Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 25, 2007
Jean-Luc Nancy The Ground of the Image Trans Jeff Fort New York: Fordham University Press, 2005. 168 pp.; 5 b/w ills. Paper $23.00 (0823225410)

Something we call “the image” flickers oddly in and out of art history. Sometimes it appears at what we often take to be the margins of the discipline—it can, for example, seem definitive of visual culture after “the end of art” or prior to “the era of art.” When it appears in these places, it can suggest the need to redefine art history in ways that not only remove explicit art—aesthetic art, art from the Renaissance through some moment of the recent past—from the center of the field but that tend also to transform what we’ve taken as importantly historical into a range of variable cultural facts. Perhaps in part because these thoughts about the end of art or about the chronological and global breadth of visual practice are so present to us, the image also shows up increasingly at the heart of traditional art history, where it figures as an alternative name for what has often been called a “work.”

It shows up also, rather more elusively, in our classrooms and offices as we find ourselves at grips with the innovative ways in which we present our objects to ourselves and to our students—ways that force us to grapple with the embeddedness of those objects in a complex field of circulation and reproduction in which they are malleable in distinctly new forms and where our projective technologies oblige us daily to make creative decisions about frames and grounds and the presentation of ancillary information that press toward recognizing ourselves as image-makers of a kind as slide projection never did. Art historians have, I suspect, no better a grip over the meaning of the word “image” than anybody else: Asked to produce an example, people will produce things as various as an object of ritual observance, such as an icon or a mandala; a particular painting (mostly it will, I suspect, be a painting and not a sculpture or a building); a blurry kind of technological fact (e.g., a moment of television, a CRT scan, a computer screen or something on such a screen—the uncertainty here is interesting); something harder to point to—a messy partly concrete and partly abstract, probably mental thing that behaves in some ways like a sign (what we “see” when someone says the word “tree,” like the little picture Saussure used to illustrate the signified of that signifier, except less particular, more inherently variable), or, conversely, something very easy to point to—exactly that Saussure image or exactly this painted tree.

Pointing itself plays a curious role in relation to the image: if your tendency is to appeal first to the ritual object, its materiality and touchability will seem integral to it, while if your first appeal is to the computer screen, it will matter equally that however closely you point to it, you only ever touch the screen, the image “itself” somehow permanently out of reach. Taken altogether, this is a cluster of intuitions both deeply uneasy and profoundly consequential for the shape and limits of one’s field (and I’ve set aside, for the moment at least, the thought that “the image” might not be exclusively a visual matter; there are, we say, images in literary works, and surely there are musical images—images of music as well as within it—along with sound images of various kinds).

A preliminary attempt at organizing our sense of things here might note that the image seems to stretch importantly between the sacred and the technological, with “art” a distinctive disturbance of some kind within that stretch. This is, I think, roughly how the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy locates it, and he does so within a broad historical scheme, familiar enough from Hegel, that makes a crucial turning point of the moment (or moments) at which the image can no longer carry the force of real presence, so that in The Muses, for example, Nancy will write:

With the withdrawal of the Idea, that is, with the event that shakes up the whole history of the last two centuries (or the last twenty-five centuries . . .), the image also withdraws. And as we shall see, the other of the image is the vestige. . . . End of image-art, birth of vestige-art, or rather, coming into the light of day of this: that art has always been vestige (and that it has therefore always been removed from the ontotheological principle).1

The hesitation between two and twenty-five centuries suggests that the temporal play between image and vestige is complex, and given the subsequent invocation of ontotheology, probably complex in ways we know, at least initially, through Heidegger.2 While Nancy’s philosophical work is generally, and rightly, closely associated with Derrida’s, Heidegger has always been an absolutely central resource and object of criticism for him; one good way to locate his writings on aesthetics is in the interval first marked out in Heidegger’s work by the pendant essays of the late 1930s, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935–36) and “The Age of the World Picture” (1938). Nancy’s allusive intimacy with Heidegger—as well as other key writers—is often extraordinary. In 1951 Heidegger writes as he reads Hölderlin:

The upward glance passes aloft toward the sky, and yet it remains below on earth. The upward glance spans the between of sky and earth. . . . We now call the span thus meted out the dimension. This dimension does not arise from the fact that sky and earth are turned toward one another. Rather, their facing each other itself depends on the dimension. (Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, New York: Harper and Row, 1971, 220)

In The Muses this recurs one way (that of the image becoming vestige, of a fable about the origins of art):

For the first time [we are to imagine ourselves as if in Lascaux] he touches the wall not as support, nor as an obstacle or something to lean on, but as a place, if one can touch a place. . . . The rock wall makes itself merely spacious: the event of dimension and of the line, of the setting aside and isolation of a zone that is neither a territory of life nor a region of the universe, but a spacing in which to let come—coming from nowhere and turned toward nowhere—all the presence of the world. (75)

In The Ground of the Image the same bit of Heidegger reemerges this way, closer to the question of the sacred:

Before the sky and the earth, when everything is held together, there is nothing distinct. The sky is what in essence distinguishes itself, and it is in essence distinguished from the earth that it covers with light. It is also itself distinction and distance: extended clarity, at once distant and near, the source of a light that nothing illuminates in turn. . . . The distinct distinguishes itself: it sets itself apart and at a distance, it therefore marks this separation and thus causes it to be remarked—it becomes remarkable, noticeable and marked as such. . . . The image comes from the sky; it does not descend from it, it proceeds from it, it is of a celestial essence, and it contains the sky within itself. (5, 6; emphasis in original)

The sky is, I imagine, a somewhat surprising addition to our list of possible exemplars of the image. The two passages—Lascaux and celestial essence—divide of course along the lines of Heidegger’s intimate opposition of earth and sky, and the particular sky that Nancy invokes comes to Heidegger along a path we don’t necessarily see as belonging to the history of theories of the image. One important moment in this history would be Kant writing on the sublime, and asserting that while one can grasp the sky intellectually as something like the fact of infinite, isotropic space and so on, one’s actual perception of it will inevitably turn on some kind of figuration of it—as a vast vault or such. Calling this a “metaphor” may yield a momentary comfort about where the image is in relation to the “real” sky—the real sky is the infinite thing, and the metaphor is then image—but in taking that comfort we lose the fact both Nancy and Kant insist on: that the sky that we have, that is visible to us and is also in some strong sense the condition of the world’s visibility, is nothing but that vault. That is what it is that the sky is discernible, and for Nancy the image just is the thing in its discernibility. It is thus describable as a “nonlinguistic saying or the showing of the thing in its sameness . . . the same differing in itself from itself” (9), which is also to say that “the image is a thing that is not the thing: it distinguishes itself from it, essentially” (2).

Nancy’s claim that the image is “a thing that is not the thing” is a version of the deconstructive “critique of presence”—the central Derridean claim that presence is always already unfolded into representation; representation is thus not a secondary accident supervening on it from some outside. The thought here is fully distinct from what is often referred to in contemporary theory as “a critique of representation,” which depends precisely on the idea that representation entails some kind of deep falsification in need of undoing (Ground’s extended essay on the question of art after Auschwitz is, among other things, a working through of this distinction). The image, and representation more generally, has both the insistent naturalness and the cultural arbitrariness of the incest taboo in Lévi-Strauss’s seminal account; the distinctness of the world thus never goes without a certain violence that Nancy also addresses and that turns back toward the dimension of the image that he takes to be essentially sacred—“separate . . . set aside, removed, cut off . . . what, of itself, remains set apart, at a distance, and with which one forms no bond (or only a very paradoxical one)” (1).3 As with the incest taboo, there is no deeper ground to be sought for the image; it is the ground—and in that way groundless, oscillating within itself.

That much can perhaps be said in rough introduction of Nancy’s interest. There is no clear charting, at least none that I can see, of more specific paths between what Nancy sees to read in Pontormo, Piero, and Hantaï, or Caravaggio and Artemisia and what art history is used to finding there. Philosophy has, after all, its own way of flickering oddly in and out of art history, touching at once at its limits and at its heart; the question, I imagine, is whether art history will be willing to recognize that touch or whether it has, as it currently stands, the means to sustain, prolong, even return, that touch.

Stephen Melville
Professor, Department of the History of Art, The Ohio State University

1 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 93, 96. The Muses and The Ground of the Image are further supplemented by the essays translated in The Multiple Arts (The Muses II), ed. Simon Sparks (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006); while many of the essays on visual art in this volume are of no more than occasional interest, it does include an extended meditation on self-portraiture.
fn2. But see also Nancy’s extended exploration of questions of hermeneutics and temporality in Heidegger and Gadamer in his “Sharing Voices,” in, Transforming the Hermeneutic Context: From Nietzsche to Nancy, eds. Gayle Ormiston and Alan Schrift (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990).
fn3. That religion is, as its etymology indicates, always a matter of the formation of a bond, helps locate the particular interest Nancy takes in Christian art.