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What Makes an Image Singular Plural? Questions to Jean-Luc Nancy
Hagi Kenaan Journal of Visual Culture 2010 9: 63 DOI: 10.1177/1470412909354256 The online version of this article can be found at: http://vcu.sagepub.com/content/9/1/63
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com] SAGE Publications (Los Angeles.nav Vol 9(1): 63–76 DOI 10.sagepub. New Delhi. Keywords art • being-with • Heidegger • image • Jean-Luc Nancy • Lévinas • origins of painting • singular plural The ‘ﬁgure’ proves itself to be capable of opening onto the ‘with’ as its border.com at University of Sydney on February 19. 2014 . the article questions the manner in which the ethical consequences of Nancy’s ontology are brought to bear on his understanding of art. It shows how Heidegger’s conception of Dasein becomes operative in Nancy’s understanding of the visual and examines the implications which Nancy’s critique of Heidegger carries for a new ontology of the image. Singapore and Washington DC) Copyright © The Author(s).journal of visual culture What Makes an Image Singular Plural? Questions to Jean-Luc Nancy Hagi Kenaan Abstract This article examines the connection between Jean-Luc Nancy’s thinking of images and his radical ontology of the singular plural. London.co. 2010. Nancy thinks of images in an ontological manner.uk/journalspermissions. 2000) Being-an-Image One of the unique features of Nancy’s thinking about the visual is the ontological character of his investigation. Reprints and permissions: http://www. journal of visual culture [http://vcu.sagepub. the very limit of its outline. (J-L.sagepub. Nancy.1177/1470412909354256 Downloaded from vcu. Being Singular Plural. The article’s central concern is the question of what it means for a philosophy of the visual to embrace the singular plural? In what senses is the singular plural the foundation of an image’s being? How should the singular plural play itself out in a thinking of the image? Focusing on Nancy’s interpretation of painting’s origins.
in fact. that we think of them in ways that resist not only the more traditional rhetoric of imitation and copy. in arguing for the need to distinguish the being of the image from the being of an object (what Heidegger calls the Vorhanden). 73). in particular. ‘What is primarily interrogated in the question of the meaning of Being is that being which has the character of Da-sein’ (Heidegger. As such. 2014 . in fact. the image is commonly relegated by the tradition to a secondary. but also the more contemporaneous tendencies of integrating the image into a language of identity and objecthood. borrowing – importing – from Heidegger a wholly distinctive interpretational scheme that is central to Being and Time: the analytics of Dasein. Nancy is. domain of existence: a copy. in itself. For Nancy. a double. Dasein is chosen as that necessary point of entry due to its uniqueness: Downloaded from vcu. its simple presence in the homogeneity of the world and in the linking together of natural and technological operations … What is distinct in being-there is being-image’ (p. For Heidegger. an ongoing dialogue with Heidegger which is constantly present at the background of Nancy’s thinking about ontology and art. a type of representation that draws its significance from its relation to being.64 journal of visual culture 9(1) This primarily means that his treatment of the image is guided by the question of being: being-an-image or the being of an image. The clear Heideggerian resonance that we can hear in Nancy’s language is not a coincidence. the analysis of Dasein is necessary in order to open up the question that regulates his investigation. 1996: 37). derivative. while having no genuine part in it. Nancy (2005) writes. the question of the meaning of Being. an expression of an understanding that ‘images are not actually copies’ (Nancy. that the ‘image is not the … double of a thing in the world’ (p.com at University of Sydney on February 19. When construed as a representation. And. in terms of its relationship to another – typically more basic – kind of entity whose presence it re-presents. a substitute. 2006: 214). And this may be taken as the first ‘distinction’ of the image. rather. 9). the initial sense in which Nancy can speak of ‘The Image – The Distinct’. 8). ‘The distinct’ stands apart from the world of things considered as a world of availability’ (p.e. at the same time. Images are neither copies nor are they objects. but reflects. Nancy thus underscores the need to recognize the image’s ontological autonomy but. the image gives itself to thought only in terms of that which it is not. The image.sagepub. they embody their own unique form of presence but this presence is not thinglike. they call for a thinking that resists the binary opposition between object and copy. 2). ‘is neither the thing nor the imitation of the thing’ (p. Nancy breaks away from a predominant tradition that grounds the conceptualization of the image in the opposition between true being and mere appearance. Furthermore. it is crucial that we learn how to think of images as sui generis and. In this tradition. Images. The image is ‘distinct from its being-there in the sense of the Vorhanden. in other words. In addressing images in terms of their being. Nancy’ s methodological starting point is. he also emphasizes that we should be careful not to turn the image into yet another kind of object. are not re-presentations. the image is characteristically understood as that which merely appears. i. for him. Hence.
is. develop ‘with a view toward [Dasein’s] structures of existence’ (p. 40) such as. 40). of meaning. Being-With: Nancy’s Critique of Heidegger Nancy often acknowledges his debt to Heidegger whose fundamental ontology he regards as ‘that which has put us on the way to where we are. in other words. being-with-others. This shift from Dasein’s objectmodalities to its particular modes of being – from ‘categories’ to ‘existentialia’ – is reproduced by Nancy who. Being-with. Hence. the event. a grounding and regulating structure of human existence – an Existentiale that. its temporality. 10) Dasein is a unique being whose uniqueness lies in the way it relates to its own being. care. carries significant implications for any understanding of the self (selfhood) and. 2000: 26). instead. the discussion of Dasein’s relations with others (the Existentiale of being-with). since ‘the essence of Dasein lies in its existence’. temporality. whether we know it or not’ (Nancy. ‘to the being of Dasein … [and] this must be understood as an existential statement as to its essence. ‘Being-with-Others belongs’. In other words. consequently. of the unfolding. is never alone in the world and the world is thus typically experienced through the prism of co-presence. the image’s givenness. (p. 1996. factual Dasein does not turn to others and thinks that it does not need them … it is in the mode of being-with’ (Heidegger. according to Heidegger. in turning to the image. a potential for a radical philosophical beginning which he describes in the following way: Downloaded from vcu.sagepub. Hagi Kenaan What Makes an Image Singular Plural? 65 Dasein itself is distinctly different than other beings … Dasein is a being that does not simply occur among other beings. Dasein’s being-with is not just one among Dasein’s traits.g. Nancy (2000) identifies a promise in Heidegger’s Mitsein. even ‘when actual. It is not a contingent fact. according to Heidegger. 2014 . for example. presence. For Heidegger.’ In this sense. for Nancy. on its unique structures of being: e. one of the most crucial moments in Heidegger’s Being and Time (1996) is. ﬁnitude and transcendence. It is ontically distinguished by the fact that in its being this being is concerned about its very being. for Nancy. rather. Mitsein. explicitly brackets the image’s ‘objectively present attributes’ and focuses. but a constitutive feature of Dasein’s being-in-the-world. its being-in-the-world. according to Heidegger. absence. And. Dasein. then Nancy can be said to be a philosopher who teaches us how to recognize the presence of that verb in the word ‘image’. being-toward-death. we may say that if Heidegger is the philosopher who taught us – as Lévinas (1985) puts it – how to hear the resonance of the verb ‘to be’ in the concept ‘Being’ (p. taking this analogy further. ‘the characteristics to be found in this being are thus not objectively present attributes’ (p. In this context. the analysis of Dasein calls for an interpretation that must resist the parameters of objecthood and.com at University of Sydney on February 19. however. 33). together.
66 journal of visual culture 9(1) Heidegger clearly states that being-with is essential to the constitution of Dasein itself.To put this more specifically. it must be made absolutely clear that Dasein. an opening to a new kind of fundamental ontology that will take issue with this ‘co-originary dimension’ and ‘expose it without reservation’. 26). for a philosophy that ‘needs to recommence. 26) What Nancy ﬁnds in Heidegger is a lens through which the self can be viewed as an event of multiplicity.com at University of Sydney on February 19. 93). Heidegger’s ‘affirmative assertion of co-originarity’ never fulfils itself since Heidegger ultimately ‘gives up on the step to the consideration of Dasein itself’ and never considers the ‘possibility of an explicit and endless exposition of co-originarity and the possibility of taking account of what is at stake at the togetherness of the ontological enterprise’ (p. In this respect. fails to see. For Nancy. Nancy writes. ‘in order to do this. Taking seriously the Heideggerian conception of being-with ultimately implies. an analysis that brings Heidegger so close and yet leaves him all too distant from the meaning of being-with. Nancy hears in Heidegger’s Mitsein the reverberation of a call for a radical beginning. far from being either ‘man’ or ‘subject. to start itself. philosophy needs to think in principle about how we are “us” among us. Indeed. Heidegger hurries to conceptualize this experience as a structural condition – en bloc – a condition of average anonymity which he sets in opposition to Dasein’s authentic possibility of individuation. growing out of a critique of Heidegger that Downloaded from vcu. ‘is the project from which all subsequent thinking follows. 26). Yet. there is an important negative lesson to be learned from Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein. and. If this determination is essential. then it needs to attain to the co-originary dimension and expose it without reservation. in a corollary manner. 26).’ but is instead always the one. against itself’. Heidegger fails to come to terms with the potential of his own thinking because he moves too quickly from thinking about the ‘pole of the one’ (Dasein) to ‘the pole of the undifferentiated many’ (das Man) and does so without ever dwelling on ‘how we are us among us’. according to Nancy. this is also precisely what Heidegger. Given this. with one another. whether this is Heidegger’s own later thinking or our various ways of thinking against or beyond Heidegger himself’ (p. Yet. In other words. according to Nancy. Nancy’s Being Singular Plural exempliﬁes such an attempt to think against and beyond Heidegger. 26).’ is not even an isolated and unique ‘one. instead of dwelling on the phenomenon of being-with. each one. (p. how the consistency of our Being is in being-in-common and how this consists precisely in the “in” or in the “between” of its spacing’ (p. from itself. this way of putting things should not be regarded as a conclusion as much as it is an opening of an avenue that invites further exploration. 2014 . that is. Hence.sagepub. on ‘how the consistency of our Being is in being-in-common’. that ‘ego sum = ego cum’ (p. And. Heidegger’s Mitsein serves as a mark which ‘indicates to us a place from which first philosophy must recommence’ (p. Being Singular Plural ‘The existential analytic of Being and Time’.
The term ‘Being’ is used here by Nancy in a manner that refers back to and concomitantly breaks away from the Heideggerian vision. or more clearly put. 26). the phenomenon of Being. the fundamental condition of the appearance of meaning is being-with. But. for Nancy. 2). how does all this bear on our understanding of the visual? Returning to our discussion of Nancy’s ontology of images. Unlike Heidegger. but that is constituted. The starting point for this enterprise – for which ‘the form of the ontological treatise ceases to be appropriate’ (p. This postulation consists of three focal points: ‘Being’. it should not in any way be understood as something given. 2014 . As suggested. 2). ‘there is no “brute givenness” of Being’ – ‘Being does not have meaning’ (p. the space in which the meaningfulness of things unfolds is one that never stems from – and can never be traced back to – a single unified origin.‘is a gift that can be summarized as follows: Being itself is given to us as meaning’ (p.‘we are this circulation’ (p. xv). 26). for Nancy. by a constant pluralization and splitting. more generally.sagepub.‘The givenness of Being’. but one that calls for a radical exposition. But. Nancy explicitly refuses to allow any concept of pure Being to become operative in his first philosophy – to serve as grounds for our thinking – independently of the actual manifestation of meaning. emphases in original). 2). however. ‘Meaning is its own communication or its own circulation. ‘meaning’ and.This “as” presupposes the distancing. an ‘us’. Hagi Kenaan What Makes an Image Singular Plural? 67 is ‘far more profound than what ﬁrst appears to be a simple “readjustment” of the Heideggerian discourse’ (p. xv) – is nevertheless formulated in an ontological manner. the question of the ground of meaning – the one ‘philosophy needs to think’ – is a question about ‘how we are “us” among us … how the consistency of our Being is in being-in-common and how this consists precisely in the “in” or in the “between” of its spacing’ (p. in between. 2).The very possibility of having meaning is thus always already a co-possibility. ‘Meaning begins where presence is not pure presence but where presence comes apart in order to be itself as such. ‘a singularity indissociable from its being-with-many’. It is never simply there in the form of an object. Meaning is grounded in the human ‘we’. rather. Nancy takes on the task of ‘redoing the whole of “ﬁrst philosophy” by giving the “singular plural” of Being as its foundation’ (p. what are the implications which Nancy’s Being Singular Plural carries for an understanding of images? What would it mean for a philosophy of the image to come to terms with the condition of transindividuality or with the singular-plural origins of the image? Downloaded from vcu.com at University of Sydney on February 19.‘Being does not have meaning’ because ‘Being itself. xv. Another way to put this is to say that the origin of meaning is neither the individual nor the community. In other words. Indeed. – what Nancy calls a transindividuality.’ How and where does this circulation take place? For Nancy. let us ask: what would it mean to think an image’s being as a being-with? In what ways is the ‘singular plural’ the foundation of an image’s being? How does the singular plural of the image play itself out? Or. rather. What makes meaning possible is neither the infinitesimality of an undividable selfhood nor the unified homogeneity of a public space but. this is not a simple condition that could be taken for granted. is meaning’ (p. and division of presence’ (p. Nancy writes. spacing. but present only as an incessant unfolding.
hardly ever addressed. a space in which meaning can reverberate. From the painter to the wall the hand opens up a distance that suspends the continuity and the cohesion of the universe. in order to get a better view of its signiﬁcance.1 Nancy does often underscore the need to think the image beyond the speciﬁcity of a medium. But it is ignorant of form. Nancy interprets the cave as the cradle of the meaningful. He seems to bracket a discussion of the image’s objective traits since. surprisingly. 1996) – never leads Nancy back to the question of the co-originarity of our ‘being-with’. the image qua object is only a trace of that primordial act that generates the very possibility of the image which is co-originary Downloaded from vcu. Hand stencils and hand prints are indeed typically dated among the most early images of the upper Paleolithic. if one can touch a place. the question of the image’s ‘plural singular origins’ is. facing a wall in the depth of a dark cave.. but this preoccupation with the inner plurality of the artistic medium – developed. The rock wall makes itself merely spacious: the event of dimension and of the line. In ‘Painting in the Grotto’. for whom the cave signifies a human condition that is radically severed from the origins of meaning. encounters a new kind of freedom that allows him to open up. before having been a self .sagepub. the gesture of the ﬁrst imager … His hand advances onto a void. but a spacing in which to let come – coming from nowhere and turned towards nowhere – all the presence of the world. 1996: 74–5). How should we understand the apparent forgetfulness of the singular plural in Nancy’s writing on the visual arts? I am not sure how to answer this question.2 Following Bataille – to whom ‘Painting in the Grotto’ is an homage – Nancy approaches the first image in terms of the agency and the act involved in its creation. he touches the wall not for support nor as an obstacle or something to lean on. hollowed out at the very instant that separates him from himself instead of prolonging his being in his act. of the setting aside and isolation of a zone that is neither a territory of life nor a region of the universe.68 journal of visual culture 9(1) The Origin of the Image In Nancy’s writing on the visual.com at University of Sydney on February 19. Nancy (1996) addresses the question of the origin of painting by responding to a primal image – a ‘primal scene’ – of creation: the image of the making of the first image. the rising up of a ﬁgure or a rhythm in its presentation … For the ﬁrst time. for the first time ever. But. But this separation is the act of his being. but Nancy reflects neither on the specificity of a given hand-print nor on the different types – different techniques involved in the making – of such images. different kinds of matter. structures. beings. Let us imagine the unimaginable. for example. signs and actions..The prehistoric image on which Nancy focuses is one of a human hand. let us turn ﬁrst to a text in which Nancy explicitly reﬂects on the origins of the image. Here he is outside of self even before having his own self. Unlike Plato. but as a place. Nancy describes (imagines) the birth of painting as a drama for one actor: a solitary painter who. for him. in order to open up a world (Nancy. in ‘Why Are There Several Arts and Not Just One?’ (Nancy. 2014 . the animal that stands in the grotto and that makes this gesture knows things.
in this context. an event that allows the emerging self of the painter to be itself by relating to itself. the human act is not an embodiment of a being that precedes creation. ‘there is no “brute givenness” of Being’. emphasis in original). a singular gesture. his skill. but there is no self or identity that grounds meaning’s appearance.The image unfolds as meaningful. Or with the humanity of his own strangeness … The similar came before the self. 94). Nancy offers a dialectical reading of the relationship between the ﬁrst painter and his newly made image. since we are meaning’s circulation. In ‘Painting in the Grotto’ (1996). For the painter. operative in the constitution of the painter’s self – a human self – whose identity. the presence of his ontology and. in particular. 2000: 2). 2). In French. (p. For Nancy. is meaning that is. Nancy’s text is not only a drama in one act. In ‘Painting in the Grotto’. the intertwining of these senses in Nancy’s title Au fond des images makes the point clear: the ground of the image is the image’s depth. Indeed. it is born ‘at the very instant that separates him from himself’ through a ‘separation [that] is the act of his being’. the cave is the site of meaning’s originary circulation. the outside standing for self. unlike. the word fond means both ‘ground’ and ‘depth’ and.This surprise is painting. as is underscored in the description of the first painter.Nancy insists on a language that begins with the manifestation or the givenness – the gift – of Being: ‘Being itself.” of some form of another’ (p. the quickness of the hand whose secret he wrested from the very strangeness of his nature … the schema of man is the monstration of this marvel: self outside of self.As we have seen in Nancy’s ontology. 2014 . itself. thinks of the alterity and difference that are at play in the constitution of selfhood in order to illuminate the manner in which an image becomes meaningful: Man began with the strangeness of his own humanity. of his claim about meaning’s split origins. the self was.Yet. he thinks of the origins of painting in a manner that calls into question the cohesiveness of the self and. the image he creates is a ‘surprise’. can become manifest (as meaningful) only on the condition that it can never be possessed by that self. since meaning is made possible by who we are as humans. no unified. In this respect. in turn. in turn. the phenomenon of Being. in turn. Hagi Kenaan What Makes an Image Singular Plural? 69 with the possibility of selfhood. Such was his ﬁrst knowledge. ‘there is no meaning if there is no “self. ‘meaning begins where presence is not pure presence but where presence comes apart in order to be itself as such’ (p. and this is what it. Downloaded from vcu. the story of divine creation. 69) In the spirit of Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’. i. The painter’s act leads to the appearance of an image which is. and the being surprised in face of self. In other words.e. and division of presence’ (Nancy. The painter’s ‘hand advances onto a void’. yet.sagepub. 2. spacing. self-contained form that supports this unfolding.com at University of Sydney on February 19. Painting paints this surprise. its own circulation – and we are this circulation’ (p. no ‘pure unshared presence – presence to nothing’. by presenting and seeing itself through – what in Being Singular Plural is described as – a constant ‘distancing. meaning is not something that can ever be traced back to an ‘ultimate or first signification’. but also a drama of an act. if we reread Nancy’s description of the first imager in the light of our discussion of Being Singular Plural. becomes evident.
the mutual intrication and distancing. The ability to create and see images is. But. it is through the image that he can recognize himself as the ‘man of the hand’. Nancy’s reflections on the origin of the painted image are inseparable from his understanding of the origin of selfhood. alterity and difference. However. This very humble layer of our everyday experience contains another rudimentary attestation: what we receive (rather than what we perceive) with singularities is the discrete passage of other origins of the world. in the last resort. The relationship between the ontological and the phenomenological dimensions of the singular plural is not always made clear. denies – from the newborn to the corpse – is neither primarily ‘someone close’ nor an ‘other’ nor a ‘stranger’ nor ‘someone similar’. 2000: 204). it is an afﬁrmation of the world. ‘spacing and division of presence’ that are fundamental to the experience of our being-there as a being-with. at the same time. while focusing on the ‘differencing’ that is constantly at work in the structure of selfhood. twists. however. a people. It is through the image that the prehistoric painter can see his hand as the hand which is his. Nancy also discusses the singular plural in a manner that seems to be motivated by the ordinary experience of relating to the alterity of the other person whose singularity is. he only follows halfway the analogy to Heidegger’s Dasein and. Nancy’s treatment of the image seems to disregard what is. always already. and yet what he sees shows itself only from within a distance that has opened up. it is not difficult to see that Nancy’s ontological formulations are often grounded in – or at least intimately tied to – structures of ‘transindividuality’. 2014 . it is an origin.com at University of Sydney on February 19. what bends. Yet. a mark of ‘the constant crossing over. and we know that the world has no other origin than this singular multiplicity of origins (pp. 8–9). Nancy Downloaded from vcu. for him. Painting and Being-With: Questions to Jean-Luc Nancy In Being Singular Plural (2000). in the fundamental structure of the “self”’ (Nancy. part of a ‘we’. Nancy’s thinking develops on at least two separate levels of abstraction. never opens his account of the image’s singular plurality to the question of the image’s being-with. leans. an outside in relation to which the self can become meaningful as a self. the concrete presence of others seems to recede and disappear into the darkness of the cave in which Nancy locates the primordial appearance of the image. a crowd. What occurs there. a city. Nancy develops his understanding of the image’s being in analogy to the irresolvable tensions that are constitutive of the human being-there.sagepub. according to him. When it comes to the ‘singular multiplicity’ of painting’s origins. but only in the sense that it is the imprint or the negative of that hand. While elaborating his understanding of the singular plural as an abstract metaphysical concept or as an ontological principle.70 journal of visual culture 9(1) The hand-image is the creator’s hand. an essential dimension of the singular plural: our being-with-one-another. a fundamental sign of our strangeness as humans. addresses. thus.
often disturbing. 2000: 26). without grappling. as Nancy argues. in spite of his critique of Heidegger. albeit a closely connected. ‘to the fact that each singularity is another access to the world . In this respect. of the other? What exactly is the first painter facing and what does he see? Does he ‘see … the coming of the stranger’ that he himself is or is it the ‘you [who is] absolutely strange because the world begins its turn with you’? Is the first painting ‘the trace of the strangeness that comes like an open intimacy. The Singular-Plural Origins of Painting The call for an ‘endless exposition of co-originarity’ is primarily – that is. then. Nancy ultimately seems to reproduce the Heideggerian elision of the possibilities opened by the existentiale of being-with. the turn of the other access which conceals itself in the very gesture wherein it offers itself to us’ (Nancy 2000: 14)? These two options are.sagepub. in his work on the origin of painting – as well as in much of his work on the visual arts – Nancy seems indifferent to the relevance of the ‘you’. This is not to say that Nancy’s work on the origin of art overlooks the possible presence of others. the presence of the other person Downloaded from vcu.It reﬂects philosophy’s commitment to the ethical in the sense that ethics begins with an acknowledgement of the ‘unending’ enigma that the other person presents to us in his or her very being. of course. the other whose ‘alterity is its being-origin’. Nancy’s thinking of the image’s being seems to miss the potential of his ontological thinking. kind of ‘strangeness [that] refers’.3 Is the first painting born. prior to its ontological implications – an ethical imperative. not even alone in the cave itself. to use Nancy’s own words against Heidegger. emphases in original). not mutually exclusive. 1996: 70. he approaches the image’s being-there without allowing its being-with to open up as a genuine question.4 To be specific. This is one of the central themes in the writing of Emmanuel Lévinas for whom the fundamental form of our acknowledgement of the other’s alterity is that of responsibility. the hands used to create the hand-prints we see today in the caves are often understood as belonging to the painters’ fellow humans rather than to the painters themselves.. dreamlike space of appearance that he then illuminates with one spotlight so as to allow the presentation of a surprising event – a single gesture of a single human being. or is it a trace of a different. with the ‘possibility of an explicit and endless exposition of co-originarity and the possibility of taking account of what is at stake at the togetherness of the ontological enterprise’ (Nancy. the hand. imaginary. most likely. And yet. hand-prints are typically understood in the context of communal rituals in which the first image-creators presumably had a distinctive role. as in Being Singular Plural.com at University of Sydney on February 19. According to anthropological research on this early type of prehistoric images. 2014 . Reading Nancy’s description of the first painter. with the living. Hagi Kenaan What Makes an Image Singular Plural? 71 has created for the image a murky. deep-set like the grotto’ (Nancy. Thus. out of the complex encounter with one’s self(hood) or. more internal than any intimacy. we may easily forget that the animal–man in the cave is not alone in the world and that he is. but that the unique character of this presence and its relationship to the image is never taken up and addressed in its actuality. rather. As such. For Lévinas (1998).. [that] there is nothing but the manner. presence.
Before the exigency of the other. from Merleau-Ponty to Derrida. 2014 .72 journal of visual culture 9(1) signiﬁes an irrecusable order. a potter from Sycion. He did this owing to his daughter. It may be suitable to append to these remarks something about the plastic art. I think that the kind of Lévinasian sensitivity towards the irresolvable enigmatic presence of the other person is necessary if we wish to make the singular plural the fundamental ground of our understanding of the image. when this young man was going abroad. at Corinth. The I loses its sovereign self-coincidence. This more elaborate account is given by Pliny precisely at the moment he moves away from painting to a discussion of a different art form. (p. although he does not seem to be interested in its details. in 20th-century French philosophy. The I does not only become aware of this necessity to answer … it is in its very position a responsibility … To be an I then means not to be able to escape responsibility. Nancy is acquainted with this tale of origins and. he touches briefly on it in ‘Visitation: Of Christian Painting’ (2005). better. Morality is the enigma’s way’ (p. 72). Enough and more than enough has been said about painting. in which consciousness returns triumphantly to itself to rest on itself. Lévinas offers a vision of a philosophy whose task is an endless response to the unsettling presence of the other – endless in that it brings to the fore but never exhausts the enigma of a person’s alterity. I suggest we turn to a figure. Her father pressed clay on this and made a relief. who was in love with a young man. What I have in mind is a mythical. which he hardened by exposure to ﬁre with the rest of his pottery.6 However. 97) The questioning that concerns Lévinas is not one that can be solved conceptually or. the more detailed account locates the first painting in a story of love and abandonment. an image that would allow us to illuminate the origin of painting in a manner that embraces the condition of being-with as fundamental. and it is said that this likeness was preserved in the shrine of the nymphs (Pliny. and offers the following reading: Downloaded from vcu. the modelling of clay. for the purposes of this article. its identiﬁcation. drew in outline on the wall the shadow of his face thrown by the lamp. a command which puts a stop to the availability of consciousness … What is at stake here is the calling of a consciousness into question and not a consciousness of calling into question.5 Nancy has a complicated relationship with Levinas’s thinking which deserves a separate discussion.7 This image – tale or myth – of the origins of painting (or of drawing) is first found in Pliny’s Natural History which provides two versions of the myth. image that appears again and again in the history of reflection on painting. Consequently. To begin taking the first step towards such ‘an explicit and endless exposition of co-originarity’. age-old.com at University of Sydney on February 19. from Quintilian to Alberti to Leonardo and Vasari to Rousseau and Romanticism and. It was through the service of that same earth that modelling portraits from clay was ﬁrst invented by Butades.sagepub. It does not offer itself to a knowing or an understanding. While both versions describe the first act of painting as a tracing of a man’s shadow on a wall. the I is expelled from this rest …[the other’s] presence is a summons to answer. and she. 1952[77–9]: 43). but ‘summons to moral responsibility. it does not belong to the order of the conceptual.
Her love is real and she cannot sell it short. The painter responds. her act of painting is not a means for construing a stand-in for her lover. the double of the thing – of everything – and its invisible ground. This girl is not seeking to reproduce an image of the one who will no longer be there. Butades – who. just the same. the first painter ‘is not seeking to reproduce an image of the one who will no longer be there. 121). in the tradition takes on the name of her father – becomes the first painter through a gesture directed towards her lover’s imminent departure. we shall also see why the predominant way of speaking about the first painting as a form of ‘replacement’ or ‘substitution’ cannot suffice.sagepub. In other words. The painted image is not a form of representation. 121) For Nancy. the transcendental conditions of visibility. But does this really capture the drama of the first painting or the significance of the first gesture of drawing? Even if we agree with Nancy that what is at stake here is not at all a representation. on the contrary. to the invisible grounds. For Nancy. a surrogate or a substitution. It has nothing to do with a reproduction or a recollection of the world but. in painting. 125. originates at an intersection: it takes place at the crossroad of desire and the experience of loss. but she also knows she has been abandoned. To use the common rhetoric of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’. one that integrates the allegedly technical act of the tracing of a shadow into the particularity of a painful and dramatic moment. emphases in original). the gist of Pliny’s story is found in its afﬁrmation of one of Nancy’s key positions: the being of an image calls for a non-representational understanding that releases the image from its traditional servitude to the order of the actual. as such. inexhaustibly withdrawn into itself. an invisibility in which painting. her finitude – herself. She wants to love and she wants one specific love. 2014 . of wanting to hold on to what one loves in a familiar way and of letting go. she also faces. in order to recollect it later: rather. we Downloaded from vcu.com at University of Sydney on February 19. she ﬁxes the shadow. (p. Yet. This is because what she faces and responds to is ‘the there of a beyond’ (p. Painting. is grounded. can we begin to understand the ‘girl’s’ image without coming to terms with the fact that the inner form of her painting is a response to the complicated presence of another person? Pliny’s account provides a rich and concrete setting for the legendary birth of painting. relentlessly exposed before us … ourselves before being born. Butades is not creating a substitute because she has no need for a substitute. without replacing one for another. she faces the object of her love. The young woman is in love. itself. Butades faces her limits and limitations. with an opening towards what he terms ‘the immemorial’: painting ‘opens onto the immemorial: presence always-already there and always there again. Desiring. Hagi Kenaan What Makes an Image Singular Plural? 73 The legend of its own origin that painting made for itself – the Greek story of the girl who traces the outline of her ﬁancé’s shadow on the wall as he leaves for war – should not be understood as a parable of representation. the obscure presence that is there whenever light is there. Once we recognize desire and loss as the twofold root of the act of painting. the first painter is a woman who experiences the world without collapsing the experience of desire and loss into one another. in order to recollect it’. after dying … the immemory of a dawn or a twilight of the world’ (p. the impossibility of fulfilling that love. In this sense.
9 Butades traces the shadow of another person who. ‘a trace [that] obliges with regard to the infinite. it reflects an attempt to create a new place for herself in between the opposite poles of absence and presence. as marking a world that remains forever elusive. Her act is not an attempt to replace absence with a new form of presence but. 2000: 14). The field of options is there for her. we shall be taking the first step towards a thinking of the ethical dimension of the image. 1998: 105).Yet. unexpected and impenetrable: a world whose ‘strangeness refers to the fact that each singularity is another access to the world’ (Nancy. This is a tension between the other’s existence as opening for us a meaningful world of things that affect us – that we want and love and care about – and. She opts for an option that has no significant objective consequence. The act of the Corinthian maid is neither a something nor a nothing.sagepub. at the same time. In responding to this invitation. What can this teach us about the origin and the essence of painting? Should we understand Butades’ gesture in Lévinasian eyes as a tracing of the trace of the other. and that ‘establishes a relationship with illeity. we need to notice that. we may understand the making of the first image as an expression of an unresolved tension which is characteristic of our relationship with others. She neither holds on to her object of love nor does she renounce or turn her back on it. Butades’ act of tracing should also call for our attention. Furthermore. to the absolutely other’. but she clearly does not retreat into the privacy of the purely subjective. taking a new stance in relation to the person she loves. now loses its grounding in the common domain of the familiar and the known. It is precisely a domain of ‘in between-ness’ that the act of the Corinthian maid opens up. a presque And it is in this location of infinitesimality that painting originates. she resists the appeal of the ‘either-or’. Butades could have responded in a variety of ways. goaloriented – nor passive. Downloaded from vcu. what we are already in a position to see is that his image of the first image is. but she is. This is rien. But. In this context. in her response.com at University of Sydney on February 19. Butades no longer relates to the ordinary figure of the person she loves.8 The primordial act of drawing is thus inseparable from her response to the other person whose presence has become elusive and which can no longer be taken for granted. It is. She neither tries to prevent her lover from leaving nor does she insist on joining him. a relationship which is personal and ethical’? (Lévinas. characteristically arranged in pairs of oppositions. Butades is not concerned with filling up and eliminating the absence which has pervaded her life. in the act of painting. Indeed. To put this more generally. no real effect in the world. more specifically. 2014 . having being close and intimate.74 journal of visual culture 9(1) should notice that the issue here is not the alternation between these two poles. Pliny’s tale of origins deserves a more comprehensive reading than the one I can offer here. to use Vladimir Jankelvitch’s expression. the notion of the ‘in between’ is helpful. As she faces her situation. Butades not only reorients herself in the world. an invitation: the tale of Butades and the origin of painting invites us to come to terms with the senses in which the singularity of the image is always already pluralized by the human condition of being-with. on the contrary. but only to a trace found at the limits of his shadow. She is neither active – practical. in fact. where the image opens up.
7. 3. Rosenblum (1957) is primarily concerned with the manner in which Pliny’s tale is turned into a prevalent pictorial theme by romantic classicism. Plato’s allegory of the cave is a recurring. 6. For Nancy. In Being Singular Plural (2000). Nancy explains that ‘something “unrepresentable” or “unﬁgurable” runs the risk of revealing itself as completely oppressive and terrifying. In contrast. beyond and under. see Kenaan (2006b). He is interested in explaining the surprising abundance of pictorial images of the Corinthian maid – the Downloaded from vcu. 2.This is. (p.com at University of Sydney on February 19. for example. In Being Singular Plural (2000). locates the roots of the meaningful in the depth of the dark cave. the work of Robert Rosenblum has a unique status in the way it sets the ﬁeld for an investigation of the origin of painting as an iconographical problem. See. see Kenaan (2005). in and by the image–symbol with … the opened interval that articulates it as sym-bol. In ‘Painting in the Grotto’ (Nancy. the term symbol (with its preﬁx sun = with) already suggests that ‘the dimension. In this context. Hagi Kenaan What Makes an Image Singular Plural? 75 Notes 1. but he explicitly criticizes positions that ‘assume surreptitiously that “Man” is entirely a question of the Other’. but instead the capacity of allowing a certain play. albeit a criticized. whose grip on the child’s arm can be seen: it was not the child who was blowing the paint. refusing to privilege the transcendent realm of bright daylight. when touched upon. David Lewis-Williams (2002) on the hand print in the cave of Gargas: This co-operative mode of making at least some of the prints seems to be conﬁrmed in the case of Gargas where the hand and the forearm of a child were held against the rock by an adult. if not terrorists. open and enclosed – is an image of that Platonic space of thinking which he attempts to subvert. 2014 . the Platonic cave – with its topography of high and low. his mentioning of Lévinas is almost always critical. Is Nancy criticizing Lévinas or Lacan or perhaps both? In any case. Nancy inverts the platonic order of meaning and. 48–9). the “ﬁgure” proves itself to be capable of opening onto the “with” as its border. we should ask further: is there a connection between Heidegger’s elision of the singularity of Van Gogh’s shoes and the neglect of the concrete presence of the other’s alterity in Nancy’s ontology of the image? 5. Nancy’s turn to the ‘ﬁgure’ as that which ties the ‘with’ to the question of an outline will be particularly relevant to our discussion of the origins of painting. the question of the image is not central. Nancy argues that ‘the sole criterion of symbolization is not the exclusion or debasement of the image. 48). the image–symbol appears to be a clear case in point: objecting to ‘the critique of the image … which has become a sort of ideological trope in theories of the ‘spectacle’ and in theories of communication’. point of reference. On the relationship between the enigma of the other person and the grounds of the meaningful. It can be shown that Nancy is not only well acquainted with Lévinas’ central positions but that he is also very inﬂuenced by Lévinasian formulations. according to him ‘what is most often at work in the call to “ethics”: a transcendental unrepresentability of the most concrete presence’ (pp. the very limit of its outline’ (p. 58). space and nature of the “with” are in play here … the symbolic is not simply an aspect of being-social … it is this Being itself’ (p.sagepub. between his blindness towards the experience of alterity which is always part of Dasein’s world and his blindness towards the personal dimension of Van Gogh’s famous painting of shoes? On Heidegger’s failure to respond to Van Gogh’s painting of shoes. At the same time.’ For Nancy. In this context. Nancy hardly mentions Lévinas. for example. An interesting question in this context has to do with how Heidegger’s avoidance of the ‘being-with’ bears on his understanding of the visual? Is there a signiﬁcant connection. and yet. open to anguish of an originary Lack. 220) 4. 1996).
(2002) The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. E. For a more comprehensive discussion of the phenomenological implications of Pliny’s tale and. The Art Bulletin 39(4): 279–90. see Kenaan (2006a). A more recent interpretation and analysis of Pliny’s tale. R. Richardson and A. Stanford. (2005) The Present Personal: Philosophy and the Hidden Face of Language. the line and the shadow. R. References Heidegger. Lévinas. Faculty of the Arts. PA: Dusquesne: Duquesne University Press. D. Lévinas. trans. trans. trans. Hagi Kenaan is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy.76 journal of visual culture 9(1) ﬁrst painter – in the last third of the 18th century. 8. Stambaugh. J-L. 43. New York: Columbia University Press. CA: Stanford University Press. Fort. V. particularly. CA: Stanford University Press.ac. Nancy. London: Reaktion Books. of the signiﬁcance of the act of tracing. H. Rackman. J-L. Pittsburgh.com at University of Sydney on February 19. Pittsburgh. Pliny.Yet. Stanford. Kamuff. Nancy. New York: SUNY Press. Cohen. Rosenblum also provides a condensed history of Pliny’s tale – from late antiquity to the 18th century – that enables us to appreciate the complex matrix of versions and interpretations which presented itself to the imagination of romantic classicism. Address:Tel Aviv University [email: kenaan@post. trans. which underscores the signiﬁcance and role of the shadow in this tale of origins. aesthetics and the philosophy of art. Merleau-Ponty. PA: Dusquesne: Duquesne University Press. 2005) and of Otherwise than Seeing: The Ethical Optics of Emmanuel Lévinas (forthcoming). Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University. Kenaan. Versar and G. M. (1996) The Muses. XXXV. Stoichita. Heidegger. H. positions the ﬁrst painter in relation to two male ﬁgures: her lover and her father. trans. Rosenblum. (2006b) ‘The Plot of the Saying’. H. O’Byrne. Stanford. Kenaan. CA: Stanford University Press. J-L. (1952[77–9]) Natural History. London:Thames & Hudson. (1985) Ethics and Inﬁnity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Cohen. CA: Stanford University Press. Sparks. J-L. (1997) A Short History of the Shadow. Derrida and Lévinas. H. Stanford. to which I am indebted. J. Nancy. I notice that Pliny’s story of the Corinthian maid. is Stoichita (1997). E. 9. P.sagepub. trans. Etudes Phenomenologiques: Lévinas et la phénoménologie XXII(43–4). trans. 2014 . (2006) Multiple Arts: The Muses II. on Husserl.il] Downloaded from vcu. (2005) The Ground of the Image. in C. (2000) Being Singular Plural. as he proceeds with an anatomy of this image of origin and of the signiﬁcance it carries for late 18th-century painting. Lewis-Williams. trans. (2006a) ‘Tracing Shadows: Reﬂections on the Origins of Painting’. R. He has published essays on phenomenology. (1998) Collected Philosophical Papers. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library. (1996) Being and Time. T el-Aviv University. Louvain: Ousia.tau. Kenaan. He is the author of The Present Personal: Philosophy and the Hidden Face of Language (Columbia University Press. S. (1957) ‘The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism’. Fishof (eds) Pictorial Languages and Their Meanings. J. Nancy. R.
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