A figure is an intelligible, spatio-temporal unit.

Intelligible – In the best case, a figure offers a challenge to thought. It can be more than what I know; yet, it does not break my epistemic horizon. It is a nascent epistemic intensity ready to work/working already.

Spatio-temporal – A radicalisation of distance beyond what is present. A figure exists in anything that provides for distance. In fact, figures might always intersect both space and time.

Unit – A figure is delineated. Its outline may be fuzzy and incomplete but it suggests an armature, a spatio-temporal exo- or endoskeleton that seems to organise its distribution. Not being known, what is suggestive of organisation is first of all proximity.

Key reference: Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of the figural’, as introduced in his book Discours, figure and explained, for example, in Driftworks (1984, 57).


The figural works across three kinds of components:


Image-figure – In my understanding, the figurative, representational order, in which a figure is put to rest, controlled even.


Form-figure – ‘The Gestalt of a configurationpresent in the perceptible, it may even be visible, but is in general not seen.


Matrix-figure – ‘Invisible in principle since it is the site at which discourse as the figures other is implied as interruption.

For David Carroll (1989, 39), each of [the three aspects of the figure] is a complication of the visual nature of the figure.

While all aspects belong together in the unit that is the figure, there is a tension between a figures representational function – to give the figure as object – and a figures epistemic horizon – its intersection with discourse.


Working with figures, a researcher may want to intensify the latter, risking severing the link with the representational order and with it the coherence of the unit that is the figure.

At the border of representation, figural objects of knowledge are not yet or are never stable enough to be information; rather, they will likely require some form of transformation when they are at work in this or that material, human or otherwise.

Development of the concept

The notion of figure was first developed in chapters four and five of my doctoral thesis.

There, the notion of figure is developed in close relationship with my practice, where blobs or blotches of light are traced and transformed into figures. As I say, The original shape on the appropriated image is not yet a figure. The shape becomes a figure only through its transformation, making the transformation part of the figure (Schwab 2007, 68). The transformation represents the intelligible aspect of a figure.

Paris, an artists book, investigates the notion of figure in the context of a set of drawings. Here are a few sections in which I refer to the notion of 'figure' in this context:

I have to admit, what I call ‘the figure’ is in fact an ambiguous notion. I presume that originally a ‘figure’ was a shape that was drawn to represent a body. However, the figures that are drawn in this book are not traces of a body, but traces of a construction, which is determined by the layout in which the trees are planted and by the rules according to which the measurements were collected. The drawn figures, thus, represent concrete urban spaces seen under particular conceptual constraints. Their body is, if anything, conceptual in nature. (Schwab 2008, 28–29)

Depending on how I look, I can glide through these spatial reconfigurations prompted by the drawings. I can move from a flat image to a spatial representation and back again, but I can never really hold the drawn figures in any of those as each drawing appears to use different, contradicting dimensionalities. (Schwab 2008, 62)

Due to the shifting complexities there is never a single mode in which the whole of a figure can be seen. It is most exciting when the complexity suddenly becomes too much and we are pushed beyond what we understand. (Schwab 2008, 80)

When the figure is developed in the drawing, and imaginatively brought back to site, it is space that is affected first. (Schwab 2008, 86)

The book contains a short glossary. Here is the entry for figure:

The drawing proposes a figure that emerges when the site disappears. The site has the potential of becoming a figure through an interrogation by perception, rules and the act of drawing. The figure is able to contain the transformation of a site into a figure; it is the site in transformation. The figure is arrived at by developing a positive expression in the negative space of a site; it is not the negative space taken as positive, not a cast that is taken of the trees. The figure is the realisation of a potential not acknowledged by the site. The drawing is potential to the site, at the same time as the site is potential to the drawing. The figure is the hinge that connects these potentialities. The drawing can only make real the given by giving a figure through which the potential of the given can be imagined. By understanding the figure we can, back on site, start seeing how the site can transform into a being. This is why the drawings look like they have been made under a microscope. (Schwab 2008, 80–81)

Figure has a relationship to mark making but also to body. My article Drawing the Trans-body situates the notion of figure in philosophy and the history of art, as well as relating it to the question of body.

A body is only the first approximation of a figure. A figure as second-order artefact should be understood as a trans-body: it offsets bodies (and offsets its own becoming body) without itself strictly speaking being a body. The trans-body can be thought of as practice, however, only when understood post-deconstructively beyond identity, subjective experience or objective reality. (Schwab 2014)


Carroll, David. 1989. Paraesthetics: Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida. New York: Routledge.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984. Driftworks. Translated by Roger McKeon. New York: Semiotext(e).

Schwab, Michael. 2007. ‘Image Automation: Post-Conceptual Post-Photography and the Deconstruction of Photography’. PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

———. 2008. Paris. London: Copy Press.

———. 2014. ‘Drawing the Trans-body’. Research Catalogue. Accessed 7 November 2015.


→ Epistemic thing

→ The fragmentary

→ Second-order Artefact

Read more in: Michael Schwab, ‘Drawing the Trans-body’