Philosophy of Photography
Volume 4 Number 1
2013 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.4.1.87_1
POP 4 (1) pp. 87102 Intellect Limited 2013
Nigel MappUniversity of Westminster
lyotard, art, seeing
abstractThis araticle examines elements of Jean-Franois Lyotards paradoxical negotiations with aesthetic experiences in order to characterize his critical involvement with discursivized forms of knowing and explanation. These elements are offered as salient and salutary correctives to the symmetrical dogmas of disenchanting naturalisms and culturalisms currently programming typical misprisions of the aesthetic. Lyotards 1971 Discourse, Figure, as well as some of his later writings on visual art and artists, are not interpretatively integrated here but instead explored in terms of an anti-discursive logic that actually animates what appear to be their own anti-aesthetic commitments and conclusions. The article tracks the ambivalent, but persistent, role that perception, art-medium and sensate experience play in Lyotards efforts to see beyond them. This result impacts not only on the kinds of demystification his work should be seen to espouse, but on that pervasive pseudo-category itself.
Rei Terada has noted how the kind of seeing that theory involves is no mere etymological matter. It is a paradoxical resource in theorys tracing of the conditions of perception, a tracing that cannot mean some iconoclastic purging of seeing from reading, perception from cognition:
The word seeing, in all its ambiguity, encompasses both perceptual and cognitive, literal and figurative, meanings, and only our own interpretive decision to collapse its inner difference can
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unify, and hence aestheticize, it. In itself  it represents what we know and dont know of perception and cognition more accurately than the terms perception and cognition do.
(Terada 2007: 16364)
The claim wants to suspend all the contemporary efforts to naturalize or discursivize knowing and perception, at least as standardizing, general ways of separating one from the other. Their difference is instead here taken to be internal to seeing, an experience or activity that inhabits or opens a zone in which both knowing and perception are ambiguously, perhaps resistantly, involved. Aestheticizing the difference would be the stabilizing of their relation into a knowing, not necessarily into a unity (as an inert separation or clarifying autonomization of domains would achieve a cognate obscurity). Seeing is a name that captures or evidences the unseen, scarcely known, role of perception in cognition, and vice versa. It intensifies the critical questions of what is known, and how, in such cognition-perception, as well as of how it can be opposed to, or different from, any factitiously coherent seeing. The questions concern how knowledge may be threatened or promised in each condition, and how aesthetic illusion is both liability and clue.
These are among the problems that give critical aesthetics its equivocal authority its broaching of a space of contestation rather than rendering that authority constitutively suspect. Aesthetics attends to those experiences, with their normative pull, that do not painlessly or convincingly trans-late into conceptual knowing, ideological investment, or subjective predilection. These experiences refuse to their objects or the senses in which they are given the position of exemplary data, the externality to meanings and interests that would make of them indifferent raw materials. It is art, after Kant, that becomes the site of the problematic, especially as artworks are taken to manifest a compelling material specificity, which is to say an authority of the medium, as of the phenomeno-logical or somatic nuances and intensities that such works may occasion. Such experiences demand explication but elude it, along with any reproduction in discursive terms. Thus, aesthetics meets or remarks modern deficits in the authority of experience, its passions and motives, as of its objects. It thinks the penalties of rationalization, abstract equivalences of exchange and concept, and of the disembodied subject as it is stripped down to, then enthroned as, the principle of articulation of indeterminate external givenness.
Space, representationJean-Franois Lyotards philosophy has many centres and interests, but it has much to say, in other terms, about the cognitive claim of art in relation to its medium, and about sensate experience as engaging, or critical. More than twenty years ago, Bill Readings commented on the belated introduction of Lyotard to the Anglo-American academy, and hoped that the by-then depleting animus over
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Lyotard, art, seeing
theory might allow for Lyotards thought to be put to work effectively, beyond the slogans (Readings 1991: xii). With the publishing of more English translations of Lyotard in the last decades (see the effective reader edited by Crome and Williams ), the hope has slowly been realizing, with this author now more fully challenging some important current debates. A complete English translation of Discours, Figure published in French in 1971 has at last arrived (Lyotard 2011). Hudeks and Lydons translation makes available a major text, which, decades ago, was very effectively expounded in English, notably by Geoffrey Bennington (1988) and Readings (1991). It is a major work not only in terms of the theoretical ferment of structuralism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, Marxism and deconstruction that characterized its creative hour, but also in its elaboration of issues central to aesthetics and its contemporary re-functioning and critique. We also have Leuvens six, copious French-English volumes, under the editorship of Herman Parret, which are devoted to Lyotards Writings on Contemporary Art and Artists mainly painters, although music is discussed along with a range of visual and graphic artworks.1 All these works testify to the seriousness of Lyotards engagements with art and to his sustaining relationships with many artists. And they encourage an entanglement with a corpus of comprehensive heterogeneity and still some provisionality of organization.
The following is not concerned to rescue, ramify or re-emphasize this thinker, as such or in the main, or even really to elaborate on the deeper engagements that have recently appeared (see Bamford 2012). The aim is to configure a very selective set of Lyotardian reflections in order to dramatize an apparently anti-aesthetic practice in terms of its treatment, perhaps its fixing or empty-ing, of the heterogeneity and singularity that captivate its attention, and then to suggest the valua-ble, if ambivalently recruited, aesthetics of experience on which this practice appears to rest.
Discourse, Figure first represents a critical encounter with the structuralist tendencies of its time, in which diacritical systems are the transcendental fabric of all experience. Against significa-tion is posed the depth and inexplicitness of perception, an argument informed by Merleau-Pontys chiasmic intrication of world and flesh, seeing and seen. Saussure is the principal target, and in the early sections of Discourse, Figure his systematicity is confronted with the indicative and referential functions of language, with deixis and expression, with the situated acts of speech and writing, with the shape or weight of the so-called signifier confronted, that is, with differences that no diacritical system of oppositions can signify or clarify, or free itself from. The analysis of language seeks what figure names, in an early definition, a spatial manifestation that linguistic space cannot incorporate without being shaken, an exteriority it cannot interiorize as signification (Lyotard 2011: 7 original emphasis). Indication, for example, implies a motivated, graduated envi-ronment, not an oppositional space. Figure expresses, too, the insistences of desire, and the book moves from a phenomenology to a psychoanalysis, and to a breakdown of perception into a figural form that instances libidinal processes. So the inter-irreducibility of domains, of seeing and
1. For instance, the fourth volume of this latter series (in two parts) and the fifth are men-tioned in what follows: Lyotard (2012a, 2012b, 2012c).
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reading, mooted at first, changes to an understanding of each domain as a compaction of hetero-geneous spaces.
Although this is not how Lyotard develops his account, Saussureanism might be termed, follow-ing Paul Ricoeur, a Kantian transcendentalism without a subject, and we might add, taking it as a general type of cognitive machine, that it is one without a transcendental deduction, too: rather than systemic demands guaranteeing objectivity, the (merely) indispensable conceptual or constructive forces organize an undifferentiated given that has no powers of constraint over what gets imposed on it. The given will always and infinitely be, in itself, that which falls outside the cognitive or repre-sentational apparatus. Instead of questioning the model or exploring its aporias, any appeals to what lies outside such reason are actually capitulations to its embrace, in principle, of all possible salient contents. For resistance to count for anything, it must appear as and to something. The more radi-cal appeal is so only because it is empty moralism. Lyotards evident hostility to Hegel, and occa-sional invocation of Levinas, is part of the impression his work makes of some such rigidifi