While pursuing my doctoral degree in ethnomusicology at York University, I came across an interesting book that eventually became the foundational source for my dissertation: The Truth In Painting by Jacques Derrida. This often hard to read but always fascinating book discusses, among other things, Immanuel Kant’s treatment of what is supplemental in art. Kant considered such things as drapery on statues and frames around art as parerga: extras or additions to art that were of minor importance. Derrida disputed this with a discussion of frames and how they can add or take away “meaning” from a painting.
Derrida (1930–2004) himself was a French philosopher known as the founder of Deconstruction, a process of analysing literature. As David Mikics states, the interest in Derrida’s work for many readers lies in his “grappling with differing impulses, even when he could not reconcile them” (2009, 6). So it is interesting to note that Derrida’s work is often used to analyze literature and philosophy, despite the fact that Derrida’s writing is often contradictory. For example, Derrida claims in his lecture on “Structure, Sign, and Play” (published in Writing and Difference) that the lack of a ‘determining center’ and “Nietzschean irresponsibility” were required by the highest human aspirations, that “only through randomness hypostasized as free invention would we liberate ourselves” (Mikics 2009, 5). Yet Derrida counters these ideas with Hebraic scriptures advocating attendance to the sufferings of one’s fellow man rather than evasion (6).
Derrida was concerned with the “necessary contamination of insides and outsides,” and deconstruction worked at the margins of a subject, on the limits of such organizational opposites. It is what is going on, happening, coming to pass, or coming about: “all intransitive locutions that dislocate the predicate’s tie to any stable present” (Kamuf 1991, xviii). The periphery, or what is marginal, is of vital interest to Derrida and crucial to any attempt at interpretation of art, representation, or aesthetics (Wolfreys 2004, 84). Derrida’s work dealt with the both the demarcation and erasure of borders, boundaries, and limits – marks that determine representation while becoming invisible in the process of making the work appear (84). Important themes in his aesthetic writing included the subjectile, the trait, and the aforementioned parerga (sing: parergon).
The subjectile, for example, is the material or support on which a painting, writing, or engraving is made, the underlying ‘support’ of canvas, paper, text.’ It hovers in the background, neither there nor there, neither completely inside (or outside) any text, yet occupying the border between the work and the ‘world.’ The term marks and remarks a “crossing and ‘re-crossing’” of borders, instituting the very borders that its crosses, “while having no consistency apart from that of the between” (1991, 85).
The trait, meaning “what is drawn” or the brushstroke, is a mark that is “transmissible” or “available to reading,” indicating that it is always and already re- markable, even though abstract art for example is usually taken as un-re-markable, unless framed by content and ‘form.’ A trait is therefore always a re-trait, “never appearing for the first time, always a repetition, and its graphic conditions attest to identity as writing” (1991, 87). The trait, as a line of “demarcation,” a marking that works as a boundary or double boundary (passé-partout), describes the function of the parergon in Derrida’s philosophy, a “shibboleth” to its secrets, and a signifier of both trait and subjectile (1991, 89). If we can see any “truth” in painting, we are now no longer able to discern its limits (1991, 91).
Amongst Derrida’s major writings on art – The Truth in Painting 1987, Memoirs of the Blind 1993, Right of Inspection 1998, and The Retrait of Metaphor 1998) – I felt that The Truth in Painting was the best example of Deconstruction at work, the author pointing out what he considers the a priori rigidity of limits and borders that philosophical discourse assumes when applied to art and history (Cheetham 2001, 105).There cannot be a work without “not-work,” or “sort-of” work, or even in the case of parerga, any “parts-of” work, as the frame itself is problematic. Derrida does not attempt to define the frame in The Truth in Painting. Rather, he points out the difficulty in defining the term, and thus points out the problem of Kant’s parerga:
“The Critique presents itself as a work (ergon) with several sides, and as such it ought to allow itself to be centered and framed, to have its ground delimited by being marked out, with a frame, against a general background. But this frame is problematical. I do not know what is essential and what is accessory in a work. And above all I do not know what this thing is, that is neither essential nor accessory, neither proper or improper, and that Kant calls parergon, for example the frame. Where does the frame take place. Does it take place. Where does it begin. Where does it end. What is its internal limit. Its external limit. And its surface between the two limits. I do not know whether the passage in the third Critique where the parergon is defined is itself a parergon. Before deciding what is parergonal in a text which poses the question of the parergon, one has to know what a parergon is – at least, if there is any such thing” (Derrida 1987, 63).
As mentioned before in reference to Kant, the frame can be in various states of being “inside” or “outside” a painting, a part of its beauty, a supplement to its beauty, or irrelevant to the painting. In between are many grey areas of the semi-establishment of a framing relationship, and Derrida deals with the difficulty of deciding exactly where and how a frame “works.” Frames can “intransitively verb” a painting: border, edge, surround, enclose, and outline a painting. They can also mark a territory or put the painting in light of some philosophy or concept that enhances the aesthetic value or beauty of the painting. The frame can also be a noun: an edge, limit, boundary, margin, rim, frame, perimeter, circumference, frontier, maximum, or threshold. Parerga, in their augmentation of a work, reveal a lack or absence in the work that is intrinsic to it. The link between the parerga and the lacking of the interior (ergon) reveals this lack as “constitutive of the very unity of the ergon” (Derrida 1987, 59). Once this parergonal logic is recognized, the task of knowing what belongs to the inside of a work of art and what belongs to the outside becomes “incompletable, epistemically impossible” (Bernstein 1992, 169). In this manner Derrida believes that philosophical discourse will always be “against” parerga (Derrida 1987, 54). This would seem to imply a type of kinship between Derrida and Mahāyāna Buddhist epistemology of the knower and the known “being independent events within an ever-changing matrix of other transitory events” (Huntington Jr./Wangchen 1989, 18), or that, to both Derrida and Mahāyāna Buddhism, language is “ontologically empty” (Coward 1990, 127).
But neither Kant nor Derrida was a painter or a musician. The complexity of the philosophical application of the parergon concept does not mean that the practical creative realm, unknown to either philosopher, is also devoid of a suitable supplement. Interestingly enough, writer Carl Olson stated that Derrida shares characteristics with Zen Buddhism because: (1) both subordinate rationality to spontaneity, (2) both are critical of a subjectively based philosophy since both are convinced of the impermanence of the subject, (3) both agree that conceptual categories are impossible due to their lack of permanence, (Olson 2000, 84). This being the case, it would then seem possible (or possibly even necessary) to find a practical solution to the conceptual vagueness of the parergon to be found, one based in Zen Buddhism perhaps.
Mickics, David. 2009. Who was Jacques Derrida? New Haven: Yale University Press.
Kamuf, Peggy (editor). 1991. A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wolfreys, Julian. 2004. Art. In Understanding Derrida. Edited by J. Reynolds and J. Roffe. New York: Continuum, pp. 85-92.
Cheetham, Mark A. 2001. Kant, Art, and Art History: Moments of Discipline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Derrida, Jacques.1987. The Truth in Painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bernstein, J. M. 1992. The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Huntington Jr, C. W., and Geshe Namgyal Wangchen. 1989. The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Mādhyamika. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private, Ltd.
Coward, Harold. 1990. Derrida and Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.
Olson, Carl. 2000. Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy: two paths of liberation from the representational mode of thinking. Albany: State University of New York Press.
© 2013 Daniel Schnee.danielpaulschnee.wordpress.com