Six Dead Philosophers in Search of a Live Artist

‘… books of philosophy and works of art contain their sum of unimaginable sufferings that forewarn of the advent of a people. They have resistance in common — their resistance to death, to servitude, to the intolerable, to shame, and to the present’.
—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? 

‘The future belongs to ghosts’. 
—Jacques Derrida, Ghost Dance.

To Die Laughing 2010

My title for this essay, as some readers may recognize, alludes to a play by the early twentieth–century Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello entitled Six Characters in Search of an Author. Pirandello’s play begins with an acting company preparing to rehearse a play, but, as the rehearsal is about to begin, the play is unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of six strange people at the back of the theatre who proceed to move up the centre aisle. The director of the play, furious at the interruption, demands an explanation and the arrivals reveal themselves as unfinished characters in search of an author to finish their story. The director initially believes them to be mad, but as they commence to argue amongst themselves and reveal details of their story intrigued he begins to listen, and he agrees to stage their tale despite the disbelief amongst his own jeering actors. When the play was first performed in Rome in 1912 it was met with an audience walkout and cries of ‘Manicomio!’ or ‘What a madhouse!’ It may have seemed ‘mad’ then but with his rejection of realist illusion, his bare stage, his interest in self-reflexivity, his argument that his fictional characters are possibly more real than living ones, Pirandello is recognised today as an important precursor of what we now call postmodernism.

By the Roads and Fields 2010

John Reynolds, Exhibition notes for NOMADOLOGY [Loitering with Intent], Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, March-June 2010.

Simon Critchley, The Book of Dead Philosophers (London: Granta, 2008).

Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (London: Fourth Estate, 2005) and Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, trans. N. J. Darwood (London: Penguin Classics, 1974).

In this essay I want to respond to and attempt to link together several different works by John Reynolds and I also want to reflect in more general terms on the relationship between philosophy, philosophical ideas and art (something that is not often talked about in New Zealand art criticism). I want to start with the work that greeted spectators to a Reynolds’ exhibition, Nomadology [Loitering with Intent], in the Govett-Brewster Gallery in 2010. As they walked in the main entrance of the gallery, viewers were confronted with a moveable LED (light-emitting diode) roadsign entitled To Die Laughing. The street I live on in Auckland has had three of these LED mobile signs operating for the past two months: admonishing us about delays due to roadworks, sending us on complicated detours to avoid roadwork, apologising for interrupting our lives. I’m not sure I like these signs or like how they have been redirecting my life. The adoption of the sign is part of a longstanding interest of Reynolds, with street signs and signage featuring large in his work to date. Another special work in the New Plymouth exhibition was By the Roads and Fields, an alphabetical listing of all New Plymouth street names handwritten across gallery walls creating a sort of wallpaper that was lit by fairy party lights. We might say that, in broader terms, these works reflect Reynolds’ interest in semiotics — the science of signs. I want to return to semiotics in a moment. There was another large signwork in this exhibition, Works End (2009), which uses the Transit New Zealand green motorway exit sign convention but replaces the road information with the titles of the top ten New Zealand artworks that had fetched the highest prices at auction before 2008. Reynolds returned to the New Plymouth coast again in 2011 to erect Big Wave Territory, a billboard of transit signs that celebrates Taranaki’s rich cultural landscape, directing passing pedestrians and port car park traffic to various local and regional destinations — the Mountain, Paritutu Rock and Sugar Loaf Island, Maui A and Maui B, SPOT X and The Forgotten World Highway. ‘Art sits in culture,’ says Reynolds, ‘the way that motorway signs sit in the landscape’.1 But to get back to that pesky work at the Govett-Brewster entrance. In To Die Laughing Reynolds has drawn upon a book by a contemporary British philosopher who now teaches in New York, Simon Critchley, The Book of Dead Philosophers.2 Reading Critchley’s book, one of the first things to reflect on, particularly if you are a philosopher, and thankfully I am not, is how dangerous the profession of philosophy is and how many philosophers met with a ‘sticky end’. Of the 190 philosophical deaths Critchley recounts here are just a few: Heraclitus suffocated in cow dung; Empedocles threw himself into the raging volcano of Mt. Etna; Socrates was forced to drink hemlock after trumped up charges of corrupting the youth of Athens were lodged against him; Plato died of lice infestation; Diogenes choked on raw octopus; Boethius was bludgeoned to death after having written The Consolation of Philosophy in jail; Pico della Mirandola was poisoned by his secretary; the Black Death got William of Ockham; Winckelmann was stabbed to death by a piece of rough trade in a hotel room in Trieste; Diderot choked to death on an apricot; Nietzsche suffered from dementia and was caught in public kissing a horse just before his decline; the Viennese philosopher Morris Schlick was stalked and killed by a student whose doctoral thesis he had failed; Guy Debord, the founder of ‘situationism’, suffering from the effects of serious drinking shot himself in the heart in his remote country cottage; Roland Barthes was hit by a dry-cleaning van while crossing the street after meeting the future French Minister of Culture for coffee; Gilles Deleuze suffering from advanced emphysema threw himself out of the window of his third floor Parisian apartment. A dangerous business philosophy! Who would want to be one? And Reynolds also draws on Critchley’s equally fascinating collection of philosophers’ ‘famous last words’: Immanuel Kant’s ‘Sufficit: It is enough’; Heinrich Heine’s ‘God will pardon me’; Hegel’s comment, presumably referring to himself, that ‘Only one man ever understood me … And he didn’t understand me’; John Stuart Mill’s dying comment to his wife ‘You know that I have done my work’; Willard Quine’s ‘To be continued…’. One of the things that philosophy teaches us, and I am going to advance the argument that art does this too, is that it teaches us how to die, and in learning how to die we in fact learn how to live. There is another work of Reynolds, 1001 Nights (2010), which is about the particular contemporary collective horror of annihilation, the terror of annihilation that haunts us after 9/11. As Reynolds poignantly shows, with the help of Robert Fisk and the anonymous author(s) of the classic text of Arabic literature One Thousand and One Nights, this spectre of terror and trauma lies not in a date in the past, a 9-11, but in an incomprehensible future intimated by that event.3 We live the trauma of a perpetual putting-off of a nuclear holocaust, just as the teller recounts 1001 tales throughout the night to postpone her execution. Every technological advance in weapons systems, in medicine, in informatics, in genetics — indeed in any field — may turn against us in some unpredictably devastating manner.

So, like Pirandello, let me conjure them up then. Here are my six dead philosophers coming up the centre aisle from the back of my auditorium.  

Works End 2009

William Honan, ‘Books, Books and More Books’, New York Times, December 10 1992.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth (London: Penguin, 1964).

 Laurence Simmons (ed.), Certain Words Drawn/John Reynolds continued (Auckland: Godwit, 2008).

1. Philosophy: Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-80) 

My first choice may seem a strange one. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor, perhaps not normally thought of as a philosopher, but he is someone who was called ‘the greatest of men’ by Voltaire and held to be ‘the perfect man’ according to Oscar Wilde. While on military campaigns between 170 and 180, Aurelius wrote his Meditations in Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. The Meditations is still revered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty. The book has been much loved reading of John Stuart Mill, Goethe and, I understand, the former Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. Bill Clinton has declared it to be his favourite book.4 In a world of warfare and constant upheaval, Marcus Aurelius asks, where can one find something solid to guide and guard one’s path through life? The answer, according to him, is clear: ‘In one thing and one alone: Philosophy. To be a philosopher is to keep unsullied and unscathed the divine spirit within him, so that it may transcend all pleasure and all pain’. This view of philosophy results from having the right attitude to mortality. This means, says Marcus Aurelius, living ‘each day as though one’s last, never flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinizing — here is perfection of character’. Marcus Aurelius, as you will have understood, was what philosophers call a stoic: those who think of philosophy not as an interesting pastime, or even a particular body of knowledge, but as a way of life. I chose Marcus Aurelius because of the primacy he accords philosophy, because, as he said, ‘Our life is what our thoughts make it’.5 And I also chose to begin with him because in 2007 John Reynolds wrote a travel diary of a visit to New York in which he took on the persona of Marcus Aurelius: ‘Marcus Aurelius sitting in an uptown number 6 train listening to Bob Dylan on an i-pod’; ‘Marcus Aurelius, childlike, kicks small heaps of fluffy snow and dirty ice early one morning on the corner of Bleecker and Sullivan Streets’; ‘Marcus Aurelius somberly posing for a photograph in the bright winter sun early one morning outside Café Dante’. Excerpts from Reynolds’ diary and his reflections on Marcus Aurelius can be read in the volume of essays on his work Certain Words Drawn.6 Four years later, as a member of a group of artists who travelled on HMNZS Otago to the sea and islands of the remote Kermadecs, Reynolds again invoked Marcus Aurelius. Wearing a bowler hat and an army camouflage Ghillie suit, staging what he called a ‘performance of aberrant seaside mathematics’ Reynolds set about numbering the rocks on Raoul Island’s Oneraki Beach, from one to a thousand. Around his neck hung a quotation from Marcus Aurelius: ‘Soon, very soon, you will be ashes, or a skeleton, and either a name or not even a name; but name is sound and echo’.

1001 Nights 2009

Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York and London: Scribner Classics, 2000 [1937]) and Colin McCahon I and Thou (1954) and I and Thou (1969).

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 11.

Jacques Derrida, ibid., p. 150.

Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning, ed. and trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning, ed. and trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Jacques Derrida, Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews, with Bernard Stiegler, trans. Jennifer Bajorek (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), p. 120.

Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, p 11. 

Andrew Payne and Mark Lewis. ‘The Ghost Dance: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’, Public 2 (1989): 60-73 [p. 61].

2.Hauntology: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

How then to speak of the philosophy in Reynolds’ work? We might think of this as one of influence, that is, Reynolds and his work is influenced by philosophers and philosophy, in particular the philosophical work of Gilles Deleuze. Traditionally this question of ‘influence’ has been thought of and studied by art historians as a relationship of transference, of transparent transference. To use a well-known New Zealand example: Colin McCahon read Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber’s influential book I and Thou in the 1950s and then produced paintings based on that reading.7 But, drawing on some ideas of Jacques Derrida, I want to complicate that relationship of ‘influence’ by suggesting that Reynolds and his work is ‘haunted’ by these philosophers. My lecture title ‘Six Dead Philosophers in Search of a Live Artist’ implies some of that ghostliness. There is to Reynolds’ painting, I will suggest, a logic of haunting, a hauntology [hantologie] (a neologism coined by Jacques Derrida), which, as Derrida notes, has almost the same pronunciation in French as the word for the ground of being, ontology [ontologie]. Haunting, Derrida writes, is always ‘[a] question of repetition: a spectre is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back’.8 The most disparate types of discourse are haunted by the spectre because the spectre is what differs from all of them — and from itself. In it transpires something between apparition and disparition, foreclosing both from the outset. ‘The figure of the ghost is not just one figure among others. It is perhaps’, Derrida suggests, ‘the hidden figure of all figures’.9 In Derrida’s powerful reflection on haunting in The Work of Mourning he repeatedly responds to an other (a friend or fellow philosopher who has died) who provokes in him a text. But his own is a text whose otherness then surprises him because it cannot be foreseen from the very texts of the other (friend or philosopher) that it repeats but does not leave unchanged. While the spectral does not belong exclusively or primarily to the realm of visual phenomena (think of ghost stories), clearly the visual provides a succinct focus for the metaphysical oppositions between presence and absence in play here.10 In 1982 Derrida appeared in a feature film by British director Ken McMullen Ghost Dance.11 Derrida appeared in the film as a character/himself (a university professor) who was interviewed by the actress Pascale Ogier (in the guise of an anthropology student). He is asked if he believes in ghosts and replies with a smile ‘that’s a difficult question’ because ‘you are asking a ghost’. ‘The cinema is the art of allowing ghosts to come back,’ he declares and then proceeds to explain that film is always a mise-en-scène of ghosts who send us to an invisible beyond. A ghost is a trace that signals in advance the presence of its absence. In a later discussion with his friend the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, he describes how two or three years after participating in the film, by which time Pascale Ogier had died unexpectedly of a heart attack, he watched it together with a group of graduate students in the United States and

Suddenly I saw Pascale’s face, which I knew was a dead woman’s face, come on to the screen. She answered my question: ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ Practically looking me in the eye, she said to me again, on the big screen: ‘Yes, now I do, yes.’ Which now? Years later in Texas. I had the unnerving sense of the return of her specter, the specter of her specter, coming back to say to me — to me here, now: ‘Now…now…now, that is to say, in this dark room on another continent, in another world, here, now, yes, believe me, I believe in ghosts.’12 

These are the disorienting effects of spectrality in particular the experience of time and place. When is now, where is here? Who is dead and who is ‘living on’? With respect to the temporality of the ghost, it is in this sense, too, that the phantom comes as much from the future as the past. The spectre never dies, it remains always to come and to come back. It is always what the French call a revenant, always coming back. To look at John Reynolds’ painting is to be in the presence of spectres, the already-dead or the soon-to-be-dead, and it is also to be watched by them as they look back at us and see that we, too, shall die. 

Let us explore some implications of this dialogue in Ghost Dance. So does a serious French philosopher like Jacques Derrida really believe in ghosts you will want to ask? On the one hand, like a traditional philosopher he maintains ‘the sharp distinction between the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living, being and non-being’. In this context he says of ghosts: ‘of course they do not exist’. But he also argues that ‘the logic of spectrality’ is ‘inseparable from the very motif … of deconstruction’, the very philosophical approach he founded, which rigorously pursues the meaning of a text to the point of undoing the oppositions on which it is apparently founded, and to the point of showing that those foundations are irreducibly complex, unstable or impossible.13 This is so because all language, every manifestation of meaning, is the phantom effect of a trace which is neither present nor absent, but which is the condition of the opposition of presence and absence; the trace is ghostly, a revenant at the origin. 

This scene of Ghost Dance hyperbolises the general condition of film spectatorship: to see but not ‘be’ what one sees. To be what one sees would be to forfeit one’s claim on self-presence and self-containment. So Derrida’s delayed viewing of Ogier is part of his displacing of the presumption of self-presence: to recognise oneself as haunted by other ghosts would be to see oneself as a ghost among ghosts rather than a self-present ‘I’ who remains at a distance from things spectral. What makes spectrality such a powerful conceptual tool is the proximity it permits between itself and the terms it means to displace: presence, being, spirit. Derrida explains, ‘[c]ontrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, like the landscape of Scottish manors, but on the contrary, is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone’, and we might add LED signs.14 These technologies that now define our contemporary lives inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure. 

So what I am suggesting is that rather than merely being influenced in any direct, transparent and connective sense, John Reynolds has been haunted for a long time by many of these ideas and philosophers. In particular Gilles Deleuze. The use of the title of the Govett-Brewster exhibition, and the title of the wonderful large skyscape painting of 2009, Nomadology, dates back in fact to the small block NO-MAD-OLOGY of 2003. Like a ghost it just won’t go away and all of these painting titles in their turn come from the title of a chapter of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus.

Nomadology 2009

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Althone Press, 1988).

John Reynolds, Exhibition notes for NOMADOLOGY [Loitering with Intent], Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, March-June 2010.

John Reynolds, Exhibition notes for NOMADOLOGY [Loitering with Intent], Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, March-June 2010.

3 and 4. Nomadology: Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Félix Guattari (1930-1992)

Let me now say something about ‘nomadology’ and the large painting 1000 Plateaus based on the Index to Deleuze and Guattari’s book of the same name.15 What ever possessed John Reynolds to doggedly transcribe the entire index of Deleuze and Guattari’s text on to three-metre high canvases? Is it an attempt to summarise their philosophy, to somehow capture all the ideas that influenced them? It is, as Reynolds says, an exercise ‘fraught with inbuilt failure, yet another misreading of a great attempt to catalogue the world’.16 Yet it is also an almost perfect transcription or recreation of Deleuze and Guattari’s own method. Let me take you through some of the conceptual framework of this extraordinary and influential book.

Nomadology first of all. The Greek word nomos is normally translated as law, but Deleuze and Guattari note that it derived from the root word nem, which means to distribute. They give the example of nemô which in ancient Greek meant to pasture livestock — in other words to send out animals to an unbounded pasture according to no particular pattern or structure. The sense of nomos as anarchic distribution can be understood in reference to the figure of the word ‘nomad’ at the heart of nomadology. Rather than existing within a hierarchical structure like that of a city, nomadic life takes place in a non-structured environment where movement is primary. Fixed points like dwellings are subordinated to a fundamental and lawless movement. As a nomad you may jump from point to point unconstructedly, as you may do with Deleuze and Guattari’s index, and indeed their book, and by extension Reynolds’ painting as your eyes dance over its surface in saccadic movements. As Deleuze and Guattari go on to suggest in A Thousand Plateaus, life itself is nomadic and nomadic philosophy does not occupy a territory as such but creates a territory, creating concepts and styles of thought that open up new differences and paths for thinking. Nomadic space is produced through its distribution, produced that is through the creation of differences and lines through movement. As Reynolds said of the works in his Govett-Brewster exhibition: ‘these works are not destinations, one has to navigate around them, to park them some place’; and specifically of Nomadology: ‘this is a painting of homelessness’.17

Deleuze and Guattari reject all models — psychoanalytic, linguistic, literary, semiotic — that propose a hidden depth underneath a surface. We have to shift they say from asking what a text means (what its deeper meaning might be) to asking how it connects with other things — other texts, which, of course, is what I am doing here in connecting book and painting. The image Deleuze and Guattari chose for this relation is that of the rhizome as opposed to the tree. The tree metaphor suggests linear, progressive ordered systems — a binary system of bifurcation; the root image also presumes unity but this is hidden — the root system is just another a tree turned upside down underground. The tree metaphor has dominated Western thought — it marks our systems of classification and taxonomy, our explanations of linguistic structure and grammar. Just think of the number of times you think or draw with the structure of a tree. In contrast to tree and root models, Deleuze and Guattari propose another vegetable metaphor that of the rhizome — an underground network of multiple branching roots and shoots with no central axis, no point of origin, no direction of growth, just a proliferation outwards (think of crab grass or a mushroom mycelium). It extends itself through its underground tuber-like root system and develops new plants shooting up to the surface. Rhizomatic thinking activates the following (and note how many of these conditions are activated by the index Reynolds transcribes and paints):

• rhizomatic thinking is based on connections and brings together different fragments;

• it is based on hetereogeneity where connections are across different levels, domains. The term used by Deleuze and Guattari for this is plateau. An intensive state of thought across disciplines. In their book each section or plateau contains a date, which corresponds to a point when there was the greatest degree of intensity across a number of different modes of thinking;

• it is based on breaks and discontinuities, any of the rhizome’s connections can be severed, yet it will go on existing, the pieces that are severed will also continue to grow;

• it is based on cartography, that is, it is not the construction of a model or a paradigm (like a tree), but a sort of ongoing map making.

In the past, the book has been thought of as a tree, seen as a unit of bifurcating, ordered reason but, in contrast to tree and root, Deleuze and Guattari writing together propose the metaphor of the rhizome and they structure their doubly-written book as one. They deliberately avoided writing their book in a style that moves the reader from one argument to the next until all the arguments might be gathered together in some form of conclusion or culminating argument. Instead they present fifteen ‘plateaus’ that instigate productive connections with each other; these plateaus may be read in any order, so bringing together new elements and permutations, creating new spaces or territories.

Rhizomatic writing, or rhizomatic painting as Reynolds practices it, is not simply a process that assimilates things, rather it is a space of perpetual transformation. There is no stabilising function in the rhizome, there is no creation of a whole out of virtual and dispersed parts. Rather, through the rhizome, points form assemblages, multiple paths associate in a powerful way of thinking without recourse to binary and bifurcating constructions.

1000 Plateaus 2010

Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983); Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill & Wang, 1972); Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1987).

Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974), p. 56.

5. Semiotics: Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

I promised to say something about semiotics and signs, since there are so many of them in Reynolds’ work, and I haven’t forgotten. Here I want to re-introduce Roland Barthes (remember poor old Barthes hit by a dry-cleaning van). Barthes believed that the importance of semiotics — the science of signs — lay in its functionality. It provided him with an opportunity to examine the system of fashion in his book The Fashion System, to explore the way in which what he called ‘mythologies’ of contemporary culture became universal doxa or givens in Mythologies, or how the country of Japan was an exciting ‘empire of signs’.18 Barthes’ starting point was not in traditional value judgments, nor investigations of an author’s intentions, but in each text itself as a system of signs, whose underlying structure forms the ‘meaning of the work as a whole’. Let us start with the distinction between language and painting, writing and painting, reading and seeing.

So here you are standing in front of John Reynolds 1000 Plateaus. As well as the painted surface — a rich, dribbled and purple field that John has acknowledged was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s ‘violet hour’ in The Wasteland (‘At the violet hour, when the eyes and back/Turn upward from the desk…’) — you are surrounded by words, overwhelmed by them, the seemingly endless indexing of words. Attached to the wall to the lower right of the picture is a white card containing the following information: ‘1000 Plateaus, 2010, synthetic polymer paint and oil marker on canvas’. And if you could see it, on the back of the canvas is the inscribed title and the signature of the painter in the lower corner. All these words, and more around you, seem part of the visual field under your gaze.

There is, of course, a necessary fiction in such a description: you are not immediately gazing at this painting by John Reynolds, you are reading a written text: this text. One can’t both look and read you might wish to object. But as we have already noticed with the exhaustive index entries of Reynolds’ painting, and its information label, simply looking, too, is already a kind of reading. So what is the relationship between this writing and that painting, between writing as such and painting, between reading and painting, and reading writing on painting? This, we might say, is the foundational question of all Reynolds’ art. The commonsense, and often the painter’s, point of view is that painting has no need of writing, would be better off without it, or might come to harm as a result of it. Many New Zealand painters — Ralph Hotere among them — have expressed this distrust and even contempt for discourse on painting, despite the fact they may themselves endlessly deploy words in their own paintings. John Reynolds is not one of these painters, he welcomes words on his painting, indeed luxuriates in words in his painting, and if you have met him you will know how much he loves talking about his painting and everything else. The opposite, and, not surprisingly, often the critic’s or writer’s position is that painting does not fully exist without the writing on it. It lacks in some essential way, so that painting of necessity entails some form of writing to complete it. Both these views imply that writing and painting are distinct practices, and whether they differ from each other, or entail each other, they are different and so remain discontinuous. In contrast to this commonplace and widely accepted dichotomy, there is in much recent critical theory, perhaps through its insistence upon the figural nature of language, a notion of the textual that successfully exceeds the limits of the representational level of written language to encompass pictorial representation as well, a notion that seeks to make the verbal or the written and the pictorial continuous. And how true is that of these paintings of John Reynolds? We now ‘read’ paintings much as we ‘read’ written texts, and this is a direction we were pointed in some forty years ago by Roland Barthes who argued: 

[I]f literature and painting are no longer held in a hierarchical reflection, one being the rear-view mirror for the other, why maintain them any longer as objects at once united and separate, in short, classed together? Why not wipe out the difference between them (purely one of substance)? Why not forego the plurality of the ‘arts’ in order to affirm more powerfully the plurality of ‘texts’?19

The difference between painting and writing is, as Barthes suggests, a material one — ‘of substance’ — not one of critical analytics. Yet curiously, and perhaps paradoxically, it is the very material nature of the painted image, contrasted with the abstract immateriality of language, which is inscribed in the central drama of the production of painting. This is a ‘drama’ that John Reynolds actively explores, and he explores it through ‘a practice of citation’, which brings me to my final thinker.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 1999).

Luigi Pirandello, ‘The Author’s Preface’ Six Characters in Search of an Author. Trans. Eric Bentley (New York: Signet Classics, 1998), p. xvii.

Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street’ [1928], Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume I, 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 444-488 [p. 449].

Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Melancholy Angel’, The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert (California: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 128,

Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street’, p. 449.

Critchley, The Book of Dead Philosophers, p. 276.

6. Citation: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

My last philosopher is Walter Benjamin who, Simon Critchley informs us, committed suicide on the French-Spanish border in 1940 by taking morphine pills to escape the Gestapo. Benjamin for his entire life pursued the idea of writing a work made up exclusively of quotations. He never managed to complete his opus magnum, the Passagenwerk, known in English as The Arcades Project, but it is clear that over a considerable period of time he had developed collage and montage as constructive principles for a progressive form of writing. He once stated that the Passagenwerk ‘must develop to the highest point the art of citing without citation marks’. What Benjamin did in the drafts of the Passagenwerk was to juxtapose and connect with each other, a great number of illustrations, quotations, thoughts and commentaries about the social and cultural history of nineteenth-century Paris. He was ‘committed to a graphic, concrete representation of truth, in which historical images made visible the philosophical ideas’. Benjamin called such images dialectical. ‘I have nothing to say. Only to show,’ Benjamin declared, ‘I will steal nothing valuable and appropriate no brilliant formulations. But the rags, the refuse: my intention is not to make an inventory of these things but to allow them, in the only possible way to fulfill their existence — by making use of them’.20

John Reynolds, too, has single-mindedly pursued a painting career based upon alienating by force a fragment of a text from its context and re-inscribing it; his is a painting career based upon citation. Not a simple copying, transcription or appropriation. And not always the valuable texts of high culture (‘stealing nothing valuable’) — although, as we have seen, the work of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari does figure prominently here (as does that of writers T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett). Not always ‘brilliant formulations’ but words and phrases from street directories (New Plymouth and Taranaki Towns Index for By the Roads and Fields), dictionaries of slang, books on cliché, vocabularies, lists (The New Zealand Book of Lists for Works End), medical acronyms, the personal columns of magazines, child speak, pop song titles (The Little Black Book of Set Lists for Set Lists #1-14), lyrics from Nirvana… Like Benjamin, in re-inscribing ‘the rags, the refuse’ Reynolds transfigures things, elevates them to the object of his passion, ‘motivates’ them we might say. As Luigi Pirandello declared in his ‘Preface’ to Six Characters in Search of an Author, ‘The sudden and incontrollable changing of a visual phenomenon from one level of reality to another is a miracle comparable to those of a saint who sets his own statue in motion’.21

According to Benjamin, the power of a quotation lay not is its ability to repeat a past and thus allow a reader to relive it but, on the contrary, from its capacity to ‘make a clean sweep, to expel from the context, to destroy’. He thought of his quotations as highway bandits: ‘Quotations in my work’, he said, ‘are like wayside robbers who leap out, armed, and relieve the idle stroller of his conviction’.22 As one of Benjamin’s major contemporary commentators, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, has observed, Benjamin ‘understood that the authority invoked by the quotation is founded precisely on the destruction of the authority that is attributed to a certain text by its situation in the history of culture’. For Benjamin, then, the basis of the ‘gesture of quotation’ was that of interruption: ‘interruption is one of the fundamental devices of all structuring … it is the basis of quotation. Quoting a text entails interrupting its context’.23 John Reynolds is an interrupter like this. 

There is also something importantly and productively childlike in Reynolds’ gesture. ‘Children are particularly fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked on,’ wrote Benjamin in 1928. ‘They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry.’24 We would be amiss, however, to regard 1000 Plateaus merely as a ‘portrait of the artist’, or even the philosophers it cites, or to view it solely in order to obtain from it the essence — or, as Benjamin would have it, the ‘aura’ — of a painter ‘genius’. Rather, 1000 Plateaus not only offers insight into the thought of John Reynolds, the individual, but elicits the viewer’s engagement with thinking itself. Despite its alphabetical setting out as dictionary entries, this painting cannot be easily read in a conventionally linear fashion. Rather, it invites its viewers to attend to details laid out piecemeal, and thus to consider the various, non-contiguous associations between them. It involves a going beyond the art of simple appropriation and involves (the questioning of) concepts of ownership and moving towards a culture of the use of forms. More importantly, as I have tried to suggest of Reynolds’ work as a whole, it involves a productive haunting.

In one of the final entries of his book, a touching tribute to Jacques Derrida who had just died, Simon Critchley writes, ‘the dead live on, they live on within us in a way that disturbs any self-satisfaction, but which troubles us and invites on us to reflect on them further. We might say that wherever a philosopher is read, he or she is not dead. If you want to communicate with the dead, then read a book’.25 Or perhaps we could say, thinking of John Reynolds, look at a painting…

Laurence Simmons