The Crossing of the Visible (Cultural Memory in the Present)

The Crossing of the Visible (Cultural Memory in the Present)

by Jean-Luc Marion

ISBN: 9780804733922

Publisher Stanford University Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Painting

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Sample Chapter


The Crossing of the Visible and the Invisible


In itself, perspective exercises a paradox. Even more than that, perspective and paradox are determined by similar characters: both indicate the visible entirely in its withdrawing, discretely but radically. The paradox attests to the visible, while at the same time opposing itself, or rather, while inverting itself; literally, it constitutes a counter-visible, a counter-seen, a counter-appearance that offers in a spectacle to be seen the opposite of what, at first sight, one would expect to see. More than a surprising opinion, the paradox often points to a miracle — it makes visible that which one should not be able to see and which one is not able to see without astonishment [stupeur]. Thus, in the Septuagint, the works of God in liberating Israel from Egypt themselves produce paradoxes, known as miracles: "See what is most paradoxical [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]]: in water that extinguishes, the fire increases its power" (Wisdom 16:17). In this sense, or rather, in another sense that will soon become precisely the inverse of this, the human face offers a paradox to be seen; in the words of Char: "As the bee leaves the orchard for the fruit already black, so the women supported without betraying the paradox of this face that did not have characteristics of a hostage." A paradox of the face, which finds itself fulfilled in this "strange paradox in Christ ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), the Lord in the form of a servant, the divine glory ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) within the strictures of the human." The paradox testifies here that what enters into visibility is that which one should not have encountered there: fire in water, divinity in humanity; the paradox is born from the intervention of the invisible in the visible, whatever it might be. From this arises the necessary effect of the paradox, in thought but also in the sensible: it dazzles, taking the mind by surprise and shocking the gaze [la vue] in such a way that, far from fulfilling or satiating them, its very excess of visibility injures them. Just as the miracles give rise to so much resistance that their reality cannot be questioned, so theoretical paradoxes stimulate polemic much more than they stimulate the production of evidence. — And yet perspective, in its own way, also provokes a paradox. Or rather, it imitates the paradox, by inverting the relation it has established between the visible and the invisible. In the two operations, the gaze strives to see what it is not able to see, but differently: the paradox offers a counter-appearance, while perspective suggests a breakthrough of the gaze. The paradox poses a visible that belies the visible, perspective a gaze that pierces through the visible. Moreover, in classical Latin, perspicuus qualifies what offers itself as transparent to the gaze, for example a vestment; and in fact, in perspective, the gaze pierces through what one would call, for lack of a better term, a middle ground [milieu], a milieu so transparent that it neither stops nor slows down the gaze but allows it to rush through, without any resistance, as if it were a vacuum [vide]. In the case of perspective, the gaze pierces the void [le vide], without any obstacle or limit other than its own exhaustion; not only does it cross through this void, since it does not aim at any object defined by a horizon, but perspective's gaze pierces the void without end because it crosses through it for nothing; in perspective, the gaze loses itself in the void — more specifically, it aims at emptiness, outstripping every object once and for all, in order to aim at this void itself. In this, moreover, it loses itself only to find itself there continually.

What void? Here it is not a question of a physical void, which, as a pure absence of things, a real [réelle] breakdown of res, gives nothing to be seen but rather gives only vertigo. A physical void: there is nothing to be seen, no new spectacle, but conversely, the real void of reality [le vide réel de la réalité], as a desert of things, where I then enter, am moved, live, possibly fall and, when it ends, crash upon the final frontier. This desert of things I then almost see, as opposed to other things that mark or signal its boundaries in a way that renders the void visible. The physical void, precisely because it defines itself as a visible desert of things, remains reified, real, visible. On the contrary, the void that opens itself to the gaze in perspective does not open itself as a real "traversable" space that could be inhabited or defined, nor does it add anything to the store of visible things, not even a visible void. The void of perspective does not add anything to the real visible, since it puts it on the scene. In effect, in perspective my gaze invisibly traverses the visible, in such a way that, without undergoing any addition to the real, it becomes that much more visible: the auditorium that houses us today would not appear habitable to me, and strictly speaking would not be so, if, while crossing a certain invisible emptiness, my gaze was not rendered vast. For it is my gaze, opened up by perspective, that separates these colored surfaces to be seen and made out as walls, that raises this other clear surface to see there and make out a ceiling, that finally levels out this darker surface in order to recognize the unfolding of a ground where I can put my feet. Better, without the invisible space that separates them, we would not be able to recognize the surfaces in what would remain simply patches of color, amassed without order, or sense, or figure, piled up one on top of the other, without the slightest crack, thus requiring that we be subjected to a test to determine if our eyes are functioning like a kind of camera. In other words, more simply, if my gaze did not have the strange habitual property described as binocular vision, if it thus did not have an ability to deal with space, precisely the strained character of invisible space as the dense and confusing aggregate of the visible, then the auditorium containing us would not appear to us as — therefore would not be — spacious: we would be stifled by the promiscuous lack of differentiation of surfaces, to the extent that we would perceive not even surfaces but rather spots and colored shadows. With the visible coming to crush us, anguish would beset us, just as it did the prisoner who, in Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, saw the walls inexorably closing in upon him. A quotidian Samson, the gaze of perspective separates the visible by the equal power of the invisible, in a way that renders it for us vast, inhabitable, organized. Perspective's gaze bores through the visible in order to establish there the invisible distance that renders it aimed-at [visable] and first, simply, visible. The gaze instills the invisible in the visible, not indeed to render it less visible but, on the contrary, to render it more visible: instead of experiencing chaotically informed impressions, we see there the very visibility of things. Therefore it is the invisible, and it alone, that renders the visible real. Perspective should therefore be first understood not as a historically situated pictorial theory (although it is that also) but as a fundamental role of the gaze, without which we would never see a world. Our gaze reaches a world — exercises its being-in-the-world — because perspective, in the sense of the invisible organizing the visible, has in itself the ability to see through the visible, therefore in terms of the invisible.

The invisible thus released — that is to say, the invisible that releases the visible from itself — radically distinguishes itself from every real void, pure defect, and desert of things. Things fill a real space, which never really empties the conditions of real [effective] experience. The real space, empty or not, nevertheless cannot see itself without a gaze. Yet this gaze stretches the visible by the power of the invisible. This operation of perspective, which simply opens up the space of things as a world, is accomplished in a way that depends upon the ideality of space: an ideal space, more real [effectif] than real [réel], since it is the condition of possibility. The ideality of space itself attests to the experience of dislocation or movement [déplacement]: in whatever place I actually find myself located, a thing among things, I organize — indeed, I open — the space between right and left. Kant has definitively established that the perfect similitude of figures, even geometrical ones, is not enough for their superimposition, if it opposes, precisely, the symmetry of difference. Depth would not be able to offer here a recourse, since it also attests to its own ideality: thus, my own face will never be able to become visible to me by a mirror, which always inverts itself according to the tension between right and left. Above all, depth offers the confirmation of what indicates the notions of right and left: whatever my travels might be, depth will always remain in front of me as that which I will never be able to traverse, since, if I advance myself toward and in it, it will deepen itself that much more, so that I am never really able to cover it. The opening of depth always precedes me, since every real advance imitates an ideal advance, forever impassable. In the same way, the difference between right and left can be neither reversed nor abolished, since, in order to be reversed, it would have to be already affirmed. These three dimensions are not themselves measured but rather make possible every measurement of real space: thus they prove their ideality. The irreal [irréel], that they organize, must also be described as ideal, and thus also as phenomenological. The two terms designate the same authority: that which makes the visible visible, and which, for the same reason, cannot appear. Perspective becomes an a priori condition of experience and must also be understood in the sense in which Nietzsche speaks of a radical perspectivalism: "As if one could even have a world if one eliminated the perspectivalism!" In other words, as perspectivalism is correlated, for Nietzsche, with interpretation, itself co-extensive with the production of phenomena, so perspective, beyond its historical aesthetic meaning, produces the phenomenality of phenomena: by it, the invisible of the gaze is stretched out, arranging and displaying the chaos of the visible as harmonious phenomena.

We are thus better able to conceive how perspective provokes depth [le relief], invisibly provokes the visible in its depth [relief]. What does depth signify, in effect? Certainly what releases itself, projecting, outside the flat plane, elevating itself and lifting itself up [relève]. But again, what does this "lifting up" [relevé] signify? What is lifted up [relevé] is elevated after it has been found to be collapsed, crushed, and damaged. Relief also characterizes — according to the Littré — the title for a member of the nobility who, after losing status and land, is taken up by a new family: "Formerly, letters of relief, letters for the rehabilitation of nobility, were properly letters that lifted up [relèvent]" (s.v. 9). The relief of the visible comes to it from the invisible, which lifts it by deepening and crossing it, to the point of uprooting it from the humus of flatness where one encounters only unidimensional perception. The invisible pierces in transparency the visible only in order to raise it, moreover to rehabilitate it, rather than to replace it (as in military "relief") or appease it ("relief" in English). Perspective's gaze ennobles the visible by the invisible and, thus, lifts [relève] it up. The invisible gives relief to the visible as one gives a title and a fief [territory] — in order to ennoble. From this the first paradox of perspective must be considered before every painting: the visible increases in direct proportion to the invisible. The more the invisible is increased, the more the visible is deepened.


Immediately after being brought back to the painting from some nature outside of the painting, perspective redoubles its paradox. Certainly, at first glance, and in general, the painting limits itself, with the liberty of a brilliance that seems almost unlimited, to the principle that the visible increases in direct proportion to the increase of the invisible. The painting even pushes this paradox to its extreme. For the first visible, the effectively perceived given [le donné effectivement perçu], is found to be unquestionably defined here by perfect flatness: a wooden platform, stretched tissue on a frame, part of a wall, the object seen bursts forth to thus speak from a unidimensional poverty; a poor and flat surface, without depth (other than its irregularity and quantity of pigments), or secret, or reserves in which to conceal the least behind-the-scenes [arrière-spectacle], and which, nevertheless, deepens itself to a bottomless depth. Consider for example, from the beginning of perspective, historically and narrowly understood, the scenes of the Legend of the Cross, in the church of Arezzo, by Piero delle Francesca, nevertheless author (in 1482?) of On Perspective for Painting: the levels are there distinguished, between the horse, the soldier, the pikes, and finally the hill where the tent of a peaceful camp is simultaneously being attacked, but the distinction of the levels does not prevent the piling up and even confusion of outlines, the muddling of faces and surfaces. What visible trace is lacking in order to organize this veritable world, in short, to actually create a world? Nothing visible is lacking, since all that must appear appears — horse, soldier, banner, tent, and hill — and appears well. If nothing visible is missing, it is thus the invisible that is lacking there.

The situation is quite the reverse, on the other hand, with Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin — if one considers it as it ought to be viewed: the main group of characters centers around the hands of the spouses, which are being joined by the priest. But just above them (actually painted within millimeters of their heads) stands a building, whose function is to open itself with a door, then a corridor that gives way, on the other side, through another, similar door, to the sky — a sky framed by the solid heaviness of this building, and disconnected from the real empirical sky, which, moreover, is suspended over every aspect of the scene. The second door opens onto both a strange sky and a real sky; it therefore functions differently from the first; of course, the space that surrounds the first door completes the breakthrough already begun by the lines of the paving stones that extend the balance of the central group. The surfaces are not juxtaposed any more, but rather thrust themselves, from depth into depth [de profondeur en profondeur], toward the central opening, which literally inhales them. The entire picture flees toward its vanishing point, the central space, which gives rise to enough space that each surface spreads itself without stifling itself or obfuscating the others. The visible is able to reduce itself since the invisible — the space of the sky encased by the door which is opened onto and by nothing — enables it to be in the open space. The exemplary trait of the placement in perspective in this picture is due not to the imposition of surfaces, which is technically banal, but rather to a paving, a simple sensible transposition of a geometric figure greatly abstracted, so that by the opening through a window that is ultimately unreal, everything visible opens onto the invisible.

This operation can rediscover itself by other means, as in the concave mirror that opens the famous Portrait of the Betrothal of the Arnolfini [Van Eyck]. This is certainly a mirror that does not open the painting onto a void [un vide], to infinity; but neither does it limit itself to mere circularity, sending it back to itself, in a sterilely closed mimicking of itself. Here the mirror first reveals the reverse (the back) of the two characters that the painting presents face-on, in such a way that we already see more than the first visible, alone real, would allow to be seen. But above all the mirror reveals, beyond the backs of the characters, the faces of three eyewitnesses, who see the couple without directly appearing within the initial painting; this opens itself therefore onto another space that precedes it — a space, moreover, that does not prevent the mirror from reflecting itself in the mirror, thus marking the escape to infinity; therefore it is the invisible that puts it in perspective. Strictly speaking, the invisible thus constructs the visible and allots it.

Excerpted from "The Crossing of the Visible (Cultural Memory in the Present)" by Jean-Luc Marion. Copyright © 2013 by Jean-Luc Marion. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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