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The Ground of the Image. By Jean-Luc Nancy. Translated by Jeff Fort. Fordham University Press, 2005. 158pages. $20.00.

This is a volume of nine reflective pieces, the first six of which appear in the French edition, with three additional essays added for the English edition. Nancy, a well-known contemporary French philosopher, has published numerous works ranging over topics such as psychoanalysis, social and political theory, and ontology. The present volume is more a series of discrete analyses and reflections than a sustained inquiry. However, the best pieces make noteworthy contributions to themes connected with images, imagination, representation, aesthetics, and with direct and indirect relevance to thinking about religion. I will not summarize each chapter of the book, but will rather focus on a few of the main ideas.

Nancy formulates a dynamic approach to images, built on the longstanding continental tradition of theorizing language and forms of representation (or presentation) as ontologically constitutive (actually impacting on being) rather than simply reflecting already-existing objects. Sometimes Nancy characterizes this creative/energetic quality of the image by differentiating it from “representation.” In other places, however, the term “representation” [End Page 709] includes both aspects, that is, the mimetic replicating of Vorstellung and the active presenting of Darstellung. Nancy sees the emergence of what he calls the “presentative, appresentative, or apperceptive” understanding of the image as “a purveyor of knowledge” as having its first modern figure in “the Kantian imagination” (81). In Nancy’s approach, “the image is a thing that is not a thing; it distinguishes itself from it, essentially.” Here the image is grasped as a “force—the energy pressure or intensity” (2). Nancy also states of the image that “it is its ‘idea’ or its energy” (9), conveying an opening of new insights and visions of reality. The quality of force is a common feature of both image and sacred, although in expressing this point Nancy also opens another avenue of inquiry: “the ‘sacred’ was always a force, not to say a violence” (2). Hence the image, grasped as actively altering our sense of lived reality, also brings with it a potentially troubling and disruptive dimension.

The first essay explores this force of the image in terms of the sacred as that which stands apart from given or “available” objects. The image is not seen as granting access to a higher realm in any literal sense, but as potentially conveying a quality of being that cannot be reduced to the utilitarian. Importantly, this capacity to enhance our worlds “is true of every image, including religious images, unless the religiosity of the subject degrades or crushes the image, as happens in the pious bric-a-brac produced by everyday religion” (6). The second piece builds on this implicit distinction between the image as opening and creating, and as debased and literalized (or, as both Kant and Freud might say, “fetishized”). Here, Nancy also moves more directly into the “violence” he associates with force. He meditates on the dual relationship of images and violence, that is, as the excess of images in contemporary massmedia societies being a “bombardment,” a form of violence in itself, and in the sense that there is currently a proliferation of specific “images of violence” (15). Nancy is quite forceful in addressing the irrationality, stupidity, and destructiveness of violence, for example, in the abhorrent form of “racist violence” (17). He also establishes a subtle distinction between a certain force associated with “truth,” which, as transformative of reality, “cannot erupt without tearing apart an established order,” and the thoughtless “truth of violence” that “both destroys and destroys itself (18). In contrast to the blunt assault of thoughtless violence, “the violence of truth” is such that it “withdraws even as it erupts” (18). This point articulates a crucial distinction in Nancy’s theory of the image, restated in various ways throughout these essays. The irreducible remainder of unthought, unspoken, and unrepresented elements makes images evocative of the other (or, in Nancy’s terms, the “distinct”), thus counteracting oppressive totalitarian visions of truth. By contrast, this latter form of “violent and violating violence reveals and believes that it reveals absolutely” (26). Hence the...


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