PRINT February 1991


THE SHOW RECENTLY CURATED by Jacques Derrida at the Louvre museum in Paris—“Mémoires d’aveugle: L’auto-portrait et autres ruines” (Memories of the blind: The self-portrait and other ruins)—“reads” as if the philosopher were unwittingly enacting the roles both of “the Philistines blinding Samson” and of “Christ healing the blind,” the titles of two drawings in the show.1 This improbable combination was evoked at the press opening, when Derrida explained that the text generously accompanying the art was there to serve as a “bâton d’aveugle”—a blind man’s cane—to guide the viewers. Someone in the audience responded that the viewers would not be blind to the drawings were there not so much text on display. The text was not “silently working the space” of the show, as Derrida has suggested elsewhere it ought to be; his text was loud, making it difficult to see the art.2 In short, it seemed that the viewers would have no need for a guide, the text, were the text, the guide, not there to blind them in the first place.3

This agonistic exchange at the press opening was appropriate, because it introduced both an important issue raised by Derrida’s show—the relationship between art and text—and the likely, if slightly misguided, skeptical response of some viewers.

Someone, not I—“je reste sceptique”—comes and says the words: “I am interested in Jacques Derrida’s curated show.4

What is the interest in Derrida’s show? “The memories of the blind,” as compared to other people’s memories? “The self-portrait,” as distinct from other genres of drawing? The “other ruins,” and if so, which ones? Some combination of these things, such as the self-portrait of the blind, the ruination of memory, the blindness of ruins? Moreover, is the interest in the things themselves or in the representations of them in the show? Is it in the relationship, as seen by Derrida, between these things and their representations by the artists? Or is the interest primarily in the “textuality” of drawings, making the drawings themselves what Derrida, following Kant, would call “parergonal”—decorative, i.e., outside what is important?5

To answer these questions, I write four times around “interest.”6 What is the viewer’s interest in the show, as compared to Derrida’s? Are their interests compatible, competitive, or compounding? What is the interest in the show with respect to the drawings and the text in it? What is the interest in the show? Is it the fact that the interest itself is represented in the show by the representations or text that comprise it? Is it well represented? Finally, what is the interest in the show? Is it the significance of the drawings or the text?

“But what about the drawings in the show?”—you may ask. Something is clearly standing in their way, as the focus so far has been on certain questions that seem “parergonal” to them. The obstacle may seem to be my writing; but, if so, what exactly is the problem? My writing? “Should I listen only? or observe? watch you in silence show me the drawings?”7 Could somebody else write better? Derrida? Then we should look at his text in more detail—and we will. Or is it writing itself? That is, is there something about writing on art that causes this predicament? Or, finally, is the problem that the questions are about interest?

From a Kantian perspective, it would certainly be striking to have a discussion of an exhibition involve “interest,” for a Kantian approaches art with “disinterestedness,” with no interest in anything other than the artwork itself and with no purpose in mind other than art’s own “purposiveness without purpose.” The transgression of Kantian esthetics could be deliberate, since the viewer interested in Derrida’s show will likely have no allegiance to Kant, and will probably be committed to the belief that interests are of course involved, otherwise the viewer would be blind. Or else the transgression could have been initiated by Derrida, who, in curating the show, transgressed any presuppositions a viewer could possibly have—about the origin of drawing, the role of text in relation to art, etc.—in order to question them.8 If such transgression is Derrida’s interest, questions about interest can no longer be considered parergonal—on the contrary.

Yet then the drawings themselves would again seem to be parergonal, in the sense that Derrida’s real interest in the show may have had more to do with philosophy than with art: “On what conditions, if it’s even possible, can one exceed, dismantle, or displace the heritage of the great philosophies of art which still dominate this whole problematic, above all those of Kant, Hegel, and, in another respect, that of Heidegger?”9 Was the show another attempt to identify these conditions, to deconstruct selected figures in the history of esthetics? Was Derrida reversing himself on his critique of philosophy that is interested in art only as a means to make a philosophical point?10 If so, he would also have had to overcome the problem of the limits of discourse on art, which he so succinctly expressed in The Truth in Painting: “Discourses on painting are perhaps destined to reproduce the limit which constitutes them, whatever they do and whatever they say: there is for them an inside and an outside of the work as soon as there is work.”11 That is, the distinction between what is inside and outside art has traditionally been employed to differentiate between what is and what is not essential to its identity. The establishment of such a distinction in turn has implications for any discourse on art, as one presumably should write only about what is inside of and thus essential to art. Derrida’s point explicitly in The Truth in Painting, however, and implicitly in the Louvre show, is to challenge that distinction and its implications for discourse on art.12

In the show, Derrida’s challenge took the form of juxtaposing drawings and text in such a way as to confound the viewer, intentionally or not, as to whether the text was “inside” or “outside” the drawings, whether it was parergonal to the show or the drawings were parergonal to it. The claim that the text was clearly outside and inessential (or, for that matter, the claim that it was clearly inside and essential) could be made only under the presupposition of the inside/outside distinction, the very presupposition in question. Derrida’s challenge likewise has to be a central focus of this or any discussion of his show, as it has been so far in the form of the seemingly parergonal questions.

Of course, it is still necessary to describe the drawings, not only because some of them are impressive treasures from the Louvre collection, but also because it was with them that Derrida made his points. The show comprised 41 drawings by, among others, Jean-Siméon Chardin, Antoine Coypel, Jacques-Louis David, Henri Fantin-Latour, Odilon Redon, and Rembrandt. There were also three paintings by Gustave Courbet, Jan Provost, and Joseph-Benoît Suvée. Most of the work, representing 32 artists, was from the Louvre, and ranged historically from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Some artworks were mounted on the walls, others were in the center of the room in glass cases. The first work you saw as you entered was actually a painting: Suvée’s Dibutade ou l’Origine du Dessin (Dibutade or the origin of drawing, ca. 1791).13 If you recalled Derrida’s trenchant critique in The Truth in Painting of the metaphysical search for the origin of art, it was quite surprising to see such a painting there.14 Moreover, underneath it was a brief text, which, given the standard educational role of texts in museums, raised the expectation that Derrida would discuss the subject matter of this painting—the origin of drawing—and, most surprisingly, he did.

The painting is of a woman leaning over a seated man, said to be her lover, and tracing his shadow on an interior wall. The origin of drawing is a trace, Derrida claims. She traces without looking at him; so she is blind to him as she draws, attending only to the tracing. The debut of drawing is thus marked by blindness, and perhaps even by a twofold blindness: of the process of drawing as tracing, and of the artist, both because she’s blind to her lover while tracing him and because she’s blind while in love with him.

This statement—that drawing originates in blindness—is the first of two hypotheses (“suspended judgments”) formulated in Derrida’s catalogue.15 The groping gesture of the blind person using his hand as a baton, seen most poignantly in Coypel’s Étude d’aveugle (Study of a blind man, ca. 1684), is a metaphor for the poetic posture of the artist edging toward paper with pencil in her hand (and, Derrida adds, for the writer setting pen to paper). Each is blindly reaching out to “see” what is there, to make what is out there visible by relying on the hand rather than the eye. And each thus has the ability at times to be a visionary, one who sees without eyes what others cannot see with them. The artist is like this audacious blind person, as she, too, is sometimes a visionary, able to overcome blindness by relying on other ways of seeing—projecting, inventing, and speculating—and to say “je vois sans voir” (I see without seeing).16

Derrida’s comparison between the artist and a blind person needs to be qualified, however. First of all, the comparison, as stated, assumes that the blind person experiences the lack of sight as the negation of the visible—as the invisible as it is known by the person with sight. But blindness implies the invisible only for a person who is not blind from birth, and who therefore has a sense of the contrast between the visible and the invisible. Second, and especially if Derrida’s comparison rests on this assumption, the blind person and the artist have very different attitudes toward the invisible. The blind person reaches out to see what is invisible in order to avoid it, since it represents a possible obstacle, even a threat; the motivation is fear and vulnerability. The artist, by contrast, aspires to render the invisible visible, not to avoid it but to embrace it, even to claim to be its creator; the motivation is adventure and power. This difference is itself reflected in some of the drawings in the show that depict scenes of Christ (and others) healing the blind by touching their eyes.17 Christ is like the artist, reaching out to empower the sight of the blind just by “drawing” the contours of their eyelids with his hands, as the artist empowers the sight of the viewer just by “touching” the canvas. One blind person needs the hand of Christ to see, the other needs that of the artist. But in this “picture,” the artist is Christ, not the blind person; the healer, not the healed.

Derrida also says, in connection with his first hypothesis, that drawing originates in the attempt to recapture perception, the visible, through memory.18 Once perception is absent, we can recall it by drawing, just as the woman tracing the shadow on the wall preserves the image of her lover for a future time when she can no longer perceive him. The omnipresence of forgetting is important in this process, too, for it necessitates memory, which in turn inspires drawing. But drawing is not determined by this presence/absence dichotomy, at least not exactly in the way that Derrida suggests. The artist is clearly not concerned with presence, that is, of the lover/model, for she concentrates on his lifeless shadow, not his passionate flesh. Nor is she concerned with absence, since neither the model nor the shadow is absent yet—on the contrary. She traces the present shadow of the present lover. The drawing actually originates in the distance (différance) between the model/lover and his shadow, the detachment of one from the other.19 In this light, the lover is both present and absent at the same time: through his shadow, he is absent while present; through the trace of his shadow, he remains present once he is absent. This remains true if the artist has to rely on memory,as memory is constituted both by the presence of what is absent and by the absence of what is present but ignored in favor of memory.

Derrida’s second hypothesis in the catalogue is that “a drawing of the blind is a drawing of the blind.” When an artist chooses a blind person or some image of blindness as a subject matter, what she draws in the end is an allegory for the process of drawing itself; for she is as blind while drawing the blind as is the blind person being drawn. Subject matter and process are one—blind. Derrida adds that such blindness is the particular fate of the self-portrait; for in the process of drawing a self-portrait, the artist is blind, and again ends up drawing an allegory of drawing itself, of the blindness experienced by the artist in the process of drawing.20 In drawing a self-portrait, the artist is looking at what seems clear and present—herself—but ends up projecting, inventing, and speculating about what she sees instead of capturing what is purportedly there. For example, she draws not a single self-evident self, not a “what” (the self who is seen) but a “how” (of seeing the self) (see Jean-Marie Faverjon’s Autoportrait en trompe l’oeil21). The result is not identity, but multiplicity (différance), a truth represented in the show by the numerous self-portraits of Chardin and Fantin-Latour: each self-portrait is of a different self, though the differences between them are often quite subtle, especially in Fantin-Latour’s case.22 The point, however, even if it is not exactly Derrida’s, is that the artist is not blind to herself; rather, in attempting to draw a self-portrait, she discovers and reveals that there is no one self to see and draw. But is the artist in a different predicament when she draws any other “thing”? There, too, she is equally blind to what she is drawing while she is drawing, since there is nothing there to draw (at least there is never any “one and the same thing”); and there, too, she may end up drawing an allegory of drawing. This kind of blindness is not the same as the kind to which Derrida refers, however; for there is a clear difference between not seeing what is there, in the case of the blind person, and not seeing what is not there, in the case of the artist. Here again one blindness entails vulnerability, the other bestows power.

“Look what’s happened here!”—you may interject. Almost as soon as the description of the drawings began, the discussion shifted to the problematic of the text, the textuality of drawing. The drawings in Derrida’s show have so far been seen, if at all, only as illustrations of his hypotheses: the pictorial has referred to the discursive. The viewers (as well as the readers here) might wonder whether there actually were any drawings in the show, and might conclude that Derrida may have needed them no more than Heidegger, according to Derrida, needed the shoes he discussed in “The Origin of the Work of Art” to be those of a peasant, or a pair of shoes, or shoes at all.23

The drawings in the Louvre show once again seem parergonal relative to Derrida’s text. This relationship seems to have been established by the very first painting, the one on the origin of drawing, because it “reduced” drawing to a trace much like a text (since Derrida regards the written text as a trace). Should one have expected something else from a philosopher, or at least from this particular one? Why should it be so surprising that he has more to say than to show, that he has made us read instead of look at an exhibition?24 Yet it is surprising, because Derrida is also the author of the following sentence: “As for painting, any discourse on it, beside it or above, strikes me as silly, both didactic and incantory, programed, worked by the compulsion of mastery, be it poetical or philosophical, always, and the more so when it is pertinent, in the position of chitchat, unequal and unproductive in the sight of what, at a stroke [d’un trait], does without or goes beyond this language, remaining heterogeneous to [outside of] it or denying it any overview.”25 Art “goes beyond” and is “heterogeneous” (parergonal) to discourse or text, which is said to be in the position of “chitchat”! Furthermore, Derrida has criticized Hegel and Heidegger unrelentingly for their “subordination of all the arts to speech.”26

At the same time, however, this surprise about the apparent primacy of text in Derrida’s show harbors a naive belief, which perhaps we all share at times, that art should be able to speak for itself. Of course it should stand on its own in some sense; but of course it can’t speak, for speech (text, philosophy) is not its game. The real point, however, is that there is a mutual dependence between drawing and text: art is speechless, so it needs text; while text needs an object, be it a drawing or some other thing, in order to fulfill its role as mediator. This could just as easily have been one of Derrida’s hypotheses—and perhaps it is.

Yet what more specifically is the purpose of Derrida’s text in the show (and in the catalogue)? We know it is offered as a mediator—a bâton d’aveugle—between the viewers and the drawings. In this capacity, however, it can operate both as an opening through which we are invited to enter the show, and at the same time as a barrier hindering us from entering the opening. The text is like a gate, but one that the gatekeeper—the curator/philosopher—may either open to welcome us in or close to prevent us from trespassing. Which role the text serves depends, of course, on how well it functions as a mediator.

In the end, there is a certain problem with Derrida’s text. The problem is not simply that there is a text in the show, or even that there is so much of it, but that the text is itself not just unilluminating but unilluminated. It is in its own way speechless in the sense that it is hard to read as a mediator, which means that the viewer has to turn to yet another text to render intelligible the mediation of the first text. While it is true that Derrida’s often engaging discussions—about the New Testament, castration, etc.—relate to the subject matters of some of the drawings in the show, it is unclear Jean-Simeon Chardin, Autoportrait aux besides (Self-portrait with spectacles), 1771, pastel on paper, ca. 18 x Collection of the Musée du they illuminate the drawings as such (rather than as subject matter). If this is the case, perhaps we should return to the drawings after all, since one speechless thing is as good as another. At the same time, we cannot be tempted again by the naive hope that the drawings will open themselves up to us without the aid of some text, if not (or in addition to) Derrida’s, for we don’t want to play blindman’s buff.27 Moreover, the drawings may very well have nothing to open up; they may have no depth, since “depth/surface,” like “inside/outside,” is a metaphysical distinction that was also in question in Derrida’s show. The lack of depth might make one expect that it would then become easier to see the drawings without a text, since they will now wear all they have (are) on their surfaces. All we need do now is decipher them. The problem is, however, that if there’s no depth there’s no surface. Besides, if the drawings are transformed into traces, they are now like a text—needing to be deciphered but, because of their dependence on (yet another) text, withdrawing from all efforts to be deciphered.

We have, in effect, come full circle, as Derrida, in The Truth in Painting, suggested any discourse on art is likely to do. We went to the Louvre expecting to see drawings but were first confronted with text that proved difficult to comprehend in its role as mediator. Unable to understand how the text could possibly serve as a mediator when it itself needed a mediator, we turned back to the drawings we came to see in the first place. We looked “inside” them, only to see that the memories of blindness, the self-portrait, and other ruins had no inside or outside, no depth or surface. This made us realize that the drawings, as tracers, were on the same level as the text, that they, too, had to be read, but that they resisted fiercely, as if they were offended by our attempt to take them as traces of something absent rather than on their own terms. We found ourselves reading instead of seeing, for we and the drawings were blind to each other without the text, the baton d’aveugle.

Of course, we could accept Derrida’s point that art is textual, yet still insist that the text be one that is “silently working the space” of the drawings. The allegory for such a text, one that speaks without being heard, could be the image included in the show of an act of seeing without being seen.28 But such silence (like the skepticism expressed earlier) would have prevented Derrida’s point from being heard if it had been insisted on prematurely. Now that it has been heard, we can at last turn to the drawings and appreciate some of the richness of the Louvre’s collection to which we might have remained blind were it not for Derrida’s interest.

Michael Kelly teaches philosophy and is the managing editor of The Journal of Philosophy at Columbia University, and writes on art.


1. The first drawing, attributed to Gérard Hoer, is cited in the catalogue by two different titles: Samson aveuglé par les Philistins and Les Philistins crevant les yeux de Samson, ca. 1706 (Jacques Derrida, Mémoires d’aveugle: L’autoportrait et autres ruines Paris: Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1990, pp. 108, 134). The second drawing is Le Christ guérissant an aveugle, ca. 1568, by Federico Zuccaro (p. 17). The catalogue includes three additional drawings of Christ healing the blind (by Raymond La Fage and by Théodule Ribot, p. 17, and after Lucas de Leyde, p. 19), none of which was in the show.

2. Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Benington and Ian McLeod, Chicago: at the University Press, 1987, p. 8.

3. Was Derrida trying to represent his recent experience of partial facial paralysis just when he was scheduled to go to the Louvre to arrange this show? Derrida, Mémoires d’aveugle, p. 37.

4. See the opening line of Derrida’s The Truth in Painting: “Someone, not me, comes and says the words: ‘I am interested in the idiom in painting’” (p. 1). And see the opening paragraph of Mémoires d’aveugle: “Vous croyez? Depuis le début de eerie entrevue, vous observere: que j’ai du mal n vous suivre, je reste sceptique.”

5. On Derrida’s notion of “parergon,” see The Truth in Painting, pp. 53–82; and see p. 135 on the specific notion of parergonal questions.

6. See ibid., p. 9.

7. Derrida, Mémoires d’aveugle, p. 10.

8. But see Derrida’s possible crypto-Kantianism in The Truth in Painting, p. 9: “Thus one dreams of a painting without truth, which, . . . running the risk of no longer saying anything to anyone [of not interesting anyone. . . Trans.], would still not give up painting.”

9. Derrida, The Truth in Painting, p. 9.

10. See ibid., pp. 23, 34, 41.

11. Ibid., p. 11; see also p. 263.

12. See ibid., p. 45: the inside/outside distinction “organizes all philosophical discourses on art.”

13. In Mémoires d’aveugle, Derrida reproduces a second version of Dibutade ou l’Origine du Dessin, by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, in which the woman seems to be using an actual bâton d’aveugle to trace her lover’s shadow (p. 55).

14. See Derrida, The Truth in Painting, p. 22 and chapter 4.

15. See Derrida, Mémoires d’aveugle, p. 10.

16. Ibid., p. 43.

17. Besides the drawings of Christ healing the blind, there are two drawings in the show and catalogue (by Jacopo Ligozzi and Rembrandt) and two in only the catalogue (by Pietro Bianchi and after Rubens) of Tobias healing his blind father, Tobit; see ibid., pp. 31–32.

18. See ibid., pp. 53–56.

19. See Derrida, The Truth in Painting, chapter 4; also Mémoires d’aveugle, p. 54, where Derrida discusses this issue of “detachment.”

20. Derrida suggests that the blind process of self-portraiture is also painful; the pain is best represented in the show by Courbet’s Autoportrait dit l’homme blessé, ca. 1854, (Mémoires d’aveugle, p. 83) and by the similarity between it and the drawings of people suffering who have their eyes covered or closed: Félicien Rops’ Femme au lorgnon, ca. 1860 (p. 78): Odilon Redon’s Les yeux clos, 1890 (p. 80); Bernaert de Rijckere’s Tête d’agonisant (p. 81); and Francesco Vanni’s La bienheureuse Pasitea Crogi (p. 82).

21. Ibid., p. 95.

22. Ibid., pp. 76–77, for Chardin; pp. 62–63 (plus a detail on the cover) for Fantin-Latour.

23. See Derrida, The Truth in Painting, p 358.

24. Derrida candidly admits that he feels incapable of drawing or of looking at a drawing. He realizes that his “calling” is writing instead (Mémoires d’aveugle, pp. 43–44).

25. Derrida, The Truth in Painting, p. 155. See also p. 262: “We should return to the thing itself . . . . Producing a discourse/making a speech on the subject of it, on the subject of anything at all, is perhaps the first thing to avoid.”

26. Ibid., p. 23.

27. See Mémoires d’aveugle, pp. 98–99, where Derrida reproduces a drawing and a painting called Le colin-maillard or “blindman’s buff,” which are not in the show.

28. See Gavarni’s Deux Pierrots regardant dans une loge, ibid., p. 73.