Jacques Derrida: Artaud the Moma

Artaud the Moma Book Cover Artaud the Moma
Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts
Jacques Derrida. Edited with an afterword by Kaira M. Cabañas. Translated by Peggy Kamuf.
Columbia University Press
Paperback $20.00 £14.99

Reviewed by: R.A. Goodrich (ARC Centre for History of Emotions – University of Melbourne & ADI European Philosophy & History of Ideas –Deakin University)

This essay reviews a lecture by Jacques Derrida regarding Antonin Artaud. However, we should immediately note that Derrida is not discussing a philosopher or even a philosophical system. Instead, he rhetorically embraces Artaud in Artaud’s own terms, namely, that Artaud is not an artist nor is his work art as conventionally understood. Alternatively expressed, Derrida appears to be engaging in a rhetorical performance in the guise of a lecture as both an homage to Artaud and a provocation of the artistic establishment. Hence, for the vast majority of readers of Phenomenological Reviews, this could well be a problematic starting point for an analysis of Artaud and his late work.

On at least half-a-dozen occasions since the mid-’sixties, Derrida has written or spoken about the confronting avant-garde artist Antonin Artaud. His extended October 1996 lecture at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, translated here by Peggy Kamuf, took place at an exhibition of drawings-and-writing on paper undertaken between 1937 and 1948. These works were grouped sequentially. The first group comprised specifically dated and addressed “Spells” crafted from 1937 which were also clinically regarded as a symptom of Artaud’s severe psychological dislocation. The second group emanated from the Rodez psychiatric hospital between 1943 and 1946 which has since been associated with Artaud’s acute physical pain resulting from repeated electro-convulsive therapy. Finally, MoMA included a series of asymmetrically positioned portraits and self-portraits executed at a private clinic in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris, Ivry-sur-Seine, that were exhibited at Galerie Pierre in July 1947. Unfortunately, none of these works are reproduced with the English translation. This is all the more so when, for the 1947 exhibition’s catalogue, Artaud wrote a prose-poem in which he declared:

the human face,
in fact, wears
a perpetual death of sorts
on its face
which it is incumbent on the painter precisely
to save it from
by restoring
its own features


and which Derrida (40ff.) interprets as giving us a clue to Artaud’s vociferous view of the artworld.

Derrida’s originally untitled lecture forms part of Columbia University Press’s monograph series in philosophy, social criticism, and the arts. This series construes philosophy beyond its academic strictures “to embrace forms of discussion” in which the conventions or „rules of social, political, and cultural practice are both affirmed and challenged; and where new thinking takes place.” (ii) Derrida fulfils the series’ goals as, in part, he continues his 1986 essay on Artaud’s conception of le subjectile. There, he also probed the relationship of drawing and writing (“pictograms”) in terms of at least three consequences. The relationship is one where the conventions of language are made extremely problematic; where Artaud’s creative practices are better construed in terms of force rather than form—his piercing and scorching of the material being used is not simply to foreground the material but also the very activity of Artaud himself—and where the deliberate act of employing brute or clumsy techniques intensifies the spectator’s response to the nature of the encounter between artist and medium. Derrida’s Manhattan response to the sheer frenetic, if not contrary, nature of Artaud’s language is at times no less frantic as he explores how Artaud, on the basis of only a few artefacts—notably the July 1947 portrayal of Jany de Ruy—undercuts the aesthetic categories said to be upheld by MoMA, North America’s leading modernist museum. Amongst these institutionally sanctioned categories, Derrida includes artistic originality and techniques as well as artistic history and influences. Derrida also fulfils the goals of the Columbia series in that he explores the aesthetic realm by way of his widely disseminated interpretive strategies of singularity and repetition. Time and again, these are deployed in the lecture, occasionally without providing listeners an overt rationale, possibly because Derrida may have assumed an audience sufficiently acquainted with his linguistic and phenomenological pre-occupations.

Firstly, we shall briefly sketch his polysemous approach enacted from the beginning of his lecture which sets the scene for the lecture as a whole. Next, we shall examine the approach more closely (without resorting to the derogatory tone that has characterised so many Anglophone responses to Derrida’s prolific writings as exemplified by the multiple accusations of J.R. Searle (1983)). Finally, we shall conclude by raising a number of questions that the published lecture leaves unanswered for its readers nowadays.

Unlike the way he questions the underlying, idealised conceptual schemes of past philosophers such as Immanuel Kant or Edmund Husserl, Derrida’s handling of artists as Artaud the Moma rapidly demonstrates is quite different. Whether Franz Kafka or James Joyce, Paul Celan or Francis Ponge to mention but four literary artists whom he had discussed before the 1996 MoMA lecture, his approach is notably distinctive. He particularly focuses upon specific works, specific words, as intensely singular events. Indeed, in an April 1989 interview with Derek Attridge, Derrida elaborates upon the very experience of singularity characteristic of reading (or viewing) modernist artefacts of the twentieth century, including Artaud himself. Although the “‘historical solidarity’ of literature and the history or tradition of metaphysics must be constantly recalled, even if the differences, the distances must be pointed out,” there remains “a task inherent in the experience of reading or writing” which does not “mean that all reading or all writing is historicized.” (1989: 54) What is this experiential, as distinct from historical or metaphysical, task? It is

to give space for singular events, to invent something new in the form of acts of writing which no longer consist in a theoretical knowledge […] to give oneself to a poetico-performativity at least analogous to that of promises, orders […] which do not only change language, or which, in changing language, change more than language. (1989: 55)

When Attridge raises the question of a longstanding claim of “traditional” literary criticism that “it heightens or reveals the uniqueness, the singularity, of the text upon which it comments,” Derrida concedes that a work or oeuvre “takes place just once” and hence “Attention to history, context, and genre is necessitated, and not contradicted, by this singularity” providing we keep in mind “the date and the signature of the work […] which constitute or institute the very body of the work.” (1989: 67-68) Yet, no matter how paradoxically, we also must concede that for a work to

become readable, it has to be divided, to participate and belong […] in the genre, the type, the context, […] the conceptual generality of meaning, etc. It loses itself to offer itself. (1989: 68)

To that extent, singularity is “deferred”

to be what it is and to be repeated in its very singularity. There would be no reading of the work—nor any writing to start with—without this iterability [….] And any work is singular in that it speaks singularly of both singularity and generality. (1989: 68)

For this reason, we encounter such assertions in the Manhattan lecture as an artwork “is archivable because iterable, in the museum and in the history of art”; in fact, in all those institutions “which the work attacks.” (45)  However, Derrida continues, “for there to be iterability” or repetition, there must also be “the singular event of […] its indisputable occurrence.” (45)

Against this apparently paradoxical background, let us now return to the very opening of Artaud the Moma. Derrida immediately intones the question inscribed vertically adjacent to the pastel blue bordering the pencilled full-face portrait of Jany de Ruy, dated on a Wednesday, the 2nd July 1947, in Ivry-sur-Seine:

            And who
            will say
            what? (1)

Derrida seizes upon the fact that we are not simply encountering a “rhetorical question”; rather, it is one he is “miming” and “relaunching,” “framing” and “immobilizing,” if not ultimately “pretending to install […] today” (1)—Thursday evening, the 10th October 1996, in an exhibition at MoMA. In short, any of us can “decipher right here […] this mute interrogation that, in effect, says nothing at all: neither who nor what.” (2)  By such means, his audience is thrust into the realm of the deictic utterance and whether or not it can be understood by virtue of the meanings of words or of its actual context, if not both. Derrida’s reply is one captured earlier by one similarly albeit sceptically wrestling with phenomenological issues, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein comments about the deictic utterance, “After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before,” as follows:

Do I understand this sentence? Do I understand it just as I would if I heard it in the course of a report? If I stood alone, I’d say I don’t know what it’s about. But all the same, I’d know how this sentence might perhaps be used; I could even invent a context for it.
(A multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions.) (1945: § 525)


After pursuing the analogy of understanding the meaning of an utterance with that of understanding a musical theme, Wittgenstein ends:

Hearing a word as having this meaning. How curious that there should be such a thing!
Phrased like this, emphasized like this, heard in this way, this sentence is the beginning of a transition to these sentences, pictures, actions.
(A multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions.) (1945: §534)


In sum, Derrida, continuing to draw upon other instances of word meanings throughout the lecture—for instance, le coup, la foudre, and le mômo—each with an indefinite number of associations and contexts, pithily declares: “This work is not exhausted in a discourse.” (56)

Consequently, the portrait of Jany de Ruy “overruns” Derrida’s own discourse. (56) It does so because, on the one hand, “it gives itself its own body one single and unique time in an event that is both irreplaceable and serial,” and, on the other hand, the “event, at the moment of signing, recognizes no soothing status for itself, no assured stability: neither as a drawing […] nor as work of art in the tradition of a history of art or […] the culture of a museographic canonization.” (56)

At this juncture, Derrida re-assembles Artaud’s vertically inscribed question (quoted above) to ask his audience, “Where are we today? […] This evening?” before responding on its behalf with:

We are within the walls of a MoMA. What is a MoMA? What does museum of modern Art mean? In this very place, who would take place? To say what?” (56)

Shifting the onus from artefact to institution, Derrida abjures any attempt to define visual art (or artists) by its (or their) empirical or concrete properties, let alone abstract or metaphysical ones. Gleaned from his comments about Artaud throughout the lecture, it is apparent that for Derrida there is no work of art in general except when those institutions—galleries, schools, museums—insist on grouping individual works together and, one might add, the spatio-temporal manner by which they are best viewed. Nor can institutional efforts to distinguish between stylistic forms and represented content hold with any clarity or certainty: content can no more be abstracted from style than a representation from what is represented. Oddly, Derrida pays no attention to institutional definitions of art, against which Artaud constantly rails, in terms of the horns of a dilemma first pinpointed by Richard Wollheim (1980: 160-164). If, for example, those conferring artistic status—be they critics, teachers, or scholars—have good reason for taking some object to be an artistic work, then all that these institutional representatives have done is to confirm a status already had before their act of conferral and so they can dispense with the need to define artistic works in institutional terms. If, by contrast, those conferring artistic status were ultimately to deny that a good reason is ever needed or could be articulated for taking some object to be an artistic work, then the very point or value of attributing the status of art to anything appears to be quite arbitrary and hence any institutional definition would fail to provide us with a necessary criterion in the first place.

So, how are we to experience, to understand, Artaud’s work if institutional interpretations are illusory? One will fail to understand, declares Derrida,

if one does not hear his voice, if one does not attune oneself to the tempo of his letters and the rhythm of his words beyond coded language, beyond its grammar and its instituted semantics. (57)

Imbued with Artaud’s April 1947 text, “Ten years since language left,” Derrida excerpts the following:

By a blow…
of the tongue
by my black pencil pressing

and that’s all. (22; cf. 1986: 113 & 121)

These words epitomise the sheer force of Artaud’s drawings and their capacity for

transforming the aesthete’s body, [for] changing these transient guests who, having come as visitors or voyeurs into a museum, would claim to be mere spectators. Woe to these contemplators and consumers of images. (60)

Understanding Artaud also requires “a slow, careful, inflamed, vocalized reading” of all his contemporaneous texts “preceded by subtle and audacious protocols of interpretation.” (63)  Indeed, continues Derrida, “without the experience of these texts, without meditation on these protocols, without recasting everything from top to bottom,” both bodily and cognitively, we shall fail to experience the drawings and, at best, will merely “indulge in some aesthetic tourism.” (67)

Having now sampled some pivotal passages of the Manhattan lecture, how, for readers nowadays, does Derrida himself understand Artaud’s drawings, especially in 1947 when Artaud re-iterates his protest against any suggestion that his portraits and self-portraits are skilfully “academic” and have not truly broken from “those great figures in the history of art” be their work figurative or non-figurative? (37 & 42) Accepting Artaud at his word, Derrida admits that there is one exception, “only one avowed figure of a legitimate and legitimating ancestor,” namely Vincent van Gogh. (43). However, unlike his essay on Artaud’s conception of le subjectile (1986: 96ff.), Derrida stops short of explicitly delving into Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. In it, Artaud asks of someone he regards as “great a writer as he was a painter”:

What is the use of describing a painting by van Gogh! No description attempted by anyone else could be worth the simple alignment of natural objects and hues to which van Gogh gives himself, (1947: 498)

and consequently concludes:

So I shall not describe a painting of van Gogh after van Gogh [upon citing his letters  such as those of the 8th September 1888 and the 23rd July 1890], but I shall say that van Gogh is a painter because he recollected nature, because he reperspired it and made it sweat, because he squeezed onto his canvases in clusters, in monumental sheaves of color, the grinding of elements that occurs once in a hundred years, the awful elementary pressure of apostrophes, scratches, commas, and dashes which, after him, one can no longer believe that natural appearances are not made of.

And what an onslaught of repressed jostlings, ocular collisions taken from life, blinkings taken from nature, have the luminous currents of the forces which work on reality had to reverse before being finally driven together and, as it were, hoisted onto the canvas, and accepted?

There are no ghosts in the paintings of van Gogh, no visions, no hallucinations. (1947: 499)

In van Gogh, Artaud finds a painter only “and nothing more.” (1947: 502) In other words, there is “no philosophy, no mysticism, no ritual, no psychurgy or liturgy” to seek on canvas; indeed, “no history, no literature, or poetry.” (1947: 502) By such logic, understanding is re-directed:

These sunflowers of bronzed gold are painted; they are painted as sunflowers and nothing more, but in order to understand a sunflower in nature, one must go back to van Gogh, just as in order to understand a storm in nature,
stormy sky,
a field in nature […] (1947: 502-503)

To attend to van Gogh’s work itself is to attend to the actualities of his medium:

Painter, nothing but a painter, van Gogh adopted the techniques of pure painting and  never went beyond them.
I mean that in order to paint he never went beyond the means that painting offered  him. (1947: 503)

By quoting Artaud liberally, we have attempted to elicit the degree to which Artaud’s encounter with van Gogh above often parallels Derrida’s with Artaud. More bluntly expressed, does Artaud’s rationale for avoiding descriptions of van Gogh’s work exhibited at the Orangerie in Paris between January and March 1947 function as a precursor for Derrida’s similar avoidance with respect to Artaud’s works exhibited at MoMA between October 1996 and January 1997? Or, as a way of disputing Derrida’s reliance upon Artaud here, are readers meant to presume that Derrida’s lecture is a manifestation of what he had long held about the nature of rhetorical acts which include acts of describing and hypothesizing, evaluating and observing?  For example, in his 1974 essay on Stéphane Mallarmé, Derrida succinctly claims that rhetoric contains a “hidden philosophy,” one exclusively tied to “the meaning of a text” or “its content.” (1974: 113) What rhetoric fails to do is “deal with signifying forms (whether phonic or graphic) or with the effects of syntax, at least as far as semantic control does not dominate them.” (1974: 114) Hence, for rhetoric or any act of description “to have something to see or to do before a text, a meaning has to be determinable.” (1974: 114) Not unlike Mallarmé’s texts, it may be counter-argued, Artaud’s texts for Derrida seem to be organised such that meaning remains indeterminate (“undecidable”) at which point “the signifier no longer lets itself be traversed, it remains, resists, exists and draws attention to itself.” (1974: 114)

It is scarcely controversial to say that the Manhattan lecture is far more focused on the writing accompanying and within Artaud’s hybrid work on paper. Yet, curiously, Derrida makes no mention of the fact that the full-face portrait of Jany de Ruy (amongst many others at the time) is a double portrait; it has Artaud’s portrait embedded within it. What does such an omission indicate? More particularly, what does it imply about the role Derrida has assigned to his audience, to those fulfilling the role of spectators (cf. 14, 33) or witnesses and, for that matter, to himself?

To begin with the latter, the lecture closes on what at first appears to be a confession. Referring to the months before the lecture, Derrida talks of being taken to court and put on trial by Artaud as both plaintiff and prosecutor in a scene incessantly, if not obsessively, in which Derrida hears Artaud’s voice: “I see nothing, I see no one, but I hear him,” Artaud, who “cries out at me.” (71) Haunted by the return of Artaud-Mômo on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, not as a “visible apparition” at MoMA, but as the ghost of his voice which, “by sacred mission or commission, it would be my job to play at guarding for a moment, the bodyguard, right here, of a voice from beyond-the-grave.” (71-72) Next, after capturing the voices of the dead Paule Thévenin (to whom the lecture is dedicated (26)) and Antonin Artaud (whose voice recorded in November 1947 for his radio play To Have Done with the Judgment of God prefaces and concludes the lecture), Derrida qualifies his role: “The bodyguard of Artaud’s voice—which I am not and do not wish to be but which I have perhaps acted for once—sees nothing but he lends an ear.” (74)

What are we to make of this tale and its bearing, not upon the concept of the artist or maker, but upon the equally crucial concept of spectator or witness of the visual arts? To what extent is Derrida enacting the stance taken six years earlier in the 1990 catalogue, presented in the form of a dialogue, for an exhibition at the Louvre of drawings he selected? There, he postulates:

In fact, a witness, as such, is always blind. Witnessing substitutes narrative for perception. The witness cannot see, show, and speak at the same time […] No authentification can show in the present what the most reliable of witnesses […] has seen and now keeps in memory. (1990: 104)

On the one hand, does this proposal resonate with his longstanding objection to any phenomenological commitment to direct perception, especially visual perception, as the means of garnering experiential facts or truths? After all, Derrida implies, no witness can retrospectively demonstrate through his or her perceptual modality (whether helped or not by electronic prostheses) what event or phenomenon is to be witnessed. Does the above proposal, at the same time, bolster his belief in the efficacy, no matter how contingently or momentarily, of writing and drawing to mediate and ultimately transform experience? On the other hand, does this conception of witnessing—whether his own or his audience’s—exonerate, as it were, not recognising or seeing the full-face portrait of Jany de Ruy as a double portrait?  Again, is the witness’s shift from the visual to the rhetorical, to narrative discourse, consistent with Derrida’s underlying appeal to the vocally performative “something vision alone would be incapable of”? (1990: 122) Finally, there appear to be other aspects of the role of witness Derrida neglects. His conception of narrative associated with the role of the witness leaves open whether it accommodates both the temporal and the evaluative dimensions of narrative or remains limited to the temporal alone? Nor does his notion of witness take account of circumstances where sighting an event and avowals of its occurrence take place simultaneously in such cases as witnessing signatures. Moreover, there are also cases of spectators or witnesses viewing an event or phenomenon whilst simultaneously verbalising a running commentary about it in speech directed at others (or at self) as exemplified by sports commentators or gallery guides.

As stated at the onset of this review, Derrida’s lecture seems to be a problematic starting point for an actual analysis of Artaud and his late work. Ultimately, for readers less familiar with the visual arts and with Derrida’s approach to them (designated as “a poetico-performativity” (1989: 55)), perhaps there is something to be said for Mary Ann Caws’ prefatory observation to her translation of Derrida (1986). There, she notes, the text might be better read “like a musical score” as Artaud would say of his own writing and, as Derrida remarked about his selection of works from Artaud, he “won’t be describing any paintings” let alone their development. (1986: xii)

Thanks are particularly owed to musician and composer Elissa Goodrich for alerting me to issues raised by performance theory.



Artaud, Antonin. 1947. Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. In Selected Writings. Edited by Susan Sontag; translated by Helen Weaver, 483-512. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

Attridge, Derek. 1989. “‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’: An Interview with Jacques Derrida.” In Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature. Edited by Derek Attridge; translated by Geoffrey Bennington & Rachel Bowlby, 33-75. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.

Derrida, Jacques. 1974. “Mallarmé.” In Acts of Literature. Edited by Derek Attridge; translated by Christine Roulston, 110-126. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.

————-1986. “To Unsense the Subjectile.” In Jacques Derrida & Paule Thévenin, The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud. Abridged translation by M.A. Caws, 61-157. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

————-1990. Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

————–1996. Artaud the Moma: Interjections of Appeal. Edited by K.M. Cabañas; translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Searle, J.R. 1983. “The Word Turned Upside Down.” The New York Review of Books 30(16): 74-79.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1945. Philosophical Investigations, 4th rev. edn. Edited by P.M.S. Hacker & Joachim Schulte; translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker & Joachim Schulte. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Wollheim, R.A. 1980. “The Institutional Theory of Art.” In Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays, 2nd edn., 157-166. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schreibe einen Kommentar