In this elegant 2016 meditation, Didi-Huberman considers how artists have considered the human state of being (l’état être) both a brain and a thinking animal. He begins with three pithy and poignant metaphors: Paul Richer compares the brain to a bony box; Leonardo da Vinci schematizes it as an onion, and Albrecht Dürer likens it to a snail’s swirling track. Richer’s box raises the question of interiority, a question that steps over the external forms of anatomy in order to peer into the “folds” of thought. “To open this box,” Didi-Huberman writes, “is to risk losing one’s head” (12) because it forgoes the certainties of external form in the attempt to sense interiority (to feel the brain, to feel thought). Da Vinci dives into these folds. His “culinary” metaphor suggests an equivalence between form and content. As Didi-Huberman writes (and as every cook knows), “with the onion, the outer skin is the core” (20). Thus, da Vinci introduces a fundamental ambivalence between surface and depth, between exterior and interior. Such ambivalence is intensified in Dürer’s mathematical “transfer method,” which uses Euclidean geometry to tackle the problem of drawing an object (a body, a form) from many sides as if one were walking around it. Dürer aims at greater control over space, but in showing the movement or displacement of space, he also “inverts the foundation of visibility itself” (25), anticipating (as I see it) cinema, surrealism and science fiction. Plural perspective galvanizes a reach toward the unimaginable in what Didi-Huberman conceptualizes as “a kind of excavated anthropomorphism” (26).

These three metaphors (box, onion, snail) are the material set-up of Being a Skull, whose argument really takes off with the next chapter, Être aître. A homonym to “being”, aître used to mean “an open space” such as a porch or passageway, and then came to mean “a free and open terrain” such as would be used for a cemetery. Later, the term came to imply “the internal disposition of various parts of a habitat” and finally, “it ended up signifying the intimacy of a being, his inner depths, the abyss itself of his thought.” Thus, when a linguist discusses “aîtres of language”, Didi-Huberman explains, such a scholar is referring “to the ‘nascent state’ of language, of thought–this singularity that the poem, the work of art, proclaims each time” (38-39). This “nascent state” of language continues to exude the “dispositions” of habitat and “open” breezeways of field or corridor, however. In other words,  Didi-Huberman positions aître as the fold between affect and affect, between sensation and emotion, between exteriority and interiority. The term tensely harbors the vibrating vectors of material sensation and immaterial sensibility, surface and depth, place as felt and thought as felt.

* To Didi-Huberman, Dürer’s portrait of Jerome is a dense symbol of this aesthetic problematic that maps the relations between the tactile site (the skull) and the site of thought (the head or brain). Each axis of this problematic is tapped by an index finger of the Saint. If a line were drawn between Jerome’s right and left hands it would transect the fleshy brain in a clear demarcation of mortality, finitude: I who think am this, this dead object, this skull. And yet we also can describe a line from the skull in the foreground to the crucifix in the background, an index of the gift and grace of redemption, that is, the possibility that I am not this skull because the site of thought, the soul, will transcend its tactile site in eternal life. Didi-Huberman reminds us that the human skull at the foot of the cross is an artistic shorthand: “this skull is generally viewed as the skull of Adam himself. It is the human chalice that collects the divine blood, the chalice of sin that collects the flux of its future redemption” (35). This theological fact is doubled by the tactile fact that the site of Crucifixion is Golgotha, the place of a skull.

The author is not a theologian, however; he provides this lesson in Christian art to make a philosophical connection between matter, mind, and temporality. On the one hand, an object is just an object. On the other hand, it is evidence of its coming-into-being, its aître. To flesh out this claim, he turns to the sculpture of Giuseppe Penone a man who is interested in what Didi-Huberman calls the “material ontogenesis of form” (46), a practice intensely self-reflective on process, so that it is not simply vitalist (natura naturans) but channeled through the empirico-immaterial sites of thought, the nascent state of matter and mind, or what Didi-Huberman suggests is sculptura sculpens (50-51).

** With Penone, the Christian relation of time and eternity is translated into the relations among matter, thought, and time. “How does sculpture …disrupt our familiar spaces, disrupt our insides, ‘touch’ us with places, the aîtres it invents?” This question leads Didi-Huberman to other metaphors: being a dig, being a fossil, being a leaf. Each of these words becomes an image for thought, an image of thought. Each conjoins the practices of sculpture and philosophy as affective practices, the sensory touching of the world that moves us to reflect further on the thought, on what matter thinks, on what the brain and psyche know and don’t know about the material substrates of their human signatures on the world. Consider, for instance, Penone’s large charcoal drawings on unwoven fiber of the filigreed insides of human eyelids:


“In front of these works,” Didi-Huberman writes, ” the sensation of place envelops us within invisible space like a landscape, which because of this fact then haptically envelops [environne] our brain, within the blind gangue of our cranial bone.”

I didn’t know the word gangue. It refers to the commercially valueless stuff surrounding, encasing, the commoditizable ore. Showing, in the end, how the question human being is never extracted from questions of profitability.




*[Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

** Penone cited in Germano Celant, Guiseppe Penone, trans. into French by Anne Machet (Milan/Paris: Electa-L. and Durand-Dessert, 1989), 17. Picture from Being a Skull, p. 51.

***See also Being a Skull, p. 76.