Figures of Possibility
Aesthetic Experience, Mysticism, and the Play of the Senses
Niklaus Largier



This book originated with the observation that, against common characterizations, modern literary and philosophical engagements with earlier mystical traditions rarely foreground moments of belief, esoteric knowledge, or an extraordinary experience of the divine. Instead, the fascination driving these engagements—from the decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans to the composer John Cage and the artist Dan Flavin, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Georg Lukács and Robert Musil, from Wassily Kandinsky to Georges Bataille, Simone Weil, Paul Celan, Clarice Lispector, and Gilles Deleuze—responds to the style and the ways in which mystics made use of figures and practices of figuration. They did so, surprisingly, both in drawing attention to figures as rhetorical devices that form and transform our perception and in accentuating that the figural itself reflects the ungraspable character of the worlds of which we are a part. The mystical texts fascinate because they emphasize the fundamentally figural shapes of these worlds and their resistance to gestures of understanding. And they fascinate with the practices of figuration that they use to modulate our senses and the ways we inhabit these worlds. In doing so, the mystics draw attention away from the affiliation of figuration with metaphorical meaning and allegory. Instead, the mystics insist on the disruptive force of figures and their effects and on the invention of styles that speak the unspeakable. In their use of the example of the apostle Paul’s words, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me,” the stakes are made clear. According to the interpretation of this exemplary point of reference in the Christian mystical tradition and its emphasis on figure and form, the proposition is not to be taken as metaphor, as the fulfillment of a norm, or as a subjective commitment to imitation. Instead, it is understood in the sense that, through a radical dispossession, the divine cosmopoetic “matrix” (Jacob Böhme) in its concrete and dramatic incarnation has literally turned into the form of Paul’s life.

I look at this not in terms of “belief” or of “religion” but of a radically negative, iconoclastic anthropology and theology, which foregrounds the convergence of figure, sensation, and imagination. Building on Paul’s emphasis on dispossession and the “foolishness” of love, this has been recast, more recently, in Clarice Lispector’s Passion according to G. H., where the loss of self to the “spasmic moments of the world” speaks through the mirroring eyes of a dying cockroach. I argue that in such concrete, deeply material, and often expansive dramatizations of the role of the figural and its relation to the production of meaning, these mystical moments resonate with what modernity calls aesthetic experience and experimentation. They do so in privileging the figural against the hermeneutic, the representational, and the figurative that Gilles Deleuze, to take another example, reaching back to Paul Cézanne, has portrayed in his book on Francis Bacon.

To be sure, all the so-called mystical texts also produce rich archives of meaning, of scriptural hermeneutics, and of allegorical reading. They insist at each stage, however, on the fact that grace, freedom, beauty, and ecstatic absorption are not experienced through the mediation of a self in the sphere of normative orders of knowledge or allegory. As the texts show, rather than argue, these moments come about in a dramatic exposure to and a participation in the formative figures that underlie, precede, bracket, and complicate all production of meaning. Paradoxically, in this view, the figural is not opposed to the literal. Instead, it is the (hyper-)literal in its expressivity and multiplicity, perceived in the form of what I call a figural realism or a radical figuralism that moves at the limits of discourse. Thus, the mystics also challenge established modes of distinguishing the real and the imaginary, the literal and the symbolic, the material and the spiritual, the self and the other. In fact, in their notion and use of figuration the mystics—and I count Clarice Lispector drawing attention to the abject beauty of the eyes of the cockroach among them—foreground the concretely particular in its changing, often dissonant forms and effects, insisting on the force it carries and on its resistance to modes of abstraction and understanding. The seventeenth-century cobbler Jacob Böhme, to whom I return in Chapter 6, explicitly draws attention to this. Building on the medieval traditions I discuss in Chapters 3 to 5—and inspiring Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, William Blake, and Friedrich Schelling with his writings—Böhme asks his readers to return to the figural, to the world of concrete forms in their emergence and in their effects as they move through us and as they resist capture in finite modes of being, understanding, and knowing. Instead, the emergence of figures and the metamorphoses of forms that unfold through and beyond us are, in his eyes, the place of a participation in the material and spiritual “imagination” that our worlds in their concrete expression happen to be. Partaking sensually, affectively, and intellectually, not representing or understanding in terms of meaning, knowledge, or subjective experience, is at the core of his thinking and of a practice of renunciation that makes the distinction of materialism and idealism obsolete.

What figuration draws attention to is the fact that everything, each sensation, each affect, and each thought, can be seen as not a thing or a moment of representation but a concrete instance of participation, an expression in which we partake underneath the determined modes of meaning, understanding, or being, thus abandoning those very determinations and rejoining, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “the passing flux of immediate things.”1 The mystics, radical formalists in this regard, reach down into the dark abyss of figural expression, attending to it, drawing on it, mobilizing it in its dissonances and consonances, abandoning themselves to it, and playing with it against the attachments that make up our worlds. Looking at it from a different angle, they can be seen as foregrounding both the exposure to and the absorption into forms and effects that run up against the hermeneutic and metaphysical grasp of all knowledge—without being able to leave it behind entirely. In rearticulating this grasp in ever-richer variations of sublime allegorization and wild conceptualization, in engaging its sedimentations critically only to abandon them in the return to forms and figures, they dramatize perception and the production of meaning and create different spaces of living.

It is this emphasis on the figural that I take as the starting point in this book, insisting on the dramatic tension it establishes in relation to understanding and abstraction, hermeneutics and metaphysics—and foregrounding the realms of sensual, affective, and intellectual play this dramatization creates. The chapters that follow explore this provocative notion of the figural in mystical texts and in the literary and philosophical engagements with them. They examine the ways in which figures—sounds and words, images and things as they are used and perceived in what we often call spiritual exercises—have been taken as the rhetorical devices that support the range of possibilities and the styles of partaking, as well as sensual, aesthetic, and ethical transformations. Along these lines, practices of figuration relentlessly reinvent and reconfigure the realms of sensation, affect, imagination, and thought. In reconstructing the genealogy of these practices, I argue—against the assumption that mysticism necessarily implies a notion of “immediate experience,” “pure presence,” or “subjective feeling”—that “figure” and “figuration” must be seen as key terms. They allow us to think through and with the rhetoric of the mystics, their resonances in modern thought and literature, and their significance for a specific understanding of possibility in medieval and modernist contexts—and, most recently, in critical race theory and poetry with the work of Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten, and J. Kameron Carter.

This notion of figure, I argue throughout the book, allows us to conceive of possibility in a different way. It is to be seen as a form of virtuality that permeates the “real” in the very experience of figural effects and in the practices of figuration that undo seemingly stable, gendered, racialized, and other normative orders. Thus, figural practices challenge and suspend perspectives that focus on the possible in ontological or epistemological terms, locating it in determined forms of being or knowing.

The Austrian modernist writer Robert Musil—to whom I return in Chapter 7—draws attention to this notion of figure and figuration when he adopts rhetorical elements from a medieval mystical tradition in his novel The Man without Qualities. In a famous passage he introduces the protagonist as a “man without qualities,” an expression he borrows from the medieval philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart. Shortly thereafter, he talks of the protagonist, still without a name, as a person with a “sense of possibility.” Strikingly, Musil deploys a notion of possibility that does not derive from an understanding of possibilities as potentialities (an apple seed that will turn into a tree), as virtual realities (that supplement and transform the real), or as forms of utopian or messianic reconciliation. Instead, he sees possibilities—in conversation with mystical texts and with the scientific interest in perception around 1900—as emerging from a “sense” that is open to the slight, even slightest, modifications of sedimented orders of perception. In his writings, both literary and essayistic, Musil points to the fact that such modifications emerge in interactions with figures that have effects on the malleable shape of ourselves and our worlds. According to him, this malleable shape of humans—he speaks of “human formlessness” and of the plasticity of man2—comes into view in encounters with what will be called “figures” in this book. To put it bluntly, according to Musil, in our encounters with the world we do not just see and feel things in either an immediate or a mediated way; instead, the things and environments come to us as figures and textures of figures, as shapes that assert themselves in acting on us, and as artifacts that materially embody our history—something that the German word Wirklichkeit, derived from wirken, “to be effective,” reflects in its opposition to the ontological and epistemological frame that the term “reality” suggests. In acting as figures, these textures and shapes at first neither mean nor mediate anything that could be determined. Instead, Musil’s “man without qualities” is the one who, in his or her lack of determining qualities, has a “sense” for the figural encounters—and for the sphere of possibilities they make emerge before they turn into sedimented orders of signification and meaning.

According to Musil, human shapes and their changes can be seen—and studied in literature, particularly in the essay and the novel—as a result of figural effects and practices of figuration that give a specific life, a specific historical form to the soul as it partakes in the world. What Musil draws attention to—also in his engagement with contemporary science, psychology, and philosophy—is the observation that a film, a house we see, a handshake, the atmospheric conditions we enter, always function not just as a neutral environment but as a figural setting, a form that acts on us, that we can explore in its effects, and that we can play with in ways of attending to it. Most important, his observations suggest that the figural effects, styles of encounter, and affordances modulate and animate our senses, our affects, and, more generally, our perception in ways that precede our understanding and our conceptual grasp of a world.

Figures and figural arrangements—a row of houses, a car accident, a view along a street, a first touch of two hands—do not just communicate some feeling or meaning that can be known. They do not just create an atmosphere that can be felt and understood. Instead, figures produce effects and differential intensities that precede and resist all mimetic assimilation in sensation, affect, imagination, and thought. Figure refers to what strikes us and makes us part of it. Mimetic assimilation, however, refers to the series of similes, analogies, and concepts that respond to this moment of striking. Think of the sound of a bird. It strikes us as we are sitting there, disrupting our world and making us part of something else. Only then it takes shape as a “song” in sensual, affective, and cognitive forms, each of them at first nothing else than a mode of resemblance that, in fitting a pattern or Gestalt, structures our recognition: a melodic sound, a pleasant feeling, a name for a bird and for the feeling that arises. These are what I call mimetic assimilations in the deployment of a world of meaning. Thus, to take an example from Musil’s novel, the handshake in a scene where Ulrich, the “man without qualities,” meets his cousin Diotima for the first time triggers a broad range of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Indeed, the handshake quickly translates into the imaginary world of comparisons and similes that allow him and the narrator to picture and understand movements and constellations of sensations, affects, and thoughts that follow. Taken in itself, however, the figure and its effect, the moments of differential intensity, precede and underlie the production of similes, evoking the realization that the assimilation in sensation, affect, and meaning can never exhaust it. This is what makes the handshake not only a meaningful thing or an event but also a figure that, in acting on Ulrich, puts the entire world and its history in a state of both absorption and suspension: absorption in the figural effects that simultaneously express and disrupt a world, suspension in the possibilities of assimilation that come to nest in the historically shaped textures of it. Similarly, Marcel Proust writes of the effects of a “good book.” It is, he insists, “something special, something unforeseeable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation . . . would not enable” us “to discover.”3

Beyond the series of assimilations, that is, the chains of similitude and comparison they unlock, figures produce moments of disruption, which, in their force, are nothing else than the very act, the sheer fact of participation in their effects. Figures do not evoke only chains of similes and analogies; forms of assimilation and understanding; or the exploration of possible feelings, sensations, and thought. Underneath all this, the figural effects take possession and give shape to what we are before we know or guess what they might mean, breaking with the real and turning the seemingly determined historical moment into an open space of possibility. In disrupting the textures of meaning, their movements break with the known and the knowable orders of the world and open the perspective that—in Musil’s simple words, which are also the words of the “fools” who speak up against the normative orders—it might all be otherwise or “just as well.”4

Musil’s “sense of possibility” is the sense that lets itself be moved by this very disruption. It is the sense that sits on the threshold of the disruption by a figural effect and that unlocks a pull into a world of similes, comparisons, and analogies, which then provide us with meaning. At the same time, it is the sense that, in the recognition that neither the similes nor the conceptual abstractions ever fully grasp the figure, pulls us back into the figural realm and opens a path into a world of endless experimentation. This threshold is the space from which possibilities, according to Musil, emerge.

Similes, analogies, and concepts tend to eclipse the figures and their effects. The former give shape to the worlds we inhabit, worlds woven tightly from and within them. However, this process never fully succeeds, since the very weave of similes and concepts is always being undone by the figural effects. Thus, in his first exploration of what “a man” with the “sense of possibility” is, Musil leaves us with nothing else than a series of comparisons that leads to the conclusion that such “possibilists are said to inhabit a more delicate medium, a hazy medium of mist, fantasy, daydreams, and the subjunctive mood.” A person with this sense, he writes, “wants the forest, as it were, and the others the trees, and forest is hard to define, while trees represent so many cords of wood of definable quality.”5

This and similar passages in Musil’s novel—and in his thoughts about the form of the essay—inspire the way in which I use the term “figure” here, following his interest in perception and its modifications, and in the tension between the figural effects and mimetic assimilation. Many of the scenes and chapters in The Man without Qualities form experimental arrangements that study the effects of figures and figural constellations and the movements of affect, sensation, imagination, and thought they produce. While the very notion of figure is indeed abstract, the term refers in each instance to something that is concrete. In all his writings Musil draws attention to the concreteness of figural moments, their shaping force, their assimilative and disrupting effects on the life of the soul. It is the concrete thing, the concrete and inconspicuous event, the figural constellation that affects and moves and that only then turns into a series of similes, an object of meaning, an allegory, and a thought. Thus, inspired by my reading of Musil, I use the notion of figure as a name for things and moments in their concreteness as they emerge in their formative ways. I use it not in view of a “hidden meaning” but as referring to the forceful moments that give shape to perception and that enter into a tension with the worlds of signification. Figure refers, to say it simply, to the forms in movement that resist all discourse and that shape us as they shape everything else.

The figural stands on a threshold. It constitutes the ground of all assimilation in sensation, affect, and imagination and the basis of all conceptual abstraction; however, it is not a sphere of first or noumenal experience or a sphere of excessive presence but nothing else than a moment of disruption in which we participate in striking effects. On this threshold figures always affirm a world and disrupt it. They make possibilities emerge in the textures of the real when they draw our attention to the concrete moments and to the fact that in their formative function these moments break with the determined order of meaning and make us part of another world. In this, they open a tension between figure and simile, between partaking and assimilation, that will be at the core of this book.

No doubt, figures always produce series of moments of sensual and affective assimilation and mimetic repetition—all the resonances and affective traces that fill our imagination and become part of an expansive phenomenology of ourselves. The handshake I just mentioned, at the center of one of the key encounters in Musil’s The Man without Qualities, produces a new world full of sensual, affective, and cognitive possibilities. However, none of these possibilities are immediately known or meaningful; even if a “meaning” of the handshake will be determined at some point in the future, this does not subsist in its meaningless force in the moment when it is introduced. The very assimilation produced by the handshake, the sphere of sensual and affective attunement, the resonances, and the surplus of possible meanings it evokes break open the known texture of the world. This break brings to our attention that—beyond the modes of assimilation—the very effect of the figure, the participation it draws us into, is never exhausted. It always makes us partake in a world we do not understand, in a world that strikes, resists, and reverberates.

Erich Auerbach’s essay “Figura,” written during his exile in Istanbul, forms a surprising corollary to this notion of figuration. As I argue in Chapter 2, Auerbach develops his thoughts in correspondence with his earlier work and his reading of Dante, particularly his interest in the moments of what he perceives as the “strikingly concrete” in Dante’s poetry.6 In Auerbach’s return to the use of figura in classical rhetoric, in Lucretius, and in the theology of the church fathers he foregrounds the “plastic” aspect of figures. He emphasizes, like Musil, the fact that figures shape perception before we enter the realm of meaning, spiritualizing interpretation, and allegorical reading. Before we ask questions about meaning and signification, figures strike us and shape our perception. They do so, according to Auerbach’s reading of the early Christian theologian Tertullian, in the form of an “energetic realism,” drawing us, once again, into the threshold underneath the assimilation that occurs in analogical imagination and affect and before all acts of abstraction. As Auerbach argues in his reading of classical authors, rhetorical treatises, and early Christian theology, figura always establishes a tension within our “tendencies” to let the realm of meaning take over, to allegorize, or to conceptualize. Against these tendencies, the figural marks a point of resistance where we are “struck,” where constellations between such moments of being “struck” emerge, and where experience opens toward the strikingly concrete and its asymmetry before it is captured in meaning and thought. It is an asymmetry that does not “mean” or refer to anything or disclose some hidden immediacy or presence. “Asymmetry,” when I use the term here, names the fact that the figural, seen as what has a striking effect on us, can never be fully absorbed into assimilation. In drawing attention to the concrete, it claims a fullness that can be acknowledged only in gestures of disassimilation, dispossession, and disaffiliation. The figural is the particular and concrete that strike us and that cannot be known—not because of a limit on the parts of the faculties of perception and thought, though, but because of the excessive force that asserts itself in the figure itself.

Thus, in both Musil’s and Auerbach’s understanding of figure, its disrupting and shaping effect produces a moment of suspense that we call possibility, the indeterminacy that is there in its asymmetrical fullness, the indeterminacy of the concrete that has not yet been grasped in forms of meanings or concepts. It is this observation that brings Auerbach’s notion of figure and its emphasis on the concrete in conversation not only with Musil’s experimental modernism but also with a long tradition of medieval and early modern mystical thought. While I focus on some aspects of the history of Christian mysticism in this book, similar observations could probably be made—and have been made—about other mystical traditions that address the challenges of the imposition of meaning. They appear in all forms of radical iconoclasm, negative theology, and the choice of silence. Faced with the ungraspable and unnamable divine, the medieval Christian mystical traditions, which form the object of Chapters 3 and 4 of this book, explicitly raise the question of the function of practices of figuration in light of the unsayable, of the undoing of language, and of images. In many instances, the mystical texts thematize figures and figuration not in terms of their allegorical meaning and conceptual function, not in their role of representing the divine symbolically, but in their effective force, which underlies—in the contemplative practices that we call mystical—exercises of shaping sensation, affects, and cognition. They ascribe this force of the figural not only to the symbolic orders that mediate between the creature and the divine but also to each moment in the hierarchical design of such orders. Comparable in this gesture to the role of figure in Auerbach and Musil, manuals, theories, and narratives of mystical practice use figures and figuration, often words and images they employ in prayer and contemplation, as devices that subvert discursive and cognitive orders—Musil’s “sense of reality”7—break with them from within in concrete and striking experience, and produce experimental settings for the possibilities of an endless reweaving of perception. In short, through the undoing of sedimented old ways of seeing and the production of new figural arrangements, the world is thus made to appear and to be seen otherwise.

In focusing on the rich archive of medieval contemplative practices that I lay out in Chapters 3 and 4, I ask the reader to follow into this rather unfamiliar territory of texts that have so often exercised a fascinating force on modern readers, provoking returns to these traditions of contemplative practice from Romanticism to recent forms of new materialist thought and critical race theory. What I foreground in my presentation of the texts, however, is not something that can be cast in terms of “religious experience” or a different Weltbild, be it Romantic, idealist, or materialist. Instead, it is the investment of this medieval archive of texts in the very practices of figuration and in addressing questions of how to conceive of possibilities to reweave the perception of the world and the ways of inhabiting it. Thus, I do not identify mystical traditions in terms of supposed claims for an immediate experience of the world, of beauty, or of the divine but of their character as exercises of figuration that problematize all orders of perception and naming. In doing so, I foreground the reduction to the figural—in traditional terms, ascetic theology—over and against the amplification of experience in models of strategic layering of perception, affect, and thought—the symbolic theology, which I will hopefully treat in another volume on wonder and praise.

As I argue throughout this book, our attempt to conceptualize contemplative practices and their reliance on figuration in terms of an opposition between transcendence and immanence, or the infinite and finitude, is both unavoidable and wrong. What I will show is that the moments of drawing attention to figures and a specific use of and experimentation with language and media make such conceptual distinctions collapse. While the reading and contemplation of the Holy Scriptures, and the practices of prayer that build on these readings, seem to establish separate orders of this world and another world, of the human and the divine, they actually return to variations on the theme of the fullness of the worlds in which humans partake. In the notion of partaking the distinction between here and there, earth and heaven, collapses not in an imagined unity or a notion of immanence but in the irreducibly concrete creaturely multiplicity that the figures evoke.

In this collapse—in the eyes of medieval mystics the convergence of the particular and the divine—figural concreteness often turns into what modernity since the eighteenth century calls aesthetic experience. While this might, once again, look like the introduction of a perspective of transcendence in a “quasi-religious” form of aesthetic pleasure from the point of view of post-Enlightenment discursive orders, it is in fact the opposite. I thus speak, instead of transcendence, of a moment of irreducible marginality and asymmetry that the figures produce. The notion of immanence cannot do justice to this moment either. What the focus on figuration asks for, once we acknowledge the threshold position of the figural, is not a “belief” in the existence of another realm, the transcendence of the divine, the disinterested pleasure of beauty in a judgment, or of either an experiential or conceptual truth. Nor can the asymmetry of the figural—its disruptive force that underlies and resists all mimetic assimilation and conceptual grasp—be translated into ideals of humanity, compassion, tolerance, solidarity, identification, healing, otherness, difference, and understanding, that is, of a projected and imposed erasure of the concrete in a well-meaning spirit of sameness. Instead, the asymmetry, the recognition, or maybe better, the acknowledgment of the failure of meaning and concept in the disruptive encounter with the figural effects of worlds and words has no other place and time than the practice where the figure finds the space to resist and where it thus challenges the order of nature and culture alike. In the concreteness of the figure, the finite is thus realized while it makes all forms of assimilation collapse, giving way to the infinite.

It is in this acknowledgment of the asymmetry of the figural, too, that we grasp an ethical moment. To be sure, there is nothing normative in figural disruption, in terms of either an ethical “good,” aesthetic “beauty,” or ideal “humanity.” Instead, the very practice of the acknowledgment of the figure is the place of the asymmetry, the articulation of the suppressed concrete that cannot be deployed in abstracted positions. It lets the space at the margins of our worlds open toward suspended possibilities in gestures of affirmation: the magnanimity of the reader in the perception of the strikingly concrete in Auerbach’s idea of a specific will to interpretation; the contemplative mode of looking at a hill, cows, and trees in Musil’s novel; the stone and the wood of the pulpit that, seen as figures, make all sermons superfluous according to Meister Eckhart; or the intervention of the slave songs at the beginning of his essays in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. All these instances articulate the utter asymmetry of the figural, the marginal and disrupting position of the absorption into the concrete, and the ethical shape of submission that perception takes in the acknowledgment of the figure and the participation in its effects, devoid of all generalizations. I thus speak of acknowledgment rather than recognition. While the latter emphasizes a cognitive aspect, the former affirms an existential and temporal act, a renunciation and reformation of the will that undermine the stability of knowing subjects. In theological terms, marking the asymmetry of figural effects as supernatural gifts, we might speak of a transition from an order of nature to an order of grace here; in philosophical terms, marking the limits of knowledge, of the excess of the given in its concreteness. In both instances, we encounter the constitutive threshold again: Figure stands for the concretely real, always marginal moment that underlies and simultaneously resists mimetic assimilation and conceptual abstraction, that is, the tools of imposition and power. With some of the mystics we might thus affirm that, while it can be everything, this marginal moment is nothing—and thus, thinking with Musil, the mystics will always be “immoralists” in the eyes of normative positions.

Following a line of thought that has been deployed in Christian theologies and in the mysticism of late antiquity and the Middle Ages in terms of theosis, theopoiesis, and divinization, I am referring to notions of participation or partaking to characterize the specific mode of the acknowledgment of the figural. At its core lies a transition from mimetic assimilation in sensation, affect, imagination, and conceptual thought to modes of participation that always have a practical shape. The figural, thought of in this way, is the creaturely world as it resists both mimetic assimilation and conceptual grasp, calling thus for a different and always new form of acknowledgment beyond the trajectories of sameness and otherness. It is the world without content and determination that disrupts speech from within and makes us part of it.

This notion of figure and figuration as partaking, the multiple tensions and suspensions figuration produces, and the possibilities it opens are the matter of this book. It operates on three levels that often cannot be separated. “Figure” is a term that applies to the experience of perception in its movement from the striking and disruptive moment through forms of assimilation in sensation and affect, “before” it enters the sphere of meaning and conceptualization. “Figure” is a term that enables us to think of a continuity between perception, the material world in its extension, and the media that modify the shapes and movements of perception. In this sense, as shown in the texts of the mystics, figures support practices of expansion, intermingling, dramatization, and absorption in a wide range of delicate and excessive forms of pleasure and terror, reminiscence and anticipation. “Figure” is, finally, also a term that allows us to conceive of practices of experimentation with the shapes of perception, the modes of participation, and of exposure to the world that—maybe in the mode of a speculative surrealism and supernaturalism—produce possibilities in a state of suspense, undermine the spheres of meaning and concept, and displace what Musil calls the “sense of reality.”

These possibilities are neither within the real nor utterly opposed to it. They also do not form a sphere of a unique or different experience. Instead, they are everywhere. The notion of figuration allows us—in what we might call a reductio ad figuram—to see possibilities as critical modifications of sedimented forms of knowledge, habits, and meaning, in other words, of the ontological and epistemological orders that shape and colonize worlds and peoples. These modifications, not channeled primarily through the deployment of discursive formats, are deviations and convulsions that nest within the worlds and the words whenever we return from the spheres of assimilation, meaning, and concept to the resistance and asymmetry of figures. In Chapters 3 and 4 I try to show the richness of medieval engagements with this use of figures, following the variations through the production of mystical tropes, first in their exercises of reweaving perception, then in their forms of exemplary imitation. Moving through this archive of texts allows us to see how these tropes, in returning to the most provocative one, the ungraspable divine, address the challenges of figuration and establish a range of paradigmatic forms of sensual, affective, and conceptual assimilation—however, undermining these paradigms time and again in their return to the threshold function of the figural. Most provocatively, they present us with multiple ways of designing practices and reinventing the circulation of sensation, affect, and thought that only the close reading of this rich archive can offer.

As I show based on these readings, this never means that we must end with a stable opposition between the figural and the worlds of assimilation, meaning, and concept. “Nesting,” in my use of the term, refers to the fact that figuration inhabits and undergirds all sensation, imagination, and production of meaning and that what the practices of figuration ask for is the acknowledgment not of its opposition to it but, again, of the very asymmetry that is at stake here. This happens also in the movements of turning moments of meaning and conceptualization against themselves, making them into figures where we first think of them as signs. This, I argue here, has been at the core of a practice of contemplation and prayer in mystical traditions often characterized as the marginal, embodied, experiential, and somewhat subversive side of the history of medieval Christianity and dogmatic belief. As noted earlier, this is also one aspect that has made mysticism an object of fascination and engagement throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In drawing attention to the figural and the fact that it can never be fully assimilated, however, my focus is on more than a set of practices that emphasize experience instead of dogma, belief, and conceptual grasp. As I argue, the notion of the figural forces us to think along a perspective of the concrete and creaturely that, in its irreducible asymmetry, like the divine and indeed mirroring it, can never be owned or understood. Thus, I use figure here not only as a concept but also as a heuristic tool, often just an image, that allows delineation of a sphere where the “soul”—to use this seemingly archaic term that comprehends all aspects of the life of all things—is intimately woven into the textures of the world and entirely part of it, denaturalizing it and opening it to the “otherwise.” It is this notion of figure—and the detours through Musil and Auerbach—that has helped me understand some of the fundamental stakes of the mystical theologies I have been working on. And it is the observation that figure cannot be conceived of without the multiple paradigms of assimilation that has made me understand that we always must return to this archive of texts and their history to grasp the very tensions that are at stake.

This book comprises eight parts. I start with an introductory meditation on the notion of figure in Chapter 1, focusing on a few characteristic moments where the disruptive force of figures and the outline of a radical figuralism come into view. In Chapter 2 I turn to a discussion of Erich Auerbach’s attention to the concrete, his work on figura, and his engagement with the understanding of history as a continuous modification of our minds that he finds in the thought of Giambattista Vico. This is the background for the exploration of the role of practices of figuration in forms of reweaving perception and the imitation of examples at stake in medieval theories and practices of prayer, contemplation, and aesthetic experience in Chapters 3 and 4. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 focus on questions of how such practices have been framed and controlled between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries; how they have been recast in early modern times; and how they reemerged in some forms of modernist thought and literature. In Chapter 8, the book concludes with the return to a figure that crosses the centuries, the holy fool, in my eyes the very figura of figuration as an agent of intervention. Not surprisingly, it is this image of the “fool” that returns also in Musil’s text when he speaks of the “man without qualities.”

In drawing attention to the practices of figuration, medieval Christian texts on prayer and the experience of the divine play a key role in this book. As I argue, these texts are, above all, invested in practices of shaping and reshaping sensation, emotions, and thought. At the center of this we encounter not an expression of belief, or a cognitive act of distinction between the human and the divine, or even a theory of analogy, but an investment in practices that transform and transfigure the ways of perception and of inhabiting the world. Thus, building on essays I have published in earlier versions, Chapters 3 and 4 focus on traditions of spiritual exercises that are meant to produce this transformation. Many of these practices foreground a tension between figuration, forms of assimilation, and hermeneutics, arguing for a critical focus that privileges the plastic side of perception against the imposition of meaning. At the same time, they establish and explore the tensions between the figure and the forms of assimilation that precede all hermeneutics and the empire of meaning. In all instances, we are asked to move from the meaning of a text, usually a text from the Scriptures, to an exemplary moment of mimetic assimilation—scenes from the lives of saints, for example—and to the figural threshold that can be grasped fully neither in understanding nor in the exemplary imitation itself.

In producing this movement and in rearticulating a radical negative theology, figures mark a point of suspension and dispossession where the world takes shape “otherwise.” Particular moments play a role in this production of suspension and inform the contemplative practices that are at the center of my study. My main interest in identifying these moments along a line that leads from late antiquity to modern times lies neither with the characterization of specific authors nor of a conceptual framework or a definition of “mystical thought” or a universal “mystical experience” but with specific techniques, movements, and procedures that are foregrounded in the contemplative practices around the relations between figure and mimesis; the focus on reinventing sensation; the gestures of prayer; aspects of dramatization and exemplarity; visualization and imagination; the topics of the abject and disfiguration; enumeration and meditation; surrender, experiment, rapture, and delay. In focusing on these aspects of contemplative practice and their theological implications, I identify not a shared and thus idealized mystical experience or a form of belief but specific axes around which medieval contemplative practices and exercises are organized. As I show, in each instance and along each of these axes, the tension between the figural and the forms of assimilation is being evoked and complicated in a phenomenology of rhetorical effects.

In each instance the asymmetry of the figure is also being evoked in these practices that long for an experience of the world in light of the divine, beauty, and love. Articulated in moments of unity or utter ecstatic absorption, none of these forms of experience can ever be grasped or known. They give a name, however, to the asymmetrical character of the figural, the challenge of a differential intensity that disrupts the world, that suspends ontology, and that emerges in the concrete, thus negating all abstraction and all powers of subjection. In theological terms, once again, we are asked to think here of the gift of grace and of transfiguration or metamorphosis; in philosophical terms, of the excess of the concrete; in rhetorical terms, of the absorption into the figure on the thresholds of assimilation. The medieval texts that I present in Chapters 3 and 4 are, in each instance, variations on the exercises that engage these aspects of the practice of figuration.

In Chapters 5, 6, and 7—not following a strict chronological path—I identify moments and instances where these practices of participation, assimilation, and transfiguration have been discussed and reframed: first from the late Middle Ages to the Baroque, then in some of the modern voices that engage the positions that are at stake here. As I show, the discussions around the adoption of mystical tropes repeatedly answer to specific historical conditions, and they articulate new forms of conceiving of the figural challenge. Thus, among others, Jacob Böhme’s cosmopoetics, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten’s and Johann Gottfried Herder’s notion of aesthetic experience, Joris-Karl Huysmans’s space of decadent pleasure, Robert Musil’s sense of possibility, Musil’s and Georg Lukács’s thoughts about the form of the essay, and Béla Balázs’s notion of a new visibility of the world in silent film come into view. What also come into view are the multiple ways of framing and controlling the extravagance of figural thought and the enthusiasm it engenders, and, finally, in Chapter 8, the very foolishness that characterizes the radical abandonment to the power of figures and the ethics of asymmetry it entails—including the foolishness of this very book. It establishes, as will become clearer, a strong opposition between figurality and hermeneutic engagement only to acknowledge that hermeneutics, the arts of reading and interpretation that connect flesh, history, and spirit, are always at stake here and that the figural emerges where hermeneutic engagements realize their own finite limit position, abandoning themselves to practices of assimilation at first, to the absorbing asymmetry of the figural worlds of possibilities at last.

While I concede that specific historical shifts could be considered here, I reflect on these only in oblique ways. Thus, I refer not to historical lines of continuity or reception. Instead, after laying out what I see as a basic notion of figure and a history of medieval types of engagement with the figural in Chapters 1 to 4, in Chapter 5 I focus on a series of moments of framing the figural practices and the tensions they articulate in transitions from medieval to modern times. I argue that in the late Middle Ages and in the early modern era we move from a complex phenomenology of rhetorical effects, meant to contain practices of figuration in medieval contexts of spiritual exercises, to a framework of hermeneutic authorization and a control of “free spirits”; to a semiotics of the demonic and divine and a neutralization of inspired speech in Luther’s critique of figural practices; and an entirely naturalized clarification of rational principles of discernment in Kant’s elaborations of the conditions of the possibility of knowledge and his critique of “enthusiasm.”

However, in Chapter 6 I draw attention to three moments of a countercurrent to these frames of control, the “monadological transcription” of the figural in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that resists some aspects of this very framing. I argue that in Böhme’s emphasis on the cosmopoetic imagination, in his theory of the signature of things, as well as in Baumgarten’s and Herder’s notion of aesthetic experience, particularly in the emphasis on the “ground of the soul” and on “touch,” we encounter a new monadological understanding of the figural. It takes the figure as monad, building on the idea that the entire world is folded into each moment of concrete encounter and that perception unfolds in specific forms of partaking that rearticulate the tensions between figure, assimilation, and understanding. I present the early modern notion of the emblem as the characteristic form of expression of this very tension in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And I argue that in the constellation of an abstract notion, the figural image, and the expository language of assimilation—that is, the emblem in its exemplary shape—the figural, the assimilative, and the conceptual are held in a state of suspension. The form of the emblem—opposed to all subordination to metaphysical and to naturalizing conditions of possibility of knowledge—has kept its fascinating allure, returning at moments that we call Romantic, decadent, or expressionist in their diverse shapes.

Chapter 7 follows this line of inquiry further, focusing on four instances where modernism and its precursors rearticulate these tensions—my eclectic selection of these moments largely ignores the Romantic movements, which, in their attempts to think figuration anew in correlation with both an individual and a cosmopoetic imagination, would merit a separate book that moves from what I am tempted to call the reduction to the figural to the dreams of a sublime and delirious symbolic amplification. With Huysmans we turn in Chapter 7 to the so-called decadent pleasure “against nature”; with Georges Bataille to mysticism at the “limits of the possible”; with Musil and Lukács to the form of the essay, its return to mystical tropes, and its figural investment in the play of possibility on the thresholds of figure, simile, and concept; with Balázs, finally, to the figural gestures of silent film and the new visibility of the world.

In these modern instances, I am tempted to speak of transformations of the emblematic tension. What the Baroque emblem foregrounds as an irreducible constellation of concept, figure, and assimilation is now more straightforwardly and explicitly conceived of in terms of experiments: the experiment with rhetorical devices and moments of intensity in Huysmans; the limit function of the erotic excess and the mystical in Bataille; the art of the essay in Lukács and Musil; and the new practice of seeing in Bálazs. In each instance, a set of gestures enacts the experimental character of addressing the correlations of figures, thoughts, and the play of sensation and affect. In each instance, the notion of possibility is correlated with a set of expressive gestures anchored in what has been called spiritual exercises since late antiquity, creating thus, in these moments of radical modernity, a deep resonance between modernist concerns and medieval practices of prayer and contemplation.

These gestures, as I acknowledge in Chapter 8 in dialogue with more recent critical interventions by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, are indeed gestures of a foolish exercise that transfigures the real into a place of the possible beyond its subordination to the imposition of discourse and naturalizing perspectives. It is a foolish expression of dispossession that delves into the space of possibility beyond and within the world as we know it—and that, in the best of all cases, attempts to give back to the concrete all its divine powers.

As I mentioned earlier, parts of Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 7 have been published previously in different versions. However, while preserving the richness and detail of the medieval and early modern textual archive most modern readers might not be familiar with, I have structured the presentation and analysis of these materials here along new lines. The picture of contemplative techniques that emerges is not set up in terms of particular forms of experience, theories, authors, or historical paradigm shifts but practices that are organized around mystical tropes and, more important, the specific stakes that are foregrounded in particular moments and texts. Thus, the chapters trace different aspects of the engagement with figure and figuration, foregrounding a shared interest in exploring a basic tension: the disrupting force of the figure in its concreteness, the divine contemplative depth and terror, the experimental play with it, and the forms of assimilation that the texts explore. In this tension a “sense of possibility” emerges as a sense of the concrete that creates a conversation between medieval and modernist attempts to reweave the forms of perception and of partaking beyond all naturalist temptations.


1. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press, 1967), 191.

2. Robert Musil, “Der deutsche Mensch als Symptom,“in Gesammelte Werke in neun Bänden, ed. Adolf Frisé (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1978), 8:1368, 1374 (my trans.). English translation: “The German as Symptom,” in Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, ed. and trans. Burton Pike and David S. Luft (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 157, 163.

3. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 2: Within a Budding Grove, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, rev. D. J. Enright (New York: Modern Library, 1992), 318.

4. Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins (New York: Knopf, 1995), 11.

5. Musil, The Man without Qualities, 11–12.

6. Erich Auerbach, Dante als Dichter der irdischen Welt, ed. Kurt Flasch (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2001), 21–22 (my trans.)

7. Musil, The Man without Qualities, 10.