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
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
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
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
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
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
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 ); 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
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