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Lyotard, Discourse, figure: desire, art and politics

Lecturer: Graham Jones

Originally Taught: Winter School 2016

In 2011, after a forty-year wait, a complete English translation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s doctoral thesis Discourse, figure was finally released. However, since its original publication in French in 1971 right up until the present day, this work - as important in its own right as the key works of Deleuze and Derrida – has largely (and unjustly) been met with critical neglect.

Originally intended both as a strategic intervention into then current debates concerning art history, phenomenology, structuralism and psychoanalysis, and as the first-stage in a broader critique of representation within capitalist society, the intervening decades, however, have not diluted the density, the rigour, the significance, and most crucially the on-going relevance of this philosophical milestone. Indeed, the recent resurgence of interest in Lacanian thought (by way of Zizek and his Hegelian revisions) only further underscores its importance for the contemporary philosophical scene.

This course, will present a careful and detailed reading of Discourse, figure, situating it in relation to its original historical context and subsequent sparse reception, as well as highlighting and exploring its links with various debates in aesthetics and continental philosophy.

Level: beginner to intermediate. The course assumes no prior knowledge of the text, or even Lyotard’s philosophy in general – however, some familiarity with other (so-called) poststructuralist thinkers would be an advantage.

Required text: Ideally, a copy of Discourse, figure, however, some excerpts (and several other useful articles) will be provided during the course.

Seminar 1

This seminar introduces Lyotard as a thinker, providing some relevant biographical and pedagogical details whilst also situating Discourse, figure, and its themes, aims, and style, in relation to then contemporary theoretical debates concerning art, politics, philosophy and psychoanalysis. In particular, it will emphasize Lyotard’s gradual retreat from traditional Marxist heuristics, his training in phenomenology, and his subsequent turn toward the 'libidinal' and deep-seated suspicion of 'interpretation', as well as his sustained critical engagement with many of the ideas presented in Lacan’s famous seminar program. In the second half of the class we will examine the provisional contrast between ‘reading’ and ‘seeing’ (and correlative distinctions between the discursive and the visual, and the conceptual and the sensuous) introduced at the start of Discourse, figure.

Other relevant thinkers discussed in this seminar will include Plato, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Dufrenne, Marin, Baudrillard and Derrida.

Seminar 2

This seminar details the argument advanced by Lyotard in the first half of the book, which is heavily influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological writings on vision and painting, as well as the latter's critique of Gestalt theory. It introduces Lyotard's notion of the ‘figural’, summarizes his important criticisms of linguistics, structuralism and semiotics, and also outlines his views on indication, signification, and discourse, as well as his criticisms of the history and respective ideological functions of mimesis and point-perspective in the Western artistic tradition.

Other thinkers besides Merleau-Ponty discussed in this class include Alberti, Saussure, Köhler, Levi-Strauss, Benveniste, Jakobson, and Arnheim. Artists and authors discussed will include Manet, Mallarmé, Cézanne, Apollinaire, Magritte and Cummings.

Seminar 3

This seminar begins by examining the 'veduta', the section located at roughly the book’s mid-point which marks the important shift from a phenomenological framework to a psychoanalytically informed perspective, with the notion of ‘desire as force’ constituting both the pivot and driver for this change. The remainder of the seminar examines the argument presented in the second half of Discourse, figure which involves a detailed critique of Lacan’s reading of Freud, particularly Lacan’s notions of the unconscious and discourse, of desire as 'lack', and his views on the nature and role of artworks (both specifically and in general).

Other thinkers besides Freud and Lacan discussed in this seminar will include Saussure, Heidegger, Sartre, and Foucault. Artists and authors discussed include Holbein the Younger, Velasquez, Picasso, Stein, Dali, Roussel, and Duchamp.

Seminar 4

This seminar continues with Discourse, figure’s critique of Lacan – particularly the ‘gaze’ and the 'objet a' - and Lyotard’s subsequent presentation of an alternative approach to art, closely related to the notions of ‘figurality’, anamorphosis, and the Freudian 'dream-work'. It also details the manner in which the transgressive ‘disfiguring of form’, and the related exposure of the workings of phantasy through 'rotation', play crucial political and philosophical roles in Discourse, figure, and Lyotard’s philosophy more broadly.

Other thinkers discussed in this class will include Bataille, Green, and Winnicott. Artists and authors discussed will include Klee, Bellmer, Pollock, Godard, Butor, Snow, Wall, Lynch, Greenaway, Crewdson, Spiegelman, and Claerbout.

Seminar 5

This seminar will draw together the various strands discussed in the previous classes in an attempt to assess what Discourse, figure might offer us today. Then it will look at why Lyotard’s work post-Discourse, figure subsequently developed in other (tangential) directions, both expected and unexpected. It will also briefly review several significant issues, including the various criticisms made of the ‘libidinal’ underpinnings of Discourse, figure and Lyotard's supposed 'aestheticising of politics, as well as the validity of his criticisms of Lacan, and the recent (questionable) appropriation of the notion of the ‘figural’ within film theory. Finally – time permitting – it will compare some of Lyotard’s ideas with those of other relevant thinkers such as Adorno, Barthes, Deleuze, Kristeva and Zizek.

There will also be some provision made for questions towards the end of the class.