Felman, Shoshana. The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J.L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Translated by Catherine Porter. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2003.
Interrogating the intersection between psychoanalysis, speech act theory, and Molière’s Don Juan, Felman attempts to articulate “the scandal (which is at once theoretical and empirical, historical) of the incongruous but indissoluble relation between language and the body; the scandal of the seduction of the human body insofar as it speaks” (5). Such a seductive situation posits “a desire that desires itself and that desires its own language,” turning speech an sich into “the true realm of eroticism, and not simply a means of access to this realm” (15). Yet there is no alternative, for “the referent cannot be attained directly; it can only be approached or aimed at through the intermediary of language” (50)—so much so that “the referent is itself produced by language as its own effect” (51). Taking the instance of Don Juan’s promising without any intent to keep his word as “the performative utterance par excellence,” Felman perversely claims that “the seducer, strictly speaking [!], does not lie,” for a “trap of seduction  consists in producing a referential illusion through an utterance that is by its very nature self-referential” (17). That is to say, the play stages a conflict between those who insist on the constative closure of language and those, like Don Juan, whose performative speech acts accomplish a (diabolical) reflexive force, a “referential residue of meaning” (52) which amounts to “a performative excess” (55). For Felman, “[t]he act, an enigmatic and problematic production of the speaking body, destroys from its inception the metaphysical dichotomy between the domain of the ‘mental’ and the domain of the ‘physical,’ breaks down the opposition between body and spirit, between matter and language” (65), just as it did “the alternative, the opposition, between referentiality and self-referentiality” (53). Insofar as this act of radical negativity, necessarily either comic or tragic—evoking laughter or imposing fate—“cannot know what it is doing” as it “subverts both consciousness and knowledge (of language),” one can say “[t]he speaking body is scandalous” (67). In that case, any “utterance of knowledge, no longer constative but performative, is no longer so much the object of contemplation, but of enjoyment” (72), becoming “an event—a ritual—of desire” (76); but “the scandal lies less in sex than in language…through which the body’s doing always fails to speak itself, whereas the speaking never fails to do” (78), so that “matter…without being reducible to language, is no longer entirely separable from it, either” (108). “This scandal of the outside of the alternative, of a negativity that is neither negative nor positive,” a Deleuzian nonpositive affirmation (104), names what is trivial and comical and so inassimilable by ideological history, yet it is “the things that have no history” that “make history” (106).
This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.