Jean Louis Schefer

(translated by  Paul Smith)

                        From the moment we began, we’ve been trying to develop hypotheses about, and shift interpretative schemes around, a whole variety of aesthetic and historical objects.

                        Obviously the moment when we finished and published our first work was especially important for us. I’m talking here about my contemporaries: our initial burst of theoretical activity, attempts at intellectual syntheses, an interest in the new “human sciences,” interventions into basic theoretical or aesthetic issues in the structuralist vein.

                        That was in the early 1960s, and in 1962 I published my first text. At the time I was following Roland Barthes’s “recommended readings.” He was not then in the academy, and he was still dreaming of a romantic semiology of two things--literature and “life.” We can see today how much such an ascetic enterprise, that critical distance of his, was part of the temper of the times, both in its critical position (Brechtian) and its moral element (Protestant). But no groundbreaking work was being produced at that time--apart, obviously, from that of Lévi-Strauss who was writing The Savage Mind. In art history the most “modern” work  was Francastel’s. Panofsky was still almost unknown in France (Robert Klein did the first commentary in 1964-5). The only tool we had to work with was Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. The areas we were all interested in, the work we used to talk about at the time (in anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, history, aesthetics), the journal Communications, the shortlived Semiotic Circle of Paris, and for a while the Theory Group around the journal Tel Quel in 1970, all these had helped slowly transform semiology into structuralism. Such an intense work of bricolage was much more attractive to us young intellectuals than it was to the academicians--the world of intellectuals and academics had long been hostile to our own intellectual enterprise which was trying to make a fundamental critique of “systems of communication.” So, unusually, our intellectual project had more in common with the latest developments in art, music or literature, and it sketched out the possibility of a critical analysis of discourse and the social. (The irony, today, is that such a formidable analytical tool only helped to evolve the means of communication, of advertizing, of the language of management, and it even helped revivify the language of politics.)

                        I rather quickly opted for a quite personal way of working--an interest in historical objects, theological problems, and literature. I soon understood (or decided) that my “literature” would consist in roaming among historical or cultural objects--that I’d be a writer without a novel.

                        And what of our critical responsibility?

                        We felt it, certainly, but mostly we felt an aesthetic responsibility.

                        What was this world in which we grew up, learned, and began to think (to think, in my view, something difficult)?

                        We needed a “new science” that would square with our understanding of this world and with our sensibilities. In that regard all systems and all theories were seen as necessarily provisional. Systems of belated education, partial initiations into abstraction, or into the mathematics of life: a taste for abstraction and for expressions of sensibility that were shared amongst us--or rather, they shared us.

                        What was our place in the history of ideas? What kind of evolution of theoretical, aesthetic and historical objects occurred within us?

                        Those are perhaps the questions I ask myself these days. And the response is to just keep working. Or else it could be put this way: I am what I am looking for.  Or, I am the guiding principle of my own collection--a collection which is a series of interpretations running across different objects, problems, and epochs.

                        What pulls all this together, besides a purely enigmatic “I”?

                        The different objects I work with (painting, literature, archeology, theology, and so on) can’t be assigned to separate problematics; rather, they’re different degrees of elaboration within a general problematic.

                        The final utopia is not a system (ordered, progressive, moving toward the finality of a philosophy of history). Nor is it a network of analogical connections (as Warburg dreamed of). And it’s not some vague project of writing down the world’s fragments, captivated by their poetic force or their intellectual stimulation. Rather, it’s a work in progress, something that picks up on all the world’s metaphors. So the horizon of our work is not some system that might one day close up--it’s an open continent, a sort of cartography. Proust’s work gives a good idea of this kind of infinite junction of metaphors, where everything is simultaneous.

                        What’s new and modern in all this?

                        We can no longer understand, interpret, explicate, or just elucidate cultural objects simply by way of their context or their determinations. Contemporary language sciences have shown us, perhaps, that we’re actually a part of the constitution of the objects we interpret and decode. A part of their historical puzzle as well as a part of their formal solutions. We are, that is, of the same order as cultural objects themselves.  We’re invested with the power to forget, made up of networks of very singular connections, and that’s why it’s our personalities that determine our science and our procedures (and not our knowledge as such).

                        This kind of a sensibility is new, I’m sure. We no longer believe (and it really was once a religion, a dogmatic belief) that there is out there some poetic reservoir of the world that might be something like its ultimate structure, its final cause, the key to all its meaning. Critics, historians or writers, we are what mediates historical forms (living forms), and we’re also their proof.

                        The power of the modern world is not in its universal systems of communication (that’s what advertizing is), but rather in the fact that the world and everything in it have become simultaneous. And in this state of affairs we are nonetheless mediators (we are not consciousnesses).

                        How can we work simultaneously on prehistory, film, medieval theology and whatever else? It’s necessary, in fact, for my fantasy or my personal journey to be something more than just a combination of my own qualities and flaws, something more than my personality or style: it’s the entirety of my personal situation--familial, social, and historic--which makes my choices, demands this split, and entails a certain discomfort with civilization. No doubt this is our only gift, our only talent today. Critics, writers, or essayists: the modern world has made us bring our most intimate existences right into the light of day, into the world of intellection. A critical oeuvre these days can only be personal, and whatever its aesthetic qualities it’s bound to be poetically unique.

            Because of that, the activity, the movement or the project of interpretation takes on a whole new direction--a direction quite different from the usual literary criticism, philosophy or art history (where we would still have to pick lineages and affiliations).

                        After the moment of our education and our own first efforts, the intellectuals of my generation passed through a period of abstract play (theories, formalism, structuralist games) of a kind that no other recent period has seen. At the same time, our work was marked by a lack of historical and philosophical knowledge (so we had to stay much closer to literature than to scholarship). Most of all, we all picked up a certain facility in manipulating and constructing systems. The critical utopia of structuralism was, for my generation, a requirement for our work (it helped us to constitute wider problematics), and in my view it left a sort of residual intellectual benefit: the field of inquiry had been expanded. Structuralism’s interrogation of “restrained specificities” gave way to the bigger question of human symbolization as such (a structural and a historical boon). And that opened up our perspectives on history and the history of civilizations to a new richness,  or in any case, to a new flexibility.

                        Just the same, I don’t think this benefit was the result of any progress in the traditional disciplines of knowledge, but rather came about because we began to adopt new perspectives on history, on the world, on the future of civilizations.

            So how did all this happen? It wasn’t just that we learned new ways to play some serious games.  But, more than any other generation, or in different ways, we suffered the experience of the fragility of our cultures (this experience was crucial in Europe, a result of World War II--a world really had disappeared, and for multiple reasons). And so we learned, along with the end of a certain kind of social and cultural arrogance, a bit about historical relativity.

                        However much of a caricature structuralism might sometimes seem, its whole interest lay in this intellectual excitement which was all about a belated (on the part of the older generation, the fathers or the great intellectual protagonists) or anticipated (for the younger ones, my generation) realization of this sense of a world having ended.  By the same token, the methodological gains it registered are relatively pitiful: they now just help to compose the commercial surface of the modern world into a universe of media revelation (advertizing, media, universal communications, the lure of transparency...).

                        But the intellectual results are of a different order: we can now more easily think our historical relativity. We can think more concretely about the interconnections between symbolic and historical objects without the crutch of those narrow and mechanical systems of historical causality that our predecessors usually depended upon. Without too the kind of rigidity that limited the way “comparativism” worked in early social anthropology (even for Mauss and Durkheim) where magic, ritual and religion were seen as genuinely transhistorical operators, as internal peculiarities of social systems. In such thinking the idea of the structure of exchange was probably the most impervious to historical thought.

                        This is not all mere abstraction: the results can be seen even in paleontology or art history (which had been a chronically conservative discipline, the servant of nationalisms and regional prejudices). Perhaps, for example, we could now look in new ways at the work of someone like the genial Baltrusaitis (so long considered and even prized as a mere collector of curiosities).

                        I don’t mean to paint an over optimistic picture of aesthetic or historical thinking (both of them are quite capable of the hugest ineptitudes, to be sure). I’m just trying to explain why my own multiple interests cannot possibly conform to some theoretical or methodological system (as they would have had to do in the 19th century) . Beyond the fact that my concerns register personal determinations and histories, they are the very fact of my historical situation.

                        What we learned then, and what we are trying to do now, no longer relies upon ideological tendencies, or even moral choices, but actually derives from aesthetic choices and psychological peculiarities (the foundation of our intellectual and aesthetic choices; for each of us that was the chance and hazard that propelled us.)

                        In that light, critical responsibility would seem in effect quite limited--it’s not the responsibility of an entrepreneur or of an advertizer--because we are inscribed in a series of historical currents whose only true mediation, for a writer, is the individual work. What would remain, for example, of the Viennese era without its cultural works (painting, music, literature)? What would remain of any era at all without its works and without the critical links that articulate them?

                        The one thing we could never forget is that we are historical subjects (a fact revealed by painting and all symbolic practices, even beyond their own miraculous and yet enigmatic qualities). What’s more,  we’re non-specialist historical subjects. It’s perhaps this naive claim which produces literature, or which means that a writer without a novel has to roam around in the history of culture, tracing lines--not to reassure himself of what he is (as with Montaigne), but to measure, with no end in sight, the human territory (the undertaking, surely, of Bataille, Valéry, or Barthes). The instrument of this measurement was clearly the product of an identity crisis in the historical (poetic, philosophical) subject. The writer is, in a new way, a nomadic sensibility and intelligence. Look again at Merleau-Ponty after Bergson (his “prose of the world”), Bataille, Valéry and Barthes. The prose of the world never stops diversifying itself: so what I’m writing is the very diversity to which I’m simultaneously a spectator, a witness and an agent.

                        The work I’ve managed to do up till now, what I’ve taken on, precisely doesn’t derive from a program (it certainly doesn’t respond to any sense of ethical or pedagogical duty); what it does instead is draw up a report on our actual intellectual and aesthetic situation. I might add that the intellectuals of my generation (historians, anthropologists, art historians) were all formed (or marked, or at any rate oriented) by literature, by the idea of a reality that can be written, by an idea of the world’s utopias (though also by the idea that there is nonetheless a sort of limit to the novelistic writing the world. Michel Leiris’s Ghostly Africa is the source of many an ethnographic career). We were inducted into our studies by a particular state of the language, by the generality of form, and not because of some specialized knowledge.

                        These thoughts aren’t intended as an introduction to me (that doesn’t matter much). But they can at least help explain the situation of an intellectual today. As atypical and personal as my own journey might be in terms of its choices and its objects of study, I’m sure that those choices and objects reveal or accentuate the condition of their own historical possibility.

                        I’ve claimed that we were formed (marked) by literature, by what it offered in the way of intuitive approaches and improbable solutions to new problems. There’s no need to give a list of our authors: they're now classics, but at the same time they're experimenters in forms, ideas and the relations between fields. Equally, we had been formed by a completely literary idea of the work to be done. The literary imaginary at the time even nurtured the scientific utopia of configuring knowledge and forging new methodologies. A distant (Leibnizian) idea  of finding “universal features” along with the notion of a kind of writing that could reach the different levels of expression as well as the reality of life (history, sociology, psychology) in all its underlying elements as they awaited the continent of writing that could pull them all together. With that in mind, it was to the great continents of modern writing--like Proust, Joyce, Céline, Musil--that we went, because they stood as models for resolving the problem of “partial writings.” The idea has stuck that the synthesis yet to come isn't going to be encyclopedic but rather novelistic and of a new genre--that’s to say, it will be unpredictable.

                        There at least is structuralism's lasting benefit--to have understood that behind every “scientific work” (like Lévi-Strauss’s) resides a novelistic enterprise of which the scientific work is just the watermark.

                        Something of this can obviously be read, formally, in the work of Jacques Derrida, with his project of redistributing writing, his disruption of the grammatical forms and categories of the thinkable, and his taking up residence in predictable proximity to Joyce’s project on language...

                        The benefit of stucturalism has been also, paradoxically, the possibility that maverick work like Barthes’s should seem coherent, however much it's marked by a way of perceiving problems which is ultimately just a style of writing.

                        I come to some examples--that is, to my own work. Mine is a wide literary project which covers cultural works, objects or domains of a great diversity. That’s exactly why the subjectivity (my autobiography) remains in it as more than a trace, but as an mechanism. For a long time I’ve assumed myself incapable of dealing with the proper procedures of knowledge. Because I am a subject, I have to be present in my own operations and I have to respect the contract of appropriation I make with my objects. I can only understand them if, as I play with them, I give them my own form (my style, my temporality, my connections, my world).

                        Beyond the personal example (my work, whose thematic and stylistic constancy I’m now beginning to understand), I think that what characterizes contemporary work is obviously something to do with the project of constituting or reconstituting the fabric of language (the technical excesses and theoretical idiocies that have been introduced into the language shouldn’t be allowed to delude us) upon which exchange, communication and thinking are regulated.

                        The introduction of theory (in the 1970s) separated the levels of language and linguistic consciousness in a powerful way. There’s been a correction since then, but that kind of crisis was necessary. Literary language had given birth to a language of power, of communication, or had simply grown old. Our theoretical period contributed to renewing that linguistic fabric, that is, all the possibilities of expression and the organization of social ties.

                        Without wanting to sound excessively optimistic, I think that our current work is being done within this renewed fabric of language. What strikes me is that, despite chronic resistance to the peculiarity of our work and to the sometimes excessive originality of our hypotheses, it’s precisely this work (pertaining to aesthetics, history, language, communication--formalism, semiology, structuralism)that has modified the general linguistic fabric which constitutes all our communication and all our cultural imaginaries.

                        I’m simply trying to explain why it’s almost normal today for intellectuals to be able to work in a coherent way according to both literary and scientific imaginaries--in their research they can be simultaneously an affirmative subjectivity (a Proustian subject), a scholar, an experimenter with forms, and perhaps even an advertizer. The paradox here is that the literary and theoretical avant-garde has helped build up the language of power, of communication and management. Individually or personally we are not exactly the beneficiaries of this process.

                        Our work remains, according to its own power of inertia, oriented towards a play with the truth (historical, ontological) and the imaginary. So there’s no reason to be surprised by the autobiographical (or strongly personal) nature of the work some of us do. We're not just language processors. We experiment on language and we’re also the subjects of the experiment. It’s on ourselves that we test language’s descriptive or analytical or novelistic power, as we try out new ways of organizing the object of study, new ways of understanding, totally new ways of looking at history.

                        When, for example, I try to follow an idea or a hypothesis, as a non-specialized historical subject what I’m trying to grasp is the very network that connects up all my interests (art, history, theology, archeology), because ultimately I believe that the chance of such a deployment or such an opening (if it can perhaps change the protocols of knowledge) contributes to the modification of historical representations; in any case it broadens the horizon of the scriptible and officially records the fact that we are new historical subjects. (New subjects? Mutants? Yes, certainly, mutants of the modern world). And this is true despite our moments of melancholy or irony with regard to such an unstable world.

                        There’s not much left to say about the example that I was obliged to choose (myself). Nowadays I understand tolerably well that the pursuit of my work has an enlarged--though not transcendental or transhistorical--object. This object, with its dispersed coherence, would correspond at least to the reality of our practice, our habits of vagabondage and labor. There are several reasons for this: however paradoxical it might seem, it’s not that we’ve entered a technical field of information management, but into something like a field of Proustian signifiers. That's to say, we’ve come across a vast domain where we have to explore indefinitely the horizontal connections between cultural works, signs and letters--as if the modern (or technological) access to layers of historical information produced the memory effect of making everything (all of “culture”) contemporary, or offered us the possibility of reproblematizing the works of history by way of new connections and distinctions.

                        Leaving aside the pessimism that every generation has (the end of art, the decline of values, decadence, and so on) and that is just an ephemeral historical pessimism doing no more than marking out the unknown task of its artists and thinkers, or claiming the accrued mobility of the world and the instability of its works) I believe, too, that the novelties introduced by modernity (the list of poetic revolutions, technical, symbolic ones) make it clear at last that the modern world  never ceases to multiply as it varies and modulates the whole surface of historical memory, where the greatest part of its work remains.

                        In that light it doesn’t much matter if, in order to do our work, each of us occasionally has to imagine himself like the last monk from the middle-ages; and when we do that, we are already helping to open up an unknown world.


                        A final word. I work on painting and on film, but the two have nothing to do with each other.

                        The paintings on which I’ve worked (with which I’ve played) aren’t necessarily my favorites: they’re ones that have posed me a problem that I wanted to solve (and occasionally, ones I was commissioned to write about).

                        It’s only recently that I’ve worked on paintings that I’m attracted to: Dutch painting in Light on the Table (1995); an anonymous Rhenish picture of the Virgin (Questions of Style [1995]); perhaps, too, the last Goyas in Goya: The Final Hypothesis (1997).  El Greco (1988) was the occasion for me to write a kind of metaphysical novel that follows up on my book on cinema (The Ordinary Man of the Cinema [1981]).

                        My favorite is probably that Rhenish “Virgin in the Garden” from the 15th century; I wrote that little book in order to praise the painting and its subject, and to destroy it piecemeal.

                        As for cinema, I was very friendly with the people at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1960s and 70s. They asked me for a book as soon as they started a series. I think they expected a theoretical book, but I did something else--a sort of screening of the novelistic material that corresponded to my own experience of the cinema. The idea was simple: I have only one kind of experience as a spectator (I’m not a critic or a film scholar); cinema is made for spectators and that’s the one thing that wasn’t usually addressed. The other idea was that, if one were to try to  write Remembrance of Things Past today, the memories of lived time and the scenario of memory would have to compete with the much more persistent images of films we'd once seen and which had become intimately tangled up in our lives: that’s what I wrote about, effectively.

                        For me the only relation between painting and cinema is nothing to do with their essential characteristics but with the use I’ve made of them both: through them, by means of or with the help of their alien figures, I write something akin to the novel of my life. That way I can at least be faithful to my own idea of “culture”--I exercise my right of usage, which is perhaps the only real relation we can enter into with culture, with the forms through which the human world is elaborated.

                        As for the rest, everybody’s laboratory is unique. A few friends who have read these words have been amused by my use of the word “we”--the intellectual community that I presume seems imaginary to them. And perhaps it is.

                        The real (everyday) practice of work is certainly most interesting and most mysterious because of the way it divides up my energy. I’ve been working for several years on a book about medieval legends of the Eucharist, dealing with a strangely forgotten chapter in the history of Europe (the problems there are iconological, theological, ideological, political). I’ve also been working on another book, about prehistory: the existing research and interpretative hypotheses about paleolithic figures don’t satisfy me, so I’m trying to understand what I myself have seen during five years of visits to the decorated prehistoric grottos in France.  Right now I’m writing another book for Cahiers du Cinéma (about how moving images come to occupy the entire surface of the world); and I’m writing for the Cinémathèque française a chapter on Bresson’s beautiful film, Au Hasard, Balthasar. I imagine that each of these “topics” profits from my work on the others. It’s no crime to change hands: I imagine it shouldn’t be any more difficult than playing the piano. It’s a keyboard that organizes my life and divides, for example, my week into three parts: mornings, afternoons, and Sundays.

                        There’s still time for my friends, for early morning walks in the Luxembourg Gardens, for cultivating a paltry garden on my rooftop in Paris. But no time at all for cultural spectacles, or for what the French know as “cultural life,” for the theater, or for that modern version of hell: other people’s lectures.