In his teaching and most particularly in the ’70s, Lacan was inspired by Chinese and Japanese writing in order to elaborate what first occurred in his psychoanalysis as letter in terms of signifier and then got separated from the signifier and got established in the real: the letter as what grasps, what shapes the body in its jouissance outside meaning. The calligraphy contributes to this immanent reversal. In the beginning of the ’70s, Lacan travels to Japan and what he brings back from this trip takes form of a consequence of an encounter, a tyché. As he reports in D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant: in Japan, he was seized by the letter, the letter “tickled” him just enough to produce the necessary body-effect that gave to his latest teaching its poetic inspiration. He describes for us the runoffs on the Himalayan hills, the engraving, the lettering that raindrops leave on the slope and which dazzles the eye by its gentle sparkling in the sunlight. It twinkles, it scintillates, it moves, it lives, it abounds. This image that puts the metaphor in suspense, this poetic engagement, moves us far away from the scientific explanation of rain as meteorological phenomenon. The meteorology drops out of logic, it is considered in terms of an encounter between water and soil, like the organics of Wang Wei’s folds. Japan opens onto another type of sensibility which cannot be reduced to mathematical formulas – a sort of signifier’s surrender: an immediate inscription of the real.
As Freud stated, the absence of grammar in Chinese and Japanese, as well as the fact that both languages use monosyllabic and logo-grammic – that is, non-alphabetical – writing demands a different type of structuration of language and therefore a different type of subjective alienation. The presence of numerous homonyms necessitates an immanent reference to writing, a sort of permanent translation: the writing is therefore constitutive of language. For the Japanese subject, Lacan would notice the split between speech and letter as real, the split that somehow renders evident, articulates to the very surface of language the unconscious as such, which gets written by a character. The subject escapes to the enigma of the Other’s desire because the language flattens it, bringing its proper cause to the surface. There is nothing repressed, the subject floats in language until its being is fixed by the inscription of a letter that resolves the uncertainty of its symbolic position. Given that the subject is suspended between speech and writing, the latter gives it its only real consistency.
Calligraphy takes the place of what is supposed to be that of the analyst in the Western discourse: Lacan plays on words by saying that if the calligrapher needs a brush, stylo, he himself needs a style (cf. “Avis au lecteur japonais”). The letter is the object a, the impossible reference of the discourse which materializes the definitive act of castration itself; it tries to produce the obliteration of the subject in the act of writing itself. It directly engages the enjoyment that has traversed the fantasy: not as repressed, but as obliterated, as crossed out in the gesture of writing itself. That is why we speak of calligraphy not only as a technique of writing in its aesthetic aspect, but also as a bodily practice of enjoyment in its trace.
The articulation of calligraphy and body is precisely the artistic ambition of Chinese artist Kaixuan Feng. In her calligraphic performances called The Hair Of Ink she makes visible the internal dynamics of the letter, which in turn blends her artistic work with her body art. Kaixuan Feng paints upside down, with her hair soaked in ink, so that her entire body, in its momentary affect which inspires the choice of characters, materializes the production of the letter: she herself becomes a brush and gets reduced to a calligraphic manifestation. She then cuts this huge calligraphy into pieces so as to underline the partial and separated nature of the produced object. The calligraphic performance shows us a body that only achieves consistency in writing, in tracing a letter, in giving substance to the character it incarnates. The letter comes out of the body just as a spiderweb comes out of the spider’s belly. Let us remember that Lacan referred to the spiderweb in the seminar Encore, when he gave us this image of writing as that which, in nature, comes closest to the reduction to the surface that writing requires. The spiderweb is a textual work produced by the body considered in its “miraculous function”, an “opaque point” that materializes the surface as such, drawn in the traces that show us the real accessing the symbolic. The image of writing or the aesthetics of the letter is the trace of body as surface. This inscription takes a certain form, precisely as a reduction of the imaginary.
Referring her work to the Buddhist tradition, Kaixuan Feng would say that she is trying to reach the impossible: looking for purity in the stains left by her own artistic gesture. Is there a better, but also more beautiful way for a subject to incarnate becoming-a-letter?
Image: L’artiste Kaixuan Feng à Enghien, performance calligraphique intitulée « cheveux d’Encre », dans le cadre des festivités du nouvel an chinois (2018).