Volume 9 Number 3 1996

Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture, Peter Brunette and David Wills (eds.), Cambridge University Press, 1994, 314 pages, 37.50 hardback, 13.95 paperback.

This collection of essays provides a forum that represents new approaches to the study of the visual arts. The authors in this anthology deal with the applicability of the ideas of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida to the visual and media arts and to architecture. Although a number of works clearly influenced by deconstruction have began to appear in these fields, this edition brings together for the first time a group of previously unpublished essays that will be of interest to scholars of visual theory and spatial arts in general.

In the case of the visual arts, the work, as Derrida reminds us, is conceived of as a receptacle or dwelling place for meaning, one whose borders are both clearly defined and consistently repressed to provide the spectator with easy access to its centre and seat. In this respect Derrida's philosophical inquiry is exemplary, and the structural resemblance between linguistic and visual or architectural models is reinforced, for the hierarchical relation between speech and writing that deconstruction analyses and seeks to displace is traditionally described in terms of that between an inside and an outside. Speech is held to remain within the closed circuit defined by the speaker and listener, disappearing into the fold of immediate comprehension, forgetting the spacing that constitutes it. Writing, on the other hand, cannot but fall outside, into an unavoidable materiality, and its materiality ensures that it will function outside of the control of its producer, from where it will always threaten the integrity of the supposed intact system of speech. The means by which speech then both rejects and co-opts writing in order to perpetuate its position of priority - indeed, the means by which this operation repeats itself throughout any areas of Westem thinking - has been refered to by Derrida as an `economy', from the Hellenic (oikos) for `house'. Derrida's work aims to break down or re-arrange the walls of that house, exposing its inside to previously unseen aspects of its outside, reconstructing different accomodations of space, forcing different means of access, reworking its principles of what it contains.

In the first chapter of this book, the idea of deconstruction whose limits are constantly being worked at and expanded, is discussed at some length by Derrida in an interview by the editors, and so the collection 'opens'. Derrida's comments on deconstruction's relation to high technology are of particular interest here. Although the question concerning high technology remains for the most part of the book, it is clear that it is beginning, through various techniques such as the computer generated image, to impose its relevance on the media arts (film, television and video), as well as on `art' traditionally conceived, and indeed on architectural design.

The introductory chapter and the essays that follow are roughly divided by the editors into five groups. The first group outlines the theoretical implications of an "importation" of deconstruction into the visual arts. The first chapter provides the problematics that are the focus of the later essays: the question of Derrida's competence in fields other than philosophy. Throughout the interview, Derrida reformulates the visual in terms of the spatial.

The author of the second essay, Stephen Melville, specifically considers the fact of colour and outlines ways in which deconstruction may alter one's approach to the art object and itself be altered by the encounter. In the third essay Mieke Bal considers the light in Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance and questions art history's search for original intentions and interpretations. She does indeed explore deconstructive notions of intertextuality, polysemy, and in particular dissemination and hymen. The third essay, written by Marie-Clair Ropars - Wuilleunmier, looks at Derrida's reading of Kant and the aesthetic, and uses as resource the cinematic example of Godard's Passion (1983). This first section ends with Gregory Ulmer's contribution, which is a continuation of his "grammatological" project to translate deconstruction onto the pedagogical level as discovery or invention.

The second set of contributions address variations on the theme of "parergon" (the frame), and the question here is the boundaries between inside and out. Rodowick opens this section, arguing Derrida's deconstruction of Kant's Critique of Judegment, and, in fact, deconstructs the notion of the aesthetic itself which is very often considered in discussions about art. In the essay that follows, Lebensztein offers an exploration of multiple meanings and figurations of the physical frame as it has manifested itself through the history of art. In the final essay of this section, Donald Preziosi shows the importance of the museum itself as a powerful framing device with widespread political and theoretical consequences.

The inputs in the third section offer explicit applications of Derrida's deconstructive theory to painting and sculpture. Herman Rapaport, contradicts Rodowick's discussion by juxtaposing Heidegger and Derrida in a critique that is applied on the work of the sculptor Richard Long as a "restitution" of aesthetics. This idea of beauty after the dismantling of Kantian metaphysics is followed by Charles Altiery who similarly puts together Frank Stella and Derrida in his attempt to illuminate the work of each through a discussion of a very important new foundation of ethics on the ruins of deconstructed subject, and a challenging of the notion of human agency. The last contributor of this third group (John Leavey) meditates, inspired by the writings of Derrida, on the visual arts, more with than against Valerio Adami's painting Concerto a Quattro Mani.

The fourth group's opening contribution is written by Jennifer Bloomer who, in this inspired essay, blends autobiography, feminist theory and architectural project to give birth to a piece of writing that is as heterogeneous as the structures she has designed for Chicago street corners. Another substantial essay follows Bloomer's: that of Mark Wigley, who discusses ways in which the architecture of `the house' function in Derrida's work, following on from Heidegger's philosophical tradition before it became 'fashionable'.

The essays of the last group are perhaps the most interesting of all. These manifest possible applications of deconstruction to film and television. Laura Oswald, in 'Cinema-Graphia: Eisenstein, Derrida, and the Sign of Cinema', compares Derrida's and Eisenstein's notions of the ideogram. In an intriguing debate, she finds that Eisenstein's cinematic practice is more radical than his writings. She then elaborates on her concept of 'cinema-graphia'. This is followed by Ingham's deconstuctive and anthropological approach to film. He politicises, together with Tom Conley, a quintessential manifestation of popular culture, Beverley Hills Cop. A trip into 1930s and 1940s popular culture follows, where Robert Ray offers an example of an 'alternative' deconstructive practice in the form of an application of the signature effect to Hollywood Andy Hardy movies. This last section closes with R. Dienst's rethinking of discourses of television studies by using Derrida's idea of the Postal (The Post Card) and is developed in Sending Postcards in TV Land. Dienst concludes this group with A Postal Axiom: "And the television has been on all this time - we know that much".

As the reader realises by now, this anthology cannot serve adequately, on its own, as an introduction to such a complex field as deconstruction for those with no previous knowledge of it. It is, however, an ideal collection of contributions for Derrida's readers and for cultural studies readers, for it offers a unique insight of his accounts being applied from aesthetics and art history to film, television, and architecture.

Lina Anagnostou
University of Essex


Copyright Lina Anagnostou 1996

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