Force of Imagination & The Sense of the Elemental (John Sallis)


To sort out the contours of aesthetic Jewish philosophy, a friend-colleague recommended John Sallis. Here’s what I came away with. The fundamental tension outlined by Sallis in Force of Imagination: The Sense of the Elemental is the one between sense and intelligibility, alternately phrased as one between sense and signification. Sallis follows the anti-platonic move in Nietzsche, not wanting to subordinate sensibility to any prior intelligibility or to any prior signification. But Sallis rejects a simple inversion of value, insisting against Nietzsche (and against postmodernism) that one cannot simply subordinate intelligibility to sensibility as sheer appearance “remote from truth.” For Sallis, truth is emergent as an opening from within the sensible. The power of the imagination would be that capacity to outstrip sensibility from within the sensible. (pp.22-5). To do this, Sallis turns to “the elemental,” by which he means “wild nature.” The idea here is to “remove the frame,” i.e. any framing discourses that would obscure the kind of vision proper to being. By “frame,” I take Sallis to include limiting frames of phenomenological consciousness and other forms of human artifice and order, including ethics and politics, that un-bind us from the earth (p.25).

Regarding images, Sallis is primarily interested in the sense-image. He’ll talk about poetic or art-images, but only in the last chapter as a kind of reprise or afterword. The image is first conceived as locus. The sense-image is held up as the place or the medium through which sense comes to be “present” to the senses (i.e. to sensible intuition). Sounding a lot like Buber here, Sallis means by “presence” that quality which is otherwise than speech and semantic signification-intelligibility that it eludes (pp.78-9, cf.95). That quality will be defined later in terms of “shining.” Even now, we should be alert to the fusion of Plato and Heidegger at work in this study of the imagination. Having identified the image as locus, Sallis immediately wants to get us out of the cave. It is precisely at this juncture that Sallis turns towards “the elemental,” against the “simulacral.” No less than Plato, Sallis wants us out of the cave. With Heidegger, Sallis turns away from the world of ideal forms towards a more elemental kind of shining set out not so much “in the image,” but in “vision.”

Sallis posits, in chapter 3, the force of the imagination or the truth of a sense-image in its doubled character. Seeking to overcome the distance or difference between inside and outside, Sallis tries to have it this way. On the one hand, the image is determined as “my own,” differentiated from the perceived object which “shows itself to the perceiving” and “shines back” across this difference. On the other hand, the image belongs to the object in a “shadowy” or “reflective” or “delicate” way as a “quasi-thing.” In a perception, according to Sallis, one is right there alongside what is perceived, which means that there’s no need to “overcome…the confines of [some] inviolable interiority.” At the same time, the perception remains very much one’s own, so therefore there’s no need to leap beyond oneself or to turn oneself inside out in order to embrace the object or thing. The things is shown in the sense-image, which is stretched between the perceiving subject and perceived object like a membrane or connective tissue (pp.95-6).

In the next chapter (chp.4), Sallis seeks to get beyond the image in order to avoid the kinds of closure or framing that the image engenders. I think the point is to get past the subject-side or subjective aspect of the image. To do this, Sallis now substitutes “vision” for “image.” The vision of the sensible, the thing, shows itself in such a way as to free itself from the frame of an image. It does so first through [1] a “remonstrative” act, by which means the vision or the showing of the thing anew does so, not as mere repetition, or even repetition with difference, but as originary showing. In its constitutive newness, the sensible thing is visible for the first time as always already having been there, but heretofore concealed and forgotten (pp.104-5).  Vision maintains its openness also [2] by getting drawn out towards a “horizon” (i.e a horizon of other images –p.110). The horizon of vision lets things be seen while withdrawing from the narrowing confines of a determinate vision (pp.107-8). Across the horizon, the single image of thing gives way to another and another image of the thing. But even more to the point, a single image “shows itself as having an unlimited store of other aspects that it could present,” “a horizon of other images” that shows itself alongside the frontal image of the thing itself (p.110). [3] In the kind of vision that Sallis posits as beyond the narrow, determinate image, the sensible thing is shown as shining. As shining vision, the distinction between thing and vision-image has been rendered so tenuous that, at this point, the image is shown, finally, to be nothing other, nothing distinct from the thing, which can no longer be thematized as a signification. “Being-that-shines” is no longer remote or separate from the “image” that shines forth as vision. Reading Sallis, it would seem that at this consummate moment, the image has lost its double character; it belongs solely to the object in vision, no longer “my own.”

The anti-humanist analysis repeats itself in the last chapter, this one devoted to the poetic imagination. We see again a notion of the image as foundationally doubled, but whose doubled nature is overcome by ontological-elemental shining. Wassily Kandinsky appears twice in order to advance a claim about the truth of an image and the force of poetic imagination. The point to be made is that the genuine image reflects a kind of “excess” that outstrips the intentions or even capacities of the artist, that outstrips human consciousness itself (pp.218). To back up the point Sallis immediately points to Kant, of all people, who defined “genius” in terms of a talent or natural gift “through which nature gives the rule to art” and to the artist (p.219). Again, with Kandinsky, now coupled with Kant, it is through the artist, the artwork or image assumes an independent, breathing, spiritual subject, its own material life as a being (ein Wesen) (p.225). For its part, the human is no longer spontaneous. Carried over into the elemental, human being is presented as a merely “receptive, as a watchful belonging” to an “expanse of self-showing” and “elemental-horizontal configuration” (p.223).

“Theologically,” I think there’s something generative about this kind of thinking. I would argue that it’s very suggestive as to how the theological imagination might work in a variety of cultural contexts, the way in which optical, poetic, or plastic images and visions of the gods and God appear, the way they shine forth, and make themselves shown in such a way as to undo any firm distinction between vision and what one might want to consider calling (tongue in cheek) the “theological thing itself.” Indeed, attentive readers will encounter the gods in the review by Sallis of the platonic and neoplatonic tradition. Represented in the discussion of Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries, the gods show themselves through theurgic acts and images of phantastic imagination (pp.61-3).  As for the reference to Kandinsky and the easy allusions to sense and the supersensible, they remind me of “the spiritual in art,” of Buber and Rosenzweig, and other things discussed in The Shape of Revelation or in works by Elliot Wolfson. The sensible-corporeal-linguistic-aesthetic phenomenon is maintained as saturated by an (in)separable divine supersense. Sallis confirms my own sense that, for anyone interested philosophically in religious experience and their accounts in the history of religion, there’s no way around the figures of sensibility, appearance, imagination, and vision. These are the philosophical figures that frame the vision or idea or rhetoric of theomorphic brightness and shining.

Having said this, I cannot help but suspect that the Heideggerian ontological in orientation is phenomenologically untrue. The doubling of the imagination and the image-work observed by Sallis himself gives way to a more singular theory of vision, in which the human is forced to give way and to step back in its encounter with elemental properties. Shining is just one kind of image, one kind of aesthetic property. There’s no necessary reason, aesthetically, to privilege it, over, its opposite, i.e. opacity or dullness. In his closing, penultimate paragraph, Sallis claims that imagination brings “disclosive force” to phenomenology, which without it remains a mere phenomenology of imagining of pale images that do not shine, and through which no presence shines forth. After phenomenology and with Heidegger, Sallis would have the imagination carry us over into “expanses of self-showing things,” into the world of what he earlier called “wild nature.” It’s the attempt at an end-run around mediation and mediated-mediating consciousness, this refusal to recognize the limiting condition of a frame that I find most unconvincing of all. No cloudless sky or Aegean sparkle in brilliant sunlight, no “exquisite shining” can dispel the sense that what presents itself to the Greek philosopher as an “encompassing elemental” is itself foundationally “simulacral” or otherwise buffered by corporeal, social, and poltical organizing frameworks (cf. p.147).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Force of Imagination & The Sense of the Elemental (John Sallis)

  1. dmfant says:

    yep, no glimpses behind the curtain and really no curtain.

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