III. The Truth of Masks
I don't want to appear dim, but I'm not sure I understand this opening sentence from your third text: "whatever sort of opposition one might want to level against the subject-object/presence-absence dichotomy ... it, too, will be inherently fissured by its origins".
In as much as I do understand it - you're saying that both terms in a binary originate, circulate and ultimately coincide within the same conceptual schema or identity - I agree. That's why I try not to engage in oppositional thinking and why I'm not interested in Hegelian dialectics, nor in simply inverting terms (even if this can be fun and may well be a necessary first step in a more profound deconstruction, as Derrida concedes).
As for the question of the face, maybe you're right and I need to rethink it. Certainly there are faces I love to look at. What Barthes felt about the face of Greta Garbo, I feel about the face of Marlene Dietrich for example; it's a pure and perfect object that appears to be untouched by time or finger-tips, unmarked by traces of emotion. It's a face that belongs to art, not to nature and which has all the cold and expressionless beauty of a mask; a face that has not been painted so much as sculpted. An archetypal and totemic face. A fetish object.
"And behind a mask there is still an identity, an identity that has chosen a mask ..."
No, sorry, I don't agree with this. The truth of masks is far more radical and disconcerting than that; it's the truth that masks don't hide faces or disguise identities, they mask the fact there's nothing behind them. That's why the invisible man is a more interesting and, to those who fear the thought of non-being, a more terrifying figure than the phantom of the opera. When the latter removes his mask he merely reveals scars. But when the former strips away his bandages, Dasein is obliged to confront the ontological truth that it rests upon the void of non-being (sein Nicht-mehr-dasein, as Heidegger writes).
It's this that produces Angst - particularly in those egoists who "dare not die for fear they should be nothing at all" [D. H. Lawrence] and in those who hope to still find a smiling face beneath the bandages, behind the mask, or in the ashes.
IV. The Lugubrious Game
As for the base material from which you compose your "micro-mosaics", my friend, the poet and translator Simon Solomon, is planning to write of ghost, of flame, and of ashes in the manner of (and with reference to) Derrida and I don't wish to anticipate his remarks. However, you might like to read my Reflections from a Sickbed, in which I muse on the problem of corpse disposal and what to do with cremains.
I think, were I an artist, I might be tempted to mix ashes with excrement and smear the combination across a large white canvas to show how what we leave behind us when we die - when we become that shipwreck in the nauseous - is not a face, but a slimy and disgusting residue, as when a snail or slug passes by. Or, to put it more crudely, a shit stain. (Obviously, I'm thinking back to Bataille here and to Dalí's 'The Lugubrious Game'.)
You say that human remains can be "ennobled by art" and maybe they can. But, for me, it's not the job of art to elevate anything belonging to mankind; on the contrary it should bring us back down Pisgah with a bump and remind us of our mortality and material nature; to make us grunt like pigs before the canvas, rather than sigh like angels full of smug self-satisfaction. It's important to realise that when Nietzsche says art is the great anti-nihilistic force par excellence, he implies also that it's a form of counter-idealism; for nihilism is not simply the negation of all values, it's the positing of ultimately hollow ideals in the first place.
V. Iconography is Never Innocent
I'm glad to hear you don't intend to "freeze the dead in a permanent subordination" to an image. Though it's difficult for me to imagine this won't be an unintended consequence of producing icons in ash that are so realistic in their facial representation and reconstruction. Do you remember how some tribal peoples used to worry that the camera stole their soul? Well I have similar concerns. Indeed, I even have some sympathy with the authors of Exodus warning against graven images and the making of idols etc.
I certainly agree with Baudrillard that, whatever else it may be, iconography is never innocent. In fact, it plays a complicit role in the perfect crime by which he refers to the extermination of singular being via technological and social processes bent on replacing real things and real people with a series of images and empty signs. When this happens, we pass beyond representation (or, in the case of the dead, commemoration) towards obscenity; a state wherein everything and everyone is "uselessly, needlessly visible, without desire and without effect".
I worry, Heide, that those who are indecently exposed in a game of posthumous exhibitionism (you describe it in terms of self-expression and self-revelation) are left without secrets, without shadows, without charm. They become, if you like, ghosts caught up in a commercial art machine ...
Finally, I smiled when you wrote "if, as you seem to contend, the 'goal' or 'desire' of life ... is to merge back into material indifference, we might as well be dead already" - for don't you see that, in a very real sense, we are dead already ...
Yours with respect, admiration, and affection,
To read parts I and II of this letter to Heide Hatry, please click here.
To read Heide Hatry's extensive series of comments please see the posts to which they are attached: Heide Hatry: Icons in Ash and On Faciality and Becoming-Imperceptible with Reference to the Work of Heide Hatry.