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Issue 18. Thinking Pictures

The Sensive Image. De-Thinking the Figure with Bataille and Levinas

Author: Antony Hudek
Published: September 2007

Abstract (E): When does an image stop to think, about itself, its 'content,' its viewer? To attempt to answer these questions – relating to the possibility of an immanent, affective iconic force – the images which appear at the end of Georges Bataille’s Les larmes d’Eros (1961) prove invaluable. For the photographs of a young Chinese man in the process of being dismembered, to which Bataille repeatedly refers, open onto an ethical debate about the necessary or salutary distance to (the image of) the other. Emmanuel Levinas, who did much to set the parameters of this debate, here addresses Bataille, who had the courage to face, to think, an extreme case of iconic proximity.

Abstract (F): Quand est-ce que l’image cesse de penser ; interrompt la réflexion, sur soi, son 'contenu,' sur les spectateurs qu’elle vise ? Pour tenter de répondre à ces questions – relatives à l’existence d’une force iconique immanente et affective – les images sur lesquelles se clôt Les larmes d’Eros (1961) de Georges Bataille offrent des indices. Car les photographies du jeune Chinois, son corps dépecé par un bourreau, auxquelles Bataille se réfère à plus d’une reprise, participent d’un débat éthique sur la distance nécessaire, ou prescrite, face à (l’image de) l’autre. Emmanuel Lévinas est un des interlocuteurs majeurs dans ce débat ; on en appelle ici à ses écrits, au sujet de ces images exemplaires d’une proximité extrême, excessive.

keywords: Georges Bataille, Roland Barthes, pensive versus “unpensive” photographs, death

 

To cite this article:

Hudek, A. The Sensive Image. De-Thinking the Figure with Bataille and Levinas. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 18 (2007).
Available: http://www.imageandnarrative.be/thinking_pictures/hudek.htm

 

How do you expect to speak of photography without speaking of desire? If I masked my desire, if I stripped it of its gender [ genre ], if I left its contours undefined - as others have done more or less successfully - I would have the impression of weakening my stories [ récits ], of turning them into cowards. But it is not about courage (I'm not politically engaged), it's only a question of the truth of writing. I can't find a more straightforward way of putting it: the image is the essence of desire, and to desexualise the image would be to reduce it to theory .. (Guibert 89, translation mine, as all subsequent translations unless noted otherwise)

This immense moment - like uncontrolled laughter, infinitely happy, unmasking what outlasts it (by revealing the inevitable decline) - substituted water with alcohol, the apparent proximity of the sky with an absence of death, a void without end. (Bataille 1962: 25)

 

The image on the poster, advertising a colloquium on radical passivity in Emmanuel Levinas' philosophy that took place at the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht , in 2006, is barely recognisable. It takes a moment, and a certain distance, for the clots of small red dashes to contract into the pixilated image of a human figure, genderless, cropped at the shoulders and bust. To recognise in the computer-modified portrait the figure of a young man, his body dismembered piece by piece by a torturer, one would have had to have seen the photographs upon which it is based - those, most famously , which held Georges Bataille in thrall, and which he reproduced in his last book, The Tears of Eros , dubbed of "Chinese torture." [ supplice chinois or supplice des cent morceaux ]. (Margat) The poster's design - by Joël Vermot/Harrisson - forces the viewer back, creates a distance between her/him and the image, substituting the intimacy guaranteed by The Tears of Eros with the declamatory, quasi-abstract and anonymous sign language of advertising. In establishing this distance, a process of de-figuration, and de-signification, c omes to the fore, prompting us to ask not only how to think of, about such images of extreme violence, but how such images think themselves.

 

For Benda Hofmeyr, the organisor of the colloquium on radical passivity, Bataille's obsession with the "Chinese torture" images "is the 'substance' of Levinas's ethics: involuntary fascination, arresting paralysis that overcomes conscious thought." "What is important in this context," she adds, "is not the violence of the image but Bataille's reaction to it, i.e. its impact." (Hofmeyr) But how to speak of the encounter between Bataille and the images reproduced in the The Tears of Eros without reference to the violence they depict? What is the connection between the image's "impact" (and how to qualify this impact?) and Bataille's "reaction" (to what exactly, the photograph, its "violence," its referent?)? What I aim to do below is focus on the point of intersection between Levinas and Bataille - the "Chinese torture" image - and consider its figural status: its capacity to illustrate, to expose what for both resists figuration, namely the traumatic event of the other's appearance. What Hofmeyr assumes - that Bataille's obsession can be a case in point, the "substance" of Levinas' ethics - the poster questions: how to give form, to picture, to think, to see the unrepresentability of the ethical encounter on the basis of an image which precisely performs it?

 

Is, then, the photographed young man, powerless at the hands of his executioner, a figure of Levinas' radical passivity - a passivity "more passive than all passivity" "that cannot be reduced to an exhibition to the other's gaze"? (Levinas 1974: 116) This is unlikely: justice for Levinas, and the punishment meted out according to it - a curtailment of the subject's supposed liberty - does not precede the truth and goodness which inform radical passivity. Rather, justice emerges with my anticipating its obligations of me: whereas the judgment of history belongs to the realm of the visible - and whose absolute figure could very well be the victim pictured in the "Chinese torture" photograph - the 'ethical' justice which I am obliged to anticipate partakes of the transcendence of morality, exceeding the totality of justice. (Levinas 1961: 274, 338) In other words passivity to the other's approach is prior to any universalisable logic of justice; it cannot be willed nor seized by the intellect (or the mind's eye), only spontaneously responded to, specifically in response to the order issued by the face of the other facing me. This diffuse gaze, the face's, is irreducible to sight. The latter is akin to the doctor's diagnostic hand that prods the patient's body, establishing a cognitive distance between the subject and 'its' object. But the gaze, which the face of the other calls forth, is a caress, "the non-coincidence of contact," "an intrigue which cannot be subsumed under the travails of representation and of knowledge, under the access to images or to an exchange of information." (Levinas 1974: 126, 144; see also 19 6 1: 206, 208, 211; Crignon 110 )

 

Yet in its simultaneous exposure and dissimulation (through pixilation) of the victim's partial body, the image on the poster insisted . It insisted on asking what could be the relation between the body of the young Chinese man reproduced in The Tears of Eros and a caressing address that "transcends the gaze," in which volition and rationality - the subject's agency - would be rendered powerless but which, at the same time, could not forego perception and desire of something, of someone. (Irigaray 236) It would no longer be a question of the image's capacity to figure the radical passivity (im)motivating ethical agency, but rather of the proximity between the image reproduced in Bataille's last book and a philosophy, Levinas', which holds that "knowledge is an act which shatters its own condition," that the presence of the other is a "privileged heteronomy" impossible to know. (Levinas 1961: 85, 89) Conversely, this same philosophy, in which the fear of death is equated with that of the other (262), seems to insist, through the snapshot of a 'real' execution in China , circa 1905, on its proximity to the (dis)figuration of the willful, creative subject - of Bataille himself. The two deaths are inextricable: the death of the object which figuration re-presents to the subject and the death of the subject thinking the object precisely through its figurative representation. And both deaths collide in/on the image.

 

For Levinas the image, like the event of the other's summons, exerts passivity, so to speak, but a passivity which falls short of being radical, for it signals a 'free' liberty in appearance only, allowing the subject to enjoy the spectacle of itself as if from the outside, as if an object. (Levinas 1987: 3, 4) Like physical suffering, the image is ambiguous: a putting off, a deferral, and therefore an assertion of subjectivity's agency in the face of pressure from without; at the same time the image is subjectivity's violent submission into a presentness before death, an extenuation of the ego before any action has taken place. (Lannoy 42-44; Levinas 1987: 13) This fundamental ambiguity common to suffering and image is erotic, and laughable, bringing to light a passivity which only resembles its more radical twin. As Levinas argues, however, this trivial semblance is enough to prepare for the face's approach, for a radical passivity to come. (Levinas 1961: 92, 127, 267, 295) After all, assigning a negative role to the image is 'negative' only in relation to the 'positive' that would be ethical agency. (Levinas 1984: 108; Hayat 23). Levinas' impure "aesthetics and ethics of the amourous gesture," crystallised in the image, is interesting/interested not for what it represents but for its representational drive, for its resemblance to the inimitable experience of alterity. (Irigaray 235; Levinas 1987: 6) No represented object is representational enough to quell this lust for the unrepresentable face sparked in the subject by the image.

 

Both Levinas and Bataille invoke magic and "esctatic rites" to describe the image's mimetic cunning - mimesis which aspires to truth through sensibility. (Levinas 1987: 4, 19 6 1: 260; Bataille 1961: 237, 1988b: 421-422) What is laughable or horrible about a certain type of image that strives to picture 'imageity' itself - a type I qualify as sensive - is not the object, but the status of an essentially discursive figure capable of taking on the subject, eroding its lofty finitude into an indecent exposure of libidinous desire. (Levinas 1974: 143, n. 1; Bataille 1988a: 276-277; Lyotard 50-51) Images of violence, in other words, can be violent themselves - violating the subject's illusion of its self as thinking, through the illusionism of the image's resemblance to something, as thinkable. (Levinas 1991: 214) For both thinkers mainstream (Bretonian) surrealism's ambition to represent that which exceeds vision, to picture its excess, was as futile as it was detrimental to the potency of image as a category of non-knowledge [ non-savoir ]. (Levinas 1987: 1; Bataille 1954: 62; for Levinas on surrealism cf. Poirié 71) Surrealist images are merely romantic clichés that give "a wrong idea of a movement which strips bare necessarily and forces one to enter a desert naked." (Bataille 1970a: 242) Between the violent image's lure of the subject into a world of semblant things and its suspension of subjectivity into a nothingness which is (always) not (yet) death, the image "need hardly represent horror, but its movement easily promotes it to the level of the worst and, inversely, the depiction of horror reveals its openness to all that is possible. This is why one must focus on that intensity which it reaches in the vicinity of death." (Bataille 1988b: 486; quoted in Didi-Huberman 2007: 62)

 

 

Love at first sight

 

The Tears of Eros surveys "a history of eroticism" from the cave paintings and sculptures of the Paleolithic to the early-twentieth photographs of "Chinese torture." The many reproductions of paintings throughout the book render the opening and conclusion of The Tears of Eros particularly significant, since neither the introductory photographs taken at Lascaux nor the "Chinese torture" photographs at the end qualify as art, and as such do not warrant aesthetic, "subjective" interpretation. (Bataille 1988a: 274, 291) Bracketed by photographic images, the story told by Bataille obeys an ostensible diachronic logic. Yet these same photographs undermine the book's progression, making the other 'artistic' illustrations look like "the interminable detour" Bataille speaks of in the last paragraph of The Tears of Eros , "which gives access to the instant when, visibly, opposites appear bound, when religious horror (.) blends with the abyss of eroticism." (Bataille 1961: 237; cf. also Ungar 258) That is to say that the photographic instant upsets the figurative continuum of Bataille's history, just as he sought in the latter to confront the incommensurable temporalities of the "little death" and of "a definitive death." (Bataille 1961: 8; 1957: 306)

 

In what follows I argue that a temporal ambiguity, at once erotic and deathly, is constitutive of a certain mis-en-scène, the performativity of the photographic image that questions the latter's claim to thought, or as Barthes would call it, to "pensiveness." This amounts to clarifying the extension of Barthes' term (in Camera Lucida ) - "Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes but when it is pensive , when it thinks" - to the classification of "pensive images" as those "able to philosophise on the status of their own representation, and on the nature of vision." (Barthes 1981: 38; Grootenboer) Simply dismissing the "Chinese torture" photographs in The Tears of Eros as depictions of unthinkable violence, and as such incapable of or impeding thought, is insufficient, since, quite obviously, arguing for their unthinkability would be a contradiction in terms. But this might not be as obvious as it first seems: Barthes locates the photograph of his mother as a child - which he designates as the "Winter Garden" photograph - outside reason, invoking, in the conclusion of Camera Lucida , a "photographic ecstasy," a "mad" form of non-art photography. (Barthes 1981: 116, 117, 119) On the other hand, in his study of The Story of the Eye , Barthes asserts that Bataille's images (metaphors) are neither mad nor free. (Barthes 1982: 124) Madness, irrationality, are thus terms too coarse to make sense of the ways in which some images engage with thought: for a mad photograph does not necessarily cease to think, it only thinks differently. Or as Bataille exclaims in the introduction of The Tears of Eros : "the end of reason, which exceeds it, is not opposed to the overcoming of reason!" (Bataille 1961: 8) Seeking an answer to the question of how such images as those reproduced in The Tears of Eros affect thought brings us to, and past, the limits of the question of their thinkability, and hence of our capacity to deal with images that refuse to think like we (conventionally) do. What will distinguish the pensive from the sensive image will hinge, therefore, on the latter's impact on common conceptions of apprehension, by highlighting ways of thinking other than those premised on the subject's cogito and 'objective' knowledge.

 

The definition of "pensive image" appears in Part One of Camera Lucida , shortly after Barthes introduces his well-known distinction between studium and punctum that leads him, in Part Two, to discuss the Winter Garden photograph without, however, reproducing it, "since it exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture .; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound." (Barthes 1981: 73) Now the problem with Barthes' qualification of photography as "pensive" is that it appears to conflate it with studium - "what I invest . with my sovereign consciousness" - rather than with the punctum - the "explosion" which punctures the studium , "which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me." (49, 26) The Winter Garden image, an exception to photography's general pensiveness, must remain forever out of reach of the spectator, on the one hand to shield it from her/his applied studium , and on the other to protect him or her from the punctum 's mortifying emanations of light. The withheld snapshot of Barthes' mother as a child surpasses photography's basic analogical function; to paraphrase Gilles Deleuze, in this case the image would be digital, not in the sense of counting on one's fingers but in the sense of manual, of a hand groping, touching on behalf of the eye. (Deleuze 67) In short, the Winter Garden photograph is "unpensive" because corporeally affective. By contrast most of the photographs of Barthes' recently deceased mother catered only to his studium , failing to touch him because still logical, because not mad enough to connect her body to his. "These same objects," Barthes says of these "ordinary" photographs of his mother, "were merely analogical, provoking only her identity, not her truth; but the Winter Garden Photograph was indeed essential, it achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being ." (70-71)

 

Camera Lucida , then, is splayed between the studium which drove Barthes to compose the book - in a bid to "make [himself] the measure of photographic knowledge" (9) - and the punctum which endangers the book's function as a corpus of knowledge. The closer Barthes believes to be to the core of the Photograph, i.e. the absent Winter Garden image, the more his description of photography adopts a Bataillian vocabulary: as "wound," "burning," "madness," "a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing." (119) Rosalind Krauss is quick to identify Barthes' ultimate impotence to control photography's maddening ambiguity between life and death with Surrealism, particularly with "that combination of madness and love" André Breton termed "explosante fixe." (Krauss 1985: 95, 99) Yet one should not overlook Barthes' resistance to photography's ecstatic excess - for otherwise Camera Lucida would not have been - this despite the "undialectical death" he experienced at the sight of the Winter Garden photograph. (Barthes 1981: 72, 90) "In this veracious photograph, the being I love, whom I have loved, is not separated from itself: at last it coincides. And, mysteriously, this coincidence is a kind of metamorphosis. (.) suddenly the mask vanished: there remained a soul.." (109) Barthes' last book is testimony to his power to "resurrect" and dissimulate the image of his deceased mother into a first-person singular Bildungsroman , through photography. (64, 80, 82, 97)

 

Camera Lucida is to Barthes' ouvre what The Tears of Eros is to Bataille's: a book that remains inconclusive however hard it tries to conclude. Both works admit to an impossibility of referencing that which captivates their authors: a photograph of a loved body, now irrevocably estranged. For Bataille The Tears of Eros is the work "which counts the most to my eyes." (Bataille 1987: 660) And the "Chinese torture" photographs which terminate his text hold sway over him in much the same way as the Winter Garden photograph did over Barthes:

The young and seductive Chinese I spoke of, at the mercy of the torturer's skill, I loved him of a love free of sadistic instinct. He communicated to me his pain, or rather his excess of pain, and it was precisely this which I sought, not to enjoy [ jouir ] but to ruin in me what resisted ruination . (Bataille 1954: 140)

 

I possess since 1925 one of these images. They were given to me by Doctor Borel, one of the first French psychoanalysts. This photograph has played a decisive role in my life. I haven't ceased being obsessed by this image of pain, at the same time ecstatic (?) and intolerable. (.) Much later, in 1938, a friend introduced me to the practice of yoga. It was on this occasion that I discerned, in the violence of this image, an infinite power of reversal." (Bataille 1961: 234, 237)

 

If, for Barthes and Bataille, a photograph of a cherished body acts as an erotic memento and a horrific repoussoir , their handling of the image differs in an important way. The Winter Garden snapshot must remain out of sight lest it destroy the subjective unity of Camera Lucida , while Bataille spreads various shots of the "Chinese torture" series across three pages of The Tears of Eros . Against Barthes' pursuit of an "impossible science of the unique being," Bataille's layout bespeaks of visual obsession and subjective detachment, to which no figurative manipulation - be it textual or visual - can re-endow with proper form. Editions of Camera Lucida generally remain faithful to Barthes' juxtaposition of image and text, whereas The Tears of Eros , from the very first, could dispense with a fixed layout: the first part of the book appeared in Tel Quel in 1961 without any accompanying image, the same year as the first Pauvert edition. If the Winter Garden photograph and the "Chinese torture" images concern the figurability of emotive sight, the former's absence (a negative positive) seems unable to confront this sight head on, while the latter's excessive, multiplied presence (an inherently positive negative) shows itself to be beyond sight, yet squarely within its reach. What Barthes retains, Bataille squanders: for its 'shameless' disregard for the integrity and privacy of the "Chinese torture" photographs - a gift to the author by his psychoanalyst, later associated with the friend who introduced him to yoga - The Tears of Eros could be said to act out the notion of expenditure [ dépense ] in an unproductive economy of giving, of transgressing private propriety (here the constitution of the artist's last public gesture and the subjective meaningfulness of 'objective' representation). (Barthes 1981: 98) Now that "Everything that was generous, orgiastic, excessive has disappeared: themes of rivalry which continue to condition individual activity develop in obscurity, like shameful eructation." (Bataille 1967: 37) In the obscurity of the interior experience laid bare in The Tears of Eros - "a scattered space, plural, without identity or references"- a photographed body, vulnerable to the eye's dissecting power, manages to testify to the earliest forms of waste-driven economies. (Arnaud and Excoffon-Lafarge 43)

 

Unsurprisingly, Bataille's dismemberment of the "Chinese torture" photographs has attracted the suspicious eye of the critic, for whom the author-subject's unity is sacrosanct. (Bourgon) The Tears of Eros , his biographer claims, contains "too many approximations, too many obscurities, too much awkwardness . [for one] not to regret a certain editorial precipitation." (Surya 1992: 578 n. 1) No doubt the cerebral sclerosis from which Bataille suffered at the end of his life is responsible for a writing that is "painful, as if done under dictation, unusually clumsy." (Bataille 1987: 716 n. 1) And no doubt, too, J.M. Lo Duca's editorial assistance of the ailing Bataille made The Tears of Eros possible, but also contributed to its "awkward" layout and mistaken captions. Still I would argue that it is in the jarring, at times seemingly arbitrary, relation between text and image, particularly evident in the suite of "Chinese torture" images, that dépense comes as close to visibility as is possible without consuming itself. Just as Camera Lucida negotiated the fragile balance between punctum and studium - ultimately siding with the latter - the "Chinese torture" images may have marked Bataille as that which resists expenditure while refusing assimilation into the book's discursive thought [" pensée discursive "], thus making their status as illustration problematic, even dangerous, revolting. For what role do they play in Bataille's text if not as signs of an unsettled and unsettling ambiguity between pleasure and pain, between the "little" and the "definitive" death?

 

 

The time of death

 

"The tears of Eros are proffered in anticipated dread of what the photographs offer as an unthinkable, ungraspable externality: the spectacle of death, spectacle's end. At the point at which tangency no longer provides space for the least transposition." (Hollier 1989: 84) Something beyond "thinkability" and "graspability," but within the confines of logic, repeatedly attracts Bataille; something which only photography could index, equivalent to Barthes' punctum : "a vertiginous point which is meant to contain in its interiority what the world conceals of what is torn, the incessant slippage of everything towards nothingness. Time, if you will." (Bataille 1954: 137) And the point or punctum for both authors resides in the same object (of desire): that which confronts the seeing/seizing eye and the thinking mind with the endless catastrophe of slow, unconsummated death. For Barthes and Bataille the photographed body de-thinks - dé-pense - by promising an exteriority to which interiority aspires, but can never achieve, short of revulsing oppositional, dialectical thought. "Dépense, in other words, connotes something difficult to stomach, something the belly cannot contain - like shit or vomit. Such excrement is the refuse that can be neither refused nor re-fused." ( Taylor 134) Expenditure participates in the same base materialist economy as the informe , "which has no other existence but operational: it is a performative, like the word 'obscene,' whose violence is due not so much to that which it refers than to its utterance." (Bois and Krauss 15, 37) But if the informe is always at risk of turning into figuration if incorporated into discursive thought, one has a right to ask whether Bataille forfeits the ambiguity of the "Chinese torture" photographs by reducing them to sight - in the same way that Barthes restores dialectical reason to Camera Lucida by keeping the Winter Garden photograph out of sight while making it the focus of his study.

 

For Georges Didi-Huberman, Bataille's "Chinese torture" photographs are an inconclusive attempt at salvaging the image, failing to fail completely to overcome their abjection. (Didi-Huberman 2007: 336) Yet as Yve-Alain Bois and Krauss argue, privileging a dialectical movement in Bataille's ouvre betrays the informe 's irrecoverable sliding towards the low, a betrayal leading to the recuperation of the image as a productive heuristic tool. (Bois and Krauss 73). To fulfill the image's dialectical metamorphosis Bataille would have had to define - that is, represent - the interminable, incomplete "nothing" that makes the photographs in The Tears of Eros signs of an intolerable "death from not dying," an obstacle to self-ruination (Stoeckle 3-4; Bataille 1954: 144). But representation per se is precisely what the (sensive) image allows Bataille to represent: the "Chinese torture" photographs concern the visibility of the visible, not of the in visible: carnation rather in carnation; not interiority, but a figural drive permeating visual and textual reference. This an-economic impulse is the furthest imaginable cry from dialectical completion. (Lyotard 52)

 

The slippage performed by the "Chinese torture" photographs is primarily temporal, and therefore irrecuperable through figuration alone (reproduction or metaphor). And it is time which helps distinguish torture [ supplice ] from sacrifice. Etymologically, " supplice " relates to supplication, a plea no response can properly satisfy. (Bataille 1954: 48) "Like the sacrifice which alters, destroys the victim, killing it without neglecting it ," torture concerns the subject, exalting and annihilating it in the same motion. (Bataille 1995: 80) But if sacrifice is communication - and therefore includes art, a paroxistic state where the subject is finally dissipated - the torment of supplication never accedes to fulfillment, incapable of freeing itself from the anguish provoked by the knowledge of its limits. (Bataille 1970a: 238; 1988b: 421) "Never can one establish a limit, for the moment a man delves into suffering he can no longer be sure that a barrier which resisted heretofore will not break." (Bataille 1988b: 263) In The Tears of Eros Bataille notes that the "Chinese torture" victim was given opium to prolong the spectacle of his agony. (Bataille 1961: 233) He further adds a significant interrogation mark after "ecstatic" in the second passage quoted above, as if to signal the inadequacy of a term better applied to sacrifice: "I have not ceased to be obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic (?) and intolerable." (234)

 

The "Chinese torture" photographs may be intolerable, but their ecstatic potential can never rid itself of a doubt that undermines its epistemological wholeness. In Le Coupable Bataille describes the following encounter with the same set of images:

I have just looked at two photographs of torture. These images have become familiar: one of them however is so horrifying that I could not but lose heart. I had to stop writing. I went, as I often do, to sit in front of an open window: as I sat down I fell in a kind of ecstasy. This time I no longer doubted, as I had, painfully, the day before, that such a state was more intense than erotic lust. I see nothing: this is neither visible nor sensible. This makes one sad and heavy from not being able to die. (Bataille 1943: 53)

The paradoxical 'sight' of the sensive image is horrific because it affords an experience barely discernable from erotic lust. Ecstasy may or may not follow - hence the need to return to the image in order to provoke it into bearing witness to a final act . Only through such persistent viewing can the negative be exhausted, and the beholding subject assert her/himself from, and simultaneously lose her/himself in, the world of knowledgeable things. (Levinas 1987: 4)

 

 

The image's caress

 

Bataille agrees to Levinas' conflation of "art" with the il y a, the nothingness of being which dissolves the distinction between exteriority and interiority, prior even to the division between objectivity and subjectivity. But Bataille focuses instead on the corollary of Levinas' argument, namely that representation exemplifies the subject's attraction to its own dissolution in the il y a . There is an inside to the experience of the il y a which the image affords; what this image is exactly is unknowable, "in as much as knowledge pushed to the extreme is the dissolution of knowledge." (Bataille 1948: 133) Bataille integrates Levinas' positioning of the image in the shadow of reality into a general (an)economy, emphasising the transpositions [ glissements ] operating in the deathly lure exerted by the image - deathly for the subject's upstanding view of its self. Thus when Bataille speaks of disproportion, a certain "monstrosity without madness" revealed in a photograph of a provincial wedding, he has no intention of going beyond, or below the image, of transgressing it in the name of effusion or extreme sensation. (Bataille 1970b: 185; compare to Barthes 1981: 59) If the photograph indeed triggers a form of transgression, it is not as an image capable of transgressing itself as Didi-Huberman would have it. (Didi-Huberman 1995: 61) It is, rather, as an "approach," an "economic insistence on the intensity of closure. Thus, the fact that it cannot be stopped is also the fact that it will never arrive, or will never 'take place' as a positivity." (Libertson 23)

 

The transgression of the image does not "take place," nor does it cut or interrupt; rather it spells out an impossible event: "neither a presence, nor a future authentically to come, irreducible to the present and its possibilities or projects, unanticipatable." (Crignon 114) Whereas Barthes sacrifices the photograph's studium to preserve the punctum , Bataille trades the iris-like point on the image's surface for the slow, conscious looking at the photographic image that refuses to yield to productive valuation. No empathy or reciprocal exchange of affect; no metaphor can come to grips with the "Chinese torture" photographs in The Tears of Eros , since they represent nothing more, nothing less, than a "meantime" expanded into the present instant of looking. Hence the need to overturn René Char's phrase, chosen by Bataille as epigraph to his Méthode de méditation : "If man did not sovereignly close his eyes, he would eventually lose the ability to see what is worth seeing." (quoted in Foucault 764) Instead, to be touched by Bataille's sensive image in The Tears of Eros , it would be necessary to "sovereignly" keep one's eyes open, to dwell on the spectacle of death not as a scene of representation but as an unproductive act of passionate, obsessive contact. For in the end the problem lies with seeing, not with blindness: "In a universe of 'impossibility,' the principle underlying receptivity is not the spontaneity of comprehension, but rather an 'inability to close the eyes,' an 'inability not to understand'.." (Libertson 6) As a child Bataille could look at his father, who was blind, without fear of being seen in return. (Surya 1997: 9-10, 77-78) The asymmetricality of this encounter is the one afforded by the sensive image, marking a temporal fissure between the image's ambiguous eventfulness and the protracted deployment of the beholder's gaze.

 

The gaze which the sensive image impels is unique, addressing the beholder's body as would a lover's caress. (Levinas 1974: 143-144; Barthes 1981: 87-88) But the image's sensiveness in proximity is not jouissance ; its subjectivity remains unfigurable, "never able to assume a distance from exteriority which would be adequate to manifestation or phenomenality;" its caress is "not a seizure, but a hand that seeks without finding." (Libertson 20, 27 ; Crignon 110 ; cf. also, for Barthes, Saint-Armand 162) Whether through reproduction, substitution, cropping, pixilation or, in Barthes' case, deletion, the sensive image of a unique face and body, when captured by photography, is inevitably universalised and neutralised. Yet its singular relation to the onlooker, the lived, bio-iconological relation to its author, renders it always already posthumous: a subject-less present in waiting.

 

In the same essay in which he discusses Levinas' philosophy, Bataille compares the passage from the individual to the universal with Phenomenology of the Spirit and a portrait of the aged Hegel. In the latter Bataille sees "a chilling impression of completion, in which all possibilities fall into place." "The reduction of the individual to the universal," Bataille adds, is "riveted to particularity through anguish. But this appeasing reduction is hardly the effect of measured wisdom: it is a destruction that scandalises, suffocates, even though reason accounts for and requires it." (Bataille 1947: 523-4; cf. also 1954: 56) Instead of Phenomenology of the Spirit and an image of the elderly Hegel, The Tears of Eros and the "Chinese torture" photographs leave us with a sensive image of the dying Bataille - a figure scandalised, suffocated in prolonged contact with the body of a young Chinese man, whom he loved.

 

 

 

With warm thanks to Raphaël Cuomo and Maria Iorio for their invaluable companionship in approaching Bataille's imagery. Thinking with them has proven most affective.

 

 

 

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Antony Hudek is currently researcher in the Theory Department, Jan van Eyck
Academie, where he is working on Jean-François Lyotard's aesthetics,
particularly on the 1985 exhibition Les immatériaux. He received his PhD in
art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, in 2006.

   
 

 

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