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

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

Defining the Différend

Although Le Différend was the natural outcome of The Postmodern Condition, this book is also an overt return to politics and a reassertion of a life-long concern with justice for those oppressed by the meta-narrative on the part of Jean-François Lyotard. The philosopher grew up during the Second World War under Nazi occupation and because France surrendered, he, like many of his generation, was spared military duty. The invasion of the Allies in June 1944 interrupted what he described as a “poetic, introspective and solitary way of thinking and living,” and his closest brush with the War was his service providing first aid during the fight to liberate Paris in 1944. Without the wartime disruptions that German or English of American men experienced, Lyotard was able to proceed with his life, marrying at age twenty four and fathering two children before he achieved his Docteur ès lettres in 1971. The War had shaken his earlier intellectual adherence to “indifference,” but his early work was indebted to the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who had a rather too close relationship with the Nazi Party and the Nazi ideology.

Lyotard’s acceptance of Heidegger was common among French philosophers, and nothing measures the journey he took better than the distance between La Phénoménologie of 1954 and Le Différend of 1983, which is informed by Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, Holocaust survivor. During this journey, Lyotard had become a committed Marxist and then a disillusioned Marxist and finally a philosopher who wrote, on occasion, politically activist works. Written in the midst of a public debate in Germany and France on how the history of the Holocaust should be written, Le Différend picked up the sub-text of oppression and silencing embedded in The Postmodern Condition and foregrounds what was a contest among academics and scientists for what constitutes “knowledge,” and shifts the ground to a question more highly charged: under what conditions is one party utterly silenced and what are the consequences? The meta-narrative is untenable, therefore, not just because it can no longer be believed, but because it is also terroristic. However, this narrative totalitarian can be countered by what Lyotard called “critical pragmatics,” or replacing the universal with the situational, or the pragmatic narrative, which legitimates itself simple through performativity or presentation.

The local and the specific (as opposed to the universal) now replace the narrative and is dubbed “the phrase” by Lyotard to denote its fragmentariness. Geoff Bennington pointed out in Lyotard: Writing the Event (1988) that the term “phrase” could be translated as “sentence.” In other words, a sentence (phrase) is a unity but is not also a part of a larger whole or narrative. Lyotard wrote of “phrases in dispute” or phrases (fragments) that cannot communicate with each other. He made the distinction between “negotiation,” in which both parties are allowed voice and “litigation” which is a language game that enforces silence upon the aggrieved party in order to empower larger forces, such as the state or the system. What if one cannot present? What if one is not allowed to speak? Lyotard recognized that political injustice and social silencing can operate with in the (idealized) language games of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lyotard borrowed what was, for Wittgenstein, a philosophical concept, and transformed the language game into the political. The language games have rules but the rules are hardly equitable and are built upon the “system” which empowers some and disempowers others. Into the language game, Lyotard interjected the phrase or the fragment, the fact of “it happens” that refers to the event as a “pure happening.” In other words, the phrase or event being fragmentary or singular cannot fit neatly into a metanarrative and points to the inherent injustice embedded in language.

Lyotard’s philosophy of phrases is called the différend, a play on the concept of “different,” indicating the “other” or something else, a variation or a disruption that that resists unification with a larger story. The différend is an ungovernable phrase and, although these phrases can be extended in a series, one linked to the next, the process of linking reveals difference/s among the phrases (sentences), or that which cannot be assimilated. Being part of litigation, not negotiation, the différend is that which stands alone. When foregrounded and recognized (a situation not always guaranteed) the différend is, and reveals itself to be, a unrepentant point of disagreement or dispute between at least two radically heterogeneous or opposing or incommensurable language games. In other words, the two speakers cannot speak to one another. There are rules in the game, which disadvantage one and favor the other. For example, a courtroom is an arena where a certain kind of restrictive language game is played under the guise (disguise) of being adversarial. In a rape case, the victim is presumed guilty and is silenced through questioning. A victim of discrimination has no legal standing in court if the court announces that discrimination does not exist. Language games, then, are exercises that are quite separate from the “truth” or reality.

The différend is a term based in the judicial concept of “obligation:” one party has a grievance and the tribunal (court) has the obligation to hear that grievance. However, the party which has been wronged cannot speak except in the language of the one who has caused the harm. Immediately, as has been seen, when the aggrieved one attempts to use the language of the oppressor, then the “obligation” vanishes. In other words, to assert “I have been discriminated against and here are the instances of discrimination” is to borrow a phrase that results in the speaker replying, “You are speaking, therefore, you are not being discriminated against,” and the victim is silenced. As Bennington noted, the victim is then forced to retreat into mysticism (or the irrational) and say something like “No one should be discriminated against,” which is true but non-functional within the rules of the tribunal.

It is possible to play a language game and substitute it for accurate history, a practice that, in France, was called “negationism.” As Stephen E. Atkins pointed out in Holocaust Denial as an International Movement (2009), the leading Holocaust denier in France was Robert Faurisson, the best known negator in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Faurison was the chief protagonist of Lyotard in Le Différend, which is a direct response to the denier’s claims (games). The game of denying the Holocaust had been going on for thirty years when Faurisson used linguistic slight of hand to erase the event, making historically meaningless claims but linguistically clever moves, such as pointing to the fact that extermination could not be “proved” because no victims had come forward. For Faurisson, the silence of the dead meant that no witness to the effect of extermination can come forward and therefore ispo facto the Holocaust never happened. For Lyotard, the silence in the death chambers that followed the screams is a phrase in and of itself. But how can a silence become a sentence in philosophy?


Auschwitz Today

Lyotard, who had earlier discussed the haunting of the written text by a visual figure in Discours, Figure (1971), used the Polish death camp, “Auschwitz” as an image, a traumatic memory that had become the most prevalent model (figure) of a name that functions figuraly or as a figure, because “Auschwitz” escapes conceptualization and expression within the usual rules of the language game. There is a connection between Lyotard’s announcement of the end of the metanarrative and his studies of the Holocaust, and the tie that binds his works together, from his early work on the figural to Le Différend, is his interrogation of authority and his interrogation of the possibility of representation. The Metanarratives of Modernism always supposed the possibility of representation, but Postmodernism resisted or refused the comfort of a position of authority or the assurance of a conscious stance or a position of knowledge, whether it be a critique or a historical survey.

A Postmodern analysis, from Lyotard’s perspective, considered the Figure, which is smuggled into the Narrative under the guise of “narrativity,” an anachronism in history. A form of a Figure would be “Progress,” a trope, which disguised disruptions and schisms in time in favor of picturing or imaging an unbroken chain of evolution and development moving along a teleological line. The Event, which occurs at a specific time, will disturb the flow of the “historical narrative.” Suddenly there is a disruption that inserts a very specific temporal event into/onto the “time line,” but history can be written only if such “events” are effaced. The excess of the “event” must be dealt with. In the case of the Holocaust, the “event” can be denied. Or the Holocaust can be written as a narrative, even as a regulating narrative, designed to produce a consensus. The next question or the more profound question then becomes, how can the Holocaust be written without desecrating the dead and disturbing their silence?

In writing the Holocaust, one incorporates the Holocaust into the larger flow of historical events, and its singularity is refuted. Because it is incorporated into the (meta)narrative, the happening can the be represented and reduced to a commodity that can be exchanged because it has been leveled. At that point the Event ceases to be an event. The Historians’ Controversy in Germany was an attempt to “normalize” or level the Event (the Holocaust) into a flattened time line, while in France, the efforts went to denying the Event (the Holocaust). Regardless of the motives of the historians in the 1980s, the refusal of the Event as an event was a reaction to the fact that the event itself was an excess that disrupted the traditional historical framing devices. If as Loytard stated, “The event is the occurrence after which nothing will ever be the same again,” then history is halted and the problem becomes one of how to write the event and how to restart history itself.

The discussion of the Event, the différend, and Auschwitz will continue in the next post, Part Three.

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

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Jean-François Lyotard: “The Postmodern Condition,” Part Two


The Postmodern Condition: Part Two

“In contemporary society and culture–postindustrial society, postmodern culture–the question of legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms. The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.”

When The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge appeared in print in 1979, it was in response to a request from the Conseil des Universités in Quebec to a famous famous French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, an authority on epistemology, to “report” on the state of “knowledge” now that the University was entering in to the computer age. The request and the commission was an extraordinary one, almost ahead of its time. It would be more than ten years, for example, before the Bibliothéque Nationale would computerize its vast holdings. The personal computer was a kit for hobbyists, and in 1979, BASIC programming language was only four years old. When Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak introduced the Apple II in 1977, it was difficult to imagine what the average person would do with such technology. The infamous and famously expensive “Lisa” model of the personal computer was still four years in the future, when Lyotard published this book. And yet, he appears to have grasped, as did the clients in Quebec, that the computer (in the abstract) would change knowledge and it was his appointed task to figure out how and what the consequences would be.

As was pointed out in the first part of this series, Lyotard disposed of the “old” vision of knowledge as a metanarrative, some kind of expansive explanation that encompassed all questions and presented all the answers. The mere idea that there could be a metanarrative had died over the early decades of the 20th century as the Enlightenment and its children, from Idealism to Marxism, proved inadequate to the actual workings of history and incapable of adequately explaining postmodern events. Out of the smoking ruins of atomic warfare and the painful memories of the Holocaust, where language was reduced to silence, Lyotard proposed that in the place of metanarratives, there would be “little narratives,” which could only be local and never overarching. However, if narratives are now small and contextual, then without the metanarrative, the problem of legitimation arises. The metanarrative/s had been legitimated by metadiscourses and supported by leading thinkers or by the state, but upon the collapse of such narratives, a new “condition” for or new epistemology of knowledge had to be established.

Given that the client was a group of universities, it should come as no surprise that The Postmodern Condition is about education, and predictably, the most extensive discussions of this book can be found in the field of, not so much philosophy but, education. Lyotard de-idealized the role of the university and reevaluated the place of learning in an age of what he termed “pragmatism” in which people would be educated so that they could “perform” or fulfill the needs of the society. Society, Lyotard explained, is not “organic” or natural but, because of technological advances in cybernetics made during the Second World War, contemporary social structures have evolved into “systems.” Indeed Lyotard compared society to “a giant machine.” “The true goal of the system,” he stated, “the reason it programs itself like a computer, is the optimization of the global relationship between input and output–in other words, performativity.”Lyotard understood that, in this system, the university would serve and produce two kinds of students, the “professional intelligentsia” and the “technical intelligentsia.” If the goal is to “improve the system’s performance,” then knowledge can no longer be presented as metanarrataives or in chunks, or en bloc, as Lyotard put it, then knowledge must be broken down into useful and directed units, “served à la carte to adults” for purely practical purposes.


But there is more, if the university which serves the perforative needs of society and in a society where knowledge is information and information is easily stored in computer data bases, then all knowledge/information must be leveled for the purposes of being efficiently dispensed. “To the extent that learning is translatable into computer language and the traditional teacher is replaceable by memory banks, didactics can be entrusted to machines linking traditional memory banks (libraries, etc.) and computer data banks to intelligent terminals placed at the students’ disposal.” Then Lyotard, having delivered a death sentence to the university professor, amusing reassures, “Pedagogy would not necessarily suffer. The students would still have to be taught something; not contents, but how to use terminals.”Once again, the philosopher was astonishingly predictive–foreseeing the logical end to the classroom lecture and the end of the usefulness of imparting knowledge through personal delivery, and suggesting what is today the coming future of education, the coming change called “Massive Open Online Courses.” More painfully Lyotard did not shrink from “sounding the death knell of the age of the Professor: a professor is no more competent than memory bank networks in transmuting established knowledge..”

The new system, driven by machines and technology–computers and technology–is not only based upon optimal performance geared to maximum efficiency but is also based in information, which now becomes “knowledge.” Knowledge for the sake of knowledge and education for the sake of learning was now outmoded and people need to be trained specifically to be of use within the system. This “theocratic” system does not care about or take into account what individuals–now discounted along with the “self”–want or need.“The self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before,” Lyotard said.

If society was once imagined to be about the “self,” a metanarrative in itself, then the question becomes what does this new kind of social system demand of its denizens? What the system cares about, needs, demands, is performativity. More important is who runs (owns) or rules this system; in other words, who is in charge of information (knowledge)? “Increasingly, the central question is becoming who will have access to that information these machines must have in storage to guarantee that the right decisions are made. Access to data is, and will continue to be, the prerogative of experts of all stripes. The ruling class is and will continue to be the class of decision makers,”Lyotard predicted.

From our vantage point of almost four decades later, it seem possible that the philosopher could not grasp (like the inventors of the computers) the important changes that ownership of the personal computers by individuals (selves) would make, breaking the total control of access to data. But he did foresee the dangers of a single entity (the state) controlling access to information, for information, Lyotard grasped, was power. The postmodern condition of knowledge is complex and multifaceted, for it has become not a question of gathering and mastering data but of competence, including “notions of ‘know-how,’ ‘knowing how to live,’ how to listen’ (savior-faire, savior-vivre, savoit-écouter)” Lyotard pointed out that in this new system-based society knowledge-as-information the nature of the game has changed. “ a society whose communication component is becoming more prominent day by day, both as a reality and as an issue, it is clear that language assumes a new importance.”

And Lyotard has a larger point to make, for, in the past, knowledge was produced and contained within the prevailing metanarrative, but once the metanarrative has fallen, then it must be acknowledged that knowledge (information) has always been created within language games and, in addition, it is now true that knowledge can be legitimated only through these games which are “played” through narration, or speaking, uttering, creating discourse. But who is allowed to narrate/speak? What is the criteria of competence? “..the language game known to the West as the question of legitimacy–or rather, legitimacy as a referent in the game in inquiry. Narratives, as we have seen, determine criteria of competence and/or illustrate how they are to be applied. They thus define what has to right to be said and done in the culture in question, and since they are themselves a part of that culture,they are legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do.” Thus the decline of the “lost narrative” became a crisis in legitimation.

Lyotard’s way out of the bottle of legitimation, so to speak, was to strike the “meta” and replace it with the “little” or local narrative and in order to establish even a little narrative, an intermediary step needed to be taken, a new set of rules needed to be established. The metanarrative, now extinguished by incredulity, would be replaced by the language games of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The language game, or language itself, rises to the foreground in societies that value information systems. These necessarily agonistic language games, in which utterances (knowledge) are given and received and acknowledged, are governed by contextual (local) rules. The agreed-upon rules exist through the consent of the players who are positioned in a confrontational (agonistic) relationship and any utterances made outside of the rules do not “count.” In other words, as in chess, language games have moves and one moves (utters, speaks) within the existing restraints. That said, there is room for critique or paralogy within the structure by making an unexpected move that is within but challenges the language game, changing the game. Legitimation is forged, not out of narration or seizing the “right” to speak, but by being a skillful player, and this idea of optimal performativity, when applied to language games, becomes a legitimating tool.

here are consequences to playing the language games, which now replace the metanarrative and the implications of the new means (games) of conflating knowledge with performativity will be discussed in Part Three of the series.

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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Art and “Thick Description,” Part One



“Art, Clifford Geertz once remarked, “is notoriously hard to talk about.” However, Clifford Geertz provided art history with a way to talk about art through material culture. A term familiar to anthropology, “material culture” means the construction of what Geertz termed a “thick description” of a local culture by a detached observer, usually an anthropologist or sociologist, using—of course–the method developed by Geertz himself. A material analysis of a culture encompasses that culture’s actions, ceremonies, rituals, and artifacts for the purpose of semiotically reading a particular event at a singular point in time. The semiotic reading, as Geertz said, cannot be accomplished without the creation of a “thick” or multilayered, “description” of the conditions that make not just the production of meaning but also meaning itself possible. The ultimate outcome of a “Thick Description,” a slice of a culture, goes beyond a thin or shallow semiotic linguistic reading and seeks to understand the way a society thinks. In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz stated,

The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate is essentially a semiotic one. Believing with Max Weber that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, constructing social expressions on their surface enigmatical.

Later he said, “Culture, this acted document, is public.” In comparison “Thick Description” is a “depth model” compared to Jacques Derrida’s mode of analysis, which stresses the surface of texts and places the reader inside, rather than outside, the field of study. For the study of art history and aesthetics, the word “local” becomes key in relation to a Geertzian understanding of art. In Local Knowledge, Geertz asserted that

The chief problem presented by the sheer phenomenon of aesthetic force, in whatever form and in result of whatever skill it may come, is how to place it within the other modes of social activity, how to incorporate it into the texture of a particular pattern of life. And such placing, the giving to art objects a cultural significance, is always a local matter..

But what is the significance of Material Culture to the study of the history and the philosophy of art? In the best Foucauldrian fashion, one must begin by noting what material culture is not. First, material culture is not connected in any way with Marxism. In fact, Marxism is never mentioned in the discourse of material culture, except to note in passing that Marxists object to Geertz’s lack of attention to issues of class and power.

Geertz 1

Marxism, whether vulgar, reflexive, neo, or what have you, is a theory, which analyzes a social system from the perspective of that determining engine, economics in general and capitalism in particular. Marxism is a critique of wealth, power, and class oppression. Second, an anthropologist never critiques or judges a culture, nor does s/he have a political or activist agenda—ideally—that is. Marxism also operates in terms of the dialectic: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis, critiquing the teleological movement, the dynamic movement, of historical forces over time. Material culture, in contrast, is not a theory. As Geertz commented in his book Local Knowledge,

..purist dogmas…of the material determination of consciousness on the social science side may have their uses…but…they head us off precisely in the wrong direction—toward an isolation of the meaning-form aspects of the matter from the practical contexts that give them life..

Geertz never worked out or revealed a theory; rather material culture is a method of study, observation, and elucidation. Finally, the Geertzian method must be synchronic and can never be diachronic or caught up in time. The importance of the synchronic was explained by William Sewell in his chapter on Geertz, “Geertz, Cultural Systems, and History: From Synchrony to Transformation,” in that the anthropologist,

..adequately realized synchrony is more important to good historical analysis than adequately realized diachrony. In the eyes of professionals, it is more important for a historian to know how to suspend time than to know how to recount its passage.

Next, since material culture is a method, not a theory, the procedure stands apart from both modernist and postmodernist theories, while at the same time making use of their theoretical insights. The young anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, began omnivorously consuming, appropriating, and employing a whole array of new ideas tumbling out of that 1960s merging of philosophy and literary theory. Long before the term “blurring the boundaries” of disciplines sunk to genuflected jargon in art history, Geertz found inspiration from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Michel Foucault. Geertz built a stratified, or thick description, of an object in culture in order to interpret it semiotically in a fixed fashion, but Geertz turned to Ludwig Wittgenstein who unfroze meaning by declaring, in Philosophical Investigations,

For a large class of cases–though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning,’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

Indeed Geertz attributed his position to

..that posthumous and mind-clearing insurrectionist, “The Later Wittgenstein.” The appearance in 1953, two years after his death, of Philosophical Investigations, and the transformation of what had been but rumors out of Oxbridge into an apparently endlessly generative text, had an enormous impact upon my sense of what I was about and what I hoped to accomplish…I am more than happy to acknowledge Wittgenstein as my master.

In his essay, “Thick Description,” Geertz noted that

..cultural forms find articulation…in various sorts of artifacts and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their “use”) in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to one another.

The quotation on meaning and its “use” by Wittgenstein comes from his Philosophical Investigations, “Part 1, Section 43,” as published by Basil Blackwell in 1953. Elaborating upon the ideas of Geertz, Eric Kline Slverman’s essay, “Clifford Geertz: Towards a More ‘Thick’ Understanding?” noted that

He was the first American anthropologist to employ a textual metaphor for understanding culture. In Geertz’s writings, however, we do not find a single, clearly articulated elaborate theory of the text..His textual metaphor emerges from a series of conceptual themes—it is not one notion of several orientations. Geertz approaches cultural meaning through a symbolic or semiotic framework. He was particularly influenced by Susan Langer..Geertz defines cultural symbols as medals of and models for social reality.

Although Geertz was sometimes lumped together with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, his project is not to read texts but to write texts. Indeed Silverman stated that “Geertz is wary of intertextuality, except in the instance of thinking of parts in terms of the whole or the whole in germs of the parts.” Geertz said in Local Knowledge that

To be of effective use in the study of art, semiotics must move beyond the consideration of signs as means of communication, code to be deciphered, to a consideration of them as modes of thought, idiom to be interpreted…a new diagnostics, a science that can determine the meaning of things for the life that surrounds them..

However, Geertz embraced the postmodern notion that academic and scientific writing is a form of literature or écriture, and he wrote deliberately in a metaphorical style, embracing the Lyotardian concept of the “figure” in the “discourse.” It not that Geertz read Derrida, it is that one can do a Derridan reading of a Geertzian text. Certainly, there is a degree of Kristvian intertextuality in Geertz, but, for a field ethnographer, a word far more suitable than “intertextuality,” would be “connections” or what historian Wilhelm Dilthy called “connectedness” or “context” (Zusammenhand) or Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances” among cultural elements. Dilthy commented,

It is a relationship of whole to parts…Meaning and meaningfulness..are contextual. One would have to await life’s end and could not survey the whole on the basis of which the relations between the parts can be determined until the hour of death. One would have to await the end of history in order to possess the complete material for the determination of its meaning. On the other hand, the whole exists for us insofar as it becomes understandable on the basis of the parts. Understanding always hovers between these two approaches.

Geertz accepted the postmodern concept of a consciousness that is socially and linguistically constructed, but he did so via Emmanuel Kant by way of Ernst Cassirer with a drive-by for Foucault. For Geertz, the individual, or Foucault’s fictive “Man,” was never the object of study. A person is but an actor situated within a thick cultural matrix, acting and reacting, with limited agency, out of pre-existing cognitive structures, a priori producing culture. Marxists, feminists, postcolonial critics have, rightly, criticized Geertz for not including the voices of the dispossessed. The voices of women, for example, cannot be retroactively added to field research for each thick description is bound up in a synchronic moment in time. It can be stated with or without kindness that Geertz was creating his notion of “thick description” in a time in which women and people of color were silenced in philosophy at the very time when they were vocalizing loudly in the streets. It is possible that, with later anthropologists, once silent voices can be included only in a later thick description. That said, at the time, the scholars who surrounded Geertz or who commented on his theories seem to be more interested in the theory than in the practices. According to Stephen Greenblatt, Gilbert Ryle’s

..thick description is manifestly a quality of the explication rather than of the action or text that is explicated; it is not the object that is thick or thin but only the description of it. A thick description thus could be exceedingly straightforward or, alternatively, exceedingly complex, depending on the length of the chain of parasitical intentions and circumstantial detachments..Thickness is not the object; it is in the narrative surroundings, the add-ons, nested frames..Thickness is no longer seems extrinsic to the object, a function solely of the way it is framed.

Clearly, Geertz, like many of his generation was formed from a mélange of cultural forces swirling around during the 1960s. During this fertile period, decades of thinking coalesced and philosophical ideas that dated back to the beginning of the century began to be assimilated and, having been digested, began to emit descendants in further thought. In his way, Clifford Geertz was a prototypical Postmodern thinker who assembled a coalition of concepts that allowed him to further anthropology and to take the new field in new directions, combining field work with philosophy, specifically semiotics. Material culture became a way to “read” a society like a text, but part of any society is its works of culture–art objets. Given a broad mandate as an anthropologist, Geertz would turn his attention to art and delved into the links between art history, art historians, philosophy and semiotics and philosophy–a complex combination of text and image, discussed in the next post.

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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Michel Foucault: “This is not a Pipe”

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)


This is not a Pipe (1968)

Michel Foucault’s essay, This is not a Pipe, his contemplation on a famous painting by René Magritte, La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (1929) can be read as a follow-up to his earlier analysis of the much larger painting by Diego Velasquez, Las Meninas (1656). Both essays–“Las Meninas” was the introduction to The Order of Things (1966) and This is not a Pipe is a small book in its own right–are about the same length and are concerned with the question of representation. In addition, La trahison des images (1929) can be sequenced in relation to Las Meninas (1656) in that Las Meninas is part of the “Classical” episteme and La trahison des images is an examination of the Modern episteme. The Belgium Surrealist, René Magritte (1898-1967), had long defined himself as a thinker (philosopher) who used paint to explore philosophical issues. Throughout his career he had read not only Heidegger and Sartre, but he had also lived long enough to read the early works of Foucault, such as Les mots et les choses, published a few years before his death. Indeed Magritte made a connection between the two paintings. As he wrote to Foucault in 1966:

“It is as completely invisible as pleasure or pain. But painting interposes a problem: there is the thought that sees and can be visible described. Las Meninas is the visible image of Velásquez’s invisible thought? Then is the invisible sometimes visible? on condition that thought be constituted exclusively of visible images.”

Starting with a drawing in 1926, Magritte used the pipe in a number of his paintings but the best known version of the “pipe” is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The painting is medium sized, carefully rendered in tones of browns. As was the usual case with Magritte, paint is smoothly applied to neuter its expressive qualities and to foreground the concern with the relationship between language and perceived “reality.” A wooden pipe with curved stem floats unaided against a café au lait background, isolated except for a carefully executed sentence “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” placed underneath the pipe. Except for the “not,” the painting is a mirror image of a schoolbook with images labeled with the attendant words. With one word, Magritte undermined the metaphysical connection, assumed by Plato, that held between words and things. Magritte also severed the “pointing” gesture of the word “this” which now has an ambiguous referent: to what does “this” refer–the pipe, the canvas, the sentence itself?


René Magritte. This is Not a Pipe (1929)

Always interested in language, Foucault explored the modern system of representation, and he again turned to art to explore alternatives to Structuralism and its reliance on representational systems. When he wrote This is not a Pipe, which was published in Les Cahiers du chemin in 1967, Foucault’s attack on Structuralism landed in the middle of an ongoing debate in the French press on literary theory. Using a painting by Magritte came naturally to Foucault who was in correspondence with the artist and like many writers of his generation, he was interested in Surrealism and its strategies that attempted to undo narrative connections that made the world make sense. Foucault explored the gaps between discourses and events and sought to say the unsaid in order to defamiliarize. As the Comte de Lautréamont once said, the Unfamiliar or the Marvelous was “ beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”

The themes Magritte explored on canvas were deliberately “disorientating” and showed a fascination with visual non sequiturs and heterotopias. The term heterotopia in medical terms means the displacement of an organ from its accustomed place. In art, Magritte displaced part of one body and relocated it to another body, such as his carrot-bottle, his fish-human, with disconcerting results. To be clear, the union of fish and female is not metamorphosis but a forced fusion that is fixed and arbitrary. In The Order of Things, Foucault refers to the “heterotopia,” or a place where multiplicities co-existed. The heterotopia was produced by linking together that which was “incongruous” producing an even worse kind of disorder. All the possible orders exist separately and simultaneously and become an lawless and uncharted dimension, called the heteroclite. Things are laid, placed, arranged in sites, and it is too difficult to find a common ground for them all. This concept of “ensemble” is not unlike Benjamin’s “allegory” in the sense of assemblage, but unlike the allegory, the heteroclite resists unitary meaning. In contrast to a utopia, an untroubled region, the heterotopia is disturbing and impossible to name, thus contesting the possibility of language.

What Magritte presented to the viewer was an unreconcilable contradiction that rendered language dysfunctional. Both Foucault and Magritte critique language and agree with Ferdinand de Saussure that signs are arbitrary, circumstantial, and conventional. In contrast to classical painting’s attempt to identify scenes or images with models that inspired them, Magritte sought to banish resemblance by employing familiar images whose recognizabiltiy would be subverted. He explored the secret linguistic element in painting: “This painted image is that thing,” by employing familiar images whose recognizability is to be subverted. Taking up the anti-linguistic program of Modernism, that painting is nothing other than itself, Magritte used literalism to undermine itself. He played with “resemblance” as the primary reference that prescribes and classes: copies on the basis of mimetic relation to itself and “similitude” in which there is on reference, the anchor is gone. With similitude, the relations are lateral with infinite and reversible relation of “the similar to the similar” in an endless series of repetitions. The concepts of resemblance and similitude are familiar to those who have read The Order of Things and belong to the old episteme.

According to Foucault, what renders Magritte’s figure “strange” is not the contradiction between the image (the pipe) and the text (“This is not a pipe”) because a contradiction can exist only between two statements. In La trahison des images, there is only one statement and one simple demonstration but, through our own habits of reading, we assume a “natural” connecting of text and drawing. Foucault attempted to correct this misreading. Rather than reading the painting as a sign with its label, Foucault asserted that Magritte’s painting was a calligram, “secretly constructed and carefully unraveled.” According to Foucault, a calligram augments the alphabet and repeats without the aide of rhetoric, trapping things in a double cipher. The calligram brings text and shape as close together as possible: the lines delineate the form of an object and arrange sequences of letters, lodging statements in the space of a shape. A calligram makes the text say what the drawing represents and distributes writing in a non-neutral space. The ideogram is forced to arrange itself according to the laws of simultaneous form. Thus La trahison des images is tautological in opposition to rhetorical, which is allegorical, rich, and full. The calligram uses letters to signify both as linear elements arranged in space and as signs in a unique chain of sound. The calligram effaces the showing and naming opposition and creates a trap of double function: the signs invoke the very thing of which they speak.

As Foucault explained, Magritte’s painting recovered the functions of the calligram in order to pervert them. He disturbed the traditional bonds of language and image and the text resumed its place–below the image, supporting, the task of “naming” and becoming “the legend.” Meanwhile the form is released and re-ascends, floating anew in its natural silence. Magritte returned to a simple correspondence of image to legend or of word to thing. He names what does not need to be named and denies that the object is what it is. In redistributing the text and image in space, each retains its place and the text affirms its own autonomy. “This” refers to the drawing or to the statement and the text and image have no common ground. Nowhere is there a pipe and negations multiply themselves. The exteriority of written and figurative elements are symbolized by non-relations between the painting and the title. A gulf prevents the reader/viewer at the same time, because Magritte named his painting in order to draw attention to the very act of naming. According to Magritte,

Between words and objects one can create new relations and specify characteristics of language and objects generally ignored in everyday life…Sometimes the name of an object takes the place of an image. A word can take the place of an object in reality. An image can take the place of a word in a proposition.

Words are not bound directly to other pictorial elements, and, as Foucault wrote,“Magritte allows the old space of representation to rule, but only the surface, no more than a polished stone, bearing words and shapes: beneath, nothing. It is a gravestone.” By the end of the Seventies, Foucault and Barthes had brought together a number of ideas borrowed from their precursors and had extracted fragments for fuller examination. This pluralism in philosophical thought was exemplified by Magritte’s critique of Plato and the date of his death in 1967 marked the beginning of Postmodernism. The late works of Magritte coincide with American interest in the late works of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) as seen in the works of Jasper Johns. In False Start (1963), Johns, mockingly pointed different areas of color in the “style” of Abstract Expressionism” and then, using the universal style of the stenciled label, proceeded to (re)name all the colors. “Red” was stenciled in yellow floated on top of an area of blue paint. The Name and the Thing were disconnected, indicating Wittgenstein’s concern with pointing, the basis of the proposition. The proposition that “red is red” is undermined by disconnecting the expected link between the object and its label. The ultimate “point” of the exercise is that our “reality” is linguistic and rests upon our naïve belief that our words have an inherent meaning. Wittgenstein warned that meaning does not exist in and of itself but only “in the use,” a point that both Magritte and Foucault were making in other words and in other ways.

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

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Jacques Lacan: The Formation of the Subject

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Anyone who has read the writings of Jacques Lacan came to the humbling realization that in any meaningful way s/he simply didn’t exist. Having gone through the boot camp of the Oedipal Order, the socialized (non)person emerges as an emotional cripple who will spend the rest of her life lying prone on a Freudian couch. Whatever shards of primal authenticity that might have been present at birth have been pummeled and buried under the threats of the Law of the Father who has Forbidden all manner of delights to a child who is stunned into submission. What is left behind after what appears to be two years of indoctrination, is not a shell, not a shadow of a former self, but a false impression of something called “ego,” a presumption to which one clings. It was the prime directive of Jacques Lacan to expose the false notion of the Cartesian self and to reveal the empty mask of a masquerading persona. From an emotional standpoint, the student must reject both Lacan’s enterprise and his conclusions, but from an intellectual perspective, Lacan’s position makes perfect sense.

Because the human subject is forged through the acquisition of language, the (faux)ego is an assumption—in that one assumes an ego as one dons a mask. Separated from “reality” which cannot be realized, Language is inherently and necessarily Symbolic. Lacan maintains that in order to achieve social personhood (persona), the child must submit to or accept the inevitability of the Symbolic. If language is split from reality, then when the subject acquires symbolic language, s/he becomes symbolized: the language speaks the subject. In order to be spoken, the subject must experience Loss (of the Forbidden Mother) and Gains entry into the social order. An Exchange, based upon Lack, has been made, the bargain has been struck and the ego or the subject does not and cannot exist.

But Lacan discussed the subject, which he asserted does not exist, at great length, so how are we to think of this non-existent “subject” of which so much is written? It is possible to resolve the dilemma by approaching it sideways. First, the subject does not exist and yet we must speak of it, or to put it more precisely, it seems as if we can, are able, to speak of subject (or ego). It is possible to speak of something that does not exist: we speak of ghosts, witches, zombies and vampires, and these are creatures of the imagination that do not exist. If you are Anne Rice, the non-existence of vampires does not trouble you, but if you are a philosopher, speaking of objects that are not objects or of the non-existent is troubling, especially when, unlike Anne Rice, you are compelled to address the non-addressable.

The solution was suggested by Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) who designated these troubling non-objects as “concepts,” and then proceeded on with the discussion. Another solution was proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): silence. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) confronted the problem of how to write about the non-existent by accepting the idea of “concept” from Frege, but, in the base of Being, Heidegger put Being sous rature or “under erasure,” by allowing “Being” to be written but also written out by deliberately crossing over the word with a large X. Although he does not resort to the ploy employed by Martin Heidegger, Lacan who was very aware of Frege and Heidegger can be seen as following their lead: “subject” is a concept, but that is all it is—an idea.

Repudiating the Cartesian notion of self or what Lacan called a “false being,” and the Freudian insistence on the ego of the conscious mind, Lacan wanted to disrupt the notion of the unified subject and the idea of presence through inversion. For Lacan, the subject is split and it is the unconscious that must supersede the conscious mind, as in U/c, meaning that the conscious mind is always overridden by the forces beneath, so to speak. In fact as Bruce Fink pointed out in The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, “the subject is nothing but his split.” The “splitting of the I,” means that the subject is split when s/he is inserted into the Symbolic Order. The insertion, which is always forced, necessarily results in alienation of self from self and repression by the Law of the self.


Jacques Lacan (1901-81)

The split subject is mediated and can be understood only by being mediated through discourse, but this mediation, also a forcing event, creates a hidden structure: the unconscious. In Freudian terms, the end result of the “family romance” mans that the child is traumatized and the primal wound gives rise to the unconscious, where all that is not to be thought of is buried. But, in its raw state, the split create division and in order for the human being to function, if the (“social”) wound cannot be healed, the gap must be closed. Between the subject, which does not exist but thinks it does, and the world, which does exist but cannot be uttered, there must be a Third Order, referred to as the Suture. Think of the suture as a shunt or as a form of “stitching” the subject into society. But the Suture also represents the tear or splitting, which can only be mended but always leaves a scar–the trauma–behind.

When it is seen that the S/s (Signifier/signified) has a visible bar–the split/suture—is also the wound that causes the alienation of the subject within language. Because the subject is within language, as in caught or trapped inside, the subject is condemned to speak indirectly, through the assemblage piecemeal action of constructive collage, or through the animal-like mimicry of mimesis, and (self) representation. The subject, therefore, embedded in this indirectness, can never be an ego, in the Freudian sense, and can be only a persona. As as pointed out above, the self, the ego, the subject is formed as the result of Lack, which, in its turn, engenders need, desire, demand. Need, Desire, Demand—this is the the Triad of Lacan, replacing the Triad of Hegel: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis. In the Hegelian sense, the conflict or the dialectic between Desire and Law produces drives, named by Lacan using Freudian terms: “eros” and “thantos.” These binary drives are the engines of the “subject.” Love and Death become opposites or polarities at war within the subject. The paradox of the death wish is that wishing for Death is also wishing for completion.

The completion can come about only when one is re-fused with the original Forbidden object, the Mother, or a substitution for the Mother. Eros must be displaced elsewhere and a substitution must be found, and these mechanisms of “displacement” and “substitution” are also functions of language, as Metaphor and Metonymy. In order to illustrate the process of becoming, as Freud would have it, “civilized,” Lacan sets up the family (Freud’s “family romance”) as a symbolic structure which is social or cultural and is thus contrasted to the natural world of animal promiscuity. It is important to note that the family, as posited by Lacan, is tripartite. The “family” beings with two terms: the Mother and the Child.” The third term is the Father who must act, who must intervene and split or separate the dyad of Mother and Child. The triangulated family—the father and child fighting for ownership of the mother—is the transcendence of order and culture, which rises above of the instinctive and the natural. The family becomes a proper “family” only when it comes into being through the Forbidden and the force used to establish the cultural/symbolic order by Forbidding the Forbidden. Force assumes sacrifice (loss) on the part of the child who has no power and who will never grasp the depth of the loss and the extent of the trauma and may be unable to grasp the Gain.

Lacan seemed to assume that “natural” is also “profane” and that culture is superior, but even without assuming a hierarchy, it is possible to state that humans become humans, rise above the animal, through language or the capacity to symbolize. Unlike Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Lacan does not accept language or langue as an inherently human capacity and leave it there. Lacan envisions an Oedipal narrative of punishment for desiring the forbidden–the blinding of Oedipus (his self-sacrifice and self-punishment) is the equivalent of the subject’s inability to “see” or to articulate the world. The “blinding” is also the Sacrifice of sexual relations with parents or siblings. The Sacrifice of Incest corresponds to Repression, the crushing down of the Forbidden Desires. The Sacrifice which is the precondition for transition to symbolic order, results in a Splitting (Spaltung) of the subject due to his/her forcible entry into society and into the symbolic order of language. Ultimately, the subject is alienated in language, and, like Oedipus, bears a social wound.

The ego/subject, which is a fabrication, comes from a system of translation from the unconscious to the conscious by means of symbolization which is a process of substitution, displacement, condensation and referentially. Thus language is the precondition for the act of becoming and social wound introduces the subject into a symbolizing language. But to state that the subject is alienated through language is to invite an interrogation of language itself. As was pointed out in previous posts, the logic is clear: if the subject is split, then the source of the split must be within language itself. (S/s) means that Language is alienated from itself. Just as there is no authenticity of self, there is no authenticity in language. The artificiality of language or the arbitrary (dis)connection between the sign and the signifier or the object and the word is the profound insight of Saussure. However, Lacan’s de-stabalized alienated language is very different from Saussure’s stabilized language.

Saussure created an elegant architectonic structure for the sign, the signifier, and the signified and his system assumed a fixed position from which meaning is constructed. For the purposes of establishing and explaining the system, it was necessary for Saussure to assume immobility. But, as art historian Erwin Panofsky quickly found out, the “Signified” as culture is a huge field and a constantly shifting one. Rather than attempting to fix the diachronic, Lacan addressed the problem by demoting the Signified (diachronic level) and elevated the Signifier, allowing it to float freely. As the Signifier floats, it shifts its position to another site, and if the Signifier can shift and move, then the Signified becomes less significant. Claude Lévi-Strauss also spoke of the signifier as a “zero symbol,” floating without clinging to the signified. A close reader of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Lacan, in turn, wrote of the impossibility of a one-to-one correspondence between the “tide” of signifiers and the “tide” of the signifieds that “float” one past another. Meaning becomes mobilized as the signifiers “cascade” down the signifying chain, or as Wittgenstein suggested “meaning is in the use.”

There can be no metalanguage.

What becomes important as a result of this line of reasoning is that the nature of the connections among the elements and not the elements themselves is most interesting. In other words, representation is not the equivalent of the thing itself, and, as Saussure pointed out, the nexus between words and things is broken. What is left behind is the in-between space in which writing is born of alienated language. The followers of Lacan took his ideas on language and extended them into writing that becomes materialized through the sounds and rhythms of language. Language and its floating signifiers is freed to revel in a plurality of meanings. The act of writing becomes an act of lived experience. Writing as jouissance or pure pleasure does not produce anything but is reminiscent of those deeply repressed but strongly remembered time of fusion with the original love object of desire.

Jouissance splits writing from itself and alienated already alienated language. A literature of experience is unreadable literature or limit-literature. In other words the writer accepts the alienated identity of language and reconfigures language into de-naturalized words, creating a new form of non-transparent writing called by Roland Barthes, écriture. Thus écriture transcends the instrumentality of language, or écrivance. The assumption that language is instrumental–can articulate or is transparent–écrivance—is broken. Breaking the assumed mask of the false and none-existent slink between language and thing is possible because language-as-message, communication to a receiver, is based already upon the “objectness” or the “object hood” or separateness of words which are homeless–floating signifiers. Thanks to Lacan,language is a representation of a representation. For Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva, writing is not transparent but opaque. To write is not to reveal but to be performative and not informative. Jouissance is the experience of the limits of language and writing against the limits becomes a field, not of knowledge, but of enjoyment.

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: Through the Mirror Stage

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Although Jacques Lacan can be characterized as a philosopher because his life work was based on reinterpreting the canonical writings of a philosopher, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). However, Lacan was a medical doctor, a psychoanalyst who had a practice, and, most of all, he was a teacher who lectured to large and illustrious audiences on Freudian theory. As a result his published works, like those of the late work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), are transcripts of his public talks. There is a quaint folksiness in the tone, as Lacan addresses his “dear friends” and refers to notes make on the chalkboard made in a previous class. Like Wittgenstein’s posthumous texts, the reader has an insight to how Lacan developed a topic. While Wittgenstein tended to think in discrete paragraphs that often presented different takes on the same point, Lacan worked in layers and would visit and revisit an aspect of Freud for decades, building a train of thought over time. Because Lacan was a scavenger who not only used canonical authors was also quickly picking up on the trends in European philosophy, it is necessary to read through his texts with a heightened awareness of the source of the ideas. A layered reading of the layers allows one to appreciate how Lacan re-interpreted his precursors.

Jacques Lacan echoed Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in his search for the foundation of society. For Marx, the formation of social relations was based upon the Mode of Production, for Sigmund Freud, the determining factor was human (male) sexuality, and for Lacan, the sexualization (Freud) of language becomes the mode (means) of producing human relations. The Marxist system of Exchange, Loss and Gain orders the movement through the Oedipal order: the child loses the mother but gains entry into society in exchange by accepting the Law of the Father who informs the child what society forbids.This primal repression (desire for the mother) initiates the child into the precincts of language. Even though Lacan, like Freud, views society through the prism of sexuality, his work can be read as a socialization process in which the subject, the child, is disciplined and indoctrinated into the “tribe.” That said, there is a severity and a violence to the process that highlights the extent to which mental force must be brought to bear in shaping a “prematurely born” human being to the manner demanded by the culture.

By 1953, Lacan has presented “The Rome Discourse” or “The Function and Field of Speech and Language inPsychoanalysis,” which asserted that the speaking subject is determined by language. Subjects are formed through participation in the discourse of others. The accession to the Symbolic Order can occur only through the Oedipus trauma in which the father intervenes and deprives the child of the primal object of desire—the mother, and deprives the mother of the phallic object—the child. The Forbidden has spoken through the Law of the Father and the subject must now identify with the Father, the Law. The Father symbolically “castrates” the mother by taking the child away and, which the child recognizes that incest is forbidden, and the Law is internalized. The procession through the Oedipal complex is linked to accession to culture and accession to language and the subject withdraws from immediacy of lived experience (fusion with the mother) and learns to accept a mediated life. Lacan asserted, “What is social is always a wound.”

In later writings, such as Ecrits of 1966, Lacan continued his disruption of the prestige of Presence or Self. In asserting that subjectivity is possible only through language, Lacan denied the transcendental ego (the Self) and relocated the ego in the social and traced the painful initiation of the child into the symbolic order. Thus, the subject is not a thing or a measurable entity, but an ongoing process. Language is the medium of exchange for the subject. Given that the subject is constituted by language, the ego must be a text, a fiction that is fixed by narcissistic fictions of self-love that provide faux unity. The ego is constituted from the Other through projection: I project my gaze towards you and determine that you are the not-me. Certain points Lacan was making about language bear repeating. If his assertions are to be taken to their logical conclusions, then a particular conclusion will be reached.

First, Lacan sets up the Symbolic Order as the Third Order between the subject and the real world and this relation is called the “Suture.” meaning a “mending” or a “fixing” of a “split.” As Jacques-Alain Miller, the outstanding Lacanian scholar and translator, expressed it, “…the signifying chain is structure of the structure…” The Suture names the subject’s relationship with the chain of discourse. Miller explained, “…subject is anterior to signifier and that signifier is anterior to subject – but only appears as such after the introduction of the signifier. The retroaction consists essentially of this: the birth of linear time. We must hold together the definitions which make the subject the effect of the signifier and the signifier the representative of the subject: it is a circular, though non-reciprocal, relation…”

Being fashioned in society involves collage, mimesis, and representation, but that which remains after submission is the most truthful and revealing of the system of socialization (and de-sexualization) and the most important remainder which is the underside of the mask, or that which has been repressed. The mask is a social form that is also a reflection of the “true being” or the traces of an authentic person. Therefore the ego is not the person, the “true” or “authentic” person, but the “persona,” the appearance, as in the sense of costume, that is generated by an act of imagination and is therefore positioned or situated on the side of the imaginary. To return to the concept of “splitting,” discussed in the previous post, the infans is cleaved between the ego which is always the Other to the (true) Self, because the action of splitting masks the Subject from the Self and the Self can be captured only in its mirror reflection.

As the result of the splitting of the primal person into a public persona, for Lacan, “subject” is a fictive construction, who is produced by the law that prohibits incest. The Subject is a fiction that is forged as the child transfers his or her Desire away from the primary love object, the Mother, who is now forbidden, to appropriate objects. Notice that Lacan’s theories, like those of Freud, have little reference to the homosexual and the law forces displacement of (only) heterosexualizing Desire. But as in much of Lacan, these concepts are theoretical or allegorical. For example, the “woman” is never the mark of subject and not an attribute of gender, for “femininity” of only a signification of Lack, and this signification signifies mainly for the male. In this instance, “woman” does not have Being.

“Being” is the Phallus or Having the Phallus: to be the Phallus is to be the signifier of the Desire of the Other. The Phallus appears as the signifier, which is to be the object that represents and reflects masculine heterosexualized Desire for the benefit of the Other. The Masculine Subject has the Phallus and the Other must confirm this possession. Women can only reflect the autonomous power of masculine subject/signifiers. Women appear as the Phallus through a masquerade of femininity and because she is the Lack, woman is in need of unmasking. This masquerade-as-Phallus is not just the denial of feminine desire, it is also the denial of the dependency of the female, who has no signifier, upon the Masculine order.

In what feminist scholars would declare to be a matricide, the aim of the Law is to refuse the Mother-as-Other by producing a third symbol, which imposes the possibility of alienation or Death of the Subject who denies authority. As has been stated before, Lacanian ideas on how the child moves through the Mirror Stage is fraught with violence and the Law exists on the side of Thantos (or Death), not Eros (or Life), and the drive to subjectivity is always the drive towards Death. Coming from Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) by way of Georg Hegel (1771-1831), the idea that subjectivity or self-consciousness is the result of the human’s acceptance that Being is Death or that to be is to die was one of the founding concepts for Lacan. Under the pain and threat of death, the ego must not lose itself in the loved one but regain itself in the loss by submitting to the Symbolic, which is the Law, the Father.

In this Freudian and Lacanian universe of Loss and Gain, human subjectivity is formed through the agencies of power an domination. The subject will be driven by socially imposed guilt and anxiety and will become servile, cringing under the authority of the Law (of the Father) and dreading castration (further loss of power). As a result of this terrifying process, we, the victims, must wear the mask as a social form or conforming behavior. As we enter into the symbolic order of language we are fashioned by the order which installs masquerade and are marked by it as signified by the mask of custom and competency with language. Lacan makes the point that just as the human being is inauthentic—mask-waring–language is also split from the real. The symbolism of language can be only an indirect expression of “reality” in that it is not what it represents. Symbolization is a reference to, and not a reflection of, the self. The human tragedy is that life can be made only through language, which is never direct or immediate. Life is mediated and is filtered through language and thus is de-natured or de-naturalized and is split, severed, like the subject from that which cannot be symbolized.

Submission to the process separates each human from his or her “authentic” sexual self. Sexual desire consists, not of feelings or instincts, which are basic, primal and must be contained and governed, but of symbols, laws, concepts and ideologies—all of which are arbitrary and formalize individual experience but bring these strong needs under social control. Strangely, from a female perspective, sexuality is organized around the Phallus, which for a woman, is the symbol of Lack and speaks to the idea of the woman being castrated. Male-female elationships are always organized around the possession and non-possession of the Phallus, which due to its erectile form, defines the Lack. Without inquiring as to why or how the Phallus must be always erect it can be said that Lack is a chronic state of self-insufficiency born from the foundation of the Law or to put it in another way, the penis, in the normal course of its day, is only occasionally erect.

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: Return to Freud

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Being a transitional figure, bridging Modernism and Postmodernism, Jacques Lacan was a complex and hybrid philosopher whose work is convoluted and complicated. As a Modernist, he favored models and structures, a methodology he inherited from both Georg Hegel and Karl Marx who worked from the dialectic, a triadic process. The combination of dyads and triads marks the efforts of Jacques Lacan who then layers the duos and trios in a series of strata. As a Postmodernist, Lacan was one of the earlier re-readers of Enlightenment ideas and did not hesitate to slice and dice and recombine ideas purloined from Modernists, Ferdinand de Saussure, Alexandre Kojeve, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, et. al. Lacan used the works of all of these philosophers to re-interpret the books of Sigmund Freud. The one element that marks him off from his predecessors is Lacan’s use of language or appropriation of the linguistic theories of Saussure and the idea of “language games,” borrowed from Wittgenstein. The primary project of Jacques Lacan was to re-make Freudian theory by filtering it through the fulcrum of language.

In 1955 Jacques Lacan announced his famed Return to Freud, meaning that he had decided to take up the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) as literature. As is clear by the date of is “announcement,” Lacan had read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s recently published Philosophical Investigations (1953) and had learned of Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games.” Although Lacan had been working with Freudian theory and had even challenged the Freudian privileging of the ego, Wittgenstein gave him a new way to re-read Freud. Wittgenstein had used language games to demonstrate the difference between saying and showing and to search for the limits of “saying” or what could be said. These limits are reached when the question of defining “language” arises and any definition can only become another example, and never a definition, meaning that meaning is always deferred.

Lacan rediscovered the “essential Freud” through the early writings: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Psychology of Everyday Life (1901), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). These signature works are considered the canonical theories on the unconscious mind. Lacan referred to the Unconscious as the “Lost Object”, an object barred from the conscious. He was less interested in Freud’s archaeological project and more interested in the constitution of the individual and social beings and with the relation of the individual subject to the structure of language within the culture. The individual is formed/made/built in relation to the family and is integrated into the social matrix through the agency of language. Lacan asserted, <“I have never said that the unconscious was an assemblage of words but that the unconscious is precisely structured.” “The meaning of a return to Freud is a return to the meaning of Freud.”

The unconscious is structured like a language and functions in ways similar to language: sign, signifier, and signified. In giving agency to language in creating the human and by insisting on the primacy of language as generative of consciousness, Lacan expressed his opposition to the traditional notion of the Self as an independent or transcendent or an absolute entity in the world. The question is why language? Psychoanalysis has but one medium: the patient’s speech, and Freud taught his readers that “symptoms,” or uncontrolled manifestations of the unconscious, speak in and through words. Symptoms, like dreams, which are linguistic image based narratives, were constructed in phrases and sentences. Freud tried to use language to reach a source or an origin from which the primal pain was emanating, but Lacan insisted that origins can never be located. What is available to the observer is the capacity for symbolization, expressed as language.

The subject exists because of and through language. Because the human agent “knows” or “speaks” only through language, language is the determinant of intersubjectivity or consciousness. Given that the limits of language, not only is there no outside or no meta-language and also no access to the unconscious but there is also no ego without language. The ego or the conscious rational mind is the product of linguistic activity. In other words, the limits of the language and the limits of the consciousness are the same and inseparable. As Lacan expressed it,

…words are the only material of the unconscious…The subject does not exist prior to language, the subject comes into being through language…the concept…engenders the thing…the world of words…creates the world of things…

And as Lacan continued,

If I have said that language is what the unconscious is structured like, this is because language to begin with, does not exist. Language is what we try to know concerning the function of la langue.

Notice that Lacan used the term la langue or lalangue. This characteristic play with words is a nod to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who separated langue, or that which structured linguistics as it exists in the social collective, from parole or common speech acts. Scholars have debated the extent to which Saussure meant for the speaker to “possess” langue, but for him, langue was synchronic (based in structure), while parole was diachronic (based in time). According to Saussure, we communicate synchronically through the sign, the signifier, the signified, but Lacan added a third term, lalangue, or the language of the unconscious, which is the primal language heard by the infant from its mother. As Juan David Nasio wrote in Five Lessons on the Psychoanalytic Theory of Jacques Lacan,

Lalangue is something that one sucks, it is the maternal part of language that undergoes jouissance. Lalangue remains intimately linked to the body, and is thus eminently charged with meaning. Lalangue is the language of meaning, full of meaning.

Language operates in terms of connection or putting together and through substitution or alternative that are expressed in Freudian terms of “condensation” and “displacement.” Dreams are symbolic symbols that are condensed or combined from concepts that have been suppressed by the conscious mind. This displacement from the conscious to the unconscious forces metaphorical expression which is the stuff dreams are made of. Accordingly, language is not as much descriptive as it is symbolic. Linguistically, the Sign or the Letter is the material support, the Signifier or the Metaphor substitutes itself for the thing it represents, and the Signified—that which has been signified—or the Metonymy, is that which re-represents itself. The result of these processes of connection and substitution is a displacement of meaning along a chain of signification.

Lacan linked three terms: the Imaginary, the Real and the Symbolic. The “Imaginary” was the earliest of these concepts and refers to the world we “imagine” or bring into being, and for Lacan it is this order of expression that is the proper study of psychoanalysis. The Symbolic is that which is signified through language. Because humans must express themselves through symbolic means, the “Real” is forever inaccessible. Lacan’s concept of the “real” evolved over this career. In the 1930s, the “real” was pre-symbolic, unreachable and unknowable. Because the “real” is unknowable and escapes language the real does not exist. If there is a “real,” then a Symbolic Real has priority over that raw reality as it exists before language, but paradoxically this “real” also limits that which can be imagined and thus restrains what can be symbolized.

Rather than revealing the unknowable “real,” the Symbolic Real hides and veils the unsymbolized and unsymbolizable real through acts of symbolization. Lacan expressed this strange unbridgeable divide through the algorithm “S/s.” S/s indicates that there is a split or a “bar” between the Symbolized and the un/symbolizable. There can be no true coincidence or semblance between the theoretical entities of the Real and the Symbolic. The line or forward slash between the S(ymbolic Real) and the (un)s(ymbolized real) is the essential fact of human existence. The bar is an imaginary filter between the real and the human mind: the real that is perceived but that can never be expressed except through the mediative process of language. Thus the human condition is constituted through language. Language is the Symbolic Real, which has two orders of reference: the Real, which cannot be articulated and Language, which functions metaphorically.

The slash or slanted line between S and s is significant and needs further discussion. By the 1960s, Lacan associated the real (that which cannot speak its name) with trauma or an original wound. Taking a word from Aristotle, tuché, meaning “cause,” Lacan transforms the word to mean an “the encounter with the real.” But because this encounter with the real must always be “missed,” not because it did not happen but because it cannot be internalized, this unassimilable event is re-written as trauma. There is a connection between language and trauma, for we enter into language through trauma. The birth of a human subject into language produces a disjunction (a bar, a slash) between the lived experience and the sign, which replaces reality. Language should be thought of as a reflection upon experience and yet is always divergent from experience. In other words, language is not reflective and can never be reflective–as in a reflection of reality—but can only reflect or think upon the experience. The word upon indicates a displacement: language is not a mirror which reflects; the language is a mechanism which allows thinking about.

We come into consciousness through language. We are ushered into society through language. The bar/slash between the S and the s is also the veil or the “splitting” that occurs when the unseparated (from the mother) infant is separated (becomes separate) from its mother and is initiated into society through language. The beginning of humanity is the end of the infant’s certainty of fusion and wholeness, the jouissance of bodily contact with the mother. S/he is forever barred and forever split from this undifferentiated fusion through the workings of symbolic (unreal) language. The result of this act of separation, this slash or division, is a trauma that splits the child off and sends him or her hurling alone into society. The map or topography of the resulting separation of the conscious from the unconscious is the alienation of the subject from itself.

The S/s separation of Lacan also divides the signified from the signifier and puts the Signifier over the signified and separates the sign from meaning and installs a barrier between subject and object. The word is subordinated to the concept, just as the signified is subordinated to the signifier. The counter-intuitive inversion was borrowed from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and Hegel’s assertion that the Master was ultimately dependent upon the Slave for recognition. In the same way, it seems that the Conscious mind is the Master but it is the Unconscious mind that represses the conscious mind, and the thesis, so to speak, is made slave by the antithesis: U/c. The bar cites the presence of an inherent and inverted repression.

Reiterating but re-expressing the Freudian model of the barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind, the Lacanian bar is also a gap between the signifier and the signified or a “topological substratum.” As Lacan explained why the Signified is ascendent,

…the signifying chain gives an approximate idea” rings of a necklace that is a rung in another necklace made of rings. Such are the structural conditions that define grammar as the order of constitutive encrohments of the signifier up to the level of the unit immediately superior to the sentence, and lexicology as the order of constitutive inclusions of the signifier to the level of the verbal locution.

The appearance of language is simultaneous with the primal repression, which produces the unconscious. The notion that the human being must be repressed in order to be socialized is a Freudian idea, but Lacan relocates the repression to the trauma of the initiation into the symbolic (language). For Freud, repression was divided into two stages: the primary or primal repression (Urverdrängung) which becomes a fixation that draws secondary repressions to it because the two forces cooperate. In 1961, Lacan interpreters Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire explained that primal repression was connected to metaphor in language. In primal language, the signifiers float without a structural network, as functions of “pure difference.” Secondary repression occurs when the signifier is not only doubled by the metaphor but is also fixed in the framework of signification,i.e., the metaphor signifies (something). As a result of these stages of repressions (two or three stages—Laplanche and Leclaire differ), consciousness of the self is now possible due to the ability of the subject to contrast the Self to Others (“I-thou” or the “me-non-me”) that defines subjects by mutual opposition or mutual dependency.

The process of repression/s are determined by the two “Narcissisms” or reflections upon the self which are experienced by the subject and creates the tension of attraction and repulsion. And yet the self and its Narcissistic development is dependent upon the formation of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Because the Imaginary overlays the primal and perceptual real, the Imaginary structures a Real of cognition and this Imaginary produces knowledge. Just as the signifier is doubled by the metaphor, “reality” doubles and pairs, meaning that one object (the real) is obliterated by another (the imaginary) through the faculty of creation. Each term—real, imaginary—becomes its opposite and each is lost in the play of endless reflection. Just as the signifier is finally caught in the mesh of meaning, Language and the Symbolic arrest this play of reflections.

Lacan’s point de capition (upholstery button) is the point of convergence or stoppage or fixation where the signifier stops/halts the endless movement of signification. In other words, the Imaginary is stabilized by the subject’s (traumatic) acceptance of the Symbolic register. Finally, at the end of this endless process, the Symbolic overlays or veils or covers the Imaginary and restructures cognition. The Symbolic is characterized by mediation, or the filtering of the perceptual through linguistics, so that Language becomes dominant, but there is price for the triumph. Human alienation is the cost because the subject is constituted in the very gap or bar or split between the signifier and the signified. Constructed by this uneasy and alien place, the space of the gap, the subject and the language exist in this system of differences.

According to Freud and Lacan, the individual is inaugurated into society or become socialized through a series of traumatic acts. For Lacan this suffering is the price paid for the purchase of the pride of language. True to his method of modeling structures in opposites or in triads, Lacan reconsidered Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) distinction between “speech” and “talk” with his elaboration of “empty speech” and “full speech.” Empty speech implies a subject dispossessed and alienated and belongs to the imaginary autonomy of the ego. There is a debility at the heart of human speech–the emptiness. While full speech is incapable of being no more or less “true” (there is no truth) than empty speech; full speech is merely more functional or performative and uses language in a more transformative manner. Lacan used a comment by Stéphane Mallarmé to illustrate his point. Mallarmé referred to language as a coin with images on both sides. The coin is exchanged even though the images are not noticed and the image is “effaced” or not seen and is passed from hand to hand “in silence” or without speech. According to Lacan, the subject must cross over the “wall of language” to speak in order to say nothing. Lacanian “full speech,” “commits,” “acts,” “institutes,” and “transforms” as a “speech act.”

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Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy, Part Two


Part Two: The Late Work

Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.”

from The Blue Book

When he finished the Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein assumed that he had finished with philosophy, gave away his wealth, and retreated into private life and followed various pursuits, from being a hermit in a hut in Norway, to being a school teacher, to being an architect, and a visitor to the Soviet Union. In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to England, became a citizen in 1938, and joined the faculty at Cambridge where he taught to a select group of students who wrote down everything he said. The Blue Book and The Brown Book (published in 1958) are a collection of his thoughts on the way to Philosophical Investigations. During the Second World War, he was an orderly in a London hospital, and, in 1947, he resigned from teaching, only to return in 1949 until his death from cancer in 1951.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is a very special book to read because it was, like all the books printed after his death, based on his lectures to his attentive students at Cambridge. Each page is a series of statements or paragraphs, and, as in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, each is carefully numbered. The blocks give the reader a glimpse into the organized and adventurous mind of of the philosopher. Early on, he discusses the problem of “naming,” a problem left over from his early work. In Philosophical Investigations,he traced the progress from a “primitive” language of one-word commands which designate or denote substantive meaning from the one who speaks and to the one who hears to more complex forms of communication. As for our mode of communication, naming a thing, noting a noun, Wittgenstein muses, “Naming appears as queer connexion of a word with an object.” Then he slips in a phrase, not even a real sentence, that has become one of his most famous sayings: “For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” After which he discusses the slippage that occurs when a sword is named “Excalibur,” rendering any sentence with the name without meaning. His solution is that the name “Excalibur” must be eliminated and replaced by what Wittgenstein calls “simples.” <“It is reasonable to call these words the real names.”

Tractatus restricted philosophy to that which could reasonably be said, but language and the way people used it tended to “go on holiday,” calling to question the normal everyday language people, not philosophers, employ to communicate. If one spoke of pictures, using names, then how does the philosopher deal with the issue of understanding a language? This reconsideration of how language makes meaning resulted the lectures that were edited and printed in Philosophical Investigations (1953). Older and wiser, Wittgenstein was drawn back into the argument of meaning. A friend challenged him to explain what a “gesture” meant in term of picture theory: what did an abstract gesture “picture?” Or to put it another way how did an abstract gesture provide an image or a picture of a thought? He returned to philosophy and took a position closer to that of Friedrich Nietzsche who reduced language to metaphor. By admitting that the notion of an ideal language was an illusion, Wittgenstein moved closer to the idea of language as being more inventive or artistic than precise and analytic. If Nietzsche unraveled language to become a nihilist, Wittgenstein explored language to become a pessimist.

First, both twentieth century thinkers had given up on any pretense of finding “truth.” For Nietzsche, all that humans have is metaphor and there is no truth, universal or otherwise, only the trap of symbolic metaphorical thinking. More optimistically both Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and Wittgenstein look to language as being the only source of knowledge of the world. The world, to put it another way, is shaped and conditioned by language and language represents the world. Saussure was more ready than Wittgenstein to accept the arbitrary nature of the (non) link between the word and the thing. A few decades later, Wittgenstein was ready to give up on his picture theory of language in which words made a “picture” of the world. If there is no universal language that can be used with rigor, then philosophy must become a practical study of ordinary language that is understood through what Wittgenstein called “language games.” combining the similarities among words (games), which is he calls “family resemblances.” “And I shall say, ‘games’ form a family,” he declared.

Language, then, is nothing more than relationships. In contrast to the inherent complexity of relating words one to another, Wittgenstein had sought order through his “picture theory of language.” In the Tractatus, language was grounded in a world of accessible experience in which discrete facts are mirrored in the language. “A proposition is a picture of reality,” Wittgenstein wrote confidently, assuming the transparency of word to thing. If the Wittgensteinian rules are followed, meaning is univocal and knowledge is certain. Once this certainty is abandoned, as it had to be in the 1930s, Wittgenstein changed his philosophical investigations into a search for the basis of knowledge. Language for both Saussure and Wittgenstein is not a window on reality or a mirror but a network of established significations or family resemblances linked by Nietzsche’s metaphors.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein had moved towards an analysis of how language works rather than a critique of what it does when it works. For Wittgenstein, language is part of a system, and the system of language is a game with rules or social conventions that are agreed upon by mutual consent among the players. For the Structuralists who came after Saussure, the “players” had to know how to play the game: the players had to be “competent” or have savoir faire. Players have to know how language functions within the network of games, and, as Wittgenstein was recorded as saying, “To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique.”

Just as Wittgenstein’s language games operate by rules which are subject to change, knowledge is structured by systems of metaphor or code, which is the classification, and organization of experience. Note that “code” or the signifier in the twentieth century replaces the transcendent and universal a priori of Kant. With Wittgenstein, language and orders of representation (language games and their rules) replaces the transcendental. Wittgenstein who once jettisoned “interpretation,” now acknowledged that interpretation is not a quest for the truth but a fundamental search for order and intelligibility. As Wittgenstein said, “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.”

Words have no fixed meaning and the meaning of any term is contextual,differential, and relative. The early Structuralists had no interest in the diachronic implications of language and Wittgenstein is interested in the diachronic only in terms of function, that is, he realized language arises in a particular social context and that the test of “meaningfulness” is the success of language in accomplishing what it sets out to accomplish. For the Structuralists, the synchronic aspects of language of of little interest; for Wittgenstein language was an ever-evolving part of a culture. His commonsense approach to “ordinary” language was revolutionary. Language games form a family, and the words in the family acquire meaning in everyday use. In contrast to the picture theory, which was a belief in universals, Philosophical Investigations contemplates the actual use of language and concludes that the meaning of a word is its use. In paragraph 43, Wittgenstein stated, “For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

In arguing that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”, Wittgenstein argued against the precision of concepts and acknowledged that new rules could be made up when needed, as long as the players were in collective agreement. Definitions and rules are nothing but signposts and can change location, so to speak, having an open character. In the second half of his life, Wittgenstein declared that the attempt to locate an unambiguous meaning in language was a form of illness and that the only purpose of logic was to understand how everyday language functions. For the philosopher, all seeing is “langufied” and is relative to “frames.” There is a paradox: we see the frame and realize we are looking only at the picture. Wittgenstein could not resolve this paradox. Nietzsche was ready to give up on truth but Wittgenstein was not. He saw language as a form of life that expressed the social group. We are trapped in language but we can free. In paragraph 309 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein asked himself, “What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”

Part One on Wittgenstein discusses his Early Work.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy, Part One


Part One: Early Work

During the War to End all Wars, it would be the self-appointed task of an obscure Austrian philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein but bring Kantian philosophy to its logical conclusion. As biographer Edward Kanterian noted in the 2007 book, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein began writing his seminal work two days after he volunteered to serve with the Austrian army. The son of a cultured and wealthy Viennese family, the young man began writing while the European continent was mired in trench warfare and ended his studies in an Italian prison camp. “My work has extended from the foundations of logic to the nature of the world,” he remarked in 1916. The result of Wittgenstein’s wartime work was a book that would change philosophy, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein was but one philosopher who was part of an Anglo-American shift to an analytic and pragmatic philosophy, the next stage after positivism and materialism. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, Analytic philosophy would be countered by existentialist movements, such as the “vitalism” of Henri Bergson, and the neo-Kantian or Kantian revivals in both Germany and France.

As Bertrand Russell explained in the Introduction to the Tractatus, Wittgenstein used the terms “symbol” and “language” interchangeably, meaning that language is a form of symbolism. The study of language, linguistics, as seen in the philosophy of Ferdinand de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein was also an acceptance of the “Kantian paradigm,” without the transcendental aspects of Kant’s thinking. Yes, the mind structures reality which is expressed through the only available tool: language. Without getting into a debate about the a priori, analytic philosophy is based upon logic or analyzes that which can be deduced only from that which is observed. As Russell explained, Wittgenstein asserted that “Every philosophical proposition is bad grammar…A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of ‘philosophical propositions,’ but to make propositions clear.” The result–a statement about reality can be expressed only in language–would be, for Wittgenstein—the end of philosophy itself. Or so he thought, until he changed his mind.

To say that there is only one way to explain the world and that way is language is put aside the question of whether or not we can ever truly experience “reality.” Once that question of “reality” is removed from the dialogue, another question surfaces: the obvious direction of philosophy becomes whether or not we can ever know the world. Given that all we have is words, the epistemological grounds are based upon how we use language: what is appropriate to say or not, what constitutes a meaningful statement and what statements are, according to Wittgenstein, mere metaphysics. For Wittgenstein, “Metaphysics” takes on another meaning. In contrast to Kant, for whom metaphysics had the taint of superstition and mysticism, and in contrast to the materialists, for whom metaphysics was the same as idealism or the transcendental a priori, for Wittgenstein, metaphysics was improperly concerned statements that could not be proved or was about subjects that were inaccessible. Yes, one can talk about magic, but why bother?

Wittgenstein announced that “It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be set, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense” in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1918 (published in German in 1921 and in English in 1922). His compilation of philosophical remarks was turned into a treatise and after the Great War, he returned to his mentor, Bertrand Russell at Trinity College and announced he had succeeded in solving all philosophical problems. Wittgenstein opened the Tractatus with Hemingway beautiful writing: “The world is everything that is the case. The world is the totality of the facts, not of things.The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.” Wittgenstein developed the notion of the proposition, that is, a statement about the world. A proposition can be complex but it can be meaningful only if it can be broken down into smaller components—simpler propositions—that in turn can be broken down into elements that are elementary: names.

The Austrian philosopher was interested in names and in the act of naming or pointing. Names are the terminus of analysis; they are the simple signs of simple objects. “Simple” means, in this context, that the element “named” cannot be defined or talked about and can only be shown (by pointing). These “primitive names” refer to a simple object that can be elucidated by primitive propositions and without these acts of pointing and naming. Without a point of reference, the sentence would be meaningless. “Meaningless” does not mean that the sentence cannot be understood. “Meaningless” means that a sentence without a reference is nonsense. The “mystical” is “thing that cannot be put into words”. Wittgenstein was inspired by reading of a trial in which the lawyers replayed an event using dolls and toys that served both as a point of reference and as a means of re-enactment. From this inspiration, he developed the “Picture Theory,” which Wittgenstein explained as, We picture facts to ourselves…The picture must have something in common with what it depicts. What it has in common is its pictorial form.”

A proposition, like a picture, must have a logical form, for without a logical form, it would be “nothing about the world”. For Wittgenstein, there are three types of expression: tautologies, contradiction, and propositions with sense. The first two say nothing useful or “nothing” while propositions show what they say. We can say nothing about the world as a whole. We can show that language has a relation to the world but we cannot say what the relation is. In the end we are constrained by this finitude: we are imprisoned in language and the world we live in is bounded by this language. Philosophy has been reduced to an activity of displaying the limits of what can be said. As Wittgenstein stated, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and “What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence.” Thus ended the Tractatus.

There were years in which the philosopher “retired” from philosophy. The son of a wealthy family, he had given up his inherited wealth in 1913 and, after the War became a school teacher in rural Austria. Coming from a family in which three of the sons had committed suicide, Wittgenstein was ill-suited for such a job and was strict and difficult towards his students—allegedly beating some of the boys—and spent the later years of the twenties designing a severely restrained home, in the manner of Adolf Loos, in Vienna for his sister, Gretl. The house, Wittgenstein’s only architectural work, is an austere and stern masterpiece, one of the great works of modernist architecture.

However, Wittgenstein was disturbed by his own philosophical conclusions laid out so clearly and clearly in the Tractatus, because, however, impeccably logical the philosopher had been, under his analysis much of what people say was declared to be out of bounds of “philosophical investigation.” Fortunately for school children everywhere and unfortunately for architecture, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and mentored a generation of older (and more controllable) college students. It is only at this point, in 1929, did Wittgenstein submit the Tractatus as his dissertation and join the faculty. His biographer, Norman Malcolm, a former students wrote movingly three years after Wittgenstein’s death of his former mentor in Ludwig Wittgenstein. A Life. Malcolm explained that Wittgenstein never wrote down his lectures and spoke entirely extemporaneously as he labored intellectually to move away from his early work to his later thoughts. As Malcolm stated, “It has been said that Wittgenstein inspired two important schools of thought, both of which he repudiated.” For the rest of his life, Wittgenstein published nothing.

In his 1930s lectures to his students at Cambridge, later published as The Blue and the Brown Books, an older Wittgenstein rethought Tractatus. These “books” were these free form lectures written down by his worshiping students and are rare records of philosophical thinking, later formalized into what Malcolm called “the Oxford School” of linguistic philosophy. It was the Blue Book which introduced the new idea of meaning: meaning is in the use; and the Brown Book developed the concept of “language games,” in which words are used in particular ways and are connected through use and “family resemblances.” In other words, words have no fixed and final meaning; and, contrary to Tractatus, there is no link between language and reality. Named after the color of the papers that bound them, the “books,” published in 1958, are repudiations of Wittgenstein’s early work and lead to the publication of more posthumous works which continues his free form discussions of meaning, Philosophical Investigations (1958) and Philosophical Grammar (1969). The next post will discuss the late work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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Conceptual Art and Philosophy, Part Two



“Art is art. Everything else is everything else.” Ad Reinhardt

The artist, Joseph Kosuth, insisted that Conceptual Art was a child of the 1960s, not the Civil Rights sixties, not the Stonewall sixties, not the Women’s Movement sixties, but the war protest sixties. As Kosuth stated, Conceptual Art was “…the art of the Vietnam war era.” Previous posts discussed the extent to which this era was an overthrow of authority figures and certainly, the male-led protests against the Viet Nam War were Oedipal, as young men refused the lead of the old men. One of the main elements of writing on Conceptual Art as it was conceived by the artists themselves was the overthrow-the-father intentions.

Following the example of the Minimal artists, the Conceptual artists, who were very much in the same circles, wrote their own art movement. These artists, Mel Bochner, Sol Le Witt, and Joseph Kosuth and the Art-Language group, wanted to wrest control from the art critics who had always subordinated artists to their words, overwriting works of art with works of language. That said, as shall be seen, the seizure of the right to define is far more important than a mere Oedipal rebellion. In his essay, Introductory Note to Art-Language, Kosuth asserted that true conceptual art “is based on an inquiry into the nature of art…this art annexes the function of the critic…”

The right to define Conceptual Art on the grounds established by the artist led to larger consequences. Conceptual Art was anti-art and an outright dematerialization of the object. Anti-art was not necessarily connected to either anti-aesthetic or to dematerialization but was an independent attitude which rejected the traditional notion of “art.” As the Brazilian artist, Hélio Oiticica, wrote,

Anti-art, in which the artist understands his/her position not any longer as a creator for contemplation, but as an instigator of creation—“creation” as such: this process completes itself through the dynamic participation of the “spectator,” now considered as “participator.” Anti- art answers the collective need for creative activity which is latent and can be activated in a certain way by the artist. The metaphysical, intellectualist and aestheticist positions thus be- come invalidated—there is no proposal to “elevate the spectator to a level of creation,” to a “meta-reality,” or to impose upon him an “idea” or “aesthetic model” corresponding to those art concepts, but to give him a simple opportunity to participate, so that he “finds” there something he may want to realize.

In other words, “art” was an aesthetic given, presented to the viewer for contemplation and delight. Anti-art is a joint process, not product, an exchange between the artist and the spectator. If anti-art is creative activity, then the need for an object is problematized. As Lucy Lippard and John Chandler explained,

As more and more work is designed in the studio but executed elsewhere by professional craftsmen, as the object becomes merely the end product, a number of artists are losing interest in the physical evolution of the work of art. The studio is again becoming a study. Such a trend appears to be provoking a profound dematerialization of art, especially of art as object, and if it continues to prevail, it may result in the object’s becoming wholly obsolete.

Writing in the wake of Seth Siegelaub’s “exhibition” of Conceptual Art in January 1969, Gregory Battock wrote, Painting is Obsolete,

The works in the show are ideas that are not intended to be any more than ideas. As such they are pretty much invisible, which itself is a good idea. We’ve suspected, for some time now, that art perhaps can be invisible and now it is. Therefore there’s nothing to steal, nothing to damage, no images to remember later, and we don’t have to worry about slides and lighting. If 69 contributes to the history of art invisibility, art history students from now on will remember us fondly.

Another thing about this show is that perhaps it isn’t art and maybe it’s art criticism, which would be something I’ve suspected all along, that the painter and sculptor have been moving further and further away from art and in the end perhaps all that would remain is art criticism. (. . .) What a show like this does is, in one stroke not only demolish the Museum of Modern Art (the Whitney demolished itself last week) but all those painting courses they are still cranking out in the “art” schools, which were doomed a decade ago but nobody noticed, oh well it’s too bad, after spending all that money on paints and everything.

But this elimination of the object, especially painting, was only one part of the rebellion against the previous generation of artists. The felling of the great edifice of Abstract Expressionism and with it painting cannot be totally separated from the slaying of the other great edifice of Modernism, Clement Greenberg. In Art after Philosophy, Joseph Kosuth conflated formalism and aesthetics and modernism and Greenberg’s theory of the necessity for Modernist art to purge itself to its essential and intrinsic elements. Greenberg’s aesthetics, the way in which he designated “art” was based solely upon the look, appearance and the physical existence of a unique and specific object. It was this kind of definition of art which was object based that Kosuth rejected in favor of a questioning of an “art” based upon its impact on the retina.

In 1969, the artist elevated the late Marcel Duchamp as an alternative to Clement Greenberg. Whether or not Duchamp put forward an entire philosophy or an aesthetic is doubtful, for he was a provocateur who wanted to mock the notion of “art” as a sacred relic, resplendent in its own aura. Kosuth needed to establish a new way of thinking about art and in order to do so he stated that,

It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general. In the past one of the two prongs of art’s functionwas its value as decoration. So any branch of philosophy that dealt with beauty and thus, taste, was inevitably duty bound to discuss art as well. Out of this habit grew thenotion that there was a conceptual connection between art and aesthetics, which is not true.

Kosuth stressed that because aesthetics is disconnected from function or use that it is connected to “taste,” which brought him to Clement Greenberg, described as “the critic of taste.” Taste resides in “judgment” which is part of the job of being a critic who passes judgment, but, as Kosuth pointed out, Greenberg’s “taste” was tied to the fifties and hence, the artist intimated, out of date and out of step with the time. Certainly there is a great deal of truth in this suggestion—art had exceeded the limits of Greenbergian formalist theory. The reason that art moved beyond Greenberg’s critical grasp was that the artist, following the lead of Marcel Duchamp questioned “the nature of art.” Interestingly, Kosuth asserted that the “function” of art was the same as the “nature” of art.

One could object to that equation on Kantian terms, stating that art should have no function or purpose, but Kosuth was saying something else. In a later essay, Introduction to Function, he said simply, “Function refers to ‘art context.”” Regardless of its purpose, art functions as language or art functions linguistically. As Kosuth insisted,

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context—as art—they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is atautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art. Thus, that it is art is true a priori (which is what Judd means when he states that “if someone calls it art, it’s art”).

Kosuth then, strangely, brought up A. J. Ayer who reiterated Kant’s definitions of analytical and synthetic propositions rather than Kant himself. Ayer defined analytic statements as tautologies, meaning that an analytic statement is true under all conditions. A synthetic statement, unlike an analytic statement, does not contain its definition in itself, but depends upon empirical evidence or authorization. Neo-Kantian Ayer explained,

In other words, the propositions of philosophy are not factual, but linguistic in character – that is, they do not describe the behaviour of physical, or even mental, objects; they express definitions, or the formal consequences of definitions.

Or as Kosuth expressed it,

…what art has in common with logic and mathematics is that air is a tautology…art cannot be…a synthetic proposition…to consider it as art it is necessary to ignore this same outside information, because outside information(experiential qualities, to note) has its own intrinsic worth. And to comprehend thisworth one does not need a state of art condition…Art’s only claim is for art. Art is the definition of art.
While this early essay made it sound that Kosuth was crudely and bluntly presenting a work of art as a tautology but his intent was more inclusive. He recognized that the recognition of art as art depended upon the context. “Advance information about the concept of art and about an artist’s concepts is necessary to the appreciation and consideration of contemporary art.” And towards the end of the essay, Kosuth gave a Kantian assertion, “Art indeed exists for its own sake.”
Perhaps the most famous influence on Kosuth were the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In An Interview with Jeanne Siegel, Kosuth admitted that although there was a “too obvious relationship” between his art and the philosopher. However, he cautioned Siegel that there was the early and late works of Wittgenstein, with the late works refuting the earlier. That said, the early seminal work by Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is perhaps the most clear on how language allows us to talk about reality through propositions.
From 1966, Kosuth produced a series of Propositions—photostats of words—implying that he was presenting a proposition, a word, which was the elementary part of language. But the word can function only within a sentence (proposition) that pictures something about the world. This is the famous “picture theory of language.” “Pictures” are strung together into a sentence structure which logically presents the world. In other words, the structure of reality determines the structure of language.
In Art after Philosophy Kosuth quoted Wittgenstein’s famous phrase, “Meaning is in the use,” from Philosophical Investigations (1953) in which the philosopher shifted from the idea of a picture theory to the metaphor of language as a tool box. Different words are different tools which are used in different ways, depending on the occasion. This concept is a reversal of his position in the Tractatus. Wittgensten came to realize that meaning could not be a picture theory, in other words, that language could picture (reflected) the world. The tool box idea of Investigations suggested the idea of “language games” which are bundled together in terms of “family resemblances.” Words did not have “essences” and their use is social.
Wittgenstein’s turning away from the essential dismissed his earlier position that words are essentially meaningful because they are associated with objects. Now he is saying that words have meanings that are dependent upon the “use.” Language was now thought of as a form of life. Meaning was now unfixed and became fluid, guided by rules which were subject to change. When Kosuth asserted in 1969 that art is understandable within a context or that function is context, he was attempting to fix art firmly into an art world where it could safely exist as a proposition. Like the early Wittgenstein, he was limiting what it was proper to “say” about art, but, like Wittgenstein, the later Kosuth came to understand that art, like language, was a product of social and cultural forces. The meaning of art, ultimately, would have to be in its “use.”