This chapter draws from the aesthetic theory of Jean-Luc Nancy and his work on community to think about how an artwork exposes limit and how, as a result of this, it engenders a sense of community. I begin by juxtaposing Nancy with Sophie Calle's 2007 installation Couldn't Capture Death. Calle's artwork seems to present purely the human limit, by revolving around a documentary-like video recording of Calle's mother's death. This work prompts a sense of Nancy's Inoperative Community. It does so because when we enter this installation we co-appear with its object – being-with the ungraspable last moments of this dying lady. This experience exposes our syncopating finitude. It engages Nancy's The Inoperative Community, by defining a sense of community as the communication and sharing of our finitude.
I question what it means to argue that an artwork produces a sense of limit and community. Drawing from one of my own installation artworks, Flashback, I use Nancy's aesthetic and communitarian corpus as a muse to inspire both the creating and comprehending of an immersive installation that uses the senses of smell and touch to evoke an agent of making sense at the limit. This limit is not so much about dying as touching the threshold of a rebirthing process. When people enter my installation, they dwell within and experience this process. Composing and comprising such a dwelling, the installation (temporarily) houses a community.
Nancy helps me understand this as the work of my artwork. Here we share our finitude (and its eternal return of renaissance). To solidify this thesis, and connect my work with that of Calle's, I conclude by constructing a plane of ‘transimmanence’. This plane is Nancean. It draws across (‘trans’) and beyond the power of sensory immanence gained from viewing and making art. This plane locates and houses a logically inoperative but productively aesthetic sense of community. Here we (the community who assemble here) can initiate a touching journey of trying to make sense at the limit brought forward during the aesthetic experience.
Sophie Calle's Couldn't Capture Death is an installation artwork that was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007. It was part of the main international exhibition at this event, which was curated by Robert Storr.
I opened my eyes; what an increase of sensation! The light, the celestial vault, the verdure of the earth, the transparency of the waters, gave animation to my spirits, and conveyed pleasures which exceed the powers of expression. I at first believed that all these objects existed within me, and formed a part of myself. – Buffon, Natural History: Of Man (1785)
The use of a medium to experience an image is analogous to the way in which we experience our own bodies as media through which we both give birth to inner images and receive images from the outside world. These mental images happen within our bodies, like dreams, and in both cases – that is, in the case of dream and mental images – we perceive the image as if it were using our body as a host medium. – Hans Belting, An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body
When we say of a portrait that it lacks only speech, we evoke something more and other than the sole privation of verbal expression. This very privation, in manifesting itself as the unique lack that would separate representation from life, already transports us into the sentiment or the sensation of a speech of the portrait. The lack affecting the portrait is designated at the same time as considerable and imponderable, so much does its annulment appear accessible and even imminent. In fact, the portrait speaks, it is already in the midst of speaking and it speaks to us from its privation of speech. It makes us hear a speaking before or after speech, the very speaking of the lack of speech. And we understand it, it communicates this saying, its sense and its truth.
In a similar manner, we desire to hear the voice of she or of he who is absent. Their aspect can be carried with us in a photograph, or indeed a film, to which the recording of the voice can also be associated. But listening to this voice still remains of an order other than the order of the visual. Its resonance attunes us to an order of sense and of truth whose essence differs from the visual order of recognition. Love and hate are always that by which recognition is judged indigent.
In Jean-Luc Nancy's The Image: Mimesis and Methexis,1 he considers what makes us say that a portrait lacks only speech. This lack speaks, explains Nancy. A portrait ‘speaks to us from its privation of speech.’ Take the Mona Lisa, for instance. For if the Mona Lisa lacks only speech of her own, this evokes ‘something more and other than the sole privation of verbal expression’. The lack, for Nancy, is rather a transport carrying across a Mona Lisa voice, which is not manifested as speech. As her audience, we recognise her voice. What's more, this voice is understood: ‘we understand it … its sense and its truth’. Mona Lisa can make herself understood; yet she does not make herself heard (se fait entendre). Without uttering a word, her voice transports sense.
This bears similarity with listening to the voice of one who is absent. When only a photograph or a film carries the absent person's voice, listening is ‘an order other than the order of the visual’. Voice and speech are not the same thing, Nancy articulates in a mock conversation with Jacques Derrida in ‘Vox Clamans in Deserto’. ‘Because I know you, I recognised your voice as you were coming toward me, long before I could make out what you were actually saying’, Nancy says in addressing Derrida. This is to say that voice is prior to intelligibility. Voice comes before language.
In order to recognise Derrida's voice, Nancy listens. For Nancy, the main function of listening (l’écoute) is not simply to bear the weight of language as some requirement of intelligibility. Nancy questions a hierarchy of sensible and intelligible forms of listening. His Listening begins with an indecision: listening can be écouter or entendre – l’écoute or l'entente. A simple translation into English confounds the two terms, as both may be translated to the same word in English: listening. L'entente is about hearing and understanding the spoken word. L’écoute is more than intelligibility of language; it is attention to others.
Nancean listening is the attentiveness that is characteristic of dialogue. According to this theory, listening does not necessarily implicate hearing, nor is it the reverse of speech or hearing. L’écoute, for Nancy, is resonant listening.
‘See the invisible, not beyond the visible, nor inside, nor outside, but right at it, on the threshold …’ Nancy makes his provocative imperative in an essay entitled ‘On the Threshold’ in relation to a painting by Carvaggio. In it, he calls attention to the invisible as the proverbial ‘blind-spot’ of visual culture, a blind-spot articulated most prominently in W. J. T. Mitchell's ‘Critique of Visual Culture’ as including the invisible, blindness, the unseen as well as other sensory modalities such as the tactile, the auditory and the haptic. This imperative also raises the question of what modality of vision could conceivably see the invisible right at the threshold of the visible, and as its logical corollary, where this threshold is located, if not ‘beyond the visible’ in the realm of a transcendent spiritual principle, idea or signified, ‘inside the visible’ in the workings of a subjective consciousness (whether of the artist or spectator), or ‘outside the visible’ in the hidden traces of a larger material culture that the art work as an object may reveal.
In this chapter, I will explore two particular aspects of Nancy's conception of the image, and the modalities of vision corollary to it, by tracing the location of the threshold between the visible and the invisible as it moves in Nancy's writing between two different conceptual registers. The first might be called the ‘macro’ register of the Nancean body conceived as discontinuous sensual zones. Here, when vision as a modality of seeing visible forms reaches the limit point of intensity in relation to the image, it begins to resonate against the limits of other sensual zones, and is described by Nancy as a modality of listening or of touch, senses attendant to the invisible or the unseen. The second conceptual register is the ‘micro’ register of particles and waves, where, in the resonance of sense and the senses set in motion in relation to the image, Nancy's descriptions of images as visible forms dissolves into descriptions of the invisible forces of physics, forces relating not only to the physics of light, but of sound and impact. Thus Nancy describes the light of the photographic image as the ‘absolute velocity of appearing bodies, the sculpture of their mass’;…
Whether we are artists, scholars, curators, collectors, casual admirers or a combination of each, our encounter with images is rarely innocent. The proliferation of images in contemporary culture – of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, of pictures, painting, photography, cinema, television, video and internet – has been accompanied by an extraordinary increase in the number of discourses on what images are or do, what we should or should not do with images, what they mean, represent, what they show or tell, what value they have, and how we should or should not look. If these discourses set the general terms of debate in the study of visual culture, it is a debate often framed at its (post)modernist and historicist poles by the question of whether the proliferation of images in contemporary culture marks a new epoch in the West (the oft-proclaimed hegemony of the image over the book, the visual over the textual), or is merely a culminating moment in a history of ‘visual turns’ as old as the biblical or Byzantine battles between iconoclasts and iconophiles that have emerged throughout Western history at times of competing world views and socio-political uncertainty. In one characteristically provocative response to this question, delivered with a dose of playful self-irony, Jean-Luc Nancy suggests that either way, this doubled proliferation of images in contemporary culture and of contemporary discourses on the image often makes us ‘look cross-eyed’. We have one eye on the image, ‘the other on discourse […] One eye empirical, the other theoretical. One eye on the exhibition wall, the other on the text of the catalogue.’ How then do we resist the strabismus Nancy describes here?
For Nancy, as for this critical appraisal of Nancy's immense contribution to the arts of what we call ‘visual culture’ (a contentious term in itself, and one that Nancy does not use, preferring terms such as ‘the arts’ or ‘the image’), the effort to resist this kind of cross-eyed vision would not mean producing a better, more adequate account of what an image is, an ontological theory from which we might derive a practical ethics or politics that would somehow allow us to ‘see straight’.
Outlandish are the bodies: they are made of the outside, of the extraneitas that forms the outsider's outsidiness. The outside always seems to come after the inside, like a medium, an element in which the inside world pre-exists, detached, closed onto itself. But this enclosing, this enfolding inside can only take place through the detachment unfolding the outside.
Mourning the loss of the animal body, having colonised their world, our savagery was met with reticence, silence from our partners in form who showed up, remained and faded. The finitude of annihilation leaves us now searching for authors accounting for the place of the animal, waiting on those who can enliven speech, lending voice and character, prompts for re-animating lost species. This is radiated animality, witnessed in cinema's projected electric world and encountered in the aqua-vivarium's scrutiny of specimens. Jean-Luc Nancy's notion of bodily secrecy, dissected decompositions ‘deployed in world secret’, are accordingly rewritten as newly composed collaborations in bodily form, textual revelations on how creation causes embodiment according to variants brimming with combinations on originary code. These ex nihilo creations are bristling with sudden momentum, möbius ribbon linking a ‘spasm of the nihil’ to the ‘spec with no dimensions’. The genesis of nothing pre-empts the growth of an armature, an enclosure for an otherwise eternally disembodied spirit. In turn, this exudes exotic ramifications spawning bewildering, endless displays of potential form, species variation and crossspecies mutation.
If writing in the place of the animal includes first contact with the other side, this chapter seeks a negotiating position whereby robust creaturely conveyances are also sought, extending gestures of generative co-proposition, gazes returned. The terms of such engagement do not require a priori knowledge, privileging an emergent framework for operations without need of any shared intentionality, a human-animal and animal-animal accord advancing a perceptual, semio-spheric endgame where residues still meet, each organism co-signing a contract, humanity seeking a form of closure.
To explore reciprocity, avoiding traps of complacency, let's take an initial look at matters where transmissions, flow and exchange between species ended their worldly co-occupancy. Firstly in the heinous, unfortunate direction of the laboratory or abattoir, the former a sectioned bio-medical space where creatures, held under scrutiny, are withdrawn and objectified, kept in mortifying conditions.
There is an exscription from writing, as Jean-Luc Nancy explains, ‘that doesn't happen exactly in writing, if writing in fact has an “inside”. But along the border, at the limit, the tip, the farthest edge of writing nothing but that happens’. An exterior and multiple ‘x’ of sorts, this indiscernible limit finds the writer, and more broadly the drawer as well, in a state of exposure. It is a state of physical and mental extremity that I want to look at here, investigating how one tries to inscribe throughout this exteriorising limit.
Sense, a term imperative to the writings of Nancy, often indicates a signifying generated in advance of a text, grapheme, or imprint. Nancy dubs the exteriorising operation exscription. With the ‘ex-’, as in exteriorisation, extension, and exposure, Nancy is thinking of sense as ‘outside’. In exscription, sense is exscribed by touching the body. The body is the exterior act, or means, of opening in advance of anything that otherwise is essentially sense. The body is the exterior act, or the act (means) of opening onto … and in excess of meaning.
Prevalent in textual inscription, as much as in drawing, is the individual effort to display the effect of such a hermeneutical touch. Exscribing touch prompts a trace of thought, so to speak, giving form not merely to thought, but to one of the most singular of bodily effects – weight. Since thinking resonates with weighing, incurs a heaviness and a downward movement, one should question inscription with regards to drawing, since it is by means of drawing that writing turns back, withdraws to a more exscriptive condition of speculation that emphasises the inscriber. The proposition I consider here is that thought is not an essence one comprehends from within a substantial ‘self’, nor visually evidences through an inscribed imprint, or graphic trace. Rather, the aim of my investigation is to explore this essentialist notion of thought, which discards a condition of sense shared by the body, and to move towards thinking as an extremity that is weight ‘exscribed in advance of all writing’.
Exscription turns inscription outward. It obstructs and generates a sense that is otherwise grasped within the visible imprint of a trace.
This chapter wagers that dance holds a singular, irreducible place in Nancy's work, that it cannot be reduced to thought about dance, and that it provides a way to understanding Nancy's approach to visual culture in general, to equality, and to the circulation of sense in terms of what he calls singular plural being. The chapter takes its starting point from Nancy's discussions of dance in the as yet untranslated Allitérations, a series of email exchanges from 2003 and 2004 followed by transcriptions of face-to-face exchanges between Nancy and choreographer Mathilde Monnier loosely addressing the question of the relation between philosophy and dance, and a conversation between Nancy, Monnier and film-maker Claire Denis. In the first half of the book Nancy raises two questions, each presenting a pair of seemingly irreconcilable demands: 1. How can we understand dance as something open to everyone while retaining the privilege of professional expertise? 2. How can we understand dance in a way that maintains its uniqueness, not reducing it to an example of thought or a vehicle for thought, and yet still allowing for a relation between dance and thought? Both questions invite us to think the privilege of dance together with its openness; its singularity together with its plurality. As Nancy and Monnier grapple with these seemingly contradictory demands in Allitérations, their conversation opens up onto a fresh way to think political equality, and a different way to understand – or ‘catch’, a much more suitable term that I shall introduce later in this chapter – the sense of the world. It is by taking a detour via ‘The Image: Mimesis and Methexis’ that we can also see how Nancy's approach to dance can open to a new way of engaging with visual culture in general.
The point in this chapter is not simply to use dance as an example or illustration that helps us better to understand Nancy's approach to visual culture or the Nancean singular plural or his notion of ‘sense’, for in considering dance in terms of art, singular plurality and sense, we shall also be drawn to reassess sense, art and the singular plural in terms of dance.
What happens when a philosopher gets a hard-on? Generally speaking, this is not a subject philosophers often discuss. Moreover, the slang, some might even say obscene expression ‘to get a hardon’ does not properly belong to the idiom of academic research. In place of ‘hard-on’, or the only slightly less offensive ‘erection’, one should probably say something like ‘tumescence of the penis’, presuming for the moment that a hard-on must refer to a penis, which in turn must be part of a male body identifiable as such. Nothing could be less certain. In any case, the boldness and directness of the idiom of ‘getting a hard-on’ should probably be avoided, since its place is rather in pornography or maybe the bedroom. And yet, in apparently complying with such a powerful taboo, one must be able to ask if an opportunity is thereby lost. ‘Male’ philosophers such Georges Bataille, the Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Schlegel and, closer to our time, feminists such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray have not only reflected on sexuality, they have sought to bear witness to ways in which sexual arousal and desire touch their philosophical thoughts and writing. For this mode of sexualised reflection, Avital Ronell has proposed the term ‘pornosophy’. She introduces it as follows:
Closer to the mores of contemporary writers, Friedrich Schlegel to this day takes beatings from philosophical overlords who continue to press charges against the philosophical pornography machine, the pornosophy, his novel Lucinde indulges. As Paul de Man once drove home, the scandal of Schlegel consists in the crossover of genres, the wonton staging of incompatible codes, and the ensuing contaminations of reciprocally alien formalities, rather than in the build up of any specific or accreditable content. These writers, including, of course, the formidable Marquis de Sade, have tried to take philosophy to bed.
Has anyone in modern philosophy ever attempted to elaborate an ethics or politics of the hard-on? Enduring debates about what is called the gender gap in philosophy departments throughout the world, sexual harassment, not to mention the endless vexations and jokes about the virile comportment of philosophers, and philosophy itself, that have been circulating in the backrooms of the discipline since I don't know when – all of this would support an argument that such an ethics or politics merits at least to be considered.
Originally published by Slought, with the Artsonje Center and the Institut français of South Korea. Edited by Jean-Michel Rabaté and Aaron Levy, Trans. Fiona Moreno and Tchoi Mi-Kyung, in collaboration with Soun-Gui Kim (for the English-Korean translation). This new translation aims not to correct the work done by the translators of the Slought edition, but to render Jean-Luc Nancy's French in a way that coheres with the other translations and chapters in this volume as a whole.
S-G. K: Various aspects seem to characterise the current landscape of art. What we commonly call post-modernism as well as contemporary art already seems distant. This is certainly not unrelated to the movement of globalisation. For several years now, artists, participants in the art world, curators and organisers have been exploring new experiences. The characteristics of this new landscape are numerous. First, the diversity of the arts and the practice of a pluralist aesthetics, the pronounced tendency to explore inter-cultural and cosmopolitan experience; the dissolution and the mixing of expressions, genres, and languages as well as the dehierarchisation of the so-called ‘major’ and ‘minor’ or ‘high’ and ‘low’ arts. This interest in experience and experimentation has as its consequence the disappearance of the object. More precisely, what is significant is the disappearance of the aesthetic object and of the image. All this can be observed here, at the Gwangju Biennale, where the major preoccupation of the event seems to be articulated around the question of presentation itself. In other words, the absence of content seems to constitute the content of art today. I would like to ask you the following question: where does art now find itself? Where is art located? Is what we call art to be found precisely in this very movement of the disappearance of presentation? That's my first question.
J-L. N: Thank you. I'd like to say to you, to the people here today, and to those who will be coming in the next two months to visit the Gwanju Biennale, that I am very pleased to be able to speak with you. I'll try to respond right away to your question. I think that art has never known where it is. In a certain way, this isn't a new question.
In a conversation with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe published in 1992, Jean-Luc Nancy draws attention to a significant difference between himself and his close friend and long-time collaborator. Lacoue-Labarthe, says Nancy, prefers always to emphasise the paradoxical self-suspension of any figural inscription, the impossibility of the definitive accomplishment of which such figures might dream; whereas for his part, Nancy habitually points to the renewed invention operated by this same incompletion. ‘You tend always’, says Nancy,
[…] toward an effacement of the ‘figure’ […] whereas I feel myself continually led back to the exigency of a certain figuration, because the ‘interruption’ of myth does not appear to me to be a simple cessation, but a cutting movement which, in thus cutting, traces another place of articulation.
If this is a significant difference, it is also, as Nancy's language suggests, a question of two complementary tendencies, twin gestures peeling away from each other in response to a common movement – incomplete and incisive, inseparable and incompatible. Incomplete: the line cannot finally enclose what it is at once enclosing (and so ending, interrupting once and for all) and exposing to an outside its cutting is indicating as such. Incisive: this cutting is nonetheless creating a determinate figure, a kind of inside, however compromised; and the exposure of this kind-offigure to its constitutive outside both imperfectly closes its own epoch and opens the space – the time: the future – of another moment of possible figuration.
As we know, then, to trace a line is thus both to cut off, to circumscribe, to interrupt; and to open onto an inappropriable vacancy. To delimit. By definition set right up against this vacancy, the line may also invite its contemplation, its affirmation and perhaps even its maintenance: the incision may also be a form of care for this space beyond colonisation – better, for the spacing, the rhythm of differentiation which makes possible any movement and any presence whatsoever. This chapter considers the operation within Nancy's thought of just these two tendencies: the delineation of forms (here called cutting, despite and because of Nancy's ambivalence towards this term, as will be discussed) and the affirmation of the movement of presentation (which will here bear the Heideggerian name letting-be).
Realist accounts have traditionally contrasted the expressive originality of painting and portraiture with the essentially objective, documentary character of photography. Yet photography does not merely reproduce and frame the familiar, whether a beautiful face or a picturesque landscape. It may also estrange and contest those bodies whose indexical traces it presents as deferred.
Photography can challenge assumptions surrounding ‘landscape’ as an inert backdrop against which cultural work takes place, gesturing instead towards emergent forces of co-composition. This notion is particularly important to my own photographic practice. In this chapter, I will draw my Time Out of Joint series of double exposures into dialogue with the thought of Jean-Luc Nancy. If, for Nancy, ‘[Art] touches on the living integration of the sensuous’, and ‘isolates the exteriority and exposition of a being in the world’, modes of production are themselves always implicated in multiple worlds. The photograph thus implies a doubling of exposure: the co-appearance of multiple traces in the distension of each singular, discrete image.
My intention here is not to produce an authoritative account that would promote a notion of ownership over this work. I will instead discuss how irreconcilable gaps take place ‘between the producer and the produced, and thus between the producer and himself’, emphasising, with Nancy, my complicity with other material forces that co-compose these hallucinatory bodies of photography ‘detached and removed by the film’.
Analogue mediality: the doubling of the ground
My Time Out of Joint series was produced using an entirely analogue process. By choosing to use film, a photographer involves herself in a contemporary questioning of ontological or realist discourses that contend the notion of photography as a medium with a direct or indexical connection to the referent. The use of film allows us to reflect upon the resistant graininess of a chemical medium, while also acknowledging the anachronistic and hauntological repercussions of such a gesture in digital times.
Nancy muses upon the materiality of film as an emulsion in the essay ‘Lux Lumen Splendour’ from Multiple Arts: The Muses II. In his fragmentary account, the photograph becomes the place where the suspension of an originary light, lux, takes place. The photographic image becomes a suspended passage where lumen, ‘the secondary or incidental light in the translucency of surfaces or bits of matter’ is ‘reflect[ed] and refract[ed]’.
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