Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Moderation / Chair: Astrid Hönigsperger
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

The Somatography of the Written Sign: Literary Text through the Mirror Stage

Morana Cale (Zagreb)


Summary: "Text has a human shape, it is the anagram of the body" (Barthes). Just as the "I" of the human subject requires a material body in order to constitute itself through the otherness of its specular image, bound to engender the uncanny feelings of a vanishable virtuality at its own core, literary text needs the signifying surface of a material support, i.e. a discursive body, in order to be legible. If there is no "hors-texte", there is no "hors-corps" either. As the formation of the subject faces the otherness of its bodily existence, reducing it to a mere "signifier for another signifier" (Lacan), and therefore a possible counterfeit of its "soul", text has an analogous relationship to the bodily projection of its discourse.

In discussing such a vital issue as intercultural understanding and communication, the exploration of the status of literary texts may not seem to be of a crucial importance, and indeed it requires, like the investigation of any other artistic practice, a type of discourse in principle alien to actuality, political concreteness and practical applicability. It is in the so-called "nature" of art and its images in a broader sense, as well as of the reflection on art, to remain detached, separate, distinct from its surroundings and from its background, as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it (cf. 2003: 11ff.; see also Didi-Huberman 1992: 104; Blanchot 1955: 23, 201, 213, passim), and one could say that art and the "real world" maintain an attitude of mutual ontological exclusion. At the same time, the very distinctness of an artistic product functions only insofar as it is allowed to cross the borders which separate it from its recipients, to absorb and engage in a dialectical relationship with what apparently exceeds it or is excluded from it. Its confinement is tentative and ambiguous: with regard to human subjects within their social and existential condition in a specific political context, a work of art tends to extract itself from constraint of interests and from claims of immediate efficacy or instrumentalization; and yet, it gains its artistic status only by means of its capacity to involve human attention by an almost human - or a mimetically human - ability to exchange positions, to turn its gaze back at the on-looker. In fact, various artists and thinkers qualified their experience of art in terms corresponding to Lacan's model of human gaze in the mirror: the specular gaze is "not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other" (Lacan 1979: 84). The analogous sensation of a gaze imagined in the field of an Other which is not literally human, but still possesses the anthropomorphic power of gaze - an aesthetic artifact -, had been described by Baudelaire, Benjamin, Proust, Valéry, Max Ernst and Paul Klee (cf. Merleau-Ponty 1968: 14, Didi-Huberman 1992: 104). Similar remarks made by Heidegger (cf. Didi-Huberman 1992: 18, Nancy 2003: 157), Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Blanchot (cf. 1955: 24), or, more recently, by Nancy and Didi-Huberman, also have their poetical precedents in Petrarch's canzone built upon the evocation of the Actaeon myth and allusions to the metaphorically or virtually deadly power that human gaze confers on a scene of aesthetic beauty, be it the virgin goddess Diane bathing or the vanishing and auratic Laura who covers and absorbs Diane's image, both reducible to the desire of the unattainable that characterizes the contemplation of a work of art.

My argument, which assimilates the modes of being of a literary text with those of a human subject as formulated by Lacanian psychoanalytical semiotics, in an endeavor to bind the notions of body, image and graphics in a dialectical structure, is grounded upon several theoretical insights that establish an apparently metaphorical chain linking human identity as founded upon the optical transpositions of its body, with textuality, through the common, if not universal trait of constitutive visuality principle, shared by all cultures of all times, according to the theses articulated by W.J.T. Mitchell, one of the most prominent promoters of visual studies. In other words:

1. When Roland Barthes asserted, "[t]ext has a human shape, it is the anagram of the body" (1973: 30), he opened a number of issues to be clarified with reference to Derridean grammatology. First of all, a text needs the signifying surface of a material support, i.e. a discursive body - a graphic one, in order to be legible, or an acoustic one, in order to be audible. If there is no "hors-texte" (Derrida 1976: 158), there is no "hors-corps" either:

In what one calls the real life of these existences 'of flesh and bone', [...] there has never been anything but writing; there has never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the 'real' supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from a trace and from an invocation of the supplement, etc. (ibid. 159).

Nothing can be performed without a body (cf. Merleau-Ponty 1968: 15).

2. On the other hand, the body - whether human or textual - is "always something else than it is" (Merleau-Ponty 1945: 231; Nancy 2000: 29); not only is it the site both of its own life and of its own death, but it gets to be acknowledged as a body of a human or textual subject only through an image, through a projective otherness accessible to vision. On that point, Lacan's elaboration simply follows Freud:

The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface. [...] I.e. the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body. It may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body, besides, [...] representing the superficies of the mental apparatus (1991b: 451).

It is above all the image of the body, not even the soulless body itself, that makes human identity; human identity - and textual identity, too - consists mainly of its representation, is an image - a visual, tactile, acoustic or olfactive, in a word, signifying image. "Je suis un tableau", I am a picture, asserts Lacan (1973: 12); I am an image, and "text is also an image" (Nancy 2003: 125), more precisely: we are both signifying images. "The signifier represents a subject [...] for another signifier" (Lacan 1966: 819), and all human relationships occur between semiotic images assigning human meaning to each other. It would be impossible to destroy the exteriority of the signifier that represents the subject or a text, or a picture of any kind, without abolishing the "interior" substance of a psyche or of a meaning (cf. Nancy 2000: 61; cf. Lacoue-Labarthe 1989: 120) and the very probability of its "completeness" or "unity". If there is no "hors-texte" and no "hors-corps", there is no "hors-image" either: text and body, then, share with the rest of signifiers/media the paradoxically mixed character (cf. Mitchell 1987, 1995) of the life inhabited or even supported by death, of memory based on oblivion, of the original available only through its copies. They are both representative doubles of themselves; both constituted by their own doubles, which supplement the void of their vacant substantial core.

3. Furthermore, this implicit basic assumption of visual studies considers literature to be a visual medium just like painting, photography, television or film, since visuality is "a fundamental component of human culture as such" (Mitchell, in Mirzoeff 1998: 92), characterized by "the inextricable weaving together of representation and discourse, the imbrication of visual and verbal experience" (Mitchell 1995: 83). That is precisely what Barthes envisaged as the task of the "grammatograph", a scholar "who writes the writing of the picture": "it is a matter of annulling the distance (censorship) that separates institutionally the picture and the text", in order to establish "a generalized 'ergography', text as work and work as text" (Barthes 1982: 141), a comprehensive multidisciplinary approach to the problem of the interdependence of words and images.(1) It is possible to notice similar theoretical endeavors in the works of Bachelard, Nancy (cf. 2003: 125), Merleau-Ponty etc. But the dividing censorship mentioned by Barthes is not the only one that concerns text and picture: from Plato's Phaedrus to the most recent paranoid critique (or worse, exaltation) of proliferating simulacra and to the persecution of semiotic studies, they have both been accused of murderous duplication and zoographical fraud or duplicity (cf. Derrida 1976: 292).

4. What scares and scandalizes the iconophobes as well as the graphophobes, according to Derrida, is not the fraud, but, on the contrary, the unpleasant revelation inherent to both writing and painting, their ability to invoke the return of the repressed of any ipseity or presence of the "thing itself", through reminding us that its very presence is nothing but a reminder of its past, future and actual absence, its being a visual signifier only representing its very self: "There is never a painting of the thing itself and first of all because there is no thing itself" (Derrida 1976: 292). The image always stands for the "thing itself" as regards the observer, just as it is always a signifier which represents a subject for another signifier. The presence of the thing itself - or of the human body - is nothing but the presence of a signifier of its absence - its actual belonging to the realm of the unattainable, its identity to the trace of its past as well as of its future death.

5. The structural affinity or even interchangeability between body, image and text in their common non-essentiality of both poison and remedy, in their character of repeatable signifying entities that point to an essential absence, to the threat of destruction and death, has been studied by scholars resembling Barthes's ideal grammatographs. The remarkable book by Georges Didi-Huberman Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde ("That which we see, that which looks at/regards us"), which defines itself as a "fable philosophique" on the anthropomorphism of the reflexive gaze which looks back at us even from the less expected sculptural artifacts, such as the American minimalist "specific" statues of the sixties, assuming the dialectical capacity of an interhumane dialogue through critical verbal discourse, focuses upon two non dialectical modes of use of art products, which, nevertheless, cannot remove the potentials inherent to art: faith (the tendency to resolve anxiety in front of a work of art by insisting upon its referentiality and transcendentalizing its meaning) and tautology (the claim that the work of art refers only and exclusively to itself, for the sake of being nothing but what it is, thus trying to stick to the pure evidence of the visible, as if one could observe an artistic object without being changed by it). Both of these attitudes tend to ignore the aesthetic object, each in its own way: while belief postulates an anticipated metaphysical meaning and by-passes the material texture in which the work of art is structured (by the gesture of "transcendent reading" in the name of "that search for the signified", Derrida 1976: 160, with a voluntary blindness, as shown by de Man 1971), tautology cuts off what remains invisible in the visual experience, reducing the aesthetic process to a stasis and indifference. Both these approaches to art should be overcome, according to Didi-Huberman, who follows Walter Benjamin's reflection, by an attempt at dialectizing the relationship between the image and the seer (cf. 1992: 135, 139): what you get when you see a work of art is neither the surveying gaze of some superior instance that would make use of art as the medium of the control exerted upon you, nor a finite whole that is everything there is to be seen. What you see is by no means just what you see, as the minimalist Frank Stella tried to limit his product to pure specificity (cf. Didi-Huberman 1992: 32); on the contrary, it is precisely what you cannot see clearly that looks back at you - the artistic object which resembles you precisely by means of its uncanny dissemblance, which exemplifies with its presence not only the precariousness of presence as such, i.e. the virtuality of its absence, but, in a much more disquieting way, the very possibility of your own disappearance, the threat of total loss. The reason why it has such potential as a humanlike reminder of your own death despite its morphological non correspondence, lies in its originary secondarity, i.e. in its nature of an artificial/artistic, symbolic compensation of the originary loss - your separation, at first temporary, and then painfully definitive, from the being who gave you birth. The material artifact (Nancy) does not need to have human features to be able to accomplish its Fort/da mission of representing again and again the absence of your mother; it looks at you and concerns you by virtue of the founding act in which an object extracted itself from its context and became the symbolic substitute of something else, an object of art, and, at the same time, constituted you as human subject, always already used to loss and vowed to find its way "back home" through aesthetic substitutes. The aesthetic object is a kind of memento mori, it resembles you despite its dissemblance, offering you the gratification of a beautiful detour on your way to recognizing and finally accepting your nothingness.

6. So human subject and aesthetic image of any kind, including a written literary text, are connected by a sort of mutual specularity, which arises in the very moment of their interaction, invoking almost inevitably an analysis of their relation in terms of Lacan's mirror stage theory. The non-morphological anthropomorphism of writing has been examined as a version of drawing a self-image in an essay by Serge Tisseron (1994), dedicated to a hypothetical model of writing as a version of the author's drawing a specular self-image:

In the same way as the child first grasps the imaginary whole of the body upon perceiving himself in the mirror before he realizes its perceptive unity, it is possible that the writer anticipates the imaginary whole of his text, created after the image of his own body as a whole. The outline of his work - or fragments of drafts corresponding to various parts of the project - fulfill, even if they remain incomplete, the function of anticipating fantasmatically the projected totality (Tisseron 1994: 40, quoted in Schwenger 1999: 82).

Tisseron's construction of the mirror stage of writing is a model of text as autobiography, akin to Paul de Man's thesis according to which every text is, in a certain way, to be considered as autobiography (1984: 67-81). Although stimulating, Tisseron's analogy focuses on the aspects of the textual signifier as a mimetic imprint of a single and specific signifier of the author's unconscious subjectivity/identity. The way in which I am going to explore the human subject/literary text analogy in Lacan's terms does not take the written signifier to be a mirror reflection of an empirical human subject, a reproduction or a replica of a determined psyche conceived of as "original". On the contrary, I assume both text and human subject to be images that are always already reproductions, originally tied up to specular secondariness.

If the otherness of the bodily existence of a human subject and the otherness of a textual image share the character of signifying specularity, if body and text are the anagrams of each other, the identities of both are susceptible of being viewed as constituted by a metaphorical mirror, which clearly stands for the gaze of the other and the gaze of the self as other.

As much as the "real" human condition, anterior to the structuration of a subjecthood, consists of unorganized scattered bodily organs and tissues, the material of a prospective literary text has the same nature of amorphous dispersion of pieces, fragments, traces of discourse. The imaginary completeness of a human body is acquired through the mistake of identification, followed by a gratuitous jubilation, with the mirror image of an Other, a mistake soon to be revealed as such, repressed and thus transformed in a permanent threat of reversible dissolution/aphanisis, signified by the fear of fragmentation/castration. Without forcing the mirror metaphor, it is still undeniable that the Other plays a similar role in the formation of a literary text: the coherence of a textual entity endowed with a sense and a meaning - previously non-existent - is provided through the elaboration of an image, the material image of structured discourse, constituting the text's signifying body. As in the case of a human subject, there is no substantial "content" hidden behind the surface or beneath the envelope of an exterior "expression", and yet, just as human body "is always something else than it is" (cf. Merleau-Ponty 1945: 231; cf. Nancy 2000: 29) and simultaneously different and identical to the self it signifies, the image of a text is profoundly other to the text itself, in so far as it is simultaneously "all of the text" and the representation of the text, thus not identifiable with textual totality. The latter is always already divided into what Saint Paul named "letter" and "spirit": being non-transparent, "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6). Both the body image and the text's image are signifiers representing a subject/a text for another signifier; they are both pictorial translations, representations of themselves, not graspable exhaustively in their presumed entirety, both other to themselves in the way the mirror reflection is other to the reflected object. What enables both text and subject to come about is the desire for being one (for showing oneself "as the unity of a representation", Nancy 2003: 161), conflicting with the founding duplicity that divides them internally and constitutively: the image of a unique entity, revealed not to be a signifier of the reflected signified, but a signifier of another signifier - the one that the reflected turns out to be to its signifying mirror image - takes forever away from the text/subject, in the very act of their formation, the possibility to realize its desire for unity and uniqueness. What is reflected as a coherent totality is but a reflection of its own reflection; what represents the momentaneous confirmation of oneness turns out to be an illusion built upon one own double's appearance. As the subject is forever separated from its self, condemned as it is to discover its initial mistake of clear visibility to be a play of mirror duplications and its own self to be the reflection of the Other, the text remains equally cut off from the control of its sense: its signifying surface deriving from the Other - the Other's language, the Other's texts, the Other's gaze - confers the status of an other onto its desired, but unattainable "interiority".

The imaginary unity of a text, as well as that of the body image representing a subject, is maintained not only at the price of removing the chaos it sprang out from and effacing the doubleness of its identity, but also of denying the proliferating bonds of intertextual or, respectively, intersubjective doubleness which continue to constitute both the text and the subject as the social and institutional variety of the initial mirror duplication: they are both bound to go on existing in anxiety in front of the possibility to explode under the dividing pressure of an all-encompassing alterity. Just as human subject, striving to maintain its imaginary unity and identity, though secretly confirmed to be that of another, the textual signifier has to strive for its coherent structuredness, despite its more or less explicit awareness (i.e. inscription) of its being a mere reflection of other signifiers itself. In fact, although the imaginary stage of repressed duplicity is supposed to be overcome through the acceptance of that duplicity, by resigning to the loss of originality and acquiring the mature attitude of symbolic substitutions, the attainment of the symbolic stage does not bring any relief and does not remove the anxiety before the possibility of aphanisis, because "the symbolic is structured like the imaginary" (Copjec 1995: 23). Both human subject and text are shaped on the pattern of the mirror image: in both cases, the social construction depends on the constant appropriation of the Other's "proprieties", i.e. on the denied identificatory procedures through which subject/text assimilate fragments and traces of the others' signifying images while refusing to admit it, claiming those incorporated qualities to be its "own" and maintaining a paranoid hostility to those very others whose traits it mimetically assumes, as adversaries threatening to undermine or usurp its "property". The identification processes, described by Freud as movements of both love and hate, the desire both to eliminate the other and to be the other viewed like one's ideal, transform the unadmitted admiration and appropriation in the act of symbolic dismemberment and ingestion (cf. Freud 1990a). The ghost of the devoured Other and the assumption of the pieces of his body - which is, of course, only the image of his body, but still introjected just like the cannibalistic gesture introduces in one's body the other's organs and tissues - continues to haunt the narcissistic devourer with the fear of being himself dismembered, torn to pieces and devoured by his uncanny doubles, other signifiers threatening to eliminate him and supplant him.

What other signifiers are to human subject, is in the case of the text - and the precarious image of its identity - represented by both other texts and its readers. Roland Barthes' suggestion that the literary text we read should not be "devoured, gorged, but browsed, cropped meticulously" (Barthes 1973: 23-24) may aim at warning us against the metaphorical violence of the reading gaze in understanding, interpreting and using texts; however, it does not advocate some innocent approach, abstention, diet or vegetarianism. There is no need: our subject - the analogy between human subject and literary text as body images - is subjected to the same regime of the reading gaze, and therefore concerns us directly, in so far as there is no hors-texte, no hors-corps and no hors-image. The culture is structured like a gaze: paraphrasing another formula of Lacan's (cf. 1966: 517), I see what I do not look at, thus I look at what I do not see.

The homology that we postulated between the generative semiotic processes respectively of texts and human subjects, put in the discursive frame of our topic - intercultural communication -, could easily induce us to imply an ethical invitation to treat texts with the same piety and correctness we owe to our kind, to promote fraternal bonding and the pathos of mutual understanding; in a word, to humanize our reading of texts and images. But one should not forget the pregnant formula by which Lacan, following Freud, describes human communication and, implicitly, the model of what we see (i.e. manage to grasp) when we look at a signifying surface, be it another person, a text or a picture: "Human language would be constituted of a communication in which the sender receives from the recipient his own message in an inverted form" (Lacan 1966: 238). Although one is constituted by the Other's desire, "one leans on the Other in order to become identical to oneself" (350), in a circular movement of the "narcissistic mirages that dominate the relation to the Other of the I". We are doomed to read the Other - texts, other people, other cultures - as the inversion of our narcissistic normality, as our negative copies; in other words, it is an exception rather than the rule when we come to contradict our convictions in reading the Other. It may not sound like a promising unifying aspect of intercultural contact; but the repression of it is certainly even likely to produce a resolution. Perhaps it is worthwhile to be reminded that what different cultures should overcome in order to communicate with each other are, paradoxically, not their differences, but their sameness in conceiving vision as familiar to the point of rendering it invisible (cf. Schwenger 1999: 99; Merleau-Ponty 1968).

© Morana Cale (Zagreb)


(1) "The picture, whoever writes it, does not exist otherwise than in the narrative that I give of it; or else: in the sum and the organization of readings which can be made of it: a picture is never anything but its own plural description. It is possible to see how this being passed through of the picture by the text out of which I constitute it is at once close and distant to a picture supposed to be language; precisely as J.-L. Schefer says: 'The image has no structure a priori, is has textual structures [...] of which it is the system'" (140).


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Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Moderation / Chair: Astrid Hönigsperger
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

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