PRINT March 1997


I first came across Jean Louis Schefer’s work in the late ’70s, a period when the Anglo-American intellectual world was frantically importing whatever “French theory” it could unearth. Even during that time of theoretical excess, Schefer was something of an acquired taste, an extremist among the generation of intellectuals to which he refers in this essay. His first book, Scenographie d’un tableau (Scenography of a painting, 1969), was almost literally impenetrable, perhaps the most elaborate work on aesthetics available then or since. A structural and semiotic analysis of the systemic requirements for the visual production of signification, this book (along with several crucial articles in the ’60s and ’70s in journals such as Tel Quel and Communications) was one of very few attempts to bring the theoretical approaches to bear on the visual systems of the plastic arts.
By the beginning of the next decade, Schefer was to turn his back on high theory. In the essay presented here, he tries to minimize the decisiveness of this break, suggesting that in the aftermath of structuralism he simply chose to work in a more private mode. But the break was more definitive and principled than he implies and can perhaps be traced to a remark he made to me at the time: that all that high theory actually concerned no one—it was simply unable to account for the spectator’s actual experience.
Correcting that deficiency has been Schefer’s task ever since. In a series of books and articles that appeared throughout the ’80s, he wrote about the interaction of spectator and image and explored their simultaneous presence within an endless skein of meanings—historical, autobiographical, textual, visual, metaphorical, or even simply fanciful. I’ve translated much of this work in The Enigmatic Body, selecting from Schefer’s powerful and complex texts on subjects ranging from Correggio to Cy Twombly, from Chris Marker to Roland Barthes.
The power of images—ancient or modern, painterly or cinematic—to provoke, produce, and destroy both meanings and memory has continued to be the primary focus of Schefer’s work in the ’90s, during which time he has become more prolific and his writing more assertive as veil as more wide-ranging in its ostensible subject matter. Recently, for instance, alongside a mammoth project on legends of the Eucharist in medieval Europe, and another on prehistoric cave painting, he has been writing about film and video, and about contemporary artists such as Francis Bacon and Bernar Venet.
Whatever his chosen subject, Schefer’s underlying project has remained remarkably consistent in the decades since his turn away from high theory—a dogged exploration, in an inimitable style, of what happens between image and viewer. While his writings are invariably dense, at times difficult (as even the present, relatively expository essay suggests), this is due to the central paradox of Schefer’s project. In its effort to concern someone, or everyone, it mimes or mimics an experience that is by its very nature unique: the experience of a spectator confronting an image.
Paul Smith

FROM THE MOMENT WE BEGAN, my contemporaries and I have been trying to develop hypotheses about and shift interpretative schemes around a variety of aesthetic and historical subjects.

Obviously the period when we developed and published our first works was especially important for us—marking as it did our initial burst of theoretical activity, attempts at intellectual syntheses, our interest in the new “human sciences,” and our interventions into basic theoretical or aesthetic issues in the structuralist vein.

That was the early ’60s (I published my first text in ’62). At the time I was following Roland Barthes’ “recommended readings.” He was not then in the academy, and he was still dreaming of a romantic semiology of literature and “life.” We can see today how much his ascetic enterprise, that critical distance of his, was part of the temper of the times, both in its critical position (Brechtian) and its moral element (Protestant). But no groundbreaking work was being produced during that period—apart, obviously, from that of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was at work on The Savage Mind. In art history the most advanced work was Pierre Francastel’s. Panofsky was still practically unknown in France (Robert Klein wrote one of the first commentaries on his work between ’64 and ’65). The only tool we had to work with was Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. The areas we were all interested in at the time (anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, history, aesthetics), the work we talked about in the journal Communications, the short-lived Semiotic Circle of Paris, and, for a while, in the theory group around the journal Tel Quel in 1970, had all helped to transform semiology into structuralism. This intense work of bricolage was much more attractive to us young intellectuals than it was to the academicians, whose world had long been hostile to our own efforts to establish a fundamental critique of “systems of communication.” So our intellectual project had more in common with the latest developments in art, music, or literature, even as it sketched out the possibility of a critical analysis of discourse and social reality. (The irony, today, is that such a formidable analytical tool only helped to revivify means of communication, the language of advertising, of management, even political rhetoric.)

I rather quickly opted for a quite personal way of working, taking an interest in historical objects, theological problems, and literature. I soon understood (or decided) that my “literature” would consist in roaming among historical or cultural objects—that I would be a writer without a novel.

What of critical responsibility?

We felt it, certainly, but mostly we felt an aesthetic responsibility.

What was this world in which we grew up, learned, and began to think (to think, in my view, something difficult)?

We needed a “new science” that would square with this world, with our understanding of it and with our sensibilities. In that light, all systems and all theories were seen as necessarily provisional. Our education came late and we were only partially initiated into the way of theoretical abstraction or into the mathematics of life; but we shared a taste for abstraction and for particular ways of expressing our sensibility—or rather, those ways shared us.

What was our place in the history of ideas? What kind of evolution of theoretical, aesthetic, and historical objects occurred within us?

Those are perhaps the questions I ask myself these days. And my response is to just keep working. Or else it could be put this way: I am what I am looking for. Or, I am the guiding principle of my own “collection”—a collection of interpretations that traverse different objects, problems, and epochs.

What pulls all this together, apart from a purely enigmatic “I”?

The different objects I work with (painting, literature, archaeology, theology, and so on) cannot be treated as separate problematics; rather, they are different elaborations of a general problematic.

The final utopia is not a system (ordered, progressive, moving toward the finality of a philosophy of history), nor is it a network of analogical connections (of which Aby Warburg dreamed). And it’s not some vague project of writing down the world’s fragments, selected for their poetic power or their intellectual stimulation. Rather, it’s a work in progress, something that picks up on all the world’s metaphors. So the horizon of our work is not some system that might one day close up—it’s an open continent, a sort of cartography. Proust’s work gives a good sense of what such an infinite intersection of metaphors would be: a place where everything is simultaneous.

What’s new and modern in all this?

We can no longer understand, interpret, explicate, or elucidate cultural objects simply in relation to their context or their determinations. Contemporary sciences of language have perhaps shown us this: that we are actually part of what makes up the objects we interpret and decode—a part of their historical puzzle as well as of their formal solutions. We are, that is, of the same order as cultural objects themselves. We’re made up of networks of very singular connections, invested with the power to forget, and that’s why our personalities determine our “science” and our procedures rather than our knowledge as such.

This kind of a sensibility is new, I’m sure. We no longer believe (it really was once a religion, a dogmatic belief) that there exists some poetic reservoir of the world that might contain its ultimate structure, its final cause, the key to all its meaning. Whether critics, historians, or writers, we are what mediates historical forms (living forms), and we’re also their proof.

The force of the modern world lies not in its universal systems of communication (that’s what advertising is), but rather in the fact that the world and everything in it has become simultaneous. And in this state of affairs we are nonetheless mediators (we are not consciousnesses).

How can we work simultaneously on prehistory, film, medieval theology, and any number of other topics? It’s necessary, in fact, for me to make my fantasy or my personal journey something more than just a combination of my own qualities and flaws, something more than my personality or style: it’s the entirety of my own situation—familial, social, and historic—that determines my choices, demands this branching off in various directions, and entails a certain discomfort with civilization. No doubt this is our only gift, our only talent today. Whether we are critics, writers, or essayists, the modern world has made us bring our most intimate life into the light of day, into the world of intellection. A critical oeuvre these days can only be personal, and, whatever its aesthetic qualities, it’s bound to be poetically unique.

Because of that, the activity, the movement, or the project of interpretation takes on a whole new direction—a direction quite different from the usual literary criticism, philosophy, or art history (which would force us to pick lineages and affiliations).

During their formal education and their own first efforts, the intellectuals of my generation passed through a period of abstract play (theories, formalism, structuralist games) of a kind no other recent period has witnessed. At the same time, our work was marked by a relative lack of historical and philosophical knowledge (so we had to stay much closer to literary than to scholarly approaches). Most of all, we all acquired a certain facility in manipulating and constructing systems. The critical utopia of structuralism was, for my generation, the foundation for our work (it helped us to frame wider problematics), and in my view it remains a sort of residual intellectual benefit: the field of inquiry was expanded. Structuralism’s interrogation of “restrained specificities” gave way to the bigger question of how humanity uses signs—the question of human symbolization in general—(a structural and a historical boon). And that provided perspectives on history and the history of civilizations that had a new richness, or in any case, a new flexibility.

Just the same, I don’t think this benefit was the result of any progress in traditional disciplines, but rather came about because we began to adopt new perspectives on history, on the world, on the future of civilizations.

So how did all this happen? It wasn’t just that we learned new ways to play some serious games. But, more than any other generation, or in different ways, we experienced the fragility of our cultures. (This experience, linked to World War II, was critical in Europe—a world really had disappeared, and for multiple reasons). And so, as a certain social and cultural arrogance came to an end, we learned a bit about historical relativity.

However much structuralism might sometimes seem like a caricature, its whole interest lay in this intellectual excitement that was all about the realization—a belated one on the part of the older generation, the fathers or great intellectual protagonists, and a proleptic one, on the part of younger intellectuals, my generation—that a world had ended. By the same token, the methodological gains it registered were relatively pitiful: they simply composed the commercial surface of the modern world as a universe of media revelation (advertising, universal communications, the lure of transparency, and so on).

But the intellectual ramifications were of a different order: we can now more easily think our historical relativity. We can think more concretely about the interconnections between symbolic and historical objects without the crutch of those narrow and mechanical systems of historical causality on which our predecessors usually depended. Without, too, the kind of rigidity that limited the way “comparativism” worked in early social anthropology (even for Marcel Mauss and Émile Durkheim) where magic, ritual, and religion were regarded as genuinely transhistorical operators, as internal peculiarities of the socius. In such thinking the idea of the structure of exchange was probably the most impervious to historical thought.

This is not all mere abstraction: the results can be seen even in paleontology or art history (the latter was a chronically conservative discipline, a slave to nationalisms and regional prejudices). Perhaps, for example, we could now look in new ways at the work of someone like the genial [art historian Jurgis Baltrusaitis (so long considered and even prized as a mere collector of curiosities).

I don’t mean to paint an overly optimistic picture of current aesthetic or historical thinking (both are quite capable of huge ineptitudes, to be sure). I’m just trying to explain why my own multiple interests cannot possibly conform to some theoretical or methodological system (as they would have had to do in the nineteenth century). Beyond the fact that my concerns register personal determinations and histories, they are the very fact of my historical situation.

What we learned then, and what we are trying to do now, no longer relies on ideological choices, or even moral ones, but actually derives from aesthetic decisions and psychological peculiarities (the foundation of our ethics and our intellectual pursuits; for each of us this foundation was the chance and luck that propelled us.)

In that light, critical responsibility would seem in effect quite limited (it’s not the responsibility of an entrepreneur or an advertiser) because we are inscribed in a series of historical currents that can only be mediated, for a writer, by the individual work. What would remain, for example, of the Viennese era without its cultural works (painting, music, literature)? What would remain of any era at all without its works of art and without the critical links that bind them to one another?

The one thing we can never forget is that we are historical subjects (a fact that, beyond their miraculous qualities, painting and all symbolic practices reveal as an enigma). What’s more, we are nonspecialist historical subjects. It is perhaps this naive claim that produces literature, or that means a writer without a novel has to roam around in the history of culture, tracing lines—not to reassure himself of what he is (as with Montaigne), but to measure, with no end in sight, the territory that is human (the undertaking, surely, of Georges Bataille, Paul Valéry, or Barthes). The instrument of this measurement was clearly the product of an identity crisis in the historical (poetic, philosophical) subject. The writer is, in a new way, a nomadic sensibility and intelligence. Look again at Merleau-Ponty after Bergson (his “prose of the world”), Bataille, Valéry, and Barthes. The prose of the world never stops diversifying itself: so what I’m writing is the very diversity of which I’m simultaneously a spectator, a witness, and an agent.

The work I’ve managed to do until now, what I’ve taken on, does not derive from a program (it certainly doesn’t respond to any sense of ethical or pedagogical duty); instead it reports on our current intellectual and aesthetic situation. I might add that the intellectuals of my generation (historians, anthropologists, art historians) were all formed, marked (or at any rate oriented) by literature, by the idea of a reality that could be written, by an idea of the world’s utopias (though also by the idea that there is nonetheless a sort of limit to a novelistic writing of the world—Michel Leiris’ L’Afrique fantôme [Ghostly Africa] is the source of many an ethnographic career). We were inducted into our studies by a particular state of the language, by a generality of form, and not by the demands of specialized fields of knowledge.

These thoughts aren’t intended as an introduction to me (that doesn’t matter much), but they can at least help explain the situation of an intellectual today. As atypical and personal as my own journey might be in terms of its choices and its objects of study, I’m sure that those choices and objects reveal or accentuate the condition of their historical possibility.

I’ve claimed that we were formed (marked) by literature, by what it offered in the way of intuitive approaches and improbable solutions to new problems. There’s no need to give a list of our authors: they’re not only classics, but also experimenters in form, ideas, and the relations among various fields. Equally, we were formed by a completely literary idea of the work to be done. The literary imaginary at the time even housed the scientific utopia that supported the effort to configure knowledge and forge new methodologies. A distant (Leibnizian) idea of finding “universal features” along with the notion of a kind of writing that could capture different levels of expression as well as the reality of life (historical, sociological, psychological) in all its underlying elements, as they awaited the continent of writing that could pull them all together. With that in mind, it was to the great “continents” of modern writing—Proust, Joyce, Céline, Musil—that we were drawn, because they stood as models for resolving the problem of our “partial writings.” The idea has stuck that the synthesis yet to come will not be encyclopedic but novelistic, a new genre—that is, something unpredictable.

There, at least, is structuralism’s lasting benefit—to have understood that behind every “scientific work” (like Lévi-Strauss’) resides a novelistic enterprise of which the scientific work is just the shadow.

Something of this can obviously be read, formally, in the work of Jacques Derrida, with his project of redistributing writing, his disruption of grammatical forms and categories of the thinkable, and his taking up residence in proximity to Joyce’s linguistic project.

Another benefit of structuralism has been, paradoxically, the possibility that maverick work like Barthes’ should seem coherent, however much it’s marked by a way of perceiving problems that is, ultimately, simply a way of writing.

I come, now, to some examples—that is, to my own work. Mine is a wide literary project that, as I’ve said, encompasses diverse cultural works, objects, or domains. That’s exactly why subjectivity (my autobiography) is present as more than a trace—that is, it functions as a mechanism. For a long time I’ve assumed I was incapable of dealing with the proper procedures of knowledge. Because I am a subject, I have to be present in my own operations and I have to respect the contract of appropriation I make with my objects. I can only understand them if, as I play with them, I give them my own form (my style, my temporality, my connections, my world).

Beyond my own work—whose thematic and stylistic constancy I’m now beginning to understand—I think that what characterizes contemporary efforts is obviously something to do with the project of constituting or reconstituting the fabric of language that regulates exchange, communication, and thinking (the technical excesses and theoretical idiocies that have been introduced into language notwithstanding).

The introduction of theory (in the ’70s) divorced language itself from linguistic consciousness in a powerful way. There’s been a correction since then, but that kind of crisis was necessary. Literary language which had given birth to a language of power, of communication, had simply grown tired. Our theoretical period contributed to renewing that linguistic fabric, that is, to renewing all the possibilities of expression and of organizing social ties.

Without wanting to sound excessively optimistic, I think that our current work is being done within this renewed fabric of language. What strikes me is that, despite chronic resistance to the peculiarity of our writings and to the at times extravagant originality of our hypotheses, it’s precisely this work (pertaining to aesthetics, history, language, communication—formalism, semiology, structuralism) that has modified the general linguistic fabric that constitutes all communication and all cultural imaginaries.

I’m simply trying to explain why it’s almost normal today for intellectuals to be able to work coherently in relation to both literary and scientific imaginaries—in their research they can be simultaneously an affirmative subjectivity (a Proustian subject), a scholar, an experimenter with forms, and perhaps even an advertiser. The paradox here is that the literary and theoretical avant-garde has helped build up the language of power, of communication, of business. Individually or personally we are not exactly the beneficiaries of this process.

Our work remains, by the power of its own inertia, oriented toward a play with the truth (historical, ontological) and the imaginary. So there’s no reason to be surprised by the autobiographical (or strongly personal) nature of the work some of us do. We’re not just language processors. We experiment with language and we’re also the subjects of the experiment. It’s on ourselves that we test language’s descriptive or analytical or novelistic power, as we try out new ways of organizing the object of study, new ways of understanding, new ways of looking at history.

When, for example, I try to follow an idea or a hypothesis as a nonspecialized historical subject, what I’m trying to grasp is the very network that connects all my interests (art, history, theology, archaeology), because ultimately I believe that the chance of such a deployment or such an opening (if it can perhaps change the protocols of knowledge) contributes to the modification of historical representations; in any case it broadens the horizon of the scriptible and officially records the fact that we are new historical subjects. (New subjects? Mutants? Yes, certainly, mutants of the modern world.) And this is true despite our moments of melancholy or irony with regard to our unstable world.

There’s not much left to say about the example that I was obliged to choose (myself). Nowadays I understand tolerably well that the pursuit of my work has an enlarged—though not transcendental or transhistorical—object. This object, with its dispersed coherence, would correspond at least to the reality of our practice, our work habits, and our habitual wanderings. There are several reasons for this: however paradoxical it might seem, it’s not that we’ve entered a technical field of information management, but something like a field of Proustian signifiers. That is to say, we’ve come across a vast domain where we have to explore, indefinitely, the horizontal connections between cultural works, signs, and letters—as if the modern (or technological) access to layers of historical information produced the memory effect of making everything (all of “culture”) contemporary, or offered us the possibility of reproblematizing the works of history through new connections and distinctions.

Putting aside the pessimism of every generation (the end of art, the decline of values, decadence, and so on)—the ephemeral historical pessimism that simply marks out the unknown task of its artists and thinkers, that verifies the accrued mobility of the world and the instability of its works—I also believe that the novelties introduced by modernity (the list of poetic, technical, and symbolic revolutions) make it clear at last that the modern world never ceases to multiply, while varying and modulating the whole surface of historical memory, where the greatest part of its work remains to be done.

In that light it doesn’t much matter if, in order to do our work, each of us occasionally has to imagine himself as the last monk at the close of the Middle Ages; and when we do that, we are already helping to open up an unknown world.

A final word. I work on painting and on film, but the two have nothing to do with each other.

The paintings on which I’ve worked (with which I’ve played) aren’t necessarily my favorites: they’re those that have posed a problem I wanted to solve (and, occasionally, those I was commissioned to write about).

It’s only recently that I’ve worked on paintings to which I’m attracted: Dutch painting in La Lumière et La Table (Light on the table, 1995); an anonymous Rhenish picture of the Virgin (Questions de Style [Questions of style, 1995]); perhaps, too, the last Goyas in Goya, la dernière hypothèse (Goya: the last hypothesis, 1997). Le Greco ou l’éveil de ressemblances (El Greco or the dawning of resemblance, 1988) was the occasion for me to write a kind of metaphysical novel that followed up on my book on cinema (L’homme ordinaire du cinema [The ordinary man of the cinema, 1981]).

My favorite is probably that Rhenish “Virgin in the Garden” from the fifteenth century; I wrote that little book in order to praise the painting and its subject—and to destroy it piece by piece.

As for cinema, I was very friendly with the people at Cahiers du Cinéma in the ’60s and ’70s. They asked me for a book as soon as they started a series. I think they expected a theoretical book, but I did something else—a sort of screening of the novelistic material that corresponded to my own experience of the cinema. The idea was simple: I have only one kind of experience as a spectator (I’m not a critic or a film scholar); cinema is made for spectators, and that was the one thing that wasn’t usually addressed. The other idea was that, if one were to try to write Remembrance of Things Past today, the memories of lived time and the scenario of memory would have to compete with the much more persistent images of films we’d once seen that had become intimately tangled up in our lives: in short, that’s what I wrote about.

For me, the only relation between painting and cinema has nothing to do with their essential characteristics but with the use I’ve made of them both: through them, by means of, or with the help of their alien figures, I write something akin to the novel of my life. That way I can at least be faithful to my own idea of “culture”—I exercise my right of usage, which is perhaps the only real relation into which we can enter with culture, with the forms through which the human realm is elaborated.

As for the rest, everybody’s laboratory is unique. A few friends who have read these words have been amused by my use of the word “we”—the intellectual community that I presume seems imaginary to them. And perhaps it is.

The real (everyday) practice of work is certainly most interesting and most mysterious because of the way it divides up my energy. I’ve been working for several years on a book about medieval legends of the Eucharist, dealing with a strangely forgotten chapter in the history of Europe (the problems there are iconological, theological, ideological, political). I’ve also been working on another book, about prehistory: the existing research on and interpretive hypotheses about Paleolithic figures don’t satisfy me, so I’m trying to understand what I myself have seen during five years of visits to the decorated prehistoric grottoes in France. Right now I’m writing another book for Cahiers du Cinéma (about how moving images come to occupy the entire surface of the world); and I’m writing for the Cinémathèque française a chapter on Bresson’s beautiful film Au Hasard Balthazar. I imagine that each of these “topics” profits from my work on the others. It’s no crime to keep switching hands: I imagine it shouldn’t be any more difficult than playing the piano. The keyboard is what organizes my life and divides, for example, my week into three parts: mornings, afternoons, and Sundays.

There’s still time for my friends, for early morning walks in the Luxembourg Gardens, for cultivating a paltry garden on my rooftop in Paris. But no time at all for cultural spectacles, or for what the French call “cultural life,” for the theater, or for that modern version of hell: other people’s lectures.

Jean Louis Schefer lives in Paris and is the author of several books and hundreds of articles on the visual arts, film, and literature. A collection of essays, The Enigmatic Body (Cambridge University Press, 1951 edited and translated by Paul Smith, and The Deluge, The Plague: Paolo Uccello (University of Michigan Press, 1995), translated by Tom Conley, are the first book-length English translations of Schefer’s work.

Translated from the French by Paul Smith.