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Post-structuralism and post-its: the use and misuse of critical theory in the visual arts

by Ingrid Luquet-Gad

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Concerning philosophers of French Theory, the newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné once stated that it was “the equivalent of Post-its in stationary: apparently they’re stuck onto everything” (8 October 1997). This was an accurate statement that was far from ill-founded. From theoretical writing on art through to the artworks of certain artists, it must be concluded that that the citational muscle 
is very often flexed: relieved of their original textual context, certain segments of discourse are atomised and circulate from text to text, from text to artwork, from artwork to text. The death of the subject, map and territory, desire as channels – theories become symbols that can be manipulated.

In fact, this reception of post-structuralist authors that we refer to here under the umbrella term of “French Theory” – Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, or Roland Barthes, to name but a limited corpus – does not  constitute such a fundamental shift from its origins. Among these authors, to varying degrees, there is effectively a shared propensity to incorporate this dispersion within the very form of their demonstrations. That is even the whole point, since in so doing it ratifies the decline of universalist discourses and the “linguistic watershed” of philosophy. When knowledge renounced its heuristic power, thrown into crisis by the development of modern sciences, it shifted from the world and into statements; it is now through language that the philosopher is able to offer clarifications.

From the explosion of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, a series of propositions that we can – and should – interpret every which way, to the 264 notices by Lyotard in The Differend, dictated by the event of a phrase that “happens” and that one must irretrievably, since “a silence is a phrase” and “there is no last phrase”1, a concept of dispersion is established. From this dispersion, readers find themselves constrained into finding meaning: Barthes says in his text on the death of the author that readers are now the ones that “hold together all the threads of the discourse”, since the author himself works off material that is given in advance and that he merely recomposes: based on implicit citations, so to speak. Therefore, for Barthes, “it is language that speaks, not the author”.2

These concepts, divisible and manipulable blocks, post-its or Lego pieces, thus condition and demand a performative reception on the part of the reader: a thinking through doing. Theories become tools. This is precisely the story of the reception of French theory, which has taken on forms giving rise to a new corpus that is sometimes very far removed from the authors’ original intentions, which François Cusset broaches in his book French Theory.3

Such usage was contained in embryonic form among the post-structuralist authors. Furthermore, Lyotard spelled it out: “In writing this book, the A.* had the feeling that his sole addressee was the Is it happening? It is to it that the phrases which happen call forth. And, of course, he will never know whether or not the phrases happen to arrive at their destination, and by hypothesis, he must not know it”, going as far as to qualify this ignorance, several lines further on, as “the ultimate resistance”4. Moreover, the favourable reception of French Theory in the United States falls within the bounds of a two-fold untranslatability: that of an a-referential language on the one hand (the phrase, recalls Lyotard, is the first milestone that the whole system is built on), but also French idioms and neologisms that are only able to find an equivalent in English with difficulty, thus accentuating the tendency of thinking in fragments and citations. 

Among artists, the fruitfulness of these authors was immediate and of unprecedented scope. Particularly in New York, in the years 1975-76, when a young generation (the one that followed the minimalist and conceptual artist-thinkers) was moving towards a more intuitive practice, while not giving up on finding theoretical foundations, a posteriori.5 French Theory came along at the right time. While the use or the instrumentalisation in itself must therefore not be condemned – as a symptom of the revival of extremely fertile exchanges between theory and practice – the list of misunderstandings is nonetheless a long one.

Among these, Baudrillard’s reception in the field of fine arts in the United States is doubtless one of the most striking examples. And it bears witness to an interpretation that was aligned, on the part of the visual arts, with the model of “applied theory” based on linguistics6, marking its apogee but also signalling a radical break away from this model. In 1987, the impact of the English translation of Baudrillard’s Simulacres and Simulation was immediate: in the space of just two months, a whole generation of young artists had read and integrated him within their thinking. Until the author publicly refuted this application at a conference at the Whitney Museum the same year: Simulacres and Simulation was not an artistic statement, but an anthropological diagnosis of the state of the art world – the simulacre could not find a plastic application.7

This schema that was dominant in the 1970s faded while still remaining active in the 1980s, as the “Baudrillard moment” testifies to. It was only called into question from the 1990s onwards. Baudrillard, influenced by the Situationists and their disdain for art critics, was already announcing the post-critical watershed that we now see flourishing today.

What, then, brought about certain contemporary practices that emerged in the wake of the digital era? These practices work within the system of images, they do not seem to make any use of theory: the citation is displaced; it no longer operates as a bridge between the written text and the visual, but remains circumscribed solely within the visual field. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that there are no longer any written theories that take art as their subject. But critical theory itself, or at least in its most innovative developments, is constituted at the same time as its subject: it is no longer an interpretative framework through which artworks can be seen, classified, or rendered adaptable to the market.

Setting the French model of the post-it aside, the new geography of post-post-structuralist and post-critical theory turns to Germany: the Benjaminian model8 of an immanent method of criticism is making a comeback. This is the case of a whole current of anti-correlationist thinkers, also referred to by the controversial term of “speculative realism”, who seek to surpass the relationship between a perceiving subject and a perceived object. As one of their number, Armen Avanessian, accurately sums it up: “What would a collaboration of philosophy and literary or artistic production look like that would abandon the idea that works of art illustrate theories or that theories explain works of art, thereby discovering the ‘critical potential’ they contain?”9


  1. Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele, 1988, University of Minnesota Press, p. xii. “A phrase ‘happens’. How can it be linked onto? By its rule, a genre of discourse supplies a set of possible phrases, each arising from some phrase regimen. Another genre of discourse supplies another set of other possible phrases. There is a differend between these two sets (or between the genres that call them forth) because they are heterogeneous. And linkage must happen “now” [...] It’s a necessity; time, that is. There is no non-phrase. Silence is a phrase. There is no last phrase."
  2. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”. UbuWeb Pages, p 3. Accessed on 5 April 2015: www.tbook.constantvzw.org/
  3. François Cusset, French Theory, Paris, La Découverte, 2005. * “the A.” means “the Author” - ed.
  4. Jean-François Lyotard. Ibid., p. xvi.
  5. Through the impetus of the magazines October and Semiotext(e), and with a key event in the form of the “Schizo-Culture” conference organised by Sylvère Lotringer, the editor in chief of Semiotext(e), in 1975. For many, this was their first encounter with the masters of French Theory, and which also gave rise to the constitution of Franco-American tandems: Foucault and Burroughs, Deleuze and Cage.
  6. John Rajchman, “How to Do the History of French Theory in the Visual Arts: A New York Story”. In May n°10, April 2013, p. 38 “(…) the 1980s, when theory in the strict sense of the word was to take on a new role, one that was very different from the ‘applied theory’ based on linguistics of the initial form of structuralist film theory, which was narratological or psychoanalytical.” [Our translation]
  7. Sylvère Lotringer, The Piracy of Art, www.ubishops.ca/ “ ‘Simulation,’ for him, is not a thing. It is nothing in itself. It only means that there isn’t any more original in contemporary culture, only replicas of replicas. ‘Simulation,’ he retorted, ‘couldn’t be represented or serve as a model for an artwork.’ If anything, it is a challenge to art.”
  8. Howard Caygill on Benjamin (“speculative concept of criticism”, “method of immanent critique”).
  9. Armen Avanessian, in the introduction to: Armen Avanessian and Andreas Töpfer, Speculative Drawing: 2011-2014, Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2014, p. 10

Translated from the French by Anna Knight


Ingrid Luquet-Gad

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