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  • Defacement
  • Charles Barber (bio)

Consider the most trivial occurrence—that of an icon, an object of worship, before it is lost in “a work of art”: the visible surface of the wood there gives to be seen, surrounded by a face, two eyes; these two painted eyes, however, permit themselves to be intentionally pierced (thus under a mode that is irreal) by the invisible weight of a gaze; in short, in these two dots of basically black paint, I discern not only the visible image of a gaze that is (like all gazes) invisible but, provided that I acquiesce to it, this gaze in person, which, in fact, envisages me. Through the merely painted icon, I discover myself visible and seen by a gaze that, though present in the sensible, remains invisible to me.1

Jean-Luc Marion

The trivial occurrence that Jean-Luc Marion introduces in this passage also introduces us into the larger project of Marion’s re-conceptualization of phenomenology in terms of givenness.2 We are here asked to consider the icon in its existence as an object of worship, prior to its becoming a work of art. There, the painted surface gives two eyes “surrounded by a face” to be seen. The one looking, the “I” in the text that we assume in our reading, discerns an-other’s gaze in those eyes, discovering, having acquiesced to the gaze of this other, a person that looks at me, rendering me [End Page 104] visible. While this visual economy owes much to Lacan and to Lévinas,3 it is also valuable to consider the context of Marion’s reading, one that was provided by the texts of the seventh oecumenical council which met in 787 at Nicaea (now Iznik in northwestern Turkey) and that provides one of the fundamental accounts of the Christian icon.4 In the following essay, I will not only consider Marion’s debt to these medieval texts, but will also, having introduced some further texts from the iconoclastic era, argue that this postmodern, post-representational conception of the icon in fact leads to an iconoclasm in Marion’s thinking.5

Jean-Luc Marion has argued that within modernist discourse it has been customary to assume that: “no phenomenon enters into the visibility of a spectacle unless it first submits itself to the conditions of this visibility itself: the givenness to a finite consciousness.”6 Marion has then sought to overcome these conditions for knowledge, by empowering the subject of the icon—that which precedes and exceeds that object, saturating it—to look back at the one looking, to offer, as he puts it: “the gaze of the prototype.”7 Given this, the icon is, in fact, determined by the intention of this prototype to give itself to be seen through the icon. Marion thus inverts the modernist gaze, breaking with its mimetic order, and empowers that which lies hidden behind the image. Hence, he argues that: “The icon steps outside of the mimetic logic of the image by what it accomplishes entirely in its reference to a prototype—an invisible prototype.”8 This then leads him to raise the stakes by stating that: “What metaphysics opposes to the icon is nothing other than [End Page 105] its own aporia before the invisible secret of the visible.”9 But if we accept the visual economy proposed by the icon, it becomes apparent that what we are able to see “comes in no way from my gaze, but from an invisible gaze that engenders the visibility of its face and then envisages me as visible.”10 This absolute rejection of the power of our own gaze is then nuanced and justified by turning to the Christological use of the Theological concept of perichoresis as co-inherence, to define the icon as a site in which the invisible and visible may dwell together, hence: “the icon breaks with the rigid distribution of the visible in the sensible and the invisible in the intelligible, because it substitutes for an imitation that divides them a transition that does not cease to exchange them.”11 As such, by having escaped the constraints of a mimetic visual economy...


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pp. 104-115
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