Derrida and the Visual

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Art


The seminal writings of Jacques Derrida have done much to transform philosophy and literary theory. However, his influence in aesthetics and art theory has been far more limited. This book sets out to ask why, and to open up Derrida's work to contemporary art practice and ongoing debates in aesthetics and art criticism.

Derrida wrote a relatively small number of texts on art, quite a few of them not translated into English, many yet to be discussed critically. It was not until the mid-70s, almost a decade after the initial impact felt by his work in philosophy and literature, that Derrida sought to demonstrate how deconstruction could be performed on canonical works in the philosophy of art, and how artworks could themselves be deconstructive of philosophical and historical discourses on art.

Simply put, deconstruction does two things. It exposes internal contradictions and unquestioned assumptions in texts, to reveal how what is thought or claimed to be marginal and supplementary to an argument or a theoretical position is in fact constitutive of it. And second, it seeks to dissolve the binary and hierarchical oppositions structuring traditional and canonical discourses on art, be they philosophical or art historical. So, Derrida's writings try to show how on the one hand discourses on art tend to desire, claim, or assume authority over the 'mute' work of visual art, and thereby subordinate the visual to writing; and on the other how ostensibly 'mute' works are saying something all the more powerful for their silence, an authoritarianism from which discourses on art might seek to liberate themselves. Art, for Derrida, has always been complicit with its philosophical determination, in that it has borrowed from philosophy the means with which to define, explicate, legitimate and historicise its practices. In this way all works of art are always already 'textualised' in the expanded sense Derrida gives to this term.

But here lies a problem with Derrida's writing on art: its alleged privileging of theory over practice, something which would run counter to Derrida's expressed intentions. The matter is not helped by Derrida himself suggesting that the way in which deconstruction has been theoretically formalised makes it seem as if it has more affinity with written discourse than with the visual. This is an important admission, one which the book will seek to examine in detail.

The challenge is to show how deconstruction is as pertinent to discourses on art as it is to those on philosophy and literature. By examining all of Derrida's writing on art in the context of the major criticism made of that writing, by taking account of the performativity and expanded practices of contemporary art, and by bringing Derrida's work into confrontation and dialogue with one of his contemporaries, Jacques Rancière, whose work addresses in detail the question of the relation of writing to the visual, theory to practice, Derrida and the Visual will argue that deconstruction can narrow the gap between theory and practice from the side of practice.

Derrida often spoke of the need for new sorts of knowledge and communication, for instance a 'university to come' in which a 'new humanities' would welcome the transformative effects of the practical aspects of art making and the performativity of art practice; yet the emphasis in his work tends to be on literature and fiction and the performative force of the linguistic speech act. Derrida has seemingly little to say about contemporary art and aesthetic education and those facets of it which may make a positive difference to the teaching of humanities subjects. But what he does say is significant, and this book will make good the imbalance by drawing out the full implications of Derrida's texts on visual art for philosophy and art theory, and of his thinking for visual art.

The book will be published by Edinburgh University Press, 'Frontiers of Theory' series, 2010.


10 25 50