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Portraits, this book suggests, unlock the paradoxes of subjectivity. Nancy shows how the portrait, far from conveying a sitter’s self-sameness, is suspended between proximity and distance, likeness and strangeness, representation and presentation, the faithful and the forceful. A portrait can identify an individual, but it can also express a more complex double movement of approach and withdrawal.
Portrait comprises two extended essays in close conversation, written a decade apart, in which Nancy considers the range of aspirations articulated by the portrait. Accompanied by three dozen illustrations, it also includes a new preface written for the English-language edition and a substantial introduction by Jeffrey Librett, which situates the work within a range religious, aesthetic, and psychoanalytic accounts of the subject.
Portrait is grounded in a bold and searching engagement with the traditions out of which our thinking about the subject has emerged. It is also a playful series of readings that draws on a wide range of portraits: from carvings on ancient drinking vessels to recent experimental or parodic pieces in which sitters are rendered in the ‘media’ of their own blood, germ culture, or DNA.
Photos are ubiquitous today, but Nancy argues that this in no way makes thinking about the portrait an idle pursuit. On the contrary, the forms of appearing (and disappearing) that mark portraits—old and new—can serve to renew our exploration of the human figure today. At stake is what Nancy calls “the very possibility of our being present.”
This work received the French Voices Award for excellence in publication and translation. French Voices is a program created and funded by the French Embassy in the United States and FACE (French American Cultural Exchange).