The Great Object Has No Form, or
the Nonobject through Painting
(University of Chicago, 2009)
While the doyens of French philosophy burn through textbooks on set theory and abstract algebra to keep their ontological motors running, Francois Jullien, a sinologist at University of Paris VII-Denis Diderot, has turned instead to Chinese philosophy and literature of self-cultivation to build one of the most compelling—and least talked about—bodies of work in contemporary theory. In his earlier works Vital Nourishment: Departing from Happiness and In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics (both available from Zone Books), Jullien elaborates a contrast between what he calls a Western “logic of perception,” which began with the Greeks, and a Chinese “logic of respiration”: Western philosophy views the world essentially on the model of visible objects observed by a conscious subject, whereas Chinese thought takes the universe to be a constant, flowing alternation between fullness and emptiness, an undifferentiated void and myriad individual forms. While aesthetics is a frequent concern in Jullien’s books, his latest work to be translated into English, The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject Through Painting, is his first sustained inquiry into Chinese classical painting and its commentaries.
Chinese painting requires a great deal of sensitivity and training to appreciate the subtle differences between styles and periods. Jullien’s book makes clear that the Chinese philosophy of painting itself is no less fine and recherche: a discussion of the different kinds of feng—“wind”—that describe the atmosphere of a painting can make many essential Western aesthetic concepts, like Aristotle’s mimesis, seem a bit bluff. This often dizzying introduction to an unfamiliar philosophical vocabulary, along with the fact that there is no conventional structure or argumentation, can make reading the book arduous. However, there is a story that Jullien is trying to tell: Western art had historically striven to render accurate representations of nature—a goal which has fallen from the fore of modern and contemporary artists’ concerns—while traditional Chinese art has always meant to be an expression of nature’s operation itself. The artist does not labor against his materials in trying to master them, but rather seeks to cleave to the tao, the undifferentiated source of things that gives rise to an infinitude of different forms. Chinese literature on painting is not concerned with how to achieve any particular illusionistic effect, but with how the artist should comport himself in order to allow the painting to flow effortlessly from the brush and for it to have a vital presence. Jullien ends with the suggestive observation that there is no term analogous to “work”—as in artwork or working on a piece—in the Chinese artistic tradition; entirely absent is the anxiety and strife we associate with the heroic, solitary Western artist.
Although he emphasizes the difference between European and Chinese thought, Jullien is at pains to deny that he is setting up China as a profound Eastern “other” to be revered in contrast to occidental shallowness. Jullien writes:
In reality, what [interests] me is the richness of each of these philosophies, the Chinese and the Greek that results from their respective biases, which I bring to light. What interests me is how they illuminate each other, each revealing unthought of each other.
One should not doubt the sincerity of this effort, but one must wonder if the comparative study of Chinese philosophy really adds much to the extensive investigation of the “unthought” of Western thought in the Continental tradition for the past 100 or so years. The story of Western thought’s objectifying and calcifying tendency is pulled straight from Heidegger. But it is hard to believe that Jullien’s ambition is to provide some sort of edifying counterexample that helps us “get” the deconstruction of European metaphysics a little better. Nor, as instructive as that might be, would it make the book stand out.
The real strength of the book is the detailed attention to Chinese theories of artistic practice. Notions like avoiding being “blocked” and “tangled,” of not “going too far,” of keeping an “ absolutely free and easy” brush, of neither “sticking” to a piece nor “quitting” it, and the introduction of vitality—life itself—to an object of art will all be welcome to artists who are looking for new ways of approaching and continuing their studio practice. Taking this approach to the book would probably not displease Jullien, who never tires of pointing out the emphasis on practice and activity in Chinese philosophy. The problem then becomes whether or not Jullien’s entire oeuvre continues the dreadful genre of Western self-help books based on the “wisdom of the Orient” by more tasteful and refined means. In the introduction to Vital Nourishment, Jullien writes: “It is high time that ideas about breathing, harmony, and feeding be rescued from this pseudophilosophy and coherently integrated into the realm of philosophical reflection.”
Again, this modest scholarly effort is not Jullien’s real ambition. Jullien wants to rescue the entire notion of “spirituality” from New Age abuse; he attempts to rally his reader by writing, “Let us be brave enough to use that word, spirit.” For Jullien, spirit is not some kind of extra-dimensional presence that comes down into the phenomenal world to animate matter, but is really just emptiness, an opening for things to unfold organically. (Another one of his books is entitled Un sage est sans idée: “a sage is without ideas.”)
If that ending seems a little disappointing and pat, it has less to do with any fault of Jullien than with a general problem in philosophy: as speculation ascends toward heaven it becomes increasingly wan and thin. For Julien this is not really a problem: the interplay between blank page and pale ink stand for the source of phenomenal world—“against the volubility of all that makes a show of things, all that bustles about, the undifferentiated fount of the tao can find expression only inexpresively: as drab, insignificant, lackluster.”
The fact remains that throughout Jullien’s work, whether he talks about “spirit,” “vitality,” “tao,” “life,” “breath-energy,” we rapidly approach those obscure underpinnings of reality “whereof we cannot speak” and probably “should be silent.” Indeed, Jullien is aware of the limitations of theory and he asks rhetorically in Vital Nourishment: “Hasn’t art always been ahead of philosophy?” That is the question worth asking with Jullien. As for everything else, we might ask—in a very Taoist way—is he really just wasting his breath?