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 (

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