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The “New” Beckett and the Word/Image Parallax: An Infra-Disciplinary Short-Circuit

Le « nouveau » Beckett et la parallaxe du mot et de l’image : Court-circuit infra-disciplinaire
Robert Kilroy


En esquissant les contours d’une nouvelle approche des rapports entre texte et image, cet article s’insère dans le débat relatif au tournant paradigmatique dans le champ des arts visuels. Exemple est pris de l’évolution récente du discours critique sur l’oeuvre de Beckett, évolution que le présent article souhaite confirmer et augmenter. En premier lieu, la problématique texte/image est re-conceptualisée par le biais des écrits de Slavoj Žižek. En m’appuyant sur la notion de “parallaxe mot/image”, je propose une nouvelle approche iconologique qui adapterait les outils de l’histoire de l’art à ceux de la théorie psychanalytique. Le déploiement de ce modèle à des fins d’analyse textuelle littéraire est ensuite justifié du point de vue de la critique littéraire. Il s’agit d’éclairer la logique de la parallaxe à la fois dans la lecture que nous faisons de Beckett, et afin d’ouvrir de nouvelles perspectives critiques. Le champ des études beckettiennes constitue un cas d’école de cette nouvelle rencontre interdisciplinaire – ou plutôt “infradisciplinaire” – entre histoire de l’art et critique littéraire.

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“I am well aware that I am entering here on a terrain which, from the point of view of philosophical criticism, suggests a whole world of references” (Lacan 1981, 21)

“To perceive the relation of signification is to separate the idea of the concept to be expressed from the means of expression. And to perceive the relation of construction is to separate the idea of the function to be fulfilled from the means of fulfilling it” (Panofsky in Fernie 2005, 186)

From word/image problematic to parallax

1W.J.T Mitchell’s 1995 work Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation is considered a paradigmatic text in the field of word/image scholarship. The work concerns itself with a central issue of epistemological struggle, which Mitchell terms “the word/image problematic”: an opposition between an increasing critical urgency to interpret the visual image and a heightened level of theoretical reflexivity that renders interpretation ineffective. Mitchell seeks to resolve this dilemma by offering “theoretical justification for broadening the scope of visual studies” (Bartmanski 10). His solution is twofold. First, he accepts the word/image dichotomy as irreconcilable by opening art history “beyond the comparative study of verbal and visual art and into the construction of the human subject” (Mitchell 1995, 24). Then, he re-imagines a new field in which “an array of disciplines” converges on “the problem of pictorial representation and visual culture” (Mitchell 1995, 9). Only such a pluralist, inter-disciplinary model, Mitchell argues, can account for an interpretative impulse that is limited by its own theoretical presuppositions.

2However, recent scholarship has unearthed an inconsistency in Mitchell’s approach: a contradictory tendency “to radically reconstruct the traditional ontological divide” he claims to overcome (Bartmanski 10). This reassertion of the classical word/image opposition, Bartmanski argues, is evident in Mitchell’s later writings, where the term “picture theory” indicates the two pillars of a master discourse: one term is privileged (visuality) and a single, homogenizing theoretical perspective is imposed. The shift in priorities that characterizes Mitchell’s “revised” iconology (Mitchell 24) thus appears as a type of false opposition. Ultimately, his critique of the classical epistemological framework preserves the foundations of the traditional modernist paradigm. At stake here, Bartmanski writes, is “the paradox of postmodern radicalism” (Bartmanski 9): the simple fact that the suspicion of linguistic structures serves to further reinforce the word/image dualism.

3This issue demonstrates the need for a revised theoretical intervention. A solution to the paradox in question becomes possible when we consider Slavoj Žižek’s notion of the “parallax.” To adopt a parallax view, Žižek explains, one should first resist the temptation to overcome an “irreducible obstacle” like the word/image dichotomy (Žižek 2006b, 4). The aim, instead, is to reach below the dualism to the inherent tension that generates it. By approaching the problematic in purely formal terms, one shifts one’s focus from the gap between to the gap within:

Take a step further and reach beneath the dualism itself, into a “minimal difference” that generates it […] The first critical move is to replace this topic of the polarity of opposites with the concept of the inherent tension, gap, the non-coincidence of the One with itself (Žižek 2006b, 7).

4When this theory is applied to the word/image relation, the visual and verbal are no longer perceived as separate categories; rather, they are viewed as the inverse and obverse of the same topological surface. From such a theoretical standpoint, the text itself can be interrogated as an image: that is, a visual organized spatial structure in relation to which we are positioned as both readers and spectators. One takes this step by approaching the literary text as a type of “taking place” (avoir lieu): a singular event or traumatic rupture that reveals a set of broader spatial and temporal co-ordinates implicating the viewer/reader in the work; a moment of excessive materiality when the textual and visual appear not as opposing poles but as two sides of the same structural phenomenon. Because a full development of this point is beyond the limits of this article, my aim is to present here a methodology for localizing the effects of this “taking place”. First, I will develop a parallax schema adapted from the field of visual art. I will then justify the application of this model to the domain of literature by focusing on the field of Beckett Studies.

The Freudian-Lacanian parallax

5The theoretical foundations of Žižek’s notion of the parallax are rooted in his re-reading of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory; or, more precisely, Lacan’s attempt to re-engage with the radical formalism at the heart of the Freudian method. For Žižek, the usual reproach to Freud contains a “fundamental theoretical error”: the identification of “the unconscious desire at work in a dream with the ‘latent thought’ – that is, the signification of the dream.” This reading, he claims, obscures Freud’s basic point: that the essential properties of a dream reside not at the level of its content – the ideas a dream represents – but in the operations at work on the surface of the dream, its form:

As Freud continually emphasizes, there is nothing ‘unconscious’ in the ‘latent dream thought’ […] the essential constitution of (a) dream is thus not its “latent thought” but this work (the mechanism of displacement, the figuration of contents of words or syllables) which confers on it the form of a dream […] At bottom, dreams are nothing other than a particular form of thinking, made possible by the conditions of the state of sleep. It is the dream work which creates that form, and it alone is the essence of dreaming (Žižek 2008, 5-7).

6The dream, in short, has “nothing whatsoever to do with signification” (Žižek 2008, 6). Its true secret “is not the secret behind the form, but the secret of this form itself” (Žižek 8). The psychoanalytic approach thus calls for a radical shift in interpretative focus: from an over-investment in content to a renewed emphasis on form. It is not enough, Žižek writes, to simply conceive of the dream as a meaningful phenomenon, “as something transmitting a repressed message which has to be discovered by an interpretative procedure” (Žižek, 6). An important second step must also be taken:

We must get rid of the fascination in this kernel of signification, in the “hidden meaning” of the dream – that is to say, in the content concealed behind the form of a dream – and centre our attention on this form itself, on the dream-work to which the “latent dream thoughts” were submitted (Žižek 2008, 7).

7We arrive here at the parallax logic of the psychoanalytic procedure. The strange peculiarities in the dream, the distortions that appear to block a clear apprehension of content, actually have the effect of foregrounding the dream’s structure. This is why, when faced with a seemingly irreconcilable opposition, an obstacle to interpretation, one should aim to disengage from content by getting rid of all fascination with signification, with the secret concealed behind the form. Through this perspectival shift, the problem effectively becomes its own solution when it points at a series of previously unacknowledged operations.

A schematic mapping of the word/image parallax

8How might this theoretical argument be developed into a parallax methodology? The important point worth emphasizing is that Lacan’s engagement with Freud’s formalism sees him approach the dream as a type of text/image rebus. He writes:

  • 1 « C’est ainsi que dans la science des rêves il ne s’agit à toutes les pages que de ce nous appelons (...)

Thus in ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ every page deals with what I call the letter of the discourse, in its texture, its usage, its immanence in the matter in question [….] The first sentence of the opening chapter announces what for the sake of exposition could not be postponed: that the dream is a rebus. As Freud goes on to stipulate what I have said from the start, that it must be understood quite literally [….] So the unnatural images […] are examples of dream-images that are to be taken only for their value as signifiers, that is to say, in so far as they allow us to spell out the ‘proverb’ presented by the rebus of the dream. The linguistic structure that enables us to read dreams is the very principle of the “significance of the dream” […] Freud shows us in every possible way that the value of the image as signifier has nothing to do with its signification (Lacan 2002, 176).1

9Such comments allow us to view Lacan’s repeated reference to painting and literature as serving an important methodological function. Beyond the basic application of conceptual categories to images and texts, Lacan’s interventions into the field of art history and literary criticism are, I claim, part of a concerted effort to draw out the iconological core of the psychoanalytic practice: that is, the logic of the word/image parallax underpinning the Freudian method.

10Let us consider how Lacan, in Seminar XIII, applies Freud’s approach to a painting by Velázquez entitled Las Meninas. Like a dream, this image is strange, uncanny. To this day, it poses numerous obstacles for art historians, due primarily to a series of peculiar features that distort a clear reading. It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty what is taking place in the painting. “What exactly”, Ernst Gombrich asks, “does it all signify?” (408). Lacan, however, allows us to see that, like a dream, everything takes place on the surface of the painting. Because meaning is elusive, our attention is drawn to the painting’s form: namely, the viewer’s direct (traumatic) encounter with the physical materiality of the medium.

11One of the reasons Velázquez’s work presents such a dilemma for the viewer is its over-whelming presence, its enormous size: at nearly ten feet high, it is worthy of a royal portrait; and yet, the figures of the King and Queen are nowhere to be found; they are not directly represented. Furthermore, the scene appears to be split in two: there is no obvious relation between events taking place in the dark background and those in the brightly lit foreground. What is the man in the doorway doing? What is his involvement with the other people in the room? What is the relation between the two characters in the shadows and the figures in the foreground? The latter are theatrically dressed in courtier outfits, yet their place in the narrative is not easy to decipher. They appear to be members of the royal court but, as Lacan notes, their gazes do not interact. One might add that their heavy clothing makes them appear stiff, somewhat flattened against the depth of field they occupy.

  • 2 As Brockelman explains, Lacan is here directly questioning Michel Foucault’s reading of the paintin (...)

12Confronted with this series of obstacles, the viewer’s search for meaning ends in a state of bewilderment and frustration. The key element contributing to this confusion, Lacan argues, is the turned canvas. Its size, proportion and the fact that we do not know what is on the other side ensure that a clear interpretation is impossible. In the standard art historical interpretation the viewer overcomes this obstacle by simply noting the reflection of King and Queen in the mirror on the back wall of the room. One is thus able to deduce that the turned canvas depicts the royal couple. But as Brockelman points out, for Lacan this conclusion is a false resolution: the lack of correspondence in size and position between the mirror and the canvas means that such a reading is actually blocked by the work’s compositional and perspectival framework (Brockelman 3).2 For Lacan, Brockelman writes, the question “what is painted on the other side of the canvas?” is the wrong one to ask. To substitute the mirror for the painting is to miss the key issue at stake: “the turned canvas qua representational surface” (Brockelman 3).

13Lacan thus calls for the same interpretative move performed in dream analysis: a disengagement from content (the meaning of the painting) through an increased focus on formal operations (the painting as a representational surface). When we examine this surface, it becomes apparent that our ability to locate meaning is thwarted by a particular structural curiosity: there is no central vanishing point at which all the lines in the painting converge. The open door at the back of the room should provide this crucial architectural function but the effect is incomplete. Ultimately, it is this lack of overall correspondence between the parts of the painting that lends the scene its sense of discordance and disharmony.

14Lacan’s basic theoretical point is this: Velázquez’s work exposes the mechanism of desire structuring the viewer’s visual field; or, more precisely, it reveals to us how the image itself puts this mechanism into motion. At issue here is Lacan’s paradoxical notion of objet petit a. In his analysis of Las Meninas, he directly associates the realm of signification with the object of desire, the elusive Thing existing beyond the surface appearance. This object, for Lacan, is not just a lure; it is desirable because it is out of reach. Moreover, the obstacle blocking our access is the very feature that renders the object desirable. In other words, the frustration caused by the painting in general – and the turned canvas in particular – is the fundamental cause of our desire to locate meaning. We want to look beyond the canvas because we can’t look beyond it.

15These dynamics are coordinated by the painting’s internal structure, which is established by what Lacan terms “the function of images”: the “point-to-point correspondence” of elements on a flat surface (Lacan 1985, 86) that causes us to overlook the flatness of this surface. A viewer looks through rather than simply looks at a canvas only when a compositional arrangement is recognized. And it is this shift that propels the dialectic of desire. Once we perceive the canvas as a field of representation, its physical qualities begin to take on the function of a limit. Like a veil, a painting’s form becomes something we need to look beyond in order to grasp what it purports to conceal. Lacan’s point is that the subtle displacement of our direct encounter with the painting qua painted surface, this delicate balance between opacity and transparency, is a product of the image’s architectural structure. Velázquez’s achievement is to use the turned canvas to render this dispositif visible.

16In his seminar on the gaze, Lacan presents a simple schema for the topology of desire-in-vision using the following graph (fig. 1):

Fig. 1. Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic schema

17This diagram illustrates the viewer’s subordination as a (“split”) subject or desiring being, how the image positions the subject in relation to an illusory object of desire. From an art historical perspective, the model mirrors the iconological approach developed by Erwin Panofksy. Panofsky delineates the realm of content (the constitution of Lacan’s “object”) into three strata: primary, secondary and intrinsic subject matter. Interpretation, in an iconological sense, describes the seamless movement through these three levels. In Lacanian terms, Panofsky could be said to offer a precise breakdown of the mechanics of desire. First, the viewer moves beyond the realm of “pure forms” when a basic configuration is recognized as a set of motifs (primary subject matter). For example, we identify a combination of line, colour and volume as thirteen men (motifs) eating at a table (event). Next, secondary subject matter is apprehended when the combination of motifs comes to represent an allegory or narrative: a more sophisticated arrangement of motifs allows us to identify the event as “The Last Supper”. Finally, the work’s intrinsic meaning is deciphered when the narrative arrangement combines to signify a central idea or message. The correspondence of all elements in the picture – the convergence of all lines at the head of Christ – allows us to see the work as the product of individual artistic impulse (Leonardo da Vinci).

18We arrive here at what might be termed the iconology of desire: a libidinal mechanism that painters such as Velázquez attempt to expose by actively blocking the viewer’s movement from form to content. These obstacles are accounted for in Panofsky’s schema; but unlike Lacan, he views them from within the framework of desire – that is, as limits to be surmounted. Thus, what Panofksy perceives as a formal problem to be overcome is, in Lacanian terms, the point of rupture where the circuit of desire is broken (the Real). This means that to superimpose Lacan’s schema onto Panofksy’s (and vice versa) is to map the basic co-ordinates of a parallax model: a series of interpretative obstacles that, by derailing the passage through three levels of signified content, shifts the viewer’s attention to the centrality of form.

Fig. 2. Psychoanalytic/iconological (parallax) schema.

Art history and literature: an infra-disciplinary short-circuit

19What has been attempted, thus far, is an epistemological justification for re-conceptualizing the word/image problematic in parallax terms. From this departure point, I have elaborated a new approach to the study of images that can be legitimately employed as a tool for literary analysis. To properly demonstrate the pertinence of this model, a targeted analysis of several texts is required. Unfortunately, such a task is beyond the limits of this paper. It should suffice, for now, to simply state the general question framing this project: what can be said to take place, at a hermeneutic level, when classic works of Anglophone literature (names like Beckett, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Shelly, Conan Doyle, Eliot) are submitted to a parallax procedure? Of course, such a proposal carries a whole set of inherent risks, the most obvious of which concerns the frame of reference: the imposition of an analytic lens that reduces a series of canonical texts to a type of field of application. Such a structural asymmetry gives the immediate impression of instability and scholarly uncertainty, as if the author were hesitating between two distinct domains (in this case, art history and literature). The risk, in short, is that one field of study is privileged while the other becomes relegated to a mere mode of exemplification.

20This same criticism is often directed at Žižek for the way he uses examples from “high” and “low” culture to elucidate his theoretical arguments. What such a critique misses, however, is the rigorous methodological apparatus underpinning Žižek’s activity. For Rex Butler, much of the misunderstanding surrounding Žižek’s work is framed by the reader’s perception of the relationship between truth and exemplification. The two terms, he argues, are kept in opposition by the presupposition that there exists some external Truth to be exemplified. The real point of Žižek’s writings, Butler writes, is that “no philosophical Truth can ever exist apart from its exemplification, that is, its enunciation” (2006a, 3-4). When Žižek uses contemporary movies to demonstrate the central tenants of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, he is doing much more than simply exemplifying abstract concepts. What he is aiming at is a “short-circuit” procedure:

A short-circuit occurs when there is a faulty connection in the network – faulty, of course, from the standpoint of the network’s smooth functioning. Is not the short-circuiting, therefore, one the best metaphors for a critical reading? Is not one of the most effective procedures to cross wires that do not usually touch: to take a major classic (text, author, notion), and read it in a short-circuiting way, through the lens of a “minor” author, text, or conceptual apparatus […] If the minor reference is well chosen, such a procedure can lead to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions […] What such a reading achieves is not a simple “desublimation,” a reduction of the higher intellectual content to its lower economic or libidinal cause; the aim of such an approach is, rather, the inherent decentering of the interpreted text, which brings to light its “unthought,” its disavowed presuppositions and consequences (Žižek 2017, foreword).

21The term “short-circuit” describes the direct effects of the parallax approach. The aim is not to mediate two opposing categories but to push the reader to think beyond – or below – the very notion of opposition. This occurs when the dualism is recognized as having the topology of a Möbius strip: two seemingly separate poles that, in reality, function as the inverse and obverse of the same structural surface. It is this perspectival shift that Žižek sets out to provoke when he sets up “an impossible short-circuit of levels which, for structural reasons, cannot ever meet”. His intention is to confront the reader with the fact that the two levels have no shared space, that the only way to grasp their relation is through a “constantly shifting perspective between two points” (Žižek 2006a, 9).

  • 3 In using the term “infra” I am relying on the concept of “infra-mince” developed by the artist Marc (...)

22The same method is at work in my attempt to apply the parallax model across the fields of art history and literary criticism. If there appears to be an unstable relation between the two domains, it is because a short-circuiting procedure is being performed. This is why, to the reader, this paper may appear strange: there is a feeling of uncertainty as to which field it belongs. The point is that this structural instability – constantly shifting perspectives between seemingly incompatible levels – is itself the mark of a parallax view. The aim is to draw the reader’s attention to the gap between the disciplines in question, in order to locate the point where they meet. To propose such a seemingly random crossing of wires is not to suggest a confused, nonsystematic structure, however. On the contrary, the shock of the short-circuit relies upon a strict systematic logic, a framework of broader connections that provides the central current of energy. This is Žižek’s point when he explains that, in order to work between different fields of study, one should begin by working from within these fields; that is, by focusing on each discipline’s inherent limitation. The ultimate horizon, in this sense, is not some (“inter-disciplinary”) reconciliation of opposing perspectives. Rather, the very gap between disciplines becomes the positive condition for an infra-disciplinary exchange. What emerges is not a new hermeneutic space but a decentering or distortion of space. It is not a matter of “taking a new place” but of producing the effect of taking place: a singular moment when two disciplines become intertwined into such a tight knot that they can scarcely be thought of independently from one another. In an infra-disciplinary short-circuit art history and literature are folded up on each other and assume a parallax shape: they appear as two sides of the same surface that for structural reasons cannot fully meet.3

The site of an infra-disciplinary short-circuit: Beckett Studies Today

23To apply the word/image parallax, one must locate the place where the wires between art history and literary criticism cross. My working hypothesis is that the conditions for such an encounter emerge in the field of Samuel Beckett Studies. In what remains of this paper I will work from within this field and attempt to illuminate the parallax logic of Beckett’s work as the site of an infra-disciplinary short-circuit. The first question to ask is: how might the concept of a word/image parallax signal a new direction in Beckett scholarship? The recent release of the first volume of The New Samuel Beckett Studies suggests that a change of direction is already underway. It is clear that a radically altered object of study – what Jean-Michel Rabaté calls a “new Beckett” – is precipitating a critical turn of mind. In an effort to make sense of a significantly enlarged Beckettian canon – a sudden expansion of the corpus following the publication of previously unseen manuscripts, notes, letters and poems – this collection brings together a range of new interpretative models and approaches from fields as diverse as neuroscience and disability studies. But in what sense does the “textual revolution” in Beckett studies signal a true revolution in scholarship? To what extent is The New Samuel Beckett Studies really “new”?

  • 4 For Pattie, the history of Beckett Studies in English begins with Hugh Kenner’s Samuel Beckett: A C (...)
  • 5 Pattie cites Ihab Hassan’s The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett (1967) as the (...)

24It is here worth recalling Žižek’s concept of Ptolemization: “when a discipline is in crisis,” he writes, “attempts are made to change or supplement its theses within the terms of its basic framework – a procedure one might call ‘Ptolemization’”. The alternative is a “true ‘Copernican’ revolution” in scholarship: “instead of just adding complications and changing minor premises, the basic framework itself undergoes a transformation” (Žižek 2008, vii). For Žižek, one must always ask the question: “is this truly a Copernican revolution, or merely a Ptolemization of the old paradigm?” (Žižek 2008, vii). To apply this test to Beckett Studies, it is necessary to trace the evolution of scholarship to date, a daunting task admirably undertaken by David Pattie in his 2004 contribution to Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies. Pattie identifies three distinct stages of development. First, the 1960s saw the fermentation and consolidation of the dominant modernist interpretation of Beckett’s work: the notion that his writing is primarily concerned with the essential conditions of human existence, man’s hopeless quest for meaning in a meaningless world (Pattie 229).4 By the end of the 1960s, this formula was already undergoing slight but significant changes as the postmodern notion of textual undecidability began to gradually replace the humanist idea of the suffering artist. This theoretical framework provoked a rapid expansion of critical responses in the 1970s but it was not until the 1980s that a postmodern tendency to decontextualize Beckett could be properly detected (Pattie 234-235).5

  • 6 See Gontarski (1985) cited in Pattie (240).
  • 7 Pattie gives three reasons for this change in direction: first, the realization that Beckett had li (...)
  • 8 Conor (2014) re-examines Beckett as being concerned with real life and the world as such. In Samuel (...)

25This effort to extract Beckett’s work from its historical context was supported by manuscripts that reveal a willingness on the part of the author to remove all references to specific locations and events.6 It wasn’t long, however, before this ahistorical approach was rejected in favour of a contextual reading: the view that Beckett’s work reflects “a moment of cultural time” (Pattie 246).7 The past two decades can be described as a new period in Beckett criticism. Increased access to source material has led to a host of publications with a marked historical focus.8 Volume 1 of New Samuel Beckett’s Studies appears to consolidate this new contextual horizon. But does this shift in priorities really signal a new paradigm in Beckett scholarship? To stand back and look at the overall picture of Beckett Studies is to note the precise geography of the terrain. From such a vantage point, it is difficult to deny that the apparent change in direction follows a decidedly circular route.

26Pattie’s essential point is that the different stages in Beckett scholarship are not separate but intertwined. In the latter half of the 20th century, the field appeared split between two opposing groups of scholars: those who “used literary texts to uncover the essential truth of human experience” and those “who used texts to uncover the contingent nature of reality” (Pattie 227). But he insists that the gulf between these two groups was not as wide as first believed. The rejection of the modernist framework, he explains, did not render it redundant; on the contrary, the existentialist reading was actually strengthened when the tools of deconstruction allowed for more detailed examination of Beckett’s work. The assumption that the (humanist) idea of the heroic, suffering artist was replaced by a focus on textual undecidability is also a simplification. In reality, the humanist aspect was retained when the suffering artist became redefined as formal innovator. Paradoxically, the resistance to foreclosure by authoritative structures took on the logic of a heroic struggle, a move which implied that the narrative remained an authoritative device (Pattie 240). The effort to decontextualize Beckett was also undermined by the notion of political progress. Again, paradoxically, self-referentiality acquired a referential dimension when Beckett’s formal techniques began to function as a critique of fixed relations of power. We recognize here the re-inscription of a disavowed social dimension into Beckett’s work: his efforts to disrupt the field of representation are viewed as a gesture of rebellion, a political act.

27The point is that postmodern criticism does not mark a clear break with the modernist discourse. Instead, we witness a Ptolemization of the old paradigm. Can the same not also be said of the recent “contextual” shift? While the postmodern gesture of de-contextualization is rejected, the impulse of postmodernism persists: there remains an underlying resistance to the essentializing tendencies of the early humanist readings, a continued insistence on self-referentiality. The result is a curious amalgamation of postmodern cynicism with modernist idealism. Consider the following passage from The New Samuel Beckett Studies:

His play’s apparent indifference to meaning, hence to metaphysics and religion, allows audiences to rediscover the most basic ethical virtues, the bedrock of the human without humanism […] Precisely because of an apparent cynicism couched in verbal techniques marked by repetition, letting alienation and nihilism shine forth, Beckett makes the values of courage and fraternity come alive in spite of all (Rabaté 2019, 6-7).

28The new paradigm appears to emerge through a type of synthesis of the modernist/post-modern traditions. It thus follows the logic of reconciliation rather than rupture. In this sense, it repeats the operation of Ptolemization: basic premises are altered but the fundamental (modernist/ postmodernist) framework is retained. Which begs the question: what precisely is this framework?

The Beckettian parallax

29The next interpretative step involves a parallax maneuver: one must view the modernist/postmodern discourses as two versions of the same interpretative activity. This is achieved by reaching below the dualism to the inherent tension that generates it. What is it that all Beckett scholarship has in common? The vast array of writings on Beckett hardly suggests a fixed consensus. But on a formal level, there does appear to be a singular kernel driving the critical process, a rock around which the endless stream of writings flows. Pattie notes that beneath the changes in critical attitude that characterize the evolution of Beckett Studies, one constant remains: the simple fact that, when it comes to “academic exegesis”, Beckett remains an extremely frustrating figure (Pattie 227).

What, perhaps, is ultimately most interesting about Beckett’s relation to literary criticism is that, no matter what the particular approach taken by the individual theorist, his work is used as a lens through which to focus the critic’s attention on perhaps the most basic theoretical enquiry: How do we make meaning in the world? […] Beckett is, as stated above, a writer whose work is taken to pose fundamental questions concerning our need to assemble meaning from the world. Arguably, the wording of these questions might change, but the need and desire to pose the questions in the first place is unlikely to fade. Given that, Beckett’s work will continue to prove itself as a site in which critics struggle with the matter of meaning, for many years to come (Pattie 228, 246).

  • 9 Much has been written about Beckett’s deployment of “the ancient craft of fashioning gaps that are (...)

30To most scholars, this point no doubt appears simplistic: the notion that Beckett’s work presents an obstacle to interpretation is hardly an original insight. We are here at the level of what H. Porter Abbott calls the “narrative gap”: a device used by Beckett to exploit the distinction between the experience of knowing nothing and the “thematics of nothing”.9 But it is worth drawing out the theoretical pertinence of Pattie’s remark. Is there something to explore further in the idea that Beckett’s work creates and sustains a fundamental need to interpret by virtue of the fact that it blocks interpretation? Beckett’s oeuvre is clearly a site of intense struggle for meaning; but what if the essential meaning of his work is this struggle? At this juncture, it is worth recalling Lacan’s notion of objet petit a: the desire to locate meaning, to move beyond the limits of form, is caused by the barrier preventing this movement, the formal limit itself.

  • 10 See also Browne (1981).

31How, then, does Beckett bring the reader’s interpretative activity into relief? His writing is, of course, full of direct references to the act of criticism.10 Perhaps the most effective analogy, Pattie argues, comes from Watt:

[…] and from Watt’s determined attempt to read meaning into the painting in Erskine’s room. Try as hard as he may, Watt can never bring the elements of the image into fixed relation to each other; he is left with an art work whose features are simultaneously obvious and frustratingly vague (Pattie 227).

32This point, again, seems straightforward: like Watt, the Beckett scholar struggles to find meaning; like the painting on Watt’s wall, Beckett's work frustrates our attempts to fix meaning: “So the critic with Beckett. It has so far proved impossible to establish a fixed image of the work” (Pattie 227). But the analogy also opens up a whole series of as yet unexplored theoretical questions. If Beckett is forcing the reader to consider his/her own interpretative activity, is he not also asking us to think of his work as an image, a painting?

33Note how Beckett’s description of Watt echoes Lacan’s reading of Las Meninas. Try as we may, we cannot move beyond the simultaneously obvious – the scene before us – and the frustratingly vague – the ambiguous nature of this scene. The site of this frustration is the turned canvas: it is the element preventing us from bringing all “the elements of the image into fixed relation with each other” (Pattie 227). Try as we may, we cannot see what is concealed on the other side, what the canvas pretends to conceal. In Watt, Velázquez’s turned canvas becomes an actual canvas, the painting as a flat surface. Watt’s frustration is caused by the limits of the medium, his over-proximity to the phenomenal reality of the picture plane. But as with the turned canvas, the source of his frustration is also the cause of his desire to interpret.

34Taking this analogy as a reference to the act of criticism, we recognize a homologous operation at play. Like these paintings, Beckett’s work also frustrates because its features are simultaneously obvious and vague. The active reduction of specific real-life references and the conscious effort to foreground literary and theatrical mechanisms create the same dilemma described above: a shifting tension between undetermined content and recalcitrant form. As in Las Meninas, this obstacle operates on three levels. First, the apprehension of primary content is blocked by an over-proximity to the materiality of the medium. The formal negativism of Beckett’s work means that neither action nor dialogue are ever fully decipherable. Secondary content is then undermined by an over-emphasis on motifs: the stripping down of characters ensures that allegorical and religious readings are impossible; one cannot locate any real-life references to specific events, people, themes. Finally, intrinsic content is distorted by a lack of thematic convergence: allegorical allusions reappear but they remain indeterminate; consequently, no clear idea or message emerge.

35This critical practice is fully illuminated by the parallax method: using the given schema (fig. 2), we can see how the modernist/post-modern/historical interpretations employ the same “iconological” model. In all three readings the Beckettian obstacle is elided and three strata of signification are re-inscribed. Note how the modernist response relies on the absurdist-existentialist-humanist frame to create a smooth transition from form to content. First, the absence of all basic (primary) meaning is itself viewed as meaningful: the lack of action and dialogue is representative of a hopeless post-war universe where action and expression are rendered absurd. Next, the lack of allegorical significance becomes significant: Beckett’s removal of a distinct social-historical context is understood as an attempt to expose the uncomfortable truth of human existence. The social-historical dimension is thus re-introduced as a concern for “the existential dilemmas to which the modern man was prone” (Pattie 229). Finally, the series of vague thematic allusions that never fully coalesce into an essential idea is taken as evidence of an essential idea: a desire on the part of Beckett to unerringly atomize “the underlying existential state of our existence” (Pattie 230), to directly state “the underlying conditions of our lives” (Pattie 231).

36The same iconological topology also shapes the post-modernist interpretation. First, the emphasis on the “self-generating nature” of the text ensures that that primary content remains in place: through the prism of undecidability, Beckett’s formal negativism comes to signify the instability of the textual process. Secondary subject matter – the social referentiality of the work – is also denied in theory only to be re-instated in practice when Beckett’s effort to disrupt the field of representation is perceived as an act of political rebellion. Finally, intrinsic content persists in the idea of a disavowed humanism: the resistance to foreclosure becomes a heroic struggle against authority, the literary technique as a form of social (ideological) critique.

The Beckettian obstacle: a shift from Kant to Hegel

37The parallax schema makes it clear that, while specific concepts or ideas change, the practice remains the same. Both the modernist and postmodernist readings keep a fundamental interpretative framework in place. Each discourse thus becomes visible as two modes of a single critical activity. This is how Beckett includes the critic as part of the work. In marking the distinction between the experience of nothing (the inability to grasp identifiable content) and the thematics of nothingness (the significance of this failure), he allows us to see what the passage from one state to the other actually involves. Like Velázquez, he introduces a moment of delay – represented in Las Meninas by the distance between painter and canvas – which makes the movement of interpretation visible. The series of obstacles in Beckett’s work function exactly like the turned canvas: they introduce a necessary gap or “lapse of time” (Brockelman 10) that allows us to see how an element blocking interpretation becomes transformed into a carrier of signification. In both the post-modern and modernist interpretations, the Beckettian obstacle (or “narrative gap”) is theoretically taken into account; the problem is that in practice – through this gesture of theoretical reflexivity – its effect is neutralized.

  • 11 The term “empêchement” was used by Beckett (Beckett 135) in the title of one of the three essays of (...)

38What becomes possible here is a new interpretation of Beckett’s concept of “empêchement.” Lawrence Harvey explains that, for Beckett, “there are two kinds of artist, and two kinds of obstacle: ‘l’empêchement-objet et l’empêchement-oeil’” (Harvey 546).11 To make sense of this point let us consider Žižek’s precise distinction between the Kantian and Hegelian notions of sublimity. For Kant, the sublime implies “an object which, in the very field of representation, provides a view, in a negative way, of the dimension of what is unrepresentable” (Žižek 2008, 230). We experience the true dimension of the Thing, through the experience of a fundamental impossibility, the “permanent failure of the representation to reach after the Thing” (Žižek 2008, 229). Kant thus abolishes the gap between phenomenon and Idea in a negative way; the inability or failure (to interpret) is mediated as a “successful presentation by means of failure” (Žižek 2008, 230). But for Hegel there is no mediation. Instead, he reproaches Kant for remaining “a prisoner of the field of representation.” As Žižek writes:

Precisely when we determine the Thing as a transcendental surplus beyond what can be represented, we determine it on the basis of the field of representation, starting from it, within its horizon, as its negative limit […] Kant presupposes that the Thing-in-itself exists as something positively given beyond the field of representation […] Hegel’s position, in contrast, is that there is nothing beyond phenomenality, beyond the field of representation. The experience of radical negativity, of the radical inadequacy of all phenomena to the idea, the experience of the radical fissure between the two – this experience is already Idea itself as “pure”, radical negativity (Žižek 2008, 232-3).

39The parallax schema thus allows us to conclude that the modernist and postmodernist interpretations of Beckett are locked in a Kantian field of representation. The standard perception of the Beckettian obstacle, the experience of nothing as the negative presentation of nothingness, is governed by Kant’s transcendental categories. Such is the nature of the Ptolemization: while approaches and theories might change, the process of sublimation continues; the movement beyond a formal limit, a reflexively acknowledged moment of negativity, to a deeper realm of signification.

40We can see the same operation at work in the supposedly “new” approaches to Beckett’s work. In current scholarship, the general assumption is that, since Beckett’s life spanned such a long period, it is inevitable that he responded to events in a historical manner. But such a reading relies on a Kantian move: failure to interpret historical content becomes a successful presentation of historical content by means of this very failure. Beckett’s negation of specific historical context is interpreted as an effort to avoid “being trapped in local controversies” (Rabaté 3). Consequently, his work becomes socially relevant “for situations he could not foresee” (Rabaté 3). Again, we can trace this sublimation on three separate levels using the parallax model. First, the absurdist reading is given a historical twist: Beckett’s characters may exist outside time and nature but they remain rooted in history. This allows a primary level of subject matter to emerge. Even when there appears to be no viable action, when the notion of the world as we know it disappears, the emphasis on human duality means that a world still remains. Next, the abstract couple (stripped of all social and historical context) is supplemented with a “historically over-determined couple of Master and Slave” (Rabaté 5). The lack of allegorical content is therefore replaced by an allegory of alienation (domination and servitude). As Rabaté admits, “historical and allegorical meaning appears when it seems about to be denied” (Rabaté 6). Finally, Beckett’s nihilistic vision of the world is re-framed as a fundamental image of struggle so that his work comes to embody the essential idea of the “human without humanism” (Rabaté 6). It is in this way that the modernist/postmodern discourses are combined and aligned with contemporary concerns.

41If the Ptolemization involves the preservation of a Kantian framework of interpretation, then a new direction requires a distinctly Hegelian twist. As Žižek explains:

The negative experience of the Thing must change into the Thing-in-itself as radical negativity. The experience of the Sublime thus remains the same: all we have to do is subtract its transcendent proposition – the presupposition that this experience indicates, in a negative way, some transcendent Thing-in-itself persisting in its positivity beyond it. In short, we must limit ourselves to what is strictly immanent to this experience, to pure negativity to the negative self-relationship of the representation (Žižek 2008, 233).

42The Hegelian subtraction of the transcendental proposition mirrors the essential feature of the Freudian approach. Both involve a disengagement from the realm of signification through a renewed focus on the radical negativity of form. These are the theoretical foundations for a proper revolution in Beckett scholarship. The task remaining is to fully justify such an intervention by continuing to work from within the field of Beckett Studies. If The New Beckett Studies appears to follow a circular logic, then one must follow this curved surface until it begins to bend into a Möbius-shape.

Beckett, painting and the word/image parallax

  • 12 For example, Louis Oppenheim’s examination of Beckett’s relationship to visual art is viewed as an (...)
  • 13 See Albright (2003), Amiran (1993), Bersani (1993).
  • 14 Carville attempts to rethink the trajectory of Beckett’s career by comprehensively assessing his kn (...)

43The historical turn in Beckett Studies has focused scholarly attention on Beckett’s writings on art. One of the reasons for this, Pattie points out, is an increased focus on context which necessitates a closer examination of Beckett’s relationship to other art forms and practitioners.12 There is, of course, a long tradition of scholarship in this area.13 But as the corpus has expanded, the scope of these interventions has become more refined. The 2018-2019 academic year alone saw the publication of three works attempting to forge an unexplored path: Conor Carville’s Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts (2018), Tim Laurence’s Samuel Beckett’s Critical Aesthetics (2019) and David Lloyd’s Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre (2018).14 Together, these texts re-orientate scholarship away from the idea that Beckett was simply “influenced” by painting. The consensus emerging is more nuanced: it was through painting that Beckett arrived at the fundamental aesthetic position informing his writing.

  • 15 In Samuel Beckett and Contemporary Art (2017) literary scholars join visual art specialists to expl (...)
  • 16 “The field of contemporary art,” Judith Wilkinson writes, “has long embraced Beckett as one of its (...)

44At this point, the conditions for an infra-disciplinary short-circuit begin to appear. It is clear that, in probing the “new” Beckett, literary scholars are becoming more art historically aware. Lloyd’s argument, in particular, relies on a focused analysis of specific paintings. The opposite tendency is also evident: as literary scholars use art historical tools to shed light on Beckett’s work, art historians are beginning to use Beckett’s work to shed light on contemporary art practices.15 In her forthcoming book, Judith Wilkinson goes as far as to argue for a more systematic art historical assessment of Beckett’s output across performance, film and photography.16 Literary criticism, it would seem, is opening up to art history in new and interesting ways. From this trajectory, we can see that scholars are expanding the parameters of “interdisciplinarity”. A line drawn through the field of Beckett Studies seems to twist around the question of art, only to end up on the other side, in the field of art history. Such a topology reminds us of Žižek’s description of the link between philosophy and psychoanalysis: “their relationship is that of the two sides of a Möbius strip, so that if we progress to the very heart of each of the two, we find ourselves in its opposite” (Žižek 2017, 4). In short, we find ourselves in the midst of an infra-disciplinary exchange: an encounter between two seemingly separate fields that for structural reasons – namely, the traditional divisions established in academia – can never properly meet. Unlike the interdisciplinary encounter, where particular perspectives converge on a universal object of study, an object that is specific to a given field of study (contemporary art, Beckett) is interrogated through the lens of another discipline. Through a parallax view, the inherent limitation in each field is perceived as a moment of possibility, the point where an infra-disciplinary short-circuit takes place.

45In the field of Beckett Studies, the precise point of contact between literary criticism and art history is configured by the word/image parallax. The long history of Beckett scholarship in the visual arts justifies a central premise: that Beckett’s wide ranging and diverse output can be divided along textual and visual lines. As Oppenheim reminds us, Beckett is not just one of the most important novelists of the 20th century; his work as a playwright has also had a major impact on dramatic writing and performance. This is why, in entering the field of art history, the Beckett scholar must focus his/her attention on the question of the word/image relation. What, then, can one learn by looking at Beckett’s work through the text/image dichotomy? Or, to put the question another way, what can Beckett Studies teach us about the word/image problematic?

  • 17 Scholars have long been exploring the interconnections between visual and verbal representation, vi (...)
  • 18 According to Gontarski, it was while writing his three post-war novels that Beckett produced En Att (...)

46Early scholarship on Beckett’s relationship to art tended to explore how his aesthetic reflections illuminate thematic allusions in his writing.17 The general assumption, Lloyd notes, was that painting provided visual “prompts” for Beckett’s prose and plays. In this way, the visual and textual aspects of Beckett’s output were kept separate. One might therefore define his work using Mitchell’s terms: experiments across different media that deepen the chasm between visual and verbal representation, reaffirming the irreducible nature of the word/image divide. But the continued expansion of the Beckettian corpus has exposed flaws in this reading. As Gontarski points out, it was only while writing his post-war novels that Beckett began thinking through the visual qualities of the text.18 In other words, the idea of textual performativity had interested him long before he began to directly explore its potential in theatre. This is why Beckett’s plays should be viewed as an extension of his prose, a means for him to further explore the issues addressed in and through the writing process. In short, one cannot think of the stage and page as separate domains. The Beckettian image is a theatrical extension of the text; for Beckett, the textual process is a fundamentally visual operation. His experiments with stage and screen can therefore be said to follow a parallax logic: two interconnected strands of production rooted in a single (aesthetic) position.

  • 19 Writing of Beckett’s Thing, Julie Bénard explains this shift in thinking as follows: “Lloyd does aw (...)

47Consider the extent to which recent scholarship has become less reliant on a binary theorization of the text/image relationship. In the three aforementioned works, attention has clearly shifted from the painting/literature dualism to the inherent tension that precedes it: how thinking about art fermented the aesthetic sensibilities at the heart of Beckett’s writing.19 Again, it is Lloyd who, by directly illuminating the painterly qualities of Beckett’s theatre, opens the door to a parallax reading. For him, word and image are but two sides of the same (aesthetic) phenomenon:

The more I looked at paintings by the artists on whom he wrote and, for the most part, had close and extended relationships with, the more I became convinced that Beckett’s engagement with painting was less – and over his writing career less and less – to do with the prompts that theatrical images found in painting and increasingly to do with an interrogation of the image and its communicative structure. Beckett seemed more preoccupied with what procedures and problems of painting suggest for the writer in relation to his own problems and procedures. I don’t mean by that that the statements he makes about painting are really just statements regarding his own literary aesthetic and to be translated as such. Rather, he seemed to see in painting a set of aesthetic questions and responses that went to the heart of the crisis of representation that marks 20th century art in general. It is significant to me that he focused on painting […] Painting held his attention, I think, because it was the medium that most persistently addressed the question of representation (Lloyd 2017 n.p.).

  • 20 “I argue that Beckett sees in Yeats’s late work a tension between figure and ground, form and mater (...)

48Lloyd’s basic argument is that Beckett’s aesthetic position was formed through contact with the work of three painters: Jack B. Yeats, Bram van Velde and Avigdor Arikha. In Yeats’s work, Beckett encountered the interpretative obstacle that would later become a central element in his theatre: the moment of radical rupture when the medium (form) negates what it purports to represent (content).20 This tension, Lloyd claims, is even more extreme in Van Velde’s paintings: form is emptied of all substance and the canvas is reduced to the level of pure material, a type of empty, geometrically composed mask. Finally, Arikha’s efforts to “unlearn” the skills he had developed as a painter has close associations with “Beckett’s notorious and continual effort to write without style, to become ‘mal armé’” (Lloyd 2018, 156).

49Each of these painters, Lloyd argues, disrupts the visual mastering of space by the laws of geometric perspective. Through this gesture of negativity, the sovereign gaze of the subject is broken and the drive for the object of representation thwarted. Such a breakdown of the field of representation gives rise to a “pure” object – the “Thing-in-itself”, a surplus that cannot be represented, only reconceptualized. Identifying the same dynamics at work in Beckett’s plays, Lloyd concludes that Beckett anticipated Lacan’s later conception of the gaze: that which “escapes the subject’s visual and representational field” and emerges within this field in a disabling and unsettling manner (Lloyd 2018, 130).

50The problem with Lloyd’s approach, I argue, is that it lacks the theoretical/methodological framework to properly engage with the Beckettian parallax. There are, as I see it, two precise limitations in his analysis. Firstly, there is nothing remarkably new about his interpretation of Yeats, van Velde and Arikha’s works. The idea that artists sought to break with perspectival space and liberate the spectator from his illusory attachment to the object is well known to art historians: it is the basic assumption running through the entire history of modern art. The story of the avant-garde, from Cézanne to Pollock, is one in which painters challenge the conventions of representation in order to expand the aesthetic parameters of the art-work. Thus, to align Beckett with this narrative is to re-position his work in the standard modernist paradigm.

  • 21 “What is at issue here […] is not the philosophical problem of representation. From that point of v (...)

51The second issue with Lloyd’s reading is theoretical. The association of the Lacanian gaze with the Kantian Thing bears witness to a clear misinterpretation of Lacan. Lacan’s point in “Kant with Sade” (Lacan 2006, 646) is that the object of desire becomes reconfigured as the Thing-in-itself: in the Kantian field of representation the limit driving one’s desire to grasp the Thing is sublimated as the negative experience of the Thing, that elusive, impossible goal which transcends phenomenal reality. For Lacan, there is nothing whatsoever elusive or transcendent about the gaze; rather, the gaze is the element that disrupts the subject’s fantasmatic relationship with the transcendental object. It is not that the philosophical problem of the Thing-in-itself is obscured by the laws of representation; for Lacan, the two phenomena are structurally homologous. Like the laws of perspective, Kant’s transcendental categories are but another mode of mastering visual space in order to position the subject as a desiring being.21

52While Lloyd takes a step towards a parallax reading of Beckett, his analytic model remains limited: on a methodological level, his analysis of painting lacks a solid set of iconological tools; theoretically, his reading of Lacan lacks the crucial Hegelian aspect outlined by Žižek. Žižek himself has recently provided this important entry point into Beckett’s oeuvre. In an article published earlier this year entitled “Hegel with Beckett: The Persistence of Abstraction”, he submits Beckett’s work to a rigorous Lacanian-Hegelian reading. Beckett, Žižek argues, is the “great writer” of “concrete abstraction” because he refuses to locate depictions of subjective experiences (terror, loss, suffering) in a “concrete historical context” (Žižek 2019, 157). Instead, he “puts particular forms of terror and persecution which belong to different contexts and levels […] into a series and blurs their distinctions” (Žižek 2019, 157). A gap thus persists between two levels: that of historical data, social events (“material of experience”) and the Beckettian universe (“material of expression”). Žižek here defines the Beckettian obstacle – the “art of empêchement (impediment or hindrance)” – in Hegelian-Lacanian terms: an “invisible obstacle” that “renders impossible the continuous transition from abstract experience to concrete social totality” (Žižek 2019, 158).

53But as with Lloyd, Žižek’s interpretation of Beckett appears incomplete: within the field of Beckett Studies, it does not propose anything new. Beneath his complex theoretical argument, one recognizes the contextual/historical focus that characterizes the current trend in scholarship. This means that, curiously, Žižek fails to apply his own (psychoanalytic / parallax) methodology. Instead of disengaging from signification, his analysis moves smoothly through three levels of content: the negation of a direct “realist” representation of social reality becomes the mode of appearance of another realm of meaning: the underlying dialectical truth of this reality.

  • 22 For a full discussion of this point and its implications for Žižek Studies and Lacanian theory, see (...)

54Much like Lloyd, Žižek remains a prisoner of the field he claims to escape.22 On the one hand, Lloyd’s iconological approach to Beckett lacks Žižek’s philosophical engagement with Lacan; on the other, Žižek’s philosophical reading of Beckett lacks something of Lloyd’s iconological engagement with Lacan. To put it another way: missing from Žižek’s theorerical framework is Lacan’s conceptualization of the image; missing from Lloyd’s approach to the image is Lacan’s theory of desire. What brings these two perspectives together is the introduction of a precise set of art historical tools. For Lloyd, Panofsky’s model might allow for a more rigorous analysis of specific paintings; similarly, for Žižek, it may facilitate the full application of conceptual categories to Beckett’s work. At this point, where the limitations in Lloyd’s and Žižek’s positions coincide, a crossing of wires between literary criticism, art history, philosophy and psychoanalysis becomes possible. From this encounter, a full exploration of the word/image parallax can begin.

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1 « C’est ainsi que dans la science des rêves il ne s’agit à toutes les pages que de ce nous appelons la lettre du discours, dans sa texture, dans ses emplois, dans son immanence à la matière en cause. […] La première clause articulée dès le chapitre liminaire, parce que l’exposé n’en peut souffrir le retard, c’est que le rêve est un rébus. Et Freud de stipuler qu’il faut l’entendre comme j’ai dit d’abord, à la lettre. Ce qui tient à l’instance dans le rêve de cette même structure littérante (autrement dit phonématique) où s’articule et s’analyse le signifiant dans le discours. Telles les figures hors nature du bateau sur le toit ou de l’homme à tête de virgule expressément évoquée par Freud, les images du rêve ne sont à retenir que pour leur valeur de signifiant, c’est-à-dire pour ce qu’elles permettent d’épeler du « proverbe » proposé par le rébus du rêve. Cette structure du langage qui rend possible l’opération de la lecture est au principe de la signifiance du rêve, de la Traumdeutung. Freud exemplifie de toutes les manières que cette valeur signifiant de l’image n’a rien à faire avec sa signification […] » (Lacan 1966, 510).

2 As Brockelman explains, Lacan is here directly questioning Michel Foucault’s reading of the painting at the beginning of Les Mots et les choses.

3 In using the term “infra” I am relying on the concept of “infra-mince” developed by the artist Marcel Duchamp to describe the tiny interval separating two identical things (a concept which, incidentally, can only be explained through examples). In his recent study of the relationship between the disciplines of psychoanalysis, economics and philosophy, Žižek uses the term “spandrels” to describe the “empty spaces that emerge in the interstices between” particular disciplines. “It seems that today,” he writes, “the most interesting theoretical interventions emerge in such ‘interstices,’ without clearly and fully belonging to any particular field” (Žižek 2017, xi).

4 For Pattie, the history of Beckett Studies in English begins with Hugh Kenner’s Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study and Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd (both published in 1961). It was only when these early interpretations were refracted through a Cartesian lens, that Beckett’s work became framed as a spiritual battle against the unescapable limitations of physical existence. This allowed for a direct link to be made with the central tenants of existentialist philosophy and, ultimately, the idea of the “absurd”. It was in this way that the standard modernist reading emerged: the idea that, in the midst of an existential void, the suffering artist must struggle heroically to produce meaning.

5 Pattie cites Ihab Hassan’s The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett (1967) as the earliest postmodern work of Beckett criticism. Appearing the same year as Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena, Writing and Difference, and Of Grammatology, it is said to catch “the first stirrings of the postmodern within the mainstream modernism, not simply of Beckett’s criticism, but of literary criticism as a whole” (Pattie 234). One of the first works to directly examine Beckett’s literary technique was Ruby Cohn’s Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut (1962). By implicitly questioning the narrative impulse, Cohn shines a light on the “untruthfulness” of the narrative voice (Pattie 235). It was on the basis of this sharpened critical perspective that Beckett studies began to develop into the industry we know today.

6 See Gontarski (1985) cited in Pattie (240).

7 Pattie gives three reasons for this change in direction: first, the realization that Beckett had lived through the most tumultuous events of the 20th century; second, the publication of two biographies authorized by Beckett which gave scholars increased access to new historical material; finally, the general theoretical shift away from postmodern criticism towards a more contextual form of analysis.

8 Conor (2014) re-examines Beckett as being concerned with real life and the world as such. In Samuel Beckett in Context (2015), a number of renowned scholars challenge the critical assumption that Beckett’s work is divorced from recognizable context. Palgrave’s series New Interpretations of Beckett in the Twenty-First Century (2018) brings together a range of new voices who directly challenge the dominant view that Beckett cannot be read historically.

9 Much has been written about Beckett’s deployment of “the ancient craft of fashioning gaps that are anything but egregious” (Abbott 7). See also Butler (1984), Hesla (1973), Trezise (2014).

10 See also Browne (1981).

11 The term “empêchement” was used by Beckett (Beckett 135) in the title of one of the three essays of art criticism he wrote during a “frenzy of writing” (Knowlson 358) in the late 1940s.

12 For example, Louis Oppenheim’s examination of Beckett’s relationship to visual art is viewed as an effort to “rethink his place on the 20th century horizon”, beyond the realm of postmodern and modernist distinctions. See Oppenheim (2000) cited in Pattie (246).

13 See Albright (2003), Amiran (1993), Bersani (1993).

14 Carville attempts to rethink the trajectory of Beckett’s career by comprehensively assessing his knowledge of art on the basis of new unpublished sources. For Laurence, Beckett’s reflections on art “represent the most overlooked and understudied part of Beckett’s canon” (Laurence 2). The possible overlaps between his criticism and later prose thus warrant more serious engagement: “[…] despite significant industry of scholarship Beckett’s writing has generated over the last half a century, his writing as a critic has received very little serious attention” (Laurence 1). Lloyd takes this insight a step further by directly exploring the “painterly” qualities of Beckett’s theatre. He argues that the heightened visuality of Beckett’s work is directly related to the formal questions posed by the painted medium (Lloyd 2018, 7).

15 In Samuel Beckett and Contemporary Art (2017) literary scholars join visual art specialists to explore Beckett’s influence on contemporary art. In doing so, they attempt to develop a new framework for engaging with Beckett’s work.

16 “The field of contemporary art,” Judith Wilkinson writes, “has long embraced Beckett as one of its own, and artists since the 1960s have recognized in Beckett’s project a set of comparative aesthetic concerns and practices” (Wilkinson 2019, 119-120). However, the legacy of Beckett within art history has yet to be determined: “Despite the accelerated pace of Beckett’s influence on contemporary art, a cogent and comprehensive art historical/or critical discourse investigating these art practices has yet to emerge” (Wilkinson 2019, 119).

17 Scholars have long been exploring the interconnections between visual and verbal representation, vision and speech, image and text in Beckett’s work. Laurence notes that, in early criticism, much attention was paid to the fact that Beckett’s writing is marked by “tropes of perception”. Later scholarship goes on to explore how specific theories of the image infiltrate Beckett’s texts (Laurence 2).

18 According to Gontarski, it was while writing his three post-war novels that Beckett produced En Attendant Godot and Eleutheria (Gontarski 195).

19 Writing of Beckett’s Thing, Julie Bénard explains this shift in thinking as follows: “Lloyd does away with the consensual and somewhat simplistic view according to which Beckett rejects any form of mannerism for the sake of minimalism, so as to thoroughly explore and articulate the complex aesthetic connections that form the matrix of the latter’s work […] If Lloyd gives pride of place to visual arts, he avoids the pitfalls into which criticism has fallen so far; Beckett’s Thing does not merely take into consideration Beckett’s observations about modern painting from which analogies and comparisons are usually drawn in relation to his own work but tries to determine the literary aesthetic procedures the writer puts at the heart of his craft.” (Bénard n.p.).

20 “I argue that Beckett sees in Yeats’s late work a tension between figure and ground, form and material, that is the formal correlative of his earlier, quasi-ethnographic depictions of Irish subalternity: both are recalcitrant to representation. Yeats’s late paintings are notoriously difficult to read, forcing the viewer to shift constantly between the material insistence of the paint itself and the image that emerges from it. Beckett’s early theatre will perform a corresponding play between the images it suggests and the textual instability that undoes them.” (Lloyd 2017, n.p.)

21 “What is at issue here […] is not the philosophical problem of representation. From that point of view, when I am presented with a representation, I assure myself that I know quite a lot about it, I assure myself as a consciousness that knows that it is only a representation, and that there is, beyond, the thing, the thing itself. Behind the phenomenon, there is the noumenon, for example. I may not be able to do anything about it, because my transcendental categories, as Kant would say, do just as they please and force me to take the thing in their way” (Lacan 1985, 106).

22 For a full discussion of this point and its implications for Žižek Studies and Lacanian theory, see my forthcoming article “Theatre of Shadows: Saving, Critiquing, Psychoanalyzing Žižek” to be published in a special edition of the International Journal of Žižek Studies (guest edited by Žižek).

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Robert Kilroy, « The “New” Beckett and the Word/Image Parallax: An Infra-Disciplinary Short-Circuit »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 27 | 2019, mis en ligne le 25 décembre 2019, consulté le 06 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Robert Kilroy

Sorbonne Université Abu Dhabi (VALE)
Robert Kilroy lectures in Applied Foreign Languages and History of Art at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. A specialist on the work of Marcel Duchamp, he is the author of several articles interrogating a diverse range of fields (word/image relations, visual culture, aesthetics, psychoanalytic theory) and thinkers (Lacan, Žižek, Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy). His first book, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: One Hundred Years Later (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), critically reassesses one of the most influential works of art of the twentieth century.

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