Two historicities: Painting & Speech

Painting and language provide two modes of a living historicity, which lead us to understanding the interweaving of all experience.[1] What is distinct in them as modes? What finally justifies their comparison and ultimate unity? How are the historical bands specific to each kind of expression? What differentiates painting as visible and speech as audible expression?[2] In both cases I move to make a past my own in activity (here Merleau-Ponty looks to Hegel). Expression therefore requires work, which makes me, the writer or the painter, responsible for my action. But painting and writing “inherit” the past in different ways. There isn’t one homogenous history (but there is one history), but an essential characteristic of each. In painting, if I want to create, then I must live in a visual conversation with the history of painting, in habituating myself to materials and a style of movement.

In creative speech or writing – Merleau-Ponty uses the example of the novelist – I also live in a conversation with the past; but the two relations are not the same. The latter is a play of phonemes, words, and sonorous vibrations. Each conversation is a labor, and doesn’t spring forth without effort; the past is not merely passively received. That’s why Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the undertaking, the effort, and work.[3] The focus on activity here is needed to show that the history of painting is not a Hegelian “monstrosity” or a supposed “transcendence”, but rather comes from ourselves, our own actions, and therefore is our responsibility. “We would undoubtedly uncover the concept of history in the true sense of the term if we were to get used to modeling it after the example of the arts and language”.[4] So, in expression we have a true relation to the past, in the very movement of its surpassing in creative work.



[1] At the end of the preceding section of the essay, Merleau-Ponty had already contrasted two distinct historicities – one of death, one of life, the “Museum” and the “Library”, as opposed to the labor of the artist or writer. With the latter, living historicity, we have two different modes of expression that are comparable, and thus moments of the one concept.

[2] Is speech invisible? No, not entirely. Not as writing (because it is graphic), and not even as action for it supposes the material production of sound. Although I do not see myself when speaking, I feel my body move, knowing that it is visible. Were I mute, I still see, and perhaps even feel, others speak. But painting has its invisibility in style. And speech has its invisibility too. In these questions, we see that we verge on some of the architectonic matter that inspires Derrida.

[3] See Merleau-Ponty (1964), p.72.

[4] Merleau-Ponty (1964), p.73. This immediately follows an assertion of the identity of expression and Hegel’s dialectic.


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