Notes on the subjectile

A reading as part of artist’s talk

Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht, 2016


…they are really reactivating an old word, French or Italian. The notion belongs to the code of painting and designates what is in some way lying below (sub= jectum) as a substance, a subject or a succubus. Between the beneath and the above, that is at once a support and a surface, sometimes also the matter of a painting or a sculpture, every- thing distinct from form, as well as from the sense and representation, which is not representable. Its presumed depth or thickness can only be seen as a surface, that of the wall or of wood, but already also that of paper, of textiles and of the panel. A sort of skin with holes for pores. We can distinguish two classes of subjectile, and according to a criterion which will decide everything in the surgery of Artaud: in this apparently manual operation that is a drawing, how does the subjectile permit itself to be traversed? For we oppose just those subjectiles that let themselves be traversed (we call them porous, like plasters, mortar, wood, cardboard, textiles, paper) and the others (metals or their alloys) which permit no passage (1)

The subjectile is a kind of ground used in artistic painting. The subjectile is seen as a theory, not a fact; as a theory the subjectile is a tool that can be employed to analyse art objects to generate hypotheses concerning the relationship between subject and object in art.  Derrida mentions that the word ‘subjectile’ appears in an essay on Pierre Bonnard, published in 1921. The subjectile refers to Bonnard’s use of cardboard for painting.

The Concise French dictionary translates ‘subjectile’ as ‘Art: support (beneath paint, etc.)’. Without a support and ground the subject of a painting could not exist as it would fall away.

Derrida argues that Artaud’s subjectile is both ground and a support. It is stretched out, extended, beyond, through and behind the subject, it is not alien to the subject, yet ‘It has two situations’. Derrida holds that the subjectile functions as a hypothesis, and is a subjectile itself. ‘Subjectile, the word or the thing, can take the place of the subject or of the object – being neither one nor the other.’ (2)

A subjectile is not a subject, still less the subjective, nor is it the object either, but then exactly what, and does the question of “what” have any meaning for what is between this or that, whatever it is? Perhaps the interposition of a subjectile, in this matter of drawing by hand, in this maneuver or meddling [manigances] is what matters (3)

So I shall not describe a painting of van Gogh after van Gogh, but I shall say that van Gogh is a painter because he recollected nature, because he reperspired it and made it sweat, because he squeezed onto his canvases in clusters, in monumental sheaves of color, the grinding of elements that occurs once in a hundred years, the awful elementary pressure of apostrophes, scratches, commas, and dashes which, after him, one can no longer believe that natural appearances are not made of. And what an onslaught of repressed jostlings, occular collisions taken from life, blinkings taken from nature, have the luminous cur- rents of the forces which work on reality had to reverse before being finally driven together and, as it were, hoisted onto the canvas, and accepted? There are no ghosts in the paintings of van Gogh, no visions, no hallucinations (4)

Antonin Artaud mentions the subjectile three times in his writing. Jacques Derrida, in his essay, To Unsense the Subjectile states ‘All three times, he is speaking of his own drawings, in 1932, 1946, and 1947’.

The first time Artaud used the word was in a letter to André Rolland de Renéville, ‘Herewith a bad drawing in which what is called the subjectile betrayed me.’

In 1946, ‘This drawing is grave attempt to give life and existence to what until today had never been accepted in art, the botching of the subjectile, the piteous awkwardness of forms crumbling around an idea after having for so many eternities labored to join it. The page is soiled and spoiled, the paper crumpled, the people drawn with the consciousness of a child.’

Finally in February 1947, ‘The figures on the inert page said nothing under my hand. They offered themselves to me like millstones which would not inspire the drawing, and which I could cut. Scrap, file, sew, unsew, slash, and stitch without the subjectile ever complaining through father or through mother. (5)

Space, in order to exist as such, is always disturbed, always a function of jacere: thrown, cast, flung, hurled. Space is never restful. Indeed, space is being thrown, spacing as it spaces. Space is space because it is being thrown. Whether or not it is space as con-jecture, transitive and intransitive, but not merely as textual or syntactical space: Artaud imagines space as subjectile, and as the subjectile. ‘Subjectile’ emerges from the con-joining of ‘subject’ and projectile’, a conjunction which will reveal itself as seminal for Artaud’s vision and for a constellation of other visions that Artaud’s vision has attracted. Reading Artaud, one would expect that ‘subjectile vision’ might more accurately be named ‘supjectile vision’, focusing as it does not on the subject but rather on the dynamic relationship between a ‘support’ or ‘frame’, for drawings, words, etc. and a projectile. That Artaud chooses to emphasize ‘subject’ rather that ‘support’ leads even Derrida astray, finally, in terms of Artaud’s ability to escape what amounts to a phenomenological reduction in Derrida’s interpretation of subjectile vision.

Now what I am drawing. These are no longer themes of Art transposed from the imagination onto the paper, these are not affecting images, these are gestures, a word, a grammar, an arithmetic, a whole Kabbala and which shits at the other, which shits on the other, no drawing made on paper is a drawing, the reintegration of a sensibility misled, it is a machine that breathes, this was first a machine that also breathes. (Antonin Artaud)

Artaud expresses the multiplicity of fusion, fusionability as infinite zero, the plane of consistency. Matter where no gods go; principles as forces, essences, substances, elements, remissions, production; manners of being or modalities as produced intensities, vibrations, breaths. Numbers. Finally, the difficulty of reaching this world of crowned Anarchy if you go no furhter than the organs. (Gilles Deleuze)

Neither object nor subject, neither screen nor projectile, the subjectile can become all that, stabilizing itself in a certain form or moving about in another. But the drama of its own becoming always oscillates between the intransitivity of jacere and the transitivity of jacere, in what I would call the conjecture of both. (Jacques Derrida) (6)

And this experiment is the traversal of this jetee, this trajectory. I am calling by the name of spurting or jetee the movement that, without ever being iself at the origin, is modalized and disperses itself in the trajectories of the objective, the subjective, the projectile, introjection, objection, dejection, and abjection, and so on. The subjectile remains between these different jetees, whether it constitutes its underlying element, the place and the context of birth, or interposes itself, like a canvas, a veil, a paper “support”, the hymen between the inside and outside, the upper and the lower, the over here or the over there, or then finally becoming in its tum the jetee, no this time like the movement itself of something which is thrown but like the hardened fall of a mass of inert stone in the port, the limit of an “arrested storm”, the dam. Giving itself over entirely, hurling itself into the experience of this throwing (jetee), Artaud could enter the realm of relationship with Van Gogh. And all the questions we will listen to from now on resound: what is a port, a portee, a rapport if the subjectile is announced as the support of the drawing and painting? What does porter mean in this case? And throwing, hurling, sending? Is spurting (la jetee) a mode of sending or of giving? Might it be rather the inverse? (7)

On Site #4, 1973. This interview took place about two months before Smithson’s death. Although published posthumously, Smithson and Sky completed the editing of the text together and Smithson provided all the illustrations.

ROBERT SMITHSON: O.K. we’ll begin with entropy. That’s a subject that’s preoccupied me for some time. On the whole I would say entropy contradicts the usual notion of a mechanistic world view. In other words it’s a condition that’s irreversible, it’s condition that’s moving towards a gradual equilibrium and it’s suggested in many ways. Perhaps a nice succinct definition of entropy would be Humpty Dumpty. Like Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There is a tendency to treat closed systems in such a way. One might even say that the current Watergate situation is an example of entropy. You have a closed system which eventually deteriorates and starts to break apart and there’s no way that you can really piece it back together again. Another example might be the shattering of Marcel Duchamp Glass, and his attempt to put all the pieces back together again attempting to overcome entropy. Buckminister Fuller also has a notion of entropy as a kind of devil that he must fight against and recycle. Norbert Weiner in The Human Use of Human Beings also postulates that entropy is a devil, but unlike the Christian devil which is simply a rational devil with a very simple morality of good and bad, the entropic devil is more Manichean in that you really can’t tell the good from the bad, there’s no clear cut distinction. And I think at one point Norbert Weiner also refers to modern art as one Niagara of entropy. In information theory you have another kind of entropy. The more information you have the higher degree of entropy, so that one piece of information tends to cancel out the other. The economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen has gone so far as to say that the second law of thermodynamics is not only a physical law but linked to economics. He says Sadi Carnot could be called an econometrican. Pure science, like pure art tends to view abstraction as independent of nature, there’s no accounting for change or the temporality of the mundane world. Abstraction rules in a void, pretending to be free of time. (8)


  1. 158, Maddening the Subjectile, Mary Ann Caws and Jacques Derrida
  3. 164, Maddening the Subjectile, Mary Ann Caws and Jacques Derrida
  4. 165, Maddening the Subjectile, Mary Ann Caws and Jacques Derrida
  6. Stephen Barker (2009) Subjectile Vision: Drawing On and Through Artaud,Parallax, 15:4, 18-32, DOI: 10.1080/13534640903208859
  7. 167, Maddening the Subjectile, Mary Ann Caws and Jacques Derrida