Thursday, 21 July 2011

I am no longer Mallarmé

I have seen the frost that coats the human body. Its texture is smooth and changes in the light. Over time, the frost develops cracks and falls to the earth, in the process revealing the inhumanity of the body we grow inadvertently attached to. In a letter, I once read how the body can decompose and yet remain present, leaving the residue of a ghost in its wake: “I am now depersonalized; I am no longer Mallarmé, but simply a means whereby the spiritual universe can become visible and can develop through what was once me.” From this letter, I take seriously the notion of the human body as an impersonal manifestation of a prehistoric, blind force, which could at any time revert to such a primordial state, reducing the body to a channelling device for another time and place.

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Language of Hauntings

(Léon Spilliaert, "Self-portrait in front of a mirror." 1908)
The unconscious is that chapter of my history that is marked by a blank or occupied by a falsehood: it is the censored chapter. But the truth can be rediscovered; usually it has already been written down elsewhere. In monuments: this is my body. That is to say, the hysterical nucleus of the neurosis in which the hysterical symptom reveals the structure of a language, and is deciphered like an inscription which, once recovered, can without serious loss be destroyed.
(Lacan Ecrits. p.38).

How do you know the first thing about the meaning of a facial expression inherently inhuman?

(John Campbell, Who Goes There? p. 45).

Leon Spilliaert is haunted by his own reflection. In a self-portrait, his gaze can be seen staring back to the viewer through a series of mirrors. Leon Spilliaert’s mouth is open and his eyes appear to have been replaced with glassy orbs slotted in the flesh of his face. Through those eyes, the viewer cannot be sure if there is indeed a subject — Leon Spilliaert —peering from beyond the wall of the face. The face is frozen and mute; the pitiful expression of the mouth, less a scream of agony and more a final gasp gently collapsing inwards. Where Leon Spilliaert’s teeth once existed, a dark opening now appears, the flesh of the upper and lower lip held in place through the bones of the upper cheeks. The face is hollow and sullen, as if held in some glacial landscape. The artist confronts himself, and what he sees is already dead. In the mirror, Leon Spilliaert encounters his ghost, prematurely present in the world of the living. The ghost, ostensibly thought of as inhabiting the realm of the dead (if not the undead), has come too soon, thus rendering the still living Leon Spilliaert a specter of his own corporeality.

How can we begin to understand the inflections and gestures of the human body? How can we begin to “read” the haunted face of Leon Spilliaert? The question hints at the problematic relation between speech, thought, and gesture. Leon Spilliaert has a face, and it is a face that comes to us as a particular style of being. How do we understand this face? How does it allow itself to be understandable? Who gives the face its understanding—the viewer or the painter? And finally, what is expressed in this face: a disclosure of the facticity of being haunted, or, a symptom that cannot be withstood by Spilliaert, the self-conscious subject?

By making recourse to Merleau-Ponty’s account of bodily expression, two initial options can be discerned. One, we can rely on a language of representation that enables us to place Spilliaert’s gestures in a conventional context. If this is the case, then the defining gestures of his face—the hollow eyes, the gawping mouth, and the skeletal bone structure—would have a meaning independent of the face itself. Transplant those gestures to another context and their meaning is retained. As Merleau-Ponty has it in his criticism of the empiricist’s account of speech and thought: “There is no speaker, there is a flow of words set in motion independently of any intention to speak” (MP 2006, 203). If we take the gestures of his face as structurally parallel to speech, then we are forced to view bodily gestures in third-person terms: the lived relation between the specificity of Spilliaert and the corporeality of his gestures is lost.

The second way to think how Spilliaert’s body can be understood is through internalizing its meaning. Here, consciousness would confer upon those gestures their meaning and significance. From such a view, Spilliaert’s thought forms in advance of his face, and his face only gains the significance it does through the fact of having a “state of mind” that gives the body its form (205). For Merleau-Ponty, both of these accounts fall short, and his refutation assumes a simple form: “The word has a meaning” (206).

The word has a meaning. With this claim, Merleau-Ponty is in a position to intertwine thought and speech into a singular entity. Does speech presuppose thought? For Merleau-Ponty, the question has no bearings, as there is no causal relation between thought and speech. Instead, he argues that meaning requires expression. Phrased another way, the teleological structure of thought is orientated around some form of articulation. Speech is not the afterthought of thought: it is thought itself in the act of thinking.

To the body of Spilliaert, to the body of those who are haunted, and to symptoms that have no rational place within the scheme of the subject: when the body of the human turns to the mirror and finds another self gazing back, then the experience of surprise is only because the body is unable to think in advance of its expression. Indeed, part of the horror written into Spilliaert’s face is as much a horror of being haunted by the premature arrival of a ghost, as it is the horror that the ghost was there all along. How does this expression come into the world? Is there a silence into which a fortuitous circumstance — Spilliaert being placed between two mirrors in a particular room — allows the expression to take shape? Finally, is this gloomy environment simply the means by which the inner world of the haunted gains a voice?

Merleau-Ponty raises doubts over this inner silence, a silence that pre-exists expression. “In reality,” he writes, “this supposed silence is alive with words, this inner life is an inner language” (213). That human beings are able to enter into the world of Leon Spilliaert’s face is only possible because we too share in that world, a world that has its origins in a “primordial silence,” which renders meaning possible (214). The concrete unity between Spilliaert the haunted subject and the Spilliaert the haunted body attests to Merleau-Ponty’s conviction that bodily gestures are not a mode of recalling or representing an already existing thought, but are themselves the manner in which thought is giving life. This is what we see in the painting: Spilliaert creating a particular world through the discourse of language, a language that is interwoven with the ambiguity of being a bodily subject.

Thursday, 14 July 2011


In boundless space countless shining spheres, about each of which, and illuminated by its light, there revolve a dozen or so smaller ones, hot at the core and covered with a hard, cold crust, upon whose surface there have been generated from a moldy film, beings which live and know… This is what presents itself to us in experience as the truth, the real, the world.

Yet for a thinking being it is a precarious position to stand upon one of those numberless spheres moving freely in boundless space without knowing whence or whither, and to be only one of innumerable similar beings who throng and press and toil, ceaselessly and quickly arising and passing away in time, which has no beginning and no end; moreover, nothing permanent but matter alone and the recurrence of the same varied organic forms, by means of certain ways and channels which are there once and for all.

(Schopenhauer, World as Will and Representation).