Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction


The Truth in Painting (1987)

In 1905 Paul Cézanne wrote to the younger artist, Emile Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” One can immediately imagine how Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would have seized upon such a statement with its promise of “truth” “in painting,” two dubious precepts. Derrida would be compelled to deconstruct such a proposition. Despite its name, the Deconstruction that is associated with Derrida is not an act of destruction or a breaking up, instead Deconstruction, like Structuralism is an activity or performance. Deconstruction is reading, a textual labor, traversing the body of a text, leaving “a track in the text.” Unlike other forms of critical analysis, deconstruction cannot happen from the outside but, as Derrida stated, “Deconstruction is something that happens and happens from the inside.” As he stated to an audience of academics at Villanova in 1994 (in English),

The very meaning and mission of deconstruction is to show that things–texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices of whatever size and sort you need–do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they are always more than any mission could impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy..A “meaning” or a “mission” is a way to contain and compact things, like a nutshell, gathering them into a unity, whereas deconstruction bends all its efforts to stretch beyond these boundaries, to transgress these confines, to interrupt and disjoint all such gatherings.Whatever it runs up against a limit, deconstruction presses against. Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell–a secure axiom or a pithy maxim–the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might say that cracking nutshells is what decontsructrucion is. In a nutshell.

Deconstruction does not appeal to a higher logical principle or superior reason, something which Derrida considered to be metaphysical. His goal was to upsets the system of hidden hierarchies that composed philosophy by producing an exchange of properties. His major target was the hierarchy between speech and writing, in which speech was presumed to have preceded writing, this giving to speech a (false) priority and the (false) presumption of origin. In inverting the hierarchies embedded in paired opposites, Derrida insisted neither element can occupy the position of origin (such as speech over writing) and the origin looses its metaphysical privilege, which is why he insisted on deconstructing the Structuralist system of polarities and oppositions. He pointed out that the pairs, far from being equal or balanced, were, in fact, hierarchized, with one term being preferred (culturally) over the other. If this is the case, if “good” is preferred over “bad”, then the meanings of each/both term/s are interdependent. If the terms are interdependent, then they cannot be separated or polarized. If the terms cannot be separated or opposed in any final way, then their meanings are also interdependent and inseparable. This logical march which deconstructs

Structuralism began with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) who was concerned with the problem of transcendence, the objectivity of objects, and their existence outside of temporal consciousness. In other words, the object had to be a form of knowledge of the object itself, not the mental acts which cognitively construct it. Phenomenological reflection suspends or “brackets” the question of existence and privileges the experience-of-object, which is the “object to be described” and this privileging means that the identity of the object must be ideal. But Derrida did not believe that Husserl’s transcendental acts of pure perception existed or that such states of purity could exist. Husserl posited an absolute ideal of objectivity, geometry, in order to differentiate between subjective and objective structures. Derrida asserted that Husserl “lodged” objectivity within subjectivity or self-presence, and that if this is the case, then the self must differentiate itself from the object and thus, Husserl introduces the idea of difference.

Derrida charged that Husserl created a structure of alterity or the otherness of the meaning or self. Living presence, according to Derrida, is always inhabited by difference. To express this differently, so to speak, difference creates an endlessly deferred meaning as the self and the object oscillate, unable to fix a position. By deconstructing Husserl’s philosophy, Derrida relocated his philosophy as writing. Without this “fixing” of a position, then a transcendental position is impossible, for if Derrida is correct and Husserl is merely writing, then yet another metaphysical account of the mystical thing in itself is revealed to be a figurative fiction. To the dismay of traditionalists, Postmodernism robs us of the fantasy of certainty. If we can never be certain, we can never know the truth. In contrast, the “close reading” of the Structuralists, that sought to find “unity,” gives way to a new close reading–Deconstruction–that seeks the “uncanny”–a Freudian term–that works against the bounds of the text. “The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar…” said Freud, referring to something that is repressed but recurs, responding to deeper laws, which for Deconstruction is that which is hidden in the text.

Deconstruction intervenes in philosophical texts, seeking what is not acknowledged, and intercedes in the field of oppositions and their hierarchies and works within the terms of the system in order to break open the structure and to breach its boundaries to determine what might have been concealed or excluded, or repressed. To deconstruct a discourse is to show it undermines the authority of philosophy and reveals its literary/rhetorical aspects. In identifying the rhetorical oppositions that structure the ground of the argument Deconstruction deconstructs philosophy as language, as writing. In The Truth in Painting (1987), Derrida interrogated Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) by introducing the concept of the passé-partout or what Americans refer to as the mat that encircles the painting or print or photograph, i. e. the work of art. He wrote,

Between the outside and the inside, between the external and the internal edge-line, the framer and the framed, the figure and the ground, form and content, signifier and signified, and so on for any two-faced opposition. The trait thus divides in this place where it takes place. The emblem for this topos seems undiscoverable; I shall borrow it from the nomenclature of framing: the passe-partout. The passe-partout which here creates an event must not pass for a master key.

Using the concepts of inside/outside and the idea of betweenness, Derrida was led to the next obvious question: “What is art? Then: Where does it come from ? What is the origin of art? This assumes that we reach agreement about what we understand by the word art. Hence: What is the origin of the meaning of “art?” The modern meaning of art must begin with Kant’s third Critique which was then commented upon by Georg Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1818-1829), who, in turn was over-writen by Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art (written 1935-7, published 1950/60) and Derrida also used Kantian the concept of the “parergon” to question the supposed autonomy of art and its relation to various discourses, such as history and philosophy, which seek to preserve its autonomy. The parergon is the frame, the boundary between the art work (ergon) and its background and context, and in surrounding the painting, the frame guarantee its musical/metaphysical autonomy as “art.” Kant rejected the boundary-conditions and prevented the invasion of art’s privileged domain by assuming a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, or that which is proper to the domain of art and that which is outside the properties of art itself.

Kant introduced the metaphor of framing in an attempt to delimit a proper space of aesthetic representation, but in so doing, Kant perceived a problem, an undecidability in some seemingly marginal details that could not be detached without altering or upsetting the composition. For example, what is intrinsic to a sculpture with drapery? Should the body be considered as autonomous, that is self-sufficient without the drapery, or is the drapery intrinsic to the work of art itself? Decorative outwork was perceived of as part of art’s intrinsic quality, such as clothing on statues, which is not part of the essential form, and architectural details that are purely functional but that cannot be excluded from the overall artistic impression. Therefore for Kant, the parergon is a hybrid of inside and outside, frame, clothing, column, and there is no deciding what is intrinsic to artwork and what belongs to the outside frame. From the standpoint of Deconstruction, this “Framing” discourse is the chief concern of aesthetics which legitimizes its own existence by fixing a boundary between art and other modes of knowledge, including history and theory. “Art” becomes “art” through boundaries that exclude its other. Clearly, this notion of “frame” and the idea of “boundary” are both figural constructs hidden in plain sight within the discourse of aesthetics.

The frame is another variation of the Structure. Rhetorical figures, such as the “frame” in art, exist within discourse for a reason. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What is at stake?” why is the frame/the structure necessary? In asking why it is necessary to place art within s structure, to produce boundaries to validate “art,” he then demystified the notion of aesthetics as disinterested value. Aesthetics in “interested” in the sense that it defines and therefore produces “art” via these framing devices. The frame must be present in order to structure and the purpose of structurality is to both contain art within and exclude all that is deemed non-art. In the case of art, that which is “not art” is excluded in order to shape and form “art” as an entity that is transcendent. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What particular interests are served by aesthetics”? Contrary to the notion of a discourse that assumes art gives access to the realm of timeless and disinterestedness values, any discourse on art is always and inevitably bound up with interests that belong to the outside (of art).

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Jean-François Lyotard and the Figural, Part Two

Discours/Figure (1971)

Part Two: Veduta

In 1971, in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s 1966 presentation Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, the Deconstruction of Structuralism was well under way. Jean-François Lyotard proposed the Figural which opens the discourse to heterogeneity (multiplicity) by introducing a difference that cannot be rationalized or subsumed within the rule of representation. Because of its attachment to vision (the eye) the figural cannot be brought under the logic of identity as an opposition to the text. Discourse is not the opposite of the Figure; the Figural is not the opposite of the Discursive. The discursive system cannot deal with the singularity or the disruption of the figure. The Figural is not the figurative but because it is embedded in vision/seeing, the figural is linked to art making. Politically, the Figure is that which rebells against a system (of language) and resists the totalizing effects of the linguistic network, marking the subversion of that which has been repressed. Psychologically, the Figure is the (Freudian) denial of that which is desired through negation. Historically, the Figure is the event, that which disrupts history and interrupts its supposed trajectory. The Figure breaks through the seamless Discourse as a ghost which haunts its conquerer.

Like Theodor Adorno in Negative Dialectics (1969) a few years earlier, Lyotard insisted upon the singularity against totality or “identity thinking.” The figural (the eye) marks this resistance to the text, a coexistence of incommensurable heterogeneous spaces, that of text and the figure. The discursive is actually interwoven with the figural and vice-versa. As Lyotard explained,

Only from within language can one get to and enter the figure. One can get to the figure by making clear that every discourse possesses its counterpart, the object of which it speaks, which is over there, like what it designates in a horizon: sight on the edge of discourse. And one can get in the figure without leaving language behind because the figure is embedded in it. One only has to allow oneself to slip into the well of discourse to find the eye lodged at its core an eye of discourse in the sense that at the center of the cyclone lies an eye of calm. The figure is both without and within.

In 1856 it was Karl Marx who said, “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary” and so it is that the figure is always haunting discourse. In January 2014, mathematician Vlad Ionescu explained,

The figural is exactly that which comes as Unheimlich into language, breaking it into forms (visual and linguistic) that fall short in comprehending. It is not a mere variation on the sharable language but precisely an effect that this language fails to grasp in its own syntax and morphology.

The figural cannot be comprehended and becomes an ungovernable excess or alterity that disrupts the illusion of transparency that drives discourse. The figure “points” away from discourse, calling attention to the unauthorized Other that lies outside the boundaries of text. The act of pointing is referential or indicative of something else, and its function is both paradoxically necessary to and disruptive of signification. Designation is figural and introduces the visible to textual space but immediately seeks to suppress the necessary but disruptive Other. The sensible, i.e. sensory, field is absolutely heterogeneous and impure, and this encounter between textuality and vision (the eye) happens at the edges of discourse, around the periphery. The figural, then, is the Other, rejected by semiotics or phenomenological theory, but returns persistently in the realm of the visual arts, where it is allowed to exist.

For Lyotard, deconstruction is the account of figurality by suggesting a plurality or multiplicity (heterogeneity), not an opposition, as the characteristic of the differential nature of the sign. He introduced an alterity of the visible into the textual space of linguistic signification. In so doing, Lyotard was refuting the rules of discourse which define the space of communication but he is also foregrounding the fact that in order for a purely textual discourse to function, the figural must be repressed. The philosopher locates this repression of the figural by the textual in the history of the visual arts. In an italicized chapter in the middle of Discourse, Figure, “Veduta” Lyotard noted that while Medieval manuscripts allowed text and image to coexist, by the Renaissance the figure was excluded from the text and was given its own and separate field, the visual arts, i.e. painting. The total separation would take time and lingering instances of heterogeneity within works of art, in which two systems of visual communication coexist in unresolved differentiation. In Massacio’s Trinity (1427-8) below, a flat Romanesque armature encases a deep Renaissance space with contains a sculptural body of a crucified Christ.


Trinity (1427-8)

Lyotard understood that Renaissance perspective was a totalizing and constructed system of en-visioning that was totally divorced from actual vision. Like the camera obscure which cut off peripheral vision and thus flattened the curved field created by the human eye/s, the result of perspective was a “cube” that was “closed” as opposed to a curved space which is “open.” The example that Lyotard used in Discourse, Figure was one put forward by Pierre Francastel (1900-1970) who wrote on The Tribute Money (1425) by Masaccio (1401-1428). The Tribute Money below demonstrated a very rare example of an open, not closed, visual space. Technically, the painting is an example of a “continuous narrative,” or a story told across time in three scenes in the same expanded space. This is a Medieval convention carried over into the Early Renaissance. Thus, the “figure” of the tax collector who both initiates the movement through time but who also shifts in time himself, pivoting from center stage to stage right is the Figural that disrupted the Discourse of Renaissance perspective.


The Tribute Money (1425)

Perspective depends upon the fiction of one eye at one point in time immobilized within a net of orthogonal lines meeting at the vanishing point of a horizontal horizon line. The Figural (the tax collector dressed in orange) cannot be contained within this field of representation. Indeed the role of the tax collector functions like the Figure itself–he points, he designates, he references to that which is beyond the peripheral vision of the paralyzed eye and the flattened plotted space of the cube. This gesturing of the over “here” and then the indication of the passing of time which goes over “there” is the deixis, the “pointing outside itself,” as Bill Readings expressed it. But Lyotard had an even more radical example of two heterogeneous “spaces” co-exising, however uneasily, without ever being reconciled to each other.

Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) was painted one hundred years after Masaccio’s didactic narrative of “the tribute money.” Less a story and more a presentation of the French ambassadors to the court of King Henry VIII, The Ambassadors shows two sharp-dressed men standing in a shallow space, backed by a green brocade curtain. The two fashionable ambassadors, looking older than two men in their twenties, flank, bookend, a set of open shelves crowded with symbols of diplomacy and religious principles and scientific endeavors–in other words, discourse. But oddly, at the bottom of the painting is a distorted skull, an anamorphosis or an object from another system of vision. When viewed by the mobile spectator from a skewed angle, the skull becomes apparent or enters into the space to the right of the center of the centralized perspectival space of the Ambassadors themselves. Regardless of what it may or may not symbolize, the skull, from a Lyotardian point of view, is the Figural, another space, another form of seeing embedded in and disrupting Renaissance space.


Hans Holbein. The Ambassadors (1533)

The Ambassadors indicates that the position of art is a denial of the position of discourse. The skull is the returned of the repressed, the persistence of the negativity that is always present at the heart of the positivity of rationalized space. The position of art indicates a function of the figure, in this case the skull, which is not signified, indicating that this disruptive function haunts the edge of and/or within discourse. The symbols in this painting are transcended by the figure, that is to say, a spatial manifestation of the skull which the linguistic space of the Ambassadors cannot incorporate without being overthrown, an exteriority which cannot be interiorized as a signification, because what the skull “means” is not important. The skull, in a Lyotardian analysis, is art as plasticity, not textuality, art as desire, not discourse, art as a curved extension, not the cube, in the face of totalizing invariance and all consuming reason. The skull is about the eye and its (repressed) desires as explained by Sigmund Freud.

Lyotard used Postmodernism to introduce figurality by suggesting that a figural work of art is to block together motivated and unmotivated language. According to Bill Readings in Introducing Lyotard. Art and Politics, “blocking together” is overprinting or superimposition, an occupation of the same space by two things, while each remaining distinct. This “blocking” is a form of Dream Work–apparently unrelated objects lying adjacent, denying their unspoken meaning. Blocking permits denial of desire through negativity: “this is not my mother,” as Sigmund Freud pointed out means “this is my mother:” Die Verneinung. Linear or Renaissance perspective was understood as a kind of text that produces a fiction of “space” based upon straight lines at the expense of and the exclusion of the Other or curved lines. But Lyotard insisted on the presence of heterogeneity of curved space in vision and insisted on a different kind of seeing at the margin of vision, seen in the veduta of Canaletto’s distorted perspective of a townscape. The denied, Verneinung, asserts itself by its negation and the curved space of the eye’s “savage” vision strains against the cubed boundaries of Canaletto’s frames. The presentation of only one possible construction–the box of the camera obscura–deforms all others compared to a pluralistic presentation of numerous focal points and the viewer can choose among them indifferently.

As in The Tribute Money, Lyotard thought of time figurally, rather than as an ordered sequence of moments and attempted to think time otherwise than by a means of historical discourse with its presumed teleology. He understood the Postmodern as a temporal aproria or a gap in the thinking of time caused by the time of the “event.” Lyotard championed the style of hyperrealism as a temporal freezing, in which a moment–an arbitrary “event” is arrested by the snapshot, disrupting the “flow” of time itself. The figural force of this event/that moment over “there” gestures to and disrupts the possibility of thinking of history as a succession of moments. The postmodern is a rethinking of a culture. The Postmodern is necessarily a figure for the modern discourse.

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

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Jean-François Lyotard and the Figural, Part One

Discours/Figure (1971)

Part One

Perhaps because Jean-François Lyotard was a prolific and sometimes too hasty writer (as he termed himself), the reader is a witness to the development of the philosopher over time. Discours, figure was translated into English decades after its publication in French and was known to English readers only through commentary or the occasional translated bits and pieces. Despite its comparatively early date of publication, 1971, Discours, figure was not an immature work but a marker on the way to Lyotard’s own position in philosophy. In its own fashion, Discours, figure inaugurates or illustrates his incorporation of received and traditional ideas in Modernist philosophy but through critiquing the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), he adapts well-understood concepts of language and phenomenology for his own ends.

In 2001 Mary Lydon (1937-2001) wrote in Veduta on Discours, figure, Discours, figure is a notoriously difficult book. Bordering frequently on the impenetrable, it demands a level of concentration and intellectual stamina sufficient to give even the sophisticated reader pause.” Lyotard’s early work was written for his dissertation (thèse de doctorate de d’État), and Discours, figure (translated by Mary Lydon and Antony Hudek) explored the meaning between the discursive and the figure and discursive significance or meaning and that which resists representation. Her co-translator, Anthony Hudek agreed with the difficulty of the book, writing in 2011, stating,

The complexity of Lyotard’s pharasing with its words taken at face value (all their possible meanings layered one on top of the other) and neologisms (dé-jeu) is indicative not only of the often perilous task that awaits any translator of Lyotard’s writing, but also of the ambiguity Lyotard invests in the proper pronoun (s’attendre as waiting for each other/oneself”) and thus of the care he takes in foiling (déjouer) the grasp of the philosopher, the historian and the biographer-critic. This evasion is playful, no doubt, but also deadly serious: un-game, dé-jeu. The solution Lyotard proposes to translate this elusive strategy is to translate the verb s’attendre in the language in which it is written or writes iself—whatever language presumably this may be.

So one approaches this notorious book, not translated until 2011 and considered essentially untranslatable by one of its translators, Lydon, who worked in the translation for twenty five years, with caution. Just as another of his earlier works, Libidinal Economy (1974), came out of his time as a student of Jacques Lacan, Discours, figure was a product of Structuralism and its end at the hands of Deconstruction, a reiteration of Freud through the lingering ghost of Lacan and the always present political implications of Marxism. Considered one of his four “books” by Lyotard, Discours, figure also reflects the investigation into phenomenology of his first book, Phenomenology (1954) and laces psychoanalytical theory into its pages. As in all of Lyotard’s books, there are digressions and wanderings, thick layered footnotes, and what his translators termed a deliberate “elusiveness” as to a topic or a thesis or a goal.


The publication of the book, 1971, was significant in that it followed the impact of Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction upon the literary and philosophical scene. Wending his way through Saussure and Merleau-Ponty to get to Derrida, Lyotard arrived at his own version of language and its discontents. Discours, figure is all about the comma that divides the two words, inserting an element of incommensurability that sought to insinuate a diminutive radicality that allowed for the entry of an alien term, “figure,” into the warp and woof of “discourse.” Discourse is a conceptual view of language which flattens language into a system of pure oppositions, but the Figure is corporeal, connected to the eye which is never civilized and always mobile and is inevitably repressed by linguistics.

Lyotard privileged the eye in the opening sentences of his book. Quoting André Breton, “The eye exists in a savage state,” the philosopher wrote,

This book takes the side of the eye, of its sitting; shadow is its prey. The half-light that, after Plato, the word threw like a gray pall over the sensory that it consistently thematize as a a lesser being, whose side has been very rarely taken, taken untruth, since it was understood that its side is that of falsity, skepticism, the rhetorician, the painter, the condottiere, the libertine, the materialist—this half light is precisely what interests this book.

Readers of Lyotard’s later works, “books” or not, will recognize the seeds of these texts which crop up in Discours, figure. Discourse is representation by concepts that organize the object of knowledge as a system or units of meaning. These meanings are defined in terms of their positions in that particular discursive network. In other words, that discourse imposes what should be/can be thought or spoken by way of spatial arrangements. The resulting net(work) imposes itself upon objects that are rendered textual and lie down in opposition to one another. Lyotard envisioned this space as flat, like a table, where language and its grids could be conveniently laid out for all to see. Upon this (flat) “space” of arrangements, various texts coalesce into a “discourse,” or that which can be articulated, called the “discursivization of textual space.” In other words, signifiers morph into discourse and signifieds or meaning is produced by the oppositional play between signifiers.

For those familiar with Saussure’s Structuralism, Lyotard’s discussion is a familiar one, but he rejected the homogeneity of the discursive space asserted to be as purely textual and placed himself firmly in the Post-Structuralist camp by introducing the Figure into the undifferentiated space of Discourse. Although his insistence upon the alien and unwelcome Figure is akin to Deconstruction, Lyotard’s critique of both Saussure and Derrida was that both philosophers confined themselves to the “text” or that which was constructed through representational concepts. Famously Derrida asserted “There is no outside the text,” (il n’ya pas de hors texte”) but Lyotard begged to differ. The task of discourse is to represent, and, in taking up that task, language tautologically assumes that representation is possible. This assumption of control over language is linked historically to the invention of perspective in the Renaissance, a visual system of lines that “represented” space. But in order for language to represent, heterogeneous elements, such as the Figure or the Figural, had to be suppressed, written out of language, as it were.

It is important to note that both Saussure and Derrida conceived of language as a flat depthless site in which the signs were totally unmotivated or lying in arbitrary oppositions, activated only by or within the network of relationships. Lyotard was not so much asserting depth onto a spaceless plane nor was he inserting a materiality as he was introducing a form of thinking that was linked to seeing or the visible. The Figure lies just outside of language, at its periphery, on its edge, invading its well planned system and inserting itself without being acknowledged. The Figural cannot be acknowledged because it invokes that which cannot be represented. In its (non)function of designating or in its role in pointing to, the Figure can be linked to the “here” as opposed to the “there” as the finger points and the eye follows. In formal language “here,” “there,” “this,” “that,” “now,” “then,” and so on are designators and are, in linguistic terms, so vague and imprecise that they are useless as representations. That said, these physical and linguistic gestures refer to sensory and/or temporal conditions that are outside the discursive but are necessary to speech and writing or what Lyotard referred to as expression.

Lyotard, who wrote often of art, turned to the French scientist and expert on Prehistoric art, André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986) to make a case for the expressive value of words. He stated that

One would be more inclined to back André Leroi-Gourhan’s well-argued hypothesis, according to which the oldest language performed a sacred function and the first significative spoken units were uttered by a narrator who simultaneously gestured toward the corresponding painted figures during ceremonial processions followed by the robe in temple-caverns. The hypothesis is very appealing since the function of designation immediately comes across in all its power and specificity. The latter hinges on two decisive points: speech is not uttered in the absence of the designated thing, but in its presence; and the designated thing is not a thing but a symbol which legitimately can be said from the outset to be opaque.

Therefore, it is this expressiveness, this pointing function of figuration–the sayer of the word pointing to (the picture of/the sign for) the thing that consists of the depth or the “thickness,” as Lyotard would have it, in the language. Rhetoric, then, partakes of the Figure in that, like the hand of the narrator, rhetoric gestures to that which is beyond uttering, that which escapes discourse or representation through concepts. The philosopher set aside linguistic models based on firmly opposed opposites and insisted upon the simultaneous presence of heterogeneity due presence of the (suppressed) other haunting the textual. As the example of the cave paintings suggested, vision is a necessary element of speaking and the glue of concepts and this physicality of language cannot be reduced to phenomenology, which seeks an impossible “pure” pre-cognitive vision untouched by words.

To envision, so to speak, the points that Lyotard was making, one would do no better than to return to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (1897, published as a book in 1914). Lyotard lauds the poem’s “power to figure.” Mallarmé’s contribution was to call attention of the physicality of the marks on the page and to the visuality of the poem which rolls and bounds from page to page, shedding, in its exuberance, one font and trying on another, leaving gaps and spaces which assert themselves in a graphic negation. Here, on the white pages, the figural emerged to confront the reader with the dark ink forming physical lines that run erratically, like a tossed die, against the winds of chance. The figural is never discourse’s Other but always its ghost, vision separated from concept by a mere comma.

Discourse/figure is incommensurable in spatial terms and constitute a co-present of heterogeneous spaces, an informal mode of art work’s presentation of itself as is seen (literally) in the thick and materiality of Mallarmé’s poem. Lyotard referred to the intrusion of the figural as an intrusion of the “rhetorical” or that which discourse considers to be excessive and is incommensurable with discursive representation. There is something other than representation that cannot be contained by nor captured by discursive concepts. This something other, for Barthes, was “style”, for Lyotard it was “figure.” The second part of the discussion of Discourse, Figure will take up the role of art as the Figural.

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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Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part Two



Hybridity and Pluralism

In her 1966 essay, “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” Julia Kristeva (1941-) privileged the term “Text,” insisting that the subject is composed of discourses, created by a signifying system. The “Text” is a dynamic activity, rather than an object, an intersection of textual surfaces, rather than a point where meaning is fixed. Like Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Kristeva understood the politically subversive nature of celebrating intertextuality and realized that there was a deeply serious side to the challenge 0f the carnivalesque. Influenced by Kristeva, Roland Barthes (1915-1960) took up the idea that intertexuality was linked to a flouting of authority and referred to intertextuality as cryptographe (cryptogram) in which the reader is perversely split and re-split through codes, or when the text is composed of quotations that are not the actual quotes of other authors. These cryptograms are silenced quotations without quotation marks, using cultural codes which are references to recognized stereotypes, myths, received wisdom, shared assumptions, collective thinking and so on. Any authorial notion of mastery over a supposedly unique “work of art” is a fiction, convenient for those in authority, and, even the “I” or the voice of authority, the subject, is a mere social construction.

Given that reading and writing is the function of a network of citations, the rejection by Barthes of the “author” is also a rejection of author/ity and is therefore a political and revolutionary rejection of centralized control. With his theories of Deconstruction, the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) also rejected the notion of the independent author or unique authorship, understanding the “activity ” (to borrow a term from Barthes) of writing to be a kind of rewriting or an explicit interpretation of or commentary on the works of earlier writers. A reader cannot read without knowledge of a literary tradition of reading and writing, and a writer cannot write without access to his or her heritage. To write, to make art, any artist must use numerous quotations of already readable texts that can be quoted and quotable or readable. To be readable the writing must both draw from and attain the condition of iterability or the ability to be re-read, re-written or to be “grafted,” as Derrida would say, as re-expressions into other texts. As Barthes said, “..a text is an intertext,” an outcome that produced what he termed “a tissue” of quotations or citations. Kristeva, in her turn, defined a “text” as a “permutation of texts,” an intertextuality: “in the space of any given text, several utterances take from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another.”

However, in order to stress how different intertextuality is from previous methodologies of critical analysis, it is important to stress that although there always has to be a language existing before and after and around texts that allows the text to be uttered, but these multiple Intertexts are not sources of influence upon the writer. To posit an “influence” would be to assume a point of origin and to assume origin would be to assume some form of “originality.” But the entire point of Intertextuality is that there is no traceable source and that to attempt to track back upon an author’s path is to free fall into an abyss that has no end. Literature and visual art is nothing but a general field or open territory of anonymous formulae or literary conventions or visual codes whose origin cannot be located and which have already been written. All written and visual utterances and expressions must both import or utilize and, in the process, naturalize, or make familiar through repetition, the speech acts of others. The viewer must work within the resulting tensions among the numerous texts, seek collaborations among numerous artists, and undertake negotiations with the results. The idea is that the text is comparable to a dialogue between the reader and writer: words are neither neutral nor original but are already used and secondhand and saturated with other meanings, leftover and already contaminated and impregnated with their opposites. Meanings can be palimpsests, overlaying one another, transparent slices that one can see through, a past that is still present at odds with that which is on the surface.

Clearly, these Post-Structuralist interpretations of writing and reading and making art were closely related to the visual strategies that Postmodern artists and architects were beginning to employ as early as the 1960s and came into vogue during the 1980s. The literary critic, Jonathan Culler, called the formalist methodology “a bizarre fiction.” “At its most basic,” Culler said in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, “..the lesson of contemporary European criticism is this: the New Criticism’s dream of a self-contained encounter between the innocent reader and autonomous text is a bizarre fiction.” To read, Culler explained, is to read in relation to other texts, and, indeed reading like looking can occur only in relation to preexisting codes that are products of these texts. As “objects of the culture,” the works are required to participate in a variety of systems and must emerge from these networks of meanings. As Derrida put it, the intertextual codes are déjà-la, or already there. The origins are lost, for codification cannot originate or be originated; any code is already encoded in a prior code and these contributions of previous texts to the code makes signification possible, and now signification is redefined as a stacking up as it were of these preexisting codes. Because they have already been appropriated, free floating quotations are already anonymous and always untraceable, being already read, already seen, and refer to the sum of accumulated collective knowledge that makes it possible for texts to have reiterable meaning.

Taking their cue from Bakhtin and inspired by the uprising of the spring of 1968, the French writers and philosophers were invested in taking an anti-authorian position in regards to traditional literary traditions, while the American artists were attempting to break away from their Modernist predecessors and the critical authority of cultural leaders. Clearly, double-coding, a term popularized by Charles Jencks, is a visual counterpart to Intertextuality, but much of architecture’s intertextuality is, in fact, not visible or immediately understandable to the casual visitor,and yet is nevertheless present. Unlike Intertextuality in literature which is deeply embedded within the surface text itself, intertextuality in the visual arts depended upon a near scholarly knowledge of the history of art and of critical theory. The late architect, Charles Moore (1925-1993), utilized an entire history of Western architectural vocabularies for his Piazza d’Italia (1978) in New Orleans. The satirical façade, like a stage set, is a jumble of misaligned parts, assembled from the ruins of history into a deconstruction of stylistic chronology. If multiple texts must exist in order to write, then multiple works of art must be known in order for the work to exist, either for the artist or for the viewer.

While both Barthes and Kristeva were concerned about establishing a new epistemology or foundation for literature and of the visual arts, the more familiar definition of Postmodernism was formed out of the world of architecture by the architectural critic, Charles Jencks, who, unlike his art historical counterparts, was faced with postmodern tendencies as early as the 1960s. For Jencks, Postmodernism evolved out of art and architecture of the sixties, once again, paralleling similar approaches in the world of philosophy–postmodernism was a mere rethinking of Modernism. Jenks would agree with Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1996) that Postmodernism is less of a break and more of a continuation of a particular kind of Modernism. In other words, it is important to understand that Modernism was a period of time and that during this period of time, certain art critics and certain art historians (authority figures) decided to speak only of some art and fell silent on other forms of art making. Postmodernism became a “return” as artists and architects returned to that which had been “repressed” in Modernism: the hybrid (the impure) and the vernacular (popular culture). The architect, Robert Venturi’s books, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning From Las Vegas, written during the sixties, were the equivalents of Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans of 1962 as manifestos that celebrated popular culture.

Jencks, like most of the theorists of the Postmodern, understood that one of the leading characteristics of Postmodernism is the global and international culture of expansionary capitalism that makes any dominate style impossible. Note that, in the visual arts, Postmodernism finally found fertile ground in American academics during the short-lived art boom of the 1980s. Postmodernism as a theory enabled the art world to encompass the capitalist expansion of the art world beyond the narrow borders of New York City. Jencks characterized Postmodern art to be eclectic, due to what he called an embarrass de richesses, or a surplus of unrestricted ability to browse among historical periods or the freedom to “choose and combine traditions selectively—an “election,” as he would have it. The result is “a striking synthesis of traditions,” a “smorgasbord,” “inventive combinations,” and a “confused parody” that come out of a culture of pluralism, which recognizes no dominant style or movement. Despite the fact that, in their day, the best works of Postmodernism are, according to Jencks, “doubly-coded and ironic” producing a “hybrid (non) style” that opposes “an exclusive dogma of taste,” Postmodern architecture quickly became dated and stranded on the sands of its own excess of choice.

A simple contrarian movement or reaction, Postmodernism attempted to move always towards greater pluralism in contrast to the narrow elitism of Modernism, but as evidenced by its own erudition, the movement never believed that gaps between high and low or between different communities could be bridged into one universal culture. It is doubtful that visitors to Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center (1989) in Columbus, Ohio grasped his verbal visual punning exercises with the Jeffersonian grid and an abandoned armory. Resisting this notion of “control” but relying upon complex theory, Postmodernism deployed juxtaposition of motives, as seen in the Wexner Center, acknowledging multiple legitimacies, from the history of Ohio to the theory of Deconstruction. The literary and philosophical counterpart of Jencks’s “double-coding” would be “intertextuality”. This “double-voiced discourse” constitutes the fundamental agenda of the post-modern movement. According to Jencks “Double coding..is a strategy of affirming and denying the existing power structures (by) inscribing differing tastes and opposite forms of discourse.” In other words heteroglossia; in other words, intertextuality; in other words, plurality and the play of many voices.

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

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Écriture Féminine: Luce Irigaray




Women are outside all systems; they are stranded in the “eternal,” the “natural,” or the “essential.” Outside of history and beyond the reach of progress, women exist as the contradiction to the Enlightenment, which, for half the world, has not lived up to its emancipatory promises. Or perhaps one could say more accurately, if women and people of color are Othered, then the Enlightenment does not consider them as worthy of consideration. The Enlightenment and all its philosophies is white and male and European. The emancipatory discourses of the modern are gendered male and modernism is the discourse of the male subject. One has only to leaf through the pages of an art history text or wander down the corridors of a museum of modern art in order to see the “natural” female, usually nude, displayed and framed into powerlessness by the modernist male artist. The inevitable conclusion is that bourgeois modern men manifest their social and cultural powers on the supine and helpless body of the objectified female to exhibit social prowess.

Such exclusionary practices which keep the woman outside of culture extend across the entire social spectrum, which has been carefully policed and constantly patrolled by the ever-vigilant male. Ruled by their wombs, women are unreasoning beings. Reason is exclusively male. As a result, the culture of the west is monosexual, therefore, the only reasonable way to resist sexual difference is for women to assert sexual difference. The task of écriture féminine, like that of Marxism, is to demonstrate that there is nothing natural or universal. If it can be convincingly demonstrated, using the methods of logic, that the presence of women has not been acknowledged, then insisting on including women in the discourse causes a crisis in knowledge and a problem of the legitimization of the entire discursive system. If male philosophers are the only speaking subjects and if the subject of philosophy is the male, and if women are silenced, then how can philosophy be universal or transcendent if half the human race has been left out and rendered mute? The only way male philosophy can claim universality or transcendence is to write out women, but once women insert (note how phallic the language is) themselves and insist upon making themselves known as human beings, the whole system is in crisis, because, according to this system and its rules, the Feminine is a sign of unrepresentability.

As Dani Caravallaro pointed out in her excellent 2003 book French Feminist Theory: An Introduction, French feminism, like feminism in America was divided into different camps or opinions as to how to solve the problem of male dominance and to re-place women into Western philosophy. As Cavallaro wrote in her “Introduction,” “materialist feminism” critiqued the “fashioning” of gender and sexuality by the patriarchy, “linguistic feminism” examined the psychological impact of symbolic representations of the “fashioning” upon the psyche. These twin impulses are but the sides of the same coin and both of these two movements in French feminism are dedicated to exposing the cultural construction of the “natural” which renders the body as a text, written by the patriarchy. The French feminist writer and psychologist Lucy Irigaray practices “linguistic” feminism and her playful and subversive language must be read as a mode of expression of the female body which re-writes male texts.

Male discourse, in suppressing the feminine, is an inherently political institution and its acts of attempting to silence women are acts of political suppression. In America, the watchword was “the personal is political,” meaning that the private lives of women, long announced to be outside of the realms of serious speech acts, had to be understood as part of a strategy of oppression. In fact, the life of Luce Irigaray underscores the fate of women who dare to speak out. Note that the American and British feminists either selected their points of assault on male edifices carefully or approached the power source of male institutions more obliquely than the French feminists. But Irigaray directly challenged the heart of male oppression, the very site of silencing women: Enlightenment philosophy. Even more confrontationally, she posed a theoretical challenge to both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan on the topic of women. Although she had been a student of Lacan and was a practicing psychoanalyst, when Speculum of the Other Woman was published in 1964, she lost her teaching position at Vincennes and was expelled from Lacan’s Ecole freudienne de Paris. Her opposition to the Enlightenment “Othering” of women and her exposure of the male bias in her field revealed that psychoanalysis is historically determined and impacts upon the social attitude towards women.

The theory and the practice of psychoanalysis is phallocentrically biased with the symbolic male organ being elevated (more phallic language) to the universal order. But in order to elevate the male, the female must be extinguished. The psychoanalytic social order rests on the unacknowledged and unincorporated body of the mother. Irigaray, like Mulvey, used male theories against men. If the “feminine” is a sign of unrepresentability, then the “imaginary body” must be male. The female body is not symbolic for reasons articulated by Lacan who stated that the “masculine” is a structure of specularization. The eradication of the female renders her invisible, and the visualization of the male is based on a buried act or matricide, the death of the Mother. After this ritual murder, the “woman” is the victim who haunts this Phallic structure. The male projects his ego onto the world but this narcissistic act is, as Laura Mulvey noted, only a mirror of his own reflection. According to Irigaray, since men possess the reflective side of the mirror, then women are the repressed tain of the mirror. They are the the lack of reflection, the inability to reflect; they are the back of the reflection, the dark coating that allows the transparent glass to become a mirror.

Freud’s “fort-da” game, for example, portrays the absent mother as an object (the child’s toy). Even worse, the object of this game is to substitute a toy for the real mother, teaching the masculine subject that women and objects are equivalent and that women are, therefore, unnecessary. It is Irigaray’s hope to uncover the buried mother. Within the masculine system, woman is natural, outside of history, indeed, outside of life. She is nothing but a Hole without symbolism; she is homeless, unrecognizable residue. Women need a “house of language” where she can live and speak. To parler-femme is to speak (as) woman, to bring her body into language and to refuse the mastery of the patriarchy. Irigaray proposes a feminist strategy of “rétour et retouche,” which is a healing metaphor. In this poetics of the female body, the two lips indicate auto-affection: women loving themselves and refusing the male by replacing the male monological speech with a plurality of voices.Women need to rethink the cultural imaginary and to create a female imaginary which is fluid and mobile and indifferent to logic. The female auto-affection is a counterpart to the oppressive man-to-man as the universal “I” and means to love oneself.

I am completely ready to abandon this word, (feminism) namely because it is formed on the same model as the other great words of the culture that oppresses us.

Luce Irigaray wanted to reclaim feminism and to redefine it as the struggle of women and their “plural and polymorphous character…” She does not tell us what a woman is for this is something women have to create and invent. “Woman” as a concept is already implicated in the male/female opposition of patriarchal metaphysics, because “woman” is automatically not a man. The danger lies in attempting to undermine the concept of “woman,” because by merely entering into the terrain of male discourse, if only to combat it, one risks becoming complicit with that which one is trying to subvert.

Speaking (as) woman is not speaking of women. It is not a matter of producing a discourse of which women would be the object or the subject.

According to Irigaray, representation is both masculine and self-reflexive and specular. Anticipating the publication of Irigaray’s first book by two years, Ways of Seeing by English author John Berger called attention to the way in which women are watched by males and how they then internalize the watching and watch themselves. Thinking of Lacan and of the constant social surveillance over women, Irigaray also noted that women are looked at by men but do not look back at men. Men possess the “gaze,” the power to look, which personifies male power over women. By this non-exchange of the “gaze,” women are rendered “different” from men in terms of negation—what they are not relative to men. Women are the negative; men are the positive. Women are defined in terms of what they cannot do: they cannot look; what they cannot have: the Phallus. They have no positive place in society. The “difference” between men and women that elevates the male and devours the female has been structured into the unconscious of the social, political, and cultural hierarchy.


Luce Irigaray (1930-)

One of the most valuable contributions of feminism, both in America and France is the revelation that “femininity” is a male construction, a role and an image, a value imposed upon women by the narcissistic and misogynistic logic of masculine systems. How is the “feminine” determined–meaning fixed and rendered unmoving–by male discourse? The Marxist concept of social determination transforms into anatomical destiny when the feminine is “determined” as Lack or Error or as an Inverted reproduction of the masculine subject, solely on the basis of the absence of a specific form of genitalia. Without a Phallus, the female Lacks symbolism, and because, the male exists as the lone signifier solely because of a primal matricide, repression is the only place of the feminine. The woman has been repressed, squeezed out of culture and society and confined to a speechless and inert body.

How can a woman enter into a discourse that is hostile to her presence? Women have access to language only through systems of representation that are masculine. The binary oppositions that support language work against women who have been historically assigned a negative role, a “not.” Therefore, women must mimic the “feminine.” Within the text—and there is no outside the text—women can only act out their roles. Irigaray defines écriture féminine as the writing style of women that emphasizes the tactile, the simultaneous, and the fluid, the kind of writing, capable of, as she explained in 1975, “.. jamming the theoretical machinery itself, of suspending its pretension to the production of a truth and of a meaning that are excessively univocal. Which presupposes that women do not aspire simply to be men’s equals in knowledge.” That being said, the concept of a writing “style” for women is unimaginable within the existing male order, the inherited “grids” of masculinity. Writing within and outside of the masculine style of linear logic, the female writing signifies excess or deranging power–the disrupting otherness of women.

Irigaray was concerned that women would fall back into a language of the male social organization that exiles and excludes women, and she wished to promote and encourage the development of a social form specific to women. Paralleling similar movements in America in the seventies, Irigaray proposed that separation of women from men is an effective short-term strategy. Women need to learn to love each other and themselves, a revelation that is an indispensable step towards autonomy. Without the preliminary step of reclaiming the woman and her body, the females cannot become full and complete human beings. The real danger is accepting the terms of a system that forces women to become men. The real challenge is to confront the foundation of the social and cultural order for equality but such a challenge should not mean becoming “men” or man-like. Difference has always been used against women, and if women are assimilated to the world of men, they will have nothing to contribute as women. One must fight for human rights rather than for women’s rights and to intervene into an unjust system as a woman.

In This Sex Which is not One of 1977, Irigaray refused to consider power as anything but a male obsession, something women are against.Women should resist hierarchy and orthodoxy and recognize a multiplicity of strategies. The female strategy par excellence is to appropriate the role given to her by the male and to make the role her own. This appropriation is what she meant by mimicry. To mimic as a writer is to mimic the male fears of the uncontrollable fluidity that is the female. Irigaray attempted to theorize female specificity as a radical difference, which could be a serious threat to the hegemony male sex. The protective masquerade proposed by Joan Rivière in 1929 could be transformed into rebellious mimicry or an exaggeration of “womanliness” and a new appreciation of the feminine.

One must assume the feminine role deliberately to invert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus begin to toward it. To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse.

The old mimesis was the masquerade, which is only parroting the master’s discourse, in order to protect oneself, as Riviérè pointed out. Within French Feminism, female mimicry becomes a parodic mode of feminine discourse to deconstruct the discourse of masculinity. As American theorist, Mary Ann Doane, stated the goal is, “..to enact a defamiliarized version of femininity…” In other words to reassert the woman by making the feminine seem strange again. Mimesis is a “canny”–strange–mimicry, projecting difference as a positive. Embracing female difference, Irigaray associated women’s writing and speech with female fluidity rather than with male rigidity. Women have a special relationship with fluids–breast milk, menstrual blood, afterbirth–and historically, because of its relationship with women, fluid has been abandoned to the feminine.

In embracing the fluid and the plural, Irigaray abandons the binaries of Structuralism by deconstructing the paired opposites to demonstrate that within the polar system, women are always disadvantaged. The male side of the contrast is valorized at the expense of women and herein lies the act of deconstruction: if men need the negated women to carry the burden of his power, then without the woman to signify powerlessness, the male can have no independent status. The dualism must be interdependent, men and women are entangled together and it is the task of the feminist to untie the knot. Irigaray wrote,

…to play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself–inasmuch as she is on the side of the “perceptible,” of “matter”–to “ideas,” In particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by masculine logic, but so as to make “visible,” by and effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language. It also means “to unveil” the fact that, if women are such good mimics, it is because they are no simply resorbed in this function. They must remain elsewhere: another case of the persistence of “matter,” but also of “sexual pleasure.”


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

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

[email protected]


Jacques Lacan: Historical Context



Among the most important philosophers of the post-war period was Jacques Lacan who lectured to a number of future Postmodern thinkers, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom sat in on his famous lectures. A careful reading of his lectures, the Écrits, followed by a careful reading of the ideas of his students reveals traces of his thought in their writings. Lacan became more widely known in America through his appearance at the now famous 1966 symposium at Johns Hopkins University. This symposium introduced European post-Freudian thinking, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction to an American audience, but, because these lectures would not be published in English until 1970, it would be years before these seminal discussions would take root in the United States. In fact his last essays, concerning his now controversial interpretations of women and their position in psychological theory, were not translated until 1998.

Jacques Lacan was first and foremost the fulcrum through which many impulses of Postmodern thought were injected into a wide range of disciplines, from literary theory to feminist theory to Marxist theory to philosophy. The scatter-shot effect of his texts indicate the very complex construction of his widely influential books and lectures. One of the themes in Elizabeth Roudinesco elegantly laid out in her 1990 book, Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, Lacan’s entire career was certainly self-invention and re-invention and his re-take on Freudian theory was a bricolage re-construction.Born of a middle class Parisian family whose ordinariness he would take pains to hide, Lacan was, in many ways, a reinvented man by the time he entered into the still new medical field of psychoanalysis. For one seminal year, 1928-1929, he interned at the Infirmary for the Insane of the Police Prefecture under the colorful Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, a specialist in “erotomania,” paranoia, and the draping and knotting of cloth. Clérambault held dramatic sway over his pupils and, believing in the power of the “gaze,” observed his patients, who were never allowed to talk with him, and based his conclusions on his observations.

It is important to understand that when Lacan began his independent professional career, he was part of a purely French take on psychoanalysis: from Clérambault’s reworking of Freud’s teacher, Jean-Martin Charcot to his own reworking of Clérambault (who accused his pupil of plagiarism). But this French foundation would be infused with more than a touch of alien German-ness. It is through his interest in Dada and then Surrealism that Lacan discovered the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in the early 1930s, but, once again, it is important to note that Lacan came to Freud through late Surrealism and ideas of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) on paranoia. For Dali, seeing one thing and thinking (due to paranoia) that it is something else–different and threatening–is the equivalent of living in an hallucination.

Although Freud was alive and quite accessible in the 1930s, Lacan and the second generation of French psychoanalysts knew Freud through reading his books, and it was through Freud’s writings that Lacan learned of the “talking cure” or the “couch,” and of the importance of language. Clearly, the young doctor could see, first, that his field was changing and that with the demise of the teachers, the students could now assume leadership positions and that, second, there was nothing and no one preventing him from stepping forward with new ideas. Through sheer will and force of personality, Jacques Lacan took the lead in re-creating a new version of psychoanalysis. Lacan was not and would never be an originator or an innovator, instead his talent lay in a penchant for theatrical delivery and in drawing together numerous concepts, already in circulation and recombining and reinventing the already invented. His method as a teacher was to teach (dramatically) the work of others, especially Freud, filtered through his own re-interpretations, which then, in and of themselves, could become a distinct body of work in its own right.

If the first step towards a re-thinking of psychoanalysis was Freud, then the second step was Georg Hegel (1770-1831), but Lacan would absorb a very particular re-interpreting of Hegel. As a member of the generation of 1930, Lacan was influenced by Hegelian thought transmitted to the French through the 1933-34 lectures of Alexandre Kojève from 1933 to 1939. Although other work was discovered posthumously, Kojève’s most famous book was his Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (published in French in 1947 and in English in 1968). Because this book is a compendium of a series of lectures, the text is a bit oddly segmented but it presents the ideas of Georg Hegel in a succinct and comprehensible fashion. As philosopher Michael Roth recounted in his 1985 article, “A Problem of Recognition: Alexandre Kojève and the End of History,”

The center of Kojeve’s oeuvre is, and will remain, however, his book on Hegel. This interpretation, a collection of notes and texts assembled by Raymond Queneau, is gleaned from a seminar which was a hothouse for intellec- tual development: Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil, Aron Gurwitsch, Gaston Fessard, Alexandre Koyré, Queneau, Andre Breton, and Jacques Lacan were among the auditors.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit introduced the notion of a dialectic between the self and the other and/or the master/slave. As Alexandre Kojève pointed out in his lectures, the desire for recognition, which leads to self-consciousness, is linked to the desire for the Other. As Michael Roth explained, “Human desire, properly so-called, has as its object another desire and not another thing.” What is significant about Kojève’s re-reading of Hegel through a Marxist filter is that by placing “desire” at the center of Hegelian thought, Kojève moved the desire for recognition (self-consciousness) out of Hegel’s theological (transcendental) time to Marx’s material time (class struggle as the basis for history itself). Then he substituted Hegelian being with the Being of Heidegger, in which Being or Dasein is achieved through the anticipation of death. So what beings in desire ends in death, all enfolded in a life lived in real historical time. Desire creates history and even time itself.

Lacan would take up the psychological implications of the One/the Other and sexualize the alterity or otherness between the self and the other. For Lacan, following Kojève, the emergence of individuality would revolve around Desire, which is always directed toward an/Other Desire, which is always deferred. Lacan also re-cast Marxism in that economy became a way to explain an “exchange” system of loss and gain, now connected to the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Unlike Freud, an original thinker, who labored alone, Lacan re-examined Freud by filtering him through other disciplines–anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and semiotics (Ferdinand de Saussure)–and focused on what is particularly human about the human mind. Rejecting Freud’s biology, which insisted that the workings of the mind was determined by the body, or to put it more bluntly, “anatomy is destiny,” and borrowing from Saussure, Lacan substituted nature for culture and biology for anthropology and sociology and claimed that the unconscious was structured by language, in other words by culture. As Lacan stated in Seminar XX:

…I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say – and I come back to this all the time – that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters…

Although Lacan had already presented his idea of the “mirror stage” in 1936, he did not announce his fabled Return to Freud until November 7, 1955 with the aim of dislodging the ego from its position of ascendancy and of dethroning consciousness. As Terry Gamel pointed out in his “Summary of Lacan’s ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,'” Lacan posited that the “mirror stage,” or how a child comes to literally “see” herself as a separate (conscious) individual, evolved through (trace of Dali’s ideas) “paranoiac knowledge,” or how we make sense of the world. By the 1950s, the interest in Freudian studies had declined in France. There was no psychoanalytic study in France until 1926 (remember Surrealism emerged a few years earlier), during the war, Freud had been rejected for being “German,” and many (Jewish) practitioners of Freud’s ideas were killed during World War II.

The post-war scene in French philosophy was dominated by Existentialism and its notion of the self as an actor with individual autonomy. But in 1963, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) revived Lacan by inviting him to bring his famous seminars to École normale supérièure from Sainte Anne Hôpital. At the hospital, Lacan had performed in the amphitheater from 1954 to 1964 as a spellbinding and prophetic leader: the kind of scholarly superstar that is unique to France. He claimed he made the unconscious manifest through his self-conscious style of performance. In keeping with what would later be called “postmodernism,” Lacan radically critiqued psychoanalysis by re-reading Freudian theory. In keeping with his linguistic take on Freud, Lacan asserted that the whole truth could never be spoken and that any perceived totality was imaginary.

Once he moved to the École, Lacan’s circle quickly expanded and included Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), author of Structural Anthropology to whom he owed some of his thinking on the role of culture in shaping the human mind. In addition, both Althusser and Lacan were re-thinking the philosophy of Karl Marx without reference to Hegel’s absolute and Freud without reference to the unified self/ego, respectively. But, as Elizabeth Roudinesco stated, the events of May 1968 transformed psychoanalysis from an academic enterprise to a psychoanalytic culture that was dedicated to social and political issues and to social criticism. These events of 1968 created a political community that changed the French intellectual psyche. In comparing Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) to those who came after him, one could now say he was the last Enlightenment philosopher and perhaps the last Modernist philosopher after Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and that Lacan was the first Postmodernist in that he was one of the early re-writers and re-thinkers who also used bricolage to re-assemble a new take on old ideas.

To the generation of 1968, the theory of language as a discours engagé, meaning politically committed writings, had to be reappraised. Although a political uprising had begun spontaneously, the end result was a reassertion of power under an autocratic and dictatorial Charles de Gaulle. Discouraged by the collapse of oppositional forces—labor and students—French intellectuals began to manifest their refutation of the “classical” tradition, which stressed clarity above all, in French literature by deliberately writing with oblique political gestures. In other words, the new philosophers position themselves in a postmodern position of critique by re-reading and re-writing or re-newing the philosophy of Others, or to put it still another way, they overthrow or overwrite their precursors. One of the best books on this transformation of French thought, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution was written by Richard Wolin, who explained,

As a result of the May events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninsit authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence French intellectual life was transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insights into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holds of power by flaunting timeless moral truths.

At all costs, totalitarian thinking or grand narratives must be avoided. The experiences of 1968 also explain the commingling of philosophy and other disciplines, especially with the arts. As with the Frankfurt School, political events brought about an interdisciplinary approach within philosophy. Lacan’s Seminar of 1969 reflected not only his long apprenticeship and absorption of multiple strains of pre-war intellectualism but also his post-war reactions to political upheaval. First, he stated his objections to the idea of totalization of knowledge and began a critique of the Hegelian idea of the Master, by pointing to what he termed the “hysteric” discourse of Socrates. Lacan blended the dialectic between question and answer with the circular and symbiotic relationship between the doctor and patient. The presumed role of the pupil/subordinate/hysteric who asked questions of the Master, demanding the Master’s answer, only brings the master and the hysteric into a symbiosis or a symbiotic or mutually dependent relationship. This entangled and self-enclosed discourse of universality is the discourse of the Master, implying a mastery of all disciplines.

The Master reinforces his Mastery through mystification of ideas and deliberate obscurantism of intellectual thought, which produces the non-mastery of the subordinated and bewildered students. In his rejection of Socratic thought and method, Lacan was echoing Friedrich Nietzsche (184401900), who saw Socrates as destroying the balance between Apollo (the rational) and Dionysius (the irrational). In his dialogues with his pupils, Socrates attempted to upset this balance to make logic (the rational) the primal mode of thought which should dominate (like the Master) the workings of the mind. It is not clear how Lacan, the “master” performer surrounded by students and disciples, avoided the position of the Master and the consequent mutual identification in his turn, but he was part of the post 1968 reconfiguration on the part of French intellectuals who took a subversive turn. The goal of the Postmodern enterprise was to question prevailing wisdom by critiquing the already said.

In the decades after this death, his possible upending of authority attracted a new commentary on and a new critique of Lacan himself by a younger generation. A more contemporary reading of Lacan would find a bias towards Eurocentrism and a phallocentric (male) perspective on the world. Although the “culture” of Freud and Lacan was a white European male culture, Post-colonial writers have found Lacan’s notions of Desire to be an important aspect of the colonial question of the relationship between the One and the Other. Since the seventies, many feminists debated both of these writers, while other feminists did not bother to do battle on a terrain that does not include women. Re-reading Jacques Lacan in the 21st century is a challenging enterprise and calls into question the relevance of Postmodern thinking to a world that has so clearly moved beyond the culture that formed Lacan. For women and for people of color, for people who are not heterosexual, Lacan is at best anachronistic. Yet it cannot be denied that the relevance of Lacan lies in his insights into how relationships of power shape the consciousness, bending it towards either dominance or submission: concepts that have profound political implications today.

The next four posts will discuss Lacan’s re-reading and re-writing of Sigmund Freud.

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

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

[email protected]



Postmodern Architects

The Masters of Postmodernism

Postmodern architecture is a generational Oedipal act of rebellion against the Modernist fathers. Beginning with early criticisms of Modernist destruction of traditional cities, from the 1970s a genuine rebellion broke out among younger architects. The new generation systematically broke all the rules laid down by their predecessors—idealism was replaced by cynicism and irony, originality was superseded by a return to history, and a pure meaning born of visual unity was wiped away by the multi vocalism of allegory, as buildings designed by historical analogy began to dot the landscape.

One of the first acts of provocation came from none other than one of the Modernist masters, Philip Johnson. In a perverse act that some called “betrayal,” the architect of the famous Glass House (1949) in New Canaan, Connecticut, mashed styles and periods together in the AT&T Building—now the Sony Building—of 1978-84. Rising above New York City, the AT&T Building was topped by a faux crown fashioned after the top of a cabinet by the 18th century designer, Thomas Chippendale. As is typical of Postmodern art, the building required and even demanded a knowledgable viewer to understand the inside jokes written across the facade. The mixture of styles was an affront to Modernist purity, but Chippendale himself made furniture that was hybrid and allegorical: “classical” and “Queen Anne,” which would be called “Federalist” in New York. The broken pediment was a Baroque comment on the Greek pediment on temples transplanted from architecture by Chippendale who propped his “high boy” (haut bois) on curved cabriolet legs (pilotis for furniture) antithetical to pure classicism. The stories of the AT&T Building resemble the drawers of a cabinet or the shelves in a Chippendale bookcase. The resulting building was sixty odd layers of ironic allusions to the history of architecture and design, an act of architectural bricolage. It caused a sensation.

Just as Philip Johnson referred back to a previous period of quotation, Charles Moore followed with the Piazza d’Italia (1976-79) in New Orleans which commented on Roman architecture which, was in and of itself, a pastiche of Greek and local Tuscan styles. The key trope of Moore’s “piazza” is the fact that Roman architecture was based on façade or a cladding of the structure to disguise construction—also a rejection of Modernism’s assertion of form. The Piazza is also a nod to Hollywood which uses fake fronts, stage sets, for the Piazza is not a set of buildings but a grouping of façades that jumble together architectural components and materials all of which allude to imperial architecture. Originally conceived of as a piece of “destination architecture” by a “star architect,” (starchitect) the Piazza was not popular with the locals and quickly fell into disrepair as the unstable materials altered or were vandalized, after its opening in 1978. In 2004 this famous piece by the late architect was restored by Ronald C. Filson of Tulane University.

It is perhaps Michael Graves whose works have been the most iconic and most recognizably “Postmodern.” His style is marked by a flat and linear effect, as if the façades of his buildings are drawings cut out of balsa wood, like an architectural model. The Portland Public Service Building (1982) is typical of his Postmodern “classicism,” with small windows, surface patterns and strong pops of color, especially terra cotta. But despite the iconic building in Portland, Graves is part of a group of architects, loyal to Modernism, known as the “Whites.” While it is hard to imagine Graves and the Late (Lingering) Modernist architect, Richard Meier, the “Whites” are distinguished from the “Grays,” led by Robert Venturi who take their inspirations from the built environment of the vernacular landscape. Because the structure is decorated with motifs that quote Classicism and Art Deco and refers to the practice of architecture, its history and its theories, the term “pastiche” sums up the Portland building by Graves.

It is important to note that the high point of Postmodern architecture coincided with a period of wealth and extravagance, particularly in the corporate culture. Like the International Style, Postmodern architecture quickly became equated with corporate arrogance and greed. These were expensive buildings, utilizing hard to maintain precious materials, and the architects allowed theories to override practicality and the insistence upon allegorical designs that combined architectural elements from various periods often overwhelmed function. It is best to think of these buildings as large works of art, needing the same care and conservation as any artistic creation. For example the architect Frank Gehry, who is neither Modernist nor Postmodernist, comes less from the world of architecture and more from the world of art. In Los Angeles, he was close to the artists of the city and his buildings resemble sculptures made out of titanium.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Hall in Los Angeles are explosions in metal, sprawling aggressively in peaks and valleys that shine in the sun and shimmer in rain. These fragile buildings are “signature” works, as recognizable as Dan Flavin’s florescent bulbs, and, like it is impossible to throw paint on the floor without being “Pollock,” Gehry “owns” titanium. Although this architect is not “Postmodern” in the sense of piling allegorical references upon a building which becomes an “emblem” of “architecture,” Gehry could not have built his signature creations in any other era. Neither could Peter Eisenman have made the move from academic theories on architecture if had the culture not been willing to embrace innovative ideas. In fact both he and Gehry are included, along with Rem Koolhaus, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and Coop Himmelblau, in a group of Deconstructivist architects who Deconstruct the Constructivist architecture of the Russian Avant-Garde.

The great architectural theorist, Mark Wigley, defined Deconstruction (taken from ideas of Jacques Derrida) in architecture as locating “inherent dilemmas within buildings….The demonstrative architect puts the pure forms of the architectural tradition on the couch and identifies the symptoms of a repressed impurity. The impurity is drawn to the surface by a combination of gentle coaxing and the violent torture: the form is interrogated.” The most famous example of such architecture is Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center of Visual Arts (1983-89) on the campus of Ohio University in Columbus. The building is an ironic commentary on the Modernist grid and on the grid system, based in turn on Roman town planning, that was used by the American government to map the midwest and lay out its towns and cities. The grid for the city and the grid for the university were deliberately misaligned by Eisenman by 12 1/2 degrees. So it is here, at the site of an armory that was demolished after a devastating fire in 1958, that two historic grids inadvertently come together but do not join seamlessly.

The Wexner Center with its skewed gridded building is sited at the point of disjuncture and memory. The shape but not the function of the armory was disinterred from its fiery grave and sliced in half, split by time and space out of joint. The vaguely castle like shape in faux red brick is surrounded by a building that is a grid that de-defines enclosure and yet must contain the double buildings—the museum and the library. Pure white, without straight lines, full of stops and starts, suspended columns, unfinished lines, the building is a dizzying deconstruction of Modernist rectitude and the quintessential example of Deconstruction in Postmodernism in architecture. Indeed, Charles Jencks describes the building as a negation of the assumptions of architecture: a “not-entrance” past a “not-excavated” “not-armory” and through a “not-doorway” and towards “non-columns” and “non-pilasters”–all of which are evidence of “absent-presence.” Welcome to Postmodernism.

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

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

[email protected]

The Historical Context of Postmodernism, Part One


Part One

Writing in the second volume of his important book, A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee attempted to describe the moment/s in which the “Modern” ended and the “Post-Modern” began. He asserted, although Europeans and “North Americans” were unaware of what was happening, that the Modern Age was winding down in “the aftermath of the General War of 1792-1815.” Toynbee was referring to the period between the French Revolution and the final fall of Napoléon. It was during these decades that the Age of Reason was refuted by the Age of Terror, total war, and democracy and equality were delayed by a ruthless dictator bent on ruling Europe. These years of irrational and regressive political actions were also precisely the years that, in art history, marked the end of Neo-Classicalism and the establishment of Romanticism. Toynbee wrote that “…the Modern Age of Western History had been wound up only to inaugurate a Post-Modern Age pregnant with tragic experiences.” In referring to the well-to-do economic beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution and the political winners of the the Enlightenment, he continued, “They were imagining that, for their benefit a sane, safe, satisfactory Modern Life had miraculously come to stay in a suddenly inaugurated timeless present.” Toynbee wrote that the privileged of this Modern society were somehow able to overlook the continued inequalities. The historian described a kind of willful blindness to the fact that, in a modern age, monarchies and colonialism and imperialism simply could not continue and “must be borne away, sooner or later, by Time’s ‘ever-rolling stream.'” The Late Modern Age (1675-1875), according to Toynbee, “is one of the great Ages of Faith—Faith in Progress and in Human Perfectibility…A Faith that has lived three hundred years dies hard…” the historian asserted, adding that this Faith took “a knock-out blow in A.D. 1914.” His tone and style of writing is decidedly old fashioned, an attempt to look into the soul of twenty three civilizations to understand their rise and fall. One of the last of the historians who were were ambitious enough to delve into a broad sweep of historical forces, Toynbee’s approach favored the spiritual or moral (or psychological) forces of history. For example, he indicted the moral failure of American democracy and the European refusal to deal fairly with the proletariat or the poor and lower classes. Toynbee’s twelve volume history was published between 1934 and 1961 and was abridged in the early 1950s into two volumes. However, by the time of the completion of the long publication process, his style of history had gone out of vogue and attacks on his approach damaged his reputation. And yet, Toynbee presented a cogent and insightful analysis of how the Age of Faith gave way to the Post-Modern time of disillusion. By the end of the Second World War the damage to the Faith in Reason was irreparable. It was only after the final war was over and the Western world contemplated the smoldering ruins that the extent of the loss in Faith became clear. Modernism or the Modern Age was historically linked to the Enlightenment and its doctrines of human perfection through the forces of reason, its hopes of political equality and its drive towards Progress. Reason replaced Faith and Culture replaced Nature. The Modern period was marked by a new desire to cultivate and master Nature and this sense that nature could be controlled came to characterize Modernism. In the early decades, technology seemed to be a miracle which transformed an entire continent from an agrarian one into a site of industry and manufacture. It would take over one hundred years for the price of the Industrial Revolution and the relentless impetus of technology to be fully realized—the pollution of the water and air, the toll on human beings, and the spoliation of nature itself. The idea that rational thinking would lead to inhumane rationalism did not occur to the Enlightenment philosophers whose task was not to foretell futures but to replace God with philosophy. But the German (Nazi) use of logic, reason and rational thinking had lethal consequences. Given the appropriate technology, the human being could take the place of God with the powers of life and death—even to the extent of attempted extermination of an entire people. Philosophers have traced the logical consequences of scientific farming, selective breeding of animals, urban planning, and the hierarchical ordering of people according to skin color, to the ultimate act of rationalization, the Holocaust. After the Second World War, the Frankfurt School, an important precursor to Post-Modernist theory, would claim that the Enlightenment brought only darkness. “How was it possible to write poetry “after Auschwitz?” asked Theodor Adorno of artists. It seems to be the task of the Postmodern generation to ponder the problem of the monstrous potential of limitless inhumanity in an age of absolute disillusionment and cynicism. Postmodernism arrived as a mind set at the same time the international culture awaited another millennium. The war ended with the losers–Germany and Japan–becoming the economic victors and the military winners–England and France–losing status and empires and self-respect. Once again, exhausted, decimated and destroyed, Italy was lost in the shuffle. America and Russia took on the respective roles of Good and Evil as Western and Eastern Europe faced each other in a long ideological war of threat and counter-threat, a chess game of never-enacted virtual reality, a simulacrum of ultimate annihilation by apocalyptic weapons, build, cherished but never launched. The Cold War, ending only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, was played out between neo-imperialist Euro-American powers in theaters of color–Algeria, Korea, Viet Nam, exotic locales where nasty little wars could be carried out without inconveniencing the Superpowers at home.

The French Connection

What is remarkable about the post-war period is the extent to which American and European powers continued the same policies of empire and imperialism and inequality without regard to ethics of morality—after Toynbee had spent decades describing these very conditions as the reasons why cultures failed. If the Modern Age failed and gave way to the Post-Modern with the beginning of the First World War, then, by the end of the conflict filled century a consciousness arose of something that could be called in a self-conscious way “Postmodernism,” of the state of being in the Post-Modern Age. The awareness of the cultural condition of “Postmodernism” could be separated from “Postmodernity,” which is a more specific concept. Postmodernity is a social and cultural state characterized by globalization and computer-based technology. That said, it is convenient to point out that Postmodernism, as a time period, played out in two different arenas, Europe and America. For America, 1968 was a year of assassinations—Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—and all the cultural leaders of change were wiped away. For America, the sixties were over and were followed by an age of self-indulgence and disco. For Europe, that year was one of revolutions and uprisings, none more notorious than that in Paris, the events called “May ’68.” In his recent book The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (2010), Richard Wolin described the rise and fall of the Marxist student and worker attempt to change France during a hot spring month. The time of revolution, long predicted by Marxist theory, had finally come—the masses had risen up, but, like most modern revolutions, this one lacked leaders and a coherent agenda. While everyone gave up, went home and accepted the reimposition of the status quo, the long term impact of “May ’68” played itself out among the scholars and intellectuals. As Wolin expressed it, “By the time the dust had cleared, many of France’s leading intellectuals—Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Tel Quel group—had been swept up in this giddy left-wing political vortex.” According to Wolin, the revolution that wasn’t

…had a strangely beneficial on French intellectuals, curing this mandarin caste of its residual elitism and thereby helping to promote a new, more modest, and democratic cultural sensibility, for in the aftermath of the aftermath of the May revolt, when Maoism had reached its zenith, French intellectuals learned to follow as well as to lead. Much of this development was captured by Foucault’s felicitous coinage: the specific intellectual had supplanted the universal intellectual. In a further nuance of twist, the democratic intellectual would replace the vanguard intellectual…

Founded in 1960, Tel Quel, both a publication and a group of leading intellectuals, including, Jean-louis Baudry, Pierre Boulez, Claude Cabantous, Hubert Damisch, Marc Devade, Jean-Joseph Goux, Denis Hollier, Julie Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet, Jean Ricardou, Jacquelin Risset, Denis Roche, Pierre Rottenberg, Jean-Louis Schefer, Phillipe Sollers, Paule Thévenin, Jean Thibaudou, submitted a statement in the summer of 1968. They issued the following statement, We believe it necessary to call to mind the following points:

  1. we are not “philosophers,” “savants,” or “writers” according to the representative definitions admitted by a society whose material functioning and consequent theory of knowledge we attack;
  2. this theory of language, subjugated by the metaphysical category of expressivity, seems to us to constitute one of the ideological keys to the current situation, in that disastrous complicities between the worst reactionary conservatism and baseless revolutionism are able to “spontaneously” reveal themselves here;
  3. we believe that the signifying activity of a given historical phase constitutes a decisive determinant of the transformative possibilities of that phase. The subordination of this specific level, the abandonment and the negation of its effects on consciousness and change, always coincides with an overdetermined regression by the state of things en acte, reinforcing themselves by means of local contestation;
  4. it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages;
  5. consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state;
  6. in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science);
  7. any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although the scholarly trend towards the intellectual postmodern project was well underway before Summer 1968, the stance of Tel Quel mirrored the changing social structure of French society. Founded in response to the Algerian war by a young men under the age of thirty, Tel Quel evolved from an apolitical literary review to an enterprise parallel to the seizure of art writing by the artists in New York, part of what was called in Paris, the “war of the reviews.” In contrast to the New York artists who merely wanted to explain their own art, the Tel Quel writers were deliberately avant-garde or what is called the engaged or activist intellectual—the public intellectual who deliberately courted controversy. This is a cultural role that simply did not and does not exist in America. The review was named Tel Quel after a 1943 book of poetry by Paul Valéry whose lectures at the Collège de France impacted Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, and other French intellectuals who changed the face of “theory.” This literary review sought to separate “literature” from its isolated position of being a “fine art” or a creative enterprise and to join literature to a social activity. As Daniell Marx-Scouras pointed out in her book, Cultural Politics of Tel Quel. Literature and the Left in the Wake of Engagement (1996), “This new interest in semiotics and psychoanalysis led to a reevaluation of language, which was no longer viewed as a mere instrument or decoration but rather as a sign and a truth.” She continued, “…the preoccupation with language during the late 1950s and early 1960s was, in effect, a political gesture.” Marx-Scouras quoted Roland Barthes, a frequent contributor to Tel Quel as saying, “The origin of semiology was political to me.”

The Postmodern philosophers in Paris began the process of interrogating the canonical writings of the Enlightenment, from Rousseau to Freud. Jacques Lacan’s project of rewriting and rethinking the project of Sigmund Freud from a linguistic point of view. Indeed, the Postmodern reexamination of Modern philosophy was an interesting intersection of literary theory and philosophical thinking in which philosophy was considered as language. This linguistic turn appeared early, before “May ’68” with the formation of theories of “intertextuality” from Julia Kristeva and the first flurries of “deconstruction” from Jacques Derrida which appeared in Tel Quel.

In History of Poetics and Intertextuality (2008) Marko Juvan described the emergence of a phenomenon called “Theory” which rejected the notion of an aesthetic sphere for literature. He stated, Theory pushed aside Existentialism, Neo-Marxism and Structuralism. As Jovan stated,

Theory experienced a fashionable flowering among American scholars and then everywhere that globalization penetrated with its cultural industry and intellectual market on one hand, and local resistance against it on the other. In France, Theory originally took shape as a radically critical, often explicitly politicized, transdisciplinary, eclectic and daringly speculative discourse that problematized prevailing ideas, stereotypes, assumptions, and values on which traditional learning and common sense rested…Theory pretentiously offered new and would-be universal explanations of the subject and its location by weaving together concepts from linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, history, mathematics, analytical philosophy, heideggerianism and Phenomenology.

In the year 1966, Deconstruction was “announced,” not in Paris, but in Baltimore, with a presentation by Jacques Derrida at a conference on Structuralism at Johns Hopkins. In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” in which he critiqued the structuralist philosophy of Claude Lévi-Strauss. By the end of the 1960s, Structuralism, a literary theory that used a “close reading” to analyze texts, was upended and Modernism in the arts had run their course. In the beginning of the 1970s, what would be called “Postmodern” ideas began to wend their way across the Atlantic.

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

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

[email protected]


Theodor Adorno and “Negative Dialectics”





Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote their critique of the culture of Western civilization, Dialectic of Enlightenment during the Second World War. When the book was published in German in 1947, the full extent of the Holocaust had been revealed, two atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Horkheimer and Adorno were now “Holocaust survivors,” and cultural amnesia was already setting into the minds of the German people. The failure of the Enlightenment was now evident and the raw truth of the rout of rationalism was undeniable. And although the book opened with the essay “The Concept of Enlightenment” the texts on the Culture Industry were the best remembered. Perhaps it took the magisterial pessimism of Theodor Adorno in Negative Dialectics to articulate the true extent of the Fall of humanity outside the bounds of the Enlightenment. Published two decades after his work with Horkheimer, Negative Dialectics is a tragic document, written in the wake of Shoah and in full understanding of the author’s Jewishness as an identity that guaranteed death.

Negative Dialectics is famously difficult to read, much less comprehend or understand. Large stretches of the book are page after page of impenetrable prose with little narrative flow, guaranteeing reader frustration. Adorno certainly wrote for his peer group, his fellow philosophers who were presiding over the corpse of Western philosophy. Every now and then, flashes of poetic writing that one begins to recognize as Adorno’s “style” or “manner,” so to speak, break this wall of writing. Thomas Mann, who called Adorno a “strange intellect, stated that he refused to chose between music and philosophy as his life’s work. The artistic nature of the opening sentences of this book is nothing short of profound and beautiful.

Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried…philosophy is obliged ruthlessly to criticize itself…The introverted thought architect dwells behind the moon that is taken over by extroverted technicians.

Even the most educated reader waits for and treasures such passages, which are relics or reminders that Adorno was once a gifted pianist. The roots of Negative Dialectics lie undoubtedly in his entire experience as a German philosopher who was surprised to find himself sentenced to being the Other by a culture he had dedicated his intellectual life to studying. Adorno’s scholarly home was the Frankfurt School, which understood that the problem of contemporary Western civilization was the Enlightenment itself, because that “civilization” had ended in “barbarism”. They owed this profound thought to Freud, who put forward the proposition in Civilization and its Discontents that civilization could be brought into being only through repression of primal instincts. One force—call this force ego or civilization—had to repress another—the id or instinct or barbarism—and these forces would be translated into social forces seeking control of the masses. Beyond a disciplinary force seeking to rule antisocial behavior are competing political and social forces, whether religion or regime, seeking to gain the upper hand. No matter how benign or benevolent, these social forces come into power by suppressing by acts of power other contenders. Thus “civilization” is the result of “barbarity”, a condition of force.

The Frankfurt School was formed and re-formed during a battle of civilization—the Allies—struggling against barbarity—the Nazis. Long before the war began, the French considered themselves to be cultured and the Germans to be barbarians, threatening invasion of European “culture”. After the war, the Germans were exposed as barbarians. The extent of the barbarism was not fully evident until the post-War period, inspiring Bertold Brecht to note that the “mansion of culture” was made of “shit.” The world, shocked by photographic and documentary evidence of death on an industrial scale wondered incredulously how the nation that nurtured Kant and Hegel and Beethoven could have systematically slaughtered over six million human beings. How from this peak of culture could the society sink to these depths of barbarism? The Enlightenment had failed, having produced positivism. Positivism, a degraded form of the Enlightenment, created an administered society that led to totalitarianism. Fascism was administered and highly controlled capitalism that revealed the contradictions inherent in the Enlightenment. Fascism put into practice the inherent self-destructiveness of the Enlightenment.

During the Second World War, the scholars of the Frankfurt School were scattered between European outposts and locales in America. For some the experience in America was a satisfying one, for others, such as Adorno, his time in America was an “exile.” Even though he became an American citizen, Adorno finally returned to Germany in 1949. Succumbing to the inducements of the city of Frankfurt, the scholars came back to Germany in 1950, committed to being politically committed, to exposing the myths of capitalism and socialism in the era of the Cold War. The memory of Walter Benjamin was maintained and even celebrated in the seminal study of German forgetting, The Inability to Mourn, by Institute fellows, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, contrasted mourning to melancholia. Benjamin had picked up these contrasts from Freud and used them in his discussion of allegory. The Mischerlichs, in turn, appropriated these ideas and fittingly used them to point out that Germany refused the mourn (the Jews) and hence was condemned to a state of (unresolved) melancholia.

When he returned to Germany, Adorno was not received as a conquering hero but as someone tainted with his American associations and, ironically, for someone who criticized popular culture, he was known mostly for his music criticism. As an exile, he returned to a culture that had been through an experience he had not shared and his mindset and methodology had been changed in New York. But Adorno had a sharp eye and a unique perspective for the way in which anti-Semitism had become a non-issue, swept under the rug while the former Nazis were being absorbed back into “normal” life. Just because the “Jewish question” had been “solved” in the concentration camps, did not mean that identity politics had also vanished. If the Jews in Europe had been exterminated in the name of “identity”—that is, they were identified as “the Other” through their yellow stars, then it was up to Adorno to explore the concept of non-identity.

In order to do so, Adorno continued his critique of philosophy, a critique that went beyond the abstract realm of thought and grappled with the implications of the refusal to remember the past so prevalent in West Germany. While The Inability to Mourn, is an elegy to the loss of “culture” in Germany, Negative Dialectics, is less psychological than philosophical. Martin Jay’s book Adorno set out the five “force fields” in his career: Marxism in the West, modernist aesthetics, intellectual despair, and deconstruction. Indeed it is fruitful to read Negative Dialectics through the Deconstruction of Jacques Derrida. Like Adorno, Derrida thought deeply about Hegel’s dialectic—thesis, antithesis and synthesis—as the metaphysical force that propelled Life toward the Absolute. Both modern philosophers would be suspicious of metaphysics but interested in the mechanism through which “Being” was brought into existence through its Other, Nothingness.

In deconstructing the Dialectic, Derrida noted that one term was always valued over the other term and yet the de-valued term was necessary for the preferred or favored term to exist. We understand one term only through the other term or by the différance and so, Derrida pointed out, these terms are neither opposite nor independent and their final meanings remain indeterminate and without origin. Later Jean-François Lyotard would use deconstruction married to Adorno to discuss the Holocaust in terms of what he called the differend and the forced silence of those who were outside the dialectic.

For Adorno, the problems of the Enlightenment were caused by “identity thinking”, or the subsuming of the particulars under general concepts or grand narratives. Like Benjamin who insisted on examining an object in its historical particularity, Adorno asserted that the danger of identity thinking could be averted through Negative Dialectics, which assesses relations among things according to the criteria the object had of itself. The constellation would be impervious to bourgeois identity thinking. The “constellation” refused to privilege one element over another and produced a dialectical model of negations or a fluid reality that was hostile to the reconciliation of the dialectical process.

Adorno took up the Dialectic in order to negate the presumed progression from one term to the other. Along with Benjamin, he understood a word to belong, not as part of a pair of opposites, but as an element in a constellation. While Benjamin thought of his “constellations” or what Fernand de Saussure would call a “network of relationships” as being eternal in meaning, Adorno understood meaning as being both historically determined and contingent upon the points in the cluster. Most importantly, Adorno has eliminated the linear teleology of the Dialectic and once the possibility of progressive movement is negated within the constellation, the point of origin—Nothingness—is eliminated. In other words, there was no positive to be reached.

The Dialectic that structures the Enlightenment is based upon Hegel’s distinction between the self and the other, between the mind and matter, between the One and the Other, between the Master and the Slave. Self-recognition and actuality is achieved through the recognition that it is not-me. But subjecthood has a dark side. Subjecthood is achieved through the domination of the other. Humans become “human” through culture, which denies and deforms nature. Science is the ultimate expression of the (in) human drive to subjugate nature through culture (technology), a drive that reached its peak with the Holocaust and the technology of Death.

That which was Jewish would be expelled from the purity of the Nazi body politic. Through subjective domination, Jews became objectified through reification. To counter this domination of nature, the Nazis had to regress to the mythic past and progress spawned barbarism. The humanity of the Jews was “forgotten,” because as Adorno said, “…all reification is a forgetting…” and even democratic countries produce forgetting through the culture industry. All levels of culture are permeated with this process of commodification that reduces people to things to be assimilated or purged.

Throughout his career, Adorno never relaxed his hostility to “affirmative cultures” and wrote Negative Dialectics, 1966 and explored the dark implications of Auschwitz for metaphysics and art. Adorno’s critique of the concept of “origin” coincided with the 1968 uprisings both on the streets of Paris and within the halls of French philosophy and he was taken up by Post-Structuralism, also known as Post-Modernism. He insisted that philosophy continue its engagement—an engagement that was “fatal”—with the world. This task would preserve the critical powers of philosophy and maintain a dialectical relationship between tragic history and philosophy. For the Frankfurt School, genuine materialism was an ethical function. Philosophy had come full circle and returned to the analysis of the real world and its political condition. But philosophy could no longer trust “progress” or “reason” and could only assume a position of constant critique against the effects of reification upon human culture.

The Frankfurt School accepted Marx’s notion of reification, of desire being frozen and fixed in place as a commodity object-as-fetish. Commodities are estranged from human origins in order for desires to be projected onto and into them so that the objects can become reified. America was the setting for the reification of desire through mass media. In the land of freedom and democracy, “The Culture Industry” undermined freedom of choice and expression. “Reason” becomes an “instrument” aligned to technology. The system of the Culture Industry was created in more liberal and industrialized nations. The culture industry creates a mass consciousness that is manipulated and distorted. Popular entertainment is standardized but pretends to individualization but produce Herman Marcuse’s “one dimensional society”. The techniques of the Culture Industry include the distribution and mechanical reproduction, which are external to the object. Therefore, all mass culture is identical and impresses its same stamp on everything.

“Instrumental Reason” was a pernicious effect of rationality. The term alone speaks of its danger: “instrumental” is subjective aligned to “reason”, presumed to be neutral. The Enlightenment had produced opposites that reduced everything to abstract equivalents of everything else in the service of the system of the exchange principle. All that is different or “non-identical” is forced into the mold to produce identity. For Adorno this mode of thinking would be countered by asserting his own difference, his own Jewishness—Difference instead of Identity. Instrumental Reason could be used to dominate nature through scientific control.

Progress and technological advances led, not to the empowerment of the people, but to their enslavement under despots. Modernism was exposed as a myth and social progress is shown as having fallen from grace. Technological apparatus allows for more efficient categorization that strengthens the collective order. Certain social groups succeed in administering and dominate other social groups through the appropriation of the means of rationalization. The masses are bought off with commodities. The masses are silenced by the entertainment industry that claims to inform but only instructs and stultifies opposition while pretending to allow “freedom of expression”. The result is totalitarianism or totalizing thinking. Everyone and everything must be the same, think the same, do the same: identity must be identical and the system resists the Other, which must be purged to protect the purity of the system. Hence the danger of the dialectic is that it privileges the One over the Other and seeks to annihilate the Other by negating it.

Under Fascism, progress became regression through ideology. Nazism refused the modernity of the Enlightenment while embracing modern mechanisms to produce and promulgate ideology, expressed through film and radio, controlled by the government. Fascism always regresses into a mythic past, while using mechanical means to control the present. The concentration camps were the ultimate example of administered death and efficient extermination. Auschwitz was the ultimate expression of rational thinking. Power had become the ideology, which controlled technology. As a Holocaust survivor, Adorno was profoundly suspicious of the universal. As he wrote,

Identity and contradiction in thinking are welded to one another. The totality of the contradiction is nothing other than the untruth of the total identification, as it is manifested in the latter. Contradiction is non-identity under the bane [Bann] of the law, which also influences the non-identical.

In Adorno and Horkheimer: Diasporic Philosophy, Negative Theology, and Counter-Education, Ilan Gur-Ze´ev wrote in 2005 that Horkheimer and Adorno broke with tradition and created a “diasporic philosophy” which is “nomadic.” Its starting point, he pointed out is the absence of truth. This analysis is a particularly valuable one because Gur-Ze´ev stresses the signal importance of the effects of exile upon Post-Structuralism after the War. It is impossible to go home again and take up philosophy where it left off. The Shoah represents the Fall of Humanity from Eden and what is left is the blasted wasteland of philosophy. Both Hegel and Marx offered a promise of a utopia, whether of Spirituality or of the Social, but Adorno could accept no Positive ending and the concept of a Synthesis had proved to be a dangerous one when put into political practice. Synthesis insists upon Sameness and Adorno counters with Non-Identity.

But it is capitalism itself that forces separateness upon the (administered) world, cleaving theory from practice creates a false contradiction, which is not real but which is the result of the way in which capitalism fragments society. Capitalism is not a neutral economic force or an impartial system, for it contains the seeds of fascism as the ultimate in administrative capitalism. According to Adorno, He who does not wish to speak of capitalism should also be silent about fascism”. Such a world does not admit to contradictions that must be silenced by received wisdom or what Adorno called “reified consciousness.” Reified thinking is almost a contradiction in terms for such a pattern of acceptance cannot change. Therefore “negative dialectics” is the refusal to accept the presumed identity between a thing and its concept.

Only by confronting the contradictions can one resist totalizing systems. The goal is to rescue non-identity, or that which was repressed in the quest for totalization and reification. In an abstract way that is also concrete and psychological, it is important for Adorno that one recognizes not just that which as been refused but also to come to terms with one’s guilt for having turned away from the contradictions within the dialectic. The philosopher’s thinking is often metaphorical and the need to feel guilt and the necessity of seeking redemption is more than a critique of Hegelian dialectical thinking. Philosophy has “allowed” and even constructed such thought processes of opposites with all internal discrepancies filed away and forgotten unexamined. One must now, in the face of a disastrous history, make amends by remembering.

Remembering is difficult and fraught with danger in post-war Germany. Adorno could foresee that the “working through the past” would lead to exactly where it ended up twenty years after his death, in the “Historians’ Controversy.” His worst fears were realized when apologists attempted to “normalize” the Holocaust and re-characterize it as part of larger historical patterns. As Yasmin Ibrahim pointed out in 2009 in Holocaust as the Visual Subject: The Problematics ofMemory Making through Visual Culture, “The Holocaust is inextricably imprisoned through the dialectical discourses of universalism and particularism.”

Adorno insisted upon critical thinking, which was a moral imperative. Dialectical thinking must be redeployed against systematic thinking, like that, which trapped the Holocaust. Instead of responding to reification, the mind should turn away from the system that “produced” the object and closely view the object itself. The aim is to overcome what Adorno called “philosophical imperialism” or the way in which the mind seeks to conquer (by categorization) and annex the “Alien.” The result of such imperializing and totalizing thinking is to render the indigestible into that which must be expelled. As Adorno wrote,

If negative dialectics calls for the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true – if it is to be true today, in any case – it must also be a thinking against itself. If thought is not measured by the extremity that eludes the concept, it is from the outset in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.

In many ways, Negative Dialectics is the aftermath of Dialectic of Enlightenment, for the Holocaust was the result of modernity and the breakdown of Enlightened thought under the totalization demanded in Late Capitalism. Technology forces conformity of thinking through propaganda and entertainment, producing conformity and homogeneity through the principles of pleasure and desire, always denied and always promised. The result is an inability to identify with anyone but the group to which we have been assigned. Those on the outside loose their identity and become what Lyotard called “unrepresentable,” because they have become absorbed into the “differend.”

It was the goal of Theodor Adorno to refuse identity and to demand that non-identity be recognized. Other Holocausts would come, he predicted accurately. To resist the false “positive” is to insist upon the “negative” and to reintroduce the invisible term back into visibility of the (moral) dialectic. The book ends on an elegiac note of mourning and guilt, for the author and philosopher and musician has arbitrarily survived the Holocaust. Adorno had recurring dreams of being sent to the gas chambers and found himself not just a Survivor but also an alien in his own homeland. Written in 1966 Negative Dialectics is not just a critique of Western philosophy after the end of the Enlightenment it is also a document of morality. In his parting thoughts, Adorno wrote these famous lines,

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Our metaphysical faculty is paralyzed because actual events have shattered the basis on which speculative metaphysical thought could be reconciled with experience…the administered murder of millions made of death a thing one had never had to fear in just this fashion…That in the concentration camps it was no longer an individual who died, but as a specimen—this is a fact bound to affect the dying of those who escaped the administrative measure.

Genocide is the absolute integration…Absolute negativity is in plain sight and has ceased to surprise anyone.

Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there would have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.

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