Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 2021
Jacques Derrida Thinking Out of Sight: Writings on the Arts of the Visible Ed. Ginette Michaud, Joana Masó, and Javier Bassas, with new trans. by Laurent Milesi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 328 pp.; 7 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226140612)

Sixteen years after Jacques Derrida’s death, a new collection of essays and interviews devoted to artists and art by the eminent thinker offers a chance to reconsider his impact on the field and ongoing interest in his work. According to the volume’s title, this interest might lie in the plurality of the arts. But why? Why “the arts” rather than art in the singular? Spock’s famous dictum in Star Trek comes to mind: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”—“or the one.” Was Derrida secretly a Trekkie?

This dictum, of course, is at the center of cultural and political discourse today. Thanks in part to Derrida, we speak of histories, modernities, and temporalities, of postcolonial and decolonial subjectivities, animalities, and posthuman “-cenes” (and scenes). But it is necessary to recall that the concern with the other emerged before Derrida, in the work of anthropologists and historians such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, and Paul Ricoeur who had rigorously articulated the epistemological limits of the sciences humaines, the impossibility and morally questionable nature of a scientific, empirical totalization of the diversity of human being.

What often gets lost in translation, especially in the United States, is that deconstruction was not simply an extension of this impasse but an attempt to move beyond it. For Derrida, the other was not simply or empirically other; on the contrary, rather than overthrowing or beheading the Western ratio, as Hegelian dialectics had made clear, the other was its most profound resource and ruse. To challenge reason from the standpoint of others was merely to get caught in its trap, if not to absolutize it. The task wasn’t to kill the king but rather to show that the ratio was always already headless, a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together not with concepts—nor even words, as structuralism had claimed—but with writing, the act of tracing or imprinting letters, whether by hand, typewriter, word processor, or what have you. The difference is subtle yet crucial. One cannot speak in the name of the other or make them speak, and the other is not merely an empirical other from another part of the world who offers a more moral or ethical attitude than that of the Western subject of reason. But one could follow its traces like a psychoanalyst listening to the parapraxes and distortions that mark the insistence of the unconscious.

It is such traces of “writing” that Derrida pursues in these essays on artists and art, delivered in the context of galleries, museums, and art schools. He insists throughout that his lack of expertise as a critic or historian—his outsider position—is precisely what enables him to approach the arts otherwise.

The editors have smartly chosen to begin with “The Spatial Arts,” a lengthy but informative interview first published in 1994, in which Derrida situates his work and his interests in broad intellectual and cultural terms. The essays devoted to Japanese photographer Kishin Shinoyama and video artist Gary Hill also offer highly readable texts that do not demand a great deal of background in philosophy and aesthetics. The same is true of the interview with Cahiers du cinéma, the temple of film as high art, in which it is fun to watch Derrida test the interviewers’ devotion to that ideal by going on about how much he enjoys popular film, especially Hollywood movies, “both ordinary fare and films that are talked about . . . because I’m very easy to please” (217). Readers already familiar with Derrida’s work will perhaps most enjoy the essays on French artists such as Valerio Adami, François Loubrieu, François Martin, and Jean-Michel Atlan, who are anything but household names today. I particularly enjoyed reading about Atlan’s work. A French Algerian Jew who narrowly evaded deportation by the Nazis by feigning madness, he later joined Asger Jorn’s CoBrA, and he appears to merit reconsideration alongside figures such as Jean Dubuffet. In the interview “Drawing by Design,” Derrida underscores the priority of drawing and the “rhetoric of the line” in his thinking, or, to say it differently, of “drawing-painting-writing” as the intersection where the spatial arts, including literature and music, both meet and diverge insofar as the differential logic of the stroke resists reduction to a formal “outline” or a purely sensual experience of color. This logic is evident in the way Derrida treats every work as an intersection of multiple modalities of the stroke: pictorial, abstract, allegorical (emblems and pictograms), and notational (music and alphabetic writing). Derrida also tells the fascinating story of how he came to curate Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins at the Louvre in 1990.

Yet these are all occasional texts, so one thing they do not do but is crucial to understanding the bigger picture of Derrida’s take on art is thematize or make much reference to his confrontation with art history. Nor does the volume excerpt any of the four dialogic texts in Derrida’s 1978 The Truth in Painting, in which he traced the philosophical circumscription of capital A Art through the conceptual dyad of form/matter and the alliance that it sealed between aesthetics and art history, each authorizing and legitimating the other. It is an understandable editorial choice, yet it prevents the volume from offering a more complete scholarly picture of the scope of Derrida’s reflection on the arts.

In the fourth text, “Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing [pointure],” Derrida problematized this alliance by challenging the way Meyer Schapiro deployed the methods of art historical description in his famous public debate with Martin Heidegger about a Vincent van Gogh painting of shoes. Contrary to Heidegger’s insistence that the shoes were a pair of peasant shoes, Schapiro argued that the shoes actually belonged to Van Gogh, implying that not only had he made the painting but also, in philosophical and historical terms, he was its genetic origin and subject. Derrida observed that the shoes were two among many Van Gogh had depicted in multiple paintings, as Schapiro himself had remarked, but this implied that they must be read as differential figures of craft production—that is, of reproduction rather than subjectivity. Derrida maintained his reservations about Heidegger’s “pathos of the rural” and rejected Heidegger’s ascription of the shoes to a collective peasant subject (and thus to a Volk, a national collective subject, however much Heidegger sought to distinguish it from a National Socialist one). But he sided with the German philosopher in yoking the painting and the arts more broadly, including literature, to the latter’s “question concerning technology.” In effect, Derrida suspended the difference between Schapiro’s Kantian subject (the urban artist) and Heidegger’s collective one (the rural peasant) and inscribed painting into the broad framework of the techne of representation and media instead of the historical happening of subjectivity, whether individual or collective.

The consequences of that move go far beyond the scope of this review, but they are reflected in the work of historians and theorists such as Svetlana Alpers, Georges Didi-Huberman, Jacqueline Lichtenstein, Louis Marin, Donald Preziosi, and, more recently, Christopher S. Wood. Suffice to say that it returns us to the question of the plural arts and not just a pluralism of new subjects and histories of art, whether individual, collective, unconscious, animal, or even technological. Rather, as these essays aptly demonstrate, the move is less about understanding “the arts” as punctual, knowable events organized in linear or nonlinear histories than about remarking the specific differential play of the stroke as the instance, each time unique, in the unconditional generality of exposition.

In this sense, Derrida remains at odds with neo-avant-garde historicisms that have sought to adopt Walter Benjamin’s discontinuous, “constellational” history of the nineteenth century, his famous Arcades Project, as a methodological paradigm. Elsewhere, Derrida questions the latter’s wish to submit reproducibility to a metaphysical end—and not just any, but the end par excellence, history as ongoing, permanent catastrophe, which is reflected allegorically yet immediately in the backward glance of the angel of history. More modestly, perhaps, he sought to reelaborate and revalorize the arts in the sense of Bernard Stiegler’s “techniques of being.” Recalling the ideas of Constructivists such as Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, Stiegler, who recently passed away, believed that “Art” excluded the masses from cultural production, precisely because it asserts the authority of the subject and the institution of art history.

In our dawning age of social media and artificial intelligence—when Google Docs increasingly anticipates what you are going to write before you write it and computer-aided design (CAD) programs are evolving into machine intelligence capable of decision (Derrida would say this was always already true of the hand)—logics of aesthetic subjectivity and agency clearly fall short. The “arrival” and “production . . . of new supports, of new underprops in the space of the arts, of the increasing virtualization that immaterializes the body of former supports” is not a crisis, writes Derrida, but nevertheless an “irreversible, technological, techno-scientific transformation” (181). Either way, the full encounter between Derrida and the arts seems clearly still to come, if not the final frontier.

Saul Anton
Pratt Institute