When we think of paradox, we are likely to think of “This sentence is a lie” or some other example of self-reference. One can buy books of paradoxes of various degrees of elaboration. And one of my formative intellectual experiences was being introduced long ago (by UCLA grad Alain Cohen) to the Batesonian Pragmatics of Human Communication (Norton, 1967) by Watzlawick et al, with its concept of “pragmatic paradox,” so nicely exemplified by the phrase “Be spontaneous!” uttered to her son by, needless to say, a “Jewish mother.”
Clearly language lends itself to paradox in its capacity for self-reference. But, as its pragmatic version confirms, it had always seemed to me that paradox embodies not just “reference” but transcendence, and thereby demonstrates the difference between human language and the algorithmic “language” of cybernetics, which cannot refer to a world outside itself. We may say that paradox gives substance, density, or textuality to cultural discourses of all kinds, in contrast with algorithms that simply convert an input into an output.
Admittedly, this is not a rigorously expressed thought. Indeed, given that the textuality of which I am speaking is defined as that which in a given discourse resists being reduced to the algorithmic, could textuality be presented in rigorous, that is, algorithmic terms, it would be deprived of this resistance. Indeed, one might say that the ultimate challenge to AI is reducing the textuality of human language, and by extension that of all specifically human, that is, cultural activities, to algorithms “teachable” to machines. For the most complex computers, those of tomorrow as well as those of today, can never be other than ultra-fast Turing machines.
If then we take the “post-human” position that thought is algorithmic in its essence, and textual density merely an epiphenomenon that humans experience, but not machines that have the same thought, then we have accepted an absolute materialism that denies the specific significance of the human.
This is not in fact a new position; it was already common in the late nineteenth century. And I would say that it is held, at least passively, by almost all “hard” scientists, and by a good many “soft” ones. At this stage, I can only say that to the extent that anthropology in the sense proposed by GA is indeed a fundamental science, then it is necessarily a humanistic one, which implies that the ultimate truth of this materialism, though it need not be denied, must be indefinitely deferred.
Just as the deconstructors of the French Theory generation enjoyed playing in the “margins of metaphysics,” one can make a career of applying “paradoxical thinking” of this sort to every aspect of human activity, not to speak of the seemingly ever-less-knowable cosmos (96% or so of which is currently considered to be “dark”). GA has for its aim, as I said in the first sentence of The Origin of Language, to persevere in the spirit of Ockham by refusing to multiply mysteries beyond necessity. Yet the “textual,” although its fundamental purpose—to enhance the deferral of violence that permits the human community to survive—is clear, remains “mysterious” by the very fact of resisting its reduction to algorithms. And with all we have learned about finding algorithms, including “self-learning” algorithms, to imitate the textual structures of human culture, we have not the slightest idea of what it would mean to algorithmically recreate textuality itself, let alone how to go about it. Nor would I dare to propose this as a project. Like the other discoveries of the French Theory generation that titillated us with their pseudo-profundity, the notion of textuality needs to be treated without either adulation or contempt, but with the respect, transcendental and anthropological, that it deserves.
Like deferral/différance, the notion of textuality reflects the postmodern attempt to deconstruct metaphysics from within, making use of the terminology of the symbolic system to refer to the liminal interactions that put it into question. Thus although différance nicely describes the emergence of the first sign as both deferring the assimilation of its object to the physical needs of the subject and differing the object, not simply as another element of the assimilable appetitive world, but as part of the transcendental realm of the sacred/significant, these connotations were clearly not in the minds of either Derrida or the readers of his writings on this “non-concept.” Similar is the case with textuality, whose inevitable association with the text-textile metaphor provides no explanation of how the textual exceeds the metaphysical world of pre-constituted language.
Readers of these Chronicles know that for GA, the deferral that differentiates the sign from the “horizontal” world is in its origin the deferral of violence, the minimal “Girardian” explanation of the human. (Would that all Girard’s admirers understood this!) What then about textuality? What accounts for the “density” of a text, the fact that, in contrast to the use of language to “convey information,” it takes on in texts of all kinds an interest of its own, given that its conclusion does not, as with the solution to a mathematical or practical problem, annul the reader’s concern with what precedes.
Just as in the case of deferral, the first uses of the sign provide the simplest illustration of the textual phenomenon. The hypothetical originary event uses the sign, not in the metaphysical spirit of the declarative sentence conveying information, but as a deviation from appropriative behavior. The first use of the sign, and by extension, of linguistic/cultural communication in general, is not a means toward but a substitute for worldly action. In the originary event, the repetition of the sign on the periphery of the central object supplies the experiential density that allows the group to lower its level of mimetic tension to the point where it can, more or less spontaneously, divide and share the central object in relative peace, resolving the crisis of the Alpha-Beta hierarchy. Needless to say, this provides a model of future cultural activities in only the broadest sense; it tells us nothing about the kinds of structures that historically will be found able to reinforce collective solidarity, let alone provide the para- and later extra-ritual satisfactions of art in its various forms. Which is to say that the sources of the temporal density we call “textuality” must be discovered historically; they cannot and should not be presented as derivative of the originary configuration, which must rather be seen as the platform on which they come to be developed. It is precisely as a platform for free creation, increase in degrees of freedom, that the human scene of representation is a revolutionary development. Whether it can, even in principle, be duplicated by algorithmic techniques is a question best not asked at this stage of our history.
Among esthetic structures, the prevalence of narrative in temporally experienced art is sufficiently central to warrant further discussion even at this preliminary stage. The pre-cultural source of the experiential density of figurative art is intuitively obvious, as it imitates the forms of real-world perceptual experience, and can consequently be expected to evoke similar reactions, mediated always by the scenic structure that “frames” the artwork as the central object was “framed” in the originary event. Attention to icons clearly derives from attention to real objects, the human difference being the différance that lends a transcendental dimension to worldly-appetitive animal attention. But narrative in any form depends on a specifically cultural attention, and however successfully we can teach animals to manipulate signs and react to visual representations (that is, as though they were signals), I don’t believe there is any evidence that chimps or any other species can follow a narrative.
One of Pascal’s distinctive ideas was that of le divertissement, activity that, in the author’s Jansenist framework, “diverts” our soul from its immortal destiny, just as the sign diverted us from conflict in the originary event. Pascal’s favorite example was hare-hunting, where he observed that the hunters enjoyed spending their time running after a hare that “they would not have wanted to have bought,” the pleasure being in chasing the hare, not in possessing it.
To a certain extent, our animal pleasures operate this way even in a pre-cultural state. Eating and sexual activity are pleasurable in themselves, not merely as means to their physiological end. Thus it is not unreasonable to imagine that a pack of wolves “enjoy” pursuing, catching, and killing their prey, in addition to the pleasure of eating it. We need not speculate on whether they “think” or “dream” about such things. But one thing we may be sure of is that they do not enjoy telling or hearing stories about them. Whereas Pascal’s divertissements would definitely include such pleasures, even if we have to await Rousseau’s Lettre sur les spectacles for a series of reflections on modern man’s enjoyment of the divertissement of esthetic mimesis at the expense of his real-world moral sympathies.
Closer to home, the insight behind the notion of textuality in the narrative context can be seen as an elaboration of Sartre’s contrast between the “opacity” of poetry and the “transparency” of prose in his 1947 Qu’est-ce que la littérature? Most discussions of textuality contrast textual with non-textual literary uses of language, for example in Barthes’ distinction in Le plaisir du texte (Seuil, 1973) between “readerly” and “writerly” texts (lisible vs scriptible), the first providing mere passive plaisir while the other promises active, participatory jouissance. In the latter case, where the reader feels invited to extend the text’s écriture for himself, Sartre’s notion of poetic opacity, implying difficulty in deciphering/interpreting the text, is transformed into the characterization of a textual domain in which the reader experiences the freedom of (re)writing his own text.
Barthes’ dichotomy, so characteristic of his generation and yet seemingly forgotten by its successors, conflates Sartre’s opacity with textuality as such, as if one must treat esthetic texts as either nothing but algorithms (“transparent”) or as one-way entries into an inescapable semiotic labyrinth. We have supposedly become too culturally self-conscious to be “distracted” by the anticipation of a narrative’s conclusion, as if we cannot help but recognize the algorithm from the outset and thereby defeat its textual purpose. Yet the brevity of the reign of the postwar French nouveau roman, which exemplified the problematization of “classical” (i.e., readable) narrative in what Nathalie Sarraute called the ère du soupçon, provides a historical demonstration that the experience of most of its readers was unfortunately closer to opacity than to jouissance (the term used for the experience of orgasm).
The most immediate explanation for Barthes’ jouissance is as a case of déformation professionnelle: as a literary critic, Barthes experienced reading as a stimulus to his own (critical) writing, an often overlooked point that explains a good deal of the strange romance of the term’s writerly proponents with scriptible texts. It is surely anything but evident that the central purpose of writing other than pedagogical is to stimulate the production of further writing; indeed, that would seem the very definition of decadence, in which culture exists not to make life better (in the first place, more peaceful), but just to produce more culture, which produces its ultimate effect on life only in a paradoxical sense. (To quote Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axël : Vivre ? les serviteurs feront cela pour nous. [Live? The servants will do that for us.]). The idea that “transparent” classical prose, which is supposed to provide pleasure to its audience merely by being read rather than “re-written,” is no longer effective, generalized to the totality of cultural activities, assumes a state of crisis in which an elite cultural utopia of jouisseurs would exist as a kind of monkish cult turning its back on the civilization whose culture had failed it.
Yet despite modernity’s continual cry of tout est dit (all has been said), which as far as I know began in the mid-17th century and is still going strong 350 years later, it has not proved to be empirically true, as the productivity of cinema, the only truly universal art-form of our time, continues to demonstrate. I think that this postmodern sensibility is far more productively interpreted as reflecting an anthropologically significant theoretical impatience with metaphysical thinking’s inability to conceive language’s and culture’s inherent deferral, opacity, textuality, that makes it essentially other than algorithmic, just as a drawing is essentially different from a graph.
Much of Beckett’s writing derives its meta-literary flavor from his thematization of the deferral theme, originally and most strikingly in En attendant Godot, where the awaiting “action” of the main characters is reduced to a means of passing, or wasting, time. But this “behavioral” mode appropriate to the stage does not bear much further elaboration. Barthes’ “writerly” text compounds its self-reflexivity by making language itself, rather than the actions it describes (or what characters in the work use it for), enigmatic, hence requiring the “supplement” of further writing, whatever that really means in practice for someone not being paid to discuss the text in a literary journal.
No, narrative discourse still works, and when it doesn’t, we need not invent a new sophistication to account for its failings. In fact, I rather doubt that the “world-brain” has made any real progress in this area since the beginnings of art. What we have learned is to appreciate new modes of narrative discourse, including à la limite the nouveau roman, rather than to reject the “classical” ones.
I would challenge anyone to show in what way the Iliad is not as fine a work of literature as anything written since—which is not to say that it contains all that is contained in its progeny. But when you read the Iliad, you don’t miss its not being Sophocles or Shakespeare or Proust. Artworks, particularly the great ones, create their own framework, set their own scene. Unlike religious rituals, which can indeed become superannuated, since the ancient Greeks gave art its own scene functionally detached from ritual, they never go out of style. If someone born in the Bronx in 1941 can appreciate Homer, I cannot imagine that such appreciation will become impossible at some future time or place. Nor can I really imagine a future “death of narrative,” or a world where the scriptible replaces the lisible.
The details of the matter must be left to the narratologists. But I think we can provide narratology with an underlying principle from which to begin, and in this connection, I will introduce one more of those French Theory terms we once found thrilling and disturbing: intertextuality.
The idea behind this term, attributed to Julia Kristeva, is that texts, however much they may seem to refer to an extratextual world, are really reworkings of previous texts. A detective novel, for example, cannot be understood as simply evoking a fictional universe ab ovo, but must be seen as an attempt to “respond” to all previous detective novels by evoking a new arrangement of the themes/tropes/”memes” of these novels.
Readers of Girard will note a similarity between intertexuality and his thematic of mimetic desire, which he presents as a feature of interdividual psychology, although several of his examples involve explicitly cultural mediations (e.g., Quixote-Amadis, Emma-romance novels). The Girardian paradigm remains wholly within a representational universe, where although language itself is never foregrounded as the basis of representation itself, the desiring subject is seen as viewing each potential desire-object as previously represented, in reality or imagination, by the mediator, whose judgment is the primary source of his own. The coincidence is not accidental; these are two manifestations, not really very different, of Sarraute’s age of suspicion.
The small difference is, nonetheless, what makes Girard, unlike the other French Theorists, open to a genuinely post-metaphysical anthropology. Girard’s reader, having learned the lesson of la vérité romanesque, has been supplied with a wisdom that prepares him for the real world, whereas the postmodern reader of and through French Theory is at best prepared to enjoy “supplementing” the text he has read, presumably liberated from any thought of applying its lessons to worldly life.
But “theory,” as we have been learning for the past few decades, is by no means confined to literary or esthetic study. It remains, as it has always been, a key manifestation of epochal self-consciousness. Where intertextuality, like textuality and deferral, can serve us best as a guide is in pointing less to a postmodern representational utopia than to postmodern real-world frustration, less with art itself than with the configuration of the human community itself, that is, with politics.
Which is to say that the frustration of the false utopia of postmodern French Theory provides the most promising point of departure for an explanation for the current dominance of victimary thinking. As we observe more clearly every day, the era of suspicion could only reach its conclusion by granting unlimited confidence to the epistemology of resentment.
More on this to follow.