A particular is pulled out from the general and made audible; the particular is, as it were, sampled. But what if we were to expose the particular that is pulled out and sampled to the idea that it is an example? I’ll make this exposure, yet in so doing I have to say immediately that although every example, whatever it is, is to be treated as a real particular case it cannot serve in its particularity.
To make use of examples is a common thing that humans do (I cannot speak for non-human animals). Examples are used to explain, to show things and make them intelligible. Imagine someone who has never before heard birdsong — What is birdsong like? For a moment you wonder what they must have gone through not to know this, but then, as quickly as possible, you go about providing an example — This is what birdsong can be. Both of you are encountering a particular sound, yet this sound is also acting as example of birdsong.
No one possible example can claim to be the only possible example; however, although one among others, the example has to stand for each of them and serve for all. The example must serve for all others of the same type, but it also has to be included among these. Every example stands as a real particular case — birdsong has to be heard in order to give an example of it — but also has to hold for all cases of the same type, which means it cannot serve in its particularity. And what can be said here is that the example stretches the distinction between the universal and the particular, the general and the individual; it is, characteristically, neither one nor the other. And what is also characteristic of the example is that it exhibit, show, that of which it is exemplary. What the example does is to make an exposition. You could say, a public exhibition.
The example shows itself as belonging to a class or set of which birdsong is common to it. The example endeavours to show its belonging and so make the set — birdsong — intelligible, but in so doing a strange movement occurs. The example makes an exposition of birdsong so as to reveal and define that to which it belongs, yet as it does this it steps outside and becomes excluded
from the very thing that it is showing it belongs. To show you that it is inside, the example steps outside. Indeed, to serve as an example the birdsong must be treated as real birdsong, otherwise it would not show what birdsong can be; however, as an example the birdsong cannot be given and heard as real birdsong; for, the very thing of birdsong only applies to the phenomenon of birdsong and not an example of it.
The moment an example of birdsong shows that it belongs to the very thing of birdsong it steps outside the ‘normal’ (I use the word cautiously) case of birdsong. And this is why the example is found in a paradigmatic position; that is to say, a position that shows itself beside. Paradigm simply means example — that which is placed next to something. Birdsong given as an example is not birdsong but still is birdsong; it is the very thing of birdsong, as it were, beside itself.
The example sets out to make something knowable and this knowability is neither completely indistinct from the thing nor another thing; it is the thing — birdsong — in the ‘very medium of its knowability’.1 Let’s be clear, with the example it is not the phenomenon that is being seen or heard but rather the phenomenon being seen by the means of that which shows and exposes its knowability and which can be called its eidos, its face. Using other words, we may call it ‘image’ or ‘idea’.2
An example sets out to ‘make knowable’ yet it doesn’t take as given that which it seeks to make knowable, which is what so often happens in the case of a hypothesis, which in Greek means ‘presupposition’. An hypothesis has an idea that is thought to explain something and make it intelligible, but what so often happens is that this idea presupposes this something and takes it as given.
It makes a hypothesis out of it and then endeavours to show that it has the ‘know how’ to explain it. But here the idea chases its own tail; for, that which it takes as given in reality — the something — is only a presupposition of the idea that would explain it.
In its movement of stepping outside, the example endeavours to show you the thing that it dwells beside. The example makes an exhibition of it and shows you the thing as such. You can say that it gives you an image or, indeed, an idea. But let’s not forget that this idea is an exposition. The idea doesn’t take the thing as given; rather, the idea — the example — shows you what it can be and, in so doing, gives opening to its knowability. With the idea that the example gives we do not find the thing presupposed; on the contrary, we find it exposed and open to knowability. Which is to say, we find it only in its coming into being known, and this is to find it as what it can be. With the example, the thing can appear as this but, as this example is not the only possible one, it need not appear as it does appear as such here — I can give you an example of what birdsong can be, but there are other possible examples.
The idea that an example gives is the thing beside itself exposed in its own coming-into-being-known; and shown as what it can be, it is the thing exposed to its possibilities. Or better still: shown as what it can be, the thing or phenomenon is found not established once and for all but, rather, amid its potentialities. In a word, the example is a potentia.
No one example can claim to be the only possible example, which means that any example of birdsong (or whatever) can be, at any time, substituted for another example. For sure, one example stands for all those other examples; yet, because this one example can be replaced by any of those other possible examples, it is also included among them. And what comes of this is that the place of an example goes towards all those other possible examples that can equally take up this place and be substituted for this particular example. In short, the place of an example is perpetually opening onto a space of substitution.
The place of an example is hardly a place at all... each being [example] occupies a particular place that is radically in question as it opens onto another space where each being is always already substituted for another being who is in an always other place.3 A particular example is here yet it is also elsewhere in a space beside itself, which is precisely the adjacent space that plays in the Greek word paradeigma.
The example has a paraexistence and with such an existence a place is never taken up, never occupied; indeed, the example never arrives at a place it can call its own. The place is immediately in the place of the other, which means there is only ever a coming to a place. And what transpires here is a space that is hard to represent: each place is vicarious, belongs to no one and is perfectly common. And what is more, all can move freely; for, in this space each example belongs to a community that comes about through the impossibility of exclusion.
The example is only the being of that which it is the example; but this being does not belong to it; it is perfectly common.4 The space ‘beside’ and in which the life of an example unfolds is empty of a place that can be owned, and I’ll risk saying this: what shows itself beside — the paradigm — opens into a space that is, in its vicariousness, a radically common and public space.
The example shows that which it is beside in its coming-into-be known. It shows birdsong as what it can be, and what occurs here is that birdsong is exposed to all its possibilities; indeed, the example to which we are listening, which is making audible what birdsong can be, is opening up a space of possibilities and potentialities. The example is opening into all those other possible examples (potentia) for which, at any time, it can be replaced. And as this opening is occurring, the thing or phenomenon that the example is showing is indeed being exposed to all its possibilities; yet, with all those possibilities there is no one possibility that is definitive of birdsong: no one example of what birdsong can be can is definitive of the identity of birdsong.
An example both exhibits and defines the thing of which it is an example and what transpires in this act is that the example also unravels it of identity; for, with the example, the thing is going towards all those other examples; indeed, it is ‘beside itself’ touching all its possibilities, no one of which is definitive of it. Which is to say, the example defines and constitutes it and, at the same time, undefines it and ‘shatters the pretence of absoluteness’.5
In its movement of both defining and unlimiting, the example produces a strange rhythm, but if our ears are open to hearing this rhythm what we will hear is that birdsong is made up solely of versions.
Something particular of a work of art has been exposed to the idea that it is an example; but now I’m wondering if the work itself can be considered to be an example in the sense that the poet Wallace Stevens writes ‘The sun is an example’?6
1 Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Thing Itself’, Potentialities: Collected Essays
in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, California: Standford University Press, 1999) p 33.
2 ‘It is as if the form, the knowability, the features of every entity were detached from it, not as another thing, but as an intentio, an angel, an image. The mode of being of this intentio is neither a simple existence nor a transcendence; it is a paraexistence that dwells beside the thing (in all the sense of the prefix “para-”), so close that is almost merges with it, giving it a halo. It is not the identity of
the thing and yet is nothing other than the thing. The existence of the idea is,
in other words, a paradigmatic existence: the manifesting beside itself of each thing (paradeigma).’ Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt , Theory out of Bounds, Vol 1 (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) p 101.
3 The words are from Thomas Carl Wall, Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot, and Agamben (Albany, New York: The State University of New York Press, 1999) p 127.
4 The words are from The Coming Community, p 29.
5 ‘...the idea is what which intervenes every time to shatter the pretense of absoluteness...’ The Coming Community p 76.
6 Wallace Stevens, ‘Description Without Place’, published in Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, eds. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson (New York: The Library of America, 1997). ‘The sun is an example. What it seems it is and in such seeming all things are.’ 1.931
Commissioned for Relay
Yve Lomax is a visual artist and writer. She is Senior Research Tutor for Fine Art at The Royal College of Art and Professor in Art Writing in the Visual Art Department at Goldsmiths College.
She is author of three books: Writing the Image: An Adventure with Art and Theory (2000); Sounding the Event: Escapades in Dialogue and Matters of Art, Nature and Time (2005) and Passionate Being: Language, Singularity and Perseverance (2010).
She is a commissioning editor for the Common Intellectual series published by the independent publishing company Copy Press (www.copypress.co.uk).