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Category: Philosophy

Lars Iyer’s Misreading of Badiou

In many ways Alain Badiou and Lars Iyer constitute the existential extremities of the present political conjuncture. Where the latter has raised bathos to a fine but torturous art (too bathetic, too fine and too torturous for my tastes), the former has reinvented the heroic for the post-heroic age. If I have time, I will write more on this opposition but for now I want merely to point out that Lars Iyer’s reading of Badiou (if this extract from his latest novel is anything to go by) is mistaken. I say this with no particular malice since it was a (mis)reading I more or less shared until being set straight by Bruno Bosteels’ The Actuality of Communism.

The excerpt from Iyer’s novel ends thus:

But what would Alain Badiou make of us? What would he conclude? Enemies, he would think. No, not even that, Badiou would think. – ‘Pas enemies. Les tosseurs’. But perhaps he wouldn’t think anything at all. Perhaps he’d just look through us, as if, as with evil for Plato, we didn’t really exist.

For the mathematical philosopher, vagueness doesn’t exist, not really; it’s only a deficiency of precision. And pathos doesn’t exist for the political philosopher, not unless it is the glint of starlight, impersonal and remote, on the eyeglasses of the militant, brick in hand, charging the police.

This is wrong: vagueness does exist for Badiou. In his Ethics, for example, he makes it clear that those forms of politics which attempt to expunge “opinion” – here a synonym for (Gramscian) “common sense” or the sedimentation of habit (i.e., the vagueness of Platonic doxa) – amount to Evil. As Bosteels has it:

…in Badiou’s Ethics both the temptation of “total reeducation” dreamed of by some of Mao’s Red Guards and Nietzsche’s mad dream of a “grand politics” are diagnosed as disastrous forms of extremism. These are attempts to draw a rigid and dogmatic line of demarcation between truth and opinion, in the name of which all immanence to the existing state of things is denied as sheer decadence or bourgeois revisionism. To be more precise, these are attempts to perform a complete tabula rasa of the past for the sake of truth’s absolute present. “When Nietzsche proposes to ‘break the history of the world in two’ by exploding Christian nihilism and generalizing the great Dionysian ‘yes’ to Life; or when certain Red Guards of the Chinese Cultural Revolution proclaim, in 1967, the complete suppression of self-interest, they are indeed inspired by a vision of a situation in which all opinions have been replaced by the truth to which Nietzsche and the Red Guards are committed,” claims Badiou. But these are forms of absolutization of the power of truth that amount to a disastrous Evil: “Not only does this Evil destroy the situation (for the will to eliminate opinion is, fundamentally, the same as the will to eliminate, in the human animal, its very animality, i.e. its being), but it also interrupts the truth-process in whose name it proceeds, since it fails to preserve, within the composition of the subject, the duality [duplicité] of interests (disinterested-interest and interest pure and simple).” To avoid the trap of speculative leftism, therefore, a certain degree of duplicity and impurity must be preserved in the articulation between the old state of things and the new emancipatory truth.

The worst that can be said of Badiou is that he deals with vagueness precisely – but between this and the eradication of vagueness tout court, there is a world of difference.

Proust: In Search of the Present

I noted long ago a common misconception about Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Put simply, people seem to think that the “lost time” of the title denotes the past, but in fact it denotes the present. More specifically, it implies a present that is present to itself in all its plenitude. So why, you might ask, was there all this talk of involuntary memory? Why care so much about memory if what you really want is a full present? It is my thesis that it was not involuntary memory as such that interested Proust, but rather the problem of narrating the atemporal plenitude which that memory implied. In short, Proust raised to the level of a literary phenomenology the split between Erzählzeit (time of narrating)and erzählte Zeit (narrated time).

Let us take the example of the famous “madeleine” scene. This is the scene that everybody knows – even those who have never read the book. According to common wisdom, it is the prime example of Proust’s concern with recovering a lost past. I claim, on the contrary, that this passage is a literary exemplification of the temporal dislocation of the phenomenological “now”.

The scene begins when Marcel’s mother (i.e., the narrator’s mother, not the real Marcel Proust) sends out for the little “madeleine” cakes. He “mechanically” raises the tea-spoon to his lips on which crumbs of the madeleine are soaked in tea. The moment the concoction touches his palate, he is invaded by an “extraordinary” pleasure. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to discover the source of this pleasure. Important for our purposes are the tenses Proust uses throughout the passage. It begins in the traditional French storytelling tense, the passé simple. But as soon as the unattended pleasure sets in, the tenses alternate between passé simple and the pluperfect. The first tense implies a conventional relation between the “now” of the act of narration and the “now” of the story’s present. But the use of the pluperfect adds a temporal depth: it produces a time-lag internal to the storyworld itself between the “now” of the character’s reflection and the “now” of a previous act or experience. Thus, when we read

Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause.

we are confronted with three tenses. The passé simple (toucha, tressaillis) produces a clear relation between the time of narration (the time in which toucha is uttered) and narrated time (the actual event that happened in the past). The imperfect (se passait)  implies an ongoing state of affairs (a happening through time). The pluperfect (m’avait envahi), however, indicates the character’s reflection – within the narrated time – on what has just happened to him – also within the narrated time. So here we have a narrator telling us about his past self and what this past self was itself thinking about its own immediately past self. Throughout the rest of this paragraph, the shift is always between: a) present of narration/ present of the narrated and b) the present of the narrated/ present of a past narrated.

But the real temporal confusion (as if it wasn’t confusing enough already) arises when the tense switches to the present: Je bois une seconde gorgée où je ne trouve rien de plus que dans la première, une troisième qui m’apporte un peu moins que la seconde. What is the ontological status of this present (bois, trouve)? We know from the context that this present must be the present of narrated time, but the interweaving presence of the time of narration can still be felt. The past present is haunted by the present present, such that the present seems neither truly past nor completely present. The ambiguous status of this time is only compounded when (the past) Marcel tries to force himself to “retrograde his thought” to its initial configuration prior to having eaten the madeleine.

The ambiguity comes to a head in the following sentence:

Arrivera-t-il jusqu’à la surface de ma claire conscience, ce souvenir, l’instant ancien que l’attraction d’un instant identique est venue de si loin solliciter, émouvoir, soulever tout au fond de moi ? Je ne sais. Maintenant je ne sens plus rien…

It is precisely this maintenant, this “now”, which is at the heart of Proust’s entire project. The “now” in which he does not know and no longer feels anything (Je ne sais…je ne sens plus rien) brings to consciousness for the reader, almost in spite of itself, the not-yet-forgotten “now” of the time of narration: i.e., that time in which it is quite clear that Marcel does know because he’s about to tell us! What we have here can only be described as something like the zero degree of that hairline fracture which prevents the “I” from ever coinciding with itself: the split that forever separates the I-utterer from the I-uttered. It is a split internal to the “now” as such, one which means that the present can never present itself without simultaneously absenting itself.

It should thus come as no surprise that when the Marcel of narrated time finally remembers whence he knows this taste, the narration immediately switches to the passé composé tense: Et tout d’un coup le souvenir m’est apparu. Why the past perfect and not the passé simple? Both tenses seal off the presentness of a past, but the past perfect implies more of an ongoing relation to the present than the passé simple could ever muster. In other words, the past perfect voids the presentness of apparition (an index of the impossibility of the self-present “now”) whilst trying to mask the rift between Erzählzeit and erzählte Zeit (given that it could be used in either). In short, the act of remembrance never actually presents itself.

À la Recherche is full of such failed nows; it is for this reason that the “lost time” of the title denotes the present and not the past.

(I am grateful to Andrew Kahn for pointing out two errors in a previous version of this blog post).

More than Nothing: Kevin Bacon’s “Bacon Number”

A new craze is surging across the internet: “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. According to Wikipedia, it is “a variation on ‘six degrees of separation’ which posits that everyone in the world is no more than six acquaintance links from anyone else on Earth…The game requires a group of players to try to connect any individual to Kevin Bacon as quickly as possible and in as few links as possible.” Google has promoted the game by allowing users to type the name of any actor or actress into its search engine followed by the tag “Bacon number”: it then calculates and displays the said number (i.e., number of degrees of separation he or she has from Bacon). Obviously – or so one might think – Kevin Bacon has a “Bacon number” of 0 because there are no degrees of separation between him and himself.

The question I would like to pose is this: what is the precise value of Bacon’s Bacon number? In other words, what exactly does 0 mean here? On the surface, the meaning is simple: since Bacon is himself, there cannot be any degree of separation between Bacon and Bacon. Yet philosophers would disagree. At the beginning of Sickness unto Death Kierkegaard claims that a “self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation”. A self is an active self-relation that must constantly relate itself to itself in order to endure in its selfhood. Kevin Bacon is many things: a man, an actor, a celebrity, an American, but he is not entirely reducible to any one or several of these predicates. Paradoxically, he can only continue to be those things for as long as he resists being reduced to them. As Žižek writes:

On the one hand, subject is pure negative universality; an identity-with-itself which “repels”, makes abstractions of, all its determinate content (“I” am not any one of my determinations but the universality which simultaneously encompasses and negates them); yet on the other hand, “I” is this abstract power of negativity which has come into existence in the very domain of its determinations…[1]

In other words, the subject is a ceaseless oscillation between “abstract-negative universality (abstraction of all determinate content)” and “the vanishing point of pure singularity”. A subject is not so much a thing as the process of a thing relating itself to itself; or, as Hegel has it: substance is subject, and vice versa.

Thus, Kevin Bacon’s “Bacon number” of 0 is misleading, since it implies an inert, atemporal being-in-itself, lacking all dynamic negativity. In truth, however, Zero here is in cahoots with the One. For Hegel, the “One cannot coincide with Something”:

The being of Something is therefore always a being-for-other…; one attains the One only when this other, something-other for which something is, is reflected into the (some)thing itself as its own ideal unity – that is to say, when something is no more for something-else but for itself…[T]he Void is precisely the reflection-into-self of the Otherness…[T]he Void is not external to the One, it dwells in its very heart.[2]

The self is a constant process of insistence on (One’s) unity and integrity in, through and beyond the enabling-disabling relation with and for an Other. For Kevin Bacon to be Kevin Bacon, 0 must constantly propel itself into 1. More than that, this qualitative One of self-relation is the precondition for inscription within the symbolic order as the quantitative One; the Bacon number 0 is positively charged and contains within itself the condition of possibility for all other Bacon numbers.

[1] Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do (London: Verso, 2008), p. 47.

[2] Ibid, pp. 51-52.

Being and Time of PhDs

The most fundamental experience of writing a Ph.D. is the horrifying passage of freedom  into necessity. It is that constant pattern whereby a sentence or a paragraph which was scribbled down spontaneously, off-the-cuff, half-heartedly, one eye on the page, one eye on Facebook, a sentence which was in its very essence provisional, non-final, incomplete and imperfect, slowly, over time, out of sheer brute necessity, becomes final, complete and perfect. An imperfect perfection for which you will be held responsible. By which you will be judged.

The judges mistake your essential inauthenticity – the emptiness-towards-fullness which time drags out till death – for an ontologically complete, fully (impossibly) self-conscious intentional act. They take you at your word. If only they could hear the perfect words inside your head, the finished ones which you yourself have never even heard, but which you sense, which you know, are in there, awaiting inscription. The book you have written has come, but this other Book, the one inside your head, is the Book-to-come, the Book that never comes.

And yet you are responsible. You take these words that lie lifeless before you on the page, your objectified essence that never felt essential in the first place, and you claim them as your own. Like a blind date with the ugly duckling, you make the best of a bad job. Smile at the passersby as you wonder where the better-looking sister has got to. You accept that unless you start to write like Derrida, this feeling of potentially-having-been-avoidable mediocrity is here to stay. You buckle up for the ride.

The more you write and the more time goes by, the closer the gap between provisionality and necessity begins to feel. You start to train yourself mentally to write in the future anterior: this sentence will have been final. You live the present via the projected judgment which the future will bring. The distance between freedom and necessity can never be entirely bridged; or, rather, it is always-already bridged, yet time itself prevents the immediate experience of this ‘always-already’. You develop a certain temporal boldness, you tarry with the clock-face and dance with the hours. You limit your expectations, increase your self-discipline, work harder and learn to wager. It is the wager of writing: he who dares loses. But he who has foreseen this loss and said yes to it wins.

A Selection of Slavoj Žižek’s Book Blurbs

Over the last year or so I’ve become increasingly struck by the melodramatic book blurbs which Slavoj Žižek has written for a variety of books. Here is a small selection.

On Eric Santner’s On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life:
“I wonder how many people will be aware, when taking this book into their hands, that they are holding one of the key texts of the last hundred years – that a new classic is being born, on a par with Heidegger and Wittgenstein.”

On Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject:
“A rare achievement, a true philosophical classic, comparable to only two or three books in the twentieth century, such as Heidegger’s Being and Time. The difference is that, if Being and Time left its mark on twentieth-century thought, Theory of the Subject announces the thought of the twenty-first century. It opens up the path that Badiou followed in his two later classics, Being and Event and Logics of Worlds, but it enforces this opening with a violent freshness which far surpasses its later developments. So beware, reader: when you open this book, you hold in your hands proof that philosophers of the status of Plato, Hegel and Heidegger are still walking around today!”

On Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness:
“It is easy to write a deep book on a big crucial concept like anxiety love or evil but it takes a true master to do for awkwardness what Heidegger in his Sein und Zeit did for anxiety and this is what Kotsko does. In his book which combines philosophical stringency with references to popular culture awkwardness is elevated into a universal singularity: a prismatic knot in which our entire historical moment is reflected. If this will not become an instant classic then we really live in awkward times.”

On Terry Eagleton’s Trouble With Strangers:
“Written in Eagleton’s very readable, clear and witty style, this book may achieve the unthinkable: bridging the gap between academic High Thought and popular philosophy manuals.”

On Eric Santner’s The Royal Remains:
“Eric Santner’s The Royal Remains stands out, not only as the most important book on political philosophy of the last decade, but as a classic at the level of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’ or Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies. It prolongs their analyses into today’s world of micro-politics, raising the key question of what happens to the king’s other sublime body in a democratic society where the people-collectively-are the new sovereign. My reaction to reading this book is of wonder and awe; it is as if a new Benjamin (with the added features of Freud and Lacan) is walking among us.”

Thoughts on Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work

One of the most striking features of this book is its Latinity. The ratio of Latin to Anglo-Saxon- or Greek-origin words must surely be tipped very highly in Rome’s favour. There are certain passages that would remain literally incomprehensible to someone who lacked knowledge of Latin or of a Romance language. In itself, this is not necessarily a great crime, but as one progresses throughout this remarkable memoir, it comes to assume a wider significance.

Gillian Rose – whose works of philosophy, I admit at the outset, I’m yet to read – is acutely attuned to the ethical implications of language. Whether it be the shocking revelation of her dying grandfather’s knowledge of the enemy tongue (High German), or her inheritance of this forbidden fruit by teaching herself German using the works of – madness! – Theodor W. Adorno, she understands that a language is not simply a neutral medium for the channelling of information, but is bound up with a whole way of life, or ways of life. In many ways, the types of language we use determine the limits of our dispositions and possibilities for self-transformation; they are repositories of sedimented and accumulated wisdom and folly, of prejudice, insight and blindness, in which and out of which we are blessed or doomed to set up home together. To be born into a language is to be born into a whole culture, itself an amalgam of past and ongoing struggles.

That Rose was originally dyslexic, and that she came to experience her overcoming of dyslexia as one of the defining battles of her life, is not insignificant. Language, that communal medium par excellence, confronted her as an object with which to be struggled. And struggle is all for Rose: “Existence is robbed of its weight, its gravity, when it is deprived of its agon” (a timely riposte to New Age ‘religions’ which seek to cleanse reality of its frictions). She cannot even accept advice from her doctors without plaguing them with awkward, cutting questions. In fact, all of the figures who feature in her memoir are, in some way or another, agonistic. Whether they be gays who dress up as drag queens in New York, or seemingly ‘nice’ old women who are secretly driven by the flames of lust, the people with whom Rose feels affinity are those who defy convention. In other words, they are quite literally ‘eccentrics’.

When the centre is dominated by mediocre prudes, eccentrics are a source of hope: a vision of how the world might be beyond those damagingly limiting modes of thinking and behaving that are now in place. But, in a certain sense, they are also self-exiles. They remove themselves from the unbearable stuffiness and mediocrity of the centre to attempt to build a life for themselves on its outskirts, but they often do so by leaving everyone else behind.

And this is the central contradiction that I sense at the heart of the book. On the one hand, Rose is a fiercely brave, intelligent woman determined to spurn the false, easy solutions of postmodernity so as to stay true to the difficulties and risks of human love: “To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.” On the other hand, however, there seems to have been a risk that Rose was unable to take: the risk of the centre, of the non-eccentric. It is here that her Latinity assumes its ultimate significance: in using its various precisions exactly to articulate her and our ethical predicaments, she adopts a language so bristling with philosophical exactitude that it suggests a distrust of everydayness. This is clearly not to suggest that if Rose had only written like Hemingway then all our problems would be solved. But it certainly is to suggest that part of love’s work must surely be the common working-through of boring, mundane frictions, not all of which require transmutation into the celestial altitudes of Latinate discourse. In other words, the problem is not the content of what she says, and nor is it the form; rather, it is the content of the form. The esoteric verbiage is at one with the eccentric withdrawal, thus making her ethical principles of engagement and readiness-to-be-wounded very difficult to put into practice, except in certain limited situations.

This is clearly a serious problem, but as Rose well knew: it is not one that can be resolved in thought alone. It requires a common framework of practices. Rose’s unforgettable contribution, difficult as I find it to accept in its totality, is surely of the utmost importance in developing those practices.

Historical Materialism Conference

The journal, Historical Materialism, will be holding its annual conference this week in London, from 11th-14th November. This year’s conference is entitled ‘Crisis and Critique’. Here’s the overview:

Notwithstanding repeated invocations of the ‘green shoots of recovery’, the effects of the economic crisis that began in 2008 continue to be felt around the world. While some central tenets of the neoliberal project have been called into question, bank bailouts, cuts to public services and attacks on working people’s lives demonstrate that the ruling order remains capable of imposing its agenda. Many significant Marxist analyses have already been produced of the origins, forms and prospects of the crisis, and we look forward to furthering these debates at HM 2010. We also aim to encourage dialogue between the critique of political economy and other modes of criticism – ideological, political, aesthetic, philosophical – central to the Marxist tradition.

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht projected a journal to be called Crisis and Critique. In very different times, but in a similar spirit, HM 2010 aims to serve as a forum for dialogue, interaction and debate between different strands of critical Marxist theory. Whether their focus is the study of the capitalist mode of production’s theoretical and practical foundations, the unmasking of its ideological forms of legitimation or its political negation, we are convinced that a renewed and politically effective Marxism will need to rely on all the resources of critique in the years ahead. Crises produce periods of ideological and political uncertainty. They are moments that put into question established cognitive and disciplinary compartmentalisations, and require a recomposition at the level of both theory and practice. HM 2010 hopes to contribute to a broader dialogue on the Left aimed at such a recomposition, one of whose prerequisites remains the young Marx’s call for the ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’.

You can register here, but you must do so in the next 24 hours! I myself shall be giving a paper on Thursday, entitled ‘Totality in Lukács’s Literary Theory’. The line-up looks fantastic: Alberto Toscano, Peter Thomas (whose book on Gramsci, as I’ve said before, is fantastic), Alex Callinicos, John Holloway, Sara Farris (a Weber scholar, who is currently translating Roland Boer’s Criticism of Heaven into Italian), Johan Hartle (a Lukács specialist, who has also recently published an important essay on the aesthetics of urban warfare)…the list goes on. Come along!


Eagleton on Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor

If you never found time to read Eagleton’s Holy Terror then this article in Lapham’s Quarterly is a pretty good summary of all his main arguments.

The Grand Inquisitor ranks among those who regard God as their adversary. He believes that like a brutal despot, God loads on men and women more than they can bear; the burden he loads on them is known not as tithe or tax but freedom. However, this overlooks God’s own solidarity with human weakness, which is known as Jesus. On Calvary, God proves feeble and fleshly even unto death. His only signifier is the tortured body of one who spoke out for love and justice and was done to death by the state. Only if one can look on this terrible failure and still live can one lay a foundation for anything more edifying. Only by being entombed in the earth can one reach for the sky. It is in the place of excrement, as Yeats reminds us, that love has pitched his mansion. Any moral idealism that refuses this truth is just so much ideology.

In relation to this, you might want to check out a pretty much unread review that Eagleton wrote in 2008 of Rowan Williams’s book on Dostoevsky.

Proust and Derrida: Part III – Proust’s Aesthetic Theory

See Part I and Part II.

Proust’s Aesthetic Theory

Except, of course, that it cannot. To think the event and the machine together is unthinkable, despite it being possible to suggest the preconditions for what that thought would entail. To think them together would require a world in which there were no signs, in which the simple structure of re-presentation (‘a stands for b’) did not exist. It would be pure, undifferentiated presence: absolute life and absolute death.[1] Nonetheless, to adapt a concept of Lacan’s, the ‘subject supposed to think the event and machine together’ does make an appearance in Proust – quit literally in Marcel. He speaks of the experience of involuntary memory thus:

…au vrai, l’être qui alors goûtait en moi cette impression la goûtait en ce qu’elle avait de commun dans un jour ancien et maintenant, dans ce qu’elle avait d’extra-temporel, un être qui n’apparaissait que quand par une de ces identités entre le présent et le passé, il pouvait se trouver dans le seul milieu où il put vivre, jouir de l’essence, des choses, c’est-à-dire en dehors du temps. Cela expliquait que mes inquiétudes au sujet de ma mort eussent cessé au moment où j’avais reconnu, inconsciemment, le goût de la petite madeleine puisqu’à ce moment-là l’être que j’avais été était un être extra-temporel, par conséquent insoucieux des vicissitudes de l’avenir. Cet être-là n’était jamais venu à moi, ne s’était jamais manifesté, qu’en dehors de l’action, de la jouissance immédiate, chaque fois que le miracle d’une analogie m’avait fait échapper au présent. Seul il avait le pouvoir de me faire retrouver les jours anciens, le Temps Perdu, devant quoi les efforts de ma mémoire et de mon intelligence échouaient toujours. (RTP, p. 2266 ; italics mine)

We must be rigorous in our reading of this passage. The narrator never experiences Lost Time. It is a being that arises in him which is said to ‘taste’ the impression of eternity; he is not the agent, the being is. But this is immediately contradicted in the crucial phrase concerning the madeleine: ‘l’être que j’avais été était un être extra-temporel’. So many permutations of ‘être’! The being that he had been was an extra-temporal being: so the ‘being who tasted in me’ was him after all. Or was it ‘had been’? ‘Was’ it him or ‘had it been’ him? The discrepancy between the pluperfect and the imperfect – a ‘perfectly common’ discrepancy, as Albertine might say – highlights the fracture inherent to the inviolable solitude of the self. The being that is said to have tasted the joy of Lost Time never did so, because at the time – the time supposedly without time – he did not know what it was he was tasting: it had no meaning. (Study the tenses of the famous madeleine scene and you will see that the initial pleasure is described in the pluperfect, then the initial attempt to discover its source in the imperfect, followed by further attempts to discern its origin in the present tense; the moment the memory manifests itself – ‘Et tout d’un coup…’ – the tense changes instantaneously to the passé composé).[2] Now, however, the narrator can retroactively project a meaning onto it, and this retroactivity is signalled by the ‘était’. As Marcel later admits, involuntary memory is a ‘subterfuge’ (RTP, p. 2266).

The relation of these observations to Husserl and cliché become more apparent in the following passage:

Une minute affranchie de l’ordre du temps a recréé en nous pour la sentir l’homme affranchi de l’ordre du temps. Et celui-là on comprend qu’il soit confiant dans sa joie, même si le simple goût d’une madeleine ne semble pas contenir logiquement les raisons de cette joie, on comprend que le mot de « mort » n’ait pas de sens pour lui; situé hors du temps, que pourrait-il craindre de l’avenir? (RTP, p. 2267)

Proust on his deathbed, by Paul César Helleu

It is the minute itself which is freed from the order of time, rather as the recurring dark rooms are freed from the order of sociality. The former produces ‘in us’ the ‘man freed from the order of time’; the latter produces the ‘real me’. For this man, the word ‘death’ has no sense: ‘situated outside time, what could he fear of the future?’ There are two ways of reading this. Firstly, it is a recognition that temporal beings – those ‘inside’ time – are beings-toward-death, that being temporal is to be mortal. Secondly, and more interestingly, it is not simply that death is inside time, but also that meaning is inside time. This man freed from time can know nothing of the meaning of ‘death’ because meaning requires a future, a ‘to come’ [avenir], the arrival of an other, the self-differing, self-deferring presence of the present. In other words, as Derrida demonstrated only too clearly, the conditions of possibility of meaning are coextensive with the conditions of possibility of death. To be able to mean is to be-towards-death. It is no surprise, then, that the simple taste of the madeleine ‘does not seem logically to contain the reasons for this joy’: because logic, too, is temporal – indeed, as we have seen, it has many times and many speeds.  This man freed from time arises in the gap between the ‘was’ and the ‘had been’, between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the enunciated.  Proust seems to prophecy Lacan’s famous reformulation of the Cartesian cogito: ‘I think where I am not, therefore I am where I think not’. Lost Time can only be accessed via the man freed from time who is our proxy; original, pure time, like the sun, like the total reading, like Albertine, cannot be experienced in immediate presence. The reason being that immediate presence does not exist: the various chains of proxies and substitutions, these diverse machines, generate the holograph of pure present events, just as clichés produce the fantasy of an original.

In order to establish which of these fleeting sensations are authentic, since these are the ones Marcel hopes to ‘stabilise’ in a work of art, he devises criteria by which to judge their authenticity:

Leur [les sensations] premier caractère était que je n’étais pas libre de les choisir qu’elles m’étaient données telles quelles. Et je sentais que ce devait être la griffe de leur authenticité … Mais justement la façon fortuite, inévitable, dont la sensation avait été rencontrée, contrôlait la vérité du passé qu’elle ressuscitait, des images qu’elle déclenchait, puisque nous sentons son effort pour remonter vers la lumière, que nous sentons la joie du réel retrouvé. (RTP, p. 2272)

Having supposedly escaped the order of time, we enter the order of authenticity. The difference between voluntary and involuntary memory is one of chance and volition: the latter is constituted by undergoing unforeseen fortuity, the former by performing willed and conscious retrieval. How is authenticity established? Fortuity is its mark or stamp [griffe], and it controls, surveys or monitors [contrôlait] the truth of the past which the sensation resuscitates. Consequently, two governing logics of experience are instituted: the logic governing activity and passivity, and, within the latter, the logic governing authenticity and non-authenticity. Together they combine to produce a trace, a stamp which has about it the air of a factory quality assurance test.[3] It is the absolute antithesis of Husserlian truth, for whom these traces would have been condemned to the outer reaches of ‘mere indication’ thanks to their lack of intentional Bedeutung. Marcel continues:

De quelque idée laissée en nous par la vie qu’il s’agisse, sa figure matérielle, trace de l’impression qu’elle nous a faite, est encore le gage de sa vérité nécessaire. Les idées formées par l’intelligence pure n’ont qu’une vérité logique, une vérité possible, leur élection est arbitraire. Le livre aux caractères figurés, non tracés par nous est notre seul livre. (RTP, ibid.)

Above, it was the givenness-mark which signified authenticity. Here, it is the material figure which life leaves in us. What must be emphasised is that as soon as it becomes a matter of distinguishing the active from the passive, the arbitrary from the necessary, figures appear. There where you expect to have reached truth, authenticity, presence, the sun, or Albertine, you are confronted by a further signifier. Every origin is always already supplemented.

At the outset, we observed that one method of masking this fact was to let the play of figures seduce the reading mind. A second method, this time overtly stated and central to Proust’s literary aesthetic, is style:

On peut faire se succéder indéfiniment dans une description les objets qui figuraient dans le lieu décrit, la vérité ne commencera qu’au moment où l’écrivain prendra deux objets différents, posera leur rapport, analogue dans le monde de l’art à celui qu’est le rapport unique de la loi causale dans le monde de la science, et les enfermera dans les anneaux nécessaires d’un beau style. Même, ainsi que la vie, quand en rapprochant une qualité commune à deux sensations, il dégagera leur essence en les réunissant l’une et l’autre pour les soustraire aux contingences du temps, dans une métaphore. (RTP, p. 2280)

A style which imitates voluntary memory simply by taking ‘snapshots’ [instantanées] of disconnected objects or sensations is devoid of eternity and necessity. It is a simple mechanical registration of data. (It is precisely this aspect which the narrator’s grandmother dislikes about photography – RTP, p. 41). But one which takes two objects and founds their relation is a style which achieves the timelessness of metaphor.[4] The problem with this, as we briefly noted above, is that voluntary memory achieves precisely such timelessness without making any connection – indeed, all connections are suppressed (RTP, p. 686). Which would suggest that voluntary memory and involuntary memory are not quite so alien to one another as first imagined. These issues become a little clearer in what follows:

La vraie vie, la vie enfin découverte et éclaircie, la seule vie par conséquent pleinement vécue, c’est la littérature. Cette vie qui, en un sens, habite à chaque instant chez tous les hommes aussi bien que chez l’artiste. Mais ils ne la voient pas, parce qu’ils ne cherchent pas à l’éclaircir. Et ainsi leur passé est encombré d’innombrables clichés qui restent inutiles parce que l’intelligence ne les a pas “développés”. (RTP, pp. 2284-2285)

Literature is uncovered, true and clarified life. And this true life is ‘in a sense’ in all men, but only artists see it because only they seek to illuminate it. Yet if true, uncovered and clarified life-literature is in all of us, then why does it require illumination? How can one illuminate an already clarified life? (Behind this logic one can sense looming those two surreal phantoms: the dark room, which is always infiltrated by a ray of light, and the ‘éclair au café’, a lightning flash pregnant with a ray of shadow.) And how can literature be true life when a few pages later he writes: ‘un livre est un grand cimetière où sur la plupart des tombes on ne peut plus lire les noms effacés’ (RTP, p. 2287)? The answer suggests itself here:

En somme, cet art si compliqué est justement le seul art vivant. Seul il exprime pour les autres et nous fait voir à nous-même notre propre vie, cette vie qui ne peut pas s'”observer”, dont les apparences qu’on observe ont besoin d’être traduites et souvent lues à rebours et péniblement déchiffrées. Ce travail qu’avaient fait notre amour-propre, notre passion, notre esprit d’imitation, notre intelligence abstraite, nos habitudes, c’est ce travail que l’art défera, c’est la marche en sens contraire, le retour aux profondeurs où ce qui a existé réellement gît inconnu de nous, qu’il nous fera suivre. (RTP, p. 2285)

Those abstract habits and imitations which are so mechanical, so deathly, overlay what has ‘really existed’ – presumably the true life which is Literature. But note the telling use of the verb ‘gît’ (‘lies’); it is usually used in the sentence ‘Here lies x’ to designate a grave. Only here what ‘lies’ beneath is Life itself. I see no other way of interpreting this than to say that real Life, the Life resurrected (how suddenly we recall this word appearing at crucial moments in the text!) by involuntary memory, is dead. The Book of Life is simultaneously a graveyard, a place where life is engraved: I am mortal.

[1] Cf. Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, p. 102: ‘A voice without differance, a voice without writing, is at once absolutely alive and absolutely dead.’

[2] RTP, pp. 44-47.

[3] Cf. the flies’ summery music which ‘certified’ the return of summer. See above.

[4] Deleuze interprets this timelessness of metaphor as essence per se in his Proust and Signs, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 47. He will later define pure essence as ‘complication’, which is not a million miles away from Derridean différance.

Proust and Derrida: Part II

Proust MS

(For Part I, see here)


What on earth does all this have to do with clichés? To answer this question we must trace the evolution of the word ‘cliché’ itself, which had three main stages. The word first arose with the advent of stereotype printing. Unlike previous forms of printing, stereotype used type-casts (often made from plaster of Paris) taken from a plate rather than the plate itself. The net effect of this technique was massively to increase productivity and total output rates. ‘Cliché’ was the word French print-workers coined to imitate the sound of the matrix dropping into the molten metal, and it soon became synonymous with the copies themselves. In other words, cliché was originally onomatopoeic. And what is onomatopoeia if not the supposed perfect harmony between sound and sense? Is not Husserl’s concept of expression secretly a glorified extension of this onomatopoeic logic? Onomatopoeia constitutes sealed, impervious phono-monads in which the tessellation of sound and sense is so exact as to deny all alterity; it is an apparent pure presence. Yet, this is the presence which we have just deemed to be impossible: onomatopoeia is no exception to the linguistic economy of sense, in which a signifier has to be repeatable and signifies only via a system of differentiation – which it internalises – from other signifiers. Perhaps more significant in terms of Proust is that cliché or stereotype printing ‘uses not an original plate to make copies, but a copy of the plate; what it produces are thus copies of a copy.’[1] The cliché is originally a simulacrum. There is no original original; like presence, like the summer sun on that glorious Combray afternoon, cliché institutes a trace which has no origin. The structure of the cliché, in other words, is analogous to that of différance, provided that we bear in mind that our differantial logic puts in question the very possibility of analogy. Meanwhile, following its currency in printing circles, ‘cliché’ soon became central to the burgeoning world of photography. Here, it came to be defined thus: ‘Épreuve négative sur support transparent ou translucide obtenue en faisant agir la lumière sur des matières sensibles à l’exposition et à partir de laquelle on peut tirer un grand nombre d’épreuves positives.’[2] Two further aspects of cliché become apparent: firstly, it is a form of material inscription, in the broadest sense a form of writing; secondly, it is synonymous with reproducibility. Given what we have discovered about the importance of écriture and repeatability in Derrida’s interpretation of Husserl, this is not insignificant. Finally, having become associated with mass reproduction, by the late nineteenth century the word assumed its current meaning of a banal common-place, lacking all originality.

Before analyzing some examples of cliché at work in Proust, we must make a brief aside. Following the publication of Spectres de Marx in 1993, Fredric Jameson remarked that something like a logic of Benjaminian constellation was at work in Derrida’s oeuvre, ‘which now makes it possible for him (and for us) to mobilize cross-referencing as a kind of philosophical procedure in its own right, which demonstrates something fundamental about a given concept or motif by exhibiting the various contexts in which it has been able to appear.’[3] I would like to suggest that ‘cliché’ could be added to such a Derridean constellation (alongside those notions of iterability, différance, écriture, the spectral, and so on) though with one proviso: that, in the manner of T. S. Eliot’s Tradition, the new arrival in the constellation retain the capacity to alter the rest. For it is striking that a philosopher as prolific as Derrida, whose writings are saturated with references to the French canon, wrote almost nothing on Proust.[4] Not least since, as I have argued, and as I will demonstrate in more detail below, Proust seems obsessed by the very problematic with which Derrida’s entire career was concerned. I want to suggest that the reason for this absence, which Pierre Macherey following Althusser might have called an ‘eloquent silence’, is that Proust’s denigration of speech to a certain extent (though not completely) resists Derrida’s understanding of Western metaphysics, and that to comprehend this resistance would require a certain historicization for which Derridean deconstruction is not necessarily apt. It will entail thinking about the material conditions which informed the history of style and its relation to the French novel.

But first we must turn to some concrete examples of cliché in À la recherche. The first major occurrence comes in À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs at the moment when the narrator, having longed for what feels like tens of pages to meet Albertine, is finally introduced to her by Elstir:

Au moment où Elstir me demanda de venir pour qu’il me présentât à Albertine, assise un peu plus loin, je finis d’abord de manger un éclair au café et demandai avec intérêt à un vieux monsieur dont je venais de faire connaissance et auquel je crus pouvoir offrir la rose qu’il admirait à ma boutonnière, de me donner des détails sur certaines foires normandes. Ce n’est pas à dire que la présentation qui suivit ne me causa aucun plaisir et n’offrit pas à mes yeux, une certaine gravité. Pour le plaisir, je ne le connus naturellement qu’un peu plus tard, quand, rentré à l’hôtel, resté seul, je fus redevenu moi-même. Il en est des plaisirs comme des photographies. Ce qu’on prend en présence de l’être aimé, n’est qu’un cliché négatif, on le développe plus tard, une fois chez soi, quand on a retrouvé à sa disposition cette chambre noire intérieure dont l’entrée est «condamnée» tant qu’on voit du monde. (RTP, pp. 683-684)

Borges and Derrida, 1985

What is striking about this passage is its structural homology to the scene of reading in the first volume. There, the sun was synonymous with presence, yet we were told – paradoxically – that it was a presence which could only fully present itself via a whole host of protective, supplementary substitutions, since if the narrator had really been outside in the sun, his experience of it would have been merely ‘piecemeal’ [par morceaux]. Here, Albertine is the sun. The narrator has longed for her presence but now that she has arrived he cannot fully enjoy it. Pleasure takes its place in the Proustian hall of fame of inviolable solitude, alongside those other activities which occur in the room at the top of the house which is neither wholly inside nor wholly outside: reading, reverie, crying and masturbation. Only during these activities is the narrator ‘fully himself once more’. Pleasures in the presence of the loved being are like clichés – photographic negatives (cf. Tom McCarthy’s ‘scratching the negative’) – which can only be developed once he has entered his ‘interior dark room’, one which is forbidden to others just as the room at Combray could be locked by key to keep out trespassers of the self. In other words, enjoyment can only be enjoyed in the absence of (the loved one’s) presence; the present must absent itself in order the better to present itself.

At this stage, let us make two ‘flashpoints’, like camera flashes briefly dazzling the eyes of the text. The first is a snapshot of Derrida on Rousseau’s ‘dangerous supplement’:

Rousseau will never stop having recourse to, and accusing himself of, this onanism that permits one to be himself affected by providing himself with presences, by summoning absent beauties. In his eyes it will remain the model of vice and perversion. Affecting oneself by another presence, one corrupts oneself [makes oneself other] by oneself [on s’altère soi-même]…

And sexual auto-affection, that is auto-affection in general, neither begins nor ends with what one thinks can be circumscribed by the name of masturbation. The supplement has not only the power of procuring an absent presence through its image; procuring it for us through the proxy [procuration] of the sign, it holds it at a distance and masters it. For this presence is at the same time desired and feared…Pleasure itself, without symbol or suppletory, that which would accord us (to) pure presence itself, if such a thing were possible, would be only another name for death. [5]

This triggers a flash of déjà vu: the guilt Marcel feels before his grandmother for being inactive by reading inside,[6] the hiding himself in his chair and then in his mind (the two dark rooms), followed much later by the simultaneously desired and feared presence of Albertine. Which brings us to that other lightning flash – the ‘éclair au café’. Whether it was intended or not (and even if it were not, there are strong reasons to believe that the subterranean logic of the text would have been enough to generate it via its own momentum) this is a touch of pure genius on Proust’s part. ‘Éclair au café’ means ‘coffee éclair’, and is a seemingly insignificant confectionery that the narrator just happens to use as a defence against the immediate presence of Albertine. So insignificant, in fact, that he just happens to refer to it again two paragraphs later, this time as that which triggers his memory of having met her and as that which she also remembers of their first meeting (RTP, p. 685). Both times the ‘éclair au café’ is located within the proximity of photographic ‘clichés’. An ‘éclair’ in French is not just a cake, it is also the word for a flash of lightning, a flash of inspiration, or the ‘blink of an eye’ – one might even say, a Husserlian Augenblick. It is the same éclair, the same instant, the same blink of an eye that will have constituted the absolute centre of the entire novel: ‘d’obtenir, d’isoler, d’immobiliser – la durée d’un éclair – ce qu’il [mon être] n’appréhende jamais: un peu de temps à l’état pur’ (RTP, p. 2267; my italics). But this éclair is ‘au café’, its lightness tinged by darkness and shadow, a gastronomic equivalent of the Combray bedroom with its single reflected ray of light in a general gloom; the Augenblick is never ‘pure’, it is violated by the economy of differance which produces it.

On learning that Albertine had remembered the exact same details of their first meeting, including the ‘éclair au café’, he notes:

…j’avais causé un moment avec une personne qui, grâce à l’habileté du prestidigitateur, sans avoir rien de celle que j’avais suivie si longtemps au bord de la mer, d’elle lui avait été substituée. J’aurais du reste pu le deviner d’avance, puisque la jeune fille de la plage avait été fabriquée par moi. Malgré cela, comme je l’avais, dans mes conversations avec Elstir, identifiée à Albertine, je me sentais envers celle-ci l’obligation morale de tenir les promesses d’amour faites à l’Albertine imaginaire. On se fiance par procuration, et on se croit obligé d’épouser ensuite la personne interposée. (RTP, p. 686)

In a sudden flash of realisation it becomes clear that this girl who remembered the éclair au café, the coffee-dark-flash, is a substitute for the mysterious, unknown Albertine of whom he had fantasized up to that point. The new Albertine supplements the first Albertine who, as it happens, was not original in any case: she had been ‘fabricated by me.’ The character of Albertine, in other words, is constituted by the structure of the cliché. Hence it is not fortuitous that we become engaged by proxy [par procuration], just as for Derrida’s Rousseau it is only via the proxy of the sign that presence can be safely mastered. Marcel continues:

D’ailleurs, si avait disparu provisoirement du moins de ma vie, une angoisse qu’eût suffi à apaiser le souvenir des manières comme il faut, de cette expression «parfaitement commun» et de la tempe enflammée, ce souvenir éveillait en moi un autre genre de désir qui, bien que doux et nullement douloureux, semblable à un sentiment fraternel, pouvait à la longue devenir aussi dangereux en me faisant ressentir à tout moment le besoin d’embrasser cette personne nouvelle dont les bonnes façons et la timidité, la disponibilité inattendue, arrêtaient la course inutile de mon imagination, mais donnaient naissance à une gratitude attendrie. (RTP, p. 686)

After having stated that both Albertines were in some sense substitutes or simulacra – clichés – we now learn that one of the most pleasant memories he has of her (bearing in mind that pleasure is constantly deferred and that memories are only photographic ‘clichés’) is her manner of using the vaguely highfalutin word ‘perfectly’. Prior to this passage he quotes three examples of her usage of the word: ‘perfectly mad’, ‘perfectly common’ and ‘perfectly boring’ (RTP, p. 685). That the one he remembers is ‘perfectly common’ is not coincidental. She commonly repeats the word perfectly like a perfect commoner who is trying to be perfect (‘perfectly’ connotes a ‘degree of civilization’, we are told); the word ‘perfectly’ becomes a cliché, but a perfect cliché, a cliché unique to this chain of substitutions called ‘Albertine’. The common cliché mouthed by commoners mutates into the perfection of ‘perfectly common’, into something original. The machine those long-dead printers mimicked, the machine that made a cliché of cliché, that machine is attempting in Proust to generate originality. The machine longs for the original event, and as Derrida warns us:

If one day, with one and the same concept, these two incompatible concepts, the event and the machine, were to be thought together, you can bet that not only (and I insist on not only) will one have produced a new logic, an unheard-of conceptual form. In truth, against the background and at the horizon of our present possibilities, this new figure would resemble a monster…[But] the new figure of an event-machine would no longer even be a figure.[7]

Can we not begin to sense the absolute horror of pure presence at work here, like the lone teenager who senses the imminent intruder in a slasher film? The ‘brotherly sentiment’, one of absent libido and familial proximity, is a hair’s breadth away from inverting into pure libido and incestuous proximity; the machine and the event are ruled by the same disturbing dynamic. And then the photographic clichés re-enter:

Et puis comme la mémoire commence tout de suite à prendre des clichés indépendants les uns des autres, supprime tout lien, tout progrès, entre les scènes qui y sont figurées, dans la collection de ceux qu’elle expose, le dernier ne détruit pas forcément les précédents. En face de la médiocre et touchante Albertine à qui j’avais parlé, je voyais la mystérieuse Albertine en face de la mer.  (RTP, p. 686)

Since we have just introduced the language of machine and event, we shall articulate this thinking thus: memory is a machine generating ‘clichés’ which are, ironically, pure original events. As singularities they lack all syntagmatic, narrative and even temporal sequentiality. In other words, Proustian voluntary memory is the concept capable of thinking the machine and the event together.

[1] Mark Osteen, The Economy of Ulysses (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), p. 362.


[3] Fredric Jameson, ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter,’ reprinted in his Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 132-133.

[4] I can find only three major references to Proust in Derrida’s work. Firstly, he discusses Jean Rousset’s analyses of Proust in Derrida, ‘Force and Signification,’ Writing and Difference, pp. 1-35; secondly, he analyses J. Hillis Miller’s comments on Proust in Derrida, Without Alibi, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford. CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 166-169; finally, J. Hillis Miller himself mentions Derrida’s having given a brief seminar on the frequent recurrence of ‘prendre’ verbs in a passage on the death of Bergotte. See J. Hillis Miller, J. Hillis Miller Reader (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 416.

[5] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1997), p. 153 and pp. 154-155 respectively.

[6] Paul de Man makes much of this guilt in his chapter on Proust in Allegories of Reading.

[7] Derrida, Without Alibi, p. 73.

Cliché: Proust and Derrida

Proust’s Room

In a conversation between Tom McCarthy and Lee Rourke, published in today’s Guardian, and brought to my attention by Steve Mitchelmore, two things caught my eye: firstly, a mention of Blanchot’s essay, ‘The Gaze of Orpheus’ and, secondly, McCarthy’s statement that ‘scratching the negative’ is what artists do at their very best. I think I capture some of the issues involved here in an essay I wrote earlier this year on the concept of ‘cliché’ in Proust and the ways in which it relates to Derrida’s reading of Husserl. I’ve already published a blog post on the suggestive etymology of the word ‘cliché’, but I’ve now decided that over the next few days I shall serialize the Proust-Derrida essay here on my blog. Every one or two days for the next week I shall publish one section – all except the last because it’s too weak and was rushed and ill thought-through. (That said, the entire essay isn’t exactly the sharpest thing I’ve ever written). My hope is that I can ‘develop’ (that pun will make sense on reading the essay) McCarthy’s wonderful concept of ‘scratching the negative’. Here is the first installment, minus the boring intro. Unfortunately, my English edition of A la recherche is elsewhere, so I’ve simply left the quotations in the original.

Reading the Dark Room

With a novel as gigantic as Proust’s, any point of entry for analysis is inevitably arbitrary; fortunately, certain fundamental motifs, metaphors and metonymic chains provide hidden passageways through which one can navigate the labyrinth.[1] The easiest way into the various issues at stake in this essay is via an examination of two such motifs – those of reading and the dark room – which appear early on in the first volume:

…je m’étais étendu sur mon lit, un livre à la main, dans ma chambre qui me protégeait en tremblant sa fraîcheur transparente et fragile contre le soleil de l’après-midi derrière ses volets presque clos où un reflet de jour pourtant trouvé moyen de faire passer ses ailes jaunes, et restait immobile entre le bois et le vitrage, dans un coin, comme un papillon posé. Il faisait à peine assez clair pour lire, et la sensation de la splendeur de la lumière ne m’était donné que par les coups frappés dans la rue de la Cure par Camus…contre des caisses poussiéreuses, mais qui…semblaient faire voler au loin des astres écarlates ; et aussi par les mouches qui exécutaient devant moi, dans leur petit concert, comme la musique de chambre de l’été ; elle ne l’évoque pas à la façon d’un air de musique humaine, qui, entendu par hasard à la belle saison, vous la rappelle ensuite ; elle est unie à l’été par un lien plus nécessaire ; née des beaux jours, ne renaissant qu’avec eux, contenant un peu de leur essence, elle n’en réveille pas seulement l’image dans notre mémoire, elle en certifie le retour, la présence effective, ambiante, immédiatement accessible.[2]

What a beautiful evocation of the summer sun! And yet, where is it? Is it present? Does it present itself? Partially: a single reflection or glimmer [reflet] of light pierces the shutter’s protective veil, but no sooner does this (mirrored) part of the whole – this (reflected) synecdoche of the sun – make its entrance than it metamorphoses, it metaphorphoses into a butterfly, a figurative static presence. And what else is a butterfly but a metamorphosed caterpillar? The sun presents itself via the proxy of its proxy – its reflected ray – which transforms into a butterfly which was once logically a caterpillar: let us keep in mind these chains of substitution, since they become increasingly important. It was barely bright enough to read, and the splendour of the sun was given only by the blows Camus beats upon the crates (outside) and by the flies (inside) whose quintessentially summery music certifies – note the jargon – the return of immediately accessible, effectively present summer days. Essentially, the narrator is in his room to read [un livre à la main], but the light is barely bright enough, thereby undermining the very essentiality of his purpose. The sun, already distanced via a complex chain of figurative substitutions, is now morcellated even further: via the synaesthetic blows of Camus and the anthropomorphic music of the flies. And yet, the link between this music and the summer is ‘necessary’; paradoxically, it is as if the summer – and by extension the sun – is more present via figurative substitution than by real presence.

This impression is confirmed in the following passage:

Cette obscure fraîcheur de ma chambre était au plein soleil de la rue, ce que l’ombre est au rayon, c’est-à-dire aussi lumineuse que lui, et offrait à mon imagination le spectacle total de l’été dont mes sens si j’avais été en promenade, n’auraient pu jouir que par morceaux ; et ainsi elle s’accordait bien à mon repos qui…supportait pareil au repos d’une main immobile au milieu d’une eau courante, le choc et l’animation d’un torrent d’activité. (RTP, p. 74)

The dark coolness of the bedroom is to the sun what the shadow is to the sunray. Which is to say? Which is to say ‘as bright as it’. A shadow is as bright as a sunray: nonsense! Except that here nonsense seems to make sense; to borrow Frege’s terminology, this sentence is sinnvoll but bedeutungslos, it makes sense but lacks true, logical reference. And this split between sense and reference, which fissures the classical analogy’s structure (‘a is to b as c is to d’), enables the imagination to perceive the total spectacle of summer which, had the narrator been walking outside, the senses – crucially – would have enjoyed only ‘in pieces’ [par morceaux]. The logos of analogos has to splinter to hold the figure together, and by doing so enables a total recuperation of an absent presence: the summer. What we have here is, firstly, an allegory of reading, and secondly, a textbook example of everything on which Derridean deconstruction feeds. The two aspects conjoin in what Derrida, in an early text, called the ‘theology of simultaneity’: the myth of a total reading or description of a text, promoted to the status of a regulatory ideal.[3] He quotes Jean Rousset: ‘In any event, reading, which is developed in duration, will have to make the work simultaneously present in all its parts in order to be global.’[4] We must not be hasty, but already we can see that the full presence of the sun and the full presence of a total reading are not dissimilar in À la recherche. It is a search for lost time, but that lost time is not the past: it is the present, a present which fully presents itself – but only via metonymic chains of substitution, mirrors of the very morceaux which, paradoxically, fragment real presence. The search for lost time is also a search to lose time, in which the old hag of metonymy, bound to time and death, tarts herself up in the gladrags of eternal metaphor; like a Proustian face, from across a Parisian salon she looks a million dollars, but kiss her and the derelict surface of her cheeks screams mortality.[5]

At this point we shall have to invoke Paul de Man. His great work, Allegories of Reading, constitutes a virtuoso attempt to uphold the Kantian distinction between cognitive and performative language, between rationality and aesthetics, across a whole range of readings in literature and philosophy. De Man enjoins us to bind ourselves to the mast of cool reason, warding off the siren-like calls of irrational voluptuousness which threaten to scupper our weak-willed ratio on the rocks of a figurative fascism.[6] One can well imagine, then, his response to the ‘truly seductive force’ (his words) of the passage just quoted, in which the narrator, by distracting us with the sensuous and figurative chains of light and darkness, heat and coolness, has attempted to convince us that shadow is as bright as a sun’s ray: ‘One should ask how a blindness comes into being that allows for a statement in which truth and falsehood are completely subverted to be accepted as true without resistance. There seems to be no limit to what tropes can get away with.’[7] Would it be too much here to suggest a certain subterranean Orientalism at work in De Man’s thesis? Proust states explicitly in the final volume that his great work is to be the new The Thousand and One Nights (RTP, p. 2398), a child of darkness and silence; is De Man perhaps suggesting that Proust’s endless phrasal arabesques – the ‘Nile of language’ as Walter Benjamin tellingly called them – are the linguistic equivalent of those mythical Eastern belly-dancers, whose mysterious gyrations distract all reason, seductively veiling our (masculine) eyes with those tassels of far-flung silk? De Man explains the allure of these dangerous tropes thus: ‘[There is a] general pattern of substitution which all tropes have in common. It is the result of an exchange of properties made possible by a proximity or an analogy so close and intimate that it allows the one to substitute for the other without revealing the difference necessarily introduced by the substitution. The relational link…can then be called necessary.’[8] De Man’s theory of tropic seduction is one of spatial proximity. Properties are seen as entities capable of illicit miscegenation simply via logical closeness. Ironically, the problem with this theory is that it ignores the very dictum of Pascal which De Man chose as the epigraph for Allegories of Reading: ‘Quand on lit trop vite ou trop doucement on n’entend rien.’ Speed and friction are the variables which determine understanding, and speed is not only a matter of space, it is also a matter of time. The time of reading affects the time of understanding. By slowing the speed of reading, by constantly retracing the lines of one’s frayage through the textual jungle, and by reading against the grain of the text, one increases one’s understanding. Paul de Man is a great reader of Proust, not because he finds a spatial vantage point from which to unmask the false proximities of tropic substitutions, but because he reads slowly, because he takes his time. Do not all great readers combine the time and trajectory of the flâneur with the obsessive compulsiveness of the neurotic?

More fundamental, however, is the following implicit conclusion: reason, or logos, only functions at a certain speed, at a certain time. Read Proust quickly and you will remain ignorant of the subtle figurative substitutions, but read him slowly, mercilessly and the text begins to come apart at the seams – at the seems. Perhaps what we need for reason to function at its optimum efficiency is some sort of quiet space, some place to be alone with our thoughts, where we can take our time. It cannot be outside in the full, fracturing presence of the sun and of other people; we need a room of our own away from prying eyes and the desperate hands of time, somewhere presence can safely and fully present itself. We need a dark room. And there are many dark rooms in Proust, little nooks and crannies in which illicit things take place. Two of them – figurative dark rooms, linked metonymically to the others – are mentioned just after the above quoted passage. On being urged outside by his grandmother, the narrator heads out to the garden and sits

dans une petite guérite en sparterie et en toile au fond de laquelle j’étais assis et me croyais caché aux yeux des personnes qui pourraient venir faire visite à mes parents.

Et ma pensée n’était-elle pas aussi comme une autre crèche au fond de laquelle je sentais que je restais enfoncé, même pour regarder ce qui se passait au-dehors ? (RTP, p. 74)

There is a remarkable duplicitousness to Marcel’s duplicity, and it will become central to his aesthetic theory. Reading requires not only a literal dark room or voyeuristic hidey hole, it also requires that thought itself be conceived as one: like viscous Russian dolls, just when you think you have found the boundaries of one room, you instantly find another immanently supplementing the first. When he is a child, unable to bear the ‘torture’ his aunt carries out on his grandmother (a precursor to the two scenes of staged homosexual sado-masochism) he flees to his ‘refuge’, the room at the top of the house: ‘la seule qu’il me fût permis de fermer à clef, à toutes celles de mes occupations qui réclaimaient une inviolable solitude: la lecture, la rêverie, les larmes et la volupté’ (RTP, p. 20). These activities are all played out on the border between self and other, interior and exterior: reading is internal mimicking of external words; reverie hovers between conscious, intentional application of thought and passive dreaming; crying exits liquids from the body; and masturbation – Rousseau’s ‘dangerous supplement’ – is the greatest embodiment of internally fractured self-presence. The very room itself is inside and outside simultaneously, with its scent of orris root and the flowery blackcurrant branch which has sprouted through the outer wall. In other words, the ‘inviolable solitude’ which is so central to everything Proust wrote, is always already violated. The moment of pure presence and the act of sheer isolation are impossible; or, rather, their condition of possibility is coextensive with their condition of impossibility.

Jacques Derrida’s room of his published books

Enter Derrida. He argues that Edmund Husserl’s entire phenomenology stands or falls precisely on the possibility of this pure presence. In his Logical Investigations (1900), Husserl posits two fundamental types of linguistic signs: ‘indicative’ and ‘expressive’. The latter are imbued with ‘the communicative purpose or intentional force which animates language,’ whilst the former are mere ‘“lifeless” tokens in a system of arbitrary sense.’[9] The division is not one simply between writing and speech, but between those signs – like speech and voluntary gestures – which are willed exteriorizations whose ‘willedness’ remains immanent through and through, and those – like writing, involuntary gestures and facial expressions, and natural traces – which signify, but do so visibly and spatially without this vital phonetic, animating impulse.[10] The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated, since the aim of Husserl’s entire project is to reground the certitudes of reason via a neo-Cartesian transcendental reduction designed to separate the pure, logical structures of consciousness and perception from mere psychological subjectivism. In other words, the transcendental reduction is the process whereby the higher ego withdraws from the ‘natural attitude’ oriented towards the world of existing things and observes itself observing. Phenomenology does not aim to provide abstract, indicative truths, but only those worthy of the vital animation of the expressive voice: indeed, for Husserl, pure logicality is expression. It is ‘present to the self in the life of a present that has not yet gone forth from itself into the world, space or nature’.[11] For logic to be logical, the self must be present to itself in a self-present present: ‘If the punctuality of the instant [of the “now”] is a myth, a spatial or mechanical metaphor, an inherited metaphysical concept, or all that at once, and if the present of self-presence is not simple, if it is constituted in a primordial and irreducible synthesis, then the whole of Husserl’s argumentation is threatened in its very principle.’[12] We can now begin to make out that the pure self-presence which constitutes the clandestine metaphysical presuppositions of Husserl’s phenomenology is precisely that lost time of which Proust found himself retrospectively to have been in search. What the one found before finding, the other found without finding: as we shall see, that which they both found was already, and would remain, lost.

How so? Both Proust and Husserl, in their different ways, require a pure auto-affection. For the latter this is inherent to the voice as such: ‘This self-presence of the animating act in the transparent spirituality of what it animates, this inwardness of life with itself, which has always made us say that speech [parole] is alive, supposes, then, that the speaking subject hears himself [s’entendre] in the present.’[13] It is a pure presence in time which believes itself to have effaced all exterior spatiality – even that of the inward surface of one’s own body. Thus it is that for Husserl the voice evades his stricture that any language which communicates something is necessarily indicative; the interior voice, if his logic is to hold up, cannot be said to communicate anything, since the interiority is one of pure presence and immediacy. When one speaks to oneself (silently) one is not communicating anything. Expression is pure event, unassignable to any repetitive economy of reference. But this grievously misunderstands two things. Firstly, a sign is never an event, a pure singularity. It is of the essence of a sign that it be repeatable; a sign is only a sign if it retains a certain ideal identity across all its phonic and graphic iterations, and this sameness is, according to Derrida, produced by its possibility for repetition. The ‘eventness’ of the singular event is constituted by its other, by the mechanical repetitiveness which institutes a trace of any kind. Secondly, the present is never self-present; or, which is the same thing, self-presence is never truly present. The “now” is never absolute novelty: ‘The living present springs forth out of its non-identity with itself and from the possibility of a retentional trace. It is always already a trace. This trace cannot be thought out on the basis of a simple present whose life would be within itself; the self of the living present is primordially a trace…This protowriting [archi-écriture] is at work in the origin of sense.’[14] Temporalization is ‘spacing’, it is ‘time’s pure leaving itself; it is the “outside-itself” as the self-relation of time.’[15] Hence the Derridean notion of différance, which expresses the self-differing, self-deferring presence of sense. Husserl’s transcendental ego, which is present to itself in pure intuition, is always-already breached by the ‘merely subjective,’ visible and spatial world it attempts to dispel, just as Proust’s interior dark room is not only hidden from prying eyes but constituted by them. The ‘inviolable solitude’ so central for both of these men is a possibility produced by primordial violation.

It seems we are a long way from the serpentine, heart-rending sentences of À la recherche, but in fact we are not. What is that great novel if not a painfully beautiful dramatization of the search to come to terms with the life-giving, death-dealing forces of différance? For, indeed, death overshadows the whole of this oeuvre. We must not get ahead of ourselves, but it is worth quoting this passage from the end of the novel: ‘Cette idée de la mort s’installa définitivement en moi comme fait un amour. Non que j’aimasse la mort, je la détestais…[L’]idée de la mort me tenait une compagnie aussi incessante que l’idée du moi’ (RTP, p. 2397). Before making some final comments on Derrida’s interpretations of Husserl, let us keep in mind this chain of associations in Proust between reading, solitude, masturbation, the self and – finally – death. They will become clearer further on, but they are not alien to Derrida’s own work. Husserl’s phenomenology is a philosophy of life – expression and auto-affection are supposedly reserves of pure vitality. But what we began to show above is that when these presuppositions are put into question, one must reconsider the very concept of life itself. Indication, that type of assignation which consists of mere lifeless tokens, is the process of death at work in language: ‘The appearing of the I to itself in the I am is thus originally a relation with its own possible disappearance. Therefore I am originally means I am mortal.’[16] The meaning of ‘I am’ does not require the author who wrote it or said it to be alive, thus mortality is immanent to every phonic, graphic or gestural utterance – indeed, without it, one would be speechless. Another way of saying the same thing is to state that the origin (of speech, presence, subjectivity) is always already supplemented: ‘The strange structure of the supplement appears here: by delayed reaction, a possibility produces that to which it is said to be added on.’[17] Let us rephrase this to emphasise the oddity of what Derrida is suggesting here: presence is the name for that which différance retroactively produces. There never was a Garden of Eden; paradise is the retrospective projection produced by a self-différant present, like a mirage in the desert of time. No wonder the idea of death accompanied Marcel just as incessantly as the idea of his self: without the one, the other would have been impossible. Being-for-itself (subjectivity) is being-towards-death.

Proust and Derrida Part II – Cliché

Proust and Derrida Part III – Proust’s Aesthetic Theory


[1] Aside from reading the novel itself, this idea of labyrinthine chains first struck me forcefully on reading Julia Kristeva’s Le Temps Sensible(Paris: Gallimard, 1994).

[2] Marcel Proust, À la recherché du temps perdu (Paris: Gallimard, 1999), p. 74. All further references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the main body of the essay. The title will be abbreviated to RTP.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 28-29.

[4] Cited in ibid., p. 28.

[5] Cf. the scene in which Marcel kisses Albertine’s cheek in Le Côté de Guermantes, RTP, pp. 1028-1029.

[6] Obviously, the phrasing is mine, but since it is widely believed that his later works on aesthetic ideology were a silent repentance for his youthful right-wing extravagances, I think it not inappropriate. For more on this aspect of de Man, see the ‘Postscript to the Third (2002) Edition’ of Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2002).

[7] Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 62.

[8] Ibid. Italics are mine.

[9] Norris, Deconstruction, p. 44.

[10] For detailed analyses of the differences between indication and expression see Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 32-47.

[11] Ibid., p. 40.

[12] Ibid., p. 61.

[13] Ibid., p. 78.

[14] Ibid., p. 85. My addition in square brackets.

[15] Ibid., p.86.

[16] Ibid., p. 54.

[17] Ibid., p. 89.

Derrida, Sartre and the Fictive Institution of Literature

What is the limit point that separates a ‘Marxist’ approach to literature from a deconstructionist one? If we were to deal in stereotypes this question would be easy to answer: Marxism’s ultimate explanatory ground is history itself, understood as the determinate social totality produced by labouring humans whose ultimate structure at any given moment is known as the ‘mode of production’. Literary phenomena can variously be described as ‘reflections’, ‘reflexes’, ‘effects’ or ‘reproductions’ of this ‘untranscendable horizon’.  Deconstruction, on the other hand, would reject the Marxist approach as a metaphysics of presence and would prefer to think of literature as a prime example of that which escapes any final reduction to some underlying structure.

But when we read Derrida – as I tried to show in my last post – the matter becomes more complex. Unlike the (Marxist) stereotype of deconstruction as an ahistorical textualism whereby material historical phenomena are reduced to so many instances of ‘textuality’, Derrida is resolutely ‘historical’ in his explanations of the origins of ‘literature’ as an institution: ‘The name “literature” is a very recent invention…The principle (I stress that it’s a principle) of “being able to say everything,” the socio-juridico-politico guarantee granted “in principle” to literature, is something which did not mean much, or not that, in Graeco-Latin culture and a fortiori in a non-Western culture.’ (All Derrida quotations are from the interview with Attridge in Acts of Literature). Moreover, in this interview Derrida thrice mentions Sartre’s What is Literature? as a work which, it is implied, guided his thinking on the paradoxes of the literary object. Given Derrida’s interest in literature as ‘the institution which allows one to say everything [tout dire], in every way,’ we should perhaps turn to a passage in Sartre which deals with this very issue.

In a central chapter of What is Literature?, entitled ‘For Whom Does One Write?’, Sartre constructs a dialectical history of the notion of ‘Literature’. There is no space here to recount the entire trajectory of that chapter (though see my post on Atwood for a bite-sized rundown), but it is enough to say that literature as we know it today is bound up for Sartre with the crisis of (industrial?) capitalist modernity. Until the 18th-century, literature was a matter of conservation and purification: it dealt with the commonplaces of a firmly integrated ruling-class, and constituted a mere rearranging of the mental furniture into pleasing new positions. Its content was determined by tradition. But in the 18th-century the writer’s public became split between the old-school ancien régime and the new rising class – the bourgeoisie. Positioned subjectively and objectively simultaneously inside and outside these two classes, the standpoint of the writer became effectively universal: ‘literature…became conscious in him and by him of its autonomy…[It] suddenly asserted its independence. It was no longer to reflect the commonplaces of the collectivity; it identified itself with [universal] Mind.’ The battle for formal freedoms was coextensive with the bourgeois revolutionary battle for political freedom.

Image by James Andanson/Apis/ Sygma/Corbis

But by the time that class had achieved its aims and had itself become the new reactionaries, the writer was in a bind. For Sartre, the revolutions of 1848 are the breaking point. The gifted bourgeois writer loathes his own class, but he cannot bring himself to write for the new rising class: the proletariat. To do so would have meant jeopardising the formal freedoms of the writer that had been won in the crucible of Revolution the previous century. Instead, literature enters its ‘reflective period’. In a nutshell, this self-reflexivity, this impotent assertion of literary autonomy (which is correlative to the lack of a specific public) is best manifested by its lack of specific content: the writer could write about literally anything – he could, in Derrida’s phrase, tout dire. Thus Flaubert, one day satirising provincial French mundanity, the next indulging in Carthaginian mercenaries.

I’ll save for another post the role that style then plays in the formal unification of that disparate content, but by now it should be obvious that the strict division between Marxist (even if Sartre was never, strictly speaking, a Marxist) and deconstructionist accounts of literature is not as strict as it might at first appear. Derrida effectively takes this stimulating Sartrean account of literature, one which explains historically how literature came to be (potentially infinite), and runs with it:

…given the paradoxical structure of this thing called literature, its beginning is its end. It began with a certain relation to its own institutionality, i.e., its fragility, its absence of specificity, its absence of object. The question of its origin was immediately the question of its end. Its history is constructed like the ruin of a monument which basically never existed. It is the history of a ruin, the narrative of a memory which produces the event to be told and which will never have been present. Nothing could be more “historical,” but this history can only be thought by changing things, in particular this thesis or hypothesis of the present – which means several other things as well, doesn’t it? There is nothing more “revolutionary” than this history, but the “revolution” will also have to be changed.

Derrida takes Sartre’s historical account of the dialectical development of literature and transforms it into a questioning of historicity as such. It is here, I think, that the limit point between the two discourses – that of Marxism(s) and that of deconstruction(s) – is reached. I am not even sure that the two can be thought together.

Derrida and Literarity

I’m currently reading an interview with Derrida conducted by Derek Attridge in April 1989, since translated into English in Acts of Literature (1992). (If someone could let me know where to get hold of the original French interview, I’d be grateful). Of all philosophers, Derrida is the most dangerous to quote out of context, but I couldn’t resist his definition of ‘literarity’:

…there is no text which is literary in itself. Literarity is not a natural essence, an intrinsic property of the text. It is the correlative of an intentional relation to the text, an intentional relation which integrates in itself, as a component or an intentional layer, the more or less implicit consciousness of rules which are conventional or institutional – social, in any case. Of course, this does not mean that literarity is merely projective or subjective – in the sense of the empirical subjectivity or caprice of the reader. The literary character of the text is inscribed on the side of the intentional object, in its noematic structure, one could say, and not on the subjective side of the noetic act. There are “in” the text features which call for the literary reading and recall the convention, institution, or history of literature. This noematic structure is included (as “nonreal,” in Husserl’s terms) in subjectivity, but a subjectivity which is non-empirical and linked to an intersubjective and transcendental community. (p. 44)

It takes a few read-throughs to appreciate the sheer brilliance of this passage. The tightrope Derrida is walking here is terrifyingly thin. On the one side, there is the gulf of full-blown literary essentialism, whereby certain texts are deemed Literary simply because they are Literature. (This is the conservative conception of Literature that goes along with the canon and a whole host of reactionary paraphernalia). On the other side, there is the abyss of pragmatism, whereby a certain text is only literary because a specific conjunction of material practices and institutions have deemed it to be so. (This is usually the radical conception of Literature, one to which Terry Eagleton subscribes more or less readily, and to which I have myself been warily partial up to now). If you fall into the essentialist gulf, you end up some sort of authoritarian typologist, guarding the boundaries of Literature against the riff-raff of pop culture and the surly brows of philosophy. But if you tumble into the abyss of pragmatism, you risk missing the subtleties of the subjective and objective constitutions of literature.

Derrida, obviously, avoids the essentialist trap: ‘Literarity is not a natural essence’. Instead, literarity is an ‘intentional relation’. Thus far, then, he seems to be opting for pragmatism: no text is in itself literary, but has – in the famous phrase of Eagleton – ‘literariness thrust upon it’. A text is literary if I intend it to be literary, if I treat it as literature. But at this point Derrida turns to the language of phenomenology. Literarity can’t be found in the text (object), and nor can it be located in the reader (subject), so where is it? It is, he tells us, in the ‘side of the intentional object, the noematic structure’. Now, I’m no great phenomenologist, but if we simplify we could say that in his analysis of intentionality Husserl distinguished between ‘noesis’ and ‘noema’. Noesis (adj. ‘noetic’) is the act of consciousness, the act of perceiving. ‘Noema’ (adj. ‘noematic’), on the other hand, is the intentional object, the object as perceived. (Remember the mantra of phenomenology: all consciousness is consciousness of something). So both the noetic and the noematic are internal to the structure of intention – in other words, they are both aspects of subjectivity. The noematic is the objective aspect of subjectivity (intentionality): it is the object-within-subjectivity, the object-of-intentionality (which must not be confused with the real object in the real world; indeed, for Husserl, the noema is not reell).

In other words, literarity is a no-thing, a sort of ghostly passiveness immanent to intentionality. And the phantom imagery is not coincidental, since the ‘spectral logic’ that Derrida would later develop arguably began with the essays included in Speech and Phenomena, in which Husserl’s being haunted by the real irreality of the ‘noema’ becomes the self-differing origin of différance. The noematic structure is the undecidable, phantasmatic objectivity through which the (dead?) voices of the ‘intersubjective and transcendental community’ ‘call for the literary reading’: literarity is an essentially ambiguous realm on the border between singular intention and communal constitution.

The Condition of Mediocrity

To be clear-sighted even through the mist of tears – even then to have to understand, to study, to observe and ironically discard what one has seen – even at moments when hands clasp and lips touch and eyes fail, blinded by emotion – it’s infamous…it’s contemptible and outrageous.

These words come from Thomas Mann’s ‘Tonio Kröger’ (1903). The story is about the impossible task of being both fully human and fully artist (not to mention being a bourgeois artist). For Kröger, contrary to the Romantics, the artist is inhuman, someone inflicted with the bane of an irremediable, calculating distance, a constant rationalising gaze. Even in the midst of great emotional upheaval, he cannot ever let himself go, he is always weighing up how to form the vital, chaotic formlessness of life. An artist is the living dead, incapable of giving himself over to the superficiality of life’s joyousness; he is a social outcast, even while surrounded by his fellow men:

And with the torment and the pride of such insight came loneliness; for he could not feel at ease among the innocent, among the light of heart and dark of understanding, and they shrank from the sign on his brow.

And yet, how he longs for life! How he longs to be just like those ‘dark of understanding’ who sense his secret alien nature! Indeed, a man has no right even to call himself an artist ‘if his heart knows no longing for innocence, simplicity and living warmth…the bliss of the commonplace!’ On the one hand, then, Kröger loathes the bourgeoisie for their superficiality, their philistinism and their mediocrity; but, on the other hand, he has no time for bohemian cultural elitists with their cold-hearted disdain for good old, down-to-earth bourgeois life. It is only at the end of the story that a precarious, just-about-liveable balance is struck: ‘my deepest and most secret love belongs to…the happy, the charming, the ordinary…In it there is longing, and sad envy, and just a touch of contempt, and a whole world of innocent delight.’

Sculpture by Jane McAdam Freud

The agonies of Tonio Kröger are profound, Mann’s presentation of them masterly. But now imagine this: Tonio Kröger never was and never will be a great artist. He develops this delicate balance, continues his life feeling like a marked man who can never truly fraternize with his fellows, he subdues his alienation long enough to write a novel, but this novel is average at best and he knows it. Imagine, in other words, if the crises of Tonio Kröger’s inner life could not be redeemed by artistic greatness. Would this not be an even greater agony, a far more ignoble condition?

This is the condition of mediocrity. And artistic mediocrity is only its mildest form. To share the essential loneliness of the great modern writer, the absolute alienation from all mankind, but never to sublimate this desolation into the glory of a great work of art: this is a terrible fate. But there is a worse one. Imagine the selfsame loneliness, the same alienation, the same desire for artistic glory, but add to that a desire for critical greatness. (Greatness, by the way, being that for which only the inhuman strain). Not only do you desire renown in Hades, but before you even get there you want to beckon the great shades, to dazzle them with the light of critical intensity in the hope of transforming the aesthetic into truth. But your voice falters, your gaze drops away into despondency, because the call to the shades must be knowing and deep and sure, and you are ignorant and shallow and doubting: you have all the desire of the giant with none of its capacity. The tombs of the glorious dead remain closed to mediocrity.

Edvard Munch, Melancolia

And now the inner circle: radical mediocrity. You will never be a great writer, you will never be a great critic (again, you know that greatness should not even be desirable!), and you will never be a revolutionary. You have the passion of a communist but you live in a suburb; you defend the tenets of Marx with only the vaguest of historical knowledge; you write average Marxist theory in the shadow of better men than you. And still you plod on.

And it is not even tragic! It cannot, by definition, quit the realm of the comical, because it is too mediocre! In a constant trail of self-deprecating caveats and deflationary anti-rhetoric, the Sisyphean daily toil trundles on! It is unstoppable, it is pathological and it is trivial, painfully trivial. To read and write (obsessively) about the most communal of human activities, and to be all the while stricken by non-illusions of grandeur which render you an outcast.

The way to life blocked by a fear of finally, wilfully succumbing to the very mediocrity which is nonetheless your fate; the way to art, philosophy and revolution blocked by averageness, reading too little too slowly and – ultimately – by history itself.

‘Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

Finding a Voice

When I write privately – in a journal or a notebook – about personal thoughts and experiences, it is almost impossible to find a voice. What I mean by this is that I cannot find a style of writing adequate to the content of my private life. Most of the time, I use one of three languages: formal English in academic essays, colloquial English full of obscenities and idiomatic puns in conversations with friends, and (bad) French with my girlfriend. In other words, I – ‘I’, my identity – spans these three basic worlds, which means that when I come to write my ‘private’ thoughts (no thought is ever truly private – which is also part of the problem) I have to navigate between these three domains.

The difficulty is that no one discourse ever feels totally appropriate to the other two. Formal philosophical or theological jargon doesn’t seem to capture the nuance of, for example, a lover’s exchange, and nor does a filthy joke about one! There are two consequences of this, which are secretly one. Firstly, it means that my identity is not unified or integrated: ‘I’ is the particular interstitial gap generated by the mismatch of these three languages. Secondly, the historical epoch is such that an integrated identity is denied me. Life is so decompartmentalized that no one discourse seems capable of encompassing the totality. The first of these is history from the view of the subject; the second is history on the side of the object.

Perhaps the novel is still important for this reason: that it can provide symbolic resolutions of such real antagonism.

Doggy-style; or, why sex is civilized

‘It’s not fifty-fifty like a business transaction. It’s the chaos of eros, we’re talking about, the radical destabilization that is its excitement. You’re back in the woods with sex. You’re back in the bog. What it is is trading dominance, perpetual imbalance.’
– Philip Roth, The Dying Animal


‘You’re back in the woods with sex’. We talk about wild sex, animal sex, doggy-style, shagging like rabbits and so on and so on. All of these are images of some supposedly brute animality, some primitive urge that rages inside us: our evolutionary inheritance from the cavemen. The images suggest pure, material drives, unadulterated and undiluted.

What this suggestive picture ignores is the role that language plays in sex. Non-sophisticated sketches of the nature of man always seem to think of humans as basically animals but with language added on as a sort of extra. But this misses the point. Language is not just one activity of man among others, such as eating, drinking, producing etc.; it fundamentally transforms the very nature of all the other activities. Eating is no longer just eating: food becomes a world of signs, rituals, habits, and meanings. How else could diseases like anorexia or bulimia arise if signification were not a fundamental component in the process of consumption?

"Two Figures and a Cat" - Picasso

Physically, on the surface, sex appears as the most animalistic activity in which humans still engage. ‘Doggy-style’ is so-called because of obvious physical resemblances to the animal world. But these superficial similarities hide the truth: as Freud well knew, it is during sex that humans are at their most human, their least animal. Why is this? Again, because of language and meaning. The body and its accessories are captured in a network of signs, all of which play a crucial role in sex. A mouse might seek shelter in a high-heeled shoe, but it is only a human who can be aroused at the sight or the sound of one. We humans are all, to some extent, ‘natural fetishists,’ and we are so precisely because of language.

So, if this is the case, then, is it true that ‘you are back in the woods with sex’? Well, yes and no. You are back in the woods with sex to the extent that humans have conjured up a whole symbolic world centred on the woods and the primitive. We have imbued the natural world with human, linguistically-mediated desires, ones which animals themselves could never experience. Just take the great ‘doggy-style’, for example: when two dogs engage in sex it is natural and non-linguistic. It does not have a ‘meaning’ for them in the sense in which a human could experience ‘meaning’. But when two humans have sex ‘doggy-style’ it is an act rampant with signs; they have transformed themselves into what they (wrongly) think of as a bestial state of pure desire. But eros is not pure – it is always mediated by a network of symbols.

The most outrageously barbarous of sexual acts are, in fact, simultaneously the most deeply civilised.

Against the Liberals

Another day, another reflection on my existential quandaries. This time it was inspired by the final phase of the British Humanist Association’s atheist bus campaign. The BHA has just released a batch of billboard posters which are the perfect encapsulation of liberal thinking in the West today. The slogan says it all: ‘Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself’. What could possibly sound more reasonable? Is this not the most enlightened civic virtue burning away those wishy-washy clouds of Christian and Muslim mystification? Does it not bring a metallic, positivist tear to one’s radiantly rational eye?

Before enumerating just why I loathe this poster, it might be worth making a caveat. Let’s not be fools: in extreme cases, where religion is clearly being used to suppress reasoned and critical reflection, to subject a human being to oppressive conditions – be that physically or mentally – then I’m all with the BHA. Another way of saying the same thing is that I’m all for adopting an anaemic liberal ideology over an uncritical and oppressively dogmatic religious ideology. (Though let’s not forget that dogmatism is not always and everywhere oppressive: one can hold dogmatically to one’s beliefs without going round thumping tables and brandishing one’s fists over them).

The main problem I have with this poster is that its principal ideological presupposition is almost theological: choice is sacred. It’s worth unpicking this a little bit. For the British Humanist Association (as for liberalism in general) a human being is an individual – a lonely monad -existing in the void: self-made, self-fashioned. Athena was born fully-grown from the head of Zeus; but the liberal individual is both Athena and Zeus in one, constantly giving birth to itself (‘it’ because it is disembodied and sexless) in the highest stratospheres of solitude. To its north, its south, its east and west there is nothing but nothingness: no history, no society, no God, no illness, no ideas, no needs – just pure nothingness. And within this void the individual chooses. It has no preconceptions, no presuppositions; it is a blank slate choosing in and from an infinity of blankness.

The freedom to choose is the capitalist freedom par excellence. Real freedom might entail making oneself the ground of other people’s freedom – even if that included self-sacrifice -, but capitalist freedom is the liberty to choose: choose a toothpaste, choose a car, choose a house – choose a religion. Religion for people like Dawkins is a set of theoretical propositions on a piece of paper which we can tick if they suit us and cross if they don’t. It is an abstract, unlived, immaterial phenomenon. It is, in other words, precisely not what most practitioners of a religion think they are doing. Religion is a way of life, of being-together, a communal giving and receiving, a shared taking-on of the burdens of finitude and mortality. Moreover, for Christians, this community even stretches to the dead. Because history exists: it is lived through and died in; it hurts and it lives on. Atheist humanism is almost always reason in the void, and it is almost always the perfect ideological accompaniment to a rampant capitalism which renders the lives of most people in the world a misery.

They can put someone else’s religion on the line, but can they put themselves on the line? Dawkins and Grayling and their ilk are obsessed with choice. They did not choose the burden of their historical guilt – the guilt of the bourgeois – but they are guilty nonetheless. So am I. There are many productive ways of dealing with this historical sin – socialism being a prime contender – but celebrating choice is not one of them. It is simply an irresponsible reproduction of the dominant ideology. ‘Let me grow up and choose for myself’: let them grow up, indeed, but into reasonable people.

Learning from Sartre

In a recent post, I wrote of the difference between propositional and performative understandings of religion (more specifically, of Christianity). I explained that part of the problem facing most people today is that they are not born into a tradition of any kind. In the Western world, there used to be two great traditions of which the majority of people were an active member: Christianity and socialism. These were the days when ‘being’ a Christian and ‘being’ a socialist meant performing certain acts in tandem with holding certain beliefs. Creed was a material, practical affair. Today, on the contrary, these traditions no longer exist in the West in the same way in which they used to, and so the majority of people are condemned to confronting them in their abstract propositional form only. Whereas at one time being a socialist meant attending trade union meetings and organising worker education evenings, it now (more or less) means a student sat in halls of residence reading Marx. Put crudely, people used to do things and think things, but now they only think things.

Having never read much Sartre until recently, I was struck by his description of existentialism and its relation to the problem outlined above. By insisting that existence precedes essence – in other words, that we exist before we ourselves decide on what our essence as humans will be (Christian, atheist, agnostic, existentialist, Muslim etc.) – he’s effectively taking to its historical conclusion the fact of the severing of the performative from the propositional. Existential angst is what an honest suburban petit bourgeois who is trying to ‘become’ a Christian experiences almost every day, predominantly because for him Christianity is a choice. He has chosen to become a Christian. He existed, and then he himself founded his own essence, rather than his essence preceding him. Unless one is raised in a Christian family or a socialist family, it seems to me that to ignore this fact and the day-to-day consequences of it is to ignore the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

The repercussions of this for both Christianity and socialism are profound. When critics of Sartre point out that his worldview is merely a reflection of the grim social consequences of monopoly capitalism – a world of bourgeois monads confronting each other as potential competitors and strangers – they are correct. But just because Sartrean existentialism cannot be thought of as ahistorical is precisely not to say that it does not apply to our own epoch. If socialism and Christianity do not begin from this alienated present, then they are simply the nefarious ideologies which their enemies take them for.

Writing the Limits of Freedom



I was struck by this remark from Graham Harman:

Remember, you have two major enemies when approaching a writing project: zero, and infinity. The zero is the anxiety of the blank piece of paper. The infinity is the gigantic expanse of reality that you cannot possibly exhaust in any piece of writing. Your initial goal is to make the project finite, and hence manageable.

This is the best articulation I’ve ever come across of the dread that haunts all writers at the outset of a project. The task any text has before it is to aim at the infinite through the finite. No wonder, then, as Harman goes on to observe, that limits (word-number, titles, themes, target audience etc.) often provide comfort: they bear the brunt of infinity on our behalf. Indeed, in a very real sense limits – no matter what Americans or hedonists might tell you about them – can be freeing. Absolute freedom, paradoxically, is not free, since it has nothing against which it can feel the exercise of its freedom. It engulfs itself in its own abyss.

This is one of the reasons why poets keep coming back to the sonnet form. On the one hand, it tests their versatility – can they, for example, respect the (14th-century) Petrarchan rhyme-scheme whilst still managing to sound modern? On the other hand, those strict limits of form, line-length, rhyme, and so on, constitute familiar walls on which to bounce their measured words. This was probably what Wordsworth had in mind when he wrote the following:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Quote of the Day: Adorno



“If the immanent quality of a type of thinking, the strength manifested in it, the resistance, the imagination, the unity of critique with its opposite – if all of this is not an index veri [index of truth], it is at least an indication. Even if it were a fact, it could not be the truth that Carnap and Mieses are truer than Kant and Hegel.”

– Theodor Adorno – Negative Dialectics

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