Roland Barthes: Writing Degree Zero

ROLAND BARTHES (1914 – 1980)

PART ONE

Writing Degree Zero (1953)

One of the most interesting facts of the life of Roland Barthes was that he was struck by a laundry van and, after lingering for a month, died of his injuries. “The Painter of Modern Life,” Constantin Guys had also been struck down in a similar fashion: almost a century earlier, he was run over by a cab and his legs were crushed. Guys died more slowly and succumbed ten years later. If being run down by a laundry truck when walking home from lunch with the future President of France, seems an odd way to die, Barthes had always walked an uneven path. He was unfortunate enough to come of age at a time where homosexuality was not a public matter and he spent his life in the closet, living with his only parent, his mother, his entire life. As he got older and became less attractive to the young men he desired, he declined to impose himself upon them. Barthes, who preferred a quiet life in the home he shared with his mother, was so fond of his colleague and intellectual confident, Julia Kristeva, he wished he was a heterosexual.

Although to outsiders, especially dazzled Americans, he seemed to be the chain smoking quintessential French intellectual, he was something of an autodidact whose education was never completed. Barthes had taught himself the prevailing French ideas floating through the post-war decades, but remained mostly an essay writer until his new tendencies were publicly criticized by a Sorbonne professor, Raymond Picard. As one of his biographers Jonathan Culler related, from 1965 on Barthes became the intellectual representative of criticism after Existentialism. However, exalted his public persona, Barthes was both in the center and in the margins and, indeed, Michel Foucault was somewhat disdainful of the self-education of Barthes. Barthes finally achieved a place in the scholarly community he at once chided and aspired to when he was elected to a chair in Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France.

Post-war Paris was in a state of intellectual flux. The scholarly community had been united by two elements during the Occupation: hatred for the Nazis and adherence to Marxism. When the war ended, Existentialism emerged as the prevailing philosophy, but Marxism as a philosophy seemed to be discredited by the brutal Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It was the events of 1968 that finally ended the faith in a practical Marxist theory of class revolution and, in the ruins of the “days of May,” Existentialism seemed too focused on the individualistic “act” of a single person, Marxism seemed too political and too tainted with failure, leaving Structuralism as the comfortably apolitical philosophy of the day.

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Paris “Days of May” 1968

Based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Structuralism was established by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, which was followed up by Structuralist Anthropology in 1958. The work of Lévi-Strauss moved away from linguistic signs to social signs, from behavior and costumes, rituals and customs. The work of the Structuralist was to reveal the underlying structure of cultural signifiers which were arranged along binaries. Reflecting the structure of the human mind, paired opposites such as the raw and the cooked should be read as part of a larger sign system and gains meaning within a network of other signs. The raw and the cooked, the inedible and the editable, for example, are part of a larger concept of nature and culture.

It is important to understand that by the time Structuralism was introduced to America, it was already “over” in Paris, challenged by newer versions of Structuralism from those who also repudiated Structuralism, such as Foucault and those who undermined it, such as Jacques Derrida. From the late sixties to the mid eighties, works by French and German writers arrived, via translations, in an unsystematic manner and with alien labels, such as “Post-Structuralism.” In the blank space following the exhaustion of New Criticism and the aging of the Anglo-American tradition, French theory fell on fertile ground and was consumed by eager Americans, few of whom were familiar with the very real differences among the scholars in the very competitive universities and colleges of Paris. Instead, the “French” was all lumped together and were not understood as having distinctive intellectual lineages and very distinctive bodies of work. Compared to the scientific work of Lévi-Strauss, to the historical scope and extended projects of Foucault, to the twisted syntax and ever-evolving re-writings by Lacan, to the dense and circular layered writing of Derrida, the books and essays by Roland Barthes are brief, concise, eclectic and, in the case of Camera Lucida, an extended mourning for his mother, very personal. Not a trained philosopher, as were many of his colleagues, Barthes is best understood as a literary critic who used Structuralism as an analytic tool to better foreground “writing” over “literature” and to understand the system of social signs of ordinary life.

However, Barthes came to Structuralism late in his career. The first twenty years of his development was essentially a learning curve, including numerous essays that led to significant books, one of them being his first extended foray into literary criticism in 1953 when he published Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Early in his career, like all young intellectuals, Barthes digested Existentialism and was very inspired by What is Literature? (1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre. “The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture and music,” Sartre wrote and the reader of the works of Barthes immediately recognizes a famous phrase that would later become the title of a book by Barthes. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize language..he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs.” In both accepting this book by Sartre and in slipping away from Existentialism, Writing Degree Zero is very much a transitional book. A reaction against Existentialism, it combines Marxism in its critique of bourgeois literature and moves beyond a class critique to a critique of what Barthes called “Literature,” seeking a new non ideological way of writing. The roots of the short book go back to the late 1940s and is one of the most obvious of his excursions into semiotics.

In her introduction to Writing Degree Zero, when it was translated into English in 1967, Susan Sontag noted that American writers would have difficulty in understanding the book. Part of what disturbed her in the late sixties–the unfamiliarity with French literary criticism–has since passed and the book does not seem difficult at all, but the entire foundation of the book, an analysis of a tradition of literature that is specifically French, remains alien to many Americans. As Sontag pointed out, not only do American have an Anglo-Ameircan literary heritage but the canonical authors are quite different. When Barthes wrote of “Literature,” without explanation, he was referring to the French tradition of classical and official literature that dated back to the 17th century. Because Literature was designed to provide knowledge, information, and received wisdom, it was considered, not a mode of writing but a “natural” and inevitable form of communication. Due to its effectiveness, Literature remained supreme, even after the French Revolution. Early 19th century writers adopted the official language of power and what had once belonged to the ancien regime was appropriated by the “triumphant” middle class.

As an example of the authority of this form of language, Barthes made note of a form of grammar that does not exist in the English language: the “preterite,” or a verb that “implicitly belongs with a causal chain..set of related and oriented actions.” “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock,” was a famous phrase used by Paul Valéry as a convention used for novels and Barthes notes that the same conventions are used for the recitations of history. Barthes stated that “Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter..the preterite is the expression of an order.” For the contemporary writer, the preterite is a phasing of authority and can be thought of as director’s establishing shot or the screenwriter’s ellipse–a way of moving the narrative from here to there. The order could hold as long as the class system remained intact and the bases of power seemed secure but after the Revolution of 1848, the social organization broke down due to historical forces, from industrialization and the urbanization of society. With the fracturing of the old society, the language of old France, Literature, lost its authority and writers had to find a new way of writing.

According to Barthes, “Literature” is a modern creation, part of a larger system of ownership and property resulting from capitalism and as such, this cultural concept constituted a new or modern form of writing that was “owned” by the “author” and “owned” by the publisher. By the 19th century, in its new version,“literature” was bought and sold and was no longer communal property as were the epic poems of an oral tradition named “Homer.” Bourgeois literature was an art form in the Kantian sense, in that it had no “useful” purpose. Therefore that which was bourgeois writing was distinguished from forms of writing that were considered versions of the “truth,” such as religion. Marxist theorist György Lukács (1885-1971) asserted that Realist writing of the 19th century was based upon seeing, meaning that the writer was merely describing what was seen or witnessed, no matter how painful. The mediation or the apparently neutral description was in fact a political act in that Realism made the power of the middle class seem to be inevitable. Notice that the supposedly distanced and omnipotent position of the narrator mimics the conventions of Literature. It is no accident that the Realist or Naturalistic novels of George Sand and Honoré Balzac and Gustave Flaubert emerged during a period of rising capitalism, the steady of empowerment of the bourgeoisie and the demise of the proletariat.

In Le Degrè zéro l’écriture, 1953, Barthes understood language to be a historical phenomenon and style as an individual feature. Barthes noted that descriptive or naturalistic writing was not innocent and was bound up in its own historical period. The avant-garde, situated in the Generation of 1848, broke with the horizontally and continuity of realism and liberated words from other words. From the 1850s on, the writer is “without Literature” which is in a “tragic predicament,” and the question becomes what is the mark of “good writing” now that Literature had lost its place? Barthes recounted that the late 19th century writers foregrounded “labor” as a value and stressed their bourgeois origins as workers. The new elevation of the “craft” of writing to an independent aesthetic began with Flaubert and modern authors strove to generate “good writing,” or the ability to use words well. The problem for writing became one of extracting oneself from the precincts of power and to find a way for writing to function as writing within a system of language.

Barthes was suspicious of “realism” in theory and in texts and considered realism not a form of seeing or describing that what existed, but as being based upon a set of practices and signification. The texts of the Realists were founded on a set of conventions that limited the text and, in naturalizing society, became a mediator between the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Barthes, the key moment in his analysis of the history of French literature, was the disjuncture between bourgeois realism and avant-garde realism. For the world of visual art, Literature, which was so transparent it appeared to have no style, would have its counterpart in academic art of the mid to late 19th century. Paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme or Ernst Meissionier were the bourgeois form of Realism as Literature. In contrast, examples of the avant-garde Realism would be the labored working class craft exhibited so proudly by Gustave Courbet or the visible marks of production kept on view by Édouard Manet in their paintings. Understanding the French Classical tradition of Literature which was supposedly invisible to itself but was actually a evidence of power and order allows the art historian to comprehend the cultural anger that met the avant-garde artists who called attention to the “un-naturalism” of “naturalism.”

It would be an exaggeration to see Barthes as a Structuralist in 1953 but he was certainly aware of Saussure and Marx, both of who had built binary models. For Saussure there was langue and parole, or the system of language and the way in which language is used in everyday life. Seeing a conflict with Saussure’s binary system–between the will and the system–Barthes sought a middle term: écriture. Écriture is not translatable into English and is now left in the original French, but in Writing Degree Zero the term is translated as “writing,” a rather colorless term. For Barthes, there is language, the system and style, which is both historical and personal or as he put it “biological.” If the language is social then the style is personal. But in between language and style is writing. As Barthes wrote,

A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing (écriture) is an act of historical solidarity. A language and a style are objects; a mode of writing (écriture) is a function; it is the relationship between creation and society, the literary language transformed by its social finality, form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crises of History.

For Barthes écriture had a specific relationship of form to content, embodied in the conventions of writing and operating within ethical and political values as a social fact. Always concerned with writing (écriture) as a moral act as a social fact, Barthes set up a ternary schema–a tripod model that would become his trademark–langue, style, écriture, which intimates or gestures at something beyond–a critique. “Writing,” Barthes asserted, “is always rooted in something beyond language, but develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti communication, it is intimidating.” Writing Degree Zero breaks down into three major sections with his discussion of the transition from Literature to avant-garde writing in the middle, as the meat in the sandwich, as it were. Having established écriture as a third element, wedged between language and style, Barthes then ended his slim volume of meditation on the French tradition of writing with another middle term: zero degree writing.

Concerned with getting literature out of trap of bourgeois realism, Barthes had little patience with the “craft of writing (which) does not disturb any order.” He includes in those non-disturbers writers, who think they are disrupting the system or can “exorcise this sacred writing by dislocating it,” the still ascendent Surrealists, such as André Breton. Even the attempts of Stéphane Mallarmé to renounce language were equivocal. The solution Barthes put forward was “a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordined state of language.” His new breaking of the binaries centered upon placing “a neutral term or zero element.” The zero element is an aspect of grammar, a term in the middle of the singular-plural binary. As Barthes explained, “..writing at the zero degree is basically in the indicative mode, or if you like, a modal..a journalist’s writing.”

Barthes was interested in the neutral or what Sartre called, the “white writing” of Albert Camus, purged of the characteristic mark of “literature” (mannerism or style), “achieves a style of absence, which is almost an idea absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert state of form..neutral writing in fact rediscovers the primary condition of classical art: instrumentality. But this time, form as an instrument is no longer at the service of a triumphant ideology; it is the mode of a new situation of the writer, a way of certain silence has of existing; it deliberately foregoes any elegance or ornament, for these two dimensions would reintroduce Time into writing..” Unlike Marxist literature which is a language of “value-judgments” or “professional language signifying ‘presence,” writing should be linked to the project of revolution by renegotiating its relationship to history.

Barthes comes from the exhausted traditions of Marxism and Existentialism and extends their shared values of a moral writing by an engaged intellectual and looks for an ethical dimension in literature. “White writing” negates the false transparency of the algebraic system of the cause-and-effect writing of Literature, in which one element “naturally” follows another in a “logical” fashion. For Barthes the critic’s job is to construct intelligibility for his/her own time and to develop conceptual frameworks for analysis. In this critical and analytical fashion, the critic exposed the habitual ways of making the world intelligible and worked to modify these meanings that seem “natural.” For Barthes, all writing contains social signs, indicating a social mode of writing. No prose is transparent; the author’s language is inherited, while his/her own style is personal, but writing can be “white” or “zero degree.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Julia Kristeva: Transgression and the Féminine

JULIA KRISTEVA (1941 – )

Transgression and the Feminine

The philosophy and theories generated by Julia Kristeva bear traces of her own personal marginality: a woman in a man’s world, an east European from Bulgaria in the heart of Parisian intellectual culture, and a philosopher trying to write her way out of the patriarchy while still maintaining a relationship with that power structure. When Kristeva slipped through a crack in the Iron Curtain, she arrived in Paris in 1965, the high point of Existentialism and of Lacanian theory. Years would pass before the intellectuals of Paris would rethink their politics and practice and a decade would go by before ideas on feminism would be articulated. Like all women caught in the liminal zone between the last of masculine domination and the first gestures of female defiance, Kristeva reflected the transition into feminism through a critique of the texts of male precursors.

Keeping in mind that Kristeva was an Eastern-European exile, who came to Paris before May 1968, it is clear that her intent is to involve art in politics through the avant-garde in art. When Kristeva arrived in France, the Hegelian lectures of Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968) had been the cutting edge of philosophy in Paris, setting an example for a way to rethink traditional philosophy as inherited from the late 18th and early 19th century. The real crises that forced theory towards a more modern position was the evident failure of yet another uprising of the working class by early June 1968 and the 1973 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which exposed the fraud of Communism. As a result of these disillusioning events, there was a return to a Kantian morality of disinterest and a sense of moral commitment to the public good, fueled by the Paris events. For Kristeva and her colleagues, French theory should be political: intellectuals were engagé, involved and took political stances, and opposed the establishment through their texts. Kristeva would propose the use of poetic language becomes a ethical function for art. Poetry (art) is the “carnival” to society, a subversive practice which is destructive and conducive to madness, becoming a refusal of the “flight into madness.”

Kristeva was part of the newly formed Tel quel group, organized around the famous journal of the same name, established in 1960. Her group was engaged but opposed to writing/speaking in a “transparent” fashion, inherited from Sartre. These intellectuals become materialist writers who followed the non-academic work of Philippe Sollers (1936-), her husband, who legitimated flamboyance, intensity, and excessiveness. After the events of 1968, Tel quel (“as is”) issued a manifesto and declared the new stance for the French intellectual. Along with her colleagues, Jean-Louis Bardry, Hubert Damish, Denis Hollier, Julia Kristeva gave her support to the following points, which read in part:

it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages; consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state; in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science); any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although Tel quel remained Marxist, its authors shifted towards the theory of language and Post-structuralism, Kristeva analyzed linguistic theory from the standpoint of psychoanalysis. As one of Jacques Lacan’s (1901-1981) students, Kristeva took up the issue of symbolic language and its hidden other side, as unspoken element to language that she developed and named semanalysis. Through “semanalysis” (the analysis of the semoitic as opposed to the Symbolic) Kristeva reasserted the buried and repressed theoretical Mother upon whose abjected body, the consciousness of the subject is formed. Her theory of semiotics investigated poetic language as a productivity of the text through which it is possible to speak about what used to be unspeakable: the prohibited language of the maternal material body. It is important to understand that Kristeva, much like Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would later do with difference and différance, commandeers a familiar word: “semiotics” and alters it slightly to “the semiotic.”

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Julia Kristeva (1941-)

As Mary Ann Caws in her 1973 discussion of the Tel quel group noted, the editors used the neutral term “text” in order to separate writing from a system of capitalist ownership and valorization of the individual. In “Tel quel: Text and Revolution,” Caws marked off some of the key words for the translingualistic take on language: “Materiality, Refusal, Transgression/The sign, whether painted or written, has become opaque and therefore visible, so that the interest formerly attaching to content now attaches to the language and the structure of the text or canvas.” Caws continued, “An activity disruptive and self-aware, a development of semiotic consciousness: this general description of the deliberate and unreadable action of the “revolutionary avant-garde” displays the recurring themes of protest, distance, cutting off, refusal and political commitment, visible behind the proliferation of technical vocabulary.” By “translinguistic,” Caws means that the study of language has moved beyond Saussure and is now “a productive process, operating within another space at once self-constituting and self-exhausting, an inscription traversing language..rather than enclosed within it.”

Although Kristeva, possibly due to her association with the French feminists, is often severed by later explicators of her work from Tel quel, the genesis and the development of her break into Poststructuralist intertextuality remained part of the development of a very small but very influential group of thinkers. Clearly, as a member of the Tel quel group, Julia Kristeva was part of a group that was rethinking the role of language in society, post revolution. In La Révolution du langue poétique, 1974/1984, her doctoral thesis, Kristeva introduced the concept of le sémiotique, which would articulate the realm of the pre-Symbolic, which is the basis of poetic language. Although “the semoiotic” can be located within the signifying process, one should image the pre-Symbolic as the Feminine coming back to live and erupting back into consciousness to disrupt the Name of the Father.

This feminine element is the chora or receptacle for poetic language. The chora is a place, a theoretical site for activity that underlies the Symbolic. The chora, a term borrowed from Plato, is unbridled energy and instinctive drives that are part of a dialectic of the positive and the negative, the creative and the destructive. The chora, defined by Kristeva as “the place where the subject is both generated and negated,” is therefore part of the Mother’s Body, which is the unrepresentable and belonging to the semiotic as the pre-Symbolic, meaning the materiality–the energy and the drive–that precedes the Symbolic. The semiotic is the Voice and the Body, compared to the immaterial Father who is Symbolic. In a dialectic with the Mother who is the chora or Non-Place or the Semiotic, the destination of the child, which is society belongs to the realm of the Symbolic or signification. As Kristeva wrote, ‘What we call significancethen, is precisely this unlimited and unbounded generating process, this unceasing operation of the drives toward, in, and through language.” Kristeva, using Hegelian dialectical thinking, opposes the semiotic to the symbolic, which are resolved in the “thetic,” which is the “threshold or the resolution between the two. But the thetic not only the place where the human being constitutes herself, it is also a crossing over between boundaries.

But Kristeva re-places that non-place and makes the chora into a Place that provides the materiality for the symbolic. If the Chora precedes the division between subject and object, then the “feminine” is located at language’s unrepresentable materiality, which is indeterminate and ephemeral. Kristeva questions all forms of formalism and Structuralism, which is based upon reason and rationality, which is inherently male, and in doing so opened the way to Post-Structuralism. In opposing the concept of the poetic to the rational in language and in gendering this “poetic” as female, Kristeva places the poetic on the side of the political in that it disrupts official (male) (establishment) language. Like many women of her generation, Kristeva takes the ideas of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Jacques Lacan and holds them up to the light of criticality, not with the intent of dismantling their ideas from the outside but from the standpoint of appropriating their theories from the inside.

In the writings of Sigmund Freud, the woman is the “dark continent,” for Jacques Lacan, she does not exist, and it is the self-imposed task for Kristeva to recover the long lost body of the Mother and to reinstate the “feminine” in language. In Totem and Taboo, Freud’s version of the origin of Law in the Killing of the Father by the sons in order to possess the wives of the father is one the many grim tales of male-made violence. Freud places this act of fratricide at the heart of the incest taboo. The sons suffer remorse and melancholia (the refusal or inability to mourn) and renounce their claims on the father’s women (The Mother) in the name of the father. The primal Oedipal drama was the struggle between father and sons over the body of the murder, resulting in the shame of murder, which is the name for the repressed memory of the time before imposition of the Law. The original transgression, the murder of the Father in order to possess the Mother, becomes the foundation of the Law. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) would point out that the beginning of organized society and the advent of the symbolic was based, in Freudian and Marxist terms, upon the exchange of women. Lacan’s version of this primal trauma is somewhat different. The Sacrifice (of the Mother), made by all children who must be ushered into the social, is a re-enactment of this Founding Death, initiates the Symbolic at the moment in which the pre-Symbolic is divided from the Symbolic.

Here in this primal repression: the renunciation of the Mother, and this interdiction against incest, is an end to jouissance. Jouissance is a word that translates, badly, into the English word, “pleasure,” which in inadequate for the full meaning intended by French writers. The most succinct definition comes from Jane Gallop in Thinking Through the Body. As Gallop explained that “..Barthes distinguishes between plaisir, which is comfortable, ego-assuring, recognized, and legitimated by culture, and jouissance which is shocking, ego-disruptive, an d in conflict with the canons of culture..” Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Julia Kristeva were close colleagues and there were several topics in which both were interested, including intertextuality. The act of writing or the performativity of the text was the other side of (traditional) writing and Kristeva examined jouissance, the disruptive act of forbidden or unacknowledged “pleasure,” as the subject of serious philosophical attention. Joy is unnameable, the other side of reality, which taps into the unthinkable or the female, beyond tradition and history, drives thought beyond itself, to its own limits. Here new thought is possible or to put it another way “thought is again possible.” Writing becomes experience and engenders jouissance and pleasure and perversion. She echoes Luce Irigaray (1930-) in pointing out that the Law of the Father is predicated on the Murder of the Mother.

But for later generations of feminists, such as Judith Butler, Kristeva’s revision of phallic theory was too cautious and too wrapped up in language. Indeed, Butler called for a greater emphasis on the “materiality” of the female body, rather than allowing the woman to vanish into the theoretical materiality of language. Although Kristeva never broke with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, in her 1993 article, “Trans-Positions and Difference: Kristeva and Difference,” Tilottama Rajan argues that it is important for her to remain within the precincts of Lacan in order to retrieve “the materiality” that Freud left behind, even if it means staying in the patriarchal family. But Rajan suggests that Kristeva took an intertextual position in order to attack male theory from within as an act of a “transgression of the symbolic.” Indeed, Kristeva’s writings build upon the ideas of others and these ideas are not explained, leaving the texts opaque to the uninitiated reader and drawing the reader in the know into an extended conversation among generational writers.

By the eighties, Kristeva could be linked to key terms–all linked to the feminine: the semiotic, jouissance, abjection and transgression. “Transgression,” as described by Suzanne Guerlac in her 1996 article (later part of her book), “Bataille in Theory: Afterimages (Lascaux)” “If there is a single term poststructuralism could not live without-at least within the intellectual circles associated with the review Tel quel-it is “transgression,”inherited from Bataille” and transmitted from the Surrealist writer to the Tel quel group via Michel Foucault (1926-1984). As Guerlac explained,

Foucault defined transgression as”a gesture concerning the limit.” He presented it as a flash of lightning, an image that not only figures transgression but also emblematizes the move into what will become the philosophical register of poststructuralism. It traces a line, a line that figures the Heideggerian ontology of limitation, the coming into being (or appearance)of beings on the horizon of Being; it suggests the limit of the ontological difference between Being and beings.

Within French theory, “transgression” would be meaningless without “interdiction,” or that which is prohibited, that which is taboo: the limits that can be transgressed. In her 1997 book, Literary Polemics, Guerlac continued her discussion of transgression which is linked to art through Breton and revolution through Sartre and to language through Mallarmé, all of which became reconciled, as she put it, through Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Thinking once again of intertextuality working through Kristeva, it can be seen that she takes over these disjointed but joined ideas and re-pieces them together for her own purposes: to make a case for avant-garde (poetry) as a form of artistic revolution. Poetic language, rather than the logical language of exposition and knowledge, is the language of transgression, through the process of rejection and negation.

In returning to the semiotic and the material, art is both a revolution in that it is subversive of the received order and is also transgressive in the Surrealist sense. As Kristeva stated, “It is in the so-called art practices that the semiotic condition of the symbolic, also reveals it self to be its destroyer.” However, in linking art and revolution, Kristeva marks the text with both its contradiction and the formation of the contradiction, or rejection which can also contain discourse. Thus jouissance and its opposite returns under the guise of transgression and its opposite, meaning. Transgression or the defiance of a “sacred” law is bound up in both art and religion. Religion ritualizes and enshrines prohibition and taboo and enmeshes the sacred with its opposite the profane. Art is the expression of transgression which, as was noted, part of the feminine, the suppressed, the murdered. As Ceceila Sjoholm stated in her 2005 book, Kristeva and the Political,

The conflict between the semiotic and the symbolic is not just to be interpreted in terms of poetic versus normative language. It is intertwined with the processes of history, ideology and religious where woman introjected as the threatening fantasmatic inside is recast and projected as a fearful and contaminating outside.

The next post will discuss abjection, the contamination of the repressed Mother, and the alter ego of transgression.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)

EXISTENTIALISM

“Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”

Existentialism set the tone for Postmodern thinking by being negative: it is defined in terms of what it is not and discards previous systems rooted in the 19th century. The ideal philosophy for a lost and troubled century, Existentialism is against scientific positivism (Auguste Comte), materialism (Karl Marx), and technological pragmatism (William James). Existentialism discredited philosophical idealism (Emmanuel Kant), Hegel’s transcendental pan-logism and all assumptions of the absolute primacy and supremacy of human reason and intellect. In rejecting the metaphysical, Existentialism was anti-intellectual and anti-rational, setting the reality of life as lived or “bios” against “logos” or abstract reason. Georg Hegel had identified human reason with concepts of Logos (coherent discourse), Absolute Reason, and the Absolute Idea or Spirit, and this philosophical concept can be summed up as immanence or the functioning of pure reason.

As Alexandre Kojève explained it, “Hegel insists at length on the passive, contemplative, and descriptive character of the “scientific” method. He underlines that there is a dialectic of “scientific” thought only because there is a dialectic of the Being which that thought reveals.” Opposed to the notion of abstracted “human reason,” existentialist thinkers, such as Henri Bergson, considered the human intellect as a practical tool, an instrument that was adaptable according to the need to create objects through the dynamic force of élan vital. In contrast to the philosophy of contemplation, the existentialist, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus, was interested in the individual who is concrete, singular and unique, original, free and responsible–in other words a person of action. Previous philosophical traditions were centered upon a system of epistemology or the foundation of knowledge, which had to be reason. Reason could be justified only within as abstract structure which had to transcend the real, reality, in order to be universal. But existentialism shifted its focus to existence itself–what it means to live, to be alive, to the human experience–and, while accepting the irrational disorder of life, attempted to come to terms with the reality of being.

Therefore, Existentialism compares practical action to the contemplative intellect, which imposes logical forms that are arbitrary and abstract, the products of thinking (not acting). A (human) being is in a constant process of becoming and evolving. The knower is penetrated by the known. To express this always-becoming state of being, the existentialist writer must use literary tactics, such as metaphor, analogy, symbolic, and symbolic imagery. Intellectual knowledge is subjective or inward compared to “true reality” which is external and in a constant state of flux and change or caught up in a “creative evolution.” What gives Existentialism its unique position in 20th century philosophy is the time of its re-birth, the Second World War, and the place, Paris, a city under the occupation of a long-hated enemy, Germany. What did it mean to act or not act when one is under the all too watchful eyes of the Nazi panopticon? Now that the known world had come to an end and the age of reason had crumbled, it was necessary to re-write the terms of existence, without God,without Logos.

It is certainly correct to think of modern Existentialism as the product of World War II, but the specificity of its re-working should not be thought of as a limitation, any more than idealism should be thought of as being limited by the Enlightenment. The times forced the philosophy and this most terrible war waged against humanity demolished all the cherished assumptions of the Enlightenment and suggested a new role for philosophy. If God had gone into retreat during the Holocaust, then reason had also gone into hiding and philosophy had been rendered irrelevant. The task of building a philosophy for the end of the 20th century fell to a scholar, schoolteacher, intellect and writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was part of the literary-philosophical world of war time Paris.

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Jean-Paul Sartre about 1950

Sartre was hardly a man of action. His role, such as it was, as a warrior consisted mostly of being a prisoner of war, an unfortunate soldier caught up in the disaster of the French defeat. When he returned to Paris to be reunited with his on-again, off-again lover and companion, the independent minded Simone de Beauvoir (“Beaver”), Sartre had to consider the position of an intellectual who must retain honor, resist the occupiers, but also stay alive. Whether or not Sartre flew too close to the German wind in order to continue his work is a matter for others to decide (Sartre wrote for collaborationist or Occupied Zone publications), but he acted in such a way so as to get his work out in public and performed for audiences. There is no doubt that his experiences during the War, his brief tenure as prisoner of war, his devotion to the French Resistance, his determination to speak out against the Nazis, caused a creative explosion and an outpouring of his most important works: the 1943 production of The Flies, with its hidden protest against Vichy, the staging of No Exit, a contemplation of Hell (others) in 1944 just before the invasion, and, of course Being and Nothingness, the master statement of Existentialism.

There is no question that Sartre, before finding himself in the midst of a rather too cozy Occupation where the German army seemed less like active enemies and more like passive “furniture,” a typical insular intellectual, was naïve about world affairs. He had actually visited Germany in 1933 to meet with the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, but the letters of Sartre written during the 1930s indicate he had little awareness of the implications of Nazism which and already co-opted Heidegger. But Sartre changed. The Age of Reason written during the long war was a dialogue between Sartre and his leading character, Mathieu, both of whom were concerned with how to survive in wartime while retaining one’s own dignity. Over time, Sartre created a new character that essentially split the difference: the engaged intellectual who lived a life of political activism,but who managed to embed the politics in art.

Like most modern philosophers, Sartre was a “literary” figure, writing plays and novels, all of which were different expressions of the existential mood of the Second World War. Being and Nothingness, his major existential work, was written in 1943 and was translated into English and published in 1947. Heidegger was discredited due to his shameful treatment of his Jewish colleagues but was still producing a discourse on Being that was eloquent enough to be reckoned with, but Sartre emerged from the rubble of the war as the leading modern philosopher of existentialism. In a reply to his critics, in a 1944 article in Action, Sartre both brushed aside the charge that his work should be dismissed due to the association of existentialism with Heidegger and condemned the philosopher: “Heidegger has no character; there’s the truth of the matter…Don’t you know that some times the man does not come up to the level of his works?”

For decades French intellectual though had been impacted by Marxism, but Sartre was uneasy with economic determinism precisely because Marx proposed that society was determined, suggesting that humans were mere pawns of a dialectic. Although he would not discard Marxism, for Sartre, it was clear that human beings had to act alone. It was important for human beings to act out of choice. One’s existence is one’s character and that character depends upon the active choice of projects or what one choses to do or to act within. Writing just after the Occupation in “A More Precise Characterization of Existentialism,” Sartre remarked, “Since existentialism defines man by action, it is evident that this philosophy is not a quietism.” Although many misread Being and Nothingness as a monument to despair, a shout against God, Sartre insisted that “Existentialism is a Humanism.” As he wrote in 1946,

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

Existentialism is about life’s concrete existence and how the human being constantly comes into being through inter/acting with the changing environment. “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” “Truth” is “my truth” and “Being” is “my being.” The human reality is “being-in-itself (en-soi)” and “being-for-itself (pour-soi),” a combination that produces an ambiguity at the heart of humanity. Sartre would later add a third term: “being-for-others (pour-autrui).” Being-in-itself is actually nothing constituting an absolute polarity to Being-for-itself, which is free and unbridled but nothing else until it encounters the Other. Note that this is not a Hegelian triad, in which one term is deduced logically from the other, but a doubled and split Being that can only “encounter” the other. Sartre asserted, “We are completely alone with no excuses behind us or justification before us.” What Sartre is asserting is that because we are not a self but a presence to self–we are the Other to ourselves–we are free.

As free human beings, we are responsible for our own actions and our own lives. We must live with authenticity. Presumably, a Nazi could live with authenticity in the full belief that his or her actions constituted an ethical life, but Sartre would argue that the Nazi was acting in “bad faith” and was refusing to take responsibility for his or her own life. In thrall to Hitler, a Nazi cannot be free. Sartre asserted that “man” makes “himself” through “his” own activity. Obstacles to our freedom are “our past, our place, our surroundings, our fellow-brethern, our death.” We have the choice to be free and to be free we must freely accept the present. Freedom is being in control of the present and only when one is in control is one free to change. In many ways, Existentialism is an extension of certain aspects of the Enlightenment: the subject or the Self stands alone, all else—the reason for living, the purpose of life—is stripped away.

Many observers considered Being and Nothingness to be bitter and hopeless in its refusal to provide a purpose for life outside of existence. But what has really occurred for Sartre is the century in which he lived. The War changed the rules of the game of life, so to speak, and the idealism of older philosophy must be dismissed–logic, logos, and reason–all discarded in order for the human being to be set free to act as an individual. The acting human being may have no rules and no guidance from “higher powers,” whether philosophers or God, and the person who accepts this (unguided and unfettered) freedom is also taking on a burden of total responsibility. The moral and ethical goal of the post-war human was to be authentic. The final acceptance of the death of God, proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche and proved by the Holocaust, would be the final assertion of individuality in philosophy and the final celebration of the free human being.

Sartre’s philosophy expressed an ontological fatalism: “Existence precedes essence”–we exist before we have any specific perfection or nature. But this essence, this being is all we are. In other words, breaking from Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, Sartre asserted that there is no unconscious mind lurking behind our actions and ultimately limiting our authenticity. The Ego is not in consciousness but can be described as a consciousness of oneself. We are conscious minds, and, if this is the case, we are thrust into being and we make ourselves through action. Our individual humanity is nothing but what we make through our individual actions. Every being is alone and every human activity is characterized by anguish. As Sartre wrote, “Anguish, abandonment, responsibility, whether muted or full strength, constitute the quality of our consciousness in so far as this is pure and simple freedom.” We must choose but nothing can assure us that we have made the right choice.

The true struggle is to make sure that we act with full understanding and cognizance of our own being and are acting in good faith. With the background of the Holocaust and the French participation in the extermination of the Jews, this refusal of moral absolutism takes on sinister tones and could slide dangerously into action justifying action for action’s sake. On the other hand, the Nazis were nothing if not morally absolute and exposed the dangers of existentialism (Heidegger) untethered to ethics. Existentialism was an angry and pained expression of the disarray of the European belief systems after the Second World War. It would take generations for a continent to restore its honor and to absorb the lessons of the post.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jacques Lacan: Historical Context

JACQUES-MARIE ÉMILE LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART ONE: HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Among the most important philosophers of the post-war period was Jacques Lacan who lectured to a number of future Postmodern thinkers, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom sat in on his famous lectures. A careful reading of his lectures, the Écrits, followed by a careful reading of the ideas of his students reveals traces of his thought in their writings. Lacan became more widely known in America through his appearance at the now famous 1966 symposium at Johns Hopkins University. This symposium introduced European post-Freudian thinking, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction to an American audience, but, because these lectures would not be published in English until 1970, it would be years before these seminal discussions would take root in the United States. In fact his last essays, concerning his now controversial interpretations of women and their position in psychological theory, were not translated until 1998.

Jacques Lacan was first and foremost the fulcrum through which many impulses of Postmodern thought were injected into a wide range of disciplines, from literary theory to feminist theory to Marxist theory to philosophy. The scatter-shot effect of his texts indicate the very complex construction of his widely influential books and lectures. One of the themes in Elizabeth Roudinesco elegantly laid out in her 1990 book, Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, Lacan’s entire career was certainly self-invention and re-invention and his re-take on Freudian theory was a bricolage re-construction.Born of a middle class Parisian family whose ordinariness he would take pains to hide, Lacan was, in many ways, a reinvented man by the time he entered into the still new medical field of psychoanalysis. For one seminal year, 1928-1929, he interned at the Infirmary for the Insane of the Police Prefecture under the colorful Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, a specialist in “erotomania,” paranoia, and the draping and knotting of cloth. Clérambault held dramatic sway over his pupils and, believing in the power of the “gaze,” observed his patients, who were never allowed to talk with him, and based his conclusions on his observations.

It is important to understand that when Lacan began his independent professional career, he was part of a purely French take on psychoanalysis: from Clérambault’s reworking of Freud’s teacher, Jean-Martin Charcot to his own reworking of Clérambault (who accused his pupil of plagiarism). But this French foundation would be infused with more than a touch of alien German-ness. It is through his interest in Dada and then Surrealism that Lacan discovered the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in the early 1930s, but, once again, it is important to note that Lacan came to Freud through late Surrealism and ideas of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) on paranoia. For Dali, seeing one thing and thinking (due to paranoia) that it is something else–different and threatening–is the equivalent of living in an hallucination.

Although Freud was alive and quite accessible in the 1930s, Lacan and the second generation of French psychoanalysts knew Freud through reading his books, and it was through Freud’s writings that Lacan learned of the “talking cure” or the “couch,” and of the importance of language. Clearly, the young doctor could see, first, that his field was changing and that with the demise of the teachers, the students could now assume leadership positions and that, second, there was nothing and no one preventing him from stepping forward with new ideas. Through sheer will and force of personality, Jacques Lacan took the lead in re-creating a new version of psychoanalysis. Lacan was not and would never be an originator or an innovator, instead his talent lay in a penchant for theatrical delivery and in drawing together numerous concepts, already in circulation and recombining and reinventing the already invented. His method as a teacher was to teach (dramatically) the work of others, especially Freud, filtered through his own re-interpretations, which then, in and of themselves, could become a distinct body of work in its own right.

If the first step towards a re-thinking of psychoanalysis was Freud, then the second step was Georg Hegel (1770-1831), but Lacan would absorb a very particular re-interpreting of Hegel. As a member of the generation of 1930, Lacan was influenced by Hegelian thought transmitted to the French through the 1933-34 lectures of Alexandre Kojève from 1933 to 1939. Although other work was discovered posthumously, Kojève’s most famous book was his Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (published in French in 1947 and in English in 1968). Because this book is a compendium of a series of lectures, the text is a bit oddly segmented but it presents the ideas of Georg Hegel in a succinct and comprehensible fashion. As philosopher Michael Roth recounted in his 1985 article, “A Problem of Recognition: Alexandre Kojève and the End of History,”

The center of Kojeve’s oeuvre is, and will remain, however, his book on Hegel. This interpretation, a collection of notes and texts assembled by Raymond Queneau, is gleaned from a seminar which was a hothouse for intellec- tual development: Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil, Aron Gurwitsch, Gaston Fessard, Alexandre Koyré, Queneau, Andre Breton, and Jacques Lacan were among the auditors.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit introduced the notion of a dialectic between the self and the other and/or the master/slave. As Alexandre Kojève pointed out in his lectures, the desire for recognition, which leads to self-consciousness, is linked to the desire for the Other. As Michael Roth explained, “Human desire, properly so-called, has as its object another desire and not another thing.” What is significant about Kojève’s re-reading of Hegel through a Marxist filter is that by placing “desire” at the center of Hegelian thought, Kojève moved the desire for recognition (self-consciousness) out of Hegel’s theological (transcendental) time to Marx’s material time (class struggle as the basis for history itself). Then he substituted Hegelian being with the Being of Heidegger, in which Being or Dasein is achieved through the anticipation of death. So what beings in desire ends in death, all enfolded in a life lived in real historical time. Desire creates history and even time itself.

Lacan would take up the psychological implications of the One/the Other and sexualize the alterity or otherness between the self and the other. For Lacan, following Kojève, the emergence of individuality would revolve around Desire, which is always directed toward an/Other Desire, which is always deferred. Lacan also re-cast Marxism in that economy became a way to explain an “exchange” system of loss and gain, now connected to the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Unlike Freud, an original thinker, who labored alone, Lacan re-examined Freud by filtering him through other disciplines–anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and semiotics (Ferdinand de Saussure)–and focused on what is particularly human about the human mind. Rejecting Freud’s biology, which insisted that the workings of the mind was determined by the body, or to put it more bluntly, “anatomy is destiny,” and borrowing from Saussure, Lacan substituted nature for culture and biology for anthropology and sociology and claimed that the unconscious was structured by language, in other words by culture. As Lacan stated in Seminar XX:

…I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say – and I come back to this all the time – that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters…

Although Lacan had already presented his idea of the “mirror stage” in 1936, he did not announce his fabled Return to Freud until November 7, 1955 with the aim of dislodging the ego from its position of ascendancy and of dethroning consciousness. As Terry Gamel pointed out in his “Summary of Lacan’s ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,'” Lacan posited that the “mirror stage,” or how a child comes to literally “see” herself as a separate (conscious) individual, evolved through (trace of Dali’s ideas) “paranoiac knowledge,” or how we make sense of the world. By the 1950s, the interest in Freudian studies had declined in France. There was no psychoanalytic study in France until 1926 (remember Surrealism emerged a few years earlier), during the war, Freud had been rejected for being “German,” and many (Jewish) practitioners of Freud’s ideas were killed during World War II.

The post-war scene in French philosophy was dominated by Existentialism and its notion of the self as an actor with individual autonomy. But in 1963, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) revived Lacan by inviting him to bring his famous seminars to École normale supérièure from Sainte Anne Hôpital. At the hospital, Lacan had performed in the amphitheater from 1954 to 1964 as a spellbinding and prophetic leader: the kind of scholarly superstar that is unique to France. He claimed he made the unconscious manifest through his self-conscious style of performance. In keeping with what would later be called “postmodernism,” Lacan radically critiqued psychoanalysis by re-reading Freudian theory. In keeping with his linguistic take on Freud, Lacan asserted that the whole truth could never be spoken and that any perceived totality was imaginary.

Once he moved to the École, Lacan’s circle quickly expanded and included Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), author of Structural Anthropology to whom he owed some of his thinking on the role of culture in shaping the human mind. In addition, both Althusser and Lacan were re-thinking the philosophy of Karl Marx without reference to Hegel’s absolute and Freud without reference to the unified self/ego, respectively. But, as Elizabeth Roudinesco stated, the events of May 1968 transformed psychoanalysis from an academic enterprise to a psychoanalytic culture that was dedicated to social and political issues and to social criticism. These events of 1968 created a political community that changed the French intellectual psyche. In comparing Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) to those who came after him, one could now say he was the last Enlightenment philosopher and perhaps the last Modernist philosopher after Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and that Lacan was the first Postmodernist in that he was one of the early re-writers and re-thinkers who also used bricolage to re-assemble a new take on old ideas.

To the generation of 1968, the theory of language as a discours engagé, meaning politically committed writings, had to be reappraised. Although a political uprising had begun spontaneously, the end result was a reassertion of power under an autocratic and dictatorial Charles de Gaulle. Discouraged by the collapse of oppositional forces—labor and students—French intellectuals began to manifest their refutation of the “classical” tradition, which stressed clarity above all, in French literature by deliberately writing with oblique political gestures. In other words, the new philosophers position themselves in a postmodern position of critique by re-reading and re-writing or re-newing the philosophy of Others, or to put it still another way, they overthrow or overwrite their precursors. One of the best books on this transformation of French thought, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution was written by Richard Wolin, who explained,

As a result of the May events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninsit authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence French intellectual life was transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insights into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holds of power by flaunting timeless moral truths.

At all costs, totalitarian thinking or grand narratives must be avoided. The experiences of 1968 also explain the commingling of philosophy and other disciplines, especially with the arts. As with the Frankfurt School, political events brought about an interdisciplinary approach within philosophy. Lacan’s Seminar of 1969 reflected not only his long apprenticeship and absorption of multiple strains of pre-war intellectualism but also his post-war reactions to political upheaval. First, he stated his objections to the idea of totalization of knowledge and began a critique of the Hegelian idea of the Master, by pointing to what he termed the “hysteric” discourse of Socrates. Lacan blended the dialectic between question and answer with the circular and symbiotic relationship between the doctor and patient. The presumed role of the pupil/subordinate/hysteric who asked questions of the Master, demanding the Master’s answer, only brings the master and the hysteric into a symbiosis or a symbiotic or mutually dependent relationship. This entangled and self-enclosed discourse of universality is the discourse of the Master, implying a mastery of all disciplines.

The Master reinforces his Mastery through mystification of ideas and deliberate obscurantism of intellectual thought, which produces the non-mastery of the subordinated and bewildered students. In his rejection of Socratic thought and method, Lacan was echoing Friedrich Nietzsche (184401900), who saw Socrates as destroying the balance between Apollo (the rational) and Dionysius (the irrational). In his dialogues with his pupils, Socrates attempted to upset this balance to make logic (the rational) the primal mode of thought which should dominate (like the Master) the workings of the mind. It is not clear how Lacan, the “master” performer surrounded by students and disciples, avoided the position of the Master and the consequent mutual identification in his turn, but he was part of the post 1968 reconfiguration on the part of French intellectuals who took a subversive turn. The goal of the Postmodern enterprise was to question prevailing wisdom by critiquing the already said.

In the decades after this death, his possible upending of authority attracted a new commentary on and a new critique of Lacan himself by a younger generation. A more contemporary reading of Lacan would find a bias towards Eurocentrism and a phallocentric (male) perspective on the world. Although the “culture” of Freud and Lacan was a white European male culture, Post-colonial writers have found Lacan’s notions of Desire to be an important aspect of the colonial question of the relationship between the One and the Other. Since the seventies, many feminists debated both of these writers, while other feminists did not bother to do battle on a terrain that does not include women. Re-reading Jacques Lacan in the 21st century is a challenging enterprise and calls into question the relevance of Postmodern thinking to a world that has so clearly moved beyond the culture that formed Lacan. For women and for people of color, for people who are not heterosexual, Lacan is at best anachronistic. Yet it cannot be denied that the relevance of Lacan lies in his insights into how relationships of power shape the consciousness, bending it towards either dominance or submission: concepts that have profound political implications today.

The next four posts will discuss Lacan’s re-reading and re-writing of Sigmund Freud.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]arthistoryunstuffed.com