Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Reflections on this Blog

I can't work under the restraints of the rules against plagiarism,under the needs and necessities of an academic performance, the reflective 'stops' and awkward attributive designs which for me that involves. Not that I don't deploy them on occasions because after all I wouldn't want anyone to think that everything I say or write is 'original' , that I owe nothing to anybody else when, in fact, I owe everything to them, even that which is most intimate and personal, seemingly drawn from the deepest recesses of my own experience. I just have a extremely difficult time disentangling the threads of what I know and feel, why I know and feel what I do as it is without burdening myself with the huge and complex project of identifying the sources of those thoughts and feelings in a formal structure that finally discounts the concept and ideas I'm juggling except as they might 'be possessed' like any other material commodity in life.
This attitude is reflected in my blog, the site of my primary intellectual effort, which paradoxically tries above all to restrain the expression my 'personal opinions' and simply present the 'findings' of the authors of book I read in their own words, albeit condensed, rearranged and focused on certain points which are of interest to me more or less in a random fashion, that is, without any fully formed intent to make an argument that encompasses a concept of the totality of the life- past and present- we live today, as might be the case in a novel or an essay in the fullest possible sense of that literary form. I'm just not up to it. I have to content myself with presenting multiplicities and in popular forums like Facebook and twitter, moments of reaction to what others say in the negative mode of perception, which I recognize can be over-bearing and selfish but there is no help for it but to withdraw and remain silent.
I do make an effort to turn my blog into something more than it is. For instance, I have undertaken a project to index its contents to a more detailed degree than the search mechanism of Blogspot makes available, I have been pushing aspects of The Critical Tradition. This would be for for a constructive purpose but the job is interminable and I doubt there is enough time nor do I possess the capacity to develop these resources where I could use them to establish myself as an 'original author', an existential impossibility as I see it currently.Every attempt I have made in the past has turned to ashes. I look back on those efforts with contempt and shame. I have no desire to reproduce the like. I'd just be wasting my time in self-flagellation. I am satisfied to live and work with my own obvious limitations.
I am where the North Sea touches Alabama

Friday, February 16, 2018

Kabbalah by Gershom Scholem

[Although Scholem’s writings cover a whole range of Jewish mysticism from the Merkavah texts of the early centuries C.E. through Hasidism, he was most concerned with the recovery of the Kabbalah, the secret traditions about the meaning of Jewish life and practice that first emerged in twelfth-century France and Spain and spread throughout the Jewish world.]

In the esoteric tradition of the Kabbalah, the highly ramified mystical tendencies in Judaism developed and left their historical record. The Kabbalah was not, as is still sometimes supposed, a unified system of mystical and specifically theosophical thinking. There is no such thing as ‘the doctrine of the Kabbalists.” Actually, we encounter widely diversified systems and quasi-systems. Fed by subterranean currents probably emanating from the East Kabbalism first came to light in those parts of southern France, where among non-Jews the Catharist, or neo-Manichaean,the movement was at its height.* In thirteenth century Spain it quickly obtained its fullest development, culminating in the pseudo-epigraphic Zohar of Rabbi Moses de Leon, which became a kind of Bible to the Kabbalists and for centuries enjoyed an unquestioned position as a sacred an authoritative text. In sixteenth century Palestine, Kabbalism knew a second flowering, in the course of which it became a central historical and spiritual current in Judaism; for it supplied an answer to the question of the meaning of exile, a question which had taken on a new urgency with the catastrophe of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Fired with explosive fervor in the great Messianic movement centering around Sabbatai Zevi, which even in its collapse provoked a mystical heresy, a heretical Kabbalah, whose impulses and developments, paradoxically enough, played a significant part- long overlooked and becoming clear to us only today – in the rise of modern Judaism.

From the start this resurgence of mythical conceptions in the thinking of Jewish mystics provided a bond with certain impulses in the popular faith, fundamental impulses springing from the simple man’s fear of life and death, to which Jewish philosophy had no satisfactory response. Jewish philosophy paid a heavy price for its disdain of the primitive levels of human life. It ignored the terrors from which myths are made, as though denying the very existence of the problem. Nothing so sharply distinguishes philosophers and Kabbalists as their attitude toward the problem of evil and the demonic. By and large, the Jewish philosophers dismissed it as a pseudo-problem, while to the Kabbalists it became one of the chief motives of their thinking. Their feeling for the reality of evil and the horror of the demonic, which they did not evade like the philosophers but tried to confront, related to their endeavors in a central point with the popular faith and with all those aspects of Jewish life in which these fears found their expression.

Unlike the philosophical allegorists who looked for metaphysical ideas in ritual, the Kabbalists, indeed, in their interpretations of the old rites often reconstituted their original meaning, or at least the meaning they had in the minds of the common people. The demonization of life was assuredly one of the most effective and at the same time most dangerous factors in the development of the Kabbalah, but this again demonstrates its kinship with the religious preoccupation of the Jewish masses. Thus it is less paradoxical than it may seem at first sight that a largely aristocratic group of mystics should have enjoyed so enormous and influence among the common people. It would be hard to find many religious customs and rituals that owed their existence or development to philosophical ideas. But the number of rites owing their origins, or at least the concrete forms in which they impose themselves, to the Kabbalistic consideration is legion. In this descent from the heights of theosophical speculation to the depths of popular thought and action, the ideas of the Kabbalists undoubtedly lost much of their radiance. In their concrete embodiment, they often became crude. The dangers with which myth and magic threaten the religious mind are exemplified in the history of Judaism by the development of the Kabbalah, and anyone who concerns himself seriously with the thinking of the Kabbalists will be torn between feelings of admiration and revulsion.

It was the very boldness of the gnostic paradox in  Kabbalistic cosmology- exile as an element in God Himself- that accounted in large part for the enormous influence of their ideas on the Jews. . .

[God has removed from himself that which we know as the world; that is, evil and the demonic have been purged from original creation- variously conceived- and this is the world. Never-the less, emanations of Creation remain in the world, largely veiled or secret subject to the ‘decoding’ of mystical knowing. This involves various aspects of creation distributed at many levels- sometimes as many as there are verses or letters in the Torah- including a separation of the original unity of the masculine and feminine.  The job of men is the restoration (tikkun)  of the scattered,  occluded emanations of divine ‘light’ from the world to the broken unity of Creation by means of their religious acts, rites and ritual. The homology is not only with Jewish exile but human language itself: the bar that stands between the signifier and the signified, the broken link between what we say about the world and the world as it is ‘out there.’- my inadequate summary of the Kabbalistic situation]

It lies in the very nature of mysticism as a specific phenomena within historical systems of religion that two conflicting tendencies should converge in it. Since historical mysticism does not hover in space, but is mystical view of a specific reality, since it subjects the positive contents of a concrete phenomena such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam to a new mystical interpretation without wishing to come into conflict with the living reality and traditions of these religions, mystical movements face a characteristic contradiction. On the one hand, the new view of God and often enough of the world, cloaked in the  deliberately conservative  attitude of men who are far from wishing to infringe on, let alone, overthrow tradition, but wish rather to strengthen it with the help of a new vision. Yet, on the other hand, despite this attitude of piety towards tradition, the element of novelty in the impulses that are here at work is often enough  reflected in a bold, if not sacrilegious, transformation of the traditional religious contents. This tension between the conservative and the innovationist or even revolutionary runs through the whole history of mysticism. Where it becomes conscious, it colors the personal behavior of the great mystics. But even when in full lucidity they choose to take the conservative attitude toward their tradition, they always walk the steep and narrow path bordering on heresy.

. . .we have seen how the Jews built their historical situation into their cosmology. Kabbalistic myth had ‘meaning’ because it sprang from a fully conscious relation to a reality which, experienced symbolically even in its horror, was  able to project mighty symbols of Jewish life as an extreme case of human life pure and simple. We can no longer fully perceive, I might say, ‘live’;, the symbols of the Kabbalah without considerable effort, if at all. We confront the old questions in a new way. But if symbols spring from a reality that is pregnant with feeling and illuminated by the colorless light of intuition, and if, as has been said, all fulfilled time is mythical, then surely we may say this: what greater opportunity has the Jewish people ever had than in the horror of defeat, in the struggle and victory of these last years, in its utopian withdrawal into its own history, to fullfil its encounter with its own genius, its true and ‘perfect’ nature?

* see http://johnshaplin.blogspot.com/2013/02/preface-to-montaillou-langue-doc.html

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Durcharbeiten by Samo Tomsic

This is  a discussion of the equivalencies and differences in the epistemology and politics  of Marx and Freud as mediated by Jacques Lacan; the analytic ‘working out’ of what  it is about Capitalism that’s unconscious, or how capitalism has colonized our mental apparatus. The author detects homology in the works of these three ‘giants’ in the critical tradition.  I cannot elaborate the full intricacies  of Tomsic’s arguments here, but will proceed with those matters which I have most easily been able to grasp.

Although Tomsic makes no mention of Adorno or the Frankfurt School of criticism, his main assertion is that Marx, Freud and Lacan practiced negative dialectics, in a surprisingly well- developed way.

“ The entire work of Marx and Lacan,” Tomsic remarks, “ could be considered an immense footnote and precision on Hegel’s statement that ‘Speech and work are outer expressions in which the individual no longer keeps or possesses himself within himself, but lets the inner get completely outside of him, leaving it to the mercy of something other than himself (Phenomenology of Spirit, 1977 Oxford edition page 187).” To the general reader the position of ‘The Other” in these discussions might seem ambiguous, both existing or not-existing depending on the context in which the term is deployed. We may say ‘The Other’ exists in  reality but it is not real. “In reality,” Tomsic writes. ‘the process of montage or construction is at stake ( the creation of a world view or ideology), while the real demands decomposition and dissolution of appearances.”

Perhaps it would be best  to clarify this complex matter by quoting Tomsic’s  more or less summary explanation of the Feud/Marx method near the end of his book. First, however, it is necessary to pin down what  the terms ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ in the passage refer to, beside the influence Saussure. The world (the signified) is out there, but descriptions of the world (signifiers) are not.  Truth cannot be out the- cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there.

The intertwining of the epistemological and the political problem becomes evident here. The symptom ( class conflict, the fetish, the commodity) is the return of the truth as such in the gap of certain knowledge, pointing beyond the field of positive science which supports, for instance the medical notion of symptom. The truth of cognition remains factual but comes in pair with error. Speaking truth, by contrast, disrupts the regime of knowledge by introducing an enunciation that goes beyond the enunciated and uncovers the detachment of the signifier from its seemingly adequate relation to the signified. Consequently, the autonomy of the signifiers implies another regime of truth, and this is what Lacan describes as the ‘truth as such’ – the conflictual rather than the factual  truth. This conflictual truth (detached from the ‘out there’ by its very autonomy) corrupts a specific type of knowledge, which strives to constitute the ‘beautiful order’, an ordering knowledge of science, but also certain philosophies, religion and political economy. This regime of knowledge necessarily excludes the conflictual dimension of the truth and affirms the doctrine of truth-value, adequacy, facticity or convention. In this epistemological conflict, we could envision a particular expression of what Althusser called “class struggle theory,” which manifests here through the struggle for a doctrine of truth and knowledge that does not subscribe to the positivistic ideal of scientificity . Herein lies the epistemological and political novelty of psychoanalysis ( and Marx’s dialectical materialism): ‘ Analysis came to announce to us that there is a knowledge  that does not know itself, supported by the signifier as such. . . .rooted in the signifier’s pure  and autonomous difference (labor-power in Marx’s formulation).

There is no cultural metaposition from which to analyze  the structural features of individual psyche, social relations or political economy. Structure (which is always discursive) itself only provides a minimum of consistency by constituting the subjective ( grounding social relations in biological differences, for example) and social reality ( on the abstraction of ‘The Economy” with its autonomous, hidden providences) while simultaneously introducing into this reality a maximum of instability that manifests through the formation of symptoms, crisis or revolution. Herein lies the hope for transformation and progress though we can hardly say  a priori of what that transformation and progress will consist.

Tomsic’s argument is theoretically dense though with many flashes of insight into the ‘concrete” of everyday struggle. Towards the end he gets to the main polemical intent of the whole book which is an attack of “Identity Politics’ so called:

. . .identitarian politics pursued the proliferation of minoritarian identities and moved towards the problematic of representation (e.g. gender quota) which successfully neutralized the language of revolutionary politics. The subject of identitarian politics no less rejects the actual subject of revolutionary politics, which is constitutively pre-identitarian, non-individual and non-psychological, hence irreducible to particular identities or identifications. In the end, identity politics proposes its own version of the (capitalist) narcissistic subject.

For the non-identical subject of the unconscious, Freud and Lacan argued that it could be discovered only under the conditions and within the horizon of the modern scientific revolution (
with its provisional hypothesis rather than ‘command’ performances). This means that the subject of modern politics is the subject of modern science, and while politics grounded on the economic and legal abstractions repeats the capitalist rejection of this negative subjectivity, communist politics would have to start from the practical mobilization and organization that Marx isolated in his science of value (the autonomy of labor power, now a commodity defined by its exchange value). Lacan’s reading of Marx insists that his critique comes down to a theoretical isolation, a materialist theory of the subject, which provides a new orientation of political practice. While capitalism considers the subject to be nothing more than a narcissistic animal. Marxism and psychoanalysis reveal that the subject of revolutionary politics is an alienated animal, which, in its most intimate interior, includes its other. His inclusion is the main feature of a non-narcissistic love and consequently of a social link that is not rooted in self-love.

Marx argues in Grundisse that greed itself is the product of a definite social development, not natural, as opposed to historical. Desire is not the producer – it is itself produced, while the producer is situated elsewhere.  How Freud exactly approaches the relation between desire and productive unconscious labor will be examined below; what matters now is that for Freud no reality is consistently objective and every worldview, every ideological construction, contains ‘wish-fulfillment’ . . . The task of psychoanalysis is thus in clear opposition to world views, It does not interpret reality by feeding it with more meaning – it creates (or attempts to create) the conditions under which the subject will be able to produce a transformative act (homologous to Marxian praxis).

An opposition exists in these writings between need and demand, pleasure (the object of desire) and jouissance, (the insatiable productions of the drive), between the useful and the useless. So, as the joke goes, capitalism commands :  “Enjoy yourselves, be miserable.” tethered to a political economy where incessant production is an end in itself and the intensification of work is virtually infinite, only the effects of war and global warming holding it back, and the colonizing of bodies by the sovereign discourse of abstractions like “the Economy” knows no limit. The only thing Americans own collectively is the national debt whose creditors are the banks and the ‘wizards of finance’, a fetish-figure analogous, or should I say homologous, to the ‘princes, nobles and prelates’ of medieval  times.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Basic Ideological Motif of Freudianism (1927) by V.N.Voloshinov

Voloshinov went to the root of Freud’s theory and method, arguing that what is for him the central concept of psychoanalysis, “the unconscious,” was a fiction. He argued that the phenomena that were taken by Freud as evidence for “the unconscious” constituted instead a aspect of “the conscious”, albeit one that deviated ideologically from the rest of it, an “unofficial conscious” at odds with a person’s “official conscious.” For Voloshinov, “the conscious” was a monologue, a use of language, “inner speech” as he called it. As such, the conscious participated in all the properties of language, particularly, for Voloshinov, its social essence. And thus Voloshinov could argue that the unconscious was linguistic in nature because it was actually an aspect of the conscious, and, in turn, that it was a social phenomena because it was linguistic. This type of argumentation stood behind Voloshiniov’s charge that Freudianism presented humans in an inherently false, individualistic, asocial, and ahistorical setting.]

What, then, is the basic ideological motif of Freudianism?

A human being’s fate, the whole content of his life and creative activity – of his art, if he is an artist, of his scientific theories, if he is a scientist, of his political, program and measures, if he is a politician, and so on – are wholly and exclusively determined by the vicissitudes of his sexual instinct. Everything else represents merely the overtones of the mighty and fundamental melody of sex.

If a person’s consciousness tells him otherwise about the motives and driving forces of his life and creativity, then that consciousness is lying. A skeptical attitude towards consciousness is the ever-present accompaniment to the development of Freud’s basic theme.

Thus, what really counts in a human being is not at all what determines his place and role in history – the class, nation, historical period to which he belongs; only his sex and his age are essential, everything else being merely a superstructure. A person’s consciousness is not shaped by his historical existence but by his biological being, the main facet of which is sexuality.

Such is the basic ideological motif of Freudianism.

In its general form this motif is nothing new and original. What is new and original is the elaboration of its component parts – the concepts of sex and age. In this respect Freud did genuinely succeed in disclosing an enormous wealth and variety of new factors and subtleties that had never before been submitted to scientific inquiry, owing to the monstrous hypocrisy of official science in all questions having to do with human sexual life. Freud so expanded and so enriched the concept of sexuality that the notions we ordinarily associate with that concept comprise merely a tiny sector of its vast territory. This must be kept in mind when making judgments about psychoanalysis: One ought not to lose sight of this new and extremely expanded meaning of the term “sexual;” in Freud, when, for instance, accusing psychoanalysis, as is commonly done, of “pansexualism.”

Psychoanalysis has, furthermore, revealed much that is surprising also in the matter of the connection between age and sex. The history of a human’s sexual drive starts at the moment of his birth and proceeds to pass through a long series of individually marked stages of development that by no  means corresponds to the na├»ve scheme of “innocent childhood-puberty-innocent old age.” The riddle about the ages of man that the Sphinx asked Oedipus found in Freud a unique and surprising solution. How sound a solution is another matter, one we shall taken up later on.. Here we only need note that both component parts of the basic ideological motif of Freudianism – sex and age – are invested with thoroughly new and rich content That is why this motif, old in and of itself, has a new ring to it.

It is an old motif. It is constantly repeated during all those periods in the development of mankind when social groups and classes that had been the makers of history are in the process of being replaced. It is the leitmotif of crisis and decline.

Whenever such a social class finds itself in a state of disintegration and is compelled to retreat from the arena of history, its ideology begins insistently to harp on one theme, which it repeats in every possible variation: Man is above all an animal. And from the vantage point of this “revelation” it strives to put a new construction on all the values that make up history and the world. Meanwhile, the second part of Aristotle’s famous formula – “man is a social animal” - is totally ignored.

The ideology of periods such as these shifts its center of gravity onto the isolated biological organism; the three basic events in the life of all animals – birth, copulation, and death – begin to compete with historical events in terms of ideological significance and, as it were, become a surrogate of history.

That which in man is nonsocial and non-historical is abstracted and advanced to the position of the ultimate measure and criterion for all that is social and historical. It is almost as if people of such periods desire to leave the atmosphere of history, which has become too cold and comfortless, and take refuge in the organic warmth of the animal side of life.

That is what happened during the period of the break-up of the Greek city states, during the decline of the Roman Empire, during the period of the disintegration of the feudal-aristocratic order before the French Revolution.

The motif of the supreme power and wisdom of Nature (above all, of man’s nature – his biological drives) and of the impotence of history with its much ado about nothing- this motif equally resounds, despite differences of nuance and variety of emotional register, in such phenomena as epicureanism, stoicism, the literature of the Roman decadence (e.g. Petronius’s Satyricon), the skeptical ratiocination of the French aristocrats in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. A fear of history, a shift in orientation towards the values of personal, private life, the primacy of the biological and the sexual in man – such are features common to all these ideological phenomena.

A now once again, starting at the very end of the nineteenth century, motifs of the same kind have been distinctly voiced in European ideology. For the twentieth century bourgeois philosophy the abstract biological organism has again become the central hero.

The philosophy of “Pure Reason” (Kant), of the “Creative I” (Fichte), of the “Idea and the Absoluter Spirit” (Hegel), that is, that which constituted the undeniably energetic and, in its way, respectable philosophy of the heroic age of the bourgeois (end of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century), such philosophy still commanded a full measure of enthusiasm for history and organization (in the bourgeois style). In the second half of the nineteenth century this philosophy became increasingly diminished and gradually came to a standstill in the lifeless and static schemes of the “school philosophy” of epigones (neo-Kantians, neo-Ficteans, neo-Hegelians) finally to be replaced in our time by the passive and flabby “Philosophy of Life” with its biologistic and psychologistic coloration and its implementation of every possible shade of meaning and combination of the verb “to live.”

The biological terms for the various organic processes have literally deluged the modern Weltanschauung: Efforts are made to find biological metaphors for everything, so as to impart an agreeable animation to whatever the cold of Kantian Pure Reason had benumbed.

All thinkers of modern times, such as Bergson, Simmel, Gomperz, the pragmatists [ James, ‘their father”] Scheler, Driesch, Spengler, despite the many points and ways wherein they disagree with one another, are fundamentally united under the heading of three motifs:

1 Life in the biological sense stands at the center of the philosophical system. Isolated organic unity is declared to be the highest value and criterion of philosophy.
2 Distrust of consciousness. The attempt is made to minimize the role of consciousness in cultural creativity. Hence the criticism of the Kantian doctrine as a philosophy of consciousness.
3 The attempt is made to replace all, objective socioeconomic categories with subjective psychological or biological ones. This explains a tendency to view history and culture as deriving directly from nature and to disregard economics . . .[extended discussion of the above named philosophers] .  .  .

Thus, we see that the basic ideological motif of Freudianism is by no means its motif alone. The motif chimes in unison with all the basic motifs of contemporary bourgeois philosophy.   A sui generis fear of history, an ambition to locate this world precisely in the depths of the organic – these are the features that pervade all systems of contemporary philosophy and constitute the symptom of the disintegration and decline of the bourgeois world.

Freud’s notion of the “sexual” is the extreme pole of fashionable biologism. It gathers and concentrates in one compact and piquant image all the separate elements of modern-day anti-historicism.

What should be our [Marxist] attitude towards this basic theme of cotemporary philosophy? Is there any substance to the attempt to derive all cultural activity from the biological roots of the human organism?

The abstract biological person, the biological individual – that which has become the alpha and omega of modern ideology – does not exist at all. It is an improper abstraction. Outside society and, consequently, outside objective socioeconomic conditions, there is no such thing as a human being. Only as a part of a social whole, only in a through a social class, does the human person become historically real and culturally productive. In order to enter into history it is not enough to be born physically. Animals are physically born but they do not enter into history. What is needed is, as it were, a second birth, a social birth. A human being is not born as an abstract biological organism but as a landowner or a peasant, as a bourgeois or a proletarian, and so on – that is the main thing. Furthermore, he is born a Russian or a Frenchman, and he is born in 1800 or 1900, and so on. Only this social and historical localization makes him a real human being and determines the content of his life and cultural creativity. All attempts to bypass this second, social, birth and to derive everything from the biological premises of the organisms existence are vain and doomed beforehand to fail: Not a single action taken by a whole person, not a single concrete ideological formation (a thought, an artistic image, even the content of a dream) can be explained without reference to socioeconomic factors . . .After all, 'the essence of man is not an abstraction inherent in each separate individual. In its reality it is the aggregate of social relationships'”* . . .

*Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach from The German Ideology

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Lettres de Cachet by Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault

With murky historical origins, the lettre de cache (often mistakenly glossed as “poison-pen letters’) were letters addressed to the king, letters that invoked his absolute power to intervene in problems of marital and family life by imprisoning family members on charges of theft, debauchery, drunkenness, infidelity, and other violations of civil order. Although some historians date the letters’ origins to the fourteenth century, or perhaps earlier, their use by the king to intervene personally in the exercise of sovereignty dates to the sixteenth century, and their frequency as a tool of royal administration increased in the seventeenth century. Often associated with the excesses of royal absolutist power, historians initially viewed these letters as the prerogative of the king and upper aristocracy. However, although some French notables were arrested in this way (notoriously, Diderot and the Marquis de Sade), most letters were penned by the poor and illiterate with the help of hired scriveners. Many of the dossiers contained multiple letters; they included either repeated attempts to imprison a family member, or additional testimonials from neighbors, the local cure, or police, or later requests that said family member be returned home. These requests for confinement were subsequently directed to and enforced by the local police – without any judicial interventions or possibility for self-defense. Taken as a whole, these letters offer a unique set of historical documents for a period (1728-1758) in which the royal court, regional parlements (courts of appeal), Catholic Church, and other elites dominate public record. They provide and window onto to the experience of ordinary lives touched by power.

 Families turned to the king at times when the authority of their internal hierarchy was powerless and when seeking recourse in the justice system was neither possible (because the matter was too trivial) nor desirable (because it would have been too slow, too costly, too shameful, too uncertain). An insistent demand for state intervention came into being. Was this demand stronger in modest or poor circles than it was in those where greater resources might have been available to resolve problems of this nature (a residence in the countryside or in exile for the scandalous wife or the spendthrift son, a convent where, through means of a pension or a dowry, a troublesome daughter could be imprisoned)? It is possible.

 It was always the king whose intervention was solicited and his administration that looked twice before intervening. That royal authority would pay attention to a small family drama, that would take sides with a father, a husband, a wife etc., doing so outside of the forms of rule-governed justice, that within a family it would enforce its own values, doing so through the police apparatus and its instruments of punishment was something that became not only allowed but actively sought after. The king as the protector and judge of family activities, this image whose symbolism is quite obvious, was at the same time a daily reality in which the feeling of security provided was shadowed by a growing anxiety towards this infinite arbitrariness* that was capable of striking at any moment. This explains why the practice of the family lettre de cache had by the end of the Ancient Regime come to seem as if it had reached a saturation point.

But in hiding the wrongdoer from the eyes of the world, imprisonment without a determined sentence permanently washed away the stain of guilt. This erasure is rather astonishing and required repentance to work. The king corrected, or so it was said, but he did not punish. And relatives did not make the mistake of arguing over this feature of correction that was also a way for the detainee to mend his ways, to regret his wrongdoings, and, through solitude, to find clarity and even, why not, innocence. Once again everything differed from the regular system: the family request for imprisonment was an site of repentance, something that ordinary justice was little interested obtaining. In the eighteenth century, justice whipped and banished, marked and scarred the body, and sent people to the galleys, without troubling itself over other forms of correction. This notion of correction was as absent from the legal system procedures as it was from its problematic. The physical suffering inflicted served a two-fold purpose; avenging the wrong done to society and making this visible upon the body of the condemned, striking the flesh of the delinquent enough for the punishment to become a spectacle, an intimidation, a lesson for others. The legislator was hardly thinking of guiding the criminal’s soul. The soul would only become important much later, during the nineteenth century, when criminality-obsessed philanthropists would lend prisons the atmosphere of convents, in which the guard’s eye as there to provoke repentance, fight evil, and compel amendment. Family requests for imprisonment calling for repentance prefigured the large philanthropic projects of the next century.

* The lieutenancy was caught up in its own dream- policing in the eighteenth century was build entirely around a dream: manufacturing the peoples’ happiness-taking advantage of its ability to dispatch lettres de cache, it appropriated royal intervention as a means of palliating its own weakness, disorder, incoherence, and lack of initiative. As we have seen, inspectors and superintendents tasked with investigations descended into neighborhoods and picked up all manner of information; nothing could be more random, precarious, and unjust than  procedures of this nature.. Thus “the order of the king” sprawled outwards, its tentacles extending everywhere that the lumbering justice system, which was so poorly adapt to insubordinate Parisian sociability,  had been unable to introduce itself. . .


 In 1979 or 1980, I received a telephone call from Michel Foucault asking to meet me in regard to a potential collaboration. How can I express my surprise and emotion when faced with such are request? There were so many disparities between us: social status, age, book publications, international prestige, classes whose audience threatened to spill out beyond the large lecture hall at the College de France . . .

During our meeting, he explains that he wants to publish a fair number of requests for imprisonment sent to the king and to write accompanying interpretations and analysis. At this point I understand that he appreciates the way in which I read “these manuscripts from the past” from poor families who addressed the king in an extraordinarily direct way, without the intermediary of ordinary justice. I had, of course, read, in 1975, his article  titled “Lives of Infamous Men,” which conveyed his admiration for and emotional attachment to the grievances addressed to the highest power in the kingdom. With rigor, emotion, and lyricism, he spoke of lives illuminated solely by ‘the light of justice,” thanks to which they were able to be preserved. The intelligent, controlled and impassioned lyricism of his opening sentences touched me enormously. He spoke of men and women of vies breves, brief lives, a term he preferred to nouvelles in the literary sense of the term. The unique and unfailing beauty of his writing gave a specific tone to the text. For Foucault, those singular lives were also vies poems, life-poems. Speaking of emotion in those days represented a real break from the traditional way of writing about history. He wrote: “I admit that these ‘ short stories’ suddenly emerging from two and a half centuries of silence, stirred more fibers within me that what is ordinarily called literature .  .  . If I made use of documents like these . . . it was doubtless because of the resonance I still experience today when I happen to encounter these lowly lives reduced to ashes in the few sentences that struck them down.”

Reading about the emotional and physical resonance  Foucault experienced was a revelation for me, encouraging and comforting. All the more so because, as a woman, known for being sensitive, my perspective as an historian was often put into doubt, sullied by attributes that historical science didn’t want to understand and on which it has casually shut its door. Having chosen to focus my research on judicial archives, the road ahead was sometimes difficult and combative. It was necessary to maintain, in the most intelligent way possible, that spoken words, the unique situation of every human being, their discourse formed ‘events’ that could be social or religious, political or affective, and more often than not filled with emotion. . .

As for me, today, I’d like to address the reader directly. I want to share – all these years later – a few disarmingly simple musings and memories:

I remember his laugh
I remember his conviction when talking about singular lives and making them actors in history
I remember his love for cinema
I remember love for his black cat
I remember his erudition, his passion for books, literature, reasoning, the desire to convince, the subversive desire (volunte)
I remember his appetite for thinking outside the box, for breaking down barriers between disciplines
I remember his appreciation for the disparate, which deconstructed what we call “the real” ( le reel)
I remember his desire that we each learn the fable of obscure lives
I remember that he always spoke of true lives
I remember his vocabulary: strategies and power
I remember how much he like ruptures and discontinuities, rifts and cracks
I remember what he thought of those in power and the “characters out of Celine  trying to make themselves heard at Versailles.”
I remember his writing to which I don’t want to append any adjectives given that, for me, it is the writing of history.
I remember his fierce love of the shameful and shameless
I remember his activism and his fight for the prisons
I remember the lifelong lesson he imparted on me that the quelconque, the whatever, was only able to appear under the impetus of power
I remember that the quelconque is so serious that it must know how to defy power
I remember meeting and working with Michel Foucault.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Death of the Author and Life of the Text by Roland Barthes

The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person.” It is thus logical that in literature, it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the “person” of the author.

  The author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs. The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice,. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, the voice of a single person, the author “confiding” in us.

We know now, however, that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning ( the “message” of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture.

 Similar to Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, at once sublime and comic and whose profound ridiculousness indicates precisely the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to translate is itself only ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely.

Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher the text becomes quite futile.

To give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is “explained”- victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has been that of the Critic; nor again in the fact that criticism (be it new) is today undermined along with the Author. 

In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, “run” (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced: writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption from meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a “secret”, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law.

Let us come back to the Balzac sentence:

In his story “Sarrasine” Balzac, describing a castrato disguised as a woman, writes:  This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings and her delicious sensibility.  Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Women? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know.

Another – very precise- example will help us to make this clear: recent research has demonstrate the constitutively ambiguous nature of Greek tragedy, its text woven from words with double meanings that each character understands unilaterally (this perpetual misunderstanding is exactly the “tragic’); there is, however, someone who understands each word in its duplicity and who, in addition hears the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him – this someone being precisely the reader or listener. Thus is revealed the total existence of writing.

The text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations to dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. Which is why it is derisory to condemn the new writing in the name of humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights.  Classic criticism never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature.

We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

It may be that some literary works are reducible, in an explanatory way, to the person and intentions of the author but here Barthes refers to literary texts, which in his view, accomplish an irreducible, stereographic plurality of meanings, a serial movement of disconnections, over-lappings and variations of meanings; activities of association, contiguities and carrying-overs which ‘coincide with the liberation of symbolic energy”, a radical off-centered structure without closure; demoniacal, un-contained in its nature.

'A text abolishes the distance between the writer and reader.  In the text, in his text, the author is himself ‘a guest’. If he is a novelist, he is inscribed in the novel like one of his characters, no longer privileged, paternal or  theological, his inscription is ludic. He becomes, as it were, a paper-author, his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his  work."

This is an aesthetic analysis of Barthes’ experience as an author and reader. Roland Barthes the person is suspended in the act of writing, he becomes the open-ended conduit for the plethora of voices that comprise the consciousness of his individuality none of which are really his own;  he is radically separated from any one position or authoritative control. Its similar to what is called ‘automatic writing.’ A literary text, as opposed to a mere work, accomplishes the same discovery of movement, impermanence and absence of inhibiting closure, for the reader. “ As for the text”, he writes," it is bound to jouissance, that is, a pleasure without separation." The reader IS the author in such cases, on account an active engagement which the author’s self-effacement has provided.

Paul De Man wrote: "Literature as well as criticism - the difference between them being delusive - is condemned (or privileged) to be forever the most vigorous and, consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and modifies himself."

Probably Adorno could shed some light on this experience. Barthes is certainly influenced by the notions of  Mikhail Bakhtin.

Structuralism: Levi-Strauss and Barthes

Claude Levi-Strauss contended that  “if there is a meaning to be found in mythology, it cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter into the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined. Although myth belongs to the same category as language, being, as a matter of fact, only part of it; language in myth exhibits specific properties. Those properties are only to be found above the ordinary linguistic level, that is, they exhibit more complex features than those which are to be found in any other kind of linguistic expression.” That is, their unique ‘structural properties’, the way their constituent elements relate functionally to establish at  ‘world view’ or pattern of thinking that ‘explains’ in an actionable sense the present and the past as well as the future.

Myths, in Levi-Strauss’s view, seem much like what I.A. Richards called attitudes or belief feelings, paradigms of mental structure which give  ‘order’ to everyday life. Its not so much a belief in the gods themselves as representations of fate, but the peculiarly functional ways the gods and men interact that forms the system of thinking and feeling we call myth, which is analogous to a literary genre. That is,for example, the characters and situations in a ‘mystery’ novels come in great variety but those novels have similar systems of expression by comparison to  romance, science fiction or urban fantasy  novels.

In contemporary politic, for example, ‘myths’ or paradigmatic mental structures ( attitudes and belief-feelings) about the function of the Presidency largely determine our response to the actions (speech or otherwise) of a particular president almost independent of what that president or any president can actually do like ‘mend the economy’ or ‘guarantee international order’, and other unyielding abstract matters

“Prevalent attempts to explain alleged differences between the so-called primitive mind and scientific thought have resorted to qualitative differences between the working processes of the mind in both cases, while assuming that the entities which they were studying remained very much the same [that is, either  primitive or scientific]. If our interpretation is correct, we are led forward to a completely different view – namely, that the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and that the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of the things to which it is applied.  This is well in agreement with the situation known to prevail in the field of technology [ and affirms Marx’s view that the ‘means of production’ drive social reproduction.] We may be able to show that the same logical processes operate in myth as in science, and that man has always been thinking equally well; the improvement lies, not in the alleged progress of man’s mind, but in the discovery of new areas to which it may apply its unchanged or unchanging powers.”

In The Structuralist Activity Roland Barthes first identifies ‘structuralism’ more or less phenomenologically: “It is probably the serious recourse to the nomenclature  of signification which we must ultimately take as structuralisms spoken sign: watch who uses signifier and signified, synchronic and diachronic, and you will know where the structuralist vision is constituted.”

For Barthes ‘structure’ represents a distinctive experience which ought to be placed under the common sign of what we might call structural man, defined not by his ideas or his languages, but by his imagination – in other words, by the way in which he mentally experiences structure: an activity, a controlled succession of a certain [or perhaps uncertain] number of mental operations which create ‘a simulacrum of the object’, an interested simulacrum, which makes something appear which would otherwise be invisible. It is an ‘intellectualization’ of the object, a response to the resistance which nature offers to his mind  which constitutes man himself- his history, his situation, his freedom. . . “Structure ‘ is the work of art that man wrests from chance.