Avital Ronell - On the Unrelenting Creepiness of Childhood: Lyotard, Kid-Tested
A lecture by Avital Ronell,
Schirmacher I’m very happy to have you here tonight. We are looking forward to a special treat. People say there are no great philosophers in America, but it’s untrue, and here’s our proof. She is America’s most courageous philosopher, in your face and always surprising us. I trust she will do this tonight for us as well.
Ronell The title of the paper is "On the Unrelenting Creepiness of Childhood: Lyotard, Kid-Tested". Does everyone know what kid-tested means? You see that in commercials for kids objects or things, kid-tested and kid-approved, kids like it. That’s the title, it belongs to the project I’m now working on, the book called "The Test Drive". Today I’ll be speaking about the great uncertainty concerning childhood. In order to do that I’m following Lyotard, who is the patron saint of EGS, by the way, and I thought it might please Wolfgang if we worked on him a little today. I’m following him and I’m going where I think he puts us, in a gear of the death drive which is lower than what we’re used to. He’s trying to locate something like an experience, prior even to the irreversible alienation of language. Those of us in our group started with Heidegger’s "What is Called Thinking?" and we’ve been opening up the invaginated folds of the ears, so far. If you guys have been wondering what we’ve been doing in our class, we’re having, women, moms, penetrating ears, and doing things like that, in order to ask what is called thinking? What I’m trying to do is work on one principal question which would be "what is emancipation?" This is Lyotard’s question, the question of emancipation, or the emancipatory drive. What we think we want when we are striving for and fighting for emancipation — what are we emancipating ourselves from, and toward? And please retain the "mance", in emancipation because he’s going to slide on that signifier, the mancep, the hand, so you’ll see how this is going to move. Lyotard, as a good Nietzschean, says there’s a bad emancipation, where you’re deluded and messed up, and you think you’re getting emancipated, and there’s good emancipation, which has to do with "rising to the call of the father". Lyotard says this means you must be able to listen to that call, he writes "it is not at all a matter of freeing oneself from this voice, for freedom comes, on the contrary, in listening to this voice." Those of us who have worked on lecture five of "What is Called Thinking?" understand this. Freedom is signaled, one could say, within the Heideggerian conjunction of horen and gehorsam, which is to say to listen and to heed the call, or hearing and adhering. Listening is an extreme form of obedience, of opening and giving oneself over to the voice of the other. Now there’s a problem he’s going to point out, which is that man’s "authentic listening ought to be to the voice of the father". But this is not the same as "man"… something intercepts that listening, and what intercepts it is usually woman. There were two boys who could listen to the voice of the father without too much interference from their moms, and that was Isaac and Jesus. They heard that voice of the father, according to Lyotard. In one case the mother was way too old to have him anyway, that was Sarah, and the other case, the Virgin didn’t get in the way of this genius child. There was no real scrambling of that line to the father. This goes further in his argument - this comes to the meeting of Judaism and Christianity, in other words The Jews and the Christians. Lyotard says they are divided on the question of sacrifice. In the case of Isaac, as you know, whom Abraham brought up the mountain, the sacrifice was called off. In the case of the Jews, sacrifice was called off, but in the Christian story it was nailed. In the Christian version sacrifice occurred. In the first version, according to Lyotard, God backed off, and the supreme hand desisted. In the last minute Isaac was not sacrificed. God can always make a comeback and ask for a sacrifice, but the Christians went all the way on the issue of sacrifice. Jesus himself was surprised that he was not Isaac and that the game was not called off at the last moment. As you know, and as Jean-Luc has reminded us so often, there is a cry of abandonment: "What’s going on, I’m not Isaac, couldn’t you arrange this differently?" that’s one way of telling the story. That’s much too fast but that gives you a kind of trajectory, and a sense of where I’m going. Another thing is that Lyotard says the woman who interferes with this direct line to the father desires her man stand up and rival the Almighty, and thus no longer obey the Almighty’s call, no longer be bound to his mancipium, which is his grasp. Such is the wicked emancipation that the hysteric whispers to her man, "you are not castrated". This emancipation is paid for by suffering, labor and death. So woman calls on man to block the call and disconnect from the divine call-forwarding system in order to come into his own. In a sense there’s this kind of revolutionary urge which is stoked and provoked by a woman who says "you can do it, you’re not castrated, go ahead and stand up" against whatever it is, it could be the divine, it could be the state, it could be something else. This is Lyotard’s schema, so now I’m going to set up the whole scene. From Socrates’ predatory urges to Locke’s invention of the idiot, or Hegel’s racist assignments, philosophy has demonstrated he need to impound those who couldn’t speak for themselves, those who had not reached a certain legislated majority. Under the reign of Locke, Hume and Condiac, empirical philosophy assembled the figure of the idiot in order to put some reality behind established hypothetical assumptions. The idiot pinned down the first folds of language in the essays on human understanding. Made to stand for an epoch lost to civilization, of originary memory, the idiot spanned the chasm between nature and culture. So I’m saying that empirical philosophy invented the idiot, because it needed a figure that would stage the place where memory didn’t exist yet. They invented the idiot, they looked for wild children and recruited all sorts of idiot children into philosophical discourse. So, the entry of the idiot on philosophical pages helped moreover to rehabilitate the empirical basis of empiricism. Once empiricism found the idiot then it could say "here we have proof of what we’re saying about the origin of human understanding and memory, and the span from nature to culture’. They needed the proof so they invented it. Much can be said about the induction of wild children, savages, idiots and infants into the realm of philosophical speculation, and it would be important to investigate more fully the peculiar yet crucial status of these minorities as philosophy conducts its adult raids. Hegel said that philosophy is for adults. No doubt Nietzsche may be seen to have turned this state of affairs on its head when he invited the animals to participate in a new tropology. Now comes Lyotard who talks to the children, no matter how polymorphously perverse, punctually pampered or pacified, these are the distressed among us, the fearful and hungry. They squeak and peek and try to get their meaning across. They panic. Then smile and burble. Then panic. Held in abusive custody by the laws of becoming, they hang onto your finger for dear life. From the get go, the reality principle sneaks up on them to snap them out of the domain of the pleasure principle. This is of course a complicated relay, as Lacan has shown, for the reality principle is always in defeat - but still it goes after you. As in Goethe’s ballad "The Earl-King", the earl-king is out to get them, poised to snatch the child from the arms of momentary reassurance. In the case presented by Lyotard, we are faced with the figure of the minor, often oppressed, for whom language and representation are not entirely foreclosed, though surrender, the predominance of muteness and a repertoire of stammers often govern the thwarted scene of childhood. Still, there are reprieves, and the event of memory. Language, however jumbled, mimetic, deregulated, occurs and belongs to the existence to which childhood is fitted. Now childhood eventually goes into remission but returns in waves throughout the lives of the wounded. Yet even when these children are silenced, or a hand is laid on them, they are traversed by what Lyotard understands to be "sheer feeling". Maybe a pinch of joy, already a sting of melancholic regret, a straightening that cuts both ways, a body memory that trembles. With no language of interiority to vouch for feeling, the children are more or less stranded, abandoned, bared to colonializing projection. Vaulted and shut, their subjectivity, if there is one, offers little in the way of an account. Even so, in most cases they surpass or at least scramble the master codes of philosophical claims made on their behalf, and they elude the cognitive scanners that try to detect and classify them. Childhood constitutes a security risk for the house of philosophy. It crawls in, setting off a lot of noise. The figure of the child, which in the end inserts an imaginary lesion in philosophy, a condition that calls out for endless symbolic repair, may be born out of the anguish of the differand, that it to say, it enters or is entered into the places where speech falters and language chokes in the throat of a political body, where the question of fair representation is pre-emptorily dismissed or simply not addressed. It might help you to think of the child who is not a biological child, necessarily, but any minority or harassed or persecuted being that doesn’t have the means of representation at hand, or voice or vote or language, but it is not as if the child had the means of representation at hand, the child is given over to extreme forms of defenselessness. Dependency, Lyotard indicates, is too weak a word to describe the condition of such minority being. The ever-haunting condition of childhood. How did they stumble into philosophical headquarters? Well, their prototype, the essential child, the idiot, appeared alongside or at the head of the train of blind, deaf or mute subjects whose implications for subjecthood precisely provoke crisis. This child was most closely leagued with the prestige accorded to the construction of the wild child, who was the teachable idiot. These children were pressed into service, assigned to uphold mythic assurances of the humanly clean slate, presenting such a possibility in theory at least, to the extent that they, idiots, donated their bodies to the cause of a science that staked everything on what appeared to constitute observable traits of human origins. Recruited to the cause of philosophy to make a philosophical point, the idiot belongs outside the philosophy whose integrity it promotes. The child as I said, crawls in at unexpected moments, or morphs, as in Kant’s critical reflections, into the ambivalent purveyor of genius, the irresponsible, often puerile excess, to which we owe the poetic word. In the inhuman, Lyotard writes of the debt to childhood that is never paid off. A matter of the traces of an indetermination, childhood continues to hold us hostage. The obscure savageness of childhood reminds us that all education is inhuman "because it does not happen without constraint and terror." At once savaging and civilizing, there is never one without the other, education straightens the little one who is cornered by cultural demand. Childhood in any case will leave us with the inhuman surges of deregulation with a level of fear and stress that can come up at any point in the trajectory of so-called human development. Now I quote Lyotard, "Shorn of speech, incapable of standing upright, hesitating over the objects of its interests, not able to calculate its advantages, not sensitive to common reason, the child is eminently the human because its distress heralds and promises things possible." Lagging behind itself, the child’s initial delay in humanity, which makes it the hostage of the adult community, is also moreover what manifests to this community the lack of humanity it is suffering from, and which calls on it to become more human. The irrevocable creeping of childhood is a place from which an ethical call is placed, be it made by the day-care crowd or the operators Antigone, Christ and Isaac, all loyalists to the child’s camp, even though their identity as children must remain at once undecidable and settled. From some reason, or unreason, some figures of ethical calling are tagged essentially as children even if by other measures they are plainly in mid-life crises when they are tried. Childhood enters a breach into the very concept of the human and makes us ask once again what it means to be human. Yet the decision to claim the human is split between the early episodes of initial desolation and the later cover-up schemes that language supports and the community payrolls. More severe words are reserved for the provocation of childhood in another later text, in Manmes, which is like a possessive hold, or a stranglehold almost, so the child is lined up with the slave, with the one whose destiny is put in the hands of another. Like the slave the child does not belong to itself, having, Lyotard says "no claim to himself". The child is in the hands of another. Dependency is too weak a word to describe the condition of being seized and held by the hand of another. By childhood Lyotard means that we are born before being born to ourselves. "We are born from others but also to others, given over defenseless to them." Subject to their mancipium, and to an extent that they even do not recognize. The offense is such that even the offenders, by necessity repeat offenders, operate on the level of an unconscious siege. You may want to know when exactly this sneak attack occurs. Childhood is an age that is not marked by age. Or rather, it does not age but recurs episodically, or even historically. Childhood can last a whole lifetime if you find yourself throttled and unable to root out some representation of what is affecting you. This can happen everyday. "I am speaking of this condition of being affected and not having the means, the language, the representation, to name, identify, reproduce and recognize what is affecting us." If I am not mistaken Lyotard uses childhood to resist the modern Western ideal of emancipation. He manages to deflate the reverie that has you thinking you’ll get out of the grip of the mancipium. The manmes travels in many disguises. For example, parental love may have been a calamity, it may have engendered such a manmes over the child’s soul, which often remains unknown to the child as an adult. Something is taking her down even as she meets the world with measurable insistences of so-called success. Under the thumb of an invisible yet persistent manmes the child, the adult child, regresses to minority, following an unpredictable rhythm of being that beats the drum of an impossible emancipation, the emancipation promised by humanism, whether Christian or secular, which teaches that man is something that must be freed. As for the nature of this freeing, there are many different possibilities, from Augustine up through Marx. These promises say in effect that the manmes can be thrown off, even dealt with definitively according to some calculable program or redemptive ground plan. If we could get over it, well, this would suppose we had a reciprocal grasp of what was keeping us down. The manmes, a condition of extreme captivity, can be so powerfully effective, that like the child the adult has no access to it by means memory or cognition. To bring the terms of this condition to bear on us, if only by projective inversion, it is almost as in those stories in the twilight zone which end with a shot of miniature house where normalcy was played out under the gaze of a giantess, a playing child. The shadow thrown on you too big to be perceived, much less fought off. One is left dumb and unknowing about the manmes that nonetheless accompanies your every move and persists in calling the shots. The imprint is so profound that it will not even occur to the child to rebel, nor will he have received the gift or grace to pray that his manmes be lifted. Because of the untraceable fingerprints of the manmes, I’m surmising here because Lyotard is unclear about how exactly this works. The condition that he describes should be not subsumed merely by structures such those underlying severe neurosis or psychosis. There is no account or narrative that could contain or point reliably to the manmes, no anamesis, as he likes to say. At the same time the surrender is so pervasive that it need not be pathologized in order to be heard. One does not have to be a psychotic to understand that you’re barely out on bail on good days, and back in the hovel of wretched captivity on other days of your so-called autonomous being. The possibility of a given freedom which is unquestionably given, and before all else a given thrown in with the "Da" of our "Da-sein", in other words the kind of freedom that Nancy with his Kantian signet posits, seems to be absent from the scene. The hold on the child translates into an irrevocable wounding on which childhood in fact depends. The timing may slightly off because in this instance Lyotard hints that pleasure may be felt prior to the wound, while elsewhere he indicated, I thought, that the wounding hold had first dibs on the child. I wish we could read it together and work through whether the wound is primary and prior to any pleasure one could feel, or if there is pleasure which is then disrupted. He switches tracks on that. To the extent that the rhythm of unconscious time-bombing is included in the depiction of these experiences, which often bypass experience, because if you don’t know it you can’t say you experience it, the manmes can’t be said to be experienced, Lyotard offers this wonderful, or wound-erful observation: "For the child, everything is a wound, the wound of a pleasure that is going to be forbidden and taken away." The manmes is raised as a sign of what is about to happen, namely of what has always happened. It is raised to slap the pleasure out of the child. In this round the manmes is the hand of time, time beating pleasure, given over to the stranglehold of the reality principle. The suffering that results and the search for the object, something analogous, in short, to emancipation, arise out of this wound. The emancipatory urge prompted by the early experience of essential deprivation, starts with this figure of analogy, weak but soldering. In Lacan’s reading of Freud, the fundamental desire, the incestuous one is prohibited in one of the starts of life. Lacan says, wait, let’s not forget that the real desire is the oedipal one, and that is immediately slapped out of you. That’s just about one of your first lessons, but that’s the real and principal desire which rendered null and void, or at least taboo. Everything else flows from the initial withholding pattern, says Lacan, including the battering search for the object neither entirely lost nor altogether found. Alive with the memory trace of early forfeiture, the subject tries to free itself, at least enough to cover the losses. Thus originates the call, the call to emancipation, of Exodus, a call in any case that initiates the movement of flight. The call positions the constrained child in relation to an elsewhere. The children of Israel are said to have taken the call as they headed for trouble, or rather more trouble, and elsewhere. Lyotard links the temporal wounding to the flight from Egypt. In the essay he observes, regarding the exodus of the Hebrews, that they escaped the Pharaoh’s mancipium only by placing themselves under the mancipium of Yahweh. The fantasy of a promising elsewhere is broken. It is not as though there would be an locatable exteriority to the primal hold. Permit me to introduce an analogy, another hand to play in the negotiations with the manmes, for it is still necessary to elucidate the difficulty of ever obtaining a truly valid exit visa when it comes to the anticipation of an exodus. As with the plight of addiction, elaborated by Thomas de Quincey, one can move only from one addiction to another, even if the second term is that of a cure. The oppression of dependency, the demand of adherence to the addiction or that which opposes it is structurally the same. So when you go on the twelve-step program you do have to believe addictively in something else, you know, that structure of addiction is still holding you, one could argue. What joins the disparate events consisting in the manmes of the child, the flight from Egypt, and the call from elsewhere, is the unknowing in which they originate and continue effectively to hold sway. One is dumbstruck, sonnambulizing, rising to a call that cannot be identified or in any meaningful way secured. Perhaps this call comes from the past or resounds in a future dimly awaited. It comes from beyond me and within me — this is how Heidegger locates the call, the aphonic call of conscience, Gewissensruf in "Sein und Zeit". At any rate one cannot account for the call that has a hold on me and is surpassing my initiative or the knowledge I think I have about the way things go as I crawl through the playing fields of being-in-the-world. This is actually good news, everything I’m telling you. It may sound gloomy. How is it good news? Because we have to stop with all those delusional stories and narratives and listen to this horrifying narration. We’re in a place where emancipation has arguably not worked for anyone. We have to roll back the clock, poke and prod the master narratives, and see if we can get some kind of understanding or grasp on why revolution has not satisfied but only betrayed. If we had an example, or a substantial narrative of a successful revolution where we would all run to join it and stick with it — then this would be bad and perverse news. We have to rewind and play again, in a sense, and start listening to the calls that we missed. Not that that call substantially was there, but just try to think through the failures of emancipation. Rather than have those great fairytale childhood lies circulating around, as if we wanted to return to something, Lyotard is going in a different direction. So that’s why it might be good news. So attentive to that which defines cognition and, eluding memory, stultifies, Lyotard tries time and again to trace the call. There is something that grinds being, knowledge, memory as well as health to a level of indifference, something that defies all conceptuality or generalizable principle. He stays close to the ground and keeps his receptors open. In his earlier works Lyotard was very interested in a level of indifference, kind of the Epicurean atoraxia, the extreme stoic idea, for the Zen nonthinking, the Taoist nothingness. He was very interested in stultifying modalities of being. His MA thesis, by the way, was called "Indifference as an Ethical Notion". I would not hesitate to go as far as grouping his concern with reflective judgment in this category, or to mobilize for this thought-numbing area of the work his discussion of Freud’s call to let the mind float. Freud writes "you have to impoverish your mind, clean it out as much as possible, so that you make it capable of anticipating the meaning, the what of the "it happens"." The poverty leveling of the mind does not oppose itself to thought, but allows something to arrive, something we associate with the possibility of meaning. The advent of the event is, as Lyotard contends, itself dependent on the availability of the mind to scale back its holdings. That is to say, no event is at all accessible if the self does not renounce the glamour of its culture, its wealth, its health, its knowledge and memory. Let us make ourselves weak and sick, as Proust did, or let us fall truly in love. The only possible existential glitch here resides in the suggestion that one would be in the position to make oneself fall ill or in love — this no doubt is said with that smile of irony for which Lyotard was known by his friends. Still it must be admitted that in a strict sense, renunciation implies a supplement of will — the ability precisely to disable when mind exercises its ability to disable the self. That is the only hurdle I see here and perhaps I’m placing it too firmly in this deserted landscape where debility rules. There is a splitting that seems to be at issue, an almost Fichtean split of self, according to which one of the selves, the transcendental self watches the other, more empirical one crash into the wall of necessary failure. it’s hardly probable that Lyotard, smile or no smile, would permit such an idealist formulation to prevail at this time. I will have to suppose that there is not a rescued self that survives the crash, or that he is shown determined to play the weak and sick card. In order to attune one’s being to the event, in order to prime for the advent of meaning, a thoroughgoing impoverishment, an extreme ascesis needs to be welcomed and assumed. Yet because it involves a supplement of will, this degree of ontological deflation still does not sink to the level of being in manmes he later on associates in mancipium. Acts of self-depletion are somehow engaged by the subject as it renews the encounter with the limit-experience of deficiency. The depleted condition which Lyotard eventually reads in terms of the stakes of knowledge opens the channels in his work on art and politics, inscriptions that run on empty, forfeiting the support of cognition and its corresponding power players. Another way of putting it is that this art and politics are not simply rule-based or governed solely by pre-existing contracts or criteria. In a Kantian turn Lyotard argues that thus both art and politics are exempted from the hegemony of the genre of discourse called the cognitive. In Kant’s terms, such an exemption means that we have no use for the sort of judgment he called "determinate judgment". Among other things this explains why we are essentially bereft, left clueless, off-base, and in a cloud of obscurity. Reflective judgment implies the ability of the mind to synthesize data, be it sensuous or socio-historical without recourse to a predetermined rule. Lyotard writes, "Accordingly, thinking advances through clouds by touching them as enigmatic cases, the reason for which they’re what they are is not given with them, with their "that-they-are-occurring."" So what they are is not given along with the fact that they are occurring. Determinate judgment operates differently. "The problem at the heart of the latter is the following: a concept being defined, one must find the available cases to be subsumed under it, and in doing so begin to validate the concept. In other words, understanding possesses a rule of explanation and is trying to select references to which it can be applied. This is a formidable way of wandering through thoughts. It is a way called science." Determinate judgment gives way to the technoscientific universe, announcing the place of the Heideggerian Ge-stell as the modern way for thinking to be related to Being. It would appear that determinate judgment has won out by securing a type of cognitive basis, a calculable grid that compensates for the backsliding returns and depletions which were earlier at issue. Lyotard shows that in spite of the triumph of determinate judgment in the contemporary world, in the values of programming, forecasting, efficiency, security, computing and the like, other games or genres of discourse are available in which formulating a rule or pretending to give an explanation is irrelevant, even forbidden. This is particularly the case with aesthetic judgment, with taste, which introduces a kind of cognitive humbling, an essential passivity. "No concept, no external finality, no empirical or ethical interest is involved in the reception by the imagination of senses coming from so-called data. There are only the most humble syntheses. The conceptual rule under which the data could be subsumed must remain inactive." No pre-determination, Lyotard maintains, exempts any thinking from the responsibility of responding to each case. Thinking is responsible to the singularity of each case, being answerable to the unsubstitutable demand placed upon it. It’s delusory to give a meaning to an event by anticipating what the event will be in reference to a prior text. "But it is indeed impossible to avoid this way of thinking completely, because it offers security against the calls or touches of the "Big X"". Traveling through a space between the active and unconscious breaches of mind, the Big X marks the spot where sheer receptivity can be located on the other side of any claim of knowability. The Big X has to do with the something that may occur, in the case of Cezanne, under or on his eyes "if they make themselves receptive enough to it." This something is a quality of chromatism, a color timbre. To achieve this is a matter of a passivity without pathos, which is the opposite of either the controlled or unconscious activity of the mind." X addresses the uncanny fact that there is something here and now, regardless of what it is. It is as if something hidden inside the "Montaigne St. Victoire", say, Being, or the entity which Kant calls the "X in general" was playing a game against the painter by making moves with the chromatic material. One cannot psyche out the X in general or know what it’s up to. On good days, one can simply acknowledge, follow, or if your name is Cezanne, paint its disposition. Placing us in the grips of a major double-bind, it lords over us like the immovable power play of the manmes. On the one hand we strive to let go in order to avoid being hard of hearing when the big X puts out a call. In order to be attuned to the call we are not supposed to know, grasp or force subsumption on the uncanny fact that it occurs. It hits us with an appeal without precedent. A circumstance without cognitive netting. This sounds very abstract — there’s something that forced Cezanne’s hand, in a sense, and extrapolating from Kant, Lyotard is speaking of the big X that moves one to do something, or puts out the call to which one responds. We can’t know what it is, we can’t grasp it but it forces our hand. There is no other hand which lessens the grip of the double-bind, yet things go on as if there has always been another, perhaps a first hand. This turns us over to the shriveled authority of the manchaux, of which Lyotard writes "by freeing himself from the tutelage of the other, the manchaux takes back his hand, takes things back into his own hands, he thinks he’s getting over his castration, that the wound is healing, the dream of being able to get over lack, over what is missing. This is the very dream that gives rise to emancipation today." So there’s a dream that we could get over the lack, according to Lyotard, who hasn’t yet read Nancy’s reinscription of this lack, but that there’s something missing and we think we can it over it, get past that. His figure for this rapport is that of a manchaux, which someone who is missing a hand. The missing other hand is the hand played by the supplement of will that we detected earlier, that is, by the act of self-mutilation that permits one to exercise control over a stretch of destiny. Like the crab that loses its claw, or the animal tearing off a limb or paw in panic, the manchaux takes things in hand, albeit in the clutch of a missing hand. The rhetoricity of this moment is impossible, for the manchaux is shown taking back a hand that no longer is. The inexistent trophy dominates the promissory note of political rhetoric. According to Lyotard, the violence that suppresses castration dominates and blinds the politics of emancipatory struggle today. Now, all this comes down to the ordeal or trial of the call to the call of the big X, or Being, or the mountain, or God, on top of Being or God, even the mountain calls. The call is not necessarily of language or entirely without language, it is hard to situate it with any certainty. In "Sein und Zeit" Heidegger had said of the call, the aphonic call of conscience, that it comes within me and from beyond me. Lyotard himself said at the beginning the essay "In any case there is nothing on the order of knowledge to guarantee the call or insure its referential authority." I’m going to leave it at that, because I think we should have a discussion. I know there’s a lot suspended but I think there’s ample material to give you a sense of where this might be going.
Audience I’m wondering what happens before language, what the sense of the real is before language. If language is the problem, is there a way of communicating that we could project, say, in a twilight-zone fashion, what would this look like?
Ronell This isn’t really about a deprivation of the real. Lyotard is trying to read and think, first of all, what it is we are trying to emancipate ourselves from and toward what? What he’s trying to do is try to attack the disappointing history of a kind of optimism that we know what it is we’re going towards. This is some who’s been very engaged politically, very active and very disappointed, no doubt, …he’s trying to really locate even before the moment of language where there’s been a grip or a hold. It’s not as though this is not real or that this blocks something that you’re calling the real. It’s something that isn’t perceptible, that we can’t locate, and that it is so big, that one doesn’t even know to rebel against it. I try to read it very carefully because there are some problems with the text I try to attune myself to and to work with. The alienation which is introduced by language is not something you can get out of. This why I try to bring in the example of addiction, because even though it might look like you can have a safety hatch, or a quick exit from certain structures, they lead you into the same repetition of the same totalitarian hold, only under another name, another brand, another channel, nonetheless it’s the same kind of hold. There isn’t necessarily an outside to this kind of predicament. It’s just that he’s predating the alienation that Lacan at one point associates with our entry to language.
Schirmacher Thank you for reminding us that with children it’s a mutual slavery, a mutual wounding. Babies can be the most powerful force in the universe. Their voice alone can kill everybody. It’s a slavery for both sides, you see how the mother has to give up in the first year in order to follow the call of baby, both are put into a prison. So the real question actually is, is not emancipation as such the wrong question? Is not this urge to emancipation something we should learn will not work? We learn from Heidegger that if you can’t overcome it, get into it. So I don’t read Lyotard’s book, as you said, as an account of something bad has happened, rather, good for you, something has happened! By going into that, recognizing it, overcoming it not on a conceptual level, but on the same level as it appeared, on the level of pre-conceptual living. And we have to learn that after we come to language, there’s still a way to find in language, in the moment of language, a way of pre-conceptual living which can find in our way of living what was done to us, what we did to our mother, in our initial ex-sistence. We are not trying to overcome it in terms of an emancipation through conceptualizing it, but by going back into it. It’s a way in and it’s a way out at the same time, by not trying to find a concept, even a political practice out of it. Revisit what we don’t know about it but what we’ve lived through. That’s my reading of what Lyotard actually tried to do with this book. At the same time he wrote this book when he had his little son, so he had a very strong evidence all the time about this. This news is perhaps our best news. Emancipation is not a free march, but a going back into your slavery, your mutual slavery, and we go out of it by going back to it.
Audience How can you receive a call for emancipation if you have never been emancipated?
Ronell Well, that’s the question. It remains on the level of sheer urge, or mythology. that’s where I try to take this text. There’s another thing that Lyotard says. The Jewish relation to the call for emancipation is one of perfect pitch. The Jewish hears the call perfectly, and so he said there’s no reason to say anything further about it, and that the Christians have messed it up royally. I worry about that friendly foreclosure. Abraham heard right. Moses’ response to the call was perfect. So I brought in Kafka s parable — Why did God’s call for Abraham have to be said twice? "Abraham, Abraham"…Why did he stutter? That is Lyotard’s question too. This text is born from a guilty place because I had previously written a text on him that was very critical of him, and in the United States the critical position that I took became more important than I thought it ought to. I was kind of rough or gangsterlike. I’m trying to be more attuned and careful in following him. There are contradictory moments which are not necessarily Nietzschean and affirmable. It seems as though one can hear the call, but then it gets scrambled or disrupted in certain ways. That’s a strange deviation from the Heideggerian call. For Lyotard, the calling arriving at the right destination is a matter of concern. The Jewish ear knows, uh oh, I’m being called and I’m out of here, I’ve got to go, it’s my calling. So it’s something of a friendly mystification of the Jewish history of hearing the call, which of course reinscribes the Heideggerian call of conscience in a different way.
Vitanza I’m thinking of when Marcel Beyer read from his novel. The only way to emancipation is not to know, and the tormentors were grasping desperately to try to slip into the skin of their victims. They could only do that by knowing how these victims had stuttered, and reacted. This type of knowing is not going to get you anywhere.
Audience The originary wounding sounds to me more a wounding of time than of language. What Wolfgang says makes sense to me - the only way to work with the wound is to live time backwards and to remember, in the Proustian way. It makes me think of the very concrete situation of the Jew and the Palestinian. There has to be a kind of a politics in which you can find a way back so that you’re not always identifying the other as the one who has you in its grasp. Additionally, yesterday Jean-Luc described a community in which what we share is that we cannot share. Wolfgang claims that we can find the way out through a preconceptual move, not getting into the concept, not through a march of freedom, and so on. My question is, how is this good news, how can the coming of the being of the X actually generate a community?
Ronell This can be a loving grasp, it can be an embrace. This is a problem in the Lyotard text, right, and it was asked, how can we think a motto of community? I don’t see this as running any significant interference with a community. This wouldn’t interfere with a community without communion or fusion, but I think certainly that Lyotard is trying to think from the point of view of the failure of all models and figures of ecstastic community, or serious and sober community, and so forth. This is already a model of a community, in a sense, but one that might not be alert to its own shackles. You see so many violent and reactionary installations of something like community because we think we know what emancipation is, we think we are free. Without the aporias of freedom which one would have to discuss, the example of Kant reminds us this is an aporetic situation. People can only be free if they are free, one can has to kind of begin from these essential problems. I don’t want to even generalize, because I have Lyotard’s manme’s on me. He exemplarily traversed all sorts of political spaces, including I think Maoism. This isn’t someone who tried to theorize without prior experience. Lyotard tried inscribed the different struggles and efforts to think and live a certain retreat of the political, therefore one has to take his kind of genealogical concerns very seriously.