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Language beyond Representation—Repetition and Performativity

As a reflecting of self back into itself, self-reflection is a form of repetition. We have already seen that all the traditional distinguishing features of lyric—rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance—can quite generally be comprehended as figures of repetition. Also based on repetition are anaphora and etymological figures, where certain radicals are repeated in cognate words, puns, or other sorts of wordplay, particularly in poetry and lyrical prose. At further discursive levels, topoi and tropes are sorts of repetition with a difference or with variation on a theme. These formal modes of repetition open up various contrasting possibilities for concrete, historical instantiation.

Olivier Boulnois’s archeology of the visual in the Middle Ages is based on the distinction between, on the one hand, the representative use of the image to refer to an original that it resembles or otherwise evokes and, on the other hand, the image as a double that does not represent something else so much as repeat its features in an autonomous instance. The latter has a force all its own rather than being derivative from and dependent on an original to which it refers. An absolute, perfect image (like Christ as “the image of the invisible God,” Colossians 1:15) becomes rather a sort of double or repetition, not just a copy whose essential being consists in referring to its original source. Such an image is what it refers to and yet also lets the latter be another, further instantiation. Of course, an image can also block or deflect access to what it represents. This bifurcation in the ontological valence of images opens up an ambiguity: “The image ... hesitates between veracity and vanity. In viewing the world through an image, man accedes to truth; in losing the world through the image, he errs in vanity” (“1’image ... hésite entre vérité et vanité. En visant le monde par l’image, l’homme accède à la vérité”).

The thinking involved in the true use of images is not representation of an object so much as a form of repetition of the real. In this medieval tradition of thought about representation and expression in the image,


Olivier Boulnois, Au-delà de l’image: Une archéologie du visuel au Moyen Âge (Ve-XVIe siècle) (Paris: Seuil, 2008), 11.

according to Boulnois, the image is “expressive” of the causal principle that produces it (“le propre de l’image réside dans son caractère expressif, c’est-à-dire sa dépendance envers un principe productif,” 28). There is an organic genetic relation flowing from the cause to its expression. Being an expression of one’s cause is still the fundamental principle of Spinoza’s philosophy, as Deleuze’s reading of him effectively demonstrates.[1] Yet this real connection is all but completely effaced by modern representation, which is an arbitrary production by a subject of an “appearance” (see section 28).

Through an image, one can relate to the reality of which it is the image. This relation can even be given as a direct expression rather than only being forged via representation. In a Christian spiritual key, this is what Orthodox icons do. Dante in the Paradiso likewise brings about by “repetition” through poetic language a direct connection of the soul with an invisible, inconceivable God. In practically proto-Protestant fashion before any sectarian separation, his words do not just strive to represent the invisible, unrepresentable God but rather facilitate an aniconic experience opening the soul to direct receptivity and communion with the divine. They can connect the soul im-mediately with its Cause in God.

The word-magic of modern poets enshrined, for example, in Rimbaud’s “Alchemie du verbe” derives still from the type of poetic theurgy that one can descry being invented in the Paradiso. By his “verbal alchemy” in Une saison en enfer, Rimbaud releases the source of what Dante recognizes as a divine energy within. The verbal magic in question works essentially by reflection and, more specifically, self-reflection. Rimbaud’s language loses objective, realistic reference, most patently in the lyrically condensed compositions of Les Illuminations (a title evoking traditions of mystic awakening) in order to create inner-linguistic, or language immanent, referentiality that opens an infinite world of its own selfengendering? In light of Dante’s Paradiso, these revolutionary modern poetics show up as repeating transfigurations of the real by the alchemy of words in medieval poetics. Alchemy was a powerful and ambiguous discourse in the Middle Ages, and it has a conspicuous place in Dante’s poetics. Dante deploys an alchemical verbal magic of repetition already in his rime petrose or “stony rhymes” and all through the Commedia, mixing language’s own internal resources in savant combinations apt to conjure a new reality.

Language beyond Representation 213

  • [1] Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza et le problème de l’expression. Following up on this theme is Simon Duff}', Quality, Quantity and Intensity in Spinoza, Hegel and Deleuze (London: Routledge, 2016). 2 Roger Little, Rimbaud’s Illuminations (Valencia: Grant & Cutler, 1983). 3 Theodor Ziolkowski, The Alchemist in Literature: From Dante to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
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