5 Apr 2010

Figural Studies: Lyotard's Distinction between the Figural and the Figurative (figural, figuratif)

[May I thank the sources of these images:
Credits found at the end.]

Figural Studies:
Lyotard's Distinction between
the Figural and the Figurative (figural, figuratif)

Paul Klee: A disguised woman, 1940
(Thank you very much olgaistefan.wordpress.com)

In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze draws from Lyotard's distinction between the figurative and the figural [see his footnote 1 of the first chapter]. Figures in Bacon's paintings are not figurative in the sense of representing some object. We cannot look at a Bacon figure and by means of its appearance refer our minds to some definite object that the image re-presents for us.

Now let's consider something: no matter how much description we give for an object, we never seem to exhaust it of what it fully is. There is something about objects that enters into language, but in a way which cannot be fully explicated. In other words, there is always something implicit. The figural is similar to this. Perhaps it is like a non-representational presentation of what is inherent to all meaning, but which cannot be fully rendered textually or pictorially into a figuration of some sort. Hence a Bacon figure has the forces of meaning and significance powerfully expressed within it; and nevertheless, the figures do not stand for something or present anything except what they fully are and fully express to us implicitly and sensationally.

First I quote from Bill Readings' Introducing Lyotard: Art and Politics. Then I quote from Lyotard's Discourse, figure.
[Lyotard's Discours, figure] explores the nature of the distinction between discursive signification (meaning) and rhetoricity (figure). Since the figural is explicitly resistant to the rule of signification, saying what the terms 'mean' is problematic [...] Discourse is the name given by Lyotard to the process of representation by concepts. Discourse, that is, organizes the objects of knowledge as a system of concepts (units of meaning). Meanings are defined in terms of their position in the discursive network, by virtue of their opposition to all other concepts or elements in the system. Discourse thus imposes a spatial arrangement upon objects which Lyotard calls 'textual', a virtual grid of oppositions.

For Lyotard, the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure exemplify this discursivization of textual space, reducing all effects of language to meanings produced by the play between signifiers. Language is understood by Saussure as linguistic representation, in terms of the tabular system of opposed elements which make up language. In the field of figurative space, the order and proportion of Renaissance perspective performs a parallel discursive reduction of the visible to the representable. As in the costruzione legittima of Duccio's Maesta, the geometrization of perspective determines the visi-bility of objects as their relation to other objects on the spatial grid of the perspectival plane (DF: 202-208). The rule of discourse is thus the claim to order being as a structure of meanings, to identify existence with the representable by the establishment of the exclusive rule of a network of oppositions between concepts or signifiers.

Against the rule of discourse in figurative and textual space, Lyotard insists upon the figural. It is crucial to understand that the figural is not simply opposed to the discursive, as another kind of space. Lyotard is not making a romantic claim that irrationality is better than reason, that desire is better than understanding. [ft 1]. If the rule of discourse is primarily the rule of representation by conceptual oppositions, the figural cannot simply be opposed to the discursive. Rather the figural opens discourse to a radical heterogeneity, a singularity, a difference which cannot be rationalized or subsumed within the rule of representation. Discours, figure evokes a difference or singularity of objects (A is not B) [ft 2] which cannot be thought under the logic of identity, as an opposition (A is defined by not being the rest of the system). This discursive system cannot deal with this singularity, cannot reduce it to an opposition within the network (Readings p.3-4). The object resists being reduced to the state of mere equivalence to its meaning within the system of signification, and the figural marks this resistance, the sense that we cannot 'say' everything about an object, that an object always in some sense remains 'other' to any discourse we may maintain about it, has a singularity in excess of any meanings we may assign to it.

The figural arises as the co-existence of incommensurable and heterogeneous spaces, of the figurative in the textual or the textual in the figurative, for example. Discours, figure itself works to move from a series of oppositions (the figurative line to the textual letter, for example) to find an irreducible difference at work in each opposed identity (the graphic letter has a plastic force, as in mediaeval manuscripts; the plastic line performs an arbitrary conceptual demarcation of space, as in modernist art). (4a)

From Lyotard's Discourse, figure:

Quant à l'espace de figure, « figural » le qualifie mieux que « figuratif » ; ce dernier terme en effet l'oppose, dans le vocabulaire de la peinture et de la critique contemporaine, à « non-figuratif » ou « abstrait » ; or le trait pertinent de cette opposition consiste dans l'analogie du représentant et du représenté, dans la possibilité offerte au spectateur de connaître le second dans le premier. Ce trait n'est pas décisif quant au problème que est le nôtre. Le figuratif n'est qu'un cas la peinture renaissante. Le terme « figuratif » indique la possibilité de dériver l'objet pictural à partir de son modèle « réel » par une translation continue. La trace sur le tableau figuratif est un trace non-arbitraire. La figurativité est donc une propriété relative au rapport de l'objet plastique avec ce qu'il représente. Elle disparaît si le tableau n'a plus pour fonction de représenter, s'il est lui-même l'objet. Il vaut alors par la seule organisation du signifiant. Celle-ci oscille entre deux pôles. (Lyotard 211c)

Paul Klee: Human Weakness, 1913
(And thank you too olgaistefan.wordpress.com)

Lyotard, Jean-François. Discours, figure. Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1971.

Readings, Bill. Introducing Lyotard: Art and Politics. London: Routledge, 1991. Preview available here.

Images obtained gratefully from:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Corry - Thanks for posting the Lyotard' s quote.
    I can see that the figurativ and non-figuratif tandem bears the non-arbitraty trace with them. Yet is it always so? I think I can have an image of something that has no rapport to the reel. Second question:
    Why does the ' figurabilite' disappear once we look at the object for itself?Does it disappear?
    This part is dark to me: "Il vaut alors par la seule organisation du signifiant. Celle-ci oscille entre deux pôles."
    Does Lyotard mean that the Figural is that which enables the ' oscillation'of signifiant between the figuratif and non figuratif?
    What organises the signifiant?
    I am trying to write a thesis about the Figural, and I appreciate any discussion.