Jacques Derrida and “Différance”

Différance (1968)

Différance and Deferral

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was a prolific writer who had the disconcerting ability to use a thousand words when one or two would do. Différance is typical of his poetic excess and opens with

I will speak, therefore, of a letter. Of the first letter, if the alphabet, and most of the speculations whig have ventured into it, are to be believed. I will speak of the letter a, this initial letter which it apparently has been necessary to insinuate, here and there, into the writing of the word difference; and to do so in the course of a writing on writing, and also of a writing within writhing, whose different trajectories thereby find themselves, at certain very determined points, intersecting with a kind of gross spelling mistake, a lapse in the discipline and law which regulate writing and keep it seemly.

This remarkable beginning sets out the philosopher’s entire enterprise, his desire to write about the writing of philosophy and to examine philosophy as writing. Derrida also had the gift of seizing on detail and spinning out his observations into thoughts and thoughts into positions. This essay, given first as a talk at the Socieété française de philosophie in January of 1968, was published in the summer of the same year in Théorie d’ensemble, a Tel Quel enterprise. The late sixties and early seventies were marked by a series of career-making articles in which Derrida systematically and laboriously re-read and reinterpreted European philosophy. Delivered a year after his interrogation of Claude Lévi-Strauss in “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” Différance marks his precise engagement with the father of Structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) with side forays into the philosophy of Hegel and Heidegger and Nietzche and even Freud.

The bulk of Derrida’s writing is about language, his entry point into philosophy. He regarded the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) as being mistaken in his attitude towards writing and accused him of being both logocentric and ethnocentric for his naïve theme of “lost innocence.” The Biblical notion of the Fall is a frequent one in the studies of Lévi-Strauss as if “primitive” people were long lost Adams and Eves being driven from the Garden by the acquisition of writing, the fruit of all culture. For Lévi-Strauss, writing was an instrument of oppression, colonizing the “primitive” mind (nature) with culture,and for him structuralism for was nothing less than a search for the universal structures of human intelligence. This structure is a set of unconscious rules that both structures a culture and expresses the infrastructure of speech (and writing) through a language system. Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologies (1964-1971) consisted of four volumes, containing eight hundred myths, which showed “how myths operate in the minds of a culture without the people being aware of the fact..” In a proposition that would impact a new generation of French thinkers, Lévi-Strauss suggested that the unconscious precedes, comes before, the thinking subject and provides order for human subjectivity through its imposed structures upon human thought.


Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

In considering how human beings develop ideas or discourses, Lévi-Strauss imagined or proposed the creation of culture through a cultural character inspired by his own father, a bricoleur, a handy person, an engineer, a fabricator, who used everything at hand to create structures–myths, stories, accounts–to explain events. Notice that Lévi-Strauss is thinking of language and not actual making of an object but of a process of how a discourse is constructed through found words, already-ready concepts that are reshaped linguistically within the logic of the structure. Although the bricoleur is a hunter-gatherer of cultural ideas, one should not confuse the hunting activity with an allegorical assemblage with multiple parts. Lévi-Strauss always considered the structure of culture as bi-polar, that is, one element had to be off set and contrasted to its other.

Lévi-Strauss based his structural anthropology upon Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1913) and considered that this structure of the mind operated in terms of opposition that, he thought, was necessary for any culture in order to make the world comprehensible. His extensive study of myths implied that the bi-polar myth was universal, a rather Kantian operation of a storytelling a priori. These ideas of a hidden unconscious will be taken up by other writers and it is clear that the philosopher attended the famous lectures of Lacan who stated that the unconscious was structured like a language. Like Lévi-Strauss, Lacan was attached to the notion of an “origin” for human consciousness, found in the “split” that creates the social subject. But Derrida parted company with what he considered to be a nostalgic fixation on mythic origins. For Derrida, there is no “pure” authenticity, and, according to this citizen of Algeria, sensitive to magical thinking, this sentimental theme of purity is but a Romantic illusion, yet another example of Western ethnocentrism.

In this essay, Derrida dealt with the consequences of the bi-polar or opposing signs. Opposition of signs can be maintained only if one term is believed to be final, but because the terms are paired in difference, there can never be a final term, only be an endless play of signification. As Saussure noted, “..in language there are only differences.” Derrida stated that these differences play a role in language and have distinct effects. As he said,

Retaining at least the schema, if not the content, of the demand formulated by Saussure, we shall designate by the term différance the movement by which language, or any code, any system of reference in general, becomes “historically” constituted as a fabric of differences.

Derrida found “play” or oscillation between terms to be of great importance. In a reversal of Lévi-Strauss, he insisted that writing is a precondition of speech, that not only does writing or the idea of writing exist prior to speech, writing makes speech possible. Writing (écriture) is the name of the structure, which is already inhabited by the “trace.” This notion of the “trace” was a concept borrowed from Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who wrote in “Note on the Mystic Writing Pad” (1925) that writing was a metaphor for workings of the psyche (or what Lévi-Strauss regarded as the unconscious structure of the mind), which an ever-receptive surface for thought that could retain a permanent trace of experiences (writing). The “surface” of the human mind is the unconscious, once a virgin surface, which retains permanent traces, or memory which can be energized into consciousness and affect the thinking subject.

The trace or what Derrida called the “arche-trace” is the formation of writing and of the difference that takes place in the sign. Therefore, writing is the most primordial activity of differentiation, a pre-vocal process that operates to inaugurate language, bestows consciousness and institutes being through speech. Ever fond of reversals, Derrida proposed that writing, a non-being, emerges out of silence, a necessary non-being that precedes being. Of course, “being” is a term indebted to Heidegger, a necessary but metaphysical word that, in Derrida, is always sous rature or under erasure, always crossed out, including all variations of the verb “to be.” Because writing precedes being, then, it must come before language. Consequently, Derrida reversed “the crucial pair” of language, the signifier and the signified into the signified and the signifier. It other words, that which is to be signified (meant, expressed) must precede that a which is the signifier. Logically, this reversal introduces the trace which exists as a force and formation of writing: the trace as an already-there precondition that precedes. “Difference” is the term that Derrida selected to re-formulate the relationship of being and non-being in the context of écriture or writing. “The pure trace itself does not exist,” Derrida said, because the trace institutes the possibility of the sign–precedes the sign, is necessary for the sign. Thus, for Derrida, the sign marks an absent presence, because rather than present the object, we employ the sign whose meaning is always deferred because the thing represented is always absent.

To take note of this space of deferral or absence, Derrida created the term “différance,” (mis)spelling the word with an “a” to signify that the “différance” that could not be heard only seen graphically or in writing. The “a” is silent in speech, and, according to Derrida, silent like a tomb. “Tomb” (oikēsis) in Greek is linked to “house” (oikos)which in turn is linked to “economy” in what he called an “economy of death.” The “a” exists in an intermediary zone, neither speech nor writing, because this letter, this non-sound cannot be represented (spoken/heard) through the senses. That said, différence exists in what Derrida called temporization or suspended in time or temporization and in space, meaning the to express this suspension between the “becoming time of space” and the “becoming space of time.” The “a” compensates, as he said, for the resulting loss of meaning and that this compensation is “economical.” Différence, within the structure of paired opposites, is to differ, to be the other to a term, and therefore the difference is to defer, to delay, to postpone what is an endlessly deferring meaning.

To that end, Derrida pointed out that différence/différance has several meanings. First, to “differ” is to be unlike, second, “differe” (Latin) is “to scatter, to disperse,” and third “to defer” is to delay and postpone. To “disperse” is a spatial operation, to “defer” is temporal, a pair of operations that is compensated for by the “a.” Therefore, différAnce is productive, constituting causality–cause and effect–différance is neither word or a concept. As Derrida explained,

Essentially and lawfully, every concept is inscribed to a chain or in a systematic play of differences. Such a play, difference, which is not a concept, is not simply a word, that is, what is generally represented as the calm, present, and self-referential unity of concept and phonic material..The difference of which Saussure speaks is itself, therefore, neither a concept nor a word among others..In a language, in the system of languages, there are only differences.

Derrida likened the deferral of difference to the “structure of delay” present in Freudian theory, a delay (Nachträglichkeit), explaining that the concept of the “trace” forbids retention (memory) because its past is always present. Therefore like Being, the trace must be placed sous rature. For Derrida the play of difference made it impossible to separate speech and writing. He argued that because language uses codes (signs) there is always a play of forms which assumes differences which are retained as traces. This play of differences preexist language itself which has no origin. Likewise différance is non-cognitive and has no real presence in itself; its function is to solicit or to shake language. Saussure’s notion of différence as a spatial one–terms are laid out in a system, positioned as opposites and pairs, but Derrida deployed the “a” to make the point that différance is temporal because each sign carries within it the trace of other other. Meaning as a result is always endlessly deferred because there can be no final resting place for the sign which moves along a chain of signifiers. With no possibility of locating a transcendental signifier or point of origin or end, Derrida has deconstructed Saussure’s system of language.

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The Metaphysics of Structuralism


Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of Human Sciences (1966)

Jacques Derrida’s (1921-2004) full frontal attack on the movement that had just ended the reign of Existentialism, was not only on the Structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, he also had to dismantle the founder of Structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure himself. In order to do so, Derrida examined what would be the the weak points on any argument–its assumptions–and found problems. Structuralism is based upon language which makes it possible for humans to speak and the most significant contribution of Structuralism is the realization the first, language is structured, and second, that this language is arbitrary and is comprehensible only through the network of relationships, and third, that people do not speak language, language speaks the person. Human thought itself is likewise structured by language and this structure is based upon binaries or opposite pairs. To put it simply, in terms of words, we understand “day” because it is arranged in the network opposite “night.” But, that said, what a Structuralist analysis is interested in is not content but the structure itself. This distinction between content and structure is the difference between a formalist reading of a text, which focuses on the intention of the artist in terms of content, and Structuralism which proposes a structured communication.

In his four volume Mythologies, Lévi-Strauss was unconcerned with the “meaning” of myths and more interested in the universality of how myths are put together. Regardless of origin a myth revolves around pairs who are set in opposing relationships to each other. The Raw and the Cooked, Lévi-Strauss’s second book in his series linked the distinction between “raw” and “cooked” to the distinction between “nature” and “culture.” This paired/opposite arrangement is significant and will be one of Derrida’s main targets of the Structuralist method. The main first problem is, as he pointed out in “Structure, Sign and Play,” is the idea of the structure itself and that problem is that “structure” is a figural concept or a definitive “shape,” if you will. And, if that is the case, which it is, then any structure has to have a center. As Derrida noted,

It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the episteme -that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy-and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the epistemé plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement. Nevertheless, up until the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure-or rather the structurality of structure-although it has always been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin.

The idea of the center proposed many problems for Derrida. First that the structure denies its own “structurality” in other words the structure is not conscious of itself and “neutralizes” the very fact that maintains its existence, namely the center. The center, Derrida maintained has a “presence” and an “origin,” both highly problematic for the philosopher. First, the “center” is not located “within” any particular “structure” but is part of the “totality” itself or the entire system of thought, what Derrida called “the condition of the épistemé.” This center contains, in the literal and figurative sense, “free play,” and this governing of free play or uncertainty, creates a feeling of certainty. In other words, the structure of the binary oppositions limits any play in-between or outside of or beyond that set of pairs. Derrida explained,

The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay based on a fundamental ground, a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the freeplay. With this certitude anxiety can be mastered, for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were from the very beginning at stake in the game. From the basis of what we therefore call the center (and which, because it can be either inside or outside, is as readily called the origin as the end, as readily arché as telos), the repetitions, the substitutions. the transformations, and the permutations are always taken from a history of meaning [sens]-that is, a history, period-whose origin may always be revealed or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of presence.

Derrida was pointing out a nearly unsolvable problem in Structuralism, the fact of the Structure itself. An integral part of the Structure, the center is a structural matrix that is “kept out of play,” that is, the center is unacknowledged on one hand but on the other hand, the analysis itself is dependent upon the balance and coherence and organization that is deployed around a controlled point, the center. Therefore, the center is the origin or the fixed subject, the absolute archia, meaning that without the center there would be on foundation (archia) and this archia is what Derrida called, the “essential operation of metaphysics.” The purpose of the centered structure is to limit the possibility of the kind of play that might interfere with the neat placement of opposing elements in interpretation. The center, therefore, is protection against what Derrida called “freeplay,” and in fact rules out play. But, and here Derrida made one of signature moves, he asserts that “play” precedes the operations of structuralism. The point that Derrida made is that the structure is so rigid and bounded and so pointedly centered, that this will toward boundary must have a purpose. And if that purpose is to control play (and it is) then, play has to have existed otherwise there would have been no need to asset and impose a structure.

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida’s room of his published books in his home in Ris Orange, France, 2001

It should be stated at this point that “structure” does not necessarily mean a little box that contains play which is bouncing round inside, but any structuring device, from thesis, anti-thesis, thesis, beginning, middle, end, or Freudian modeling, such as id, ego, superego or consciousness and unconsciousness. As Jean-François Lyotard pointed out in Discourse, figure (1971), the “figure” lies at the heart of discourse. The fact that Lyotard wrote this book five years after Derrida’s paper indicates the impact of the essay. Lyotard, echoing Derrida, pointed to the fundamental contradiction between two disparate elements. Derrida would call this internal discrepancy a “scandal,” and he located this scandal at the heart of the writings of Lévi-Strauss, specifically on the thorny issue of incest.” According to Derrida,

In the Elementary Structures, he begins from this axiom or definition: that belongs to nature which is universal and spontaneous, not depending on any particular culture or on any determinate norm. That belongs to culture, on the other hand, which depends on a system of norms regulating society and is therefore capable of varying from one social structure to another. These two definitions are of the traditional type. But, in the very first pages of theElementary Structures, Levi-Strauss, who has begun to give these concepts an acceptable standing, encounters what he calls a scandal, that is to say, something which no longer tolerates the nature/culture opposition he has accepted and which seems to require at one and the same time the predicates of nature and those of culture. This scandal is the incest-prohibition. The incest-prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural.

Clearly, Derrida uncovered a hidden or unacknowledged problem within Lévi-Strauss’s writing on incest, that is Lévi-Strauss “confused” universal with natural and disregarded the “prohibition” part which is, of necessity, an aspect of the cultural. This critique exposed the reason for the existence of a center, which, once again, should not be thought of as one of think of the bull’s eye on a target, but as the agent of “structuality” itself or the organizing principle around which the structure organizes itself. Nature and culture are opposites and that (binary arrangement) structure is made possible by the center which controls any intervening third or uncontrollable term. Witheringly, Derrida chided Lévi-Strauss for not thinking through his own philosophical system, “Once the limit of nature/culture opposition makes itself felt, one might want to question systematically and rigorously the history of these concepts. This is a first action.” To be fair to Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist was attempting to finding a way to organize his materials, but Derrida’s criticism was quite devastating, for he uncovered a process that worked, until it failed to examine itself or do what he advised: “to step outside of philosophy.”

Then Derrida took up the subject of the myth makers themselves, those whom Lévi-Strauss called bricoleurs or those who constructed culture from what the anthropologist called <“the means at hand.” Lévi-Strauss, who was pretty handy with mechanics, borrowed the idea of bricoulage from the language of people like his father who worked with their hands, making, repairing, fixing, inventing, all he while using the tools and the elements at their disposal. In thinking of myth, Lévi-Strauss was making point that myths are preexisting and that storytellers retell preexisting stories, sometimes rearranging the elements already ready. Now Derrida himself will later find this idea of preexisting materials important but for this essay, “Structure, Sign and Play,” he noted that the bricoleur was opposed, by Lévi-Strauss to another sort of creator, the engineer. It is at this point that Derrida will attack a second troubling aspect of Structuralism, the idea of an “origin.” He wrote,

If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur. The engieer, whom Levi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who would supposedly be the absolute origin of his own discourse and would supposedly construct it “out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth,” would be the creator of the verbe, the verbe itself. The notion of the engineer who had supposedly broken with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that thee engineer is a myth produced by the From the moment that we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse breaking with the received historical discourse, as soon as it is admitted that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage, and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning decomposes.

Derrida had pointed to a far more obvious problem, the metaphysics that lurked at the heart of Structuralism. As noted previously, Structuralism moved away from the unique and subjective human mind that creates independently. But as Derrida found, the Structuralist philosophers had assumed a “metaphysics of presence”–that the human being can spontaneously express her/himself–and that language is a transparent medium for an inner truth. The continuing criticism of Lévi-Strauss as a thinker is far more severe than any criticism of his work as an anthropologist could be. First, Lévi-Strauss had already been called out by specialists in anthropology for errors in data and second, if, as he affirmed, his sole concern was a way to structure his data and not the content itself, then, when Derrida picked holes in the method, the entire notion of “structure” collapsed. As Derrida explained his own impact, “For lack of expressly posing this problem, we condemn ourselves to transforming the claimed transgression of philosophy into an unperceived fault in the interior of the philosophical field.”

Derrida noted that the concept of the structure, as the “interior of the philosophical field,” was “totalizing.” Either Structuralism was empirical or it was not. If it was empirical and aspired to totalization, then the transplanting the techniques of linguistics to the field of anthropology is a reflection of the desire to totalize the materials of anthropology. If the structure provided a means of controlling (through an unacknowledged center) the vast data of anthropological materials, then it is totalizing. However, Derrida located the whiff of metaphysics at the heart of the method which was supposed to be empirical. This presence of metaphysics at the heart of empirical science was another “scandal.” The “center” had always always been a factor in human philosophy: in the spiritual age, it was God, who “organized” the world, in the scientific worlds, the center was rational thought, and with Structuralism, it was revealed, in some sense, that the center was constructed or was a deliberate, not transcendent, construct. This revelation of the constructed nature of human thought was, as Derrida put it, a “rupture” or an “event” in the field of philosophy.

The “rupture” was an acknowledgement that totalization, i.e., the structure, was driven by desire to control all elements. Desire is “irrational” or unconscious and cannot be accounted for and like God stands outside the Structure. Desire drives not just the structurally of the structure but also the way in which it contains its interior elements. Derrida noted that Structuralist anthropology began as a comparison of cultures with the West as the “center” or the point of “origin” being the standard by which all other societies are measured and evaluated. The West may be a convenient starting point for Western anthropologists and it may be a useful center, but by establishing European cultures as the center, there is a suggestion of superiority and Eurocentricism sneaks in, contaminating the work. The possible contamination of the research is not at issue here: the problem is that this center or what Derrida called “the central presence” cannot be accounted for or escapes evaluation and cannot be compared to anything else.

In contrast to classical philosophy, which privileged the “presence” and the “intention” of the speaker which indicates a conscious subject creating the signified, Structuralism stressed the signifier which rendered the “speaker” unconscious or acted upon by language. Derrida acknowledged that it is impossible to do without structures or without centers and, what is important to acknowledge is that the role of the structure is to manage the freeplay or the excess. However, the excess, the supplementaries of the Structure need to be taken into account. Given that here are elements that escape control, it is important to consider the possibly of “freeplay” or excesses to proscribe interpretation. As Derrida pointed out, Lévi-Strauss was quite aware of the internal problems within his system. He “named” this problem as excess or supplementary–elements that could not be contained within the structure. But for Lévi-Strauss these “supplementals” a term he also used, were interesting but not important to his entire project. Derrida, however, pounced upon these elements that could not be contained by the system–“freeplay”–and argued for allowing all aspects of the discourse to be mobilized.

The “rupture” of which Derrida spoke was the realization that “the center is not the center,” in other words the center is conceived of as inside the Structure but in order to function, it must not be “seen” or acknowledged and therefore must exist outside the structure/system. The Structure contains the play and play is integral to the structure itself. Given the importance of play all meaning becomes discourse. The transmutation of fixed and centered (transcendental) meaning into discourse or constructed meaning. The signs which operate within the discourse point to other signs which, in turn, indicate other signs, and so on until meaning is unfixed and unbounded and de-centered. What has been recognized by the play among signs is “history” itself, as Derrida explained,

Besides the tension of freeplay with history, there is also the tension of freeplay with presence. Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternativeof presence and absence; being must be conceived of as presence or absence beginning with the possibility of freeplay and not the other way around.

The assertion of the importance of the Other to the Center–Play which should be free was also the expression of an outsider to the entire edifice of Western philosophy. The role of Outside temperamentally suited the young Derrida, still being supervised by Jean Hippolyte, in his relative youth and in his status as one of the “colonized” from Algeria. The method Derrida deployed against Lévi-Strauss was that of what was then called “close reading,” which would be named later as Deconstruction. Derrida, in order to remain Outside, became a writer who read the works of others, analyzed the texts and found buried or unrealized inconsistencies within the writing and, as if under his spell, these discourse gave up their buried surpluses, their hidden excesses, and were allowed their moment of freeplay. Derrida had no wish to de-construct in terms of destruction. He was quite able to come to terms with the “irreducible differences,” he found in the works of Lévi-Strauss. Derrida argued “..we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the difference of this irreducible difference..” a statement that predicted the direction his own take on philosophy which would be based on what he would call “différance,” “difference” misspelled with a “silent” “a.” In the end he gave the listeners at the Symposium a prelude of things to come,

I admit, with a glance toward the business of childbearing-but also with a glance toward those who, in a company from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Claude Lévi-Strauss and Structuralism


Structuralism and Anthropology

Although it has long roots, stretching back to the beginning of the twentieth century, Structuralism found a home in philosophy and reigned as the leading movement from the beginning of the 1950s to the end of the 1960s. These rough dates are connected to French philosophy and coincide with the rise of Claude-Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist and philosopher, who changed the way philosophy was read and written. The rise of Structuralism was connected to the desire to make philosophy more scientific and more analytic, more connected to the real world and to remove it from the realm of abstraction and metaphysics and, most importantly, the clutches of humanism. Structuralism was a linguistic movement and a very rigorous means of understanding language by breaking down speech into the smallest possible units and organizing these units in opposing pairs and arranging these opposites into a network of relationships. But the pathway of Structuralism from linguistics to anthropology to philosophy was a long and round-about journey.

The informal education of Lévi-Strauss was eclectic, reflecting his interest in the avant-garde arts, from Stravinsky to Picasso to Surrealism, and his entry into the Marxist politics of his time. For such a cultivated young man, with degrees in law and philosophy, he showed a marked interest in the outdoor life and his hikes in the French countryside caused him to contemplate geology. The very land itself was composed of layers, compressed by time, reminding the young man of Sigmund Freud’s notion of the human mind as a site to be excavated. There was a structure to the meaning of landscape and later in his life, Lévi-Strauss would regard Freud, Karl Marx and geology as his guides into the new field of anthropology. Perhaps it was his interest in the avant-garde post-war culture that led him to ethnology just then under development in France.

Lévi-Strauss spent the Depression years, from 1935 to the onset of the Second World War, in Brazil doing fieldwork. He completed his mission with numerous notebooks and detailed description of the indigenous inhabitants of the relatively untouched territories. Of course, Brazil was hardly “uncivilized” by the mid twentieth century and original cultures had been overwritten or impacted by European colonial rule. But like most Europeans of his time, Lévi-Strauss through that “colonialism” mean the subordination of “less evolved groups” by more evolved societies, and he was typical of his time in assuming that the role of the European anthropologist was to “study” the less evolved. That said, the accepted mode of analyzing the tribal cultures was through kinship, which was assumed to be the key to their social systems. The question was not what to do with the data he had collected, the problem for Lévi-Strauss was how to organize the materials. In other words, what was the organizing principle?

As was typical for his generation, Lévi-Strauss’s career was derailed by the outbreak of the Second World War. For someone who was well-versed in the writings of Karl Marx and in the psychology of Signmund Freud, he was naïve about his Jewishness and was slow in coming to terms to the dangers posed by the Nazi occupation of France. Still at the beginnings of his career, he was lucky enough to be among the Jewish intellectuals allowed to escape to New York, where he began teaching at the New School for Social Research, established to utilize the sudden wealth of scholarship that had washed up on American shores. It was in New York, during his long and fruitful American stay, that Lévi-Strauss met the man who would lead him to his organizing principle–Structuralism–and where he would come across a wealth of anthropological materials that would supersede his work in Brazil.

In New York, Lévi-Strauss was able to join the influx scholars and it was here that he met Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), a Russian linguist who came to America during the war and spent the rest of his life there. Born in Russia, he began his career as a linguist in the school of Russian Formalism and then taught in Czechoslovakia, where he as a member of the well-known Prague School of Linguistics. By the time he arrived in New York, Jakobson, influenced by Ferdinand Saussure had realized that it was necessary to go beyond a diachronic study of words and how language developed over time and to study language synchronically, that is to understand language in terms of structure. Linguistics broke language down into its smallest units, phonemes, or sounds which allowed words to be formed and distinguished one from another. Like the meaning of words, sounds were arbitrary and functioned only to allow the speaker and the listener to differentiate one sound/one word from another: “bat,” “mat,” “cat.” Like the meanings of words, the sounds that made them possible functioned within a structure of relationships or a network which allowed them to perform.

In his series of lectures given in 1942, Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning, Jakobson stated,

We have pointed out that the distinctive features of the phonemes are strictly appositive entities. It follows from this that a distinctive property never stands alone in the phonological system. Because of the nature, in particular the logical nature, of oppositions, each of these properties implies the coexistence in the same system of the opposite property; length could not exist without shortness, voicing without voicelessness, the acute character without the grave character, and vice versa. The duality of opposites is therefore not arbitrary, but necessary. The oppositions themselves also do not stand alone in the phonological system. The oppositions of the distinctive features are interdependent, i.e., the existence of one opposition implies, permits or precludes the coexistence of such and such other opposition in the same phonological system, in the same way that the presence of one particular distinctive feature implies the absence, or the necessary (or at least probable) presence of such and such other distinctive properties in the same phoneme. Here again arbitrariness has very restricted scope.

Somewhat fluent in English, Lévi-Strauss began teaching at the Free French supported École libre des hates études de New York, where Jakobson was teaching, and at Barnard, and, in the midst of his reorientation to a new country, he reconnected with the Surrealists, fellow émigrés. Is is a measure of how much his English improved, probably due to his hours of study in the New York Public Library, that Lévi-Strauss began to write in English. According to his biographer, Patrick Wilcken, he found the writings of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), a biologist, a zoologist, a mathematician whose most famous book was On Growth and Form. This book pointed out that nature and its many shapes could be organized aesthetically and intellectually in terms of mathematical constructs. In other words, beneath the accumulations of nature and all of its variety was a core principle that organized its morphology.


The Library of Claude Lévi-Strauss with 6, 500 volumes

Thanks to his discovery of Thompson’s 1915 book, Lévi-Strauss was open to learning of a way in which to organize his cultural accumulations of his work on kinship. Jakobson, who introduced him to the idea that small units (of anything) acquired meaning only through the system of relationships and suggested that Lévi-Strauss might be interested in Saussure’s Cours de linguistic générale (1915). Lévi-Strauss was able to take Saussure’s idea of langue which is the structure that rules speaking and parole, or actual speech acts and substitute a structure for kinship which would contain actual case studies or examples. Through the close friendship with, Lévi-Strauss was able to not only organize his existing (old) work but also to begin his seminal work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949). The stage was set for Lévi-Strauss to return to France with a new organizing principle for his future work and a new method that could be applied beyond the “scientific” field of linguistics, when he returned to France in 1948.

Because he carried with him a new mode of analysis and the conviction that the “structure” of kinship was the product of an entire way (structure) of thinking, Lévi-Strauss was poised to be in a unique position in post-war defeated Paris where there was a chance for new ideas to be heard by a new post-war generation. Although he was out of step with the new Hegelian thrust of philosophy, he found new allies, such as psychologist Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), who realized that language, if structured, also structured the unconscious mind itself and with that insight changed the way in which Freud was understood. The Elementary Structures of Kinship focused on the presumed (and since discredited) universality of the incest taboo Lévi-Strauss, teaching at the Sixth Section of the École pratique des hautes études, shifted his interest to myths and their structure, which, like kinship, demonstrated a system of thinking. Mythic thinking was a mode of symbolic thought.

The Structural Study of Myth,” (1952) which applied Structuralism to mythology, attempted to show that all myths, regardless of originating culture, could be structured along binary lines. Instead of the phonemes of language, Lévi-Strauss used “mythemes” or the organizing principles for storytelling. These mythemes could be organized in paired opposites, bringing order to the multiple local myths and suggesting a universality of human thought. Using a horizontal to track temporal changes in myths and a vertical track the recurring themes, Lévi-Strauss mapped out the structure of mythologies around the world in terms of bundles of relations. Neither the symbolism nor the meaning of these myths was important–an important anti-humanist and anti-subject assertion–only the structure of these myths was significant. Myth, then, was a language, constructed by the bricoleur or the myth maker, who gathered elements already ready to construct the myth. In other words, in another blow to humanism, myths have no author; myths are composed of recycled materials which work on the “composer.”

The idea that the myth worked the culture rather than the other way around is Lévi-Strauss’s own “Copernican Revolution,” dating back to the insights he gained from Jakobson in New York. In 1977 he participated in a series of radio interviews entitled “Myth and Meaning,” which begins with a statement by Lévi-Strauss to the effect,

You may remember that I have written that myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him. This has been much discussed and even criticized by my English speaking colleagues, because their feeling is that, from an empirical point of view, it is utterly meaningless sentence. But for me it describes a lived experience, because it is exactly how I perceive my own relationship to my work. That is, my work gets thought in me unbeknownst to me. I never had and still do not have, the perception of feeling my personal identity. I appear to myself as the place where something is going on, but there is no “I” no “me.” Each of is a crossroads where things happen. The crossroads is purely passive, something happens there. A different thing, equally valid, happens elsewhere. There is no choice, it is just a matter of chance.

Between 1964 and 1971, four volumes of Mythologies were published to great acclaim. In between he also wrote and published Tristes Tropiques (1955), a memoir of his time in Brazil and The Savage Mind (1962). Over a period of innovation, Lévi-Strauss had taken the old biological term “physical anthropology” and applied it to culture as “structural anthropology,” known as “Structuralism.” By the early 1950s, young scholars were attending his lectures and his structuralism or his structural take on culture was seen as a way in which to make the analysis of other fields as systematic as science. Essentially Structuralism purported to locate a framework that made communication of ideas possible, and, if it were the case that language was structured then literature was likewise structured then Structuralism was a useful tool in understanding any form of written communication. Furthermore, Structuralism, as designed by Lévi-Strauss, allowed many disciplines to analyze their own products from the perspective of critique. Suddenly intellectual writings descended from the realm of mystic truths and entered into the investigations of active readers, who would delve beneath the depths of surface statements and find the rules that determined the text. There is an underlying assumption, within the formal strictures of Structuralism, that the communication was bounded and that the text was unified and therefore had a center.

In the hands of Lévi-Strauss, Structuralism was, like the philosophies of post-war scholars, an amalgam of multiple sources: the writings of Marcel Mauss, the a priori categories of Kant, the materialism of Marx, and the linguistics of Eastern Europe. That said, all these sources, including Freud, were based upon models, from Kant’s architectonic thinking, Marx’s dialectal materialism and Freud’s tripartite mind and linguistics oppositions. The up and coming scholars, from Roland Barthes to Jacques Derrida, took note of the ideas of Lévi-Strauss as a form of cultural critique but it was just a matter of time before Structuralism itself could not remain immune to the impulse toward internal analysis. The formal assumptions of Structuralist models would be questioned and challenged even before the uprisings of May 1968 brought everything into question. But in order to interrogate the existing order of philosophy, the new generation had to go through the formidable Claude Lévi-Strauss.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jean-François Lyotard: “Le Différend,” Part One

The Différend (1983) as “The Postmodern Condition, Part One”

Part One: The Historical Context

The life path and careers of Jean-François Lyotard suggest that this philosopher needs to be understood as a bricoleur. A scholar who stood in a liminal position in history, Lyotard appropriated and borrowed concepts from other philosophers and refitted these ideas or motifs for a future he could not see but could predict..in part. Although he was criticized by more than a few fellow philosophers for incorrectly using the “language games” of Ludwig Wittgentstein, for example, Lyotard can also be seen as someone searching for the right philosophical tools to describe his unique task. The reader follows his trajectory, sometimes scattered and indirect, and finds the tracks and traces of Lyotard’s own biography upon his mature philosophical writings. He was frequently in a position to observe cultural changes that would leave lingering marks on society and his thought. Although he once considered becoming an artist (a desire that would manifest itself in other books), Lyotard became a teacher and was posted in Algeria in from 1950 to 1952, where anti-colonialism, once below the surface, was breaking through. He was in Algeria during the same period as Frantz Fanon, author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and left just before the arrival of historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1930-206), who wrote scathingly of the use of torture by the French colonizers in Torture: Cancer of Democracy: France and Algeria 1954-1962 (1963).

Lyotard’s commitment to social activism and Marxism, which was triggered during his Algerian period, was tested ten years later when he was teaching at Nanterre, the Ur source of student uprisings that spread throughout France. Indeed, it goes without saying that anyone drawn to the vocations of arts and religion (he once toyed with becoming a monk) would be temperamentally disinclined to accept authority. Like many intellectuals of his time, Lyotard was a politically active committee Marxist, belonging to two separate groups, Socialisme ou Barbarie and Pouvoir Ouvrier, before disillusionment with what was an apparently a lost cause set in. The proletariat rose but the regime did not fall and, after the “days of May,” all went seemingly back to normal. But just as the barricades of the uprisings of May 1968 were dismantled, so too were the metanarratives of totalizing reason. While Lyotard abandoned the metanarrative of Marxism, the ingrained concern with social domination was never far below the surface of his works and he never stopped practicing critique and he never got over his suspicions of systems and of the machinations of those in power. Witnessing the injustice and brutality of French rule in Algeria apparently gave Lyotard a heightened sense of injustice and an instinct for situations which allowed unfairness to breed.

Indeed, far from celebrating “the Postmodern condition,” Lyotard critiqued the current state of affairs, in which the state owned and controlled knowledge, now computerized and contained in giant databases, poised to take away individual autonomy. As was pointed out in previous texts, he was viewing and reviewing what he clearly understood to be an apocryphal shift in epistemology and, consequently, an abrupt change–knowledge became information. Once in control of the mode of information production, the system could then instrumentalize students for performatativity for the state via education. The habit of a Marxist analysis existed as a subterranean subtext with in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge–the computer now became the mode of producing knowledge and, consequently, cybernetics was the new base throwing off and generating new superstructures that were incompatible with the creation of “pure” knowledge.

Certainly much of what Lyotard foresaw has come to pass: knowledge is used instrumentally by the system which educates its citizens so that they can perform in certain desired ways. It is at this point that Lyotard’s vision was halted: he could not see over the horizon, but we now know that the Internet has wrested control of information/knowledge and its production not only from the government but also from corporate interests. These very corporate and systems-based interests vie today to seize and control these new modes of production, as Lyotard would have predicted, but out of The Postmodern Condition came new concerns that still plague the culture today. The philosopher foresaw a silencing of non-compatible or noncompliant discourses by outsiders on the part of a system intent on maintaining itself. On one hand, the new épistemé is nurtured by performativity, based upon one’s competence with language games; and on the other hand there are ways to counter the imperialism of the game through “little narratives.”

It is at this point in The Postmodern Condition that Lyotard recognized the very real possibility that language games not only allowed for articulation within the rules but that also these very regulations could also be used for the silencing of some of the game players. Using the words “violence” and “terror” to describe this refusal to hear certain kinds of utterances, Lyotard signaled his next step in his investigation: his most formal and provocative work, an examination of what he called “le différend.” The word “formal refers to the measured pace of the book which is ordered into Wittgensteinian paragraphs, each of which has its own number. Nested inside this procession of propositions are intermittent series of paragraphs which discuss, in a smaller font, related writings of other philosophers and this internal progression of the argument has its own numbering system. The structure within a structure is rarely remarked upon in terms of its metaphorical value but it is worth noting that Lyotard included numerous other philosophical voices in a book which is devoted to examining the language games that silence one group so that another group can be empowered. He positioned a chorus of multi-vocaled discourses against the voicelessness of the Jews during the Holocaust.

Lyotard’s primary example of the result of a différend is Auschwitz,, which makes the timing of the writing and publication of Le Différend as interesting as its internal complexity. When he returned to France in the early fifties, Lyotard arrived in a nation that had allowed itself to forget the Holocaust and the fate of French Jews at the hands of the French collaborationists and had rewritten the story of the Occupation as one of brave resistance and victimhood. In her book, Commemorating the Holocaust: The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and Italy (2013), Rebecca Clifford noted that it was not until the late 1960s that French historians gradually turned away from the narrative that the Vichy government was to blame for the victimization of all French people and began to examine the uncomfortable question of the fate of the Jews of France. In fact, the Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation, built in 1962, listed the names of all of the French who were deported under the Nazis and by the Vichy government and was, therefore not specifically a Holocaust memorial, thus denying the fact of deliberate extermination and hiding French guilt.


In her introduction to Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France (2004), Joan Beth Wolf explained the post-war discretion on the topic of the Holocaust in France as an understandable reluctance on the part of French citizens to identify themselves as “Jews” after the War. Like most Jews in Europe, those of France considered themselves assimilated and could not comprehend that they were not “French,” but Jewish and that that identity–one they and long considered secondary–would cost them their lives. It was the Six Day War of 1967 that awoke the not so dormant wartime trauma and the French Jews, alive to the existential danger to Israel, spoke against De Gaulle’s support of the Arab perspective and, as Wolf described, found a political voice. Two years later Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, a four hour documentary of the German occupation, made for French television, was banned from French television. Composed of clips from eighty hours of testimony gathered by Ophuls, the series destroyed the myth of the brave French Resistance and detailed how French collaborationists were responsible for sending Jewish children to concentration camps. This odd lacunae in history–the reluctance to seek the truth and the resistance to the facts–was not a particular French fault but a generalized situation and the French Jews were actually early in their demands that history be correctly and completely recounted. After decades of disinterest in the fate of the Jews, America was riveted by a home-grown television mini-series, Holocaust, in 1979, and this series traveled to France and Germany, similarly informing a new generation of the pasts of their parents. On the heels of the slow unfolding of acknowledgement came Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in 1985 in France and the “Historian’s Controversy” in Germany.

Although opposed by Lanzmann’s magisterial eight hour film about silence, France had its own version of historical revisionism in which the Holocaust was denied by pseudo-historians, Robert Faurisson, Paul Rassinier and Arthur Butz. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who had so strongly spoken out against torture in Algeria, then turned his attention towards this deliberate attempt to deny the historical truth in a series of essays published between 1981 and 1987 (later collected in one book, Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust in 1992). Lyotard’s Le Différend was written in réponse to both The Postmodern Condition and to the early essays of Vidal-Naquet which attempted to reassert the power of actual lived history against the unimaginable absurdity of literary cant being used to obliterate the past. Lyotard often mentioned Vidal-Naquet, not a well known historian in the United States, in his book and like this younger writer, he made Robert Faurisson his chief foil or starting point for what was a contemplation on the inherent dangers of the rules of reason. Faurisson denied the Holocaust along the specious lines of deploying the clothing of reason and logic, unwittingly (perhaps) echoing the asserted rationality of extermination as uttered by the Nazis.

Against such word “play,” Le Différend, for all its careful structure and disciplined order, approached the question of the Holocaust from a careful intellectual distance that attempts to veil the undercurrent of political passions beneath the measured words. The text approaches the topic of Auschwitz with the care of a mandator confronting a bull: Lyotard suddenly focuses on the linguistic mechanics of the dehumanization of the Jews only to withdraw into long drawn out philosophical ruminations until suddenly he reverts and produces a few new paragraphs on the Holocaust. His is an elaborate and delicate dance with the most difficult of topics, a subject that defies language and explication. Wisely, Lyotard, not a historian (he once wanted to be an art historian), prised open the language game that deprived the victims of their right to speak: le différend.

The next post will discuss the theory of Le Différend.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodern Painting


The Return of the Repressed

In the 1980s, painting, once declared “dead,” long, the repressed Other of Conceptual Art, “returned.” The “return” of painting could not have happened without the supposed death of the avant-garde and the Postmodern acceptance of the discourse history. Modernism, as it was pointed out, never looked back, only forward. But with the end of the optimism of Modernism, the past history of art began to make a return in the form of dead languages of dead styles. Artists began to look back at these old and dead styles, picking through the ruins of art history. If art was a language, a semiotic expression, then all languages were theoretically available and could be deployed. Thus, the Postmodern painter was a bricoleur, to borrow a term from Claude Lévi-Strauss, a structuralist philosopher/anthropologist.

It is worth pausing to examine this central concept of Postmodernism, so well-known that bricolage has passed into the popular culture as “mash-ups” found in music, literature and film. The fact that Lévi-Strauss was a structuralist thinker need not deter us here because his idea of the bricoleur seemed uniquely appropriate for Postmodern activities. Lévi-Strauss studied the human mind, not the individual human being, but the epistemology of a culture. His idea for the bricoleur as one who assembles came from his own boyhood experiences working with his father, putting together furniture. According to Patrick Wilcken because when Lévi-Strauss began his intellectual career, anthropology was a new science and because his progression through the discipline was interrupted by exile in New York during the war years, the philosopher drew his ideas about how he would proceed into his profession from a number of diverse sources. In his book on Lévi-Straus, Wilcken explained the concept of the bricoleur as developed in The Savage Mind:

Rummaging around their environment, “savages” observed, experimented, categorized and theorized, using a kind of free-form science. They combined and recombined natural materials into cultural artifacts—myths, rituals, social systems—like artists improvising with the odds and ends lying around their studio. The central image that Lévi-Strauss used to describe this process was that of the bricoleur—a tinkerer, an improviser working with what was at hand, cobbling together solutions to both practical and aesthetic problems. La Pensée sauvage—free-flowing thought—was a kind of cognitive bricolage that strived for both intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction…As intellectual concepts, bricolage and the bricoleur were rich and evocative, and would prove influential in the years to come as a shorthand for an off-the-cuff experimentation used in the visual arts, literature and philosophy.

However, the Modernist idea of “experimentation,” which Lévi-Strauss gleaned from his association with the Surrealist artists in New York, morphed into the Postmodern idea of gathering or assembling that which was, as Jacques Derrida expressed it, “already ready” or the traces of styles or the memory of movements available in the history of art. Neo-Expressionism marked not only the return of “big painting” in the 1980s but unlike the predecessor Expressionist movements of the early Twentieth Century, but also the reemergence of representation and the reappearance of subjectivity and individuality, artistic personality and unique “touch.” What is “neo” about “Neo-Expressionism” is that “expressionism” is recognized as a style and a painting technique from the past, and what is “new” is fact that borrowing old styles and techniques is allowed “now.” What is “new” is the notion of the “return”—of painting, of figuration, of objects.

Neo-Expressionism evokes earlier styles and, unlike Abstract Expressionism, cannot be a new stylistic mode. Expressionism can no longer a mode of personal and unique expression of feelings through personalized art. Neo-Expressionism can only be a borrowed, appropriated by the artist as a code for “strong statement” or merely “big field painting.” Neo-Expressionism, like many Postmodern art forms, is openly nostalgic, betraying a longing for the relative freedom of “expression” enjoyed by artists before Greenberg’s Formalist formulas became hegemonic. Neo-Expressionism celebrated the return of painting to an art market starved for commodity. Neo-Expressionism, as with all Postmodern art, is an accumulation of quotations from a past that no longer exists. Painting, like architecture, became double-coded, a semiotic ensemble of multiple times and various places.

Neo-Expressionism was an international style, manifested in Europe in the works of the German artists, Georg Baszlitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jorg Immendorf, and Sigmar Polke, and Italian artists, Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Carlo Maria Mariana. In America, Neo-Expressionism was mostly a New York phenomenon, including Julian Schanble, Eric Fischl, David Salle and the Puerto Rican-Hatian-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. This is not a movement where there were many women, although one could possibly include Susan Rothenberg. Moreover, the male artists took advantage of the Feminist breakthroughs in the arts: the insistence upon biography, the personal, the expressive, figuration and representation, as well as narration.

The idea of a new style itself is bankrupt, and the Neo-Expressionist work of art is an assemblage that refuses unity or meaning while coalescing a unity of form. Notice that the term used is not “new” and all its evocations of the avant-garde but “neo” with its evocations of “return,” as with “Neo-Classicism.” For example, both David Salle and Julian Schnable produced a reiteration of the visual vocabulary and ideas of the Modernist period but do so from a position of belatedness, a key condition of postmodernism. Their work is painting about painting, art about the history of art. How then does one read a text or how does one understand a Postmodern object? The difficulties of reading Postmodern art is underlined by the fact that, unlike Modernist art, Postmodern art does not have the pretension of being separated from “life” or “low culture,” and is, therefore, immeshed in the capitalist realm.

It is no accident that the return of painting coincided with a resurgence in the stock market and the proliferation of new collectors on the art scene. Art was transformed from a secret commodity with its market connections denied by indignant Modernists to a frank commodity that was traded in a ruthless laissez-faire market like a stock or a bond. Frederic Jameson provided a trenchant critique of the Postmodern Condition, resulting in a schizophrenic culture–a culture without place or time. As if one were in Jameson’s famous essay on the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, the viewer wanders about inside the mind of a Postmodern painting seeking an entrance and an exit or a central agora of meaning. For this newly active viewer and for artists in the postmodern era, the meaning of art becomes problematic.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodern Painters

The Postmodern Condition and the International Art Market

Neo-Expressionism was an international style and Postmodern painting was big money. Big painting had returned and the buyers had the big money to pay for it. Art collecting in the 1980s was nothing less than a feeding frenzy on long desired objects—paintings—easily acquired, easily placed (in elegant living rooms), easily stored (in collector warehouses) and easily disposed of (as in dumping a stock). Collectors were nouveau riche, coming into auction houses from the booming stock market. These Nouveaus had plenty of money and wanted to demonstrate their “culture” by accumulating works of “art.” They purchased art as they purchased stocks and the inflated value of art rose like a rocket. Buyers wanted something to buy that was big and visible and impressive—-Conceptual Art would not do, but Neo-Expressionist art would serve to show off their ostentatious wealth and new culture. Unfortunately for many of the artists who made it big very quickly, their stars crashed and burned in the late eighties with the stock market crash at the end of the Reagan era. Some artists survived the economic downturn of the late Eighties, but the buyers never regained their faith in art as a stock that one could invest in.

Postmodern art appropriates plurality through the realm of quotation in the new condition favorable to historicism, which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. Postmodern artists brought back a variety of dead styles to make a point that the glory days of Modernist originality and creativity were gone and could only be vaguely remembered by turning the pages of art history texts. According to Postmodern thinking it was impossible to go back to the days when art was renewing itself through avant-garde movements. Art was now “dead” and could only function as a ghost or a copy or simulacra of itself by collecting pastiches and constructing parodies of the past. The Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the placement of Mannerism, coming after the High Renaissance, too late to enjoy the glory. Postmodernism was ironic and was uncertain as to its effects, which were, historically, quite brief and superficial. “Found Styles” from history are taken up by Postmodern painters and left intact so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a novel aesthetic attitude that suggested something new if not “neo.”

Neo-Expresssionism was a term that was both hotly contented and empty. For those who disliked this pseudo-movement, its return to representation was an anathema. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh regarded figuration as a return to right wing politics and Thomas Lawson and other writers saw these works as pastiches of the past or simulacra without authenticity or aesthetic importance. That said, different nations “returned” to painting in various ways for various reasons. In America or in New York, “expressionism” meant “Abstract Expressionism” and, therefore, “neo” meant figurative not abstract “expressionism.” In Germany, “expressionism,” meant Die Brücke or Der Blaue Reiter, which were providentially placed before the Great War and thus beyond the Nazi period. Therefore, it would be too confining to place all of the painters of the Eighties in the (American-named) category of “Neo-Expressionism.” Quite a few artists were playing—and “play” was a key Postmodern term—play with what was called the “language of art,” or the history of artistic styles.

In Italy, for example, there was no tradition of Expressionism and the Italian return to painting took the route of Neo-neo-Classicism. Carlo Maria Mariana, an Italian artist, followed Kiefer’s lead in reviving a dead style. In his case, Mariana revived Neo-Classicism, which was based upon an Italian national style, based upon the Greek culture of ancient times. “Classicism” or the Roman approach to Greek art was then taken up by the French and English after the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the mid-eighteenth century. The paintings by Mariana are slickly rendered in the dead style of David and Ingres from the early nineteenth century and have the air of slight decadence that marked the last phase of Neo-Classicism as evidenced in the work of Girodet. The content favored by Mariani is art historical, that is, he “repaints” older paintings or references Modernists artists, such as Duchamp, quotations easily recognizable by those who are educated in the history of art.

The problem that faced German artists after the war was to recreate something called “German” art. In order to do be a German artist, Anselm Kiefer, and the other German artists, returned to the last style in existence in Germany before Hitler came into power, Expressionism. German Expressionism was expressive and full of feelings and, above all, spiritual. There had been a disruption in art in Germany, during the Nazi period when avant-garde had been forbidden, putting Expressionism onto the list of “Degenerate Art.” Kiefer brought back the concepts of the original Expressionism but could not return to the source. Expressionism was a style that stood for feeling, but no longer was a brush stroke the equivalent of a feeling. Feeling and expression could only be conveyed to the viewer through codes and symbols. Kiefer combined the scale of Abstract Expressionism’s mural and field paintings with a post-war nihilistic spirituality. Kiefer became famous or infamous for evoking memories of the Holocaust, by producing huge paintings that seemed to have Jewish themes. Understood in America as “big paintings,” his paintings, large multi-media projects, to be understood, had to be decoded by a viewer well-versed in Hebrew learning and in German history.

In America, artists took note of what was going on in Europe during the late Seventies and early Eighties and returned to painting, following trends set by Gerhard Richter. Although these Americans, mostly working in SoHo in New York City, were also called “Neo-Expressionists,” the phrase was a catch-all. Neo-Expressionism in New York would be very different from the same brand name in Europe. In America, male artists took advantage of the Feminist breakthroughs in the arts: the insistence upon biography, the personal, the expressive, figuration and representation, as well as narration and psychological content and used these breakthroughs to become instant successes. But New York had become a more diverse society since the New York School and the art world had begun to grudgingly admit to the presence of women.

One of the best examples of a male artist who was trained during the early years of feminism was Eric Fischl. Trained at Cal Arts, the home of the Feminist Art Workshop, Fischl began as a sculptor and started painting only when he went back home to New York to begin his art career. Fischl’s paintings transgress Greenberg’s recipe for formalism by being representational and by delving into unexplored corners of the sexual psychology of the adolescent white male and his fantasies. The paintings were figurative and narrative and full of Freudian symbols and personal content. A decade earlier, Feminist artists had been criticized for their biographical and psychological subject matter, but representation and figuration had become accepted and Fischl’s stories of adolescent male sexual awakenings made him rich and famous.

Another graduate of a Los Angeles art school who returned to New York, Mark Tansey brought back the “history painting” of the nineteenth century by (re)painting the history of modernism in the style of the 1950s artist, Norman Rockwell. Tansey, a student of art history, “plays” with the audience by bringing back salon style history paintings that were full of erudite references to historical events in art history and postmodern theory. Like the earlier paintings of the previous century, the works of Mark Tansey require a livery or a catalogue guide to the embedded erudite meanings. The inside insider’s joke of Tansey’s method of painting was the fact that he used, borrowed, and appropriated the instantly recognizable illustrative style of Norman Rockwell, a merchant of “kitsch.” According to the thinking of the arch defender of Modernism, Clement Greenberg, Rockwell would be the polar opposite of Pollock, the hero of the avant-garde. Rockwell was the hero of the regular people who loved his weekly covers on The Saturday Evening Post. Using a monochrome palette and painting in reverse, that is taking pigment away or off the canvas, Tansey took his viewer back in time to great events in the history of Modernism. He combined a famous photograph of the first airplane flight by Orville and Wilber Wright with Cubism, by making the airplane a Cubist collage and the inventors of the “first flight” were Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Like much of Postmodernism, his paintings were accessible only to an elite few who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of art and of the contemporary culture.

The Postmodern tendency towards bricolage can result in a deliberate aesthetic disunity can be seen in the art of David Salle who assembles a painted object composed of various visual languages. Salle combined languages from high art, low art and decorative art into an over-all style of layered art forms. Postmodern art is understood to be “art as language,” conditioned, mediated, and coded. In contrast to the Modernist effort to stabilize and sterilize art through a limited vocabulary, David Salle’s paintings can be compared to an archaeological site to be excavated. His borrowed images are found in variety of cultural digs or sites and are superimposed, one over the other, in strata that the viewer sees through. Each layer is recognizable and readable but none of the layers interact with each other. Each stratum exists in its own right and any attempt to knit the strata together into a narrative or into a meaning that can be unified is thwarted. Salle presents the viewer with an array of dead languages, a dis-array of found styles that have multiple meanings, all of whom are equal.

in the work of Julian Schnable, the artist assembles surfaces without relying upon traditional art materials. He mocks and makes fun of Modernism’s worship of “surface’ or facture and marks his huge canvases adorned or decorated with black velvet and broken crockery and animal horns and fur. The idea of style itself is bankrupt, and the work of art is an assemblage that refuses unity. Both Salle and Schnable produce a reiteration of the vocabulary and ideas of Modernism but do so from a position of making painting about painting, art about the history of art. Postmodern art is always referential, always referring to other or to past traditions, long dead, but possessing a lingering potency. These “dead” languages still exist but are no longer in active use and yet these codes can still be disinterred and activated by the artist.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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