- Et in Arcadia Video: Poussin’ the Image of Culture with Marin and Kuntzel
When considering an object by itself and on its own terms, without considering what it might represent, one has an idea of a thing, like the idea of the earth and of the sun. But when reflecting on a certain object only as it represents an other, one has an idea of a sign, and this initial object is called a sign. This, then, is how one ordinarily considers maps and paintings. The sign thus includes two concepts: one, the thing representing; the other, the thing represented; and the nature of the sign consists of prompting the latter by the former.—Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, La Logique ou l’art de penser
Those readers familiar with Louis Marin’s extensive writings on the semiology of art will recognize my title’s pun on one of his favorite images, Nicolas Poussin’s pastoral elegy, Et in Arcadia Ego, a painting which Marin analyzes in detail in To Destroy Painting and throughout his extensive oeuvre. Marin is partial to this painting of the signs of death because its tombstone materializes the powerful role of the sign by representing the two things, death and utopia, that are never perceptible as anything other than representations. Arcadia and death can be known only through the signs of their ephemerality, through representations of infinity and finality, whether of the [End Page 431] ultimate future or the idealized past. Put in other terms, Poussin’s memorable painting performs the twofold function of the sign as theorized by Arnauld and Nicole in the 1683 edition of La logique ou l’art de penser: Et in Arcadia Ego embodies in one picture plane the thing represented and the thing representing. Poussin’s painting of the display of the tomb and its inscription, “Et in Arcadia Ego,” thus functions as the doubled representation of representation, the deictic showing of the thing that can only be represented virtually as representation.
Just where might we locate such poststructural concerns with representation, semiology, and virtuality within the context of the contemporary study of culture, not to mention within the discourse of what has come to be known as the discipline of “cultural studies?” Do such reflections on death and utopia preclude their conceptual usefulness to cultural studies which tends to be more at home, more comfortable, with the critical markers of realism, materialism, facticity, and “history?” Judging from the extensive bibliography of Cultural Studies, the 788 page Routledge reader edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, the answer would seem to be simple. This bibliography includes not a single reference to such a figure as influential as Marin, whose interrelated writings on semiotics, psychoanalysis, and Continental philosophy helped to forge the discourse of poststructural approaches to the cultural. Also symptomatic is the volume’s lack of bibliographic reference to other influential French theoreticians of text and image, such as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy, Herbert Damisch, Hélène Cixous, Raymond Bellour, Cathérine Clément, Christian Metz, Guy Rosolato, Thierry Kuntzel, and J.-B. Pontalis, whose work dialogues insistently with earlier traditions of German philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural theory to map an ideological approach to culture and its vicissitudes. Indeed, the same absence is true of significant contemporary figures in Germany such as Alexander Kluge and Oscar Negt who insist that the role of fantasy be included in any discussion or production of the media. It is notable that this volume’s encyclopedic attempt to delineate a critical terrain of the cultural remains strikingly indifferent to, if not in defensive disavowal of, the extensive Continental discourse on representation and its cultural work. Many adherents of cultural studies no doubt would attribute this absence or entombment of the discourse on representation to what they perceive as the muted response of semio-psycho-philosophical analyses to the imperatives of identity politics and the attendant realistic, materialist [End Page 432] issues of race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, and colonialism. While such an Anglo-American spin on the poststructural (in)sensitivity to cultural identity helps to foreground many political issues which are crucial to any theorization of...