Journal of Visual Culture
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DOI: 10.1177/1470412907075065
2007 6: 13 Journal of Visual Culture
Gary Shapiro
The Absent Image: Ekphrasis and the `Infinite Relation' of Translation
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journal of visual culture
The Absent Image: Ekphrasis and the ‘Infinite Relation’
of Translation
Gary Shapiro
journal of visual culture []
Copyright © 2007 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore)
Vol 6(1): 13–24 [1470-4129(200704)6:1]10.1177/1470412907075065
Ekphrasis, the verbal description of a visual work, is a crucial site for
understanding what Foucault calls the ‘infinite relation’ between
seeing and saying. This article sketches a selective history of the genre,
from Homer through Derrida and Lyotard, oriented to the question of
this gap, and focused on the structural necessity of the absence of the
image. This reading shows that Derrida and some other recent French
thinkers have been mischaracterized as linguistic reductionists.






Words will never be the equivalent of visual images, and images will never
speak (unless they incorporate words or codes). Yet in our increasingly
image-driven time we continue to speak and write about the visual at the
same time that we acknowledge, lament, celebrate or exploit the gap
between what is seen and what can be said. In the course of his controversial
ekphrasis of Las Meninas, Foucault (1970[1966]) interrupts himself to
comment on his own procedure, saying that ‘the relation of language to
painting is an infinite relationship . . . it is in vain that we say what we
see; what we see never resides in what we say’ (p. 9). Foucault’s critics
might have paused over this sentence and others, which make it clear that
he is offering much more than a description of a painting; he proposes an
analysis of the relationship between words and images, and so of the
genre of ekphrasis itself. What is seeing? What is saying? What is the infinite
Foucault asks questions here, rather than claiming or presupposing, as
recent critics such as Martin Jay (1993) suppose, that the visual is reducible
to the linguistic or textual (pp. 383–4). Jay takes Foucault’s account of Jeremy
Bentham’s Panopticon to be a sign of his condemnation of vision as such, not
seeing its place within a complex body of thought that is structured (as Gilles
Deleuze, 1988[1986], perspicuously points out) by the parallel realms of
visibility and discursivity; these are both understood as historically (or
archaeologically) variable and capable of a variety of chiasmatic crossings
(pp. 49–69). Jay (1993) proceeds to argue that not only Foucault but almost
all major French thinkers of the 20th century are deeply suspicious of the
visual, that they have an ‘evil eye’ with regard to vision, which they
supposedly see as always and necessarily suspect: suspect politically for its
panopticism, epistemologically for its supposing a detached, disembodied,
imperial eye and, with respect to sexual difference, as hopelessly implicated
with the gendered, desiring subject of the male gaze.
It is true that Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon is certainly informed by a
knowledge of the ‘evil eye’ tradition (addressed by 20th-century anthropol-
ogy but previously by Nietzsche, who was surely one of Foucault’s major
sources here). But it is not the case that Foucault has an evil eye for vision.
Quite the contrary, as is demonstrated by his writings on painters and
photographers including Velazquez, Manet, Klee, Magritte, Warhol and
contemporary French painters like Fromanger and Rebeyrolle (Shapiro,
2003). And he was exuberant about the jouissance of participating in the
waves of energy that go through a group in a gallery even when viewing the
work of such a kitsch painter as Clovis Trouille (Foucault, 1994[1954–88]:
2.704–7). This evidence does not, by itself, speak directly to the point of
whether Foucault was a linguistic reductionist; someone might say that these
artists were simply grist for the reductive mill. However, he did consistently
attempt to think the difference and the possible crossings or chiasms of the
visual and verbal, as his important line about the ‘infinite relation’ indicates.
I am going to try to show that some of the leading French philosophers who
have written about the visual in the last 30 years or so, Foucault, Derrida and
Lyotard, are best understood not as enemies of the visual but as thinkers of
the ‘infinite relation’ that both imposes the necessity of translation and
renders it impossible. To think this relation is to say not only that every
translation of the visual is unfaithful to the original, but with Borges
(1999[1922–36]) that the original is unfaithful to the translation (p. 239).
I want to make my point by way of a narrative of the ekphrasis tradition that
focuses on that ‘infinite relation’, gap, scission, or point of difference, what
Foucault (1967[1966]) calls an écart, between seeing and saying (p. 26). My
narrative will by necessity be highly selective and may appear idiosyncratic. I
will focus on writers and texts that revolve around the very split between
image and text, the visual and the verbal. The écart is most obvious when a
text dwells on the very absence of or the dimension of absence in the work
that it addresses. For the texts that I am cataloguing here (concluding with
the French thinkers) this absence is not an obstacle but that which enables
ekphrasis. More specifically, there is an argument, sometimes implicit to be
sure, that the situation of the absent image is not simply a peculiarity, a
14 journal of visual culture 6(1)
marginal or eccentric case, with respect to normal descriptive practice. All
ekphrasis must share this structure, a point developed most explicitly,
perhaps, in Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind (1993[1990]), about which more
Consider the oldest and most canonical description of a visual work of art in
the Western tradition, Homer’s account of the shield of Achilles in Book 18
of the Iliad. This passage was famously explicated by Lessing (1962[1766])
in his attempted demonstration of the distinct spheres of painting and
poetry, became the subject of a complex and extended commentary by the
great translator Alexander Pope, and is more recently the subject of a series
of paintings by Cy Twombly, which can be considered as new visual ‘trans-
lations’ (not devoid of language). Pope (1967[1709–35]) felt the need to
amplify his translation of Homer’s ‘translation’ (ekphrasis) of the shield by
commenting on Flaxman’s reconstruction. He struggled with the notorious
question of how to represent figures in motion and changing scenes in a
motionless image (pp. 358–70). Twombly exploits his own dyslexia, trans-
lating the text of Homer’s ekphrasis into a chiasmatic encounter of scrawls,
isolated Greek names and graffitiesque hints of figuration. The ultimate
theme of his ‘Shield’ is the absence of Homer’s world, of the necessity and
impossibility of making sense of Greece (and so of tradition).
Translation across the gap is always a scrawl. One striking anomaly stems
from the legend that the poet of this ekphrasis was blind. So our oldest and
most venerated verbal account of a visual work is that of an impossible object
by a man who could not see (the shield is impossible because the description
requires that it be animated and moving). Rather than dismissing this as an
incongruity, we ought to take the fact of absence as something to be explored
and its meaning articulated.
The practice of verbal description of the visual came into being because the
objects were not visible to the reader or listener. Even now it is not possible
to write and to look at the same time, another form of Foucault’s ‘infinite
relation’. It is this blindness that Robert Morris (1994) explores from another
perspective (a non-seeing perspective, if I may verge on catachresis) in his
series of blind drawings to accompany short philosophical texts by Donald
Davidson on language and knowledge (pp. 444–9, 296–301). In Memoirs of
the Blind, Derrida (1993[1990]) argues that this blindness insinuates itself
into every act of drawing, which necessarily proceeds in the absence of
looking, as an interruption of sight.
Foucault explored the divergence in another context with his explication of
Magritte in This Is Not a Pipe (1983[1968]). He suggested that this image
(whose actual title is Les deux mystères) is an unraveled calligram, a
translation of language exhibiting itself in its capacity of constituting an
image while yet exhibiting its very difference from that image. His ekphrasis
raises the question of how the infinite relation obtains in a work that begins
to write its own commentary. This explication of the floating pipe whose
identity is denied by the inscription below was perhaps inspired by
Nietzsche’s transfiguration of Raphael’s Transfiguration in The Birth of
Shapiro The Absent Image 15
Tragedy. There Nietzsche describes this last work of Raphael, with its
doubled action, based on the amalgamation of two distinct scenes from
Gospel narrative, by obliterating the name of Jesus from the textual source,
speaking of the luminous floating figure as the radiant Apollo, bringer of
beautiful dreams, a translation to which the original is not adequate.
Nietzsche (1999[1871]) effectively adapts and rewrites the description in
Burckhardt’s Cicerone, which he used faithfully according to its title. He
effectively retitles the painting This Is Not a Christ, and provides
Foucault with a model for his analysis of another anomalous floating
object (p. 26).
From the beginning then, so far as there is a beginning of that which is
necessarily doubled and has no simple origin, the tradition of ekphrasis has
shared in this structural duality. It is recounted, for example, that when
Apelles journeyed to Rhodes to pay his respects to Protogenes and found him
away from his studio, he left as his calling card a very fine line on a panel
prepared for painting. Protogenes, recognizing this as the hand of Apelles,
responded by inscribing a still finer line over that one; but Apelles, returning
to find his colleague and rival absent once more, replied with a yet more
delicate line that drew an admission of defeat from his rival (Pliny, 1968[c. 50
CE]: Book XXXV, 81–3). Pliny notes that the painting was destroyed by fire
before his own time, after being much admired for its play of barely visible
lines. From his account, it is impossible to tell whether these lines were
straight, curved or wavy (could the final work have been a layered scrawl?).
Altogether this is a story of absences: the empty studio, lines diminishing
toward and almost past the threshold of visibility, and a work that
disappeared before the historian could see it. From our perspective, Pliny
might be seen as adding a new wrinkle to the agon, substituting a work of
conceptual art for the vanished original, or replacing the latter with a text.
The Imagines of Philostratus the Elder (1931[c. 200 CE]) constitute the
richest collection of rhetorical descriptions of ancient painting, although
debate continues as to whether the objects of these ekphrases were actual or
fictive. A deeper perspective on this discussion will proceed by asking how
Philostratus’ writing attempts to mimic features of painting such as the
layering of paint, or highlighting and shadow, and how it sometimes plays
with reducing painting to text, as when the commentary on a painted scene
from Homer reads the image as something like a performance of or a critical
gloss on a piece of writing. Philostratus was working with a subtle and
complex rhetorical tradition; in deploying that tradition, he raises questions
about the presumed absolute immediacy and evidence of the visual. The
writer’s contest with painting is carried out not only in his attempt to evoke
images as vivid as the artist’s, but at the level of questioning the priority of
the original. In one ekphrasis (‘Hunters’, number 28) he goes far beyond the
elements in the putative painting, describing a raging boar that could not
appear yet in the work, whether imagined or actual; he cries out to the young
men in the scene to warn them of the danger (p. 109). At this point, he
apologizes for being carried away by his own rhetoric, for having forgotten
that the scene was only a picture. Yet for readers of this text there is a second,
16 journal of visual culture 6(1)
framing effect; for if readers have been enthralled by Philostratus’
interpellation of the youths, they have forgotten that for them there is not
even a painting present.
The hypertrophy and summa of the ancient tradition is found in Franciscus
Junius’ The Painting of the Ancients (1991[1638]). This text, enormously
influential in its time (serious readers included Rubens, Van Dyck, and
possibly Rembrandt) aims at a totalistic presentation of the ancient tradition.
It supposes that a comprehensive theory of painting, with implications for
current practice, can be offered on the basis of almost exclusively literary
evidence. With the works either destroyed, unavailable, or possibly imaginary
to begin with, Junius exhibits the apparent paradox (like Homer with the
shield) of using the very absence of the original as a spur to artistic
production. Junius in effect argued for a reversal of ut picture poesis; in his
philologically oriented metatheory poetic and painterly phantasy are two
varieties of the same thing, so that painters can learn pictorial invention from
Ovid, one of Junius’ prime examples (Dundas, 1996). This position enables
his own program of providing inspiration to painters because the text can
function in the absence of the image (and such views, not limited to Junius,
played into the great 17th-century proliferation of paintings of scenes from
Ovid, like those dim pictures on the back wall in Las Meninas.)
None of these tangential and questionable relations to the visible interfered
with the remarkable resurgence of interest in these ancient texts from the
15th century on. The rediscovery of learning was accompanied by some
architectural discoveries, like that of the Laocoon, but the quest for origins
flourished independently of any requirement to ground the account of
painting in actual visual experience; it is a wonderful example of that ‘return
and retreat of the origin’ of which Foucault wrote. The project of finding an
absolute origin founders; each candidate for this status is eventually revealed
to be unsatisfactory and so the quest increasingly appears as impossible of
completion (Foucault, 1970[1966]: 328–35). The confluence of sovereign
political power with the abilities of the artistic genius (a notion found in the
ancient treatises, especially those like Pliny’s which dwell on the relation
between Alexander and Apelles, but exaggerated in the age of absolute
monarchy) was clearly an appealing theme for 17th-century painters (who
could use Junius’ encyclopedic work as a handy reference). Think of
Velazquez, the court painter, whose Las Meninas is typically discussed in
terms of the artist’s struggle to be recognized as the practitioner of a fine art;
the mark of his recognition, the cross of Saint James was supposedly added
to his image by Philip IV. The desire operative in a program like that of Junius
could easily override the absence of supporting documentation, and indeed
the inflation of artistic sovereignty was doubtless easier in such a context
where reputation could not be checked by extant works in their particularity
and imperfection.
In the late 18th century, the project of ekphrasis takes a further step when
certain writers incorporate a more explicit reflection on the fact that their
descriptions must function in the absence of the image. Rather than
Shapiro The Absent Image 17
overestimate the power of their words and the ability of language to simulate
or substitute for the visual, these texts at least implicitly admit their own
incapacity. The inflation of the older texts is replaced by irony and indi-
rection. Ekphrasis becomes radically perspectival, ironically acknowledging
that there can be no masterful voice to lead us through the virtual gallery
with true authority.
Diderot’s Salons constitute the best known and most influential writing of
this sort. Prepared for the very limited and closed circulation of Grimm’s
Correspondance littéraire, these reports were distributed to those who
would probably not see the originals. The rhetoric attempts to incorporate
and comment on the inevitable distance between writer and artwork. Rather
than adopting Philostratus’ model of master and pupil, Diderot’s style tends
toward the conversational and dialogical, experimenting with a variety of
genres and tropes. The result, as Thomas Crow says, is ‘an extraordinary
model of non-hierarchical thinking’ (Diderot, 1995[1751]: 1. xix). If the
fiction of a single voice speaking from the position of an ideal visual
immersion, a total knowledge of the works, and an unshaken confidence in
the power of language to convey what is seen cannot be maintained, then a
plurality of voices and a continuous variation of dramatic and narrative
situations in the discourse will alert the reader to the aporias of the relation
between speech and image. Despite these differences, one way that Diderot
continues the form set by Philostratus is in his frequent construction of an
imaginary speech or dialogue; what we have are not simply reports by a
detached observer, but interchanges with interlocutors.
In his celebrated essay on Greuze’s Young Girl Crying Over Her Dead Bird
(Salon of 1765), Diderot (1995[1751]) creates a conversation between
himself and the girl, but also, intersecting with it, between himself and
another more detached viewer who he says is ‘laughing at [him], making fun
of a serious person who amuses himself by consoling a painted child for
having lost her bird, for having lost what you will’ (p. 1.99). The possibility
of an indefinite expansion of conversational partners does not intensify the
illusion that we are in the presence of the painting, but does make us reflect
on the difficulties of representation. The Salons constitute not only a
philosophical dialogue on painting, but a dialogue with philosophy.
The essay on Fragonard’s The High Priest Corésus Sacrificing Himself to Save
Callirhoé begins with the confession ‘it’s impossible for me to talk to you
about this painting’, but then proceeds to do just that indirectly, as Diderot
relates a very strange vision modeled on Plato’s myth of the cave, in which a
variety of scenes appear to him, some resembling the painting. The vision
itself is interrupted and commented on in a dialogue with Grimm, who must
remind Diderot that he has seen only apparitions, not the painting itself (p.
1.147). In this complex revision of Plato’s hierarchy of form, physical object
and visual imitation (Republic X), the painting will occasionally slip into the
place of the ordinary object which is known in fragmentary or distorted form
through phantasms or imitations. For Plato, the form was invisible to the eye;
in Diderot’s text, even the painting becomes a vanishing object.
18 journal of visual culture 6(1)
August Schlegel’s dialogue Die Gemälde (1996[1799]) bears a relationship to
the art world of Dresden, analogous to that which links Diderot’s writing to
the Paris Salons. Apparently following an inspiration from the French writer,
Schlegel composes a dialogue, one in which the standpoints of critic, artist
and cultivated amateur, as well as the gendered differences of male and
female all come into play, in order to suggest that a multiplicity of voices and
perspectives is a more authentic way of dealing with the distance between
original and verbal description than is the fiction of a unique authoritative
master. The dialogue is not enacted in the gallery, where we might at least
imagine the speakers in the presence of the paintings, but outdoors, while
the view of the paintings is replaced by the famous view of Dresden across
the Elbe, from the ‘terrace of Europe’; the fiction of being in the presence of
the art work is replaced by an explicit reliance on memories and judgments
formed by past viewing. Absence is structurally marked by the very terms of
the dialogue.
The implicit epistemology of the Salons constitutes an alternative to the
empiricism and realism of the time (Locke, Hume, Reid) and can now be
read in the light of Nietzsche’s perspectivism and Richard Rorty’s conception
of philosophy as conversation. In the wake of Kant’s critique of rationalism
and empiricism (and of their aesthetic analogues in his Critique of
Judgment), Schlegel enacts a conversation about matters of taste that
implicitly engages with Kant’s attempt to resolve what he calls the antinomy
of taste. While the dialogue holds open the possibility of the conversation
continuing (as in Kant’s idea that taste is a subject amenable to infinite
discussion), it also raises questions about whether such differences as those
between sculptor and critic, or man and woman within the dominant
European classes, can yield to the universalizing tendencies of the Kantian
judgement of taste. The conversation, and so the impossible project of
translation, is intrinsically open-ended. The Dresden Gallery, provocation
for so many literary and philosophical meditations on painting, is one pole
of Foucault’s ‘infinite relation’. At the crest of the 18th-century’s invention of
aesthetics and its discovery of the romantic religion of art, Die Gemälde is a
subtle proleptic and apotropaic attempt to ward off a monological discourse
of art, either in the manner of Hegel’s idealism or in the form of a reductive
Some allege that writers like Derrida, Foucault and other French post-
structuralists (for want of a better term) reduce all experience to that of the
linguistic text, in a narrow sense of text. I propose that their exemplary
writings on the visual should be read as further explorations of the necessary
distance in the translation (in one direction or the other) of word and image.
In Derrida’s long ‘polylogue for n+1 female voices’ entitled ‘Restitutions of
the Truth in Painting (Pointure)’ (1987[1978]) he orchestrates an exploration
of the analyses of Van Gogh’s painting of two shoes by the philosopher
Martin Heidegger and the art historian Meyer Schapiro. As if responding to
the claim that Derrida’s work involves a form of linguistic reductionism,
these voices charge that the two thinkers are attempting to return the work
to an extra-painterly subject (the one who walks in those shoes), ignoring the
Shapiro The Absent Image 19
pictural restance or remainder that evades the work of attribution. The
ekphrastic strategies of the historian and the thinker naively presuppose a
mastery of the image, even more naively than Philostratus’ gallery guide, who
acknowledges a conversational context and steps back from some of his own
excesses. Several interventions from the unnamed voices periodically point
out that the philosopher and the art historian have not noticed that the shoes
do not even appear to be a pair (they look like two left shoes), and so cannot
be returned to a single subject. Derrida demonstrates the tendency of
ekphrastic speakers to engulf the painting with their own projected
meanings. The polylogue forestalls any assumption of language’s priority
over painting; it questions the viability of any monological exposition of a
painting’s meaning (and so also interrogates the singular intensity of the
‘male gaze’). The lapidary definition of deconstruction, ‘always more than
one language’, suggests that ekphrasis is most true to its vocation when
renouncing the illusion of a single, authoritative voice.
In The Truth in Painting, Derrida is repeatedly, pointedly, and specifically
suspicious of what he sees as the tendency of traditional philosophical
aesthetics to subordinate the visual or spatial arts to language, a tendency
that he sees magnified in hierarchical classifications of the arts, like those of
Hegel and Heidegger, which make poetry the premier form of art. He
suspects that there is a ‘collusion’ between traditional questions like ‘what is
the meaning of art?’ and such hierarchical classifications. So he suggests that
when a philosopher repeats this question without transforming it,
without destroying it in its form, its question-form, its onto-
interrogative structure, he has already subjected the whole of space to
the discursive arts, to voice and the logos . . . (p. 22)
So Derrida questions and explores what he sees as the linguistic imperialism
of two representative thinkers, Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro, as they speak
about an apparently simple painting of two shoes by Van Gogh. Heidegger
seems to fall into the naiveté of conventional ekphrasis when he says ‘this
painting spoke’, in revealing the world and the earth of a peasant woman
who wears this pair of shoes, and Meyer Schapiro responded in kind by
arguing that the shoes were those of the urban artist, Van Gogh. The point of
Derrida’s polylogue, then, is not to argue for yet a third interpretation of the
painting, or to say that its meaning is radically indeterminate, but to ask what
we are doing when we think we are verbalizing a visual work. The dialogue
or polylogue form contributes to this inquiry by avoiding the institution of a
master voice or discourse.
The themes of plurivocity and absence are articulated further in Derrida’s
Memoirs of the Blind (1993[1990]). In dialogue form it is argued that the
artist is necessarily blind in a certain sense, insofar as he cannot simul-
taneously see the model and draw or paint. The Memoirs highlights the
persona of the writer, an inescapable but typically sublimated aspect of
traditional ekphrasis. Here there is a primary speaker who corresponds to
20 journal of visual culture 6(1)
the author and personality, Jacques Derrida, the one who confesses his own
optical disorders and partial blindness (a facial paralysis disabling normal eye
functions, and tears that overwhelm sight). Nietzsche’s question ‘now that
God is dead, who is speaking?’ which might always have been asked of the
ekphrastic genre acquires a new force, as in Right of Inspection
(1998[1989]), where Derrida orchestrates a polylogue around a photo-
graphic series that raises questions of sexual difference.
Finally, I want to consider the case of Jean-François Lyotard by focusing on
the series of dialogues titled Que peindre? (1987), which develops this
question in relation to Adami Arakawa Buren (whose work Lyotard names
in his subtitle). For some time, as in Discours, figure (1985[1971]), he had
argued that the figural and linguistic dimensions are mutually irreducible to
one another and must be understood in terms of their chiasmatic inter-
changes. In a reading of Freud, Lyotard maintains (contrary to Lacan) that the
dream is much more than a verbal artifact; he stresses the ways in which the
figural interrupts the dream’s discursive element (pp. 239–70). As he
suggests in The Differend (1988[1983]) it is phrasing itself which is the issue
of philosophy: how does one speak or respond to a discourse or signification
that is radically different from one’s own, one that may contest the claims and
orientation of one’s own form of utterance? More specifically, ek-phrasis
confronts the question: how can we phrase or respond to that which is mute
and apparently beyond language? The dialogues of Que peindre? concern the
possibility of speaking in the presence of the visual.
‘Presence’ has itself been a suspect notion in much post-structuralist
thought, and the way in which I initially posed the question of presence and
absence is indebted to that theorizing. Lyotard’s dialogues take cognizance of
this issue by exploring the work of three artists who seem to abandon the
pursuit of traditional painterly presence, yet whose work can be understood
(through dialogue) to reinstate some of its values. Adami appears to reduce
the image to a minimal, cartoon-like shorthand; the works of Arakawa that
enter into the discussion generally contain stenciled lettering, geometric
figures, and faint lines or tracings; Buren’s ‘painting’ consists of regular
stripes of two alternating colors that frame, mark, ornament, or (some might
say) disfigure a variety of public spaces. All three projects might appear to be
well on the way to translating painting into a code of standardized image
(Adami), or pedagogic puzzles and riddles (Arakawa), or decorative border
(Buren). Space does not allow the close reading of the series of dialogues
devoted to these painters that they richly deserve. But something can be said
about the initial framing dialogue that indicates their strategy.
In the opening dialogue readers are seduced into an initial identification
with the philosophically sophisticated critic of presence, known as ‘You’,
who find themselves in conversation with someone identified only as Him,
who seems committed to a nostalgic defense of presence. ‘You’, reader, are
tempted to adopt this concise compendium of reasons for rejecting that
longing for presence:
Shapiro The Absent Image 21
I maintain that presence escapes, whichever bit you think you’ve caught
it by. That it can only be apprehended as deferred . . . On reflection the
least glance (coup d’oeil) appears laden with presuppositions, with
those undertones that should be called ‘underseens’, leaving out of
account the physical, physiological, socio-cultural traditions which
make the glance possible. How can painting offer an object to the
glance without taking into consideration all the things the gaze (regard)
is expecting? Immediate presence in one brushstroke of color hides
whole worlds of mediations, which the painter who makes it cannot
ignore, unless he’s a dauber. (Lyotard, 1991[1887]: 11)
‘You’ has begun to describe the works of Adami, Arakawa and Buren. Does
the fact that the questions that arise here must be approached only through
talk, through dialogue and phrasing, already settle the issue on the side of
language? That’s what You think. You cite Hegel’s view that ‘today
commentary on a work is a part of that work’ and argue from the way in
which the painters use, write, or refer to supplementary material that ‘the
commentary spreads into the work from everywhere and supports it when it
doesn’t replace it’ (pp. 17–18). But Him doesn’t agree that this settles the
question of presence. So far as the Hegelian or quasi-Hegelian narrative that
sees art as relentlessly turning into nothing but a commentary on itself goes,
Him challenges the view that anything has changed, fundamentally since the
days of Altamira and Lascaux: ‘Painting has always been enveloped in
thousands of phrases, which were always reflexive, even if they weren’t
always critical’ (p. 18). All that has changed is that now the artist produces
these phrases, along with the critic and the philosopher. This is only a
difference in the distribution of social roles, not a sign that presence has
disappeared from art. If artists perform their own translations this does not
say anything about the success or completeness of those translations; the
‘infinite relation’ between language and painting can obtain within any
single person’s perspective. The alternation of voices that constitutes
Lyotard’s dialogues marks the interruption of thought and language. The
form reminds us that there is no unique perspective on the work of art. The
questions that each of the speakers has for the other(s) – some dialogues
have more than two participants – prevent the construction of any mono-
logical illusion. The opposition between You’s suspicion of presence, based
on a notion of the inescapability of language, and Him’s attempt to defend,
evoke and describe that presence is not really settled. They might go on
forever. Their interchange exemplifies the interweaving and occasional
conflict of the linguistic and the visible, and this tips the balance in favor of
Him, who defines presence in terms of its power of interruption. Translation
is an infinite relation.
I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Clark Art Institute which enabled me to
work on this study.
22 journal of visual culture 6(1)
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Shapiro The Absent Image 23
Gary Shapiro is Tucker-Boatwright Professor in the Humanities–Philosophy
at the University of Richmond. He is the author of Archaeologies of Vision:
Foucault and Nietzsche on Seeing and Saying (Chicago University Press,
2003), Earthwards: Robert Smithson and Art After Babel (California
University Press, 1995), Alcyone: Nietzsche on Gifts, Noise, and Women
(State University of New York Press, 1991) and Nietzschean Narratives
(Indiana University Press, 1989). Gary Shapiro’s current work focuses on
geophilosophy and geoaesthetics.
Address: Department of Philosophy, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA
23173, USA. [email:]
24 journal of visual culture 6(1)