In his seminal book, Discourse/Figure, Lyotard develops a specific argument around the role of a surface and the question of ‘thickness’ in relation to the senses, to image and to the figural in art. Discuss the thickness and explain how, according to John Mowitt’s introductory essay, “Golden Bug”, it gets beyond a Marxist dialectic and onto the path of 21st century art practice.
The doubt is simply that the visible, or better yet, the visual, is hardly dependent on an assemblage of desire, at least in its constitution; that it has nothing to do with the intrigues arising from the difference of the sexes; and that this difference only comes “after the fact” to impose this law – that of human language and its turns – upon the enigmatic but frank presence of here it is.
In his 1971 book Discourse, figure, Jean-François Lyotard discusses meaningfulness of language as a system and meaningfulness of figurative arts, particularly, painting.
Lyotard starts the book by referring to Paul Claudel’s view that the visible must be legible and that the parts of the world have to be in semantic relationships to each other in order for the eye to read them like a sentence to know them. Lyotard’s position is that “the given” – the world – “possesses an inherent thickness” and that it is being seen rather than read. This un-readable difference, thickness of the sensual is, according to Lyotard, what evades signification in discourse.
Lyotard argues that the importance given to the word (discourse) over the image is the result of the ambivalence of the whole of the Western Judaeo-Christian culture which is built around “the audition of the Word, but at the same time a philosophy of creation”. There, one is always asking to be set free from the “thickness of the flesh” while still recognizing that life itself with all the dirt and the depth comes from the same source as the Word and thus is redeemed somehow. This ambivalence, Lyotard claims, directed not just the development of Western thought but of Western art too. It took Renaissance to start separating figural from the text, from the function of being recongised and not looked at, to launch the move towards creating new visual worlds.
Discourse, figure is dealing with “the phenomenology of experience”, phenomenology which, Mowitt argues, gives Marxism a human subject and eliminates its [philosophy’s] separation from real life. Questions of Marxism and of psychoanalysis are closely linked in the book: “Discource, figure is immanently structured by the confrontation between phenomenology and psychoanalysis as contending frames within which to think the materialism of consciousness”. The position of aesthetic in Marxism was a part of the superstructure supposed to be initiated by and to be reflecting social and economic conditions of an artist as well as the society; Freud linked the art urge to the sublimation of one’s sexual desires into a form accepted by society. Lyotard employs the alchemical process of colliquation of two theories to find aesthetics in a new position beyond either of the theories by amalgamating and developing the latter.
There is a similarity in Marxist and psychoanalytical approaches to the theory of aesthetics: both systems believe to be a part of the theory of consciousness. Both put aesthetic experience and creative production in the field of representation and reflection of human experiences or of the subconscious of the artist or the viewer. Lyotart sees the power of art in the “immanent mutability of desire”, and he rejects the idea that desire is a sort of theatre of representation and reproduction; his “philosophy of desire” positions it as a site of inherent and constant production. He seems to have moved the position of art from the site of phenomenology and human perception to the unconscious and the constant changeability of desire as a site of production.
The first chapter of Discourse, figure stakes a claim that the book will “take the side of the eye, of its siting”; in other words, it will assert the importance of the visual as a sensual event. Of the discourse and its self-sufficiency Lyotard speaks as of a thing that reflects, a screen of appearances, a text that reads itself and that which regards humans as two-dimensional beings. He counterpoints this non-breathing flat system of signs and symbols with the untamed position of art.
Thickness in Lyotard’s view seems to be that which connects the senses to the world; it is the trembling that can be found in both: in discourse (“except at the lowest rungs of communication”) and in the figure, where the interiority can be presented into exteriority.
Where does this thickness come from? Painting creates a surface where the interiority can be brought to the exterior through “unstructured desire” which is, of course, a part of the sensory, its thickness. Painting, with its quality of engaging the senses and expressing the sensual, has got the power of making seeing visible; it is bringing out of the interior (desires, dreams, the sensual) to the exterior, and it makes this interiority manifest and accessible by other interiorities through sensual exploration.
In bringing up the question of interiority, Lyotard involves vocabulary of psychoanalysis: discussion of interiority brings up the unconsciousness which, he argues, “belongs to the order of the transcendental”. 
This transcendence, however, is not of the otherworldly or the divine: painting as transcendental activity is manifesting the becoming of the world, it is declaring and exposing creation of objects from unstructured clusters of colour, light and line. Creation and becoming are of the dual nature: what starts as an interior, secret process inevitably comes out into the exterior. Thus, painting is the transcendental activity that brings us closer to the nature of the unstructured and the unknowable in human nature by making it manifest and distancing it from the source.
Lyotard sees the artists as creators of the interworld, the absolutely-other – a space in between interiority and the exterior, where one is making visible what is not. He is referring to a quote from Hegel that a surface of the painting is where exteriority comes the closest to the interiority. That interiority-in-the-exterior exists on the surface of the painting, or, rather, this is what creates the surface of the painting.
In Veduta Lyotard discusses the move of the image from a two dimensional illustration of the Writ, a “figurative letter” into its own space, creating this new space, piercing the surface of the canvas. Until the time of the Renaissance, the time of the doubt and the probing of the scripted and stable crystal globe of mediaeval certainties the textual, which is by its nature Divine, exists without opposition or a shadow of three-dimensional forms.
In Lyotard’s vision the re-positioned role of aesthetics frees the painting from the tenets of representation, be it representation of the social conditions or representation of the repressed emotions, for “the painting… resembles nothing, even when it is figurative, since its function is to give the given”. The rectangle of the canvas is not a restriction to creation of the boundary free world; Lyotard calls it “an inefficient tromp l’oeil”, and it calls on the eye to engage its ability to see what is given, to take the right to access the visual.
If painting is a restriction free space, except for the physical boundary of, usually, four sides, we might call it a window, or rather a two way portal into the interworld. Surface of the painting is not the surface of the canvas: the surface of the former is an illusory/transcendental space existing only when it is being seen, existing in the plane visual sensation if not in the physical reality accessible by tactile faculties. Nevertheless, it does come into existence – or should it be “does the coming-into-existence”? – through other human receptors, once the eyes can see. So paintings expose the seeing of the visual and the creation of the new liquid, mobile dimensions, “caverns measureless to man”.
The depth and thickness of the surface can only be restrained by two factors: the artist and the viewer.
- The artist’s desires and ability of their senses to perceive the visual and radiate its substance, externalising the interiority through the painting.
- The viewer’s desires and ability of their senses to perceive the visual and absorb its substance, internalising the exteriority of the painting.
This, the interworld is being created with every new viewer – new “sensory unit” – doing the seeing, every time the seeing is done; this mobility reflects the multitude of the sensual experiences of an artist as a painter, an artist as a viewer and a viewer as an artist, for the latter also creates his interworld engendered through the visual event of the disruption of the habitual plane of existence by taking it into the interiority of their senses.
This turns the painting into a unique entity: its becoming is a never ending, infinitely variable, liquid process which cannot cease even if the painting as a physical object itself disappears until the memory of the last person’s who saw it (who did the seeing) is obliterated. In its becoming, the painting is an infinite variable – each act of “seeing” creates a new interiority which would keep becoming develops sub-variants of the original world-in-between created by the artist.
But if it is so, how can one define ANYTHING about the function or position of art but its ability to generate response, to work as an access to infinite new dimensions within; anything formulated for the purpose of explanation, validation or fitting within the boundaries of this or that theoretical structure would be either an imposition, close to surgical intrusion into non-anesthetised organ, or a futile attempt to give ground to something which does not require it.
 Lyotard. J-F., Que Peindre? Adami, Arakawa, Buren, v.1. English translation by Antony Hudek included in Hudek, An., “Seeing through Discourse, figure”, Parrhesia: a journal of critical philosophy, no. 12 (2011). http://parrhesiajournal.org , pdf
 Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. Translated by Antony Hudek and Mary Lyndon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. p.4
 Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. p.167
 Mowitt J., The Gold Bug, introduction to Discourse, figure by Jean-François Lyotard. Translated by Antony Hudek and Mary Lyndon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. p.xv
 Mowitt J., The Gold Bug, in Discourse, figure, p.xvi
 Mowitt J., The Gold Bug, in Discourse, figure, pp.xix-xx
 Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. p.9
Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. p.9
 Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. p.49
 Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. p.23
 Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. p.7
 Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. p. 121
 …which, of course, is not necessarily a canvas as such, but can be paper, wood, plaster, etc.
 Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. p.178
 Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. p.24
 Lyotard J-F., Discourse, figure. p.24