Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde
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Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde

Aspects of a Philosophy of Difference

Andrew Benjamin

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eBook - ePub

Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde

Aspects of a Philosophy of Difference

Andrew Benjamin

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This book explores the relationship between art and philosophy. Andrew Benjamin argues for a reworking of the task of philosophy in terms of the centrality of ontology. It is in relation to this centrality, understood through the differences between modes of being, that art, mimesis and the avant-garde come to be presented. A fundamental part of this book is the original interpretations of important contemporary painters and their paintings: Lucian Freud's self-portraits, Francis Bacon's use of mirrors, R.B. Kitaj and Jewish identity, Anselm Kiefer and iconoclasm. Apart from painting, Benjamin considers architecture, literature and the philosophical writings of Walter Benjamin and Descartes in elaborating the various aspects of ontological difference. The theory of the avant-garde which is developed in the book, in which the avant-garde is a philosophical category rather than a historical marker, is a major contribution to art criticism. It brings the worlds of contemporary art criticism and contemporary philosophy closer together.

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Within the process of interpretation it is, at times, essential to distinguish between the specificity of a given interpretation and the object of interpretation itself. It is only by holding them apart (recognizing, of course, all the attendant risks and problems of this particular undertaking) that it will then be possible to focus attention on the nature of the object. What is at stake in this instance is not the object prior to interpretation as such, but rather the possibility of understanding both the place as well as the nature of the object within the actuality of interpretation, that is within the practice of interpretation.
Now one of the most difficult problems presented by the object of interpretation concerns the categories and concepts within which it is (or is to be) interpreted. There will be no attempt at this stage to distinguish in a systematic way between understanding and interpretation. Part of the reason for not doing this would be explicable in terms of the argument that understanding is itself already an interpretive category; one gesturing toward the posited centrality of the experiencing subject. Such a move would thereby serve to suggest that the practice and direction of interpretation had commenced. Interpretation, on the other hand, is intended as no more than a cover-all term designating the responses (those pertaining to experience as well as the discursive) to an object where that object exists, not qua simple material object (with whatever subsequent determinations which would then come to be added) but as an object of interpretation. Rather than attempting to deal in general terms with the issues raised by the inherently problematic nature of the object, a specific tack will be taken. If the broader approach were to have been pursued, then, at the very minimum, it would have been necessary to take tradition into consideration, not as a given but as itself a problem already implicated within any philosophical consideration of interpretation. Here, however, as has been suggested, the task is more limited as the focus of attention will be the figure:1 its existence, the interpretive demands made by it and finally the confrontation of the two specific symbolic domains it engenders. The first is the domain of the figure proper—its implication within iconography and history—and the second is language: the figure of and within language.
Any approach to the figure within painting, or even to figurative painting, automatically confronts the problem of how the figure is to be interpreted. (The place of the figure within the metaphysical opposition between the literal and the figural cannot, as will be seen, be completely divorced from these considerations.) It is tempting to take the figure as that which figures within the frame; the figure thereby becoming an interpretive end-in-itself. If this path were followed the task of interpretation would be to represent the figure where the figure was itself conceived as a representation. Interpretation would thereby be the representation of representation. Such a conception of interpretation would have the inevitable consequence that the process (or practice) of interpretation would have thereby become that task whose object was to construct, either implicitly or explicitly, a homological relation between the object of interpretation and interpretation itself. One would still the other. Interpretation would thereby repeat interpretation; a repetition by, of and in the Same. The proliferation of prepositions expresses both the persistent presence as well as the determining effect of the Same.
Homology involves a fundamental link with representation. The link however is not a simple contingent connection. Indeed as is indicated by the term itself, homology provides a basic, if not intrinsic component of the ontology of representation. This means that within the terms of what tradition intends for representation (and the presence of that intention as itself, in part, constitutive of tradition), representation and the homological are, in effect, interarticulated. This interarticulation will serve to preclude any argument that privileges the heterological over the homological. In other words what could not take place within the parameters set by this inter-articulation is any argument that took dis-unity as an original presence rather than as a secondary effect. Original dis-unity would mark the presence of an origin—a site—that resisted synthesis. The move away from homology, as the move away from the dominance of tradition, a move whose presentation is, in part, the task being outlined here, will necessitate such a conception of the origin. Moreover it is precisely the reality of this possibility, both the move and the subsequent reworking of the origin, that demands a subsequent reconceptualization of the origin. The original as original disunity, and not as the simple opposite of unity will be rethought and rearticulated here in terms of what will henceforth be called anoriginal heterogeneity.
In outline what is at stake within this reworking and hence within anoriginal heterogeneity is the following. The origin presupposes a beginning—a point of departure—that has its own causes and consequences. Origins thus construed will always involve teleology (marked by the twofold presence of either an implicit or explicit archĂ© and telos). There is, in addition, a specific temporal dimension at work within a traditional and metaphysical conception of the origin. Even though it is perhaps self-evident it is worth reiterating its particular determination. Within the origin as a traditional philosophical concept, whether implicitly or explicitly present, is the assumption of a beginning: the archĂ© as an ontologically and temporally primitive point. Any departure from the origin presupposes the possibility of a return. (The return can figure as an explanation, interpretation, etc. An instance of this emerges from Descartes’ argument in La Recherche de la vĂ©ritĂ©, that an understanding of the complex stems from tracing the movement from the complex to the simple and then back to the complex. It is this move that allows the complex to emerge as an object of knowledge.)2 In addition time as sequential continuity has to be presupposed in order that this interpretive (or explanatory) process of departure, return and departure is, in fact, possible. What is found at the origin is a unified site whose unity is, once again, presupposed in order that it function as an origin. Plurality is only possible after the event: the original event as founding moment. It is this postulated original event therefore that could never be the moment in which the presupposition of unity founders. Indeed it has to be the case that this possibility is always excluded. This exclusion is complex since even though anoriginal heterogeneity cannot be thought within the concepts and categories of the dominant philosophical tradition, its exclusion and subsequent reaffirmation must incorporate, though not as dominant, exactly that which occasioned the initial exclusion. Furthermore it must be remembered that the exclusion is not the result of an intentional or conscious act, rather it marks the limit of what metaphysics allows to be thought.
It is the presence, the actuality of ‘original’ dis-unity—its presence within as well as its constitution of the frame—that is signalled in the expression anoriginal heterogeneity. (The being of the event will become the event of, and within, becoming.)3 What is assumed by it is that the object of interpretation can never be, qua object of interpretation, a unified site. Part of the becoming-object of the work of art will involve the recognition of a heterogeneity that, in precluding the possibility of unity, and thus in not being a founding moment can never, within the classical determinations of the word, function as an origin. And yet there is nothing prior to heterogeneity. ‘Prior’, in this instance, marks firstly the necessity of the impossibility of a temporality of continuity and thus secondly gives rise to the need to rethink time beyond such a conceptual constraint. In other words is signals a reorientation of the philosophical task. It is this reorientation that delimits this present endeavour.
Heterogeneity is descriptive of the mode of being of the object of interpretation. It is thus that the term anoriginal is used. It allows for the presentation of an origin that is not original: the impossible origin, hence the anoriginal. While there may be surface connections—mere similarities of formulation— between the anoriginal and elements of Derrida’s work, the difference resides in the importance attributed here to ontology and hence the affirmed impossibility of escaping modes of existence. Ontology is not exhausted by metaphysics. Indeed ontology refers to the many ways in which things are: the plurality of modes of existence. (A plurality, it should be noted, that is anoriginally conflictual and thus differential.) Ontology, therefore, names the differential plurality of modes of being. There needs to be added to this description the additional point that modes of being are always already (hence anoriginally) interarticulated with modes of temporality. It is thus that it is possible to speak of specific ‘ontologico-temporal concatenations’.
While a number of philosophers (though most notably Heidegger) have argued for the necessary interconnection of being and time, this usually takes place in terms of a distinction between the singularity of Being and the plurality of beings. In An Introduction to Metaphysics, after suggesting a number of examples in which ‘is’ comes to be used, Heidegger goes on to add that ‘Being discloses itself to us in a diversity of ways’.4 What needs to be noted in this description is the distinction in terms of singular and plural between ‘Being’ and ‘beings’. Being is from the start singular and then comes to be disclosed within ‘diversity’. Even though the precise nature of this singularity resists simple summation it is none the less clear that the distinction drawn by Heidegger has an implicit conception of movement and therefore of direction within it. The move from singularity to plurality both occasions and allows for Heidegger’s construal of the philosophical task to appear. It will involve the attempt to recover that singularity in the wake of the actuality of diversity and subsequent loss of the meaning of being. (It should be remembered, for example, that Heidegger, in his work on Nietzsche, describes the present within which his philosophical task is both conceived and enacted as one that is ‘indifferent to Being’.) While it is the case that recovery, or even the attempt to do the same, will, for Heidegger, necessitate a futural direction, inscribed within both the philosophical task and the move from an original singularity to a subsequent plurality is an implicit teleology (the move from a postulated archĂ© to a telos determined as the future) that provides the task and the movement with their conditions of existence. In other words the relationship between singularity and plurality (‘diversity’) and the philosophical task that it sanctions depends upon an implicit, and hence unstated, teleological dimension. A dimension that sanctions the movement of interpretation: recovery and retrieval.
The position presented here in terms of anoriginal heterogeneity seeks to deny the viability of the distinction, within being (within a generalized ontology), between the singular and the plural, while at the same time maintaining the centrality of ontology. There is no necessary connection between a plurality of modes of being and a postulated—either as present or not—conception of being as without exception singular. Indeed it is possible to go further and suggest that there is no reason to think that the plurality of specific beings necessarily even suggests the existence of such a connection. Consequently arguing for this connection would have to presuppose that plurality harboured the Same rather than marking a plurality that was anoriginally differential.5
In formulating the structure of what he calls ‘the question of Being’ in the Introduction to Being and Time,6 Heidegger, after distinguishing Being from ‘entities’ (Das Sein des Seienden ‘ist’ nicht selbst ein Seiendes), goes on to make the following claim:
Being as that which is asked about must be exhibited in a way of its own, essentially different from the way in which entities are discovered. Accordingly what is found out by asking the question—the meaning of Being—also demands that it be conceived in a way of its own, essentially contrasting with the concepts in which entities acquire their determinate significations.
While resisting the commitment to the implicit empiricism that Heidegger seems to suggest would stem from refusing the distinction between Being and entities, it remains the case that the very presuppositions of Heidegger’s argument are precisely those against which the philosophical import of the ontological dimensions of anoriginal heterogeneity is directed. The singular pronouns within which Heideggerian Being is announced are, within this general reorientation of the philosophical task, to be refused. There is no singular question of ‘the meaning of Being’ that can be posed independently of modes of being. Here the modes are not the modes of something which is independent of, though perhaps present in, the modes themselves. There is therefore no question of Being qua Being, there is simply the plurality of questions pertaining to the plurality of ways in which things are. The question of Being will always give way to questions pertaining to beings. And thus posing as independent ‘the question of Being’, asking it such that it ‘contrasts’ with questions which address modes of being, is itself only possible if the unity and singularity of Being precedes, though proceeds through, the ‘diversity’ of beings.
There is an important semantic dimension at work here. It is in part founded on the necessary interconnection of semantics and ontology (the differential plurality of meaning and being). Reworking ontology, as the term has been deployed here, away from Heidegger and the ‘question of Being’, will mean taking up the semantics of anoriginal heterogeneity. What is being resisted is the idea that a word can ever have a singular and unique determination that exists independently of different uses but which none the less shows itself within those differences. Once again, this would be to posit a distinction between a secondary plurality and an original unity such that what was original showed itself within that plurality while never being coextensive with it. The original would always unfold within an oscillation between ‘revealing and concealing’. In opposition to this semantic frame the semantics of heterogeneity entail that what is named by the word ontology (i.e. being)—though this will be true to different degrees for all words—is from the start potentially conflictual and plural. The start here is the anoriginal.7 There is therefore no meaning of being outside of this anoriginal differential plurality. The possibility of thinking the difference between the unique and separate question of Heidegger’s Being and the task here adumbrated, provides one possibility for a philosophy that cannot be formulated or reformulated in Heideggerian terms. Moving beyond Heidegger’s formulation of ‘the question of Being’ would mean that philosophy, rather than taking the Same as central, would henceforth be or become a philosophy of difference. However not difference as a series of variations within or of the Same but one where difference was differential.8 The Same does not simply pertain to the uniqueness of the question of Being for Heidegger, it figures within, and as part of, the dominant tradition that comprises the history of philosophy. A philosophy of difference is only possible therefore to the extent that, firstly, the centrality of ontology is retained and, secondly, that ontology be thought beyond both the confines of the relationship between the singular and the plural on the one hand and the reign of the Same on the other.


There is a direct consequence of any attempt to rethink or reconsider the figure in light of a generalized though not as yet specified subversion of the Same. It is that a specific interpretation which took heterogeneity as anoriginal would still have to confront representation; it would still be constrained by it—however, no longer with representation providing the possibility of interpretation but conversely with the possibility of interpretation from now on involving the necessity of having to displace—to re-place—representation. It would thereby follow that neither the figure within the tableau nor even the more conventional figures within paintings, could be interpreted in terms (concepts and categories) that were dominated by, and hence which also articulated, the specific ontologico-temporal concatenation proper to representation. It must not be forgotten that here propriety, the proper, resides within a given object of interpretation’s intentional logic.
Intentional logic is the self-identification of that task or project that a specific text, painting—in short an object of interpretation—sets out to enact. The object (text, painting, etc.) is, within this logic, envisaged as the site as well as itself being the manifestation of the task as enacted. En...

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Citation styles for Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde
APA 6 Citation
Benjamin, A. (2005). Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2005)
Chicago Citation
Benjamin, Andrew. (2005) 2005. Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Benjamin, A. (2005) Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Benjamin, Andrew. Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2005. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.