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  • Texts and Icons in Heidegger’s Metaphysical Tradition
  • Michael James Bennett (bio)

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This essay is about texts that draw attention to themselves as texts, that is, as material, graphical figures, rather than as more or less efficiently pellucid semantic relays. In other words, it is about what happens when texts behave like images. In what follows I examine a series of philosophical contexts where this question appears to be at issue. I claim that one way of understanding what’s going on in these contexts is that here the image-form of a text becomes a kind of icon. I begin by reflecting on a prejudice that belongs, according to Heidegger, to the “history of metaphysics”: the notion that it would be better, clearer, and less ambiguous to replace all reliance on images with self-effacing, transparent words. My goal here is to demonstrate the existence of an alternative historical trend that defends an opposite view. I compare a defense of iconography by Byzantine patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople, as well as the Neoplatonist Porphyry’s commentary on Aristotle’s Categories, with works by two latter-day Heideggerians, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion, who respond to the inherited problematic of non-referential, iconic texts. These responses suggest that non-semantic image-creation, as much as non-semantic verbal play, is the pre-conceptual condition of conceptuality. This essay presents a new way of understanding the philosophical issues that connect ancient and medieval discussions about icons and images with twentieth-century concerns about language.

In her study of medieval European manuscript illumination, Animating the Letter (1999), Laura Kendrick emphasizes the non-semantic character of illuminated texts. Kendrick argues that the basic distinction between text and image is fundamentally at stake in illumination, and that the distinction is inherited from the Christian church fathers who opposed text and image, privileging the former and denigrating the latter. According to this traditional view, texts are better suited than images to a consideration of the divine on account of writing’s ethereal quality, its “transparency,” which leads the reader beyond the material sign to the immaterial concept. The problem with images, on the other hand, is their materiality, which may lead viewers down a dark path toward an ultimately heretical veneration for the mere image instead of for its referent. It seems to me that we find in Kendrick’s argument an exact homology with the discourse on the icon in the Byzantine Christian church. Emperor Constantine V, for instance, at the time of the “first iconoclast crisis” (the mid-eighth century CE), expresses wariness about the potentially heterodox metaphysics underpinning iconophilia. He objects to icons on the basis that their veneration would be acceptable only if the icon were to share the essence of that of which it is an icon (God), but that this is impossible; infinite divine nature cannot be encompassed within the finite line of human composition. The Byzantine iconophile’s response to this objection is not to deny the infinite, uncircumscribable nature of God, but to affirm that the icon, bound though it is to the register of images, nevertheless does not function in the same manner as an ordinary image. That is, the icon does not refer to its model by means of resemblance alone. In the language of Nikephoros of Constantinople (758–828 CE), the character of the icon consists in consubstantiality (homoousia) prior to resemblance (homoiōsis).1 [End Page 27]

The problem of the limits of reference unites the discourse on the icon and the flourishing of the illuminated text. Just as the icon does not refer in the normal way to its referent, so Kendrick contends that the “animated letter” is not reducible to its pure semantic quality, is not to be understood as if it were just a kind of significative relay through which a sublime quantity of something called “meaning” is obliged to pass. “Meaning,” conceived of in what I am inclined to call the narrowly economic sense as the cargo of material vehicles called “words,” meaning that is gambled in words and then “cashed out” again, is not always what is at stake when one writes. Something else is...