Van Gogh’s shoes, or, does the university have two left feet? – Simon Wortham

… as Kant will have told us, the university will have to go on two feet, left and right, each foot having to support the other as it rises with each step to make the leap. It involves walking on two feet, two feet with shoes, since it turns on an institution, on a society and a culture, not just on nature. This was already clear in what I recalled about the faculty parliament. But I find its confirmation in an entirely different context, and you will certainly want to forgive me this rather rapid and brutal leap; I am authorized by the memory of a discussion, held in this very place some two years ago with our eminent colleague, Professor Meyer Shapiro, on the subject of certain shoes in Van Gogh. (Jacques Derrida, ‘Mochlos’)

My starting point for this essay is the idea of leverage which arises in Derrida’s discussion of the founding and orientation of the university. Derrida’s image of the university ‘walking on two feet’ in his essay ‘Mochlos’ suggests not co-ordinated forward motion but a somewhat disoriented body unsure of its ground and able to gain precarious balance only by levering left against right. This originary conflict does not simply present left and right (in the conventional sense of sets of political values, among other things) as separate and opposed limbs of the university. Rather, it implies a fundamental disorientation between left and right since the one can advance or assert itself only by means of the leverage received from the other. Informed by this insight into the conflicted, disoriented nature of the university ‘walking on two feet’, my essay will attempt to orient itself around some of the various discussions of Van Gogh’s painting of shoes and other related acts of foot fetishism that have occurred within the modern humanities and human sciences. My purpose in taking this detour through several texts, ranging across a number of critical and theoretical perspectives, is to argue that that the fundamental problem of Van Gogh’s painting – whether the shoes are a ‘proper’ pair or whether they are not a pair at all, paradoxically because they may be the same (two left feet, as it were) – is one that can help us negotiate a number of debates within, and concerning, the modern university.

Walking on Two Feet

In his influential essay ‘Mochlos’ Jacques Derrida suggests that, just as the founding of the law is not a simply judicial question, one either of legality or illegality, so the founding of the university cannot merely be treated as a ‘university event’ (Derrida, 1992). Rather the founding of the university opens onto and is received from an otherness that everywhere permeates it. Thus the idea of the university as a unified institution with coherently defined characteristics and borders based on ideals of reason founders on its own foundations, and the university is beset by a conflict which ‘is interminable and therefore insoluble’ (Derrida, 1992: 28). This conflict is one that can neither be attributed simply to an internal problematic – an avoidable glitch in the university’s design arising as an oversight, if you like – nor easily dismissed as the result of intrusive, external intervention on the part of government or society. Insisting that ‘there can be no pure concept of the university … due very simply to the fact that the university is founded’ (1992: 29), Derrida, faced by this fundamental legitimation crisis, raises the question: how can we orient ourselves in (within, in relation to: the question already faces in more than one direction) the modern university?

Through a close reading of Kant’s The Conflict of the Faculties, Derrida suggests that Kant attempts to contain and control the violently disruptive and divisive energies of this intractable crisis by insisting on its nature as mere ‘conflict’ as opposed to out-and-out ‘war’. Thus, as Derrida puts it, Kant ‘propos[es] for it a solution that is properly ‘parliamentary’ (1992: 28). Here the university is reconceived as a ‘faculty parliament’. In this solution, the higher faculties (theology, law, medicine) occupy the right bench and defend the statutes of government, while the left bench is occupied by the philosophy faculty which offers ‘rigorous examinations and objections’ in the name and pursuit of truth. The opposition that results from this ‘parliamentary solution’ for Kant serves the higher purposes of a ‘free system of government’ and therefore resolves conflict into a more fundamental image of unity and accord. However, borrowing from Kant’s ‘What is Orientation in Thinking?’ (Kant, 1992), Derrida and, in his essay ‘The Injured University’ (Bahti, 1992), Timothy Bahti point out that right and left are not classified or recognised according to ‘a conceptual or logical determination’ but only from ‘a sensory topology that has to be referred to the subjective position of the human body’ (Derrida, 1992: 31).1 This means that – as ‘directions’ – left and right cannot be fixed in universal terms according to incontrovertible logical determinants or objective principles guided by reason, so that the ‘parliamentary’ opposition between left and right into which the university’s conflicts are projected and attemptedly resolved by Kant offers a no more reliable source of orientation for the university. As Bahti puts it, ‘when we use corporeal directions we mean, “Be like me”’ (1992: 62), and therefore we address the other’s right as if it were a left, the other’s left as if it were a right. The resultant confusions between my left and another’s right potentialised by this situation can be located not just in the subjective position of the human body, but in the sensory orientations collectively of parliamentary members within a body politic of modern, democratic, Western society developing after Kant. Thus, as Bahti points out with regard to certain modern institutions of government, ‘in the parliamentary situation, the left – the “opposition” – is located from the perspective of the president or the speaker, but the speaker’s left is obviously the left’s right’ (1992: 62). The left from this point of view can only assert its leftness or oppositional stance by way of a (sensory or perceptual) repression of its right side. Indeed, paradoxically enough, its leftness and therefore its very oppositionality is only secured because the ‘speaker or president’, the overarching figure of authority in this situation, legitimates this reorientation, this repression, recasting right as left.

Such disorientations between left and right suggest an image of an unbalanced body, a body off-balance or suffering imbalance. A body, like the university, disoriented because it is unsure of its ground, its very foundations. In such a situation of imbalance, it is difficult to know how to proceed, what direction to take. Drawing on his own experience of undergoing therapy for a collapsed left lung, Bahti describes how, in order to restore balance, he was made by his physicians to adopt a position in which the weight of his body was shifted by means of leverage toward the healthy side (in this case, the right), ‘inhibiting the free and strong use of the healthy lung, while forcing the injured side to do more of the breathing while it is also released of its “share” of the body’s weight’ (1992: 68). This example of leverage, of levering between left and right, sets up a sort of dialogue with Derrida’s essay ‘Mochlos’ (mochlos is a Greek word for lever). In ‘Mochlos’, it is the leverage between right and left, between inherited and newly founded laws, that in some way allows the body (the human body, the body politic, the body of the university) to walk, as it were, ‘on two feet’ (Derrida, 1992: 31). Bahti is keen, however, to ‘ward off a possible misunderstanding that might arise with the analogy of injury as imbalance’, that is, the assumption that ‘a certain symmetry, verging on stasis … is perhaps being held out as either an original health to be restored, or an ideal state to be attained, or both’. Rather, for Bahti, it is a question – especially when discussing the university – of ‘recognizing imbalance as the condition within which leverage can and does take place’ (1992: 73-74).

To put matters the other way round (as seems appropriate in the context of Bahti’s comments about the parliamentary right and left), leverage – leverage within the university – is the condition of imbalance. This imbalance we have linked to an insoluble disorientation between left and right in a university unsure of its ground. All sorts of leverages that occur within the university (and which shape its institutions generally: its critical orthodoxies and counter-orthodoxies; its formations of disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields; its modes and discourse of publication, etc.) are, I would suggest, undertaken precisely by means of intractable confusions between left and right as, conventionally, sets of political meanings and values. Many have looked to these lefts and rights for orientation within the university; and many have attempted, on the basis of an identification of such ‘fixed’ positions, to exert leverage within the university (in the language of The Chambers Dictionary, to impart pressure, to facilitate motion, to gain advantage or power ‘over a resource greater than one actually owns’: perhaps the university itself or, even beyond that, what(ever) founds it). I shall argue, however, that disorientation is the condition, the starting-point, of a leverage by which such orientation is sought. It is in a situation of disorientation that orientation, direction, is attemptedly found (founded) through a mixture of constatives and performatives, statements and acts.

To take just one example: looking at some of the recurring themes and images arising in the early key texts of new historicism and cultural materialism, I have argued elsewhere that, in a number of ways, these approaches orient their critical strategies according to certain kinds of logics and structures of reflection (Wortham, 1996). This orientation frequently takes the form either of: (1) an analysis of Renaissance power represented and discussed through a concentration on spectacle or, sometimes, painting, in which the mirror and the reflection, the ‘glasse’ and the ‘eye’, of power become the foremost tropes within new historicism’s discursive formation (a mirror imagery with its own effects of power in which I argue new historicism itself becomes ensnared); or, (2) as in the case of cultural materialism, an assertion of the contemporary political relevance today of historical texts and events by means of which, as Robert Young puts it, ‘cultural materialists re-assert a form of reflection theory, where history has become a mirror in which contemporary political priorities have been substituted for the former certain ground of Marxist analysis’ (Young, 1990: 89) (i.e. substituted for dialectical materialism, in cruder forms of which history is less specular than linear). Both these emphases, these orientations, portray the object of their critical attention as a kind of mirror, then; and they seek to exert leverage within and against the institutions of criticism by means either of an analysis of power or an assertion of the possibilities of resistance, which equally depend on this mirror imagery. But, I argue, in so doing – indeed as a condition of so doing – they become disoriented between left and right within the specular play of a struggle taking place ‘through the looking glass’ that none the less serves as the prerequisite for their critical orientations. Thus, in new historicism it is possible to see reflected the very formation and exercise of the kinds of power that new historicists wish to describe and expose. In cultural materialism, meanwhile, the attempt to delegitimise traditional or reactionary critical and political positions often depends on a strategy of demystification in which, paradoxically, the dismantling of an imagined ‘natural, obvious or right interpretation of an allegedly given textual fact’ (Dollimore and Sinfield, 1985: viii) frequently entails a formally symmetrical assertion of reference, truth and legality on the part of the politically radical critic (note the legalistic tone of ‘allegedly’). Sometimes, in fact, this even involves a commitment to, in one critic’s phrase, ‘objectivity and scholarship’ (Cohen, 1987: 20) as a way of asserting difference from (right-wing) false politics; a commitment which nevertheless reproduces intact in the work of the politically radical (left-wing) critic the mystificatory stance of ‘the right [my emphasis] interpretation of an allegedly given textual fact’ that ironically establishes the impetus and rationale for its attack on the other. Here, the idea that leverage within the university depends on a persistent disorientation between left and right – and that direction or orientation is established according to the imperative ‘Be like me’, which in effect only compounds the confusion – has a profound resonance.

Foot Fetishism

Building upon this kind of discussion of disoriented leverage in the university,2 negotiated through Derrida’s image of ‘walking on two feet’, I propose to consider a number of instances of (for want of a better term) foot fetishism 3as they arise in twentieth-century critical thought, many of which seem to offer a way for thinkers to gain a sort of foothold in order to attempt to explore orientation in their respective fields. Examples will include: Heidegger’s analysis in his essay ‘The Origin of The Work of Art’ of Van Gogh’s depiction of shoes; Frederic Jameson’s discussion in ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ of portrayals of footwear in modern art, where Van Gogh’s painting and Heidegger’s analysis receive important mention; and Derrida’s own encounter with Van Gogh’s painting, via the correspondence between Heidegger and Shapiro, in ‘Restitutions’. In levering between such texts, it may well be possible to trace some of the key philosophical and theoretical orientations of modernity as they are played out in the context of the humanities and human sciences. Not wanting to present grand claims concerning twentieth-century intellectual history, however, I will suggest merely that the critical issue raised by Van Gogh’s painting – whether the shoes are properly a pair or whether they are not a pair at all, paradoxically because they may be the same – is important in terms of a number of critical procedures and, more widely, that it opens onto the question of the academic institution itself. The problem of Van Gogh’s painting is one that might very well help guide us (although only on the basis of a disoriented figure of two paired/unpaired shoes or feet) through at least some of the debates surrounding, for example, Marxism, poststructuralism, postmodernism and deconstruction within the university. Nevertheless, aside from the familiar intellectual and methodological disputes we find here, it is my concern to ask: does the university as an institution itself stand in a specular relation, a relation of reflection, to Van Gogh’s painting of shoes? Taking direction from the painting in terms of the address ‘Be like me’, does the university itself have two left feet? Let us take a few steps towards or, more precisely, within this question.

Step One: Jameson’s ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’

Jameson’s attempt to delineate the constitutive features of the postmodern according to a periodising logic – that of late capitalism in the latter half of the twentieth century, whereby ‘aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally’ – is elucidated by way of a comparative analysis of portrayals of footwear in twentieth-century art (Jameson, 1995: 4). Jameson finds in Van Gogh’s peasant shoes (‘one of the canonical works of high modernism’) a vibrant, organic immediacy, the painting itself gloriously transforming the poverty, abjection and oppression that it takes as its subject within a ‘Utopian realm of the senses’. This artistic realm thus constitutes itself as ‘semiautonomous space’, ‘a part of some new division of labour in the body of capital’, one that does not simply replicate capitalism’s tendency toward specialisation but which enables Utopian dreams to emerge out of the fragmenting pressures of the modern world (1995: 6-7). Here, as we shall see, Jameson is closer to Shapiro than Heidegger in identifying the painting at bottom with the rhythms of ‘the city dweller’ instead of ‘the peasant’, in an age of ‘industrial technology’ rather than ‘artisanal production’, as Derrida has put it (1987: 263). However, drawing also on Heidegger’s analysis, Jameson insists on the hermeneutical value of Van Gogh’s painting of shoes. By this he means that ‘the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth’ (1995: 8). (It is disputable whether these are the appropriate terms with which to describe Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, or whether its analysis is ‘hermeneutical’ in the sense proposed by Jameson: see below.) All this is contrasted with the phoney glamour, the glitzy flatness or depthlessness, the deathly whiff of simulacra, the hermeneutic emptiness and sense of political inertia that (supposedly) surrounds Warhol’s study of mass-produced, commodity fetishised footwear in Diamond Dust Shoes.

Yet this analysis is somewhat compressed, to put it mildly. By his own admission Jameson embarks upon a comparison between Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of peasant shoes and Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes as a means to demonstrate the vast shift between high modernism and postmodernism. But he devotes only four pages of this lengthy essay to the two works (during which he also manages to fit in a quick word on the treatment of footwear in Magritte and Walker Evans), before moving swiftly on, via references to pop art icons and Munch’s The Scream, to pick up the theme of the ‘waning of human affect’ (1995: 10) which he sees as having taken place this century. It is as if we are being hurried through a virtual gallery of art works (in Postmodernism, glossy reproductions in colour are interspersed with text, and indeed take up about as much page space as the analysis of them). Jameson treats us to the easily digestible and reproducible view offered by the tour guide, where critical insights are exchanged in the form of commodifiable information (the sound bite). Here we have all the elements of the postmodern as described by Jameson himself: simulacrum and the ‘deep constitutive relationships of … a whole new technology’ (the glossy reproductions); depthlessness (the superficiality of Jameson’s ‘scratch the surface and all will be revealed’, non-contemplative approach); a ‘weakening of historicity’ in light of the compacted and compressed attention span that situates Jameson’s essay within commodified postmodern time, and so forth (1995: 6). Furthermore, by rushing us past great works according to a kind of viewing that conforms to all the constitutive dimensions and technics of the postmodern, the essay offers itself in or indeed as a space that virtually simulates the giddying hyperspace of late twentieth-century architecture: ‘[h]ere the narrative stroll has been … replaced by a transportation machine’, the escalator, the elevator, the conveyor-belt (1995: 42).

While such remarks seem to fit well with my general argument concerning disorientation in contemporary criticism, I make these observations about the critical practice of ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ not simply to suggest that Jameson ironically and unwittingly reproduces in the space of his essay all the features of the postmodern that he seems otherwise to lament or regret. Actually I wish to point out something else more profoundly ill-fitting about this piece of work. Namely, that it is difficult to see how shoes can fit here as that which might lead us toward the meaning of the shift from high modernism to postmodernism, when shoes themselves now stand (or, rather than being hung on a gallery wall, are more radically suspended in their technologically simulated, glossily reproduced forms) in a space which, beyond requiring us to walk impossibly quickly, introduces hyperspatial-cyberspatial possibilities that in fact sound the death-knell of walking itself. If Jameson were to extend further his analysis of commodity fetishism, hermeneutic emptiness and spiritless death in Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes, to suggest that footwear in postmodernism is on the verge of becoming not just devoid of deeper meaning but actually, fundamentally, obsolete (as footwear is virtually obsolete in the postmodern space of Jameson’s essay-gallery), then there might once more be a fit in the essay between the diagnosis of the postmodern and the choice of figure used to illustrate this; between the substantive content of ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ and its critical practice. Or so one might think. However, the irony here would not only be that footwear must remain, in an ill-fitting way, necessary to highlight its own obsolescence, but that the development of such insights would require the analysis to be further extended, to change its stride, to lengthen its journey and, as it were, moderate its pace. In other words, in order to proclaim the radical obsolescence of footwear we (along with Jameson) would have to take ourselves out of the ‘transportation machine’ and return paradoxically to something like the ‘narrative stroll’. To see that shoes are altogether done away with, to stop them being ill-fitting, we would, in an altogether ill-fitting way, have to put them back on.

All this is to suggest that the shoes which Jameson takes to lead us toward the postmodern are radically out of joint with the time and space of the postmodernism he describes. It’s not so much that they walk in an entirely opposite direction but that, by disappearing within the postmodern as the figure which nevertheless best locates it, and by fully exemplifying postmodernism’s inner workings only by stepping outside it, they utterly disorient the direction which Jameson takes, or thinks he takes, toward the postmodern itself (which in any case, for Jameson as a Marxist critic of late capitalism, is in some sense also a direction against the postmodern). Devoid of hermeneutic value or depth of meaning, shoes for Jameson may well have lost the capacity to fulfil Enlightenment dreams of forward motion, of linear progress towards a Utopian goal; and they may now for him seem compelled to tread the ceaselessly circular paths of postmodern intertextuality, simulacra, late capitalist consumption and political inertia. But by way of a closer look at Jameson’s essay we find that shoes retain or reserve a radical alterity here, in that they only ever step inside the circle of postmodernism in the form of stepping outside it.

How can we account for the double bind of shoes as an ‘accessory’ in the case of Jameson? Let us take another step, a detour perhaps en route to (or, again, within) the question with which we began.

Step Two: Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’

In philosophical terms the import of Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ has to do with his notion that earth and world – more usually understood as matter and content – find a unity which arises out of conflict: this Heidegger calls the Riss, an almost untranslatable term which carries a sense both of rift and design. For Heidegger, the strife that arises from the opposition between material and content simultaneously furnishes the design by which, as Hofstadter and Kuhns put it, ‘content is actualized in the material’ (1976: 648). Thus it is that the truth of Being reveals itself in art since this unity born of strife (Riss) is set to work and stands in the art work. Heidegger’s larger philosophical claims about the origin and nature of works of art are illustrated (although as Derrida suggests this may not be the best way to describe Heidegger’s ‘example’) by a discussion of Van Gogh’s painting. This serves, neatly enough, as the equipment for his argument that equipmental beings – such as a pair of peasant shoes – by occupying an intermediate place between the thing and the work in fact help us comprehend ‘things and works and ultimately everything that is’ (Heidegger, 1976: 660), thus establishing the context in which Heidegger’s reflections on earth, world, Riss and the revelation of the truth of Being can themselves stand or be set forth. Instead of placing the accent on these wider philosophical questions that, by and large, come into view once Heidegger has dealt with the painting by Van Gogh, I will concentrate here on the first part of his essay leading up to the discussion of the peasant shoes. I do so in order to explore how, as equipment, shoes equip Heidegger to develop, in Hofstadter and Kuhns’ terms, ‘a new and suggestive approach to the concrete work of art’ (1976: 649); one which, by compelling itself to ‘follow the circle’ (Heidegger, 1976: 651) traced out by certain impassable problems in the conceptual machinery of traditional aesthetics, in some respect passes beyond them, indeed passing (opening) on to the question that concerns us.

Heidegger’s essay begins by raising the question of the origin of the work of art in terms of the source of its essence or nature. The commonplace view that the art work ‘arises out of and by means of the activity of the artist’ is quickly subjected to a logical reversal in that, simultaneously for Heidegger, it is possible to say that the artist arises out of the work; that it ‘does credit to the master’ and thus by means of itself ‘lets the artist emerge’. Within the origination of art, therefore, artist and work seem endlessly to replace one another as source, appearing mutually dependent since ‘[n]either is without the other’. Yet according to Heidegger it is not simply the case that the artist and the work are just two legs, as it were, bound to one another in a relation of somewhat antagonistic dependency, a relation of both friction and leverage, ungoverned or uncoordinated by any third term and hence left to go around in circles. Heidegger tells us ‘neither is the sole support of the other’, but that each is produced (‘named’) and regulated ‘by virtue of a third thing which is prior to both’ – art itself. But, in immediate terms at least, art proves a no more reliable source of orientation towards the origin of art. Heidegger is quick to recognise that art is rather slippery and intangible. As a word or term it passes foremost ‘for a collective idea under which we find a place for that which alone is real in art: works and artists’ (Heidegger, 1976: 650). In other words, the idea of art manifests itself only to describe what manifests it, i.e. the rather more tangible ‘actuality’ of the various artists and art works that are grouped together in the name of ‘art’ but which art is nevertheless thought to pre-exist. In this way, art can only ever be used to describe itself in the same way that a compass is used to describe a circle. Bound within the self-same pattern of reversible relations it was introduced to overrule, rather than curbing reversibility according to the orderly logic of a stable third term, art itself confirms such relations as an interminable series.

However, Heidegger seems unwilling so early in his essay to give himself over negatively to this problem as an impassable dilemma. Instead, he continues to insist that art, the nature of art (which is inextricably linked to the question of its origins), ‘should be inferable from the work’ as ‘the place where art undoubtedly prevails in a real way’. This assertion is based in large measure on a refusal to follow the tendency in Enlightenment thought to seek ‘derivation from higher concepts’ (Heidegger, 1976: 651). Yet it is made despite the fact that, as Heidegger knows only too well, any kind of empirical or comparative method – as the other ‘leg’ that orients or levers Enlightenment thinking – always constitutes a problematic closure on the question of the nature of art or, indeed, the truth of Being which it reveals. Heidegger is himself in a double bind, therefore; one which suggests itself as the counterpart not just to the twinship and reversibility of artist and work, but to the circularity of art itself. On the one hand, he wants to deconstruct – in the very question of the origin of the work of art – the empirico-transcendental difference of Enlightenment thought, but on the other hand it seems that any such deconstruction remains bound within the limits and effects of the kinds of circularity such thought institutes.

Or, as seems entirely appropriate, to reverse this formulation: any deconstruction of the circle-effects produced by and producing ‘the usual view’, ‘ordinary understanding’ or ‘logic’ (as Heidegger variously puts it) – something that begins to happen here in the very question of the origin of the work of art – requires one to move resolutely within the circle. Thus Heidegger can affirm ‘we are compelled to follow the circle … Not only is the main step from work to art a circle like the step from art to work, but every separate step that we attempt circles in this circle’ (1976: 651). Here, paradoxically, the ‘step’ forwards takes a turn, turns on itself, in a circle. It is as if, by remaining within the circle, Heidegger can lay bare the manifestations of circularity that everywhere attend the linear idea of progress in thinking that characterises vulgar thought. This indeed establishes the conditions for the Heideggerian ‘step’, as a kind of earlier version of Derrida’s idea of ‘walking on two feet’, where the lever that propels one forward nevertheless roots itself to the spot where one is to achieve this movement, thus demanding a radical rethinking of ‘newness’ or invention.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in order to keep open the question, to infer art from the work, Heidegger turns to Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of shoes. The painting initially crops up in the discussion alongside a number of remarks concerning the ‘actuality’ or thingly character of works of art. The first thing that Heidegger wants to say about a painting such as ‘the one by Van Gogh that represents a pair of peasant shoes’ is that it ‘travels from one exhibition to another’. Works are bound within the ‘actuality’ of exchanges and events happening in everyday time and publicly constituted space, and from this point of view they are treated no differently than other ‘objects’: ‘[w]orks are shipped like coal from the Ruhr and logs from the Black forest’ (1976: 651). However, one would have to grossly underestimate Heidegger’s guile – and indeed the critical procedure that unfolds in this essay – to suggest that the choice of Van Gogh’s painting as a first example occurs as mere coincidence. The contiguous, associative, ‘two way’ relation between the inside and outside of the painting, between the pair of shoes in the picture and the ‘travel’ it undergoes in its actual or thingly capacity, suggests that we are not dealing merely with one ‘thing’ among others, or one instance of a generality (and therefore not merely with an example, as Derrida in various ways demonstrates: we’ll come back to this). Instead, Heidegger’s choice of Van Gogh’s painting, as supposedly an illustration or proof within his discussion, (un)cannily reactivates the series of reversible relations that mark out the circle in which his essay needs to move in order to keep open (rather than too hastily close off, resolve, decide upon) the question of the origin and nature of the work of art.

Thus, all of Heidegger’s preliminary difficulties in ascribing origins in view of the question of art are reinvoked by way of this (so-called) example. According to its thingly quality, does Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of shoes simply remain bound within a nexus of ‘actuality’ which paralyses it as a work of art, now no different to any other banal ‘thing’? Or, in the case of a painting of a pair of shoes that is made to travel – and I choose the word ‘made’ deliberately here, since for Heidegger ‘madeness’ is an important feature of works of art and here might therefore suggest fitness for the purpose as much as the application of force – is it rather that the art work itself gets up and walks before any such moment of bondage or paralysis? Certainly the painting seems to exist in a dimension of time that places it somewhat beyond the moment when Heidegger himself, through exercising the force of his critical faculties, attributes a thingly quality to it. Or, to be more exact, it is precisely in the process of apparently presenting Van Gogh’s picture as an initial example that Heidegger (rather cannily, I would suggest) reveals that its origins must lie beyond this first move or instance, this apparent beginning. Thus, the first thing Heidegger has to say about the painting he seems to choose as a guiding illustration proves (somewhat knowingly) to be no ‘first thing’ at all, since the painting – as one of a pair of shoes that ‘travels’ – is already in transit, already coming from elsewhere.

Yet this transit, which places the art work just beyond one’s reach or grasp as a tangible object of knowledge, is made possible only because of its thingly character, its madeness or fitness for the purpose. Thus, ‘a piece of equipment, a pair of shoes for instance’, would be what sets the painting on the road toward art, since in Heidegger’s terms, ‘[e]quipment has a peculiar position intermediate between thing and work’ (1976: 659-60). Hence, Heidegger tells us, ‘even the much-vaunted aesthetic experience cannot get around the thingly aspect of the art work’; although it is worth noting once again the paradox that this thingliness also places works of art beyond any vulgar conception of the thingly, as Heidegger’s ‘example’ itself demonstrates. Here we are at once ‘compelled to follow the circle’ and, by following it, able to take a certain ‘step’ with regard to deconstructing the empirico-transcendental difference of much Enlightenment thought. The same effect occurs where Heidegger ponders the idea that something other than techne or madeness enters into the nature of the art work, something we call allegory or symbol; but that symbol (‘in Greek, sumballein’) can be seen as nothing other than the name for a bringing together, the making of a join, that is itself ‘the thingly feature in the art work’ (1976: 652). Similarly, when Heidegger asks ‘[i]s the structure of a simple propositional statement (the combination of subject and predicate) the mirror image of the structure of the thing (of the union of substance with accidents)?’ (1976: 655) – a question he qualifies at length and ultimately leaves unresolved – the relations between language and materiality, subject and object, are once more encountered within an interminably reversible, or at least spectrally undecidable, trajectory of thought; a trajectory which disrupts the possibility of straightforward logical progression or any conventional attribution of origins that might accompany an ‘ordinary’ or ‘usual’ treatise on, in this case, the issue of what a thing is. Thus, once more it would seem that in order to take any kind of ‘step’, Heidegger’s essay has, like Van Gogh’s painting, to ‘walk on two feet’, to remain in the circle that encircles subject and object, materiality and language, words and things, matter and form, movement and stasis.

The distinction between matter and form is in fact presented by Heidegger as of long-standing and crucial importance ‘in the domain in which we are supposed to be moving’. He identifies this distinction as the basis for ‘the conceptual schema which is used, in the greatest variety of ways, quite generally for all art theory and aesthetics’. When this distinction between form and matter is correlated with the oppositional pairings of the rational and irrational and of subject and object, a conceptual machinery is put in place ‘that nothing is capable of withstanding’ (1976: 658). In the face of this recognition, Heidegger wants to ‘make use of’ rather than simply reject as obsolete or worn-out the distinction between matter and form. He wants to ‘recover its defining power’ (1976: 659), to reinhabit its madeness in order to recommence his journey with respect to the question of art’s nature. In other words, he wants to renew the matter-form structure as equipment, indeed as something like a pair of shoes with which one could ‘walk on two feet’, step within the circle, exert leverage by utilising a certain rootedness to the spot. On this view, the matter-form structure itself enters into the interminable series of reversibilities that encircle the question of art itself, and the dilemma that for Heidegger surrounds the question of the origins of this structure (whether it comes, as it were, from the subject or the object, materiality or representation, from the ‘thingly character of the thing’ or ‘the workly character of the art work’) places it within the self-same circle. Only now, of course, the issue is even more undecidable (if that were possible), since the matter-form distinction is inextricably always already made up of these oppositional pairings that one cannot therefore decide between.

Hence the relationship between form and matter which in some way for Heidegger seems to enter into, even define the thingly element – in turn opening onto the question of the nature or origin of art – is itself originally and originarily reversible. It is not simply the case, for example, that matter pre-exists form, since the distribution of matter is determined by form. The ‘interfusion of form and matter’ is in fact determined by the ‘purposes served by jug, ax, shoes’, to quote Heidegger’s examples. In other words, form and matter interlock because of purpose. This nevertheless seems a rather fragile third term in that, entailing the idea of design, it appears to incline purpose towards form, if not fold it back into form altogether and thereby establish a certain priority over matter. Yet purpose or usefulness ‘is never assigned or added on afterwards to … a jug, ax, or a pair of shoes’. If purpose cannot stand above or outside the thing itself as its ‘end’, then neither does it simply fold back into its form to establish form as the ultimate destination of matter. This is because purpose (as a species of form) occurs simultaneously with matter in the character of the thing, and does not merely come after it. The decision as to what a ‘jug, ax, or a pair of shoes’ are for doesn’t occur after they are made, so that madeness cannot be thought simply in terms of the eventual triumph of form over matter. To some extent, this fort/da returns us to the example of an art work itself, where the concept or form of a symbol or allegory in art – as that which is imagined to lift art above the merely thingly – actually entails joining, madeness, which is in fact the very characteristic of the thing. For Heidegger, then, a jug, an ax, or a pair of shoes cannot be made without an idea of what they are for, yet this idea cannot form itself beforehand or without the element and quality of matter: that is, ‘impermeable for a jug, sufficiently hard for an ax, firm yet flexible for shoes’ (1976: 659).

This last quality – of shoes – turns on a paradox (and not only because it combines in the character of the thing the ‘firm’ with the ‘flexible’, although needless to say this would bring us back once again to the idea of leverage). Shoes are fashioned, made, turned upon a last. This seems to capture a certain tension between, on the one hand, a sense of finality, finitude, finishedness (the product of the ‘last’) and, on the other, ongoingness, impermanence, flux, work (‘turning’). Yet of course ‘turning’ and the ‘last’ are utterly coterminous and mutually dependent in the process of making. Hence, ‘[a] piece of equipment, a pair of shoes for instance, when finished, is also self-contained like the mere thing, but it does not have the character of having taken shape by itself’ (1976: 659-60). Here an odd supplementarity (madeness itself?) installs itself in the character of the thingly, in the form of the contradictory and unresolvable division between the making of the shoes (they don’t take shape by themselves, even when finished) and the shoes as made (although ‘finished’ and ‘self-contained’, their character is not exactly their own but the product of an other). This renders them, at one and the same time, both self-same and other and (therefore) neither self-same nor wholly other. But perhaps this is not after all surprising when we recall that the equipment under discussion is a pair of shoes, which always display the curious quality of being a ‘proper’ pair by virtue of their difference. Any two shoes that were to attain ‘self-sameness’ in the sense of being identical to one another would, however paradoxical it may seem, not be a pair at all. They would certainly not function ‘properly’ as equipment. One could not walk easily with them. But this is to suggest something quite shocking about equipment, be it technical or, indeed, theoretical, since we have detected in Heidegger’s essay not only a contemplation of thing, equipment, work, art, etc. but also, for want of a better term, a discourse on method (although of course the division or distinction between the two greatly offends everything that is going on in Heidegger’s essay). Heidegger’s pointedly chosen ‘example’ of shoes in his discussion of the origin of works of art alerts us to the possibility that the only kind of equipment that might really be useful depends on a supplementarity which everywhere reverses reasoned distinctions and thus suspends logical progression – yet one would think that a basic level of distinguishability between opposites (between right and left) leading to the possibility of forward movement (in the ordinary sense of walking) was fundamental to the very purpose and nature of shoes as equipment! The usefulness of a pair of shoes as a type of equipment therefore depends bizarrely upon processes of making and employment that – when scrutinised along the lines of Heidegger’s essay – would seem to go against what, at the most basic level, we would imagine they were for. Here in a certain way we are going (stepping) back to everything we said about Jameson.

From this point of view, it’s not just the case that shoes (if they function at all) will simply lead us to walk (in) the wrong way or take the opposite direction from the one we really wanted. More fundamentally, by going against what they are for, shoes as equipment will always lead to a certain disorientation of direction itself: a step within a circle. (Heidegger begins his analysis ‘proper’ of Van Gogh’s painting, appropriately enough in mid-essay, by declaring ‘we cannot even tell where these shoes stand’ (1976: 663).) Of course, if we continue to take the shoes as akin to theoretical equipment, there are times when this disorientation between what one is for and what one is against has proved quite disastrous for certain modes of knowing, certain critical discourses and practices, and certainly certain sorts of politics within the university. My earlier comments on cultural materialism suggest as much. Such calamitous disorientations often occur when difficulties and dilemmas of the kind we’ve been discussing lead people to, as Heidegger puts it, ‘disavow thought instead of making it more thoughtful’ (1976: 656). Not surprisingly, amidst all the confusion between for and against, any such escape route will inevitably lead straight back to the heart of the problem. Under the guise of an appeal to finally determinable solutions or ways out, such tunnels are dug by people who in actual fact want to give up, turn back, rather than push on. However, disorientation need not always be marked negatively in this way. It’s just that, when disorientation proves to be a bad or unhelpful thing, it’s usually because the equipment isn’t being used properly – which is to say that, paradoxically, a kind of improper use must be observed and respected if one is to get anywhere. The lesson Heidegger teaches us is that the use of shoes is always improper, since they are actually against what they are for. Yet by using shoes according to their proper improper use, Heidegger is himself able to take a ‘step’. Shoes as equipment occupy a ‘peculiar’ intermediate position between ‘thing and work’, but it is precisely because they are, properly speaking, improper, paradoxical, monstrous, hybrid, uncanny, neither this nor that, that they equip or help us to reflect on the no more proper or pure origins of the thing and the work: ‘things and works and ultimately everything that is – are to be comprehended with the help of the being of equipment’. In an interminable process of transit among a ceaseless series of reversible relations within the circle, equipment always carries with it an odd sense of the conjunction of stasis and movement we find here. And of course it is such a conjunction between stasis and movement that furnishes the conditions of possibility for the very idea of leverage.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, then, Van Gogh’s shoes (albeit by means of a ‘detour’ which unsettles conventional ideas of direction) provide the leverage for Heidegger to then show how the truth of an entity comes in the work to stand in the light of its being; how the art work finds both dynamic unity and repose through the paradoxical mixture of conflict and design, rest and motion, ‘setting up’ and ‘setting forth’, that we find where truth in art is ‘setting-itself-to-work’ in the Riss of earth and world. Of course, by way of such a paradoxical interplay between movement and stasis, struggle and rest, Heidegger’s conception of truth in art indeed founds itself on an idea of leverage; although as we’ve seen for Heidegger (as for Derrida), such leverage occurs only in the aporia of founding, only in the aporetic question of foundations or origins. Already (and for how long now?) we’re setting off towards, setting up or stepping within, the question of the institution.

Step Three: Derrida’s ‘Restitutions’

In the context of his remarks on orientation in thinking within the university which occur toward the end of ‘Mochlos’, Derrida suggests that, ‘as Kant will have told us, the university will have to go on two feet …. two feet with shoes, since it turns on an institution, on a society and culture, not just nature’ (1992: 31). (Derrida remarks elsewhere that ‘you don’t say a pair of feet. You say a pair of shoes’ (1987: 264), as if everything to do with pairedness is instituted and needs to be analysed as such: we’ll come back to this.) Derrida’s evocation of shod feet orients his essay in its final stages toward ‘a discussion’ held with Meyer Shapiro some years earlier ‘on the subject of certain shoes in Van Gogh’, a discussion concerned with ‘the Heideggerian interpretation’ of the painting (Derrida 1987: 31-32). The debates indicated here between Derrida and Shapiro and Shapiro and Heidegger (already, and once more, we seem to be tracing out a series of steps) are set in motion in Derrida’s ‘Restitutions’, the last part of The Truth in Painting. Here Derrida finds himself ‘witnessing, not without taking part in it’, a ‘duel’ between Heidegger and Shapiro (as the back cover blurb would have it). What sort of leverage exerts itself in the space of these two or three steps?

In a paper first published in 1968 entitled ‘The Still Life as a Personal Object’, Meyer Shapiro offers a reading of ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ which he dedicates to his colleague Kurt Goldstein, ‘who first called my attention to this essay’. Here Shapiro disputes Heidegger’s attribution of Van Gogh’s shoes to a peasant and by extension takes issue with the supposed authenticity of the rural landscape, the pathos rooted in the call of the earth and the labour of the field, and in fact the entire folk world which Heidegger seems to present as the truth of the painting. At the time of Heidegger’s lectures forming the substance of ‘The Origin’ (1935 and 1936) all this was of course ‘not foreign to what drove Goldstein to undertake his long march to New York, via Amsterdam’, as Derrida puts it (1987: 272-273). Against Heidegger, then, Shapiro insists that the shoes in the painting belong not to the peasant’s feet rooted in the soil but to Van Gogh himself as – by this time – an uprooted city dweller, an exile. By wresting the shoes from the earthy world of the peasant portrayed so eloquently by Heidegger and restoring them as property to the dispossessed emigrant, Shapiro’s paper does much more than pay homage to Goldstein as a valued colleague. Restituting the shoes to the signatory of the painting (re-tying the shoes to the signature), the essay dedicates itself to, as Derrida puts it, ‘the immense tide of deportees searching for their names’, victims of the violent upheavals of techno-industrial modernity culminating in mass warfare; and indeed to the ‘army of ghosts demanding their shoes’, those chillingly anonymous shoes piled up at Auschwitz (1987: 329).

While he is keenly aware of the political stakes involved in Shapiro’s critique of Heidegger, and the ‘duty’ or ‘debt’ it supposes, Derrida nevertheless detects in this dispute between the two not only an oppositional struggle but a certain ‘correspondence’, an exchange, but also something like a common interest. For both, ‘the desire for attribution is a desire for appropriation’ (Derrida, 1987: 260): that Heidegger assigns the shoes to a peasant and Shapiro to the city-dwelling artist is in either case ‘properly due’ neither to peasant nor painter but to these ‘illustrious Western professors’ themselves, so that the attribution in fact restitutes itself to them. This is not simply to suggest that Shapiro and Heidegger are somehow disingenuous or egotistical in falling upon these shoes only to establish their own academic credentials or repute. More than this it indicates that attribution and restitution occur only ‘via a short detour’ (Derrida, 1987: 261), a period of carriage however brief, an investment and expense of energy however slight, which troubles the very idea of intact return, unstinting reparation, undisputed property. Yet upon such an idea of absolute restitution, it would appear, rests the truth in painting (of either the ‘city’ or the ‘fields’, the industrial or rural world) that both Heidegger and Shapiro wish to restitute. Indeed, the dispute concerning attribution doesn’t happen solely due to Heidegger or Shapiro but occurs only by way of a certain leverage exerted between the two ‘illustrious Western professors’. The ‘restitution trial’ (as Derrida calls it) walks on two feet, as it were, so that attribution/restitution is no more ‘properly due’ to either of them than to painter or peasant (1987: 260-261). (Indeed, amid these property disputes, neither would it be possible to restitute the picture solely to itself since as Shapiro reminds us Van Gogh painted a series of shoes, each a sort of step in a sequence, each acknowledging some debt to the others.)

To go further, it is clear that while Shapiro wishes to uproot Van Gogh’s shoes, to dislodge the groundedness he feels Heidegger attributes to them, by way of an identification with the shifting and transient world of the modern metropolis, Shapiro’s act of restitution in fact regrounds the link between representation and reference, in that it assumes an unstinting identification between the subject and object of the canvas, sealed by painting’s signatory: Van Gogh’s shoes are the shoes of Van Gogh. This tautological situation of course means that, far from roaming the itinerant pathways of the exile or émigré, the shoes can go nowhere. They’re not only grounded, they’re rooted to the spot, stuck. Shapiro therefore restitutes the shoes in the form of leaving them where he finds them (that is, with Heidegger or the unchanging ground associated with the peasant world). He restores them to the eternally dispossessed through a procedure of repossession that means they can never properly be returned. Thus, the way in which Shapiro claims the shoes’ proper ownership in fact destines them to remain disputed property.

Shapiro’s procedure seems thoroughly disoriented in that he reproaches Heidegger both for being too referential (for Shapiro, Heidegger restitutes truth to the shoes by grounding them in an authentic peasant or folk world with all its dubious politico-ideological connotations), and for being insufficiently referential (neglecting to delimit the pictorial specificity of the shoes within a series of paintings by Van Gogh, Heidegger, according to Shapiro, fails to see that the actual picture he analyses was painted once Van Gogh had abandoned the ‘fields’ for the ‘city’: thus Heidegger’s attribution is foiled by nothing but an absolute literalism which supports Shapiro’s contention that Van Gogh couldn’t have painted peasant shoes in Paris). Notwithstanding this apparent contradiction, Derrida shows how Heidegger’s own procedure for establishing or ‘presenting’ truth in ‘The Origin’ is in any case not as referential as his critic often supposes, and certainly less so than Shapiro’s rather incongruous recourse to a sort of crude empiricism or literalism as a way of uprooting the shoes. Reading the essay more carefully, Derrida notes that the example chosen to illustrate Heidegger’s intention in ‘The Origin’ is not at bottom a specific picture but more generally a ‘product’, or, in Hofstadter and Kuhns’ translation, ‘a common sort of equipment’. As ‘product’ or ‘equipment’ Van Gogh’s shoes are in fact only an ‘accessory’ within a much wider project of asking how truth manifests itself. As I suggested earlier this entails a question of nature or origins that, in the very process of its asking in Heidegger’s essay, resists or disputes decidability, attribution, firm grounding, reference. This is because the equipment (intermediate between ‘thing’ and ‘work’) that is needed to keep the question open compels us to remain perpetually in transit, always stepping within the circle. For Derrida, then, Heidegger’s larger aim in attributing the shoes to peasantry ‘via’ a painting by Van Gogh is not really to reground and fix the link between reference and representation by taking (a) painting as an illustration; or even, for that matter, is it principally his aim to establish or ground reference solely by way of the emergence of ‘peasant’ truth. Once the shoes are taken as product or equipment instead of ‘picture’, Derrida contends:

The ‘same truth’ could be ‘presented’ by any shoe painting, or even by any experience of shoes and even of any ‘product’ in general …. It is not the truth of a relationship (of adequation or attribution) between such-and-such a product and such-and-such an owner, user, holder, bearer/wearer-borne. The belonging of the product ‘shoes’ does not relate to a given subjectum, or even to a given world. What is said of belonging to the world and the earth is valid for the town and for the fields. Not indifferently, but equally …. art as ‘putting to work of truth’ is neither an ‘imitation’, nor a ‘description’ copying the real, nor a ‘reproduction’, whether it represents a singular thing or a general essence. (1987: 312)

Heidegger’s shoes belong in no particular place – ‘belonging to the world and the earth’ calls to mind the Riss, the rift at the heart of belonging or design – and with no particular person, be they a specific individual or a representative figure. Paradoxically enough, this precisely is the nature or essence (the truth) of their belonging within the Heideggerian scheme. Rather than existing as a picture that illustrates truth deeply rooted elsewhere, enabling repatriation to a native land by means of an indisputably correct signpost (the very notion of reference), as ‘product’ or ‘equipment’ the shoes cause truth to appear only as a condition or function of the never-ending transit that characterises both the painting of shoes travelling from one exhibition to another and Heidegger’s own procedure of stepping within the circle. While Heidegger’s shoes belong to no particular place or person, then, Shapiro’s case on the contrary ‘calls on real shoes: the picture is supposed to imitate them, represent them, reproduce them. Their belonging has then to be determined as a belonging to a real or supposedly real subject’ (Derrida, 1987: 312). From Derrida’s point of view (if that were possible in a text written as ‘polylogue’), a profound disorientation therefore occurs as a condition of the leverage exerted within the dispute between these two ‘illustrious Western professors’: Heidegger’s shoes, far from grounding themselves in the peasant world, ‘belong’ with the ‘uprooted emigrant’, the dispossessed outcast; while Shapiro’s shoes, far from being restituted to the exiled and anonymous victims of modernity, are placed firmly on the side of ‘the rooted and the sedentary’ (Derrida, 1987: 260).

The proofs submitted therefore prove nothing (‘nothing proves they are peasant shoes … nothing proves or can prove that “they are the shoes of the artist, by that time a man of the town and city”’ (Derrida, 1987: 364)), so that once more restitution founders on its own intention, as it were. Re-tying the shoes to the picture’s signatory by way of a tautological knot (Van Gogh’s shoes are the shoes of Van Gogh), Shapiro presents the artist ‘face on’ or face-to-face with his own footwear (Derrida, 1987: 348). The shoes face Van Gogh facing the shoes: Shapiro ties the tautological knot tighter, by means of the attribution of the shoes to a subject and subjecthood to the shoes, as if to ensure beyond any reasonable doubt their fit or fittedness. Yet as everybody knows it’s impossible (if like Shapiro you insist on proper usage) to put on a pair of shoes while they’re facing you. It is precisely at the moment of absolute identity, indisputable attribution, pure restitution, perfect fittedness – because of it, if you like – that the shoes cannot be claimed, put on, made to fit. Shapiro fittingly demonstrates that shoes tied too tightly can trip you up. The play of putting on/putting off, attachment/detachment, usefulness/uselessness therefore becomes an important theme for Derrida, one I’ll return to presently.

There might be (or, as Derrida says, ‘there will have been’) a correspondence between Heidegger and Shapiro, but this may not be quite enough to fashion them into a pair. While Derrida finds ‘something like a pairing together in the difference of opinion’ (1987: 263) that sparks the quarrel in the first place (Heidegger turns out to be doing what Shapiro supposedly wants to do; Shapiro turns out to be more like the Heidegger with whom he takes issue than Heidegger himself), nevertheless ‘a pair functions/walks (marche) with symmetrical, harmonious, complementary, dialectical oppositions, with a regulated play of identities and differences’ (Derrida, 1987: 377). As we’ve seen, the disagreement between Shapiro and Heidegger neither takes the form of dialectical struggle nor a regulated play of difference and identity but instead walks with two left (or two right) feet.

This is because the positions adopted or ascribed on either side of the dispute take on a similar appearance to one another, owing to the fact that both function in a self-contradictory or non-self-identical way. To schematise this a little in terms of the idea of walking, the left foot (Shapiro, say) asserts itself only by acting like the right foot (Heidegger) which, in turn, turns out to be more left than right. This gives the impression of a bizarre sort of perambulation. However, since neither foot is simply left nor right (or, which amounts to the same thing, the feet are at the same time both left and right), we can say that the dispute itself has two left (or two right) feet. This state of affairs in fact corresponds with a problem in Van Gogh’s painting that is nowhere visible in the dispute itself. As Derrida shows, both the professors (rushing along like Jameson) assume too hastily that the shoes in the painting form a pair. This much does not constitute a point of disagreement between them: indeed, it has to be agreed upon for the dispute to take place. For Derrida, at a certain level, Heidegger and Shapiro need to assume that the shoes in question form a pair so that they can go about the business of attribution, fitting the shoes to the feet of one subject rather than another, or indeed using them more generally as equipment to carry out a certain kind of restitution. But what makes them so sure the shoes are a pair? ‘[T]he more I look at them’ says Derrida of Van Gogh’s shoes, ‘the less they look like a … pair’ (1987: 278). It is difficult not to agree with him. Shapiro and Heidegger therefore institute the shoes as a pair (and for Derrida, we might recall, a pair is always instituted). Yet on the basis of this assumption of a pair of shoes the professors return or restitute to them, not undisputed truth, but the dispute itself; a dispute ‘walking on two [left or right] feet’ which, in truth, corresponds with (and therefore returns itself to) the undecidability of the shoes as a pair. More widely, this would imply that an institution cannot be restituted to itself in its institution, that the institution founders on its own founding.

However, the unpairing or dis-pairing that causes the institution to lose its footing among its own foundations is not simply a cause for despair. While two right shoes or two left shoes cannot be put on or used ‘without injuring the wearer, unless he has the feet of a monster’ (Derrida, 1987: 374), we’ve already seen in Heidegger the radical monstrosity, hybridity, impurity of shoes as equipment (intermediate between ‘work’ and ‘thing’), demanding a properly improper usage if a step within the circle is to be taken. Thus the unpaired shoes occupy and expose a kind of supplementary space or margin in the discourse on – indeed, in the nature of – shoes, which in fact turns out to be fundamental and originary. The institution (in the form of a pair) is based, founded, on a monstrosity (two left or two right feet) which nevertheless need not – indeed cannot – simply be negatively marked if one acknowledges that orientation, in its conventional sense, and positive value, in any case, seems inescapably disoriented, inhabited by its other, and therefore just as monstrous or hybrid. The unpaired shoes, like Frankenstein’s monster, are cut out and sewn back together, and like the Riss of earth and world they cut out (rift) but also sow back together (design) the pair, since the pair is not just absolutely different from them but also in a certain way the same. (Both the professors’ pairs are monstrous in this Frankensteinian way: Heidegger severs a single painting from a series in order to attribute, restitute or institute the pair, says Shapiro; while Shapiro himself cuts out of Heidegger’s long essay twenty or so lines, ‘snatching them brutally’ (1987: 285), says Derrida, to attribute, restitute, institute the pair otherwise.) The unpaired shoes therefore do nothing as simple as destroy the institution. More complexly, they also seem to repair it, sow it back together, in the monstrous form to which it in any case properly (improperly) belongs.4

To come back to the play of putting on/putting off, attachment/detachment, usefulness/uselessness in Derrida’s essay, then: this is understood not in terms of oppositional conflict or absolute confrontation, but on the basis of a non-self-identical doubleness characterising each pair (undecidably two left or two right feet). Here we find not simply ‘the logic of a cut’, not a straightforward detachment which leads to a ‘logic or even a dialectic of opposition’ but, in the play of attachment/ detachment, a double bind or ‘the interlacing of differance’, of laces tied neither too tightly nor loosened to the extent that they unbind (Derrida, 1987: 340). In Heidegger’s ‘The Origin’, for example, the truth of the useful (the product or equipment) appears ‘in the instance of the out-of-service’ (the idle and, as we have seen, uselessly unpaired shoes painted by Van Gogh). That truth appears in this way in fact overloads uselessness with value, although of course this ‘”truth” of the truth is not useful’ just as ‘the “truth” of the product is not a product’ (Derrida, 1987: 346). The uselessness of the institution (both the institution of the shoes as a pair that cannot be restituted to its institution, and the institution of oppositional pairing that likewise cannot be restituted to itself) thus turns out to be useful, or at least usefully useless/uselessly useful. To borrow and adapt Robert Young’s terms, this useful uselessness/useless usefulness might ‘function as a surplus’ that the economy of the institution, both inside and outside the university, may not comprehend.5 Yet, far from simply ruining the institution, this useful uselessness/useless usefulness in some way repairs it, not by restoring an original state of health but by returning the institution to (the paradox of) its originary monstrosity. For, like Frankenstein’s creature, the university always institutes itself as a figure of dis-re-pair.

The Blinking of an Eye

I want to conclude by pursuing a connection between disoriented footing in the university and the question of vision. This connection between vision and footing is of course implicit in the essays we’ve covered so far, all of which look at the painting of shoes. In Jameson, shoes are regarded and (almost, although not quite) discarded in a postmodern wink of an eye, so that the Jamesonian gaze rehearses uncritically the unstable and problematic relations of attachment/detachment, putting on and putting off, we find under consideration in Derrida’s ‘Restitutions’. Heidegger suggests that shoes in Van Gogh, rather than providing a pictorial illustration upon which the critic might fall in order to reveal truth, in fact show truth or cause it to appear. Van Gogh’s shoes aren’t just inspiring objects to be looked at. As equipmental beings they themselves bring forth a vision of truth. This shift of emphasis reverses the subject-object relation so that when speaking of the shoes as formed matter, as product or equipment, Heidegger remarks, ‘[u]sefulness is the basic feature from which this entity regards us’ (1976: 659). Re-tying the shoes to the picture’s signatory by way of a tautological knot (Van Gogh’s shoes are the shoes of Van Gogh), Shapiro presents the artist ‘face on’ or face-to-face with his own footwear. The shoes return the artist’s look, since Shapiro’s tautological knot entails attributing the shoes to a subject by means of assigning subjecthood to the shoes. In a sense, then, it is not just that Van Gogh has a vision of shoes. Rather, by being possessed of eyes the shoes restitute the artist’s vision to himself. This recognition, then, marks a certain correspondence with Heidegger. For Derrida, however, the shoes do not simply produce or restore vision. They also bring about ‘this blindness, this putting-to-sleep … of all critical vigilance’ (1987: 279), at the moment Heidegger and Shapiro simply assume and agree on the pair. Indeed, as Shapiro and Heidegger ‘bet on the pair’ in the form of a dispute where each can be found always outbidding the other, the correspondence as we’ve seen ‘tightens itself to the point of self-strangulation’ (Derrida 1987: 376). Of course this would be the point at which the eyes pop out, speculation putting an end to itself in the specular. This interplay between vision and blindness appears elsewhere in Derrida’s work. For example, in ‘The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils’ (a paper which in its very title sets up a speculative, specular play between vision and the institution, sight and knowledge), Derrida speaks of:

Opening the eyes to know, closing them – or at least listening – in order to know how to learn and learn how to know: here we have a first sketch of a rational animal. If the University is an institution for science and teaching, does it have to go beyond memory and sight? In what rhythm? To hear better and learn better, must it close its eyes or narrow its outlook? In cadence? What cadence? Shutting off sight in order to learn is of course only a figurative manner of speaking. No one will take it literally, and I am not proposing to cultivate an art of blinking. And I am resolutely in favour of a new university Enlightenment (Aufklarung). Still, I shall run the risk of extending my figuration a little farther, in Aristotle’s company. In his De anima (421b) he distinguishes between man and those animals that have hard, dry eyes [ton sklerophtalmon], the animals lacking eyelids, the sort of sheath or tegumental membrane [phragma] which serves to protect the eye and permits it, at regular intervals, to close itself off in the darkness of inward thought or sleep. What is terrifying about an animal with hard eyes and a dry glance is that it always sees. Man can lower the sheath, adjust the diaphragm, narrow his sight, the better to listen, remember, and learn. What might the University’s diaphragm be? (1983: 5)

As with his essay ‘Mochlos’, Derrida notes in this paper that the founding of the university cannot be treated as a self-begetting ‘university event’, in the same way that the founding of the law is not simply a judicial question, one either of ‘legality’ or ‘illegality’. Therefore the institution built on the principle of reason is also built ‘on what remains hidden in that principle’, so that the ‘principle of reason installs its empire only to the extent that the abyssal question of being that is hiding within it remains hidden, and with it the question of the grounding of the ground itself’ (Derrida, 1983: 10). Just as footing is found on uncertain foundations, so the vision of the university proceeds from what remains concealed. However, this raises the question of responsibility in that critics, professors, academics working at ‘multiple sites [on] a stratified terrain’ with ‘postulations that are undergoing continual displacement’, need to observe ‘a sort of strategic rhythm’ playing itself out between the ‘barrier’ and the ‘abyss’, between the protected horizon, the secured partition, of the university space and the invisible and unthought bottomless chasm on which this is founded. The ‘strategic rhythm’ that pulsates between the barrier (horizon of vision) and the abyss (hidden and unseen) provides a way to play one off against the other: such ‘playing off’ as the responsibility of the critic or academic appears partially to redeem speculation. Derrida associates this ‘strategic rhythm’ with ‘the blinking of an eye’ (1983: 17). The same ‘strategic rhythm’ or ‘blinking of an eye’ is called for in the antagonistic interplay between end-oriented and fundamental research. If the university can only found itself on what remains hidden and abyssal, then end-oriented, useful research always proceeds on the basis not only of a repression but also an exploitation of foundations that in fact must remain fundamentally invisible, unthought, useless. However, if goal-oriented or useful research is therefore structurally reliant (ie. founded) on the preservation of what is abyssal, unfathomable, unyielding, then useless or ‘basic’ research can no more be simply opposed to its end-oriented counterpart. As Derrida points out, fundamental research frequently becomes ‘indirectly reappropriated, reinvested by programs of all sorts’ (1983: 16); and indeed by refusing to recognise goals often finds itself unwittingly ‘serving unrecognized ends, reconstituting powers of caste, class or corporation’ (1983: 18). ‘Beware of ends; but what would a university be without ends?’ (1983: 19), Derrida asks. The institution of the university in terms of the ‘barrier’ or protected boundary, often conceived of as a precondition for non-interference by intrusive forces external to the university, itself necessitates the positing of limits and ends. Paradoxically, fundamental research may go beyond but nevertheless can only happen within the horizon of the university. Research itself, never simply either basic or goal-oriented, useless or useful, founded on the visible horizon or on an indomitable blindness, thus calls for the ‘strategic rhythms’ of ‘the blinking of an eye’ not dissimilar to ‘walking on two [undecidably left or right] feet’.

The university’s vision, neither hard eyed and vigilant, nor blindly asleep, but produced by the rhythms of blinking, therefore institutes itself as a hybrid not unlike the always disrepaired monster. The shadow of Frankenstein’s creature in fact casts itself over Derrida’s essay:

During more than eight centuries, ‘university’ has been the name given by a society to a sort of supplementary body that at one and the same time it wanted to project outside itself and to keep jealously to itself …. with the relative autonomy of a technical apparatus, indeed that of a machine and a prosthetic body, this artefact that is the university has reflected society only in giving it the chance for reflection, that is dissociation. (1983: 19)

As a figure both of attraction and repulsion, of attachment and detachment, cutting out and sowing back together, the monstrous institution of the university renders possible a self-reflection which is also always a projection. The university therefore constitutes itself in the form of a risk (a risky invention). Playing off one against the other blindness and insight, reflection and dissociation, the members of this improper body (cut out and stitched back together) are perhaps best placed to witness the (dis)orientating play of difference and identity that arises from a look in the mirror:

The time for reflection is also the chance for turning back on the very conditions of reflection, in all the senses of that word, as if with the help of an optical device one could finally see sight, could not only view the natural landscape, the city, the bridge and the abyss, but could view viewing. (1983:19)


1. The emphasis on disorientation with regard to Kant in this section of my essay may appear to do him an injustice. Howard Caygill, in Art of Judgement (1989), draws attention to ways in which Kant attempts to (re)orient thinking in light of the problem of orientation. It is not my concern here to follow in detail the complexity of Kantian thought on this subject or evaluate the headway Kant makes with regard to it. I want simply to draw attention, as Derrida does, to the difficulty of establishing orientation according to the ‘sensory topology’ of left and right, not only in general terms, but specifically within the university.

2. Similar arguments concerning disorientiation in the humanities and human sciences could be made choosing different examples or objects for study: for example, the confusions that arise in debates concerning academic freedom and institutional censorship, or the problematic and uncertain relation of cultural studies to ‘culture’ itself. See my ‘Multiple Submissions and Little Scrolls of Parchment: Censorship, Knowledge, and the Academy’, New Literary History 28.3 (1997) and ‘Bringing Criticism to Account: Economy, Exchange and Cultural Theory’, Economy and Society 26.3 (1997).

3. Properly speaking, for Derrida a pair of shoes cannot be the object of a fetish. In ‘Restitutions’ he draws our attention to the fact that it is a lone shoe, no longer functioning according to ‘the law of normal usage’ (1987: 333) as part of a pair, no more caught up in the reproductive (heterosexual) play of paired opposites, that comes to be associated with the monstrous ‘perversity’ of the fetish. However, following Derrida, I argue in this essay that the attribution of pairedness to Van Gogh’s shoes cannot restitute the institution of the pair to itself, but instead unwittingly reveals the shoes as undecidably either two left or two right feet. In order to contest or prove the pair, and thereby effectively repress the anxious sight of two left or two right feet, both professors in the ‘restitution trial’ witnessed by Derrida in The Truth in Painting want to attribute the pair either to a feminine or a masculine identity: Heidegger attributes the pair to a peasant woman, Shapiro to the male artist. The debate itself institutes this heterosexually paired opposition. But to the extent that the institution of the pair cannot be restituted to itself, the fetish cannot wholly be disregarded or repressed in the dispute that takes place over Van Gogh’s shoes.

4. The monstrous indeterminacy of shoes is also traced out by the double-edge which fashions them and by which, on a last, they are fashioned. Derrida remarks, ‘like a glove turned inside out, the shoe sometimes has the convex “form” of the foot (penis) and sometimes the concave form enveloping the foot (vagina)’ (1987: 267). This monstrosity of undifferentiated difference, as it were, is confirmed by the anxiety the shoes cause Freudian thought. Derrida notes that Freud insists ‘certain symbols cannot be at the same time both masculine and feminine’ but ‘he does so only to admit immediately afterwards that bisexual symbolization remains an irrepressible, archaic tendency’ (1987: 268) i.e. somehow primal or originary. Undifferentiated difference as exemplified in the sexual monstrosity of the monster-shoes to some extent explains why, as I note above, in order to contest the pair and thereby repress the traumatic vision of two left or two right feet, both participants in the ‘restitution trial’ wish to attribute to the pair either a feminine or a masculine identity: Shapiro attributes the pair to the male artist, Heidegger to a peasant woman. The debate itself institutes this heterosexually paired opposition. Furthermore the pairing of shoes in this way sheds light on why a lone shoe, no more caught up in the reproductive (heterosexual) play of paired opposites that establishes ‘the law of normal usage’ (Derrida, 1987: 333), comes to be associated with the monstrous ‘perversity’ of the fetish.

5. Young’s arguments arise in the context of a discussion of the antagonistic interdependency of the ‘useless’ and the ‘useful’ traditions of the English university (Young: 1992). ‘Useless’ learning refers here to long-standing Oxbridge traditions of disinterested study, and the rather unworldly pursuit of truth and beauty founded on classical literature as a means to cultivate gentlemanly character rather than develop professional skills. ‘Useful’ university education indicates an apparently different and opposed tradition emerging properly in the nineteenth century; a tradition associated with the names of Smith and Bentham, and devoted primarily to technical and vocational training. Nevertheless, as literature becomes institutionalised as an object of academic study around the turn of the century, the learning associated with traditions of ‘uselessness’ seems most useful in combating what Arnold envisaged as anarchy on the horizon of urban, industrial, materialist society. Equally ‘usefulness’, end-oriented study or sheer vocationalism in its most extreme form, might be thought to accentuate specialisation and concomitant effects of social alienation, thus hastening capitalism’s eventual decline – the worst sort of ‘uselessness’.


Bahti, T. (1992) ‘The Injured University’, pp. 57-76 in R. Rand (ed.), Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Caygill, H. (1989) Art of Judgement. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Cohen, W. (1987) ‘Political Criticism of Shakespeare’ in J. Howard, and M. O’ Connor (eds) Shakespeare Reproduced: the text in history and ideology. London: Methuen.

Derrida, J. (1983) ‘The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils’, Diacritics 13.3: 3-20.

Derrida, J. (1987) ‘Restitutions of the truth in pointing [pointure]’, pp.255-382 in The Truth in Painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1992) ‘Mochlos’, pp.1-34 in R. Rand (ed.), Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Dollimore, J. and Sinfield, A. (1985) ‘Foreword’ in J. Dollimore and A. Sinfield (eds), Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1976) ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, pp.647-708 in A. Hofstadter and R. Kuhns (eds), Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jameson, F. (1995) ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, pp.1-54, in Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London and New York: Verso.

Kant, I. (1992) ‘What is Orientation in Thinking?’, pp.237-249, in H. Reiss (ed.), Political Writings 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shapiro, M. (1968) ‘The Still Life as a Personal Object’ in The Reach of the Mind: Essays in Memory of Kurt Goldstein. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Wortham, S. (1996) ‘The Glasse of Majesty: Reflections on New Historicism and Cultural Materialism’, Angelaki 2.2: 47-58.

Young, R. (1990) White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London: Routledge.

Young, R. (1992) ‘The Idea of a Chrestomathic University’, pp.97-126, in R. Rand (ed.), Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

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