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.

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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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.

[email protected]