Media in an era of the Figural: Assessing Possibilities of Emancipation or Alienation

We are living at time of a profound Media revolution. Some media scholars say that we have entered an era of the figural. The goal of advertisement has changed. The television is no longer marketing products to the public. It sells public to the advertisers. The public/audience has become a product for sale. The need to resemble an authoritative and authorising model is no longer the in thing for Media products. Media has dumped its designative function. The abandoning of the designative function can be felt more in the print media, where a blank page established all relations of designation, nomination, description and classification. Now these borders are shifting and dissolving. The era of representation has ended and we are taken into a regime of similitude. Similitude circulates the simulacrum as an indefinite and reversible relation of the similar to the similar. In an era of digital communication, a similitude dish out uncanny and paradoxical repetitions that are propelled by a velocity at which the world of things recede the grasp of the world of signs that media produces. We have moved into a post-truth era. This is why; this paper tries to understand the changed scenario of the world of Media and strives to assess the possibilities of emancipation or alienations it heralds.

Explosion of the figural

We can see how text is fluidly spatialized as well as notice how space is fluidly ‘texualised’ in today’s media. The spatialization of the text led to the loss of its uniform contours, fixed spacing and linear sense. The ‘texualisation’ of space has led to the fragmentation of the solidity of Euclidean space and is rendered discontinuous, divisible and liable to recombination in several ways. This is possible because the computer generated images have become common place.  Suddenly, the image becomes articulable and discursive as never before. This marks the explosive entry of the figural. It is not that figural did not exist before this point.  It existed but the changed scenario in art and media challenged our linguistic and semeiotic theories reigning until then. These tools of media analysis are rendered to the status of Newtonian science in the face of complexity introduced by Einsteinian physics. Figural challenges the self identity of discourse. In the first half of his book, Discourse, Figure, Lyotard demonstrates that the then reigning Saussurian project which informed both structuralism and post-structuralism at that time has abruptly ended. Christian Mertz tried to enlarge the terrain of saussurianism so that the image (in photography and cinema) could be ringed by signification but failed to break the linguistic foundations of discourse.  It took the work of Michel Foucault and Lyotard to show that discourse in transformed by the figural. One must acknowledge the contribution of Derrida also in this regard.  Despite his brilliant critique of logocentrism and the critique of Saussure in Of Gramatology and his original deployment of the concept of spacing, encriture (writing) and text, Derrida still seems to be trapped within the limits of language. Lyotard teaches that figure and discourse cannot be opposed. He says that the discourse and figure are not divided by a bar but by a coma. But the coma introduced by Lyotard in the title of his book has a disruptive function. Discourse erodes signification through spatialization. Hearing and seeing is not the same thing. This means from passing from text to image the status of the eye changes.  Spatialization does occur in two dimensions that are in commensurable: designation and desire. Designation deals with the reference. Where designation is a formal or formed space while desire arises as a force of the figural. Beyond or beneath the uncontainable spatial force of designation stays the unrepresentable force of primal phantasy where the figural expresses the disarticulatory powers of death drive.

What is the figural?

We cannot approach the figural (it is different as well as related to the term figure which means ‘defining an outline or providing a type of visual organization) by deconstructing the discourse (meaningful and formal arrangement of words for the sake of communication and representation) or by passing by it. Lyotard uses to term figural to indicate and name interventions or transformations that visually disrupt discourse or violate the structure of textuality. Thus, the figural is more disfigural because it disfigures, distorts, defaces and deforms. Figural disfigures discourse. It intervenes at the level of form, which is the level of recognition, a level at which we form cognitive judgments about that which we already know or understand. To understand the figural we have to understand the working of our eye. Eye is not passive or immobile and separate from the world it sees.  It is the movement of the eye that unites the subject and the object (Merleau-Ponty’s view accepted by Lyotard). The visual field of the eye is dynamic like the eye which is also not a passive receiver of what is offered to it.  Vision is binocular (providing two different perspectives before their cognitive synthesis).  the visual field consist of the observers own presence as part of the scene, that moved forwards or backwards, in or out of view or which display contiguous or overlapping facets in respect to the horizon of transcendence (the notion of transcendence for Ponty refers to the way things that we do not yet see or cannot entire see are nevertheless implicated in what we actually do see).  Visual field is not linear but is curved or warped. What appears at its margin presents an otherness which is the play of the visible and the hidden which continually threatens the primacy of foveal centre of attention and general structure of vision.  There is a continuity of perception even when we see only a side of an object while not see the other side.   Thus, even when we cannot see all the sides of a cube, we perceive it as a cube through a dynamic combination of our movements and retention of the subconscious memory (focalisation). We sort of reassemble the cube into a recognizable object situated within a seemingly objective or consensual space that enables us to engage with it at variable distance.  This sense of homogenous space arises out of heterogeneous and constitutive depth which Ponty suggests as primordial and points that other dimensions of space like length, width and height derive.   This depth situates our body and fleshes out our world as a series of contiguous and overlapping relations that are not exclusive and determine our distance from the objects that emerge, hide or move within it. But the depth remains invisible.  It is this otherness of the visible that makes visible possible.

Staying with the problem of designation, Lyotard teaches that the figure resides in the discourse as an intractable opacity of the visible. This is a spatial manifestation that linguistic space cannot incorporate without being shaken, an exteriority that it cannot interiorise as signification. Every discourse he says is haunted by perspective. In order to mean, it has to refer. He calls this function indexicality (this concept is different from the one used by Charles Saunder Peirce). Indexicality for Lyotard is a function of designation though which it refers an object that it wants to the interiority of thought, discourse opens a view. It indicates a vis-a-vis over there that rattles invariability of the linguistic system and diacritical space with plasticity and desire that opens an expansive horizon. This means indexicality stands for the fact that discourse is    shot through with the visible. The sayable of the discourse has to point to beyond its borders to objects positioned in space with respect to it.   It is plunged into a gestural space ( it is as if we have to follow a finger pointing that  leads our eye) that surrounds it and it is riddled from within deictic holes whose function is to indicate positionality in space (here/ there) and in time ( now/then). It is as if the text of the discourse makes the eyes see outside and anchors itself there. But Lyotard teaches that this outside is itself is a return to the primary intimacy of the body in space and time. He calls it diadiectical relation. Here, he reminds us the designative function belongs to the showing and not signification.  It is insignifiable. This means indexicality gives us a formed space.  Thus, language is powerless with respect to showing but unlike Hegel he argues that it is not because it is opposed to the sayable but because it is close to it. He says that the visible and the expressible are bound in a heautonomous relation (Heautonomy is a principle of reflective judgement according to which the subject gives itself a law ‘not to nature (as autonomy), but to itself (as heautonomy), to guide its reflection upon nature’) that keeps it distinct and incommensurable yet intimately linked. Thus there is a figure form, the non-linguistic space within language that makes it expressable. Therefore, Lyotard distinguishes between signification and expression and holds that they are two different dimensions of discourse distinguished by their relation to the figural space.

The linguistic system operates  by way  relation of opposition to render meaning and in a discourse takes a designative function that sights the mode of spacing of the subject with respect to sign and discourse according to deixis ( relation of space (here /there) and time (now/then). The figural says Lyotard is an avtar of another order. The figural is unreprestable beneath or behind representation because it operates in another space that does not give itself to be thought and seen. It is disruptive and is a proper space of desire. This is where the figural stays outside the discourse. In fact the figural is both inside and outside the discourse. The eye is in the word because there is no articulation without the appeal to outside constituted as visibility where objects are designated in space. But there is another specialization that resides at the heart of discourse as an unconscious force – desire. As a force, it is unconscious and does not signify. It is not structured like language as Lacan would have us believe. This force or energy of the unconscious as desire folds or wrinkles the text and makes it an aesthetic work. It is discourse that calls the eye. To trace the path of the eye in the field of language, we will have to pay heed to desire that gives pleasure. Thus, for Lyotard, discourse encompasses expression, affect and signification (reason). Discourse is subjected to libidinal economy. He says that the calm surface of language is always churned by the force of desire. Discourse operates at two different levels of meaning: signification and sense. Sense opens meaning to spatiality and affect. Sense is in some way a presence of absence of signification. Constructing sense is plotting the death of signification. This is where the death drive operates. Lyotard falls on the dream work (what the dream does: its underlying working. It is different from the dream thought which about what the dream is actually about) of Freud. He teaches that dream work is not a language. It is an effect on language of a force exerted by the figural (image or form). It impedes hearing and makes us see. In this context, then the figural is not a gap between the seeable and sayable. It is force and unbound energy, not simply unseen (the letter missed, the image invisible but radically unconscious). Lyotard calls it the third dimension that is neither showble nor sayable.

In summery we can say that the force of the figural organizes space in three incommensurable dimensions. The order of discourse is disrupted from within by two different negations (opposition and negation) and two kinds of spacing: that of linguistic system organized by invariant patterned differences (opposition) and that of reference or designation (negation) which holds in perspective the sign and the object to which it refers. There is no univocal discourse since saying and showing are inseparable. Text is always already figured. But the figural still operates at a different level, that of the unconscious desire and returns to discourse as an infernal (with character of hell) repetition, the force of transgression. Figure and text organises in what Deleuze calls collateral space.  He elaborates his view by teaching that when the eye and the position of the observer are sighted, the enunciative act is caught up in another relation that Deleuze calls collateral space.  We shall discuss collateral space in the next section. But the figural is not in any of these dimensions nor, it is represented by the discourse. It is not space but the desire or force. As non-spatial it is non-representational. Yet it can be understood that the force of transgression acts on space expressing itself in disordered forms and hallucinatory images. It is through these acts of un-forming that different dimensions of the figural may be defended as image, form and matrix (figure-image, figure-form, matrix-figure).  The figure-image (Freud’s conscious) is one that is of the realm of the seen whether actual or hallucinatory. Here the figural operates as a transgression of deconstruction of the percept unrevealing the contours of image. It concerns the dismantling of the recognisability of the object as image. This can take place through the multiplication, dissolution, subtraction or erasure of the defining outline so that the space it occupies vis-a-vis its immediate environment is blurred or confused.   The figure-form (Freud’s preconscious) is unseen yet belongs to the architecture that set it in place. It is a regulating trace or gestalt of the image or scenography of representation. The matrix-figure (Freud’s unconscious) to understand its workings, we have to imagine that the figural as undermining the Apollonian good or Euclidian space with Dionysian force. Matrix in an-archic. Here the figural runs counter to representation. Discourse, image and form. Yet it resides in all three spaces.  Matrix is like the mother’s womb. The loss of mother brings trauma and the longing for her is drawn from lack (wish fulfilment) that the child feels. Matrix provides conditions  for wish fulfilment through phantasies in order to cope with the lack.

Reading the figural   

Deleuze teaches us three ways of reading the figural: the correlative, the complementary and the collateral. He divides them depending on the relation of the visible with the expressible. The correlative reading examines the relation of what can be said with what can be seen. It is a relation between verbalisation and spatialization. He teaches that in this context, we have to examine how the legibility of the objects, concepts and subject emerge in organization of discursive formations and vice versa. Deleuze teaches the Foucault demonstrates the correlative reading   in his book, Birth of the Clinic.  Foucault critically studies how the legibility of human body diminishes. He tries to measure the transformation of clinical gaze into a glace whereby body is no longer legible or picturable by a totalising look. This condition converts the body into an impenetrable surface and we require medical instruments (stethoscope and other technologies of auscultation) to translate the invisible interior of the body into recognisable sense. We have no other systems of signs that map, classify and document the hidden interior into legible space. We can see how what is visible is again affecting what is sayable.  The complementary figural reading can be traced in the way Foucault describes the panopticon where he draws the relation of discursive and non-discursive as the institutional basis of power. Deleuze teaches that complementary is a spatial organization model is central to panopticon. He says it is not so much to see without being seen but is more an imposition of conduct on human collectivity. It is achieved re-division of space, ordering of time in a serial fashion and  create an architectonic of space-time. Hence, complementary relations exercise power through fundamental relations that gives unprecedented capacity to divide in space, order in time and compose in space-time. The collateral reading of the figural examines the relation of the grouping of discursive statements themselves. It means we have to scrutinize how they emerge, organize and distribute themselves as historical of discourse.  Deleuze teaches that by relating the sayable to the visible we can examine the transformation of discourse in different epochs and also understand how the organisation of discourse is informed by the quality of knowledge and power.

The figural in the Media

Roland Barthes had already pointed out that an epistemological shift had already taken place from work to text in the field of literary theory. Text has become a new object and opens the work to the field of writing. Work continues to remains within the confines of logocentrism where reading is an exchange of meaning between the authors and their consumers. Texts become fluid and irreducible plural generated in the act of critical reading and recontextualisation. Hence, reading becomes a free play, an infinite deferral of the signified. In some way, reading becomes a kind of writerly act that actualises the text in new critical, social and theoretical contexts.   In 1975 Raymond Bellour takes Barthes into film theory when he wrote that the film is a text (in his ‘unatinable text’) and tried to apply Barthes notion of writerly text into films. Films readily led to a Barthian reading as they are marked by irreducible plurality which resists univocal characterization of sign. Films cohabits five distinct matters of expression: phonetic sound, music, noise or sound effects, written inscriptions, photographic registration.  Thus, Belleur regards Film as a text but he regards it as intangible and uncitable and teaches that its materiality cannot be grasped because it resists writing in Barthesian sense and becomes difficult to transpose it into alien modality of writings (actualisations in critical contexts). But here he moves from image to the script and privileges it. Image is seen as an illusion and script becomes knowledge.

Similarly in Poststructuralist theory, one can trace a similar epistemological privileging that prioritizes writing in relation to the figural discourses like painting, photography and cinema. To dismantle this privileging of writing, we will have to understand how writing as suffered in opposition to image (moving or not) which is in fact achieved by the logocentric tradition which is still dominating semiotics of figural discourse.  We can trace this in contemporary film theory, where the persistent biases of Saussurean  linguistics which measure the cinematic signification against the model of speech, a stable and repeatable code and univocal sign will all that follows, presence, Identity, and transcendental subject.  But we do find problems with this approach as the figural (seeable) and the textual (sayable ) oppose and conflict. But taking  Derrida’s   ideas forward that there is nothing outside the text, can we treat figural as written rather  than take it as standing outside of writing ?  Two thinkers have already walked this path:  Thierry Kuntzel and Marie-Claire Ropar.   In Film-work,   Kuntzel takes up the movement from work to text in an manner that  owes much to Bathes and Belleur while extending their ideas in new direction. He says that in order to understand the  condition of film texuality, the film has to be broken down and reconstituted. This weaving (fragmentation and reordering) of visual and aural motif that like Freud’s notion of the dream-work is not available to the consciousness. Hence, for Kuntzel textual analysis of a film is nothing but specific activity decipherment and transcoding in which the object of analysis is transposed from a readerly to a writerly modality. This is achieved by immobilizing (slowing down or stopping the movement) and isolating the visual and aural motifs and confronting and comparing them by means of reverse motion. This is how he arrives at the semiotic plurality of the film.

Maria-Claire Ropar examines the question of filmic writing. She interrogates the linguistically based or phonetically based models of signification because cinematographic signification exceeds phonetic writing and puts back speech in its place.  She confronts the phonocentric model of signification through pictographic scripts. She takes the word picture alphabetical model of the ancient Egyptians which are called hieroglyphics. In the hieroglyphics no sign has unique value. Hence, she puts forward her hypothesis that writing develops multidimensional form of signification whose function is to shatter the unity and self sufficiency of sign and meaning.  In this context, hieroglyph becomes important because of its phonic, graphic and figural matters of expression and its fundamental polyvalency. Hence, becomes an important instance of writing that is not derived from speech. This is why Ropars sees in the hieroglyph embeds a critique of logocentrism that is more radical than Derrida. Hence, Cinema as a signifying practice is dominated by the ideology of mimesis which determines the organization of images according to the schema of spatial continuity, linear exposition and temporal irreversibility. This  is  the like the phonocentric privilege over writing. The real is privileged over the mediated or the symbolic. Hence,  we have the need of critique of phonocentric logocentrism in film theory.  Ropars finds in the hieroglyph a model of combination as well as fragmentation of the phonic, graphic, and figural that will produce plural cimematographic signification.    But all these great attempts are trapped with linearity.

Already in 1990, Robert W, Pittman, editor of New York times initiated a debate when he said ‘we are talking a wrong language to T.V babies’ , he pointed out that cultural norms of processing information have changed. Maybe in 2018, we may have to admit that we are talking wrong language to the children of social media.   Both television and other media enabled by revolutions in computation and communication technology a new multi-dimension as multi-channelled interactive mode of communication and entertainment and we seem to have move from linear processing to parallel processing of information without even realising it. Parallel processing is an ability to make sense from several competing sources of information as well as entertainment. This has problematized the designative or representative function of media. The so called free market has become part of the media and we can choose from several competing voices in the media. This means appeal to universality of values and truth are steadily melting away to sensationalism and narrative proficiency. The representational practice of media is slowly giving way to what is called the post-truth era in our days. We have stepped into the era of the similitude, where the similar or the copy rules. We do not have the original but only competing copies in a in a parallel information processing era. Deleuze teaches that movement image is replaced by time image in cinema. The movement image was characterized by Hegelian dialectical organization of images and signs marked by the will to truth while time-image is marked by Nietzchean aesthetics whose images and signs are organized by fabulation, a falsifying narration defined not by representation but by simulacra whose qualities are the powers of the false.  Thus, we have indiscernability of the real and the imaginary in the image, a temporal (dis)ordering in the narration presenting differences in the present that are inexplicable, alternative visions of the past whose truth or falseness are undecidable and as a result, we experience a transformation in making a judgement that decides the necessity or contingency of possible or probable interpretation where incomprehensible world proliferate as incongruous presents and not necessarily as true pasts.

Assessing Media in an Age of figural

Deleuze describes societies under late capitalism as   society of control. To make sense how we have stepped into a society of control, we will have to ask two important questions: first, how is the nature of representation and communication with respect to the digital creation, manipulation, and distribution of signs.  Second, how is the digital culture conditions our  individual and collective experience? The first question asks how are the properties of semiotic object changing?  Indeed, the advent of the digital technologies has transformed the semiotic environment.  This change has brought about a shift from linear to non-linear.  The digital technologies have brought about convergence of film, video, computer imaging, word processing and made as seamless possibility of inter-mixing and remixing of visual, verbal (discursive), written (graphic),  musical and sonic. The space has become open field for computational possibilities. All representational forms (moving or still images, writing  and sound ) are levelled to the algorithmic manipulation of the binary code. This has brought about change . The analog  forms of representation have given way to the similitude and brought about a transformation in the structure of reference and signification.  As a result,  visuality and expression has become transversal producing  variety of hybrid forms. The visible is no longer silent. It has become figural and discursive. Now discourse has transformed linguistic activity to multi-media activity occurring in a non-linear space and time. Virtual has gained importance and stable and enduring signs have no space in the figural media. Truth has become a first causality of these development and we are now into a Post-truth era.

While we try to answer the second question, we have to admit that the new media has brought lots of benefits to us both individually and collectively. We can accesses infinite volumes of information and have almost global reach.  But the various possibilities of the new media have also brought in its issues. The fact that we can take multiple avatars in the new media and communicate,  has made us more vulnerable to be abused. The virtual makes us feel that we too have somehow become immaterial and often we prefer relations that are virtual than flesh and blood bonds of family and friends. We seem to be living more a metal life navigating in the cyber space. The new technologies has diminished bio-power and centred   what has been called Pscho-power and we are migrating into a ban-opticon. It has transformed lived materiality of our life. Thus, the new digital technologies have become fundamentally alienating. It has transformed our labour time into leisure and leisure into labour time . We have come into flexi working time. We are now turned into assemblages in deleuzian sense. Whatapp groups (virtual communities) are one such instance. We are our living in a new configuration of space and time.  The public space has become a market space. TV for instance, does not sell products to people. It is selling market to the advertisers.

There is an inequality of power that becomes a chief hurdle for us to explore the possibilities of emancipations. We have to note that the control of communication network is undergoing a constant process of economic privatization and centralisation while points of reception proliferate. While we get instantaneous and synchronous communications, nevertheless the control of communications remain with those who control these networks.   Yet we need to ride the wave as Deleuze teaches and move where we want to go. This means we have harness emancipative possibilities that are embedded within it.


In an age of figural we have the reign of the similar (similitude). The era of representation in out of fashion and we have Post-truth busting for forth on the scene. The scenario is certainly alienating us but we have possibilities of seeking resistance. We cannot stand against the wave but have to ride the wave and move to destinations that are emancipative.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao