Between the Letter and the Line: Figural Discourse and/of the Moving Image
“One can get to the figure by making clear that every discourse possesses its counterpart, the object of which it speaks, which is over there, like what it designates in a horizon: sight on the edge of discourse.” —Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, 7.
“Perhaps it is no more than an accident that in our two oldest examples figura occurs in combination with nova; but even if accidental, it is significant, for the notion of the new manifestation, the changing aspect, of the permanent runs through the whole history of the word.” —Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, 12.
In Reading the Figural, D.N. Rodowick initially defines the figural as “a force that erodes the distinction between letter and line” (1). Our panel seeks to interrogate this force in moving image media studies, particularly as it is operates within and across tensions between localized, micrological levels of the figural produced through form and aesthetics, and macrological levels of the figural appealing to history and broader political concerns. Letter, in one sense transcodable in terms of the larger political and historical stakes of discursive visual representation, emerges out of, and is ever falling back into, the distinct details of line. This exact problem has been at the heart of recent developments in the cinema and media studies disciplines: How do we negotiate the historical and political at the level of form? What theories of reading form or figure can critique historicist tendencies? How does figural discourse inform current philosophical instincts of thinking through moving images, particularly with respect to embodied perception? How might politics need the concept of the figure, and vice versa?
Erich Auerbach, whose canonical Mimesis proposes that that the smallest syntactical changes can entail sweeping historical and political structures and transformations, writes in his essay “Figura” that figura, the root of figure, has an almost indistinguishable meaning from forma. But these two words, figure and form, have gained distinct senses in the realm of cinema and media studies. While form ranges from the institutionalization of Russian formalism to its radicalization as it is read for its political and affective powers, theory of the figure resonates from the body, but the body isolated, noncorporeal, and working against the subjectivities that humanisms have assigned to it. The narrative elements of film can fall away when looking in isolation at a figure. Alessandra Raengo describes the figural tension between the particular and the general, the local and the globalizing, through Kara Walker’s silhouettes, “fundamentally phantasmagoric: they refuse to land” (On the Sleeve of the Visual, 146); meanwhile, Jacques Rancière likewise uses the term to title his book Figures of History, in which “The equality of all before the light and the inequality of the little people as the great pass are both written on the same photographic plate” (15). In short the figure, read as a formal aesthetics, is used to bring into focus a larger figural discourse while retaining the aesthetic specificity of individual figures themselves.
As the figural names a problem regarding the relation between text and image, it moreover resonates in Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy of sense and sensation as he distinguishes between figure and the figurative in The Logic of Sense (1969), Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981), and Foucault (1988). The figural relationship between discourse and “the given” is also raised, in a rhetorical and historical register, by Auerbach and his interlocutors. Considering the ways the figure and its various mediated states opens up radical possibilities of philosophical thought, this panel seeks to explore the role and the utility of the concept of the figural, in the wide variety of ways the term has been theorized, as a timely and relevant tool for grasping cultural and aesthetic transformations. To this end, this panel is looking for proposals that address the question of the figural in relation to aesthetics as the figural can facilitate description, formal analysis, and theorization of such a moment. Topics may include, but are not limited to:
• The figural and its relationship to the formal or aesthetic dimensions of the moving image
• The figural as a concept mediating between historical/ideological and plastic/material aspects of moving-image media
• The the figural in relation to Rancière’s ‘politics of aesthetics’ and the distribution of the sensible
• Kracauer, or other figural interpretations of film history and/or film narrative
• Image macros, memes, and the figural rhetoric of social media content
• Affect, embodiment, and the figural force of desire in the discourse of the moving image
• Movement, displacement, and processes of formation in relation to the figural
• The relationship between the figural and the Deleuzian/Foucauldian “diagram”
Proposal abstracts of no longer than 300 words, along with a title, 3-5 source bibliography, and brief bio, should be emailed to [log in to unmask] and [log in to unmask] by 8/15. Decision notices will be sent by 8/20.
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