” For what I have to do is terrible, in any sense of the
word; I do not challenge individuals – I am challenging
humanity as a whole with my accusation:
whichever way the decision may go, fir me or
against me, in any case there attaches to my name a
quantity of doom that is beyond telling.
F. #Nietzsche. Selected #Letters
The Italian surrealist, #Giorgio de #Chirico, is the #painter of
#postmodernism par exceZZence. Chirico’s world begins, just at that
point where the grand t&its of #modernity disappear int:o their own
perspectival simulation. Here power, operating under the sign of
seduction, is like a black hole in the social nebula which sucks
into its dense vortex the energies of living labour and embodied
politics; here, in fact, there is no perspectival space from which
spreads out the figurations of the real. Chirico is the artist of
nihilism (an uncanny precursor of Rem5 Magritte and Max Ernst,
and also of Foucault’s #semiology in Cecin’estpasunepz$e) because
he understood the full consequences of Nietzsche’s accusation
that in a world in which conditions of existence are transposed
into “predicates of being”, it would be the human fate to live
through a fantastic inversion and cancellation of the order of the
real. Commodity into sign, history into semiurgy, concrete labour
into abstract exchange, perspective into simulation: these mark
the threshold of the artisti.c imagination as it dwells on the eclipse
of history symbolized by Nietzsche’s madness in the piazzas of
One painting in particular by Chirico provides a privileged
glimpse into the inner locus of the Nietzschean world and, for
that reason, represents the great rupture in Western consciousness,
making nihilism the limit and possibility of historical emancipation.
Titled simply, Landscape Painter, this production is a
brilliant satire on the representational theory of nature (the
landscape coded, and thus imprisoned, on the canvas), and a fully
tragic portrayal of (our) imprisonment in a dead empire of signs.
Chirico is a vivisectionist of the “referential illusion” at work in
modern experience: his paintings demonstrate with an uncompromising
sense of critical vision the rupture in Western experience
occasioned by the sudden disappearance of the classical
conceptions of power, truth, history, and nature as referential
finalities, and the postmodern metamorphosis of society into a
geometry of signs. Landscape Painter exists at the edge in the
identitarian logic of Western experience where nature (represented
by the dead image-system of the pastoral landscape)
passes over into its opposite: the geometric and thus fully spatialized
sign-world of the mannequin. The great inducement behind
the representational theory of nature (and, of course, of all the
referential finalities: sex, economy, reason, history) was that in
the perspectival space of difference and of non-identity, which
was the real meaning of the sign and its referent (language and
ontology), there was to be discovered the essential locus of
human freedom. The comforting, because antinomic, system of
referential finalities worked its effect by providing an order of
signification that militated against the tragic knowledge of the
radical disenchantment of modern society.
A “cynical power,” as
Foucault said in The History ofSexzlaZz%‘y, was not possible because
. . . power is tolerable only on the condition that it
mask a considerable part of itself. Its sucess is
proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.
Would power be accepted if it were entirely
cynical? For it, secrecy is not in the nature of an
abuse; it is indispensable to its operation. Not only
because power imposes secrecy on those whom it
dominates, but because it is perhaps just as
indispensable to the latter: would they accept it if
they did not see it as a mere limit placed on their
Giorgio de Chirico, Landscape Painter
desire, leaving a measure of freedom – however
slight – intact? #Power as a pure limit set on #freedom
is, at least in our #society, the general form of its
For Chirico, what was at stake in the theoretical agenda of the
order of referential finalities was a determined trompe l’oeil which
shifted (our) perspective from the nihilism of a “cynical power”
as the essence of the modern project to the already obsolete
belief in the emancipatory qualities of history, which, as the locus
of the real, had to signify something, anything. Landscape Painter
cancels out the comforting antinomies of history/emancipation
and says that if we are to be emancipated (from ourselves), it will
be within, and then beyond, the logic of the sign. In an age of a
fully “cynical power” and a “cynical history,” the, landscape
which is the object of Landscape Painter is that of power and the
Chirico is, then, the painter ofNietzsche’s The Willto Power. In
Nietzsche’s famous, last postcard toJacob Burkhardt, written at
the moment when he passed over into the silence of madness, he
provided us with an important clue to the real terrorism of a signsystem,
which being self-referential, tautological, and implosive,
is also fully soZt;nsistic. Nietzsche wrote: “The unpleasant thing,
and one that nags at my,modesty, is that at root every name in
history is I.” Nietzsche was, of course, the explorer of the new
continent of the sign. His insight into the tragic sense of the sign
was this: the wiping clean of the horizon of referential finalities
makes of (us) the last inhabitants of a world which, based now
only on “perspectival valuations,” has about it only a dead will to
truth, dead power, and a cynical history which do not exist except
as a residue of symbolic effecters. For Nietzsche, “every name in
history is I” because he recognized, and this with horror, his
imprisonment in the labyrinth of a sign-system which had about
it the non-reality of a perspectival simulation. For Nietzsche,
what powered this fantastic reduction of society to the logic of
the sign, what precipitated the implosion of the real into the
semiology of a perspectival illusion, was this: tde #sign ispower on its
down side, on its side of reversal, cancellation, and #disaccumulation. The
WiZZto Power is the emblematic text which represents, at once, the
locus and limit of the postmodernist imagination, or what is the
same, the tragic theory of the sign which is everywhere now in
intellectual and political discourse. Nietzsche recognized that
the sovereignty of the sign (he described sign-systems in the
language of “perspectival valuations”) meant the final reduction
of society to the (abstract, semiological, and #structural) language
of willing. The fateful conjuncture.of power/sign as the locus of
the real also meant that the dynamic language of willing was
finally able to confess its secret. All along the “will to power” had
never been anything more than a brilliant inferno for the
liquidation of the “real” and for the processing of society into the
dark and seductive empire of the sign.
If Nietzsche screams out a warning that the postmodernist
(and thus #nihilistic) #imagination always begins with the world in
reverse image (the real as the site of exterminism), then Chirico
paints the #landscape of power/sign. With Nietzsche, Chirico’s
vision begins on the other side, the abstract and nihilating side, of
the radical paradigm-shift which is what postmodern experience
is all about. Landscape Painter, like all of Chirico’s tragic
productions, from Turin, Spring (the decoupling of space and
satire on the classical episteme of history) to Two Masks (the
liquidation of human identity) and Mystery and MeZanchoZyo f a
Street (the cancellation of the space of the social); is based on
three decisive refusals of representational discourse: a rejh.raZ of‘
the referent of&e h&oricaZ (Chirico privileges the spatial sense and
excludes a sense of time); a refasalof the reality-princz$Zeo f the social
(there are no human presences, only an instant and melancholy
metamorphosis into a universe of dead signs); and a refusal of the
dialectic (here there is no suppressed region of truth-claims, only
an eclectic and randomized system of objects situated in relations
of spatial contiguity). What is, perhaps, most disquieting about
Chirico’s artistic productions is that in refusing the referential
logic of the sign and its signifying finalities, he ruptured the
dialectical logic of western consciousness. There are no “poles”
in LandscapePainter; for Chirico is tracing a great, and reverse, arc
in the cycle of modern power – an arc in which power in the form
of an empty sign-system becomes nothing more than a perspectival
simulationof itself. It’s the lack of signification in LandscapeP ainter
that is most noticeable; and which, indeed, parallels most closely
the absencoef (embodied) power in The willto Power.L ike Nietzsche
before him, Chirico recognized the structural logic of the sign as
the essence of the language of power. This is why Chirico was
able to trace so brilliantly the accelerating semiological implosion
(the geometry of the sign) in postmodern experience, His was a
world populated by bionic beings (The Return of the Prodigal Son),
by objects floating free of their “natural” contexts (The Song of
Love), by an almost menacing sense of silence as the background
to the liquidation of the social (Be Enigma of Fate), and by a
complex hieroglyphics of the sign as the geometric, and thus
perspectival, space within which we are now enclosed (Hector and
Andromache). Chirico understood that the conjuncture of power/
sign brought to the surface the missing third term in postmodernist
theorisations of power: the “will to will” as the abstract, semiological
unity imposed on an order of experience which was always
only a system of mirroring-effects. For Chirico, this’hint of death
in the language of the sign was its great seduction, drawing out
the political refusal of the “referential illusion,“, and making
power interesting only when it reveals the reverse, hidden side of
things: mutilation, liquidation, and exterminism.” “

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