It seemed to me that we had never attached much importance to the fact that, after all, speech exists.

Michel Foucault


There is always a certain degree of existential unease to be found in texts about writing. The author is forced to resort to language that is painfully aware of itself and its subject. This very relationship is what this essay will try to address: what is being told when one pays attention to how - which language is used and what technologies exist to wield it. [1]

Foucault’s interview with Claude Bonnefoy presents a playground for this idea. The subject of the interview lies not in the philosopher’s works, but in their “hidden pattern” or “secret texture” - Foucault’s relationship to writing. He goes into great detail to establish and explain the language that he is going to use to describe this relationship, remarking that he has “access to a certain number of forms of speech”. He says:

We’re both going to have to find a kind of linguistic register, a register of speech, exchange, communication that is not entirely that of the written work, or that of the explanatory process, or something told in confidence, for that matter. [2]

Instead of hovering behind the text like a ghost, the ‘linguistic register’ is brought to the foreground. Foucault pushes it further by drawing on his memories from Sweden, where he had to speak Swedish or English, both of which he couldn’t manage without difficulty. This caused him to fall into space ‘in between languages’ from where he could obtain a different vision of his native French:

…I noticed, first of all, that it had a thickness, a consistency, that it wasn’t simply like the air we breathe, an absolutely imperceptible transparency, and then that it had its own laws, its corridors, its paths of facility, lines, slopes, coasts, asperities; in other words, it had a physiognomy and it formed a landscape where one could walk around and discover in the flow of words, around sentences, unexpectedly, points of view that hadn’t appeared previously. [3]

One could call for dismissal of the points of view found in the folds of language as not credible enough, and therefore, unusable in academic research. I would like to argue for at least allowing such an experiment to happen - this essay is partly an attempt at it, as well as an attempt at its justification. I would like to give a chance to an approach not as much interdisciplinary as intermethodological (linguistically) and bring the metaphor into research. The intricate use of language contributed to humanity long throughout its history, but the ‘poetic truth’ [4], hunted and delivered through metaphors, has seldom been used outside the artistic domain. When I suggest such an experiment, or rather, a leap of faith - to rely on a metaphor in academic context - I hope it lands us in the same pre-lingual space through which Foucault wandered in search of words to convey what he had to say. It would be interesting to discover a space in language, half-way between rhetoric and literalness, where a metaphor balanced with a degree of clarity can yield a new and unexpected point of view.


Drawing back to Foucault’s relationship to writing and even into his family history, later in the same interview there appears one very distinctive metaphor. Being a son of a surgeon, he invokes the idea of a cut, comparing his pen to a scalpel and the sheet of paper to “the body of the other”. He says:

The physician listens, but does so to cut through the speech of the other and reach the silent truth of the body. … The surgeon discovers the lesion in the sleeping body, opens the body and sews it back again, he operates; all this is done in silence, the absolute reduction of words. The only words he utters are those few words of diagnosis and therapy. The physician speaks only to utter the truth, briefly, and prescribe medicine. [5]

The cut becomes the place where the truth is found, or a gate, through which it is reached. It also invokes the idea of silence as something as potent as speech itself, suited to become an instrument of diagnosis. The ‘cut’ as an abstract idea conceals in its simplicity a lot of power. It means interruption into existing process or state, a break, but also a change. The ‘after the cut’ is never the same as ‘before the cut’, as the latter will inevitably bear a scar. An incision that does not leave a mark is only conceivable if the matter through which it is made is homogeneous to perfection, like water or time, or able to regenerate infinitely. Even then, some alteration happens in the form of a ripple (a change of course of events).

Consider this quote by Hollis Frampton:

The principles by which the sages and wizards of geomancy decree sites and vistas (and we all do that), or the reasons why the Japanese venerate a seemingly random tree, refuse to rise to the surface of the mind for inspection precisely because they are part of its endoskeleton, to which language has access only when it is as it were, cut to the bone, and another mind, which is never precisely either present or absent, may speak through the wound as through an accidental mouth. [6]

Here the language itself is ‘cut’ in order to bring to light the structures of ‘another mind’ underlying it. While the nature of the ‘mind’ may be debated, the pattern of cutting through to reach something unique is clearly present. Frampton’s insights are often accompanied by metaphors of one sort or another; but the metaphor of the cut becomes particularly charged if we consider it in view of his practice as a film-maker. [7]

The idea of a cut is inherent to film-making on a very physical level. On a montage table the blade cuts into the moving and living body of the filmic image, bringing it to a violent stop - the immobility or death. But at the moment the first film strip is joined with the next one and a new meaning appears at the point of the incision, the dead body is turned to life: the montage table becomes an operating table, a locus where life is fought for and given back.

Eisenstein in the essay “Béla forgets scissors” reminds us of the specific role of the montage: “The expressive role of cinema is the result of juxtaposition” [8]. As a director, he made extensive proof of this in his films - the first to spring to mind would be the iconic staircase sequence from Battleship Potemkin. As a writer, he delineates what happens at the junction of frames, comparing it to language:

Our understanding of cinema is now entering its ‘second literary period’. The phase of approximation to the symbolism of language. Speech. Speech that conveys a symbolic sense (i.e. not literal), a ‘figurative quality’, to a completely concrete material meaning through something that is uncharacteristic of the literal, through contextual confrontation, i.e. also through montage. In some cases - where the juxtaposition is unexpected or unusual - it acts as a ‘poetic image’. …

In cases other than those of traditional juxtaposition the meaning acquires its own autonomous sense, distinct from the literal, but no longer featuring as an element of its figurative quality (no literary Darwinism! [9]). …figurative expression, generally speaking, forever represents a ‘mutation’ that emerges only in context. When someone says, ‘I feel crushed’, you still do not know whether ‘grief’ or a ‘tram’ is responsible. It becomes obvious from the context. [10]

Is Eisenstein’s idea of ‘autonomous sense’ anything like ‘intact speech’ of Foucault or ‘another mind’ of Frampton? There is no way to tell. But they are achieved by similar means - by reaching through and recomposing the familiar structures and elements into a pathway to unknown, or rather, unknowable will that operates the language and the language of moving image as equal instruments of producing meaning. When received by the viewer, the montage cuts and metaphors in language function on the same level, namely, at the back of your mind (as if mind could have a back). Their potency lies precisely in the fact that they are not actively and consciously considered, but are taken in through subtler paths. That is not to say that the narrative can not behave subtly; but rather to underline the inevitable distribution of roles that we attribute to the elements of a work: the narrative stands in the foreground, and the means to convey it are a backdrop. A lot of modernist writers could be named among those who in their practice made a point of reversing this hierarchy.

The film, however, has a more intimate relationship with the idea of a cut than literature. Following the track of the same essay by Eisenstein, Johannes Binotto underlines that in order to function, the film strip per se needs to be ‘wounded’ or perforated, so it can be carried through the cinematic apparatus. He expresses that idea in the review of Christoph Girardet and Mathias Müller’s Cut (2013) which follows the same technique as their earlier films: a found footage work, comprised of the extracts from numerous feature films. Its subject, however, presents Cut as a sort of an ultimate statement, for it constitutes an attack at the human body itself. Girardet and Müller remarked on the occasion of their latest exhibition Tell Me What You See [11], where Cut was shown: “The body is a large topic in our society, and a lot of attention is paid to it. There is healthy eating, fitness, cosmetological industry, plastic surgery. But at the same time, in the popular mainstream cinema genres the body is often presented as a source of fear, anxiety, tumult; the body ages, falls sick, mutates uncontrollably and at some point - dies.” [12] Cut reveals, in a stark succession, a pool of blood, a close-up of doll’s eyes, a wall of fire, a bright-red nail paint, a knife drawing blood from the arm, a close-up of the soil crawling with an army of ants; images of swollen, beaten, carved bodies, but also the bodies of objects - a pillow stabbed with a knife, torn stockings, dripping water. Interweaving frames in this way, Cut obliterates the difference between the human body and the object, viscerally bringing the viewer to empathise with a non-living thing: “at one point, a pillow is sliced open, and one is surprised that no entrails spill out." [13] In a sense, Cut is a film containing a body that is being cut, as well as being a body that is being cut.


The pattern of the cut as a prompt for change, as a chance of interruption and alteration of direction, repeats itself in numerous mythologies. Saint George kills the dragon and where the dragon’s blood is spilt, roses start to grow; flowers spring from the wound of Adonis killed by a wild boar. Medusa’s blood gives birth to a miraculous winged horse, Pegasus, that later makes its occupation to carry poets on its back, bringing them before the Muses. The most striking of these echoes is the story of Odin, who spends nine days and nights on the world tree Yggdrasil, pierced by his own spear, to obtain the runes that would give him the knowledge to rule the nine worlds.

Essentially, the cut breaks dead calm and stagnation. “Where one cuts, there emerge combinations. The wound creates wonders.” [14] Instead of dying, moving image only starts to live after the cut. As ‘wounded healer’ [15] of Jung, the film finds its purpose only after being hurt, or divided. Jung remarks: “The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals. But when the doctor wears his personality like a coat of armour, he has no effect.” [16]

After being cut the film is elevated into the state from which it can affect the viewer; where the viewer can establish a deep bond with the film, as if the wound made them brothers in arms. A different kind of affect would result from conventional juxtapositions than from those that Eisenstein calls ‘unexpected’ or ‘unusual’. Mainstream cinema might not use the self-aware filmic language that avant-garde film or artists’ moving image employs. Looking at the work that finds its place in between these two categories, it is hard not to flinch at the montage-driven assault in Psycho’s shower scene, with its augmenting close-ups on Janet Leigh’s face, her mouth open in a scream, and the swings of the knife, as if it was falling onto the viewer’s own body.

The cut thus is a moment of violence which is inevitable and necessary to shock the viewer into understanding. The instances when it happens in language are manifold; for the most part, however, they go unnoticed. There is a certain irony in the fact that the Foucault’s interview ends with “[The transcript breaks off here.]” Isn’t that, in itself, a comprehensive illustration to his words - that language is inexhaustible and infinite, and that it is our aspiration to “try to draw, to point out that blind spot through which we speak and see, to grasp what makes it possible for us to see into the distance, to define the proximity around us that orients the general field of our gaze and our knowledge”? [17] When speaking about the cut, the trick, perhaps, is in trying not to be lost in the multiplicity of metaphors that it brings, be it through language, film, or both - but to tread lightly above all of them; to take a step back to allow oneself to see everything at once in a different light, and add a new facet to its understanding.

June 2014


[1] In this essay I would like to argue for merging artistic practice with research; in this case, experimental use of language in academic writing. The specificities of semiotics of language, however, is not my primary focus here; more so, the way they are applied structurally.

[2] Michel Foucault, Speech Begins after Death (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2013), 27

[3] Ibid., 31-32

[4] Introduction of a term like ‘poetic truth’ creates a strong need for definition of ‘truth’ itself, especially in the context of the essay that is conscious of the critical use of language; however, for the purposes and limitations of this essay, the ‘poetic truth’ is better off as a passing allusion.

[5] Foucault 2013, 35

[6] On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, ed. by Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2009), 38

[7] Frampton came to film-making through photography, and before that, in his early twenties he had a brief but fruitful apprenticeship with Ezra Pound. His continuing interest in the modernist literature can be clearly seen from references scattered through his writings. Thus as an artist strongly connected to literature and visual arts, and in the ways that brought him to question the fundamentals of both, in his films he operated a language that was aware not only of itself but also of the cinematic history, especially in Poetic Justice, Zorns Lemma, and later Magellan.

[8] Sergei Eiseinstein, Selected Works, Volume 1: Writings, 1922-34 (I.B.Tauris&Co Ltd, London 2010), 80

[9] The translation that is quoted here contains a mistake. “No literary Darwinism!” in the original text has the opposite meaning, namely “isn’t it literary Darwinism?”

[10] Eisenstein 2010, p.80

[11] 11.1-16.3.2014 at Kunstverein Hannover, Hannover, Germany

[12] A video interview http://www.whitetube.de/2014/01/12/christoph-girardet-matthias-muller/

[13] Johannes Binotto, Operations on the Body of Film, in exhibition catalogue from Tell Me What You See (Kunstverein Hannover, Germany, 2014), 122

[14] Ibid., 120

[15] A term put forth by Carl Jung, indicating that an analyst is compelled to treat patients because the analyst himself is ‘wounded’. It is possible that Jung might have relied on the myth of centaur Chiron, who, having been dealt an incurable wound by the poisoned arrow but still not being able to die because of his immortality, turned to healing others, seeking out cures and passing his knowledge.

[16] C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Flamingo 1983), 134

[17] Foucault 2013, 71