Dissertation Progress Update

Last week, after attending to the feedback from my chair, I finally finished editing my first two dissertation chapters to a point where I felt comfortable sending them off to the rest of my committee. As part of that process, I took a step back and tried to give my readers a brief overview of how I see the project shaping up—a prefatory synopsis which I thought it would be good to share here, too:

In the first chapter, “Burke and Lacan on the Symbolic Mechanisms of the Unconscious”—sexy title, I know—I investigate a parallel between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Burkean rhetoric, in that both, at roughly the same midcentury moment, developed a “symbolic” theory of the unconscious/an unconscious theory of the “symbolic”. At the same time, I show that both Lacan and Burke, in these same texts on the unconscious, make acute reference to the emerging field of cybernetics—the former using cybernetics to explain the unconscious, an inhuman machinery at the heart of the human, while the latter denigrated “thinking machines” over and against the human as a privileged subject. Rhetoric might therefore look to Lacanian psychoanalysis as a way of rethinking those concepts Burke introduced to rhetoric as a way of moving beyond the discipline’s traditional humanist leanings toward a posthumanist frame of distributed ontology, nonhuman agency, and decentered signification.

My second chapter, “Purloined Messaging Between Rhetoric, Psychoanalysis, and Cybernetics”—really killing it with these clever chapter titles—further refines and develops Lacan’s cybernetic reconceptualization of the Freudian unconscious as a way to rethink our field’s historic reliance on traditional ontological frameworks, as especially exemplified in the humanist figure of the “letter.” Having identified some of the issues with how Burke incorporated psychoanalytic terminology into modern rhetorical theory, I expand here on the Lacanian alternative through a careful elucidation of the analyst’s reading of Poe’s “the Purloined Letter.” Contrasting the post-Poe letter with rhetoric’s more conventional epistolary practices—exemplified especially by reflective pedagogies that aim to foreground consciousness and human agency—I attempt to show how Lacan’s rethinking of the letter (as a signifier) provides rhetoric with a theory of communication that aims toward a posthuman compositional praxis of distributed and nonhuman agency, foregrounding a rhetor’s envelopment in material ecologies and autonomous signifying networks.

Like Lawrence and his match, or Moon Watcher and his nuclear warhead, we have Lacan and his letters: With a conceptual flash cut, my third chapter—tentatively titled “Freudian Typos and Rhetorical Para-Praxis”—will continue along the path of the letter, shifting ever so slightly toward the graphemic, alphabetical material that makes up any given written word. This section of the dissertation will outline a theory of “Freudian typos,” a form of computerized parapraxis that reveals what I call our emerging “digital unconscious.” Again, this will develop the idea first set out in my discussion of Burke that Lacan’s reimagining of the Freudian unconscious, misread by our foremost twentieth century rhetorician, can help push rhetorical theory beyond humanist conventions toward a posthuman praxis better suited to contemporary communicative media. Toward this end, my final chapter will follow Lacan’s own trajectory toward what he called the “sinthome”—a compositional praxis that revels in its own breakdowns, interruptions, and ambiguities; that is to say, a form of writing based on decentered human subjectivity, one which enjoys its material embeddedness not as a limitation, but as an inventional possibility.


Ambient Time [A Conference Talk]

Recently, I was invited to deliver a paper at the 18th Biennial Conference of the Rhetoric Society of America in Minneapolis. The topic of my panel was the rhetorical term “kairos” and its pedagogical potentials. Below is a copy of my presentation—unusually, I wrote it as a series of points, not as a set of paragraphs—which I hope to clean up and return to as an article at some point in the future, when the time is more kairotic:

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At one time or another, I expect that everyone here has experienced something like the following: Aware that the end of a class period is quickly approaching, the hour nigh, the bell about to toll, you look up to check the mood of the room, to gauge the level of engagement in your students, only to see some gazing blankly a thousand yards beyond you, some staring at the screens before them, and some—the most telling—at the clock counting down on the wall behind you

What provokes a pupil’s pupils to wander is, I want to suggest, an awareness, unconscious or not, of their temporal situation, an ambient anticipation that the hour is passing and coming to a close

Like watching grass dry or paint grow, people become affectively aware of time’s slow crawl because they know that the promised end will eventually come, yet remain always incapable of making it come sooner—it takes time

More to the point: In a classroom situation where students are as aware of the time as they are of the teacher, like dullards ticking away the moments that make up their dull day, our pedagogical efforts in effect become for naught

Because learning requires a subjective openness and uncertainty, while temporality is typically experienced as objectively conclusive and precise

When we act like we are certain of the end, we cannot begin to begin—if we already presume the answer, as Lacan puts it, we can never really ask the question

Instead, we become closed to learning, looking toward the exit door to open up once more at the regularly scheduled time, waiting to be (as the nostalgic theme goes) saved by the bell

As teachers, then, in an instance like this, our pedagogies become hindered through a struggle against time

To not struggle against time, on the other hand, to use time, to treat time properly, to make time one’s own—that is a matter of kairos

In particular, what I am interested in here is a sense of kairos as articulated by Thomas Rickert: A time for new signifying possibilities that emerges without conscious awareness, the moment for meaning making materializing, in Rickert’s language, ambiently

In terms of ambience, rhetorical possibilities arrive via the mutually dynamic interrelationship between a rhetor and her embedded, nonhuman environs, such that with kairos, the time for new significations appears in the ineluctable, insentient exchange between a subject and her world

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In a condition of ambience, Rickert explains, “we do not simply avail ourselves of kairotic opportunities; rather, our words and actions emerge as willed by kairos” (91), time making up our discursive designs as we make time for the development of new positions, attuning ourselves and our discourse to the world around us

This conceptualization of ambience describes well what happens in the classroom when students, not necessarily counting down the minutes, are nonetheless unconsciously aware of their measured crawl, affectively anticipating the impending bell, trained to expect its regular coming like Pavlov’s dog, even without consciously thinking about it

In question here is how to effectively approach pedagogical time in such a way as to not make of time an enemy to learning, but instead to comport our teaching methods so that ti-i-i-ime is on your side, yes it is

For learning must happen in time, learning can only occur with time

Which rarely happens on time in the classroom

What we as rhetoricians must think through, then, is how to most effectively approach time as a means of persuasion in the classroom

We must reconceive temporality not as a pedagogical constraint to struggle against, but as an inventional possibility for new significations

That is to say, we must include time into our pedagogies, treat temporality not as a ninevitable threat that must be warded off or ignored, but as a dimension essential to the learning process itself

Jacques Lacan faced a very similar crisis of temporality in the psychoanalytic clinic, and his provocative praxis offers one avenue for reimagining the function of time in the classroom

The psychoanalytic importance and practical treatment of temporality was crucial for Lacan, “a cornerstone” (to use his own words) in his theoretical edifice (Guéguen)

The most well-known and controversial of Lacan’s ideas about time, of course, was his advocacy for variable-length or “short” analytic sessions, a proposal which Lacan would never abandon throughout his career despite it being the grounds for his so-called “excommunication” from the IPA in 1953

In short, the short session differs from the standard appointments with a psychoanalyst in that, rather than lasting for the entirety of a preset 50-minute hour, the length of the meeting is treated dynamically, flexibly by the analyst, ending at her discretion rather than the institution’s direction

While in principle such a session might last beyond the accustomed hour, in practice the appointment typically ends well before the 50-minute mark, when the analyst determines that some important aporia or unconscious truth or, to use Lacan’s terms, an unacknowledged Master Signifier in the subject’s discourse, has been reached

If after, say, only half an hour the analysand makes some pregnant parapraxis, a suggestive Freudian slip, the analyst might end the session on the spot, informing the patient that time is up, encouraging them to think through what was just said on their own time

In Lacanian circles, there is a well-known anecdote about the analyst himself in this regard: When a patient arrived at the usual time bearing a small curio for Lacan, some token of appreciation, the good doctor abruptly, without a word of thanks, took the analysand’s gift, took their payment, and took them back to the door from whence they came (from LacanOnline.com)

Importantly, the analysand offers no interpretation of the subject’s discourse, provides no summation of what has been covered, gives no concluding remarks

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Rather, the analysand is met with a telling silence from the analyst, a disruptive refusal to explain, thereby provoking the patient to ask themself what it is they just said that led the analyst, seen as a parental figure via transference, to cut short the session then and there

In effect, the lesson here is twofold:

On one level, the subject is invited to invent new significations for their discourse, to unearth unimagined rhetorical possibilities and associations already hinted at within their Symbolic structure

At the same time, and more importantly, like the proverbially man who hasn’t just been given lunch but has been taught to cast a wider net, the subject is encouraged, impelled unconsciously, to stop looking toward authority figures for the right answer, instead assuming responsibility for establishing meaning on their own

This is an ethics of response-ability and critical listening in line with much of contemporary rhetorical theory; as one Lacanian analyst suggests: “the question of the duration of the session isn’t a technical question, it’s an ethical question” (Vinciguerra) one that aims to listen more fully (and so respond more truly) to the full speech of the subject

Lacan developed this praxis of short sessions because he found that a fixed-length session, as regulated by the IPA, as we can see in our own teaching spaces, could regularly act as an impediment to treatment, the inflexible block of time functioning as a learning block for analysands

“The indifference,” says Lacan “with which ending a session after a fixed number of minutes has elapsed…can be fatal to the conclusion toward which [the subject’s] discourse was rushing headlong, and can even set a misunderstanding in stone, if not furnish a pretext for a retaliatory ruse” (É 258)

What is most nettlesome here is how Lacan found that, in clinical experience—which I think is uncannily mirrored in our own classrooms—the analysand’s foreknowledge of the session’s temporal limit, its impending end, often “induces the subject to manœuvre with the time” (Vinciguerra)

Like the student who ticks off the tocks of the clock awaiting what liberty the bell brings, the analysand will unconsciously commandeer the close of the session as a defense against opening up

The expectation, conscious or not, that the session and its ambient expectations, its pressures, have a predetermined termination, provides the subject the relief of release, the promise that this will all end soon enough so I only need to grin and bear it rather than bare it all, allowing the analysand to shut up and shut out the efforts of the analyst until the lights shut off

“We know how,” says Lacan, the analysand “calculates the moment of [the ending’s] arrival in order to tie it to his own timetable, or even to his evasive maneuvers, and how he anticipates it by weighing it like a weapon and watching out for it as he would for a place of shelter” (É 258)

When Lacan then would cut short his sessions—and note that in Greek, according to Doro Levi, kairos shares an etymological link with “to cut,” “to kill,” and “death”—his aim was to rigorously transform the function of temporality within the analytic situation, rebelling against the rigid tyranny of the clock to make of time not a clinical constraint to struggle against, but rather an inventive possibility for establishing new significations through working with time

For Lacan, the whole point is that, as even his colleagues in the IPA would agree, “the unconscious [or meaning] needs time to reveal itself,” but a further question must be asked: “How is this time to be measured?” (É 257)

Abandoning the clock—the precision of which produces more discontent than it does liberation—the short session redefines the hour not by the number of minutes it contains but by the potential meaning of its signifiers

Hence, whether a session lasts for 5 or 50 minutes, patients will pay the same fee, and will leave, in theory at least, with a similar potential for a post-break breakthrough, and realization of their own meaning

In the Lacanian clinic or classroom, temporality is hence no longer a chronological measure of learning processes, but is itself measured kairotically, through the subject’s words and teacher’s punctuation

What Lacan’s clinical development and conceptualization of time amounts to, as Rose-Paule Vinciguerra points out, is a praxis of kairos, a treatment predicated on what Protagoras coined “dunamis tou kairou, the power of the opportune moment”

Meant here not in the sense the IPA typically accused him of: That Lacan was a mere opportunist in search of an easy, profitable out, short changing his patients (who had to pay more than chump change, whatever the change in session length or themselves)

Rather, the short session relies on kairos as “a resource of time defined by the presentation of a meaning and made concrete by an act or event of resolution or comprehension,” as Vinciguerra defines it

In its Lacanian turn, kairos comes to name the time of signification, of realization, of punctuation: Like one of the tortuous, page-long sentences found in Joyce or Kafka, in the rhetorical situation of analysis, meaning does not emerge or crystalize until discourse comes to a full……stop

In cutting the hour short, stopping before time is up, the analyst unfixes temporality from the tyranny of its clockwork precision to make of time a means of persuasion, something not to struggle against, but to wield in the rhetorical struggle for making meaning

No longer approached warily as a constraint, Lacan embraces time as interior to the rhetorical situation of analytic praxis, its kairotic function emerging from within the subject’s discourse

The analyst must then wait “for something from the analysand’s words, a speech event that will produce kairos, an occasion. He makes himself the locus of reception,” says Vinciguerra

That is to say: In the pedagogical setting of the clinic, and likewise of the rhetoric classroom, a praxis of kairos requires of us an ethic of listening

The punctuation of signification cannot be predicted or fixed ahead of time, it adheres to no predetermined schedule; instead, the time for understanding must wait upon the words, so that the words can weigh upon time, the script of kairos being you and me, rhetor and audience, teacher and students

When we approach praxis in terms of kairos, especially in this Lacanian sense, the temporal dimension of our pedagogy is no longer something we need to struggle against in the classroom, the hour’s end is no longer a looming threat but becomes a kairotic promise of new signifying possibilities

Hence, instead of frittering and wasting time in an offhand way, as happens in the fixed session when the subject has closed themself off by already assuming the ending in advance, we can begin to make time for learning, growing, undoing assumptions, when we end things ahead of time

But the question of the hour remains: How might we, as composition teachers and not clinical psychoanalysts, put this Lacanian sense of kairos and the praxis of the short session to use in our own teaching spaces?

While our methods will never quite approach the technique of free association, the psychoanalytic clinic and the rhetoric classroom nevertheless share a great deal, including the fundamentally pedagogical goal of molding the minds of analysands and students alike

Foregoing the Freudian method, we all the same routinely invite students to have free discussion during class time, often freewheeling and unwieldy conversations

Just as perpetually interpreting (and reinterpreting) classroom discourse is one standard pedagogic method for managing discussions, so too might we take a cue from Lacan and, rather than directing the conversation to a conceptual goal, instead end the period early, at the first hint their gears are turning, the first sign the ball is rolling, allowing students to guide themselves to their own conclusions without our offering any final word

As a pedagogical technique, I think that introducing variable-length sessions into our educational practice could productively upset student expectations and classroom power dynamics, an echo of its therapeutic effect

Whether we finish early or late, the point is to keep these subjects on edge, unaware when time will be up, which only happens when our pedagogies heed the cut of kairos

In the end, all that my suggestion of short class periods calls for is a renewed commitment to an ethic of listening to students on (and in) their own terms, supporting in an oblique and ambient way their ability to take responsibility for new significations

Even though such a proposal inevitably relinquishes the sort of blow-out walk-off conclusions that people by-and-large crave, the point is that it is sometimes more persuasive, at least pedagogically and kairotically, to forgo any neat bon mot or tidy bow that wrap-ups a session or summarizes a lesson in favor of simply and silently, if suddenly, bowing out when the time, though neither up nor out, is ripe

Annotated Bookshelf: A Non-Oedipal Psychoanalysis?

Van Haute, Philippe, and Tomas Geyskens. A Non-Oedipal Psychoanalysis? A Clinical Anthropology of Hysteria in the Works of Freud and Lacan. Translated by Joey Kok. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2012.

Poor Dora: A century of the couch, and hers remains the originary and central enigma of psychoanalysis, she stands still as the sphinx to the Freudian eddy-fuss. Source of the father’s frustration, Dora poses in fact three questions: On four legs, she begs the analyst to consider what is a hysteric?; on two, she asks as all hysterics do was will das Weib?; on three legs, she raises the issue of Oedipus, and whether or not analysis should be a normative enterprise or a pathoanalytic praxis? While touching on all three riddles, Van Haute and Geyskens take as their principle interest the final issue, arguing that in the latter approach, “[t]he different forms of psychological disorder do not stand over against psychological normality” in some positivist and objective diagnosis, but “on the contrary, they display a specific disposition that is active in normal inner emotional life, yet is expressed in an excessive way in pathology” (17). In this account, which amounts to a clinical anthropology, “[t]he power of sexual desire, oral fixation, bisexual inclination, and disgust of sexual pleasure are all constitutionally determined libidinal factors that determine Dora’s fate as a disposition, i.e., as a cluster of forces that has the potential to express itself in a severe hysterical symptomatology, but can also sublimate itself to religious surrender, feminist militancy, or literary pleasure, sublimations only announced in a crude caricaturist way in the hysterical symptom” (60). This suggests that the highest marks of culture—art, religion, philosophy—are, in principle, structurally in step with Freudian neuropathologies—hysteria, obsessive neurosis, and paranoia—a formal solidarity that makes normative calculation, viewing the former as better, impossible; rather, in their cultural forms, “the various components of the [neurotic] disposition express themselves in a non-symptomatic, powerful and pleasurable way” (71), but in no way healthier than the neuroses per se. Accordingly, a clinical anthropology implies that “human beings live out their existence in a continuous tension between culture and pathology that cannot be resolved” (119), that “[f]undamentally, human existence occurs in an insurmountable, strenuous relationship between misrecognition of lack (frustration) and the acceptance of its structural character,” the former materializing pathologically and the latter culturally (159). Against this position, the Oedipus complex, whether in its tragic Freudian form “as the cord of all neuroses” (78) or in its Lacanian structural re-reading, “immediately implies the possibility and need for a psychogenetic explanation” (84), a developmental interpretation wherein the analysand’s history might have turned out better were it not for some contingent trauma.

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.

Annotated Bookshelf: Lacanian Affects

Soler, Colette. Lacanian Affects: The Function of Affect in Lacan’s Work. Translated by Bruce Fink. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.

Strangely enough, psychoanalysis has had little to say regarding the recent emergence of critical affect studies (though such silence, the lack of saying, might profitably become the beginning of an answer). The accusation has typically been that the Freudo-Lacanian tradition relegates affect to the register of Imaginary deceit—though, as Soler contends in her uncommon intervention, that which is untrue still has much to teach us; and while affects might fall into the Imaginary, there is also something Real about them. A far cry, then, from the now more familiar Deleuzian accounts, Soler means by affect something closer to Ann Cvetkovich’s “intentionally imprecise” feelings than, say, Massumi’s intensity prior to symbolic capture in language as emotions. Rather than defining (presymbolic, bodily) affect and (Imaginary, narrativized) emotion as separate, Soler suggests that clinical practice reveals a relationship between corporeal the corporeal and the linguistic, arguing that “for both Freud and Lacan, affect is an effect” (3), which is to say that “signifiers affect us and affect is determined solely by signifiers” (5). This does not mean, however, that all affect is knowable or transmissible as a matter of signification; some affects, particularly anguish or anxiety, instead punch a hole in “the monopoly of the signifier as far as knowledge is concerned,” allowing analysts to “get a handle on reality (réel) via affect” (20f.).

“We cannot have any knowledge, strictly speaking, that is not linguistically structured,” Coler explains, “but that which goes beyond linguistic structure is rendered present to me by affects: by anguish when it is object a or the real lying outside of the symbolic that is at work, and by enigmatic affects when it is lalangue that is at work” (106). Such an enigmatic affect creates “a lived experience of imminence, a sort of epiphany experienced by an object-like being that is in abeyance” of comprehension (28), resisting epistemic closure as it is embodied in symptoms. Lacan’s hypothesis regarding affect is thus that “the signifier affects something other than itself: it affects the bodily individual that is thereby made into a subject…The first affecting party is thus language, and the affected party is not simply the imaginary body…but its capacity to enjoy,” real-ized via the symptom (53). Thus language operates as “the ‘apparatus’ of its jouissance, as we see in symptoms, in which the verbal elements of the unconscious and the enjoying substance of the body come together” in “a coalescence of the word and jouissance” that Coler calls moteriality (56). For Lacan, then, material intensity is not a priori to its linguistic capture—”Lacan stressed that there is no such thing as a preverbal stage, but there is a pre-discursive stage since lalangue is not language” (110)—but rather “it is always the body as affected by language that has repercussions that take the form of subjective affects,” at the same time transubjectively historical and radically individual (101).

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.

Annotated Bookshelf: Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive

Dean, Jodi. Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2010.

Although brief, Dean’s monograph is a conscious attempt to slow down contemporary communications media and think critically about the networked hegemony she calls communicative capitalism, “that economic-ideological form wherein reflexivity captures creativity and resistance so as to enrich the few as it placates and diverts the many” (4). Following Žižek, Dean contends that the modern media epoch is caught by “the decline of symbolic efficiency, the recursive loops of universalized reflexivity, the extreme inequalities that reflexive networks produce, and the operation of displaced mediators at points of critical transition” (29). To explain the reflexive circuit, Dean suggests that Lacan’s notion of the inhuman, undead, and disruptive drive — which posits pure loss as its object and “attains jouissance in the repetitive process of not reaching it” (40) — “expresses the reflexive structure of complex networks,” and that “[c]ommunicative capitalism thrives not because of unceasing or insatiable desires but in and as the repetitive intensity of drive” (30), a never ending loop within which media users are stuck. “Caught in reflexive networks” without being grounded by sufficient symbolic efficiency to make choices meaningful, “we lose the capacity for reflection. Our networks are reflexive so that we don’t have to be” (78) — a situation that produces what Dean, with a nod to Agamben, names a whatever being, a contemporary subjectivity that is “‘neither generic nor individual’” (80), both anxious and apathetic, “passive . . . because they are subjects of drive” (85). In effect, enjoined by the network itself, whatever beings communicate on the Internet, whether through a blog post or clicking ‘Like’, for the sheer fact of communicating, without a care for what is communicated: “Like a tweet, a Facebook update marks the mundane by expressing it, by breaking it out of one flow of experience and introducing it into another” again and again (98), producing a nugget of jouissance in the failure to land while simultaneously making it impossible to move beyond the loop. “In the reflexive doubling of communication, the enjoyment attached to communication for its own sake displaces intention, content, and meaning” so that ultimately the “something extra in repetition is enjoyment, the enjoyment that is capture in the drive and the enjoyment that communicative capitalism expropriates” (116).

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.

Annotated Bookshelf: Life on the Screen

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. NY: Touchstone, 1997.

While in her next major text, Alone Together, Turkle would come to reconsider and reverse a great deal of the enthusiasm, this much lauded book displays the sort of technoptimism that characterized the advent of the Internet in the Clinton years. The work is loosely structured around three metaphors—“the computer as tool, as mirror, and as gateway to a world through the looking glass of the screen” (267)—although the same questions of identity, subjectivity, and reality return throughout. In general, Turkle believes that computers have today become one of culture’s dominant “objects-to-think-with” (48), allowing users to play seriously in the virtual environment with competing theories, politics, identities—you name it. Accordingly, “[a]s human beings become increasingly intertwined with the technology and with each other via the technology, old distinctions between what is specifically human and specifically technological becomes more complex” (21), to the point that the no “simple causal chain” remains: “Our times make us, we make our machines, our machines make our times” (46). Turkle does not see such a loop as a tautology, a short-circuit, or an dialectical paradox, but rather understands the decentered fragmentation of human-computer interaction as embodying the truth of postmodern theory—an umbrella term that covers seemingly the whole of French thought, from Derrida to Lacan, Lévi-Strauss to Deleuze. In particular, because of her training as a psychotherapist, more so than the Baudrillardian hyperreal or Foucauldian panopticon—though they each get their nod in a book constantly nodding—Turkle contends that “online personae have something in common with the self that emerges in a psychoanalytic encounter…significantly virtual, constructed within the space of the analysis, where its slightest shifts can come under the most intense scrutiny” (256). Despite the provocative interest in the intersection of the divided subject and cyberspace, Turkle never gets much deeper than the superficial suggestion—MUDs are new and protean, after all, and like the sea, there seems too much to see, too much to cover to do more than skim. Ultimately, then, an ambivalence cuts through the text, a journalistic indecision that does not quite know what to make of computers, though making seems to be the most fruitful trait of computers. That is to say, for Turkle, the value of the virtual lies in its ability to make real and objective our psychical fantasies and desires; as her title indicates, what is “real” and “human” still serves as the basis for judgment rather than as imaginary supplement—a tendency that subsequently leads to her change in position a decade and a half later.

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.

Annotated Bookshelf: The Scandal of the Speaking Body

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.