ISSN 1466-4615


Katya Mandoki 


An Enigmatic Text

Schefer's Quest upon a Thing Unknown



Jean Louis Schefer

_The Enigmatic Body: Essays on the Arts_

edited and translated by Paul Smith

New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995

pp. xxii+186

Hardback ISBN 0-521-37204-6



Very difficult to read. Despite Paul Smith's efforts in his editing, translating, and explanatory introductions to the book and each essay, _The Enigmatic Body_ is really very difficult to read. Smith presents a chronologically arranged selection of Schefer's writings from the past twenty five years. The title of the book given by Smith is quite accurate: what is clear and consistent throughout all these texts is Schefer's search for something absent, something that stands between subject and object in various artistic genres. The main thesis of the book is that in the process of this object-subject relation something is missing, independently of whether we are dealing with literature, cinema or visual arts. The enigmatic body for Paul Smith is the product of a resistance to both interpretation and representation. In Smith's words, 'the enigmatic body is what will not or cannot be accounted for by our legitimized systems of representation or our rational procedures of interpretation: the enigmatic body is what is elided or missing, precisely, from those systems and procedures. One might say that it constitutes the unrepresentable and that the impossible task Schefer has set himself is to represent the unrepresentable, to make visible in writing what is invisible in the encounter with the object.' (x)


One might ask what are the reasons that lead Schefer to believe that such invisibility can become visible through writing? If the codes of representation always hide something, it is logical to think that this metalinguistic move of translating one code into another -- say painting into writing -- constrains it to an additional system of linguistic articulation and determination that removes the object even further from the subject. The relation becomes not only more mediated but, in addition, these two verbal and visual codes also interact with each other leaving even less range for immediacy to grasp the elusive sense of a notion such as 'the unknown center of ourselves'. Nonetheless, this idea of the enigmatic as opposed to the dogmatic remains enticing.


The first chapter 'Spilt Color/Blur', an analysis of Paris Bordone's painting _A Chess Game_ using a semiotic frame related to the Tel Quel circle (Sollers, Derrida, Kristeva, Barthes) is hard to follow, since we lack an illustration of such work to help the reader through this arduous first encounter with Schefer's style of thinking and writing. Schefer proposes a non-systematic, non-methodological alternative to the semiological and iconographical analyses of painting used by Panofsky and other traditional art historians. He establishes a distinction between figuration and representation which may be worthwhile, not only for the analysis of color, but also of volume and even gesture in visual arts. Representation, according to Schefer, is systematic, and involves aspects such as perspective and the hierarchical arrangement of images; it emphasizes the signifier in Saussure's sense of the term. Figuration, on the other hand, is more on the side of the signified, as with the meanings attached to an image in pagan societies. In the second chapter, Schefer finds in Ucello's paintings a subversion of representation and a quest for what representation cannot figure or configure over the body. The third chapter is consistent with the same inquiry, now exploring Poussin's _The Arcadian Shepherds_, and how the body disappears as it is being represented due to the conventions of representation itself. As Goethe used to say about scientists 'you murder to dissect', Schefer somehow claims that painting 'murders to represent'. What is left by the representation of the body is for Schefer something more like a corpse within which we hope to catch it betraying itself and revealing some truth or beauty. The fourth chapter, centered around Uccello's fresco _The Flood_ (illustrated with a very low quality of printing), is particularly hard to follow as theory and perhaps better approached as literature. Schefer has stimulating intuition and he's sure that he is after something, but does not seem to care much about others that arrive at his writings from different backgrounds. His confused writing is probably an index of confused thinking; he has his question more or less clear, but his answers are far from convincing.


After two more chapters, one dedicated to Paul Valery, and another, very brief and personal, to Barthes, he deals extensively with one of Correggio's works, _The Mystical Union of Saint Catherine_, illustrated to greater detail three times. The painting, and also Schefer's analysis, centers around the three hands (the Virgin's, the God child's and St Catherine's) overlaid on the middle axis of the painting, at the height of the aural section. I found it peculiar that Schefer sometimes speaks of the God child or Infant Jesus as an androgynous dwarf, due, perhaps, to its being tiny. He does not really explain his reasons. He never realized that the model for this painting was in fact an achondroplast, as can be noticed by the trident fingers typical of this kind of dwarf.


The problem of how Christianity came to represent the body in a particular way -- a strategy of figuration from which our present idea of this 'paradoxical body' emerged -- is what links Schefer's essays on painting. In the process of civilization both at the ontogenetic and phylogenetic level, the lived sense of the body is left behind. However, the representation of the body in Western culture was not a product of an institution, say Christianity, as Schefer supposes. In fact, during the Middle Ages, such representation was forbidden and remained latent. For an institutional representation of the body, we would be better directed towards the Pharaonic regime in Egypt, where it was clearly schematized and regulated. In Western culture, on the other hand, what characterizes the representation of the body is not its institutional forging but precisely the opposite, the individual making, the personal shaping of such representations. From the body as locus of sin and temptation that should be kept restrained and confined, we come to the body as source of feelings initiated by Giotto, to the personalized body with psychological depth in Durer and da Vinci, the body as origin of four dimensions displayed in Michelangelo and Masaccio, and so on. The representation of the body is everything but monolithic. Rather than inserted with a regime of representation, the Renaissance opened the body to contemplation, expression, exploration, symbolization, narration. Together with the conquest of the individual gaze upon the world, the Renaissance gained its right to a relatively open range for the representation of the body. It liberated the body from its purely referential function in a strict semiotic system of oppositions and differentiations (body of Christ, body of Virgin Mary). The medieval body in a rigorous *aliquid stans pro aliquo* -- standing always for something else -- gained the right to stand for itself during the Renaissance. Against Schefer's thesis on the regimes of representation of the body hiding something, one can argue that there is not such regime because there were individuals, inebriated with their recently conquered right to individuality, who shaped the rules for the representation of the body. As such, it was an open, relatively heterogeneous set of possibilities of representation. What was low-key in one artist or painting, prevailed in another.


Leaving Schefer's epistemological quest on the side, his two essays on cinema attempt to provide a badly needed alternative to the theoretical model of identification and projection prevailing in much film theory (e.g. Baudry, Gubern, Metz). Instead he describes cinema as having the 'peculiar power to produce effects of memory' (111), while at the same time producing the illusion that this memory is solitary, hidden and secretly individual. Cinema points to a deep part of our subjectivity that is condemned to aphasia, one that is totally unable to express itself.


In an excerpt from Schefer's book _L'Homme ordinaire du cinema_ (1980) he explores the role of the subject as the possibility and 'astonishment of being able to live in two worlds at once' (110). The visible dimension of cinema opens up and names, for Schefer, a whole world within us, a world we briefly give life to by means of artifices and a spectacle of effects. He attempts to render a certain threshold tangible, to express the subjective apprehension of cinema as a result of present experience and past memories. It seems to be a case where two lines intersect, that of memory and that of the film, and highlight in these discreet points of intersection something distinct, a new meaning and sensation during a brief elusive moment. It is as if we lend a part of our lives to our reception of films. He explains reception as a pact made between the film and a certain part of ourselves, the silent most inner subjectivity, highly sensitive to effects of meaning. This unexpressed part of ourselves, rather than projecting itself unto the movie, becomes the place where time and memory are experienced. More than providing possibilities as in, say, science fiction movies, the cinema for Schefer provides the experience of the real and unexpressed. The real subjective scenario for the experience of cinema in Schefer is not the possibility or realization of desire, but the already existant 'store of affects' within the spectator and the legitimization of desire. Cinema would then be a possibility of visualization of the most hidden parts of ourselves. In this sense, Schefer is implying the oneiric model, like Gubern, of the reception of cinema -- although he explicitly denies that we go to the movies to partake of a dream. This 'store of affects', this passive aphasic part of ourselves, this resource of memory is, however, actually the same one that dreams, and briefly gives shape to the invisible and desire by dreaming. Schefer is unable to make this distinction clear.


The theme of dwarfs appears again in his description of a scene from _Freaks_. Speaking of two worlds, ours (normal people) and theirs (dwarfs or freaks), the scene of humiliation makes Schefer wonder 'why is our hell so small?' This comment also makes me wonder whether Schefer's 'hell' is small because it is *only* his. That scene, as I recollect it, brought about my own hell which didn't seem small at all. My physical height being irrelevant, I experienced the character's misery as totally mine. I was the one who couldn't reach the handle of the door, not by identification with the character but precisely, as Schefer says, by being in touch with the memories of utter impotence and humiliation. In his question Schefer shows that he is unable to realize that this inner subjectivity from which we experience a movie, this sort of paraplegic being that looks out is not as private and closed upon itself as he believes, but rather the very limit of our individuality that opens up and links us to others through Kant's *sensus communis*.


It is hard to say to which public this book is addressed. Art historians expect a more descriptive and empirical rather than speculative writing. Semioticians do not look for these kind of enigmas but are involved in actual utterances, codes, signifier/signified relations, and linguistic and non verbal interactions. On the other hand, Schefer's writings could be regarded as an attempt to construct an epistemology of visual representation. He takes up on a similar anti-rationalistic vein initiated by Foucault in his critique on the regimes of rationality. However, Foucault was trying to elicit how subjectivities are produced by institutions, and dealt with actual subjects as effects of these socio-material disciplinary constructions. While Schefer is attempting to explore the autobiographical dimension of the subject of interpretation as the way to approach this elusive sense, which inevitably raises the question upon the degree to which such an autobiographical dimension is always already also mediated by narrative strategies.


The idea of the elusive dimension in perception is not new. In fact it has been a leitmotif all through the history of philosophy, the most salient being the allegory of the cave in Plato, Descartes' doubts upon sensory representation, Kant's concept of noumena, Sartre's false conscience, and the concept of ideology in Marx. Schefer's enterprise seems to be going in the opposite direction: rather than the mind and rational cogitation tearing away the deceits of appearances, it is the mind which constitutes the source of deceit; the schemes of representation hide the essence of subjectivity and inner sense of the body. However, Schefer falls back into the same snare, just turned around: trying to look for the body through writing when it is the mind, not the body, that writes. The syntactical liberties he takes are not enough to guarantee that in fact it is not the discursive, analytical, dichotomic mind at work. Were the body itself trying to restore its other paradoxical and hidden dimensions, it is very unlikely that the inscriptions of its trail would be verbal. This I consider to be the main inconsistency of his work. The process he attempts is seeing, feeling and rendering it into the verbal register. He seems to forget that all three (feeling, seeing, and rendering) have their own laws of apprehension, and that without a semiological approach to these laws, there is no way to figure the interstices that lie between them. To what degree Schefer actually succeeds in elaborating his thesis is a matter of discussion. I personally think that his questions are more interesting than his answers.


Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Mexico




Katya Mandoki, 'An Enigmatic Text: Schefer's Quest upon a Thing Unknown',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 8, April 1998 <>.


Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998




Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle


Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here


Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England



Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage