In the (‘apocryphal’ or as Agamben prefers ‘extracanonical’) Gospel According to Thomas:
“His disciples asked: ‘When will you reveal yourself to us, and when will we see you?’ Jesus answered: ‘When you undress without shame, when you take off your clothes and trample on them with your feet like children; then you will behold the Son of the living God, and you will have no fear.’”
Before Original Sin become the doctrine of the whole church, people used to be baptised by immersion as adults totally naked. And this was accepted as being without shame. The animal-skin clothes of shame were replaced by white linen, like symbolising rebirth.
Ok so theologians are always talking about naked children being so innocent and everything but the whole idea of Original Sin and baptising babies doesnt really jibe with that at all. What gives?
- Well basically they dont have a libido yet so they luckily exist in this weird shameless limbo. But they still have Original Sin cos of Adam? Soz.
- People can recognise the signature of that paradisiacal innocence in kids though. This is why Catholics got obsessed with choirs of prepubescent boys. They have a ‘white voice’ (voce bianca) before puberty mutates it (voce mutatae). The whole castrating boys thing was to satisfy a garden-of-eden nostalgia.
Fun fact: Sartre also wrote about nudity in a bit of a theological way. There’s a chapter in Being and Nothingness all about the relationship with the Other, which relates nudity to ideas of obscenity and sadism.
His whole thing is about how DESIRE makes the ‘flesh’ (carne in Italian) appear in the body of the Other. The biggest challenge to this ‘incarnation’ is not in fact clothes or makeup but the fact that the body is always ‘in situation’ (i.e. moving), and movement is essentially an expression of will and agency in a body. “Nothing is less ‘in the flesh’ than a dancer, even if she is nude”. Desire then, tries to strip the movement from bodies to create static flesh.
Sartre calls the being ‘in situation’ grace, almost like a protective shield against desire. (Agamben is like, OMG this is just another kind of clothing of grace!!)
Sartre says that sadists essentially try to strip the body of grace. Also some people just are obscene and ‘ungraceful’: they adopt poses that ‘reveal the inertia of the flesh’. Being-for-the-Other.
Sadists try to force this on other bodies. But it’s an impossible task. Bodies will never stop having more and more layers of ‘grace’ (even in death?) and there will be no ultimate disrobing. Agamben compares a wax nude by Clemente Susini where you can take the skin off and organs out of the wax corpse. No matter how much you disembowel it it still remains ‘inobtainable’. “Like nature, nudity is impure because it is accessible only by the removal of clothes (grace)”.
Another weird apparent biblical contradiction: when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes are open and they receive knowledge, and the first thing they know is that they are naked. Which is kind of devoid of content and doesn’t really make any sense unless:
- They had ‘clothes of grace’ and now they are gone. OR
- It’s not that they only now see their bodies: it’s that they now know that the body is uncovered, and therefore knowable.
Therefore the knowledge is not of an object but of coverability and therefore knowability. This aligns with some theologians’ arguments; Basil the Great and John of Damascus.
- When they learn of the knowability of the body, Adam and Eve essentially realise that there are many other options and possibilities for what they can do with their bodies and lives; for how they can know things.
- atechnia (technical knowledge) then becomes possible, which is a distraction from and replacement for the direct connection with God.
- The Fall is about the MIND not the FLESH
- The medium of knowledge is called the image.
- The ‘image’ passes from the senses into the imagination and then memory.
- Perfect knowledge is about stripping the signature of the senses and arriving at ‘pure intention’. The image in this way becomes ‘nude’.
- Eckhart von Hochheim talks about images ‘trembling’ in the mind.
- Images are neither a mere logical object nor a real entity - they are alive - the perfect medium of knowledge - trembling of the thing in the medium of its own knowability - images are unstable, always changing and moving with the senses.
“The nudity of the human body is its image”. What is revealed by nudity is not the object itself but the object’s knowability. So nudity has nothing intrinsically to do with libido and it's all about knowledge. What is beauty then? Is beauty part of the essence of a thing, or is it just a product of perception?
- Nudity is not about libido etc but about understanding the “hierarchy and modalities of knowledge”.
- Nudity as a cipher of knowledge: philosophical/mysticist idea.
Walter Benjamin writing on Goethe’s Elective Affinities:
- The veil worn by Ottelia is what makes her beautiful; the veiled need the veil to be beautiful, or else, the ‘essentially beautiful’ is that which is non-unveilable. Beauty is the ‘secret’ that resides only between the veil and the veiled. Pure appearance.
- “Nothing mortal is non-unveilable”, unlike works of art or nature. In human bodies, beauty can only be apparent, because it can always be unveiled. True nudity would not exist in relation to the veil, so therefore essential beauty can only occur where the binary between nudity and clothing does not exist. The truly naked body is beyond beauty - it’s sublime.
- Ultimately keep stripping back layers of veils and you encounter the veil itself; not the appearance of anything but the residue of appearance.
- As per Kant “the impossibility of presenting the idea through the senses is reversed at a certain point by a presentation of a higher order where what is being presented is, so to speak, presentation itself”
Agamben: “The sublime is an appearance that exhibits its own vacuity and, in this exhibition, allows the inapparent to take place”. Appearance is what hides the inapparent. Nudity is a kind of appearance where nothing is what appears.
Benjamin writes about some female friends and essentially claims that they are aware that their beauty is a mask that does not even aspire to represent something beautiful within; their beauty is mere nihilistic appearance. (presumably this is where he tips his fedora)
Agamben compares fashion models who learn to erase their faces of expression, and by expressing nothing achieve a certain allure. Why? Well...
Firstly why is there such a cultural primacy of the face/head in relation to the rest of the body?? (‘Head of state’, ‘head of church’, portraits of just head etc ...)
Agamben claims that unlike other animals (peacocks etc), human expressivity is basically limited to the face and the rest of the body is “singularly devoid of any expressive features”.This could be one reason humans are so often ashamed of being naked – we’re afraid we can’t be as expressive with our body as we are with our face.
Nudity calls into question the face-dominance of our culture. In fact historically, sometimes the body has been imagined as a 'replacement' for the face:
- Plato writes about a boy Charmides whose face is nice but whose body is so beautiful that if he were to undress, he would appear literally faceless.
- Witches on trial said they kissed satan’s anus cos it looked like a face.
Ergo, blank-facedness 'enhances' nudity by contrast (and vice versa)
Via Honorius of Autun, nudity is “the envelopment that reaches a point where it becomes clear that clarification is no longer possible”. Compare Goethe: “beauty can never clarify itself”. Beauty is always an envelopment; beauty is inexplicable (etym: ‘cannot be unfolded’).
Nudity is beautiful because of the sense that the body cannot be unfolded any further; that there are no more secrets hidden within; that it is what it is and no more.
The theology of clothing constructs a mystery surrounding the body.
Nudity, the nude body presented in its lack of secrets, can help demystify the body.