In this guest column, Epstein offers “a new sign” that, he argues, resolves difficulties that have arisen in many theories and practices, including linguistics, semiotics, literary theory, poetics, aesthetics, ecology, ecophilology, eco-ethics, metaphysics, theology, psychology, and phenomenology. The new sign, a pair of quotation marks around a blank space, signfies the absence of any sign. Most generally, “ ” relates to the blank space that surrounds and underlies a text; by locating “ ” within the text, the margins are brought inside and can become the focus of attention. Not only the margins but also the material background of a text (the page or screen) can be brought forward and focused on through the transparency of the sign “ ”, in which case “ ” becomes a sign of itself. Consubstantial with its medium, therefore, this sign is both relative and universal: “ ” is the same everywhere, on every surface, in every language, and also in the arts. Epstein analyzes works by Rauschenberg, Malevich, Ilya Kabakov, and Vasilisk Gdenov in the visual arts, as well as music by John Cage, to demonstrate the usefulness of his new sign for aesthetics and art criticism. Each discipline, he argues, has its own nonspeakable conditions and assumptions that it needs to bring inside disciplinary frontiers. At the frontier of language, “ ” is both inside and outside, and therefore can express the nonspeakable condition of speakability. In concluding, Epstein suggests that the task of the avant-garde in theory today is to develop a “negative semiotics”: a semiotics of nonsigns, modeled on negative (apophatic) theology.
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Mikhail Epstein; “ ”. Common Knowledge 1 August 2010; 16 (3): 367–403. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-2010-001
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