The (Post) Structuralist


“I’m kind of a structuralist who keeps losing his moorings. I give myself an absolutely mathematical set of rules, and then find that I’m not quite able to make my things work within the set of rules, so I poke at the edges of the rules and then violate them until I come up with something that does the job. I tried to keep to my grid because it made the beats and rhythms easier for me to find when planning the story. I worked with the metaphor that each panel was analogous to a word, and each row of panels was a sentence, and each page was a paragraph. It’s an imperfect metaphor, but OK, so is Maus.” — Art Spiegelman, MetaMaus



I would not call – to invoke (by using the word “tone”) the metaphysics of presence – Catherine Belsey’s tone in Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction an at all wistful one. Nor would I call – same metaphysics – her “voice” there wistful. They are, if anything, a bit whimsical. (Is this an opposition, my differentiation between wistful and whimsical? Perhaps. But would it have occurred to me to compare-and-contrast the two terms at all were they not already linked – due to both assonance and orthography – at the level of the signifier? Perhaps not.) Not that Belsey’s attitude to her subject matter – poststructuralism – comes across (at least to me) as whimsical. Her attitude to it is, rather, rather serious. So it must be her attitude to me, as a reader, which is (or which pretends to be) somewhat – occasionally – whimsical. I can only imagine that she imagines such a rhetorical strategy will make one appreciate her, as the author (if not Author) of the book, rather more than one would otherwise do so – and, consequently, also make one appreciate her subject matter. This strategy (if strategy it be) does work for me – not that I didn’t already appreciate poststructuralism. For, not coincidentally, it is a strategy I myself have used throughout my own (only vaguely poststructuralist) written – and also spoken – work.

There are, however, two – possibly related – moments of (explicit) wistfulness in Poststructuralism. (And – trust me – there are only two of these.) On page fifteen, Belsey calls a horse done by the surrealist painter Magritte, over the scripted words “the door,” wistful: “Or could this door, half-enclosing a wistful horse, be a stable door?” Can a horse be wistful? Does this species have the requisite emotional – let alone intellectual – equipment? (There’s another opposition, or pseudo-opposition: emotional vs. intellectual.) Or can a horse only seem wistful – to us humans, exercising a projective and/or anthropomorphic imagination. On pages sixty to sixty-one, Belsey says – or writes – that Venuses done by the pre-surrealist painter Titian, and even some portraits done by him of mere humans, “stare wistfully out of the canvases, at an angle to the spectator, as if they could see something in the distance that they couldn’t have and we couldn’t name.” Is it merely a coincidence, I wonder, that both Magritte’s horse and the Venus in the one Titian painting Belsey has reproduced, Venus Blindfolding Cupid, are presented to us in more or less the same position – at more or less the same angle? Or is she suggesting that there may be something horsey about that Venus, something Venerian about the horse.

Now, what, on the one hand, would I myself say the word “wistful” signifies? I’d say it signifies a not altogether unpleasant (and perhaps deconstructive) combination (note the rhyme here – more than mere assonance – and note too that regardless of the rhyme this is a true opposition) of both sadness and gladness. In visual art, you see this combination quite often in the only vaguely surrealist work done by Joseph Cornell. (That work by Cornell is also quite whimsical. I discuss this in my book Adorno and the Showgirl.) In literature, you hear that tone quite often in work by Nabokov.  There, it no doubt – or do I mean quite possibly – relates to his definition of art: “Beauty plus pity – that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual.”

What, though, does Belsey, on the other – not necessarily opposite – hand, say the word “wistful” signifies? She says (or at least suggests) that it signifies a sense not only that one’s desire is (for the moment) unfulfilled but also (as Lacan would have it) that it is in fact always unfulfillable. It comes, according to her, with seeming to see something “in the distance” (which is to say, I think, sensing something in the Real) that one can neither have (anymore) nor even (now) name. And so, also according to her, really, while a human being or even a super-human being created in our image might be wistful, no mere supposedly sub-human animal – living as they all do, supposedly, in the Real (as opposed to within our Symbolic Order) – can be. Belsey must therefore also be being whimsical (or some other such thing – ironic, perhaps) in calling Magritte’s horse wistful. And while I don’t of course know (“intentional fallacy” alert) what she must have meant by such a maneuver, I imagine both that it’s part of her general strategy to make readers appreciate her, or, rather, appreciate her sense of humor, and that for some reason she wants us (and yet does not want us) to anthropomorphize that horse (as perhaps Magritte himself has done) – which horse, by the way, is unlike Titian’s figures looking directly at us, making it (or him or her) more of an existential subject (if not Subject of ideology) than are, presumably, any of those relatively objectified figures. That horse of Magritte’s, to invoke the relevant Art History distinction, is really (or Really) naked; those humanoids of Titian’s are just nude – another distinction (naked vs. nude) that is both oppositional and yet non-oppositional. (At the level of the signifier, that “relatively” of mine, in the second to last sentence above, must have just prompted, unconsciously, that “relevant” in the next one.)

All of the above, by the way, is a rather poststructural – or at least deconstructive – maneuver on my part. I have taken a seemingly marginal and insignificant element of a text, the only two appearances in Belsey’s Poststructuralism of the word “wistful,” and treated it if not as central (to the text’s “structure”) then as (at the very least) significant. It is, quite possibly, within my maneuver and not within the element itself wherein lies such significance. I just now wanted to write “no doubt” and not “quite possibly.” In fact, I did write “no doubt” at first but then … corrected it? I don’t know – in part because Belsey has tried hard (rather successfully) to teach us not to know it – what the (“truly”) correct phrase here would be. I really do know, though, that the phrase “no doubt” can’t possibly be it. And I really, really do know that I would never have noticed her second (Titian) “wistful” had that first (Magritte) one not struck me as, at the very least, odd – and quite possibly whimsical or ironic. And yet I suspect that I would not have found it odd, probably, had I not already given sustained thought, in writing, to both whimsy and wistfulness in artwork by Cornell.

Do any of you find that first “wistful” of hers odd? If so, this (deconstructive) reading I have just done of Poststructuralism cannot be said (by you) to be completely idiosyncratic.

Well, you could say it.

You could even write it.

But that wouldn’t really make such a thing true.



My translation of Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics chooses not to use the word “structure.” Whereas an earlier translation, for instance, would have him say that “the linguist must take the study of linguistic structure as his primary concern, and relate all other manifestations of language to it,” he now says that “from the outset we must put both feet on the ground of language and use language as the norm of all other manifestations of speech.” But in lieu of “structure,” in general, he now says “system” – which, metaphorically speaking, as Saussure so often does speak, is not quite the same thing. “Structure” sounds more or less architectural to me, whereas “system” sounds more or less mechanical.

What, exactly, are Saussure’s own metaphors for the language “system” – or, in French, langue? Sometimes, that system is in fact analogized to some type of machine: “The mechanism of language, which consists of the interplay of successive terms, resembles the operation of a machine in which all the parts have a reciprocating function even though they are arranged in a single dimension.” Sometimes, though, langue is analogized to some type of building: it’s like a “storehouse” that we speakers fill with sound-images; it’s a storehouse, moreover, in which “productive forms are arranged according to their syntagmatic and associative relations.” This jibes with Saussure’s (architectural) conception of linguistic units (such as words): thinking syntagmatically, as opposed to paradigmatically, he says that “a linguistic unit is like a fixed part of a building, e.g., a column;” thinking diachronically, as opposed to synchronically, he says that “the word is like a house in which [over time] the arrangement and function of different rooms has been changed several times.”

It strikes me, though, that many buildings, even the houses or apartments in which we literally live, are also machines. Or at least they incorporate machines: air conditioners, dishwashers. Some buildings are machines designed primarily to move: ocean liners, mobile homes, even that “Geneva-to-Paris” train that he uses to discuss identity and difference. (“We feel that it is the same train each day, yet everything – the locomotive, coaches, personnel – is probably different.” I myself tend, in general, to think – critically – in terms of trains; it’s because I recently learned that for Marx, the terms “base” and “superstructure” connoted railway tracks and cars, respectively, far more than they connoted anything architectural.) Some buildings, of course, are not designed to move. Perhaps, at any rate, it would make more sense for Saussure to have figured langue as some kind of mechanical building that we both occupy (unconsciously) and operate (consciously).

Another metaphor, of Saussure’s, for at least the use of the language “system” is that it’s type of game we play: a chess game, in particular. “Language,” he says, “is a system that has its own arrangement. Comparison with chess will bring out the point.” The editors note, incidentally, that a better translation of that first sentence would have been: “Language is a system that knows only its own order.” “Just as the game of chess is entirely in the combination of the different chesspieces,” he also says, “language is characterized as a system based entirely on the opposition of its concrete units.” “Opposition,” incidentally, should usually be taken throughout this primal masterwork of structuralism to mean mere non-polar difference.

That chess game metaphor, though, exists in tension with another one used, and used far more extensively, by Saussure: langue as a type of living “organism” that over time – thanks primarily to speech and not to mere writing – will necessarily “evolve.” (Games, in general, do not evolve, and chess certainly hasn’t.) True, he is always quick to point out the limitations of this. Philologists were mistaken, he says, when they “looked upon the development of two languages as a naturalist might look upon the growth of two plants.” And just as one cannot understand an entire plant, he says, by slicing through its stem and studying the “rather complicated design formed by the cut surface,” one cannot understand “synchronic states” by studying “diachronic events.” Sentences, moreover, are nothing like animals. (“We are at first tempted to liken the immense diversity of sentences to the equal diversity of the individuals that make up a zoological species. But this is an illusion.”) Yet he also says that the likening of any language (or “idiom”) to an “organism that develops independently” may well be an “indispensable” – if “illogical” – metaphor. And then there’s Saussure’s primary example of the signifier/signified relationship: arbor (as the sound-image)/“tree” (as the concept). Organic form, incidentally, is a metaphor that’s usually taken to mean, among other things, that something has no purely decorative and hence non-functional elements. This may be one reason why Saussure also needs to think of langue architecturally; see, for instance, how he analogizes associative relations (of linguistic units) to the different (and decorative) orders of those “columns” mentioned above: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. He may recognize that – unlike say, cherry trees, no matter how beautiful their blossoms – at least some parts of the beautiful languages we speak and write are simply useless.

Finally, Saussure references, but does not consciously deploy as such, what may be the best possible metaphor for his conception of the language system – as well as for the all-important sense of equilibrium this conception involves. He references some astronomical constellation. He also likewise, when discussing diachronic change, refers to our solar system. (“It is as if one of the planets that revolve around the sun changed its dimensions and weight.”) He also likewise, when discussing pre-linguistic ideation, refers to a nebula. (“Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula.”) But as for that constellation of Saussure’s, the only problem is that the man thinks – just as any such structuralist, to be fair, would think – that any such astronomical form, much like the solar system, must have – as no language, it seems to poststructuralist me, does have – some type of center: “A particular word is like the center of a constellation,” he says. “It is the point of a convergence of an indefinite number of coordinated terms.”



Lévi-Strauss, in Tristes Tropiques, will often find significant complexity where others find simplicity – and complexity for him can involve a sense of metaphorical depth as well as a sense of equilibrium. Sometimes, though, Lévi-Strauss will find, instead of complexity, profound (or perhaps over-arching) simplicity – and simplicity for him can involve three-tiered hierarchy. This is somewhat ironic, given his youthful disenchantment with (rather untruthful) dialectical philosophy: thesis/antithesis/synthesis. It is also ironic given his privileging of the “ambiguity” (or “confusion”) that one finds in between the poles of understanding and not understanding the “strangeness” of some alien culture as well as his seemingly recent (or perhaps belated), anti-dialectical, and Buddhism-inspired fascination with insignificance: “Every effort to understand destroys the object studied in favor of another object of a different nature; this second object requires from us a new effort which destroys it in favor of a third, and so on and so forth until we reach the one lasting presence, the point at which the distinction between meaning and the absence of meaning disappears: the same point from which we began.”

Here are some seemingly simple “structures” that Lévi-Strauss finds complicated: the evening sky; the upper class (gran fino) of São Paulo as well as the tropical vegetation this very elite tribe resembles; any town as well as the symphony (or poem) it resembles; any marketplace; the abstract design of a Caduveo face-painting as well as the social system it probably represents; the Bororo social system as well as that non-elite tribe’s religious system; Bororo metaphysics; Amazonian forests; Tupi-Kawahib chieftainship; a certain melody by Chopin, which the anthropologist calls an “inextricable knot;” and civilization tout court, which he calls an “extraordinarily complex mechanism.” Interestingly, only two of these – the evening sky and Bororo society– are structures said by him to have any kind of center: for the evening sky, it’s the sun (at first an “architect” of this sky and then, upon setting, its “painter”); for Bororo society, it’s the men’s house. Interestingly, too, he borrows a central simile from Marcel Proust: the pre-Columbian history of the Americas – yet another complicated (if also temporal) structure – is “like those Japanese flowers made of compressed paper which open out when immersed in water.” In Remembrance of Things Past, by Proust, these paper flowers figure the narrator’s first and also most famous involuntary memory: “And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character and form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on color and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable,” ends this enormous novel’s Overture, “so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

Here are two seemingly complex structures that Lévi-Strauss finds both simple and tri-partite: the Bororo social system, heretofore found not-so-simple (“In this society, which appears to have delighted in complexity, each clan is divided into three groups – upper, middle and lower – and over all other rules and regulations hangs the obligation for an upper-grade person from one moiety to marry an upper-grade person from the other, a member of the middle grade to marry a middle-grade person and a member of the lower grade to marry a lower-grade person; in other words, under the disguise of fraternal institutions, the Bororo village can be seen in the last resort as consisting of three groups each of which intermarries within itself;” and some rubber-production system (“So, to simplify an often complex situation, we can say that the seringueiro is dependent on the patrão, or boss, who in turn is dependent on the shipping company controlling the main waterways”). Here, though, are two structures that are so simple as to defy such partition by him: the Nambikwara social system (“That of the Nambikwara was so truly simple that all I could find in it was individual human beings”); and Islam (“The whole of Islam would, in fact, seem to be a method for creating insurmountable conflicts in the minds of believers, with the proviso that a way out can subsequently be found by adopting extremely simple – but oversimple – solutions”).

Tristes Tropiques, of course, is itself an extraordinarily complex yet also simple structure (or “mechanism,” which readers may be meant to operate). That simplicity is traceable – as Lévi-Strauss himself would have it – to the dual phenomena of both memory and amnesia: “The profound structure [that forgetfulness] has created out of the fragments allows me to achieve a more stable equilibrium and to see a clearer pattern,” ends this masterwork’s own quite self-consciously Proustian overture (Part One). “Events without any apparent connection, and originating from incongruous periods and places, slide one over the other and suddenly crystallize into a sort of edifice which seems to have been conceived by an architect wiser than my personal history.” Do those phenomena (memory plus amnesia) reduce to that of involuntary memory (as in Proust’s novel, it would seem) or, rather, do they reduce to that of voluntary memory (unlike, it would seem, in that novel)? Is this “architect,” in other words, the author’s consciousness or, with Sigmund Freud as one of his “three mistresses,” the other two being Karl Marx and geography, is it the unconscious? I’m afraid that, as in Remembrance of Things Past – where, contrary to popular belief (or doxa, as Barthes would have it), involuntary memory really takes a lot of conscious deliberation not to mention a lot of artistic (or literary) effort – any distinction here between the two, much like the distinction between meaning and the absence of meaning, necessarily disappears. One simply cannot control that which one cannot recall, although sometimes one can control it. One can, through some rather complicated processes (such as writing a very long book), recall the profound truths, or personal experiences, that one – or that something – has otherwise consigned to oblivion.



Lacan can be funny. He has this to say, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, about sublimation: “In other words – for the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking. That’s what it means. Indeed, it raises the question of whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment.” He has this to say there about I would imagine any number of the seminar participants he was talking to and/or fucking (with) – or at least about readers like me: “Who does not know from experience that it is possible not to want to ejaculate? Who does not know that one may not wish to think? – the entire universal college of professors is there as evidence.” This is funny because, as someone else once said for the first time, it’s true. Or it’s almost true. I do wish to think in innovative ways. But I also find it very (pun intended) hard – or even impossible – to think. No, wait. That’s not quite true, either. I find it impossible to think when merely talking to other people – or even when figuratively “talking” to myself. I find it possible to think when – or only when – literally writing. But I can’t write all the time. That’s too hard, as well. And so I mostly just read stuff written by other (intelligent) people. I let them, then, think for me. This, though, I confess, did not happen to me very much – for reasons that I would imagine both do and do not have anything to do with me – when reading The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Lacan, here, is either too intelligent for or too invested in “actively” fucking (with) “passive” old me. (The opposition active/passive is that which, he says, first figures the rather less imaginary and/or symbolic opposition male/female in the linguistic structuration of anyone’s unconscious.) I do, however, think that I may have found something innovative to say or, rather, to write about that book – something Lacan himself may not have (consciously) realized.

He tells an interesting story – it’s a personal anecdote and as such is I believe the only one in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis – about the gaze. One thing that makes the story interesting is that unlike Lacan’s own sense of humor, which seems only ever to be at the expense of other people, the joke here is on him – which is probably why he didn’t, and maybe still doesn’t, like it very much. He’s in his early twenties – “a young intellectual” – and he’s on a little boat off the coast of Brittany with a family of some presumably non-intellectual fishermen. One of these guys, “Little-John,” points to a sardine can floating somewhere out at sea and says to Lacan: You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn’t see you! Lacan says: “[Little-John] found this incident highly amusing – I less so. I thought about it. Why did I find it less amusing than he? It’s an interesting question.” He then proceeds to answer this question, but the answer – first arrived at I’d imagine in the man’s fifties or sixties – must not at all reflect what he “thought about it” back in the day. Another thing that makes the story interesting – at least to me – is that I’d imagine Lacan, unlike those fishermen, felt both literally and figuratively “unmoored” on the little boat. (It was no longer docked in the little port where they all must live. It doesn’t seem to have been anchored anywhere offshore at the time. Lacan himself was no fisherman and he certainly didn’t belong with – let alone to – this group with which he was spending a bit of time just in order to, among other things, do “something physical” for once in his life.) And being or at least feeling “moored” to something – or to someone (Freud, say) – seems to have been very important to him. (Is the figure of someone – or something – being “moored” identical to, for a structuralist like Lacan, the figure of his – or its – being “centered” somewhere? I don’t quite know yet. Was Lacan unaware that he himself is not so very different from those “amusing” psychoanalysts who “make their qualification to practice dependent on someone [say, Freud] who is already qualified”? I’ll probably never know.) “How are we to understand the almost religious maintenance of the terms proposed by Freud to structure the analytic experience?” he asks on the first day of that year-long seminar. “Was Freud really the first, and did he really remain the only theoretician of this supposed science [psychoanalysis] to have introduced the fundamental concepts? Were this so, it would be very unusual in the history of the sciences. Without this trunk, this mast, this pile” – and I think were all now on a rather large metaphorical boat – “where can our practice be moored?” (10) And the unconscious itself, for Lacan, or, rather, for Lacan’s Freud, seems to be some kind of metaphorical boat set adrift from either the dock or the anchor of anatomical sex difference – “that archaic junction between thought and sexual reality,” as he calls it. For “there comes a moment, with the sexual initiation of the mechanism [i.e., the unconscious], when the moorings are broken.” Note, moreover, that a literal boat – like, say, a train, the moving vehicle that when stopped at some station had already come into play elsewhere (“The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious”) when Lacan wrote about sex difference – is clearly some kind of “mechanism” as well as some kind of structure.

So here are at least some differences between a perhaps mechanical but definitely metaphorical structure having been moored somewhere and its having been centered. Such a structure can have only one center. That center is very much an integral part of the structure. And – much like the structure whose significance and/or functioning it stabilizes – that center cannot move anywhere. (For Lacan, one’s own “center” – as a human “subject” – is lack. And one only ever experiences this “central lack” as desire.) That which moors such a structure, though – a dock, an anchor, things also known as “moorings” – are themselves separate structures. And such a structure can be moored just about anywhere – or at least anywhere not too deep for the line to which the both the anchor and the boat are attached. Is Freud, then – Lacan’s Freud – now not (really) part of the ostensible “science” (and not religion) that he along with some soon-to-be-disavowed disciples begat? Can this Freud now be found just about anywhere? Does Lacan think those two things – as I have already suggested – only unconsciously? And if so, does the thought seem at all funny to him there?



I wish that people would read my own work the way Louis Althusser, to judge from his book Lenin and Philosophy, seems to have read both Marx and Lenin – not to mention the way Althusser read Lacan. He read all three of them attentively and sympathetically. People, instead, just trash my work. Ironically, though, I myself read – and this describes in particular the way I read Lenin and Philosophy (not to mention Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis) – the way Althusser there says that Lenin read Hegel: inattentively and unsympathetically. “Lenin takes what interests him from his point of view from the discourse which Hegel is pursuing from a quite different point of view.” Althusser calls this practice, metaphorically, a “laying bare” of Hegel – which at first sounded to me like a figure for truth-discovery. As Derrida notes in “The Purveyor of Truth,” “exhibiting, denuding, undressing [make up] the familiar acrobatics of the metaphor of the truth.” As Barthes notes in The Pleasure of the Text, “to denude [is] to know, to learn the origin and the end.” “Laying bare” then sounded to me – on the “level” of let us say gastrosophy – more like what may more truthfully be seen as the picking and preparing of some stuff, in combination with other stuff, for cooking, or perhaps for immediate, uncooked consumption, in accordance with one’s pre-determined “food” preferences or perhaps ideological commitments. “The real operation, the real work of materialist reading,” Althusser writes, “consists of … the retention of certain well-chosen fruits and vegetables, and their careful peeling or the disentanglement of their kernels from their thick skins.” But then “laying bare” sounded like something that Lenin – as a leisure-time fisherman – may have done in real life: dredge up any old stuff, sight unseen, from beneath the surface of some murky waters; this sounded, moreover, like what Althusser says Freud did do only metaphorically. (Lacan, as a young “intellectual,” had been laughed at by a group of fishermen to which he clearly did not belong. [“And Petit-John said to me – You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn’t see you! He found this incident highly amusing – I less so.”] Lenin, though, as a working-class sympathizer, once laughed with such a group to which, on at least a structural “level,” he did belong. [“Philosophical communication,” begins Lenin and Philosophy. “This term would certainly have made Lenin laugh, with that whole-hearted, open laugh by which the fishermen of Capri recognized him as one of their kind and on their side.”]) Here, for instance, is Althusser nearly saying that Lenin, as a reader of Hegel, metaphorically dredged some stuff up there: “As this proposition breaks through, i.e. constantly touches the surface, or rather the skin, all that is needed is to lay it bare to obtain the Marxist-Leninist concept of the materialist dialectic, of the absoluteness of movement, of the absolute process of the reality of the method: to be precise, the concept of the fundamental scientific validity of the concept of a process without a subject, as it is to be found in [Marx’s] Capital and elsewhere, too, in Freud, for example.” And here is Althusser saying that Freud, as a so-to-speak reader of, or at least listener to, what patients were really trying express (apart from their transference-based love for him) while talking to him and also as a would-be innovative writer and “scientist” of the unconscious, metaphorically dredged stuff up: “[W]hen he wanted to think i.e. to express in the form of a rigorous system of abstract concepts the extraordinary discovery that met him every day in his practice, search as he might for theoretical precedents, fathers in theory, he could find none. He had to cope with the following situation: to be himself his own father, to construct with his own craftsman’s hands the theoretical space in which to situate his discovery, to weave with thread borrowed intuitively left and right the great net with which to catch in the depths of blind experience the teeming fish of the unconscious, which men call dumb because it speaks even while they sleep.”

Meanwhile, all these writers – myself included – are, unless they’re really just talking to themselves, hard at work trying to dredge up or even “interpellate” as many readers as possible. (Ideology – c’est moi!) True, we may not be thinking – consciously – in such fishy terms. We may, like Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text, when using a verb there (draguer) which means either to dredge or to cruise (in the gay male sense of cruising [la drague]), be thinking in such terms only unconsciously: “I must seek out this reader (must ‘cruise’ him),” writes Barthes, “without knowing where he is.” And then of course it’s not enough for us, or let’s just say for me, to know, or rather to imagine, where my reader is – on what perhaps class-based “level” he or she is constrained to live. I must also somehow be – or perhaps just masquerade as – his or her “type.” But even then, sadly, there’s no guarantee that I’ll have their full attention. Barthes himself really loved Proust. Proust was very much Barthes’s type. And yet in The Pleasure of the Text he both wonders whether anyone’s ever read Remembrance of Things Past word for word (“Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages”) and includes a related passage (reflective of some familiarity with Lacan but lack of any true interest in him) that has “Proust” pretty much written all over it: “I am offered a text. This text bores me. It might be said to prattle. The prattle of the text is merely that foam of language which forms by the effect of a simple need of writing. Here we are not dealing with perversion but with demand. The writer of this text employs an unweaned language: imperative, automatic, unaffectionate, a minor disaster of static (those milky phonemes which the remarkable Jesuit, van Ginnekin, posited between writing and language): these are the motions of ungratified sucking, of an undifferentiated orality, intersecting the orality which produces the pleasures of gastrosophy and of language. You address yourself to me so that I may read you, but I am nothing to you except this address; in your eyes, I am the substitute for nothing, for no figure (hardly that of the mother); for you I am neither a body nor even an object (and I couldn’t care less: I am not the one whose soul demands recognition), but merely a field, a vessel for expansion. It can be said that after all you have written this text quite apart from bliss; and this prattling text is then a frigid text, as any demand is frigid until desire, until neurosis forms in it.”



Roland Barthes, like everyone, both thinks and writes in terms of opposition. (Like many of us, moreover, he often feels stupid – except when writing. “Not to have read Hegel would be an exorbitant defect for a philosophy teacher, for a Marxist intellectual, for a Bataille specialist,” he writes in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. “But for me? Where do my reading duties begin? [The writer] agrees cheerfully enough to diminish or to divert the acuity, the responsibility of his ideas: in writing there would be the pleasure of a certain inertia, a certain mental facility: as if I were more indifferent to my own stupidity when I write than when I speak.”) In Mythologies, such clearly structural opposition abounds: wrestling vs. boxing; the film actress Greta Garbo (in Queen Christina) vs. Audrey Hepburn; wine vs. milk; Jules Verne’s Nautilus (in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea) vs. Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat;” water (in laundry detergents) vs. grease; the sense of touch vs. that of sight; the singer Gerard Souzay vs. Charles Panzéra, with whom Barthes himself once took voice lessons; romantic love (qua recognition) as understood by the consumptive courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, in the play The Lady of the Camellias vs. romantic love (qua possession) as understood by her boyfriend there. (Garbo, incidentally, played Marguerite in the film Camille.) Notice, though, that the central opposition in this book is not – or at least does not seem to be – the possibly primal one of masculine vs. feminine. It is stupidity vs. intelligence.

There are many indications here of what, to Barthes if not to the bourgeoisie, seems stupid: false confessions of their own stupidity by certain critics; military tyranny; the entrustment of one’s own young child to cannibals; the “infantile vision” of the Paris-Match reader when viewing photographs there of cannibals, as opposed to the “intellectual probity” of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss; the “objective stupidity” of the film actor Marlon Brando (or perhaps of the character he plays) in On the Waterfront; “common sense” or (in Latin) doxa; a riposte or (in English) retort; bourgeois “anti-intellectualism;” those silly sermons by Billy Graham; “horror” photographs that like ideology in general do our thinking (about horror) for us; whatever the Guide bleu might have to say about foreign landscapes or about any monument in Spain; remarks about the Soviet Union made by tourists; derogatory remarks about draft resisters; the notion of artistic or even political “genius,” as opposed to the “prodigy” status of a Rimbaud. (Stalin, supposedly, was some kind of political genius, which must signify – as elsewhere – “something irrational and inexpressible.”) But the central indication of such stupidity, in Mythologies, is tautology – lines like “it is what it is” – as opposed to dialectical thought.

Mythic signs of what, to the bourgeoisie if not to Barthes, seems intelligent include: the facial expression of a (presumably male) stage actor in any Harcourt Studio photograph of him; those false confessions of their own stupidity by critics; the kinds of wine (a “little white wine” or “Beaujolais”) consumed by intellectuals; the steaks consumed by them; the machine-like brain of Albert Einstein; the vision-corrective glasses that we wear; the “pensive” gaze of a (presumably male) politician in any campaign photograph of him; the “fine phrases” spoken on stage by Marguerite Gautier. Another such sign, apparently never demystified by Barthes, or even by me for that matter, is the thinness of the intellectual. “Sudden mutation of the body (after leaving the sanatorium): changing (or appearing to change) from slender to plump,” he writes in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. “Ever since, perpetual struggle with this body to return it to its essential slenderness (part of the intellectual’s mythology: to become thin is the naïve act of the will-to-intelligence).” The “sanatorium”? you ask. Barthes, too – like Marguerite Gautier – was tubercular.

The opposition masculine vs. feminine does seem, in Mythologies, to at least lurk behind, if not to structure, that of stupidity vs. intelligence. It does not do so, however, in the way that middle-class and perhaps misogynist myth would have it. Such myth would situate intelligence as essentially masculine and stupidity as feminine. Whereas Barthes, for instance, finds the supposedly smart expression in some studio photograph of an actor to be anything but smart, he finds that the face of Garbo (in Queen Christina) signifies – to him – a type of “intellectual perfection.” (Ironically, the image he’s thinking of – Garbo gazing out, towards Spain, over the prow of a ship – involves the history of a lack of smarts on her part. The actress had been told by the director here, Rouben Mamoulian, to clear her mind.) Likewise, whereas Barthes finds the “pensive” look of some politician in a photo of him to be anything but pensive, he finds (in his book S/Z) that the final sentence of Balzac’s story “Sarrasine” – “And the Marquise remained pensive” – functions as “the zero degree of meaning,” or as a mise en abyme of what our by now post-structuralist critic calls “the pensive text,” which is to say the classic text replete with meaning promised only to be withheld. True, Barthes does not seem to see intelligence (let alone “genius”) when viewing of a group of (child-bearing) female novelists in the magazine Elle. But neither does he see it when viewing André Gide in Le Figaro; he sees in him merely (mythic) “logorrhea.” And true, one might well think that Barthes concurs with Jean Cocteau’s dismissal of the (mythic) literary “genius” of eight-year-old Minou Drouet. (Cocteau had said: “All children have genius, except Minou Drouet.” Barthes says that her work merely signifies “poetry.”) But he is careful – if only in an afterthought (“Myth Today”) – to note that he’s really in no position to judge the girl herself. Barthes now says: “In order to demystify Poetic Childhood, for instance, I have had, so to speak, to lack confidence in Minou Drouet the child. I have had to ignore, in her, under the enormous myth with which she is cumbered, something like a tender, open possibility.” She now sounds, to me, a bit like Balzac’s Marquise. Is such proto- or perhaps crypto-feminism due to Barthes’s homosexuality? Probably not. Cocteau, too, was gay. As was Gide. It is due, I think (therefore I write), to the man’s close proximity throughout almost his entire life to his mother.



Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things, say that an episteme, or the rules governing the production of at least all “scientific” discourses throughout a period, comprises the (structural) unconscious of those discourses. He gives no indication, at first, that he means that “unconscious” in any figurative sense: “What I would like to do … is to reveal a positive unconscious of knowledge: a level that eludes the consciousness of the scientist and yet is part of scientific discourse.” Nor does he give such an indication at the very end of this very long book, when he finally mentions such an “unconscious” once again. “[W]hat illuminates the space of [ethnology, or anthropology, and psychoanalysis is] the historical a priori of all the sciences of man – those great caesuras, furrows, and dividing-lines which traced man’s outline in the Western episteme and made him a possible area of knowledge. It was quite inevitable, then, that they should both be sciences of the unconscious.”

In between, though, Foucault self-consciously “deploys” (to use a Foucauldian term) a number of significant figures for the episteme – having first warned us that all such figures both configure and dis-figure what is meant by them: “[I]t is in vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors, or similes, what we are saying; the space where they achieve their splendor is not that deployed by our eyes but that defined by the sequential elements of syntax.” These figures of the episteme include “configuration” itself. They include: table or tabula; grid; network; system; field; domain; and framework. They perhaps also include, at the end of the book, formal structure – although Foucault here does not specify what kind of structure (architectural? linguistic? organic?) this might be. “One can imagine the similar importance that a psychoanalysis would have if it were to share the dimension of an ethnology, not by the establishment of a ‘cultural psychology,’ not by the sociological explanation of phenomena manifested at the level of individuals, but by the discovery that the unconscious also possesses, or rather that it is in itself, a certain formal structure.” Given the discernable nod to Lacan here, I’d have to guess it’s a linguistic structure. And of all these figures, I’d guess that grid is the key figure. For it occurs most frequently – or at least that’s my impression. But this may be my impression only because at one point Foucault makes us see it rather graphically: “Such, traced out, as it were, in dotted lines,” concludes Chapter Three, “was the great grid of empirical knowledge: that of non-quantitative orders.”

Foucault is careful not to theorize – or even to guess – what “causes” one episteme to end and another to begin. But he seems to have borrowed from Gaston Bachelard (as did Althusser borrow it) the idea or rather the metaphor of “epistemological break.” For Foucault, that is, such an “event” seems – at bottom (as it were) – rather sudden. (This “bottom” joke has nothing to do with Foucault’s gay sexuality; it concerns his [archaeological] tendency to think in terms of what he usually calls “levels.”) Sometimes, to be sure, an epistemic break is represented by Foucault to have been rather gradual: there has been a “superimposition” (he tends to think in terms of overlay, as well) of grids; or there has been an “erosion” from outside; or one field has “faded away” whilst another one appears; or a configuration has “dissolved;” or there has been a kind of “mutation;” or there has been a “rising up” (there’s that level again) from below; or there has been a “decomposition;” or a grid has become “dismantled;” or there has been a “general redistribution” of the episteme. Oftentimes, though – or perhaps it seems more often only because the figures are so violent and hence (to me) memorable – an epistemic break is represented by Foucault to be practically cataclysmic: there has been an “essential rupture” – and this coming from a notorious anti-essentialist; or there has been a “split down the middle;” or he simply calls it a “break;” or he calls it a “shattering;” or he says the episteme “broke up;” or there has been a “fragmentation” of an epistemological field; or this fragmentation is also called an “explosion;” or it is called a “shattering;” or this shattering is also called an “upheaval;” or, finally, the rules that unbeknownst to us govern what it is we think we know “crumble.” “If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared,” this surprisingly lyrical book not so suddenly concludes, “if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility – without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises – were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”

I am convinced (or at least I “believe”) that there have been various epistemes throughout at least Western history. I am not convinced, though, that we find ourselves within only one episteme at a time – much as I don’t believe, as Althusser seems to have, that there is only ever one “dominant ideology” at a time. (Foucault on ideology: “[T]o say that [the ‘sciences of man’] are part of the epistemological field means simply that their positivity is rooted in it, that that is where they find their condition of existence, that they are therefore not merely illusions, pseudo-scientific fantasies motivated at the level of opinions interests, or beliefs, that they are not what others call by the bizarre name of ‘ideology.’” Foucault on the singularity of an episteme: “In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.”) For I am also not convinced – in fact I probably cannot be convinced – that these epistemes have changed so abruptly or even (to follow the sense of Foucault’s violent metaphors) instantaneously. I can only imagine (or believe) that they act more like the way Raymond Williams theorized ideology, which is to say that at any one time one will find (if only one looks for them) residual and emergent “grids” as well as dominant ones.



When Jacques Derrida, in Of Grammatology, writes about “auto-affection” – by which he means basic self-awareness – he describes it as the seemingly self-same, self-present experience of “hearing-oneself-speak” (s’entendre parler). It is an experience, he adds, “[t]hat lives and proclaims itself as the exclusion of writing, that is to say of the invoking of an ‘exterior,’ ‘sensible,’ ‘spatial’ signifier interrupting self-presence.” Derrida does not, in this early work, also describe it as the experience of “hearing” oneself think let alone that of “hearing” oneself read work written by someone else whom one has never heard speak or whose speaking voice one cannot now recall – silent reading which of course is what many of us who do not think we think at all well often do instead of thinking for ourselves. But Derrida must have meant the first of these two (as he would have it) self-othering, self-alienating experiences as well – that of hearing oneself think in an interior monologue which seems to sound very much if not exactly like oneself speaking out loud – as he makes abundantly clear in the exactly contemporaneous work, Voice and Phenomenon. (Both books were published in 1967.) To quote the philosopher Leonard Lawlor – whose speaking voice I myself have never heard (unlike that of Derrida) – as Lawlor himself both quotes and paraphrases Voice and Phenomenon:

When I speak silently to myself, I do not make any sounds go out through my mouth. Although I do not make sounds through my mouth when I speak silently to myself, I make use of phonic complexes, that is, I make use of the forms of words or signs of a natural language. The use of natural phonic forms seems to imply that my interior monologue is an actual (not ideal) discourse. Because however the medium of voice is temporal – the phonic forms are iterated across moments – the silent vocalization endows the phonic forms with ideality. Thanks to the phonic forms utilized in hearing-oneself-speak, one exteriorizes the ideal sense (meaning). This exteriorization – ex-pression – seems to imply that we have now moved from time to space. But, since the sound is heard by the subject during the time he is speaking, what is expressed seems to be in absolute proximity to the speaker, “within the absolute proximity of its present,” “absolutely close to me.” We see how the element of the voice seems to satisfy the two requirements for the constitution of an ideal meaning: the silent expression objectifies the sense (universalizes it) and yet it remains in proximity to the one expressing. In other words, the subject lets himself be affected by the signifier, but apparently without any detour through exteriority or through the world; or, as Derrida says [in Voice and Phenomenon], apparently without any detour through “the non-proper in general”; the subject seems to hear his own voice.

Is that true, though? I have sometimes wondered. Is it true, at any rate, for people other than Derrida? Whenever I think for myself or for that matter read work by someone else whom I have never heard speak or whose speaking voice I cannot recall, I think I “hear” a voice that is neither my own voice nor that of anyone else. It seems to be a voice that is no voice at all – although it is still pretty clear to me that this probably neuter-“sounding” voice is masculine.

And so I did a survey. I asked several people in my family to describe what happens when they think and also when they read. The results of this surprised me.

My husband, a brilliant surgeon, does not “hear” himself think at all. When, for instance, responding to questions – and I must admit that I often question him – David says that he (so to speak) sees words – in his mind’s-eye – as those words occur to him, something which happens almost instantaneously and in conjunction with non-verbal images. “It’s like watching some silent film sped up way beyond the point of coherence and then finding that only a few of the many words and images I have just seen flit by have remained within a final – and finally coherent – tableau.” There is nothing wrong with his brain, by the way. And the main difference between our two brains is that whereas mine is almost completely left-hemisphere dominant – the left hemisphere controls language while the right one controls images – David’s is balanced.

Our son Seth, a law student turned video-game developer, says: “When working out a problem, for instance, I neither visualize things nor hear words spoken in my head.”

Instead, I take in all the information I have available, and then it comes together automatically in my mind over time as a system of parts that I can feel my way through. I don’t ever “see” the answer, but I can feel the information fit together, and the answer comes out. I find that when I do try consciously to work something out, I rarely get to the solution. When I’m reading, it’s similar, but only about half the time. I look at the words and they just go into my mind. I don’t usually hear them or see things. It just falls into place. The other half of the time I hear them. I think it depends on how engaged I am in what I am reading. And with regard to whose voice it is: I don’t audibly hear a voice, so I can’t say. But I do hear the words.

Note that Seth does not specify what kind of problem he may be working out. He is talking, I take it, about any kind.

Our son Adam, a math and science student turned video-game developer, does, like Derrida, “hear” his own voice when either thinking or reading about ordinary matters – “but it does not have an actual sound.” When he works through either math or science problems, however, “there is no voice.” It would be more accurate to say, Adam adds, that this happens – or rather that such voicing does not happen – when these problems seem to work themselves through.

Adam’s wife, Jenny – who is a pediatrician – says: “If I’m thinking about something visual, like art or people or scenarios, generally it plays out in pictures. If I’m problem solving and it’s a visually related problem (e.g. spatial, design, etc.), then it’s still usually in pictures. Or like Seth says, the parts just fit together and the answer appears. If it’s something more technical or something I don’t understand well, oftentimes it’s in words and it plays out like a back and forth conversation, often very much Socratic.”

If I really thought about it, I would identify the voices as my own, but when I “hear” them, it’s not in my own voice. The voices don’t really have genders either, though when I was younger and used to draw pictures of these “people,” I would just assign genders to them and their voices would change accordingly. It helped to picture them attached to visual representations. I don’t draw much anymore though, so sometime along the way, it changed back to genderless.

When I’m reading, I “hear” the words as my eyes scan the page, but within milliseconds, basically seamlessly, it translates into visuals. Particularly if I’m reading something that is very descriptive, like fiction (though not always literary fiction). If I’m reading something technical or medical, if I understand it (like a specific organ system that I’m comfortable with or a process that I know the steps to), it plays out in visuals. If I don’t, it stays as words in my mind, and I tend to “see” them. Once I get it though, it usually translates to pictures.

Our son Sam, a writer as well as visual artist as well as video-game developer, says:

It depends on what the material being presented is. I’ve found over time that whatever subvocalizing I’m doing basically disappears once I become comfortable or fluent with a subject. If I’m working through something new or difficult then I do have some subvocalization going on that is trying to wrestle with the incoming information. It doesn’t feel like a voice, per se, so it seems genderless. But, given that it’s emanating from me, or I from it, it feels like we’re approximately the same, gender wise.

If I’m writing a piece of fiction I see a place or a scene and write the story from there. The same goes for level design, and I’m nearly there on the art side.

Most of the time it seems as though my mind is a large blank. But not an apathetic one, more like a loaded bear trap waiting to spring. If I’m just sitting there, doing nothing, there’s a comfortable lack-of-goings-on in my mind that is occasionally punctuated with my brain finding things to bring to my attention, such as people to email and ideas for various things. When someone asks me a question or provides some morsel of intellectual prey that bear trap fires and my mind is pretty much consumed by whatever it is that stepped in. I should note that I no longer feel as though I’m thinking while doing a number of tasks I feel myself highly fluent in. Socializing, for example, has become amusing because I don’t feel like I’m the one talking, so I can sit back and watch my practiced self handle things.

I only subvocalize if I’m re-reading a section or just getting going on some reading. Once I hit a stride it’s more scene based.

An adopted son of ours, also named David – he is a brilliant mimic and also an economist – can either think or read in any “voice,” including but not limited to his own. “When I read, that’s fine,” he says, “because I think there is a division of focus between the cognitive recognition of the ‘voice’ and the action of reading. When I think, however, I tend to focus more on the ‘voice’ than when reading. I used to ‘hear’ myself all the time, but then it subsided. I think I trained myself not to pay attention to it. There are moments when it comes back, and I simply cannot make it go away (very similar to pointing out to a person that he is breathing, which makes him focus on the action of breathing).” Note how this self-willed “subsidence” – over time – of various voices for David sounds very much like the gradual un-gendering of “Socratic” voices that Jenny has thought she has heard.

It is too bad, I think, that Derrida does not seem to have done such a survey. Had he done so, he would not, in Voice and Phenomenon, have been so quick to identify – as before him Plato was quick to identify – hearing oneself speak with hearing oneself think. (Plato, in the Theatetus, defines thinking as interior monologue.) Nor would he, necessarily, have identified the experience of thinking with basic self-awareness. For consider some things that my people have revealed about themselves, when thinking.

My husband, David, sees words plus images almost instantaneously. (In fact, I sense that he is doing so right now – as he does not seem to be listening to me.) Such seeing – in his mind’s eye – is not something of which he is well aware in the way that he says he is aware of himself reading some other person’s words. (Sometimes, to be fair, those words are ones that I myself have written.) This, I would say, is a nearly synchronic experience for him rather than a diachronic one; it is far more spatial than temporal.

Our son Seth, as he neither hears nor sees anything, at least when not “consciously” trying to problem-solve, is even less self-aware than my David. He “feels” the information coming together then; this information, moreover, seems to do so “automatically.”

Adam, however, is only ever unaware of himself thinking when – in problem-solving mode – he is thinking about either math or science, in which case, as I have already indicated, it seems to be either math or science that is thinking him.

Jenny, Adam’s wife, is somewhat self-aware when solving (in words) what she calls either “technical” or difficult problems – but then again she hears more than one voice conversing (“Socratically”) at such times. This is no seemingly self-same monologue. And when solving visual problems, or when just thinking about something visual, she is no more self-aware than is David when he is answering questions (and seeing words and images combine) or than is Seth when solving any kind of problem (and feeling information combine).

Our son Sam, when thinking about a particular thing, becomes less and less self-aware – over a short period of time – as such thinking gets easier and easier: “[W]hatever subvocalizing I’m doing basically disappears once I become comfortable or fluent with a subject.” Our adopted son, David, has become less and less self-aware over a lifetime of thinking.

The point is this. Not only did Derrida – early on – find the experience of hearing one’s own or rather his own thinking (as interior monologue) to be the most basic form of self-awareness. He also, as Lawlor indicates, based much of his later work upon an othering or an alienating of that experience: “Indeed, it is possible to say without exaggeration that every deconstruction Derrida has ever written targets auto-affection. Deconstruction aims to show that all auto-affection, however it is conceived, is really and fundamentally hetero-affection. All the neologisms or redefined terms that Derrida developed throughout his life (from ‘différance’ to ‘anachronism’) attempt to name this aporetical relation between sameness and otherness to which the deconstruction of auto-affection leads us.” If, however, thinking – for you – is not interior monologue, if, for instance, and to be rather reductive about it, you are now so right-brained as to think primarily in images, or are left-brained but still do not think primarily in words, and if, in addition, you are not well aware – at the time – of doing so, then what is basic self-awareness for you? How is that to be deconstructed? If it is not to be deconstructed by finding otherness within sameness, by finding or by imagining, say, the voice of someone else within your own voice, then what, precisely, is to be found within what?

Perhaps because, like Roland Barthes, I am an amateur pianist, and because the only time there is no interior monologue (of which I am always well aware) droning on and on in my head is when, seated at some instrument, I am re-creating piano music written by some virtuoso pianist-composer (such as Chopin) whose playing I have never heard and later recorded by any number of virtuoso pianists whose playing I have, I think that the deconstruction of whatever your own form of basic self-awareness is may still involve, to invoke Lawlor’s paraphrase of Voice and Phenomenon, finding ideality within actuality – or perhaps actuality within ideality. Barthes writes in his autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes: “the piece, in the perfection attributed to it but never really attained, functions as a bit of a hallucination.” One hears, as a mere amateur pianist, one’s own imperfect playing while also imagining it to be the perfect playing of a virtuoso. (One is well aware at the time that this is merely imagined.) Or one thinks one hears a virtuoso playing while also knowing (without quite hearing) this to be merely oneself. Perhaps basic self-awareness for you, whatever it is other than thinking, is almost always something like that. For isn’t it often like that – at least for as long as it takes to create it – with your own, as it certainly is with my own, writing?



Rousseau, as quoted in Of Grammatology, has this to say about infantile babblers and also about breast-feeders: “It has long been a subject of inquiry whether there ever was a natural language common to all; no doubt there is, and it is the language of children before they [have learned] to speak. This language is inarticulate, but it has tone, stress, and meaning. The use of our own language has led us to neglect it so far as to forget it altogether. Let us study children and we shall soon learn it afresh from them. Nurses can teach us this language; they understand all their nurslings say to them, they answer them, and keep up long conversations with them; and though they use words, these words are quite useless.”

I’m sure that Derrida himself believed no such thing about “nurses” understanding this “language” – although he may have believed that on some level infants do – nor about such women teaching it to us. I’m sure, too, that he didn’t much care for literature that, to quote Julia Kristeva in Revolution in Poetic Language, might try to “represent” it – although for the sake of argument he may have pretended to.

Barthes, likewise, did pretend to – whereas in reality he much preferred what (in S/Z) he called “readerly” literature. And when even breast-feeding-related “readerly” writing – like stuff by Balzac or Proust – seemed to Barthes to babble, he found it pretty boring. “The writer of this text employs an unweaned language: imperative, automatic, unaffectionate, a minor disaster of static (those milky phonemes which the remarkable Jesuit, van Ginnekin, posited between writing and language),” he writes in his autobiography (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes): “these are the motions of ungratified sucking, of an undifferentiated orality, intersecting the orality which produces the pleasures of gastrosophy and of language. You address yourself to me so that I may read you, but I am nothing to you except this address; in your eyes, I am the substitute for nothing, for no figure (hardly that of the mother); for you I am neither a body nor even an object (and I couldn’t care less: I am not the one whose soul demands recognition), but merely a field, a vessel for expansion. It can be said that after all you have written this text quite apart from bliss; and this prattling text is then a frigid text, as any demand is frigid until desire, until neurosis forms in it.”

Kristeva, unlike Derrida and Barthes, really does seem to care for such literature: post-19th-century “poetry” that, in her terms, can help readers improve their subjectivity via the representation of if not babble, exactly, then that of “the semiotic chora” – via the inscription and dissemination, that is, of “signifiance.” (Chora, beginning with Plato, connotes a womb-like “receptacle” out of which “forms” materialize. Signifiance is a term that Barthes, Deleuze, and Guattari picked up on, but I’m not sure that any other major theorist ever has.) Kristeva is positioned, moreover, to truly understand such “poetry” insofar as that (pre-holophrastic) “semiotic” is accessed via what Lacan had called the “symbolic” – via ordinary, reasonable language. (Holophrasis is the pre-linguistic use of a single word to express a complex idea. A holophrase may resemble an interjection, but whereas an interjection is linguistic, and has a specific grammatical function, a holophrase is simply a vocalization memorized by rote and used without grammatical intent. Toddlers pass through a holophrastic stage early in life, during which they are able to communicate complex ideas using only single words and simple fixed expressions. As an example, the word “food” might be used to mean “Give me food” and the word “up” could convey “Pick me up.”) Kristeva does not, however, seem to care much for those breast-feeding “nurses” of Rousseau and perhaps Derrida. True, the first mention of these women – or figures of women – in Revolution in Poetic Language sounds somewhat appreciative. “Plato himself leads us to [the process by which signifiance is constituted] when he calls this receptacle or chora nourishing and maternal;” this receptacle, moreover, “is a mother and wet nurse” for him. But Kristeva then writes that Heidegger’s cura (or care) is both insufficiently semiotic and a mere “metaphor for the wet-nurse, the mother, or the nurse. Reassuring and promising something beyond the eternal frustration that it simultaneously proclaims, Heideggerean cura breaks off the logical flight of [Hegelian] negativity and replaces it with a narrow domain that starts out being simply ethical but turns out to belong to a mere medical ethic that has a kind of patching-up or first-aid function.” (Kristeva does appreciate Hegel’s “negativity” for its anticipation of her notion of the “semiotic.” Unfortunately, it all too quickly becomes subsumed, for Hegel, by mere consciousness.) She cares, instead, for those babies. She likes them, in theory, when they’re (proto-semiotically) babbling. She likes them, in theory, when they’re (proto-semiotically) suckling. “Suction or expulsion, fusion with or rejection of the mother’s breast seem to be at the root of this eroticization of the vocal apparatus and, through it, the introduction into the linguistic order of an excess of pleasure marked by a redistribution of the phonematic order, morphological structure, and even syntax: portmanteau words in Joyce and syntax in Mallarmé, for example.” And of course she truly loves them when they’ve grown up to be such “poets” as Joyce, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, and Artaud.

I will not have been the first to point out that not all of these “poets” write what most of us consider poetry, nor that there are no female writers in this list, nor that Kristeva’s own discourse in Revolution in Poetic Language is anything but semiotic. But of course that book of hers began life as a doctoral dissertation, and so really could not have afforded at the time to do anything like babble. And I know of no women writers in French up to that time who can be said to have produced anything like prose work (or “text”) by Joyce. Still, I assume that Kristeva read Joyce in the original English. (Is “text” truly translatable? I’d have to say no, given what I understood of this book.) This means that had she chosen to, she could have discussed such Anglophone writers as Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. So perhaps even those two women – although childless in real life – remind her too much of a wet nurse.



I have seen, by now, a number of interesting and perhaps sublime descriptions of modern and/or postmodern literature. But what if these aren’t trying – or are not only trying – to say something true? What if they are also moves in some academic – and maybe agonistic – language game? When, then, should one’s own – or should my own move – now be?

Foucault, in The Order of Things, writes that the word “literature” is of recent date “because at the beginning of the nineteenth century, at a time when language was burying itself within its own density as an object and allowing itself to be traversed, through and through, by knowledge, it was also reconstituting itself elsewhere, in an independent form, difficult of access, folded back upon the enigma of its own origin and existing wholly in reference to the pure act of writing.” And so, he continues, “literature becomes [in the twentieth century] progressively more differentiated from the discourse of ideas, and encloses itself within a radical intransitivity; it becomes detached from all the values that were able to keep it in general circulation during the Classical age (taste, pleasure, naturalness, truth), and creates within its own space everything that will ensure a ludic denial of them (the scandalous, the ugly, the impossible); it breaks with the whole definition of genres as forms adapted to an order of representations, and becomes merely a manifestation of a language which has no other law than that of affirming – in opposition to all other forms of discourse – its own precipitous existence; and so there is nothing for it to do but to curve back in a perpetual return upon itself, as if the discourse could have no other content than the expression of its own form; it addresses itself to itself as a writing subjectivity, or seeks to re-apprehend the essence of all literature in the movement that brought it into being and thus all its threads converge upon the finest of points – singular, instantaneous, and yet absolutely universal – upon the simple act of writing.”

Derrida, in Of Grammatology, seems to agree with Foucault that some kind of epistemic break happened here: “The natural tendency of theory – of what unites philosophy and science in the epistémè – will push rather toward filling in the breach than toward forcing the closure. It was normal that the breakthrough was more secure and penetrating on the side of literature and poetic writing: normal also that it, like Nietzsche, at first destroyed and caused to vacillate the transcendental authority and dominant category of the epistémè: being. This is the meaning of the work of Fenellosa whose influence upon Ezra Pound and his poetics is well-known; this irreducibly graphic poetics was, with that of Mallarmé, the first break in the most entrenched Western tradition.” But he also writes that everything you might call literary modernity tries to “mark literary specificity against subjugation to the poetic, that is to say to the metaphoric, to what Rousseau himself analyzes as spontaneous language. If there is a literary originality, which is by no means a simple certainty, it must free itself if not from the metaphor, which tradition too has judged reducible, at least from the savage spontaneity of the figure as it appears in nonliterary language. This modern protestation can be triumphant or, in Kafka’s manner, denuded of all illusion, despairing, and no doubt more lucid: literature, which lives by being outside of itself, within the figures of a language which is primarily not its own, would die as well through a reentry into itself by way of the nonmetaphor.”

This seems to disagree with Kristeva who in Revolution in Poetic Language associates literary modernity – via its access to “the semiotic” – with a kind of savage spontaneity (or pre-oedipal drives), with unmediated access to the mother’s breast (or womb, perhaps), and also (therefore?) with metaphor. “Among the capitalist mode of production’s numerous signifying practices, only certain literary texts of the avant-garde (Mallarmé, Joyce) manage to cover the infinity of the process, that is, reach the semiotic chora, which modifies linguistic structures.” But she also associates such modernity with jouissance – or with what Barthes (in The Pleasure of the Text) will call not mere pleasure but (erotic) bliss: “Art – this semiotization of the symbolic – thus represents the flow of jouissance into language. Whereas sacrifice assigns jouissance its productive limit in the social and symbolic order, art specifies the means – the only means – that jouissance harbors for infiltrating that order. In cracking the socio-symbolic order, splitting it open, changing vocabulary, syntax, the word itself, and releasing from beneath them the drives borne by vocalic or kinetic differences, jouissance works its way into the social and symbolic.”

For Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition, “modern aesthetics is an aesthetics of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure.” Proust’s one novel – says Lyotard, oddly – is an example of this. The two novels by Joyce, though, are postmodern. They represent “that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.”

My move now is this: to point out that some of these critics – or theorists – both prefer and privilege the let’s just say avant-garde writing they tend (to quote Lyotard) to “enjoy” – whereas some prefer and privilege that which they tend not to. For Foucault, the literature must be “ludic” – which means playful. For Derrida, though, it must be “lucid” – which for him, as for Kafka, means desperate. For Kristeva, once again, it must be orgasmic. For Lyotard, though, it must deny readers any formal “solace” as well as any “pleasure.” That those novels by Joyce (Ulysses, Finnegans Wake) are one thing for Kristeva – blissful – and another thing for Lyotard – far from blissful – is of course no mere (to once again quote Lyotard) “paradox.” It is both an indication of how complicated – if not quite self-contradictory – the novels are and a sign of how emotionally simple – or both simple-minded and focused – are those novel readers. Aren’t we all, though?


de Man

After demonstrating that Rousseau’s seemingly literary texts (like Julie) and his non-literary ones (like The Social Contract) follow the same rhetorical as well as (perhaps unintentionally) self-deconstructive patterns, thereby suggesting that anything written by the man which seems literary is also non-literary or that anything seemingly non-literary by him is also literary, Paul de Man, in Allegories of Reading, by which title the critic means allegories of mis-reading or “(non)signification,” pretty much treats the purportedly true Confessions by Rousseau as if it’s also a work of fiction. Is this, though, a critical misinterpretation on de Man’s part? I think not. True confessions, on the one hand, are “abject” speech acts in which one assumes theologically, juridically, and psychoanalytically transgressive “subject positions”: sinner, criminal, pervert, and so on. These need not be read “symptomatically,” excepting the psychoanalytic context. They need not be public, excepting the Protestant context. They are “monological,” to cite the Russian formalist Mikhail Bakhtin. They are true, presumably – but for the possibility that all such identity formation involves false consciousness or what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls “misrecognition.” And along with identity formation, true confessions – within these institutional contexts – compel condemnation, absolution, conviction, or cure. Within non-institutional contexts (nowadays, we also confess our “love” or simply lust for one another) these speech acts may compel analogous responses (condemnation, forgiveness, help), but also, and more clearly, require some sort of emotion on the part of both interlocutors: love, pity, even anger. (I just put “love” in scare quotes to remind myself that one of Rousseau’s alter egos, his character denominated “Julie,” who for de Man shares her creator’s turn of mind, deconstructs the metaphorical basis of that emotion … until, that is, the silly girl seems to forget this deconstruction and decides that she adores not her too-poor lover Saint-Preux anymore, but a superhuman if not giant creator whom she chooses to denominate, for want of any non-figurative word, “God.”)

Literary confessions, on the other hand, play both with and against all these rules of formation. And they almost always require symptomatic reading. (The récit form, for example, is profoundly ironic, which is why, say, Michel – André Gide’s alter ego in his novel The Immoralist [1921] – does not recognize, as we the reader do, just why he finds handsome young men so attractive.) Such confessions may even demand symptomatic reading. Derrida, in his (co-authored) book Circumfession (1993), wonders “what I am looking for with this machine avowal, beyond institutions, including psychoanalysis, beyond knowledge and truth, which has nothing to do with it here.” More to the point, Buddy Glass – J.D. Salinger’s alter ego in his novella Seymour: An Introduction (1959) – warns us that: “A confessional passage has probably never been written that didn’t stink a little bit of the writer’s pride in having given up his pride. The thing to listen for, every time, with a public confessor, is what he’s not confessing to. At a certain period of his life (usually, grievous to say, a successful period), a man may suddenly feel it Within His Power to confess that he cheated on his final exams at college, he may even choose to reveal that between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-four he was sexually impotent, but these gallant confessions in themselves are no guarantee that we’ll find out whether he once got piqued at his pet hamster and stepped on its head.” Literary confessions, moreover, are inherently public. According to de Man, all literary confessors – Rousseau in particular – seek “a stage on which to parade [their] disgrace.” (And that’s true, as far as I can tell from all the purportedly fictional confessions that I’ve read as well as from some of the purportedly non-fictional ones … including my own Confessions of a Plagiarist.) They’re also “dialogical”, to cite Bakhtin. (Marguerite Yourcenar’s Alexis [1929] – a private, monological récit in which a married gay man, instead of killing his wife as Gide’s Michel does, both apologizes and explains to her why they must separate – is therefore anomalous.) They “problematize” truth, as Derrida, of course, indicates. (According to the Althusserian critic Michel Foucault, moreover, in his History of Sexuality [1976]: “We have passed from a pleasure to be recounted and heard … to a literature ordered according to the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself, in between the words, a truth which the very form of the confession holds out like a shimmering mirage.”) And they oppose institutional pressure. (According to the Lacanian critic Julia Kristeva, in Powers of Horror [1980]: “Power no longer belongs to the judge-God who preserves humanity from abjection while setting aside for himself alone the prerogative of violence.” It now belongs, she writes, to confessional discourse itself, “or rather to the act of judgment expressed in speech.”) In other words, writers like Gide and Yourcenar – not to mention Rousseau, Salinger, and maybe even “Kopelson” – tend to be rebellious and to either transform or “transvalue” transgression.

Derrida’s Circumfession, much like Althusser’s own such confessional text, The Future Lasts Forever (1994), is, by the way, pretty feeble – which is to say that, unlike Allegories of Reading, they’re both critical failures. Derrida, here as elsewhere, is both coy and uncommunicative – his transgression seems to have something to do with the man’s having been Jewish, but no one else is sure what exactly. And instead of confessing anything he did, Derrida seems here to be blaming his mother for—under Jewish law – making him Jewish. (The word “circumfession,” apparently, is a pun on “circumcision.”) Althusser – even worse – simply won’t accept responsibility, at least not in The Future Lasts Forever, for having killed his wife. (He strangled the poor – Jewish – woman.) He suggests, moreover, that this is something she herself probably wanted him to do. They’re feeble, moreover, because neither Derrida nor Althusser really understands confession – literary or non-literary – as well as de Man, who had a thing or two of his own to confess, like youthful anti-Semitism and not-so-youthful bigamy, but who never bothered, publicly, to do so, did clearly understand it. He understood, for instance, that a confession never eliminates the sense of guilt that in part prompts in part gets produced by this “performative.” This is why Rousseau had to write his own confession, at least of the youthful and yet also profoundly shameful ribbon-stealing and beloved-accusing episode, more than just the once.



The Critical Difference by Barbara Johnson seems “to a very large extent” to have been inspired by Allegories of Reading by Paul de Man – her dissertation director. The two, for instance, share a penchant for the rhetorical trope chiasmus – although it’s possible that de Man picked up this penchant from papers done for him by Johnson. Johnson, moreover, takes as the epigraph for her book de Man’s perhaps pseudo-conversational deconstruction, in Allegories of Reading, of the rhetorical question, What’s the difference? Unlike him, though, she is also interested in rhetorical imperatives. “Rhetorical imperatives,” she writes, “are far from being restricted to poetry; a large proportion of our ordinary conversational devices consists of such expressions as ‘Go jump in a lake,’ ‘Go fly a kite,’ and other more frequent but less mentionable retorts.” By that periphrasis – “less mentionable retorts” – Johnson can only have meant Go fuck yourself. She, by the way, is quite self- or at least other-conscious about the tropes periphrasis or circumlocution. She discusses them in connection with ones deployed by the Prefect of Police in connection with the contents of the unquotable and “purloined” letter in that so-called story by Poe: “After a series of paradoxes and pleas for absolute secrecy, the Prefect describes the problem created by the letter with a proliferation of periphrases which the narrator dubs ‘the cant of diplomacy’”; “The way in which the letter dictates a series of circumlocutions, then, resembles the way in which the path of the letter dictates the characters’ circumvolutions.”

Why, though – I must ask non-rhetorically – not just say Go fuck yourself? It’s a more interesting imperative than either “Go jump in a lake” or “Go fly a kite.” Those two orders, unlike fucking yourself, involve acts that – no matter what one’s biological sex – one might literally do. And even if one does figuratively fuck himself – I say “himself” because the order turns any human addressed, no matter what his or her sex, into an indicatively phallic (but also castrated) human – or, rather, even if one, in understanding this speech act, simply imagines fucking him- or herself, he or she has been made to turn their supposedly self-identical self into an at least two-part one (half penetrator, half penetrated) that’s divided, ideologically, along gender lines. And this is exactly the kind of imaginary act – or thought process – in which Johnson is most interested: that of finding either identity-within-difference (as in metaphor or allegory) or difference-within-identity (as in metaphor, allegory, or fucking yourself). Perhaps, you may be thinking, Johnson does not say it – or quote it – in order not to upset the otherwise highbrow character of her discourse. Yet other such de Man students – fellow deconstructors influenced also by Lacan – have had no such scruple. Lee Edelman, for instance, in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, writes provocatively (and also imperatively): “Queers must respond to the violent force of such constant provocations not only by insisting on our equal right to the social order’s prerogatives, not only by avowing our capacity to promote that order’s coherence and integrity, but also by saying explicitly what Law and the Pope and the whole of the Symbolic order for which they stand hear anyway in each and every expression or manifestation of queer sexuality: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital l’s and small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.” Perhaps, then, Johnson does not say Go fuck yourself because at the time of writing she was still too much, figuratively speaking, of a good little girl or even dutiful daughter to do so. Or maybe she was still too – albeit in a juvenile way – lady-like.

Where, then, is Johnson’s own self-division in this text – if, that is, she does not come to see herself, deconstructively, as divided along gender lines? She comes to see herself, finally, which is to say in her final chapter, on The Purloined Letter, as divided along familial lines: she is both “daughter” to Paul de Man and “mother” (or perhaps “schoolmarm,” a mother surrogate or supplement) to the two figuratively fraternal and possibly oedipal “Jacques” here – Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. (But of course when I say “see” herself, I am well aware that such understanding, or “insight,” to invoke a favorite de Man term, may be only unconscious.) Notice, in particular, how Johnson figures herself as called upon by those two very childish men to resolve some stupid little fight they’re having over some rather brilliant (intellectual) property: “The rivalry over something neither man will credit the other with possessing, the retrospective revision of the origins of both their resemblances and their divisions [Lacan on the “signifier” and Derrida on “writing” – K.K.], thus spirals backward and forward in an indeterminable pattern of cancellation and duplication. If it thus becomes impossible to determine ‘who started it’ (or even whether ‘it’ was started by either one of them), it is also impossible to know who is ahead or even whose ‘turn’ it is – which is what makes the business of getting even so odd.” Notice, too, how this is followed – almost immediately – by a seemingly unrelated reference, by Johnson, to Lacan’s “classroom tests of the schoolboy’s technique” (an even-or-odd game involving marbles). Lacan, here – ostensibly situated as such a “schoolboy’s” (pseudo-paternal) teacher or at least tester – still seems to me, both metonymically and metaphorically – another such boy himself.

Johnson is also, dare I say it, a rather phallic mother (or mother supplement) in that chapter – much like, according to both Marie Bonaparte and the “Lacan” perhaps strategically deployed by Derrida, the Queen, once that letter has been returned to her, in the tale by Poe. (Once again, this is something that Johnson may know about herself only unconsciously.) For despite her parting and perhaps pseudo-modest admission that any knowledge she has of those two men, Lacan and Derrida, has been “framed” by what they themselves have told her (“in this discussion of the letter as what prevents me from knowing whether Lacan and Derrida are really saying the same thing or only enacting their own differences from themselves, my own theoretical ‘frame of reference’ is precisely, to a very large extent the writings of Lacan and Derrida”), she does seem to know a lot more about them, or at least about that fight they’re having, than they themselves could ever have known.



Deleuze and Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus, both show and tell us a number of things about what writing can be. The most interesting such thing they tell us is: “To write is perhaps to bring this assemblage of the unconscious to the light of day, to select the whispering voices, to gather the tribes and secret idioms from which I extract something I call my Self.” I my Self (an example of the “indirect discourse” they love) have long thought this about the kind of writing I most prefer: that in addition to both working and playing with rational thought, with raw emotion, with information, with various cultural artifacts, and with literary language and form, a writer should let him- or herself both work and play with the unconscious. While thinking this, though, I have never presumed – unlike, say, Lacan – to know what the unconscious is. All I have known, or have thought that I’ve known, is that in a number of ways which may benefit writing, the unconscious is a lot “smarter” than we are. It “knows” some things that we don’t or, rather, that we can’t quite fathom consciously and then articulate.

Do Deleuze and Guattari, too, presume to know what the unconscious is? This, in part, is what they say about it. The unconscious is more “rhizome,” metaphorically speaking, than it is (organic) “tree.” (Both linguistics and psychoanalysis, they say, theorize “an unconscious that is itself representative, crystallized into codified complexes, laid out along a genetic axis and distributed within a syntagmatic structure,” whereas a rhizomatic map of the unconscious should foster “connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a plane of consistency.”) The unconscious, moreover, is “an acentered system;” it is “a machinic network of finite automata.” The unconscious is “fundamentally a crowd.” It is “an affair of world-wide population on the full body of the earth.” It consists of a “multiplicity of libidinal ‘currents.’” (What, then, is “multiplicity” for Deleuze and Guattari? “Lines of flight or of deterritorialization, becoming-[animal], becoming inhuman, deterritorialized intensities.”) Also, “any individual caught up in a mass has his/her pack unconscious, which does not necessarily resemble the packs of the mass to which that individual belongs.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the unconscious “must be constructed, not rediscovered.”

What does all this mean? Can it be fathomed by anyone and then articulated by him or her? Here’s one attempt, by the philosopher John Carvalho and now reproduced by me, once again, in indirect discourse: Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between connective, disjunctive, and conjunctive syntheses in their revisionist interpretation of what orthodox psychoanalysis ultimately, after perhaps repressing Freud’s discovery of the unconscious (or so Lacan would have it), reduced to the id. On the standard Freudian view, the id is the source of the desires which the ego seeks to harness to satisfy the physical needs of the body, on the one hand, and the psychical needs of a stable identity, on the other. On this same view, what the body wants is complicated by the censoring mechanism of the super-ego, which insists on the repression of those desires deemed detrimental to the life of the individual and the species. According to Freud, this dynamic of desire and interdiction is represented in the drama of Oedipus, which structures, for the best, the phylogeny and ontogeny of human kind. Where Freud sees a theater of desire and deferred satisfaction, however, Deleuze and Guattari see the libidinal cathexes of a productive unconscious, and where Freud sees the neurotic drama of Oedipus as inevitable, these two collaborators see “the psychotic [or perhaps schizophrenic] out for a walk” as a point of departure for overcoming the Oedipal impasse. The psychotic does not produce desires that cannot be satisfied and must be repressed, Deleuze and Guattari indicate, but a “desiring production” that does not need or lack satisfaction or paranoid repression. They introduce the connective, disjunctive, and conjunctive syntheses to account for this way of putting Oedipus out of play. For them, desiring production is an account of the unconscious as a process that advances on Freud’s psychoanalytic model by incorporating the political economy of Karl Marx and the libidinal economy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The philosopher Christian Kerslake, in a book called Deleuze and the Unconscious, finds that the psychoanalysis of Carl Jung, Freud’s erstwhile collaborator, has been incorporated as well. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari have this (among other things) to say about Jung: that one should appreciate how inhuman his theory very nearly is, because “it assigns the animal a particularly important role in dreams, myths, and human collectivities.” But not just any animal – not an animal, for instance, like my little dog “Jocko.” (He’s a miniature dachshund.) But then again, not one like that which Deleuze and Guattari most prefer. “We must distinguish three kinds of animals,” they write. “First, individuated animals, family pets, sentimental, Oedipal animals each with its own petty history, ‘my’ cat, ‘my’ dog.” And then there is a second kind: “animals with characteristics or attributes; genus, classification, or State animals, animals as they are treated in the great divine myths, in such a way as to extract from them series or structures, archetypes or models (Jung is in any event profounder than Freud). Finally, there are more demonic animals, pack or affect animals that form a multiplicity, a becoming, a population, a tale…”

How, then, does one “construct” such an unconscious in writing? The two men tell us, rather comically (and perhaps Self-contradictorily), that “crazy talk is not enough” – that in each case of writing we must judge whether what we see is merely “an adaptation of an old semiotic, a new variety of a particular mixed semiotic,” or whether it’s “the process of creation of an as yet unknown regime.” What they show us – in the writing of A Thousand Plateaus – is, presumably, just such a process of creation. They show us, moreover, how to make “rhizomatic” connections across various disciplines, how (like Proust, perhaps) to skid from metaphor to metaphor to metaphor, and how to deploy musical refrains that always seem to vary from recurrence to recurrence to recurrence. They even show us, perhaps, that it pays to be pretty high.



For such a funny guy, Slavoj Žižek is pretty focused – perhaps subconsciously – on death. (Aren’t we all?) I say this not so much because of what he says about our (human) “death drive” in The Sublime Object of Ideology. I say it because of some of his examples – and for me, being both death-focused (if not death-driven) and Jewish, these are the most memorable examples he provides – of what Jacques Lacan means by the unrepresentable and yet somehow horribly enjoyable “real.” The first example is that of the Nazi (but not only Nazi) concentration camps. Žižek writes:

It is the same with a phenomenon that designates most accurately the “perverse” obverse of twentieth-century civilization: concentration camps. All the different attempts to attach this phenomenon to a concrete image (“Holocaust,” “Gulag”…), to reduce it to a product of a concrete social order (Fascism, Stalinism…) – what are they if not so many attempts to elude the fact that we are dealing here with the ‘real’ of our civilization which returns as the traumatic kernel in all social systems?

The second example of the “real” is that of the (wreck of) “the” Titanic. (The real name of the ship was Titanic, not The Titanic.) Žižek writes:

[Look] at the photos of the wreck of the Titanic taken recently by undersea cameras – where lies the terrifying power of fascination exercised by these pictures? It is, so to speak, intuitively clear that this fascinating power cannot be explained by the symbolic over-determination, by the metaphorical meaning of the Titanic: its last resort is not that of representation but that of a certain inert presence. The Titanic is a Thing in the Lacanian sense: the material leftover, the materialization of the terrifying, impossible jouissance.

The third example of the “real” is that of some rather unreal – by which I mean fictive – paintings. Žižek writes:

The sublime object is an object which cannot be approached too closely: if we get too near it, it loses its sublime features and becomes an ordinary vulgar object – it can persist only in an interspace, in an intermediate state, viewed from a certain perspective, half-seen. If we want to see it in the light of day, it changes into an everyday object, it dissipates itself, precisely because in itself it is nothing at all. Let us take a well-known scene from Fellini’s Roma: the workers digging tunnels for a subway find the remnants of some old Roman buildings; they call the archaeologists, and when they enter the buildings together, a marvelous view awaits them; walls full of beautiful frescos of immobile, melancholic figures – but the paintings are too fragile, they cannot withstand the open air and immediately begin to dissolve, leaving the spectators alone with the blank walls…

What do these three things – or “Things” – have in common? First of all, all three of them are literal structures that were originally designed, in part, for habitation. (The Nazi camps, at least, were of course also – and ultimately – designed for genocide. Titanic was also designed for transportation. The frescos are found not, as Žižek says, in multiple “buildings” but in one single home. “A Roman house from two thousand years ago,” says one architect as they all enter the scene.) So, perhaps, for Žižek the poststructuralist (if not for Lacan the, according to Žižek, non-poststructuralist Hegelian), the “real” has something to do with the (conceptual) ruination of at least figurative structures. Second of all, the literal ruination here is rather elemental. (I refer, here, to the four classical elements – earth, air, water, and fire – and not to our modern periodic table thereof.) The dead bodies of millions of Jews (and other Others) were of course incinerated (in ovens) at those concentration camps – and some victims there were just burned alive (in pits). The Titanic photographs to which Žižek refers are of a sunken ocean liner that has by now been badly decomposed by water. (Or at least in water.) The Fellini frescoes are decomposed by, as Žižek puts it, “the open air.” (This is underscored, in the film, by the rather unrealistic sound, on its soundtrack, of howling wind. It sounds like they’re all above ground.) Third of all, these three “Things” are all, in some sense, tombs. Or rather, they’re now figurative tombs in which any living and then dead bodies that were there have long since disappeared: turned to ashes within ovens or pits and then blown away by wind; drowned and then eaten away by oceanic scavengers (or so I imagine they’ve been); buried (or cremated) outside of Rome and then eaten by worms.

Now, we don’t need either structuralists or poststructuralists to have taught us that what really (as opposed to “really”) distinguishes us humans from all the rest of the animals is that we know (consciously and/or within the symbolic order – Lacan’s “big Other”) that we’re all going to die someday. (Or so we imagine that no other animal could possibly know this about itself.) We alone know, too, that we alone may be senselessly killed by someone else – or even by some government. (We know, too, that we may die – like many aboard Titanic – in some senseless accident.) And this – the sense that any one of us, even if we’re not Jewish, may be senselessly killed – is not just a piece of universal (human) knowledge; it is also, I would argue, although I don’t think that Žižek would agree with me, a piece of primal fear. As such, then, isn’t this fear not so very different from the primal and by now subconscious fear of being killed and then devoured by some unseen and horrible predator: a cave bear, say, or a big saber-toothed tiger? I believe we’re all hard-wired to (still) sense such a pre-historic, pre-linguistic, pre-ideological, and by now non-existent threat. (The cave bear [Ursus spelaeus] was a species of bear that lived in Europe during the Pleistocene Epoch and became extinct at the beginning of the Last Glacial Maximum, about 27,500 years ago. Saber-toothed tigers, also and more properly known as saber-toothed cats, were found worldwide from the Eocene Epoch to the end of the Pleistocene.) That’s why all kids (still) have such nightmares: the monster under the bed, the monster in the closet. That’s why in the end, as in the beginning (of human history), Lacan’s “real” may (still) have as much to do with other life-forms (lions, and tigers, and bears – oh my!) that once really did threaten very early humankind, or just hominid-kind, as it has to do with our all-too-real inhumanity (as at Auschwitz)– or just idiocy. I mean, that is, the idiocy of people designing something like Titanic – if not the idiocy of us actually using the thing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s