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Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media

Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media

by David Rodowick, Stanley Fish, Fredric Jameson
In Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media D. N. Rodowick applies the concept of “the figural” to a variety of philosophical and aesthetic issues. Inspired by the aesthetic philosophy of Jean-François Lyotard, the figural defines a semiotic regime where the distinction between linguistic and plastic representation breaks down.


In Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media D. N. Rodowick applies the concept of “the figural” to a variety of philosophical and aesthetic issues. Inspired by the aesthetic philosophy of Jean-François Lyotard, the figural defines a semiotic regime where the distinction between linguistic and plastic representation breaks down. This opposition, which has been the philosophical foundation of aesthetics since the eighteenth century, has been explicitly challenged by the new electronic, televisual, and digital media. Rodowick—one of the foremost film theorists writing today—contemplates this challenge, describing and critiquing the new regime of signs and new ways of thinking that such media have inaugurated.
To fully comprehend the emergence of the figural requires a genealogical critique of the aesthetic, Rodowick claims. Seeking allies in this effort to deconstruct the opposition of word and image and to create new concepts for comprehending the figural, he journeys through a range of philosophical writings: Thierry Kuntzel and Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier on film theory; Jacques Derrida on the deconstruction of the aesthetic; Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin on the historical image as a utopian force in photography and film; and Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault on the emergence of the figural as both a semiotic regime and a new stratagem of power coincident with the appearance of digital phenomena and of societies of control.
Scholars of philosophy, film theory, cultural criticism, new media, and art history will be interested in the original and sophisticated insights found in this book.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A stunning accomplishment in the theorization of the visual. By situating developments in photography, film, and digital media on multiple hinges between philosophy and history, France and Germany, and visual theory and practices, Rodowick delivers a breathtaking overview of modernist aesthetics and an exciting excursion into transformations on the digital frontier.”—Timothy Murray, author of Like a Film: Ideological Fantasy of Screen, Camera, and Canvas

“Rodowick shows us that the labor of theory is vital and ongoing and that figural thinking is a crucial element for what remains of creative activity and micropolitics in a world where agency appears to be close to extinction.”—Tom Conley, author of The Graphic Unconscious in Early Modern French Writing

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Duke University Press
Publication date:
Post-Contemporary Interventions
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Reading the Figural- CL

By David Norman Rodowick

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2001 David Norman Rodowick
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780822327110

Chapter One


The Idea is not the element of knowledge but that of an infinite "learning," which is of a different nature to knowledge.-Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

The Idea of the Figural What does it mean "to have an Idea"? An Idea is not a thought one possesses, nor is it a representation to one's self. It does not even occur at the site of representation itself. An all too rare event, to have an Idea is to confront a problem or question that, no matter how inchoate or intangible, seizes us in thought and launches us, almost unpredictably, on a peculiarly philosophical adventure: the creation of concepts. Sometimes the concept is entirely new, an autopoiesis. And sometimes the concept is adopted, though in passing from the care of one philosopher to another it may lose its cherished and comfortable identity to set off on a series of mad adventures like some Don Quixote who leaves us trailing, like poor Sancho Panza, in its wake.

There was a point in time when I wanted to write a book about the figural. In my mind the name of this concept is indelibly associated with the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard, in particular his magisterial Discours,figure and the writings on art of the seventies and eighties that followed. And if this book takes the form it does now, it is partly because I felt the urgency of an unpaid debt. Most of the essays in this book were written under the influence of, or in confrontation with, Lyotard's writings on art and aesthetics. In homage to Lyotard, I can thus present a first definition of the figural as a force that erodes the distinction between letter and line: "The letter is a closed, invariant line; the line is the opening of the letter that is closed, perhaps, elsewhere or on the other side. Open the letter and you have image, scene, magic. Enclose the image and you have emblem, symbol, and letter" (Discours 268). But at a deeper level, Lyotard's figural is more than a chiasmus between text and figure-it is a force that transgresses the intervals that constitute discourse and the perspectives that frame and position the image. Moreover, for Lyotard, the figural is inseparable from an aesthetic where the most precious function of art is to create the last preserve of nonideological meaning. But more on this later. In a larger sense, the figural defines a semiotic regime where the ontological distinction between linguistic and plastic representations breaks down. This opposition, which has been the philosophical foundation of aesthetics since the eighteenth century, is explicitly challenged by the new electronic, televisual, and digital media. In this respect, the electronic media have inaugurated a new regime of signs and new ways of thinking, which is why philosophy runs "after" the new media.

I will consider more deeply what this "after" means as a temporal concept in my discussion of Lyotard's concept of postmodernism. And at the same time, we will find that the "new" media include some very old friends. For the moment, though, I want to emphasize that although the concept of the figural has manifold roots, my thinking here proceeds along two principal branches that never cease to articulate one onto the other. On one hand, the figural demands a genealogical critique of the aesthetic and other philosophical concepts that are implicitly deconstructed in the new media. But this detour through the history of philosophy also inspires a confrontation with contemporary theories of sign and discourse in relation to image or figure. In this manner, Reading the Figural presents a philosophical journey where I seek out allies both for deconstructing the opposition of word and image and for creating new concepts for comprehending the figural as a transformation of discourse by recent technologies of the visible. Lyotard is also an exemplary figure here in his keen awareness of how thinking the figural requires a transformation of philosophical style tantamount to a performance of force within writing itself. Indeed, among the more interesting dimensions of each of the writers encountered in this book are not only the concepts they construct but also their performance of the figural within the space of their own thought and writing.

So if I have adopted the figural in part from Lyotard, the problematic nature of the concept owes as much to my reading of Derrida, Kracauer, Benjamin, Foucault, and Deleuze. Making the figural circulate among these philosophers is not a process of building an ever more accurate picture of a concept. To retain its power as a problem, the figural must also claim the powers of virtuality, becoming a nonrepresentational image that morphs continually with respect to the problems posed in each chapter. This is an act of thinking wherein the figural constantly shifts identity in its contact with different philosophers and where the philosophical questions themselves change when recontextualized by the concept of the figural. One can no more say that the figural is interior to the philosophy of Lyotard and thus adopted from him, since the concept is just as likely to resituate Lyotard on another plane of immanence where his philosophy must be rethought or thought anew.

I began thinking seriously about Lyotard in the mid-eighties. But the Idea of the figural had seized me some years before, indeed long before I was able to give it a name. Although Lyotard for one would undoubtedly have disparaged this idea, I like to think of the figural as my "Music Television epiphany." What MTV signified for me was an implicit philosophical confrontation between the history of contemporary film theory as a semiological endeavor and the increasing appearance of digitally manipulated images on American television. Computer-generated and manipulated images are now commonplace, of course. But when these images began appearing in television advertising, music videos, and other venues, it was impossible not to be astonished by how fluidly text was spatialized, thus losing its uniform contours, fixed spacing, and linear sense, and how precisely space was "textualized"; that is, how the Euclidian solidity of the image was fragmented, rendered discontinuous, divisible, and liable to recombination in the most precise ways. Suddenly the image was becoming articulable, indeed discursive, like never before. I do not want to imply, however, that my argument is founded on a technological transformation of discourse. And if later I draw an association between the figural and the virtual, this has little to do with the already debased informatic currency of the term. No matter how "figural" they may be, the so-called new media still fall within a long and complex genealogy whose lines of descent include both the history of philosophy and the history of art. The figural is something both new yet very old. Lyotard himself readily admits that the figural has an autonomous existence with a long history. The history of art, or more deeply the history of representation, is full of "authorless" examples of figurative text and textualized figures. Simply recognizing their existence already pushes the limits of modern philosophy's distinction between the arts of succession and those of simultaneity, but it does little to deconstruct it. Nonetheless, in their own peculiar transformations of discourse, perhaps the new media help us challenge in new ways the ontological gesture that separates the arts of time from the arts of space. In so doing, the visible is no longer banished from the realm of discourse, which is reserved for linguistic sense as the site of rational communication, and the articulable, or enoncable, can regain its powers of plastic transformation.

Lyotard's Leap into the Void: The Aesthetic before the New Media At the beginning of this project, I was drawn to Lyotard not only for what he called his "defense of the eye" but also in recognition of his courage for asking, at a time when the influence of structuralism was still strong, What is discourse? How this question is asked affects not only a semiology of the image (whose opacity is either reduced to the grid of signification or valued as that which exceeds it) but also the concept of signification itself. The figural challenges the self-identity of discourse "to dissolve the present prestige of the system and the grid [cloture] in which the men of language believe that have confined all meaning" (Discours 12). Especially in the first half of his book, Lyotard argues convincingly that the limit of the Saussurean project-from the structural anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss, to Roman Jakobson's linguistics, and even to the earlier works of Jacques Lacan-was the inability to comprehend the problem of meaning as other than linguistic. Although Lyotard addresses neither photography nor cinema here, by extension his challenge must also confront a semiology of the image. The genius of Christian Metz, for example, was to have demonstrated early on that there could not be a cinematic langue as witnessed in his successive attempts to measure the image against concepts of the signifier, sentence, enonce, text, and finally enunciation. But this was an attempt to revise Saussureanism, to enlarge its terrain so that the image could be ringed by signification. Despite the brilliance of his arguments concerning image and signification, Metz maintained a concept of discourse that could not break with its linguistic foundations. Alternatively, the thought that most captivated me in Lyotard and Foucault was how "discourse" was transformed by the figural and so became a new concept.

Despite wrestling with Lyotard's texts early on, Derrida's critique of logocentrism, and above all his critique of Saussure in Of Grammatology, marked my first conceptual liberation from the linguistic signifier. Of course, whereas the early Derrida accomplished much in liberating the signifier from its linguistic shackles, his model was still very much a literary one. And despite his profound and original redeployment of concepts of spacing, ecriture, and text, I have never been wholly convinced that deconstruction steps beyond a horizon delimited by a restricted concept of text.

Lyotard's Discours, figure (1974) should be revisited as one of the fundamental texts of poststructuralism because like Derrida, he understood well that a philosophical critique of structuralism had to demolish the twin pillars of Saussure and Hegel, indeed that Hegel's dialectic and theory of the symbol were the hidden engines of a structuralist logic. And like Derrida, Lyotard returned to Freud to articulate a non-dialectical logic of signification, though in a very different way than Lacan, whose intellectual debt to Alexandre Kojeve's Hegel is omnipresent in the Ecrits.

Lyotard's intuition, whose enormous debt to Freud's theory of phantasy is acknowledged throughout Discours, figure, is that figure and discourse cannot be opposed. Unlike the history of the aesthetic, which has much at stake in distinguishing them as incommensurable ontological territories, in Lyotard's view, figure and discourse are divided not by a bar but rather by only the slightest of commas. Nonetheless this comma does separate art and "discourse" in a way that erodes signification through spatialization. To read or to hear is not the same as to see. Or rather, in passing from text to image, the status of the eye changes. "One does not read or hear a painting," according to Lyotard. "Seated at a table, one identifies or recognizes linguistic unities; standing in representation, one seeks out plastic and libidinal events" (Discours 10).

Spatialization, then, occurs in two dimensions that are themselves incommensurable: designation and desire. Discours, figure is in fact a book whose argument is marked by this broad division. The first half is devoted primarily to the problem of discourse and the relation between text and figure. Here the role of designation or reference is fundamental, since it riddles discourse with a spatialization that the linguistic system cannot master. Where designation is formal or formed space, in the second half of the book, desire arises as an in-formal space, the force of the figural. Beyond or beneath the uncontainable spatial force of designation will be the unrepresentable force of primal phantasy where the figural expresses the disarticulatory powers of the death drive.

Before walking down this path, however, the problem of designation must be deepened. One does not approach the figural by deconstructing discourse or passing beyond it. Rather, in a first movement, Lyotard finds that figure resides in discourse as the intractable opacity of the visible. This is a "spatial manifestation that linguistic space cannot incorporate without being shaken, an exteriority that it cannot interiorize as signification" (Discours 13). Every discourse is haunted by perspective in that in order to mean, it must refer. Lyotard calls this function indexicality, though the concept functions in a very different way from the semiotic of Charles Saunders Peirce. In designating an object that it wants to present to the interiority of thought, discourse opens a view, indicates a vis-a-vis, over there, that rattles the invariability of both linguistic system and diacritical space with plasticity and desire, an expansive horizon. Indexicality means that discourse is shot through with the visible: the enonce must point beyond its borders to objects positioned in space with respect to it. It is plunged into a gestural space that surrounds it, and it is riddled from within by deictic holes whose function is to indicate positionality in space (here/there) and in time (now/then).

In Emile Benveniste's view, these indicateurs, or "shifters" in English, are tokens, empty placeholders of subjectivity and position. But the "here" of Lyotard is grounded in the body. It indicates a correlative function between body and space that is in commensurable with the experience of language but nonetheless draws on it to indicate spatial and temporal location. Deictic markers have a curious status, then, since signification is inseparable from designation as, in Hegel's Phenomenology, a negativity that "spaces" language. "With shifters," Lyotard argues, "language is pierced with holes where the gaze insinuates itself, the eye sees outside and anchors itself there, but this 'outside' is itself returned to the primary intimacy of the body, its space (and time)" (Discours 39). Lyotard calls this a "diadeictical" relation. This is a sort of dialectic, though it is not a discourse because reference belongs to showing, not signifying-it is insignifiable. An indexical relation of a special kind, this sensate activity is a Dasein rather than a Sinn, whose movement is closer to the Bergsonian movement-image of Deleuze than the abstract movement of the dialectic, since it relates to the scanning of the eye and the mobility of the body in space. Nonetheless this is a negativity of a special type, an opening in space between eye and object as a kind of moving frame that is formal or formalizing. Indexicality gives us a formed space.

For Hegel, of course, this is a problem that the dialectic and the theory of the symbol must master. The sensate "this" (das sinnliche Diese) that we aim for does not belong to language: it is inexpressible and therefore neither true nor rational. Lyotard's originality is to show that if language is powerless with respect to showing, as Hegel argues, it is not because the showable is opposed to the expressible but rather because it is too close to it. Rather than being opposed, the one the negation of the other in dialectical conflict, the visible and the expressible are bound in a heautonomous relation: though distinct and incommensurable, they are intimately related.


Excerpted from Reading the Figural- CL by David Norman Rodowick Copyright © 2001 by David Norman Rodowick. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

D. N. Rodowick is Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London. He is the author of Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine (also published by Duke University Press), The Difficulty of Difference: Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference, and Film Theory and The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Theory.

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