Robert Kilroy graduated in 2006 from University College Dublin with a BA in Art History and French Studies. In 2008 he completed an MPhil in Textual & Visual Studies (19th and 20th century France) at Trinity College Dublin. Under the supervision of Professor David Scott, he recently submitted a PhD dissertation in the department of French, School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultural Studies, Trinity College Dublin. His research project, entitled ‘Marcel Duchamp: Resolving the Word/Image Problematic, afterthought’, aims to re-position the writings and artworks of Marcel Duchamp within a broader history of word and image by locating art-historical evidence within the conceptual framework of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. He also engages with the fields of cultural theory and digital culture as well as with the writings of Hegelian philosopher and Lacanian psychoanalyst Slavoj Žiżek.
At first glance, there would appear to be very little connection between the recent photo of Barack Obama posing for a ‘selfie’ at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela and one of the canonical works of modern art, Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. However, upon reflection one might discover a surprising connection: on one side, a celebration of revolutionary politics debased by the obscenities of popular culture; on the other, an adoration of idealized beauty subverted by a revolutionary turn towards modern life. And yet, such a reading would continue to miss the radical, even disturbing, connection between the two images: they are, in fact, two sides of the same phenomenon whose encounter establishes what Slavoj Žižek has termed ‘an impossible short-circuit of levels which, for structural reasons, can never meet’ (Žižek, Interrogating the Real, edited by Rex Butler and Scott Stephens, London: Continuum, 2006, 11).
In this text I wish to argue that the ‘parallax’ perspective required to grasp this impossible relation can be found in the writings of Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s seminal essay The Painter of Modern Life (Le Peintre de la vie moderne) has, of course, been consecrated in what Marcel Duchamp calls ‘the primers of art history’ (The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Michael Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, New York: Da Capo Press, 1973, 138) as the source of the avant-garde impulse, a ‘call to arms’ for the modern artist. Nevertheless, as a critical discourse it remains, to this day, rather strange and unsettling. Although it draws out the motifs and themes that would become central to the new movement, there are many deadlocks and distortions in the text itself which block a complete and coherent reading.
In my contribution I propose a re-examination of Manet’s image and Baudelaire’s text which reconsiders such gaps and slippages not as obstacles to be overcome but as solutions in themselves, what in the praxis of psychoanalysis is termed a ‘symptom’ and what Žižek redefines through his notion of a ‘parallax’ gap. In doing so, I will attempt to argue that Manet’s painting and Baudelaire’s essay function, on respective visual and verbal levels, as an ‘unmasking gesture of psychoanalysis’ (Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso, 2008, 25). Ultimately, by adopting this method I will produce a text of my own which, by developing the central themes of the two images in question, renders explicit their impossible relation.