Passage from Realism to Cubism: The Subversion of Pictorial Semiosis
by Victor A. Grauer
[This paper has been published in the journal Art Criticism, Vol. 13, no. 2, 1998.]
"Thus one dreams of a painting without truth, which, without debt and running a risk of no longer saying anything to anyone would still not give up painting."
Jacques Derrida, "Passe-Partout"
"I will take my stand in this passage."
Jacques Derrida, "The Parergon"
Introduction of three "modernisms"
In a cogent, lucidly written essay, entirely typical for its time (the mid-eighties), Victor Burgin presents the "modernism" of Clement Greenberg as "an extension, into the twentieth century, of ideas which first began to emerge in the late eighteenth century as part of what we know today as 'romanticism' . . ." For Greenberg, "the visual artist [operates] through modes of understanding and expression which are 'purely visual' radically distinct from, for example, verbalization. This special characteristic of art necessarily makes it an autonomous sphere of activity, completely separate from the everyday world of social and political life."(1)
To this "notion of the specificity of the 'visual'," also exemplified by Bell and Fry's 'significant form,' "as against the 'literary'," Burgin opposes "another history of art, . . . a history of representations." Conceptual art opens "onto that other history, a history which opens into history. . ." This art practice is "to be seen as a set of operations performed in a field of signifying practices, perhaps centered in a medium but certainly not bounded by it."(2)
Burgin bolsters his analysis with concise, convincing accounts of some of the most compelling issues of the day: humanism as logocentrism, the commodification of art, the ideological effects of the "apparatus," the fetishization of the art object, the constitution of the subject, "phallocentrism," etc. I would urge anyone not yet on familiar terms with this constellation to carefully study what Burgin has to say, as such issues are still of the greatest importance and I lack the space to deal adequately with them in these pages. Nevertheless, the critical viewpoint Burgin so adroitly represents, a viewpoint which has by now become firmly entrenched in our postmodern "culture," may well turn out to be, in its own way, possibly according to its own self-definition, every bit as reductive, self-deceiving and ideologically compromised as the positions it puts in question.(3)
In my view, it is possible to construct yet another, third, "history" of "art practice," the history of a modernism which cannot be conveniently reduced to either of the alternatives offered by Burgin, a modernism which has been effectively repressed by virtually all postmodern discourse on the arts. An eruptive instance of the "return" of this "repressed" is the following intriguing reference, which finds its way into Burgin's text and is then simply dropped, with no followup whatsoever: "It seems clear to me that, apart from Cubism's moment of brilliance, like a star that burns most brightly in the moment it extinguishes itself, painting has been in steady semiotic decline since the rise of the photographic technologies."(4)
More extensive and certainly more helpful, is another passing reference in a different essay within the same volume:
"[In the light of an ideologically aware criticism] Cubism and its sequel appears differently from the way it is normally presented in the "history of art" . . . Modernist historicism characterizes the Cubists as opening the door upon "objecthood", but it is a door through which they themselves declined to pass. . . [In Cubism] there is neither the presentation of "pure signifier" (Modernism) nor "pure signified" (realism) but rather an attempt perpetually to prevent the one from collapsing into the other. Cubism is not the fledgling "non-representational" art it is presented as, it is a mature body of work on representation. Cubism subverted the founding unity of the subject in its "natural" understanding of the coherence of "objective" reality . . ."(5)
Why does Burgin, despite such insights, treat Cubism as merely a transient "moment of brilliance," dismissing it in the very act of praising it, rather than an exemplary instance of yet another, third, "modernism"? Was it indeed an isolated case? In my view, to become aware that such a "third stream" exists, it is necessary to move out from the restricted, pictorially centered, realm of traditional discourse on "fine art," to a more broadly conceived interdisciplinary approach, capable of encompassing, in addition to the pictorial, fields such as music, cinema, literature, etc. The development of such an approach has been my concern for some time, leading me to the conviction that there is indeed, in the work of certain artists, composers, filmmakers, writers, etc. of our century, a strain of modernism which does not fall into either of Burgin's two opposed camps and which is not simply reducible to any poststructural, "postmodern" strategy of the "text."(6)
The Cubism of Picasso and Braque plays an essential role in the construct I've been developing and, in order to determine more exactly what this "essentiality" might entail, I want to limit my attention, rather narrowly this time, to this one area. The question of exactly how, in Burgin's words, "Cubism subverted the founding unity of the subject in its 'natural' understanding of the coherence of 'objective' reality" and what this encounter between the "natural," "objective reality," the "unity of the subject " and Cubism might mean will be among my principal concerns here.
A. From the "natural" to the "semiological"
The story of the struggle between art as "perception," what could be described as some sort of
direct, unmediated "visual experience" and art as "language," a conventional system of signs
intended to convey "meaning" via a fundamentally conceptual process, goes back a very long
way. The conflict came to a head in the late nineteenth century with the development and
subsequent dissolution of a major Realist movement affecting all the arts. In my view, the history
of the birth of Cubism from the intensification/ collapse of this movement is of decisive
importance. This history, and its theory, has, of course, already been written (apparently by
Clement Greenberg(7)), countersigned (by his critics as well as his followers), folded into a
reductive "definition" of what modernism "was" all about, closed and placed on a dusty shelf.
We must reopen this "closed book," re-examine and rewrite it.
To See A Sight
What can it mean to "see" something? A huge literature exists on this question, of course, and it is easy to become enmeshed in arcane issues. In the present context I must drastically oversimplify. What concerns me here is, to once again quote Burgin, the so-called "'natural' understanding of the coherence of 'objective' reality." The "real" world seems to present itself to us as a steady, seamlessly continuous whole which exists, moreover, totally outside us, as a set of objects. "Realistic" paintings and photographs appear to unproblematically document this experience. The briefest consideration of the workings of our visual "apparatus," however, will demonstrate that this view is mistaken. The human eye is in constant, irregular motion, of which we are never consciously aware, a "saccadic" twitching, resembling the movements of a bird's head. (Birds must move their heads to produce such movements since their eyes are fixed in their sockets.) Our attention (conscious and unconscious) is also continually shifting from one point to another, from right to left, up to down, wide view to detail. What falls on the retina is therefore radically discontinuous in comparison to the stable, continuous world we "see." For this reason, and others which will concern us below, our common sense notion of "natural" vision cannot be natural, but must involve some unconscious, culturally determined, cognitive process, which "constructs" such unitary "vision" for us. Clearly, under such circumstances, we can no longer speak of a "subject" which exists "in here" as opposed to an "object" "out there," in the "real world." Nor can we speak of "vision" as though it were some sort of natural function, something that could ultimately be reduced to the workings of an "innocent eye."
The painters of "realistic" paintings are not passive recorders of whatever falls on their retina, but active observers, choosing to direct their attention toward details in order to construct the illusion of an overall view from fragments assembled according to some sort of conventionally determined pictorial "language." For example, as we focus our attention on a particular thing, it will tend to command our visual field as in a close-up and will seem to grow larger than it seemed when seen as part of the total field. Moreover, as we shift our attention to some other detail, our sense of its spatial relation to the first will weaken considerably. One thing will always command our attention while the things around it remain vague. A fundamental difficulty, then, is to reconcile details with one another and with the total space in order to reconstruct on canvas the illusion of what we are "supposed" to see "naturally."
The "language" of mid-nineteenth century Realism employs some form of perspective (either as a deliberate discipline or a set of loosely defined rules of thumb) to deal with this problem by creating an abstract, ideal background space within which every detail can be placed. But this geometric grid forces each object to exist passively within it. Idiosyncrasies, special eye-catching features of unusual objects, must be smoothed over lest they threaten the uniformity of the overall plan.
Cézanne and Early Cubism
In the words of Meyer Schapiro, Cézanne "loosened the perspective system of traditional art and gave to the space of the image the aspect of a world created free-hand and put together piecemeal from successive perceptions, rather than offered complete to the eye in one coordinating glance as in the ready-made geometrical perspective of Renaissance art."(8) In the absence of any clearly conventional controlling system, Cézanne's tortuous, "piecemeal" method produces distortions which can no longer be held within reasonable bounds, which can no longer remain, as in traditional paintings, discreetly subliminal.
Not only do the various objects contend with one another, but larger objects call forth tensions within themselves. One part of a large pitcher may not jibe with another, so that, as a whole, it leans and swells unpredictably over areas of its visible surface.(9) Table edges exhibit abrupt breaks in continuity, crudely, obviously, masked by crumpled tablecloths. Each object strains to assert formal dominion over its neighbors and, as a result, the entire structure seems ready to break apart.
Braque and Picasso were inspired by Cézanne to an even closer scrutiny of the contingencies of the objective world. During Cubism's early phase, familiar, ordinary things, bottles, glasses, newspapers, guitars, violins, and the inevitable tabletops, are subject to the most intense study, examined and reexamined in a variety of juxtapositions. In the process of struggling to see the object in the depth of its own space only, without the aid of any system or set of conventions, the young Cubists discover the equivalence of analysis and dissection. Each thing, then each dissected part, begins to have a life, to produce a space of its own. So fearsome is the Cubist hold on the visual fragment, the small detail on which a single act of attention can rest, and so strong is the pull of the contradictory spaces, that the object seems ready to explode.(10) In the later phase of Cubism, the tensions apparently resolve. The distorted, "four-dimensional" space of analytic Cubism magically gives way and the "surface" of the canvas (apparently) emerges into the foreground of our awareness.
The "Greenbergian Surface"
The most serious error of the Greenbergian view is the notion that the above dialectic is essentially a question of "depth" vs. "surface." According to a widely held interpretation of this view, what begins as an attempt to produce a "window on the world" by means of the accurate representation of "natural" seeing-in-depth, ends with a reversal which makes of the flat, "material" surface of the canvas itself that which is most important, that which is "real."(11) For many of Greenberg's critics, who all too easily accept his interpretation as an adequate and complete picture of modernism as a whole, this "reversal" reveals modernist art to be an empty, detached "aestheticism," a throwback to the idealized, elitist aesthetic of Kant, focused entirely on the artwork as object.(12) According to these critics (and today they are legion), what was willfully ignored both by Greenberg and the artists he championed, was the fundamental and persistent problematic of art as language and, ultimately, "text."
In this essay, at certain points, I may sometimes seem to be following a more or less Greenbergian line. Indeed, I strongly feel that the visually oriented "depth vs. surface" dialectic he promoted cannot be completely ignored. Nor can the profound insight behind Ruskin's flawed notion of the "innocent eye." Postmodern theory has been far too eager to reject such views outright. Ultimately, however, as I've stated above, Greenberg's overemphasis of "depth vs. surface" must be regarded as a serious error. For among those matters essential to an understanding of Cubism are: art as language and as "text." To fully engage this problematic, we must not, as is now all too common, simply oppose visuality and spatiality to signification and language but, on the contrary, attempt to make ourselves more aware of the ways in which issues of spatial organization and vision are intimately connected with issues centering on art as semiosis.
The Pictorial Sign
While few today would want to claim that pictorial art can present an unproblematic, unmediated encounter with either the "real world" or Greenberg's "actuality of the [painted] surface,"(13) the manner in which the "language" of visual art mediates, the exact nature of its semiotic functions, remains very much an unresolved issue. In the extended "Critique of Iconism" appearing in his A Theory of Semiotics, Umberto Eco considers several parallels between pictorial "language" and linguistics offered by various investigators (including, at one point, himself) and, for the most part, rejects them as oversimplifications. As Eco states, "The presence of discrete units in verbal language is found on all levels: from lexical units to phonemes, and from phonemes to distinctive features, everything would seem open to analysis. On the level of the supposed iconic codes, however, we are confronted with a more confused panorama." Eco argues, for example, that "iconic figurae do not correspond to linguistic phonemes because they do not have positional and oppositional value."(14) In other words, iconic elements cannot be analyzed and reproduced according to the same formal processes of segmentation that have made linguistics so effective as a scientific tool. A related problem stems from the fact that iconic signifiers do not appear to be very strongly coded -- unlike linguistic signifiers, which have an arbitrary relation to their signifieds, iconic ones tend to be "analogous" to (to resemble) what they signify. Saussure had defined a language system as made up exclusively of a pure field of differences or oppositions, having no need for any "positive terms," i.e., elements that could signify intrinsically, without the need to be placed in opposition to anything else). As "analogue images," iconic signs would seem to function as such positive terms, thus resisting placement in such a field. Eco struggles mightily with such problems, even suggesting that there may be many different kinds of iconic function, but ultimately, as he himself more or less admits, his analysis is inconclusive.
In a more recent, exhaustive, study of a vast literature, Pictorial Concepts, Goran Sonesson, after carefully examining Eco's theories along with the work of literally hundreds of other investigators, finds serious difficulties with all and comes to no definitive, and only a few provisional, conclusions. One can read Sonesson two ways: either the whole matter is hopeless (which he denies, but which his study strongly suggests) or, somehow, by combining the most reasonable and insightful aspects of all points of view, and correcting the many errors, a semiotics of pictorial language that "admits of many meanings of meaning . . ." will somehow emerge "because meaning itself is multiple."(15)
Sonesson's own positive contribution to the theoretical mix is his application to semiotics of Husserl's notion of the "Lifeworld." Essentially a theory about the way social and psychological context affects our perception of the world around us, the Lifeworld concept appears intended as a kind of all purpose receptacle, a framework within which some future master theory (or agglomeration of theories) could find its place in the general context of "normal" human social interaction.(16) This is, in my view, a promising notion, with some relevance to certain aspects of the position I will develop below.
In his book Vision and Painting, Norman Bryson sees problems more fundamental than any of the more or less technical difficulties exposed by Eco and Sonesson. Subjecting Saussurian linguistics, on which so much of structuralist semiotics is based, to a thoroughgoing "post-structural" critique, Bryson finds it seriously wanting, both in itself and with respect to the visual arts: "As the most material of all the signifying practices, painting has proved the least tractable to semiology's anti-materialist proclivities."(17) Declaring that purely formalist strategies, even when successful," can never fully account for the effect of the real in painting,"(18) Bryson faults linguistics based semiology for failing to recognize that "painting is embedded in social discourse which formalism is hardly able to see, let alone explain in its own terms."(19) In a later essay, "Semiotics and Art History," Bryson and collaborator Mieke Bal propose that we look beyond the pictorial equivalent of the "word" or "sentence" to "conceive the sign not as a thing but an event, the issue being not to delimit and isolate the one sign from other signs, but to trace the possible emergence of the sign in a concrete situation, as an event in the world."(20)
Recently, art historian James Elkins has taken Bryson and Bal to task for proposing an approach that "begs questions about the way pictorial meaning happens at all."(21) Faulting their attempt to build a pictorial semiotics which hopes to escape the strictures of formal linguistics, yet nevertheless must depend on some of its most basic concepts, Elkins states that "[v]isual semiotics, as it appears in such texts as 'Semiotics and Art History,' is an account of visual narratives and not a full theory of the semiotic nature of pictures." Elkins' complex argument, which I cannot properly summarize here, exposes serious problems with all sorts of approaches to visual semiotics, both structural and post structural. He concludes that "semiotics's basic assumption that visual elements are either disordered, meaningless marks or proper signs" cannot be maintained. It therefore "makes sense to propose that graphic marks be understood as objects that are simultaneously signs and not signs."(22)
Behind and around all of the above looms the "grammatology" of Jacques Derrida, that extraordinarily complex, famously difficult challenge to structural linguistics and semiotics at their very core. Among other things, Derrida reminds us that the notion of "external reality" or "metaphysical presence" which dissolves as we critically examine the subject/object dichotomy behind "naive" realism is also the basis for our notion of the sign, which requires an "outside" referent. Eliminate the subject/ object dichotomy and we eliminate the sign. "But we cannot do without the concept of the sign, for we cannot give up this metaphysical complicity without also giving up the critique we are directing against this complicity."(23) As Derrida's analysis forces us to acknowledge, no "reasonable," fully rational, approach to the most fundamental problems of signification is likely to be successful.
While, as all of the above certainly demonstrates, the issues surrounding pictorial semiotics are extremely complex, I would like to make two relatively simple statements concerning them. First, most investigators seem too eager to build up and out from a set of fundamental elements on the basis of segmentation, consequently ignoring the possibilities of a strategy based on building down and in from the most general principles. One such principle, syntax, understood in a very broad sense, as a kind of overall "force-field," organizing the relationships between and among all the signifiers to produce "grammatical" rules, is, in my view, crucially important to our ability to understand how meaning is, as Sonesson's "Lifeworld" notion suggests, literally, constructed as a kind of environment within which one must become oriented. I will have more to say about this presently.
Second, in my opinion the root of most of the problems revealed by Eco and Sonesson (and possibly Derrida as well) can be traced to attempts to account for everything within the domain of a single system. While Sonesson's negative results might encourage us to give up on the hope for such an account, the importance he gives to the Lifeworld idea clearly reflects a firm belief on his part that semiotics will indeed someday be grounded by a single unifying concept. At the other extreme, we find Norman Bryson arguing, in the spirit of post structuralism, that, in principle, no systematic approach of any kind can begin to account for the multifarious effects of pictorial representation.
With Bryson (and Derrida), I doubt very much that all of semiosis can be brought together within
one all embracing idea. On the other hand, I do not think it wise to thereby simply drop all
attempts at formal, systematic theory. As Elkins has indicated, such an approach would have to
beg too many questions and could too easily precipitate a regression to a simplistic, narrative
centered historicism. What may be needed is a theory which takes seriously Elkins' proposal that
"graphic marks be understood as objects that are simultaneously signs and not signs." Such a
theory, necessarily built around a contradiction, might need to be both systematic and radically
disunified. To put it another way, such a theory could be unified only to the extent that it is also
radically disunified. This is, in fact, just the sort of theory I have already proposed, in another
publication,(24) and would like to further develop here. In some sense it is a theory already
"proposed," many years ago, by the great Cubists themselves.
Cubism was, almost from the very first, informed by a kind of "semiotic" awareness far ahead of its time, a development that grew inevitably from the radically realist "struggle to see" initiated by Cézanne.(25) Attempting to do justice in paint to contingent details as perceived in their own equally contingent space, the Cubists are forced to delve critically into the whole process by which objects are represented on canvas, until, in the words of William Rubin, "[t]heir quest ended by making the very process of image formation virtually the subject of their pictures . . ."(26) Analytic Cubism is, indeed, the analysis of pictorial language itself and, in their analysis, the Cubists discover many of the methods we now associate with structural linguistics and semiotics.
For example, concerned with the representation of space in depth, early Cubism places great emphasis on shading and modeling. But in the absence of perspective, or any other overall guiding system, such methods can have only a limited provenance. As the Cubists fragment the overall space, the various locally defined areas of depth contradict one another and, as they do, the purely conventional role of shading and modeling begins to make itself felt. As Cubism progresses, we become increasingly aware of such devices as remnants of a process of encoding which is, in some sense, being revealed to us.(27)
Equally interesting in this respect is the Cubist use of line. Picasso's remarkable Portrait of Ambroise Vollard contains a maze of lines that can look totally arbitrary, meaningless. Only after careful study does it become apparent that, in fact, all the lines are remnants of meaningful articulations: a pair of parallel zigzag lines demarcate what could have been a sign for "nose"; just below, a strong horizontal, seen in a certain way, reveals a "mouth"; lower still, a hardly noticeable diagonal shows how easy it might be to speak the word "collar" in the "language" of the painter. With some persistence one can even make out, in the lower portion, a cuff, a hand, the thumb of a second hand, and, on one side of the figure, lines that suggest shelves surmounted by a window. The very resistance these lines offer, their refusal to easily coalesce into signs despite their borderline identifiability as quasi-signifying traces, is what prompts the process of analytic inquiry on the part of the viewer. Less problematic imagery, deployed with less sophistication (as in the work of so many of the "lesser" Cubists) would lead to a much simpler, more passive reading and/or the "enjoyment" of the canvas as a decorative "stylized" entity.
As Cubist analysis intensifies, webs of lines cover the entire canvas, growing simpler, straighter in the process, with greater emphasis on horizontals and verticals. While this development has often been described as "geometrical," there is no evidence whatsoever that either Picasso or Braque used compositional methods remotely connected with this science (though some of their followers clearly did). Nor is there any basis for the claim, associated with Clement Greenberg, that horizontals and verticals are emphasized as "affirmations of the [rectangular] picture plane." (Indeed, several such works are painted on an oval canvas.) Nor is there, as far as I can see, any evidence of an a priori "grid."(28)
I suggest that the prevalence of "geometric" elements such as straight lines and orthogonal relationships in late analytic Cubism has a dual function. On the one hand, it must be regarded as a simplification in the interest of precise spatial determination. I will return to this aspect later. On the other hand, not necessarily unrelated to the first, it can be understood as stemming from the discovery of principles we now associate with Saussure, who defined a language system as a network of pure difference or opposition lacking any positive terms. In a sense, late analytic Cubism becomes just such a network, in which "geometrically" straightened lines and simplified, arclike curves, express mutual opposition: horizontal vs. vertical, diagonal vs. opposite diagonal, curve vs. opposite curve. In a similar spirit, almost all "positive terms," if we can so characterize "motivated" signs, have vanished -- the iconic signifier no longer resembles its signified in any straightforward way. A play of differences and oppositions is essentially all that remains.(29) While the images are usually maddeningly complex, the basic elements of which they are composed are both simple and few, as though forcing upon our attention linguist Louis Hjelmslev's notion of "a language . . . so ordered that with the help of a handful of figurae and through ever new arrangements of them a legion of signs can be constructed."(30)
Hjelmslev's figurae are semiotic elements of second articulation, a generalization of the linguistic phoneme (morphemes, such as words, are considered the elements of first articulation, those elements which can carry "meaning" they are built up from elements of second articulation, phonemes and figurae, which do not have "meaning"). The question of whether or not pictorial images can be regarded as possessing second articulation has been a continuing subject of debate.(31) Most semioticians have found it difficult to accept that pictorial elements such as shading, cross-hatching, simple linear configurations, etc., could be regarded as figurae, for a variety of reasons, most notably: 1. such elements seem to lack "segmentation," that is, they often continuously flow into one another and there appears to be no principle upon which their articulation into distinct figurae could be based; 2. while the total number of phonemes or figurae in any given language must be strictly limited, the total number of pictorial elements, even in a single painting, can be enormous; 3. while in themselves certain pictorial elements can lack "meaning" or "reference" (a lack deemed necessary to second articulation) they do carry iconic reference in the context of the overall depicted scene, something which does not happen to phonemes for example, some cross-hatching in itself might not represent anything at all, but in the context of a landscape, it could represent, say, the shadowy side of a tree trunk, an effect in which meaning could be said to spread from the whole to the parts, which does not happen in verbal language.(32)
Given the above, it is not particularly difficult to notice that, in Analytic Cubist paintings, everything proceeds as though their creators were consciously intent on revealing a level of second articulation that was implied but repressed in traditional pictures. Thus, in Cubist paintings we do in fact find a kind of segmentation, based indeed on binary opposition (horizontal vs. vertical, diagonal vs. opposite diagonal, etc.). As with phonemes, the number of possible elements (straight horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, simple arcs, simple shadings, a restricted range of colors) is strictly limited, not only within a single painting, but throughout whole series of works by both artists. As Cubism becomes increasingly "hermetic," moreover, the "spread of meaning from the whole to the parts," alluded to above, reverses itself into a "spread of meaninglessness" from the parts to the whole. Thus if we can say that the smoothly continuous veneer of traditional paintings appears to lack second articulation, we could go on to claim that the Cubists may have found a way to strip that veneer, revealing the sort of figurae that may indeed lie buried in the pictorial flux of the most traditional works.
As should be clear by now, Cubism can be regarded, like semiotics itself, as a tool for the analysis of the workings of pictorial language, not only for the painter, but the viewer as well. What, indeed, is it that one does standing before a late analytic Cubist painting, struggling to puzzle it out? We can, if we like, try to appreciate such works as "pure form," but as "form," they are decidedly, aggressively, impure, presenting to the eye, as often as not, what can only be described as a clutter. We must remember, however, that these are always paintings of something, always, in fact, paintings of certain very specific items and/or people. The only way "in" to the secrets of these remarkably secretive works is to fix on one particular area at a time and attempt to "read" it, that is to search for a way to link some provisional signifier and signified into some sort of sign. In the attempt, trying now this, now that configuration of lines and facets to see whether or not, through position, opposition and difference, they can produce a convincing signified, we are in fact ourselves undertaking an analysis, not unlike the sort of thing linguists and semiologists do: e.g., identifying syntagms, attaching them (provisionally) to paradigms, distinguishing hierarchical levels (e.g., phonemes as opposed to morphemes), seeking out binary oppositions, performing commutation tests, distinguishing denotation from connotation, continually testing potential meaning against context.(33)
The resulting "analysis" can tell us much: lines which may have seemed arbitrary may gradually
reveal themselves as something more, the side of a table, say, or the crease on a sleeve; areas
which seemed spatially vague will coalesce into part of the foreground or background;
configurations that seemed flat will suddenly carry the eye backward to extreme depth. The
"semiotic" efforts of artist and viewer can combine in this way to provide a uniquely fascinating
experience of discovery, in which many of the codes (or, if one prefers, "tricks") of traditional
pictorial language may be revealed. Thus, whatever we may think "pictorial semiotics" entails
(and as we have seen, this is still a highly controversial issue), Cubism does seem, in some sense,
to reveal important aspects of how it might operate.
B. The Dismantling of Pictorial Semiosis
Despite the many intriguing parallels discussed above, Cubism cannot really be regarded as a form
of semiotics, not simply because the latter is a "science" and the former an "art," but because the
Cubist analysis of the image goes beyond that of semiotics, beyond analysis itself, to thoroughly
dismantle, not only the most basic processes of pictorial signification and the meanings they
produce, but the detached, "scientific" subject which semiotics is designed to serve. Thus, the
"semiotic" action of Cubism "amounts," if I may take a phrase of Derrida out of context, "to
ruining the notion of the sign at the very moment when . . . its exigency is recognized in the
absoluteness of its right."(34) For, in the very act of producing/ revealing its segmentation of the
pictorial "stream," Cubism subverts the sign function at its origin, the "syntactic" field which
grounds it. In so doing, Cubism cannot also function as a metalanguage,(35) or indeed a language
in any sense and becomes something quite new, difficult, problematic. To understand what this
might mean, we need to more closely examine that relationship between pictorial space, semiosis
and "syntax" which I have already invoked. Please remember that here and throughout the
remainder of this essay the word "syntax" must be understood in very general terms, as a kind of
organizing (tax), unifying (syn), rule-producing, "force-field," controlling the structure of what
Hjelmslev has called the "expression plane," the realm of the signifiers. We need also, for very
different reasons, to exercise caution in our understanding of "visual," "perceptual," "surface"
and similar words -- these terms, which we think we know so well, will become increasingly
problematic and strange as our analysis proceeds.
Space, Syntax and Proto-Syntax
In the words of art critic John Berger, "perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world [which is] arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God."(36) This statement gives us a clue to the ideological nature of perspective and the "transcendental subject" produced by it. In such a work everything is presented in terms of an apparently passive background into which things are placed. In terms made familiar by Gestalt psychology, we are seeing figures displayed on a ground, what artists call "negative space." As gestalt psychology has demonstrated, the figure is all we consciously see -- the ground is subliminal.
What is this unobtrusive background? In one sense it is simply the surface of the canvas, rendered invisible by the illusion of depth. In another, more subtle, sense it is perspective space itself, invisibly guiding and controlling almost every aspect of what is painted and the way it will be perceived. Like ideology, this space, functioning as a unifying, organizing "syntax," secretly, invisibly arranges everything "behind the scenes," quietly manufacturing "nature." As Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz have demonstrated (in the context of film theory) the "transcendental subject" produced by this sort of construct can be understood in terms of the well-known Lacanian theory of the "mirror-stage."(37)
For Lacan the mirror of the "mirror-stage" produces, in the awareness of the child, a "Gestalt . . . [which] symbolizes the mental permanence of the I . . . " Only in and through such an integrated subject is the development of language possible. Indeed, for Lacanian semiology, this "imaginary" is a necessary precondition for any form of symbolization.(38) Considerations of this sort led me to propose, in an earlier publication, what I have called the first "semio-aesthetic" principle, which must in some sense be regarded as axiomatic: "any object of perception can signify (take on meaning) only in relation to a controlling syntactic field."(39) The "field" in question can be regarded as simultaneously a vector field (perspective), a field of differences/ oppositions (Saussure) and a gestalt field (Lacan's "imaginary").
If we can regard the perspective system as a fully developed syntactic field, then it should also be possible to recognize the existence of no less fully developed "syntactic systems" for similarly producing "transcendental subjects" throughout all provenances, historical and ethnographic, of the visual arts. At certain points, however, we encounter a treatment of space that seems to operate without any clearly defined rules: cave art, certain examples of tribal art, certain Medieval pictures, Fauve, Expressionist, Surrealist, etc. paintings, even many so-called "postmodern" works, where images are juxtaposed in a manner that seems to ignore or minimize pictorial syntax of any kind, yet nevertheless hang together conceptually in a more or less meaningful way. The existence of such works is evidence of what we might call a "proto-syntactic" awareness.
This phenomenon can be related to what Freud, in Totem and Taboo, has called secondary elaboration, a mental function which causes us to "make sense" of even the most fragmented and confused sensations or thoughts: "An intellectual function in us demands the unification, coherence and comprehensibility of everything perceived and thought of . . ." Freud relates secondary elaboration, which finds its basic principle in what he calls "the omnipotence of thought," to primitive animism and taboo in a manner that suggests (via the principles of "similarity" and "contiguity") a further connection with the rhetorical codes, metaphor and metonymy.(40)
In this regard, we must consider also the important work of linguist Roman Jakobson, who discovered a fundamental analogy between the pairs metaphor/metonymy and paradigm/syntagm. Since metonymy operates by creating a mental connection among physically contiguous signifiers, it can be said to function, like Freud's secondary elaboration, as a loosely defined, rhetorical, or "proto," syntax. This insight, which became a vital part of Jakobson's theory of poetics, contributed as well to his pioneering (if flawed) work on the semiotics of Cubism.(41)
An appropriate example of this proto-syntax at work can be found in the famous pre-Cubist Picasso painting of 1907, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Here the women's faces and bodies are broken down into a series of stereotyped "figurae." Some are drawn from Western high art, others from European and African "primitive" art. As in many Fauve paintings of the time, considerable liberties are taken with conventional pictorial syntax. Yet the picture still "scans," the "codes" still function, the viewer still finds a way to put it all together mentally.
If we look casually, for example, at the leftmost figure, we see a woman who is apparently pushing a curtain aside with her left hand. Covering all but the head and hand, however, we may see things a bit differently: a head in profile with a disembodied hand sitting on top of it like a hat. The simple conjunction of sign for head and sign for hand is all we really see -- there is no visual evidence that an arm is raised, or even exists; nor is there any modeling of the sort that would syntactically "place" the hand in the space behind the head. What is it that causes viewers to think they see an odd looking woman lifting a curtain when all they really see, in the absence of any trace of traditional pictorial syntax, are juxtaposed signs?
To answer this question, we must look to the notion of a presyntactic mental function, as described above -- in Jakobson's terms, an instance of metonymy. Despite the fact that Picasso had gone a considerable distance in liberating iconographic signs from syntax there remained, nevertheless, this proto-syntax to perform the syntactic function in a cruder manner, linking all the signs, forcing the viewer to "read" the painting conceptually, repressing any tendency to see in purely visual terms.
With "proto-syntax", metonymy, "secondary elaboration," what have you, we have arrived at something absolutely fundamental, something which might well have provided the original impetus for all the more highly elaborated, strictly regulated, ideologically controlled and controlling "language systems" of today. For, as Freud has stated, the basic principles of animism remain in the modern world "as the foundation of our language, our belief, our philosophy."
As Cubism develops, one of its crucial projects becomes the disruption, not only of traditional pictorial syntax, but also this metonymic proto-syntax and the "omnipotent" subject it produces. To this end merely "breaking the rules," doing without perspective and/or other similarly "syntactic" conventions is not enough. In the mere absence of syntax, meaning and its subject are still implied and will arise (as in works such as Les Demoiselles) in the form of a kind of ambiguous but nevertheless fundamentally conceptual, proto-syntactic, rhetoric. This is an extremely important point, as it performs the absolutely essential function of separating the modernist sheep from the goats. So the formula bears repeating: breaking the rules is not enough; substituting strategies of pictorial "rhetoric" for pictorial "logic" is not enough -- only an active negation of syntax and rhetoric both, and at every level, can effectively oppose the all pervasive integrative power marshalled by "omnipotence of thought."(42) To understand Cubism's ability to subvert "omnipotence of thought" through such a negation, we will need to press farther. Of key importance at this point is the profoundly disjunctive role of the spatial "technique" known as passage.
Passage and Space
Passage may be regarded as an art of transition, a way of "passing" smoothly from one form to another. For example, there might be a subtle but continuous passage in the form of a color transition from one edge of a yellow-green leaf in the foreground to a portion of a blue-green mountain on the horizon, contiguous with the leaf on the picture-plane. Or a shadow on the upper part of one side of a face might imperceptibly merge with a dark area in the background. By discreetly using passage to leave certain boundaries vague, the traditional artist could effectively mask the conflicts that pit the unique space of a given object against the overall scheme required by perspective.
Clearly, passage is a powerful tool for the alleviation of spatial disparities. In the "old masters" and Realists alike, it softens discrepancies between assertive forms and the overall space. Cézanne used it more intensively and liberally, but for essentially the same purpose. During the development of analytic Cubism, heavily influenced by Cézanne, passage produces a multidimensional "warping," but also serves to pull the space of the surface together. With the advent of "synthetic" Cubism, this space has been almost completely unified. To understand how passage nevertheless always carried within itself the seeds of radical disjunction, we must turn our attention from space per se to space as it functions within pictorial representation -- in semiotic terms, taken somewhat loosely, space operating syntagmatically.
The reconciliations of passage are not perceived within the virtual, three dimensional space of traditional Western representation. This space, controlled by pictorial syntax, is much too rigidly circumscribed to permit passage to be directly visible. It operates, therefore, entirely on the subliminal "surface," where its transitions are not easily perceived as such and can even serve to enhance effects of atmosphere and depth. By "drawing the viewer in" unconsciously, to mentally supply subtle effects of depth that are not actually painted but can seem to be, passage contributes strongly to the formation of the "transcendental subject."
The multiple disparities of Cézanne's representational space are so extreme that he is forced into liberal use of passage to mitigate them. As the picture depends more and more on such surface adjustments, the negative space of the surface begins to emerge in the awareness of the viewer. Since there is no room for such a space in traditional pictorial syntax, the viewer tends to interpret the emergence of the surface as a distortion of the space surrounding the depicted objects. Thus the disparities that passage originally covered over, disparities between represented objects, re-emerge as disparities within representational space, i.e., visual syntax itself.
A Visual Aporia
While emergence of the "surface" was a serious problem for Cézanne, who wanted to preserve
"realistic" representation, it was seized upon by the Cubists as a means of iconographic analysis
and disruption. In their hands passage, more and more clearly perceived as the opening of form to
negative space, weakens representational syntax so it can be radically distorted and dismantled.
Easily grasped examples of this strategy can be found in a relatively early analytic Cubist canvas,
Picasso's The Reservoir, Horta de San Juan, of 1909. The roof of the central building (lowermost
of the complex of buildings hovering above the horizontal arc representing the far wall of the
reservoir in the lower half of the picture) is depicted by a single facet (facet A) whose rightward
tilt would normally cause one to see it as receding into depth. It is linked by passage, however, to
a facet (facet B) depicting the side of a building immediately to the left. This link tends to pull the
upper part of facet A forward, in conflict with the "grammatical" recession into depth. Facet B is
pulled even more radically in two directions. As a signifier for the right side of a building, it must
be "read" as receding from left foreground to right background. But the passage to the adjoining
rooftop weakens this effect, while the facet's alignment (which suggests "reverse perspective")
tends to pull it in the other direction.
Theresulting tension thrusts a piece of the "background," contiguous with facet B on the upper right, forward. This dark, triangular chunk of negative space commandeers both facets as though it were the front of another building, with facet B as its left side. On this reading, facet A can have no meaning at all and simply disappears. And facet B must be read as receding downward from right to left. As a signifier with two equally possible but contradictory signifieds (the side of either one building or the other), oriented in two contradictory directions (rightward to the rear and up or leftward to the rear and down) it has become a visual "aporia." The whole unsettling force of the aporia is "felt" by the passage between facets A and B, which cannot absorb it. Since vague, border areas of this sort are exactly where, in traditional works, the participation of the viewer is most strongly solicited (so s/he may mentally fill in details that are only suggested) it is in such areas that the subject is most strongly "invested," and, in this case, undone.(43)
From Discontinuity to Disintegration
Despite its many discontinuities and paradoxes, the Reservoir at Horta is still a more or less "readable" work. As analytic Cubism develops, the entirety of representational space becomes much more thoroughly saturated with passage and contradictorily aligned facets. In the resulting fragmentation, these facets, remnants of iconographic signs, become totally detached from the objects they would ordinarily unite to signify. With such a complete dismantling of the visual gestalt, the object all but vanishes as a readable signified, its sign elements disassembled in such a way that no effort at conceptual resynthesis can be successful.
A good example is Picasso's Ma Jolie, of 1911-12. Careful study gives one a sense of a woman seen from the waist up, in profile, strumming on a zither-like instrument. This information is gained only in bits and pieces, however. One sees a curved line that could be a chin, a diagonal above it that could be a nose in profile. Some distance below these, to the left, a grouping of three curved lines within a small triangular shape can be read as a hand. Two diagonals meeting at a point to the upper right seem to form an elbow -- etc. These fragments are all located more or less where they should be in terms of human anatomy. But no amount of puzzling can bring them all together to give us the familiar gestalt of a human side view.
The upper part of the "elbow," for example, stops abruptly short of any upper arm or shoulder. The facet which might signify this elbow, is opened to the upper left by passage, thus simultaneously pushed "forward" to the surface and "backward" to the background. Any signifying power it might have had is thereby drained out of it. In a similar manner, almost any area which must be read spatially in a certain direction in order to "scan" overall is pulled in another direction (or directions) locally by disembodied, contradictory, spatial cues, linked, and drained of meaning, by open networks of passage.
As should be evident, fragmentation in itself would not be sufficient to thwart pictorial syntax so thoroughly that no coherent form can emerge. Fragmentation is, in fact, just as common in conventional syntax (both pictorial and linguistic) as in Cubism. It is the effect of negative space, brought into our awareness and unified by passage, which works against any tendency, syntactic or proto-syntactic, to integrate the fragments, thoroughly exploding that perceptual gestalt which is so essentially part and parcel of the Lacanian imaginary, the transcendental subject and the signifying process generally.
The Negative Field and its Subject
We are now in a position to draw some theoretical conclusions: 1. if the traditional organization of space can be regarded as a kind of syntax, its negation, "negative space," is, in effect, the negation of that syntax; 2. therefore, that type of organization which promotes "negative space" can be regarded as equivalent to what we may call negative syntax, or antax, a structural principle (tax) which can operate to pull apart (an), to disrupt signification, form, the subject, thought itself -- it is this principle, at work already in those aspects of passage we have been discussing, which provides the key to our understanding of the disruptive power of Cubism; 3. if traditional, "positive" space can be said to function generally, as we have indicated earlier, as a kind of "positive" or "syntactic" field, we can posit an opposing field, as produced by negative syntax, which we may call the "negative" or "antactic" field.(44)
Since the syntactic field has been thoroughly subverted, the subject once produced by it is put, in the words of Julia Kristeva, "en procès," which is to say, both "in process" and "on trial/ in question." The move from a Lacanian to a Kristevan subject at this point, is, indeed, highly appropriate. The problematic, "unsettled" "sujet en procès" is produced by what Kristeva has called le sémiotique (not to be confused with la sémiotique, the science of semiotics), a "heterogeneousness to signification [which] operates through, despite, and in excess of it and produces in poetic language 'musical' but also nonsense effects that destroy not only accepted beliefs and significations, but, in radical experiments, syntax itself, that guarantee of thetic consciousness . . ."(45) As should be evident from this quotation alone, Kristeva's theories, developed in response to certain aspects of avant garde poetry, have a strong bearing on my own, a relationship which I have explored elsewhere(46) and cannot pursue here. In the present context, her formulation can facilitate our understanding of how the self-assured subject of traditional pictorialism is thoroughly "unsettled" by Cubist "negative syntax."(47)
While negative syntax dissolves representation, its disembodied, semiotically defused sign-parts are retained in the multi-dimensional "depth" created by the now free floating shadings and fragmented recession lines linked throughout the surface by passage. Through a remarkable process of evolution, representational disjunction leads to "perceptual" intensification, to the point that each facet, no matter how confusing, how difficult to interpret, has an especially vivid, distinctive "look." I will have occasion presently to say more about this "look," achieved through uniquely spatial simplifications and precisions without precedent in the history of art.
As Cubism evolves, the facets begin to expand, to take up more space on the "surface" and this (increasingly problematic) "surface" begins to emerge more and more with a weight of its own. In a "synthetic" Cubist work such as Picasso's papier collé, Musical Score and Guitar, of autumn, 1912,(48) for example, the entire surface is divided into only nine areas, each a precisely shaped and placed piece of colored paper or, in two instances, sheet music, each clearly differentiated from the others. Each area partakes in some way of some aspect of the shape (or negative space) of a guitar and the group is assembled in a manner very roughly resembling the overall shape of a guitar. Unlike examples of late analytic Cubism, it is not terribly difficult to see that a guitar is in some sense being depicted, but, when we try to put everything together into some overall figure, gestalt, morpheme, sign, what have you, we are unable to do so -- all paths toward some potential syntagmatic integration lead antagmatically outward toward a visually determined proportioning of colored shapes in stark juxtaposition.
For example, we can see that the lower contour of the large upper-central, cream colored area resembles the outline of the side of a guitar. As we look upward to find the other side, however, it transforms itself into a neutral rectangular shape extending all the way to the top -- the potential sign function dissolves into a "flat surface." Just to the left is a brown shape, flush with the straight edge of the first, curved on its left side, like the side of a guitar (but also resembling a violin). Again, any potential signifying power this shape might have is canceled by the context the "side" of the instrument is placed where the top should be and, instead of being a continuation of the body, is in stark, contrastive, juxtaposition with it. There are thus tantalizing resemblances, "traces" of iconic function, which have been flattened out and juxtaposed in a manner that might suggest arbitrary linguistic signifiers.(49) But no such function is any longer possible either. Picasso has here, as in so many works of this period, conflated icon (the motivated sign) and symbol (the arbitrary sign), in a context which effectively neutralizes both.
In works such as this, the use of passage to mediate between "surface" and depth is no longer necessary -- all has become "surface." Passage, which was always in any case, of the surface, has not really disappeared but opened out into large planar areas -- in this sense, all has been transformed into passage. Negative syntax now manifests itself in the decentered, disjunctive placement and precise proportional determination of these areas.
What we are left with is a powerful design containing remnants of signifying material. While the "surface" was originally present only as an all but subliminal trace, it is now the representational elements which survive merely as traces. Thus the high handed use of sheet music as though it were simply another piece of paper or, as in so many other works of this period (though not this one), the almost decorative use of lettering or bits of newspaper. We may certainly still "read" the music or newsprint, if we like. We will still recognize in such works that a "guitar," "violin," "wineglass," etc. is in some sense "referred to." What has been eliminated is not the codes of signification, but their power to function as such, and, in so functioning, control the way we see. Thus, the negative field of Cubism is not so much antireferential as multireferential.
Multireferentiality, in the sense that I am here employing the term, must not be confused with either ambiguity or polysemy, which imply two or more perfectly conventional meanings, each of which is clearly grounded in traditional "positive" syntax. Multireferentiality involves the liberation of sign-elements from syntax altogether, in such a way that a host of different and/or opposed unconventional readings become equally possible, with no need for resolution on some higher, "paradigmatic" plane which could provide them with meaning. In the words of Derrida, regarding dissemination, "the force and form of its disruption explode the semantic horizon. . . [While] polysemia, as such, is organized within the implicit horizon of a unitary resumption of meaning . . ., [dissemination] marks an irreducible and generative multiplicity."(50) Cubism could thus be said to reveal the hidden disseminative action of the traditional pictorial "text" in a manner comparable, in some sense, to Derrida's revelations regarding the literary and/or philosophical "text."(51) (I will have more to say on the problematic relation between Cubism and Derridean deconstruction in the final section of this essay.)
A Dissenting View
Before continuing, I must take note of the fact that I am here in disagreement with many respected authorities, among them Roman Jakobson, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Francis Frascina, Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, all of whom regard Cubism as, in some sense, a language. Frascina,(52) echoing Jakobson, has argued that Cubist signs operate via metonymy, as visual rhetoric, a notion called into question earlier in this essay. This approach makes it impossible to distinguish between paintings such as Les Demoiselles de Avignon, which, in my opinion, does operate metonymically, and later, more characteristically Cubist works, which, as I have argued at length, treat the sign function in a radically different manner. Yve-Alain Bois, following Kahnweiler, strongly influenced by Saussure, sees a break in Cubism, due to an "epiphany" of Picasso's regarding the fundamentally "linguistic" nature of an African mask. Thus, from 1912 on, in Bois' view, Picasso turns, in a series of papiers collés and constructions, from the "iconism" cum "indexicality" of analytic Cubism to a more "linguistic" (thus, for Bois, more properly semiotic) approach based on the "arbitrary nature" of the sign.(53) Rosalind Krauss, fundamentally in agreement with Bois, also focusses on Saussurian linguistics as manifested in more or less the same Picasso works.(54)
Both Bois and Krauss reveal an awareness of the complexities of the Cubist encounter with semiosis that I can neither adequately summarize nor challenge here. While much in the work of both is not inconsistent with my own views, I will attempt, very briefly, to point out some important differences: 1. I believe the treatment of space cannot be separated from issues of pictorial semiosis (and its subversion), whereas they posit, for Cubism, a very definite "break" from fundamentally spatial to fundamentally semiotic concerns; 2. they write as though Cubism were a kind of rediscovery of the ideogram or hieroglyph, as though its most powerfully original aspects depend on an awareness of painting as a "system of signs," whereas, for me, Cubism is a subversion of the signifying process;(55) 3. inhibited, perhaps, by fears of falling back into Greenbergism, they place little emphasis on the role of spatial determination, especially in the later works,(56) while I find that the extraordinarily precise placement of lines, planes, passages, so characteristic of all phases of Cubism, tells us that more is going on than just a play of signs. Most fundamentally, for me the movement from analytic to synthetic Cubism can be understood as a development of the subversive action of passage-as-negative space, starting as marginal "trace," opening out more and more to the "surface," finally emerging, in its own right, as determination of the negative field. I therefore see no need for positing a "break." Nor do I feel that Cubism, in any of its phases, can be contained within the "space" of either Peircean or Saussurian semiotics. As I have attempted to demonstrate, it develops a semiotic/ antisemiotic "space" all its own.
To summarize (and again we must recall that many of our terms, such as "surface," "visual," "perception," "sensory," are problematic and provisional, as will presently be explained) what begins with Cézanne as a vague warping of "positive," i.e., virtual, representational space, evolves, in the movement from analytic to synthetic Cubism, into a flattening and consequent clarification of the "negative field" associated with the space of the surface. What begins, in a painting such as Les Demoiselles de Avignon, as pictorial metonymy, transforming juxtaposed elements into meaningful, if crude, representations, becomes, as in Musical Score and Guitar, simple juxtaposition in and for itself. What begins in analytic Cubism as a rhythmically disjunct web of lines and passages suggesting (contradictory) spatial recessions, reverse perspective, etc., resolves into a division of this surface according to precisely determined, relatively simple, proportions. What "ought" to be a breakdown of solid things ("signifieds") into their weightless, conceptual parts ("signifiers") turns out to be a transfer of visual weight from conceptually depicted things to the "surface" on which they have been depicted. Perception in terms of an overall coordinating representational, signifying gestalt, a centered whole "greater than the sum of its parts," has been subverted and transformed into the perception of decentered, disjunctive parts and whole juxtaposed in a context of mutual equivalence, what Mondrian was to call "dynamic equilibrium."(57) While remnants of pictorial language remain, and cannot be ignored, the hegemony of language has been broken -- univocal meaning has been replaced by a multireferential field, the negative, antactic field produced by negative syntax.
We must, at this point, cast a glance backward at those terms I have been warning you about:
"perception," "sight," the "surface," "sensory experience," etc. They are problematic since,
through the course of my argument, they have themselves undergone a kind of "passage" from
one realm of meaning to another, radically different from the first. One might want to say the
negative field, in opposition to the fundamentally conceptual positive field, involves "direct
unmediated experience": of "vision," "space," "perception," "seeing," "surface," etc., and,
indeed, there are passages in earlier publications of my own which, taken out of context, could be
(mistakenly) understood in this sense. But all these words are already implicated in what Cubism
works to undermine. So, by the time we arrive at synthetic Cubism and already for some time
before this, what it might mean to "see" such works has been radically altered by the works
themselves to the point that the old terminology of "vision," "sensory experience," "surface," etc.
has been transformed. To understand what a rethinking of these terms might entail for this new
situation, we must delve more deeply into the strangeness that is the negative field.
C. Deconstruction and the Image
Unlike the workings of a traditional dialectic, the Cubist network of differences and oppositions does not exist to efface itself within an ultimate unity, a "synthesis" which would transcend difference and opposition either to establish a metalanguage on some higher level or assert the absolute privilege of some sort of Greenbergian "presence." On the contrary, as we have already learned, Cubism operates against such a dialectic, pushing all oppositions to their limit in a manner that defies any form of conceptual (or "perceptual") reintegration. In this it more closely resembles what it may well have indirectly inspired, the critical method associated with Jacques Derrida, known as "deconstruction."(58)
Passage and Differance
Perhaps the closest Derrida ever came to a definition of this term appears in an early (1963) essay "Force and Signification," where he speaks of "a certain organization, a certain strategic arrangement which, within the field of metaphysical opposition, uses the strength of the
field to turn its own stratagems against it, producing a force of dislocation that spreads itself throughout the entire system, fissuring it in every direction and thoroughly delimiting it. [emphasis is the author's]."(59) In a somewhat later (1966) essay, he actually names this force: "It is a question of explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself [emphasis mine]."(60) Closely associated with "deconstruction" are certain key terms, such as "differance," "the trace," "spacing," "erasure," the "supplement," etc.
With reference to this by now well known constellation, I would like to make and briefly discuss an "outrageous" or perhaps even "naive" contention of my own, one that, given the highly problematic nature of Derridean discourse, I would not hope to adequately defend, even outside the limitations of the present context, but that might, nevertheless, communicate on some level why I perceive an intimate relation between the Cubism of Braque and Picasso and the remarkable project of Derrida: in terms of the evolution we have been tracing in these pages, what has both guided and fueled the "force of dislocation" which "fissures" an "entire system," "deconstructs" it by "turning its own stratagems against it," can be seen as "differance" and the "trace" as the double action of Cubist facetting and passage. Passage as "spacing," as "erasure," as the "trace," as "difference/ deferral," as "temporization," as that which causes "each element appearing on the scene of presence [to be] related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element,"(61) as "the displaced and equivocal passage of one different thing to another, from one term of an opposition to the other,"(62) passage in all these senses, to recover my own voice, can be related to that opening of forbidden channels between the otherwise discreetly articulated elements of a structure, that discreetly disguised opening out into vagueness of the forms of the structure, which, at the hands of traditional artists, engages the viewing subject in a conspiracy to disguise the fact that signification can be neither fully expressed nor contained by form, structure, syntax.
This "innocent," "supplementary" device, when appropriated, commandeered and forced to its limit in Cubism, prevents the pictorial elements ("marks," "traces,") from coalescing on any level to produce semiotic effects, but forces them through the force of a negative structure or antax to fall back on the negative field of their own (and our own) contingency. In this sense the work of Braque and Picasso must be regarded less as "text" and more as deconstructor of text, thus comparable not so much to other paintings as to the work on text of Derrida himself.(63)
The Truth in Painting?
The relation of passage to a whole set of ideas important for Derrida's later thought is brought out quite forcefully in his The Truth in Painting.(64) The introductory chapter is entitled "Passe-Partout," a French "idiom" meaning either "pass-key" or else a certain type of frame-within-a-frame, but which also means literally, "pass-through-all." Here, with respect to yet another "key" term, the trait, which can mean "mark," "feature," "stroke," "connection," Derrida writes "A trait never appears, never itself, because it marks the difference between the forms or the contents of the appearing." He relates it to "the broaching of the origin: that which opens, with a trace, without initiating anything." [Emphasis mine.] A bit later he continues:
Between the inside and the outside, between the external and the internal edge-line, the framer and the framed, the figure and the ground, form and content, signifier and signified, and so on for any two-faced opposition. The trait thus divides in this place where it takes place. The emblem for this topos seems undiscoverable; I shall borrow it from the nomenclature of framing: the passe-partout.(65)
In the essay which follows, the "Parergon," Derrida writes in similar fashion of the parergon as frame: "There is always a form on a ground, but the Parergon is a form that has, as its traditional determination, not that it stands out but that it disappears, buries itself, effaces itself, melts away . . . "(66) In Memoirs of the Blind, he elaborates on the same theme: "all the colored thicknesses that [a tracing, an outline] retains tends to wear [it] out so as to mark the single edge of a contour. Once this limit is reached there is nothing more to see . . . "(67) It is this "withdrawal of the line" which makes a place for language.(68)
I lack both the space and the erudition to do more than speculate briefly on Derrida's intentions, but it seems we can, up to a point, think, as "passage-in-general" (passe-partout, "passage-through-all") all that which, like the trait, the contour, the passe-partout, the parergon, "melts away" at those borders which mark the difference between figure and ground. Would it be going too far to claim that the systematic wearing away of these borders, a wearing away calculated to bring out the manner in which they are always already wearing themselves away, is already, long before Derrida, a principal task of the great Cubists, a task he may have inherited from them?
Ground of the Trait
For Derrida, this "melting away," this "making space," or "giving ground" which is the trait, the parergon, the trace, etc., produces an abyss: that which perpetually divides figure and ground has no ground of its own, no "home" of its own, must perpetually retrace its steps, like Derrida himself, and indefinitely defer its action. The negative field would seem not to be limited in this way and because of this, its deconstruction of "metaphysical presence" might not be, as for Derrida, "impossible," but complete and definitive. To better think this possibility, let us more closely examine some of the essential characteristics of this construct:
The negative field is a differential field, that is to say it is determined, as is the positive field, by, in the words of Saussure, "a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others."(69) Moreover, according to Saussure, "the linguistic signifier . . . is not phonic but incorporeal constituted not by its material substance but the differences that separate its sound-image from all others."(70) As a result of a similar, yet at the same time radically opposite, process, very possibly equivalent to that which, for Mondrian, "annihilates the plastic means,"(71) the negative field is also incorporeal, constituted not by "material substance" (e.g., the "surface," as usually understood) but the "materiality" of radical disjunction. Thus, not only is it "unthinkable," but also, in some sense quite different from before, "unseeable."
The negative field can be characterized as irrational, even as the ground of the irrational, but it is also "logical," in a sense that can perhaps best be conveyed by the remarkable phrase of Alexander Baumgarten: Ars Analogi Rationis ("art of the analogy of reason"). This phrase constitutes the essence of what he called, in a founding act for which he has rarely been given adequate credit, aesthetica. Baumgarten's "sensory logic," both opposed to, yet structurally analogous with, logic "proper," has for its object, not the abstract categories of the conceptual, but, on the contrary, the "individual in its immediacy as it is grasped in sensate experience" by means of poetry or the visual arts.(72) Since I have written elsewhere on the significance of Baumgarten's ideas,(73) I will not elaborate, except to say that, though he influenced Kant, the former's theories can by no means be said to be incorporated within those of the latter, and are still, in fact, little known or understood.
The negative field is therefore an aesthetic field, which makes it, once again, a matter of: "perception," "sensory experience," "seeing," "materiality," etc. This is reflected in the incredibly precise, precisely "logical," placement of all elements which produce the field, a precision especially evident in the radically simplified, highly disjunctive spaces of synthetic Cubism. Such precision, which cannot be accounted for by either the Saussurian considerations invoked by Bois and Krauss, or any conceivable geometric principle, is, for me, founded in what I have called "'the perceptual axiom,' the anti-axiom which explodes the 'axiomatic' itself,"(74) that which lies at the heart of Baumgarten's aesthetica, his ars analogi rationis. But just as aesthetica is, first of all, ars, i.e. an artifice, not a "given" of nature, so must we understand the negative field as opposed, not simply to the conceptual, but the entire opposition conceptual (formed by thought) vs. perceptual (unformed presence, given directly by nature), which, as Derrida has revealed, lies at the heart of both logocentric metaphysics and the idealist aesthetics of Kant. This opposition, produced by what I have called the "positive field," is itself opposed by the negative field,(75) which, finally (for now) we can call, in Derridean terms (but hardly in accord with Derridean "doctrine"): ground of the trace (as trait, mark, contour, etc.) / the trace (or trait -- as passage -- that which "passes through all") as ground.
Opposing, as it does, both "thinking" and "perception" in any usual sense, the negative field opens
new vistas on both. One could say that, in Cubism, as in Derrida's own texts, univocal thinking is
challenged by an awareness of multireferentiality, "dissemination." "Seeing" or "perception," as
passive "experience," in terms of what Derrida has called "an irreducible receptivity,"(76) or what
for Greenberg would simply be an unmediated encounter with "the material surface," can have no
meaning in the context produced by the negative field. What we have been calling the "surface"
has in any case melted away into the negative field as ground -- "analogi rationis." But seeing in
quite another sense, perception in quite another sense, is of the essence. I prefer to describe it as
the act of seeing, the struggle to see, the seeing of seeing itself, as struggle, in its contingency, its
heterogeneity, its ephemerality, its materiality, its "passing." Such seeing, radically other to the
conceptually controlled perceptual processes, logical or rhetorical, that have traditionally
repressed it, radically other also to the original dream of Realism, that "metaphysical presence"
always questioned by Derrida, radically other to the whole dichotomy, "sensible" vs. "intelligible,"
which, for Derrida, founds metaphysics itself -- this "other" seeing, does not, cannot, transcend,
but simply (and successfully) opposes, from without, the same repressive logos which Derridean
deconstruction hopelessly hopes to deconstruct from within. In the light of such seeing, where
neither our words nor our "thinking" nor our "vision" can follow, in the ratio established by this
anti-rational proportion, the untranscendable ratio of logic and reason can, without paradox, be
held at bay, and a certain "truth," finally, be "told." In painting.
1. Victor Burgin, ""The Absence of Presence: Conceptualism and Postmodernisms," in Burgin, The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity, (Humanities Press International: Atlantic Highlands, 1986), pp. 30, 31.
2. Ibid., p. 39.
3. 3. Healthy signs of reaction against the narrowly "postmodern" view of the arts, and culture generally, have been revealing themselves of late, as in, for example, W. J. T. Mitchell's Picture Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), Donald Kuspit's Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and Christopher Norris' What's Wrong with Postmodernism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990) and The Truth About Postmodernism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993).
4. Burgin, Op. Cit., p. 36.
5. Victor Burgin, "Modernism in the Work of Art," in Ibid., p. 18.
6. See Victor Grauer, Montage, Realism and the Act of Vision, unpublished monograph, 1982; "Modernism/ Postmodernism / Neomodernism," in Downtown Review, Vol. 3 Nos 1&2, 1981/82; "Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts," in Semiotica 94-3/4, 1993 (reissued, with an additional preface and postscript directed for the most part to musical issues, in Music Theory Online, vol. 2.6, Sept. 1996, available on the Internet at http:// boethius.music.ucsb.edu/ mto/issues/ mto.96.2.6/ mto.96.2.6.grauer.html); "Mondrian and the Dialectic of Essence," in Art Criticism, vol. 11 no. 1, Spring 1996.
In "Modernism/ Postmodernism/ Neomodernism" I claim that there are at least three distinct "modernisms": "A" modernism, which encompasses the major Cubists, Mondrian, Schonberg, Webern, Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen, Joyce, Stein, etc., along with the remarkable American filmmaker Stan Brakhage, is the only strain of modernism which I find to be totally and completely of the 20th Century; "B" modernism is, essentially, "romantic" modernism, an application of certain aspects of "A" modernism to a fundamentally idealist aesthetic, the intensification of a late nineteenth century outlook this category includes most of the Futurists and Constructivists, Kandinsky, Malevich, most of the Abstract Expressionists, etc. this is, essentially, the modernism of Clement Greenberg; "C" modernism I associate with the tradition of skepticism and self-reflexive thought, founded by the Sophists of ancient Greece this form of modernism, best exemplified by the work of Duchamp, represents an attack on the pretensions of "B" modernism, and provides the basis for that strain of postmodern art and criticism which has reacted most strongly against "modernism" generally.
7. Almost all the many references to Greenberg in the literature of postmodernism cite one volume, a miscellaneous collection of brief critical essays entitled Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961).
8. Meyer Schapiro, Paul Cezanne (New York:Harry N. Abrams, 1952) pp. 9, 10.
9.. See, for example, the analysis by Merleau-Ponty in his "Cezanne's Doubt," in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert and Patricia Dreyfus (Evanston:Northwestern University Press, 1964) pp. 13,14. One of the clearest analyses of the contradictions discussed here can be found in Aaron Berkman's relatively little known Art and Space (New York:Social Sciences Publishers, 1949). See especially pp. 115, 116. I am indebted to Berkman for many insights regarding Cezanne.
10. 10. It is commonly held that the Cubists fragmented objects according to "multiple views" so their signs could then be "conceptually" reconstituted by the viewer over the course of time, the "fourth dimension." Thus Werner Haftmann speaks of the "representation of different aspects of an object in juxtaposition, so that the partial views of an object can be turned into a total mental view . . ." [Painting in the Twentieth Century (New York:Praeger, 1965) pp. 99-100] While something resembling "multiple viewpoints" does seem to be at work in Cubism, the notion that such "partial views" could somehow be turned into "a total mental view," over time or otherwise, is, in my opinion, totally misguided. The role of the conceptual in Cubism is far more problematic.
To fully grasp the falsity of the multiple viewpoint theory one need only compare a Cubist painting with certain examples of Northwest Coast Indian art, where, indeed, objects are systematically splayed out and flattened so that all views, front, sides and back, are simultaneously visible. These representations appear confusing and unreadable until their very consistent language is explained. Once given the keys, we can reconstitute the signified objects mentally with little trouble. Northwest Coast Indian art is a language of fragmented, multiple views -- when we learn to "read" this language, its "partial views" are turned into "a total mental view." Cubist paintings never resolve in this manner. For an equally skeptical view of "multiple views" see John Adkins Richardson's "On the Multiple Viewpoint Theory of Early Modern Art," in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 53 no. 2, spring 1995.
11. 11. Thus, art historian Linda Nochlin writes of the transition from Realism to modernism as "the transformation of the Realist concept of truth or honesty, meaning truth or honesty to one's perception of the external physical or social world, to mean truth or honesty either to the nature of the material -- i.e. to the nature of the flat surface -- and/or to the demands of one's inner 'subjective' feelings or imagination rather than to some external reality." [Realism (New York:Penguin, 1971), p. 236.]
12. A classic example of a critique of both "Greenbergism" and "modernist" art on the basis of a simplistic application of Greenberg's thought is Rosalind Krauss' essay, "Grids" [in Krauss, The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Myths (Boston: MIT Press, 1985)], in which the author argues that pervasive use of "the grid," simultaneously "material" and "ideal," reveals a fundamental contradiction at the heart of a modernism seeking to repress the essentially romantic roots of its deepest impulses. There is certainly some insight in this, but, in an apparent eagerness to atone for past Greenbergian sins, Krauss concocts a "metanarrative" as reductive as anything ever produced by Greenberg, finding "grids" and artistic dead-ends everywhere she casts her eye. As she once seemed to understand, things are not that simple. Indeed, in her (pre-poststructural) Passages in Modern Sculpture [(New York: Viking Press, 1977)], she goes to some length to distinguish between two wings of Constructivist art, one basically neo-romantic, neo-idealist, the other "concerned primarily with the surface of its materials and the contingincies of the situation, spatial and otherwise, of its immediate existence" [see pp. 43-53]. In her later writings, such distinctions vanish. (See my essay "Mondrian and the Dialectic of Essence" [Op. Cit., pp. 17-22], for a response to the charge, so often and unjustly as in "Grids" -- brought against Mondrian, of a self-deluding idealism.)
13. Opus Cit., p. 72.
14. A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1979), pp. 214, 215.
15. Goran Sonesson, Pictorial Concepts (Lund: Lund Univ. Press, 1989), p. 14.
16. The basic properties of the "Lifeworld" concept are set forth in Ibid., pp. 30-34.
17. See Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting, (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1983), chapters 1 - 4, p. 85.
18.. Ibid., p. 67.
19.. Ibid., p. 85.
20. Norman Bryson and Mieke Bal, "Semiotics and Art History," Art Bulletin 73, June 1991, p. 194.
21. James Elkins, "Marks, Traces, Traits, Contours, Orli, and Splendores: Nonsemiotic Elements in Pictures," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 21, No. 4, Summer 1995, p. 827.
22. Ibid., p. 859.
23. Jacques Derrida, ``Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences'' (1966) in Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. A. Bass (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 279-281.
24. See "Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts," Op. Cit.
25. A somewhat similar view has been expressed in Yve-Alain Bois' "The Semiology of Cubism" [in Picasso and Braque: A Symposium, Ed. Lynn Zelevansky (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1992)], where he writes of "a 'semiological attitude' [which] had been at the core of what is usually called Cubism right from the start . . . " [p. 175.] For Bois, however, this attitude is more a reaction against realism than a development from it.
26.. See "Picasso and Braque: An Introduction," in Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism (Museum of Modern Art:New York, 1989), p. 16.
27.. Much more is at work, however, than a simple process of "flattening" the space. Even at its most thoroughly fragmented and "decoded," the Cubist facet is capable of producing a very powerful illusion of depth, a major source of the extraordinary fascination these paintings can command. It is in demonstrating the full power of the illusion, powerful even in the process of being "decoded," that Cubism becomes a truly profound analysis of representational syntax.
28. I'm not sure what to make of the strange claims of Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois regarding the importance of "the grid" to Cubist painting. [See Krauss, "The Grid," Op. Cit., and Bois, "The Semiology of Cubism," Op. Cit., p. 180 et seq.] Both write as though Picasso and Braque were in the habit of laying out a priori geometric grids as guides in the organization of their work. In a "question-answer" session published in the Symposium, after Bois' essay, Edward Fry takes strong exception to this idea and I agree. While certain other artists (Gris, for example) may well have utilized such a device, there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of grids, a priori or otherwise, or any other form of rational systemization, anywhere in the work of either Braque or Picasso. There are indeed many instances of linear simplification (straight lines, simple curves) and opposition (horizontal vs. vertical, diagonal vs. opposite diagonal), but no evidence that such simplifications are connected with some regularized scheme, geometrical or otherwise.
29. As Yve-Alain Bois demonstrates in his "Kahnweiler's Lesson" (Representations 18, Spring, 1987), this aspect of Cubism was already recognized by linguist Roman Jakobson and his associates during the Twenties and became, moreover, an active influence on the development of structural linguistics and semiotics at the time. Bois credits art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (who of course had many opportunities to discuss such matters with Picasso, Braque and Gris) with developing a very similar insight independently. Many links between Cubism and Saussurian linguistics are revealed in this most interesting paper and its highly significant sequel, "The Semiology of Cubism." [Op. Cit.] See also Rosalind Krauss' "In the Name of Picasso" [in The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Myth, Op. Cit.], where Saussurian linguistics is applied to Picasso's collages in a most interesting manner. For my problems with the views of both Bois and Krauss with respect to the Saussurian model, see below in the text.
30.. As quoted in Sources of Semiotic, ed. D. S. Clarke Jr. (Carbondale:Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), p. 131.
31. See, for example, the treatment of figurae in Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics Op. Cit., pp. 213-216 and Goran Sonesson, Pictorial Concepts, Op. Cit., pp. 159- 193.
32. For a thorough treatment of this problem, see Sonesson, Op. Cit., pp. 291-295.
33.. It is a commonplace of poststructuralism that the receivers of any message perform a work on the message, thereby contributing to the "production" of its meaning. As should be obvious, however, such "work," when applied to the problem of reading traditionally organized imagery at the level of object recognition, is essentially unconscious and immediate. Analytic Cubist images, on the other hand, force their viewers into struggling with the work from a consciously active analytic standpoint in order to see anything in it at all. Such viewers, like semiologists, are aware of their own "work on the image."
34. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974), p. 50. Derrida is writing in reference to Peirce's notion of "infinite semiosis."
35.. As an example of what a visual metalanguage might be, we can turn to the remarkable work of M. C. Escher, whose prints can be understood as constituting a language about the language of visual representation. Escher is involved in many of the same issues as the great Cubists, but his treatment of space, solidly based in the grammar of "positive" syntax, is far less problematic and challenging.
36. John Berger et al., Ways of Seeing (London: Pelican, 1972), p. 16.
37. See Jean-Louis Baudry, ``Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus,'' in Cinethique 7/8 (1970); translated from the French in Film Quarterly (Winter, 1973/74) and Chrisitan Metz, ``The Imaginary Signifier'' (1975), translated in Screen , vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 1975).
38. See Jacques Lacan, ``The Mirror Stage As Formative of the Function of the I As Revealed In Psychoanalytic Experience'' (1949) in Lacan, Ecrits, trans. A. Sheridan (New York:Norton, 1977), pp. 1-7.
39. For an explanation of this principle see Grauer,"Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts," in Semiotica, Op. Cit., pp. 237 - 238.
40.. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo , in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. by A. A. Brill (New York:Modern Library, 1938) pp. 867, 872-873, 876, 880.
41.. An excellent summary of Jakobson's theory appears in Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1974), pp. 19-22.
42. I am for this reason highly skeptical of the recent adaptation of Bataille's informe by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss [ October 78, Fall 1996, is devoted largely to this topic].
43. 43. The power of this sort of visual aporia might best be understood by comparison with what might seem an equivalent effect in so many of M. C. Escher's designs, where certain images can be read in more than one way. Escher's "paradoxes" stem from long known and well understood effects based on the presence of two or more conflicting syntactic fields. One can clearly see what is represented, but cannot decide whether to "place" it within one framework or the other. The much more complex paradoxes of Cubism work to undermine the very possibility of seeing in terms of any syntactic field whatsoever. The powerful form-dissolving action of Cubist passage undermines both the very ground of pictorial semiosis and the subject produced by it, thus undermining representation and ultimately "seeing" itself. If Escher's rather mild ambiguities can be called "paradoxes," we are justified in calling the far stronger effects of Cubism "aporias."
44.. For an extended discussion of negative syntax and the negative field in a broader context, involving music as well as the visual arts, see Grauer, "Toward A Unified Theory of the Arts," op. cit., pp. 243-250. See also my essay, "Mondrian and the Dialectic of Essence," Op. Cit.
45. Julia Kristeva, "From One Identity to Another," in Kristeva, Desire in Language, trans. by Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977, p. 133. See also Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).
46. Victor Grauer, Montage, Realism and the Act of Vision, unpublished monograph, 1979-81.
47. In a fascinating, probing, but also rather fanciful and partisan study of Duchamp, Thierry de Duve presents a very different view of the role of the subject in Cubism: "In demanding realism and, in particular, a realism of conception, orthodox [i.e., non-Duchampian] Cubism did not so much try to represent the object as it was . . . as to ensure that the subject would stay as he was, a master of his perceptual field and sure of his own identity. . . The Cubists [wanted] to safeguard or reconstitute the self-presence and the unity of the classical subject at the price of an active breaking up of the world of objects." Thus, for de Duve, it is not Braque and Picasso but the bitter Cubist "outcast," Duchamp, who achieves a "complete dismemberment of the self." [Pictorial Nominalism: Duchamp's Passage from Painting to the Readymade (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 78-80.] It is difficult to see how one could argue that a breakup "of the world of objects" could preserve the "classical subject" without first assuming that "object" and "subject" can be clearly separated, a position which I doubt de Duve would want to reinstate. He, like so many other "postmodern" critics, is taking Greenbergian modernism ("mastery of the perceptual field") much too literally and, as a result, drawing completely untenable conclusions. It is indeed difficult, especially from the Lacanian viewpoint so central to de Duve's analysis, to see how the "object" could be totally reconstituted without this having a profound effect on the "subject." Nor is it easy to see how a viewing of Cubist imagery, probably the most complex and unsettling in the history of art, could lead one to imagine oneself "master of the perceptual field."
48.. Reproduced in William Rubin, Picasso and Braque:Pioneering Cubism (New York:Museum of Modern Art, 1989) p. 257.
49. Indeed, the relation between the effect of flattening and the invocation of written or printed text in Picasso's papiers collés has led both Rosalind Krauss ["The Motivation of the Sign," in Picasso and Braque: A Symposium, Op. Cit.] and Yve-Alain Bois ["The Semiology of Cubism," Op. Cit.] to posit a move on Picasso's part from the iconic sign to the "unmotivated," i.e. arbitrary, sign of verbal language. For reasons which immediately follow in the text, and others, to be presented shortly, I cannot agree.
50. Positions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 45.
51.. Thus, statements such as Victor Burgin's claim, that, for modernism, "the art object was to signify nothing; that is to say, it must not serve in the place of something which is absent as the signifier of that absence but rather it must serve, like the fetish, to deny that absence" must be understood as strictly applicable to certain aspects of Greenbergian modernism, and certain artists he admired, but certainly not to all modernist works. [see Burgin, "Tea With Madeleine," in The End of Art Theory, op. cit., p. 106.] Cubism, as Burgin himself has implied, does not deny the referent but in fact multiplies it.
52. "Realism and Ideology: An Introduction to Semiotics and Cubism," by Francis Frascina in Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction, by Harrison, Frascina and Perry (Yale University Press:New Haven, 1993) pp. 87-183.
53. See Yve-Alain Bois, "Kahnweiler's Lesson," Op. Cit. and "The Semiology of Cubism," Op. Cit.
54. 54. See Rosalind Krauss, "In the Name of Picasso," in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Myths, Op. Cit. and "The Motivation of the Sign," Op. Cit. While Krauss and Bois each develop complex, impressive and insightful arguments, many of their points are weakened by what appear to be flawed premises: 1. both place a great deal of importance on a simplistic reading of Peirce's index, which cannot, as they seem to think, be regarded as an unmediated "presence" which could somehow escape or even undermine semiosis (for a thorough examination of this issue, see Sonesson, Op. Cit., 38-65); 2. there is little in the work of either which reveals an awareness of certain fundamental problems of pictorial semiotics, as raised in my earlier discussion of Eco, Sonesson, Bryson, Elkins and Derrida indeed, their framework for treating Cubist semiotics proper (as manifested, for them, only in Picasso's constructions and collages) depends upon the linguistics model, long ago dropped by most investigators as unworkable; 3. I find the "motivated" (iconic) vs. "arbitrary" (signifying) opposition they posit untenable for many reasons, notably the fact that arbitrary signs cannot function in the absence of socially established conventions, which Cubism clearly flaunts they apparently have failed to notice how the opposition motivated/ arbitrary is consistently put into question by both Picasso and Braque.
55. Both Bois and Krauss seem often on the verge of moving beyond semiosis, to a recognition of the manner in which Cubism not only invokes the sign but, at the same time, puts it in question. Thus, Bois writes of how, in Picasso's papiers collés, "signs take on a life of their own, almost entirely disconnected from the identity of the object as referent. . . As a result of this disconnection, the signs 'migrate' in all kinds of directions." ["The Semiology of Cubism," Op. Cit., p. 191.] But there is a holding back, a reluctance to proceed beyond the merely polysemic, which seems curious. Elsewhere, invoking Shklovsky's notion of "defamiliarization," the "making difficult" of the sign, Bois writes: "But an investigation of this meta-linguistic, or rather meta-semiological, level of Cubist production would constitute in itself a vast chapter which I cannot open here." [Ibid., p.178.] As Bois hints in this section, there may well be a fear of "falling back" into "modernist" constructs, a process which might end by once again privileging the visual over the "textual."
56. Krauss and Bois find geometrically determined "grids" underlying the design of pre-1912 Cubist paintings. I (and others) have not been able to find any evidence that such grids exist [see note 28, above]. They have little or nothing to say about the spatial determination of the later works, the ones they find to be properly "semiotic," which, for them, no longer depend on "the grid."
57. Much in both Mondrian's theory and practice casts considerable light on the workings of Cubism, which influenced him profoundly. For a discussion of this relationship, see my essay "Mondrian and the Dialectic of Essence," Op. Cit., pp. 3-11.
58.. To dismiss, simply as hindsight, the notion that deconstruction may in some sense be derived from Cubism, would be to reveal that one is staring down the wrong end of the historical telescope. Modern semiotics has clearly been profoundly affected by Cubism, and the writings of Derrida show many signs of Cubist influence, however indirect. While the history I have in mind is complex and in some ways speculative, the following time line should be taken seriously: Cubism -> Futurism -> Constructivism -> Russian Formalist Linguistics -> Structuralism -> Modern Semiotics -> Poststructuralism -> Deconstruction -- or, more directly (and speculatively): Picasso -> Lacan (Picasso's physician and member of his intimate circle) -> Derrida.
59.. in Writing and Difference (University of Chicago Press:Chicago, 1978, p. 20.
60.. see "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," in ibid., p. 282.
61.. see "Differance," in A Derrida Reader:Between the Blinds, ed. Peggy Kamuf (Columbia University Press:New York, 1991), pp. 65-66.
62.. Ibid., p. 70.
63. As the above strongly suggests, the negative field not only opposes, but appears also to interpenetrate the positive field [see also my "Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts," Op. Cit., pp. 247-250.], in such a manner as to imply a mutually complementary action. Since a veritable abyss nevertheless yawns between the two opposed terms there would seem to be some resemblance to the notion of complementarity developed by Niels Bohr to deal with certain aporia of quantum theory, such as the wave/ particle opposition. Certain formulations of Derrida also seem to have a similar, radically complementary, aspect. [The role of complementarity in the thought of both Bohr and Derrida is the subject of Arkady Plotnitsky's Complementarity: Anti-Epistemology after Bohr and Derrida (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).]
64. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McCloud (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1987.
65. Ibid. pp. 11, 12.
66. Ibid. p. 61.
67. Memoirs of the Blind: The Self Portrait and Other Ruins Trans. Pascal-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 53. Similar themes, the wearing away of borders, the "giving" of "place," "passage" as trespass of borderlines, are treated in several of Derrida's most recent works.
68. In the essay already cited ("Marks, Traces . . .," Op. Cit.), James Elkins produces an extended critique of Memoirs of the Blind. What most disturbs him is Derrida's "general lack of interest in seeing and a concomitant fascination with the invisible . . . Is it possible not to read an unthematized and even a personal lack of engagement with images in this 'logic' that takes us so swiftly from transcendental conditions to the possibility of writing? . . . Derrida's is a repressive reading, a way of silencing the drawn trace by letting it melt away into writing." [pp. 837-838.]
69.. Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique generale (Paris: Payot, 1922), p. 159.
70. Saussure, Op. cit., p. 7.
71. "The equilibrium that neutralizes and annihilates the plastic means is achieved through the proportions within which the plastic means are placed and which create the living rhythm." Piet Mondrian, "General Principles of Neo-Plasticism" (1926) in Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian:Life and Work (New York:Abrams, 1956).
72. 72. Leonard P. Wessell, "Alexander Baumgarten's Contribution to the Development of Aesthetics," in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 30, no. 3 (Spring,1972) p339. Wessell is here paraphrasing from Baumgarten's major work, Aesthetica (1750-58).
73. See Victor Grauer "Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts," Op. Cit., pp. 244-245.
74. "Mondrian and the Dialectic of Essence," Op. Cit., p. 22.
75. 75. Writing of the strange, almost mystical notion of "khora" as presented in Plato's Timaeus [in "Khora," translated by Ian Mc Leod, in Derrida, On the Name (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995)], which for Plato is neither "sensible" nor "intelligible," but belongs "to a third genus," Derrida asks: "Beyond the . . . opposition of logos and mythos, how is one to think the necessity of that which, while giving place to that opposition as to so many others, seems sometimes to be itself no longer subject to the law of the very thing which it situates?" [p. 90] He goes on to write of a "structural law which seems to me never to have been approached as such by the whole history of interpretations of the Timaeus. It would be a matter of a structure and not of some essence of the khora, since the question of essence no longer has any meaning with regard to it." [p. 94] The Chora (sic) is, for Julia Kristeva (to whom Derrida never refers), a central aspect of her notion of le semiotique. "[U]nnameable, improbable, hybrid, anterior to meaning, to the One, to the father, and consequently, [that which is] maternally connoted . . .," [she is here quoting Plato], Chora indicates what Kristeva calls "the semiotic body" as an emptiness or mold within which its opposite, signification, shapes itself as a child within the mother. Reference to the maternal function is an important aspect of this formulation; indeed, the chora first manifests itself in that period of infancy, prior to the mirror phase, when there is no perceived distinction between child and mother. [Kristeva, Op. Cit., pp. 133, 136. See also Kristeva, "Place Names," op. cit. p. 284.] Despite their differences, both formulations reveal the limitations which any purely language-based attempt to get beyond the "sensible/ intelligible" dichotomy must encounter. Derrida must posit Khora "as a matter of structure" which is at the same time indeterminate; Kristeva's construct must be centered in a "body" which perpetually retreats into the world of metaphor. Both notions bear too close a resemblance to the Jungian archetype. While the negative field shares certain qualities (or should I say "lack" of qualities) with Khora (both are neither sensible nor intelligible), it is a determinate, limited construct, not an indeterminate, "infinite" possibility, which works to undermine the "archetype" at its source. [see my essay "Mondrian and the Dialectic of Essence," Op. Cit., pp. 12-17.]
76. "Khora," Op. Cit., p. 111.