back to

e-flux conversations

Superconversations Day 51: Drew S. Burk responds to Emre Hüner & Pelin Tan, "The Forms of Non-Belonging"


#On the Exteriority of the Image and Writing: Thinking and Creating from the Outside

Christina McPhee, Attempt to Measure Sea Ice Extent, photomontage, chromogenic print, 2009.

So, I wanted to begin my reply to Emre Hüner & Pelin Tan by thinking of several of the questions raised that have struck a chord with me and the recent work I have translated or have been reading and writing about, as well as how these questions at once relate to the precise process of writing and art creation, as well as perhaps, relations to the concept of the outside and the emergence or potentiality of the image that finds itself within a temporality that is, as you indicate, perhaps a time of the cosmos.

How can we think of something we never before thought? How can we feel it? What is the feeling of it? Actually, this was your question when we began trying to understand form in the time of cosmos. I think an artifact, or the form of an artifact is always somewhat unknown because it also carries a potential.

I wanted to start with a couple of quotes that I think might be pertinent to the question of the unknown in regards to its relationship to exteriority. The quotes are two different ways of speaking about the image and time in regards to the outside or what you have called, the unknown.

First is a quote by Gilbert Simondon where he relates a position to the image that has a direct relation not only to the past and thus to memories, but more particularly to the position between the subject and the object where the image he says, “invades” the subject. A position where the image becomes a kind of specter or apparition to the subject and where the image also has a relation that Simondon interestingly enough tells us contains a concrete aspect of the exteriority of the image. The quote is from his recently published writings in French: Imagination et Invention (PUF, 2014)

The second quote is a citation from a poem by Edmond Jabès, from his poem, “Transparency of Time”, in his great work, The Book of Questions, Vol. 2. [1]

“The image that invades the subject is an apparition: it can be stronger than the subject and changes its destiny by way of a warning or an interdiction. This image is not that of the quotidian and vulgar real, but bears the burden of an omen; this image reveals, manifests, declares, above and beyond all quotidian orders of realities; this image comes from the «numinous», halfway between the objective and the subjective. Belief in ghosts and specters is perhaps a degraded vestige of the relation to the “numinous”; but it translates and indeed renders concrete this aspect of the relative exteriority of the image.”
– Gilbert Simondon, Imagination et Invention

Now the quote from Edmond Jabès where he speaks not of the cosmos, but of eternity. Which, I will attempt in my own way, to compare with a conception of the outside or the unknown and also what we could call perhaps the time of the cosmos. And it’s interesting to see that Jabès as well, speaks of the image not as outside, but as a “without”, which could be similar, i.e. the outside as absence or as an effacement.

Hence eternity is without image, without voice.

A couple making love is a shadow crossing the night.

Memory of what is without memories.
The void attests itself to the vastness of the thought
Which tries to find itself in nothingness.

There is an after-death which is death appeased.

– Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions: Vol. 11, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop, Wesleyan University Press, 1991.

If we are to get at the questions of how to think or feel something that that one has never before thought and precisely, as well, relate it to the production of an artifact or the practice of art creation, then I think these two quotes provide us with some fertile ground to begin from. That is, in taking as the starting point, a position of the unknown, what we also see is a position that has, as the two quotes above also point to, a relation to the exterior, that is a relation to the outside and also a position with an absence to memory (in the case of the Jabès quote) or in the case of the Simondon quote, where the image transgresses the subject, or is stronger than them and that is as an apparition, something that arrives to the subject from the outside, that appears… like a ghost. Or which has a relation to the numinous. It is this kind of in-betweenness of the subjective and objective position that Simondon hints at wherein the subject is subsumed by the exterior aspect of the image, or the image’s exteriority that is of interest. For it would seem that it is this relation to sensation the sensation that is beyond the subjective and the objective that takes precedence and which necessarily comes from the outside.

It is this outside or this unknown aspect of the image that Simondon speaks of which he also links to the numinous and I will suggest to the unexpected, unknown exteriority of the outside to self that also has rapport to sensation. Simondon speaks of this exteriority of the image to the numinous as being akin to what people often refer to as specter. That is typically a rapport to an apparition of the past and more particularly of the dead. However, I will try to make the case that there is a manner in which the image can walk alongside the image perhaps and avoid this sort of invasion by the image by way of precisely taking up a relation to the image in movement. That is, as an artistic practice of imagination. A common position of the artist or writer.

If we place this conception of the relation of the exteriority of the image in relation to the subject losing its place as subjective and encounter or being overwhelmed by the outside, it is interesting to place it in comparison to Jabès’ conception of another rapport to the outside where the image which is also a relation to the past but one which as your initial questions beckon to, maybe the time of the cosmos which Jabès calls, eternity. Interestingly enough, Jabès’ poem also speaks to another conception of time in its title and which also seems fitting here in regards to the image and the outside as well as a temporality of the outside and that is “Transparency of Time”.

Jabès speaks to the “vastness of thought which strives to find nothingness. A Memory of what is without memories.” Is this not where we can begin to entertain a position of a memory to come, that is a relation to becoming memory of an artifact?

And for me, these two quotes regarding the outside of the image, one conceived as a vast thought striving to find nothingness, the other, striving to contain a relation to the outside that is concrete and which has a relation to the numinous…seem to be the two methods whereby we can begin to locate the perhaps impossible task of thinking the unknown and its relation to the outside in regards to not only a time of the cosmos, but also the conception of the arche-fossil as well as why Jabès refers to “an after-death that is death appeased.” Both of these quotes have to do with creative practices and can potentially provide us with interesting insights into how to think the unknown or a potential conception of the arche-fossil. I will start from the appeasing of death, then in order for us to progress backward toward the artifact, perhaps toward the image itself. Or, as you will see later, not the arche-fossil, but the art fossille.

To do this, I want to shift my focus from the strict concept of the image or the artifact and refer to the other type of art that both of you refer to in a more rigorous relation to the practice of thinking the unknown and the outside and that is by way of the practicing of writing as thinking and tracing, as well as how these two practices can be explored in the works you reference, The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq and Ibn Tufail’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan.

To begin, I want to try to unpack the last statement in the quote from the Jabès poem. “There is an after-death that is death appeased.”

It would seem quite easy to view this “after-death which is death-appeased” in Houellebecq’s book as the relation of Daniel to his being-cloned, the appeasement coming in the form of the clones. However, if we remember the relation the clones have to their longing for the outside, we find ourselves encountering the same questions we began with. That is to say, as Daniel begins recounting his tale and about being cloned and then precisely has it taken on by his clones, we begin to see this conception of novelty and also how this process becomes a metaphor for writing. That is to say, at the edge of the unknown or a cosmic temporality, we are perhaps also where the writer as well begins to take up the task of writing. That is, we are close to a rapport with creative practice and the outside.

As Foucault was wont to note: “Referring only to itself, but without being restricted to the confines of its interiority, writing is identified with its own unfolded exteriority.” [2]

After all, the Greek origin of the word autopsy is basically the act of self-examination. It is interesting to note that the author Ibn Tufail was reported to be one of the first proponents of the practice of autopsy which is perhaps why it appeals to him as a writer. The origin of the Greek term, autotopsy, auto opsis, is seeing something with one’s own eyes… It’s interesting that it has become the word we use for examining the dead. And yet, for the author, the creator, we take up a position precisely of skepsis. Within the etymological origins of the word autopsy, we are provided with a glimpse at comprehending that the concept of a strict “self” is, in the end, already dead…at least in regards to the author and his or her rapport with the creation of artwork or fictional characters as well as his or her relation to self-transformation by way of creative experience and art practice. To be born and die again and again through continual self-transformation… And this is something that we learn precisely by way of writing and art practices.

Again, to think of Foucault is useful. He reminds us in his famous essay, What is an Author?, that not only does writing have a relation to the writing subject’s exteriority, that is to the subject’s outside or the unknown, but writing also leads the subject to precisely transgress the limits and boundaries of its very meaning and signification. If the clones in The Possibility of An Island continue to read and write the narratives of their creator, it’s in one manner interesting and consistent with what you mentioned as fighting off the decay of existence. That is, the perpetual loss of the narrative of their creator, as the clones continue to write it, also shows this relationship to writing and its inevitable transgression of sense and transgression of borders. That is, they are not their creators, the clones also must transform and indeed go through transformations. That is, slowly moving toward not the inside but the outside, not the inside the book that they are copying or striving to re-write, of their origin, but precisely a position of transgression, that is transformation by way of striving toward the outside, they as well begin to pen their own narratives. And this movement toward the unknown or the outside for the writer or author or artist, can also lead to an intro-spection, a transformation. But it is precisely one that as Jabes perhaps explains to us is without memory. Or as Jabes says in another poem, and I paraphrase it here as it’s an apt description as well to the relation art practice as well as the position of the writer: you do not write the book, the book writes you. Houellebecq’s clones would perhaps agree. But at some point, the clones don’t want to write the same old story. They begin, like the writer, to crave the outside.

It is interesting to consider that at some point, while the clones know that the outside is a place where the conditions are horrible, indeed where they can find death (that is the one place as clones they can meet their end) they nevertheless, in Houellebecq’s story, do precisely that. They take that risk, they transgress the borders and as with Foucault’s definition of writing, they transgress this border by way of yearning for self-discovery and at the same time, by way of writing and creativity itself. Indeed, as with Houellebecq himself whose central character, Daniel, a comedian who is known for a very polemical sense of humor, it would seem that Houellebecq himself demonstrates the necessity to create his own clones, his own fictional characters in order to perhaps disappear into his own writing. And this perpetual disappearance that we see of the clones continuing to be born again and die is also similar to the act of writing itself for Foucault. That is, in writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin down a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears. [3]

And so to begin to speak of other art practices where the subject disappears in the process, I wanted to think of how this position of creation and decay that you reference as well as potential renewal also reminds me of how artists and in particular the architect and writer, Lebbeus Woods, strived to think his relation to the present decay he bore witness to. I recall recently seeing some of his work at the Broad Art Museum where his fantastical architectural models were exhibited and his drawings were attempts at creating landscapes that strived not to bury the past, but precisely to build upon the destruction created by the wars and other dystopian events. His artistic practice was a matter of striving to create a memory of the past within the present that in some manner created a kind of sedimentary temporal landscape. And yet, Woods’ fictional prints also had a yearning for potential other possibles. He was constantly, as he would comment, at war with himself, struggling and yet striving to create hopeful possibilities of the unknown. That is there must be a tension with regards to creation to gain a relation to the outside.

I would consider practices like those of Lebbeus Woods to perhaps be akin to what it would appear your work may be striving to do, Emre, in your work such as In The Shrines of the Post-hypnotic (img.6), where you mention that you “tried to capture the feeling of this ungraspable cosmic time, drawing almost in the way a 3D printing machine would, recording seismic waves or the tension in minerals of floating rock formations in a dimensionless void.”

It is that kind of attempt at recording seismic waves or tension in minerals of floating rock formations that makes me think not only of the artistic and architectural attempts of Lebbeus Woods, but also the type of artwork that could perhaps be akin, as your attempt seems to be, to a kind of arche-fossil, whereby we potentially grasp perhaps a conception of cosmic time. And this has made me think of a reference to what the French thinker who strived to live as close to the outside as possible, Fernand Deligny, has called art fossile, as opposed to “art brut”. Fossil art.

I believe Deligny’s conception of art fossile also touches in a similar way to Foucault’s comments on the eventual transgression and evacuation of meaning by an author or artist in attempting to connect with the unknown or outside, or the arche-fossil. I think this quote by Deligny is really worth sharing:

Rather than art brut, primitive art, it would be better to speak of art fossile, fossil art. Trapped under the mass of superimposed cultures, fossil art occasionally re-emerges; as ancient as it can be, it surprises and inspires, as innocent as ever of the heaps of meanings that we think we have to pile on.

Yet the fossil moves, existing only in the tacit. If I speak of it, it’s to bring out the need for the tacit, whereas enthusiasm will express itself on its own.

– Fernand Deligny, The Arachnean and Other Texts, trans. Drew S. Burk and Catherine Porter, Univocal: Minneapolis, 2015, p. 82.

Interestingly enough, Deligny doesn’t think art necessarily waited around for the human to arrive in order to show itself in the light of day. Deligny’s poetics provide us with some other very interesting ways to think the question of the human and the animal in regards to art and the outside as well a relation to cosmic time, that is, before our arrival into history.

Deligny says,

“…we still have to ask whether works of art might not take after flying fish, with an outside that is not of the same nature as the one conferred to us by the symbolic domestication and that launches us into history. If the flying fish seems absurd, nothing prevents us from thinking that despite the endless caulking, the outside oozes and comes to form an ocean that reflects the face of whoever is watching, and becomes a mirror without being one. They say that the ocean gleams, but no one sees himself or herself in it. (Fernand Deligny, The Arachnean and Other Texts, p. 145)

This reference to a kind of rapport to the outside that perhaps could be seen in a similar manner by way of viewing the ocean and the outside as Deligny mentions as something oozing and where, while we say it gleams, that even if we can name it, no one sees himself or herself in it. That is, as mentioned above in the way that for Foucault, a writer (or we could say any artists), strives to connect to the outside or the unknown in order to exit memories or a space, which gets at what you say with regards to one of the clones from Houellebecq’s book, where the character “has no more sadness or plans, or nostalgia, or hope.”

Of course, the irony in this statement is that in the quote just mentioned, it is not truly any of the characters in the book who express it, it is really Houellebecq who is writing these words. It is the writer who, in intimating these feelings or is striving to, by creating at the edges of his or her own thought, encounters a place that writing can take you and which sounds an awful like the edges of the outside and the borderlands of death.

Again, I can’t help but think of Foucault’s insightful comments on the writer, after all, Foucault was known to be a grand admirer of thinkers of the outside such as Blanchot. But Foucault reminds us that while the relation of writing with death has always been a common theme in writing such as in old Greek epic tales where the writer might gain immortality, he also reminds us of other classic narrative non-western tales such as The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, where interestingly enough writing takes on a position of precisely fending off death. [4] It was the process of writing far into the morning that kept death at bay. A way of surviving.

And yet, as the title of Foucault’s essay reminds us, as well as Houellebecq’s main character Daniel, the writer takes up a kind of voluntary effacement wherein they accept the role of the dead man or women in the game. It is interesting to bring back the place of the writer in non-western narratives such as Scheherazade’s narrative where writing is a way of keeping death outside, that is outside the circle of life.

And yet, as I tried to make the case for, it would seem that writers and artists must take up a kind of task of embracing this transgression of the circle in order to, similar to the clones in Houellebecq’s novel, make contact with the outside understanding as well the risk it can provoke. Luckily writers in particular have a distance and let their characters meet this fate, but it’s interesting to note that particularly with philosophical thinkers such as Foucault or Baudrillard or Artaud, the question of writing near death in order to transgress borders and think from the outside, always has its risks. Most typically in tarrying with something else that was typically kept outside, which is not death, but a manner of losing one’s relation to subjectivity as well as one’s relation to society and that is madness.

Interestingly enough someone who spent a great number of years working at the edges of belonging or society, Fernand Deligny, a colleague of another adventurer Felix Guattari, spent a great number of years working with those who were truly in a position of the outside and not by their own choice. That is, he watched over the severely autistic children and young adults who were provided a place to wander and creatively practice a way of living where what was privileged was a network as a mode of being. And while Artaud has been a common figure for many as a true explorer of the outside, by way of his relation to sensation or lack thereof, he as well needed a place to land or a territory to connect to as Deleuze and Guattari reference. Always have a place to come back to. To return to after a line of flight. Another name for how one can consider the writer or creator’s relation to the outside.

But let’s return our attention back to the opening quotes on the outside and its relation to the image for Simondon and Jabès.

That is: to the exteriority of the image in relation to Simondon and the without image of Jabès. It may be, in order to truly respond to your question of how to feel and think something that is outside or the unknown is not merely a rapport to madness but precisely to simply think otherwise. Madness used to be a manner in which we recognized ourselves and recognized those who were different and which we didn’t have to push away. But as we have moved into a position today where the conception of madness in relation to the outside has been subordinated to a kind of interiority where its relation to border transgressions or reminders of the other within us has been foregone, a time when some thinkers have suggested that artists are positioned to almost have to fake madness or embrace it in a very unhealthy way in order to encounter the unknown or the outside, there is perhaps a need simply to embrace the otherwise. To go from style to non-style as Deleuze has stated. And for Deleuze, to do this, one must become something other than a writer. That is, one must, as was indicated above, attain a position of the “without image”. And here we get closer to Jabès’ poem once again.

“Everyone can talk about his memories, invent stories, state opinions in his language; sometimes he even acquires a beautiful style, which gives him adequate means and makes him an appreciated writer. But when it is a matter of digging under the stories, cracking open the opinions and reaching regions without memories, when the self must be destroyed, it is certainly not enough to be a “great writer”, and the means must forever remain inadequate. Style becomes non-style, and one’s language lets an unknown foreign language escape from it, so that one can reach the limits of language and become something other than a writer.”

– Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical trans. D. Smith and M. Greco, London, Verso, 1998, p. 113.

One must transgress the ordinary limits of language and embrace an unknown language. In order to become “other than a writer…” Perhaps this is where poets such as Jabès understand the necessity for a style that allows one to let sprout from one’s language an unknown foreign language, allowing it to escape from it. Or perhaps there is another manner to view this attempt of becoming other or otherwise. And this could be by way of a conception of the image.

Homesickness for the beyond.

Again if we return to Jabès, and think his position of eternity being without image, perhaps this pertains to the question of ancestrality as well. For it is the imprint of the image as such that becomes perhaps precisely the intervening or arrival of something otherwise than eternity. If we find ourselves back at striving to think the beyond the known, and take as a starting point, to see into eternity, or what we can call here, perhaps incorrectly, the desire to see into the after of the human or the before the human— this is how I’m interpreting the concept of ancestrality or the arche-fossil, the fossil of the beginning— perhaps we also find ourselves re-encountering a “homesickness for the beyond”. Or striving to reclaim a manner of seeing that has been lost by way of vision’s perpetual instrumentalization for the past several hundreds years.

Ivan Illich intimated in some of his late writings something that seems useful for this discussion. He focused his attention on the necessity for a history of ocular perception. [5] Within our novel manner of a satellitic networked gaze, we perhaps are re-discovering a manner of experiencing sight that Illich spoke of, “experiencing skopos which unlocks the horizon, interpreting the gaze as a kind of homesickness for the beyond.” Whereas this desire to look into eternity has become a constant in Western thought, Illich contends that it has also drastically shifted our modes of perception and how we perceive by granting a kind of privileged position to observation which at once becomes reliant on the instrumentality of vision by way of instruments where “truth was no longer what the eye had seen but was the result of an observation.” (emphasis mine) And so, in Illich’s account, this instrumentality of vision by way of observation led to both a decay or impoverishment of the gaze and also a privileging of it. And for Illich, this shift in the instrumentality of the gaze was destructive to the eye. The eye was turned into an observational device where “sight was disembedded from synaethesis. Vision, thus made independent of touch or taste, was exalted as the main tool of observation. The eye lost connaturality with its objects and, at the same time, was assigned dominance over the other senses.” [6]

If we compare Jabès’ comments that eternity is without image or without voice, to Illich’s comments about sight becoming disembedded from synaethesis, wherein vision, in becoming merely an observational device, loses its connectivity to touch or taste, then what this would seem to indicate is the necessity for not only thinking what it is that is human within our observations, but precisely re-evaluating the conception of human observation as such in order to regain a conception of the scopic, or the telescopic, —vision in movement from a distance— that strives to retain or regain a conception of vision that has not become merely the instrumentalized gaze of observation.

That is, we must question an instrumentalized vision that thinks itself to be “objective” in order for us to take up conceptions of image, voice, or consciousness that perhaps can regain a relation to the unknown where objectivity is forgegone for a hesitant, gaze, an opsis skepsis. Do neural net algorithms merely observe? Merely capture, “data-mine”, and compute? Should the human want to continue to emulate these instrumentalized practices? Any conception of the human arche-fossil would be something more akin to the mutual gaze of the animal with other animals, outside of mere observation. [7]

But this could also precisely find us dealing with a position of the image that refers to both the conception mentioned by Simondon as well as Jabès. The exteriority to the image and its relation to sensation.

These positions of sensation that also play roles within our conceptions of images and knowledge, that is, our forays into the known and into the unknown demand the necessary prerequisite of perhaps not merely observation as Illich indicates, but perhaps necessitate a return to a revaluation of the history of the scopic where we can perhaps reacquaint ourselves with the askesis of the gaze. And perhaps also, reacquaint ourselves with the synaesthetic qualities of sight. That is, vision that has a connection with touch and taste and the rest of the sensorial faculties.

And this might be a position that we are beginning to see as well which is a relation to the image in movement. A position of the cinematic in regards to temporality whereby the without image of Jabès is touched on by way of another conception of the image which is one that Deligny understood as well.

“Whereas Heidegger journeys toward speech [la parole], the image walks side by side with “movement”. The acting of the image is movement, a movement whose completion is not speech. If there is a path that walks alongside this path, there is no conclusion, no end. The host, the close friend, the neighbor, is merely – the infinitive.”

– Fernand Deligny, Oeuvres Ed. Sandra Alvarez de Toledo, Editions L’Arachnéen, 2007 P. 1687.

To think and to image the unknown: to imagine. To imagine and to invent. To Dream. To originate.

And remember,

“When one says, “I’ve made the image,” it is only because this time it is finished, there is no more possibility. The only uncertainty that makes us go on is that even painters, even musicians, are never sure of having succeeded in making the image. And it is likewise for space: if, by nature, the image has a very short life, then space, perhaps, has a very restricted place.”

– “L’Epuisé”, Gilles Deleuze, Editions de Minuit, 1992.


1 Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions: Vol. 11, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop, Wesleyan University Press, 1991.

2 Michel Foucault, What is an Author? Foucault Reader Ed. Paul Rabinow, Pantheon 1984, p. 102.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid, p. 103

5 All refernces to Ivan Illich in this essay refer to his essay: Ivan Illich, THE SCOPIC PAST AND THE ETHICS OF THE GAZE: A plea for the historical study of ocular perception, 1998.

6 Ibid.

7 cf. Eduardo Viveiros De Castro’s work, Cannibal Metaphysics, on the Amerindian Indians’ conception of animals being human before becoming animals and vice versa.

Drew S. Burk is a cultural theorist, editor, and translator of contemporary French philosophy. He lives in Minneapolis, MN and is the director of Univocal, an independent publisher of philosophy and theory.

1 Like