Fillip 5 — Spring 2007

Marked as Withdrawn
Cheryl Meszaros

The image […] is given in an opening that indissociably forms its presence and its strangeness.1

Jean-Luc Nancy—that gentle yet fierce philosopher of sense and community—has turned his formidable gaze toward the arts many times throughout his life. In each of these encounters, he offers the arts as access—access to sense. This sense, though, does not “appeal to sense as prior content; it does not communicate any sense, but makes it.”2 Nancy performs this startling arrival of sense for us with his texts. To watch these texts perform their melodic dance of precision—to watch them make sense—is to be touched, however fleetingly, by thinking itself. It is this gentle touch of Nancy’s thought as it whirls toward sense that I pursue here, following one line of thought through two of his books and landing, resting for a moment, in the company of a Scenes Unseen, a recent installation by Vancouver artist Ruth Beer at the Western Front Gallery in Vancouver.

Nancy’s thought works toward sense by un-working the stability of meaning that clusters around evocative words such as surprise, the distinct, and by contrasting it to conventional notions of Sense. In The Muses, he takes up the surprise:

Man began with the strangeness of his own humanity. Or with the humanity of his own strangeness. Through this strangeness he presented himself: he presented it, or figured it to himself. Such was the self-knowledge of man, that his presence was that of a stranger […] The schema of man is the monstration of this marvel: self outside of self, the outside standing for self, and the being surprised in face of self. Painting paints this surprise. The surprise is painting.3

This surprising strangeness of painting, this firm and persistent alterity that animates The Muses, re-surfaces in The Ground of the Images as both the figure and process of the distinct. The distinct is a force of separation, demarcating what is set aside, removed, cut off,4 operating as the mark and marker of difference. The project of the distinct is the creation of a sacred distance, a substantive alterity that is opposed to maintaining religious _bonds_—be they with others or oneself, with nature or with the gods. A “scared” distinction begins when art begins “not in religion but set apart.”5

The distinct, though, is more than simply drawing a line that demarcates. The distinct operates within a multiple tension—a tension that sets apart, keeps separate, and at the same time is a crossing of this separation. This multiple tension marks what is drawn or set apart as withdrawn. “One cannot touch it […] because the distinct line or trait separates something that is no longer of the order of touch, not exactly untouchable, then, but rather an impalpable. This impalpable is given in the trait and in the line that separates it, it is given by the distinction that removes it.”6

The distinct as the withdrawn, as a proximity that brings distance close, harbours the extracting and unbinding touch of Nancy’s thought. This distinct finds resonance, finds rest, in Ruth Beer’s video called Hiding (2006). Consisting of six short segments shot during Beer’s residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta, the video was projected life-sized onto two adjacent walls of the gallery. Each segment was staged and shot in different work/production spaces at the Banff Centre: office, studio, public reception, audio-visual storage, and hallway. Each space is both generic and conspicuously unique, marked by the traces of artists who have passed through them. In each segment, the same hearty and confident young woman enters the space and immediately begins choreographing her concealment, her withdrawal, her separation from sight. Without fanfare, but with an aura of professional routine that clings to these spaces, she simply slips from the office chair, slowly disappearing, filling the space under the desk. It is when her withdrawal is complete, when she has extracted herself from our sight and from the image, that her presence becomes distinct. This odd, not quite funny withdrawal, this recursive play of concealment and unconcealment, is performed like a normalized habit, such as tidying the office space. Withdrawal is replayed in this manner as she hides in various bookshelves, storage units, closets, and cupboards of the Banff Centre. Each time this nameless woman withdraws and the camera captures an image of her withdrawnness, there is a caesura in which her presence is palatable. In Hiding, Beer has produced the multiple operations of the distinct—imaging a line produced by the very distinction that removes it. This multiply recursive operation, by my reading of Nancy, is the sense art offers to us.

This sense, one that performs and is brought into being by the distinct, is differentiated from the capital S Sense that Nancy speaks to in Multiple Arts: The Muses II:

Sense [and that is the capital S Sense] demands in an exemplary manner to be a collection, a gathering and a sheltering. Sense demands a temple, a metaphysical horizon, a God, and ancient-style prose. But the necessity and neediness of sense—which perhaps constitutes the whole of our “modernity”— demands the caesura, a transport elsewhere, the disparity between places and situations, the interruption of truth.7

Nancy expands the caesura from the pause or break in the flow of a verse, to a more productive space where the caesura is a break in the flow of institutionalized meaning, interrupting truth and allowing sense to arise. A break in institutionalized meaning is precisely what Beer’s work demands we attend to. What is this pause in the productive work of an institution What is this withdrawal of the subject What is this poignant presence called forth by withdrawal

This confluence of ideas—the sense of our own strangeness as a durable alterity recognizable in representation; the sense of an image’s distinct operations; the Sense interrupted by caesura—is admittedly only one line of thought in the sparkling array of Nancy’s philosophy that expands toward sense.

Reading Nancy, though, is anything but easy. It can be thoroughly seductive and even intoxicating; it can be equally alienating and obfuscating. Reading Nancy is, rather, like trying to seize an object under water where the act of grasping toward the object produces a force that pushes it away. There are many ways to counter this persistent withdrawal—some are more productive than others. One is to take a hammer to these texts in an attempt to drive into them a critical position. Another is to crack them open with the tools we already know how to wield. These operations would show Nancy’s work to be teetering on the edge of an old hermeneutical project of “sense” as “understanding” and, as such, would stand as a meager re-write of Heidegger, or as just so much self-indulgent poetry without reference to the political. The problem with brandishing these tools is that they insert only what we already know into these texts. At their very best, they are a “work-out” that makes Sense, that reinforces one’s position, making it more shapely, more rigid.

Another strategy, and one that I prefer, is to welcome these texts into a community of enquiry that is committed to reading texts with generosity. In my case, this community is an ongoing reading group composed of treasured colleagues from many disciplines. Reading with generosity is an attempt to allow the sense of a text to unfold—despite all of those critical hammers screaming for their say. Generosity asks, and is willing to hear, the surprise and distinctions that a particular text enacts. This singular attention wrought from a collective effectively surrounds the sense of a text, holding (or perhaps just slowing) its relentless withdrawal long enough so that we can all attend to it. This new kind of critical attention, fostered by generous reading, has taught me how to find and follow new trajectories of thought, new ways of attending to sense, new ways of tethering it to the world, finding it in the withdrawal and hiatus of Ruth Beer’s work. It is critical attention without the hammers.

If the sense that Nancy offers us resists, purposefully and poetically, the weak hammers of critique, the same could not be said for market economy that has taken up and produced something akin to a Nancy industry. For years, Nancy worked closely, and successfully with his translators to ensure that there would be room for semantic resonance to reverberate in and through the translation of his works. In The Muses and Figure of the Ground, the prose is so deliberate, so structurally and poetically loaded that it is often difficult to follow its agile and subtle moves, and this, of course, is intentional; it is the gesture that undoes Sense, surprises it and creates a new and temporally performative sense. However, Nancy’s growing fame as of late has produced a fetishism of sorts around each of his utterances. Sadly, far too pages of the The Muses II are filled with just that kind of fixation. Scattered interviews that try to explain sense (which only reproduces Sense), a few leftovers, and a few more snippets on poetry and art that hardly warrant a subtitle such as Multiple Arts are clearly filler used to plump up a few original—and very engaging—essays. It is the disappointing syndrome of the sequel and it is doubly disappointing that it has come to the theatre of sense.

  1. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, (New York: Fordham University, 2005), 3.
  2. Jean-Luc Nancy, Multiple Arts: The Muses II (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2006), 6.
  3. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University, 1996), 69.
  4. Ibid., 1.
  5. Ibid., 2-3.
  6. Ibid., 2.
  7. Multiple Arts, 117.

Image: Ruth Beer. Courtesy of the artist and the Western Front, Vancouver

About the Author

Cheryl Meszaros is a lecturer and museum consultant specializing in interpretation. She holds a PhD in Education and is the recent recipient of a J. Paul Getty Museum Scholar Grant.

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