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The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte

Author(s): Suzanne Guerlac

Source: Representations, Vol. 97, No. 1 (Winter 2007), pp. 28-56
Published by: University of California Press
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The Useless Image:
Bataille, Bergson, Magritte
The Lascaux cave, known as the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric
art because of its stunning wall paintings, was discovered, quite fortuitously,
in 1940. Opened to the public in 1948, it became the site of serious archae-
ological study only in the early 1950s, with work carried out by lAbb Breuil,
the most celebrated French paleontologist of the time. In 1952 Breuil
published his monumental Quatre Cent Ans dart parital, in which he devel-
oped his thesis concerning the magical power of prehistoric cave paintings,
powers he explained in terms of primitive hunting rituals. Three years later
Georges Bataille published Lascaux ou la naissance de lart, in which he shifted
Breuils interpretation toward a notion of religious transgression.
Bataille frequented the surrealist milieu of Andr Breton until 1929
when he broke with Breton, violently, and became editor of Documents, a
countersurrealist review devoted to questions of avant-garde art and ethno-
graphy that he published from 1929 to 1931. In 1937 he helped found the
Collge de Sociologie (along with Michel Leiris, Roger Caillois, and others),
a project informed by Emile Durkheims sociology of religion and the
ethnographic work of Marcel Mauss. Bataille remained fascinated by
relations between art and the experience of the sacred, eventually theorizing
what he called the transgression of eroticism as an intimate relation between
interdiction and transgression in a study influenced by Cailloiss LHomme et
le sacr and, to a lesser degree, inspired by the work of Rudolf Otto.
By the 1960s, lAbb Breuils thematic treatment of cave art had been
superceded by the structuralist approach of Andr Leroi-Gourhan, who read
Paleolithic art in terms of binary structures of signification. With the rise of
poststructuralism, however, in the course of the same decade, Batailles notion of
transgression became an important philosopheme in France in the context of
Tel Quel s avant-garde theoretical program. Michel Foucault appealed to it as a
post-Hegelian substitute for the dialectic; Jacques Derrida wrote an important
essay on the subject; and transgression played a crucial role in Julia Kristevas
ABS TRACT This paper explores Batailles writings on primitive art, specifically his essay on the Lascaux
cave, in order to elaborate a notion not of the informe (as contemporary art critics have done), but of the fictive
figural image. It reads this useless imagea term borrowed from Bataillein the work of Magritte through
Bergsons notion of resemblance and the operation of attentive recognition. / REPRESENTATI ONS 97. Winter
2007 2007 The Regents of the University of California. ISSN 07346018, electronic ISSN 1533855X,
pages 2856. All rights reserved. Direct requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content
to the University of California Press at
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The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 29
analysis of avant-garde language practices in The Revolution of Poetic Language and
in her elaboration of the concept of the abject.
Together with Derridas
grammatological term diffrance, transgression provided one of the major
theoretical underpinnings for the notions of text and writing central to
poststructuralist theory and its challenge to representation. This is why, even in
our post-poststructuralist era, it remains a bit shocking to hear Bataille speak of a
sacred moment of figuration in Lascaux (fig. 1).
He not only marvels at the
miraculous seductive power of the caves animal paintings but also attributes a
specifically transgressive force to these figurative images, contrasting them with
the grotesque depictions of human beings that he labels informe (fig. 2).
Since the 1980s, Rosalind Krauss has transposed the theoretical terms
writing and text into art-critical discourse in the American context. In
1996, together with Yve-Alain Bois, she curated an important exhibit at the
Centre Pompidou, Linforme: mode demploi, that revived (and displaced)
Batailles notion of the informe, elaborating it as an important art-critical term.
Whereas in their exhibition catalogue (published in English as Formless: A
FIGURE 1. Black bull, Lascaux. Reprinted from Georges Bataille, Lascaux; or, The
Birth of Art (Lausanne, 1955).
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FIGURE 2. Venus of Tursac (Dordogne). Reprinted from Grand, Paule-Marie,
Prehistoric Art: Paleolithic Painting and Sculpture (Greenwich, Conn., 1967).
Users Guide) Krauss and Bois refer the informe back to Bataille and to his
discussion of primitive art, they consistently steer clear of the Lascaux cave.
In Lascaux ou la naissance de lart, Bataille puzzles over what he takes to be a
certain lack of interest in the prehistoric cave on the part of specialists. Is it, he
asks, pudeur that inhibits a return to this place of our birtha fear of
regression, perhaps?
We might ask the same question in a different register
concerning the reluctance of contemporary critics to address Batailles text on
Lascaux. Might there not be some anxiety about theoretical regression, given that
Bataille insists here on the magic of figural images? To the extent that the
exhibit Linforme: mode demploi, and the lively critical discussion that surrounded
it, marked a strategic critical intervention in the field of modern art criticism, we
could say that crucial issues of contemporary aestheticsissues that concern the
limits of modernism, the status of surrealism within the modern canon and the
status of fictive figural imagescan be meaningfully staged in relation to
prehistoric sites, specifically the caves of Lascaux and, as we shall see, Gargas.
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The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 31
The theoretical unity of modernism, affirms Yve-Alain Bois, has
been constituted through an opposition of formalism and iconology.
was ostensibly to undercut pat oppositions of this kind that Rosalind Krauss
and Yve-Alain Bois elaborated the term informe. The Pompidou exhibition,
and the critical term that oriented it, were part of a strategy of redealing
modernisms cards (To Introduce, 29). Informe implied a delicate critical
intervention, one that brushes modernism against the grain, but without
countering modernisms formal certainties by means of more reassuring
and naive ones of meaning (To Introduce, 25), that is, without falling
back into iconology or figuration. The task of the informe, then, was not only
to undermine the excessive formalism of a certain modernism (the
modernist fetishization of sight associated with Clement Greenberg) but
also to stave off a postmodern impulse that would, in Boiss words, bury
modernism and conduct a manic mourning of it (To Introduce, 29).
The task of reframing modernism has been ongoing for decades, and
the theorization of the informe was just the latest move in the service of this
project. Tools borrowed from the French theoretical contextsemiological
and grammatological toolshad been turned successfully against modernist
formalism. But now, faced with a challenge from another quarterfrom
postmodernismit became necessary to disarm the other term of the
opposition, iconology, whose immanent return postmodernism threatened.
To this end Krauss and Bois turned to Julia Kristevas theory of the abject
and displaced it in the discourse of the informe. Through a structural
interpretation of the base materialism of the early Bataille, which Kristeva
articulated with the psychoanalytic concept of primary repression, the
French theorist had invented a category of the abject that seemed to slip
past ready-made oppositions (such as between the imaginary and the
symbolic) and even to suggest a way into the difficult Lacanian territory of
the real. In the notion of the informe Krauss and Bois found a way to think
the concept of the abject operationallyindependently of a thematics of
trauma, of mourning, of melancholyi.e., independent of attachment to a
subject, and to meaning (To Introduce, 25). The informe, in other words,
would do the work of the abject in the visual field without falling into
iconology. This is what is at stake when Yve-Alain Bois insists that the informe
is an operation, not a theme, and explicates this operation with reference to
Batailles discussion of alteration in an essay on primitive art published in
1930, a book review of G.-H. Luquets LArt primitif.
Bataille turned to Luquet for an explanation of the puzzling contrast
between the two kinds of primitive art already mentionedthe painted
well-formed images that resemble animals, on the one hand; and the
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deformed, abstract, sculptural renderings of human beings on the other.
What is the difference in meaning between these two distinct kinds of art, he
asked? If primitive artists could paint animals so convincingly (indeed
Norbert Aujoulat admires the uncommon mastery of motion and
perspective of Lascauxs cave paintings, as well as their precision of detail)
why did they not produce comparable images of themselves?
In order to account for certain aberrant features of primitive art, Luquet
had introduced a distinction between visual realism and intellectual
The former is mimetic, whereas the latter presents things as we
know them to be, not as they appear to us (a profile rendering of a person
with two ears would be an example of intellectual realism). Luquet associates
intellectual realism with childrens drawings and suggests that primitive
humans, like children, pass through this phase before advancing to visual
realism. Not only does Bataille object to the comparison of primitives to
children, he finds Luquets theory inadequate to the question that concerns
him, namely, why there would have been such a great difference in the caves
between the visual treatment of animals on the one hand and of humans on
the other.
Bataille proposes another approach, one he derives from observations
Luquet had made concerning the origin of figuration in the graffitilike
drawing activity of children who love to dip their fingers in mud or paint and
run them along a wall, taking a kind of instinctual pleasure in marking
things up and destroying the surfaces around them. Bataille suggests that
the deformation of the human form in the abstract anthropoid figures (the
ones he calls informe) could be attributed to an operation of alteration,
characterized as an innate instinctual desire to deface or deform materials,
surfaces, or objects. This process involves the following steps: First, random
scribbling or tears attack a given surface or support in a kind of instinctual
gesture. Second, a virtual object is discerned through imaginative projection
into these random markings. Finally, in a third dialectical moment, this
virtual figure is altered, or defaced, in turn. It is in reference to this
sequence that Krauss will write: Informe denotes what alteration produces.
And it is on this basis that Krauss and Bois will define the informe as an
operation that yields the disintegration rather than the creation of form.
But they move too quickly when they reduce alteration to this operation
and proceed to identify it with transgression. For, on Batailles account,
alteration also includes a second moment. Speaking of alteration, Bataille
Another outcome is possible for the figured representation from the moment that the
imagination substitutes a new object for the support that has been destroyed . . . it is
possible, through repetition, to subject it to a progressive appropriation in relation to
the represented original. In this way one passes, quite rapidly, from an approximate
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figure to the more and more well-formed image [limage de plus en plus conforme] of an
animal, for example.
In other words, there is a second operation of alteration that runs parallel
to the first and produces a dialectically opposite result: a figural image. On
this version, a first moment performs the defacement or deformation of a
surface as before and a second moment, as before, yields a virtual image
that is projected into these markings. But an important shift occurs in the
third moment. When the virtual image is discerned it is not, in turn,
prevented from coming to appearance, defaced or rendered informe. It is
rendered de plus en plus conforme; it is brought into form and actualized as a
figural image. Thus, according to Batailles theory, the operation that
renders a virtual image informe is simply an alternative practice to the one
that actualizes it as a figure. Both are operations of alteration and both place
us, as we shall see, outside the realist framework of representation.
Indeed, in a less theoretical way, Luquet had proposed this second
version of what Bataille will call alteration as an explanation of the figurative
images of primitive art. He had explained that in the caves, artistic creation
did not initially consist in the execution of a complete figure on a blank
surface, but was limited at first to an operation . . . of intentionally complet-
ing a resemblance that had been remarked and judged to be imperfect in
images that were already there, and that sometimes were merely suggested
by natural accidents such as the contours of a cave wall.
Modern theorists of the informe do not mention this figural version of
alteration, or this feature of Batailles analysis of primitive art.
As we shall
see, however, it is indispensable to the link Bataille makes between primitive
art and transgression in his essay on Lascaux, an association already signaled
in LArt primitif when, in a note, Bataille links the operation of alteration
to the sacred with reference to Rudolf Ottos theory of the tout autre [the
absolutely other].
As we have seen, Bataille turns to the concept of alteration to
understand the difference between the two types of prehistoric art, the
paintings of animals, on the one hand, and the grotesque anthropoid
artifacts on the other. He wants to account for the difference between them
in anthropological terms, to determine the difference in meaning that
might have attached to the two types of production in order to arrive at a
general theory of primitive art. He is able to do so thanks precisely to his
conception of alteration as a dual operation, recognizing that a change of
meaning attaches to the alternative paths of alteration and to the two types
of art he associates with them.
He is not yet able to say what this change of
meaning is and he will not in fact do so until the essay on Lascaux (1955),
which proposes psychological motives for it. Indeed, a careful reading of
this essay reveals that the dual operation of alteration presented earlier
The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 33
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(informe/conforme) corresponds with the dual operation of the sacred that
requires interplay between interdiction and transgression.
Bataille does not explicitly theorize the notion of transgression until
LErotisme (1957), published two years after Lascaux. However, an earlier
version of this study, LHistoire de lrotisme (whose composition coin-
cides with that of the essay on Lascaux) presents an account of the dual
operation transgression/interdiction that parallels the story Bataille tells
about the birth of art in Lascaux ou la naissance de lart.
In LHistoire
de lrotisme, we find interdiction/transgression written into a narrative
that concerns the origins and ends of history. In his famous public lectures
(which Bataille attended) Alexandre Kojve had interpreted G. W. F. Hegel to
say that history is the dialectical development of the self-creation of man, a
development he presented as a negation of the givens of nature. LHistoire
de lrotisme presents an eminently dialectical account of the relationship
between interdiction and transgression that follows the lines of Kojves
narrative of history, which goes like this: (1) history is founded as the
negation of nature; this is the moment of interdiction that frames
the experience of culture. (2) This cultural world, which now coincides with
the horizon of the given, impinges on the autonomy of the subject. (3) The
subject revolts against this limitation in a gesture of transgression that
negates this new horizon of culture. Transgression, as a negation of
interdiction, marks a dialectical return to the initial horizon of natureonly
this time in a mode of desire. This is the double movement of negation and
return that Bataille also calls the reversal of alliances in his discussion of
the sacred.
It corresponds to the affective rhythm of the sacred presented
through the figure of the dance in LErotisme, a movement anticipated by the
drunken dance evoked for Bataille by the animal images on the walls of
When Bataille presents the origin of art as a passage from beast to man
in Lascaux ou la naissance de lart, the dialectical narrative of relations
between interdiction and transgression comes into play. The act of making
art implies a passage from nature to culture; it coincides with the moment of
interdiction as theorized in LHistoire de lrotisme. Transgression occurs
through the evocation of the animal world that is left behind in this passage
by means of painted figural images that seem to address us. It occurs for the
spectator who experiences a return to the world of nature in a mode of
desire (a transgression of interdiction), and who, upon viewing these
images, is transported, making a correlative passage from the world of work
to the world of play.
The human being who views these cave images
becomes a religious animal when addressed by this primitive art.
This is the
moment of transgression, and it occurs thanks to the powerful way in which
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the figurative images address the viewer across an immense expanse of time
(fig. 3).
Figuration produces an experience of the sacred here because our
encounter with it is catastrophic. Catastrophe is above all a temporal
structure for Bataille, one that interrupts linear time.
In the Lascaux cave,
the figural image addresses us from the depths of time, performing its
endless survival until it reaches us. It is through this address that the
primitive beast becomes an artist, entering into history and culture. The
negation of the order of nature (of prehistoric man as beast) occurs
through this address by the figural image. At the same time, figuration
marks a return: They returned to this world of the savagery [sauvagerie] of
the night . . . they figured it with fervor, in anxiety, Bataille writes of these
first artists.
The images that we recognize let us feel the transgressive joy of
the primitive man/beast that Bataille associates with play and opposes to the
utilitarian cultural economy established through interdiction.
The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 35
FIGURE 3. Third Chinese horse, Lascaux. Reprinted from Georges Bataille,
Lascaux; or, The Birth of Art (Lausanne, 1955).
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For Bataille, the informe anthropoid objects found in the cave are part of
this story. They signify a refusal by the artists of Lascaux to depict the
human form that Bataille interprets as a negation of the passage from
nature to culture (or from beast to man); they signify the negation of
interdiction associated with transgression. Considered in light of the
prestige of the animal paintings, they communicate a desire for
(dialectical) return to the savage night of nature. To this extent they
participate in the narrative of transgression that implies a return to nature
in a mode of transgressive desire according to the (pseudo-) dialectical
logic presented in LHistoire de lrotisme.
If the Lascaux paintings are stupefying because of what they show us
and the desire they evoke in us, they are equally important to Bataille for
what they do not show. In this cave, Bataille writes, we are overwhelmed by
the useless figuration of these signs that seduce. These extraordinary
images, then, are useless figures. First (departing from the theory of
Breuil), Bataille claims they are useless because they were created from
desire, not for some instrumental (or ritual) purpose; this is what makes
them art. In the second place these images are useless because they do not
tell us what we want to know. We want to see a portrait of the artist as a
remote reflection of ourselves at the point of our own origin, to know what
the primitive human looked like when, making art, s/he became like us.
Instead, Bataille writes, we are given masks, masks that evoke the animal
world primitive man is on the point of leaving through the act of making art
(fig. 4).
Last but not least, there is a theoretical sense in which it is meaningful
to speak of useless images here. For, according to Batailles theory of
alteration, the figures that emerge to be either deformed or brought into
formrendered informe or de plus en plus conformeare, as we have seen,
virtual figuresimages of pure invention. They are images fortuites, as
Bataille put it in LArt primitif, images that arrive as if by accident.
Alteration involves the projection of spontaneously generated mental
images, which, when actualized or given form, offer no certainty, no
knowledge, and no truth.
Batailles enthusiasm for the sacred moment of figuration in
Lascaux is scandalous for modernist critics committed to the disintegration
rather than the creation of form.
But the notion of the useless image,
which we borrow from Batailles essay on the cave, suggests a way to theorize
figural art outside the celebrated opposition between formalism and
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iconography. In particular, it provides a way of thinking about surrealist
images, fictive figures that are not representational.
We might take as a point of departure a painter generally excluded from
the modernist canon: Ren Magritte. Magritte was an abstract painter until
1925, by which time he had discovered the early work of Giorgio De Chirico
and come to feel that abstract paintings reveal only abstract painting, and
absolutely nothing else.
He had also come to believe that the full
potential of abstraction had already been realized in the early work of Piet
Mondrian. Abstraction, from his point of view, was over. Having abandoned
it, however, Magritte became marginalized within the history of modern art.
Labeled realist, his work was accused of being retrograde, banal, and, worse
yet, unpainterly.
Rosalind Krauss, for example, contrasts the dry realism of Magritte with
the abstract liquefaction of Joan Mir, an artist she claims for the informe in
a brilliant analysis in another context.
This opposition is telling, in that it
The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 37
FIGURE 4. Fourth bull, Lascaux. Reprinted from Georges Bataille, Lascaux; or, The
Birth of Art (Lausanne, 1955).
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demonstrates how easily the informe itself can be recuperated by one term of
the fundamental opposition that it was meant to displace, one we can now
rephrase as an opposition between formalist abstraction and realism.
In his celebrated early-1970s essay Ceci nest pas une Pipe Foucault
attempted to clear Magrittes name of the charge of realism. He succeeded,
provisionally, but only at the price of significant misunderstanding and in an argu-
ment that leaves the opposition formalism/iconography (or abstraction/
figuration) intact. Indeed, he took a version of that oppositionreading
versus lookingas his point of departure.
Foucault argued that Magrittes paintings were fundamentally con-
cerned with operations of signification, not visual representation. Magritte
was not interested in visual resemblance, but rather in similitude, a term
Foucault defined according to a textual paradigm. Whereas resemblance
serves representation, Foucault wrote, similitude develops in series that
have no beginning and no end, that one can run through [parcourir] in one
direction or the other, that obey no hierarchy, but propagate themselves from
small differences to small differences.
Foucault affirms that similitude
(conceived on the grammatological model of diffrance or the Barthesian
model of texte scriptible) is privileged over resemblance in Magrittes work.
Similitude, he insists, introduces a reading function (a differential movement)
that triumphs over resemblance, defined as a looking function and identified
with representationor, as Krauss put it more bluntly, dry realism. In effect,
Foucaults analysis brings Magritte over to the side of writing, which, as we
know, contests representation. (Krauss will make a comparable gesture for
surrealist photography, as we shall see, a decade later.)
The Fata Morgana edition of Ceci nest pas une Pipe includes two short
letters from Magritte to the already celebrated French philosopher in which
the painter attempts to clarify his use of the terms resemblance and
similitude. Not only do these letters call attention to erroneous assump-
tions made by Foucault, they alert us to the importance of the term
resemblance for Magritte, and to the fact that the painter used this term in
a radically unconventional way. Six years after Foucaults essay, Flammarion
published a hefty volume of the collected writings of Magritte that reveals
how absolutely central the notion of resemblance was to his conception of
painting, and how radically Magrittes understanding of the term differs from
the one Foucault attributed to him. The art of painting, Magritte writes
that really should be called the art of resemblancemakes it possible to
describe, through painting, a thought capable of becoming visible. This thought in-
cludes only figures that the world offers: people, curtains, weapons, stars, solids, in-
scriptions, etc. Resemblance spontaneously reunites these figures in an order that
directly evokes mystery.
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For Magritte, then, painting is fundamentally an art of resemblance. But
resemblance does not imply a mimetic relation between an image and a model.
It is an act of visual thought. The images I paint, he writes, show nothing
except what I have thought (Ecrits, 689).
Painting does not give us an image
that resembles the world; it materializes, or embodies in paint, a visual mental
actan act of resemblance. It renders this act visible as if by photographic
recording [enregistrement photographique]. Here Magritte meets up with Breton
who defined surrealist automatism as a photography of thought.
Resemblance, for Magritte, involves the visual thought of an affinity
between two images that do not look alike. The painter recounts, for
example, the night he slept in a room where someone had placed a bird in a
cage. A magnificent error, he writes, made me see the bird absent [disparu]
from the cage and replaced by an egg. I had discovered an astonishing new
poetic secret (Ecrits, 110).
What has happened? Magritte sees something
that is not there (the egg) in a particularly revealing relation to what is there
to be seen (the cage). The bird, really there, has disappeared from view,
hidden by the image of the egg. The visual shock Magritte enjoyed, he
writes, was caused by the affinity of two objects (110), in this instance the
cage and the egg (fig. 5).
Henceforth Magritte would seek out such visual experiences of affinity.
He would set himself thought problems to be solved visually, either through
an automatic drawing practice, or, exceptionally, by direct visual inspiration
(fig. 6).
Each problem, he writes, involves three terms: the object, the
thing attached to it in the shadows of my mind, and the light in which this
thing should appear [devait parvenir] (Ecrits, 111). This elusive third term
is crucial to the articulation of the other two. It is precisely this act of
synthesis that Magritte calls resemblance and characterizes as an activity
of inspired thought.
An unknown image from the shadows is called forth by an image known
in the light [une image connue de la lumire], Magritte writes (Ecrits, 335) (fig. 7).
The phrase sounds like a nod to Marcel Proust, and it may well be, but it also
evokes Henri Bergsons discussion of relations between memory and
perception in Matire et mmoire. Here we come across a notion of
resemblance that informs Magrittes theory of painting, as well as the more
general notion of the useless image I am attempting to elaborate here.
Bergson argues that since perception occurs in time it requires the
support, or relay, of memory in order to function at all.
Your perception, as instantaneous as it may be, consists therefore in an incalculable
multitude of memory fragments [lments remmors] and, in truth, all perception is
already memory. Actually, we perceive nothing but the past, the pure present being
the elusive [insaissable] progress of the past gnawing away at the future.
The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 39
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Perception, according to Bergson, involves a perceptual shock [branlement
perceptif ] that functions to imprint on the body a certain attitude in
which memories will insert themselves . . . the present percep-tion will
always seek, in the depths of memory, the image [souvenir] of the anterior
perception that it resembles (Matire, 112).
This is the phrase that
returns, only slightly altered, in Magrittes sentence: An unknown image
from the shadows is called forth by an image known in the light
(Ecrits, 335).
Bergson calls the operation that articulates the incoming sense data of
perception with memory images attentive recognition (Matire, 107). He
says that the incoming sense experience, imprinted on the body, calls to
memory, which then spontaneously generates memory images to match (or
answer) the rough contours of perceptual experience. On Bergsons theory
various mental planes are available to furnish memory images. There are,
FIGURE 5. Ren Magritte, Les Affinits Electives [Elective Affinities], 1930.
Copyright 2006 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York.
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for example, the memories that follow immediately upon . . . perception, of
which they are but the echo (Matire, 112). These provide useful memory
images that contribute directly to the act of perception and to the cognitive
construction of the object at hand.
These shallow memory images appear
similar to the incoming sense data of perception. They are as if
photographed from the object itself (Matire, 112). But more disparate
memory images come into play as well, images associated with various fea-
tures of the specific context into which past experiences are embedded in
our memory through relations of similarity and contiguity. Behind these
images identical to the object, writes Bergson, there are others, stored in
memory, and that simply have resemblance to the object (Matire, 11213).
There are still others, he adds, that only have a more or less distant kinship
[parent ] (Matire, 112) with the incoming sense data. In other words, the
The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 41
FIGURE 6. Ren Magritte, La Main Heureuse [The Happy Hand], 1953.
Copyright 2006 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York.
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shallowest memories, and those that will directly participate in the percep-
tion of the object at hand, yield images similar to the object of perception.
But othersdeeper memories that carry more contextual detail, more
specific features of the concrete singularity of the past experiencemay link
to the sense data in a mode of resemblance that does not imply visual
similarity at all, but merely some sort of generic affinity.
Bergson defines perception in terms of action, not representation.
This point is fundamental. Perception does not match, or represent,
external objects; it filters from the complexity of the real only those features
pertinent to its pragmatic interests. Perception, for Bergson, is always less
than the real. Poised for action, memory contracts; the mind tenses up and
sharpens its focus, as if to cut through the real like a knife blade at the point
of incipient action.
Bergson provides a schematic drawing of an inverted
cone to show us what he calls the two extreme planes of mental life . . . the
FIGURE 7. Ren Magritte, Les Vacances de Hegel [Hegels Vacation], 1958.
Copyright 2006 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York.
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plane of action and the plane of dream (Matire, 273). At the point of the
inverted cone (the point marks the site of action) memory images intervene
according to a tightly orchestrated set of rules where resemblance tends
toward similarity and direct contiguity. But if we pass, as Bergson puts it, to
the other extreme of mental life, to the broad plane of memory associated
with dream, here all of the events of our past life appear [se dessinent] in all
their most minute detail (Matire, 186). It is here, in what Bergson calls
pure memory, that the past lives on, virtually. This complete past is
unconscious; it is mostly hidden from our awareness by the practical
requirements of useful action, that is, by the tendency of every organism to
extract from a given situation whatever is useful to it (Matire, 186). Here, in
the region Bergson identifies with dream, where, like Bretons Nadja, one is
detached from the imperatives of action, one would hold beneath [ones]
gaze, at all times, the infinite multitude of details of [ones] past history
(Matire, 172). Here between any two ideas [deux ides quelconques] . . .
there is always resemblance (Matire, 182, my emphasis). Virtually,
everything resembles everything [tout se ressemble] (Matire, 187).
To evoke the past in the form of images, Bergson writes, one must be
able to cut oneself off from [sabstraire de] present action, one must know
how to attach value to what is useless, one must want to dream. Only human
beings are perhaps capable of such an effort (Matire, 87). Unlike Sigmund
Freud, for whom a bar of repression separates dream from reality, Bergson
presents a continuous transition from consciousness, on the plane of action,
to unconsciousness, characterized as detachment from action. The plane of
dream, or dilated memory, is just as real as the plane of action. Memory
gives us the survival of lived experience (le vcu). The difference between the
two extremes of mental lifeaction and dreamis a difference in degree of
mental tension. It is a question of the extent of contraction or expansion by
means of which consciousness tightens or enlarges the development of its
contents (Matire, 185). A more relaxed state, where the memory is opened
up, enables an enriched contact with the past and a concomitant
broadening of the play of resemblance. With the dilation or expansion of
memory, Bergson writes, reflexion reaches deeper levels of reality (Matire,
115). Here useless memories [souvenirs inutiles] (Matire, 170, emphasis
added) enrich our experience of the real. They are useless because they do
not serve the interests of action. Vision is detached from perception; it
occurs for its own sake as a voir pour voir.
This is what I take Magritte to mean when
he speaks of second degree vision, a vision intermediate between the real
object, extra-mental, and the mind [esprit] . . . a vision considered for its own
sake [prise pour elle-mme] (Ecrits, 182) (fig. 8). And it is from this perspective
that we can best grasp the importance of what Bataille referred to as the
useless figures that seduced him in the Lascaux cave.
The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 43
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It is in this sense, then, that Bergson could be said to provide the
philosophical ground for Magrittes conception of painting, and for what I am
calling, after Bataille, the useless image. This broader play of affinity between
images, which Bergson characterizes through the word resemblanceone
that moves beyond mere similarity of appearance and does not depend on the
ratio of any analogyis what I take Magritte to have in mind when he defines
painting as an art of resemblance. Magrittes visual thought [la pense qui
voit] (Ecrits, 377) can be glossed in relation to Bergsons vision of memory
(Matire, 173). It is through a richer contact with memory that the useless
image comes into play, and with it what Magritte calls the beauty of what is
neither meaning [sens] nor nonsense [nonsens] (Ecrits, 549). This is the
beauty of art that escapes the grip of either formalism or iconologythe
beauty, we could say, of the useless image (fig. 9).
FIGURE 8. Ren Magritte, Dieu nest pas un Saint [God Is Not a Saint], 1935.
Copyright 2006 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York.
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The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 45
If there is one position on which Rosalind Krauss and Clement
Greenberg could be said to agree, it is the rejection of surrealist painting.
When, in a move against Greenberg, Krauss champions surrealism, she
does so in the domain of photography, in a reading that performs what
Krauss calls a relocation of photography from its eccentric position relative
to surrealism to one that is absolutely centraldefinitive one might say.
We could say that Krauss has done the same for surrealism, shifting it from
an eccentric position relative to modern art to a central one.
The Optical Unconscious (1993), which contests Greenbergian mod-
ernism, and traces an alternative path through modern art that is oriented
by the informe, starts in the surrealist context with the photo collages of
Max Ernst and proceeds to engage with Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso,
FIGURE 9. Ren Magritte, Les Fanatiques [The Fanatics], 1945. Copyright
2006 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
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and Jackson Pollock. This gesture cuts two ways. On the one hand it
counters Greenberg, for whom surrealism was anathema. On the other, it
radically rereads surrealism, skirting the issue of surrealist painting almost
entirely, and drawing surrealism back toward the practices of Dada.
Through the perspective opened up by the informe, the analysis in the
Optical Unconscious pursues the critics earlier reading of surrealist photogra-
phy, where a semiological analysis enables her to circumvent issues of iconol-
ogy almost entirely.
Photography, she has written,
belongs to that group of signs set off semiologically by the name index. It is the char-
acter of the index, indeed, to mark the spot, since it is the one type of sign that is the
result of a physical cause, unlike the icon, a sign that relates to its referent through
the axis of resemblance . . . the index has an existential connection to meaning, with
the result that it can only take place on the spot.
The photograph does not engage with representational meaning, since it is
produced by a trace of the object that imprints itself directly by chemical
means. It functions not as an icon but as an index (terms borrowed from
the semiology of Charles Sanders Peirce).
In The Optical Unconscious, Krauss implicitly inscribes her analysis of the
index in an art-historical narrative through reference to the readymade. Not
only does she move from Max Ernst to Duchamp (in a displacement from
surrealism to Dada) she reads Ernst through the Duchampian term
readymade, thereby capturing surrealism for the trajectory of the informe
that, in the end (with Jackson Pollock), meets up with the conventional story
of modernism.
Max Ernst composed his photo collages from a stock of preexisting
images (photographic or print material), often taken from commercial
catalogues. Krauss not only associates this practice with the Duchampian
readymade but also attributes this association to Andr Breton. The term
Breton had originally used for this element, she writes, is the far more
suggestive word readymade, as, in his text for the 1921 exhibition at Au
Sans Pareil, he notes that the collages are built on grounds constituted by
the readymade images of objects, adding parenthetically (as in catalogue
Krauss then extends this analysis to affirm surrealisms
engagement with a model based . . . on the conditions of the readymade,
conditions that produce an altogether different kind of scene from that of
modernisms, one that implies a structure of vision and its ceaseless return
to the already-known.
This is the horizon of the optical unconscious that
Krauss will analyze with reference to Freud and Jacques Lacan, challenging
the sublimating opticality of Clement Greenberg, through an appeal to the
Lacanian notion of the real.
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The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 47
Two comments are in order. First, in the passage from Breton just cited,
Breton is not describing Ernsts collages.
He is critiquing art that tries to
signify in new ways (like cubism and the symbolist poetry of Stphane
Mallarm) instead of working with what is given and rearranging it, as Ernst
does (and as Lautramont had done before him, in the literary field, in
What is essential, from Bretons point of view, is not the readymade
(in Duchamps sense) but the act of redistributing given terms (words or
images) in whatever order we please.
For Breton, this is how the
surrealist practice of automatism yields the image. When Rosalind Krauss
translates Bretons images toutes faites (which I have translated elsewhere as
given images) as readymade, what is evacuated is precisely the word
image and, beyond that, the image itselfthe light of the image, as Breton
might say.
What is at stake in the substitution of the readymade for the
surrealist image is precisely the allusion to Duchamp, who not only
abandoned abstract painting (like Magritte) but abandoned painting
altogether, and for whom, in his own words, the choice of the readymade
[was] always based on visual indifference.
Surrealist photographers, Krauss has written, were masters of the
Both photography and the readymade enjoy a privileged
connection with the real associated with the structure of the index.
to this structure, both are independent of any imaginative manipulation,
which is to say, free of meaning or iconography; as paradoxical as it might
seem, Krauss writes, photography has been an operative model for
The gesture of brush[ing] modernism against the grain,
oriented by the critical construct of the informe, ends with abstraction,
having successfully evicted the image from surrealism and displaced
surrealism toward Dada. Krauss ends her story with Jackson Pollock (and
Eva Hesses sculptural allusions to his work), arriving, when all is said and
done, not so far from Greenbergs modernism after all.
In many of the caves, but particularly those at Gargas, the paleolithic paintings in-
clude palm prints that were made, twenty millennia ago, by placing an outstretched
hand against the wall and blowing pigment onto the exposed surface to create the
image in negative. The image is a residue of its maker. No matter how simply, I
leave my trace. . . .
Displaced from a Golden Age Greece to the dawn of humanity, the birth of art
never seemed, therefore, to require a break with the myth of Narcissus. If the
mimetic urge led to the depiction of mammoth and horse and bison, it even more
surely required the reflection of the artist himself.
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Given the theoretical authority of Bataille for the critical project of
the informe, and the importance, in this context, of Batailles discussion of
primitive art, Krauss had to return to the question of cave art in The Optical
Unconscious. She also had to avoid Lascaux, with its proliferation of powerfully
affecting figurative images, at all costs. Her solution is to change caves.
Instead of entering Lascaux, a site renowned for its proliferation of dazzling
figural images, she brings us to Gargas, a cave celebrated (as the Gargas Web
site attests) for its hundreds of mysterious handprints (fig. 10).
These are
images Krauss characterizes as having been quite literally stenciled off the
world itself, as she has written of the photograph.
The palm prints of
Gargas place the index at the very origin of art. The substitution of Gargas
for Lascaux parallels the displacement already noted from Breton to
Duchamp. It is consistent with a story that takes us from the indexical mark
of the palm print, to the indexical structure of surrealist photography,
through the readymade, to modernist abstraction. The move from Lascaux
FIGURE 10. Gargas, hand prints. Reprinted from Andr Leroi-Gourhan, The Dawn
of European Art (New York, 1982).
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to Gargas enables contemporary theorists of the informe to evacuate the issue
of fictive figuration, which is central to the art practices of Breton, Max
Ernst, and Magritte and to new media art today. The issue played out at the
prehistoric scene therefore, is the fate of what I have called, after Bataille,
the useless image.
Modernism, Krauss writes, imagines two orders of the figure:
The first is that of empirical vision, the object as it is seen, . . . the object modernism
spurns. The second is that of the formal conditions of the possibility for vision itself,
the level at which pure form operates as a principle of coordination, unity, structure:
visible but unseen. That is the level modernism wants to chart, to capture, to master.
But there is a third order of the figure . . . an order that works entirely underground,
out of sight.
On this account, the first order of the figure implies realism, the second
implies Greenbergian formalism, and the third the order of the informe as
destruction of form and return to the real. I am proposing yet another
order of the figure: the useless image. It is neither iconic (the object seen)
nor abstract; it is not even informe. Magritte elaborates it through a notion
of resemblance that refers us not to Peirce, but to Bergson.
If the index marks the spot, as Krauss has so aptly put it, the question
remains: where is the spot in a photography of thought?
Where, in other
words, is thought? This is a question that prompted Bergson to write Matire
et mmoire and to displace entirely the question of the relation between body
and mind through memory that traverses them both.
Photography was a
central preoccupation of surrealism, but it preoccupied the surrealists, more
often than not, as a problem. When Max Ernst took already given photo-
graphic or engraved images as the point of departure for his photo collages,
gluing them together in improbable juxtapositions, he then photographed
his collages to hide the seams of his cuts and designated the photographic
copy as the original work. In so doing he was certainly not using photogra-
phy in view of its indexical value, its status as imprint or footprint.
He was
using it, quite precisely, to cover his tracks, imagina-tively manipulating
photography to yield the appearance of a seamless fiction, one with no
system of reference, as Breton observed with delight, capable of estranging
us back into our memory.
Magritte, who was fasci-nated with both
photography and film, speaks of the need to overcome the objectivity of
photography, something he undertakes to do precisely by extending the
citational practices of Ernsts photo collages into a field of pure invention:
painting. He produces what Ernst referred to as collages painted entirely by
Surrealism problematizes the index, then, specifically at the point
where Magrittes art of resemblance meets Bretons definition of surrealist
automatism as a photography of thought.
From Breton through Ernst and
The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 49
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Magritte this metaphor deepens and develops its specificity. Magritte extends
Ernsts metaphotographical maneuvers, completely breaking the indexical
relation of the photograph, while miming it.
Krauss and Bois ostensibly intended the informe to undercut [dclasser]
oppositions between modernism and postmodernism, thereby disabling the
postmodern attempt to bury modernism. As soon as one takes into
account figures such as Magritte, however, we see that the informe serves to
shore up modernism through a series of repositionings that shield what
emerges as the first principle of modernism: the refusal of iconology. The
defense against the figural image, so vehemently waged by Greenberg,
If alternative modernisms are in order today, it is not so much because of
an aesthetic challenge posed by postmodernism as it is a result of the
challenge new technologies pose. Digital images have already displaced
photography from the ground of photochemical form[s] of causality.
One could argue that what Breton saw in the photo collages of Ernst was a
step in this direction. Magritte, who paints his collages entirely by hand,
reveals that the index has no ground to stand on. This is what Magritte
understood by the dpassement [overcoming] of the objectivity of photog-
raphy by painting, which, as an art of resemblance, not only invokes memory
but also embodies virtual images in paint.
The notion of the useless image (and the constellation of figures it
designatesBreton, Magritte, de Chirico, Ernst) strikes me as especially
pertinent today, when structures of representation are being called into
question technologically in ways that suggest a dpassement of the problem of
abstraction altogether. In the information age the image per se may be on its
way to becoming useless. As Mark Hansen has convincingly argued, today
the image is not given, it is actualized. New media works emphasize the
actualization, or embodiment, of images through interaction with the
spectator in an information field.
As Friedrich Kittler put it, digital data
exist unencumbered by a need to adapt to the constraints of human
perceptual ratios.
Today, on a model much more similar to Bergsons
operation of attentive recognition than to structures of either abstraction or
representation (either formalism or iconography), it is a question of the
realization or embodiment of virtual images.
This is precisely the path we have opened up through Batailles
discussion of the sacred moment of figuration in Lascaux (fig. 11) and of
the useless figuration of these seductive images, which we have considered
in light of the moment of alteration that has been repressed by
contemporary criticsthe gesture of bringing into form. We have followed
it to Magritte, where painting, as an art of resemblance, is an embodiment of
virtual images, images of visual thought. What links the two is Bergson,
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whose theory of attentive recognition proposes that even perceptual
information needs the supplement of a memory image in order to come
into being, just as the memory image needs the solicitation of perceptual
data (its life or chaleur) to prompt the spontaneous actualization of the
memory image from the virtual storehouse of pure memory.
We began, then, with the useless image in its proximity to the informe, in
full support of the gesture of redealing the cards of modernism. But to
redeal effectively, we must start with a full deck. We cannot limit the process
of alteration only to the informe (in the limited sense invoked by Krauss and
Bois) or we will be locked within the modernist opposition formalism/
iconography (or abstraction/figuration), unable to fully appreciate the
critical and aesthetic force of surrealism. We must also include the operation
that brings into form, that actualizes or embodies images, associated with what
I am calling, after Bataille, the useless image. This is the fictive figural image
that occurs outside the framework of representation, yielding, as Magritte
put it, the beauty of what is neither sense nor nonsense (Ecrits, 549).
The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 51
FIGURE 11. Rotunda bull, Lascaux. Reprinted from Leroi-Gourhan, Dawn of
European Art.
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Not es
I would like to thank the editorial board of Representations for their careful
reading of my work and helpful editorial suggestions.
1. Michel Foucault, Prface la transgression, Critique 19596 (1963); Jacques
Derrida, De lconomie restreinte lconomie gnrale, Un hegelianisme
sans reserve, in LEcriture et la diffrence (Paris, 1967), trans. as Writing and Dif-
ference by Alan Bass (Chicago, 1978); Julia Kristeva, The Revolution of Poetic Lan-
guage, trans. Margaret Waller (New York, 1984), and Powers of Horror: An Essay
on Abjection, trans. Lon S. Roudiez (New York, 1982).
2. Georges Bataille, Lascaux ou la naissance de lart, in Oeuvres compltes, 12 vols.
(Paris, 1970), 9:63. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
3. These consist of inhuman depictions of human figures or statues of mostly
feminine figures that Bataille describes as hidden from human appearance
[drobes lapparence humaine] (ibid., 72). He refers to them as informe (65).
4. That same year, in a pendulum swing away from Andr Leroi-Gourhans struc-
turalist paleontology, a new version of lAbb Breuils shamanistic interpreta-
tion of cave art was affirmed by two anthropologists working in collaboration,
David Lewis-Williams, an expert in southern African shamanistic art, and Jean
Clottes, an expert in European Paleolithic cave art. See Jean Clottes and David
Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves,
trans. Sophie Hawkes (New York, 1996). One can only imagine how this work
might have fascinated Bataille.
5. Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A Users Guide (New York,
6. Bataille, Lascaux, 43.
7. Yve-Alain Bois, To Introduce a Users Guide, October 78 (Fall 1996): 29. Subse-
quent references to this work will be given in the text in parenthesis. On the
question of the informe see also Georges Didi-Huberman, La Ressemblance
informe ou le gai savoir visuel selon Georges Bataille (Paris, 1995).
8. Greenbergs modernist fetishization of sight is cited in Rosalind Krauss, An-
tivision, October 36 (Spring 1986): 147.
9. This operation also implies a specific set of gestures such as horizontality,
pulse, entropy, and base materialism. Georges Batailles LArt primitif, in
Oeuvres compltes (Paris, 1970), vol. 1, was first published in Documents 7, deux-
ime anne (1930): 38997. In a preceding issue, Documents had published a
dictionary entry for the word informe, defining it as a term used to declassify
(cited in ibid., 217).
10. Bataille, LArt primitif, 253.
11. Norbert Aujoulat, Lascaux: Movement, Space, and Time (New York, 2005), 221.
12. This was a distinction introduced by Heinrich Schaeffer in 1919 in Principles of
Egyptian Art (recently reprinted; Oxford, 1986).
13. Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths
(Cambridge, 1985), 64.
14. Rosalind Krauss, Corpus Delicti, October 33 (Summer 1985): 43.
15. Bataille, LArt primitif, 253. G.-H. Luquets account of figuration in primitive
art, and Batailles theorization of the figural moment of alteration, meet up in
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The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 53
the surrealist practice of automatism. See Bretons essay on Max Ernst (Andr
Breton, Max Ernst, in Oeuvres compltes [Paris, 1988], and Max Ernsts Beyond
Painting (New York, 1948). Ernst writes of reproducing only that which saw it-
self in me in his photo collages, and of obtaining a faithful image of my hal-
lucination; cited in Suzanne Guerlac, Literary Polemics (Palo Alto, 1997), 130.
He also refers to the celebrated lesson of Leonardo, the pedagogical exercise
Leonardo reputedly required of his students, namely, that they stare at a blank
wall until they began to discern figures there that they must then go on to ren-
der (130 n. 15), and which resembles the figural operation of alteration.
16. Bataille, LArt primitif, 249.
17. In The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), Rosalind Krauss acknowl-
edges that it is because of its wonderful ambivalence that Bataille likes the
word alteration and that it leads simultaneously downward and upward
(152), but she says nothing about the fact that figuration belongs to the struc-
ture of alteration in Bataille.
18. Bataille, LArt primitif, 251. A note refers to Rudolf Ottos Le Sacr, published
in English as The Idea of the Holy (Oxford, 1923). Ottos study, which emphasizes
ambivalent subjective response in the experience of the sacred (attraction and
repulsion), anticipates important features of Batailles account of transgression
in LErotisme (Paris, 1957).
19. We will limit ourselves for the moment to affirming that such a change has
taken place from the time of the Aurignacian with respect to the representa-
tion of animals and with respect to the representation of human beings
(Bataille, LArt primitif, 253).
20. Cf. Georges Bataille, LHistoire de lrotisme, in Oeuvres compltes (Paris,
1970), 8:9165. Some versions of these essays go back as early as 1939. Most
were written during 195051. Likewise, two versions of the Lascaux study were
published before 1955 in Critique (see Bataille, Oeuvres compltes, 9:420).
21. Bataille, Oeuvres compltes, 8:66. Bataille calls this study an erotic phenomenology
(524) and situates it in relation to Alexandre Kojve. He also writes: Eroticism
is essentially, from the first step, the scandal of the reversal of alliances
(Oeuvres compltes, 7:81).
22. Bataille, Lascaux, 81, and LErotisme, 6869.
23. Bataille, Lascaux, 28.
24. Bataille, LHistoire de lrotisme, 3941.
25. See Georges Bataille, Sacrifices, in Oeuvres compltes, 1:9496. Bataille speaks
here of the catastrophe of time and of the problem, of the being of time
(95). In Lascaux he writes: Could we miss the fact, that, entering the
grotto . . . we are, deep in the ground, in some way lost [gars] la recherche du
temps perdu? (43).
26. Bataille, Lascaux, 63.
27. Bataille, LArt primitif, 249.
28. Krauss, Corpus Delicti, 43. In another essay Krauss identifies informe with
deconstruction (No More Play, in Originality of the Avant-Garde, 99). See my
discussion of relations between art criticism and French theory in La trans-
gression et le rve de la thorie, in De Tel Quel lInfini, lavant-garde et
aprs? ed. Philippe Forest (Paris, 1999), 7995.
29. Ren Magritte to Andr Bosmans, August 1959, published in Harry Torczyners
Magritte, Ideas and Images, trans. Richard Miller (New York, 1977), 65.
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30. Krauss, Originality of the Avant-Garde, 91; Michel, Bataille, et Moi, October 68
(Spring 1994).
31. Michel Foucault, Ceci nest pas une Pipe (Paris, 1973), 61. The title refers to a
series of paintings by Magritte that includes La Trahison des Images, where
we read the words ceci nest pas une pipe painted beneath the painted image
of a pipe (which justifies his opposition between reading and looking).
32. Foucault speaks of the privilege of similitude over resemblance (ibid., 65),
and again of breaking down the fortress in which similitude was held prisoner
to the affirmation of resemblance (71).
33. See Krauss, The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism, in Originality of the
Avant-Garde. The chapter concludes with this statement: But it is my thesis
that . . . [with surrealist photography] reality was both extended and replaced
or supplemented by that master supplement which is writing: the paradoxical
writing of the photograph (118).
34. Ren Magritte, Ecrits complets (Paris, 1979), 518.
35. I would like to stress the distinction between what Magritte calls visual thought
and something like opticality. Vision is not just physical, writes Magritte, it is
reasoned [raisonne]. Magritte calls this a vision to the second degree
(ibid., 182).
36. Breton, Max Ernst, 245.
37. The anecdote pertains to the painting Elective Affinities.
38. The problem of the glass, for example, finds its rponse exacte in an umbrella in
the painting Les Vacances de Hegel; the problem of the cloud yields La
Corde Sensible; the problem of the piano, La Main Heureuse; and the prob-
lem of the train, the celebrated painting La Dure Poignarde. Concerning
the painting La Main Heureuse Magritte has written: The problem I have
been dealing with is the problem of the piano. The answer apprized me that
the secret object designed to be joined with the piano was an engagement
ring. . . . The size of the ring is like an emanation of some happiness, particu-
larly that of a hand playing the piano. In addition the outline the ring makes,
partly concealed by the piano that traverses it, evokes the form of a musical
sign (Torczyner, Magritte, Ideas and Images, 144). Of La Dure Poignarde he
writes: I decided to paint the image of a locomotive . . . I thought of joining
the locomotive image with the image of a dining room fireplace in a moment
of presence of mind. By that I mean the moment of lucidity that no method
can bring forth. Only the power of thought manifests itself at this time . . . we
do not count for anything, but are limited to witnessing the manifestation of
thought (81).
39. Henri Bergson, Matire et mmoire (Paris, 1939). Bergson also writes: Every per-
ception occupies a certain thickness of duration, prolongs the past in the pres-
ent, and in this way participates in memory (274).
40. Bergson uses the words mmoire and souvenir. To distinguish the two, and
because souvenir implies images, I have translated the latter as image.
41. On Bergsons account, sense data come into the body; this structures an appeal
to memory, which produces an image. This image then feeds back into the act
of perception itself, helping to constitute the object perceived.
42. If one keeps in mind Bretons correction of Pierre Reverdys conception of the
image in the Manifeste du surralisme, which Reverdy had characterized in terms
of metaphor, it is important not to identify Magrittes use of the term affinity
with metaphor or analogy. See Breton, Oeuvres compltes, 1:325. Magrittes term
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affinity also echoes Bergsons use of the term parent (Matire et mmoire,
112) in his analysis of attentive recognition where a notion of resemblance
comes into play.
43. Representation only occurs through memory, that is, in relation to the past, to
absence, to that which no longer acts [ce qui nagit plus] (Bergson, Matire et
mmoire, 71). Lets restore the real character of perception, showing that in
pure perception, an incipient system of actions plunges into the real . . . this
perception will distinguish itself radically from memory (71). On this point
see Suzanne Guerlac, Thinking in Time, An Introduction to Henri Bergson (Ithaca,
2006), 10711.
44. What we call action involves precisely making this memory contract or
sharpen itself more and more [obtenir que cette mmoire se contracte ou plutt saffile
de plus en plus] until it presents only the cutting edge of its blade to experience,
in which it will penetrate (Bergson, Matire et mmoire, 117).
45. Consciousness amuses itself by perceiving for the sake of perceiving, remem-
bering for the sake of remembering, without any concern for life, cited in
Guerlac, Literary Polemics, 150.
46. Krauss, Originality of the Avant-Garde, 101.
47. See Rosalind Krauss, Jane Livingston, and Dawn Ades, LAmour Fou: Photography
and Surrealism (New York, 1985), catalogue of the exhibition at the Hayward
Gallery in London and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. in 1986.
48. For another reading, which considers Bretons response to Ernsts photo col-
lages in the context of a deliberate attempt to invent an alternative to Dada, see
Guerlac, Literary Polemics, 12736.
49. Krauss, Michel, Bataille, et Moi, 13.
50. Krauss, Optical Unconscious, 46.
51. Ibid., 53.
52. See my discussion of Bretons essay Max Ernst in Literary Polemics, 13031.
53. What Breton has in mind is the work of Lautramont [Isidore Ducasse] in
Posies, where Lautramont affirms the necessity for plagiarism, by which he
means something not unlike what Bataille has called alteration in the context
of primitive art. In Ernsts photo collages, Breton sees an analogy to this opera-
tion in the visual field, a practice similar to the one he will go on to theorize in
terms of automatism and the surrealist image in the First Manifesto, where he
will define surrealism in terms of its image-producing capacity. Far from col-
lapsing surrealism back into the Dada context, Breton is claiming Ernst for the
new movement of surrealism, which will define itself against Dada. As
Margurite Bonnet writes, in a note to Bretons essay on Max Ernst in the
Pleiade edition of that text, Breton sees this work of Ernst as distancing itself
resolutely from Dada, Breton, Oeuvres compltes, 1266. For a discussion of
Posies see Suzanne Guerlac, The Impersonal Sublime: Hugo, Baudelaire, Lautra-
mont, and the Esthetics of the Sublime (Palo Alto, 1990).
54. Breton, Max Ernst, 245.
55. Guerlac, Literary Polemics, 131.
56. In words that evoke the terms of Krausss critique of Greenberg, Marcel
Duchamp complained to Pierre Cabanne: When you see what the Abstraction-
ists have done since 1940, its worse than ever optical. Theyre really up to their
necks in the retina! Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York,
1971), 43.
The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte 55
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57. Krauss, Corpus Delicti, 34.
58. By real she means not the reality of realism but the Lacanian structure
of the real that cannot be situated in the terms of either the symbolic or the
59. Krauss, Originality of the Avant-Garde, 210.
60. Krauss, Optical Unconscious, 151.
61. These are mysterious not only because they are so numerous in this cave but
also because of what has been described as mutilated fingers in these palm
prints. Andr Leroi-Gourhan, however, reads these as coded signs for animals
(not narcissistic marks). See his 1967 essay The Hands of Gargas: Toward a
General Study, trans. Annette Michelson, October 37 (Summer 1986): 1934.
62. Krauss, Michel, Bataille, et Moi, 13.
63. Krauss, Optical Unconscious, 217.
64. See Krauss, Michel, Bataille, et Moi, 13, and Optical Unconscious, 151, 192, and
65. Since the time of Bataille (and for the critics of Tel Quel in particular), the ques-
tion of surrealism has pitted materialists against idealists, Bergsons dis-
placement of this opposition through the term memory becomes all the
more pertinent in this context.
66. Krauss writes: Photography exploits the special connection to reality with
which all photography is endowed. For photography is an imprint or a transfer
off the real; it is a photochemically processed trace causally connected to that
thing in the world to which it refers in a manner parallel to that of fingerprints
or footprints (Originality of the Avant-Garde, 110).
67. Breton, Max Ernst, 246.
68. Ernst, Beyond Painting, 14. Max Ernst stated in 1936 that Magrittes pictures
were collages painted entirely by hand. Cited by David Sylvester in Magritte:
The Silence of the World (New York, 1992), 110.
69. The definition is given in Max Ernst, written for the catalogue of the 1921
exhibit at the Librairie Sans Pareil, republished in Les Pas perdus (Breton, Max
Ernst, 245).
70. Krauss, Michel, Bataille, et Moi, 13. See William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured
Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge, 1994).
71. See Mark Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, 2004).
72. Cited in ibid., 2.
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