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  • Figuring Performance
  • Julie Gaillard (bio)
Lyotard and the “Figural” in Performance, Art, and Writing, by Kiff Bamford, New York: Continuum, 2012, 224pp., $120.00/€92.00 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-4411-6707-1

Jean-François Lyotard’s engagement with art and writing has received relatively little attention among English-speaking scholars, who have traditionally read him as the theoretician of The Postmodern Condition and for the philosophy of the phrase developed through his engagement with Ludwig Wittgenstein in The Differend. This lack of interest is reflected in the paucity of anglophone monographs on this aspect of Lyotard’s oeuvre; Geoffrey Bennington’s 1988 Lyotard: Writing the Event and Bill Reading’s 1991 Introducing Lyotard: Art and Politics are so far the only ones to address these concerns. The scholarship on performance, on the other hand, has hardly gone out of fashion since its boom in the anglophone world during the 1960s, though it has been underappreciated by francophone scholars. Kiff Bamford’s long-awaited Lyotard and the “Figural” in Performance, Art, and Writing thus fills a theoretical void and bridges more than one theoretical gap. Lyotard’s notion of the figural provides the author with a locus around which several disciplines, traditions, and contexts come to be interwoven. To trace the notion of the figural from Lyotard’s early writing, where the term is expressly present, to his later writing, where his interests seem to have shifted, Bamford progresses through several constellations of concept that he systematically strives to put into perspective. This is done through a constant effort to situate these notions according to the background of their various receptions and of their main philosophical precursors. Rather than superimpose his findings on specific performances that would simply be used as illustrations, the author chooses to interweave the presentation and analysis of selected works of art—mainly by Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, and Gina Pane—in separate [End Page 233] sections within the various notional conceptual constellations. Art and theory are set on equal footing and in resonance with each other. Each chapter of the book spirals from theory to art, from art to theory, pointing to the complex interrelations and oppositions between the two. The book as a whole manages to cross disciplinary boundaries and responds to what Bamford calls Lyotard’s “philosophical nexus” (171), while still preserving a certain chronological progression of the peregrinations of the figural. The first two chapters present the figural as it is developed mostly in Lyotard’s early books Discourse, Figure and Libidinal Economy, while the two last chapters shift to his later concern with the sublime and with affect. Bamford structures his reading of these “periods” in Lyotard’s thought with reference to an exhibition, Les immatériaux (The Immaterials), of which the philosopher was appointed curator, instead of the expected pivotal notion of the “differend.” This extensive study of Lyotard’s practical engagement with the art world in relation to his written work answers a still-pressing need and is one of the most original contributions of Bamford’s book. By placing it at the very center of his work, Bamford challenges a compartmentalization of concepts that has become established within the Lyotardian corpus and attempts to call attention to the consistent forces that set the nexus in motion—the figural being their blanket term.

Bamford opens his first chapter on “the figural” not by bluntly defining concepts but by giving a lively account of a performance by Yingmei Duan. This oblique approach enacts an impossibility that is intrinsic to the book’s very object. As Lyotard states in Discourse, Figure, the figure is precisely that which is only approachable from within the boundaries of discourse while always remaining outside its grasp. Going back and forth from critical definition to ostensive demonstration, Bamford circles around an object that will forever remain evasive, reproducing this evasiveness in his discourse. Of this intertwining of approaches (theory, performance, art, and art history) and of notions (figure, presence, event) there remains a net woven to capture the incapturable, whose presence is yet felt by the reader through the chapter. “The figure is there now, and it blocks the course of the tale by putting...


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pp. 233-237
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