deleuze’s hume (the copy principle, &c.)

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment


The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) in §II “Of the Origin of Ideas,” from his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (hereafter: the Enquiry), outlines what has come to be known as the ‘copy principle.’[1] Hume’s empiricism divides human perceptions into two types: impressions and ideas. This fundamental principle has to do with the way we immediately perceive things empirically and that those perceptions become ideas. The means that the ideas are brought to the mind—via memory and imagination—from the sensual impressions is known as the copy principle. In short, ideas are copies of sense impressions. In the 20th century, the French post-structuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) writes about David Hume’s empiricism with creative and unexpected modifications.[2] In this post it will be argued that there is not simply one standard direction in which to read Hume, and that Deleuze’s approach offers a perspective that not only respects Hume’s position, as it originates with the copy principle, but it also radicalizes Hume’s empiricism to become Deleuze’s unique (un-Kantian) concept of transcendental empiricism. But, before we step into Deleuze’s innovations, Hume’s copy principle will be outlined as it was put forth in the Enquiry.

§I. Hume’s Copy Principle: Hume doesn’t formally call his principle ‘the copy principle,’ it has this name due to the fact that, for Hume, our ideas are copied from impressions, and that even if there is an association of ideas brought together by other ideas, those ideas can always be traced and found to originate (copied) from primary sense data, otherwise known as impressions. Hume divides perception into two basic ‘classes’: ideas and impressions. (A) Ideas: “the less forcible and lively are commonly denominated thought or ideas” (¶3).[3] For ideas, Hume illustrates the difference between being told about love and having an idea of what it is, which is a lot different than actually feeing in love. In other words, an idea of love cannot be the same as feeing in the passionate throes of love. The former (idea) is a less robust version of the latter (impression). (B) And there are impressions: “by the term impression, then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will” (¶3).[4] From this, it should be noticed that the impressions are not simply, sense data alone, but the impressions are also passionate, emotive and willful. As in the love example, Hume humorously characterizes the passion of love as being that of “disorders and agitations” (¶2).[5] Hume writes “All our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our more lively ones” (¶5).[6] Again, an idea of love is to be sharply distinguished from feeing in love. To repeat a small step further, Hume’s description of ideas presents them as compounded by various elements of sense data “We shall always find that every idea which we examine is copied from a simple impression” (¶6).[7] Following the copy principle, ideas are threaded together by the three principles of association: resemblance, contiguity and cause and effect.

Hume offers two arguments to prove the copy principle. Whenever we choose to look closely, and analyze our ideas, it will be found that they all stem from a common source: impressions. For example, even an idea of God can be deduced from impressions.[8] With an idea of God we have our own faculties of thought taken to their ultimate conclusions, as with goodness, wisdom, omnipresence, etc. Hume then tries to argue that “a blind man can form no notion of colors, a deaf man [can form no notion] of sound” (¶2).[9] Although Hume is trying to show that, for instance, a blind man can have no notion of color. On a certain level this argument is true, since a blind man cannot actually see color. Yet, it can be argued that a blind man has the ability to learn about colors, i.e. he can be easily taught that a rainbow’s order of colors consists of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, he does not need to necessarily see the colors to have a notion about this one singular fact concerning the rainbow’s order of colors. Therefore, there must be plenty of other related notions a blind can know about concerning colors without ever having the eyes to see them. Aside from this argument about a blind man knowing about color, there is Hume’s copy principle in a few sentences. Now we transition to Deleuze’s post-structuralist reading of Hume.

§II. Deleuze’s Radicalization: It has been said that “although Deleuze is usually faithful to Hume’s writings, his readings are idiosyncratic and go well beyond the original texts.”[10] So the question is: how does Deleuze modify and extend Hume’s copy principle to fulfill his own philosophical ends? Deleuze’s first book from 1953, Empiricism and Subjectivity, is devoted entirely to Hume’s 1738 book A Treatise of Human Nature. It must be noted that we are reading Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, from 1748, written ten years later than the ‘unsuccessful’ Treatise.[11] Deleuze’s posthumously published book, from 2001, Pure Immanence has a chapter devoted to Hume’s philosophy in general. Needless to say, Hume was an important influence on Deleuze’s philosophy. Preliminaries aside, Deleuze writes on the copy principle (though he too does not name it as such), roughly put, if ideas contain nothing more than what can be known by the senses, then “relations are external and heterogeneous to their terms.”[12] This statement is ‘transcendentally’ important, which will be looked with more detail later. To this externality of terms, Deleuze writes that empiricism (i.e. Hume’s empiricism) “always fought for the externality of relations.”[13] But there is always the problem of how to constitute the origins of knowledge. Deleuze feels that Hume accomplishes this by maintaining that, of course, relations are not internal as a rationalist would argue, but that relations are external and exogenous, i.e. happening outside of their terms. If we have nothing but the base impression from which our knowledge of the world is derived, then the way relations between things are connected is exterior to the atomic impressions. Deleuze recasts this (i.e. Hume’s copy principle) further to say “thus the difference isn’t between ideas and impressions but between two sorts of impressions or ideas: [1] impressions or ideas of terms and [2] impressions or ideas of relations.”[14]


For Deleuze it isn’t important that the ideas and impressions are distinct, instead he places emphasis on the difference between terms and relations. This means that Hume’s terms are “veritable atoms” and his relations are “veritable external passages.”[15] In other words, Deleuze is saying that the ideas and/or impressions are in fact atomic—they are both atoms of knowledge, and, that ideas and/or impressions are both external passages—knowledge is a relative (indeed, a relational) passage to the external world. To say it another way, for Deleuze’s Hume we have what Deleuze calls the “physics of the mind [atoms]” and the “logic of relations.”[16] It should be noted that what Deleuze relies upon, in this philosophical turn, has to do with impressions and ideas, and how Hume extends the copy principle to include the “principle of connection between the different thoughts or ideas of the mind” (¶2).[17] Again, Deleuze is suggesting that if all we have is an empirical base to know the world via ideas and impressions, the associations and relations we make of those atoms happen eternally to their terms. Deleuze calls this a “world of exteriority,” […] “a world in which the conjunction ‘and’ dethrones the interiority of the verb ‘is’.[18] This dethroning of ‘is’ by ‘and’ can be interpreted as a Deleuzian way to say that Hume’s empiricism places top priority on relations rather than on rationality.

But what in all this is so radical? To be sure, Deleuze’s concept of transcendental empiricism originates from his commitment and transformation of Hume’s empiricist philosophy. Given his idiosyncratic reading of Hume, it is important to understand that human nature essentially begins at the atomic level of the copy principle. And it is also important to remember that all relations (and associations etc.) are derived from these primary atomic connections which are external to their terms (“relations are external and heterogeneous to their terms” as quoted above). This means that the relations, associations, and connections we make from the various atomic elements consisting of ideas and impressions happen outside of the elements. Relations happen outside of the terms themselves. This process which Deleuze calls human nature is transcendent. But to be very careful, it is not transcendent under what Immanuel Kant would call transcendent, i.e. as happening due to a table of universal a priori categories of the mind. Rather, the transcendence Deleuze speaks of is simply the way the human nature inherently, habitually, and imaginatively puts the terms of empirical experience together. Human nature is transcendentally relational. As the human mind is for Hume, there is no Kantian centripetal, universal, or transcendental core to the mind, there are just the relations we make between things. This is what is meant by human nature for Deleuze—the mind has no necessary center. Deleuze’s transcendentalism focuses instead on the multiplicity of experiences that can be derived from the relations we make with things. Worded another way, his transcendentalism is not paradigmatic like Kant’s. It is entirely contingent on the relations made because of experience. Transcendence of this kind happens because of our empirical, atomic, and indeed Humean way of knowing the world. Hume’s empiricism enables and informs Deleuze’s transcendence, not the other way around.

It is fascinating how an empirical philosophy that is fundamentally based on the copy principle as elucidated by David Hume can suddenly appear be post-structuralist or even postmodernist. The radical shift comes with Deleuze’s exogenous transcendence implied by Hume’s relations, more commonly thought of as associations. In the opening paragraph on Hume in Pure Immanence, Deleuze states that Hume’s “empiricism is a sort of science fiction universe avant la lettre.”[19] Paraphrasing this must mean: if Hume’s empiricism lacks a Kantian and rationalist center, the brilliant possibilities of a science fiction universe are transcendentally and imaginatively within reach—all we have to do is creatively bring about the multitude of relationships from the very base of our ideas copied from our impressions.

——Aurelio Madrid

[1] David Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” in Modern Philosophy: an Anthology of Primary Sources, 2nd Edition, edited by Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins, (Indianapolis, IL: Hackett Publishing Co., 2009), 533-599.

[2] Gilles Deleuze, “Hume,” in Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, translated by Anne Boyman (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2002) 35-52. Deleuze’s first book Empiricism and Subjectivity is also about Hume, specifically Hume’s Treatise. It is not clear if I’ll stick to using his last book Pure Immanence, or not.

[3] Hume, Enquiry, 539. Also, the paragraph citations from Modern Philosophy will be indicated as: ¶1, ¶2 ,,, etc.

[4] Hume, Enquiry, 539.

[5] Hume, Enquiry, 539.

[6] Hume, Enquiry, 539.

[7] Hume, Enquiry, 539-540.

[8] Recall that Hume also calls impressions: feelings or sentiments.

[9] Hume, Enquiry, 540.

[10] Cliff Stagoll, “David Hume,” in The Deleuze Dictionary, edited by Adrian Parr, (Edinbugh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 124-126 .

[11] Hume writes in his “Author’s Advertisement” for the Enquiry: “But not finding it [the Treatise] successful, he [Hume] was sensible of his error in going to the press too early and he cast the whole anew in the following pieces,… [i.e. the Enquiry is the Treatise ‘cast anew’].” Hume, Enquiry, 533.

[12] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 37.

[13] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 37.

[14] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[15] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[16] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[17] Hume, Enquiry, 541.

[18] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 38.

[19] Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 35.


Bell, Jeffery A. Deleuze’s Hume: Philosophy, Culture and the Scottish Enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Buchanan, Ian. Deleuzism: A Metacommentary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Hume.” In Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life. Translated by Anne Boyman, 35-52. New York, NY: Zone Books, 2002.

——, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. Translated by Constantin V. Boundas. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Hume, David. “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” In Modern Philosophy: an Anthology of Primary Sources, 2nd Edition. Edited by Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins, 533-599. Indianapolis, IL: Hackett Publishing Co., 2009.

Marks, John. Gilles Deleuze: Vitalism and Multiplicity. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 1998.

Parr, Adrian. Editor of The Deleuze Dictionary. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.


…on wadsworth’s ambivalent miracles

July 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

ambivalent miracles II

Yet he dismisses without notice his own thought, because it is his.” Ralph Waldo Emerson—Self Reliance

“To rescue difference from its maledictory states seems, therefore, to be the project of the philosophy of difference.” Gilles Deleuze—Difference and Repetition

This post isn’t a book review, I’m simply writing down thoughts after reading Nancy Wadsworth’s book Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing. Already knowing Dr. Wadsworth affected my reading of her work, which shouldn’t be overlooked since our acquaintance brings about an understanding of the book that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t already know her. Before I get into a couple of issues the book raises, I’ll quickly glimpse at how personally knowing her affected how the book was read. This is a work that consists of scholarly research, interviews, church going (she’s a non-believer), conversations and typing, which all took her a span of time to get into final publication. One doesn’t usually pay too close attention to such details if we do not personally know the author. When I met Nancy we had a quick connection to the issue of religion, mainly the mutual acknowledgment that the conventional animosity toward religious practice—primarily Christianity—is just too limited and narrow. I shortly learned that she had been working on this book for some time before we met. It is because I have this personal connection that enabled me to have a better appreciation for the labor, empathy and patience that’s needed to write a book of this kind. That’s not to say I now know what it takes for anyone to write a book, but I do have a slightly better picture of what it takes for someone, like Dr. Wadsworth, to publish a book. I can’t help but think of these considerations, while at the same time, disallowing myself to see these personal things as unimportant, or as not meaningful. To clarify, the hard work itself, the endurance it takes to see a project through, to put something into print, is remarkable to take notice of, not only in and of itself, but for what it’s worth, as way to become. Indeed it’s a creative endeavor to think and layout a multitude of concepts in the pages of a book. That the book was an ongoing project over a period of years shows a grace with the subject matter that only she can attest to in the fullest, and that we as her readers participate with in place of her actual experiences. Though we must be ever careful to note that the actual experiences of her book are not the only reason to value the effort, what is also important to notice are the words, ideas, and connections being made. The very acts of scholarship have their own agency apart from the actions, ideas, problems and concepts depicted. These kinds of relations need to, and can be, observed in any work of art.

Wadsworth’s general thesis is surprising and eye-opening. She argues that American multi-ethnic evangelicals over the years have been slow to engage politically with the racial reconciliation they’re already doing. Although important racial work is getting done, it’s usually within the safe confines of the religion itself. Creating new racial bonds is often tinged with a deep underlying fear that politics will somehow corrupt the process. Miraculously, where a religious (Christian) mandate might require blacks, whites and other ethnicities, to forge better relationships within their multiple congregations, political gestures of ‘social justice’ are often treated with ambivalence. Social justice is mistakenly thought of as having the potential to veer out of control into progressive identity politics. Essentially, there is the misconception that if one gets too involved with politics, the church might lose sight of God. The eye-opening (miracle) part of Wadsworth’s study has to do with the reconciliation between races that is getting done, apart from the noted political ambivalence. The topic of race in the evangelical church is no longer put to the side. There are plenty of well meaning people, black, white, latinos, etc., making careful, and actionable steps to ameliorate past wrongs. Unless you’re experiencing it yourself in depth, as Wadsworth did, these steps typically go unnoticed in today’s binary, oversimplified media coverage. A misconception that evangelicals are backward, narrow minded people is a view Wadsworth stays studiously away from. Sure, there was a blatant history of racism within the evangelical practice, yet to categorize all evangelicals into fixed categories ignores the efforts that people are doing and have done to actualize racial healing today. Wadsworth deserves high praise for the compassion she demonstrates for this misunderstood cohort of the American population. She’s not an apologist for evangelicals. She tells their story as much as she sees room for improvement—namely for evangelicals to become more politically active.

I should confess now that while I read Wadsworth’s book, I was also studying Gilles Deleuze. If there is anything we should know about Deleuze is that he advocated for a philosophy of difference. After reading Deleuze we are compelled to ask: how can we displace our conventional thinking which over-prizes sameness, exemplified by identity and representation, with a philosophy that places difference as more primary than sameness, uniformity, and homogeneity? Just this line of thinking (okay, line of flight) can be contrasted/compared to C. Peter Wagner’s (and Donald McGavran’s) “Homogeneous unit principle.” HUP figures prominently in the history of the American evangelical church as detailed by Wadsworth, Wadsworth sees HUP’s vantage as possibly being the seed of ambivalence evangelicals have toward politics today. The best way to illustrate HUP would be to say that ‘separate is better.’ In other words, even though Wagner advocated HUP as not being a racist ideology, he felt that it would be easier if monoracial people congregated in churches with others who were of the same racial groups. Wagner also promulgated the above mentioned idea that politics should never come before the evangelical mission. The idea must’ve been that evangelicals need not get side-tracked with the political work it takes to fight for minority issues, and should instead focus on their missionary goals of globally spreading the word of God.

Wagner’s HUP sounds like thinly veiled racism, and it probably is. For this reason we are inclined to think that we should not embrace difference in a racial context (‘we are all the same despite skin color’ is a typical refrain) . But when we remove the overt racial problems HUP presents, we suddenly see that group uniformity is valued. It doesn’t take long to think of examples: the military, manufacturing, commercial culture, all, in some degree, value sameness over uniqueness, while at the same time these examples value the hero; the one-of-a-kind product; and the next big thing, respectively. We make the same paradoxical and contradictory shifts when we think of ourselves ‘personally’ in terms of uniqueness, ‘we are all the same underneath these differences in skin color’ while at the same time ‘we should stand apart from the crowd, if we are to truly be ourselves.’ We honestly don’t know what it would mean to establish the radical Deleuzian claim that everything (everyone) is different in the most profound sense of the word. Difference is only thought of with respect to the same. In a racial context a homogeneous kind of thinking is frightfully primary and omnipresent. Yet the news is not completely bad, since in significant ways, Deleuze’s multiplicity is coming to be more acceptable—these days it’s just better to embrace racial difference. Wadsworth’s book shows us the beautiful multiracial work that evangelicals are doing today. She makes no mention of Deleuze, still, the ideas of racial multiplicity are implicitly Deleuzian in their urgent actualization. None of these same/different problems are resolved. I’m happy to become a minority.

Another aspect of Ambivalent Miracles that is worth further consideration looks to meaning making practices. Inspired by Lisa Wedeen’s research on ethnographic meaning-making practices, Wadsworth systematically examines how evangelicals make the practice of racial reconciliation into cultural and religious reality. Taking such elements as community, prayer, ritual, “apology-forgiveness rituals,” testimony, etc. Wadsworth demonstrates how meaning happens within the context of the church. We usually do not understand, nor comprehend, how meaning happens. We just think meaning is already there, pre-given. It is only when it is drawn out in its elaborate specificity, that it becomes clear that meaning is not static. Meaning itself is creative, and we need to see this in order to make conscious the racial concepts that are beyond assumed ubiquity. Epistemology is more valuable if we are open to how it happens, and if we admit the evident pitfalls it discloses. We need to do more work, and we cannot discount the work we’ve already done. Thank you Nancy Wadsworth, I pray that your book will reach anyone who is becoming a minority, and to those who continue to deterritorialize the landscape of race in the church, the US, and beyond.

—Aurelio Madrid

speaking & thinking of the divine

June 16, 2014 § Leave a comment


Yves Klein: Leap into the Void, 1960

For everything that is understood and sensed is nothing else but the apparition of what is not apparent, the manifestation of the hidden, the affirmation of the negated, the comprehension of the incomprehensible, the understanding of the unintelligible, the body of the bodiless, the essence of the superessential, the form of the formless, the measure of the measureless, the number of the unnumbered, the weight of the weightless, the materialization of the spiritual, the visibility of the invisible.

––John Scottus Eriugena, Periphyseon (P, III 633A, 678C) [1].

The divine is unknowable in the purest sense of the word. To title this essay “Speaking and Thinking of the Divine” needs additional clarification, since the aim will be to write and think about the apophatic via two ancient Neo-Platonic philosophers who have contributed to writing about negative theology, Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (hereafter Ps.-Dionysius[2]). This means that speaking and thinking of the divine becomes not speaking, and not thinking of the divine. Their cosmology was hierarchical, so the higher up we transcend reality to an understanding of the mysterious divine, the less we know. Their complementary doctrines offer insight into the so-called divine mysteries, and into the 20th century philosophy of deconstruction. Jacques Derrida wrote about negative theology and Ps.-Dionysius. How the apophatic relates to the deconstructive term différance will be briefly considered. Then there is the German theologian Rudolph Otto’s delineation of the ineffable aspects of religious experience that must owe something to Plotinus and Ps.-Dionysius. Otto’s contributions to the holy cannot be overlooked. Otto provides for a 20th century perspective in this essay on that which cannot be spoken—the ineffable. Before introducing Plotinus and the others, Simon Oliver’s observations will set the tone for negative theology with his reference to the wise humility of Socrates knowing nothing in Plato’s Apology.

The University of Nottingham produces a series of videos featuring various professors speaking about their academic specialties and why prospective students should study with them. One recent video features the theologian Simon Oliver, where he gives a nice synopsis of what negative theology is all about.[3] Oliver ties negative theology back to Plato’s Apology where Socrates is on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens. A colleague of Socrates is said to have consulted the Oracle of Delphi inquiring if Socrates is in fact the wisest person, and the oracle says ‘yes’ Socrates is the wisest. Socrates is dubious of this oracular reply since he claims he doesn’t know anything. Wondering about wisdom, Socrates is said to have questioned upstanding members of the polis as to whether they thought they were wise, and they said yes, we are wise because of all the things we know. Socrates concludes that he is the wisest person, and where other people (like the ones he questioned) claimed to know a lot, they were actually not very wise. Socrates conversely admits that he does not know anything. He realizes his own ignorance where they cannot. Therefore, Socrates is wise because of his ignorance. Here, Oliver points out that we see the beginnings of a way of knowing things as defined by not knowing things.

It is no mistake that those who take up the tradition of Platonic philosophy, the Neo-Platonists: Plotinus and Ps.-Dionysius (and others) should have an apophatic way of addressing The One,[4] with Plotinus (who we will look at now) and addressing the Christian God with Ps.-Dionysius (who we will look at later). The 3rd century philosopher Plotinus’ collection of treatises, the Enneads, stands as an immediate example of negative theology with respect to The One. Andrew Louth in his The Origins of Christian Mystical Tradition writes praise for Plotinus, he is ‘the supreme exponent of […] ‘mystical philosophy’” and “he represents man’s inherent desire to return to heaven at its purest and most ineffable.”[5] Little is known about Plotinus’s life (he is said to have been exceedingly humble).[6] The writings we do have, were collected by Porphyry, a former student, who arranged and named the Enneads, “arranged according to themes in six groups of nine treatises—hence Enneads, meaning nine.”[7] It is tough to decide where in the Enneads to start with Plotinus’s account of The One, since he talks about The One all the time. A convenient place might be in the treatise titled “The Three Primal Hypostases” (V, 1 [10]). It is in this account where we find his general schema for reality. The three primal hypostases[8] consist of a triadic hierarchy beginning with The One, which is where everything comes from. Secondly, there is The Intelligence which contemplates The One, as much as it also is the comprehensive totality of all form and ideas. And there is The Soul, begotten from The Intelligence. The Soul where being is said to reside, and it is the part of the hypostases that touches our souls, our individual souls[9] which are descended from The Soul—the universal soul.

Again, The One is on top of the hierarchical hypostases. Even though The One is the source of everything, it still is problematic to think of it as multiple. When Plotinus addresses and questions The One as possibly multiple, he evades the question “let us do so not with words but with a lifting of our souls to it and thus pray alone to the Alone” (V, 1 [10], 6).[10] The Alone in this case is The One, and it is implicitly beyond the multiple, beyond a numerical understanding. The One is beyond multiplicity and it is often referred to as a simplex.[11] P.V. Pistorius in his Plotinus and Neo-Platonism helps the matter to suggest that the “ultimate reality [The One] is a One-in-Many, containing the potentiality of the universe.”[12] Although The One is simply one, in its singularity, it contains the possibility of the multiple. The One is unity, not multiplicity. The One is not a number.

But still, the One is beyond being, if it was being it would be limited by whatever form being would take. Herein is the apophatic departure from the way the divine is conceived of these days, whereby we imagine a deity residing somewhere in the heavens that looks like a white-haired bearded fellow in robes. A being like this (or of any other kind of being) is just too limited for The One. Being is too determinate. The hypostases—that triadic infra-phenomena of Plotinus’s Neo-Platonic reality has The One above it all.

In his treatise “The Good or The One” Plotinus plainly asks “what then is The One?” (VI, 9 [9], 3).[13] Plotinus tells us that The One is not being, and that it is beyond form too. So if it is beyond being, and it is beyond form, then it is formless and without being, this is where the encounter with The One becomes increasingly negative. It is too difficult to wrap the mind around something that is a formless being. Plotinus anticipates this problem, he says the soul (our soul) when it gets closer to The One “fears it will encounter nothingness” (VI, 9 [9], 3).[14] Essentially, our soul is more comfortable with the things of sense, the tangible, and the known. Let it not be forgotten that Plotinus’s cosmology is hierarchical, this means that our souls are several layers removed from The One, i.e. on the top is The One, then there is The Intelligence, then there is The Soul, and then there is our soul (The One →The Intelligence → The Soul →the soul of man → the soul of animals → the soul of plants, etc.). When man tries to think of The One, he has no choice but to observe The One through the lens of The Soul, and then through the lens of The Intelligence, while at the same time recognizing that The One is not any of those things in the hypostases.

Another problem with contemplating The One, according to Plotinus, has to do with the limitations of our discursive reasoning. Why is discursive reasoning a problem? Pistorius writes “there is nothing that we can know immediately by the aid of discursive reasoning. Even the most simple statement presupposes analysis.”[15] There needs to be a limited (and multiple) range of conditions (and logical premises) in place for such reasoning. These things need to be in place in order for discursive analysis to get at a reasonable explanation of what a particular thing actually is—but The One is not any of those things. All those rationally discursive things derive indirectly from The Intelligence, via The Soul, and lastly, via our individual souls.

Then there is the ever-mysterious Ps.-Dionysius writing sometime during the 5th and 6th centuries. He is known to us as Pseudo because he wrote as pseudonymously as Dionysius the Areopagite, the 1st century Christian convert of Paul the Apostle. The key to knowing that the Syrian Ps.-Dionysius was actually not Dionysius the Areopagite, was that his Christian writings were written in a distinctive mystical Neo-Platonic idiom—probably after his readings of Plotinus, Proclus, and other Neo-Platonic philosophers. There is no small irony to recognize that here we have one of the most apophatic of thinkers, and he is known only by a pseudonym of who he was not. He wrote a handful of works, but only two will be looked at here: the Mystical Theology and the Letters.

The name Ps.-Dionysius is synonymous with via negativa, apophatic theology, or most plainly said: negative theology. With Ps.-Dionysius there is the idea of hierarchical transcendence whereby an assent to the upper realms of the divine becomes increasingly less knowable, and therefore in the descending hierarchy things become easier to understand. In Ps.-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology, he recounts the biblical story of Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to commune with God, Moses becomes increasingly separated from the multitudes, and when he finds himself in the highest place on the mountain, he “enters into the gloom of the Agnosia; a gloom veritably mystic” (Caput I, §3).[16] This is to say, when in the proximity of God, though not in the actual presence of seeing God, Moses is put into the realm of unknowing—the Agnosia. Nothing about God is discernable, he can’t be seen, he is beyond everything, he is not something or something else, he is known by Moses without knowledge, God is “altogether Unknown, and by knowing nothing, knowing above mind.”[17] For Ps.-Dionysius, God is always greater than our conception of him. To try getting to know God, one has to un-know God, which is to say there is no such thing as knowing God, since he is un-knowable.

Remarkably, in the 1st letter of Ps.-Dionysius, is found another connection between a way to know God, and a way to not know God. It is addressed to Gaius “a monk.” Two sentences stick out:

Taking these things [God’s light that causes ignorance to vanish] in their higher sense rather then as a privation, you will maintain more truly than truth that ignorance according to God eludes those who have real light and knowledge of beings, that His transcendent darkness is hidden by all light and eclipses all knowledge. […then in the closing lines of the letter] Complete ignorance in a higher sense is knowledge of what is above all known things. (1065A-1065B)[18]

In these two sentences there are some curious turns of phrase. In the first line quoted here, Ps.-Dionysius wants to emphasize that any talk of the taking away, the vanishing of ignorance should not be a privation, which is another way of saying that these things should not be taken as lacking. Still, there is the seemingly contradictory idea that knowledge of God dispels ignorance, and this cannot be thought of as a privation. Then what does he mean? He means to focus on that which cannot be focused on: God. Knowledge of God is a kind of knowledge, but it is the kind of knowledge that is openly aware of its limitations. Our knowledge of God, in this apophatic sense, is knowing that there are things that you will never know, there are things greater than you, and it is an acknowledgement of ignorance as a way of knowing (what you do not know). This is highly reminiscent of the professed ignorance of Socrates who claimed to know nothing.

In the Mystic Theology there is frequent mention of the term “superessential.” For instance Ps.-Dionysius writes that God is “the superessential ray of Divine darkness” (Caput I, §1),[19] or “for this is veritably to see and to know and to celebrate super-essentially the Superessential” (Caput II, §2).[20] Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, wrote about this word in his lecture/essay on apophatics “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” from 1987. Early on in the lecture he works with some of the issues surrounding negative theology and how it relates (or doesn’t relate) to deconstruction. There is an odd word that Derrida coined that is deconstructive in its meaning: différance.[21] Basically, the word combines the French words for difference and defer—its meaning is always escaping and becoming different at the same time. In “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” Derrida weighs the similarities of negative theology with his term différance. He explains that Ps.-Dionysius used the word superessential in relation to negative theology. Derrida wonders how this theological term applies to différance.

One can always say: hyperessentiality is precisely that, a supreme Being who remains incommensurate to the being of all that is, which is nothing, neither present nor absent, and so on. If the movement of this re-appropriation appears in fact irrepressible, its ultimate failure is no less necessary. But I concede that this question remains at the heart of a thinking of différance or of the writing of writing.[22]

What Derrida is basically saying is that the theological implications carried over by Ps.-Dionysius’s negative use of the term hyperessentiality (being beyond being) must have a connection to différance. The elusive word différance then implicates a being that is beyond being, and by extension a knowing that is beyond knowing. Thereby we find a semi-secular way of thinking about negative theology: a way of differing that becomes different—always an aporia, a mystery. Perhaps Derrida is saying that negative theology, because it is superessential, cannot be wholly secularized. Theological being beyond being becomes only slightly secularized by the deconstructive gesture of différance.

In his 1917 book The Idea of the Holy the German theologian Rudolf Otto, there is a chapter titled “The Numinous.”[23] Otto never associates his concept of the numinous to the apophatic per se, but surely the ineffable relates to negative theology. Otto first wants to separate and refine an idea of the word holy apart from the common understanding of the word as related to issues of ethical goodness. He writes that “we generally take ‘holy’ as meaning ‘completely good’; it is the absolute moral attribute, denoting consummation of moral goodness.”[24] However, he does not want to eliminate altogether an ethical understanding of the word holy. Otto suggests that the numinous is even beyond the rational, so not only should the word holy be considered above an ethical understanding, it also is beyond the rational. There could be a slim comparison with the notion the numinal and fideism, i.e. that faith and reason are not necessarily compatible, but admittedly, Otto’s numinal is not a question about faith. The extra quality of the holy is unsayable. It cannot be expressed in words. Otto defines the ineffable as ἄρρητον (arreton). But the word numinous is derived from the Latin numen, meaning divine. The numinous is to be conceived of as relating to a way of apprehending the divine.[25] The numinous is that particular religious feeling that cannot be put into words. Otto writes “this mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other.”[26]

Otto then elaborates on particular elements of the numinous, an ineffable religious experience in connection to Friedrich Schleiermacher[27] (the late 18th to early 19th century German theologian) who spoke of an element of religious experience that is characterized by ‘a feeling of dependence.’ Otto does not accept Schleiermacher’s full meaning of this concept, since what is being describe cannot really be handled in its fullest realization by conceptual ways of knowing things. Otto opts for what he calls ‘creature feeling,’ a “submergence into nothingness before an overpowering might of some kind.”[28] This ‘creature feeling’ cannot be fully described in words, yet if there were a way to introduce it: it would be a feeling of awed insignificance before a power greater than you. That the divine is greater than you is like saying that the secular universe is so vast that we are infinitesimally tiny in comparison. Still, Otto points out that Schleiermacher’s account of the ‘feeling of dependence’ is merely self-referential, while Otto wants to propose that his ‘creature feeling’ involves the numinal element. This means that the numinal element of a religious feeling of insignificance must be felt in relation to the ineffable that lies outside of our own knowing and understanding, as opposed to just a subjective feeling that one is insignificant in the presence of the divine.

From Plato’s Socrates who claims he knows nothing, to Derrida’s semi-secular différance, and from Plotinus’s The One to Ps.-Dionysius’s mystical unknowing, from the divine to the ineffable, negative theology presents a simple, yet humble, lesson that requires few words to be spoken in the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge: ‘I don’t know’ (as a way to know).

——Aurelio Madrid

[1] Eriugena’s quote is from Deidre Carabine’s, John Scottus Eriugena (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 49. Eriugena (ca. 815-877) was an Irish medieval Neo-Platonic scholar/theologian who not only wrote on religious matters, but also translated key authors from Greek to Latin, namely Ps.-Dionysius who influenced Erigena’s own style of negative theology.

[2] I have the scholar Ronald F. Hathaway to thank for this clever abbreviation. Hathaway utilizes this abbreviation throughout his amazing study of Ps.-Dionysius: Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letters of Pseudo-Dionysius: A Study in Form and Meaning of the Pseudo-Dionysian Writings, (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1969).

[3] Simon Oliver, “Why Study Negative Theology with Simon Oliver,” YouTube video, 13:55, posted by “The University of Nottingham,” Jan. 29, 2013.

[4] For this essay, we will opt for capitalizing The One, The Intelligence, and The Soul as in Elmer O’Brien’s translation.

[5] Andrew Louth, “Plotinus,” in The Origins of the Christain Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1981), 36.

[6] Louth writes “according to Porphyry, Plotinus was extremely unwilling to talk of himself, and would not celebrate his own birthday or allow an artist to take a likeness of him.” Louth, “Plotinus,” 36.

[7] Andrew Louth, “Plotinus,” 37.

[8] This word hypostases basically means: all that which underlies everything, all phenomena, etc., it is the underlying schema of reality for Plotinus.

[9] For Plotinus’s account of non-human souls, see the treatise: “The Post Primals,” (V, 2 [11]). This is where the souls of plants and animals are spoken of within his hierarchy.

[10] Plotinus, “The Three Primal Hypostases,” in The Essential Plotinus, translated by Elmer O’Brien (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1964), 97.

[11] A quick glance at the Latin meaning of simplex, does not elucidate the matter beyond thinking of The One as not multiple, since it means: simple or single.

[12] P.V. Pistorius, Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study (Cambridge, Great Britain: Bowes & Bowes Publishers, Ltd., 1952), 26.

[13] Plotinus, “The Good or The One,” O’Brien, 76.

[14] Plotinus, “The Good or The One,” O’Brien, 76.

[15] P.V. Pistorius, Plotinus, 8.

[16] Dionysius the Areopagite “Mystic Theology,” Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1897), translated by John Parker (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 85.

[17] Ps.-Dionysius, “Mystic Theology,” 85.

[18] Ronald F. Hathaway, “The Letters of Ps-Dionysius,” in Hierarchy, 131.

[19] Dionysius the Areopagite, “Mystic Theology,” 84.

[20] Dionysius the Areopagite, “Mystic Theology,” 86.

[21]In collection of interviews from the 1970s titled Positions Derrida is interviewed by the Belgian playwright Henri Ronse, where Ronse asks Derrida about the word différance. Derrida replies “[…] First, différance refers to the (active and passive) movement that consists in deferring by means of delay, delegation, reprieve, referral, detour, postponement, reserving. […] Second, the movement of différance, as that which produces different things, that which differentiates, is the common root of all oppositional concepts that mark our language […].” Jacques Derrida, “Implications: Interview with Henri Ronse,” in Positions, translated by Alan Bass. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 1-14.

[22] Derrida, Jacques, with Coward, Harold, Toby Foshay, eds., Derrida and Negative Theology (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), 79.

[23] Rudolph Otto, “The Numinous,” in The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harvey (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1958), 5-7.

[24] Rudolf Otto, “The Numinous,” 5.

[25] Grace M. Jantzen in her 1994 article: “Feminists, Philosophers and Mystics,” works hard to show the limits of this view of Otto’s (although she does not address Otto directly), she writes “Contemporary philosophers and theologians, feminists among them, regularly speak of mysticism as though the term is clearly understood: it stands for a subjective psychological state, perhaps a state of ‘shared consciousness,’ in which an individual undergoes a private, intense, and ineffable experience, usually of a religious nature. A study of the historical records, however, shows that such and understanding of mysticism is a relatively recent one which bears little resemblance to those who are taken paradigmatically as mystics of the Christian tradition.” Grace M. Jantzen, “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics,” in Hypatia 9, no. 4, Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Autumn, 1994): 187. Her view is worth serious consideration. She follows from Michel Foucault’s (post-structuralist) critique of power relations. And she shows that academic/patriarchal power delimits the mystical to the narrow category of the ineffable. Perhaps such (male-dominated) ideas of the mystic stem from ancient times, where the mystical was largely kept a secret—it was hidden. But it is within this tendency to confine the mystical to a narrow definition that Jantzen has a problem with because it cuts female mystical experience out of the picture. She argues that female mystics, like Julian of Norwich, wrote about mystical experiences in ways that suggest that the mystical is much more than just ineffable, rather, they are experiences that can be communicated and expressed. It might be said that (male) philosophical authority regulates a narrow definition in the interest of maintaining authoritative power over female expressions of the mystical. Let us recall that Julian of Norwich spoke of ‘the motherhood’ of God and the association of God as a mother verges on the transgressive, and examples like this are not merely unspeakable, they just are un-masculine. If anything, Jantzen’s feminist perspective is expansive to include the mystical experiences of women that serve to widen the field away from seeing it as only ineffable.

[26] Otto, “The Numinous,” 6.

[27] Jantzen also cites Schleiermacher, “in his Speeches of Religion, [he] is happy to proclaim the greater religious consciousness of women, whom he also saw as ideally maintaining domestic bliss.” Jantzen, “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics,” 190.

[28] Otto, “The Numinous,” 7.


Carabine, Deirdre. John Scotus Eriugena. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques. Coward, Harold, Toby Foshay, eds. Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

—. Positions. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Dionysius the Areopagite. “Mystic Theology,” Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1897). Translated by John Parker. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.

Hathaway, Ronald F. Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letter of Psuedo-Dionysius: A Study in the Form and Meaning of the Psuedo-Dionysian Writings. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969.

Jantzen, Grace M. “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics.” Hypatia 9, no. 4, Feminist Philosophy of Religion, (Autumn, 1994): 186-206.

Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christain Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1981.

O’Brien, Elmer. The Essential Plotinus: Representative Treatises from the Enneads. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1964.

Oliver, Simon. “Why Study Negative Theology with Simon Oliver,” YouTube video, 13:55, posted by “The University of Nottingham,” Jan. 29, 2013.

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Translated by John W. Harvey. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Pistorius, P.V. Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study. Cambridge, Great Britain: Bowes & Bowes Publishers, Ltd., 1952.

derrida / deconstruction / loebs

May 5, 2014 § Leave a comment


Jason Loebs, Untitled (Corpus Vile), 2012, Inkjet prints on stretched canvas, 105 x 35 x 10 inches.

“μεταβάλλον ἀναπαύεται” / “For this reason change gives rest.” ––Heraclitus, Fragment 83[1]

If the primacy of presence can be questioned, then the tradition of univocal metaphysics can be reevaluated by way of Jacques Derrida’s ‘deconstructive’ philosophy. The artwork Untitled (Corpus Vile) made in 2012, by the contemporary American artist Jason Loebs, offers a modest five-piece suite featuring margins. The marginal falls outside of the center of focus. The slim concept of marginalia presents a way of doing philosophy from the periphery. The marginal offers a generous place to explore Derrida’s deconstructive handling of traditional ways of seeing, thinking, or writing philosophically. Given that presence itself is questioned in Derrida’s deconstructive context, it will then be evaluated by means of Loebs’s piece as presented in a gallery, online, in print, etc. Deconstruction need not be characterized as a bygone trend/fad/fashion—instead it has to be handled carefully and without haste. In order to get at Derrida’s encounter with philosophy one must begin from the primary vantage of what deconstruction actually means by way of his technical terms: aporia and difference. These and a number of surrounding issues will be examined for this research paper.

For the sake of organizational clarity this essay will be divided into two sections: in the first section “Reconstructing Deconstruction: an Impossibility” Derrida’s philosophy will be looked at, trying, at best, to define what Derrida meant by the now over-abused term deconstruction. To open the ideas up, the author of The Derrida Dictionary, Simon Morgan Wortham writes that for Derrida “deconstruction entails ‘the experience of the impossible.’”[2] The humility of such an enterprise (i.e. impossibly defining deconstruction) will then have to be embraced in the noble spirit of brevity and necessary concision, while keeping in mind that deconstruction self-consciously defers definition. The second half of the paper, titled “Loebs’s Marginalia: a Deconstructive Reading” will feature another creative venture: to positively[3] and deconstructively read Jason Loebs’s 2012 five piece artwork Untitled (Corpus Vile).

I. “Reconstructing Deconstruction: an Impossibility”

Today there is a widespread belief that the philosophy of deconstruction entails taking things apart. In its most rudimentary sense the literal word deconstruction does actually mean to disassemble. But, therein lays a question as to whether or not deconstruction, that branch of late 20th century philosophy (with postmodernism and post-structuralism as its notable peers and influences) coined by Jacques Derrida, is entirely concerned with disassembly, destruction, and breaking things down?[4] To be absolutely fair, its meaning must include this popular view to some extent, yet it must retain and go beyond it to be realized in a positive arena of writing philosophically. From its inception sometime in the late 1960s, deconstruction was primarily concerned with text, literature, philosophy, and writing in general. Deconstructive ideas can be (and have been) generously extended to other areas, such as architecture, art, ethics, and so on. Admittedly, there will be obvious problems discussing Derrida’s in/famous philosophy of deconstruction. Given these (soon to be outlined) problems, what is generally indicated by the term: deconstruction? Dermot Moran, in his Introduction to Phenomenology tells us that deconstruction is not a method, nor is it a “procedure or system of thinking.”[5] And Wortham, admits to such problems when it comes to ‘grounding’ a theory of deconstruction “that which founds or institutes always imposes itself, for Derrida, more or less violently, more or less unjustifiably, taking possession of its ground at the price of significant exclusions or contradictions.”[6] This means that while attempting to ‘define’ and/or ‘ground’ a deconstructive theory, it is almost counterproductive to the deconstructive process, since Derrida’s deconstruction aims to uncover what was excluded, or contradicted, in the original grounding, in the original foundation of a given text, artwork, etc.. All this begs the question again: then how is deconstruction defined, without appealing to a ground or foundation? This could be possible, yet an anxious appeal will have to be made with respect to more traditional methods of getting to know something, at least to initially describe it. In short, the philosophy of deconstruction will not be deconstructed here.

There is an ambiguous term that reaches back to the ancient Greek philosophy known as aporia.[7] An aporia is thought of as a riddle to be solved, or an aporia represents something that remains unresolved, or even, an aporia is a path. Derrida once asked “What would be a path without aporia?”[8] Derrida made deliberate use of this ancient word in his deconstructive philosophy. As a matter of fact, aporia could be seen as way to introduce deconstruction. But there too is a conundrum with coming to any kind of solid conclusion about the meaning of the word aporia, as if there could be a conclusion about deconstruction itself, since an aporia can be thought of as an impasse, that which is unresolved, something un-decidable, etc.[9] If a riddle is there to be looked at, it must be admitted that it must remain a riddle in order for it to be contemplated. This is to say that Derrida doesn’t seem to be working on ‘solving’ riddles. Deconstruction is not a method toward clear-cut solutions. It is better to think of deconstruction as opening up and showing the riddles to begin with, i.e. the activity of deconstruction is an avid disclosing of the riddles that are already there in the context of whatever writing, artwork text is under consideration. Deconstruction is already at work in any given text, philosophy, or artwork. Moran reminds us that Derrida consistently said that deconstruction “is an anonymous process which is already at work in the world, prior to our conceptualizations, as the very transcendental source of our conceptuality.”[10] This must mean that the problems, riddles, oppositions that are looked at in deconstruction, are already there in the very way we logically[11] think about things—the problems are there to be uncovered and examined. In the first paragraph for the entry “Deconstruction” from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that “what is typically occurs in a deconstructive reading is that the text in question is shown to harbor contradictory logics which are standardly ignored—or concealed from view—on other more orthodox accounts.”[12] This idea of something that is ‘concealed from view’ is an aporia, which is considered to be the beginning of a deconstructive reading.

A difficulty that immediately arises when trying to comprehend deconstruction is the aforementioned issue of oppositions. The ways binary oppositions are looked upon deconstructively is that they are themselves an aporia. Opposition creates a kind of challenge, or riddle to be disclosed for what it is. So this partially reveals what is meant when a text is deconstructed. As mentioned earlier, it is a misnomer to think of deconstruction as merely taking something apart, but, it was admitted that deconstruction still must contain this rudimentary way of thinking about it. Moran writes about this “Deconstruction involves taking apart the text to show that its supposed argument or thesis actually turns against itself…”[13] Moran also ties this peculiarity in with G.W. F. Hegel “this is an essentially Hegelian insight which Derrida interprets in a new way.”[14] Without getting too in-depth, Moran is suggesting that, as it is well known, Derrida read plenty of Hegel, and that at the core of Hegel’s philosophy is the dialectic, whereby the resolution to a contradiction must contain the contradiction within it. Derrida sought to question traditional metaphysics and deconstructive philosophy was how that was done.

Andrew Curtrofello in his Derrida entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes that “for Derrida, the history of Western metaphysics consists in a series of repeated efforts to affirm self-presence as the paradigm of truth.”[15] Another way of saying this would be to say that Derrida’s positions seek to show that traditional metaphysics privileges experience over a description of it, speech is privileged over writing, thought is privileged over language, and so forth. This should explain why Derrida was so endlessly fascinated by texts and writing. But, to be very careful, since this is suggesting that Derrida’s aim was to then reverse the traditional roles of metaphysical opposition. Cutrofello anticipates this problem by following up with:

Derrida’s aim is not to ‘reverse’ these hierarchical oppositions—as it would be if he were interested in privileging writing over speech—but to deconstruct the very logic of such exclusionary founding gestures.[16]

This particular (and dare we say dialectical) way in which Derrida contends with the issue of binary opposition points to several key gestures in the philosophy of deconstruction—finding the aporia, exposing and disclosing opposition, working with thought and language without prioritizing either.

Given the above examples, another similar thread of deconstruction has to do with Derrida’s special term “différance.” To understand this term, one has to have a better grasp of what Derrida’s position was on the metaphysics of presence, aporia, and binary oppositions (all of which were considered above). In a slim collection of interviews from the 1970s titled Positions Derrida is interviewed by the Belgian playwright Henri Ronse, where Ronse asks Derrida about the word différance.[17] In a classic deconstructive move, the meaning of the word expands and expands as Derrida explains it, throughout a couple of pages, he says that:

First, différance refers to the (active and passive) movement that consists in deferring by means of delay, delegation, reprieve, referral, detour, postponement, reserving. […] Second, the movement of différance, as that which produces different things, that which differentiates, is the common root of all oppositional concepts that mark our language […].

This différance points back to what has been at issue all along: deconstruction. Because if différance combines the words deferral and differentiation, then what is left of meaning? Perhaps something that looks like this: “↔” deconstruction is an expression of always deferring and differentiating. One motive of deconstruction is detecting the aporia of opposition, then looking at what is not being said, along with what has been overlooked, by way of emphasizing what has been prioritized and expressed, then seeing what can be positively found ‘already at work’ deep inside the opposition, the conflict, the negation, the problem, the text, the artwork and, surely, the philosophy. Like phenomenology (Derrida ‘cut his teeth’ on Edmund Husserl’s early book Origin of Geometry[18]) deconstruction is a descriptive understanding, an opening up, and a disclosure.[19]

II. “Loebs’s Marginalia: a Deconstructive Reading”

“This fissure is not one among others. It is the fissure: the necessity of interval, the harsh law of spacing.”

––Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology[20]

§1. Grounding? …now to a question of grounding Jason Loebs’s 2012 artwork Untitled (Corpus Vile). Here is the usual tactic: what is his biography?—Where did he grow up? Where was he educated? Where does he live today? We already know that he’s American, but to what end will the question of where he was born serve? That he grew up in a culture that venerates mass media is already clear. That he is alive in the 21st century tell us that he is probably saturated in the ways of social media, and, of course print media, etc. These things are assumptions since there is no real way to ask him right now via e-mail, or otherwise. So, the things that we can tell about him, without direct knowledge of his biography will remain mostly presumptive. The fact that he’s American doesn’t suggest very much, other than the obvious. However, a quick glance at his CV from his Gallery Essex Street, in New York, NY does tell us some specific things about him.[21] Loebs was born in 1980, in Hillside, New Jersey. In 2011 he went to the Whitney Museum of American Art, on an Independent Study Program, in New York, NY. In 2007 he received his MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, in Chicago, IL. In 2004 he received a ‘certificate’ from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA. And in 2003 he attended Yale Norfolk, in Norfolk, CT. Okay, there’s more of what might be called a traditional grounding. This does inform a little more than if we only knew that he’s an American.

And now that we know he’s from the East Coast, perhaps he was born into a family of privilege, if he didn’t come from money, then he still had to work really hard to get where he’s at. If he was born to money, he had to work hard, if was born poor, he had to work hard. Both scenarios imply work. It can’t be assumed it was easy for him to get where he’s at, living in New York, NY, one of the most expensive places to live on the planet. As it can be tediously seen, we are getting to know Loebs better, but are we getting to know his art any better? We could draw multiple conclusions from his past, say, if we knew about his hometown in New Jersey, or if we knew he various professors in Chicago, New York, and Norfolk—but we don’t. So his biography has revealed that he’s an American, he’s probably from a well-off family, he has a solid (okay, elite) education, and that he is actively showing his work in a hip New York gallery. We would have to know more about him to give this ‘grounding’ any more weight then a cursory glance at his CV provided by him and his gallery. To be sure, anytime he wishes to show anywhere else, these spare details will be the first things people look at, other than his art, of course. Odd that so much of his life’s effort is reduced to just a few lines on a CV, a few lines of text. But, one shouldn’t be dismayed at such a reductive look at his life. After all, he’s getting our full attention right now. The slim facts of his biography have already informed us about things that go far beyond dates and places. He’s somewhat successful, he’s made a name for himself, and that he’s a represented artist.

Here it can be seen that a typical maneuver of art historical research, that is, to look into the biographical details of an artist to inform us of his/her work, (and with all due respect to Loebs) was oddly not very productive in telling us about his artwork. The biographical grounding becomes something that’s not really informative beyond his professional CV. Still it was very productive in showing how, in some cases, little of a person’s biography can actually tell us about his/her art.

§2. Aporia. Loebs’s artwork Untitled (Corpus Vile) is something to be disclosed. But what is to be disclosed is a group of five room-height (8’ 9” tall) margins that look to be from the edges of a newspaper. When looked at closely, they are not just the edges of the newspapers cut off, then photographed. They look like they have been photo-shopped and reworked. The edges of the text have been cut off. If these were ordinary margins from newspapers, the words would not be cut off on the margin side on the edges of the page. There is the mystery of why he didn’t use the only the bare edges of newspapers. Why did they have to be photo-shopped? It is questions like this that point to another question: why are we always trying to get at the source of the artist’s reasons why he/she did something in the first place. It is as if what is there in front of us is not answer enough. Then this leads to another important issue about how we are viewing the work. It is not in the gallery pictured here on this pixilated computer screen (or on the printed page). It is often thought that seeing an artwork up close and personal, i.e. live, is better that in reproduction. But a reproduction is all we have right now, this is it, this artwork will probably never be seen by us in person. Is this somehow a lesser experience? And how much artwork do we look at only in reproduction? The deconstructive problem of presence becomes an important one in this case. Loebs himself might think of how his work looks online, and the gallery too must have thought of it too, since they’re offering it to be seen on their website. How often are we aware of such seemingly unimportant ways that we view art? The presence of the Untitled (Corpus Vile) is virtual, but is this virtual way of seeing it less than a real way of engaging the work in person?

§3. Already at Work. The curious ‘non-title’ of Loebs’s artwork: Untitled (Corpus Vile) is one way that deconstruction is already at work in the work. First, it is not titled, yet behind the fact that it is not titled it has a parenthetical title: (Corpus Vile). Corpus, meaning body, or body of work, a collection of work, in this case Corpus must mean a collection of works, a suite of margins that are themselves a small body of work. There might also be a suggestion of a body. The artwork consists of five pieces, suggesting a head, two arms, and two legs. And then there’s Vile, meaning disgusting, evil, etc. Putting the parenthetical part of the artwork’s title together, we have a disgusting body that hides behind no title. Yet, there is not all that much that is visually disgusting about the piece. This title must serve as an allusion to the disgust we have with the marginal. That which has no primary focus is something to be ignored or reviled. Indeed we dislike those things which are marginal, because we want what is important, what is relevant. Newspapers themselves are now marginal media, and when there is the emphasis on the marginal of the already marginal, surely there is deconstruction at work, waiting to be disclosed and opened up. The marginal is the subject matter, and that which is disgusting is not as acceptable as getting to what’s important—the ads, the stories, and the journalism.

Deconstruction points to the things we will never be fully satisfied with, the marginal, the edges of thought, and the absence of presence. Loebs’s piece does the same. The intellectual activity of doing philosophy is also a question of going beyond the everyday way of thinking about things. Such ways of thinking are often derided as not important. Derrida was all about bringing new questions to bear. What is important? What is not important?—and how these two questions work together (inconclusively and impossibly). Whatever lies outside of a system is informed by what lies inside of a system that excludes it, and so on…

Aurelio Madrid

[1] Heraclitus, “Fragment 83,” Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, translated by Brooks Haxton (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2001), 52.

[2] Simon Morgan Wortham, The Derrida Dictionary, (New York, NY: Continuum Books, 2010) , 1. That Wortham places ‘experience of the impossible’ in singular quotes, it is likely that this is a quote (or paraphrase) from one of Derrida’s seventy+ books, but it is not indicted which one.

[3] By stating that this will be a positive reading means that Loebs’s artwork will be looked at (read) with an understanding that deconstruction is not an outright destructive process, and that the philosophy is better situated and grasped as a positive descriptive engagement, i.e. it is less a question of what the artwork is not, and instead what can be said about the artwork—deconstructively.

[4] The Belgian/American literary critic Paul de Man (1919-1983) is considered to be another leading proponent of deconstruction.

[5] Dermot Moran, “Jacques Derrida: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction,” in Introduction to Phenomenology, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), 450.

[6] Wortham, The Derrida Dictionary, 1.

[7] Namely with Plato’s dialogues Meno, Euthyphro, etc.

[8] Jacques Derrida, On the Name (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series), translated by David Wood, John P. Leavey Jr., and Ian McLeod (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 83.

[9] See Wortham’s entry for “aporia” in The Derrida Dictionary, 14-16.

[10] Moran, “Derrida,” 450.

[11] Moran also names “logocentricism” as another target of Derrida’s deconstruction, but it is bypassed here in the practical interest of brevity.

[12] Christopher Norris, “Deconstruction,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 835-839.

[13] Moran, “Jacques Derrida,” 450.

[14] Moran, “Derrida,” 451.

[15]Andrew Cutrofello, “Jacques Derrida,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Brahman to Derrida, Volume 2, edited by Edward Craig, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1998), 896-901.

[16] Andrew Cutrofello, “Jacques Derrida,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 898.

[17] Jacques Derrida, “Implications: Interview with Henri Ronse,” in Positions, translated by Alan Bass. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 1-14. Note, this book also contains a fascinating interview with Julia Kristeva.

[18] See Wortham’s entry “Edmund Husserl” in The Derrida Dictionary, 73. In 1962 Derrida wrote the introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry (1936?) and he wrote a dissertation on The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy.

[19] Also recall Derrida’s indebtedness to Husserl’s in/famous student Martin Heidegger. Heidegger often spoke of truth as aletheia, a disclosure, etc. Also note: Derrida’s term deconstruction is derived from Heidegger’s destrucktion, which featured in Heidegger’s 1927 lecture course The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Moran, “Derrida,” Introduction to Phenomenology, 451.

[20] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayyatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 200.

[21] Jason Loebs, Essex Street, accessed on April 27, 2014,


Bennington, Geoffrey and Jacques Derrida. Jacques Derrida. Chicago, IL: The Chicago University Press, 1993.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayyatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

—. On the Name (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series). Translated by David Wood, John P. Leavey Jr., and Ian McLeod. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

—. Positions. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

—. The Truth in Painting. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

—. Who’s Afraid of Philosophy? Right to Philosophy 1. Translated by Jan Plug. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Heraclitus. “Fragment 83,” Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. Translated by Brooks Haxton, 83. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2001.

Loebs, Jason. Essex Street Gallery, website accessed on April 27, 2014,

Lupton, Ellen and J. Abbot Miller. “Deconstruction and Graphic Design.” In Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design, edited by Ellen Lupton, 3-23. London, UK: Phaidon Press, 1999

Mikics, David. Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

Moran, Dermot. “Jacques Derrida: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction.” In Introduction to Phenomenology, 435-474. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.

Norris, Christopher. “Deconstruction.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Brahman to Derrida, Volume 2, edited by Edward Craig, 835-839. New York, NY: Routledge, 1998.

Wortham, Simon Morgan. The Derrida Dictionary. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010.

barthes, foucault & derrida

April 18, 2014 § 2 Comments


meret oppenheim / object / 1936

It is with a slight reluctance to declare that philosophical theories, advanced in the name of post-structuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, etc., are past their prime. However, one will readily admit that philosophy has a perennial applicability, that is, if one follows Louis Althusser’s radical claim that philosophy has no history.[1] In other words, there is always room to explore philosophy outside of an historical paradigm that privileges chronology, e.g. our thinking is not antiquated if we try to negate Plato’s idealism in everyday, contemporary terms. This short post will seek to provide a brief account of how three preeminent post-structuralist thinkers were interested in repositioning, rethinking, and reevaluating: (a) traditional practices of reading a unified work, with Roland Barthes, (b) a single author who frames a discourse, with Michel Foucault, and, (c) language operating within presuppositions of fixed, de/coded meanings, with Jacques Derrida. This account (this post) should give a general direction from where to draw on each philosopher’s pursuits for future dissembling of modernist ideologies of univocity, presence, unification, history, and so on.

All ideas considered, close to the base of Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida’s projects, is a de-centering of a work, author, and meaning—respectively. Barthes, in his essay from the early 1970s, “From Work to Text,” presents a dichotomy between reading what he terms: the work and a Text. Here, a common modernist (and historical) assumption might be to place most, if not all, the importance of meaning on single literary works. His motivation gracefully slides away from the static univocal work, to that of the fluid dynamic multiplicity of a Text. One might ask, what is the difference between a work and a Text? The two terms sound like the same things, i.e. isn’t the ‘text’ something you read in a ‘work’? Barthes lays down a number of ways that the two terms are different. “The difference is this: the work is a fragment of substance, occupying the space of books (in a library for example), the Text is a methodological field.”[2] For Barthes, a work is singular, whereas a Text is plural. If one were to recall the classic Saussurian semiotic division of the sign: signifier represents the word, spoken or otherwise, and the signified represents the concept signaled by the word, Barthes shows that the Text “practices the infinite deferment of the signified”[3] and the work operates more like a traditional sign. This “deferment” implies that any particular work carries with it an inherent instability of meaning. It’s not just that a single word has a hoard of meanings connected to it. It is rather, that each word can’t settle on being isolated within a single reading. Words then, in this sense, open themselves up from a concrete context of a work to a dynamic fluidity of the Text. Barthes associates play with a way to encounter a text, much in the same way a musician or an orchestra would methodically play a piece of music. Works, in Barthes’ context, do not play out like this since they are (due to the enforcements of culture) confined to singular interpretations, as opposed to being open to creative and necessary possibilities. Music and poetry are two excellent examples of how Barthes’ theory is applicable to the field of artistic expression. Poetry, say Japanese haiku, due to its elegant brevity, invites a wide range of playfulness, since the play of a poem happens beyond what is actually said—words allude to meaning, they don’t dictate it.

In a discourse of art history, the concept of the ‘artist genius’ is arduously rehashed in the usual ways art is understood and conceptualized. Studying art parallels the manner in which an author is regarded in a literary discourse. Yes, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but the mindset of art history’s old-fashioned discourse is not easy to dislodge, given that this was the prevailing discourse for centuries. The paradigm runs like this: if one wants to get to know art better, what can be done is to get to know the life of the artist, look at her other works, and her oeuvre will answer any of our questions as what to make of any singular expression. Her name, if she’s famous enough to be recognized, stands in for her style, her discourse, and so on. Once, for instance, the name Meret Oppenheim is mentioned we get that the discourse is about surrealism, one quickly forgets that her Object (Fur Breakfast / Le Déjeuner en fourrure) was made within a social milieu that then went far beyond her immediate circle and context of surrealist/artist friends, Breton, Picasso, et al. Closer inspection disperses authorship. “The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning.” [4] Foucault expressed this sardonic statement in his essay, also from the 1970s, “What is an Author?” His quote is another way of saying that the author (artist) is one small part of the larger discourse. But what is at stake in a discourse when one is deploying Foucault’s strategy? The short answer is that to study the dominant discourse opens up the way meaning is controlled. The manner in which a traditional discourse usually operates isolates, and stifles meaning to only one category, re: that of the singular author. These could be the reasons why Foucault prefers to use the (philosophical and post-structuralist) term: subject, meaning that the author, in Foucault’s context, becomes subject/ed to the forces of power that surround her. The roles are then reversed. The author is fixed in a web of influence and cultural control. Such moves are important, if only to comprehend the interplay of the larger structures that created the artist. One might forget that the artist is just as pliant as the materials with which she works. It is impossible to imagine that Foucault can be summarized in such a short space, but it is easy to posit that an author, the mythic genius, need not be the sole framing device in any discourse, whether it is in the field of art history and beyond.

As for the question of how there can be a transformation of created, negated meaning that is also de/coded within the context of a particular discourse, Derrida’s famous (or infamous, depending on your affiliations) mode of philosophy, aptly named deconstruction, is brought to the fore. Here is yet another example of how a single idea speaks volumes, therefore to give a full explication of the diffusion of his radical project is not within a comprehensible range. Still, one has to start somewhere, and since the topic at hand is aesthetical, there is “Parergon,” a chapter from Derrida’s book The Truth in Painting from the 1980s. In these highly erudite pages both Hegel and Heidegger’s aesthetics are considered and up for inspection. While Heidegger was looking for the origins on a work of art, Hegel presumes that art is a firm and stable category to begin with. Derrida shows that the question of what art is, or what are its origins “assumes that we reach an agreement about what we understand by the word art.”[5] The ways in which one asks a question and the very questions themselves aggressively gesture toward the expectation of the answers. Buried deep within Derrida’s deconstructive methodology is the ghost of his phenomenological past, since the reader is consistently asked to re-inquire Hegel and Heidegger’s presuppositions[6] about works of art. Even within this inquiry one is tempted to think that Derrida is wishing to come to some definitive conclusion, or that this is a kind of critique aimed to get on to a better line of argumentation. These objectives are not his goal. All we need to do is decode the work of art, and then we’ll understand it—is not where he’s going. If common understanding desires a univocity of meaning, Derrida’s deconstruction shows that meaning is only a settlement of naturalized codes of convention, history, discourse, culture, and the like.

With Derrida, post-structuralism and postmodernism take to full stratospheric flight, yet he didn’t work in a vacuum, Barthes’ Text and Foucault’s critical discourse are also factors that make for alternative vectors of open study and inquiry. In Barthes’ theory, where semiotics and structuralism still predominated, the Text becomes a playful anecdote to the stolid work. One reads a Text like a musician plays Bach. Then, with Foucault, there is the overarching power of culture, society, and hegemonies that deployed to inculcate the subject to abidingly operate inside the structures of particular epistemic discourses. Finally, as mentioned, with Derrida, there is a full dispersal and unfolding of meaning, whereby one is left to question the very means by which things are understood, defined and philosophically regarded. Post-structuralism destabilizes structures that we were not even aware of, and the question remains: what can we did to avoid becoming their victims?

Aurelio Madrid



Badiou, Alain, “Philosophy as Creative Repetition.” The Symptom,, 1997/2006. Accessed April 14, 2014,

Barthes, Roland, “From Work to Text.” In Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Derrida, Jacques, “Parergon.” In The Truth in Painting. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, 17-33. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Foucault, Michel, “What is an Author?” In Art in Theory, 1900-200: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, 949-953. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

——, “What is an Author?” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, 101-120. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1983.

Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, eds, Art in Theory, 1900-200: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Sarup, Madan, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1989.

[1] See Alain Badiou, “Philosophy as Creative Repetition.” The Symptom,, 1997/2006, accessed April 14, 2014,

[2] Barthes, “From Work to Text,” Art in Theory, 966.

[3] Barthes, “From Work to Text,” 967.

[4] Foucault, “What is an Author?” Art in Theory, 952.

[5] Derrida, “Parergon,” in The Truth in Painting, 20.

[6] Husserl’s motto “go to the things themselves,” urges us to let go of presuppositions of the so-called ‘natural attitude’ from which to better get into the epoché, re: the phenomenological reduction (an attempt to get to a pure phenomenological description of experience). No, this is not Derrida’s pursuit exactly, but there is a aspect of letting go of presuppositions in order to get at a wider dispersal of meaning.

on plotinus/beauty

March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment


That the ancient 3rd century Neo-platonic philosopher Plotinus should choose to first write about beauty is in itself a beautiful thing.[1] Why couldn’t one falling for a beautiful object, idea, or virtuous living, also be a person who falls in love with wisdom? It is in his introductory treatise, “Beauty” from the Enneads, that Plotinus makes the uncommon (yet entirely relevant) connection between aesthetics and ethics. This affiliation is relevant if we accept that the ethical life or better yet, the virtuous life is one that is beautiful to our universal conceptions of how one aspires to virtue. The spare objectives for this paper will be to first look at Plotinus’s opening sections of his treatise on the beautiful that analyze various qualities concerning a physical conception of beauty, and then continuing through the treatise to examine his way of transitioning from physical matters to an all-important aesthetic of virtue. In closing, a few ideas will be offered by which to contemplate Plotinus’s departure from the material.

Without any unnecessary forgoing, in §§1-3, Plotinus presents us with a few basic notions that have to do with a sensory perception of the beautiful, as visual, auditory, etc. These are immediately sketched in tandem with the idea that a virtuous life is also something of beauty. “Dedicated living, achievement, character, intellectual pursuits” are themselves beautiful (I, 6 [1], 1). But what of these things in relation to one another?—how is the virtuous related to a beautiful object? Firstly, Plotinus has to get us to understand what he means by a beautiful thing, a “bodily form,” this has to be done before one can know how appreciating virtue is aesthetical. A reason why this arrangement is valuable is that one might forget that to consider something beautiful might mean to go beyond the sensual. In our media saturated culture, it’s easy to forget that the beautiful can be something other than (commercialized) sight, scent, sound, touch, or taste. It is just as well that in Plotinus’s time there were those who thought that beautiful things had only to do with symmetry.[2] In our own regard, this simple idea should not be cast off too quickly, since it does stand to reason that a beautiful face is one that is supposedly more symmetrical. Or in another vein, that a handsome building such as Michelangelo’s St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is beautiful due to its symmetry. Certainly too, a butterfly’s wings are beautiful in their symmetry. It’s easy to see why the ancient thinkers would have thought of beautiful things as possessing symmetry, yet it becomes clear for Plotinus that this is not the only trademark of beauty. Held within this notion, that beauty is tied to things that are symmetrical, is also the idea that these things must be composites—that they be made up of parts. To be sure, of the examples mentioned, these things are composite, a butterfly has a body in the middle of two wings, and St. Peter’s Basilica has a central dome flanked by two smaller domes on either side, and so on. Can one not find beauty in a non-composite thing? “But is not gold beautiful? And a single star by night?” (I, 6 [1], 1). In agreement with Plotinus, it will be said that gold’s power is beautiful all by its self, and that it doesn’t always need any of the aforesaid symmetry for us to cherish it all the same.

Along with these issues, there is another more pressing question. Since Plotinus privileges the virtuous with his consideration of the beautiful, this begs the question as to whether or not the soul’s ways can be said to be symmetrical. How can one suggest that, for example, an altruistic deed is symmetrical? There is much talk these days about living a ‘balanced’ life, implying a kind of symmetry brought about by weighing the good with the bad, or a life where good healthy living is made to be balanced with what?—equal measures of a bad, unhealthy life? It must be better said that such a life of ‘balance’ is instead, one made of careful moderation, temperance, and kindness, all attributes of virtue, but not a life measured into symmetrical components whereby the good is balanced with the bad, into neat, even proportions to be measured. “What yardstick could preside over the balancing of the The Soul’s potencies and purposes?” (I, 6 [1], 1).

Already, one gets the feel for what Plotinus wishes for his readers to see, issues of beauty are tough to define as is the very pursuit of a good life. One thing is already clear: symmetry doesn’t necessarily define the beautiful. But the beautiful in bodily forms has to be more than that, and it doesn’t just mean that bodily forms (physical objects) aspire to the virtuous either. For a physical object to be beautiful as with an artistic expression, it has to be “in accord with Idea” (I, 6 [1], 2). In §3 Plotinus writes on the way an object’s beauty relies on the Idea and the intelligible. This is given the metaphor of fire, whereby fire’s beauty inhabits physical matter much as an Idea inhabits a physical, created form. “Always struggling aloft, this subtlest of elements is at the last limits of the bodily” (I, 6 [1], 3). Fire is destructive as much as it is life supporting, and just as well, our ideas and concepts of things can destroy or create the man-made objects of this world. Plotinus cherishes this kind of connection from the mystical to the physical. The things of the physical realm, when touched by the hand of an artist whose soul is in alignment with the intelligible realm, partake in the discernible, laudable, and beautiful qualities of the Idea. A beautiful house is not only beautiful in its aesthetic composure, it is beautiful in the way that it is engineered to be a comfortable home that has ease of movement, organization, and is structurally sound.

And another profound thought is brought about in §4, here one finds out that if we are to recognize beauty, we must be able to find it as an aspect of our own soul. “Seeing of this sort is done only with the eye of the soul” (I, 6 [1], 4). How can one judge the character of others without already having a sense of what it means to have an upright character as a potential in ourselves? It’s easy to misunderstand honest virtue when we have fallen in with the depravity of the body’s lusts. This idea smoothly transitions into §5 where one can foster the beautiful from inside, providing oneself with such qualities as “largeness of spirit, goodness of life, chasteness… [etc.]” (I, 6 [1], 5). But when the soul is sullied, it likes to wallow it its decrepitude. That paradoxical human trait the French call nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for the mud) is not far from this downgrading of man’s soul described by Plotinus. How often does one hear of the variegated humiliations of desire, or the voluntary servitudes of the flesh, in which a man is willing to subject himself to when he is overly enamored with the body’s filiations? In spite of these hungers, what this suggests is the idea that the soul is already pure, and that when it wishes to taste earthly filth, it can still purify itself beyond that, “the soul is ugly when it is not purely itself” (I, 6 [1], 5). The beauty of gold now serves to metaphorically symbolize the purity that a soul can become when un-pure dirt is filtered from it, and then washed away.

Too close of an easy concession with the body draws the pure soul downward. To ascend up toward the beautiful the soul has to succumb to certain rejections of the bodily, e.g. “what is magnanimity except scorn of earthly things?” (I, 6 [1], 6). For Plotinus, the Good is beautiful as much as the “intellective” is beautiful. This has to mean that intelligence and the learned are forms of beauty, thus speaking mystically: The Soul is made beautiful in congruence with The Intelligence. By extension, a person’s soul is made beautiful in correspondence with the intelligible—with what is typically called wisdom.

For Plotinus, the beautiful souls have been “stripped of the muddy vesture with which they were clothed in their descent” (I, 6 [1], 7). Once man’s soiled habits have been cast off, he can again seek to become unified with the Good. His seeking for the Good will not be easy, since the comforts of the degraded body drag him away from it all the time. It is at this point, in §7, where one is not completely sure if the bodily has anything worthwhile to offer the soul, other than as mere vehicle. One is also led to wonder if rejecting the material world will be as beautiful as we are led to believe. Still, the beauty of an ascetic life is one where our goals are grand while our body is kept humble. The virtuous is kept alive in this direction upward. There is something to learn. The body is limited. To aim upward to the virtuous, what must be done? “We must close our eyes and invoke a new manner of seeing…” (I, 6 [1], 8).

Plotinus is good to remind his readers again that if they wish to be beautiful “by the virtue of men for their goodness” they will have to look inside themselves (I, 6 [1], 9). To become virtuous, one will have to look inside and work the soul as one who would sculpt fine marble. This kind of work is spiritual work, making the soul pure, emulating pure action, becoming a better person, and delimiting the pangs of the corporeal. To repeat, one cannot do any of this until we come to a closer comprehension of our own role, our own problems, and our particular shortcomings. When these virtuous thoughts are put into action, perhaps there will be time to take notice of Plotinus’s hierarchy, where Beauty resides with the Intellect, but does not completely reach the heights of the One, which is in closer proximity to the Good (from where Beauty originates).

But is beauty really as internal, rather than external as Plotinus suggests? It is clear that in our day-and-age, physical beauty is a quality that is highly valued. And it is also clear that being virtuous is highly valued. Of course, whether one takes the moral-high-ground, physical beauty will have to be subordinate. Who would voluntarily claim that physical beauty is better than virtuous action? Not many would say it with words outright. However, it can be observed that such dichotomies are not so obviously binary, and again how can such things be measured? Philosophically speaking, these sharp divisions between the body and spirit, matter and idea, figure prominently in a philosophic discourse beginning with Plato and beyond. It is because of this problem, between the mind and body, where one looks for the places where the two are reconciled, say with Phenomenology or other such ideas. With this said, one mustn’t become too cynical to discard Plotinus for his priorities, his hierarchies, and his divisions. Even though the world around us might privilege the beautiful face over the beautiful action, it continues to make sense that vain thinking is shallow. Plotinus’s way of placing the physical below the spiritual is idealistic without a doubt. This is problematic if one is to assume that such idealism is flawed, such cynicism prevails only if we repeatedly propagate it ourselves. Plotinus’s teachings are beautiful when one is ready to hear them. This is an idealistic effort, but a key factor will be what happens once the virtuous is put into action in the day-to-day of our lives. Only then will our idealism be actualized. Being good does not happen in a vacuum, it has to be meted out dynamically. The beauty of the good life is made possible by action. Plotinus was not only contemplative, he was wise and intelligible. If he had never put into words his beautiful thoughts, philosophy would be less pure, less wise.

Aurelio Madrid



Inge, Wiliiam Ralph. The Philosophy of Plotinus: The Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews, 1917-1918, Vol. II. New York, New York: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1968.

Pistorius, Philippus Villiers. Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study. Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes Publishers Limited, 1952.

Plotinus, The Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. New York, New York: Faber and Faber, 1969.

—. The Essential Plotinus. Translated by Elmer O’Brien. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1964.

[1] Elmer O’Brien mentions that “Beauty” is “the earlier of the treatises” and that “for centuries Beauty was the sole treatise by which Plotinus was known.” Plotinus, “Beauty,” in The Essential Plotinus, translated by Elmer O’Brien. (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1964, 33.

[2] O’Brien attributes this idea, where the beautiful was mostly about the symmetrical, to the Stoics.

lyotard, baudrillard, & althusser

March 6, 2014 § 2 Comments


Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Althusser

Of the three philosophers selected for this post, only one, Jean-François Lyotard writes specifically about art. Whereas the other two, Jean Baudrillard and Louis Althusser deal with complimentary issues that easily segue into aesthetics. With the question of how these French 20th century philosopher’s concepts relate to aesthetic issues, it will be worthwhile to briefly outline what each philosopher theorized, then in turn, how these ideas are relatable to aesthetics. Also, as much as their ideas can be put into an aesthetic context, each of these three thinker’s wide reaching ideas adapt to the political, the social, and the economic situation/s of our contemporary (post-modern) world without distortion.

Not only do all three philosophers share the same language and nationality, they also share in the legacy of Marxist thought. The most stridently Marxist was Althusser. One might be inclined to dub him a Marxist apologist. Because Althusser was so entrenched in Marxist doctrine, he arduously refined and reexamined how Marx was read. There is not just one way to read Marx, and Althusser had to find ways to read him that countered the political trends of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Althusser broke new ground in his description and theorizing concerning the inner workings of ideology, which Marx also identified as a problem, just not in the same degree that Althusser did. Ideology couldn’t be discarded, yet for Althusser, theory would take center stage. It was within theory that Althusser identified his concept of hailing. Hailing basically encapsulates interpellation. “All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.”[1]

In the most general sense, interpellation means that all (yes all) ideology actively assumes everyone should take part in its ideological prescriptions. For capitalism this means that everyone is interpellated at the workplace: ‘there is no I in team.’ For society this means that everyone is interpellated in the public sphere: ‘shake hands with people you meet.’ For economics this means that everyone is interpellated in an economic sphere: ‘save your money for retirement.’ It all makes ‘common sense’ and none of these slogans are typically regarded of as ideological, since ideology works best when it doesn’t identify itself as such.[2]

But what about art?—how does art interpellate the audience? A viewer mistakenly presupposes that everyone knows the ‘rules’ of the game, if such rules can be said to be real to begin with. Such presupposed rules could be an ideal that all art must somehow be beautiful, or that art must incessantly aspire to beauty. This simultaneously suggests that art cannot be ugly and that if art looks unappealing (to us) in some way, we judge to be wrong. Interpellation easily works both ways, art presents ideological subjects, as with social realism (Stalin adores the rosy cheeked proletariat). And as noted, an audience can bring its ideology to the act of viewing art, ‘my child can do that’ is code for: I cannot see the value in this painting, beyond the efforts of a child, because my narrow idealism demands nothing less than the allure of old-fashioned academicism.

Lyotard presents another way that Marxist theory affected philosophy and the arts, albeit his Marxist influence is much less militant than Althusser’s. Probably one of the first to put postmodernism into name, Lyotard wrote convincingly of a new kind of relativism, a.k.a. the metanarrative. “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”[3] This meant that the so-called ‘grand narratives’ of the past were no longer the only narratives that mattered, or that they were no longer the ones that carried the utmost power. These metanarratives are seen as stemming mostly from the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment, such as: the authority of science, the dominance of Christian doctrine, and of course, the supremacy of rationalism itself. This idea has multiple readings, and most of it has a thin (and strong) Marxist thread throughout, that obviously seeks to delimit the powers that be. Decentralizing power means that a special kind of relativist paradigm must prevail, and this is a problem with Lyotard’s death of the metanarrative that cannot be addressed here, yet relativism should be recognized as a dominate symptom of postmodernity.

For society at large, Lyotard critiques, and calls into question, the ascendance of scientific supremacy. With his ideas, one is better equipped to seriously question if science does indeed have all the answers, and, if the scientific pursuit of getting to know the secrets of the universe is really all that helpful for mankind. Rationality too thinks it has all the answers, but it easily forgets the value of intuition, randomness and the uncompleted. Amidst these things, (postmodern) art has special place, since it tries to represent the unrepresentable, at least in Lyotard’s brilliant way of refining Kant’s aesthetic notion of the sublime. To represent the unrepresentable sounds like nonsense if one is only interpreting the idea with a rational lens. That which cannot be named, must be that which is mysterious and enigmatic. Paradoxically, if art chooses to negate the unrepresentable, it would look something like advertising, we’d all ‘get it’ and its value would fade, duly its essential and sublime mystery would be automatically lost.[4]

Of the three theorists, Baudrillard stands as the most identifiable to a general audience, due to his (dubious and loose) connection to The Matrix. One easily forgets that Baudrillard wrote compelling philosophy, if the polished cinematic science-fiction—that’s supposed to emulate his ideas—doesn’t take half as much time to read as one of his finely crafted, labyrinthine essays. His idea of simulacrum replaces the real not by mere imitation, but by nothing at all. The simulacra are mostly the empty signs of capitalist excess and power relations. The referent is empty. Hyperreality defines this familiar pseudo-reality because we can no longer tell the difference between the real and the simulacra. “By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials…”[5] Political scandal epitomizes what Baudrillard describes because we are simply unable to detect what real political power actually is, amidst the intrigue, gossip and scandal of Washington insiders. We are led to believe that politics has more to do with what makes the news, rather than the ‘boring’ work of actually getting things done on a daily basis. For the art world, Baudrillard’s concepts hit with surprising force during a time in the 80s and 90s when questions of the copy, appropriation, sampling, authenticity, etc., were becoming critical aspects of a postmodern reevaluation of the puritanical dogma/s of modernism. Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacra is necessarily empty, and not a mere copy of reality, still, his foreboding pessimism glares with cynicism, since he exposes where we as a society are lacking. He presented a dystopian vision, yet the provocation haunts us all the same.

Where would we be if we were not critical of the transparent powers that impregnate authority? Marxism seems to have failed in the political arena, however, it continues to demonstrate its capacity to undermine established ways of thinking. Its power is dialectical. It moves critical thinking ahead by the strife of intellectual exposure and disclosure. It’s easy to be smug and narrow. These things don’t require alternative modes of analysis. All three of the philosophers presented here have demonstrated alternate routes from the mainstream. But, when will we listen?

aurelio madrid


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation.” In On Ideology, Translated by Ben Brewster, 1-60. New York: Verso, 2008.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, 1-42. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, eds. Art in Theory: 1900-2000, An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” and “What is Postmodernism?” in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, 1-82. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

[1] Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and State Apparatuses,” 47.

[2] Althusser names this phenomena: denegation.

[3] Jean-François Lyotard, intro to “The Postmodern Condition,” xxiv.

[4] …never-mind what this means for an interpretation of Pop Art or Warhol’s claim that there’s ‘nothing behind it.’

[5] Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” 2.