Marc Blanchard (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: “Never Say Why?” in Diacritics, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 17-29.
[In the following excerpt, Blanchard offers an exegesis critical of Lyotard's Économie libidinale.]
If one were to go, one by one, over all the articles in Diacritics that deal with this or that manifestation of Continental philosophical and literary criticism, one would probably put the pile of issues back on the stack and sigh: what next? For it seems that, for the last ten years or so, much of structuralist criticism has been engaged in a constant game of brinkmanship and one-up-manship. Most of the linguistically oriented criticism, based on the work of Jakobson and Levi-Strauss, developed as a reaction against the school of psychological and historical criticism which had established itself in splendid isolation from all related disciplines, including a more recent existential psychology. This stage of structural criticism, which prevailed in France during the sixties and which, because of translation and communication problems, is only now and only partially available here, was soon to be left behind owing to the advent of Derrida and the Post-Structuralists. In America today, it seems that the last word on these and most any other critical revolutions can be found in De la Grammatologie, now translated after its original publication in French some twelve years ago. That Derrida has moved from a strict deconstruction of Saussurean linguistics to a more flexible enterprise of weaving that deconstruction into the flow of his own first person writing is apparently of little importance. Of equally little importance seems the fact that this Gargantuan enterprise of deconstruction, which has been received here with so much fanfare, is itself all but disseminated, floated, as it were, into the overall philosophical escapism now gripping Paris. It is as if, once the great metacritical enthusiasm had begun to be experienced as yet another in a long series of dogmatic thrusts, the Derridean enterprise itself, in spite of its cautionary demonstrations, its admonitions, could only be felt as the last struggle for conceptual power: how to transcend, or rather, to supplement, the closure imposed by a Saussurean/Jakobsonian philosophy of linguistic universals.
But the argument could be taken one step further. If, as more recent Derridean publications like Glas and Eperons have shown, there is now in Derrida and in many others an attempt to work an empirical praxis from the theoretical considerations presented as a reflection on the history of Western philosophy, then any escape out of this closure should not lead us into another closure, where we would only justify our logocentricity, by simply taking down each and every piece of model-simulacrum erected in its name. Escaping closure can only come with a radical transformation of the idea of escape itself. The escape should be a real one, not a reworking of historical parts of knowledge, but also and first of all, an escape. That is to say, it should include a rejection of theory as the process which keeps us imprisoned in our modes of linguistic modelization. Baudrillard, whom Lyotard criticizes for holding on to an ideology of closure in his obsessive search for new theories, thus represents rather well the last cliff-hanger trick in an ideology which must now be left behind: “the only thing left to us is theoretical violence. Speculating to death with only one strategy: to radicalize all hypotheses. Even code, symbolic are still coverup terms—if only they could be withdrawn from our discourse one by one” [L'Echange symbolique et la mort (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p. 13].
Lyotard then already. It is only appropriate that his name should have been introduced here, even before a discussion of his work had begun, since in his work he not only seeks to deny himself the privilege of a new theoretical posture, but he also fully rejects the mere possibility of any theory in general as well as the Cartesian-Saussurean trap of seeing only des choses claires et distinctes according to the dichotomy of a binary principle (black/white, I/you, here/there). In this sense also, any formal introduction to Lyotard's work where one attempts to deal, first, with the context of Post-Structuralism, only to restore later to the more frantic parts of Lyotard's discourse their logical and historical coherence, would appear to constitute just as much of a trap, because it requires that one elaborate a metatheoretical position from which to examine each and every move made by Lyotard to expose the prison-house of his language. To do justice then to the Economie libidinale would be to insist that it is a theoretical piece only malgré soi, in spite of itself: that is, if we insist that it be a testimony to the current Parisian impatience with dogmatic theory and the overreliance on the powers of conceptual language, it is, as such, representative of the general Post-Structuralist climate. But the appearance (not the Truth) is that Lyotard's piece advertizes itself as some sort of impossibility. It simply rejects, not only the possibility of any metacritical position, but also possibility itself as an expression of the will to structure with which we limit and shortchange our desire. To the objection that we do need signs to communicate and that our use of signs always standing in lieu of things makes the actualization of the libido contingent upon a conceptual game of possibilities, an alternation of presence and absence, the Economie libidinale responds in several oblique ways.
First, the book seeks to deny itself the privilege of serious philosophical knowledge. Attacking everyone by rejecting no specific position, it chooses the untenable posture of drift [dérive]. This drift is not in the form of a calculated distance from words, from signs, from appearances. It happens between levels of appearance: what Lyotard calls theatricalization. However, because he is fully aware that the posture of drift implies an origin, and even more certainly an end, and because the search for this origin and this end, inherent in the notion of any narrative, of any drifting, would eventually make it impossible for our desire simply to be there (that is, to continue being itself: unrestricted, unfinished and full of contradictions), Lyotard will not reject this theatricality. On the contrary, he will seek to bring it out for what it is: pure effect and fantasy. Better still, he will praise it and rejecting instead those who reject it, he will embark on his own narrative, treating History, and specifically the history of philosophy, as though they were the story of his own book.
The Economie libidinale thus presents itself as an act. It invites us to experience the pleasure that can be derived (drifted) from the creative practice of theatrics. The use of critical models is not absolutely banned and Lyotard insists that he too can use models, as he powerfully demonstrated earlier in Discours/Figures, when he used the Jakobsonian grille to show libidinal affects in the space opened by structural relations between linguistic functions: for example, the addresser/addressee relation; the code-message relation, where objects designated by our discourse are no longer linguistic objects, arbitrary, anonymous, but allow us the experience of meaning in a very specific, very personal mimesis. However, because using models implies using stable references (to a context, to a modelizing subject), the Economie seeks to appear as an invitation, if not a temptation, to fantasize the end of all overt or covert referencing practices. Indeed, if the need to use models and to structure is representative of our Western logocentricity, from Aristotle to Saussure to Derrida, this logocentricity cannot be broken so long as our desire to construct a critique of this representation is referred to, and signified by, a presence/absence of the subject responsible for this logocentricity. Lyotard's temptation then is to lure us into a fictional/critical narrative which, instead of rejecting structure and theory of structure as futile, uses structure to set the stage for the sweeping operation [balayage] of an anarchic, anonymous libido. That is to say, there must be no difference between critical and non-critical activity, between showing and telling; criticism is in itself an intensely libidinal activity in that it allows the subject to fantasize himself as both patient and agent of a text, while his discourse continues to maintain a barrier between the two:
confusion is inevitable because language is not an isolated sphere; because it belongs, in patches, to the same surface as these loins of golden gray moving under your palms and these cheeks cuddling the cluster of your balls. Scream communication, that is the assertion it seeks, language as an extension of the libido, revolving upon itself, into the area of meaning and order, to the Logos, which the Western world and above all the philosopher have always wanted to protect from the monstrousness of impious lovers and politicians. [p. 102]
Only if one stops referring mimesis to a theory underpinning mimesis can reference-interpretation cease (be it a reference to the Other or to the image of one's own vacuous Self), and with reference-interpretation, the illusion that one must or can always criticize, explain. Moreover, to show something means to subvert the mechanisms of semiotic communication in the sense that, if something happens in the moment of that showing, to us, to our body, to our mind, this something cannot be explained, separated from the mimetic process activating it by a critical (Hegel/Derrida) or even creative (Proust/Joyce) investigation of those mechanisms. It must be left alone; and if anything, it must be protected from our critical consciousness: dis-inserted, dis-inscribed from rational discourse in the hope that it can be experienced without mediation, as appearance or phenomenon.
However, it would be wrong to infer from this that the Lyotardian approach is a phenomenological one, since for Lyotard, as for Derrida, albeit not for the same reasons, phenomenology is basically a hoax in its attempt to give substance to the theatricality involved in the semiotic game. Thus, to the phenomenologist, the sign stands for something else, which I as a subject immediately recognize and make mine by temporalizing (Heidegger) the absence of the thing implied by the sign and thus bringing myself in thought or in fantasy to that point (the locus of the object, of the Other) which I do not occupy. The appearance of which Lyotard speaks and which he calls dissimulation is not a negative of Truth, in the Hegelian sense that to dispel all obscurities one needs only the clarifying power of sign-consciousness; it is produced by the fact that the object of desire, and with it and through it, the positive reality of drives [Triebe], is negated in the very moment the subject actualizes them through his sign-system. Why?—That is the question never to ask. Because to say why? is to replace ourselves within a framework of semiotic construction and deconstruction which can only ascribe to a representation standing for the Truth (God/the Spirit), that is to say properly standing for nothing, the work of an irreducible libido. Instead, Lyotard sees this work carried out in terms of the unlikely, almost absurd conjunction of two systems or two kinds of signs (for lack of better words): one which manifests libido by being a part of it and intensifying it and the other which works it over into interpretive sets, thus reducing it to a mere fragment, a possibility. For every part of our bodies, of our minds, of the world, that would enjoy the thrusts of a sign-free libido—one beyond the fragmentation of our linguistic universe—there would be a thousand others equally anxious to enjoy themselves. Not only do we seek to possess the body, the mind of others, but in our own body, we also experience the impossibility of total and absolute gratification: it is as if the mouth were jealous of the ear; the ear, of the eye, ad infinitum. The fear of such libidinal turmoil quite naturally induces the ordering compulsion we have and which Freud ascribed to Eros: the force that keeps us alive, out of the chaos and death of impossible revolutions, by always leading us into more love dances, by always effecting more maneuvers to mask all too powerful libidinal thrusts with the rhetoric of a strict rational order.
The fact is, Lyotard's dissimulation is not new. In another, more symbolic context, I would like to suggest that the same problematics is already present in literary texts working through a representation and an emblematics of Eros in classical and medieval literature. In the Hellenistic romance of Daphnis and Chloe, for instance, the lead story, explaining and covering all the others, that of Eros pursuing (shooting his darts) and being pursued (by all humans), remains the generator of an overall narrative constantly disconnecting and reconnecting what remains till the end of the romance but the mere possibility of a shared enjoyment between two theoretical outsiders: the shepherds Daphnis and Chloe longing for total pastoraldom in the midst of a world full of interdicts. There, the pastoral quest for a safe (external/theoretical) position is carried out by means of the juxtaposition of unrelated tales of masking and substitution, themselves reflected into other, older tales from mythology, and the success of the romance is predicated on the possibility for the two heroes to adopt and to retain their status as outsiders. In the context of the Economie libidinale, Eros' never-ending pursuit would symbolize the force of a complex of pain and pleasure which cannot be withstood on either side (the pursuer/the pursued) precisely because the gratification expected is so overwhelming that it can only come with Death itself. This complex is exactly what Lyotard wants us to approach: not in the Freudian context of a dichotomy between Love and Death, but in the context of what he terms the uncoiling of a section of the libidinal surface around us [un désenroulement de la bande libidinale] and which represents the locus of all pleasure and pain conjoined. An unbearable locus, since, owing to our incapacity to fulfill all our desires at once (say, for instance, love and hate, fully and entirely without compromise), we have no choice but to live under the law of repression. In a veritably seminal analysis of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Lyotard shows how Freud himself may have gone beyond what was later to be reduced to a simple opposition between two drives. The Freudian insight may have been that the metatheoretical division into two drives was necessary if we wanted to understand the pragmatic devices through which a person's psyche could eventually be returned to normalcy in the process of the cure. However, normalcy is but an expression of the fact that we must localize the world through semiotic forms which function metaphorically—in the very fact of their assignation: thus Freud assigns a positive (Eros) or negative sign to the libido—and metonymically—in the reference to an unconscious, albeit universal language in whose displacements the subject seeks refuge. Lyotard, for his part, suggests that this semiotization can be used to retrieve portions of desire obliterated in the coiling experience to avoid the potentially disastrous sweep of an unrestrained libido. And one of the ways to achieve this is to tap sign-systems for the intensity, not the structure, of their communication.
This is where the title Economie libidinale takes on its fullest meaning. That the human psyche attempts to regulate impulses it fears may take it over: nothing new in that. That this regulation allows only for a minimal part of the whole psychic process to reach our consciousness: nothing new in that either, as the Freudian delineation of regions and hierarchization of processes will show (the Unconscious appears as a vast terra incognita which the conscious mind penetrates only unwittingly and through the form of a dialogue with the Other). What is new, however, is the possibility that this regulation could now, through its own excesses, involve the whole energetic substratum (the libidinal surface) available through the individual; moreover, that it could be used to cause the deregulation of the regulating subject himself as an instance of power and launch an attack against all types of regulation, of interpretation: economic, religious, philosophical. Here, Lyotard uses Freud's analysis of Schreber's paranoia to show how the regulating system reconstructed by Freud on a principle already equivalent to that of Eros-containing-Death (a paranoiac reconstructs a world he must save, lest he die himself) is actually worked over by an overwhelming intensity (incandescence), as the body of the President is involved in blocking all impulses which it fears may take it over. In Schreber's case, almost unbeknownst to the subject, to the patient, the various bodily functions are enlisted to serve various, not to say, opposite libidinal purposes. The effect is sheer pain and terror. Thus, since the President fears both defecation (because his defecation might please Dr. Flechsig, for whom Schreber feels homosexual love) and penetration by the organ of God (because this penetration would be an admission that he, Schreber, cannot be like anybody else and that Flechsig is right in treating him like a patient), the name of Dr. Flechsig works as a perfect primer to detonate an enormous quantity of libido in all directions. Schreber is not himself either to others or to himself. He has become the occasion, the locus and perhaps, the sign, of an incredible coiling of the libidinal surface. The libido is manifested in so many ways that he feels crucified: his mouth, his mind and his hands are used to perform a rhetorical function by investing parts of his libido into the writing of the Denkwürdigkeiten; his penis is used in an unconscious manner with Flechsig; his anus, to the same purpose, only the reverse; his supposedly castrated penis-vagina is ready to receive God's penis; to which must be added the innumerable references to other parts of his feminine body, helping him ensure the sweep of as many sections of the libidinal surface as possible. On the one hand, he is the occasion of an unbelievable repression designed to obviate an all-out libidinal satisfaction, and on the other hand, he is fully enjoying the chaos of this neurotic orgy: “and thus it is the supposed boundary of Schreber's body which finds itself violated by the name of Flechsig […] this boundary is itself pulverized by a dizzying vertigo; the President's body is being undone and parts of it are being projected through libidinal space by getting mixed with other parts into an inextricable patchwork” [pp. 74-76]. Now one could give a simple, semiotic account of this passage by saying that the sign (here, the name of Flechsig) has not only been referring to something or someone else real (the Doctor), but that it has also been connoting its reference in a symbolic way (the Doctor is now Schreber's Tormentor). But this would be to forget that denotation and connotation are one and the same thing, that it is not possible to distinguish between them. They are hopelessly intricated: the sign regulating the symbol, and the symbol deregulating the sign, just as the Tormentor lurks beneath the Doctor. Taking a cue from the President, Lyotard suggests to us that now is the time to avail ourselves of this confusion—this dissimulation—to revel in it, to help spread it, so that we may with it experience more libido, more passion.
Here, Lyotard's philosophy of confusion and weakness of the sign must be understood in both a philosophical and a historical context....
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