Preface to ‘The Brain-Eye’

Translator’s Preface to Éric Alliez and Jean-Clet Martin’s The Brain-Eye: New Histories of Modern Painting

A major work of—and beyond—philosophical aesthetics, a dense and perplexing multiplicity of a text, but one infused by an irrepressible and compelling élan, at once a set of discontinuous “plateaus” which the reader must learn to assemble and a series of lyrical sallies of cumulative intensity and momentum, The Brain-Eye conducts its rediscovery of the plural powers of painting through an experiment in writing and an audacious (de)construction of the book-form. In a manner that recalls Gilles Deleuze’s refusal of “the” history of philosophy as a teleological progression with a common finality, and his insistence instead on a “history of problems” (in the entirely positive sense he gives to the term), the chapters that make up The Brain-Eye set out to overcome a set of obstacles erected by art history and the philosophy of art so as to arrive at an understanding of the singular problems that trouble and motivate protagonists whom we once imagined we knew, as, between the practice of painting and the discursive conceptualisation of the new modes of seeing it engenders, they bring to the surface of painting the materiality of the visual. Patiently reconstructing the itineraries of these singular voyages, negotiating the byways of received opinion, critical commentary, and the never straightforward relation between painters’ writings and sayings and their practice, the author gives us a series of “case studies” each of which can each be read as a self-contained history, but which are raised to their highest power when one perceives, braided together across them, a set of transversal threads that make of the book a whole that greatly exceeds its parts.

This textual dispositif harbours a writing machine that is as meticulous in its employment of a formidable corpus of secondary materials as it is intransigent in its exuberant refusal to submit writing to the demands of “communication” by collapsing its perplexities, resonances, and reiterations into a “clear” propositional form (as if the thickness of writing was merely the result of an obdurate refusal to make things explicit, rather than the necessary prerequisite of a real engagement with matters that overflow a strictly discursive frame). This is therefore a book that leaves the reader no choice but to participate actively in a construction that is laid out precisely and delicately, touch by touch, in order to realise a whole whose “finish” is that of an all-over effect rather than a transparent encapsulation: a definitively incomplete whole which, by means of its conceptual warp and weft, continually maintains in tension a set of forces that it falls to the reader to negotiate.

In staging these histories which operate a mutual complication of philosophical aesthetics and art history, Éric Alliez brings before us a cast of characters whose aspect is equally unfamiliar to both disciplines—Delacroix the Turk; Seurat the extra-terrestrial automaton; a serialist Manet, a logician Cézanne glaring at us with the enucleated eyes of a skull…—in the process puncturing biographical legend and shattering critical commonplaces (Delacroix’s Orient is absolutely determinative yet the “outside” it brings to light is hardly that of the orientalist imaginary; Cézanne’s dedication to “nature” and his “provençal blood” only serve to obscure the rigor of his endless labour “on the motif”; Gauguin is a potter even when he’s a painter, and his “exoticism” pertains to a land more foreign yet than the luxuriant tropics, a new earth…). As evidenced by the precise analyses of selected paintings that serve as focal points for each of the chapters (and which will serve the reader as the most potent proof of the penetrating force of their arguments when consulted with—at least—a reproduction to hand), these audacious figures are the direct result of the author’s decision to attend exclusively to what is realised in the practice of painting itself—or rather, practices plural.

For upon entering into this open-air theatre we must also abandon a linear narrative of the history of art—that of a chain of successors who break with the past and advance in the direction of some ulterior finality—in favour of an untimely and imageless history of researcher-painters who, between them but never in unison, project, construct, and hallucinate, from the middle (par le milieu), the virtual field of forces that is modern painting. To extract these kernels of painter-thought, Alliez patiently peels off the petrified carapace of historical cliché, hagiographic doggerel, and indurate myth, allowing us to see the paintings once more, attending to the movement of thought deposited in them, and registering the tension implied by the continual struggle of painters to say what they do, or at least to distance themselves from what is said of them and on their behalf. As these overcodings fall away, what is revealed is the style of each subject: style as a habitus, a culture unto itself, at once overdetermined by a multiplicity of influences and intuitions and resolute in the obsessive pursuit of its singular problem. These disparate microcultures, in their turn, are over the course of the book patiently worked into a broader vision of the modernity of painting, with the “plateaus” coming together and interlocking at unexpected moments and unanticipated angles. Thus The Brain-Eye confronts us with a punctual set of historical events, observations, causes and effects, surface formations rebarbative to any kind of dialectical or narrative reconciliation, while at the same time indicating the continuity of a subterranean plane of consistency whose unearthing will require an unprecedented effort of thought.

Furthermore, beyond analysis and description alone, the writing of each chapter seeks to inhabit the style of its subject. The turbulence of Goethe’s naturephilosophical morphology, the churning cascade of Delacroix’s animal melee, the crisp, stark delivery of Manet’s frontally-lit flatness, the spectral greyness of Seurat, imbue these “portraits of the artist as philosophical persona” with a stylistic energy that makes for an experience of reading we might well qualify as hallucinatory—which is appropriate enough, given that hallucination constitutes the major leitmotif running through the work.

It is the work of Hippolyte Taine (largely neglected in the Anglophone world) that provides the most explicit theoretical basis for the book’s central claim: that throughout the nineteenth century painting became the testbed for experiments in hallucination that ran parallel to the development of psychophysics, which sited sensation in a nervous system and a brain that could offer no guarantee of an organic pre-established harmony of the subject with the external world it perceives. This is not, however, a story of how art was “informed” by science. The brain of the Brain-Eye is not one conducive to a “neuroaesthetics” that would enable us to explain (away) visual effects by reducing them to a causal order independent of the event of seeing; no more than its eye is one that would—in line with the strategy of Merleau-Ponty, the philosophical enemy of choice here—allow the philosopher to avert such an “objectivizing” catastrophe by rooting the visual firmly in a lived body and its antepredicative enmeshment with the “flesh of the world.” The Brain-Eye is an inhuman eye, and in its wake the phenomenology of the wordly subject and of its “flesh” and the devitalized physics of an unseen light must both yield to the divagations of an alien subjectile, the bizarre developments of a phaneroscopic eye that belongs to no one, and which is deployed by the researcher-painter-seer in order to map out a vision yet to come.

The primary element of these researches is colour: as detailed in the opening chapter on Goethe, colour has long provoked a “philosophical rage” because it has proved impossible to collapse onto the side of either the subject or the object of modern philosophy. The differential, intensive dimension of colour—the raw material of painting—perishes when colour is reduced to being an epiphenomenon of the physical realm, and yet, as the enterprises of psychophysics showed very clearly, colour phenomena obey a logic that is not purely “subjective.” The logic proper to colour perishes also when it is corralled into a model drawn from another art, whether literary, poetic, or musical, or subjected to the identificatory regime of the traditions of beauty (line and form) or to imaginary conventions (sentiment and symbol). The Brain-Eye details how the break-out of colour from its subservience to all of these extraneous models served as a catalyst for the exploration of a logic proper to the visual as such.

Colour becomes a component in a war machine that enables painting to liberate the matrix of the visual from its local instantiation in the visible and its models, both the artistic academicism that had allotted it a secondary role within an ideal beauty and the everyday modes of representation founded on common apprehensions that buttress the myths of “natural” perception and representation. The autonomisation of colour announces a visual whose relation to the visible world will be attenuated and placed in tension by a series of hallucinatory research programmes, at the same time provoking a “delocalisation” that disrupts representation by favouring the consideration of the picture as a dynamic whole perpetually “unfinished” by the colour-forces deployed within it. Seeing is now conditioned by the hallucinatory powers of the brain-eye in its complicity with colour and in its ceaseless constructive strivings, which the painter unseats from their organic function by manipulating and heightening the exhortations of colour.

In engaging this abstract machine, the painter enters into a becoming-unnatural that corresponds to the movement of naturalization/denaturalization precipitated by the emergence of psychophysics, which, with its postulation of preconscious sensation and its discovery of the continuity between normal and pathological perception, at once placed sensation into the class of natural, law-governed phenomena (a logic of sensation), and revoked the “natural” status of representational perception (an inorganic eye). This enables painting to aspire to a supernaturality that exceeds the actual (“natured nature”), with the painter equipping himself with the prosthesis of an inhuman eye subtracted, at any cost, from the “visual atlas” of common perception. The perceiving subject is stripped of its flesh to reveal a hallucinating automaton, which promptly takes leave of the space of representation and its (perspectival, subjective, mimetic) “point of view”—meaning that the conditions of the pictorial as such must be rethought in the light of the visual. (Here the encounter with photography, in its revelation of a generalised, impersonal visuality, plays a crucial role in several respects, which are explored here in a way that goes well beyond common generalisations regarding its impact on modern painting).

Now, if this virtual field of colour, the province of the brain-eye, constitutes the highest truth of seeing, but one with no trace of actuality (Goethe), then how could the truth in painting be other than a truth of hallucination, and painting the arena of true hallucination (Taine)? The hallucination of a truth in painting that is glimpsed in-between the lines of the visible, that is announced by the insubordination of colour, but is yet to be realised….

To paint is to conceive, as Cézanne insists; and as they paint, painters formulate their own conceptions of what they see. And yet the virtuality of the Brain-Eye is attained not through the peremptory imposition of a theory, but through encounters. At this point, the Deleuzian principle that concepts must be referred back to their sensible conditions and to the “involuntary adventure” of culture comes into play, in a series of narrative sequences the conceptual tenor of which raises them well above the level of biographical anecdote: Goethe is transformed from poet to painter by his Italian voyage; Delacroix’s oriental reveries enable him to anticipate Chevreul’s analysis of colour complementarity, leading him to apply a decorative model to painting (the carpet, not the window); Silently demurring from a miscognised application of Chevreul’s principles, Seurat evades the neatly-drawn line from impressionism to neo-impressionism by disappearing into the grey particles of the photographic emulsion…. In each case, these actual encounters with an outside of painting are only the harbingers of a virtual outside, which each painter must then strive to keep “in focus” and, each in their own way, each struggling with their own problem, realise in (a) practice. The aesthetics (and the critique of aesthetics) proposed here is therefore one that involves experience and experiment, passive synthesis and constructive artifice, with the painter both the receptive patient of accidental passions and an experimental agent striving to construct the new on the basis of an always precarious hold on the evanescent traces of these contingent encounters, percepts that must be registered, retained, and developed in the face of the constant threat of discursive formations that summon them to fall back onto a cartography of the visible world laid out in advance.

Such a radical (transcendental) empiricism effectively disrupts a whole series of structural oppositions and developmental sequences which art history and the “philosophy of art” have tended to assume: evading the double binds of objectivism and subjectivism, realism and naturalism, classicism and romanticism, The Brain-Eye demonstrates how, fuelled by such encounters, the forces of painting ceaselessly insinuate themselves between these lines—and indeed reveal the lines themselves to be an epiphenomenon of their differential play. With a consummate mastery of historical and contemporary secondary materials, Alliez shows how, in the controversies over these generic terms, what is at stake is rarely the real work of the painter-researcher, but rather the shifting sands of political, professional, and sometimes petty motives. Even the allegiances professed in the writings and reported remarks of painters themselves are not primary evidence to be taken at face value, but attest to a constant back-and-forth between the experience/experiment of practice and its discursive translation, whose infelicities only serve to motivate a further return “to the colours themselves.”

Intent on animating a modernity of painting beholden to no inevitable progression, no formalist evacuation, all of this is of a piece with the author’s determination—in the footsteps of these painters and in an advocacy of the singularity of each one of them—to strip away all the modes of intentionality to which the visual has been subordinated, and to return to the (virtual) materiality of painting, all the while resisting another narrative that constantly threatens to take up the baton in the guise of a formalist purification that would dissolve this pluralism by implanting a new finality, that of the abstraction of colour, or of a “pure Painting.” The combination of the episodes recounted in The Brain-Eye yields instead a series of acute points of decision that emerge from the problematic field of modern painting, and which are neither consummations nor impasses, but jumping-off points for the reproblematization of the “truth in painting,” a truth whose effects will also be felt in the philosophical field.

All of this demands a tactical finesse, a great deal of circumspection, and textual manoeuvres whose subtlety and non-linearity are manifest throughout the book, as writing invests the plasticity of painting, relaying and extending the furious patience of the artist as he activates the futural charge compacted within the materiality of colour. Alliez’s flexuous sentences continually coil back upon themselves, amplifying and inflecting, cumulatively adding further touches that transform the aspect of a preceding phrase before its sense has set fast. In multiple recommencements, hesitations, and refrains, the same question or observation will return repeatedly with a new inflection, resetting the course of the argument as it is menaced by the inertial attractors of the readymade images of painting and painters peddled by critics and advocates alike. Thus one must come back to Cézanne, to Gauguin, to Seurat once again—and not even to them “in person” but to the pre-individual singularities that they track and which are the real of their style (a singularity “signed” Gauguin, a Seurat-effect, a Cézanning…)—in a spiralling movement that cumulatively amasses an instrumentarium of concepts coaxed out of the material with an acute and penetrating gaze, utilising semantic shifters, rhythmic devices, and hallucinatory effects that seek to rival the plastic creations they invest. Thus terms that initially seem merely descriptive gradually take on the status of concepts, concepts that therefore will have already been at work, nondiscursively, within painting; a process that also testifies to the outside that philosophy needs in order for it to truly become the art of the “creation of concepts.”

This is how the event of the Brain-Eye emerges, as if in a hallucinatory stereoscopy, from the “overlabour” of the text: not as a chronological development entered into the ledger of art history, but as a virtual event or problematic field whose chronically uneven distribution demands a crooked path, a zigzag line, a series of retouchings that each time change the whole picture; a virtual event that solicits the participation of the viewer-reader in the construction of a tableau which must be seen “from too far away and up too close” in order to appreciate both the ambitious sweep of its argument and the fine details of its “broken touch.”

Needless to say, all of this not only makes demands upon the reader, but also exacerbates further the celebrated impossibility of translation. Alliez convokes into his patchwork theatre a multitude of actors, sometimes with a corroborative function but often ventriloquized in a more subtle and ironic fashion. The precision with which he approaches his materials has in many cases demanded a revisiting of existing translations of these sources, since his local deployment of every phrase is calibrated in view of a global construction whose consistency is rigorously maintained throughout. And then, to this orderly cacophony, the translator inevitably adds his own voice. Despite my intent to prioritize the accessibility and lucid rendering of argument over fidelity to the author’s style, the sensation of the two pulling against each other was impossible to brush aside; in a work such as this, the argument and its mode of delivery are ultimately inextricable. I take full responsibility for the triage I was forced to operate in each instance, and do not trouble the reader with details of the inevitable compromises it entailed. Indeed, I have attempted to avoid as far as possible any emphatic intrusion on the part of the translator, and have only intervened explicitly in the text where it seemed absolutely necessary. I have tried to preserve certain key terms that operate like passwords or instructions for assembly, granting access to the intersections within and between chapters: these recurring formulations which span each of the “cases,” and indicate the points where they are to be coupled, are marked in the original French where necessary. And then we have the Proustian scope of certain sentences which, decanted directly in English, would sometimes be a recipe for sub-Scott-Moncreiffian disaster; this occasionally made reformulation unavoidable, although where possible I have tried to maintain the author’s unremittingly additive, amplificative cascade of prose, its constant kaleidoscopic requalification and transmutation of its own sense.

In attempting to confront discursive thought with the nondiscursive forces that are at work within it, in describing how painting has been broken open by its outside, and in bringing the outside that is the practice of painting to bear upon the philosophical concept, The Brain-Eye makes significant contributions to our understanding of modern art history and of modernity itself, and has seismic consequences for a thinking of the relation of philosophical conceptuality to the logic(s) of sensation at work in visual art—something that should be of immediate interest not just to philosophers and students of painting, but also to those working in the expanded field of contemporary art, which, too often, esteems itself “conceptual” while supposing that the conceptual can be cleanly extricated from its sensate precursors; or generates impoverished encounters with “sensations” (or the “sensational”) that remain burdened by the actuality of the contemporary rather than pregnant with its virtualities. The Brain-Eye plunges into the prehistory of the contemporary only to extract that part of the past which it remains to the future to develop.1 The fruit of many years of fastidious historical research into the art of modernity, it also poses ineluctable questions about the post- or trans-modern prospects of the art and philosophy of tomorrow. Above all it is an exhortation to think and to see, in which content, expression, form, and matter enter into a new alliance which I am sure will be hugely rewarding for readers prepared to surrender themselves to its shimmering, spectral, hallucinatory effects.

  1. Alliez’s recent Défaire l’image: De l’art contemporain (Paris: Les presses du réel, 2013, currently in translation) extends The Brain-Eye in the direction of a critique of aesthetics by emphasizing the necessary discontinuity between a diagrammatics capable of critically addressing contemporary art, and the aesthetics of modern painting, itself an hallucination belonging to the historical ontology of the nineteenth century.