THE USE OF LUCIO MAGRI (2014) (3290 words)

Magri, Lucio. The Tailor of Ulm: Communism in the Twentieth Century, translated by Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 2011).

Magri, born 1932, was a leading member of the Manifesto group which was kicked out of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1970 and, together with Rossana Rossanda, its most prominent theoretician; he rejoined the PCI with the small Left PdUP party in 1984 and fought against its harakiri in 1989. He was then a deputy in Parliament of the small Rifondazione Comunista party, and retired in 2004 to write this final book. Among his copious journalistic and analytical works, this is, as it were, his political testament. He committed assisted suicide in Switzerland in 2011. Il Manifesto still exists as the only general daily in Italy that can be read without revulsion.

In the Introduction plus 21 chapters Magri weaves together three strands: a chronological history of “some decisive events” in and around the PCI from 1944 to its suicide, the world political and economic context, and theoretical analyses or at least doubts and questions, which culminate in the final impressive Appendix of 45 pages, written in 1987 as the position paper of the Left at the final PCI congress. I must be brief about the well-known international context of the Cold War, USSR degeneration, and the constant US pressures which were especially virulent in Italy, ruled de facto by three forces: the Catholic Church, inner political forces, and the US ambassador who set the limits of what could be done (prominently: not to let the too strong and dangerous communists into the government after 1948). No doubt, Magri has interesting views about the world context: he pins the blame for the Cold War squarely on the USA and stresses the real danger of nuclear holocaust say up to 1961; he singles out the major rigidities and stupidities first of the 3rd International, including Lenin’s attacking focus on the “centrist” Kautsky and Austromarxism, predicated on a non-existent revolutionary imminence in Europe, and then the much heavier ones of Stalin’s forced collectivisation, 1930s’ terror waves, and the permanent cultural deformation into apathetic masses and cynical bureaucracy; but he gives short shrift to the thesis that fascisms in general were simply caused by bolshevism – certainly the Italian one was not. However, like the whole PCI, Magri overestimates the positive role of the USSR as “the ‘driving force’ of world history” at least in the late 1950s, since its usefulness was by then confined to being a power alternative to the USA for countries such as Egypt and Cuba, with many serious mistakes right up to the entry into Afghanistan. He rightly approves of Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence” thesis, but the critique of his “destalinisation” is brief and tepid in view of what I would call a class revocation of the CPSU alliance with the Russian plebeian masses. Finally, Magri has much sympathy for Mao’s slogan “to rebel is justified” but concludes that Deng’s line, while meeting great pragmatic success, was a Thermidor or counter-revolution. This strand is only touched upon as background, and the only factual mistakes I found in the book belong to it.

Magri rejects the two dominant readings of PCI history: that it was from 1945 on “a social-democratic party without saying or perhaps even knowing it”; or that it was, despite its role in the resistance and in laying the fundaments for democratising Italy, “a prolonged hand of USSR policy and intimately tied to its model.” Neither of them can explain the most relevant facts of this history; both obliterate what was unique and interesting in it. Rather, the PCI tried seriously, though imperfectly and fitfully, to tread a “third road” toward socialism: a fusion of reforms within a parliamentary democracy with bitter class struggles from below and an explicit critique of capitalism.

The historical overview begins with Togliatti’s 1944 return to Italy from Moscow and his appeal for a wide antifascist coalition and resistance. The PCI’s strong role in these and its subsequent correct (if not quite clarified) slogan of a new – that is, non-insurrectional – way to socialism resulted in a mass party of two levels, held together by a strong common belief: a backbone of professional cadres, at first coming mostly from partisans, schooled in Stalin’s Short History of the Soviet CP(b), much Engels, some Lenin and Marx, and much Togliatti; and the other members, of whom a good many were activists, comprising leading intellectuals and defectors from the high and middle bourgeoisie as well as many workers from industry and agriculture. These proletarians were at the beginning “often without full elementary schooling…, who learned writing in the Party sections, read a first book, got an idea of national history, and fascinated by a new passion filled the city squares each evening in spontaneous discussion groups to get a sense of things.” It was confronted with formidable and unslackening pressures from enemy bosses: a “largely incompetent and parasitic bourgeoisie,” the Vatican and its capillary organisations from each village to universities, the US as world military and economic power, and their unanimous apparati of mass persuasion in a pitiless Cold War. The PCI as an original “people’s party” was quite different from the Leninist vanguard idea. At its height it comprised 2.5 million people including half a million youngsters, most of whom took their bicycle or scooter to the Party session, to read the daily Unità, attract new members, eat perhaps chitterlings or play boccia (bowls) in the trade union hall, a part of that “counter-society.” In 1956, after Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” Togliatti defined the Party strategy somewhat further as “structural reforms” won by struggle from below and enshrined in the legal system empowered by a progressive Constitution.

Magri argues that the death of this vital 1960s’ PCI as a coherent organisation was avoidable. That decade was still open. He divides it into 1960-65 and “the long 1968” lasting nine years. In both cases, amid a short-range crisis, “the PCI could or would not take a leading or directly encouraging role,” but it was clearly in some ways involved, influenced by and influencing them, and had to bear their breakdowns. The first half of the ‘60s saw the “economic miracle,” based on a mixed economy of independent State corporations and private ones, a technological leap forward into Fordism in some industries such as steel and petrochemicals, and extra-profit from relatively low wages (in 1969 only 6% higher than in 1938 while productivity had risen over 50%), allowing for competitive exports. The workers and peasants paid the bill for it and profited least, responding with a wave of new struggles from below through the very independent Left CGIL trade union strengthened by full employment, and as a rule bypassing political parties. Nonetheless the new prosperity, however relative and one-sided, gave rise to consumerism, with mass acquisitions of small FIAT cars, home appliances, and TV sets transmitting a strictly censored RAI monopoly.

Magri gives a stimulating sketch of this Italian neo-capitalism and its fusion of modernisation and backwardness, as well as of the bitter and uncoordinated protests of 1968-74 – first by workers, accompanied by white-collar employees and technicians, and then by students and a new, strongly leftist young generation smarting especially from the semi-feudal inefficiency of universities – that wanted to bring about a new social order from below. He concludes that the PCI missed the opportunity to understand the synergy of innovations from above and from below in new needs and life-styles, and to insist on a political restructuring based on flexible planning and tax policies, strategic public investments, and workers’ participation in decisions. However, its understanding depended on really listening to the protests from below by reforming the party’s decision-making process. This seems to me the key to answering the central question: “how was it possible that a force that came to ripeness in the 60s and that followed an autonomous and ambitious project… began to decay and finally dissolved itself?”

I shall slight the well-known developments of the Berlinguer era, faced with the post-1973 crisis which destroyed the last hindrances to full capitalist restructuring, and made even “keynesianism in one country” impossible, as discovered early on by Mitterrand. Magri rightly condemns Berlinguer’s early “historic compromise” thesis as a mistake but finds his last years very promising and unfortunately cut short. Not until the PCI dissolved itself in 1989, under the nondescript Occhetto, did its ill-prepared left wing at last dissent, much too late. As a result, by the end of the 1980s around 800,000 former members despaired of politics (my estimate would be closer to 2 million, or four fifths of PCI at its height). As to those remaining in politics, to the above question one could then add a corollary: How come that the middle cadre (e.g. the 1990s PD leaders coming from the Communist Youth, such as the ineffable D’Alema and Veltroni) were not even socialist, never mind communist, but turned into full-blown Atlantists and neo-liberals?

Here we enter into Magri’s theoretical strand, to my mind the most interesting one. There was a history of PCI before his, and several volumes have been published just after this 2009 book of his. Not slighting the pioneering historical insights from his privileged oscillation between a marginal insider and a marginal outsider, the lessons for our present and future are to be found in these reflections. Except for the final Appendix, to which I will return, this strand is not formulated as a coherent longer argument but as comments on concrete historical dilemmas, which has its advantages and limits. But its core seems to me the discussion of the two “genomes” or determining inheritances of the PCI, the Gramsci and the Stalin genome.

“Gramsci(anism) as genome” is his influence through writings – and through a few top leaders who were his collaborators – on “the gradual shaping of the identity and strategy of Italian communism,” rendered possible by a conscious and risky operation of salvage and publication of his prison writings masterminded by Togliatti, who is here defended from accusations of having bent that publication to tactics of the moment, though he naturally had his own slant on them, did not emphasize their divergence from Stalinism, and confessed late on that Gramsci had been reduced to the PCI needs while he “thought much further.” But the founding of an independent and very competent Gramsci Institute eventually rectified that bending, and without Togliatti we would have had no Gramsci as a worldwide cultural authority. His genome in the PCI consists for Magri of two main chromosomes or foci: on the 19th-Century Risorgimento as “an unfinished revolution” without agrarian reform and mass participation but with a compromise between the bourgeoisie and parasitic rent-gatherers; and on the polemic against vulgar Marxism which meant “a relative autonomy and weight of the ‘superstructure’, thus major attention to the role of intellectuals, political parties, and State apparatus.” However, his Americanism and Fordism and his passion for the Turin consigli was in the decisive decades backgrounded, which led to a refusal to face the huge modernising changes in neo-capitalism as well as to a party far from the “collective intellectual” Gramsci found necessary as a partner for movements from below.

Stalinism as genome is my own diagnosis of the directly contrary strand in the PCI, transmitted to it by the founding leaders returned in 1944 from Moscow and the whole experience of the Third International in the preceding two decades. Its fulcrum lay in Togliatti’s contradiction between a flexible strategy in Italian power struggles and a “bolshevik” discipline from above on the party cadre, though without Stalin’s paranoia and terror. Indoctrination in Manicheanism was of course largely due to Cold War pressures but became a forma mentis in the ruling majority, blocking definition and development of the “third way.” The ideological rigidity of the leadership persisted through the Khrushchev years, stymieing understanding of developments in the USSR and its bloc and privileging compromises with bourgeois parties in Italy over dialogue with workers and students. This included a strong defence of the USSR, stressing its undoubtedly real achievements in industrialisation, culture, and international relations (as in Togliatti’s interview after 1956), but excluding the at least as important black zones.

The unhappiness in PCI cadres, including a majority of the Central Committee, became clear from 1961 on, yet it was never allowed to grow into an open debate, remaining encoded in articles and speeches opaque to the party as a whole. The Manifesto group was first marginalised and then excluded for the sin of publicly debating what everybody at the top knew was at least a problem. A stronger participatory democracy might have led to an openness like that of the Bolshevik party between 1917 and 1921, with real currents, competing programs, and democracy from below (as Magri puts it: “for a responsible pluralism and not rigid fractions”). But most important, without it the PCI had no ear for similar deep yearnings in the youth and the workers: only some intellectuals grew interested in Yugoslav self-management, or in Mao’s initial impulse in the Cultural Revolution, or in the Polish debates about planning. The self-censorship of the non-Stalinist Left at the PCI top, often identified with Ingrao, amounted to sterility, for it never held even informal internal discussions but left the “Amendola” bureaucratic Right as victors by default. On the international scene, this also meant that the PCI had little to say about the Sino-Soviet conflict except to try and minimise it. And inside Italy, at a time of huge social clashes in the mid-60s, the number of worker and young members in the Party fell drastically. The openness of many party intellectuals to “Western” Marxism, from Marcuse and Sweezy through the UK New Left to Mallet and Gorz, remained without political consequence, while obversely the badly digested models of Che or Mao led some exasperated young people into counterproductive armed groupuscules.

What was the alternative, say of an updated Gramscianism for the 1980s-90s? An articulate statement of it is to be found in the 1987 Appendix, “A New Communist Identity.” It asks “what remains from the strong identity of Marxism and the Left in general” at a time when industrialism loses ground to services and non-material goods, when productivity depends ever more on organisation and consumption rather than on general labour or capital, and when this system is exported worldwide from metropolitan countries as an international division of labour corroding the poorer countries? The working population is being fragmented into different categories, and a huge cultural offensive has persuaded the political Left, as well as the peace, ecology, and women’s movements, that capitalism is no longer the problem but a necessary horizon. On the other hand, today’s technologies and access to information make possible both reduction of work and decentralisation of power – that is, “today the idea of communism in its original and richer meaning of emancipation is for the first time historically mature,” without the fixation on economistic progress and on the State as the only alternative to a dominant market. It is what Brecht in the 1950s called the possible habitability of our planet.

Magri then discusses ecology (”Development and Nature”) and “Superfluity and Poverty, Needs and Consumption” in two overviews that could still today provide a useful basis for updating. In the first section he stresses that capitalism cannot deal with the environment, since that needs long-term planning and a distance from the profit motive. In the second one, he argues that qualitative instead of quantitative production is within reach but foreclosed in favour of a “production of illusions and of the ephemeral” that denies the needs of health, education, or space planning. He then focuses on work, whose subsumption under and metamorphosis into capital is the determining Novum or novelty of the epoch, and the mobilisation of whose energies has led to the successes of the 20th century as in Japan (and some sectors of Italy). The redistribution of labour is to him the central social theme, and he concludes that even in a post-industrial future the class conflict between labour and capital will persist, if in new ways, having to do with the quality and quantity of employment and with the possible prospect of liberation both of and from work. Pragmatically, the destiny of workers will depend less on trade unions and more on political projects and instruments involving the State and the strategies of technological development and of education. “Is this [aspect] of a radical but up to now barely sketched Marxist critique of capitalism – the liberation of human labour from its commodity character – not a sufficiently solid basis for a new communist identity?”

“The Helplessness of the Sovereign” is rightly the longest Appendix section. The sovereign is of course Rousseau’s “people,” and its historical avatars in all movements from below within capitalism, culminating in revolutions from the French to the Chinese. So this is a reconsideration of democracy as real political freedom, “which is impossible as long as all citizens do not have a minimal education, income, and security.” The workers’ movement has since Marx traditionally fought both for liberal constitutional freedoms and for more radical and deeper forms of democracy. However, the social-democratic parties totally forgot about those deeper forms, while “really existing socialism” with its Party/States, total centralisation, and identification of dissent with class enemy led to a grave defeat, proving that “the full development of political democracy is not less but more important for socialism than it was for capitalism.” And today’s capitalism has for its structural precondition the irrelevance of politics, used as a hollow ritual for decisions reached by the new rulers, a small economic and technocratic oligarchy in the international economic and political centres, bereft of any democratic influence. This is a new world of direct global power by financial capital and multinational corporations, which would logically need an international opponent, “a collective political subject able to implement a long-range overall project… [with] a new political sovereign.” And that opponent would need a Gramscian party (or group of parties) as “stimulus and synthesis of a complex system of autonomous and permanent political movements.” This does not mean denying Lenin’s and Togliatti’s call for liaison between democracy and socialism. To the contrary, these two elements represent a necessary feedback: “Is this not a strong basis to re-establish a communist identity also for… institutions and politics?” The section ends, however, on a realistic note that the sociopolitical forces needed for this project are in a deep identity crisis, whose overcoming will require years or decades of rethinking.

Since the paper was written to counteract Occhetto’s defeatism, it ends with a discussion of “The Party Form.” In brief, Magri concludes that what is needed for real societal reforms is “an autonomous organised subject” able to change while acting, so that the Gramscian theme “of a mass party that is also a fighting party, a collective intellectual, cannot be laid ad acta.”

My overall judgment on this Appendix is that a new communist manifesto (to my mind much needed) could do worse than to incorporate it in an updated version. And the book as a whole is necessary reading for those who want to think about anticapitalist refounding (whether similar or different). We cannot, as the readers of Brecht’s early would-be flyer from Ulm, wait for several centuries. However, for an overall judgment on Magri it will be necessary to take into account also his articles and speeches, of which several volumes have recently been published. Probably Perry Anderson’s necrological conclusion (in New Left R. no. 72 of 2011) is right: that Magri was the most prominent revolutionary intellectual in Europe able to think in harmony with the mass movements that came about during his lifetime.

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— To the memory of Franco Fortini, a great poet and critic of my times

and for my landsmann Sezgin Boynik, who revived my interest in the Formalists

[…] doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is….

John Donne

We have to live now amidst and with crass defeat, in a kalpa when dominant meanings of socialism and communism have suffered an epochal, though not necessarily irreversible, death: it follows, to upgrade Dostoevsky, that if God and Communism are dead, everything is permitted. It is therefore high time to consider more fully the complex and sensitive matter of how life can (and necessarily must) live in feedback with death. I shall start my consideration with the use in Jewish and Christian traditions of the term and image of a stumbling stone or rock, continue with matters of estrangement, and finish in Death vs. Eros.

  1. The Monotheistic Denunciation of Disbelief: Stumbling into a Trap
  2. Thiswordly Salvation through Estranged Perception

2.1. Values and Religiosity

2.2. Shklovsky‘s Stumbling to Refocus, or Poetry Is What Makes the Stone Stony

  1. Brecht: The Estrangement Effect Is Most Intimately Political (Critical or Mythical)

3.0. Context

3.1. Textual Syntax and Reference

3.2. The Potent (and Bipolar) Estrangement

  1. Brecht and the Stone – Stumbling or Other
  2. A Parthian Shot: On Death and Creative Eros

Alas, death has been a blind spot in canonic Marxism.

Marvell, To My Coy Mistress




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O great academics! Still, let’s search more diligently and not despair.

          Augustine of Hippo

The highest thing would be to understand that all phenomena are already theory.


Brecht can be supremely useful to us–people engaged in thinking through and doing something about the present catastrophic state of the world; and what is useful is his method. This is Fredric Jameson’s thesis in his to my mind path-breaking book. It is, I think, the most lasting contribution to come out of the hullabaloo that was the 1998 Brecht centennial.  But what does he mean by method?1/

               One of Jameson’s formulations may provide a first springboard: “there existed a Brechtian ‘stance’ [Haltung] which was not only doctrine, narrative, or style, but all three simultaneously; and ought better to be called, with all due precautions, ‘method'” (132). This builds on but considerably expands Lukács’s famous assertion in History and Class Consciousness that “orthodox Marxism… refers exclusively to method”–precisely because it adds the crucial factors  of stance (involving the whole body) and narrative (involving a more than exclusively conceptual articulation of a possible world). But then I would like to ask why is it necessary to stress this is not simply doctrine. Clearly, doctrine as a set of tightly– as it were “horizontally”–linked political-cum-philosophical concepts, not falsifiable by strategically placed “vertical” references to embodied situations from which they once sprang and to which they should in any Brechtian (and Jamesonian) “meshing thinking” (eingreifendes denken) be applied, has failed us in this century. We are now yoked to the victorious doctrine of “free trade”, but this is both a lie in its premises and a horror in its results. The opposing doctrine of Leninism was probably in some important aspects flawed when extrapolated west of Russia and after 1900-1921, it was certainly misused within Russia itself, and it is at any rate inadequate to the physical and mental technologies of Post-Fordism. What, then, is to be inherited, what is transmissible from the socialist past, which includes many glories, and even whose bad errors carry indispensable lessons for the future? What may be “a place-keeper” for what Jameson in a somewhat different context calls the metaphysics, but we may call the doctrines, “that have become impossible” (12)?

Jameson’s answer in Brecht’s case–yet Brecht is taken by him as exemplary for the whole inheritance–is: method. But as usual for him, it is arrived at through a rich (and richly persuasive) intricacy that requires the discussion of at least a few of the key foci “to be read into, or read out of” a complex argument (as Brecht said about Coriolanus and Shakespeare in general). What I take to be its key links have to do with what Brecht may mean or convey to us and with why this is significant beyond literary or theatre philology. These two facets to my mind come together in: what was and is the social and indeed class locus from which and to which Brecht speaks? In whose name or names, and then to whom, could he–or did he–speak? After considering a few such foci (other important ones, for example Brecht and Subject, Brecht and modernism, sympathy vs empathy and other emotions, Brecht’s and Jameson’s “representability of capitalism”, must be slighted), I would return to see  what illumination we may derive from Brecht’s and Jameson’s “method.”

Poetry, Narrative, Embodying, Allegory

It is clear enough that not only is Brecht a poet, but that had Brecht not been a (major!) poet or wordsmith, he would not have been anything else of significance. Jameson distances himself from “Western critics from Adorno on” who have insinuated Brecht was “(just) a poet” (6), but his brief is not to go into detailed appreciations of any single work, genre or mode. His approach is perhaps what Benjamin would have called a commentary (that starts from the prejudgment that the commented text is a classical one): a close reading indeed but one that shifts from the closed single “work” of I.A. Richards and Company to the details characterizing a whole opus, when and where the poem–or prose, or play–passage speaks to Jameson’s purpose. A network of references athwart the hidden monadic theological assumptions of “organic” literary scholarship and based on the contradictory unity of Brecht’s stance is thus put in place. We still get splendid analyses by the way; for verse, perhaps the best example is Jameson’s pithy comment on “The Cranes” (142-3), the classical poem in two voices fitted into Mahagonny, whose bittersweet lyricism is by itself enough to dispel the cliché–anyway repudiated by the mature poet–that Brecht is emotionless. Equally revealing are throwaway asides, like “the two fundamental Brechtian works Saint Joan and the Three-penny Novel” (151), at which my response is “right on!” Jameson’s stream of associations proceeds through concepts, but their kinetoscopic lope becomes strangely similar to a Joycean poetic narrative.  Pages 81-85, for example, proceed from Opposition through Contradiction to the V-Effekt, move from Brecht through Hegel, Marx, Post-Modernism, Barthes, ethnomethodology, Sartre, Judith Butler (the weakest link), and Gramsci back to the “Street Scene”,  to end  Part 1 of the book with a culminating bang: “[all this] is the proof that reality is theoretical, but also that Brecht’s theory… is what is ‘really’ or ‘in reality’ Brechtian in Brecht”!

Yet as earlier critics have indicated, poetry supplied a further crucial form for Brecht’s stance, the ballad: as in his admired “Sir Patrick Spens” and, no doubt, as in the great German heritage both of the Romantics’ Kunstballade and of the penny-dreadful Moritats sung by itinerant balladeers which one finds imitated in “Mack the Knife” and so many other “songs” in the plays.2/ The ballad develops through episodes, it has an inbuilt plebeian estrangement technique easily switching from impersonation to third-person narration and generalizing comment, it is both lyrical and epical: one could do worse than choose it as another major template for Brecht’s literary stance. It goes alongside the parable, the casus–roughly, Jolles’s elementary verbal form where a judgment of conduct also questions the norm–and the proverb, on which Jameson focuses with much illumination (99-105, 118-22, 131-40).

Brecht’s poems tell stories as often as draw up catalogs or survey inner and outer landscapes: from the great Hauspostille (Devotions for the Home) ones–“Marie Farrar”, “Evelyn Roe”, “Ballad of the Pirates”, “Remembering Marie A.”–to such final poems in the Buckow Elegies as “The Solution”, “When in my White Room at the Charité.” Especially after his emigration, the most effective poems combine these approaches with historicizing and making memorable (in all the senses) exemplary personal moments, say his “priapic” or sex poems, such as the extraordinary sonnets he exchanged with Grete Steffin. Very many are verse narratives either of a “case” or of a major historical complex, as the much undervalued verse updating of The Communist Manifesto for an age of World Wars. And “epic theatre” (a term repudiated by Brecht) mainly meant that a play should, in its dramaturgic skeleton as well as in performance, tell a clear and rich story, specifying complex circumstances and their effect on human flesh and behaviour as clearly as, if more sparingly than, a realistic French novel might: in which sense Jameson’s parallel with Balzac (13, 154-55) is well taken. Brecht infuriated his “Socialist Realist” critics by disregarding Marx’s future-oriented dialectics where poverty is not only poverty but also revolt, for in his commitment to observation, Brecht could not–as a sincere realist,  yet whose “realism is achieved by means of Cubism” (46)–find a believable referent for successful revolt  west of Moscow.

The crux is here whether “storytelling–or, better still, embodied storytelling, the acting out–thereby becomes the realm of some deeper truth…” (27); whether Brechtian (and indeed any) storytelling is potentially a privileged method, “rigorously non-formalistic, and thereby evad[ing] the philosophical objections to sheer method…” (28). In the example of historicizing, say, is “retelling individual events as though they were historical ones… a new mode of self-knowledge?” (57) By the end of the book, this overriding question, in the early pages carefully hedged in by interrogatives, is to my mind triumphantly answered: yes, storytelling is what I would call a cognitive method–which no doubt means that our usual philosophical and scientistic prejudices about what may be cognition and method will require a thorough refurbishing. Centrally, as Jameson hints when discussing narratology, there is an “ultimate irreducibility of narrative as such”: in both narrative and its analysis, “it is impossible to complete the act of abstraction”, to reduce understanding to “pure” conceptuality (101). Figuration, topology, shapes must intertwine with the no doubt indispensable conceptual categories for real cognition of today’s complex human situations.

But how is this general narrative “method” to be reconciled with the political interests of Brecht’s class and generation? Jameson makes a convincing case that a privileged way to do so, and in fact employed by Brecht, is allegory. One should be careful to point out that this is a new type of “open” allegory. Indeed, it is paradoxical to talk of allegory in an age skeptical of if not flatly inimical to doctrines, since allegory has traditionally been a way of squaring fiction with, and often subordinating it to, a doctrine or mythical orthodoxy. This can be seen in Aristophanes, in Buddhism, and in medieval Christianity–which was in Germany never cleanly broken by an “anti-Gothic” Renaissance as in Italy, France or England, but rather transmogrified into that Catholic, Protestant as well as folk Baroque which is at the root of Brecht’s cultural tradition. Theoretically speaking, there can be no significant classical (doctrinal)  allegory in our age. But practice is slyer than theory, and an allegory despairing because of the absence of the proper, supremely significant Law (Kafka) or–theatrically speaking–a Mystery-play set in a Limbo that knows no Heavens (Beckett) is a most significant part of avant-garde horizons in our century. Brecht had considerable esteem for both Kafka and Beckett, but he wanted to offer more hopeful counter-projects to them. Faced with the realist (including “Socialist Realist”) thesis which short-circuited the tension between phenomena and doctrine, and the antithesis which allowed doctrine only as a kind of “negative way” revealing hell by its absence (the theoreticians of these two enemy brothers being Lukács and Adorno), Brecht chose a paradoxical third way for his balladic parables: to show doctrine–or, significantly, some experimentally verifiable elements thereof–as sensually present in the everyday actions of those committed to its horizon of liberation, rather than as a Platonic essence beckoning from the classless future. Brecht saw hell on earth just as clearly as those who despaired (it was for him encapsulated in Breughel’s vision of Mad Meg), but identified it, as of Mahagonny, with the “snare city” of consumer capitalism and war of all against all, out of which those who watch Mother Courage or Shen Te should find a way: Jameson calls it Brecht’s Tao, and it is also meth’hodos, pursuing the Way out of exploitation and war.

               Such allegorizing shuttles back and forth between abstraction and concreteness, so that there is in it “both a little more and a little less than a concept… it keeps the procedure open” (100). This disposes of the usual complaint against concepts, from Nietzsche’s onslaughts on Socrates onwards,  that applying to all subsumed cases they don’t apply fully (sensually, experientially) to any case. Jameson’s dictum comes in a discussion of the somewhat murky Brechtian category of Gestus: since nobody knows how to translate it out of German (a sign just as bad as the untranslatability of the many coy French puns in Derrida), I would myself try to see Gestus as a feature of stance (Haltung), as its collective (theatrical) application. An excellent example of Brecht’s use of allegory, sensually concrete and yet clearly doctrinal, is Menenius’s patrician parable of the Belly and Members, gleefully refunctioned by the plebeian glance in Brecht’s rewrite of Coriolanus, and performatively revealed by the various stances developed toward it by the dramatis personae in that scene.

               Brecht’s central narrative tool, and I think central allegorical genre, of “open parable” must therefore recomplicate the classical–say Synoptic Bible–subservience of  story to intended meaning in allegory, and create a genuine feedback, where the story is a cognitive toolkit in its own right, testing the doctrine. From among the inexhaustible ramifications of parable, I shall here only remark that the feedback Brecht constantly struggled for can also be seen as one  between personal (but class-bound) interest and even the best imaginable doctrine. If we, further, remember his deep engagement with popular culture, his allegories could today be also taken as alternatives diametrically opposed to the hegemonic machines steeping us in fuzzy, rival but always  subaltern, allegories pretending to be none, from Mickey Mouse and the Lion King through allegories of the projective Nation (to which Jameson earlier devoted a seminal book) to Superman and the Invisible Hand of the Free Market.


History is Real: Allegories of Class Collectives, Self-government, “Autonomization”

Brecht’s life was shaped and “overdetermined” by the huge political  earthquakes of World War 1, the Leninist “storm and stress”, Fascism, Stalinism, World War 2, Cold War. Only semi-ironically, a well-known poem of his was directed to “Poor BB”, and it ends with “the earthquakes to come” amid which he hopes to keep his pleasures glowing–in the emblematic image of cigar, uniting oral metonymy and genital metaphor. Next to Russia (and the cordon sanitaire of east-central Europe, from Finland to the Balkans), Germany, that “middle kingdom” of Europe, felt the stress of the moving tectonic plates most strongly: Brecht saw the World War and attempted revolution as closely as one could without being engulfed by them. He landed in a Berlin hospital for undernourishment in his mid-twenties, he watched the social-democratic directed police shooting at workers on May First, and an anecdote has him even listening to Hitler in Munich beer-halls before the first attempted putsch in 1923. For sure, he concentrated grimly on “the housepainter” between 1931 and 1945: almost–or quite–directly in the magnificent failure of Roundheads and Peakheads (Jameson notes its magnificence), and then  in Ui, Schweyk, Terror and Misery of the Third Reich, and innumerable other poems and writings–not least one of the great pamphlet-essays of our age of obfuscations, Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth; but also in Mother Courage, that clear allegory of fake profit in warfare, and very possibly even in his exasperated response to the “blond beast” empathizing, the splendid and still fertile Lehrstücke.3/

The movement of tectonic plates provoking all such earthquakes, we ought to have learned, occurs in magmatic depths we do not understand well. We can only say that something like  Fordism and the Welfare-Warfare State was transforming with equal intimacy our categories of economy, technology, and belief (ideology, or brainwashing if you wish).  On the Left, Brecht was together with Gramsci (to whose stances toward culture-cum-politics he has astounding similarities)4/ the first lonely thinker to realize this meant an epoch-making break in history. And the kinship to Gramsci is also striking in a matter of overriding importance for both: the steadfast, life-long, and central orientation in all of Brecht’s life-worlds  towards not only collectives, but also self-governing collectives. This was the steady bark and compass amidst the hurricanes he met “who had hats on.”

Here too, much more than doctrine is involved: Brecht’s just could not work at any major project without a group of friends for dialogue partners; even though he was then as a rule the first among equals (the only true equals he acknowledged were people whose special skills he did not share: Neher the painter, Eisler the musician, Weigel the actress). This began with his Augsburg high-school group, probably culminated in size and complexity in the Berlin days, and continued even in emigration where a couple of women collaborators fled from country to country together with Brecht, Weigel, and their children; and in East Berlin (GDR) he had his old friends, half a dozen of highly capable theatre assistants as well as official pupils from the Academy of Arts. Brecht’s works contain many lines, phrases or stage arrangements he had  accepted from suggestions or drafts by collaborators, but anything he incorporated was given the unmistakable imprint of his stance and rhetoric, which had by then permeated the group of collaborators anyway.5/

               The collective way of working, the “workshop” with partners and disciples, is comparable to any painter’s studio before romanticism or movie studio today; and if the publishers’ profit striving and the German editors’ doctrinaire individualism could ever be overcome, many Brecht works should be attributed to “Brecht and His Workshop”–as Giotto’s or Rembrandt’s works are without causing fuss. As usual, Brecht’s originality was to have returned, with suitably large changes, to pre-capitalist ways of behaving. This was above all a method which acknowledged that ours is a century torn between the manipulable “masses” of capitalist demagogy and its kindred entertainment industries (see Brecht’s essay “The Theatricality of Fascism”)–and the only efficient alternative, self-governing collectives as creative working groups. One can see how such a collective should work in the exemplary behaviour of the Boy in Brecht’s two playlets, He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No: in a situation of dire and demonstrated necessity, he consents to sacrifice his life in order to prevent the wipeout of the whole community. But dire necessity–say war or civil war–is, or ought to be, the exception and not the rule in human affairs (Stalin thought otherwise). As a rule, the group is here to protect its member–and especially a child, its future. After reasonable consultation where arguments are evaluated according to how they fit the concrete situation, and total necessity is not proven, the Boy withholds consent in the second playlet. The whole group follows his better argument. This double parable indicates Brecht’s halfway house between the special, limit-case of Lenin’s Party, whose Great Law  (doctrine) must be followed for dire survival, and Luxemburg’s Councils (Räte, soviets), which would be the norm for collective decisions of self-governing socialism.  In the “cold Chicago” of the lockouts and Depression, Brecht embraced the Leninist translation of Dantean hell into opposed frontlines of  class  struggle,   as the political embodiment of his permanent epistemological “actant” Contradiction (see Jameson 81ff.). But conversely, Galileo can only constitute a Science to Make the Life of People Easier (a friendly, in fact socialist science), when flanked by an allegorical mini-collective comprising a manual worker (the lensmaker Federzoni), an ethical peasants’ son (the Little Monk), and a curious youngster (Andrea), so that in the end his real treason is to have sundered curiosity from ethics and labour, to have taught Andrea “pure science” of the bourgeois, atom-bomb kind.  Brecht could only go about constituting the Berliner Ensemble by making it a Luxemburgian Council, abhorred and isolated by the Stalinists in power.

Jameson therefore rightly collocates a brief chapter on Brecht’s “autonomization” effects in narrative (43-51) into the part that deals with doctrine (Lehre, the Teaching). Semantic and syntactic form are consubstantial with the message here, the montage procedure (even thematically foregrounded in Man is Man) shows off different possibilities for choosing according to different interests and values. Jameson argues that Brecht’s formal categories “apply… to the collectivity itself” (71): the forms are allegorically linked to the postulated and induced audience; this justifies the central refusal of a catharsis assuming a “general human nature.”  What Sabine Kebir calls the “Courage effect”–not decreeing conversion to “rightness” on the stage but letting the contrary of it transmit an awful warning to the spectator–opens up a possibility not only of appealing to those not sharing the doctrine, but also (as in the Yeasayer /Naysayer) to question the doctrine as to its concrete rightness. Brecht’s maxim ran, “The learner is more important than the Teaching”; and real learning can only come about when the concrete particularity of the embodied situation counteracts the leveling force of conceptual reason, allowing actors and agents the choice of how best to fit the new situation, while the allegorical exemplarity escapes one-dimensional naturalism  and makes their choice exemplary for us. Thus, each autonomous–as it were self-governing–situation acquires equal rights before the judgments of embodied reason submitted to the audience as a “Control Chorus” (as in The Measure Taken).

Precapitalist Wisdom and Technology, Artisan Intellectuals, Luxemburgian Two-way Media

Jameson’s repeated references to peasantry in Brecht’s worlds are among the most stimulating and provocative ones of this book. His argument is subtle and worthwhile: on the one hand, “the immemorial peasantry… stands behind so much of [Brecht’s] work”; on the other, Brecht also participates in a technological modernism with his “delight in aeroplanes and in the radio, the dimension of ‘workers’ to be added to that of ‘peasants’ in any Gramscian aesthetic alliance” (3). Here fruitful discussions may begin, for in whose name or voice, and therefore to whom (to which classes or maybe congeries of class fractions) Brecht speaks is of a piece with how and to whom he might be useful. I doubt that Brecht’s world is a village one. Given that we have to characterize Brecht’s stories, perhaps his friend Benjamin’s  essay on “The Storyteller”,6/ which allots classical precapitalist storytelling to travelers, peasants, and most of all artisans, might be of help.

Travelers, mostly involuntary, are everywhere in Brecht, from Baal, Kragler, and the early pirates through the caravan and mercenaries (see Jameson 165) of The Exception and the Rule and Mother Courage, almost an “eternal Wandering Jewess” damned by capitalist war, to Galileo himself, moving–not too unlike Brecht–from the cozy but philistine Venice to the big, excitingly dangerous but also rewarding Florence and finally hauled before the inquisition at the centre of power, Rome. (Can one avoid thinking of a conflation of Los Angeles and New York here, if only in the sense that Brecht was playing through the political possibilities for an intellectual, as a general staff plays through possible campaigns?) The big town or mass city–Berlin, whose shock reverberates through the icy Primer for City-Dwellers–is impersonal and depersonalizing, strange and most dangerous, but not unmanageable: at worst a cold jungle, swept by the winds from Lake Michigan. After Hitler, the antifascist victory is in the Chalk Circle‘s counter-project to class power tied to Grushe’s march –Titoist or Maoist avant la letter–through villages and icy mountains, a plebeian hegira looping back to victory in the city. As Jameson notes, in Brecht “it is nature which is minimal, and the city, with its jungle and grim profusion, which [is rich]” (134).

Thus Brecht’s world is not a village one but the road or forest of Baal or the estate of the Chalk Circle or Puntila.  The semblance of peasant wisdom is deceiving–when peasants are found in the plays they are grasping and scared. Nor is there much industrial  working class  around: what one might call the totem-field of Fordism is represented, as Jameson notes  (cf. 139 and 165-67),  by machines and by the  “poverty of the poor” (in Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses, a title allegorically preferable to Stockyards, for the slaughter concerns proletarians as well as oxen and swine, as foregrounded in the emblematic case of the worker who falls into the bacon vats). The  unemployed are a Hellenic chorus of millennial plebeian suffering, oppressed more than exploited: they do not strike, they are locked out. But Benjamin’s artisans do fit the early industrial small town (like Augsburg, traditionally “merchant urban”–just as Sechuan before Shui Ta, see Jameson 139), open to the countryside river for swimming and the disreputable plebeian suburbs of Baal’s taverns and sexual freedom. For all the workshop stress on productivity, which was–together with teaching–Brecht’s central stance (Jameson concludes his book on this note, 174-78), his storytelling fits Benjamin’s worry how to repristinate values based on communal experience and tradition (in the active sense) in an increasingly reified world of mass production of commodities and people to consume them. As Brecht most revealingly observed in The Three-penny Lawsuit,  a snapshot of the  Krupp factory (that is, immediate or surface experience) doesn’t advance knowledge any more: a blueprint and organigram is needed. Brecht’s simplified world of small town and wayfaring is an attempt at such a blueprint, and his hero is the small-town artisan-flyer, like the Tailor of Ulm in the splendid eponymous poem, while Yang Sun from the Good Person is a dire villain because he wants to fly by grinding the face of the small town, embodied in his bride-to-be Shen Te. Similarly, the bearer of his “heroic cowardice” (124) is the intellectual, an artisan commanding the technology of thinking–Me-ti, Keuner, Azdak, and the failed social experimenter Galileo. Jameson rightly observes that Brecht’s fascination with China, which he discusses at illuminating length, and with East Asian esthetics in general, relates to precapitalist culture (62) adopted as counter-world to the Chicago of slaughterhouses and fierce class struggles while Americanization was still being emulated by Stalin’s industrializing Russia.

Jameson splendidly argues that Brecht’s  objective correlative to the machines, or even more to technology, lies in the “starkness, which emerges from the radio play” (165-66 and elsewhere). I would point out that this was precisely the one aspect in which, as both Brecht and Benjamin noted, intellectuals were, in their class essence of artisanal creativity, “objectively” allies of proletariat: they share the delight of the master of the machine or tool or style when it works. This formal spareness reinforced tendencies in Brecht already there from his beginnings, but in the Hauspostille finding outlet in heretic reversals of the severe clerical forms (the psalm, the Loyolan “exercise”, the canticles accompanying the liturgic year). Similarly, Brecht translated the esoteric Buddhist–not simply Zen–world-reduction of medieval Noh into the starkness of both Taylorism (the minimal psychic movements indispensable for efficiency) and early Leninism. Jameson devotes pioneering and revealing pages to this epoch (say 1916-31) of radio and Lindberghian monoplane. I would call these, just as  the ubiquitous automobiles, space-binding machines of collective communication, and only add that it is also the time of silent film–whose importance for Brecht is underscored by the recent discovery that he was the director of the remarkable short 1923 movie “Mysteries of a Barber-Shop.”  Lindbergh, Taylor, Chaplin: the “Americanization” that swept post-1918 Europe also brought the records of vaguely  New Orleans “pop jazz” records–whose improvisational techniques Brecht thought of as exemplary–and the micidial “Spanish flu.”

But then Fordism issues in mass unemployment, Hitlerism, and war, the conveyor-belt leads to accelerated destruction of oxen and people (to the tune of “Work faster” from the Good Person), Lindbergh turns out to be vitiated by his very individualistic heroism opposed to the working collective that produced his plane, and in Brecht’s mid-30s’ “Street Scene”, judging the responsibility for the  car accident may be read as a parable of Fordism derailed. The enthusiasm for Lindbergh’s flying car, the airplane, left Brecht even before the arrival of the Luftwaffe dive-bombers and of the USAF bombing Dresden and Hiroshima; the enthusiasm for cars never did. New technology did not necessarily link self-governing collectives into a plebeian democracy from below, as was assumed by avant-garde enthusiasts, say Mayakovsky in The Bedbug for two-way radio (independently picked up by Brecht’s radio-theory that explicitly invokes utopia) or Tretyakov for two-way Soviet newspapers; it could equally be, and was, used by the Warfare and Police State. As of the coming of Hitler, the new technology is seen from the skeptical point of view of the servants,  like Matti, the car driver of the rich Puntila, diametrically opposed to the engineer as technocrat of “scientific management.” Brecht’s probably most important stage (co-)direction was, as an improvised movie shot at the time by a very young Syberberg confirms, his 1950 adaptation of The Private Tutor, the bitter story of the intellectual as lackey of a boorish upper class.

Twists and Turns, Today

Brecht is then not to be understood simply as gristle for academic sausage mills, not even similar to his closest English parallel combining drama and politics (but not poetry!), G.B. Shaw. Jameson’s parallels to  Pound and Eliot bring about useful estrangements of the Left through the Right: but their plays are too slight, even Murder in the Cathedral. Nor can Brecht be dealt with as Eliot superciliously proposed we deal with Blake (quoted in Jameson 23): a great poet landed with an aberrant mythology, which we should endure by suspending our disbelief just so long as it takes to get at his poetry. (This was Martin Esslin’s position, except that he was writing, as it were, under Pitt, and had to disjoin the poetry and the thought horizons more sharply.) True, Brecht is taught in literature or theatre classes and there is a “Brecht industry” (in which I have toiled); theatre makes everything theatrical, Brecht complained, and academic studies make everything academic. To this Jameson opposes with full right a central distinction  between Brecht and “any number of other ‘great writers'”: “some more general lesson” of joyous enablement, the lesson of his “method” (29). Beyond philology, this is his “portable” (105) use.

One of Jameson’s felicitous choices is to dwell at length on Brecht’s Me-ti collection of aphorisms and anecdotes, accurately subtitled The Book of Twists and Turns. One very instructive anecdote, “Tu Wishes to Learn Class Struggle and Learns Sitting”, recounts how the impatient neophyte revolutionary Tu (read Ruth Berlau) came to Master Me-ti and got instructed in proper sitting instead:

 …for we are just now sitting and we want to learn while sitting. Tu said, If one always strives to take up the most comfortable posture and get the best out of what there is, in brief  if one strives after enjoyment (Genuss), how can one then fight? Me-ti said, If one does not strive after enjoyment, does not want to get the best out of what there is nor take up the best posture, why then should one fight?7/

While accepting the doctrinal goal, “struggle of classes”, Me-ti (guess who) insists its raison d’être must durably inform the behaviour of those learning how to go after the goal: “progressing is more important than being progressive” was one of Brecht’s aphorisms. Progressing or sitting engages the whole body,  a sensorium not reduced solely to cerebral ideas but rather using these as points of orientation. The judgment to be passed on this might be the one passed on the engaging Boy in He Who Says No, whose refusal to die when not absolutely necessary is called “not heroic but reasonable.”

How, then, to summarize at least central elements of Brecht’s method? I would point out three that the method comprises or entails. First, as Jameson strongly argues (70, 90), a number of his categories–often marked by neologisms (stance, Grundgestus, estrangement…)–have cognitive significance on a par with, but usually much richer than, a specialized, “only conceptual” philosophy. They are transportable but not a “system”, since they follow the rule that can be educed from the Yeasayer /Naysayer analysis, and which, as I have argued elsewhere,8/ requires our stance to correspond to our situation, and to reach the stance by a careful observation of the state of affairs, taking into account the embodied nature and the interests of the actors that constitute it. This rule of Brecht’s coincides with positions developed in the same period by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, or by Bakhtin: “there is no essence outside of a concrete situation” and “any empirical situation partakes of imagination or ideology” (cf. Jameson 168-70).

Second, this orientation to practice (Jameson stresses it time and again) is to be taught by teachers-learners, Brechtian Sages very similar to Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenforde: “gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.” It resembles a Nietzschean joyous knowledge,9/ yet one informed by a militant Marxist socialism acutely aware of the necessities to adapt any -ism, especially one’s own, to new types of experience in the mass capitalism of world wars, as humanity enters upon the Novums of “a whole new world of relationships, like the new world of Galileo’s physics or the new world of socialist construction, into which writer and reader alike must penetrate by means of daring exploration, and appropriation” (168). Brecht’s personae or “faces” combine the Teacher-cum-Chinese Sage  with the Trickster (indeed sometimes the sly Rogue); as Bakhtin noted, each of them carries around itself its own world of relationships.

Third, as one would expect from Jameson’s life-long engagement with utopia, he does not fail to point out the “utopian and salvational” aspect of Brecht, in which pragmatics and pedagogy converge: not nearly so tinged with Gnostic religiosity as either in Benjamin or in Bloch, but running just as deep–as befits the salvational nature of socialism. It is a utopia of communal creativity or productivity (people can produces shoes or love, Brecht held), of constructing the Novum through Marx’s “living labour”, diametrically opposed to the capitalist definition of productivity as what yields profit (see Jameson 174-77). Brecht operates in a tension between a warm and a cold pole,  each of which elicits a major tour de force from Jameson. He comes at an almost Kropotkinian sense of co-operative instinct through the “sublime” line in the Chalk Circle “Terrible is the temptation to goodness” (173-74); and at a hard-boiled plumpes denken (crude thinking) through the great Brecht-Weill finales to Acts 1 and 2 of The Threepenny Opera (144-48 and 133), which demand that the little people get a cut from the big loaf here and now–and envisages the horrors which in fact consumed our century in pursuit of this absolutely overriding demand, equally Leninist and Fordist. The astoundingly many deaths in Brecht indicate how strongly subjectivity is for him intertwined with death: we have a large lesson to learn from him there too.

What Way of thinking or method is, then, the key to successful acting (in all its senses)? Toward the end, Jameson rightly considers that Brecht’s insistence on change has been co-opted by the whirligig of capitalism (168-70). In these times, Brecht’s slogan, “Change the world–it needs it!” should be emended into something like, “Change the world away from the profit-motive warfare–or we shall all perish!”. But: the emendation would itself be based on Brecht, on his admirable hardboiled optimism. This too Jameson clearly transmits. The author of Brecht and Method takes, I believe, his place alongside the great and most fruitful ancestors of Brechtian commentary, Benjamin from the “German takeoff” seminal phase of Brechtian criticism (in all senses) 1929-39, and Barthes  from the “world takeoff” phase after 1954. The field of forces within which Brecht is triangulated speaks for itself: the most frequent names in the Index are, beside these two, André Jolles and his “short forms” as “radicals” for Brecht’s forms, and the political epistemologists, so to speak: Hegel, Lenin, Lukács, Marx, Sartre (less frequent but by no means absent: Adorno, Lacan, Deleuze).10/

At the end, however, perhaps the reader should compare this whole Brechtian and Jamesonian focus on method or Way with the robuster attitude of Marx: “Truth includes not only the result but also the way…. [T]he true inquiry is the unfolded truth, whose scattered members are gathered up in the result.”11/ In this Post-Fordist epoch (but not necessarily beyond it!), we may well be condemned to investigation only, to the membra disjecta with no concrete political results. So be it, then we must have the method. But Marx’s observation may remind us that, if we apply Brecht’s imperative to historicize, method without concrete results is worth just as little as results arrived at with wrong methods. Brecht’s very particular joy of and in fruition, which he pursued as single-mindedly as orthodox Christianity rejects it, encompasses also the–always provisional–fruits. He left us both.


1/ Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method, Verso, London & New York 1998, ISBN 1-85984-809-5, hardbound B£ 19. Jameson’s writing exemplifies what it wishes to convey in how he conveys it, so that quotes from his particularly rich texture will be used here by page number in parenthesis.

I have to mention, so as to  get it out of the way, that D. Suvin is briefly accorded generous praise in two  or three  places. I trust it is not necessary to rehearse again how pernicious it would be to accept the academic critics’ aping of bourgeois scientificity and its strict sundering of Subject and Object. As Jameson notes (27-28), Brechtian storytelling denies the conventional split between historic objectivity and private subjectivity: and so does Jameson’s own work. Instead, the Subject-Object dialectics–as in Brecht’s praise of “the third matter”  uniting Pavel Vlassov and his Mother in the eponymous play–means that not only may a Subject treat itself as Object but that  allegorical Objects are the most important Subjects. My judgments follow my view of Jameson’s judgments and not his views on secondary matters such as this or that critic–unless these become politically strategic,  in which cases I tend to agree with him: for example about the philologically shoddy and militantly capitalist work of John Fuegi (with the proviso that Fuegi is clever and very efficient in driving a wedge between women and the rest of the Left, and should not be dismissed so blithely as Jameson does).

               2/ Brecht’s musicality, beginning with his youthful guitar-picking, is thoroughly followed in the admirable Albrecht Dümling, Lasst euch nicht verführen, München 1985.

               3/ In relation to the Lehrstücke, Jameson is one of the few English-language critics to have recognized the path-breaking theses of Reiner Steinweg. He gives also some hints for the proper approach to the great oratorio of Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken is, in spite of the wrong plural–there is only one measure that counts, the wiping out of the Young Comrade–the best shot at this untranslatable title) which is, together with The Horatians and the Curiatians, one of the two culminations of these  “learning plays.” In it Eisler played Bach to a certain Leninism and Brecht figured the “militant Church” severity of it. Nobody has yet managed to find a proper use for it: neither the Left critics, who attempted to wash their hands of it, not seeing that clean hands often get cut off, nor the “centrist formalist” ones, who saw the affinity to Jesuit militancy but not the thisworldly tensions around mortality, born of a different doctrine.

               4/ See W.F. Haug, Philosophieren mit Brecht und Gramsci, Hamburg 1996, which one hopes to see translated into English.

               5/ Much ink has lately been spilled in vain trying to prove that the collaboration in texts Brecht wrote or staged came mainly from women (this is quantitatively inexact), and at that from women of whom he had carnal knowledge (and it is exact that Hauptmann, Steffin, and Berlau were among his most assiduous collaborators). However, when he and his collaborators remembered, they were generously acknowledged (often they did not bother), even if one clearly could, especially after Brecht’s 1954 breakthrough to world fame, fault the money distribution. Most important, the group–Brecht’s “workshop”–was not only united in the belief they were working for the common (vague) goal of a world revolution, but it is also clear that Brecht gave the collaborators, both in their work and in their lives, as much as he got. To tell women who stuck with him, not without tensions, through thick and thin that this or that critic today knows better how their lives should have been conducted seems arrogant. See for the most balanced account, which does not divorce feminism from class politics, Sabine Kebir’s Ein akzeptabler Mann?, Berlin rev. edn. 1998, and Ich fragte nicht nach meinem Anteil, Berlin 1997 (on Elisabeth Hauptmann); cf. my review article of the latter, “Sabine Kebir, Ich fragte nicht nach meinem Anteil,” Brecht Yearbook 24 (1999): 386-96 (German as “Über Frauen und Brecht,” Weimarer Beiträge no. 3 [1999]: 449-58).

               6/ Walter Benjamin, “Der Erzähler”, Gesammelte Schriften II/2, Frankfurt 1980 (English as “The Storyteller”, in his Illuminations, New York, 1969).

               7/  Bertolt Brecht, Werke, Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, Berlin & Frankfurt 1998, Vol. 18: 176-77.

               8/ Darko Suvin, Lessons of Japan, Montreal 1996 (essay 5: “The Use-value of Dying: Magical  vs. Cognitive Utopian Desire in the ‘Learning Plays’  of Pseudo-Zenchiku, Waley,  and Brecht”).

            9/ Parallels have been convincingly presented by Reinhold Grimm, Brecht und Nietzsche, Frankfurt, 1979, and Christof Šubik, Einverständnis, Verfremdung und Produktivität, Wien, 1982; further work is to be expected on how they were modified and subsumed in Brecht’s life and work.

               10/ I must complain at the incomplete and strangely organized Index. Incomplete: it does not mention stance, Noh play or the poem “The Cranes”, it does not excerpt the very rich footnote pages; strangely organized, for it puts categories under individuals (!), so that “Weimar” comes subordinated to “Weill”, “modernism” is divided between Adorno and Brecht, “capital/ism” between Brecht and Mother Courage (but absent from Marx and his Capital), peasants between Brecht (where they come under the misleading “working class and peasants”) and Mao. “Allegory” is only found under Brecht though it is obviously one of Jameson’s master tropes for culture in general, here much advanced by confrontation with Brecht. It would be much preferable to itemize both names and key notions or in a redone index, with outright errors also corrected.

               11/ “Zur Wahrheit gehört nicht nur das Resultat, sondern auch der Weg…. die wahre Untersuchung ist die entfaltete Wahrheit, deren auseinandergestreute Glieder sich im Resultat zusammenfassen.” (“Bemerkungen über die neueste preussische Zensurinstruktion”), English in Karl Marx, “Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction”, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans. L.D. Easton and K.H. Guddat, Garden City NY 1967; my quote  somewhat modifies the text from their p. 72.

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Darko Suvin

1. This book was first conceived and worked upon in Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 60s; it was written in its present form in North America and England in the 1970s. To those who might know the existential and ideological contexts of those spacetimes in sufficient detail, it might explain most elements of the book’s profile. However, since this may not be very interesting for the impatient reader of the 80s, and since every book ought to be its own best defense, in this brief Preface for my Japanese readers I shall confine myself to two matters only, which strike me as needing some bridging explanation. Appropriately for a book in which one of the main themes concerns the parallels, differences, and passage from spatial to temporal and then finally to a spatiotemporal imagination, these two matters will flow out of the passage of time from 1977, when this book’s manuscript was completed, to today, 1987 (which is, of course, also a passage in ideological space); and with the passage of geopolitical space from the English-language to the Japanese-language reader (which is, of course, also a passage in time since in spite of jet planes we still don’t live in synchronous times all over this shrinking globe, and Japan strikes me as being a very engaging and provoking mix of the 16th, 19th, and 21st centuries in terms of European social-time reckoning).

            Of course, with a total stay in Japan of less than two months, I am not really competent to speak about anything Japanese. I will nonetheless do so out of the sublime ignorance of what the classical Chinese called foreign barbarians and the Japanese, in a geo/graphic spatial metaphor, the gaijin, the outsiders. Those standing outside often cherish the illusion that a glance from a sympathetic, concerned, but not uncritical outsider may stumble on some visions which long familiarity has dulled for the insiders: as Hegel taught us, what is known (bekannt) is not necessarily cognized or properly understood (erkannt). The seamy yet exhilarating aspects of Japanese megalopolis and silicon-chip technology are today in fact being appropriated by the latest interesting US SF development (the only interesting exception, after the feminist SF, within a desert orgy of crass commercial lowering of standards in the SF of the Star Wars era), the cyberpunk of Gibson and Co., as a metaphor for new existential modes of alienated life. For me personally or if you wish intimately Japan is, furthermore, not only a very real nitty-gritty country which is one of the wonders and delights of my life experience (and I don’t mean primarily Nara temples but the back streets of Tokyo, such as at Nishi-waseda, and the people found there) and where I by now have dear friends and esteemed colleagues; it is also the country of a unique tradition culminating, say, in the Bunraku, the Tales of Genji, Hokusai’s Views of Fuji ukiyo-e, and  the subtle Japanese language. All of these I despair of ever mastering yet I persist in studying and  using — and probably abusing — in my other guise of writer of haiku, tankas or sedôkas as well as of some short stories (not SF but parables).

            Among other things Japanese — indeed chronologically for me the first of all the things Japanese — I am a largely ignorant but warm lover of Japanese SF, who has read (I think) all that has been translated into European languages, from Russian to English. The works of Kobo Abe, of Shinichi Hoshi, of my friend Sakyo Komatsu, and of so many other significant SF writers of whom I know only by hearsay since the translations are so few, testify that such experiences must be heard by us all, that they have already added a special poetic shudder to world literature — without imitating the dominant US models. Such works are much too little known by us ignorant foreigners, who should learn much more about your SF works and worlds. Only so can we become engaged in the common enterprise of making our little inhabited world inhabitable.

2. In the light of all this, my reflections will focus on the relationships of SF to technology and to politics.

            Japan has been the first nation to experience the terrible fruits of “value-free” bourgeois science: first at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then in the pollution and ecocide of the beautiful country not only of so many clear cultural beacons of mankind but, most important, of the gentle, long-suffering, patient — sometimes I feel too patient — , talented, and all in all most admirable Japanese people. (I don’t dispute that the terrible societal pressures of school etc. brainwashes most males into good retainers of the large corporations; but allow me for the moment to speak as a lover rather than a critic.) It may therefore be less difficult here to understand what has by many of my (bourgeois or liberal) reviewers been felt as excessive moralizing or prescriptiveness of my position about art in general and SF in particular. I deny that it is moralistic: it simply says that art flows out of and finally (with many crucial mediations which no critic can forget) returns to the encompassing horizon of relationships between people; and that if in proportion to its significance it clarifies such relationships, it makes them more understandable and therefore potentially manageable, and so makes life lighter. This is to my mind a statement of fact, but of course it is also normative in the sense that it establishes potentialities against which all actual achievements cannot fail to be judged. The nature of norms is, I trust, open to debate: mine are, if one needs a label, neo-Marxist, yours, gentle reader, may be less explicit or different: but to positivistically deny the existence of norms strikes me as perverse and deeply alienated. Life progresses through choices, and for us people (Homo sapiens) choice also means responsibility.

            Does this mean we should abandon the technology that led to Hiroshima and today’s physical and mental pollutions? Not necessarily. But I think the much more terrible prospects of molecular engineering, computer control of all our financial transactions (the Gestapo and the Belsen doctors were naive in comparison to that!), etc. etc., all mean that we must put it under rational control and wrest it out of the hands of the mad military and the capitalist profit-makers. We must resolutely abandon the notion of a purely mathematized, quantified, value-free, non-qualitative science. We cannot and should not go back to the Middle Ages, to magic and alchemy: I for one would not want to live in a world without water closets, electricity, smallpox vaccine or even telephones and airplanes (how could I come to Japan or talk to my Japanese friends then?). But we can learn from the derided “qualitative physics” that we are not masters but stewards of our planet, which will finally rebel if we vex it too much (we can already see that in the new diseases, the failing of the ozone layer, the African drought, etc.). We keep it in trust for humanity as a whole, comprising not only the powerless nations and classes of today (the four whales that hold up the world: women, the workers, the lovers, the learning) but also the past and the future generations. Writings which cannot speak (in the properly oblique, roundabout, parabolic ways of fiction) to the relevance of our existence in such a world are irrelevant to the world. Writings which do speak about and to it are exercises in mental hygiene: they are what I mean by liberating cognitive statements. And only cognition, true understanding, can lead us to an intelligent politics of the human species — which has nothing in common with the derisory antics of parliamentary parties but means, as in ancient Greece (and China or Japan), “the affairs of the polis, the community”, its sickness or health. Marx has as much in common, for me, with Aristotle and Confucius or Me-ti (as their negation but also dialectical absorption of the positive aspects of a genuine conservatism) as with Jefferson. But all of them would have agreed that (as the ancient Romans put it) salus rei publicae suprema lex, the salvation of the body politic is the supreme rule. While I don’t at all wish to have art (nor SF) be deadly earnest preaching, while I think there is a place for readable escapism of non-pernicious kinds for our voyages on the Yamanote subway line or the Shinkansen high-speed train, I must impenitently maintain the stance of this book that there is no value-free description, either in SF or in SF criticism. Pretending that there is one means simply that you are unwilling to discuss the presuppositions of your values. This seems to me unworthy of an intellectual (and as Gramsci and Brecht noted, every being that plans for tomorrow and makes choices is an intellectual).

            How do I, then, think one should approach SF? Perhaps this can be in brief explicated here  by transcribing the speech I sent to the SF Research Association when it gave me its annual Pilgrim Award:

     “From my earliest reading of Verne, Wells, Thomas More, and the Groff Conklin anthologies which circulated from hand to hand in postwar Yugoslavia, I have as a socialist been fascinated by the “it ain’t necessarily so” aspect of SF — which, for me does not start with Gernsback, Verne, or even Shelley, but with the universal legends of Earthly Paradise and the Promethean impulse toward a knowledge to be wedded to self-governing happiness on this Earth.  Of course, this embraces also all the narrations which deal with analogs to such radically new relationships among people — however narratively estranged into other worlds and other figures such relationships might be, for the good and sufficient reason that one needs a complex optical system in order to see oneself.  Bearing in mind that every SF narration is a dialog with the reader here and now, this also embraces all the stories that deal with radically worse relationships than the reader knows, since his/her reaction to such stories — by the rule of minus times minus makes plus or of negating the negation — recuperates these new maps of hell for the positive vision.

     Looking back upon my criticism of SF, it seems to me that I have tried to mimic in it this stubbornly contrary and contesting backbone of the narrations I was writing about.  I have contested Henry Ford’s saying “History is bunk,” and tried to persuade my readers that an understanding of the living, even if subterranean, traditions of the past is the only way to give the present a chance of evolving into a tolerable future.  I have contested the saying, whose equally immortalizable author I forget at the moment, “SF is what I mean when I point at some books,” and tried to persuade my readers that any general statements about SF have to be a negotiation between empirical evidence and logically as well as sociohistorically defensible notions and systems of notions.  I  have contested the twin orthodoxies that SF is either the singer of technological progress/breakdown (as the case may be) or a thin disguise for the expression of eternal and mythical human-cum-cosmic verities.  Instead, I have tried to at least approach a systematic argument on how history and society are not simply the contexts of fiction but its inly interfused factors,  shaping  it at least as intimately as shores shape a river or blanks shape a letter.  Finally — and possibly as a premise to all the other stances — I have contested on the one hand the academic elitism wrinkling its none too perfect nose at the sight of popular literature and art, and on the other hand the fannish shoreless ocean of indiscriminately happy passages to continents full of masterpieces miraculously emerging year upon year.

      And yet, SF is not only ‘it ain’t necessarily so’ but also ‘things could be otherwise’; not only militant but also (at least in approximation) triumphant.  Taking my cue from the matter at hand (as any materialist should), I  too have tried to be positive about it and about its criticism, and to say something about those writings which help us to illuminate our interrelated existences: of More, Cyrano, Morris, Wells or Zamyatin, but also of Čapek, Dick, Le Guin, the Strugatskys or Lem.  How much I may have succeeded in that in my own writings, or in coediting some books, but above all the journal Science-Fiction Studies, is for you to say.”

3. But then, some of my well-meaning middle-ground critics asked, if you think SF should do such-and-such, why don’t you deal with the significant modern SF? Why stop at theory plus ancient history? I have two answers to this correct question. First, the present cannot be understood outside of a double perspective, synchronic (theoretical) and diachronic (historical). This book tries to supply such perspectives for future work. Second, we are all limited by time, money, sympathy, and so on. I did here what I could with the means at my disposal, and I am happy to see that some of my colleagues, in particular (though not exclusively) many of the collaborators of the periodical Science-Fiction Studies, have been able to use some of my instruments for work of their own. Furthermore, I have after 1979 committed two more books on SF which not only apply but also, I trust, significantly build on the horizons of this one.

            The first one is Victorian SF in the UK: The Discourses of Knowledge and of Power, published in Boston 1983. This monster of 500 pages focusses on all the SF books published in Britain between 1848 and 1900, beginning with an annotated bibliography of ca. 400 titles, continuing with an identification of most of the authors, and ending with a long study of the social discourses involved: who (which social groups) was in these texts talking to whom and for what axiological and ideological purposes; and finally, how can such books therefore be most usefully read as participants in this social discourse, which I found polarized between Power and Knowledge. This second book could thus supply a partial answer to those of my critics (mainly from the Left) who have rightly, if somewhat impatiently, complained about the lack of concrete institutional discussions in the present book. But that book is a frame-setting overview, and it never pretended to be a complete and detailed history (which would have to be written by a team with the necessary, and today non-existent, financial and other presuppositions, rather than by a single immodest know-it-all).

            The second book, just appearing as I write this (London, 1987) is Positions and Presuppositions in SF, a collection of my essays written at the same time or after the present book. They  attempt to deal, first, with further developments in SF theory, in particular with the thesis that all SF narrations are extended metaphors and parables about the relationships in the author’s world. They also discuss, second, some central modern writers in the world (Lem, Dick, Le Guin, Yefremov, Asimov, the Strugatskys, the Brauns, C. Smith) as well as some crucial issues in SF criticism and teaching. Both of these two later books of mine would then explain further how I think one should approach SF.

            In an ideal world, of course, they — as well as some further essays not collected in them, about Weinbaum, utopias, etc. — would have been presented to the Japanese reader at the same time. In the real world of commercial and other strictures, I can only hope that such curious readers — who would take the moldy slogan of “a sense of wonder” so seriously that they might in its name be willing to put into question their own presuppositions while weighing those of the present book — will like the book whose Preface I am now concluding so much that I will be able to say to my kind Japanese publishers: “Now, since you had a succes with the first book, why don’t you publish what I’m writing in the 1980s?”.

Dômo arigatô!

                                                                       Darko Suvin, Montreal, March 1987

Posted in 1. SF & UTOPIANISM, 5.a EAST ASIA | Leave a comment


Andrés Lomeña


AL: I would like to locate your ideological position in literary theory. I suppose that you feel close to Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson (even Slavoj Žižek). Moreover, I suppose that you disagree with aesthetic purism (Harold Bloom) or certain relativisms (Stanley Fish and his interpretative communities, poststructuralism and deconstruction). I would like to know your reflections on current literary theory—for instance what about the New
Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt?

DS: I remember a splendid note of Lenin’s in his Philosophical Notebooks, where he says that to an intelligent materialist critic an intelligent idealist critic is nearer than a stupid materialist one. So allow me to begin by doubting, not the existence or importance of, but the exclusive nature of ideological kinships. For example, I’ve followed step by step almost the whole of Jameson’s opus, especially since we collaborated in the journal Science-
Fiction Studies and other venues, while I have used Eagleton’s Theory of Literature as the best introductory survey in my graduate teaching at some point but otherwise not learned too much from him. On the contrary, I’ve been deeply influenced by and am still writing in the wake of his teacher, my friend Raymond Williams.
I loved some of Bloom’s early works, say on Romanticism, but when he became an ideologue pure and simple, that stopped. This is the problem with most postmodernists: while declaiming against absolutisms, their supposed relativism is more absolute than that of most modernists. I do make an exception for some so-called deconstructionists such as most Guattari and the later Derrida (after the Marx book). My criterion is simple: what can I learn and build upon from any critic? A little from Greenblatt, almost nothing from
Fish, a lot from the materialist feminists, how to charm people by bringing together philosophy and pop culture from Žižek (and of course how to fight against the prohibition against talking about communism).

AL: Metamorphoses of Science Fiction is a masterpiece. I think that the first world edition was in 1977. We have lived through a lot of events since then: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Dayton agreement, September 11 attacks, war  in Iraq and Afghanistan, financial and economic crises, Wikileaks’ revelations, and so on. Also literary theory has changed: the rise of feminism (Nancy Armstrong, Elaine Showalter, etc.), the rise of gay, lesbian and queer theory (Judith Butler), and so forth. What would you change of your book in order to update it? Or perhaps you would prefer not to add or modify anything (I see there is a Croatian version in 2010, maybe that is the answer to my question).

DS: It was published in 1979 but written in the preceding ten years. I don’t think the book can be updated: it should remain as it is, branded (as Brecht said, like calves on the ranch) by its historical date: the epoch of hopeful High Modernism. What must and therefore can be updated are some of my views— though NOT my values. I dislike renegades. I have done this, as concerns both my epistemological approach and, in particular, some aspects of the Fantasy genre, in numerous articles of the last fifteen years, the longest of which is the “Afterword” to the Festschrift for me edited by Patrick Parrinder, Learning from Other Worlds (Liverpool University Press 2000). It also has a checklist of my publications where interested readers can follow the post-1979 developments.

AL: What do you think about “theory of fictional worlds”? For instance: Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds by Lubomir Dolezel, or Fictional Worlds by Thomas Pavel, even Postmodernist Fiction by Brian McHale. I ask you this because there is a strong connection between fictional worlds and science fiction as a genre; I think that sociologists of literature should study how society creates different fictional worlds (that is, connections between types of societies and ontological properties in fiction stories).

DS: You’re quite right about the kinship. If you had looked at my work after 1979, say the four other books on SF, you’d have found me using a variant of Possible Worlds’ theory. I knew both Dolezel and Pavel, I had my students read them, not quite casually: we were all immigrants to Canada, with experience of different worlds… McHale is too postmodernist for me, in panic flight from orientation: he refuses ontology (that there is a real world out there) in favour of hermetic epistemology (that we can only live in imaginary worlds, so to speak). And my methodologically most advanced book on SF, Victorian SF in the U.K. 1848–1900, is an attempt at a Williamsian “social history of literature,” indeed within a certain class spread in authors and readers.

AL: In your opinion, what will be your legacy? How to follow your enterprise from a Marxist perspective (or post-Marxist, as you prefer) in a world ruled by late capitalism and the end of history (Fukuyama)?

DS: I think Fukuyama has been proved totally wrong, don’t you? The present crisis of senile capitalism is proof that history goes on, as murderous class conflict at that. Our alternative is socialism or barbarism (for the bland “socialism” maybe we better substitute a “communist direct democracy”). In that perspective, my legacy is of secondary importance. In one case it will be forgotten as an aberration, in another maybe cherished as a far-off precursor who didn’t quite have all the tools but at least identified a field and
a stance toward it.

AL: I know that you are not a novelist, you are an accurate thinker. Anyway, I really enjoyed your book as a really good novel. By the way, could you tell us three or four books, fiction or non-fiction, that you consider compulsory to read?

DS: You are not quite right, I’ve published four books of poetry and some short prose. This should be as accurate as any scholarship, only less exclusively notional.
My four books: Marx, Das Kapital; Brecht, Saint Joan of the Stockyards; Saramago, The Cavern; Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina (but I could name 40 others, only fanatics can exist on less than that, the One Final Book).

AL: Any conclusion?

DS: Early on, I wrote an essay in praise of open endings.

AL: Thanks so much.

This interview originally appeared online at .

Posted in 3. POLITICAL EPISTEMOLOGY | Leave a comment


Darko Suvin                                                                                                (1990-96, 16,200 words)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

To Jean-Pierre Vernant, and to the póthos of

Ce texte, je ne vais pas l’expliquer. Je vais seulement énoncer
quelques … sorties du texte.
(I am not going to explain this text. I shall only utter some …
departures from the text)
Barthes,”Les Sorties du texte” (untranslatable pun)

sind die sätze, die
vor euch gesagt sind, benutzt, wenigstens widerlegt? ist alles
durch erfahrung? durch welche?
brecht, “der zweifler”
(…Are the sentences,which were
Said before you, used? at least
Refuted? is all provable?
Through experience? what kind of?
Brecht, “The Doubter”)

0. Entry: Barthes and the Tool-kit: Organic Body vs. Organon

0.1. Roland Barthes’s volume of fragments on a supposedly imaginary Japan, The Empire of Signs has, to my biased and largely theatre-oriented eye, at its centre some sections or fragments devoted to the Bunraku puppet-performances (which were, in fact, originally published as one essay called “Les trois écritures” in Tel Quel 1968). These are the sections “Les trois écritures,” “Animé/inanimé,” and “Dedans/dehors,” on pages 63-82 of the French edition (48-62 of the English edition). Japanese classical theatre (not only Bunraku) is my eventual convergence point, but I shall in this occasion undertake a lengthy detour by way of Barthes. I wish to examine how his text may — partly by contraries and partly by indirections, both proceedings which he would, no doubt, appreciate — lead us toward different understandings of individuality consubstantial with a different cultural macro-framework prevailing in Japan, which can be seen in terms of immanentist religion and group orientation. For my present purposes, then, I want to focus not so much on his fascinating and apposite observations about puppet vs. naturalist theatricality (mainly in the first fragment) — though Barthes as a very important, if incidental, theoretician of theatre is quite unduly neglected. I want rather to see what may be extrapolated from his observations on performance to the crucial or root discussion of the whole volume, that of exteriority vs. interiority and of its most important human application, “Western” animation or soul-possession versus its “Japanese” blessed lack. Further: while Barthes is in Japan seeking, and with a sigh of relief finding, the absence of meaning, I believe that Homo sapiens is a meaningful animal. As Barthes himself realized in his frequent Fourierist utopian moments, “l’écrivain est un donateur de sens: sa tâche (ou sa jouissance) est de donner des sens, des noms” (RBRB 81: “the writer is a giver of sense: his task (or his enjoyment) is to give senses, names”), so that I have to ask: What do Barthes’s insights nominate and mean? Reading him against the grain, I have to add: often in spite of his terminology and horizons?

In other words, the fact that I engage with this book means that I allot it not simply a symptomatic but primarily a cognitive value. Yet some of its most important conclusions, and almost all of its horizons, I cannot share: they do not make sense to me. One could try to split Barthes up into Barthes 1 and 2 (for example: the oppressed intellectual versus the Byzantine Parisian), and accept no. 1 while rejecting no. 2. Indeed, one could play 1 off against 2. This, however, is a pastime for more hopeful political and epistemic times, when one can afford rejections. Today, I must be more modest or defensive, mainly proceeding in a subsumptive (culturally accretive) rather than polemic or antagonistic (politically activist) way, and content myself with disentangling what I can use by questioning my author’s semantics (cf. also Suvin, “Utopian”). It is probable that his alloy of insight into phenomena and — literally — nonsensical systematization (visible even in the adopted compromise of fragments) is a disease of language. “Qui lingua^ ferit, lingua^ perit” (“they who offend by language perish by language”) might be my motto for the deconstructionists, whose precursor Barthes began growing into with this book, rightly abandoning the false scientificity of Hjelmslevian semiotics. However, I shall resist the temptation to treat The Empire of Signs as a stage in this author’s or a school’s development. Since I want to use Barthes rather than explain him, or explain him away, I shall further slight here some (by no means all) of his precise terms and many of his networkings in order to construct a reticulation of my own, suggested by and cannibalizing him.
0.2. An initial look at all our tools (including mine) is mandatory here. What do Barthes’s oppositions of East vs. West or Japan vs. Europe imply? Mainly two matters. First, that in spite of his search for a system he is still (and as another foreign visitor half a generation later I can readily sympathize) under the tremendous impact of spatial dislocation: Japan is in terms of bodily impressions — jet lag, unreadability of script and behaviour, different evaluation of gender and age, etc. — indeed halfway to the Moon for a European. It is the nearest approximation to a science-fictional planet we can actually live in, with deeply strange yet tantalizingly permeable relationships forcing us to constant decipherment on pain of anomie. Its signic syntagmatics hint at an elusive Other Paradigm (cf. Angenot), directed at our senses rather than at the Cartesian mind/soul — a good paradigm which may also be a breathtaking absence, the blissful paradigm of a Zero Paradigm. The familiar Morean polysemy and phonetic play (approximating standard Japanese poetic practice) of Greek eutopia (good place) vs. outopia (no place), both pronounced [jutoupija] in English, is at work here. Yet when we impute our utopian horizons to a new locale (say, as the series of hypotheses about the Country of the Eloi by Wells’s Time Traveller), we should at least watch out, and compensate, for our blind spot (Wells’s Morlocks).

This leads into a second set of implications for and in Barthes’s oppositions which is more complex; and at the outset I wish to say, in his defence, that he had real enough reasons for his escape into a signic utopia. One reason I share: it is a pulsional, “visceral” (but of course most rational) disgust at the deadly bourgeois mode of living. In several interviews Barthes was to note that The Empire of Signs constituted a counterproject to the stifling hegemonies around him in Europe, including scientism and pieties across the political spectrum. The passages are very revealing, not the least for the significance in, e.g., his confusion between atheism and polytheism as well as some other semantic glitches:

[Japan] for me expresses the utopia of a world both strictly semantic and strictly atheistic. As many of us do, I profoundly reject our civilization, ad nauseam…. I felt the necessity of entering completely into the signifier, i.e. of disconnecting myself from the ideological instance as signi fied, as the risk of the return of the signified, of theology, of monologism, of law. (G 83-84)2/

The Japan I wrote about was for me a countermythology, a kind of happiness of signs, a country which, as the result of a very fragile and quite unusual historical situation, finds itself plunged into modernity and yet so close to the feudal period that it can maintain a kind of semantic luxury which has not yet been flattened out, tamed by mass civili zation, by the consumer society. (G 158)

…le Japon est [le pays où l’auteur] a rencontré le travail du signe plus proche de ses convictions et de ses fantasmes, ou, si l’on prèfére, le plus éloigné des dégoûts, des irritations et des refus que suscite en lui la sémiocratie occidentale….Le signe japonais est vide: son signifié fuit, point de dieu, de vérité, de morale au fond de ces signifiants qui règnent sans contrepartie. Et surtout,…la grâce érotique dont [ce signe] se dessine [est] apposé partout….
Japan is the country where the author has encountered a sign-work nearest to his convictions and phantasms, or, if you prefer, the most distanced from the disgust, irritation, and refusals that Western semiocracy raises in him….The Japanese sign is empty: its signified flees, no god, no truth, no moral is to be found in the depths of these signifiers that reign with no counterpart. And most of all, the erotic grace by which this sign is drawn is everywhere applied….
(F, Barthes’s inner front cover blurb in the Skira edn.)

And he concluded, with intelligence and wry honesty: “This is our situation, we have to live amid the unlivable. As Brecht used to say…: ‘That’s the way the world goes, and it’s not going well’.” (G 87)

And yet, in my eyes Barthes did not draw the necessary consequences from such possible positions. This can be exemplified in the elegant balancing act attempted in his series of phenomenological sketches or égratignures: that of walking the razor’s edge between Orientalism and Liberalism. It is the razor of finding a true yet understandable Other, a personalized Blochian Novum. Orientalism is constituted upon the recognition of an exotic Other, almost always inferior in some ways (childishly carefree, bloodthirsty, Rousseauist, unserious, etc.) and inevitably tending to a bad “race” — a demonized scapegoat for the broad imperial current leading to Nazism (and “Tennô-Fascism”). Liberalism is constituted upon the metaphysical premise that there is no true Other, a repression: “The Colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady/ Are sisters under the skin” (Kipling on British classes in the Raj’s India — notice that he didn’t say “Neeraj Choudhuri and Judy O’Drury”). Everybody is capable of being remade into “us” (the subject-position definers, i.e. the political and discursive power-wielders — Europeans in the 19th, North Americans in the 20th Century): and everybody therefore ought to be — shall be — remade in our image, into the monotonous likes of us, into brothers despite the skin. Orientalism is the philosophy of the Catholic conqueror from the absolutist State, Liberalism of the Protestant missionary from the market-circulation State (Anglicans were in the middle: democratic Liberals at home, absolutist Orientalists abroad). While each of these positions offers some partial insight to be recuperated (in the first case, that there is a real Other, in the second, that she ought to be understood as having a position equivalent to Ours), both these dangerous horns are, the dilemma as a whole is, to be repudiated. The difficult narrow path to the far-off Other, blazed in Europe by Montaigne’s essay “On the Cannibals,” must be explored and broadened instead. Not primarily for better communication: but for understanding, through the estranging (verfremdend) mirror and dream of strangers, how we must better live.
0.3. Centrally, we live from and in capitalist imperialism; we inherit 400 years of bloody wars and the untold miseries of psychophysical oppression. Art or science cannot clean our hands: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Benjamin 256). After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

It should, then, be clear, that — for any purposes which take up abode outside of Barthes’s vocabulary of those years — his quite basic, indeed founding dichotomy of Japanese vs. European (or “Western”) is unfortunate and insufficient. True, right at the beginning of his book he cannily affirms he is not writing about Japan but about an imaginary country à la Garabagne: a fictional object formed of verbal and graphic signs and fashioned into a system. He declares, refreshingly, that he is not lovingly gazing at any “oriental essence” but simply lifting from the Orient a stock of traits whose manipulation will allow him to play with “an unheard-of symbolic system, entirely detached from our system” (F 7). But this perhaps well-meant excuse soon wears thin. The warning of the first page is not repeated or incorporated into the book’s deep structure, and so it is forgotten by the fascinated reader, say, ten pages later. And what did it mean in the first place, paradigmatically? The description of any country or locus is always a negotiation between describer and described, and to that extent (we have learned) always imaginary. All countries are imaginary in this sense of partaking more or less of the describer’s imagination, her knowledge and desires, so that my own implied Japan of pre-bourgeois experience, of a sensual or sense-conveyed and sense-conveying aura, is no doubt partly also a wishdream. The saving grace is in the adverb: not all countries are only imaginary. To paraphrase Blair, some countries are more imaginary than others.

Let me take a stringent example: when Swift — surely an expert in imaginary countries — entitles the Third Book of Gulliver’s Travels “A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnag, and Japan,” he is bringing about a deliberate confusion between Garabagne-like, newly invented and empirically impossible countries (such as the flying island of Laputa) and the exotic but empirically possible Japan, already identified as existing in travelogues and other entries constituting the English reader’s “encyclopedia” in his time. But he does so for a tongue-in-cheek validation of satirizing England and the European civilization (cf. Suvin, Metamorphoses ch. 5): Swift’s purpose is to elicit from the reader a negation of his hyperbolically negative countries. Barthes’s series of philosophico-semiotic speculations or meditations has a direct (or perhaps only somewhat metaphorically oblique) cognitive goal, his confusing lacks Swift’s double-negation purpose and seems simply disingenuous; seen from the end of the book, his initial excuse looks as a somewhat supercilious, privatized gesture equivalent to “don’t bother or confuse me with facts — or with the possible effects of my language.” Even worse, coming from somebody attentive to the body and its pleasures or oppressions, it can be read as an equivalent to “there are no facts (referential anchorings) outside language — and possibly graphical signs.” Finally, even or especially in linguistics, Swift’s procedure of semanticizing the differential traits is central and mandatory: how is it possible to even begin fashioning and understanding an “unheard-of” new semiotics (which Barthes will identify as one without meaning) except as the Other of some very much heard-of semiotics centred on deep meaning — as a “freedom from the tyranny of the centre” (G 86)? Can this tyranny be overthrown by some of us elegantly walking away from it?

Thus, the Hegelian laicization of Biblical teleology moving the Absolute Spirit spirally upward was in Barthes simply inverted: the spirit is meaningless, the next stage is an almost Buddhist escape from it. So far so good. But while Hegel’s orientation may have been repudiated, his Archimedean point in Europe was retained. Barthes’s pseudo-spatial East-West opposition (it would be fascinating to compare his use to a more frequent use in Cold War lingo 1947-89 as applied to NATO vs. Warsaw Pact!) goes back to a Hegelian historiosophic monolinearity only from whose privileged spacetime point of view the East is, e.g., east (from the USA or Canada, Japan is west). This has to be radically rewritten. For, a warning implicit in Barthes’s signic empire is that he who wishes to go off at a tangent from history may be condemned to relive it, and she who evacuates all referentiality is condemned to remain blindly glued to it. Genuine sympathies toward a certain Japan do not save you from falling into an upside-down ahistorical essentialism, not wholly exempt from the pseudo-cultural “continental” racism of “The West” vs. “Japan,” only favouring the latter. Still, if I wanted to interpret rather than use Barthes, I’d claim that at his best, i.e. in his Brechtian parallels and ascendancies, he had to bring in expressly (for example) the “bourgeois” stage contract: and presumably he would not deny that a certain bourgeoisie, petty and large, exists in Japan too — though not, et pour cause, in his wishdream Japan. However, I wish to proceed at my own peril rather than behind Barthes’s authority (though with much gratitude to him).

0.4. Without Barthes’s subterfuges, I shall try out two mutually supplementary proceedings. First, I shall posit that there is a good amount of reason and indeed cognitive constraint in a “weak essentialist” starting from such cultural monads as “Japan” and “Europe” (cf. Suvin “Two Cheers”). There obviously exists a historiosophic difference and yet accessibility between them. The difference as well as the accessibility (e.g. discursive availability) of one to the other could be taken as proven simply by the evidence of history, corporeal and discursive — such as the non-discursive fact of Barthes’s having written and disseminated The Empire of Signs. But if a minimal argument is needed, the similar beginnings in tribal societies and similar endings in capitalist industrializations of these two monads (as of all the others we today know of) might suffice. A somewhat technocratic formulation of this by Adorno runs: “No universal history leads from the savage to humanity, but there is one that leads from the slingshot to the megabomb” (312). This leaves everything else, i.e. the intermediary stage as well as the modalities of arriving from those beginnings to these (provisional) endings, liable to variation — but also to comparison.

But second, I am positing that the “cultural monad” approach is insufficient; if absolutized, as in Barthes, it usually turns positively pernicious. The vertical cut has to be supplemented with horizontal cutting. Given the sufficiently similar point of convergence in capitalist industrialization correlative to some variant of a bourgeoisie, though not necessarily (and in fact not) entailing identical capitalisms or bourgeoisies, I shall begin with a central opposition of “bourgeois” to “pre-bourgeois.” I am banking on the “bourgeois” pole being sufficiently clear to at least delimit and allow us to begin understanding the somewhat vague “non-bourgeois” pole, which is in fact my own (as it was Barthes’s) wished-for focus and goal. I hope that such elective affinities to my object strengthen both our subjectivities at the point of their (mainly implicit) friction. Therefore, I propose to substitute “pre-bourgeois” for Barthes’s “Japanese,” and “bourgeois” for his “European.” Barthes’s occasional invocations of Brecht as analogous to Japan might be a signal (since Brecht is, of course not “pre-” but attempting to both prefigure and be “post-bourgeois”) that the historiosophically proper term for my purposes would probably be “non-bourgeois,” without a time-sequence indication. This would also dovetail with my doubts about the usefulness of (necessarily monotheist) teleology. Nonetheless, history is real, and for the purposes of getting my discussion eventually back to Japan this would unduly complicate matters.
0.5. I proceed then to some isotopies educible from Barthes’s triple “Bunraku chapter” and its notions of the body. True, such binary dichotomization not only shares in but probably exacerbates certain cognitive limitations inherent in Aristotelian two-term logic, and it should be read more as a particular argument (cf. Haraway 12) than as a full account. Still, this fits well with Barthes’s own notion of “sorties du texte” — tangential departures from the pre-text — cited in my epigraph, and it is a useful initial instrument of cognitive orientation:


BOURGEOIS                                                      PRE-BOURGEOIS
“Animated” body                                                Substantive body
Organic unity, simulation of                          Sensuous abstraction/eduction from parts
Physiological essence                                        Plastic functions
Body governs single actor,                               Body is governed by various
the artist serves                                                   sovereign craftsmen
Unity of individuals on the                              Unity of performance in the
stage (character & actor)                                   spectator
Performance media & sign-systems are:
— continuous, fusing                                   — discrete, adding up

While there are many stimulating points here to which I hope eventually to return, at present my main interest is in what I take to be the three furthest generalizations which can be, in Eco’s Peircean terms, abduced (or maybe abducted) from Barthes’s formulations:

Body as fetish                                                             “Lovable” body

Model: truth (= inside the                                  Model: caress (= relationship
individual, in his deep cen-                              between two foci — people
ter = nucleus of indivisible                                or semiotic aspects = bi-
atom)                                                                     polar molecule)3/

Soul                                                                         Sense

I shall devote one section each to Truth and Soul, while the Lovable Body will provide a ground bass for my comments, get qualified by a section on the traps of cross-cultural anthropology and (non-)politics, and eventually issue in a final section on Aesthetic Body, with a codicil on Sense.
1. Body as Ostension of Inner Truth or as One Pole of Caressing: A Noh-Play Scene

From Philip Sidney’s “Look into thy heart and write” (still communicated to him by a public, upper-class Muse of poetry) to the innumerable European repetitions perhaps best epitomized in the (of course, US-American) immortal words of the plebeian Jimmy Durante, “Let it come straight from heart,” we have an embarras du choix as evidence for the “nuclear truth” model. From a presumably equally wide choice evidencing the “bipolar caress” model in Japan (e.g., a goodly part of Japanese poetry could be used — cf. my Essay 2 and Essay 3), I shall use only one example, from the Noh-play Senju:

Geni ya Azuma no hateshi made
Hito no kokoro no oku fukaki
Sono nasake koso miyako nare.

The translation by Shimazaki Chifumi reads: “Indeed, in the remote corner of the East,/ In the heart’s innermost, a deep-lying/ Tenderness belongs to the Capital [i.e. Kyôto, DS]” (83). On the face of it, this would seem to speak against Barthes, and testify that already in this 15th-Century play, attributed to Komparu Zenchiku, there is a well-defined Japanese interiority that vouches for the protagonist’s deepest affection. In this lyrical “Woman Noh,” the shite Senju, a tender-hearted courtesan whose thoughts are spoken here by the Chorus, is trying to comfort a young high-ranking nobleman from Kyôto (a place associated to his days of power and glory), now held prisoner in the eastern city of Kamakura and destined for quick execution. The lines cited come at her first entrance, and allude by metonymy to her sentiments of sympathy and regret for the prisoner from Kyôto. And there is no denying that her sentiments are being hidden from the nobleman both by reason of shyness (referred to in the line immediately preceding: “Hazukashi-nagara mimien — Shyly I approach him”) and because the two of them are probably being spied upon by the shogunal jailers. Thus, there is clearly an opposition here between seen and unseen, manifest surface covering and hidden under-the-surface covered. But first of all, the sentiments are not hidden to the audience: they are fully externalized by the chorus, and in fact the argument could be made that neither the shite-actor nor the Senju-“character” has to or indeed can have any sentiments. The shite speaks and dances, the chorus chants, so that it is a disease of the language of bourgeois sentimentality which leads us to take the inferential walk imputing sentiments to a dance specialist and a non-existent person. True, deep sentiments are present in the Noh performance: they are, however, the audience’s sentiments.

Second, do these lines really entail simply a centred “deep-lying heart’s innermost”? Again, the strong locution “oku fukaki,” which suggests something like “deepest depths,” would seem to speak in favour of that. Yet to begin with, “kokoro” in Japanese does not allude to the physiological organ of heart, it means equally what is in English expressed by heart, mind, feeling, spirit or conception, i.e. something like the aware and feeling essence of personality (to get ahead of myself, where there is no atomic “soul,” awareness is awareness of one’s emotional personality, not split between body and soul, or reason and feelings). “Kokoro,” a person’s disposition, is described positively as “akaki” (bright) or “kiyoki” (clean, pure), negatively as “kuraki” (dark) or “kitanaki” (dirty); manifestly, it is envisaged as intrinsically visible from the outside — though it can be overlaid by layers of the perceiver’s ignorance, the perceived’s dissimulation, and other difficulties of understanding — rather than intrinsically a mystery of the spheric centre. The covered-up or concealed “dirty disposition” is that shameful, axiologically “deep” offense against the community that is sometimes hastily translated into the Western term of “sin” (cf. Sansom, History 80 and Japan 496). Thus, while a strong personality speaks here, connotations of anatomical interiority, which would magically induce “depth” psychology, are weakly and dubiously present.

And further, “oku fukaki” itself is caught in a complex web of homonymy and parallelisms, which make it simultaneously bear the vector of verticality and a vector of horizontality. First of all, both “oku” and “fukaki” (or cognate expressions) were stock adverbs used together with mountains or bamboo groves in the tanka (and later also the haiku) tradition, such as “oku-yama ni” in the Kokinshû (e.g. KKS “Autumn” 4: 215) or the great Saigyô’s dozen or so poems with some variant on the traditional line “fukaki yama ni,” both meaning “in the mountains’ deep.”4/ Second, in syntactic parallelism to “Azuma no hateshi — the Eastland’s farthest ends,” this also means “the farthest Northland” (as is well known to all lovers of haiku from Bashô’s famous haibun volume Oku no hosomichi, usually translated as Narrow Road to the Far North). Now the island of Honshu curves first roughly east and then roughly north, and the Japanese word for “northeast” is “tôhoku,” literally “east-north”: east, the direction of the rising sun, has traditionally dominated Japanese orientation (Palmer 89). To the standard Sinified connotations of the North with the cold and darkness — the opposite of the splendid Capital — this geopolitics adds that it is the frontier against barbarians and even further from the western Kyôto than the eastern Kamakura. The meanings of distance from the nation’s centre are thus accentuated. But that centre is not the centre of a geometric figure but more of an asymmetrical “focus” or “antipode.” It is on a surface vector, not vertically inside (indeed, in value terms the capital was thought of as being high, certainly not deep) but horizontally distant, on a flat expanse which was traversed by the prisoner in battle and captivity and which he yearns to retraverse in freed return. This second meaning interferes with and chips away at the first “oku fukaki” meaning of vertical distance, which could have suggested pointing downward from surface into depths, already disturbed by the qualitative rather than localized connotations of “kokoro.”

This argument would accord well with durable Japanese topologies of shamanic origin, which some theories have as composed of a horizontal (flat) cosmology and a vertical one going straight up or (more rarely) down, into the ground or the sea (see Blacker 28-29 and Grapard 199ff.), and referring to one or more further layers and not to spheric interiority. Barthes was right, there is no organicism in the Japanese (or East Asian) tradition by virtue of which the capital would be something like a heart: even Buddhism, though coming from the cradle of organicistic thought, India, did not manage to make serious inroads into the Chinese and Japanese indifference to the microcosm metaphor. Finally, the last line from the Senju quote could denote a refined emotion for or (among other possibilities) worthy of the Capital.

Thus, one could just as well translate these three Noh lines, with somewhat less Europeanized vocabulary, eschewing the reification of “the heart’s innermost,” as:

Indeed, even in the furthest East,
Even in the furthest North or deep within our spirit,
A tender sympathy for the Capital lodges (or:
A tender sentiment worthy of the Capital is found).

The coordinate system here is multiplex, not one-directional. Depth does exist, but it is not necessarily individual, nor especially oriented from surface to spheric centre — it can also be from surface to height (as in going up, and then descending from, mountains; more rarely from surface to bottom, as in the sea) or from outlying reaches horizontally to centre (as necessitated by the historical development of the Japanese state expanding from the Inner Sea area east and north, because of which the shogun’s seat too — the site of this play — was pitched in Kamakura, away from the Imperial capital). Both of these common experiences are present in what Eco would call the Japanese “encyclopedia” of the 15th Century, when — it should be remembered — plays were performed equally in the old capital Kyôto and the outlying provinces. In short, while there is vectoral depth, there is no centripetal “nuclear truth” in these lines. On the contrary, though one of the semantic foci or poles in them is triplex (east, north, and deeply within the spirit), they seem to me good enough preliminary evidence of a “bipolar caress” model.

2. Selfhood: The Soulful Individual, God, Teleology, Devil

2.1. However, how could it be said by Barthes that (even his imaginary) Japanese have no soul, while they obviously have strong personalities, strong feelings, etc.? Isn’t “soul” just the theologically founding term for individuality, which everybody possesses? Isn’t Barthes then being involuntarily patronizing, celebrating its absence? The answer, as I suggested at the beginning, lies in unpacking our language, in what one could call — in a paraphrase of Ernst Bloch — “differentiations within the notion of individuality.” I shall proceed here upon the tracks of Jean-Pierre Vernant’s and Paul Ricoeur’s approaches to such differentiation in the Colloque de Royaumont “Sur l’individu” of 1985. To simplify, streamline, and sometimes contaminate them, they distinguish three notions, which can in French be elegantly called “l’individu stricto sensu,” “le sujet,” and “le soi” (or “le moi”). The first is a not further divisible physical token of any logical type, and especially of a biological species in Julian Huxley’s sense of “indivisibility — the quality of being sufficiently heterogeneous in form to be rendered non-functional if cut in half” (cited in Dawkins 250); in that sense, I translate it, with hesitancy, as individual (for that word is often used also in the ideologized bourgeois sense of Self — the third notion here). It designates any Something (this goldfish, bonsai tree or province) by three principal means: definite description, proper name or indicator (pronoun, adverb, etc.). The second is a human (and I would argue even an animal, or at least mammal) “individual” communicating in her own name, expressing himself “in the first person” with traits that differentiate her from others of the same logical type-token and biological species-variety-race (etc.) — most importantly, from an ethnic, class, and gender group. To the individuation above, this adds identification, and I shall call it the Subject. For a Subject, the pronoun “I” is no longer a shifter, an itinerant marker applicable to any speaker, but it is anchored in a fixed stance or bearing; this makes dialogue possible, where — however — the anchoring is reversible, “I” can be understood as “thou” and viceversa (cf. Ricoeur 62). Finally, the Self (ipse, Selbst) is constituted by the practices and stances

which confer upon the subject a dimension of interiority…,which constitute him from within as…a singular individual whose authentic nature resides wholly in the secret of his  inner life, at the heart of an intimacy to which nobody, outside of herself, can accede…” (Vernant, “L’individu” 24)5/

To ground this a bit in terms of literary genres: the biography and the epic would correspond to an individual (usually a Plutarchian, i.e. famous, type — the warrior, the statesman, the Amazon). Here, e.g. in Homer, the “individual” (in the first above sense) body of a hero is permeated by superindividual powers such as desire (eros), domination (kratos), and fear (phobos), which “invest…but also transcend and surpass any single bodily envelope” (Vernant, L’Individu, la mort 21), so that the same body or individual “may also, when the gods lend a hand, rise or fall in the hierarchy of life-values whose reflection and witness it is…” (ibidem 25). The autobiography, the pre-bourgeois lyric or diaries such as the Japanese nikki genre, where the writer as a rule looks at herself in publicly normative stances (cf. Konishi 114-15), correspond to the Subject, which can perhaps be deciphered as a type seen from within (e.g., the poet, the lover, the hermit — cf. Suvin, “Can People”). Often, in the nikki as well as in the monogatari and later tales, the female author is identified as “Daughter of X” or “Mother of Y” (X and Y being males) while male protagonists are identified by rank and not proper name (solely, e.g. Middle Counsellor or Minister of the Left, or predominantly, e.g. using the rank hôgan for the main legendary hero Yoshitsune). Possibly most telling is the case of the greatest prose author of them all, Murasaki Shikibu: “The ‘Murasaki’ is a nickname derived from the heroine of the first two sections [of The Tale of Genji], and the ‘Shikibu’ indicates that a male relative had a post in the Bureau of the Rites” (Miner, Poetics 191). Not too much should perhaps be made of this anonymity: the Japanese medieval noblewomen obviously had quite strong and distinct personalities or Subjects; but semantic repression participates in reality. Obversely, Vernant remarks that in Hellenic lyrics the first-person subject gives his own sensibility the status of “a model, a literary topos … [so that] what is felt individually as interior emotion…acquires a kind of objective reality” (30-31). Only the genres of confession, beginning with Augustine of Hippo, the intimate memoir, and the profoundly changed post-Renaissance lyric and prose epic (i.e. novel) would correspond to the Self. To anticipate, the Self is initially semanticized only in relation to God, as the soul, defined by Plotinus as that which is found when “everything is taken away” (see Vernant, L’Individu, la mort 226); then it is fully developed in the richness of thisworldly relationships as the interiorized character seen simultaneously from inside and outside, as public and private, therefore stereometrically or “in the round.” No doubt, all kinds of grey zones, precursors, and anachronisms must be conceded to this scheme if it is to work. Nonetheless, it seems to be at least getting at a very significant, perhaps central set of distinctions. In this optic all classical Hellenic and Asian literature, from the tragedy to the Tale of Genji, seems to be fully or predominantly of the first two kinds, featuring individuals or Subjects as types rather than a Self as character (cf. Benedict 195-97 and passim; by the way, this is not at all a judgment of quality: The Oresteia is to my mind on the whole more significant than A Doll’s House, and The Story of the Stone [Hung-lou meng] than Madame Bovary).

And so we begin to glimpse a startling correlation: only monotheist cultures seem to have invented the Self and its whole host of attendant ways of understanding and organizing the world. “The notion of person will appear in Christian thought” (Meyerson 476). It is not necessary to enter here into why and how this happened: one can simply remark with Vernant that for the individual “uncoupled from sociality….[t]he search for God and the search for Self are two dimensions of the same solitary ordeal” (“L’individu” 36). The Subject implies other Subjects. The Self implies Another: Platonically — The Other, transcendentally — God. The search may be called theology, or — from Bacon and Descartes on — Science, it is in all cases proceeding upon the One True Way. (Parenthetically: all talk about The Other, including mine, and all talk about ethics which does not enter upon the dialectics of personal and collective, is therefore still essentially individualistic, even if laudably bipolar rather than monolithic.) The consequences, from politics to epistemology, were to be huge.

2.2. What this effects is a diametrical inversion of vectors. Earlier — in narration, say, up to and including Boccaccio and Giotto — the Subject was for others as well as for herself a twodimensional limit-zone where collective bodies or groups (traditionally transcribed as types) meet and interfere: a woman, an adult, an aristocrat, a member of the Ono clan, a beauty, a famous poetess, etc., all of which goes to make Ono no Komachi. The Japanese Subject had been “inscribed” first of all into its clan: if female, possibly into a prominent male kinsman’s (family-head’s) name, if male, possibly into rank; Agamemnon was rather distinct from Menelaus, but both were largely determined by being Atreides — rulers and warriors against Troy. Now, the Subject begins to be seen (first by himself and then by others insofar as they recognize they are Subjects too) as the central point around which the world becomes that point’s environment (cf. Suvin, To Brecht, Part 1, elaborating upon Lukács), a three-dimensional sphere seen from the inside. This evolution may be glimpsed in a number of plays by Shakespeare: Lear is a King, a choleric Old Man (Senex), yet the buyer of love in exchange for property turns into everyman, hovering on the brink of depth psychology. Soon, by morphological analogy and validating necessity (of which more anon), a central point is found inside the Subject itself which relates to the individual body as that body does to the rest of the environment. That central point, the irreducible principle of utter alterity or originality whose loss would be the death of Self, and thus a fate worse than bodily death, is — as I suggested in 2.1 — initially and most clearly identified as soul (though in “humanist” laicizations shamefaced synonyms such as the personality, ego or the individual sensu lato are substituted for soul — cf. Williams, ss. vv. “Individual” and “Personality”). A cosmological and political doctrine according to which the human individual (in this “soulful” sense) is the final building brick of the body politic, just as other individual entities (e.g. the unsplittable atom) are the final building blocks of all other cosmic levels, is then the ideology of individualism.6/ The clairvoyant reactionary Tocqueville first identified individualism in the USA, where its semantics were invading all other collective categories (such as time and space), as “a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth” (cf. the discussion of character and individualism in Suvin, “Can People” 686-88). Individualism as ideology “engender[s] the cosmico-political dimension and public space itself starting from the sole ethical selfhood…without the originating social dimension” (Ricoeur 72). In Aristotle’s Politics, we may remember, the only Subjects who could be sundered from the polis, which is superordinated to individuals as the whole is to the part, were gods or beasts (I:2:1253a) — in human terms, divine magi or monsters. Thus, all the descendants of Robinson Crusoe in the narratives of political economy and similar fiction brought about by the bourgeoisie would be monstrous for any non-individualistic (e.g. the Hellenic or East Asian) tradition.
2.3. This most novel idea of Selfhood, which flew in the face of all human (or in the apt theological vocable, all “gentile,” i.e. gens or tribe-derived) experience and notions, needed to be validated by a transcendental grounding (or is it assumption?). No doubt, the idea that Truth was situated in the Center of, say, a mystic geometrical body reared its Pythagorean (etc.) head much earlier. But such a notion is not only not immediately apparent but counter-intuitive: surely the truth of a tetrahedron is that it has so-and-so many sides of such-and-such a kind. While recollocation of so-called immediate sense-data into sense-making but in some way “hidden” categories of the “mind’s eye” seems to be a prerequisite for any and every cognitive endeavour, why should our categories be inward-looking ones? This Hellenic idea lacked a sufficiently powerful myth of origin. Whence did the truth get into the Center? A mouth-stopping, transcendental validation is the best answer: Truth was put there by an omnipotent God, Who is as central to the whole universe as that particular truth to the body it occupies. In the huge social breakdowns of the Roman world empire, whose fears and horrors may be comparable only to our century’s, where polytheism foundered together with the notion of equal political rights of citizens and communities, this validation from the new universal Lord of (Christian) monotheism won out. For every individual this amounts to the incarnation of truth; it is signalized and symbolized by the Son’s incarnation into Jesus, by the breath of the Holy Ghost “in-spiring” such inner truth. In the logocratic tradition of Christianity, mediated by a Holy Scripture and its exclusive interpreters and enforcers, this is the verbum vitae, the Word of Life in direct genealogical relation to the Creator, Truth as the offspring of monotheistic authority. In spite of Bacon’s reply that Truth was the Daughter of Time (i.e. of understanding through experiment), Romantic anthropology held fast to this Central or Nuclear Truth of Man, a supreme value which has to be unveiled as the dazzling Thai”s and Phryné or shelled as peas from the pod. Every individual was a subject of the Lord, but he also had a divine right to be himself because she had a divine spark in herself.

This Promethean spark — the soul — thus persisted after the Catholic Lord had been supplanted by Protestantism and humanism:

In modern Europe the idea of a planned creation of the world order by one single God was secularized, and thus prepared in the interior of people the way to creating a system of formal rights, a rationally organized bureaucracy, and a unified monetary system through the absolute monarch as the free subject of responsibility. The ideational mediation was here exercised by none less than Descartes, who separated spirit from matter and undertook the construction of the world of experience through the cognitive subject (reason [and Self in my sense, DS]) following the principle of the “cogito.” (Maruyama 56)

It was Descartes (or at least the “Descartes” of European intellectual history, cf. Suvin “Polity” passim) who transplanted from theology to lay philosophy the image “of a single inner space in which bodily and perceptual sensations…, mathematical truths, moral rules, the idea of God, moods of depression, and all the rest of what we now call ‘mental’ were objects of quasi-observation” (Rorty 50). Of course, “There was nothing farther from Greek culture [or from other non-individualist cultures, e.g. in East Asia, DS] than the Cartesian cogito, the ‘I think’ set forth as a condition for and foundation of all knowledge of the world, of oneself, and of God” (Vernant, “Introduction” 11). Concomitantly, Descartes’s philosophical soul apprehended metaphysics and cognized through a reason opposed to the fallacious bodily senses. As he wrote, “this ‘me,’ that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body.” The locus of individuality and subjectivity shifts to the “Je suis,” the soul as “moi”: “I am a thinking thing,” proclaim the Meditations, whereas “I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined” (Works 1: 101 and 190). Two or three centuries later, there remained the lonely Self. Which may be leading us to understand why Barthes so urgently needed to get rid of this Nuclear True Self.

The West Asian notion of a single personalized God (with capitalized inital approximating a proper name), a (male) Creator from the chaos of base (female) matter, a “master-will external to [the] creation” (Mote 8), is significantly absent from East Asia. Such a Yahweh, God the Father or Allah is a transcendental guarantor of sense who cannot be imagined apart from a purpose or ultimate goal for his Creation and its Creatures. While polytheism entails pragmatic phenomenalism, monotheism necessarily entails teleology as its orientation in time and history, to the final triumph or revenge which will make sense (possibly after the death of all of us) of the indignities suffered by the righteous. It is not a very logical construct — in Christianity, Creation is a small temporalized interval within eternity, and it is taken back at the Last Judgment — , but exactly this proton pseudos is the original sin of historiosophy in the Euro-American tradition, most clearly in the Middle Ages and in the Romantics. In Hegel, a perspicacious Japanese critic has observed,

world history is narrated within a fundamental identity, and successive, heterogeneous “worlds” are appropriated into this as “stages.” Exteriority or difference…is sublated within interiority, as contradiction. Hegel’s spirit is in this sense the unification within a centralized, linear perspective of what had been a network of communication with multiple centers and directions. (Karatani, “One” 616).


The central spatial truth about Man’s interiority becomes here the sense-making trajectory of the World in time. But if this is so, what can be the cause of the retardation in righting the suffering? And in a universe of personalized intervention, who is the cause? Enter the Devil, an entity neither Hellenes nor East Asians have especially needed. The Demon (a sorry semantic variation on the original daimon, a polytheist entity not too dissimilar from the Japanese kami) is an agential personification of antagonistic conflict, separating it into neat oppositions so exclusive that they can be personified. The concept of polarized Good and Evil as absolute or elemental duality seems not to be present in the Japanese cultural tradition (cf. Benedict 189-91, Pelzel, Loy passim, e.g. 182ff., 218, 295ff., and the exemplary comparison of St. John’s vs. Nichiren’s apocalypses in Sansom, History 427; I draw some consequences from it in Essay 4). Conversely, in Christian tradition it is not possible to have at the centre of the main mass (though never a circle’s centre!) of the dark, female, cold, etc., force a fragment of the bright, male, hot force — and viceversa — as in the Chinese yin-yang system (though the old legends of Lucifer as archangel hint at it). A universal scapegoating principle has been found as an empty category, into which women or Jews or Blacks or communists or reactionaries may be readily thrust. Every proper Christian individual can also be seen as situated between the dark and bright angel, ferociously and ceaselessly scrutinizing his consciousness of Self for traces of perdition. “A new form of identity,” remarks Vernant about this short circuit between exteriority and its redistribution into all Subject interiors, “is brought about at that point: the human individual is in it defined by his most intimate thoughts, her secret imaginings, his nocturnal dreams, her sinful impulses, the perpetual obsessive presence in his interior of all forms of temptation.” When Augustine speaks of the “abyss of human consciousness,” this marks “the starting point of the modern individuum and personality” (Vernant, “L’individu” 36-37; see also Hadot). It only remains to equate, as of Calvinism, perdition with poverty (which makes some sense at least), and the modern marketable individual will be born out of the spirit of monotheism, moving on the tracks of teleology.

3. Traps and Amiabilities: Bodily Anthropology and Politics

3.0. The foregoing discussion of some main implications of the “Bunraku chapter” validates Karatani’s thesis that “Barthes’s project [in The Empire of Signs] was to reexamine Western thought in terms of an exteriority free of the sovereignty of the thinking subject, which would be called ‘Japan'” (“One” 624-25); in my terms, Barthes’s Japan was a place freed from the domination of Individualism, so that the Subject would need no Self, no interiority with a “soulful” centre, and therefore no God (or Devil) and no teleology. Karatani sees Barthes’s Japan as “a place of absence” of the transcendental meaning (which would be connected with the individual through the privileged conduit of Soul). I have attempted to very roughly sketch this in, and it can also be understood as the opposition of the “corps aimable” (lovable body) to the sexual repression of the body by the Father and his interiorized Word of Life.

But if Soul or Self disappears 7/, the Subject’s body does not. It remains the Subject’s anchorage and validation for saying “here” or “now,” for inscribing the Subject’s time and space into the socially recognized time and space. This holds not only for location and dating but also for the name (cf. Ricoeur 64-65). The Japanese way of prepositioning the clan name (e.g. Ki no Tsurayuki: “of the clan Ki the individual member Tsurayuki”) inscribes the Subject first of all into the superordinated group, and the habit of name-announcing (in the battles, or in the nanori of Noh plays) tells us why: so as to know what relation — of enmity, deference, etc. — the addressee not only could but is constrained to take. This has not disappeared in Japanese capitalism: even today, introductions are often done by prepositioning the institutional “umbrella” to the profession, in the form of “This gentleman is from such-and-such a university” or “I am from such-and-such a TV company” rather than “He teaches literature” or “I am a producer” (cf. Maruyama 102). Of course, roles are today much richer in Japan, and not exhausted by one’s official position, but then they often have to be disambiguated by specifying in which role one is speaking (Maruyama 140).

In sum, the body, phenomenologically pinpointing and validating the “inscription” of its here, now, and name into the central collective categories of space, time, and agency, grows in a devaluation of Self not less but much more important. How does it relate to other bodies, how does it perceive the natural and social universe? We can call the perception question (even etymologically) aesthetics, and expect that Barthes will have illuminating matters to say about it. But first, his understanding of the relation between bodies in “Japan” will be examined.

3.1. Clearly, sexual relations belong here, but — though they subtend and suffuse much of The Empire of Signs (see RBRB 159) — the intensely private Barthes did not choose to textualize them. His definition of the “Japanese” body could be, in fact, taken for his own ideal: “Over there the body exists, acts, unfolds itself, shows itself, gives itself, without hysteria, without narcissism, but according to a pure — though subtly discreet — erotic project” (F 18). The sexed body is one “text” which Barthes here refused to translate and articulate in natural language (he would later devote much of his writing to attempts at distinguishing the “erotic body” from the philologically discussable “pheno-text” body). It is a wise instinct: for the attempt would have exploded the whole project for colonization of semiotics by linguistics on which Barthes’s imperialist use of terms like “language” and “text” here still relies. The body’s erotics remain either fugitive general statements, as the one just cited, or presuppositions, traces, and hints, e.g. about the semiotic of arranging trysts and the accompanying delicious body language (cited in 4.1 below; and see the three handwritten notes on F 23, 27, 33; anecdotal lore about Barthes’s stay I have heard in Japan is much richer). On the other hand, however, collective bodies and their shaping of individual bodies (cf. Suvin, “Polity” and “Subject”) are scarcely acknowledged in the book. This is its central blind spot. And yet even in Europe such collectivities stood in a most intimate relation to Barthes’s subjectivity (e.g. the Tel Quel circle, the homosexual scene and its shifting position in French law and practice, the various bureaucratic educational apparati in which he participated).True, in Europe this relation is severely repressed by the unceasing barrages of individualist ideology: but the author of Mythologies was capable of looking beyond them. And in Japan, the welter of collective bodies would seem to have been quite evident. It was a series of collective bodies that paid and hosted Barthes’s stay in Japan: he was sponsored by the French government representatives, lectured at universities, was interviewed in newspapers…8/ This is seen from maps and photographs in the book, but never articulated. It is almost as if, enclosed between the Gaullists and the Stalinists, politics (for there is no other word that will do for this interplay of collective and singular bodies) had become a taboo discourse and domain for Roland Barthes. It seems totally evacuated from The Empire of Signs. Barthes’s variant of an “empty centre” sign-system knows only individuals and million-bodied crowds divisible into anthropological and esthetic body “classes,” distributively (but not collectively) accessible and beautiful in the “great syntagm of bodies” (“Des millions de corps,” F 127-33). Aisthesis (sexuality and aesthetics) yes, politics no (the lucid Barthes was later to acknowledge this quandary in an imaginary conversation with Brecht, see RBRB 57, also 172). It was a basic and weighty choice.

This is, I think, why Karatani can go on (not unjustly) to reproach Barthes that his critique of the despotic European 19th Century — in my terms the reign of the triumphant bourgeoisie — forgets that the “Japan” discovered by him is not transhistorical or eternal but also a 19th-Century creation, in its way equally despotic (“One” 625). Karatani’s objection, if sustained, would largely nullify any liberating power of Barthes’s book. I shall attempt to examine in my final section, on the evidence of the body in Japanese theatre (even that drawn from the proto-merchant-class oriented Bunraku — the evidence would be much stronger in the case of the undoubtedly pre- and non-bourgeois Noh, and I shall approach this discussion in Essays 4 and 5), how far may Barthes be rescued from it. My hypothesis is that Karatani’s critique (incidental to some weightier considerations in his essay) is partly but not fully applicable; that the Japan seen by Barthes is not only a Meiji-period creation. There is, of course, no absence of meaning but probably a surfeit of multiple meanings in Japan; only a gaijin (foreigner) protected from them through his ignorance and the privileges of his affluence, the deference and real helpfulness (one could also say amiability) shown by most Japanese to a distinguished and elderly visitor, and most of all kept outside the circuit of meanings by his lack of practical ties and commitments to any Japanese group (even to an ad hoc collective body), could have ever thought otherwise. In that sense, Barthes behaved as a photographic negative of the typical European ethnologist or utopographer: where the latter was an “objective” observer getting at the frame of meanings through particulars, he got at the subjective particulars refusing the possibility of any frame except a zero-frame (which the author of Writing Degree Zero, confusingly, at times equated with no frame, as if white or bleached were not a colour — cf. Jameson 68-69). Yet my hypothesis that Homo sapiens is a sense-making animal (shared by Barthes in some other books, cf. the quote in 0.1) requires that such a frame for sense be supplied.

Why is, to take up and possibly refunction Karatani’s terms, 19th-Century Japan in some ways radically different from 19th-Century France? A very short answer summing up a long (and disputed) argument would be: because the Meiji “restoration” was not the French Revolution but (something not foreseen in Marxist theory though not at all incompatible with it) a change of social formation initiated by a fraction of the ruling class of the ancien régime for historically explicable reasons. Diachronically, this latched on to the peculiar, very long duration, ruling-class continuity (no abrupt social revolution seems to have taken place in the Japanese islands for at least one thousand years). This has resulted in accretive layering in many domains. Tsurumi Kazuko posits even that “in the highly modernized society which Japan is today, there exist the primitive, archaic, medieval, modern, and supermodern patterns of feeling, thinking, making things, and human relationships,…piled on top of each other as geological layers” (5). This is a tad systematic for my taste, but the layering from medieval times on (with significant tribal remnants, which I suppose is what Tsurumi means by her “primitive” and “archaic”) is well-known in theatre or poetry. As she too sugests, however, much more fundamental and significant is the layering in behavioral patterns in relationships among people: for — just as the Noh, the tanka or the haiku touched upon in my following essays — they may well have preserved (and I think did preserve) structures of feeling that have vanished in practically all other urbanized and more or less affluent societies; and (paradoxically) these structures are still able to show themselves rather clearly in certain aspects and situations. For example, the claim that “to this day Japanese aesthetic perceptions and Japanese views on such matters as the true nature of love derive essentially from the court traditions of a thousand years ago” (Miner, Introduction 4) may be somewhat hyperbolic, but what matters is that it can still be seriously made. Indeed, if it were not so, I fail to understand how could there still be literally millions of faithful and enthralled audiences for and part-time participants in Noh and Kabuki performing (there is an estimate of two million students for various components of Noh in 1971 [Harris 73], and today there are probably more) or haiku and tanka writing. It is these structures of feeling that Barthes’s sensitive antennae caught.

3.2. Why did Barthes find a “lovable body” in Japanese theatre — and culture — as opposed to the fetishized body in bourgeois culture? This could be glossed as meaning that the fetishized body is either demonized as impure, or — in the Fascist populism of projected identification — reified into the stars of spectacle: theatre, mass media, spectator sports, and politics. I would like to concentrate here on the first alternative, and look at it from the well-known anthropological observation that East Asian societies have, parallel to an absence of monotheist teleology and God-Devil dualism, never invented sin — or its internalized Protestant and lay equivalent, guilt (cf. Delumeau). In the Chinese case, as Needham formulated this, the world was seen as “an ordered harmony of will without an ordainer” (cited from his Science and Civilization in China [1956], 2:287, in Mote 8). In Japan the multiplicity of kami-ordainers and their only intermittent presence, may, I would speculate, be functionally equivalent to the lack of an ordainer as a denial of transcendentalism and affirmation of immanentism or phenomenalism. At any rate, a number of writers, notably Benedict (222-25), have identified Japan too as a society where order or norms are kept through shame rather than guilt (Barthes was one of them, see G 123). In a “shame and honour culture, as opposed to guilt and duty cultures…which necessarily refer to the moral personality’s intimate conscience,” the Subject’s value, his “face,” is inscribed onto, or at least strongly dependent on, his or her body. Just as in Hellas, to that body belong “his name, his lineage, his origins, his status within the group along with the honours connected to it, the privileges and respect that he may rightfully expect, as well as his personal excellence, all of his qualities and merits — beauty, strength, courage, nobility of behaviour, self-mastery…, demeanour, bearing…” (Vernant, “Introductin” 18). Shame is an other-directed rather than inner-directed activity; it is directed towards being seen by other members of your social group rather than by God speaking through your conscience. Conflicts in a shame situation are metonymic, as of part to whole, and tend to supersession, rather than antagonistic, as of God to Devil, and tending to victory of one side (I develop this further in Essay 4). The characteristic Euro-American bodily destruction is murder, usually expressing inner impulses, the characteristic Japanese one suicide, proving one’s sincerity (makoto) to others (cf. Pinguet, Wolfe).

Now it is one of the basic commonplaces of Japanology that group-consciousness in Japan — while not at all preventing identification, heroism or great personalities, rather the contrary — nonetheless right up to the present envelops the Subject much more completely than in countries where capitalism was ushered in by a bourgeois revolution, such as western Europe or northern America. Taking some hints from Hellas, we could see personal and bodily experience as differently organized: the Subject is “an open field of multiple forces” (Vernant, “L’individu” 32), which seeks and finds itself in the various collectivities. A Japanese philosophical way of putting it is: “the wave which is produced and disappears…would be the ordinary self of man….[S]uch an ordinary subject revert[s] back from wave to water — i.e., return[s] to its source — and re-emerges as the True-Subject or True-Self…” (Hisamatsu 97). Individualism as an ideology was a “Western” export into all pre-bourgeois societies, and still seems to have a tough time to fully develop in today’s Japan. Sometimes this is ironically called “community at home, the Japanese way of doing things” (Najita 402); in standard works such as Nakamura’s it is called the emphasis on a limited social nexus, which entails that interpersonal relationships — in the family, in other limited, “clannish” groups, and on the scale of the nation as a whole — take precedence over or indeed largely constitute the individual (ch. 35). In theatre (including the Nô world) such a group is the ie, a fusion of kinship lineage, occupational specialization, and hierarchical — patriarchal — monopoly. This often means “a blind subordination to authority” arrogating itself the representation of the whole group, so that, as Hegel observed about Eastern religions, “the single Substance alone is True, and…an individual is only capable of assuming true value by uniting itself with Substance [i.e. with the Universal, DS], when this individual, however, is no longer a ‘Subject’…” (in my terms a Self — Nakamura 12-13). Such a social nexus has two complementary consequences. First, the Self is by no means a clearcut building brick of the universe, so that traditionally the Subject is not even externalized or objectified (and I don’t want to even enter upon frequent similar discussions of the grammatical subject, or of the recomplications in modern Japanese intellectual discourse — cf., e.g., Miyoshi & Harootunian 649 and a detailed discussion in Sakai):

The Japanese people, in general, do not give objective representation to the self as subject of action. In Japanese, “mizukara” (self) is not a noun but an adverb, that is, it is not perceived as an abstract conception. The word “onore” (self) is often used as a noun, but it is rare that it is used as subject. The Japanese have therefore never used words which mean self — for example, “ware,” “onore,” “mizukara” — as philosophical terms…. Thus, the Japanese people have seldom confronted objective reality as sharply distinguished from knowing subjects. This attitude may be called their common way of thinking. (Nakamura 574-75; cf. Suzuki 111ff. and 163ff.)

Obversely, every gaijin is stricken with uncomfortable awe upon seeing just how intimately relations of rank and intimacy have infiltrated the syntax and semantics of Japanese language, in a feedback cycle with people’s consciousness. This density of social networks impedes the Subject’s direct relating to general or impersonal Truths. There are even claims that historically “the Japanese on the whole have not been fully aware of th[e] relation [between the particular and the universal]” (Nakamura 535-36), so that they have deficient logical or abstracting powers. The great Japanese Confucianist Ogyû Sorai remarked: “The great sage rulers of the past taught by means of [particular] ‘things’ and not by means of [universal] ‘principles.’…In ‘things’ all ‘principles’ are brought together, hence all who have long devoted themselves to work come to have a genuine intuitive understanding of them.” (Nakamura 537) The most cherished Western abstract principles, applicable to every individual Self regardless of its personality, are unknown in this way of thinking: “There appears to be no close Chinese or Japanese analogy to [the abstract idea of Justice]” (Sansom, History 81).

All of this can be best seen and documented in Japanese literature. It is difficult to find in the virtuoso tankas and haiku that the poet’s subjectivity is being upheld as the touchstone of happiness or suffering, beauty or goodness, as certainly happens in Europe already with Sappho, Catullus or Ovid, and even more so from Petrarca on. The subjective, individualistic time is in Japan recuperated into the cycles of cosmic and social time; even aging and loss are socially recognized commonplaces which the tanka poet approaches (to put it into a medieval European slogan) as non nova sed nove — by new variants of the same thematic field. The classical Japanese “narrative agents” are oriented outward, towards others, as in the Shining Prince Genji’s many loves, or in Sei Shônagon’s and Kenkô’s zuihitsu, “encyclopedic” (or should one say miscellaneous) sketch-collections of bric-a`-brac observations. They do not constitute a closed interiority only within which they may be authentic, as in the novels from Don Quixote on. “I think, therefore I am” (or even: “I feel, therefore I am”), would make as little sense to a pre-Meiji Japanese as for a pre-Augustinian Hellene or Roman. This is properly (and has been) matter for book-length studies, but I want to solidify this rapid sketch with two indicative references.

First, for classical literature, with Miner’s persuasive overall argument that in Japanese collections of verse, as a rule, the Western “single identifiable personality [is] dispersed in favor of multiple personality and narratorship… [, with] integrity assumed to exist at the collective level” (“Collective” 43). Japanese poetry reveals “a conception of collective integers, of large, composite wholes that the very brevity of the poetic units either made possible or was in fact responsible for encouraging” (“Collective” 53-54). In other words, the identity of the poets, named and anonymous, who participate in a tanka collection or a linked-verse sequence as a kind of extended family or improvised clan, is in a feedback with the participation in this polyphonic enterprise. The group enterprise allows them scope for a voice both recognizable as individual and continually blended with other cognate voices. Miner’s general conclusion is that, distinctively, Japanese literary entities are (I abbreviate his suggestive series for my purposes): “1. interdependent, not discrete; 2. varied, not equal in status; 3. defined by relation to other also unequal units and to a larger, composite whole…” (“Collective” 54). Second, for modern (Meiji-period) literature, beyond what Karatani has persuasively identified as its invention of the previously unknown interiority-exteriority split (Origins ch. 1 and 2), I want to briefly adduce Maruyama’s persuasive framework for its “desperate attempt to grasp the reality of an ‘I’ which was being simultaneously endangered by two gigantic forces that propelled the Japanese ‘modernity’ forward — the ‘family’ (ie) and the bureaucratisation.” He pinpoints four main circumstances that determined modern Japanese literature:

[F]irst, the character of the Japanese language, which is no doubt extraordinarily rich in words expressing emotional and sensual nuances, but at the same time poor in words for theoretical or general concepts. [S]econd, and relatedly: the tradition of Japanese literature to express human feelings by means of seasonally changing nature, respectively to observe most precisely people’s behaviour and relationships and to lay hold in extremely refined language of their tiniest emotional movements. [T]hird, [Japanese] Realism… easily combined with […the] tradition of absolutizing concrete reality and sticking to direct sensual experience.. ..[F]ourth, the literati were…’superfluous’ existences, which had deviated from the ‘normal’ way of an imperial-Japanese subject. (Maruyama 66)

This list gives much food for thought as to the character of Barthes’s convergence with the epistemology of both the traditional and (as Karatani well argues) the Meiji-period Japanese literature.

3.3. Of course, there are traps here, of great danger. Nakamura rightly objects against some of the huge generalizations which I have been surveying in 3.2 that they cannot define any essential “Orient,” since e.g. the European Middle Ages had some very similar characteristics (12-17; cf. Barker, especially his remarks on Hamlet’s empty interior, 36-37). I would be inclined to accept this, and take all the above traits as manmade in a contingent history, which might be traced back to smaller human power in face of nature, the social formation of “Oriental despotism,” and other factors, none of which is confined to Asian soil. Surely the very long duration of pitiless upper-class dictatorship — say the Fujiwara or the Tokugawa eras — has something to do with people’s habit of obedience to it and its infiltration into or indeed moulding of language (such as the inescapable “politeness registers” of all Japanese propositions). Nonetheless, even when we have disposed of any “racial” causality, more important queries remain. And centrally, should what we would today feel as an at least semi-fascist collectivism be revaluated at the expense of bourgeois individualism, now that the latter is triumphantly threatening to destroy our globe, or should that individualism be praised at the expense of such a stifling collectivism?

The question is badly put and as such allows of no intelligent answer. Should we say, with Foucault, that knowledge generated by the centred Self is simply an avatar of power, so that Said’s determination of maleficent Orientalism could be a metonymy for all such knowledge? I think knowledge is not wholly reducible to the apparatus which produced it, and that Foucault’s assumption of a deep genetic taint or authoritarian Original Sin is over-hasty. But even if Foucault’s indignation were right, would we therefore have to go back to the Right-wing chauvinism of kokutai, and attribute the really specific traits of Japanese culture or semiotic constellation to either race or an unchanging nature outside social history? The attraction of kokutai, the ideology of a specifically Japanese “national body,” was that it was originally “neither something fully interior nor fully exterior” so that it could be used to conjure away the limits of State authority in relation to its subjects (Maruyama 48) — and to the Subjects in my sense. Tennôism, the (mostly fictitious) central position of the imperial house was proclaimed to be “the nucleus of State order [which was] itself made into the nation’s spiritual axis” (Maruyama 45). This was eventually theorized in a sophisticated variant of near-Fascism, as in Nishida Kitarô’s eulogy of the emperor precisely as the locus of nothingness (see S. Tsurumi 67), or of straight Fascism, e.g. in Watsuji Tetsurô’s pernicious worship of the State, transposed from Hegel’s Prussia to the Japanese empire as “the expression of the absolute whole which is the same as absolute negativity or absolute emptiness,” and opposed to Anglo-Saxon selfishness and Hobbean individualism as ethics to quantification, as Gemeinschaft to profit society (Bellah 581 and passim, and cf. the brilliant analysis by Sakai). (Lest I be accused of vague metaphoricity when I speak of Fascism, let me note that the undoubtedly perspicacious and dialectical Watsuji studied in Germany and belongs, I think, to what J.-P. Faye has called “the left wing of Fascism,” e.g. Pound, Jünger, or Heidegger — the S.A. rather than the S.S. faction, in German terms.) In sum, should we really conclude that Oriental despotism is better? Surely the thrust of Karatani’s article on the “two 19th centuries,” say Benthamite and Meiji, is to warn us against plumping for either horn of this dilemma; and I would answer we should not. A dose of if not individualism then certainly individuality (i.e. the self-affirmation of one’s Subject) and civic consciousness (i.e. the recognition of the dignity of other Subjects) — values consubstantial with the great bourgeois revolutions — might just be what an average Tokugawa, Meiji, or even present-day Japanese subject needed. Obversely, the war of each against each would obviously destroy Japan more quickly than most other nations (much of Watsuji can be understood from this). My conclusion is that we should exclaim “A plague on both your houses,” with the lovers Romeo-Juliet, their amiable bodies, and their fantastic theoretician Mercutio.

Now, one of Barthes’s central epistemological passages is the amateurish reading of mu (emptiness) in his fragment “Centre-ville, centre vide.” It identifies as consubstantial with (this version of) mu the invisible emperor, a sacred “nothing” and nobody who is “an evaporated idea, existing there not in order to irradiate any power but to confer to the urban movement the support of his central emptiness” (F 43-46, underlined DS). Now mu or so-called Oriental Nothingness has many characteristics the debate about which fills volumes, and it is difficult to make a semantically non-empty statement about it. The nearest one could come, however, would probably be that it means also (as Nothingness should) “without inner or outer” (Hisamatsu 82). Furthermore and clearly, in the light of the deeply repressive history and ideology only faintly hinted at in the preceding paragraph and culminating in the tennôist axis becoming a part of the world fascist Axis, Barthes swallowed a goodly dose of second-rate (or, as in the case of his Nietzschean affinities to Nishida and Watsuji, first-rate) Right-wing metaphysical politics. His mu reading thus reproduces as a deep insight “the epistemological structure of the Japanese [post-Meiji] State” (Maruyama 50), falling, as it were, from the Law of the Mythological Father into the Law of the Deified Grandfather. To do so because it was served up in a pseudo-Buddhist sauce and kanji calligraphy seems to me at the least profoundly naive, and at the worst profoundly misleading. It casts grave doubt on the whole enterprise of evacuating sense: you expel meaning and power from the centre, it recurs as imperial traffic direction…9/

4. Illuminations: Body as Aesthetics

4.0. Is, then, The Empire of Signs merely the sign of another, Nietzschean empire? I trust not. In spite of his unsatisfactory framework of explanation, Barthes may have through a Kantian aisthesis caught aspects of a non-bourgeois structure of feeling. That is predicated on believing, as I do, that a spread running from topological orientation and emotions as implied in body language through space arts and music to sung lyrics and fiction, i.e. from non-conceptualized through not fully conceptualized understanding, may be just as cognitive as conceptual verbalization or mathematics, though in different, complex and still poorly understood ways (this is argued at some length in Suvin, “Cognitive”). As Nietzsche also observed: “Thou sayest ‘I’ and art proud of this word. But the greater one …is your body and its great sense [Vernunft — intelligence, understanding]: it does not say ‘I’ but it performs ‘I'” (28-29). Yet no doubt, the corollary of the potentially cognitive character of X (standing for anything) is the potential use of X for lying and mystification. Metaphors may be used for lying, music in concentration camps, and the fetishization of image as against word, or of aesthetics against politics, has since Brecht and Benjamin been recognized as a hallmark of fascism. There be tygers here; but in certain circumstances, there is much grace in a tiger.

A further query might be raised as to the place of such non-conceptual cognition in Barthes’s opus and in this particular book. Isn’t it enclosed within an unsatisfactory (anti-)system as a small ghetto, a vent for the unsatisfied which combines attention to human sensuality with disinterest in political de-alienation, in a manner reminiscent of the famous sex-cum-art quarters of major Japanese cities of the Edo period, e.g. the Yoshiwara one in Edo city, with its courtezans, kabuki, and ukiyo-e prints? My feeling is that this is often so, and that this should not be forgotten, but that I can pick up and clean up the somewhat tainted raisins from Barthes’s cake, and reuse them to my taste.

4.1. For, on the bright side, Barthes is much stronger and more believable as an attentive observer of lovable bodies than as theoretician (witness the clever disaster of his Elements of Semiology, which he was just sloughing off in Japan). The materiality of the body, understood as the materiality of signs — or better, of signifiers — is something Barthes can relate to directly, without bothering about the signified, without having to exorcize the “inner truth.” As with Janus, the negative face whose gaze empties the centre is accompanied by the positive face whose gaze caresses the body, and which may be well glimpsed in the fragment “Sans paroles” (F 17-18). For complex historical reasons of the Cartesian tradition as well as of Barthes’s individual history, the negation is associated with language, with the Word, demonized in Manichean fashion as The Other of the body (rather than as an instrumental part or function of the body). “Living in the interstice, freed from all full sense,” having lost his “mother tongue,” dispenses Barthes from all its identifications which are also alienations — nationality, status, normality, etc. (He would have been totally unable to enjoy Japan had he filled in its “empty meanings” by learning Japanese!) On the other hand, while this interstitial status makes for poor theorizing that throws language out with the soul, it allows Barthes some — to my mind — quite significant insights into sense. It supplies him with a vantage point from which to challenge bourgeois logocracy (in theatre, say, that of Realist dramaturgy), whose slogan is: “There is no communication except by word.” I have indicated earlier how direct a monotheistic filiation can be found for this slogan, which is a technocratic translation of verbum vitae. To the contrary, in Barthes’s Japan:

It is not the voice (with which we identify the “rights” of the person) which communicates (communicates what? our — necessarily beautiful — soul? our sincerity? our prestige?), but the whole body (eyes, smile, the lock, gestures, clothing) which enters with you into a sort of babble which the perfect domination of codes has stripped of all regressive, infantile character. To settle a rendez-vous (by means of gestures, drawings, proper names) takes, no doubt, one hour, but during that hour, for a message that would have cancelled itself out in an instant had it been said (simultaneously essential and insignificant), it is the whole body of the other which had been reconnoitered, assayed, received, and which has unfolded (to no true end) its own story, its own text. (F 18)

I wish to close this essay with what I think may be recuperated from a decoding and recoding — better, desemanticizing and resemanticizing — of Barthes starting from the “Sans paroles” fragment.

Some careful disentangling may be necessary here. As I suggested above, it is a logically illicit, hyperbolic trick to pass from a voice that in a given situation — i.e., when one is ignorant of the language — cannot be used for communication (“Ce n’est pas la voix…qui communique….”) to a metaphysical opposition between bad voice and good body (by which is meant “eyes, smile…gestures…,” that is the body minus verbal apparatus). There is a conflation and confusion in this book between saying that the utopian body (in later works described as the body of jouissance) is “the whole body,” a totality of all human sense channels and sign-systems, and saying that it is what remains after subtracting verbal communication, that dominant form of bourgeois or post-Cartesian rationality and explanation. A formulation that fits better human communication, and its foregrounding in the exemplary theatrical reality, is (as a rule — with exceptions such as dance and mime, which Barthes never addresses) that it is not only, but then also, the voice which communicates (cf. Hoff’s well-taken critique of his depreciation of voice as preventing a full appreciation of Bunraku). Though Barthes does not, it seems to me, fetishize images, his devaluation of voice and language (coming at the heels of, possibly as a penance for, his phase of linguistic imperialism) is perilously near to a fetishization of the body: his awareness of that proximity is present, I think, in his preemptive denial of being regressive.

The second clash of denotations and connotations has to do with infantile vs. adult. Barthes pointed out above that the body’s semiotic, non-voiced “babble” is not infantile, simply unripe: “[T]he infantile phase… consists in not reflecting on language…: obviously, this refusal to turn language back upon itself is an open invitation to major ideological impostures” (G 144). To the contrary, the utopian body — or, I would say more precisely, the body’s bearing or stance — is ostended in its own right and as its own goal, sensually and cognitively. But elsewhere at that same period, Barthes seems to equate babble with nonsense: “l’appareil du sens n’est pas détruit (le babil est évité)” (“Sorties” 58 — tr.: “the apparatus of sense is not destroyed, babble is avoided”). He was to comment on this, tongue in cheek: “Il faut que le babil japonais ne soit pas régressif, puisque les Japonais sont aimables” (RBRB 154: “Japanese babble cannot be regressive, since the Japanese are lovable”).

This account of corporeal channels of semiosis could be somewhat (not fully — there are too many opaque spots and double entendres in Barthes) disambiguated and re-presented as:


Infants have a valid biological excuse for their lack of mastery of the language code; the bourgeois have none for their lack of mastery of the gestual code or (combined with voice) the holistic stance; and indeed historically one would have to assume they fell into this monophony from some kind of a more intimate union of natural language with body or haptic language, e.g. the one adumbrated by Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility” or any such similar Right-wing or Left-wing accounts of the original sin of the bourgeoisie contracting out of its popular or plebeian matrix. When children, before their full bourgeois socialization, “babble” in pre-speech mode, or when they later take up holistic bodily stances, they do so spontaneously or as it were “naturally,” without a self-reflective knowledge of the “language” used. Bourgeois acculturation substitutes for this an inimical, repressive second nature that fragments the original wholeness, privileging the sole voice (by which, again, Barthes does not mean singing but only verbally articulated voice). Pre-bourgeois, “Japanese,” acculturation latches on to the children’s gestual babble (and at some stage their verbal babble, which after all supplies the vehicle for this metaphor), but now with a knowledge of “codes” or semiotic conventions that enables self-correction of ideological blind spots and an undogmatic facing of new situations. The upper right case is wholly negative, the worst case — that’s us, the Parisian or “European” addressees of Barthes’s original notes and book. In a mirror symmetry to this dystopia or hell, the lower right case is the best case, the positive utopia or earthly paradise which can only be glimpsed by Barthes in an imaginary Japan.

Isn’t this somewhat Rousseauist, the children — and the Japanese — “trailing clouds of glory” (Wordsworth) before being corrupted by bourgeois civilization? No doubt; and yet that is not the point. To particularize the argument from the end of 4.0 and change its metaphor: The point is where can one get to from this somewhat improvised springboard. I prefer to desemanticize Barthes’s original ideological aspect and to begin with approach a discussion of channels of semiosis as a technical or syntactic one: semantically neutral, it shows us preconditions for de-alienated communication. The semantic fulness of the lower right case is then for the moment secondary — as befits the good nowhere of utopia.

4.2. Returning at the end to the earlier mention in 0.5 of the (in Barthes notionally subordinate) section on Bunraku, “The Three Writings,” the relation of voice to bodily movement in theatre may be educed, with leads from Barthes but possibly taking his vector beyond him, to carry on to emotion, labour vs. art, and a chance for gestural critique of ideology. Such a reading of Barthes clearly dovetails with what Brecht was getting at; if you wish, I am “boldfacing” (Eco) the Brechtian aspect of Barthes. Most important, theatre as an activity (performing) is here being taken, in a very Brechtian way, as simultaneously an experimental laboratory for and condensation of everyday life: these are confrontations of bourgeois and non-bourgeois behaviour-patterns.

   BOURGEOIS THEATRE                                           BUNRAKU
(BOURGEOIS PRACTICE)                                 (NON-BOURGEOIS PRACTICE)10/

   Body dominated by voice                                   Body separated from voice

    Gesturer identical with                                        Gesturer separate from
gesture                                                                    gesture

     Activity of gesturer (actor)                                  Activity of openly ostending
conditional on activity of                                    gesture as activity
hiding it under the charac-
ter’s gesture

       Gesturer, hidden under the                               Gesture emotional (causing
character’s emotion, indu-                                 emotion), gesturer is not
ces the same emotion in                                     Stage role induces emo-
him/herself                                                         tion in spectator

        Gesture depends on emotion                           Gesture causes emotion
Conflation, fusion of ele-                                  Separation of elements/media
ments/media on stage to                                 on stage, addition in
infect spectator spectator

          Only art exhibited, labour                              Both labour and art exhibit-
suppressed as impure                                     ed, no shame in physicality

          Strict separation art:labour                            No profound separation art:
analogous to class hierar-                               labour, art is a (crowning)
chy bourgeois:worker                                      kind of labour

           Emotion contagious, submerges                  Emotion fluctuating — strong
passive spectator identi-                                  but dependent on active
fying with central charac-                                traffic with spectator;
ter/s/ “striated” stage media

           No psychic distance                                          Fluctuations of distance

           Empathy only                                                     Sympathy/antipathy

           Necessarily ideological                                      Critique of ideology possible

Clearly much work remains to be done in spelling out and clarifying the connecting links and implications within the above isotopies. But if The Empire of Signs had given us nothing else but a possibility to reopen this discussion today, it would suffice as proof of its usefulness.

It should be, finally, remembered that the French sens has three main connotations: those of meaning, corporeal sense(s) such as sight and touch (from which are derived “sensuality” and “common sense”), and orientation of movement (Barthes himself occasionally remarked on “the precious ambiguity” of the first and third connotations, calling them “signification and vectorisation” — “Sortie” 52). The third connotation is mostly lost in English. Nonetheless, senses as making sense seem to me a valid line of materialist defense and possibly even of a new advance — if not arrested by refusals of meaning or sense.11/ Barthes may, at the end, not transcend the abyssal depths (a metaphor that runs from Augustine to Heidegger) of the individualist Self — how could any of us do that? His systematic tendency is to proclaim, with Mallarmé and Nietzsche, that the abyss is empty — a negative but still monotheistic theology. Yet, like a motorcycle rider on the vertical walls of the circus, he is skating over the abyss on the strength of his nimble centrifugal wit. And the resulting “horizontal,” ludically skewed glance may have its values. Duly heeding the needful caveats, which I have tried to develop in the wake of Karatani, further uses of a “recoded” Barthes should be found. As I mentioned, this might be profitably done on the material of Noh plays, and in the proximity of Brecht’s stance.


1/ My special thanks go to Jean-Pierre Vernant, for materials (including an unpublished typescript) and discussions on the subject of the Subject, of which he is both a pioneer and a master. The analogies between his descriptions of Hellas and my speculations on Japan, based on the tertium comparationis of non-individualist or pre-bourgeois culture, are my responsibility (yet let us remember that Barthes had been a student of Classics).

2/ In subsequent quotations, F will indicate L’Empire des signes and G Le Grain de la voix; both are cited largely using but also changing the English translations adduced in the “Works Cited.” RBRB will indicate Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, any non-attributed English translations being here, as elsewhere, mine.

3/ Some lines of Haraway’s own “binary dichotomization” chart of notions or “production” of body in bourgeois vs. postmodern biomedical thought (12-13) could be profitably compared to this chart, here in particular “Depth, integrity” vs. “Surface, boundary” and “Individual” vs. “Replicon.” Further dicussion of caress would have to come to grips with Sartre’s l’Etre et le Néant opposition between desire-caress and thought-language, obviously fundamental for Barthes too.

4/ E.g. Saigyô 34, 56, 69, and 86, cf. Konishi’s comment 81-82, and for religious implications Grapard 199-201 and passim. A suggestive piece of evidence for “depth” as a horizontal vector in Japanese verse is given by two successive translations of Tamekanu’s tanka “Edo ni moru” from the Gyokuyôshû (early 14th Century) with the participation of the same translator. In them, the final lines “Suzushisa ni fukaki/ Take no oku kana” are first translated as “…where the coolness/ Is deep within the bamboo grove,” and later “radically adapted” into “…the coolness further deepens/ The back of the bamboo grove” (Brower-Miner 366 vs. Konishi 406, the latter translation edited by Miner; italics mine). Further uses of “fukaku” and terms with the same stem in such meanings (far back, deep grasses) can be found in Carter ed. 202 and 214 for the 14th Century, also 310, 319, and passim.

5/ I suppress some matters in Vernant which do not fit into my argument. See for a much longer discussion of this Cartesian Self Suvin, “Polity,” and the whole special issue “Non-Cartesian Subjects, East and West,” in which that essay was published.

6/ Usually, however, it can be observed that there are limitations on groups admitted to fully individual status, roughly similar to the Athenian exclusion of women, children, slaves, strangers, and other “speaking cattle” from democracy. Much of the Foucauldian micro-politics latching on to “human rights,” from Blacks to gays and indeed “animal rights,” consists of breaking down these limitations.

7/ This matter of “the soul” in the Chinese cultural sphere (as in the Mediterranean Antiquity) is complex, much debated, and studded with semantic traps. So far as I understand it, invisible principles of life were certainly present, but usually multiple, often quite material, and as a rule “unsuited as a carrier of Ego” (Liebenthal 334); the Buddhist ghosts and demons, e.g., are different incarnations in material transmigrations (ibidem 337). My use is limited to the main denotation in any Western or post-Christian encyclopedia: the Soul as transcendent equivalent of an atomic human Self.

8/ Barthes submitted his annual report for 1965/66 as “Directeur d’études” of the “Sociologie des signes, symboles et représentations” in Annuaire 1966-1967, École pratique des hautes études, Section des sciences économiques et sociales, 239-40. In it, he lists under his “Activité scientifique,” beside a seminar in Morocco and one review, his “mission au Japon, auprès des Instituts français et des Universités (mai 1966).” I am beholden to J.-P. Vernant for a copy of this report.

9/ Strangely enough, in Barthes’s first (and masterly) book, Michelet, he already evinces the same attraction to the empty centre, finding it in Michelet’s medieval French kingship, whose “strength comes from its emptiness” (27), and indeed in Michelet’s France which Barthes deciphers as being composed of the Ile-de-France negative (!) nucleus and the outlying “positive” provinces (29) — an everted Rutherfordian atom, as it were. He even sees Michelet as identifying all the feeble kings (as well as Thomas à Beckett and Jeanne d’Arc!) with the people and Christ (34). This strange Barthesian nostalgia for a holy, feminized monarchy finally found its existing representative in the tennô.

10/ These two columns or isotopies can at the furthest level of useful generalization be called Pseudo-Nature vs. Counter-Nature (“l’ acteur est sauvé s’il fait partie de la contre-Physis, condamné s’il appartient à la pseudo-Physis,” RBRB 131; cf. Suvin, To Brecht 118-19). An even pithier formula of Barthes’s runs: “Il demande à l’acteur un corps convaincu, plutôt qu’une passion vraie” (RBRB 180: “He requires from the actor a convinced body rather than a true paasion”).

11/ Here a whole post-Fregean or Ricoeurian discussion would be needed to differentiate meaning and sense, but this too must be reserved for another occasion. I attempt to approach this discussion in relation to Shakespeare criticism in Suvin, “Modest.”

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Barthes, Roland. L’Empire des signes. Genève-Paris: Skira-Flammarion, 1970 (Empire of Signs. Transl. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, s.a.). [Cited in my text by page of French as F + number, in an English translation largely using but also changing the above one.]

—. Le Grain de la voix. Paris: Seuil, 1981 (The Grain of the Voice. Transl. Linda Coverdale. Berkeley: U California P, 1991). [Cited in my text by page of English translation as G + number, in a translation largely using but also changing the above one.]

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—. Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes. Paris: Seuil, 1975.

—. “Les Sorties du texte,” in Philippe Sollers ed., Bataille. Paris: UGE, 1973, 49-73.

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— -. Origins of Modern Japanese Literature. Transl. and ed. B. de Bary. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Konishi, Jin’ichi. A History of Japanese Literature, Vol. 3: The High Middle Ages. Transl. Aileen Gatten and Mark Harbison, ed. Earl Miner. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

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Maruyama, Masao. Denken in Japan. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988.

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Darko Suvin                                                                                                        (1995, 16,360 words)

Critique is not a passion of the head, but the head of a passion.
(Karl Marx)

0. One of the central and centrally vexed questions of the theory of the Subject, and of epistemology (theory of knowledge) in general, is the relationship of “emotion” and “reason” in people. I propose to discuss here some key problems of this relationship with help of new insights in several converging disciplines. My approach begins by centripetally assembling and strengthening arguments that deny the split between emotion (and/or imagina­tion) vs. cognition; and I shall conclude by doubting the rele­vance of this whole — and any homologous — unhealthy polarization. This would mean that the concept and connotations of reason should be envisaged anew so as to acknowledge the major role of topological thinking within it, from which conceptual systems sediment as in many crucial ways quite indispensable but also inadequate precipitates.

I do not believe that Robinson Crusoe (after all, a castaway) is a paragon for shared knowledge, nor that in today’s specializa­tion run amuck there can be any overview without standing on the shoulders of many predecessors; and I shall proceed by focussing in most sub‑sections on carefully selected, privileged midwives for understanding — from some history of philosophy (Kant, Hegel), philosophy of cognition (Johnson) and a feminist contribution to epistemology (Jaggar), through discursive rhetorics (Angenot) to psychology (Gendlin) and metaphorology (Black, Ricoeur), with a dash of sociology of knowledge (Weber), AI theory (Minsky), Neo‑Marxism (Williams, Jameson), and cognitive psychology‑cum‑lin­guistics (Langacker, Petitot) thrown in for good measure, while other major stimuli (Marx, Brecht and Benjamin, Freud, phenome­nology, hermeneutics) remain mainly implicit. Of course, this essay does not at all pretend to exhaustive coverage or even survey, either insofar as the possible disciplines or insofar as the interlocutors inside the selected disciplines are concerned. My foci were in both cases chosen for vividness and what I take to be salience, as instances which are themselves meta‑instanc­ings for my argument that arguing by induction, by instances, and finally by analogy is cognitively legitimate.2/

  1. Cognitive Reason vs. Non‑Cognitive Emotion?: A Division Denied

 Because M. Proudhon places eternal ideas, the categories of pure reason, on the one side and human beings and their practical life, which, according to him, is the application of these categories, on the other, one finds in him from the beginning a dualism between life and ideas, between soul and body, a dualism which recurs in many forms. You can see now that this antagonism is nothing but the incapacity of M. Proudhon to understand the profane origin of the categories which he deifies.
Marx to P.V. Annenkov, 28/12/1846

1.0. Knowledge as Union of Conceptual and Non‑Conceptual Modes

The first and main obstacle to be disposed of is the still domi­nant bourgeois polarization of reason and emotion, the former faculty carrying “objective” and thus generally valid knowledge and the latter carrying “subjective,” inner feelings only — what­ever the value allotted to either of these terms, between the extremes of Romantic fixation on and Positivistic downgrading of the “emotion” pole. This has resulted in the meaning of emotion “in Psychology” being defined by the OED — begging as many ques­tions as its sources, which are here a medical journal, Emerson, and Victorian non‑fiction writings — as “A mental ‘feeling’ or ‘affection’…, as distinguished from cognitive or volitional states of consciousness”  (508, under 4b.). My thesis is, on the contrary, that a useful way of getting at what may perhaps be recuperated from this intuitive dichotomy is to postulate — fol­lowing a great deal of evidence — a much more fertile distinction between conceptuality and non‑conceptuality as modes or subdivi­sions within the overarching domain of people’s cognition, knowl­edge or understanding of their common world and existence. Tech­nically speaking, I propose that the class of “not conceptually expressibles” is not cognitively empty: e.g., that a quartet, a sculptural frieze, a theater or video performance, a metaphoric system or indeed a personal emotional Gestalt may be no less cognitive (though, no doubt, in different ways) than a conceptual system. Obviously there may and will be cognitively empty or banal symphonies, paintings, metaphors, and emotions galore, just as there  are concepts and conceptual systems galore to which almost all of us would deny a cognitive status: Bouguereau and other pompierristes are cognitively neither better nor worse than the 19th‑Century “sciences” of phrenology or prehistoric race theory, and the same holds for — say — 20th‑Century S&M pornography or Great Man charismatics vs. sociobiology or “Creation theory,” since all zeros tend to be equal. Obversely, both the conceptual and the non‑conceptual ways of understanding, when they are truly such and not institutionalized mimicries, share the quality of allowing people to deal with alternatives, i.e. with not merely or fully  present objects, aspects, and relationships (to adapt Blumenberg’s “freie Verfügung über das Ungegenwärtige,” 90). The  entities which were not present to people’s perception and re­flection now become available for evaluative inspection, choice, and subsequent intervention,  by means of a cognitive organon: conceptual, emotional or whichever. (I shall in fact end up by arguing that as a rule there is a fusion of the conceptual and non‑conceptual in articulated cognition; but in order to get there, I shall start by arguing for the possibility of non‑con­ceptual cognition.)

What can thus, in my hypothesis, count as understanding, cogni­tion or knowledge (the multiplicity of terms is itself a testimo­ny to the obscurity of this domain)? Anything, I would posit, that satisfies two conditions, or two aspects of one condition. First, that it can help us in coping with our personal and col­lective existence. Second, that it can be validated by feedback with its application in the existence, modifying it and being modified by it. I see no permanent or “anthropological” reason to allot (or withdraw) a special privilege to any human activity or faculty here, e.g. to words, numbers, geometrical figures, ar­ranged sounds, concepts, metaphors, movements or what have you; though it might almost go without saying that particular social groups in particular historical chronotopes  will always have specially privileged activities, sign‑systems, etc. Since, as Spinoza has taught us, any determination is best clarified by negation, I shall try to delimit such a concept of knowledge by positing two antonyms to it. The passive antonym — people’s state lacking knowledge — might be called nescience, ignorance or (in the time‑hallowed sensual metaphor) darkness. The active antonym — people’s state impeding knowledge — might be called misapprehen­sion, misinterpretation, mistaking or obfuscation. No doubt, these are two positions on a single globe and their spheres of influence are also spheres of confluence:  a true or full cogni­tive passivity is almost impossible for Homo sapiens sapiens, one is almost always actively mistaken or misinterpreting. Any excep­tion runs into the Socratic paradox that only when one knows that one doesn’t know X is one really nescient — and yet simultaneously scient or cognizant of one’s nescience as the first step on the road to cognition. Thus, the emotion of love, hate or fear might in some situations be just as ignorant  or obfuscatory as the conceptualized systems of racial superiority or State worship or individualism, while in other situations all of these might also be illuminating or cognitive (racial superiority in the case, say, of pigeon‑breeding, love for a life‑furthering partner or cause, emperor worship in the ancient China of the Three King­doms, individualism as opposed to the Verona vendettas of the Mon­tagues and the Capulets). In short, while it would certainly be aporetic and what’s more ridiculous for this conceptualized essay to deny the potential cognitiveness of concepts, anybody who has ever found that her or his love, fear or feeling of “being left out­” were justified will begin suspecting that it is possible to have cognition without conceptual systems.

Indeed, while the place of conceptuality within knowledge (by the way, both correct and incorrect knowledge) is universally recog­nized, a large part — probably a larger part — of our knowledge is in that sense not only conceptual. “[E]motion, like sensory perception, is necessary to human survival” (Jaggar, “Love” 155). It can and should be verbally discussed by means of concepts but it is only rarely, if ever, fully reducible to concepts and especially to conceptual systems. I do not wish to stress here such central “tacit” bodily (not only sensori‑motoric) under­standings as that of walking or riding a bicycle, though their value will be acutely felt when attempting to gain or regain them. The “topological” knowledge of how to do an intricate dance and how to model a sculptured face;  or how to find the proper inflections in a passage of Brecht, Zeami or Shakespeare; or how to read a script, a photograph, a score — is nearer to my concerns here: I cannot see in these anything that is primarily conceptu­al, but I would have ingent difficulties in understanding how they could be banished from cognition.

Obversely, I would also have difficulties in believing that even the few highly specialized pursuits, with specially invented sociolects, which claim pure conceptuality — such as philosophy  and (together with the mathematical sociolect) theoretical sciences — do not necessarily include also such non‑conceptual modes of understanding as, e.g., intuition or passion. This may be so far best studied in the case of the verbal cognition that scrambles up conceptualizing, i.e. metaphoricity. The relation of non‑conceptual and conceptual systems may be analogous to the connection by means of a thick bundle of nerves between the base of the brain, which is supposedly more associated with emotions and certainly responsible for the neuro‑chemical bath regulating the whole organism, and the frontal lobes, supposed to be the seat of the “intellectual” or conceptualizing functions (cf. Bohm and Peat 218‑19). None of this is to say that emotions are in the last 2,500 (or is it 50,000?) years more important or more valu­able, while conceptualizing is less valuable or only valuable as expression of emotions.

1.1. Division Street, Propertarian Middlesex

An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia.
Lord Macaulay

How did we, then, get into this less than helpful, indeed obfus­cating division of reason vs. emotion, into these dualistic —  intellectually scandalous but powerfully hegemonic — ontological isotopies where reason is seen as: masculine, analytic, proper to the mind, cold, objective and universal, public, etc., while emotion would be: feminine, synthetic, proper to the body, warm, subjective and particular, private, and so on? Obviously this is not an eternal but a historical way of slicing up the world of human faculties or people’s traffic with the Lebenswelt, and while genealogy may not be a sufficient explanation, a most rapid look at it promises to help us gain the proper estranging (ver­fremdend) distance.

The invention itself of stringently clear and delimited concepts as pivot of cognition seems to be due — at least in the most influential world‑historical instance of Europe — to Plato’s Socrates (cf. Weber 319). Though I would impenitently maintain this is one of the most magnificent tools of humanity, on a par with fire and story‑telling, its immediate imbrication into and long‑lasting cooptation by class‑society metaphysics, claiming eternally unchanging validity and hierarchical  “highness,” was most unfortunate. It lent itself to the further decisive break with emotion or “dissociation of sensibility” with the coming to power of the capitalist ratio, exclusively oriented by profit and founded upon book‑keeping, and with the complex reorganizations of the cultural encyclopedia attendant upon this new episteme or structure of feeling. Already the socio‑economic rise of the still politically underprivileged bourgeoisie had meant the coming to the fore of a Cartesian and Baconian epistemological individualism which split up the world into the exemplary or allegorical individual (Crusoe) and an objective reality  “out there” facing his  understanding (or, distributively, that of all individuals), yet in principle accessible to his reason. This mechanical or metaphysical materialism employed the new, powerful tools of analytical geometry and arithmetic calculation, but it could also draw upon a considerable tradition of “high” power vs. “base” matter, apparently a longue durée class‑society constant. It may be enough to recall Aristotle’s position that slaves were talking cattle while women’s souls were at best less rational and more turned toward the passions or appetites (Politics 560), reinforced by Judaism’s and Christianity’s dogmatic formulations  which equated the inferior (woman) with flesh, senses, and pas­sion as against the superior (man) who was spiritual, rational, and intellectual. The decisive twist of the screw was then the organization of labour by capitalist rationalism, which becomes the shaping principle of the European social formation, leading among other things to the calculability of — increasingly dynamic — technological factors (cf. Weber 347‑50): “Like the Platonic and Aristotelian dualism of slave society, Cartesian dualism reflects a divided society, characterized by a small, ruling stratum that exploits and appropriates the wealth created by the producers” (Berman 240, and cf. 233‑35). The post‑Carte­sian bourgeois tradition in practice and theory meant the domina­tion of a redefined, thisworldly rational thought as the individ­ual’s principal faculty for understanding, for getting at the eternal “objective” truth. While up to and including Spinoza, Locke, and Hume, or even Rousseau, passions were still taken — for better or worse — to determine human impulses, the interaction of which organized social life, by the time of the full domination of the bourgeoisie they are collapsed into “the drive for the ‘augmentation of fortune’,” as Adam Smith put it (cf. Hirschmann 108). The obverse of this calculating rationality, sentimentality or “mysticism,” was left to women, wimps, parsons, and lower classes.

This is the major result of the rich century ca. 1760‑1860, a period that cannot be dealt with here except to mention there were also submerged counter‑currents in it, of which Hegel’s dialectics will be discussed in the next sub‑section.  However, even Hegelianism soon degenerated into epigonic dogmatism, so that only a very few marginal  figures such as Marx and Kierkeg­aard drew proper lessons from it. A similar fate befell even the less radical Kantianism in the triumphant positivist Objectivism of 19th‑Century capitalism. Though I shall also have something to say about an important breakthrough which can be educed from Kant in section 2, he was still enthralled by the English empiricists’ “atomic” mental representations, and he had retained the Carte­sian ontological split between the bodily and the rational. Thus, for all his refinements and partial agnosticism, Kant rigidly separated cognitive faculties into “the formal, conceptual, and intellectual, on the one hand, and the material, perceptual, and sensible, on the other” (Johnson xxvii). His reason (Vernunft) ruled virtuously over the necessarily blind affects, passions  or appetites; though he proposed to avoid feudal despotism, inner‑directed reason was supposed to stoically command them inside the character’s conscience, as in a marriage of convenience or pater­nalistic household (cf. Grimminger 133 — the topos stems all the way from Aristotle). The consolidated 19th‑Century hegemony, whose pernicious rule is still with us today in politics, science, and everyday life, adapted the Aristotelian and Carte­sian line into a paradigm which I shall approximately character­ize through this summary by Mark Johnson:

The world consists of objects that have properties  and stand in various relationships independent of human under­standing….[T]here is one correct ‘God’s‑Eye‑View’ about what the world is really like….and correct reason mirrors this rational structure. ‑ To describe an objective reality of this sort, we need language that expresses concepts that can map onto objects, properties, and relations in a liter­al, univocal, context‑independent fashion. Reasoning to gain knowledge of our world is seen as requiring the joining of such concepts into propositions that describe aspects of reality….There is nothing about human beings mentioned anywhere in this account — neither their capacity to under­stand nor their imaginative activity nor their nature as functioning organisms…. (x)

The European tradition of a deep chasm “between our cognitive, conceptual, formal or rational side in contrast with our bodily, perceptual, material and emotional side” (xxv) culminates in such “Objectivism,” for which reason means the analysis of a perma­nently delimited object within a single neutral — value‑free and simultaneously eternally valuable — framework for inquiry. For all the changes since Descartes, dominant Euro‑American philosophy and capitalist practice, up to and including computerized corpo­rations and analytic philosophy (cf. Rorty 8‑9, whose pragmatism extends only to the latter), have held fast to it. Kleist called it the difference between metaphor people and formula people (Blumenberg 89).

1.2. The Dialectical Breakthrough

In spite of this sketchy reconstruction of a coherent objectivist or “reason‑emotion splitting” tradition, neither practice nor philosophical traditions are monolithic. Not only are most major names themselves rich and internally contradictory, but also, even though almost always severely repressed, there is an alter­native lineage: alongside Plato and Aristotle there are Epicure and Heraclitus, alongside Descartes  and the mechanists there are Gassendi, Spinoza, and Diderot; and these Benjaminian contraband side‑paths (Pach‑ und Schleichwege) broke out onto the royal road with Hegel. In what his self‑conscious language calls “a qualita­tive jump…[at] a time  of the birth and transition to a new period” (15), and in what I take to be a startling anticipation not only of Marx but also of the most interesting 20th‑Century strivings, Hegel provided a sophisticated and supple stance from which to proceed toward an adequate present understanding of the emotion vs. reason conundrum.

Hegel’s strategy was  to incorporate the already acute Romantic refusals of calculating bourgeois rationality by refunctioning a Kantian distinction and opposing a necessarily negative Verstand (literally “understanding,” to be understood as analytical intel­lect) to an axiologically positive Vernunft (literally “reason,” to be understood as sublating wisdom?). In the Foreword to the Phenomenology, he proposes to show the coming about of science or knowledge (Wissenschaft — cf. Suvin “Two Notions” and “Utopian”). Feeling and intuition (Anschauung), religious ecstasy or muddy enthusiasm, do not suffice; their “insubstantial intensity” (15) is in fact shallow, casual, and arbitrary; indeed, to stop at them would be animal (26, 13‑14, 56). A grasping (begreifen) of reality through concepts (Begriffe) is quite indispensable. True, this most wondrous and tremendous power of negating the original holistic but superficial intuition is also irreducibly allied to death. We could say that insofar as the Verstand holds fast to the static Aristotelian principle of identity in which A = simply A, it is an apotheosis of possessive individualism, of Hegel’s “pure I.” Merely analytic and individualizing (i.e. atomistic), this intellect kills. And yet, it is an indispensable step for achieving clarity and rigour, apostrophized by Hegel in one of his poetic, almost Nietzschean passages:

Death, if this is what we want to call that unreality, is the most terrible thing, and to hold fast to what is dead requires the greatest strength. A strengthless beauty hates the intellect (Verstand) because it demands what beauty cannot accomplish. But only that life which does not shy back from death and does not keep itself pure from desola­tion, but rather bears them and encloses them in itself, is the life of the spirit. The spirit gains its truth only…by looking upon the countenance of the negation, by dwelling on it. (29‑30)

This antithesis brings movement into unawakened or brutish thought and sets its course upon the return loop of such a spiral of experience (Erfahrung), toward  reconciling contradictions in being.  Conceptuality as negation of mere feeling or of intuition is thus both wrong — when claiming to be final and absolute — and yet right — when “a phase (Moment) of truth” (343). It then leads to Vernunft which is “the thinking that follows reality in its contradictions,” subsuming identity and non‑identity. Having his own agenda as a professional philosopher, Hegel sometimes sounds as if this overarching knowledge or Wissenschaft  must itself be primarily conceptual (e.g. 44, 57). But on the whole, though in his time he rightly refused obscurantist appeals to muddy (reli­gious) feeling, his fluid dialectics give a place both to cogni­tive division and cognitive unity, as “perhaps the central and most ‘mind‑blowing’ idea of the Hegelian system” (Taylor 116 and 49, and cf. passim). Despite the post‑Marxist fashion for deni­grating Hegel (whose historiosophy certainly merits it), I pro­pose to start from some of his dialectical insights.

 1.3. Cognitive Emotions: Epistemology and Hegemony

The 17th‑Century chasm between emotion and reason was largely created to deny the medieval religious syncretism of truth and dogmatic value. Now, discrete facts were sundered from value or evaluation, which is inescapably tied up with emotional orienta­tion. The overriding presupposed, and supposedly value‑free, system of modern “positive science” was an equally monotheistic jealous god, tolerating no other values beside itself. It is the heretical and subversive movements of socialists, psychologists (psychoanalysts, and only lately clinical and cognitive psycholo­gists), and feminists in the last 150 years who have most system­atically developed alternative approaches across this chasm. The influence of two of the earliest great doubters of free‑floating ideas and pure conceptual systems will (I hope) be felt in my own position rather than in retracing theirs. This is, first and foremost, Karl Marx, whose project might be fairly described as taking “[Hegel’s] idea of reason [and superseding it] by the idea of happiness” (Marcuse 293). Aristotle characterizes happiness as “the highest of all good achievable by action,” and action itself as the end or telos aimed at by passions in an immature person and opposed to the telos of knowledge (Ethics I.3‑4). Marx’s project denies all such opposition between passion and knowledge, achieving in its own passionate cognition that overriding, indis­pensable synthesis between Rationalism and Romanticism which is still a beacon if not the horizon for any enterprise such as this one (cf. also Gendlin, “Critique” 266‑68). Second, it is Sigmund Freud: in spite of my grave doubts about his essentializing approach and much of his systematics, which entail refusing the centrality of an “Oedipus Complex” and of any “depth” topology of the soul, the great achievement of his mostly intuitive narrative can be seen in his rich descriptions of “overdetermined” experi­ence, of the quite metaphoric condensation and  displacement (Verdichtung und Verschiebung) characteristic of dreams, jokes, etc.; one formulation encapsulates it as the reinstatement of “the economics of affects…as an economics of the unconscious” (de Certeau 218; cf. also  a critique in Suvin, “Subject”).  As to the women’s liberation tradition from, say, Woolf on, in this sub‑section I shall attempt to strengthen my case by using a number of propositions from an excellent brief overview by Alison Jaggar in “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.” Her article is to my mind of general epistemic validity, not to be segregated into a feminist enclave, and it will at a couple of crucial junctures  be conjoined with the Neo‑Marxist positions of Raymond Williams.

Jaggar points out that the concept itself of emotion, both as paired off against reason and in its inner articulation, is not only different in different societies but indeed invented as a closed semantic field only in some of them. I would instance that in Japanese culture the term and concept of “kokoro” means equal­ly what is in English expressed by a person’s disposition, heart, mind, feeling, spirit or conception, i.e. something like the aware and feeling essence of personality (since the Japanese have no Christian concept of “soul,” awareness is awareness of one’s embodied  personality, not split between reason and emotions — cf. Suvin “Soul”). Jaggar continues by a working delimitation of emotions which I too shall follow, excluding “automatic physical responses and nonintentional sensations, such as hunger pangs,” and backgrounding the term of “feelings” as too suggestive of physiological sensation (148), whereas emotions are disposition­al, i.e. both oriented toward certain targets and not necessarily only momentary. Most important, emotions are not in some kind of totally non‑rational limbo or “dumb”; they comprise not only feeling but also orientedness or intention. This “cognitivist” view of emotion has illustrious precursors; William James wrote: “so surely as relations between objects exist in rerum naturâ, so surely, and more surely, do feelings exist to which these rela­tions are known” (1: 245). Emotions are here identified “by their intentional aspect, the associated judgment” (Jaggar 149). Of course, asking just how does the feeling or affect and the cogni­tion interact in any specific emotion is to find out that this considerable advance is still partly caught up with the old mechanical dichotomies, whereas to my mind (if we cannot manage without binaries yet) a chemical osmosis or cybernetic feedback would be a much more appropriate, Hegelian model.

In this perspective, Jaggar embarks upon some discussions that seem most cognate to my interests here. First, emotions are clearly social constructs which use biological potentialities in a number of culturally overdetermined ways. In that sense, per­sonal concepts and emotions relate to the dominant social con­cepts and emotions as Saussure’s parole and langue.  Centrally, Jaggar argues that “[i]f emotions necessarily involve judgments, then obviously they require concepts, which may be seen as so­cially constructed ways of organizing and making sense of the world” (151). In a consubstantial parallel, “emotions provide the experiential basis for values,” so that these two induce each other (153); values and value judgments are in close feedback with emotion. I would doubt that the concepts required for emo­tions are necessarily very clear, but certainly emotions are in each person hugely inflected by the semantic hierarchies we are most powerfully socialized into (e.g. the undoubtedly strong macho emotions about female virginity or chastity). As for values or evaluations, they are both intimately inflected by concepts and in immediate experience, no doubt, emotional.

It is illuminating, I think, to prolong this argument with help of Gramsci’s and Raymond Williams’s hegemony, an overarching  “structure of feeling” unthinkable without emotions. Parallel to and subtending many kinds of direct political control, social group and class control, and economic control, Williams argues, hegemony is a complex of interlocking forces that

[while not excluding] the articulate and formal meanings which a dominant class develops and propagates…sees the relations of domination and subordination, in their forms as practical consciousness, as in effect a saturation of the whole process of living….It [hegemony] is a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world. It is a lived system of meanings and values…which…constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society…. (109‑10, emphasis added)

Within this magnetic field of an always “already there” hegemony (or, more rarely, a battlefield of competing hegemonies), emo­tions necessarily tend toward what Jaggar optimistically calls “active engagements” and what I would more prudently call bear­ings or stances (cf. Suvin “Brecht: Bearing”). Though the domi­nant notion about emotions is that they must be largely involun­tary and private, they are never only such. In the most signifi­cant cases (e.g. in art, which is among other things an education of cognitive emotions), they  are indeed active engagements of the whole personality, integral psychophysical stances. As social constructions they are perhaps similar to deeply socialized roles which “we ordinarily perform so smoothly and automatically that we do not realize we are giving a performance”; only to a rather limited degree are we entitled to disclaim responsibility for them. As is also found in Marx (and any self‑reflective activism), emotions are necessary concomitants of any horizon of action. This is particularly true for long‑term emotions, which are obviously not simply point‑like feelings or affects. It is thus not very useful to apply the hackneyed “action/passion dichotomy” to emotions. Once we are outside the Cartesian ego, it is possible to see that they are neither fully intentional nor fully non‑intentional or irrational but matters of a holistic practice which is falsified by undue dichotomizing (cf. Jaggar, “Love” 152‑53 and passim).

Second, not only are evaluation and observation not to be sun­dered, but both of them are closely related to emotions; observa­tion too “influences and indeed partially constitutes emotion.” If emotions are partly intentional stances, this intentionality is deeply enmeshed with observation, “an activity of selection and interpretation,” e.g. in the choice of what to focus on and privilege or of the interpretive frame. What will in a given situation be taken, by given agents, for undisputed facts depends (pace Hume) on socially constructed “intersubjective agreements that consist partly in shared assumptions about ‘normal’ or appropriate emotional responses to situations” (154).

Third but not least, there is a range of subversive and poten­tially productive emotions incompatible with the dominant percep­tions, intentions, and evaluations. Such emotions may follow on our convictions or they may indeed precede them: “Only when we reflect on our initially puzzling irritability, revulsion, anger or fear may we bring to consciousness our ‘gut‑level’ awareness that we are in a situation of coercion, cruelty, injustice or danger” (161). The feedback between emotions and conscious re­flecting on them is particularly necessary for societal groups struggling for a “perspective on reality available from the standpoint of the oppressed…[as] a perspective that offers a less partial and distorted and therefore a more reliable view” (162), and their potentiality or horizon is to be epistemologi­cally privileged (cf. also Hartsock; Jaggar, Feminist; Jameson; Lukács; Suvin, “Subject” and To Brecht, ch. 4). This means in turn that people who wish to solidify this point of view have to make sense of what Jaggar has encapsulated as the epistemic potential of emotion.

In sum,

it is necessary to rethink the relation between knowledge and emotion and construct conceptual models that demonstrate the mutually constitutive rather than oppositional relation between reason and emotion. Far from precluding the possi­bility of reliable knowledge, emotion as well as value must be shown as necessary to such knowledge. (Jaggar, “Love” 156‑57)

As already mentioned, this does not confer any magical efficacy on emotions as compared to concepts. Like concepts, emotions have an “epistemic potential” (163). But both may be erroneous; both need subsequent validation, though possibly in incommensurable ways (e.g., asymmetrically, by each other). “Although our emo­tions are epistemologically indispensable, they are not epistemo­logically indisputable. Like all our faculties, they may be misleading, and their data, like all data, are always subject to reinterpretation and revision.” (163) But both participate in Williams’s “structure of feeling,” a crucial site of social knowledge and conflict, which he defines as:

not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind,…as a set, with specifical internal relations, at once inter­locking and in tension…. [S]tructures of feeling can be defined as social experiences in solution….[Yet this solution] is a structured formation…at the very edge of semantic availability…. (132‑34)

  1. On Topological Cognition

Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject matter admits of….We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline….
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.3

2.1. Topological Imagination

 If understanding, cognition or knowledge is — as I began to argue in 1.0 — a term that should cover anything which allows people to deal with not merely or not fully here‑and‑now objects, aspects, and relationships, making them available for evaluative inspec­tion, reasoning choice, and useful intervention,  then it is a series of interlocking events, a process that “provides a means by which we have a shared, relatively intelligible world” (John­son 209). Our personal and collective coping with the world and its existents validates or invalidates this process at crucial points. Powerful interests of social groups and classes may have illicitly inflected the undoubted necessity of concepts into a metaphysical necessity of the concepts being, first, “literal” (i.e., definite, discrete, and fixed), second, frozen into univa­lent conceptual systems, and third, the sole constituents of cognitive meaning (cf. Johnson xxiii). No doubt, concepts — e.g. of object categories — intervene in the work of organizing any shape behind what we perceive, but such work is not reducible to their linkage into conceptual systems. As against this, I  sug­gest there is at least one  distinct mode or level of cognitive operation which yields highly meaningful orientation — i.e., knowledge — and yet is not only and not always conceptual. Using in this section the handiest review of the field by Mark Johnson, yet also in some places modifying and even tacitly contradicting it, I adopt the usual and perhaps unavoidable term of imagination for this mode. In a first approach, this may be defined as the mental consideration of events, objects, and relationships not present to the senses here and now, and the human faculty for doing so. I use the term faute de mieux and with some unease due to its high degree of polysemy, where meanings range from having it embrace practically all mental operations beyond simple per­ception (see OED) to Romantic restriction for “creative genius” only. Still, I would propose a middle way by which conceptuality is a very specialized offshoot or precipitate of imagination, unable to escape fully from the mother‑liquor.  I hope this may be a cautious sublation of the tradition from, say, Aristotle to Spinoza, which divides  mental operations into specific “facul­ties” (e.g. of perception, imagination, and intellection). From it, I wish to  salvage not so much the fact of such distinguish­ing, though we seem stuck with something like it, but rather the recognition that all of these capacities may contribute to genu­ine knowledge (cf. Johnson 139‑40).

Though Kant, as I quite briefly suggested in 1.1, was badly served by his reliance on Empiricism, which believed knowledge was produced as in early manufacture: the raw materials of per­ceptions, acquired from the outside through our senses, being then articulated within each of us; yet I think he contributed a major pointer to a way out of the present dilemma by allowing for two ways of articulation: by concepts and by spatio‑temporal schemata for experience. True, in the first case, the Kantian argument that knowledge of objective experience is organized by means of concepts, which enunciate and stabilize the properties of a series of perceptual representations, builds upon the Empir­icist tradition, so that “The concept ‘dog,’ for example, is a rule specifying the properties any object must have if it is to be a ‘dog'” (148). Concepts are then combined in propositions of judgment; e.g., “My dog is faithful” shows “dog” participating in “faithfulness.” In retrospect from full‑blown Objectivism we would have to reject all self‑contained, billiard‑ball‑type  entities. Thus we would view the perceptions themselves as at least to an important degree dependent on people’s embodied psychic apparatus — e.g. in the registering of perceptions, their hypotyposis (bringing under or allotment to concepts), and the inalienable emotional aura determining the availability and urgency as well as qualitative feel and connotations of such perceptions or sensations (vividness, salience, etc. — cf. Nisbett and Ross). Our finest traffic with reality fails to provide value‑free or “theory‑neutral” data, the raw materials of reason are already imbued with emotional evaluations and interests.  But Kant admitted a second means of articulating knowledge, a struc­ture of spatial and temporal organization for all our experience. For him this was tightly tied to concepts, and this is in the final instance probably correct (see 3.4). Yet there are distinct advantages to analytically isolating the space‑time schemata as a counterpoise to logical formalism. They have therefore largely been (re?)interpreted as being adjoined to and going beyond concepts (see, e.g., Johnson 148, and 165ff.). James remarked, “The time‑ and space‑relations between things do stamp copies of themselves within. Things juxtaposed in space impress us, and continue to be thought,  in the relation in which they exist there.” (2: 632) In other words, the space‑time relationships participate in the very setting up of our “life‑world” percep­tions. Since this most intimately cognitive activity is expressly not conceptual, and not necessarily verbal either, it seems to me a quite major breakthrough, which ought to be borne in mind as a basis for a not only conceptual cognition, and as a complement to Hegelian dialectics.

Such primarily non‑conceptual cognitive structures have been admitted by psychology as organizing our “scene and event knowl­edge” (Mandler 465) since the path‑breaking work on “schemas” in children by Piaget in the 1930s. They have by now diversified into sophisticated  “frames,” “scripts,” and even “stories” by artificial intelligence theorists (cf. Schank and Abelson, Min­sky),  where the schema involves personal participation in an institutionalized event with a temporal dimension, and into “personae” incorporating typical characters as knowledge struc­tures (Nesbitt and Ross 35). This approach is interestingly developed by Lakoff and Johnson in their studies of “image‑schemata,” such as space orientation, balance vs. weighting or vectorial force. It is implied in the illuminating work of Gend­lin, to which I shall come later. It could also be brought into the vicinity of Bakhtin by calling it chronotopic. However, that term would still seem too general. This kind of cognitive imagi­nation has to encompass Piaget’s dynamic interrelations in a schema such as “object conservation,” that encompasses knowledge of relations between mass, volume, position, and alternative actions, as well as instances of the kind mentioned in 1.0 — e.g. the knowledges necessary for Minsky’s “birthday party scenario” or for the “script” of buying a weekly choice of cheeses, which includes walking, driving a car, recognizing a colour or a smell, counting money, and so forth. Therefore, I propose to call it, more precisely, topological imagination. This uses the OED senses transferred from the denotation of topology as a “qualitative geometry” of situation in space — and in a time analogized as a space — that typically involves transformation and yet continuity (invariance in some respects), and includes the sense 3d, “The way in which constituent parts are interrelated or arranged.” While in orthodox Piagetism one would not call (e.g.) landmarks, routes, and configurations topological, for my purposes of oppos­ing analog qualities to conceptual systematicity they are ele­ments of topological cognition (cf. Piaget and Inhelder vs. Mandler 451).

The topological imagination (which is, of course, not at all reducible to vivid images) can therefore encompass orientation, articulation (into shapes), and the dialectics of variance‑cum‑invariance — in short, relations to an entity’s stances, inner structuring, and shifting continuity in space and/or time. It is not to be sundered from the qualitative aura and connotations stemming from our interests, and it is  in close and constant feedback with the bodily perceptual capacities, motor skills, attitudes, etc. Since “an event becomes meaningful by pointing beyond itself,” to other event structures actual or possible in past or future experience or in semiotic space, the always strongly orientational topological imagination is also intention­al, i.e. directed at or toward some value‑laden “dimension or aspect of one’s existence” (Johnson 177), and participates in the deeply cognitive induction‑deduction cycle constituting meaning.

One could find very many other arguments in favour of a cognitive status for topological imagination. I shall here mention three:

  • Fredric Jameson’s repeated recurrence to the concept of “cogni­tive mapping,” extrapolated to social structure from Kevin Lynch’s remarkable study of people’s interest‑inflected spatial imagination, presupposes an imagined and imaginary social totali­ty that was to have been mapped; Jameson calls this unrepresent­able (“Mapping” 356), but it is obviously a cognitive construct of the highest hypothetical order. Therefore I would rather call it (literally) unconceptualizable or — better, since Jameson gives an excellent partial conceptualization for it — not fully and systematically conceptualizable, but imaginatively presentable as a feedback between two wholes: our global capitalist Lebenswelt and an ambitious plea for (and, in other writings of Jameson’s, sustained attempt at) a global topology of it.
  • Such neurological disturbances as “the phantom member” or apraxia (inability to imagine and therefore execute bodily action in spite of an intact nervous system, see Merleau‑Ponty 117ff., Suvin “Performance,” and Wood) testify that imagination is cru­cial for any literal and metaphorical stance and movement with the intention of manipulating objects, envisaging subjects, and all other orientations.
  • Lakoff’s mental exercises in “image‑schema transformations,” such as shifting path‑focus to end‑point‑focus, changing objects from multiple to mass and back, envisaging a trajectory or ex­panding and contracting images of container vs. contained (see his case study 2), are non‑propositional and non‑conceptual yet clearly cognitive mental operations.

 If this rough outline has merit, imagination is richer  if messi­er than conceptuality. Topological imagination might represent the submerged ten elevenths of the iceberg of which conceptual systems show above the surface. Though this metaphor, as well as those of “background,” “context,” and my earlier one of the base vs. frontal lobes of the brain, has the merit of indicating the foundational primacy of imagination, it may insufficiently indi­cate how intimately concepts are interfused or shot through  by it. Possibly the analogy of innervation or sanguine system in our flesh would come nearer. If nothing else, all this points out two crucial matters. First, that I take it as established by metapho­rology from Vico and Nietzsche to Eco and Ricoeur that concepts are, verbally speaking, precipitates or a caput mortuum of meta­phoric work. In fact, even the term “conceptuality” (the concept of “being a concept”) adjoins to its overriding univocity some metaphoric echoes. Second, that — in diametrical opposition to Christianity, Descartes, and the whole idealist filiation down to most of Kant and to Hegel’s Absolute Spirit — understanding is necessarily embodied, which  also means macro‑culture‑bound, class‑bound, and engendered. Though in my opinion all imagina­tion, and even more clearly concepts, can transcend some limita­tions of such embodiment, the degree to which  they can truly do so (rather than pretend to be doing so) is unclear: certainly existing but  certainly finite (0>n>oo). Finally, there is a clear choice: meaning and reason are to be grounded either in God or in (personal and collective) human bodies: tertium non datur. We would therefore have to conclude that imagination supplies much (though not all) of the indispensable delimitation and articulation for all knowledge, for “the connecting structure by which  we have coherent, significant experience, cognition, and language” (Johnson 165).

Of course, as Johnson points out, a huge amount of further work remains to be done if one adopts this stance: we then need a theory of categorization of human experience, which “is basic to any theory of cognitive structure, for it explores the way we organize our experience into kinds” (191, see also 171‑72 and 213 — cf. Lakoff, Bloch), and theories of the attendant central tools of metaphor, metonymy, and narrativity (e.g. in dialogue with Bakhtin, cf. Suvin “Metaphoricity,” and with Ricoeur). As Aristotle’s Poetics (as well as the ancient South and East Asian commentators) knew, these are  the very foundations of the pleas­ure of thinking, cognition or understanding, very much including art (depiction and narration). I shall deal with the possibly basic instance of metaphoricity in one of the later sections of this essay. But in the meantime I would adopt as a central hy­pothesis Johnson’s conclusion: “Instead of being nonrational, imaginative structures form the body of human rationality. There­fore, if imagination is not strictly algorithmic [i.e. a set of rules, usually in algebraic notation and digital], then this cannot be essential for rationality, either.” (169)

 2.2. On the Dialectics of Proposition: Not Only But Also

 The distinction between exclusive conceptuality and topological imagination may be furthered by considering propositions. I am using this term in the OED 4a. senses: “(a) the making of a statement about something; a sentence or form of words in which this is done, a statement, an assertion. (b) In Logic, a form of words in which something (the PREDICATE) is affirmed or denied of something (the SUBJECT)…,” sometimes extended to what is more strictly a judgment (1448). Clearly, the first sentence quoted embraces non‑verbal statements too (e.g. “body language”), beyond the main sense of a “statement,” that of a full or definite declaration in words (1889). Johnson enumerates five senses which concur in having any proposition assert something by means of a finite number of clearly delimited elements, but then advances a different sense by which a proposition can be “a continuous, analog pattern of…understanding, with sufficient internal structure to permit inferences” (3‑4). Since I cannot see how concepts could consist of “continuous, analog patterns,” this controversial, added sense is the only means of doubting the monopoly of conceptuality on knowledge. The first group, the usual philosophical and logical senses of “proposition,” put forth conceptually univalent statements, whose basic form is typically of the  “My dog is faithful” shape mentioned earlier. They may form an algorithm (e.g. a syllogism) of the digital or binary kind that is characteristic for at least the Socratic use of concepts, which culminates in the “Yes, yes — No, no” (Mat. 5:37) dichotomy of monotheism — the template for all other dogma­tisms, such as the “objectivist” one, in the Western tradition.

I am here operating with the distinction pioneered by computer theoreticians, extended by Gregory Bateson, and encapsulated by Watzlawick, between analog and digital modes of communication and understanding. An analog operation “can be more readily referred to the thing it stands for.” It prevails not only in animal mood indication but in human “body movement, …posture, gesture, facial expression, voice inflection [and…] rhythm” (Watzlawick, et al., 62‑63). Its ubiquity and flexibility makes of it the privileged mode for rendering “contingencies of relationship” (66). What it cannot present (at least not explicitly) is perhaps similar to what Freud’s dreams could not represent: the causality as against succession (e.g. “if‑then”), the tense or time‑horizon indication, and the conceptualized abstraction (65; but see sub‑section 3.4 for advances on Watzlawick’s skepticism). Digitaliza­tion therefore seems to me necessary for important but particular purposes, and it also seems to always be an ingent simplification of processes from reality: e.g., the analog wavelengths of light are cut up in various cultures into digital oppositions of co­lours. The analog — spread or spectrum‑like — kind of process is clearly characteristic of topological imagination. I would agree with Johnson (96‑100 and passim) that, if the analog kind of proposition is articulated to judgments and their attendant values, it permits inferences, which have been justly called “the birth of reason” in the child and “the great business of life” (Reid in 1788 and Mill in 1843, cited in OED, s.v. “Inference” 2).  If so, an analog proposition is a form of reasoning that may satisfy Mill’s logical condition of advancing from known to “distinct” truths (cited in OED, ibidem 1.a; cf. Nisbett and Ross). The way is then open for it “to enter into transformations and other cognitive operations” (Johnson 4), such as the orienta­tion, articulation, and dialectics of shifting (though not what Hegel would call “muddy”) identity that I argued for earlier. Music, sculpture or body stances — not to forget metaphors and narratives — are therefore potentially cognitive modes of imagina­tion, in ways not only significantly different from purely con­ceptual systems but also constantly complementing or undergirding them. Even in natural language, “(1) meaning…begins in figura­tive, multivalent patterns that cannot typically be reduced to a set of literal concepts and propositions; and (2) the patterns and their connections are embodied and cannot be reduced to a set of literal concepts and propositions” (5; see my discussion in 3.4).

In that sense, knowledge may typically come about by complex, dialectical interaction between analog and digital, non‑conceptual and conceptual, fully focussed and multiplex modes:

Take, for instance, a skill like skiing. Our ability to ski is tied up with all sorts of perceptual and motor‑program schemata that have plenty of internal structure. The term “skiing” calls up (potentially) all of these structures as part of its meaning when it is used in an utterance. (189)

Replacing motor programs with hyperactive imagination, I claim the same holds for, e.g., theatre performance (see Suvin, “Per­formance”) or poetry. Ricoeur has repeatedly elucidated how in poetry the reduction in “referentiality of ordinary discourse” (which is, I think, coextensive with clichetized, closed concep­tual systems)  “allows new configurations expressing the meaning of  reality to be brought into language,” and obversely that poetic discourse necessarily brings to language “modes of being that ordinary vision obscures or even represses” (Interpretation 60).  Though in our meta‑language, striving for precision, such matters must begin to sound formidable, the learned detour is there for the purpose of a much closer feedback with people’s everyday practice. In that  non‑elitist sense, as Gramsci and Brecht stressed, each person is a philosopher and every planning of action has to do with reason. Especially today, faced as we are with a concerted assault on reason, nothing in this essay is to be taken as speaking against it.

In this perspective, there are many collective, cognitive mean­ings not reducible simply to the binary mode fostered by concep­tualization. While the “either‑or” logic is necessary at a number of crucial junctures, the “not only but also” logic (Brecht’s nicht nur sondern), dialectically subsumptive rather than adver­sative, is not only older but also richer and more frequently applicable. In Williams’s proposed epistemic concept “structure of feeling” the first, binary mode of cognition supplies the “hard” element of structure, and the second, analog mode of cognition the “soft” but primary  element of feeling, an emotion­ally imbued yet not merely individual imagination, which is precisely why it seems to me superior to Foucault’s exclusively conceptual and systemic “episteme.” What all of this implies about priorities that emotions may (in some respects) have in relation to concepts will be faced in the Conclusion.

 2.3. Analogical Reasoning, Verisimilitude

 In this perspective it is also useful to revisit reasoning by analogy, which I shall do by incorporating in this sub‑section some illuminating arguments brought forward by Marc Angenot. It is an operation treated with the greatest suspicion by the hege­monic tradition, which has defined reasoning as a partially redundant horizontal chain of “literal, univocal, context‑inde­pendent” (see 2.1), and non‑contradictory propositional judg­ments. Yet this one‑dimensional syntagmatic chain has huge in‑built problems both as to its coming about and in its internal aporias. As to the former, unless one takes Plato’s Ideas or the monotheistic God literally, it is not clear how it ever could have arisen from brute matter in the fully hermetic form of logical space. As to the latter:

All “normal” reasoning standardizes its data by effacing variables, bracketting the contingent, and mediating between different levels, so as to permit the compatibility and derivability of propositions…, the passage from qualita­tive threshold to the quantifiable, the reduction of mul­tidetermination to univocity, the polarization of ambiva­lences, and the axiomatic introduction of preponderances and hierarchies in places where to begin with only disparate tendencies were perceived which were not co‑intelligible. (Angenot 154)

Thus, this “classical model of reasoning” is brought about by a series of strong interventions levelling the analogical mode onto a conceptual projection, where “the proof’s purity was  in pro­portion to its poverty” (154). This holds particularly for the traditionally “noblest” form of reasoning, deduction. Already reasoning by induction and examples were rather suspect as too plebeian, while the final mode, reasoning by analogy, was margin­alized as unformalisable. Yet it is not clear why it should have an inferior cognitive status. Of course, any proof by analogy is only as “right” as its constituent parts and relational presuppo­sitions — e.g., the standard 19th‑Century bourgeois analogy be­tween father‑child and capitalist‑worker, extending to the aca­demic position of professors in loco parentis to students. But then, the same holds for reasoning by deduction and induction. All of them, though in different ways, owe their efficacy to cultural and ideological verisimilitude. Just what is the differ­ence between the verisimilar on the one hand, and the true and necessary on the other, has never been clarified since it reposes on the ideological maxims or common sense of a given period, so that one can at best oppose deep and long duration maxims to short duration ones (which is, no doubt, of great importance for any particular investigation). Beginning with Aristotle, “the theory of topoi is essentially a reflexion on the implicit, in its twin character of occultation and regulation” (163). Regard­less of how general the validity they pretend to, all of them formalize social experiences and relationships in culturally highly specific ways. We have rightly learned to suspect the self‑evidence of any such ahistorical stance, e.g. an eternal distinction agent‑action (Yeats’s knowing the dancer from the dance).

I believe this sub‑section has, among other things, added an important cognition to our arsenal: the difference in all seem­ingly factual propositions between the horizontal and vertical orders or modes of establishing the correctness (veracity) of a proposition. I call “horizontal” the concept‑driven reliance on the syntagmatic chain of formalized, presumably literal, univo­cal, and non‑contradictory,  propositions; and I call “vertical” verification a frequent experience‑driven interruption of such a chain in favour of confrontation with other (possibly non‑concep­tual and thus less formalized) derivations from material empiri­cal evidence. This is analogous to Locke’s distinction between “mental truth,” which is always hypothetical, vs. “real truth,” which depends on experience (see James 2: 664) . It participates in the widespread modern complaint (e.g. in Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences) that scientific rationality has become alienated from praxis, in other words that a collective human project has by now been so coopted as be at best indirectly related and at worst inimical to the need for a livable world.

Both the  horizontal and the vertical mode rely on a system of “topical” presuppositions (cf. Angenot 187), that makes possible the melding for which I shall argue in the Conclusion. If think­ing is, in the first and possibly still best metaphor of European philosophy, Heraclitean fire, then reason might be the flame and emotion the consubstantial heat. I would conclude, with Johnson, that “we [might] expand our notion of logical correctness” (12); and with Angenot, that

[reasoning by analogy] is not a less rigorous type of rea­soning than deduction; it corresponds to a different way of thinking and a different establishing of proof, which is here regarded as a transfer of evidence….[It] constructs around the object being proved a relational structure capa­ble of being perceived as isomorphic to another structure situated in a quite different field. (197)

In its clearest form, it is a rigorous homology of the rule of three (A:B = C:D) kind, and it can render much more closely the sinuosities and contradictions of people’s relationships to each other, their institutions, and universe — and indeed of their natural languages — than grand universal syllogisms. I shall return to this in the discussion of metaphor; as Blumenberg notes, “analogy is the realism of metaphor” (88). The undoubted affinities between analogical thinking and emotion‑suffused evaluation can once more be seen as qualitatively different from deductive conceptualization but no less (potentially) cognitive.

2.4. Operativeness, Eduction From Psychotherapy

 Assuming the class of “not conceptually sayables” (or even not only and not primarily conceptually expressibles) was not empty, as advanced in 1.0 above, I have been worrying in this essay at the question which part of that class may be cognitive, and in what ways. One precondition for cognitiveness is articulation which allows operativeness or manipulability. Articulation means the division of a cognition or cultural unit of knowledge into definable parts together with some syntactic indication of the parts’ relationships to each other and some pragmatic indication of their relationships to other units or articulated parts there­of. It is because they are suitable to recombination that the articulated units may participate in cognitive operations which make sense of some segment or aspect of our Lebenswelt. Thus, when Jaggar speaks of the emotions’ inner articulation, when Kant speaks of spacetime schemata, when psychologists (with some philosophers and some sociologists such as Goffman) differentiate this into scripts, frames, and personae, or when the language proposed here speaks of topological imagination as one epistemic way of articulating knowledge, it is implied that such analog‑type mental operations — in spite of having a crucial non‑concep­tual aspect — can permit subdivision, anamorphic transformation, and rearranged aggregation or re‑constellation of units of under­standing (sememes, if you wish) into valid cognitive operations, such as intentional orientation or reorganization of identity and indeed of categories. While concepts seem to be already enmeshed with some basic topological categories, and while  the greater part of institutionally formalized knowledge will at some (possi­bly early) point in its operating advance from this to a concep­tually systematized organization of knowledge, the non‑conceptual mode will, I believe, always remain a part of the resulting structure — at the very least as a system of presuppositions and implications (e.g. about what domains and stances are proper for a scientific discipline). This non‑conceptual, analog aspect of knowledge is not only prior to the great phylogenetic and ontoge­netic divide of language, as has been shown both by child psy­chologists — from Freud’s fort‑da to the systematic observations of Piaget — and  by ethologists. Even simultaneous to the use of language, topological cognition reigns supreme in all the bodily activities, crafts, techniques,  and arts I hinted at earlier, from swimming to painting. Furthermore, it accompanies, founds,  and infiltrates all language in the form of metaphor (which Goodman nicely defines as “a calculated category‑mistake,” 73), rhetorics (cf. Angenot), and narrative organization.

 I want here to add to the post‑Piaget turn (and one would have to mention also parallel Soviet experiences of Vygotsky’s and his followers such as Luria) the illumination from a philosophical approach to therapeutic psychology in the work of Eugene Gendlin. In numerous contributions of the last three decades (from Experi­encing through “Critique” and “Thinking”), Gendlin has been appealing to self‑ordering patterns in “experience (situations, practice, the body, intricacy…)” to argue that syntactically definite and pragmatically precisely oriented univocal forms of a more than conceptual  nature are always already at work in thought (“Thinking” 28‑29).3/  I shall in this sub‑section mostly use his long study “Thinking Beyond Patterns,” to which all citations refer unless otherwise noted. Arguing with Dilthey that experiencing is an implicit understanding (34), he also reveals his own standpoint from experience: “Today…[the] old forms still exist, but often as official demands….But body‑life is no longer carried forward by them. Our more complex and partly undefined situations are another ‘social reality’.” (“Critique” 275)

 Gendlin reminds us that practice, the sum of people’s relation­ships to each other and the universe, is richer: “practice must always be permitted to surprise the theory” (45). He would have agreed with the great Japanese Confucianist Ogyû Sorai’s remark: “The great sage rulers of the past taught by means of [particu­lar] ‘things’  and not by means of [universal] ‘principles.’…In ‘things’ all ‘principles’ are brought together, hence all who have long devoted themselves to work come to have a genuine intuitive understanding of them.” (Nakamura 537; cf. Lee 148) Convincingly inducing from experiences of his therapeutic prac­tice, Gendlin pleads for a revaluation of cases or instancing, as opposed to hypotyposis that strives to filter or “drop out” all elements that do not fit a concept; of story‑telling; and of what one could call pre‑implications. In his own wonderful “Stories from psychotherapy: The bodily ” (86‑98; see especially the “house on stilts” metaphor, 92), the underlined three dots stand for the patients’ groping toward full cognitive formulation. The apparent blank in a sentence is syntactically clearly defined and modally clearly oriented but semantically not yet formulated. This groping forms something new, simultaneously continuous with and different from what was realized before. It is what James in an analogous discussion called a “feeling of tendency” or “a sign of direction in thought”:

 …a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction….If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mould.  (1: 251; cf. 249‑57)

 The gap is eventually exfoliated and evolved into a powerful semantic turn that will, at least in ideal cases, “maximize (reinforce, nurse, feed, help one savor) the mood” (100). This accords astoundingly well on the one hand with poetic practice, as testified to by all accounts of how a poem is written with help of rhythmically and modally precise blank spots (e.g. the famous essay by Mayakovsky) and remarked on by Gendlin too (61‑66), and on the other with the macro‑structures of feeling that Williams defines as “pre‑formations” preceding semantic figures, as “social experiences in solution” and as “structured formation[s]…at the very edge of semantic availability” (133‑34, see end of 1.3). With the help of such proceedings, Gendlin attempts to “think the actual situations” (112) as an implicit and intricate multiplicity, whose possibilities fan out to other possible situations. Or, more personalized: the initially unclear [], where the “silent sensing” situation contains implicit possibilities of language, opens up through a series of precise if zigzagging (because not logically deductible) steps, unfolding its latent protean intricacy. “Each such step arises from a bodily sensed [], her bodily sensed social reality” (“Cri­tique”  288 and 283). Each step retroactively revises the meaning and the time‑horizon of preceding steps. The AI theorists might have said that the frame’s terminals have only loosely attached default assignments functioning as variables or a special kind of reasoning by example (see Minsky 212‑13). This also does away with a fixed nuclear Self. As in Laplace’s explanation to Napole­on about God, any post‑Freudian “unconscious” becomes here an unnecessary hypothesis (cf. “Critique” 277‑89 and “Thinking” passim).

 The (pre‑)implications resident in an individual or collective situation for each of us, and which have to be teased out  of it by means of not primarily conceptual analysis, are a founding notion of Gendlin’s. What we retroactively see was implied is the eventual articulation through “carrying‑forward” steps: “A situa­tion is the implying of further events”; it “consists of implicit action‑possibilities”; “it sets itself apart because it implies a change in the stories that it now implies” (118‑19).  These implications are what is to be cognitively defined, in the sense of rendered sufficiently definite. They are different from logi­cal or mechanistic determinism: “The whole series cannot be predicted from one step, because each step carries forward an implied change in implying” (121). In a bodily sensed way, which makes nonsense out of the dichotomies body/mind or emotion/rea­soning, the situation implies statements about‑to‑be‑said (cf. 130‑32) — the semantic blanks induced by the subject/situation feedback and awaiting cognition. “Body, situation, and language imply each other, but that means we cannot do with less than all three….The body provides the focal implying without which there would not be situations or language….Indeed, all the functions of implicit intricacy in language and situations are functions of the body.” (132‑33)

 Finally, Gendlin claims that such inventing and filling in of semantic blanks, which redefines a poet’s, a psychiatric pa­tient’s or indeed everybody’s meanings‑in‑situation, is more realistic or adequate to the situation. In the language of my sub‑section 2.3, the horizontal order of veracity for a proposi­tion (relying on the sequence of formalized and non‑contradictory conceptual arguments) is at all crucial points which require new formulations of a newly arisen situation backgrounded in favour of “vertical” confrontation with the material reality. This is cognized largely by means of topologically articulated emotion  (cf.  the mentioned patient’s “house on stilts” feeling, and Gendlin’s discussions of spatial imagery in 88‑89 and 106‑07), by means of a “structure of feeling.” The “truth” resides in the bodily “implying of situations” (121), in what Ernst Bloch would call the dialectical tendency‑latency of human reality (144ff.). And since “anything concrete belongs to other systems as well” (“Critique” 295), Gendlin has some interesting though preliminary reflections on how it would be necessary to move from personal experience to larger economico‑political, collective situations determined by social forces, such as the US Federal Reserve Bank’s restrictive policies which have radically affected the bodily situation of millions by destroying their livelihood (295‑96). The evidence of senses here becomes quite insufficient: as Brecht remarked, almost no “statement about reality” (cognition) can be drawn from a photograph of the reified Krupp factory (18: 161‑62) —  “artful” statistics, graphs, and narratives would have to be also called in.

 2.5. Briefly on Metaphoricity, With a Pointer to Narrativity

In an earlier and lengthier study (Suvin, “Metaphoricity”) I adopted a working definition of metaphor which I would render slightly more precise here as a unitary meaning arising out of the interaction of disparate semantic units from different cate­gory domains; and I argued that metaphor presents a complex cognition not by literal or analytic statement but by sudden confrontation. Whether verbal or visual (e.g. on the stage, cf. Suvin, “Brecht’s”), metaphor results in the perception of a possible relationship with a new norm of its own, and it always embodies a value‑judgment correlative to an integral, i.e. also emotional, involvement. From literal dictionary meaning current in a given culture and sociolect, the new metaphoric meaning modulates into an imaginary entry from the encyclopedia of cul­tural commonplaces, presuppositions, and categories (cf. Eco Lector  and “Metafora”); or indeed into a newly posed entry, invented ad hoc by the metaphor’s author and enforced by its context. Such determinations hold fully only for the so‑called full or true metaphor, a unique presentation of previously non‑existent meaning. In it experiential orientation accessible to us in no other way is being formed and explored: we have no other ways at hand for “thinking through” the relationship such a metaphor refers to. The full‑fledged, interaction or transforma­tional metaphor cannot be paraphrased into conceptual proposi­tions without a significant loss of cognitive yield (Black Models 45‑46), as opposed to the low‑grade, substitution or comparison metaphors which can be exhausted by paraphrase into concepts and commonplaces.

As Ricoeur has not tired to remind us, however, metaphor is not an atomic unit but the function of “the operation of predication” in a complete sentence (Interpretation 50, and cf. Rule). In the language of 2.2 above, metaphor is a function of an analogical proposition permitting inference, transformation, orientation, and other cognitive operations (that “transference by analogy” is the strongest form of metaphoric functioning has been clear since Aristotle’s Poetics, 1457b).  The sum of all the cultural topoi and categories advanced, presupposed, and implied by the sen­tences and propositions of a text constitutes the ideological system of its social addressee, whose maxims encompass the conno­tation chosen in a metaphor. In “This man is a wolf,” the stock metaphorological example, “The wolf‑metaphor…organizes our view of man” and viceversa: when wolf and man are projected upon each other, a new whole emerges (Black Models 4l and passim; cf. Eco “Metafora”) in feedback with, e.g., a Social‑Darwinistic or obversely a totemic system of maxims about wolves/people.

Thus, the delicate negotiation between immanence in and tran­scendence of discourse is at stake in metaphor too. Another argument by Ricoeur upgrades Frege’s distinction  between sense and meaning (Sinn und Bedeutung) into one between sense and reference. Sense results from a largely horizontal, semantic, proceeding and identifies an entry in the imaginary cultural encyclopedia subtending what one could in short call the meta­phoric proposition. Reference is “[the proposition’s] claim to reach reality” (Ricoeur, Hermeneutics 140), even if often a redefined reality, and it adds to sense an emotional and imagina­tive, pragmatic verticality which in the final instance can also be connected to bodily stances. If metaphor is thus a specific cognitive organon, what is its specificity of reference? Despite much solid spadework documented in my “Metaphoricity” study, this seems to me still poorly understood. I believe metaphor is di­rected toward and necessary for an insight into continuously variable and internally contradictory processes, Eco’s “dinamismi del reale” (“Metafora” 212),  when these are being handled by language, which is composed of discrete and fixed signs (Hesse, Ortony; curiously, Thom [Paraboles, 120 and 159] founds mathemat­ics in the same insight). If metaphor is this dialectical correc­tive of all analytical language centered on concepts, as all language it also refers, among other things, to what a given culture and ideology consider as reality. This means that some conclusions educible from any metaphor — e.g., “people are cruel,” “wolves are conscious” — are pertinent to or culturally “true” of given understandings of relationships in practice. The metaphor can affirm such an understanding or, in the best case, develop “the before unapprehended relations of things” in ways at that moment not otherwise formulatable (Shelley 357). Cognition through a full metaphor reorganizes, on the basis of topological analogy, the logical space of our conceptual frameworks. It is only from the point of view of Objectivism or positivist meta­physics that the literal coincidentio oppositorum of metaphor is Goodman’s “category mistake” or an absurd impertinence: a Man is a Man is a Man and NOT a Lion. Exploding literal referential pertinence and literal semantic statement, frozen into univalency and binary‑choice linkage, metaphor proposes a new, imaginative pertinence by rearranging the categories that shape our experi­ence. This imaginative cognition is not to be reduced to mystical insight or magical transfer but rather  thought of as an analog (rather than digital) hypothetic proposition with specifiable yields and limitations; parallel to other forms of cognition, metaphoric analogies can be partly or wholly accepted or rejected by feedback from historical experience, verbal and extra‑verbal.

In my study I also went at length into what might be the basic conditions for a full‑fledged metaphor. I proposed there were three: coherence or congruence, complexity or richness, and novelty. This means that metaphor is necessarily (at least in part) historico‑referential insofar as it disrupts the synchronic cognitive system current when it was coined. The criteria for deciding which metaphors are to be seen as dead, remotivated or farfetched are all drawn from historical semantics and pragmat­ics. Beardsley — who admits only the first two — notes that such axiomatic conditions may be considered as analogous to Occam’s razor in literal, e.g. scientific, texts (145). These conditions are the presuppositions of metaphor — i.e., they are simultaneous­ly inside it and overarching it. They allow for Ricoeur’s argu­ment that “the relation between literal and figurative meaning…is a relation internal to the overall signification of the metaphor,” i.e. that both denotation and connotation are legitimately cognitive. Ricoeur concludes that “such semantic innovation marks the emergence of [conceptual] thought,” that “new possibilities for articulating and conceptualizing reality can arise through [it]” (Interpretation 47 and 57).

In that sense metaphors, when expanded into metaphorical se­quences and metaphorical texts (i.e., as I argue in “Metaphorici­ty,” finally into narratives which add a chronotopic organiza­tion), both literally and technically create for their addressees another, Possible World, as a dialectical fusion of vertical and horizontal, syntagmatic and paradigmatic reference: “the poetic world is just as hypothetical a space as is the mathematical order in relation to any given world”; both are “a second degree reference, [in…] the fictive dimension revealed by the theory of models” (Ricoeur, Interpretation 59 and 68). Metaphor may thus sketch in lineaments of “another world that corresponds to other possibilities of existence, to possibilities that would be most deeply our own…” (Ricoeur, Rule 229). On its own and as under­lying any narrative, metaphor is one of humanity’s great cyber­netic machines for interpreting the world — not only Wittgen­stein’s “all that is the case” but also Bloch’s “not yet” (to mention what I take to be the two poles of modern philosophical revision of classically undialectical categories, allowing for more elastic boundaries, bases for category membership, prototyp­ical status for members, etc.).

Without entering upon a fuller discussion of narrative text, it may be provisionally identified as a finite and coherent sequence of actions, with correlative agents located in the spacetime of a possible world, proceeding from an initial to a final state of affairs, and embodying a paradigm or macro‑metaphor. Its minimal requirements would be an agent, an initial state changing to a commensurate final state, and a series of changes consubstantial to varying chronotopes (cf. Eco, Lector 70, 107‑08, and passim), unified by a plot with metaphoric tenor. In comparison to “propo­sitional metaphor,” narrative permits much more detailed and articulated exploration of its key hypothesis —  which is also its founding metaphor — as to its properties, most prominently the relationships between people it implies. Such evaluation of its thought‑experiment is always in feedback with the reader’s vision of empirical reality. The intense flash of metaphor is too brief to be judged by anything except its fruits, the “thick” and immediate shock‑effect of a “category‑earthquake.” In any story or tale, however, it ought to be possible to verify examined aspects of the central propositions which have by means of coher­ence, plenitude, and novelty created the narrative universe of that tale. In so doing, both metaphor and narrative redescribe the known world and open up new possibilities of intervening into it: they are — potentially — what Brecht called “meshing thought” (eingreifendes Denken).

  1. Concluding Horizons

I do not like the following model very much, but something of the sort seems needed.
Minsky, “A Framework…”

 3.1. The Archimedean point from which the fruitful intricacy of cognition may be raised is the proposition that our social exist­ence is both source and goal of human concepts and emotions. The horizon of this proposition is a pragmatics of social produc­tions. Only pragmatics can insert into this discussion the empir­ical situation of people and their relationships within given epistemological (cognitive and ideological) presuppositions, conventions, economical and institutional frames, etc.4/ Exclu­sively conceptualized veracity, I began to argue in 2.3, implies a horizontal chain of mutually reinforcing concepts which, like any other syntagmatic system of abstract symbols, cannot by itself provide any meaning. While conceptual chains have histori­cally — e.g. when based on Baconian experiment — led to world‑historical breakthroughs in understanding, this type of veracity is by now showing the drawbacks of (as a poet can best note it) being “spitted on fixed concept like/ roasting hogs, sputtering, their drip sealing…” (William Carlos Williams, Paterson). However, this rejection of Objectivism and of pure logical for­malism does not land us in the quagmire of absolute relativism. There are important material, historico‑political constraints built into all human productions (actions), that largely deter­mine what inferences and propositions can be held, though them­selves up to a point in significant feedback with socialized imagination. Refunctioning terms from Putnam, who builds on the Lockean opposition of “theoretical beliefs” and “experiential beliefs,” I propose to call the horizontal consistency of concep­tual cognitions with each other “coherence,” while the vertical recourse to experiential beliefs consistent with practical tryout could be called “fit” (54‑55, and see Johnson 211‑12). As I further argued after Gendlin, horizontal coherence can be saved from pure conceptual chimeras (Hirngespinste, “brain cobwebs”) by interrupting, verifying, and supplementing it at strategic points by means of an imaginative fit immediately rooted in topological imagination and closer to bodily emotions.

We have of, course, witnessed in this century only too many variants of polluted emotions: “The sources of [a person’s] feelings and passions are just as muddied up as the sources of his cognitions,” noted Brecht (15: 295). Indeed, his life‑long advocacy of interruptory Gestus may be the most illuminating systematic inquiry into this verticality (cf. Benjamin), within his struggle against uncritical empathy which led to a “theatral­ics of fascism” (and of “patriotic” nationalism, and of Stalin­ism). Therefore I have repeatedly stressed that emotions, the body, analogy, imagination or topology are by themselves no talisman guaranteeing cognitivity. What I argue for is the inter­active feedback between vertical (topological, analog, referen­tial) fit and horizontal  (purely conceptual, binary, sense‑producing) coherence. Hegel’s dialectical three‑step of conceptu­ality (the Schoolmen would have said scientia) negating mere feeling or shapeless intuition but then being itself sublated —  preserved and simultaneously subsumed — under a thinking wisdom (sapientia) that follows the contradictions in reality seems to be an early approximation to such spiral induction‑deduction with goodly space for analogy. What such a feedback unity in topologi­cal imagination, based on common topical presuppositions (see 2.3), produces could be called figuration in Jameson’s sense. He notes that this englobes, e.g., Lévi‑Strauss’s Amerindian myth shapes, the Deconstructionists’ — to my mind, quite one‑sided, though at times destructively useful — emphasis on all discourse being tropes, and Freud’s insight that instincts always already “come with their own figuration, …bound in the forms of certain fantasies.” so that “reality is always figured” (Theory 113‑14 and 162).

3.2. Yet at this point I have to confess that we seem to be caught in an unresolved halfway house between two discourses, the old emotion vs. reason one and a newer one on conceptual imagina­tion in mutual induction with topological imagination. This impurity may not be too exhilarating but I shall argue it is not only a faithful reflection of the mess we are at, inside the present historical epoch, but also allowable for my present purposes.

I started from the muddy opposition emotion/reason and argued that the dumbbell constellation of dry, calculating, male reason vs. fluid, intuitive, female emotion had a goodly Hellenic and Hebraic  pedigree. Yet the post‑Cartesian foregrounding of this dichotomy arose with the coming to power of the bourgeoisie and precluded further useful reasoning about how to cope with our world. I therefore incline to think it would be better if we scrapped this polarizing configuration  entirely (e.g., I’d much prefer the Buddhist identification of the six senses as vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and cognition), perhaps putting an at least provisional embargo — say during the next century — on the term of emotion. However, only a qualitative reversal of social practice would give us that opportunity. No individual can radi­cally alter language in its central classifications before such time; at best, I might persuade my readers we should redefine a few of the important categories of the doxa. Then, by the middle of this essay I arrived at my second discourse, which features the more graspable and fertile difference — not dichotomy — and feedback between topology and conceptualization within imagina­tion and cognition. It proposes a topological imagination, func­tioning by analogy and having much better chances (if they will but be used) to draw corrections from a dialectical verticality that plumbs experience. Of course, to develop this we should have to scrutinize much further the close relationship to topological imagination of conceptualized thought, and conversely of the body bearings, stances or orientations; upon both of them there are inscribed our class, gender, and other identifications, and they seem to me to meet in at least two key points: first, in the categories of intention and interest; second, in the activity itself of categorization. The latter is “a basic ability…that almost certainly must  be posited as a primitive of psychological functioning,” so that on the one hand  “in its basic sense [it] cannot be distinguished from schema formation” (Mandler 466), but on the other hand it is also highly culture‑specific, shaped in and by historical epochs and sociolects (cf. Lakoff’s arguments, e.g. about the category of anger in English, 68). At the latest since Marx, we should have detheologized our discourse so as to draw full consequences from a defining of human potentiality as historically delimited: in the double sense of  concrete histori­cal  possibilities and  concrete historical alienations from them (cf. Marcuse Luther 28‑29 and passim). If we embarked on such scrutinies, I believe we would end up by making much better sense of our feedback relations with the world. However, at the moment I have to balance bits and aspects of this second discourse with the first or dichotomizing one, which threatens to reproduce itself parasitically in my new proposals too. History is real, the hegemony also.

But, as Beckett tells us through the exemplum of the two thieves on the Cross: do not presume, yet do not despair either. I think a number of differences between the two discourses are very tech­nical, and thus doubly foreclosed for me and my readers. First, we are probably (and I am certainly) not competent to enter into many of those details. Second, for my possibly foolhardy purposes of clearing the ground for a discussion of cultural texts and social discourse, even this halfway house would be a great deal further along the road than where I set out from.

3.3. How is, for example, the intense va‑et‑vient traffic between topological imagination and conceptuality to be grasped? It can only be conducted by a “chromosomal” transfer of traits (units of articulation) through shared intentions, observations, assump­tions, inferences, etc.,5/ adumbrated by Jaggar as a “mutually constitutive rather than oppositional relation between reason and emotion.” Beyond already presented arguments, such as the unity of our social existence and of the sensorium, and the ubiquity of categorization, this is made possible by two further central reasons. First, concepts are all founded on judgments, many if not most of which, e.g. judgments of logical quality — assertion and negation — , depend on evaluation (cf. Bloch 42) and thus, I would conclude from this whole discussion, on interests and emotion. Even our central categories such as spatial orientation (up‑down, left‑right, here‑there), pressure and weight (gravity), similarity and difference, etc., largely involve imaginative structures of understanding which are of a topological, very often metaphoric, kind. Thus it is the melding of conceptual and topological that brings about the “wise,” hypothetical, cognitive space; the best studied examples we have of it are the thought‑experiments of art (metaphoricity, narrativity, music,  the spatial arts, etc.), but it is at least equally present in the practice of action (e.g. in love, or in great movements of polit­ical liberation). I believe all of this is implied in the Fifth (and the Ninth) of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: “Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, appeals to sensuous contempla­tion; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human‑sensuous activity” (Marx‑Engels 108).

Second, topological imagination is strongly socialized; it is not reducible to inchoate feeling or biological instinct. As I argued earlier by way of Angenot, both topology and concept are based on historical topics. In the sense proposed in 3.1 and 3.2, concepts are obviously also (and always already) historical. There is no eternal ahistorical matrix for anchoring the nature of knowledge, truth, rationality, or indeed reality. For one thing, e.g., what is a fact notoriously depends on the filter for or  frame of recognition, chosen by changeable imaginative inclinations and constraints which are as a rule shaped into ideologies. For another, the frame of categories is itself a quintessentially historical and indeed ideological construct. There are, however, some “long duration” concepts that may last through an entire social formation, and a few that may last through several, in topologically mutated but still recognizable shapes. I would not shy away from saying that, within an entirely historical horizon of material relationships, there should be a place for (possibly very few) long‑duration concepts that may last  through the entire history of class society — e.g. “war.”

Obversely, one could go on to argue that beyond judgments of quality, even the logical judgments of quantity (what is singu­lar, particular or general) are, at least in their presupposi­tions and horizons, deeply enmeshed in history, evaluation, and indeed ideology. On the one hand, a sanitized rational generali­ty, the representative in logic of bourgeois society, is deemed superior to particulars, e.g. in the equality of individuals before the law. “The Law forbids sleeping under bridges with equal majesty to beggars and millionaires,” quipped Anatole France; the Law also allows a single mother to compete for a job on “equal” basis with a bachelor. On the other hand this individ­ualism is extolled as superior to any claims of totality, which is implicit in the very definition of mental operation, and yet which is in a bad Cold War pun equated to the muddy category of totalitarianism. In spite of this obfuscation, a central axiom of economy in reasoning argues in favour of stressing totality, in the sense of a semantic thesaurus with provisional hierarchies of categories, while complementarily “[w]ords expressing totality, such as all, always, forever, never, and only, are the key ingre­dients of many popular songs…whose meaning is aimed at stirring up all sorts of strong feelings” (Bohm and Peat 218). Finally, we have one brain and body, the senses and the sensorium mesh. Finally also, I agree with Jameson that the “mode of production” — in the widest Marxian and Brechtian sense in which one produces not only shoes but also love, not only pianos but also music (cf. Suvin, “Brecht: Bearing”) — is “a total synchronic structure” which is for the foreseeable future the “ultimate and untranscendable” (Jameson, “Marxism” 149) imaginative horizon of illumination. It does not have to be treated as a master code, but as a user‑friendly code: on the penalty of “the obscurity of nearness, so convenient for every ruling class” (Bloch 67), the lack of appropriation because of the lack of distanciation, which means slavery to the eternal consumption‑cycle return of the masters’ wars, depressions,  and other daily catastrophes.

3.4. Let me indicate, finally, that some interdisciplinary depth developments seem to bear out my approach. Potentially perhaps the most sensational is a remarkable turning point in or out of recent linguistics (since it perhaps should by now be given a different name) which may be represented by some implications of Langacker’s “cognitive grammar.” Radically jettisoning the logi­co‑algebraic formalism of classical linguistics as a self‑en­closed horizontal chain of propositions (Hjelmslev, Benveniste, Martinet, etc., down to Greimas — see their thorough demolition by Coquet), this approach derives all linguistic concepts from positions and configurations in “basic domains” of perceptive and representational space. All that is necessary for such a deriva­tion are the topological properties of dimension, articulation, distance, degree of intensity, etc., and their sufficiently precise mathematical processing. This is elegantly based on the cognitive operation of scanning, that by registering qualitative contrasts finds shapes by means of borders drawn against a basis, and by which all things or entities  of and in language may be defined as “regions” in some domain. There are various types of scanning, and they all dovetail with Thom’s definition of mor­phology as a system of borders or qualitative discontinuities. Since Langacker proposes to satisfy the constraint of informa­tionally finite local scannings as well as of defining the routes of propagation from local to global, this morphological cognition may be transformed into conceptual cognition in the sense of a theory of scripts or frames, or indeed of Lakoff’s and Johnson’s schemas (also of Kosslyn’s work in cognitive psychology, etc., see Danesi).  In the best synthesis of the field that I could find, Petitot has put forward very strong arguments for integrat­ing this on the one hand with Jackendoff’s cognitive linguistics and Talmy’s “force dynamics” in cognition, and on the other hand with Thom’s mathematical models of morphogenesis or shape‑changes latching on to the mathematical theory of catastrophes. Even if one doubts that this is the final solution to all gaping problems on the borders of linguistics and psychology (for one thing, there is more than a touch of illicit extrapolation toward bio­logical essentialism in some protagonists of this paragraph), the way may be thus open for a materialist “bottom‑up” treatment of language and cognition. In it, concepts and topology (or reason and emotion) are no longer even notionally to be sundered, and the brain’s analog ability of topological orientation, articula­tion, and anamorphosis is basic to and permanently involved in all digital conceptualization.

Such a horizon would take us beyond that of Jaggar’s brilliant and seminal essay. Yet located where we are now, we still have to argue for an emotion which is ontogenetically and phylogenetical­ly prior to conceptuality, but axiologically a necessary intimate component of all reasoning or cognition, topological or conceptu­al. Her indication that the clarifying feedback between emotions and conceptual reflecting on them is particularly necessary for oppressed societal groups is for me still central, even if re­phrased as a feedback traffic between the submerged topological and visible  systematico‑conceptual parts of an iceberg. This plebeian point of view from below belongs, I would add, to social classes and groupings where it is in people’s interest, in order both to  survive under and work to change exploitive and humili­ating conditions, to yoke together and mutually clarify “gut feelings” and cognition; as opposed to people in the upper class­es who have a strong vested interest in their isolation and muddying. True, in  hegemony‑ridden practice the plebeian imagi­nation and plebeian interests are repressed and as a rule coopt­ed, thus often not recognized by themselves. Nonetheless, their potentiality or horizon must be given a preferential epistemolog­ical option. Obversely and complementarily, this means that those of us who wish to turn such an orientation into a stable stance have to begin by taking seriously “the epistemic potential of emotion” (Jaggar, “Love” 163) — and of the topological imagina­tion.

The only useful definition of reason, taking off from the OED sense 10.a: “intellectual power…employed in adapting thought or action to some end,” necessarily includes emotion — for how could one adapt thought or action to some end without evaluation, intention, and similar epistemic goads or stimuli? In that case, reason should be added as yet another pseudo‑synonym to the cognition, knowledge, and understanding from 1.0. I strongly wish to retain and indeed expand the concept of reason (as well as others developed to deal with its internal articulation and connections, such as inferences or entailments). But in face of the terrible ravages of capitalist ratio and bureaucratic binar­ism, this can today only be defended on the understanding that “the structure of rationality is much richer than any set of [disembodied] logical patterns…” (Johnson 5), or any horizontal recombination of such exclusively conceptual sets considered without the vertical body stances, evaluations, emotions, and other imaginative, topological interactions with collective reality.


1/ My thanks for support in research leading to this article go to the SSHRC of Canada as well as to the Killam Award of the Canada Council; for our indispensable discussions to Marc Ange­not, Chang Huei‑keng, Fredric Jameson, and particularly to Gene Gendlin, whose generous comments made me rewrite much of the emotion vs. concept argument, even if not radically enough for his taste; and for critical reading to Paul Coates. All transla­tions from non‑English texts, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

2/ In particular, I have for practical reasons chosen not to instance here from a great number of fields and approaches which I suspect could also be useful. Let me mention only — exemplarily — the post‑Marx analyses of capitalism, the Durkheimian micro‑sociology of group “rituals,” and the post‑Weber sociology of knowledge and religion or myth, where I am aware of substantial contributions by (e.g.) Mauss, Mannheim, W. Mills, Garfinkel or Goffman. But such fields may be endless: Mauss already implies anthropology, and what would Lévi‑Strauss be without topology (spatial and tonal)?

3/ As can be seen from his title, Gendlin is actually dubious about the terms “form” and “pattern,” and assigns them usually to logical or conceptual thought only. But then he rightly finds (e.g. in 77, 102, 145‑47) that he can use them for non‑conceptual articulation too, and I shall follow the latter practice which does not surrender the terms to Objectivism. The ellipse in the first quote is Gendlin’s.

4/ See Suvin, “Performance” 11‑13 and passim (with a lengthy bibliography). Investigation of socialized action, I argue there, englobes  formalized semiotic procedures. They were not addressed in this first approach, but considerations of signic meaning and systems, in particular the central organon of historically in­duced Possible Worlds, would at a later stage of discussion become indispensable.

5/ I would situate here also entailment, which I would attempt to redefine (just as inference and reason itself may be redefined by foregrounding their hegemonically recessive  senses), in this case by using the recognized but downplayed sense of entailment as “material implication” (rather than the strictly conceptually necessary, “strong” implication — see OED 519).

Works Cited

  1. Cognitive Reason vs. Non‑Cognitive Emotion?

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Berman, Ruth. “From Aristotle’s Dualism to Materialist Dialectics,” in Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo, eds., Gen­der/ Body/ Knowledge. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989, 224‑55.

Blumenberg, Hans. Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer. Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp, 1988.

Bohm, David, and F. David Peat. Science, Order, and Creativ­ity. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.

de Certeau, Michel. Heterologies. Tr. B. Massumi. Minneapo­lis: U of Minnesota P, 1985.

“[E]motion.” Compact OED. 1981 edn.

Grimminger, Rolf. “Die nützliche gegen die schöne Aufklärung,” in Wilhelm Vosskamp, ed., Utopieforschung, Vol. 3. Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp, 1985, 125‑45.

Hartsock, Nancy C.M. Money, Sex, and Power. New York: Long­man, 1983.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Vorrede” to Phänomenologie des Geistes. Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 2. Ed. J. Hoffmeister. Leip­zig: Meiner, 1949.

Hirschmann, Albert O. The Passions and the Interests. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

Jaggar, Alison M. Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Totowa NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1985.

 — ‑. “Love and Knowledge,” in idem and Susan Bordo, Gender/Body/Knowledge. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989, 145‑71.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology, 2 Vols. New York: Dover Publ., 1950.

Jameson, Fredric R. “History and Class Consciousness as an Unfinished Product.” Rethinking Marxism 1.1 (1988): 49‑72.

Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Lukács, Georg. Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. Berlin & Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1968.

Marcuse, Herbert. Reason and Revolution. Boston: Beacon P, 1966.

Marx, Karl. “Marx to P.V. Annenkov in Paris,” in The Poverty of Philosophy. Moscow: Progress, 1976, 165‑78.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Prince­ton: Princeton UP, 1979.

Suvin, Darko. “Brecht: Bearing, Pedagogy, Productivity,” Gestos (Irvine CA) 5.10 (1990): 11‑28.

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Taylor, Charles. Hegel. New York: Cambridge UP, 1977.

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Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. NY: Oxford UP, 1981.

2‑3. On Topological Imagination and Concluding Horizons

See also from 1. Bohm‑Peat, Jaggar “Love,” James, Johnson, OED, Suvin, “Brecht: Bearing,” and Williams.

Angenot, Marc. “Dialectique et topique,” in his La Parole pamphlétaire. Paris: Payot, 1982, 145‑233.

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 — ‑. “A Philosophical Critique of the Concept of Narcissism,” in D.M. Levin, ed., Pathologies of the Modern Self. New York: New York UP, 1987, 251‑304.

 — ‑. “Thinking Beyond Patterns,” in B. denOuden and M. Moen, eds., The Presence of Feeling in Thought. New York: Lang, 1991, 27‑189.

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 — ‑. “Marxism and Historicism,” in his The Ideologies of Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988, 148‑77.

 — ‑. Theory of Culture. Ed. S. Goto. [Tokyo]: Rikkyo U, 1994.

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Darko Suvin                                                                                               (1983-86, 12,000 words)

0. I would like to do two things simultaneously in this paper. First, to test and develop an approach to agential analysis of narrative which is based on a hypothesis explained at some length in other places. (1) Second, to test the yield of that approach and hypothesis when applied to–very selected–instances of agential systems in Chinese classical prose (which would at a later stage lead to a longer test confronting one classical European and Chinese novel). I realize how imprudent this latter attempt is for somebody as fully ignorant of the Chinese language and as largely ignorant of its cultural intertext as I am, and I can only hope to offset this by concentrating on aspects and macro-proportions I understand somewhat better.

1. For a System of Narrative Agents

1.0. The first meta-problem that cannot be avoided is one of pertinence. Is it useful to use the complex and sometimes clumsy machinery of (even a non-scientistic variant of) narratology or narrative semiotics to analyze such well-known works as a novel  by Wu Jing-zi (or by Balzac)? (2) My answer is conditionally but clearly positive. Positive, because narratology is, within a cluster of young disciplines such as the theory of literature–or if you wish fictional anthropology–one of the youngest and least developed, so that it cannot afford to refuse illumination of its domain wherever the light might be coming from. Only conditionally positive, because it has to be conceded that the highly interesting cognitive potentials of semiotics have up to now, at least in dealing with narrative agents, been dominated by an a-historical universalism and scientism, by a syndrome I have elsewhere–in the  longer critique referred to, which I must here again do without–called glossocracy (or, if one prefers it, linguistic imperialism). I hope we shall be able to build upon the historical fundaments of agential analysis in Aristotle and Propp, who proceed by means of socio-historical induction from precise cultural processes such as genres and discursive traditions, as opposed to unchecked deduction from very dubious “universal laws which constitute the unconscious operation of the spirit.” (3) Should it prove possible to use semiotics as an analytical technique rather than a technocratic ideology, then it may take a useful, perhaps even a key, place within the polyphony of critical approaches. Particularly within a domain (the agential theory) that has to cope with such vexed knots as character and type, we are in dire need not so much of new as (be it said with some sadness) of coherent and encompassing views. With that in mind, I would like  to  define narrative agents in a first approximation as all nouns or nominal syntagms that can be imagined as separate animate entities, and thus (in contrast to the inanimate objects) as able to undertake an action in a given textual universe. This is not a fully formalized definition perhaps, since it begs a number of unresolved questions: and foremost, what is an action? Nonetheless, it seems to me that its mixture of intuitive and verifiable elements should be sufficient for a first approach.

1.1. If some such delimitation of this field is accepted, the  first significant fact that stands out is its grave underdevelopment. From Bakhtin to Chatman and Culler, two full generations lament the scandalous blanks in even a theory of surface-level agents, the characters. This lament maintains that practically the only advance in this field between Aristotle and the end of the 1970s  was E.M.

Forster’s distinction between “round” and “flat” characters. (4) A possible exception might perhaps have been the attempts of French semiotics and its theory of actants, beginning with l966 (the date of Communications no. 8 devoted to the analysis of récit and of Greimas’s first book). However, in my Versus article mentioned, I have been forced to conclude that, despite its stimulating and pioneering opening of prospects, its only achievement has been to renew the old insight that agential analysis has to encompass several levels. (They were called pratton vs. ethos, viz. function vs. dramatis persona, already in Aristotle and Propp; Propp and Souriau were also perfectly clear about the possibility of distributing participation in their metatextual or deeper agential level among several textual agents, and viceversa.) My conclusion rests on two basic objections to Greimas’s theory.

     First, Greimas articulated the level which he called the actants–the level of function in the action or plot–by means of an undue extension of Indo-European sentence syntax into an eternal analogy to the workings of the human brain. He forgot  his patron-saint’s warning that “there is no language whose vocabulary can be deduced from the syntax,” and that therefore in narrative entities, a fortiori, grammar and vocabulary do not even operate on distinct level but “adhere to each other on their whole surface and completely overlap,” (5) i.e. that in narrativity everything is simultaneously both syntax and vocabulary. Thus, in this domain  Souriau’s pre-semiotic account of “thematic forces” (with due translation from his astrological vocabulary into the pragmatic vocabulary of–as I propose–the Protagonist, Antagonist, Value, Mandator, Beneficiary, and Satellite) seems much more useful. Second, following the master, all Greimasians hesitate between using two and hinting at more (usually three) levels of agential analysis. That possible third level was already mentioned, though not systematized either, by such precursors as Bogatyrev (type) and Souriau (rôle and rôle pur), most succinctly and authoritatively within the vocabulary of the time by Frye (stock type):

All lifelike characters, whether in drama or fiction, owe their consistency to the appropriateness of the stock type which belongs to their dramatic function. That stock type is not the character but it is as necessary to the character as a skeleton is to the actor who plays it. (6)

 The French semioticians simply transferred the whole discussion onto the field of universalist syntax and called it rôle and rôle  actantiel in Greimas, (7) rôle both in Alexandrescu’s discussion of Faulkner and in Bremond’s eternal agential inventory, rôle formel in Rastier, emploi in Hamon, etc. It might be argued that the term used is not of primary importance if the level of analysis is clearly delimited and articulated. However, any basic term will inflect the way we perceive its universe of discourse, and it is therefore at least of some importance: we have learned that language speaks us as much as we speak it, so that, in Confucius’s terms, we must “rectify the names” (zhen ming). Thus, the terminological hesitations and contradictions of the Greimasians are correlative to their never having systematized agential analysis. “Emploi,” e.g., obviously confuses a very particular theatrico-historical species with the genus; nor would I favour “role” either in French or English because of its invitation to huge confusion both with an actor’s part of the text in theatre and with the whilom fashionable sociological theory of role-playing, feeding back into some literary and theatre theories.

1.2. In order to draw the necessary conclusions from the discussions of the last 60 years and bring some order to the present mess, I propose we should accept–mutatis mutandis — both Forster’s distinction between “round” and “flat” agents, and the Propp-Souriau addition of a still deeper level of textual agents (appropriating for it Greimas’s term of actants without adopting his articulation or horizons). I shall call Forster’s agents character and type. “Character” ought to be self-explanatory (yet cf. 1.3 below). “Type” is not only suitably Anglo-French but it could also draw useful sustenance from two sources. First, from the theatre tradition (primarily in English) shrewdly used by Frye, which uses such terms as “type of role,” “typecast,” “stock type,” etc, and has in this century through the conduit of the theatrum mundi metaphor invaded even some rather fuzzy sociology in the disguise of “role.” Second, it can draw sustenance from a confrontation with its wide use in literary criticism, e.g. with both biblical and Lukcsian typology, accepting their richness and rejecting their rigid limitations.

     At this point it would be possible to inventorize at length a number of contributions to a clear definition and delimitation of what I take to be this third, intermediate level indispensable for agential analysis. I shall content myself with acknowledging that for all my disagreement with their ideological horizons I have used hints from the names mentioned so far, as well as from Doutrepont, Todorov, and Ubersfeld, (8) in order to construct the following table which I present as my basic hypothesis, and which I can here defend only through its analytical yield. It should be strongly stressed that the three levels of analysis, numbered in my table from the deepest level upward, are cumulative and not alternative. The two basic ones, actants and types, are to be found in every narrative text; the uppermost one, characters in Forster’s “round” sense, may or may not be present in any given text (that depends on its epistemic epoch and genre). This might already point to the key position of the intermediate level.

     At any rate, in this essay, which does not pretend to exhaust the interpretation of any particular text,  I shall focus on this second level of types. Type can be perhaps best defined as in Whewell: “A Type is an example of any class, for instance, a species of a genus, which is considered as eminently possessing  the characters of the class.” (9) The formal openness of such a definition can avoid any apriorism (biblical, Lukácsian, or other) in favour of sociohistorical contextuality á la Bakhtin, Benjamin, and Brecht. Typicality may in this sense be based on any categorization that has in cultural history been taken (rightly or wrongly from a present point of view) to classify people or agents. Types, thus, can be and have been classified by sex-cum-age,  by nationality, by profession, by social estate or class, by physiology and moral philosophy (Aristotle’s ethos, the Galenic “temperaments” or “humours”), often by what we would feel are combinations of the above categories (Diderot’s conditions, e.g. Father or Judge, seem to contaminate profession, class, and social role), etc.


 Let me offer just one set of examples: the agential semantic field of fighting/warring or fighter/warrior may be articulated as an ideal (but also largely historical) sequence traversing the scale of predicative complexity (see column 2 in my table). At its lower end would be found a mythological personification of War or Ares in Antiquity, or analogous agents outside Europe (e.g.  some emplois in the Peking Opera), or an allegorical personification such as the medieval Ira (Wrath). All such agents are predicatively poor (though not at all necessarily ineffective) types since they have, I think, two traits only: the combative characteristic (wrathfulness, aggressiveness) and the position or Stellenwert in the system of polytheism, cardinal sins, or similar. The Commedia dell’arte maschera of “Capitano” has already about half a dozen traits, say officer, middle-aged, braggart, coward, indigent, and Spanish (though the ethnic trait varies according to local history and prejudice). What seems to me constitutive of any type is that it possesses a relatively small number of traits (I have not found more than half a dozen in any so far examined, but this remains a field to be investigated), which are all culturally congruent or compatible. This compatibility should in every particular historical case be explainable as the result of a feedback interaction between the social reality from which the traits are taken and the criteria of verisimilitude of the social addressees for whom the text is intended. On the contrary, any character in the sense of the uppermost level in my Table, say Falstaff, will unite in him/herself at least two conflicting, i.e. culturally incongruous traits.

1.3. If anything like the above hypothesis  is accepted, far-reaching consequences ensue for the history of narrativity. For in that case, the answer to the question: which agential level is to be found on the surface of the text and which in the presuppositions or depths of the text, is neither single nor eternal, based on a universal syntax and/or the structure of the Homo sapiens brain. On the contrary, it is a changing answer, and the changes are correlative to changes in dominant aspects of those sociohistorical relationships between people of which that text treats, as seen through the presuppositions of both the text’s author and the social addressees to whom the text speaks. Such changes in what we can call a fictional and experimental anthropology (or view of people and human relationships to each other and to societal institutions) happen, no doubt, within a long duration measured in epochs, but they are nonetheless part and parcel of the major, indeed “anthropological” shifts in human history. The Individualistic practice and notion of “character”–in other words, a whole new narrative and analytical level of agents–arises in the European spacetime of Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Gogol’, in whose texts its coming into being can be palpably traced. Character in the sense of my Table seems clearly to be not only a key ideological notion and fictional device but also a key anthropological categorization, view, or theoria of the world, best fixed by and experimented with in fiction (and painting and theatre). It is born and prevails together–and thus it is in some ways consubstantial–with the bourgeoisie, capitalist economy, the turn of human relationships toward atomization, quantification, and reification including equality before the law, and the whole well-known historical cluster accompanying the rise of this new, Individualist epistémé. Or, obversely, where the Individualist epistémé does not prevail — e.g. in China — neither does the character.

     The startlingly radical change in the historical semantics of key terms such as “individual,” “personality,” “character,” or “subject” would in itself be a sufficient proof of agential historicity. In English, “individual” originally meant the oppo-site of what it came to mean after the 16th-17th century watershed, namely an indivisible unity or community in multiplicity, e.g. the Christian Trinity or “the individuall Catholicke Church” (as Milton still wrote). The singular noun “individual” emancipated itself from explicit and subordinate relation “to the group of which it was, so to say, the ultimate indivisible division” only late in the 18th century–a characteristic example of the new usage occurring in Adam Smith! The full-fledged ideology of “Individualism” emerged then in the 19th century, in the English translation of Tocqueville (characteristically, a French reflection on the young America), who calls it “a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth”. And the use of “character” for fictional agents dates in English from mid-18th century. Earlier, if applied to people at all, it had meant their more or less fixed nature, their reputation, or the fixed type and literary genre popularized by Theophrastus, La Bruyère, and Overbury. (10) Such  diametrically contrary meanings before and after the (say) Bacon-to-Rousseau watershed are an evident instance of how the interhuman or anthropological practice of a radically new social construction of reality changes even some basic elements of cultural vision, and thus of narrative and fictional horizons too. In this context, the Chinese practice up to, say, the 18th century ought to be a crucial test.

     To avoid misunderstandings, I shall add that none of my arguments so far speaks to the historical necessity and value–or the obverse–of the rise of Individualistic character, e.g. in Balzac. This is a domain in which we need much more fundamental investigation by scholars willing to admit, and if warranted compensate for, their inevitable initial bias, in order to strike a balance between what seem to me the obvious huge advantages and the obvious huge limitations of that truly historical process. For, the enrichment initially brought by the rise of such a “character” is undeniable, and cognate to the epoch of sudden changeability. A character is defined by having among its more numerous traits at least two culturally conflicting or contradictory ones. Therefore, its kind of behaviour cannot be fully foreseen–as different from the kind of behaviour of a Miser, an ingénue, a Senex, a Miles gloriosus or a Strongman, which is fully foreseeable (though, of course, the concrete or detail behaviour of any such type is not, otherwise one could write only one tale about each type). Nonetheless, without treading further into this minefield, I wish to note two limiting aspects to character.  First, it is as a rule built upon a metatextual (or should one say “bathytextual”?) existence of one or–as just noted–several types; I shall return to this in my discussion of the texts. Second, the victory of the Individualist character has never been complete. It was always confined not only to the Individualist epoch but also to its typical or dominant genres–e.g., to the psychological novel and the well-made play as against the fairy tale, the paraliterature, the farce, the melodrama, and the great bulk of modern avantgarde literature and drama of the last 100 years (which would in this hypothesis look like the beginning of the end of Individualism).

     The instability or “shallowness” of this agential level of characters may be seen in the semantic fact that their inalienable hallmark, the proper name, can be returned to social typicality and become a common noun simply by adding an article or a suffix. Of Molière’s two nearest approaches to character, Tartuffe became “les Tartuffes” in the plural already in his first placet to the King, in August 1564, and not too much later we find mention of “a tartuffe” and “tartufferie”; similarly, as of Molire’s (and then Mozart’s) memorable refashioning of Tirso de Molina’s don Juan Tenorio, that supposed individual readily passes into the notion of “le donjuanisme” and the plural “les Don Juans”: into a pattern or exemplar. Not to insist on the Chinese stage, an overcoded and thus possibly not stringent example, half a dozen agents from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San-guo-zhi yan-yi) alone have become popular types: e.g., Guan Yu an exemplary –even a deified! — emblem “of unwavering fidelity to his lord” (Ruhlmann 149–cf. S 83), or Zhuge Liang a generical noun for a shrewd and resourceful person.

  1. On the Agential Logic in Chinese Popular Fiction and on Its Types

2.1. I would hope that this or a similar approach might also throw some new light on one of the most vexed problems of Sino-European (and indeed North-South or bourgeois vs. Third World) comparative narratology, the debate about the absence of Individualist “round” characters from classical Chinese prose. As put by probably the most sophisticated theoretical overview in European languages, Professor Plaks’s “Toward a Critical Theory of Chinese Narrative”–which fortunately eschews the embarrassing pretensions of cultural imperialism that whatever is not bourgeois is aberrant–in the Chinese tradition “the uniqueness of the individual figure may derive less from the originality or novelty of individualized attributes, than from the particular combination of commonly-held human attributes brought together in his [i.e. the figure’s, DS] portrayal.” (11) Striving for further refinement, I would say that what is original in Individualist characters is not the attributes, which are by linguistic definition traditional (unless they are neologisms), but their combination around the axis of one or more doxologically incompatible pairs of attributes. Individualism has, of course, no monopoly on causal verisimilitude or presentation of detail. A non-Individualist narrative agent may well have a number of quite detailed traits, indeed an “extreme subtlety of delineation,” without at all ceasing to be a type: “the individuality of characters becomes less important than the interplay and overlapping of types that actually defines the individual’s existence in the first place”  (Plaks 344). In an insight crucial for agential theory in general (which I had ignorantly reinvented in “Per una teoria” [see note 1] à propos of Molière), Plaks brilliantly deduced that this distinction between type and overlap of types corresponds to and accounts for the difference between primary and secondary “characters” (i.e. agents) in Chinese narrative.  This is also of a piece with two further basic tendencies of agential deployment which he notes. First, “the blatant redundancy of characterization…–the constant reappearance of narrative figures with only a change of name and exterior details” (346; I would demur at “exterior,” the more so since Plaks goes on to demolish convincingly the disjunction of inner and outer self). Second, the development in longer Chinese fiction of “groups and sets of figures”–in my terms, a system of very few types which are presented either “purely” or, more interestingly, in various overlapping combinations, i.e. with various differential traits superadded to a common nucleus of traits–“rather than concentrating on the delineation of the individual hero in isolation” (Plaks 345). Examples would include the rebels in Outlaws of the Marsh (Shui-hu zhuan), the women in Jin-ping mei, the various groupings of intellectuals and/or officials as well as of plebeians in The Scholars (Ru-lin wai-shi), or the 12 girls of Prospect Garden and the Bao-yu–Dai-yu–Bao-chai triangle in Story of the Stone (Hong-lou meng). They latch on to a deep tradition of Chinese writing–already Szuma Chien’s biographies are categorized under “Assassins,” “Jesters,” “Money-Makers,” “Harsh Officials,” etc.

 2.2. In this light, the typology in the Outlaws is a revealing basic example. I would divide the axiologically positive narrative types to be found in this novel–all variants of the heroic protagonist-actant from the popular, oral-tale tradition–into three: the few female heroines or amazons, e.g. Goodwife Hu (who are more a concession to a folk taste for the marvellous than carefully explicated); and two main subdivisions of the male popular hero or hao han, good fellow: the cunning (e.g. the yamen scribe Song Jiang) and the strongmen. (12) Most of the about 100 male rebels at Liang-shan and all the female ones  will be a “pure” type.  The strongmen of Outlaws share the basic traits of hao han heroism or protagonism (savage courage, justice, macho generosity and loyalty to their sworn brothers, fondness for food and drink) and substitute strength to the guile of the cunning hao han. On top of this, they are mutually differentiated by personal appearance (physique, dress, quality in battle) which is as a rule related to their expressive nickname, and, I think,  by one further distinctive trait, usually a kind of emblematic fusion of temperament and social background  (Li Kui’s berserk subversiveness, Wu Song’s methodical destructiveness, etc.). Another important way of differentiation is the setting up within one trait  of sub-sets  (most important, of prowess in one particular weapon or guileful strategy rather than in another) and/or of quantitative gradations (Song Jiang’s supreme generosity makes him the outlaw leader).

     However, the narrative agents are here–as in most novels–divided into two groups, central and marginal. As opposed to the subsidiary “pure” types, the few main agents (the consensus doctorum pegs them at eight, all of them male) contaminate the predicates of the extant types, i.e. the cunning and the strong, in different ways. They therefore already seem to be–in a retroactive teleological illusion which I think is not necessarily correct–part of the way toward a “character” in the round sense. In that way, the agents of Outlaws would be comparable–though not quite identical–to Molière’s improvement on and step forward from the Commedia dell’arte, the agents of which are all on the same level of single type. Significantly, it was Rousseau’s reading of the misanthrope in the eponymous play that heralded the new epistémé‘s will to see characters in what everybody until then saw as types by Molière’s own definition.

     A somewhat unexpected and possibly highly significant conclusion emerges: the central, topical agential set as a whole in a Chinese text will equal (or surpass) the contradictory complexity and richness of traits found in a central character in an Individualist (Euro-American post-Cervantes) text of a comparable quality. If one wishes to put it into an oxymoron, in the Chinese (as in any non-Individualist) fictional tradition the group is the collective individual.

2.3. Much evidence of how these two types come from the tradition of protagonists in Chinese popular fiction–and finally from the reality and ideology of the Chinese class system–is to be found in Ruhlmann’s  cited essay. It distinguishes not only popular, scholarly, and princely heroes (though his typology is not always consistent), but also subsidiary types in prose fiction, drama, and historical writings: military heroes and solitary swordsmen, principled and oppressive officials, venerable immortals, various villains, virtuous women, heartless and golden-hearted courtesans, born rulers and romantic protagonists, filial and idle sons, etc. The list could be not only supplemented but also streamlined into a coherent typology with a finite number of coordinated and subordinated differences. I cannot do this here, but I would suggest that, beside subdivisions (officials ranking from low magistrate through judge to prime minister and indeed emperor, villains from cruel highwayman through traitor to the bad “last ruler”) and recombinations (the wicked prime minister combines traitor with supremely oppressive official), most types would have to be grouped around one or more good vs. bad axes. It would seem to me the fundamental Chinese tradition is one of robust moralizing in binary patterns, later complicated by Daoist dialectics and more complex patterns (e.g. the five elements in Cao’s agential system). Thus, should we wish to pursue the development of narrative agents in some further classical Chinese novels, we would have to note how in Wu Jing-zi’s Scholars (to be discussed in part 3) the agential system gets both more complex and presented in more complex ways than in Outlaws, while for Cao Xue-qin’s Story of the Stone I think nobody who does not know Chinese should dare to conclude just how different they are from characters (though I would speculate they were not intended to be European-style Individualist characters, so that even Bao-yu is for all his oscillations of mood not really an internally contradictory agent of the kind that Balzac’s Lucien or Proust’s Marcel are).

     This first discussion seems to confirm the hypothesis of my approach, i.e. that the key agential level, indispensable in all narrative, is the level of types in the sense of the above Table. It should be stressed that this is in the first instance a technical or alethic and not an axiological statement: only in the second instance, having clarified this formal aspect, the interpretation may intervene with a value judgment. Furthermore, my argumentation and exemplification will necessarily be laconic, pretending to a suggestiveness which should be developed further in the reader’s imagination rather than to a fullness for which a monograph would barely suffice.

  1. The Agential System of “The Scholars”

3.0. In this final part of my essay I want to analyze the agential system of the classical Chinese novel The Scholars by Wu Jing-zi (Wu Ching-tzu). I believe that highly significant comparisons could be drawn between it and a classical European novel such as Lost Illusions (Les Illusions perdues) by Honoré de Balzac. These would be restricted to inductions from their agential systems, but it is precisely on that basis that the two texts seem intuitively comparable, since the thematic or topical field of both could be called the disenchantments of the intellectual(s). However, that parallel must regretfully be left for another occasion. Indeed, space will allow me to insist only on some bold outlines and highlights of the groupings in S.

3.1. The “Xian-zhai lao-ren” Preface to the earliest extant (1803) edition of Wu’s Scholars, probably penned by the author himself, defines its topic-cum-attitude–and therefore the main profile and groupings of narrative agents–to my mind quite cogently as follows:

This book as a whole takes career, fame, wealth, and rank [gong-ming fu-gui] as its theme. There are those who are tempted by gong-ming fu-gui and play up to people, humbling themselves; those who, relying on gong-ming fu-gui, become stuck up and arrogant to people; those who pretend not to be interested in gong-ming fu-gui and consider themselves superior, only to be seen through and laughed at by people. There are others, however, who truly reject gong-ming fu-gui; ultimately, the book regards their level as the highest, like the rock which stands against the current. (13)

This Preface in fact develops the chord first struck at the very beginning of the book itself: “…in human life riches, rank, success and fame are external things….[T]heir taste is no better than chewed tallow. But from ancient times till now, how many have accepted this?” (S 1-2). One can begin delineating the agential groupings in the novel on the basis of this opposition between participation and non-participation in the gong-ming fu-gui rat-race.  Of the ca. 300 narrative agents in S, of which between 30 and 60 could be considered more important, a brief analysis striving for an overview can only mention those few whose position within the basic groupings in the text is so strategic that it will provide general orientations for the rest too. These strategic groupings may be examined in two main ways, syntagmatically and paradigmatically.

3.2. The syntagmatic grouping follows or better constitutes the development of the novel’s plot or fabula. It is by now not necessary to go on proving that Wu’s plot has a perfectly valid logic of its own. This could in part be analyzed following the evolution of social ceremonies and spaces, also of dreams, prophecies, and supernatural apparitions in S, but all of them are correlative to the narrative agents (e.g. the positive agents are characterized by laughing and by liking nature and their wives; the negative, by trusting ambiguous or false foretellings; etc.). Wu’s structuring, however, is not based on following the fates of a single group of narrative agents. It effects a cross-cut  composed of various, interlocking pragmatic and axiological agential groups representative for the whole huge and crucially important social class of literati or scholars and for the evolution of its social roles through several generations. These agents have to be linked by internal echoes and correspondences which validate their choice as exemplary and encompassing, in order to be felt by the reader as representative not only when presented singly but also when presented as a collective device that renders an encompassing (Lukcs would say “totalizing”) societal or anthropological perspective and judgment. I can here deal only with the major groupings. This means I shall regretfully disregard the doubtless important pairs of relatives and classmates, or the correspondences between single members of different groups. The same will hold for the very important trajectories of corruption which shift individuals and indeed families from the positive to the negative group, e.g. Kuang Chao-ren (Kuang Chao-jen), or the Bao (Pao) and Qu (Chu) generations (Hsia 229-30 and Wong 79) which almost resemble Gorkii’s Artamonovs (Delo Artamonovykh).

     I cannot discuss here either, but I wish at least to mention, one of Wu’s basic indirect techniques for limning narrative agents, which could be called the “delayed recognition” (time-bomb?) technique. It consists of a gradual introduction of different and often contradictory traits, so that only their cumulation and juxtaposition–including their cancelling each other out, mainly of words by deeds–will give a final picture. This necessitates close and repeated reading, but also makes for the reader’s more active involvement (much as in Brecht’s Verfremdung technique to which it is akin): the reader must weigh the often widely scattered traits by constant axiological judgment of how they form an ensemble.

     Also, I am adopting the five-part division of the novel suggested by Professor Hsia (224) and several others, organized around the “prologue” and “epilogue” of Wang Mian (Wang Mien) and the four eccentric plebeians as well as around the climax of the temple refurbishing in chapters 31-37, with the more episodic parts two and four filling in the remainder (chapters 2-30 and 38-54). I take the axiological status of the narrative agents to be consubstantial with this division; it is the interaction of agents (and their spaces or chronotopes) which constitutes Wu’s basic compositional logic.

     I believe Wu’s system of narrative agents can best be grasped as divided into three axiological groups: the clearly (but not as a rule totally) positive, the clearly negative, and the intermediary (in various degrees). This is a very rich and flexible system. Within it, the agents not only interact pragmatically but also constitute an almost continuous spread where their axiologically extreme groups interlace with the intermediate group. On the other hand, for all of its impliciteness, it is also a system with clear and indubitable values.

     The most positive agents are those who, while still retaining excellence in the traditional intellectual pursuits, totally opt out of the official system–the five plebeians framing the futile bustling about of the book’s insiders. They are not totally perfect either (nobody is, in this radical satire). Wang Mian, the peasant genius of chapter 1, represents a slightly idealized past. Even in it, one had finally to flee officialdom and the emperor by losing oneself in the plebeian mass; but one could at least for a while both be a recluse who lives off one’s painting and be consulted by the founding emperor-hero before he had consolidated his rule. This state of affairs is expressly demonstrated as preposterously impossible in the world of the other 54 chapters of the novel: where Zhuang’s (Chuang Shao-kuang) interview with the emperor must be foiled by the ludicrous scorpion sting, a kind of cosmic confirmation of the politics-as-jungle view exemplified at all levels of power from the envious prime minister down; where very few unofficial intellectuals can live from their work; and where people who pretend to opt out of society either do not really mean it or cannot manage to carry it off. This decay from a semi-open to a more and more closed political and psychological situation is indeed the prerequisite for understanding why all the other positive agents in the novel can–within the heightened pressures of the devolving system–be thought of as positive, although they are manifestly less perfect than the exemplary Wang Mian. They are doing the best that can be done in an increasingly corrupt age by withdrawing from officialdom; Wu’s both ethically absolute and yet at the same time historically pragmatic, unyielding but humane, value-system treats this withdrawal as clearly positive (the alternative would be to treat everybody after chapter 1 as negative, which seems obviously absurd). (14)

     Within the positive group, the four plebeians in the last chapter are to a great extent a highly significant and hopeful sign. But they too are far from perfect. First of all, not only have the traditional four leisure pursuits of the scholar been split off from public service, they have also been split among four people. Second, as opposed to the four commoners’ clearly positive functioning in the novel on the typical level, their characters have been rendered eccentric and to a certain degree genuinely unpleasant by the pressures of the extremely heavy system of social disapprovals and approvals wielded against them (cf. Lin 263). They are in fact–a fact which demonstrates Wu’s uncommon genius–the nearest this novel gets to Balzac-type characters, because they are beginning to live in an approximately Balzacian world. The strategic placing of these five plebeians at the beginning and end of S multiplies their effect: “The opening account of Wang Mien allows us to understand the irony ruling the action of all the dunces; the closing account of the four eccentrics makes us reflect back and understand subtleties we might have missed” (Wong 93). I shall return to the significance of the ending agents in 3.5. Finally, a few narrative agents in the intervening chapters serve as both after-riples of Wang and forebodings of the four plebeians, insofar as they observe the old virtues without being officials–notably a few women, the actor Bao Wen-qing and Filial Guo (Kuo Tieh-shan).

     At the other end of the axiological spread are a number of negative agents, those who subordinate learning to gong-ming fu-gui. They take the lion’s share, say 46 from the 55 chapters (though the chapters are not monolithic, and this little statistic is intended to indicate only orders of greatness, not precise proportions). I shall return to them below.

     The last major grouping is that of the  temple builders — Du Shao-qing, Dr. Yu, Zhuang Shao-guang, Chi Heng-shan, etc. (Tu Shao-ching, Yu Yu-teh, Chuang Shao-kuang, Chih Heng-shan). They occupy a syntagmatically, quantitatively, and qualitatively intermediate position, being treated as clearly more positive than negative but in some ways already tainted. Some of them participate in the official system, or attempt to gain fame and in some cases to make a career; at any rate each and every one of them  is doomed to ineffectiveness, and their supreme attempt at reinfusing vigour into old pieties to swift decay. Chapter 37, the temple consecration, is undoubtedly the compositional climax of the novel, in the sense that the general state of affairs in its world goes continuously downhill after it. No positive agents have a chance of even partial social or collective success any more; in particular, nobody expects the scholars’ efforts to be of any avail any more, so that the focus shifts away from them. However, the consecration can axiologically be treated either as    climax, or as anti-climax. (15) I would tend to see it as a subtle balance between both, correlative to my view that many among the most important narrative agents of classical Chinese prose (and of Wu Jing-zi in particular) are dialectically bipolar ones: their axiological center of gravity is always somewhat–and sometimes much–nearer to, but never quite identified with, one of the two ends of the spectrum.

     Thus, each of the three groups above should be treated not as a static point on the extreme ends or in the middle of an axiological gradation, but as a spectrum. A quantitative metaphor (no more) may indicate the spread of the first group, the negative agents. They range from a 99% negativity–found in conscious hypocrites; bullies like senior licentiate Yan (Yen); careerists and toadies of all ranks, the higher the worse, like Fan Jin (Fan Chin) and Wang Hui; impostors appropriating other people’s writings like Niu Pu-lang and Qu Xian-fu (Chu Hsien-fu); and of course combinations of all these–to a 70% negativity (e.g. the ba-gu essays’ compiler but kind friend Ma Chun-shang).  These various negative agents are the followers of gong-ming fu-gui stressed by the somewhat more orthodoxly Confucian Preface (cited in 3.1), which can therefore serve to effect internal delimitations within this group, as well as to delimit it from the positive one. The second or intermediate group is the clearly more positive than negative, say (as the Chinese habit would have it) “seven parts good and three parts bad” (70% positive), temple consecrators. The third or clearly positive group–accentuated equally by its restricted number, extreme social position, and syntagmatic collocation at beginning and end–is composed by the protagonists of the first and last chapter, who are perhaps 90% positive. Thus, within the overall bipolar spread, Wu’s system clearly tends towards negativity–as befits a satire.

3.3. With these last discussions I have already entered upon a paradigmatic grouping of narrative agents, by which is meant an ideal synoptic constellation in a logical space–a semantic topology–independent of the plot sequence (which can be thought of as its source or its unfolding). The various sets of narrative  types are used in S for the obvious express purpose of constituting a bipolar spread pragmatically and axiologically sufficient to encompass the whole “world of learning”–as the title could be translated (cf. the beginning of 3.4 below). The “world of learning” indicates not only the whole crucial social class of literati or intellectuals but also (by metonymy) the value-system officially paid lip-service to and subversively redefined in the novel as well as  the whole Chinese society.

     My hypothesis is that these sets of types can be organized in a few oppositions, all of which hinge upon learning and morality. Learning is here not to be taken simply as factual or ideological knowledge (either of which in its debased, rote form is indeed the epitome of fake or anti-learning). On the contrary, it is to be taken in the original sense going back not only to Lao-ze and Confucius but beyond them to the tribal values and the first dynasties: the sense in which no opposition is possible between the quantitative and qualitative face of cognition, expertise and wisdom, or–as the European Middle Ages put it — scientia and sapientia. In that precise sense (which only decomposed with capitalism), true learning necessarily entails personal contentment, and no agent in S who laughs long, loud, and sincerely enough is negative. It also entails morality: the possession of true learning, e.g. by those I shall call the three peaks,  is equivalent to an absolutely positive moral choice. This is best seen in the extreme case of the positive characters of chapters 1, 31-37, and 55, who could be represented by the Chinese ideogram for mountain, only here  with 2 higher peaks instead of   1 (where the height indicates value):

      !     !              !
!_!_!           !_!_!  SHOULD BE DRAWN PROPERLY

That choice awaits everybody, the unlearned too, but in the (truly) learned it has been preempted by the very act of learning. A first and partial table of the literati in S, which opposes true learning “pursued for its own sake” (Chang 344) to fake learning pursued for the sake of either career or fame, and in which morality is subsumed under learning (i.e. the learned are also moral, and the fake learned are also immoral), would be:


                                                       OFFICIALS                           NON-OFFICIALS

TRULY      LEARNED Dr. Yu, Prefect Qu (very few) the temple company
FALSELY  LEARNED almost all other  officials the fake poets &  essay publishers

     It is striking that learning in the course of S tends to become disjoined from officialdom: even Dr. Yu’s relative positiveness is correlative to his being teacher rather than magistrate and in Nanking rather than the capital. (16) All the other learned –and moral–officials either are fast disappearing remnants of the good old times (and even Yu dies soon after the temple ceremony) or get ruined by the supremely idiotic central bureaucracy, a national disaster and the quintessence of the “falsely learned officialdom.” The divergence, and at times even the opposition between officials and moral behaviour is, of course, a traditional theme of Chinese writing and moralizing. Now, however, a radical political disaffection becomes established among the intellectuals. A permanent “inverse relationship [is implied] between one’s status (or one’s status aspirations) and the moral quality of one’s behavior. This implication is made more explicit by the portrayal of lower-class people, such as actors and singers, who lead truly moral lives.” (Ropp 203). No wonder the “peaks” assiduously avoid becoming, or even meeting officials.

     Therefore, the above table, which deals only with distinctions between groups of real or pretended upper-class members, does not suffice any longer. Though this is what the literati traditionally were, one of the highly significant aspects of S is that it is showing and richly articulating the crucial historical juncture at which this can no longer be assumed. It is not only learning and morality but also learning and social status, or indeed class, that begin diverging sharply. At this juncture the literati begin constituting a bohemian-like middle class of their own, similar to the European intelligentsia (e.g. the Russian raznochintsy, literally “those from non-noble estates”), and for much the same fundamental sociological reasons. In some privileged cases they even fuse with the lower class; in S this holds for the initial and final (the highest) peaks–the peasant Wang Mian and the four eccentric  city plebeians at the end, whom I shall call the “five plebeians.” To the traditional “bad official” Wu adds a new type, the morally good and learned plebeian. This–the addition of a new type to the universe of discourse and values–is the most radical gesture that can be imagined in the agential domain. A more comprehensive table would therefore have to add the important lower-class agents:

       Class:                         OFFICIAL     NON-OFFICIAL         LOWER-RANK  LITERATI   


 AGENTSvery fewthe temple company5 plebeians, Bao, wives, Miss ShenIMMORAL

NARR. AGENTSall otherthe fake poetsmost other officials  & essayists

  Very interesting sociological-cum-ethical relations seem implied here: the moral fulcrum of S is situated in the ethical alliance between the bohemians and the lower class. This is exemplified in the relationship of the best “temple company” members to women (Du Shao-qing’s and Zhuang’s relation to their wives, Du’s helping Shen Jiong-zhi [Shen Chiung-chih], the girl who sturdily refused to become a nouveau riche merchant’s concubine), and also to some male plebeians (actor Bao or some old  servants). (17) Though Wu realistically focusses on male agents, and though he presents also corrupt or immoral women (e.g. the prostitute Pin-niang), the Confucian patriarchal tyranny is in S decisively tempered by a reliance on the female principle, in the female agents and in nature. The clearest example might be Wu’s substitution of an invented mother for Wang Mian’s father from the source he used (see Kràl, “Some Methods” 92-96). Father figures fare badly in this novel, an extreme but very significant exemplum being the loathsome Wang Hui, emblematically opposed to his son, “Filial” Guo. It should be stressed that women, actors, and servants were at the societal antipode from the officials, since they were the main groups legally prohibited from even attempting advancement through exams. The bohemians’ moral alliance with them transcends thus gentlemanly scorn of everyday mundanity (e.g. Confucian eremitism) and constitutes a clear denial of that basic social norm.

     The vertical divide in the above table, then, rejoins and amplifies the fundamental distinction between narrative agents who are and who are not under the sway of gong-ming fu-gui.  Wu’s agential paradigm seems to me most usefully expressed by means of a “semiotic quadrangle” which would also possess the peculiarity of the left-hand column being the positive or not swayed and the right-hand column the negative or swayed agents:

                                        + (POSITIVE)          – (NEGATIVE)




    or, in terms of representative agents:



Actually, the situation is more complex. In the positive, left-hand column both the plebeian worthies, beginning with Bao and the women and ending with the four plebeian experts of the final chapter, and the temple company should be situated at various points between Learning and Naivety. Similarly, in the negative, right-hand column the fame-seeking bad poets and essay publishers outside officialdom should be on a spread somewhere between Ignorance and Fake Learning. However, I shall here content myself with this first approximation. (18)

3.4. The authoritative Preface mentioned in 3.1 comments also on the novel’s title, which can be rendered as The Unofficial History (or: Historiography) of the World of Literati (or: of Learning). Its comment directly concerns the “unofficial history” half, which is opposed to and exalted above the pretence at “history proper,” the historiography of the rulers (e.g. the innumerable dynastic compilations) and the fiction mimicking such a history of the rulers (e.g. the Romance of the Three Kingdoms). Nonetheless, the Preface accepts those genres’ “concern with the actual, as opposed to the world of fantasy” (quoted and commented in Chang 341), e.g. as in Journey to the West (Xi-you ji). However, the comment has an indirect bearing also on the second half of the title. As mentioned earlier, the literati or scholars had in one, hegemonic sense been synonymous with officialdom, with the upper class power-structure and bureaucracy. The Preface suggests, and Wu’s novel I think carries out, a genre system in which S is (like the Outlaws and Jin-ping mei) situated in thiswordly actuality–not in a predominantly otherworldly fantasy–and yet it is also unofficial:

                                                                      ACTUALITY                           FANTASY

OFFICIAL HISTORY    historiography  ?,    3 Kingdoms
UNOFFICIAL HISTORY     Scholars   Journey

My question mark indicates the locus of an official history which would also be otherworldly. This does not seem possible as either historiography proper or fiction, but only as doxology, as religious mythology; it is perhaps approximated by a heterodox aestheticizing of such myths–say, “the Bible as literature.” In the non-theistic classical Chinese set it seems to be lacking (a zero-group).

     Within the unofficial-cum-actual history, furthermore, this Preface to S also establishes an opposition between S on the one hand and The Outlaws and Jin-ping mei on the other, which seems both complementary and isomorphic to the above one. S deals with human relationships that are, both in city and country, central to and centrally within the  ruling power-system, while Outlaws deals with a geographical and political margin of the system in an inaccessible marsh  and Jin-ping mei deals with a geographically less obvious but as strongly marked sociological and psychological margin, in a private courtyard. Precisely because it is marginal, the counter-system in each of these latter two novels, in the first case a public and in the second case a private one, can be finally eliminated. S formulates a more radical crisis of the societal system, since the opposition between true learning-cum-morality and the power-structure is irreversible. The sociological locus of these three novels marks the critical radicalness of S:

                                                    CENTRAL & IRREVERSIBLE     MARGINAL & REVERSIBLE

   CITY (PRIVATE)         Scholars Jin-ping mei
(Scholars spans both) Outlaws

          Thus, not only this Preface but Wu’s novel itself seems to me to claim for his horizons of a historiography of the non-rulers–largely based on anecdotal, diary, and joke sources, written or synchronous (19)–a moral and political relevance equal to Confucian historiography and its fictional imitators,  but from an opposed, unofficial or satirical point of view, from downside up or–perhaps better–from the axiological outside, turning the official value-system inside out (wai-shi, I am told, is also translatable as “outside historiography”). This would also explain why this chronicle-novel uses a number of important historiographic techniques, such as the oblique critique  and the biographical sketch or thumbnail characteristic of agents as well as the sparse and allusive unfolding of agential traits mentioned in 3.2 (20): all these devices are part and parcel of a counter-project of equal dignity and equally absolute axiological pretensions. This is, again, radically subversive of the hegemonic cultural opposition which allotted to historiography the public and to fiction the private sphere, and of the whole ensuing genre-system in Chinese literature (cf. Plaks “Towards a Critical Theory” 318-19): the public history has been ruled out of the axiological court. It is seen as a domain where fake values rule: as an axiologically inverted world, a mundus inversus.

3.5. This  investigation should be thought of as quite initial. Nonetheless, it already seems clear that Wu’s novel, together with the powerful social gesture of writing it the way it was written, touches simultaneously many bases–from a meta-reflection on friendly and power-free creativity (e.g., on an unofficial literary genre, xiao-shuo or popular fiction as the “fourth teaching”) (21) to the presentation of an englobing societal model. No doubt, the cognition brought by a significant novel is always richer than its conceptual translation or “ideological equivalent.” Nonetheless, S clearly  explores the inner decay of the traditional moral and ideological (though not yet of the power-wielding) hegemony, the gap–analyzed in 3.3–opening up between two diverging classes: the literati who are fake scholars, careerist pursuers of rank, wealth, and fame, and pillars of the power-system; and the literati who are (to different degrees) true scholars, pursuers of learning opposed to career, and allies of worthy women and plebeians (just as the Journey protagonists were, for all their weaknesses, true questers). It is in this context that the appearance of the four eccentric plebeians, finally the only upholders of the true scholarly  pursuits, acquires the nature of a colon.(22) For all their obvious individual limitations, as an agential group they are something new under the sun–a startlingly open-ended prefiguration of a possibly different state of affairs. In Wu’s classical formulation:

By the twenty-third year of the Wan Li period, all the well- known scholars had disappeared from Nanking….Pleasure haunts and taverns were no longer frequented by men of talent, and honest men no longer occupied themselves with ceremony or letters. As far as scholarship was concerned, all who passed the examinations were considered brilliant and all who failed fools. And as for liberality, the rich indulged in ostentatious gestures while the poor were forced to seem shabby…. Among the townsfolk, however, some outstanding figures emerged. (S 593)


* A first version of this paper, presented at the University of Hong Kong conference “Literature and Anthropology” in Dec. 1983, has been expanded and revised in many details. My thanks go for their invitation, hospitality, and helpfulness to the members of the UHK Department of English Studies and Comparative Literature, my colleagues Aqbar Abbas, Jonathan Hall, Tak-wai Wong, and in particular to Antony and Anita Tatlow. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada made possible my attendance by a travel grant. I am grateful to the discussants of the paper, especially to Dr. Chou Ying-hsiung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the respondent, and to Prof. Milena Venigerovà-Dolezelovà for indicating to me Słupski’s book, strangely non-existent in all “Western” bibliographies.

  1. See this initial hypothesis in Suvin, “Per una teoria dell’analisi agenziale,” Versus no. 30 (1981): 87-109, which contains a secondary bibliography of over 40 items; also in “On Dramaturgic Agents and Krleža’s Agential Structure,” Modern Drama 27 (1984): 80-97. A full version is in “Can People Be (Re)presented in Fiction,” in Cary Nelson, ed., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (U of Illinois P). After the first mention in a note, all critical works will be cited in the body of the essay by author’s name and page in parentheses; all translations are mine unless a translator is mentioned.
  2. My use of Pin-yin spelling will be subordinated to fidelity to whatever I am quoting from. The Chinese texts discussed will be cited the first time they are mentioned by the full title of the most accessible English translation and the Pin-yin title in parenthesis, after that by a short form of the English title. Wu Jing-zi’s The Scholars will be referred to as S with the page of the English translation by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (Beijing: FLP, 1973), and names from it will be given the first time in Pin-yin with the transcription used in the translation in parenthesis, and after that in Pin-yin only. I am indebted for counsel about, and help in finding secondary literature on, Chinese matters to Prof. Ward Geddes, Adrian Hsia, Paul Lin, and Sam Noumoff of the McGill East Asian Program, and for stimulative insights to the students of my Comparative Literature 1982/83 course on Chinese and European Classical Prose.
  3. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale (Paris: Plon, 1958), 75 — to quote a fortunately not quite characteristic formulation by the methodological patron of Parisian semiotics.
  4. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, “Avtor i geroi v èsteticheskoi deiatel’nosti,” in his Èstetika slovesnogo tvorchestva (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1979; original 1920-24), 10-11; Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse (Ithaca NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978), 107-08, where three other laments ranging from 1936 to 1966 are also quoted; Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (London: Routledge, l980; original 1975), 230; E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962; original 1928). Let me add that Chatman exaggerates, for at least two kinds of glaring omissions may be easily found in his judgment: the trajectory from a theory of the “problematic individual” to a  theory of “typical characters” in Lukács’s opus, and the demonstration of larger applicability of Biblical typology in European literature culminating in the works of Auerbach. The two non-Structuralist precursors also mentioned in this paragraph are Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (Austin: U of Texas P, 1974; original 1928) and Etienne Souriau, Les Deux cent mille situations dramatiques (Paris: Flammarion, 1950).
  5. Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale deux (Paris: Plon, 1973), 168-69 and 172. The post-Lévi-Straussian structuralisant semioticians referred to in this segment are: Sorin Alexandrescu, Logique du personnage (Paris: Mame, 1974); Claude Bremond, Logique du récit (Paris: Seuil, l973); Chatman (note 4); A.J. Greimas, “Reflexions sur les modèles actantiels,” in his Sémantique structurale (Paris: Larousse, 1966); idem, “La Structure des actants du récit,” in his Du sens (Paris: Seuil, 1970); idem, “Les Actants, les Acteurs et les Figures,” in Claude Chabrol, ed., Sémiotique narrative et textuelle (Paris: Larousse, 1973); Philippe Hamon, “Pour un statut sémiologique du personnage,” Littérature no. 6(1972):86-110; François Rastier, Essais de sémiotique discursive (Paris: Mame, 1973).
  6. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York: Atheneum, 1965), 172 and passim (original book publication 1957); cf. also Petr Bogatyrev, “Les Signes du théâtre,” Poétique no. 5 (1971): 24 (original 1938), and Souriau, 69 and 7l.
  7. Greimas, rôle pure and simple in “Structure” 256 and two incompatible types of rôles actantiels in “Actants,” 165-66 vs. 167, though his shifting, uneconomic, and overlapping categories also include rôle thématique in “Actants,” 171-75; this is analyzed in detail in Suvin, 90-94.
  8. Georges Doutrepont, Les Types populaires de la littérature française (Bruxelles: [Acad. R. de Belgique, Classe de Lettres, Vol. 22, 1925?]; Tzvétan Todorov, Poétique de la prose (Paris: Seuil, 1971); Anne Ubersfeld, Lire le théâtre (Paris: Ed. sociales, 1977).
  9. William Whewell, The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (London: Parker, 1840), I:476-77.
  10. All the examples and quotes of English historical semantics in this paragraph come from Raymond Williams, Keywords (London: Fontana, 1976), s.v. “Individual” and “Personality.”
  11. Andrew H. Plaks, “Towards a Critical Theory of Chinese Narrative,” in idem, ed., Chinese Narrative (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977), 309-52, here 347. The unacceptable face of “western” criticism can be represented by John L. Bishop, “Some Limitations of Chinese Fiction,” in idem ed., Studies in Chinese Literature (Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1966), 235seqq., while its justified critique in Jaroslav Prusek, “Boccaccio and His Chinese Contemporaries,” in idem, Chinese History and Literature (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1970), 449-66, goes to the opposite extreme of exalting the Chinese vernacular storytellers’ attention to detail above Chaucer and Boccaccio, which seems at least in the case of narrative agents demonstrably inexact (cf. for another, balanced critique Eugene Eoyang, “A Taste For Apricots,” in Plaks ed.). See on the parallel between Chinese and European narrative also Prusek, “History and Epics in China and in the West,” op. cit., 17-34; and André Lefevere, “Some Tactical Steps Toward a Common Poetics,” and Plaks, “Full-length Hsiao-shuo and the Western Novel,” both in William Tay et al. eds., China and the West: Comparative Literature Studies (Hong Kong: The Chinese Univ. Press, 1980). Let me use my first note on historical references to observe that none of them will have pretensions to exhaustiveness; also, instead of drowning in a sea of references I have preferred to list the main ones and recur to them only in case of direct further citations.
  12. Cf. Robert Ruhlmann, “Traditional Heroes in Chinese Popular Fiction,” in Arthur F. Wright ed., The Confucian Persuasion (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1960), 141-76, who opportunely points out that both “the advisers” and “the musclemen” are “fighters who use different weapons” (161); and James J.Y. Liu, The Chinese Knight Errant (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1967), 111seqq. I have also found useful a number of works in the (European) languages accessible to me. Beside the main surveys of Chinese history and literature I would mention on exemplary classification of people Derk Bodde, “Types of Chinese Categorical Thinking,” J of the American Oriental Soc. 59 (1939): 200-19, and on the Outlaws: Patrick Hanan, “The Development of Fiction and Drama,” in Raymond Dawson, ed., The Legacy of China (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964); C.T. Hsia, The Classic Chinese Novel (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1980), chap. 3; Richard Gregg Irwin, The Evolution of a Chinese Novel: “Shui-hu-chuan” (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966); Peter Li, “Narrative Patterns in San-kuo and Shui-hu,” in Plaks, ed., Chinese Narrative, 80seqq.; V.S. Manukhin, “Khudozhestvennoe obobshchenie v pervykh kitaiskikh romanakh,” in Nauchnye doklady vysshei shkoli — Filologicheskie nauki no. 4(1959):56-66; V.I. Semanov, “Kitaiskii geroicheskii roman (XIV-XVI vv.) i ego rol’ v stanovlenii novoi literatury,” in Realizm i ego sootnosheniia s drugimi tvorcheskimi metodami (Moscow: AN SSSR, 1962), 54-95. An interesting theory of derivation of agential descriptions in the early Chinese novels from traits due (mainly) to the totemic tradition transmitted by oral tales is B.L. Riftin’s Ot mifa k romanu (Moscow: Nauka, 1979), which unfortunately does not deal with major works of fiction. This is partly compensated in his “Stanovlenie kitaiskogo romana,” in Genezis romana v literaturakh Azii i Afriki (Moscow: Nauka, 1980), 151-78, which discusses the colourful nicknames and descriptions of the Outlaws‘ agents as mediated by the tradition of the “forgotten acts” (ishi) or unofficial history genre.

     Let me also add that I understand usefulness often as stimulating disagreement (e.g. with Prof. Hsia, on whom I share the strictures of Prof. J.J.Y. Liu and then some; or with some Soviet critics insisting on prefigurations of realism and contradictory characters; or, in spite of my admiration for insights of the Plaks essay from note 11, I doubt some of its speculations in philosophical anthropology since I find the supposedly specifically Chinese principle of overlapping at work in pre-Individualist Europe too, as far as agents are concerned).

  1. I have taken the quote from Timothy C. Wong, Wu Ching-tzu (Boston: Twayne, 1978), 76, but also the liberty of contaminating it with the translation in Ch’u Chai and Winberg Chai, A Treasury of Chinese Literature (New York: Appleton Century, 1965), 249-50, bearing in mind also the comments in H.C. Chang, Chinese Literature: Popular Fiction and Drama (Edinburgh: UP, 1973), 34l. On this novel, I have also found useful Robert E. Hegel, The Novel in Seventeenth-Century China (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981); Hsia; Yu-kung Kao, “Lyric Vision in Chinese Narrative Tradition,” in Plaks ed., 227-43; Oldrich Kràl, “Several Artistic Methods in the Classic Chinese Novel Ju-lin wai-shih,” Archiv orientálni 32 (1964): 16-43; Krl, “Some Artistic Methods in the Classic Chinese Novel Ju-lin wai-shih,” Orientalia Pragensia 3 (1964) :79-102; Shuen-fu Lin, “Ritual and Narrative Structure in Ju-lin wai-shih,” in Plaks, ed., 244-65; Plaks, “Towards a Critical Theory”; and the two richest studies, by Paul S. Ropp, Dissent in Early Modern China (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1981), and by Zbigniew Słupski, Ju-lin wai-shih: Próba analizy literackiej (Warsaw: Wyd. Uniw. Warszawskiego, 1979). Kràl’s “Several Methods” was perhaps the first substantial investigation in European languages into agential characterization in the classical Chinese novel, and he even began a division of traits into permanent and transient (23-24) and a comparison to Balzac-type agents — unfortunately limited by a sub-Lukácsian “theory of reflection.” On Professors Lin and Wong cf. Ropp, 208-l0. The translation of The Scholars used (see note 2) reads admirably well but contains a few important cuts. Finally, my arguments about the main agents are fortunately not affected by the scholarly debate about possibly apocryphal parts of S, mainly in its second half (cf. Słupski 46-51).
  2. I agree with Ropp’s comment (209) that had Wu fully shared the standards of Wang Mian, this would have kept him from writing –especially in his inimitable mixture of satire and delight in the world. Ropp’s corollary, that Wang was a Confucian sop to the official ideologists, does not necessarily follow. Indeed, Kràl’s analysis (in “Some Methods”) of how the Wang story was rewritten with respect to the source in Zhu Yi-zun seems to me to establish convincingly that Wu strongly stressed Wang’s peasant values, as against the official Confucian ones.
  3. Only specialists in Chinese literature can dare to participate in the discussion whether the consecration ceremony in chap. 37 is meant to be taken with a lump in the reader’s throat, or sarcastically, or in between — in particular since the relevant, apparently repetitious passages have been cut from S. Cf. the positive opinion of Lin vs. the scepticism of Inada Takashi, discussed in Wong 66-68 and Ropp 180-81, and the uneasy hesitation of Hsia, 337-38. Wong’s view would also seem to be more or less positive if it is to fit into his general thesis of “Confucian eremitism” as Wu’s ideal horizon: yet if the test of any Confucianism, however unorthodox, is loyalty to the hierarchical values of the State, this escape vent does not seem tenable. However, as I go on to hint above, my view is that Wu’s agents are bipolar and not monadic, so that this discussion becomes somewhat secondary, if still important. The “bipolarity” refers partly to general views about “complementary bipolarity” in the Chinese tradition, e.g. in Chang Tung-sun, “A Chinese Philosopher’s Theory of Knowledge,” The Yen-ching J. of Social Studies 2 (Jan. 1939):168 and passim, and Andrew Plaks, Archetype and Allegory in the Dream of the Red Chamber (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), chap. 3. It also refers to some unpublished work of mine where I intend to draw parallels between the Asian tradition and the dramaturgical agents in Brecht by means of both the European dialectics culminating in Marx and the more continuous Chinese tradition of dialectics running at least from Lao-zi and Mo-zi on (cf. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1956] II, especially 273ff.; Antony Tatlow, “Peasant Dialectics,” in Tay et al., eds., 277-85; and S.J. Noumoff, “La Dialectique et notre temps,” in La Valeur des classiques chinois pour notre temps [(Bruxelles): Institut des hautes études de Belgique, 1970], 131-40) and to Mao Ze-dong’s essay “On Contradiction” and its notion of bipolar contradiction with one hegemonic side to it (in Selected Works [London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955]) I:36, 42 and passim.
  4. I hope something like my formula of “7 parts good, 3 parts bad” may avoid unchecked ideologicity in judgments about single narrative agents in S. The clearest case is that of Dr. Yu. He is treated as wholly positive by John D. Coleman, “With and Without a Compass,” Tamkang R. 7, no. 2(1976):67, because he “represents the Confucian ideal itself” (and even Słupski believes Dr. Yu is clearly Wu’s “most highly prized figure,” 102). On the other hand, it seems that the excellent critic Wu Zu-xiang can say that Yu, “… cultivating exclusively his own benevolence (hou-dao) and lenience (shu-dao), in reality incites others to wickedness” (transl. from the Polish of Słupski 116). In fact, I suspect Wu Jing-zi was using some subversive modification of moral gradings well known in Chinese tradition–cf. Marcel Granet, La Pensée chinoise (Paris: Albin Michel, 1950), 97-98 and the chap. “Les nombres”; or Ban Gu’s and Ban Zhao’s grades in Qian Han Shu (in Bodde, note 12).
  5. Cf. on Wu’s truly democratic attitude toward women and actors Ropp 64 and 133-40, Hsia 231, and Yao Xue-yin in Ru-lin wai-shi yan-jiu lun ji (cited in Słupski 24).
  6. Cf. for the clearest explication and use of this quadrangle, initiated as a syntactic formalism by A.J. Greimas, the writings of Fredric Jameson–e.g. The Prison-House of Language (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), 162-68, and The Political Unconscious (Ithaca NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 198l), 166-68–to whom I owe many stimulating insights. My position toward Lukács’s theory of typification, which is similar to Jameson’s indication of both its pioneering insights and its insufficient articulation and autonomy (e.g. in Unconscious 162), is developed in “Can People…?” (see note 1).
  7. Cf. Słupski 72, 107, and passim, and the works of He Ze-han and Wu Zu-xiang cited there.
  8. Cf. for the use of historiographic techniques Kràl “Several Methods” 26 and Lin 259-64; also Wu Zu-xiang (quoted in Wong 96 and Słupski 29-30) who seems to have most clearly stressed Wu Jing-zi’s innovative use of such techniques, including those of characterization correlative to active reading (for which cf. also Słupski 115-16 and passim). As for some clear debts to the Outlaws, these seem to be largely also refunctioned in the more radical S; the mythical framework of the “falling stars,” e.g., is in Wu a quite inconsequential reminiscence (cf. also Słupski 152).
  9. I refer to Qian Da-xin’s formulation, contemporary to Wu Jing-zi:

In ancient times, there were three teachings, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Since the Ming dynasty there is one more–called xiao shuo [or popular fiction]….[A]mong gentry, peasants, workers, and merchants, there is no one who does not practice it. Even children and women–illiterates– frequently see and hear [it performed]. It is their teaching, and compared with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, it is more widespread. (cited in Ropp 53, transliteration changed)

The powerful official attempts to suppress many novels and plays, or indeed to stigmatize all colloquial fiction as vulgar, are well known (cf. Ropp 72-73 et passim).–The exact philosophical nuance of Wu’s structure of feeling, probably akin to contemporary “left Wang Yang-ming” currents, and the correlative social addressee of S is a quite fascinating subject, indispensable for a final evaluation of S, which would however demand a further essay if not a monograph; cf. among many other general discussions Ropp and Hegel passim, also Prusek’s book from note 11, Hanan’s essay from note 12, André Lévy, Le Conte en langue vulgaire du XVIIe siècle (Diss. Univ. of Paris VII, 1974), 223-26, 278-94, 320-24, 336-42, 50lseqq., and 535-42, and O.L. Fishman, Kitaiskii satiricheskii roman (Moscow: Nauka, 1966), 11-19, 94-95, and 170-92.

  1. The ending of a fictional narrative (at least in an “epic” as opposed to a mythological or cyclical text) is a special and crucial syntagmatic segment. It is the place where the sum of all the syntagmatic choices reaches its textual end-result, and from which the narration both retrospectively valorizes all the choices from the preceding segments and leaves the social addressee with a built-in directive of how to apply the reading to her/his empirical actuality. Cf. Volker Klotz, Geschlossene und offene Form in Drama (München: Hanser, 1962); and Iurii M. Lotman, “O modeliruiushchem znachenii poniatii ‘kontsa’ i ‘nachala’ v khudozhestvennykh tekstakh,” Tezisi dokladov vo vtoroi letnei shkole po vtorichnim modeliruiushchim sistemam (Tartu: Univ. of Tartu, 1966), 69-74 (also in Ju.M. Lotman, Aufsätze zur Theorie und Methodologie der Literatur und Kultur [Kronberg Ts.: Scriptor, 1974]), and his The Structure of the Artistic Text (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan, 1977), 209-16.
Posted in 5.a EAST ASIA, 5.b NARRATIVE THEORY | Leave a comment


Darko Suvin                                                                                               (1995-2012, 5,960 words)

Parody represents a complicated device of style oriented toward an at least two-dimensional critique, namely on the one hand toward the pre-text and on the other toward its own social context.
Abbé de Sallier, “Discours sur l’origine et sur le caractère de la parodie,” 1733

 1.0. There are two minefields which I want to mention here in order to say that I shall carefully avoid it. The first is parody’s relation to cognate genres often mentioned when discussing it: burlesque, travesty, and of course comedy. Primarily non-political parody is sometimes identified with burlesque (from Italian burla), but on the whole I have not found much clarity in such usages. The only comparison which seems to be both important and clear is one to the pastiche, extremely popular in Post-Modernism. I have dealt with it in another essay, but it is both too long and, being based on texts from medieval Japanese poetry, too complex to be here entered upon.

If we begin to look at history, tribal and oral literature which seems to have been full of parodies, so that the claim has been made they are as old as literary composition. In the Euro-Mediterranean tradition a first flowering occurred in Hellenic times: in mock-epics, where the foil was Homer, and in Athenian comic theatre, culminating in Aristophanes, where the foil was tragedy. The Middle Ages seem to have been another time chock-full of parodies of Church liturgy and ritual in both the counter-festivities of the Boy Bishop and Mystery episodes, culminating in the great Mak episode of the 2nd Shepherds’ Play, while Renaissance literature seems to have retreated into parodying the Petrarcan love-romance, the pastoral, and the courtly tradition. The rest will be dealt with in incidental remarks.

However, even from this first approach, it will be clear that there is one major theoretical rock, threatening to sink our notional ship, which is so hard that I shall here avoid it: parody without a prior literary (or semiotic, say pictorial or performed) text to ridicule, say the anti-Puritan verse of Butler’s Hudibras or indeed prose of Swift’s The Tale of a Tub, and earlier Rabelais’s scathing attacks on scholasticism in Gargantua and Pantagruel (even earlier there were analogous Italian works, say Boiardo’s Morgante Maggiore or Gelli’s Circe). The problem has been sometimes avoided by calling this satire rather than parody, while burlesque is used for either. However, I am not aware of any convincing investigation about this thorny  matter, which requires fundamental definition and orientation within a cultural semiotics. Thus, short of maybe a full semester or term of discussions, I have to leave aside both this crucial matter and the matter of genres cognate or interlocking with parody. I shall concentrate on the usual definition of parody in literature, which is, roughly, a literary composition in which an author’s characteristics are ridiculed by a modified reproduction which clearly allows identifying the source; the derived transitive verb “to parody” means to ridicule by doing so. Its root is in the ancient Hellenic parōidia, which is composed of  para-,  beside, beyond, + ōidē, sung, where the name arose from such a composition being sung “beside”—that is, immediately following upon—another straightforward one. It is usually allotted to the comic mode as opposed to the serious preceding text.

 1.1. The best overview I know of complained in 1977 that we do not really have a satisfying theory of parody or pastiche (Karrer 15, 24, and passim). True, central contributions to a theory of parody probably begin with the Russian Formalists, when Shklovsky proclaimed that parody’s “parallel and contrast to an existing model” (67) is–e.g. in Tristram Shandy–the paradigm for literature in general,  while the more balanced Tynianov still took the Bergsonian automatization and deautomatization of devices in parody as a general principle of literary evolution. And since Karrer wrote, there has come about a flurry of renewed interest hitched on to the bandwaggon of “post-modernism” and proclaiming –in an unconscious parody-pastiche of the Formalists–that not parody but pastiche is the model of all literature (e.g. Rose, Hutcheon; most famously, Jameson). Finally, of course, much sterling work on which we all build has been done both before and after 1977. Still, I do not think all of this has solved our problems. Thus anything short of a long book can today only be a teasing out of one or a few significant problems as a contribution to something more encompassing.  I wish to focus here on the fact (to my mind central, though not exclusive) that parody in literature–and in art in general–seems to present itself as dual, as oriented towards two time-horizons, confusedly implying also two aims or ends for it.

1.2. I  shall begin with a definition of parody both old enough not to be suspected of fashionable trendiness and apparently speaking against my thesis:

                       A deliberate imitation of a literary work that burlesques the distinguishing                             qualities of the original…. The aim of the parodist is entertainment or satire.                           (Barry & Wright 66)

Even this rather confused, circular and heavily formalistic, entry has the merit of identifying, malgré soi, two  constant problems in studies of parody: its aim (Zielsetzung) and its reference. Its dubious duo of entertainment and satire–the ludic and debunking aspects–is ubiquitous: in Weisstein’s formulation, it is parody’s “humorous and/or critical intention” (811); in Rühmkorf’s, the “stylistic and exemplary” (i.e. sociocritical) parody (119); in Hutcheon, the range from playful to scornful (6); and it is assessed as “Komik und Kritik” in Verweyen-Witting (195-99). The entry’s synchronic end, fortunately, forgets its monolithically diachronic beginnings: for, both entertainment and satire cannot but be addressed exclusively to a present readership.  In  both parody and pastiche, it is only in the case of  either an officially hegemonic master-text, such as the Bible in the European Middle Ages (cf. Jackson 229ff. and Stock 88ff.), or in rather esoteric (though quite possible) cases of coterie or inner-circle writing, that such a readership would be overwhelmingly oriented toward connoisseur judging of how “the original” was handled. Even in those cases, I would maintain it is probably extremely rare that the focus of parody could be simply on desecration (or other handling) of a–paradoxically timeless–original: the desecration is at least balanced by the ineluctable fact of being perpetrated right here-and-now, at a nexus of human relationships different from that which gave rise to the earlier text. That nexus is both the reason and the horizon of the critical distanciation (Hutcheon 10) effected by the new product upon the “original” (or perhaps better “hypotext”; I shall return to this terminology). If parody necessarily has a different tone, horizon or value-system from its “source/s/,” the reason and aim for these differences is the author’s and intended readers’ hic et nunc nexus.

Though inductive examples can only suggest conclusions, I propose to take in my first example as the “original”  the beginning of Longfellow’s once famous “Excelsior,” and, as what I have symmetrically to call the “derivation,” Housman’s to my mind rather funny uncrowning parody of it (an equally funny but less gentlemanly French example would be Apollinaire’s parody of Verlaine’s “Il pleure dans mon coeur,” see Hutcheon 45). This example participates in the frequent case of parodying only part of a specific text, as opposed to the parody of a whole text– for ex. the perhaps unfortunately forgotten parody of Victor Hugo’s Marie Tudor whose quality may be gauged by the title, Marie tu ronfles (cf. Issacharoff 315). I shall argue later that a second and more important category of parody (just as of pastiche) is the reference to a diffuse, syncretic, often or primarily anonymous topos of social discourse, and that parodies of “Excelsior” are usually a case in point. In fact it should be noted, also in fairness to Longfellow,  that the complete poem, comprising nine stanzas which lead to the death of the lonely and heroic pioneering youth in the mountain heights, is more an allegory of the misunderstood loner (e.g. artist) than of the Horatio Alger myth, from rags to riches: in other words, it could be read as an allegory of the deadly cost to the individual of upward mobility  in capitalist society, which is nonetheless reaffirmed in the final divine voice from above. But the poem was then throughout the 19th Century unanimously vulgarized into the go-getting myth through an overwhelming fertile misreading throughout its  reception history, by high lit. and popular or trademark reception alike. I shall in the present case call this always synchronic topos one of “excelsioricity,” and argue that most parodyings start from this rather than from any original, past isolated unit–here Longfellow’s 1841 poem (see my brief summary in Section 4 of data from the OED between 1850 and 1902). To adapt Francastel’s precise argument about Botticelli’s Primavera (which is in this reading, intriguingly, both a pastiche and an undoubted novum), “he refers to fragments of separate texts, fluctuating in memories, whose connexion is not part of a fixed code but of an atmosphere; and furthermore, from time to time, to contexts of the new culture and living forms…” (278). If I had scope for a proper spread of inductive examples, I would examine the hypothesis that such recourse to reconstructed scraps of fluctuating social discourse is the general case in parody (and pastiche), of which a direct reference to the “original,” when the hypotext happens to supply a sufficiently durable springboard for parodying, is merely a–so to say –“zero reconstruction” case. This would be, at least initially, Housman’s case.

It should be at least broached here that “Positivist” treatments  comparing one present unit to one past one are identical to (and probably derived from) the copyright-law stance, oriented toward “atomic” units such as one poem. The latest such case known to me is the US Supreme Court ruling of March 7, 1994, on the “2 Live Crew” group’s 1989 parody of Roy Orbison’s rock song “Oh, Pretty Woman” (known also from its use in the eponymous movie). The parody uses much of Orbison’s music and the first line of lyrics: “Pretty woman, walking down the street”; 2 Live Crew shift then to “big hairy woman,” “bald-headed woman,” and “two-timin’ woman” (AP byline in The Globe and Mail, March 8, 1994, E5).  The court ruling was, by the way, that the parody was not theft.

  1. Here then is the juxtaposition of the Longfellow and Housman stanzas:


 The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,


 The shades of night were falling fast,
The snow was falling faster,
When through an Alpine village passed,
An Alpine village pastor.

 I submit no reader (not even a specialist in English poetry) can make sense of this qua parody unless the partial reuse of the first two Longfellow lines is collocated within Housman’s telos of ridiculing the abstract and high-flown rhetoric of liberal optimism3/ from the radically blacker perspective of an Oxbridge ruefulness. In other words, the reason/s/ for burlesquing or parodying are the ends, and the textual “imitation” or “derivation” a–no doubt consubstantial–means. (I am speaking here from the perspective of an ideal intended reader; the contingent sequence of creative composition may start from any point that happens to strike the parodist, even from prosody.) Only within a given teleology can the quantity and quality of segments and aspects taken over be evaluated as functional (i.e. successful) or not. Such is the case here, e.g., with the shift from insistent acatalectic iambic tetrameter to tetrameter plus anticlimactic  catalectic trimeter, and also from succeeding masculine rhyme to a cross-rhyming where the feminine rhyme (“faster-pastor”) is a micro-parody of the “imitated” masculine rhyme (“fast-passed”) by addition of the minimal phonetic unit of a semi-vowel. Or indeed, this is the case  with evaluating and even understanding what I would in Housman read as a chronotopic and agential  allegory for his epoch –the night and snow falling faster–, and for Longfellow’s role in it –the Alpine village pastor, the redundant preacher. (Urbanely, Housman neglected Longfellow’s tempting “bore”….)

Thus, it would seem necessary to begin the discussion of parody (and pastiche) by disambiguating a double reference: a diachronic one to anterior propositions (e.g. Housman’s “derivation” from Longfellow), and a synchronic one to contemporary imaginary entries in the encyclopaedia/s/ of possible readers (e.g. the invraisemblance of triumphalist Idealist liberalism). An important difference is that the first referentiality is often to fixed, neatly identifiable denotations in semiotic texts (verbal, pictorial, musical, etc.), such as my Longfellow quote, while the second one is always to a semi-precise system of overlapping connotations which meld currently floating bits and pieces of the supposedly past referentiality with more inchoate but present feelings, discursive networks  or topologies about human relationships. The easier identification of a previous text makes it  technically much more economical, though not necessarily more precise, for criticism to start from that hypotext and then infer the telos for the whole procedure only in a second moment (cf. Karrer 36). But second easily becomes secondary and indeed, alas, dispensable and dispensed with. Thus I fear that both this easier identification and the previous text’s status of hegemonic or “high lit.” from a previous epoch, account for what one must sorrowfully call a major historical delusion in our profession, the “professional idiocy” of substituting semantics for pragmatics, or of being fixated on a precisely delimitable semantic unit rather than adopting a more supple view of the situation which is colouring any and all participating text/s/. Its European roots are in Humanist exegesis of the Bible, then the French and English Classicistic literati’s discussions of hierarchical genres and styles,  and then the ambiguous Romantic shake-up of those hierarchies: in fact, most present-day attempts to define parody go back to Scaliger and A.W. v. Schlegel (see von Stackelberg 59). There is a Chinese parallel in the orthodox Confucian fixed canon of classical texts as “sources” and “origins” for imitation, in particular for yung tien, “allusive borrowings” (cf. an updated critique in Wang 3-10 –and for a related Japanese parallel in the honzetsu and “honkadori” hypotexts in my essay on pastiche). This tradition of looking toward a past as the constant source for imitation or desecration was then taken into both the Chinese and European academic Establishments as  Positivistic source-hunting, and one of its results is a stifling overestimation of “originals,” “timelessness” or diachrony, rather than an orientation toward what a text actually does within necessarily changing meanings of sociohistorical human nexuses.

1.3. What I am arguing, not the least from my own creative practice in poetry, is first of all (but not only, see 1.4 below) that as a rule the telos or end for parody is supplied by synchronic intervening in current relationships, in which the reference to anterior texts  is an important means.  Pace Todorov’s hermetic vraisemblable, the verisimilitude of parody is thus not simply (or to my mind even primarily) a “mask that conceals the text’s own laws and that we are supposed to take for a relation with reality” (3). Pace the much better Ben-Porat, her quite valid analytic distinction (“Method” 247-48) which I would rephrase as one between representing a world found in an artistic model or representing a world found in other, as a rule less focussed,  discursive models, is to my mind in actual parodic practice melded or collapsed. Pace Hutcheon (49 and passim) there is no exclusively “intramural,”  aesthetically self-referential, parody. If parody is to be called centrally an intertextuality, I think the notion of text has to be taken in the widest possible, Ecoan and Angenotian, sense of a congeries of all discourses accommodated and rubbing off each other in given entries of a shared imaginary encyclopaedia. This encyclopaedia is  located in the cultural presuppositional network and is thus not fully or permanently spelled out, though a user is able to call up (by what Tynianov calls “underlining” and Eco “boldfacing”) pieces of its usually “narcotized” discourse in a written form when necessary. A good example might be D.H Lawrence’s “Up […he goes] like a bloomin’ little Excelsior!” discussed below, which refers to an anonymous present topos of “excelsioricity” rather than to Longfellow’s original, past poem.

In sum, it is a shortsighted short-circuit to assume that Housman is satirizing Longfellow’s stanza rather than the “Longfellovian”–i.e. not only Longfellow’s!–stance, bearing or Haltung (cf. Suvin “Brecht”). So that, if Scarron’s Virgile travesti and Boileau’s Le Lutrin parodied Virgil, I read their substitution of bourgeois for aristocratic manners as interested less in Virgil than in 17th-Century Paris; if Gay’s Beggar’s Opera parodied the reigning Italian “opera,” I read it as primarily interested in the underworld of his London, and when Dostoevsky parodied Gogol, I read him as interested in Gogol because of the fate of their Russia and its people. Perhaps even more clear is the case of Cervantes: no doubt, his novel parodied courtly romances such as Amadis of Gaul, but surely its interest even at the time was overwhelmingly in the juxtaposition of his high-flown idealistic hero and the sober, if not sordid, everyday world depicted in Don Quixote—and after Amadis of Gaul and suchlike ceased to be read, the reader’s interest is exclusively in this opposition. Thus, “The idea that at least the parody with a literary model relates only to literature and not to ‘reality’ can only be upheld at the price of a violent sundering of literary life from the Lebenswelt [life as experienced]” (Verweyen-Wittig 101).

Indeed, the proper locus for a theory of parody would, I think, be in an interdiscursive theory of textual variants, adaptations or rewrites within given systems of ideological maxims and horizons connected to specific social fractions, such as the approach I adumbrate in my essay on pastiche (cf. beside theoretical arguments some concrete hints from the great masters Nestroy and Brecht in Rommel resp. Wirth and Verweyen-Witting 140-47).  Within such a theory of rewritings, we could then probably distinguish changes of hypotext such as pure rewriting of lines, omission (Housman’s parody functions in good part by omission of the key word “Excelsior”), or indeed addition. An example of the latter is Bret Harte’s sequel to Whittier very popular long sentimental poem (what Mark Twain called “girly girly romance”) Maud Muller, that ends in the famous couplet:
Of all the words of tongue and pen
The saddest are “It might have been.”

    Harte changed this in “Mrs Judge Jenkins” by strategic rewriting in order to fit a contrary addition, into:
If of all words of tongue and pen
The saddest are “It might have been,”

      Sadder are these, we daily see,
“It is, but hadn’t ought to be!”

 Stressing the chronotope of a parody’s production—that is, both the moment and the concrete environment of who it was intended for, their synchronic sociohistorical situation–is, of course, not a totally new stance in parody studies. To the  practitioners in  and  students of the 18th Century  this  nexus  was  crystal-clear,  e.g., to Diderot or to my epigraphic de Sallier,  and  their stance still echoes in Hegel (1: 578). Even today a number of people suspect or assume, though without much articulation or follow-through, that one can parody a whole class of texts, the style of an age, a plot-schema, a formal system or even a world-view–and therefore, I would argue, a horizon (see Karrer 84). And I could claim a series of at least partial modern precursors. Shklovsky and Tynianov, for example, insisted on the present existence of a model to which parody is opposed (and cf. the stress on the intention of the parodist in Verweyen-Wittig). However, this model was for them usually only another concrete work of art, rather than a stance, value-system, and horizon–which would render obsolete the interliterary vs. extraliterary dichotomy. Given all of this, it is a surprise to see that at the basis of Jameson’s, Hutcheon’s, and most current recollocations of parody and pastiche there still seems to be not only Russian Formalism and French Structuralism but even a reliance on pre-Formalist, Romantic views such as that of A.W. v. Schlegel. An intermediary may be seen in Jonathan Culler who, following Todorov & Co.,  defined parody as formal “imitations and exaggerations of the original” that “produce…a distance between the vraisemblance of the original and its own” (152-53, emphasis DS). The underlined term is both highly characteristic of most theories of parody and highly suspect, and I shall return to it in the final section. In order to show this, I shall leave aside for the moment theoretical debates about individual authorship and originality, and just “do a Raymond Williams” by giving a brief semantic history of the “keyword” in the first quatrain quoted–“excelsior.”

4. I suppose it may sound banal to say Longfellow did not invent any English word used
in his first stanza, not even the Romantically elided word “‘mid” (which the OED glosses with Scott’s Marmion, cf. s.v. “mid prep. 2″). Yet the stories (e.g.) of “shades of night,” “falling,” “Alpine” or “banner” are not banal: the first one goes back to a Hellenic and Latin topos (Catullus used the coming night as death to persuade Lesbia into giving him a thousand kisses), the second one is probably as old as the beginnings of language, the third is Romantically charged, and the fourth was parodied already by Falstaff’s “Under which banner, Bezonian?”. In particular, the story of the bourgeois political, pseudo-theological adverb “Excelsior” is most instructive. The classical adjective “excelsus” could take a comparative and superlative, and did so in Caesar, Pliny, and Cicero as a flourish of style, but the medieval theological substantivized “excelsum” is already a superlative, “the highest [heavens],” probably best known from the Church hymn “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” so that “excelsior” makes as little sense as would, for example, “sublimer.” “Excelsior” seems to have been first “anglicized” as meaning “higher” (an ellipse for “tending ever higher”) by the assembly of New York State in 1778 which put it on the State seal accompanying the emblem of a rising Sun.1/ Then it was popularized in 1841 by our “original” poet, Longfellow, whence it passed into general use by means of “his” poem’s presence in genteel educational writing such as Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal of 1863 and (one assumes) in school readers. The strivings of the pseudo-Longfellovian allegorical young man on the make can thus be deciphered as a kind of sanitized Faustian urge, without Goethe’s Gretchen and Mephistopheles, or indeed without final empirical success. The allegory, estranged (verfremdet) into a diluted Romantic landscape of mountain ice, was successful with its readers because Longfellow’s perishing but beatified striver, as well as the misreading that glossed over the deadly price paid, figured forth idealized character-types of rising industrial capitalism.

It is therefore understandable, and very significant, that the semantic fates of “excelsior” subsequently diverged in “high” and “mass” cultures. In the increasingly disillusioned high culture, and due to Longfellow’s extreme popularity in Victorian Britain, it is literarily alluded to in Trollope and Hopkins (see OED), and after Housman’s parody-by-omission-of-keyword (itself a theoretically highly interesting case!) it received a possibly final coup de grâce in the renewed parodic citation by D.H. Lawrence: “Up he goes! Up, up, like a bloomin’ little Excelsior!” (Pansies 1929)–where to my mind “Excelsior” does not mean the device on the banner but is a personification of what I have called the inchoate mass of “excelsioricity.”2/ But in the increasingly ad-dominated mass culture, British and especially US, the term “excelsior” was taken as itself an emblem or parable of success and therefore adopted as a trade-mark, a word that is legally private property (you can be sued for using it without permission)! Here it connotes ever-growing excellence for various articles of manufacture: Excelsior soap; Excelsior test cards; and especially the Excelsior wood-shavings, the mattress thus filled, and the machine for filling it and filling other upholstery items (all from 1851-88). In a final twist, the Excelsior wood-shavings  begin then to be “cited” not from literary but from the everyday or pragmatic discourse by such Naturalists as Kipling and James Cain in 1928-34 (all citations and data from OED s.v. “excelsior”).

Midway between the high lit. and pop. lit. register is situated the  strange little article “Excelsior” by H.G. Wells of 1895, reprinted as a rider to chapter 16 of his autobiography (343-46). Its fence-straddling is also homologous to the author’s position of a proletarianized lower-middle class person (his imaginary biographical protagonist is “a young proletarian”) striving to “rise in the world” as taught by the likes of Samuel Smiles. However, this particular protagonist voices his fears of the psychic cost to the “evil lesson of ambition”–what Wells in his prefatory comment pithily calls “this loss of dearness and nearness.” This is not a parody but an embroidery, narratively inverted adaptation of or counter-project  to Longfellow, who has for a change been read well: the young ambitious proletarian “lifts his eyes to the distant peaks, and the sun is bright upon them and they seem very fair.” But nobody warns him of the penalties and “sorrows of success.” Many drop by the way “with bodies enfeebled by overstudy, underfed, who are lost amidst the mountain fogs of commercial morality,”  Wells notes from personal experience; but the young man’s “concern is with those who win,” with the “Nebo incident” of succeeding to look upon the Promised Land (the article was written at the same time as drafts of the Time Machine whose protagonist was early on called Nebogipfel, and there are interesting homologies between the two works). The penalty is, surprisingly, class snobbery against the upwardly mobile, a Spencerian misadaptation of the declassé, which leaves him successful but withered, amid “the Dead Sea fruit of success.” And Wells returns to Longfellow’s climber’s fate at the end of his little allegorical biography: “Happy is the poor man who clutches that prize in the grip of death and never sees it crumble in his hand.” The role of Longfellow’s voice from the sky is then taken by the Wells of 1934, “add[ing] …only one word: ‘Nonsense’.” The double inversion works as the proletarian youth succeeding (not a genteel youth failing) but psychically perishing in the process: more clearly than in the hypotext poem, the price is foregrounded. It is achieved by ellipse and interpolation of new elements but also by subtle inversion of some narremes from Longfellow, so that e.g. his “spectral glaciers shone” becomes Wells’s sun on distant peaks. As in the trademark PR promises, pragmatic success is more readily achieved in Wells; however, as in the high lit. diagnoses, it leads to no contentment. While the article is certainly not a masterpiece, the author’s retrospective poormouthing from the position of one who “got on” does not dispose of the problem interestingly if sketchily raised.

Looking at these examples, and in particular at the trademark ones, it might be difficult today to say where does parody or indeed unconscious self-parody of an unselfconscious social discourse begin or end. It is difficult to sustain parody, remarks justly Cavell, when nothing can be counted any longer to strike a given social group or a society as outrageous (292). I find an excellent example in the English newspapers’ report of May 16, 1996, that a MS. of Bach’s cantata “fetched” at auction half a million British pounds: its title was “O Lord, look down from  Heavens” (Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh drein)… At any rate, if there is an origin/al in the “excelsior” semantic sequence, it is firmly anchored not in God guaranteeing meaning through His Book, His Church, or a Sun-King and His Academy, but in a fittingly anonymous New York State Senate member or clerk misremembering in the flush of revolutionary independence his small Latin. And this unoriginal original is then mass-reproduced by the anonymous discursive and semiotic apparatus of capitalist industry, commerce, and liberal admanship. It is all of this–a cat’s cradle of interlocking sememes, images, and connotations participating in a definite orientation and emotional colouring, and not an atomic stanza, isolated poem or even one writer’s opus–which is the referent of any “excelsior” parody.

I believe that only an approach generalizing from a wider spread of similar case studies would permit us to integrate into our theory of parody Benjamin’s fulminant and unavoidable insight that the behaviour of Nazis toward Jews parodied Leninist class struggle–and I would add that the behaviour of Stalinists toward the original Soviet plebeian democracy did the same (so that Stalin even had to concoct a pseudo-theory that success of socialism equals sharpened class-struggle).

 5. What, then, could we today take as a defining hallmark of parody? Certainly, Tynianov’s insistence on an incongruity between what he very rightly calls its two levels, one “glimmering through” the other, might adequately distinguish it from the “neutral” stylizations of pastiche, where pieces of the two levels fit without incongruity. As Neumann observed, “parody is caricature by means of what is being caricatured” (cited in Verweyen-Wittig 78). The rhetorics of parody is sharply opposed to that of the hypotext. But whence and wherefore comes the use of this rhetorics, caricature or incongruity? Following the “Excelsior” discussion, my second argument–with which I shall leave this thesis about parody–is even more radical: I hope that this set of historico-textual examples might permit us to think about parody (and pastiche) having finally, in social practice if not yet in literary theory, only one HEGEMONIC  referentiality, namely the synchronic one. For Housman and Lawrence to parody “Longfellow,” the latter needs to be non-positivistically present at the precise time of the parody itself for both author and intended reader/s/. What lived of “Excelsior” in 1929 as a  Dawkinsian meme was probably no more Housman’s precisely known poem but an ideologically and affectively sufficiently precise, if meta-stable, fragmentary tag of social discourse and evaluation; had it not been so,  Lawrence could not have used it as a springboard  in Pansies. In other words, a hypotext may be referred to more or less precisely, but it stands for a precise pragmatic and axiological complex and orientation as normatively understood at the moment of parodying: the parodied stanza of “Excelsior” was important because it was a metonymy or exemplum for the “excelsioricity” I have been attempting to describe above, which proved insufferable to Housman and others (cf. Verweyen-Wittig 98 and 167). The rest seems to be, be it said with due respect, a professional  illusion and delusion of chronological anthology-makers and other critics of that monotheistic stripe, concerned with origins in time rather than with relationships between people (for what else is any discourse?). As Condillac remarked in De l’art d’écrire, “you are comparing all these operations [of comparison, judgment, etc.] to streams, and the words source and flow are tropes….” And Valéry, acute as ever: “The origin, in all, is imaginary. The source is the fact within which the imaginary is proposed: water wells up there. Beneath, I do not know what takes place?” (both cited in Derrida 297; see Valéry 592)

Now time-flows (my own trope) do, of course, participate in human relationships; or perhaps better, such relationships are partly explainable by means of, as a swirl of,  various and varying time-flows. Indeed, a synchronic coupe in relationships is from one point of view a constellation of time-flows and the correlative semiotics, dipped into at a precise sociohistorical moment constituted by pragmatic relations between people. But to believe that there is a single origin to practically anything, or that sources–which I myself as a rule find fascinating and indeed pregnant–by themselves explain consequences, is either a monotheistic or a mechanistic, in any case a banally deterministic, fallacy. Fortunately, those coming after can change, and indeed reverse, what originated earlier. How could there, otherwise, be parody?


*/ My thanks go to the SSHRC of Canada for a travel grant which allowed me to come to the Venice colloquium “Parodie, pastiche, mimétisme” in Oct. 1993, and to Prof. Patrick Parrinder who reminded me of Wells’s “Excelsior.”  Unacknowledged translations are mine.

My late and mourned friend Chang Huei-keng gave me much advice on the Chinese “imitation” tradition,  and I wish to dedicate this essay to her memory.

 2/ I do not know how this revolutionary emblem of the rising Sun crossed into the iconography of the Second and Third Socialist International, and thence into the State emblems of all Soviet and “People’s Democratic” Republics. All data on the Latin uses of “excelsus – excelsior” come from Georges-Calonghi, and on English uses from the OED.

 3/ Further interdisciplinary investigation could profitably start from James Thurber’s parodic drawings in Famous Poems Illustrated, which have had quite an echo, e.g. in comics, but this is beyond my essay’s scope.

Works Cited

 Angenot, Marc. “Le Discours social,” in his 1889. Montréal: Le Préambule, 1989, 13-39.

 Barry, Raymond W., and A.J. Wright. Literary Terms. San Francisco: Chandler, 1966.

 Cavell, Stanley. “Being Odd, Getting Even,” in Thomas C. Heller et al., eds., Reconstructing Individualism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986, 305-12.

 Compact OED. 1981 edn.

 Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics. London: RKP, 1975.

 Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Tr. A. Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

 Eco, Umberto. “Dizionario versus enciclopedia,” in his Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio. Torino: Einaudi, 1984, 55-140.

 [Falk, Robert P., and William Beare]. “Parody,” in Alex Preminger et al. eds., Princeton Enciclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972, 600-02.

 Francastel, Pierre. La figure et le lieu. Paris: Gallimard, 1967.

 Georges, C.E., and F. Calonghi. Dizionario latino-italiano. [Torino: n.p., 1891].

 Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody. New York & London: Methuen, 1985.

 Issacharoff, Michael. “Répétition et création.” Riv. di Letterature moderne e comparate 46.4 (ott.-dic. 1993): 313-21.

 Jackson, W.T.H. The Literature of the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia UP, 1960.

 Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1992.

 Karrer, Wolfgang. Parodie, Travestie, Pastiche. München: Fink, 1977.

 Rommel, Otto. Die Alt-Wiener Volkskomödie. Wien: Schroll, 1952.

 Rose, Margaret. Parody// Metafiction. London: Croom Helm, 1979.

 Rühmkorf, Peter. Kunststücke. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1962.

 Sallier, Abbé de. “Discours sur l’origine et sur le caractère de la Parodie.” Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions 7 (1733): 398-410.

 von Schlegel, August Wilhelm. Geschichte der klassischen Literatur. Kritische Schriftn und Briefe, Vol. 3. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1964.

 Shklovskii, Viktor. “Sviaz’ priëmov siuzhetoslozheniia s obshchimi priëmami stilia.” Poètika. Petrograd: Opoiaz, 1919; rpt. in his O teorii prozy. Moskva: Federatsiia, 1929, 24-67.

 von Stackelberg, Jürgen. Literarische Rezeptionsformen. Frankfurt: Athenäum, 1972.

 Stock, Brian. The Implications of Literacy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

 Suvin, Darko. “Haltung (Bearing) and Emotions: Brecht’s Refunctioning of Conservative Metaphors for Agency,” in T. Jung ed., Zweifel – Fragen – Vorschläge: Bertolt Brecht anlässlich des Einhundertsten. Frankfurt a.M.: Lang V, 1999, 43-58.

—. “Haltung,” entry in Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, Vol. 5. Hamburg: Argument, 2002, col. 1134-42.

Thurber, James. Fables for Our time and Famous Poems Illustrated. New York: Harper & Row, 1939.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “Introduction” to Le Vraisemblable. Communications no. 11 (1968): 1-4.

 Tynianov, Iurii. Dostoevskii i Gogol’: K teorii parodii. Petrograd: Opoiaz, 1921.

 Valéry, Paul. Cahiers 23–1940. Paris: CNRS, 1960.

 Verweyen, Theodor, and Gunther Wittig. Die Parodie in der deutschen Literatur. Darmstadt: Wiss. Buchges., 1979.

 Wang, Jing. The Story of Stone. Durham: Duke UP, 1992.

 Weisstein, Ulrich. “Parody, Travesty, and Burlesque,” Proc. of the 4th Congress of the ICLA, Fribourg 1964. Ed. F. Jost. Mouton: The Hague, 1966, 802-11.

 Wells, H.G. Experiment in Autobiography. London: Macmillan, 1934.

 Williams, Raymond. Keywords. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

 Wirth, Andrzej. “Stufen des kritischen Realismus.” Neue Deutsche Literatur 5 (1957): 121-31.

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Darko Suvin                                                                                                    (1996, 23,560 words)

“Bring your knowledge of disaster”

(telegram summoning Ch. Beard to Tôkyô after the great earthquake)

The catastrophe is that things go on as heretofore.

  1. Preliminary: Stance, Constituency, Epistemology

All concepts wherein a whole semiotic process is       gathered up elude definition; only what is without     history can be defined.

Nietzsche, Genealogie der Moral

 0.1. I shall be assuming in this essay that the vantage point or stance of each of us should be foregrounded in order to compensate for unavoidable blind spots, so that it behooves me to begin with identifying, as non-privately as possible, my own bearing (Haltung). Faced with the huge and growing pathologies and pandemics devouring our bodies politic, the injunction “Physician, heal thyself”  preserves its force.

I shall therefore start with some matters I went into at more length in other places, including an earlier issue of this journal (Suvin “Brecht” and “Theses”), which foregrounded precisely the “standpoint theory”–educed by Lukács from some hints in Marx, simplified to unrecognizability by the Stalinist sectarians (thus proving that the corruption of the best is the worst), and revived not at first by Neo-Marxists as much as by Liberation Theologians and Feminists (see Hartsock and Harding) in the guise of a “preferential option for the poor” in one case, and “for women” in the other. This position could embrace the traditional poles of ideology and of philosophy’s self-reflexivity, but it is more ambitious. It claims that epistemologically (i.e. at a level deeper than merely conceptual ideology) one’s assiette dans la vie or mise en situation, in short one’s practical bodily position and bearing as member of given social groups,  centrally codetermines one’s understanding, its limits, and privileged foci. And as to my standpoint, it is the one cited in 0.2 below apropos of Benjamin: that of a person who has left his class without finding another one–but attempting nonetheless to keep by means of work a stance of solidarity in which the dispossessed, exploited, and humiliated have a preferential epistemological claim on us, citizens and searchers, much transcending the merely ethical.

What happens to this point of view in what a poet, missing the true revolutionary radicality, has properly called our indigent times (dürftige Zeit–shabby, needy, mean, paltry, poor, penurious times)?

This is not the place nor am I specialist enough to enter upon the historiosophic debate as to when does our historical monad begin: the 1940s and the 1970s being the two most likely candidates. The 1970s have the imprimatur of at least two great names, Fernand Braudel and Fredric Jameson (plus the whole Lyotardian etc. gaggle of theoreticians of Post-modernism–further PoMo–whom I shall rule here out of court as ideologically self-serving)2/. Braudel tentatively suggests that the historical monad of continuous economic growth, breaking up the constrictions formerly imposed by the ceilings in agricultural output, energy, and transportation,  is situated in the capitalist West between ca. 1820 and 1970. Furthermore, as of ca. 1850 or 1870 (this depends on the country) such a growth, quite atypically, also meant a rise of per capita income, which gave rise to the notion “that society fulfills the will of God, not directly but by maximizing the welfare of each individual” (Meyer 210). Jameson’s well-known position is, after Mandel, that classical metropolitan imperialism passes into multinational capitalism parallel to the new industrial revolution based on nuclear energy, electronics, and the consequent machines of reproduction–TV set, computer, VCR–that through a rise of the tertiary sector and quantified “information industry” condemn us to a world of images, of mass-produced simulacra, rather than one of affects,  deep truths, and alienation. But it could just as well be argued, I think, that the technological and economical presuppositions for this brave new world were all in place after World War 2, and that what characterized the period of ca. 1945-73 (or indeed 1945-89) was a political rearguard action (with important local successes up to 1973–think of the Chinese and Third World revolutions, the 60s’ movements, etc.) fought by the great revolutionary wave of the first third of the 20th Century against the rising omnipotence of World Bank cynicism, or if you wish against the power of the endless capitalist circulation of fake novelties (Benjamin).

At any rate, we are today writing beyond either divide. This poses painful queries and aporias to all of us,  and especially to those (like myself) who have remained suspicious of orthodox pieties, refusing to forget the lessons of 1848 to 1968; and who therefore take as exemplary both Benjamin’s “Jewish awareness of the permanence of threat and catastrophe” (Adorno 231) as well as his insistence on the permanence of an at last weak salvational power. What stance does one take up now, in the world of renewed structural unemployment, a new computerized “putting-out system” destroying the welfare aspect of the welfare-cum-warfare state, monopoly capitalism run wild, and so on? What may our orientation be, in this history? In an interview of the 1960s, Lukács argued we were back in roughly the 1870s (the time of “gunboat diplomacy,” only now we’d have to call it “smart bombs”), where the whole revolutionary movement would have to start again from zero. This optimistic view today seems untenable; though all such analogies are lame, we are closer to a 17th-Century blend of great commercial empires, the affluence of whose ruling classes and entertainment parasites is based on exploiting the rest of the world as well as their own lower classes, with religious wars (and venereal pandemics) raging unchecked in non-essential areas. So why focus in such a fix, as on one of the few key concepts, on the Subject?

Let me try to give a personal answer to the first question, about the stance. It is probably best phrased, metonymically, in terms of a presently sustainable attitude to Enlightenment. In brief, the valid aspect or legacy of Enlightenment is for me confidence in human reason, in the possibility (however fragile) of people understanding their common world. The dubious aspect is the assumption that this is Reason in caps, i.e. that it arrives at asymptotically absolute values or an objective view (in all senses of that term–see e.g. Johnson and others discussed at length in Suvin “Cognitive”). At the root of both aspects is, I believe, the fact that the bourgeoisie sees itself as the representative of the whole people (or nation–and in its confident, revolutionary phase rightly so) and therefore believes that its own revolution and ensuing dispensation is the final one. If final then absolute; if absolute then its value (Reason, Humanity, History) is a lay equivalent of God. The Enlightenment thus attempts to laicize the eye of God. If laicizing means explanation of matter from within itself, being “interpreters of our own enterprise” (Rabelais), this is a great and absolutely necessary phase of liberation. However, adopting the perspective of God’s Eye is not: this remains metaphysics. The aporia is the historical one of coupling enlightenment and reason with liberal individualism. Our subject of The Subject demands facing and indeed going further than this aporia.

0.2. This leads into the second question, about the Subject; and possibly the door that opens onto some central answers would be constituted precisely by some lessons from Benjamin. Though Adorno often diluted them, he was right on (if characteristically stilted) when he characterized his dead friend as one of the first thinkers

to note the tension in the fact that the bourgeois individual, the thinking subject, has become questionable in his very core, without the substantive presence of any supraindividual aspect of existence in which the individual could be sublated intellectually without being oppressed. Benjamin expressed this situation when he defined himself as a person who has left his class without belonging to another one. (230)

To revert to the first person singular (but with pretenses to wide applicability, at least among readers of this journal): I have no idea for which social group I could today speak. I’d like to think of myself as an ally of Liberation Theologians and Feminists, but not being religious or a woman, these cannot be my movements; I can at best contribute critical support from their fringes. I’d further like to think I speak for an oppositional intelligentsia, but that stratum or class is today réduite en miettes, conspicuous by its absence as an organized group, which leaves me with an unhappy consciousness. It seems to me many of our ventures are attempts not to talk rather alone and thus with little correction:  as is certainly the case with this issue. De nobis fabula narratur, in good part this issue attempts to find some deep roots of our present unhappy situation.

This neuralgic crux has been referred to by some theorists, e.g. Paul Smith, as a matter of constituency. As Smith’s commentator notes in his Foreword, theory (all theories to the left of Reagan’s ideologists, I would say) has in the last few decades “fail[ed]…to connect with a mobilized constituency” (Mowitt xiii); in the present historical conjuncture, the revolutionary subjects of all variants of Marxism–from the Second International’s urban proletariat on the barricades, through Trotsky’s and Lenin’s Soviets of workers, soldiers, and poor peasants, to Mao’s, Tito’s, Castro’s, and Ho’s  guerilla vanguard on a long march through the peasant periphery to the conquest of the City, or finally to the unlikely vanguard of campus radicals from Berkeley to Belgrade–have been contained or indeed neutralized. All the successor movements in ethnic or gender battles have in effect, after some hesitations, settled down to fight for a place in the sun, or crumbs from the table of the postwar affluence in Foucauldian micro-politics. While a number of such ventures can be, and often are, just, necessary, and worthy of support, their limitations seem to become apparent in direct proportion to their (very partial) success. Nowhere are these limitations more apparent than in theory:

The critical theory of society has splintered in its practitioners’ efforts to embrace these new “subjects” and, as a consequence, has been politically paralyzed by the loss of its self-legitimating notion of “totality.” On the other hand, the political Right has…[recast] political discourse in its terms…appearing to address the need for revolutionary subjectivity by empowering people to unleash the economic forces that actually enslave them. This potentially permanent fixed counterrevolution has made it necessary to contest both the subject and its problematization…. (Mowitt ibidem)

Smith himself, who embraces the splintering diagnosed above, is at his weakest when disavowing intellectual attempts to grasp the totality of the present world system, most clearly in his misreadings of Marx (P. Smith  3-13) and attack on the most noted Marxist in North America today who has kept faith with such totalizing attempts, Fredric Jameson. Following the worst aspect of Foucault, Smith refers with some sarcasm to Jameson’s notion of an actual or “a hallucinated, utopian [social] whole,”  and actually at one point endorses the Cold-War, CIA-financed intellectuals’ concoction that identifies, in a bad if powerful pun, Lukácsian totality with Nazi-cum-Stalinist “totalitarianism” (91; see to the contrary Jay, Marxism). On the contrary, I would maintain that we need to strive for both extensive totality (understanding the capitalist world-system which beats Western trade unions by shifting to Taiwan or Georgia) and intensive totality (a standpoint able to see the shifting paradigms under the extension). After all, since a total, and negative, world-system exists beyond any reasonable doubt,  to refuse thinking it as such is an act of imaginative and political abdication. In that sense, in our cultural theory Jameson’s insistence on a dynamic and open-ended value-horizon of possible (if largely unrealized) totalization–“the absent totality that makes a mockery of us” (“Actually” 172)–is a sine qua non  reference, a necessary presupposition for criticism and for positive counter-proposals, even for people like me who do not share his ambiguous involvement with PoMo.

However, for the most part (and somewhat confusingly in view of his strictures on Marx and Jameson), to Paul Smith holism equals liberalism and (presumably bourgeois) “humanism,” his error in logic being that a number of (or all) humanists and liberals have been holists, ergo any holism must be such. This is not the place to discuss the whole of his in places useful book, particularly since in this issue there is a generous discussion of its main thrust in Jameson’s essay. I have suggested that I am out of sympathy with some of Smith’s central political (and terminological) choices. Yet his strongest point, inherited from the best Marxists and feminists and which I wish to build on, is the (however imperfect) insistence on the political, and therefore ethical and theoretical, need of agency, which means also of a feedback with experience (cf. 159). But precisely because of this need, the impasse of the “autonomous Self” has first to be resolved:

 …[T]he philosophy of praxis affirms theoretically that every “truth”…has had practical origins and has represented a “provisional” value (historicity of every conception of the world and of life), …without in so doing shaking the convictions that are necessary for action. (Gramsci 406)

Further, some of the most useful feminist critics have foregrounded “the fractured and fluctuant condition of all consciously held identity, the impossibility of a will-ful, unified and coherent subject” (Kaplan 226). Or, “we can illuminate the grip [which this largely unquestioned assumption that…emotions, beliefs, intentions, virtues and vices…attach to us singly (no matter how socially we may acquire them)] has on us by seeing it as forming part of the ideology of liberal individualism” (Scheman 226). In Smith too, the “individual” is rightly seen “as simply the illusion of whole and coherent personal organization, or as the misleading description of the imaginary ground on which different subject-positions are colligated” (Mowitt xxxv). Yet Smith has just as rightly an acute feel for the need of resistance. It would follow that in all cases of oppression, from silencing to murder, each of us has ingent responsibilities toward what is no doubt as a rule both a collective (gender, ethnic, class, etc.) or typical insult but always also an ineluctably personal, subject-bound diminishment of humanity (which is why I take exception when a Fascist like Heidegger inveighs against “Humanism”). How is the need for resistance, for “the presence of subjects as knowers and as actors” (D.E. Smith 105), which ineluctably implies a feedback between individual and collective subjects, to be squared with the collapse of “coherent personal organization”?

 Rather than confront head on the thickets of conflicting terminologies I shall proceed athwart Paul Smith’s stance of uncognizability and dispersion, and attempt to radicalize his option for choice and  intervention by asking two pragmatic, and thus to my mind epistemologically determining,  questions. First, on historical evidence, who (which kinds or groups of people) has in the last 150 years contributed most to human solidarity? Of course, not the political or economic power-holders. Not philosophy, after the Bruno-to-Marx epoch. Alas, not “value-free” science as a whole. Mainly either a/ collective movements of the oppressed and exploited classes in their ascending moments, i.e. in the golden middle between sectarianism and bureaucratization (revolutions, unions, leftwing parties, movements of Black and women, etc.); or b/ fiction, writing, fine arts, music, the stage, some movies, some sciences (perhaps anthropology? theory of physics?). Second, in what way has this been done? Not by discovering any innate human dignity or rights, nor by simply constructing it ex nihilo, but by nurturing and fostering it (as in “foster-parents”), i.e. by postulating its possibility, Ernst Bloch’s tendency-latency, potentially existing in as well as constricted by material relationships but to be actively educed (drawn out) from them. By the way, philosophy has traditionally (since Socrates and Nagarjuna) done this by way of the “thin description,” embarked on Extra-Vehicular Activity in the interplanetary vacuum of purely conceptual thought. However, it seems that such a postulation is better conveyed by what anthropologists like Geertz call the “thick description” of artful narrative (where concepts are in a feedback with metaphors and stories). I suspect there is a close parallel here to the relationship between “thin” Self (consciousness, Descartes’s “pure mind”) and “thick” bodily Subject.

0.3. Here we enter upon an unavoidable problem in epistemology: We have learned that any text or event is most intimately shaped by its context, and in particular that the meaning depends on which contextualization is chosen. This is pithily put by Merleau-Ponty: “He who speaks (and that which he understands tacitly) always co-determines the meaning of what he says, the philosopher is always implicated in the problems he poses” (Visible 90). The context–in culture, the socialized, usually collective subject–co-determines the object; there is no absolute object. Yet there is no absolute relativity either: for a given context, the object can be established with sufficient precision. This epistemology also has its own context, the reason for adopting such a position. I would call it a “two hands” position. On the one hand, it stands against the despotism of an “absolute” truth, centralized manipulation of people, spatial confinement (emblem: the police). On the other hand, it stands against the despotism of an “absolute relativism,” statistical manipulation of people, informational tutelage (emblem: the credit computer). Of course, police can use the computer too: their absolutist fusion is fascism.

However, does the salutary and modesty-provoking relativization of acknowledging and foregrounding one’s own (personal and collective) standpoint rob it of any–except a capriciously “me-too”–validity? Is it simply a surrender to this era’s narcissistic and tribalized relativism, in which (as long as the market circulates!) I have my right and you have  your right, and we are all pluralists–either sincerely or just by making a virtue out of unbreakable constraint? Or may some standpoints and bearings be found that are more equal than others? In other words, if we accept the standpoint theory as a (so to speak) fundamental syntactic gambit, is there a semantico-pragmatic hierarchy of values that may be, in an analytically posterior but politically and ethically mandatory move, used to judge between various standpoints, once these have been identified? In still other words, how do we avoid the Deconstructionist mise en abyme or bad infinite recurrence of saying that this hierarchy is itself dependent on a standpoint, say a macro- or meta-standpoint?

I cannot pretend to have an answer. We are at a point in history when it is obviously too late and too early for any grand, unified theory of anything, or even for a modest approach to it. But I think there are some horizons within which a solution may be found. They would encompass the historical lessons to be drawn from both the voluntarist and the estheticist dead-ends, from the Leviathan and the animula–the dead ends of historiosophical Hegel without his dialectics vs. the critical Kant without his ethics; or of Lukács vs. Shklovsky, if you  wish. A solution would then have to be sought in a distinction between the short-duration and closed-group standpoints vs. the long-duration and genuinely open, dialectical or inter-group standpoints. The latter would, no doubt in historically complex combinatorics, be able to function–albeit provisionally and flexibly–as representatives of a humanizing totality, and thus found a hierarchy of values. That hierarchy would cut out of potentially infinite rhizomes constituting our imaginary encyclopedias (Eco, “Dizionario”) a pragmatically here-and-now privileged tree, whose branchings would be a guide for decisions. Yet a most important lesson we ought to have learned is that all (hard-won, unavoidable, indispensable, and rightly cherished) operative certainties must be desanctified by keeping in mind that they are just that, so that formal mechanisms must be found for preventing operative necessities from fossilizing into longue durée dogmas (the fate of both Social Democracy and Leninism, as it was of classical revolutionary liberalism earlier on). This means that heresies are to be encouraged and cherished, that the Activist and the Fool must not only coexist (as an ecclesia militans with ecclesia triumphans), but actually enter into a loving friendship.

Cognitively speaking, a first, very provisional conclusion is therefore that acknowledging one’s own situatedness in “the same world as is the object of our inquiry” (D. E. Smith 127) and  stance (including orientation) toward given knots in it does not at all preclude understanding. On the contrary, a non-neutral and non-absolute (e.g., non-eternal) cognition will have the strengths of a pragmatic situatedness of its knowers into bodies, situations, horizons. A “situated knowledge” is defined by Haraway, in her eponymous and as usual pathbreaking article, as being “simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world” (579; cf. Code 250-64 and passim, D.E. Smith 121-27). One could quibble about some terms here, signalled by Haraway’s own quotation marks. But as I have been arguing all along, a tertium datur between the untenable horns of Individualist Subject vs. No Subject is to be sought–and may be found. Though Haraway’s article speaks about feminist objectivity and she distances herself from “bourgeois, Marxist, or masculinists projects” (593), I believe it is cognitively exemplary beyond feminism  when she asks for a perspective of partiality (pun intended) and formulates this new objectivity (and I would say subjectivity) as “[being] about limited location and situated knowledge,” thus “allow[ing] us to become answerable for what we learn how to see” (583).

My conclusion could then be pertinently summed up in two cognitive imperatives: against absolutism, historicize!; and against relativism, cognize! This would leave no room for either essentialism or nihilism.  While this may be a “soft” or indeed transitional epistemology, I think that in industrialized societies, with rapid circulation of novelties, only a dialectical, i.e. dynamic and non-theologized, cognition has a chance of being valid. And thus I arrive at the Subject.

  1. Subject as Social Allegory vs. Self as Interiority and the Pivot Formulation of Descartes

 Mercure: Qui va là?
Sosie: Moi!
Mercure: Qui, moi?

Molière, Amphitryon

 1.0. The present most unhappy situation, suggested in 0.2, may lead us to repeat (e.g.) Sloterdijk’s suggestive question: “Is a certain coming about of the ‘I’ (Ichwerdung) perhaps essentially just as catastrophic as the explosion of a nuclear reactor?” (120) Indeed, is not the immensely powerful invention of the disembodied, lone, inner-oriented Cartesian Self strictly analogous, homologous or even consubstantial to the invention of the “value-free” atom, thus leading in a direct line to the atomic bombs and reactors of our century, and lending itself to a fair characterization as a super-Chernobyl of historical or world-line pollution?

As one of the central notional categories registering the deepest shifts in social formations, and in particular the shift first into and then out of the ideological hegemony of competitive or market capitalism, the whole complex of “subjectivity” has been –as researchers have traditionally complained–buffetted and polluted by hurricanes of obfuscation (cf. on the historical semantics, the indispensable Williams ss.vv. Experience, Individual, Personality, Subjective). Thus, unless one wants to assume this spiritual pollution, there is no alternative but to propose a terminological thesaurus of one’s own. E.g., a major piece of present-day ideological pollution can be immediately cleared away by the founding Marxian refusal to postulate “‘Society’…as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual. The individual is the social being.” (Marx, Economic 137-38); this is paraphrased by Bakhtin as  the refusal of “binary opposition [between the ‘social’ and] the ‘individual,’ and hence…the notion that the psyche is individual while ideology is social….[All the] properties and attributes of the ideological individual [are social].” (34)

But after destruction, we have to proceed to at least preparing the grounds for reconstruction. Its semantics have at a minimum  to be clearly articulated as to their inner syntax and pragmatic suitability. In order to have a chance at extricating it from the pollution opening with a memorable bang in Descartes, I shall posit that any such thesaurus has to incorporate the historical long duration (Braudel’s longue durée) and eschew either/or dichotomies in favour of both/and hierarchies.

1.1. As I argued in the Propositions for this issue, this mental hygiene can be achieved by differentiations within the semantic field of subjectivity. I shall proceed here upon the tracks of Jean-Pierre Vernant’s and Paul Ricoeur’s approaches to such differentiation in the Colloque de Royaumont “Sur l’individu” of 1985. To simplify, streamline, and sometimes contaminate them, they distinguish three notions, which can in French be elegantly called “l’individu stricto sensu,” “le sujet,” and “le soi” (or “le moi”). The first is a not further divisible physical token of any logical type, and especially of a biological species in Julian Huxley’s sense of “indivisibility–the quality of being sufficiently heterogeneous in form to be rendered non-functional if cut in half” (cited in Dawkins 250); in that sense, I translate it, with hesitancy, as individual (for that word is often used also in the ideologized bourgeois sense of Self–the third notion here). It designates any Something (this goldfish, maple tree or province) by three principal means: definite description, proper name or indicator (pronoun, adverb, etc.). The second is a human “individual” communicating in her own name, expressing himself “in the first person” with traits that differentiate her from others of the same logical type-token and biological species-variety-race (etc.)–most importantly, from an ethnic, class, and gender group. To the individuation above, this adds identification, and I shall call it the Subject. For a Subject, the pronoun “I” is no longer a shifter, an itinerant marker applicable to any speaker, but it is anchored in a fixed stance or bearing; this makes dialogue possible, where–however–the anchoring is reversible, “I” can be understood as “thou” and viceversa (cf. Ricoeur 62). Finally, the Self (ipse, Selbst) is constituted by the practices and stances

which confer upon the subject a dimension of interiority…, which constitute him from within as…a singular individual whose authentic nature resides wholly in the secret of her inner life, at the heart of an intimacy to which nobody, outside of himself, can have access…. (Vernant, “L’individu” 24)

I shall return to what I see as the crucial matter of interiority. But here I wish to note a  startling fact: only monotheist cultures seem to have invented the Self and its whole host of attendant ways of understanding and organizing the world: “The notion of person will appear in Christian thought” (Meyerson 476). It is not necessary to enter here into why and how this happened: one can simply remark with Vernant that for the individual “uncoupled from sociality….[t]he search for God and the search for Self are two dimensions of the same solitary ordeal” (“L’individu” 36). The Subject, overtly constituted by sociality,  implies other Subjects. But the Self implies Another: Platonically–The Other, transcendentally–God. (Incidentally, this entails that all the worthy talk about The Other, and the ethics deriving therefrom, are still essentially predicated upon the individualistic Self.) The search may be called theology, or–from Bacon and Descartes on–Science, it is in all cases proceeding upon the One True Way. The consequences, from politics to epistemology, were to be huge.

1.2. What this effects is a diametrical inversion of vectors. Earlier–in literature and art up to and including  Boccaccio, Giotto or Rabelais–the Subject was, for others as well as for himself, a twodimensional limit-zone where collective bodies or groups (often in the allegorical guise of general types) meet and interfere: a king, an old man, a choleric, a buyer of love for property, etc., finally stripped down to Everyman, all of this goes to make Lear; Agamemnon was rather distinct from Menelaus, but both were largely determined by being rulers, warriors against Troy, and Atreides. Now, the subject begins to be seen, first by herself and then by others insofar as they recognize they are subjects too, as the central point around which the world becomes that point’s environment (cf. Suvin, To Brecht Part 1, elaborating upon Lukács), a threedimensional sphere seen from the inside. Soon, by need for validation and morphological analogy, a central point is found inside the Subject itself which relates to the individual body as that body does to the rest of the environment.  That central point, the irreducible principle of utter alterity or originality whose loss would be the death of Self, and thus a fate worse than bodily death, is initially and most clearly semanticized only in relation to God, as the soul (defined by Plotinus as that which is found when “everything is taken away”–see Vernant, L’Individu 226). Then it is fully developed in the richness of thisworldly relationships as  the interiorized character seen simultaneously from inside and outside, as public and private, therefore stereometrically or “in the round”  (when shamefaced laicized synonyms such as individual sensu lato, personality or  ego are substituted for soul).

All of this is, of course, centrally a politico-economic, historical trajectory. While the heroic individual of the Renaissance still participated in the plenitude of material life, like Rabelais’s giants, from the Reformation on he (sic) devolved into a Self whose freedom was increasingly interior, located into an “‘inner’ sphere” of  consciousness, observing rather than intervening: “Nothing which is in the world and stems from the world  can attack the ‘soul’ and its freedom; this terrible utterance [of Luther’s], which already makes it possible entirely to [depreciate] ‘outer’ misery and to justify it ‘transcendentally,’ persists as the basis of the Kantian doctrine of freedom” (Marcuse 56 and 57, and cf. his whole essay “Luther and Calvin”). In the philosophically influential Descartes variant, the topological image of the mind/ consciousness as “inner arena” of ideas was, as Richard Rorty proves,  the principal, epoch-making invention. Human relationships are now, for the first time, construed as experience occurring in the depths of a three-dimensional Self (cf. Toulmin, also Suvin “Soul”), which was–precisely–consciousness. Subject becomes subjectivity, the world begins to split into subjective and objective states, with the attendant huge problems of their possible relationships (cf. Bordo 49ff.). The depth of consciousness grows vertiginous with the Romantics, and as it were self-destructs in Freud.

This most novel idea of Selfhood flew in the face of all human experience and notions, and needed to be validated by a transcendental grounding (or is it assumption?). Whence did the Truth get into the Center? A mouth-stopping validation is the best answer: Truth was put there by an omnipotent God. In the huge social breakdowns of the late Roman world empire, whose fears and horrors may be comparable only to our century’s, where polytheism foundered together with the notion of equal political rights of citizens and communities, this validation from the new universal Lord of (Christian) monotheism won out. For every individual this amounts to the incarnation of truth; it is signalized and symbolized by the Son’s incarnation into Jesus, by the breath of the Holy Ghost “in-spiring” such inner truth. In the logocratic tradition of Christianity, mediated by a Holy Scripture and its exclusive interpreters and enforcers, this is the verbum vitae, the Word of Life in direct genealogical relation to the Creator, Truth as the offspring of monotheistic authority. In spite of Bacon’s reply that Truth was the Daughter of Time (i.e. of understanding through experiment), Romantic anthropology held fast to this Central or Nuclear Truth of Man, a supreme value which has to be unveiled as Thaïs or shelled as peas from the pod. Every individual was a subject of the Lord, but he also had a divine right to be himself because she had a divine spark in herself.

The Promethean spark of the quondam soul thus persisted after the Catholic Lord had been supplanted by Protestantism and humanism:

In modern Europe the idea of a planned creation of the world order by one single God was secularized, and thus prepared in the interior of people the way to creating a system of formal rights, a rationally organized bureaucracy, and a unified monetary system through the absolute monarch as the free subject of responsibility. The ideational mediation was here exercised by none less than Descartes, who separated spirit from matter and undertook the construction of the world of experience through the cognitive subject (reason [and Self in my sense, DS]) following the principle of the “cogito.” (Maruyama 56)

I shall not indulge here in philological reconstructions of what Descartes “really” meant; his opus seems rich in doubts, hesitations, and caveats. But this is irrelevant for European intellectual history: its “Descartes” is the juncture of transplanting from theology to lay philosophy the image “of a single inner space in which bodily and perceptual sensations…, mathematical truths, moral rules, the idea of God, moods of depression, and all the rest of what we now call ‘mental’ were objects of quasi-observation” (R. Rorty 50). This redistribution of social interfaces into the interiorized Selves brought about “a new form of identity,” remarks Vernant, in which the human individual is defined by an unremitting obsession with his interior, e.g. by  “his most intimate thoughts, her secret imaginings, his nocturnal dreams, her sinful impulses…” (“L’individu” 36-37). The new space of the Cartesian cogito “as precondition and foundation of all knowledge about the world, the self, and god” (Vernant, “Preface”  40)–the “Je suis” as locus of individuality and subjectivity, the soul as “moi”–is quite unheard of in all non-individualist cultures, e.g. the Hellenic, East Asian, and even European medieval one.

As the rigid roles of the ancien régime broke down in the full assumption of power by the bourgeoisie, the full-fledged ideology of individualism emerged. It is a political practice and doctrine according to which the human individual (in this “soulful” sense of a unified and lasting Self) is the final building brick of the body politic,3/ just as other, identically individual entities (e.g. the unsplittable atom) are the final building blocks of all other cosmic levels. The clairvoyant reactionary Tocqueville first identified individualism in the USA, where its semantics were invading all other collective categories, such as time and space, as “a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth” (cf. the discussion of character and individualism in Suvin, “Can People” 686-88). Individualism as ideology “engender[s] the cosmico-political dimension and public space itself starting from the sole ethical selfhood…without the originating social dimension” (Ricoeur 72). In Aristotle’s Politics, we may remember, the only Subjects who could be sundered from the polis, which is superordinated to individuals as the whole is to the part, were gods or beasts (I:2:1253a)–in human terms, divine magi or monsters. Thus, all the descendants of Robinson Crusoe in the narratives of political economy and similar fiction brought about by the bourgeoisie would be monstrous for any non-individualist tradition–i.e., for 33 of the 34 world civilizations, if I remember Toynbee’s count well. Two or three centuries after Descartes, the “individualistic self-experience” (Voloinov /Bakhtin 89) grew to be one of the lonely Self, and Schopenhauer justly proclaimed such individuation a curse.

  1. Deconstruction: Hello and Goodbye

[The final result of ’68 has in French philosophy been] to engender a hyper-individualism which is perfectly comfortable with the existing social forms.

                                                                                                                 Ferry-Renault, “Sujet

2.1. As is well known within the small world of Western academy, our literary and cultural studies have since the 1970s  been beset by a confrontation between the traditional “humanists” and the newfangled “deconstructionists.” The Subject (subjectivity, agency, author/ity) has been one of the main campaign theaters, with battle cries of, approximately, “free individual and self-expression” vs. “the I is dead” (“das Ich ist unrettbar” was already Ernst Mach’s conclusion at the turn of the century). From where I stand both sides have partially good but finally unsatisfactory arguments, and the only theoretically satisfying horizon would be some approximation to a shamelessly Hegelian sublation, i.e. negation plus assumption of both (which practically we may not get in these unpropitious times, so that we have to go on “pluralistically” using orts and scraps of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis). I shall limit myself to a much simplified discussion of the Post-structuralists and Deconstructionists.

Their strength lies in the “de-” prefix, in the denial of late-liberal illusions. One can only applaud their assault on metaphysics and essentialist individualism, even if in comparison to Marx and Nietzsche–say Marx’s fundamental and constant critique of the Christian and bourgeois “cult of the abstract man” (cf. at least Marcuse 128ff.)–it was both belated and less well argued. Historically, the balance-sheet of individualism is by now badly in the red. Descartes had substituted for the authority of the Church’s Augustinian God that of the secular I of the cogito (cf. Negri 90-94, Taylor 128ff. and 156ff.)–while letting God back in by a somewhat peripheral garden gate, as the only imaginable outer validation of the I’s interiority, just as the bourgeoisie could continue only under the wing of an absolutist State. “The Discours is truly a bourgeois novel” about a lonely “I” in the demonic world of the malin génie (Negri 109 and passim). In Robinson Crusoe and his novel, or already in Prince Hamlet though not necessarily in the play Hamlet, we may see this consciousness –“the  Western, transcendent, and masculine norm of autobiographical selfhood”  (Brodzki and Schenck 4; though there are interesting exceptions to the masculinity in the “thick” constructs of art, beginning precisely with Shakespeare and Defoe). Yet the bite on reality  of this founding individualist myth shrinks in the fullness of bourgeois time from the rich sceptic traffic with the world of a Montaigne, through the illusionist space of perspectival geometry,  to an empty space, “ab-solute, un-bound from the world which no longer supports it, and as the reciprocal term of God” (de Certeau, Heterologies 94, and cf. Bordo 68ff.). Kant, that exemplary philosopher of the autonomous and rational Self, has the great advantage of beginning to demonstrate how intellect participates in constructing knowledge. Still, so far as I can see, his “critique” never overcame some central aporias, e.g. what makes experience and in particular identity possible or how is the Subject’s standpoint constituted within history and/or society, and thus led to the dead-end of what is usually called “the problem of the Thing-in-itself” (Ding-an-sich). It then becomes visible that whatever Descartes’s “I think therefore I am” might have been, it was not (as both he and Kant fervently hoped) a supreme because direct certainty (cognitio… prima et certissima). Based  on Descartes’s own later comments, Nietzsche pointed out that

 …cogito, ergo sum presupposes that one knows what is “thinking” and further what is “being”: thus, if the est (sum) were true, this would be a certainty based upon two correct judgments, adding to it a certainty that one had, to begin with, a right to any concluding, a right to the ergo–thus, in any case, no direct certainty (Werke 641; Heidegger disputes this critique, but in any such confrontation my money is on Nietzsche).

See also the less sweeping though acute objection: “I maintain that Cogito ergo sum has no meaning because that little word sum has no meaning….’I am’…is no answer to any intelligible question.” (Valéry 9: 54)

Nothing fails like success. Around the end of the 19th Century, the Cartesian practice of “maîtres et possesseurs de la nature” (Discours 100) leads to a massive shift (first in the France and USA) from the sovereign Victorian–e.g. Emersonian–character, which is good or bad, to the mass-society personality, which is famous or anonymous (in tandem with the non-individual but private corporation personalized in its trade-marks, which is profitable or unprofitable), i.e. from ethical ideas to commodified PR imagery in which “That which appears is good, that which is good appears” (Kipnis 21). This mass-produced Self, moving  on the upswing of the Kondratiev cycle from production-directed  to consumption-directed goals,  increasingly shed  the  liberal contradiction that the highest Self  also implies self-mastery  and self-sacrifice for class ideals,  and  stressed self-expression and self-gratification, which yet must (in a  new contradiction) remain sufficiently pseudo-exemplary–replicable or empathizable–for the personality to remain attractive and “fascinating” (see Susman’s meticulous reconstruction 271-82 and passim, also Meyer). With the rise of cinema and TV, this soap-opera personality melded what Benjamin had analyzed as 19th-Century fashion with the Tocquevillean authoritarianism of US democracy (cf. Suvin “Two”) to rapidly colonize first the lower classes in the metropolis and then the whole globe, reorganized into political nation-states linked by satellites and computer banking. We see the latest avatar of this–as I write–in the media foo-faw around the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

2.2. In the upshot, repeating known truths is never superfluous. But we did not quite need the Post-structuralists (whose arrowhead became the Deconstructionists) to point out that the bourgeois dispensation has in four centuries never clarified–theoretically or practically– what (where, how) is this “I”; and in particular, how is its shibboleth of freedom to be taken: I am free for or of what? Truly, the “free” individuals are free from most old attachments but then centrally free to sell themselves on the labour market, which is lately not buying much. Their “rounded,” three-dimensional richness is finally a supermarket and cinerama effect; this is, no doubt, preferable to the empty shelves found at the bottom of the World Bank totem-pole but it is in no way similar to the equally empowered billiard-ball entities demanded by the analytical geometry of human bodies and forces freely colliding on a level-field market and magically producing a social space of dignity for all, as demanded by bourgeois theory from Descartes through Hobbes to Adam Smith. What Freud called blows to men’s narcissism or self-love, evicting the billiard-ball from the centre of cosmology with Copernicus (and even more so Bruno), of biology with Darwin, and of psychology with himself (221), are then on the one hand logical and necessary dethronements of the still semi-theological ego. Yet while true freedom from poverty and oppression remains a very precious goal, the series of bourgeois disenchantments into freedom finally reconstructs the Subject into a sellable Self. The cogito is thus revealed as a two-faced, thoroughly ideological  coinage: its welcome desanctification of fossilized Church dogma has as an increasingly painful obverse the alienation of the cogitators (except for those statistically irrelevant few who possess Descartes’s private revenues) into more-or-less one-dimensional sellers of labour-power–including us “value-free” professionals. This should be kept firmly in mind all the time, since outside our little academic world (and indeed at the top of its own power structures) a thoroughly capitalist Cartesianism has never lost its hegemonic constraining capacity, and seems even to be returning onto the theoretical terrain in the present Right-wing rollback (at least in France, see Le Doeuff 122).

However, it is entirely possible to acknowledge  a reasonable cultural relativism dethroning the idea of individuality without abolishing the Subject à la Heidegger. Already John Dewey could remark that “The idea that human nature is inherently or exclusively individual is itself a product of cultural individualistic movement. The idea that human nature and consciousness are intrinsically individual did not even occur to any one for much the greater part of human history [and geopolitics, one could add].” (Freedom 21) Nearer to us, Gadamer concluded: “The self-consciousness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuit of historical life. That is why a person’s pre-judgments (Vorurteile, prejudices) much rather than his judgments constitute the historical reality of her being.” (261) The Post-structuralists share the only hermeneutics available to us non-PR intellectuals in this historical epoch, which Ricoeur has well named the hermeneutics of suspicion (soupçon); but they exasperate it and indeed take it ad absurdum. Beginning with a simple “structuralizing” denial of subjectivity–e.g. the famous Barthesian and Foucauldian “death of the author”–this tendency advances to a Derridean polemic strategy wherein by (his) definition the subject is not saying–or doing, though the Post-structuralists speak usually about speaking only–what it seems to be saying, or even what it thinks it is saying (see Ferry-Renault, “Sujet” 109). At best, we are in for  either a new literary genre, Derrida’s poem-in-prose as philosophy (cf. Cavell 306-09ff.), or a substitution of multiple schizophrenic subjectivities à la Deleuze and Guattari– protons and electrons (maybe even neutrons, not to speak of charms and quarks) in lieu of the unsplittable atom of the bourgeois Self that culminated in Victorian or Wilhelminian patriarchy. But all of this brings its own crippling problems, of which I shall here mention two.

2.3. First, it is by now time to foreground the unacceptable face of Deconstructionism, which I would identify with the influence of the post-Kehre, post-Humanismusbrief Heidegger. I am reminded here of Ernst Bloch’s late and terrible suspicion, whose exact quote I cannot at the moment locate, but which said roughly: behind the citoyen, we have seen, came the bourgeois; Gnade uns Gott (merciful god), who is coming behind the comrade? We can today answer: the bureaucratic despot, or something similar. Now Ferry and Renault, following Bell and Lipovetsky, have applied this proto-deconstructionist suspicion to the French Post-structuralists and Deconstructionists themselves:

Has the 60s’ philosophy really been as “revolutionary” and “deconstructive” as it pretended to be? Or hasn’t it rather efficiently accompanied an ongoing social movement [in the West during these last two decades], characterized by the take-off of liberalist individualism and of consumer society…? (“Sujet” 113-14; cf. also their 68-86)

Though one would have to say that the Sixties’ movement–even in France–was too contradictory to be judged as a monolith, Ferry-Renault’s conclusion about the social conformism of French philosophy issuing from it, cited in the epigraph to this section (“Sujet” 114), on the whole, alas,  rings true. It seems simply an application to the “Nouveaux Philosophes” of the lucid observation at the beginning of our century, again by John Dewey, that “[t]here is a subterranean partnership between those who employ the existing economic order for selfish pecuniary gain and those who turn their backs upon it in the interest of personal complacency, private dignity, and irresponsibility” (Intelligence 411).

The pre-industrial world believed in a fixed and monophonic Truth, and Paul of Tarsus thought the elect would see this Platonic classical Idea “face to face,” while in a more sophisticated variant Thomas of Aquinas called it  the “adequation of intellect to the thing” and Lenin “the correspondence between our ideas and objective reality” (cf. Eco, Limiti 325). If this classical idea is well lost together with all variants of monotheism, from the Vatican to the Kremlin; if we have indelibly learned that  we are rather at Paul’s “through a glass darkly” (an impure, refracting glass at that); still the second horn of the dilemma, “A chacun sa vérité,” is equally untenable. For one thing, it is internally  contradictory (let me  call this “the paradox of the Cretan truth-teller” or the tu quoque boomerang), for another, it is demobilising for any collective (i.e. efficacious) action, for a third, it leaves in practice very non-relative institutions (State apparati, banks, nationalist demagogies, etc.) free to do as they want. This, to my feeling dominant, PoMo stance is “the very paradigm of every sort of [buckling under and] compromise with the existing status quo” (Guattari 40). Furthermore, the exclusively privatized adversarial stance engendered by the shift from the validity of the theme and argument of a proposition to the unmasking of the proposer’s personality is not only singularly unlovely but “it may easily legitimate some forms of a disquieting intellectual terrorism,” not absent even from Foucault or Althusser (Ferry-Renaut 116). The civility of the critical but finally subsumptive rather than competitive-adversarial mode seems to be dispensed with in most (though thankfully not in a few of the best) Post-structuralists. I would even say that uncritical repetition of Heidegger’s somewhat hysterical dicta against science and rationalism, presumably by reason of their reference to pragmatically verifiable truths, bars the way to consistent thinking and agency, and is thus deeply obscurantist.  This is, again, to be found in the weakest moments of both Foucault and Althusser, not to mention the ridiculous sloganeering of Lyotard (“rendre la philosophie inhumaine,” cf. Ferry-Renaut 111-12) and innumerable imitators, which does not even shock the bourgeoisie any more–one can well imagine the gloating smirk on the face of an intelligent banker or bureaucrat should he chance to glance at it. My feeling is that Derrida is more cautious here, while the closest (though not very close) approximation to a dialectics of de- and re-construction might be found in some places of the Deleuze-Guattari opus.

Second, even the bad patriarchal ego was able (as Jameson remarked in a 1993 lecture) not only to have an unconscious, to sublimate etc., but clearly had possibilities of action. Fragmenting the atomic ego may be a necessary first step and pleasant polemical device,  but if we want to do anything in this world of bodies and institutions–most pressingly, to contribute our small bits and bytes toward changing the world away from what the Robinson Crusoes have changed it into, i.e. in the direction of an inhabitable planet–we shall have to find ways of reintegrating agency into the electron cloud for given purposes (much like in Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Invincible). In fact, all of us do cut out a Porphyrian tree with branchings for key decisions from the potentially unending rhizome of our cultural encyclopedia. As Eco has wittily remarked, when Derrida asked him for a letter of support for the Collège International de Philosophie, “I bet Derrida assumed that: –I should assume he is saying the truth; –I should read his message as a univocal program…; –the signature which he asked me to put at the bottom of my letter should be taken more seriously than Derrida’s at the end of ‘Signature, événement, contexte'” (Limiti 27). For efficacious Post-structuralist theoreticians, their end forgets their beginning. And one of Barthes’s favourite lexemes, dérivé, turned into a catchword by Lyotard, derives after all from the Latin de-ripare, the obverse of ad-ripare, to get to an (uncrossable) river-bank or shore, which metaphor when sufficiently deadened becomes our “arrive”: in order to drift from somewhere one first had to arrive there; so that I would hope that after a period of drifting in the desert (sous rature, so to speak) one might if not arrive then at least again glimpse some approximations to a Promised Land. Or even, quite modestly, to what William Morris called “an epoch of rest”–a middling, restful land, without the mass murders, hungers, drug poisonings, air, water, and food adulterations, and the myriad other hegemonic insults to people’s flesh and imagination.

  1. To Position a Survivable Polity, Non-Interiority, Valencies for Subjectivity


Seid ihr wirklich im Fluss des Geschehens? Einverstanden mit
Allem was wird? Werdet ihr noch?
[Are you really within the flowing of events? Consenting to
All that is becoming? Are you still becoming?]

                                                                                                   Brecht, Der Zweifler (The Skeptic)

3.1. As my quote in 0.2 characterizing Benjamin’s position may have suggested, I feel/think that my position (and that of many of my readers) is quite similar to his self-characterization  as a person who has left his class and cannot (though he sometimes thought he could) find another practical constituency. Certainly as far as the Subject is concerned, our basic problem seems to me identical to the much maligned project of Left-wing Modernism: how to find–in lieu of Adorno’s no more tenable “bourgeois individual, the thinking subject”–some “supraindividual” (and in my opinion also “infraindividual”) possibility of agency, i.e. a Subject, which could practically and cognitively use and valorize at least some of our personal experiences without demanding a sacrifice of the personal intellect and civil dignity. If there is to be a politically acceptable “post-Modernism” (a question on which the jury is still out), it would have to set sail again, with all due corrections of course and crew, on this so far shipwrecked project.

Of course, in our epistemological crisis where despondency and obfuscation embrace, just what this project may now cognitively and politically (therefore, if you wish, ethically) be is much easier defined by negatives than by positives. Insofar as our enchantments (e.g., the socialist and then the feminist one) were insufficiently critical and self-critical, our disenchantments are legitimate and cannot be simply “sublated.” But this does not authorize us to abandon the quest for a communal positionality or survivable polity–in good politics as well as in good logics: ex propositionibus mere particularibus nihil sequitur, it does not follow from a particular historical defeat, however huge and painful, that long-duration necessities–such as, that the survival of Homo sapiens sapiens has precedence over the profit principle–are no longer necessary. We need to transcend the simple-minded Post-structuralist opposition of the bad old, centered, stable subject vs. the good new (good because new?), decentered, drifting subject. Rigid patriarchal stability of the personally named enterprise vs. riding the commodity tempests of Global Capitalism Inc. “like to the leaves in Vallombrosa”: the exhilaration may be in both cases real, but it is very limited and limiting. A plague on both your houses! As Jameson formulates it in this issue and in another unpublished document: the opposite of the centered subject does not have to be the schizophrenic subject, but could be the collective one. His exemplar is then Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason in which the group is a circulation of positions, so that at a certain time everyone in the group is the center but overall no one is the center. Sartre’s theory of group formation thus “decenters the individual subject not by dissolving centrality but by making it omnipresent:…the hierarchical fact of centrality is here overcome by its absolute extension and as it were democratization” (“Representations” 57). The last term is crucial: capitalism has most efficiently created a “fully commodified agency” of the collective but privatized–i.e. publicly irresponsible and irrefrangibly despotic–corporation (see Newfield 677-78 and passim). The choice today is not between individualism or collectivism: our choice is between oligarchic and democratic collectivism. Democracy is here not the USIA ideology nor the US “middle” classes’ selling of their original independent agency for a very small mess of lentils,  shareholding in corporate oligarchy (see Newfield 679-80). It is the political unfolding of a Subject-type that reconciles a generality without rigidity to a singularity without privatized marginality–what Brecht discussing his play Man is Man called, in opposition to the Nazis, a “good collective.” His friend Benjamin’s yearning may thus be given a first, if brief and sketchy, image and figuration.

Half a dozen years ago, in my first clearing of the ground for an approach to the Subject, I went through some of the milestones of its history, from  the breakdown of the people’s collective body that Bakhtin thought to have identified (in Rabelais) through Hobbes and Freud to Foucault and some feminists. My conclusion was that if we still lack a viable theory of the Subject, is this not the case because we have first to estrange the whole doctrinally individualist approach, to hold it at arm’s length and eventually break it down, in order to break out of its epistemological and political horizon of Death? And how can this breakout happen if not by means of some updated, i.e. democratic, notions of collectivity? This still begs many central questions, to begin with how do we not only affirm the overarching opposition of vitality vs. necrophilia, but also locate precise social groups and actions with respect to this divide. And I concluded that if my whole argument held, Bakhtin could give us the perhaps essential pointer that the subject should not be looked at as a monad. Indeed, one way of formulating the dead end of what in Fichte’s term can be called the “perfectly sinful” capitalist society is to say that in it “being human coincides with the physical individuality”: “And this same principle: ‘Me and therefore not the others,’ each person in this society practices against each person, and this for each and all thing-tokens of any commodity which that person needs for its own existence, and therefore all around itself for all that its existence altogether is” (Sohn-Rethel 113 and 201). To the contrary, the personal individuality should be understood as a limit-zone of collective bodies and subjects (Suvin, “Subject” 187).

This is not merely or primarily a utopian wish (in itself a beginning of wisdom). I do not know any tenable discussion of subjectivity which would not conclude it is constructed in relationships between non-isolated people. Bakhtin reminds us that individuals communicate by means of the “social material of signs” which “can arise only on interindividual territory” (Voloinov 12). Wittgenstein has reminded us that private normativity and private language are impossible (349ff.). Child psychologists from Piaget and Vygotsky, and lately feminists, have reminded us just how contradictory is the Cartesian position that, on the one hand, reason is distributively universal (well–at least for adult upper-class Western males), yet on the other, cognition is introspection of an individual mind for whom any embodiment and all traffic with other “I”s is irrelevant (cf. Code passim). As against this hegemonic individualist position–which runs through Rousseau, Kant, and Mill to the Reader’s Digest–, clearly our central experiences are all relational, our lives are interdependent, and even (especially!) the most intimate recesses of our personalities are constructed through these relations and interdependencies (cf. Baier).

3.2. A central correlative of the hypothesis of a primacy of autonomous individuals (ontogenetically and phylogenetically so easy to falsify), which we must postulate to account for its intuitively small  possibility is the experience of apparently solitary labour, shared by all of us isolated–usually male–professional intellectuals from Descartes on. Indeed,  the most  illuminating account of that first crisis “of a  bourgeoisie that has to give up… comprehending in itself the general social interest,” Negri’s Descartes politico (here 69), argues  that Descartes’s discourse flowed out of the terrible defeat of the heroic and “thick” Renaissance project; so that bourgeois productivity, caught between revolts of labouring classes and royal power, could be saved only by separating the world from the Subject. The Self knows no labour, only cogitation. Where Code observes that the “constructors of autonomy-centered theories” must have dispensed with child-raising labour (85), I would add physical labour in general. I shall return to this crucial topic in the next section.

Within any stance denying the billiard-ball Self, its distinction outer-inner is, for better or worse, if not quite lost at least radically reconfigured. Biologically, the separation of organisms from “their” environment is only allowable for strictly limited analytical purposes (biologists then have to speak of an “inner environment” inside the organism); in fact, a complex mutual enfolding is the usual case. In terms of human societies, interaction through labour never required depth psychology, only many-tiered “flat” (horizontal and vertical) coordinations–Deleuze and Guattari might say plateaus. Haraway  gives us a fascinating pointer how a multiply permeable self– therefore not a Self in my terms–is figured in the discourse of immunology (and today of AIDS). In it, “What counts as a ‘unit,’ a one, is highly problematic, not a permanent given.” This new kind of Subject is “able to engage with others (human and non-human, inner and outer), but always with finite consequences… situated possibilities and impossibilities of individuation and identification… partial fusions and dangers” (“Biopolitics” 15 and 32; cf. also Dawkins 83ff. and passim). The shift from Outer (interplanetary or intergalactic) to Inner (psychological) Space was foreshadowed in “New Wave” science fiction from the 1960s on; alas, in J.G. Ballard or Harlan Ellison it often identified  inner space as a kind of Jungian archetypal jungle, so that for more sophisticated and politically literate figurations one has to go to Lem and the Strugatski Brothers (Ursula Le Guin and Philip Dick waver between these poles, inclining after the collapse of the 60s’ movement toward the former; cf. Suvin Positions). Twenty years later, this shift has permeated the PR discourse of NASA and biomedicine (see Haraway, “Biopolitics” 26-27 and passim).

Now, it is astounding how well this can be fitted in with Karatani’s book on the origins of 20th-Century Japanese orientations, which can be learned from precisely because the Japanese Meiji (19th-Century) restructuring of a whole society had to effect in two generations an abbreviated recapitulation of four centuries of European economic, power, and ideological development; so that even the despotic deviations of that recapitulation brutally show up the underlying skeleton of its European model (a bit as the abbreviated “ontogenesis”  of the embryo recapitulates in a differing, much foreshortened context the “phylogenesis” of the species). In Karatani’s witty central argument, “Interiority was not something that had always existed, but only appeared as the result of the inversion of a semiotic constellation” (Origins 57). Interiority–which we can also read as the Cartesian cogito in interiorized space whose only quality is its imaginary extension (62), i.e. depth–is a “discovery”: e.g., Rousseau caps the trend I mentioned in 2.1 à propos of Shakespeare and Defoe by discovering that language mediates the immediate “inner” experience (68, based on Starobinski). In the ultimate triumph of Karatani’s favourite Marxian figure, inversion–the camera obscura of ideology–, interiority grows into a system which “was not, in fact, inside us, but rather [it was] we who were incorporated within it” (70). Exactly the obverse of the Hellenic city-state: “To imagine the world does not consist in rendering it present inside our mind. It is our thought which is of the world and a presence in the world.” (Vernant, “Preface” MS 17, and cf. Richard Rorty 47)

Thus, getting out of this bourgeois interiority, the system of Self, and then redefining a two-dimensional but multivalent Subject is ineluctably on today’s historical agenda. Let us hope we can do this athwart the military-scientific power complex diagnosed by Haraway in its presently most dangerous sector, the biomedical one.

3.3. Anticipating my argument about labour, I am positing that cognition is a material practice. If so, any cognitive agency, producing or creating through labour, is necessarily concrete people, within specific historical relations, material resistances, and thus social constraints. Subjects are always  located in a very specific nexus of human relationships, direct or very indirect (e.g. mediated by humanly constructed technology and finance as frozen forms of human labour, cf. Marx, Grundrisse 690-711), in a particular spacetime with a limited choice of available or affordable agents and actions. This is also why, as suggested in 0.2, the “thick descriptions” or Possible Worlds of fiction or fine arts are to my mind much more useful than purely conceptual cogitations (e.g. much philosophy; so that I can read Derrida with pleasure as a Mallarméan prose poet but not as philosopher with any transferrable system). Sharing some of the empirical world’s limitations and resistances, the Possible Worlds of storytelling can traffic much more richly with our usual, i.e. hegemonic constructions of the world, in a mutually verifying and falsifying feedback (even though the cognitive increment does not come about in “scientific” ways).

As to the empirical actions of a person, they rarely–after the industrial revolution, never–happen within one unchanging nexus. Therefore, as a rule they do not swallow  or even engage the whole person but only–to borrow a term from chemistry–some of its “valences” for a given type of action: the teaching valence for teaching, the fishing valence for fishing, and so forth; on the present physical model of the divisible and recombinable atom, one might think of such possibilities as based on infra-individual units less akin to various Freudian layers or drives than to free protons-electrons or maybe even charms-quarks. The successful Althusserian interpellations can then be thought as outside pressures keyed into the suitable free locks in the atom of personality. I see no difficulty in such interpellations redefining the hierarchy that constitutes the personality by means of their docking onto a suitable slot, on the model of the cell’s protein or the rotating space station: personality engineering was practiced by shamans much before we acquired the metaphors from molecular engineering or science fiction (or Sloterdijk). If I were to write a book about freedom and personality, such Harawayan topologies (cf. her “Biopolitics”) would underlie the argument presented in 2.2. I could even find a somewhat too oligarchic pointer in Nietzsche: “…perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interactions and struggle is the basis of our thought and our consciousness in general?… [An] aristocracy of [equal “cells”], used to ruling jointly and understanding how to command?” (Will 270)

My reader may dismiss this mix of metaphors about human imagination and therefore agency as a too “thick” fancy. I could defend myself by citing not only chemistry, atomic physics, cell biology or immunology but, say, Richard Rorty’s pragmatism, the insights of feminist critics such as Kaplan about “fluctuant identity” (see 0.2), the misnamed “object relations” theory of Melanie Klein and others, Tinbergen’s study of instinct, or indeed venerable discussions in philosophy. But in fact, this can of worms was logically opened by the radical shift away from the body politic discussed in 1.2. If the supra-personal group, consanguineous or territorial, is not the locus of agency and responsibility, and indeed of intention and value, why stop the disintegration at a person? Because it has an “individual” body in Huxley’s sense? But that body may well be seen, e.g., as subject to “outside” possession–by a demon, a slave-owner or a pater familias–and thus split between different and changing responsibilities, say after exorcism or emancipation. Physical agency is in possessed persons (in both senses of the adjective) divorced from legal personhood: slaves were “speaking cattle” for Aristotle, and women empty-headed ninnies for the same Victorians who accepted the fiction of “corporate persons.” This indicates that delimitation of which bodies are persons is tricky in all dimensions, inferior, superior, and even lateral: is a chimpanzee, a robot or an Alien also a person? In just what ways?

To strengthen the infra-personal hypothesis, I could further jump from demonic possession and slavery to quite contemporary processes, such as Artificial Intelligence or even the division of economic firms into competing sub-units (cf. a survey in Elster ed.). AI authorities have found it necessary to postulate the mind as a “society” of quite circumscribed sub-“agents” organized into larger “agencies” and those in turn into higher-level systems, where the levels can rapidly shift for a needed action (cf. Minsky, also Minsky and Papert). Yet finally I could not dispute the gentle reader short of an essay the size of this one (“Cognitive,” to appear elsewhere). Still, I think we have sufficient evidence, from Freud and Sartre to present-day cognitivism, that there are mental processes about which we are still deeply in the dark but which cannot be even limned except by postulating a shifting congerie of sub-personal units in the cognizing subject, i.e. by fragmenting the unsplittable Self. Nonetheless, such shifting, changing, even contradictory Subjects would in given cases (depending on the presuppositions and interpellations) be quite ready for agency. And to any given type of agency there would correspond a sufficiently unitary Subject–thereby explaining the experience most of us have that we possess some unity, that the loving or painful impingements of reality are happening to a Subject with a unique body and memories that may at its best attain to what Nietzsche has in his meditation on Schopenhauer wondrously called a “productive uniqueness,” which cannot be simply dismissed as individualist ideology.

As Jameson suggests in this issue, such types would be correlative (and insofar as they certainly have some kind of substance, beginning with a semantic and ideological one, they would be consubstantial) to their field of action, constituting, e.g., a mathematical, scientific or aesthetic–but also a fatherly or collegial–Subject. The most important of such Subjects would be anchored in the historically most durable institutions such as the law and codified religion (both of which also insert speech into political decision-making in the guise of rhetorics), medicine (which inserted semiotics) or warfare. Further,  a lot of work has been done both in sociology and theatre studies on the notion of “role,” which should be reread with the intention of freeing it from its unwarranted presupposition of marginality to a central “actor.”  In fact, I strongly suspect we already have a good approximation to the mercurial Subjects of my preceding paragraph in the nomadic collectives and personalities from both the successful neo-capitalist “power-elite” (as Wright Mills concluded long ago) and the neo-tertiary-sector (cf. e.g. Poster’s somewhat enthusiastic view of computer writing,  114ff.), whose twists and turns have so stymied all “nuclear”–e.g. old-fashioned trade union–expectations.  As I suggested above, the Post-structuralist theory comes from an one-sided, unproductive absolutization of the neo-tertiary personal experience (most clearly in Baudrillard), since university teachers belong to it. It remains, as the Left from the feminists to Smith and Jameson has been asking, to make the new Subject  available for democratic resistance and reconfiguration, against the horizon of a survivable community.

  1. Briefly, On Body Politics

                                                                           Those who believe in substantiality are like cows;                                                                             those who believe in emptiness are worse.

Saraha (9th Century C.E.)

4.1. Descartes’s philosophical soul apprehended metaphysics and cognized through a reason opposed to the fallacious bodily senses. As he wrote, “this ‘me,’ that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body.” “I am a thinking thing,” proclaim the Meditations, whereas “I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined” (Works 1: 101 and 190). This may lead us to notice that if in the sentence [ego] cogito ergo [ego] sum, the first and outstanding problem is the “I” (ego), yet a correlative, and in some ways even anterior or constitutive problem is cogito/sum, the relationship of mind and body. As almost all commentators have underlined, the sovereign epistemological Self, which will by the time of Kant also understand itself as ethical,  is in Descartes predicated on a reason “autonomous… in two senses”:

First, the quest for certain knowledge should be… undertaken separately by each rational being; and second, that quest is a journey of reason alone, unhindered–and hence also unaided–by the senses…. [Descartes’s] account of knowledge-seeking is of an introspective activity that depends neither on the embodied nature of a knower nor on his (or her) intersubjective relations. (Code 112)

What has less often been foregrounded is whether there is (as I think) a necessary linkage, within this understanding of understanding–or this meta-epistemic stance–, between the two “narcotizings,” that of the body and that of the epistemic or primary collectivity. (Of course, nobody but the crassest solipsist denies the secondary social collectivity of the knowers’ communicating the results of inquiry, certainly not Descartes.)  Yet it seems probable that the loss of body as validation for inscribing the Subject’s time, space, and name into the socially recognized chronotope and identification (e.g., gender, class, race…), necessarily devalues what Marx called “the ensemble of social relationships” constituting the embodied personality. The body’s sensual perceptions unified by a personal brain and participation in a network of interpersonal relationships are simply the two faces of the same very permeable interface (of membership in one another, as Paul of Tarsus the communal organizer–for once laudably–said). How would, e.g.,  the thinking ego be fed, kept from fever by shelter and clothing, supplied with pen and paper to fix its cogitations, and indeed taught the language for them, without a whole array of (often female) caring and/or employed family members, teachers, helpers, suppliers, and so forth?  Is there not an analogy here between a factory organizer and a cogitating pure mind? Descartes’s very Platonic despisal of the body’s desires and sensuality as epistemic prison, and indeed his logically following downgrading even of the brain, with its inferior imaging and perceiving, in favour of a pure mind (cf. Bordo 89-95), is diachronically a direct continuation of the original Christian horror of body and fixation on the soul; but sychronically,  it is an absolutist project to master and eliminate the inimical and potentially rebellious mob of unruly passions: “even those who have the feeblest souls can acquire a very absolute dominion over all their passions…” (Treatise on the Passions, Works 1: 356). Only when properly subdued, senses and emotions may be practically indulged in, particularly in the company of women. On top of the division of labour into physical and mental, there is in Descartes a “sexual division of mental labour” wherein it is the woman’s task “to preserve the sphere of the intermingling of mind and body…. [She] will keep [soft emotions and sensuousness] intact for [the Man of Reason].” (Lloyd 50)

The Cartesian full split between the res extensa and res cogitans is thus a pseudo-materialist translation of the body vs. soul theologeme which both modifies its terms and preserves its deep structure for an ostensibly lay, bourgeois rather than clerical, philosophizing. It fully  preserves the complete occultation of body and labour inherited from ruling-class idealist blindness (see on the latter the luminous pages of D.E. Smith 77ff.). The thinker is for Descartes in fact a God-like demiurge in no place or time, his “I” has no name or face. In the 19th Century this pernicious stance will be exfoliated to say that Truth can be found either inside the objectivized space-filling stuff (body) for each of us, as best seen in art, or alternatively outside –though through–the thinking stuff for all of us, as best seen in science. The logical horizon of the first stance is primary solipsism (from which Descartes himself was not always that far, see e.g. his replies to Gassendi’s reasonable materialist doubts, Works 1: 212ff.) and it entails the pretence of Romantic artists that they are not thinkers. The logical horizon of the second stance is secondary scientism and it entails the pretence of Positivist scientists that they are value-free.

In this suppression of matter the stubbornly material bodies are reduced to “absolutely dominated” objects. The Cartesian space is (absurdly) divided into the pure billiard-ball Self, an isolated subject of power and knowledge,  outside whom remains the world, “nature”–but a nature as corpus vile, “reduced to the status of an inexhaustible fund against the background of which its products appear and from which they are wrested” (de Certeau, Practice  157). The mind is then posited as a mirror to nature, though it is not clear what authorizes this metaphor (cf. R. Rorty). The body, evacuated in the first Cartesian Meditation, returns as dead, inert object, to be policed in its desires (especially the sexual ones) by a ferocious conscience (cf. Vernant, “L’individu” 36 and Karatani, Origins 79, 89, and passim) and dissected by an all-powerful  anatomist, correlative to a metaphysics of Death (cf. Barker 95-112 and passim).  As amply shown by Foucault, the discourse of clinical medicine predicated on the isolated individual is (I argue this in “Subject” 195) defined by the horizon of death:  not only do death and disease “scientifically” constitute each body’s individuality and intelligibility, but Death is the end as well as the essence of abstract human life. This has in our century been proved both by Nazi doctors and by practically all big business (chemical, pharmaceutical, tobacco, agrobusiness, etc.) precisely on our systemically tortured, infected, poisoned bodies.

Thus, the apparently highly esoteric philosophical problem of cognitive certainty with which Descartes began, finally, when pursued under the aegis of a monotheist craving for Oneness, threatens the value and even possibility of a shared world. While the latter is simply a self-defeating proposition, even if sufficiently mystifying within our circles of an epicyclical intelligentsia, the former leads to today’s frenzied individualism, masqued as the dernier cri of PoMo fashion, becoming the cynical obverse of oppressive hegemonies. The Western narcissism of unique Selves has in the last 20 years even abused the body as an alibi for the “me only” stance, constructed with help of much pop psychoanalysis, and in some French feminist theory also linguistics, that displaces relationships among people onto the purely sexual or purely aesthetic (cf. Kipnis 85ff.). But the bodily stubbornly remains enmeshed with the political, as a collective standpoint. The exemplum of Japan may again show (but we have so many other examples, from precisely the analysis of the Cartesian moment through Foucault to the Greenblattian “self-fashioning”!) that the modern subject  was established “in tandem with…the modern state,” its economic and educational pressures, as its frère ennemi, obverse or complement whose shocked retreat into inner-oriented depths forgot “that ‘interiority’ is itself politics and that it is a manifestation of absolute authority”  (Karatani, Origins 94 and 95). For “politics [especially liberating politics, note DS] rests on the possibility of a shared world” (Haraway, “Cyborgs” 10)–shunned by individualists such as Japanese or other intellectuals while hollowed out and usurped by the State as protector and policer of Foucault’s “controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production” as “an indispensable element in the development of capitalism” (141). Shared-world politics would mean that institutions whose ultimate horizon is private profit regardless of destructions of our senses and sensorium (whose nexus is the brain), are merchants of death in all the literal and metaphoric senses of that phrase. Such a  structural “worship of death” (Haraway, “Cyborgs”  20) was part of the reasoning behind my conclusion in “Subject,” and in 3.1 above, that the final horizon of doctrinal individualism was Death, so that it is indispensable to get rid of it before it gets rid of all of us.

But how may we break out of this deadly subject vs. objects split? As far as I can tell, with help of at least two key strategies. One, as mentioned in 3.2, is a focus on labour, whose bearer is, of course, the body. One of the decisive contributions of Marx’s is his replacement of Feuerbach’s, and Kant’s, passive and one-way pivot for people’s relationship to reality, perception (itself ambiguously oscillating between universality and individuality, just as Descartes did), by the interactivities of labour. This provides at least the horizon for using Vico’s contention that people can understand history because they have created it: for Marx, labour is the “objectification” of generically human life, since “[man] duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created”  (Economic 114). “[I]t is not the isolated individual who is active in labour,” comments Marcuse: “in and through the objects of labour, men are shown one another in their reality” (23, and cf. the whole discussion 7ff. passim). Finally, the meaning of labour is to find, beyond the here and now, lineaments of alternative worlds of things and relationships “visible for each ‘I’ under a plurality of aspects,” the possibility of “taking possession of an indefinite [i.e. plural, note DS] time and space; and one could easily show that the signification of speech or that of suicide and of the revoluonary act is the same” (Merleau-Ponty, Structure 175).  This is directly opposed to the commodified social relationships of capitalism in which persons as bearers of  labour-power  “are necessarily present and active but in which they do not appear as such” (D.E. Smith 133).

However, the body is not only a substratum subjected to political economy, whose crucial hegemony, that occupies between two thirds and one quarter of the weekly time for all “gainfully employed” bodies, Marx rightly challenged–but therefore also followed –step by step. The quite indispensable Marxian paradigm would have to be expanded following Nietzsche’s kindred insistence: “Essential, to start from the body and to use it as the red thread” (Werke 635)–a stance in fact prefigured in the young Marx’s Epicurean assumption that the development of the senses is the central criterion for both hominization and alienation,  and continuing as a basso ostinato throughout his opus. As best envisaged–to my knowledge–by Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology, also Structure), embodiment is both a lived experience of being body and a realization that the body is the site of cognition or understanding, which is itself inextricably tied to embodied action as preparation, surrogate, response or feedback validator for it. Reintegrating the body into our knowledge theory by means of its being the co-determining anchorage for stance and standpoint–to begin with, for personal and possessive pronouns as well as for all deixis and all metaphors of vision and orientation–is, I would conclude, indispensable for any further clear thinking about the Subject.4/ (A third focus, de Certeau and a host of other extrapolators from linguistics would argue, should be speech, but I would prefer it integrated into Bakhtinian  ideology or Foucauldian discursive genealogies. At any rate, such focal categorizations are pragmatic matters and my suggestions are open-ended.) As Jameson says toward the end of his essay here, these foci might offer “some more adequate approach…to agency and praxis in general” (“Representations” 57).

4.2. From Marx to Foucault, we have been shown how the blood-soaked birth of the capitalist labour-force and of bourgeois subjection (e.g. sexuality) has, by physical eviction of villagers off their land or physical surveillance of city-dwellers,  reconstituted the shape of human bodies and subjects more intimately and thus more radically than any Oriental despotism. Today’s threats of molecularly engineered species modification, lurking behind the noble curative phrases of the human genome mapping, is a logical continuation of this line: we may well be in for an electronically enhanced version of Wells’s Lunar society (The First Men in the Moon, varied in much SF of the last 40 years).  Diachronically, this latches on to the no doubt remedial but also oppressive medicalization and medical construction of subject Foucault has so relentlessly pursued in his whole opus. But even brute physical force was always accompanied by ideological rationalizations; and the ruling classes of economically complex, industrialized societies have learned from the World Wars that it is on the whole more profitable and less dangerous to have wars and counter-revolutions on the periphery only. Beyond physical force, the relative importance of ideological constructions of subjectivities has grown enormously in the last 200 and especially in the last (say) 60 years. The discourse of the media, from the mass press through radio and cinema to today’s electronics, is perhaps now the dominant divulgator of such constructions. But the actual terms for these media were invented elsewhere: at a first remove, in theatre and literature; but going further into the depths of our cultural encyclopedia, we encounter the privileged eldest discourses of (I think) warfare, religion, medicine, and law. I shall in spite of my technical ignorance attempt to supply a few hints only about the legal subject.

Jameson speculates, though in a prudently conditional clause, that it might perhaps underlie other “conceptions of subjectivity” he had mentioned, the epistemological, logical, and psychological one (“Representations” 56).5/   At any rate, the legal subject is clearly the pivot between State power and both the oral and written discourses of individuation. While the martial, the medical, and the religious (or at least the magical) subjects predate class society, Athenian law is consubstantial with the rise of the State (and with the first “mass medium,” Attic tragedy, as exemplarily foregrounded in its first, religious-cum-political-cum-legal masterpiece, Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy). “Above all, the individual appears at the heart of the [polis] institutions through the development of law” (Vernant, “L’individu” 29). The Athenian codification of, and indeed bifurcation into, criminal and civil law has remained effective until today: in the first sector, the passage from consanguineous (clan) vendetta to civic tribunals constructs “the notion  of the criminal individual…as subject of crime and object of verdict (jugement, judgment, sentence)”; in the second sector, the institution of a personal testament (third century) allowed the posthumous transmission of goods by the “will” of a particular, irrespective of the “house” or “dynasty” (ibidem 29-30). Further systematic developments of such (of course, strictly limited) juridical personalization will come in the Roman State, where jurisprudence became the hegemonic discourse and whence it was transmitted to all subsequent European discourse. For one example, the notion of judgment clearly underlies the Christian idea of Judgment Day. For another, the Roman (political) law is the precondition for the idea of laws of nature. For a third, this idea together with its source in the statutary pole of law, seems the precondition for ethics, certainly for the Kantian categorical imperative that is formulated as the inner correlative to the Copernican vision of astronomical order.

In modern European thought, the key testimony occurs in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding , where it is unambiguously stated that “person” (as different from an individual substance and a human being)

is a forensic term, appropriating actions  and their merit; and so belongs  only  to intelligent agents, capable of a law, and happiness and misery. This personality extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness–whereby it becomes concerned and accountable. (Book 2, ch. XXVII)

Almost each clause of Locke’s has rightly been the subject of wide and ongoing debate (cf. A.O. Rorty ed.), but beyond noticing how the English 18th-Century practice had evacuated the military, medical, religious, and theatrical antecedents, I wish to discuss the stress on radically individual agency and on continuity with a past. Locke anchors all other attributes of agenthood (intelligence, feeling, consciousness) in legal practices such as appropriation and accountability. His insistence on the past and memory is necessary for the juridical purposes of liability: “In this personal identity is founded all right of reward and punishment” (ibid.). However, from the times of Balzac on, ambition in big cities can be discussed in terms of personal qualities –looks, education, energy, etc.–as the Self’s capital to be wisely invested (Bourdieu). Therefore we have today, in a society “hotter” than Locke’s largely land-based one and which has instituted “futures trading” in all stock-markets and planning in almost every company and State,  no choice but to focus on, or at least integrate equally, choice and future. This reveals that what a society defines as agency and person depends on its hegemonic priorities (cf. A.O. Rorty 5).

In spite of this longue durée history, as Nietzsche’s meditation on history argues, literal equality–preeminently the one before the law–strives to abolish history, which consists of unique existents, in the eternal return of the same (Benjamin). Literally, this equality is of course untenable, and the tension between practice and ideology has been incorporated into the law itself, e.g. as one between the casus and the statute, or–in different ways–between contract and corporation law for the burgeoning “corporate individual” (cf. Newfield 664-74). The latest moves in this age-old gambit are revealing: what have been somewhat ironically called conversions to “juridical humanism” (Ferry-Renault 112-13) of the ex-68ers such as Foucault, who earlier proclaimed that “one has…to get rid of the subject itself” (Power 117), come hand in hand with the ideology of the end to history. This might serve to indicate also how the juridical (legal) subject is from Plato on certainly the key to the “political subject,” more usually talked about in terms of ethics (Kant) or power (Machiavelli, Hobbes). As Balibar convincingly argues, the Roman juridical figure of the subiectus (person submitted to imperium, sovereign authority) reaches through Christianity right up to the theory and practice of the citizen, i.e. up to today.6/ But I would have to confess that I know of very little contemporary argument about the political subject that usefully follows or indeed corrects Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, and/or Lenin. And yet it is evidently a matter of highest concern right now how at the time of these names (i.e. since the rise of modern nation-states and Braudel’s commercial capitalisms) there comes about on the basis of the legal subject first the citizen, then the homo oeconomicus (who in our century acknowledges and subsumes labour under the State), and finally the chauvinist. A huge array of legal studies in our time (say from Pashukanis and Rawls to Negri), at the crossroads of philosophy and politics, awaits examination here.


4.3. The huge problematic of the body finally may be seen to become a key for socialized perception and imagination, and for envisaging not only the Subject but also all agency as stances. I have proposed in “Soul” that the relations of bodies to their perception of the mutually enfolding world can be (provisionally, if you wish etymologically) called aesthetics, while for the interplay of collective and personal bodies no other word but politics will do; and I would assume these are today two key agential fields, because they are both, quite ineluctably, both personal and non-personal. We could call them transpersonal vectors, bearing transpersonal or collective subjecthoods: just try to imagine solipsist politics, sex or art! As to imagination and its topologies, I pursue this matter  in “Cognitive.” Keeping to minimal, yet I hope suggestive, indications, I must here content myself with this much, aware that my approach may well not have entered into large areas of possibly central importance.


  1. On Japan and the Subject: Mirage and Historical Estrangement

Epistemology without history is empty,                                        history without epistemology is blind.

Imre Lakatos

 5.1. No doubt: the title of this section is ridiculously inflated: it will be apparent that entire bookshelves would be needed to do it approximate justice. Further, I am only a fascinated latecomer and bricoleur at the periphery of this topic (the professional local habitation and name for this is, a comparatist). Nonetheless, having persuaded Discours social /Social Discourse to devote an issue on the Subject partly to contributions from and/or about East Asian (primarily though not at all exclusively Japanese) points of view, I owe the reader some reasons, however initial. I do not at all pretend to explain a “text of Nipponicity”; nor even one of “Nipponic Subject”; nor finally, at least, of what the Japanese (or East Asians or Buddhists) have said about the Subject. Rather, I would like to begin with some reflections on why we “Westerners” (but then, seen from Japan, China is west and North America east) may be –should be! –interested in East Asia, which in my case means mainly Japan. (Of course, Japanese culture has been catalyzed and largely shaped by the powerful ancestral force of China, in whose cultural sphere the Subject has traditionally been shaped both by the kinship system and by the other –e.g. Confucian –power hierarchies.) After that, I shall get to some actual Japanese intellectual history.

And so: why talk today about East Asia, the culture and the mode of life it embodies and implies? Especially in an age where (though all such analogies are lame) we are closer to a Braudelian and Wallersteinian 17th-Century blend of great commercial empires, the insolent affluence of whose ruling classes and entertainment parasites is based on exploiting and immiserating the rest of the world as well as their own lower classes, with religious wars and venereal pandemics raging unchecked in non-essential areas. So why should we in such a fix care about far-off foreign parts, où le bat ne blesse pas? (“I think it clever of the turtle/ In such a fix to be so fert’le,” wrote Ogden Nash.) Well, in a nutshell, because by going outside the Ptolemeian ramparts of our glorious but still limited and in some ways–as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud agree–very sick cultural tradition, Blake’s rose with the invisible worm within, we might arrive at the indispensable distance for focussed seeing.

A useful way to begin might be with Sloterdijk: “It is an open secret among the experts that for more than a century a great part of Western intelligentsia, as the saying goes, ‘asianizes.’… [The] discoverer exposes himself to a counter-discovery by the discovered.” The “world talk about world literature” (82-83), started by translators from Persian, Sanskrit or Chinese and codified by Goethe, was an ecumenical consequence of the colonializing inclusion of the mysterious East into the very unmysterious world division of labour. But while this led to its desperate endeavours, from Russia to Japan, to catch up with the West’s heavy artillery of naval guns and cheap consumer goods (Marx), the uneasy intellectuals of the West discovered the Wisdom of the East, just being pounded into the dust by those guns.

Perhaps we should not be too ironical about all those well-meaning continuators of Voltaire and Goethe who somewhat romantically exalted the just or the natural East. This periodical issue is in part a continuation of their well-founded belief something of great significance was to be learned in the East (though we know it was without a shadow of a doubt unjust and unnatural–no more than the observers but differently from them). Yet primarily, what we bourgeois or anti-bourgeois Euro-Americans thought we were finding in the Soul’s Passage to India or points East of it, whether truly there or only–as often–a mirage, can tell us what we needed to find; and why: “Dreamily entering upon a sunken East and conjuring up an Asian Antiquity as normative cultural model for present-day life, the West searches in an alien past for the possibilities of its own future” (Sloterdijk 86). In other words, as already prefigured in Swift’s Japan reached after Laputa, the antipodean islands and science-fictional (utopian or dystopian) countries or spacetimes are estranging mirrors for us (see Bloch, “Entfremdung”). This implies, as Sloterdijk further argues, that the West is by now in a post-monotheistic age “which cannot find in the holy writings of the Judeo-Christian tradition the concepts that our times need for a competent self-understanding,” that its “double commitment to self-determination and high technology seems to have left us with a global mess,” and that therefore the “Eastern turn… puts into play no less than a world-cultural alternative, which remains such even when the real contemporary East has been modernized to non-recognizability by its adoption of Western techniques of mobility (Mobilisierung)” (87-89).

One does not have to agree with all of Sloterdijk’s PoMo hyperboles and his subsequent ontological speculations to see that he is getting at a very important point: the nostalgia we rightly have on this devastated planet and with our devastated Subjects for what I have elsewhere called a “non-bourgeois” or if you wish non-capitalist mode of human relationships (“Soul” 505ff.) –though in the USA this had traditionally been coded within the master discourse of religion as a quest for Nirvana, from the disillusioned New England intellectuals à la Henry Adams (cf. Christy ed. 43 and passim) to the San Francisco Beats. Our best traditions, from Athens, the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus of Nazareth to the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and “really existing” socialism, may have contributed, and certainly seem to have led straight into, the present intolerable dead-end. This is why “the most alien Eld is not more alien to us than what was a short while ago our Own” (Sloterdijk 91). True, we have no right to forget that most pre-capitalist modes of production entailed total despotism over the great majority of lower classes, genders, castes, and so forth, while all the modes entailed grave physical disadvantages (toil, short life-span, etc.): I should not like to have lived before the Enlightenment. Nonetheless, today we may –legitimately, I think –well focus on the crucial plenitude of being we lack. For, in those societies the labour of the individual was not abstracted into a capitalized “universal equivalent,”  so that in Marx’s famous “Asiatic mode”:

[t]he communal system on which this mode of production is based prevents the labour of the individual from becoming private labour and his product the private product of a separated individual; it causes individual labour to appear rather as a direct function of a member of the social organization (33-34).

I think it is from traces and exfoliations of this  “direct functioning” within a transparent (if unacceptably hierarchical) society, e.g. the attendant pragmatic phenomenalism of East Asian cosmology and politics –a stance which can in the West only be found within art –that there springs forth the sensual and epistemic fascination registered by Sloterdijk (though in individualist fiction, from the mendacious Loti and his Madame Butterfly on, this is usually translated into the sentimental code as the only available bourgeois discourse for sensuality and fascination). But Modernist painters–let us think e.g. of Modigliani or of the cognate African masks in Demoiselles d’Avignon –seem to have had more success with cognitive appropriations, where the strange redefined our (European) eyes, and so have theatre people from Meyerhold through Yeats and Brecht to the present day. In particular, Japan’s “layered” pattern of human relationships has preserved some structures of feeling characteristic of a “shame and honour culture, as opposed to guilt and duty cultures… which necessarily make reference to the moral subject’s intimate personal conscience” (Vernant 44) –i.e. characteristic of the Subject before it became a Self, and dating if not from tribal society, as some sociologists imply, then at least from the early Middle Ages (cf. Suvin, “Soul” 518-19). While today, under the domination of the banks and car or camera factories, these structures of feeling are peripheral and may well be on their way out, they have been frozen into forms of culture –behaviour and art–which make it accessible at least for the fertile misreading we Westerners seem to be engaged in.

5.2. My comparatist valence cries out for an approach to a phenomenology and typology of Sloterdijk’s “asianizing,” either in the discourse of fiction or of academic studies or of the culture at large, but this can’t be done here–not even for the protagonists of the contention around the Subject, such as Foucault or Derrida. Conversely, I shall attempt a sketch of some Japanese bearings on the Subject: first, as a help to the reader of the ensuing contributions on that topic, and second, as an indication of what such estrangement (Verfremdung) by way of Japan may mean for us here and now. “Can we imagine a mode of being in which the system subjects would be no longer propelled by their self-enhancement (Steigerung–increase, advancement, heightening, intensification, increment)? Do we have any prospect on the Subject’s forces becoming something different from exterior acceleration, enrichment, research, and empowerment?” (Sloterdijk 94) These questions, ours today and as old as European modernity, may receive  some proposals for answers from Japanese orientations.

My discussion will follow the bent of the contributors by confining itself mainly to philosophy. True, as Professor Sakai has discussed it here and elsewhere, it is difficult to do so without entering into very interesting but quite bewildering thickets of Japanese terminology; he discusses here the “Shukan-subject, shutai-subject, and the shutai That Is Not a Subject,” and adds to this the propositional (grammatical) subject shugo, and other ones. I am incompetent to discuss this, and leave the reader to his, Professor Karatani’s, and Professor Noé’s  ingenious and painstaking interpretations. However, Sakai’s as well as Karatani’s rejection of any linguistic determinism may help us to distance ourselves from the Nietzschean stress on the centrality of language. That may have been useful at the outset, but I believe it has been badly overdone since–Nietzsche’s  final reduction of it to racial physiology (see the quote in Karatani’s essay of this issue, 25) should have been a sufficient danger signal. Among other things, when Nietzsche identifies Descartes’s cogito with European grammar, he forgets that in spite of this grammar “Descartes was nonetheless the first to make such a statement.” I shall therefore adopt Karatani’s conclusion that exclusive reliance on linguistics (developed in the West) leads to a “long, unproductive debate” concerning the subject (Karatani 25). Perhaps it is possible, nonetheless, to see  that we can learn from the Japanese discourse on the subject–which uses the resources provided not simply by a very different language but by specific non-ego-centered, group-oriented cultural stances where the subject is always assumed to be en situation (cf. Nakamura, and Suzuki 11ff. and 162ff; and cf. Suvin, “Soul” 519-22)–what may happen in at least two respects. First, when the grammatical subject cannot be used to explain philosophical or practical ones but has to be foregrounded as itself a curious cultural construct. Second, when ontological (or professional philosophical) discourse and everyday discourse (“grammar”) diverge, a condition which we have–for better or worse–by now managed to reach in Europe too, in spite of the Indo-European grammar. Japanese distinctions may then stimulate us to understand (or to better) our own ones.

As Karatani further notes, though there were no Cartesian theoreticians in Japan, “the critique of Descartes has become the mainstream of Japanese philosophy; this tendency is perhaps best represented by Nishida Kitarô” (24-25). I would venture to explain this by the overwhelming invasion of Cartesian practice and pragmatic individualist discourse as an equivalent of post-Meiji modernization. I know of no better document for the shock of its wholesale invasion into Japanese life than the discussions in Natsume Sôseki’s 1905-06 novel I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru), where the satirical cat observes debates between advocates and opponents of individualism, and I shall therefore (in spite of the fact that one could endlessly quibble about any translation from the much more polysemic Japanese) quote excerpts from the opponent at some length:

In the old days, a man was taught to forget himself. Today…he is taught not to forget himself, and he accordingly spends his days and nights in endless self-regard. Who can possibly know peace in such an eternally burning hell?… [For this sickness] the only cure lies in learning to forget the Self…. (3: 318-19)

Modern society is centred, to the exclusion of all else, upon the idea of individuality. When the family was represented by its head, the district by its magistrate and the province by its feudal lord, then those who were not representatives possessed no personalities whatsoever. Even if, exceptionally, they actually did have personalities, those characteristics, being inappropriate to their place in society, were never recognized as such. Suddenly everything changed. We were discovered to possess personalities, and every individual began to assert his new-found individuality. Whenever two persons chanced to meet, their attitudes betrayed a disposition to quarrel, an underlying determination to insist that “I am I and you are you”….It follows that men have no genuine living-space left between them which is not occupied by siege-engines and counter-works. Too cramped to live at ease, the constant pressure to expand one’s individual sphere has brought mankind to a painful bursting-point…. (3: 337-38)

Without entering into an exegesis of Sôseki’s complex and somewhat Swiftian co-text, let me stress the demonic and hellish imagery of “personalized,” self-regarding restlessness as well as of the painful lack of spaciousness: this is the post-Cartesian individualism as seen by a high-Meiji-era Japanese still rooted in the old relationships. In fact, these passages (but it would be possible to take a host of other, fictional and non-fictional, testimonials) are written from a stance that could quite well imagine Sloterdijk’s non-self-increasing, non-automobile Subject. It seems to me kindred stances inform, in manifold and usually ambiguous ways, the works of Japanese philosophy, including Nishida Kitarô (1870-1945) and Watsuji Tetsurô (1889-1960).7/

Some of their central concerns are ably presented in the contributions to this issue, and I shall take good care not to second-guess Professors Noé and Sakai. But what may require some explanation is how come Nishida and Watsuji are usually brought to the fore when formal philosophy in Japan is discussed (though Piovesana argues [85] their coeval Tanabe Hajime, a philosopher of science and mathematics as well as of politics, is more significant than Watsuji). No doubt, these were the first modern Japanese who in philosophy “tried to build up a system of [their] own” (Piovesana 88), but after all, both of them are, grosso modo, Idealist philosophers: the rather difficult Nishida, with his key concepts of basho (place) and mu (“Oriental Nothingness,” cf. Hisamatsu)  at the crossroads of Zen Buddhism and early phenomenology, the more versatile theoretician of culture and ethics Watsuji at the crossroads of Heidegger, Husserl, and–as exemplarily brought home by Sakai’s discussion of Watsuji in China–Japanese Confucian nationalism. Regretfully, we cannot either afford to forget that at least Watsuji was an active theoretician and propagator of the Japanese “imperial fascism” (he converted to democracy in his late fifties, after the US occupation); while Nishida has been criticized as quite compatible with it, his idealist romanticism was at least in part after higher game. So, to repeat, though all knowledge is potentially useful, and in particular the philosophy of Nishida is highly challenging, why always speak of Nishida and Watsuji–why the Right-wing monopoly, so to speak?

When I posed this question to a friendly Japanese expert, his answer was: “Because the Left-wing people were murdered!” Probably there is more to it: many critics, from the Meiji materialist Nakae Chômin on, have noted that the hegemonic tradition in Japan abhors confrontation and clear-cut theses and favours religion or even mysticism; and after 1945, the dead end of Stalinist orthodoxy and the sectarianism of both the Communist and Socialist parties must be taken into account. But what Brecht called crude thinking (plumpes Denken) is always a useful corrective to overcomplications. Here are some stark data, with the source pages in Piovesana: In 1911, the anarchist publicist Kôtoku Shûsui or Denjirô and 11 others, including his wife, were hanged under the “Law for the Preservation of Public Peace” for an alleged plot to kill the emperor (55). In 1923 Ohsugi Sakae, a Nietzschean syndicalist and communist, was strangled by a police captain at the time of the earthquake riots (170). The pioneer non-Stalinist Marxist theoretician, poet, and writer Kawakami Hajime was imprisoned for being a communist in 1933 (173); he was lucky to survive where many others were tortured and executed. Possibly the most original Japanese Marxist, the cultural critic and humanist philosopher Miki Kiyoshi,  who studied with Nishida, Rickert, and Heidegger,  was arrested in 1930, dismissed from the university, and died in 1945 as political prisoner, “nobody knows how, at the early age of 48” (179-80).  His follower, the philosopher of science and ideology Tosaka Jun–whose critique of Nishida is cited approvingly by Karatani in the present issue–, had a very similar fate, dying in prison the same year (190). (By the way, both Miki and Tosaka had begun to conceptualize problems of subjectivity, see Piovesana 250-51 and Koschmann 615; I believe the introduction of Miki to non-Japanese readers is an urgent desideratum.) And these are just the best-known names.

At any rate, as the very well informed Piovesana concludes, one constant of Japanese philosophy, across all ideological fronts, has been a deep concern about questions of individuality. True, this has “not result[ed] in a really new anthropology” (251), but it has led to waves of discussions about shutaisei (subjectivity or autonomy).  Before the World War, e.g., Nishida’s disciples and two groups of literary critics organized a debate about “Overcoming the Modern,” foregrounding Japanese imperialist ideology as against Cartesian duality and rationality (Karatani, Origins 191). But the debate that developed immediately after the war, in 1946-48, will be taken as representative because of its strategic timing and because there is an able discussion of it in Koschmann on which I am relying. It seems to have dealt centrally with how transindividual entities–history and social structure –relate to human agency. The experiences of militarism and war mandated a rejection of “feudalism,” i.e. not only of a concentric set of hierarchic communities submerging the individual (as preached e.g. by Watsuji) but also of a certain personality type defined as including “mystical irrationalism;… male supremacy, red-tapism, bureaucratic formalism, inefficiency, irresponsibility, narrow-mindedness, inclemency, inhuman oppression, exploitation, and blind obedience” (Odaka Kunio, cited from Sakuta’s essay in Koschmann 629). But the unique breakdown of the State and of the blind belief in political authority could lead to the opposed extremes of “blind privatism” (613) or of Stalinist resurrection of historical necessity reifying people’s agency. As I read Koschmann’s summary of what was a debate between various factions of the Left–he calls them “scientific materialism,” “existential Marxism,” “orthodox Marxism,” and “modernist ethos” –grouped around some journals, its basic lesson is the consubstantiality of the stances taken toward shutaisei and toward the political horizons of the time. And debates  about a new selfhood continued unabated between what came to be the New Left and the Old Left throughout the citizens’ and students’ protest movement around 1960 and 1970. The subjective is the political, to coin a slogan that would not have displeased Aristotle: the close feedback between theoretical and political horizons, we may conclude, is more difficult to occult in a culture less overlaid by post-Cartesian individualism, less fixated on a post-Cartesian inner Self as the unique building brick of the universe and subject of action.8/

5.3. The conclusion of the previous section holds, of course, in spades for Buddhist thought. While this is present in many countries to the east of India, and today all over the world, it has been historically developed in interesting ways by the wilful Japanese sects and thinkers. I am even more of a fascinated outsider here than anywhere else in the domain of the Subject, but so far as I know it, the Buddhist solution–centrally, that the Self is an illusion, as are all material entities–has if nothing else the advantages of a consistently extreme position. While I do not share its basic anti-materialist and thus anti-body tenet, even from a diametrically opposed stance (since sometimes les extrêmes se touchent–the trick is in defining what are the extremes) I have come to believe that much can be learned from Buddhist philosophical positions, say the one about false attachments. The Buddha’s (Gautama Shakyamuni’s) root atheist insight about the horrors of suffering, its extension and intensity,  and its corollary that evil is unhappiness, is a major (dare I say Epicurean?) premise that can be shared by those of us who do not subscribe to the minor premise of baseness of matter and senses. Confusingly (for me, at least) but endearingly, while proclaiming all is illusion, at least the Mahâyâna Buddhism accords the highest praise to compassion (karuna), which induces the most enlightened persons, the bodhisattvas,  to forgo the supreme remedy of nirvana in order to help mankind. The Buddhist “non-self” or anâtman–ably expounded in this issue by Professor Loy on the example of how the possibly most interesting Japanese Buddhist thinker, Dôgen, may provide answers to today’s problems (cf. also Kolm and Nagasawa)–can therefore be taken to dismantle either the billiard-ball Self, or any subjectivity and agency. Those who cannot accept the second, most sweeping (and probably within Buddhism most consistent) alternative, can still use the first one.

In particular, the Buddhist view that any person is a set of dozens of simple elements (themselves perhaps not totally illusory?) categorized in complex ways according to different criteria is “infinitely more refined than the crude divisions into two or three elements imagined by Westerners [from Plato, through Descartes to Freud]” (Kolm 255). This is useful even if, again, one does not accept the unnecessary metaphysics of saying that therefore there is no person but only fluxes of events, as if this did not depend on whether (e.g.) you wanted agency or not. Such elements can form aggregations (skandhas) of material things such as a person’s body (comprising also her ideas, thoughts, and mental images), or of sensations by the six senses (the sixth being perception and sensation of the above mental events; in fact, from Berkeley and Hume to Mach a number of Europeans have suggested rather similar notions of persons as “bundles of perceptions,” but did not follow it through with Buddhist consistency). Again most endearingly if confusingly, a central concept and indeed interest and imperative of Buddhism is knowledge as illumination or enlightenment (chiken in Japanese): “Buddha” means “the Enlightened One,” and we can all achieve Buddhahood–if we let go the illusory and painful Self.


  1. An End (finis, not telos)

Only he who builds the future has a right…to pass judgment on the past.

The personal is the political.
Maxim of the feminist movement

“…[T]he classic conclusion, in which a book’s central arguments are rehearsed imperturbably for one last time, as if closing the door on everything that has been said, is inappropriate in a work of history,” concluded Braudel after 2,000 pages (619). Since to my mind all our arguments are ineluctably historical, this holds a fortiori for any work of a much smaller scope. But I would like this to be a final twist of the essay’s spiral, picking up some problems in the light of what has been argued in it earlier and looking at their horizons.


6.1. While the issue for which this is written was being prepared, a book appeared called Who Comes After the Subject?, initiated by Jean-Luc Nancy and co-edited in the somewhat changed English version by Eduardo Cadava and Peter Connor, with numerous contributions by a representative array of French philosophical luminaries of the day. Far from feeling “scooped” (the intentions and addressees of this issue are rather different), I am happy to have had the opportunity to reflect on it while writing this, e.g. on the important contribution by Balibar cited earlier, and I would like to cull a very few questions from it. If this were a survey of the volume–but it is not–, I would start by noticing that the briefest contribution, two pages by Deleuze, is to my mind the most magisterial one (this is a compliment), arriving as it does at its end upon the declaration that “the notion of the subject has lost much of its interest on behalf of pre-individual singularities and non-personal individuations” and upon further horizons of this whole “field of questions” (95).

Nancy’s “Introduction” identifies the book’s question as the sign of a rupture in philosophy and history, which would yet like to avoid the dilemma of “the subject’s simple liquidation” and “a ‘return to the subject’ (proclaimed by those who would like to think that nothing has happened…)” (5). I agree that the only wise strategy is tertium datur (Hegel is not a dead dog): the one-sided exaggerations of technocratic structuralism and of somewhat overcholeric thinkers such as Foucault, a useful  author before he descended into orthodox Heideggerianism, are by now behind us; while a return to Kant or even phenomenology (not to speak to the crassest German Idealism) can only be of any conceivable use if it is a reculer pour mieux sauter, productively cannibalizing them. However, I then secondarily think it is unwise (because impossible) to jettison all existing terminology; an impulse to reinterpret, if need be subversively, a term like The Subject seems to me to do better justice to the long-duration continuities of human history, while avoiding PoMo Babylonian flashiness (what Derrida here calls “the vested confusion of the doxa,” 98). However, I am not sure what is the use of all this talk about “rupture” (except self-puffery that goes before a fall): every age since, say, 1800 is both a continuation and a rupture, depending on what one wishes to envisage. Have the Gulf War or the Yugoslav Nationalist Wars been a rupture with the Opium War of 1839-42 or the Balkan War of 1912? Is dying from Agent Orange, Chernobyl radiation or AIDS more dignified and palatable than the great plague epidemics of Boccaccio and Defoe?  Maybe because of the new technologies involved? Has the hunger and cold of  the  homeless not only in Bosnia but also  in  San  Francisco broken  with  the  hunger and cold before 1960 or  1940?  Is  the worldwide division into Disraeli’s “two nations” of the rich  and the  poor  not just as lopsided and bad today as at the  time  of Chinese  or  Roman  emperors? Is it growing smaller?  Isn’t it even ethically and politically (though not sensually) worse because human creativity has in the last 100 years finally given us the means to make this planet habitable? And  since the answers to my rhetorical questions are clear, what is the function of the self-congratulatory “rupture” slogan today? Wouldn’t elementary modesty require that we think rather with Benjamin and Brecht about an ongoing normality of catastrophe in order to estrange it and begin coping with it?

If we did, we would have to start asking quite referential questions about agency and responsibility, directly dovetailing philosophy and politics. For example: Who is murdering the citizens of Sarajevo? Serbian guns? No: guns do not aim and discharge themselves. Serbs? No: many people of Serbian origin (the best) have chosen to remain in the hardships of Sarajevo and defend a non-ethnically-cleansed, bastardized, joyously intermarrying polity. And so on. So what kind of Subjects are those brainwashed murderers (and their ethnic counterparts on all other sides of those wars)? Where is the locus of responsibility and intentionality: in their selfish genes? No. In their (anti-nationalist, but alas quite inefficient) schooling in Tito’s Yugoslavia? No. Obviously it must be in some vectors going through desperate people rather than emanating from their hard center.

Thus on the one hand we could analyze this as a subjectless web of fluctuating pressures within global economic and political conjunctures (the World Bank loans and the impoverishment of a fairly well-off Yugoslav population, the separatist sympathies and financial intervention of Germany and the Vatican, the withdrawal of both the menacing Russian and supporting US empire) encroaching upon each other. And on the other hand there are potential collectives who get, in Eco’s terms,  “narcotized,” e.g. the working class or the patriots of a federal Yugoslavia, or “boldfaced” as selfish elites (equally in the Slovenian, Croatian, and Serbian power-centers) construct “threatened ethnicities.” From different stances both the subjectless fluxes and the collective Subjects are potentially mobilizable (“true”) for practice and for explanation. Finally, if one needs a support and constituency for action, preferably on a large scale, one would have to arrest the flux and name a collective in any particular chronotope for any particular agency (Slovenian or Croatian elites engineering separation from Yugoslavia, or Serbian elites engineering Great Serbia). So while it is true that totalizing collectives are today, after the demise of what ought to be called “really non-existent socialism,” in disrepute among theoreticians, obviously they practically exist (e.g. the World Bank with all of its arteries, veins, and capillaries). Alongside with Foucauldian micro-collectives, their quicker and more complex modus operandi is what may have to be re-theorized in the age of computers.

6.2. This means, however, that cognitive communities thrashing out epistemological-cum-political stances are more than ever needed for the task of exploring the varieties of infra- and supra-personal Subjects, of understanding the construction of these new, sometimes very dangerous but sometimes very exciting, collective Subjects. This has been clear in science since Bacon and theorized since Peirce: “the very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a community” (quoted in Eco, Limiti 336-37, and see Eco’s epistemological conclusions from this against the  Derridian unlimited dérive in the whole essay, 325-38, also 27-28). Thus, Peircean pragmatism is a good ally insofar as it substitutes for the Cartesian “pure observer”  epistemology the epistemology of an agent in a community of agents. However, in order to follow the rapid changes around us and to inflect them in a liberating way, I doubt this can be confined to what sociologists call “found communities” (families, nations, professional groups) which supply identities at the cost of orthodoxy and boundaries of admissibility for people and for stances. To my mind, an existing professional doxa similar to that proposed by Fish (if I understand him well) is much too involved in little power-grabs of its own to seriously square off against, e.g., the business ethos or nationalist pride. As always, valid cognitive communities are “chosen” rather than “found” (cf. Hartsock passim and Code 276-77). Themselves dynamic, by definition non-monolithic, and subject to the often healthy pull of overlapping subcommunities (cf. Nelson 148-50 and passim), they exist on the unstable interface between pragmatic and utopian realities, the powerful status quo community as found and the productive or creative future-oriented community as chosen.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” proclaimed Sorel and Gramsci. Optimistically, I think of this issue, including my contribution to it, as a very modest approximation to such a cognitively productive community.


1/ My thanks go to Marc Angenot, Anna Antonopoulos, Caroline Bayard, Catherine Graham, Fredric Jameson, Andrea Levy, and  Yamada Kazuko for discussions and indications of much relevant secondary literature; for financial support to the SSHRC and a Canada Council Killam Fellowship; and in Japan to Rikkyo University and its professors Gotô Shôji and Michael Feldt. I cannot expatiate upon my debts to this issue’s contributors, but I have learned much on the Subject from work with them. All non-attributed translations into English are mine. Japanese names are given with family name first.


2/ In an essay whose body and bibliography have grown uncomfortably large, I have to be impaled on one horn of the dilemma whether to expressly differentiate within the sometimes very self-contradictory authors–e.g. Nietzsche–as well as polemicize with the to me unacceptable ones–e.g. Lyotard–or whether to simply leave out what I found useless. The first is philologically proper but uneconomical and often boring, the second may come across as abrupt obiter dicta and somewhat arrogant. Time and space being what they are today, I have decided for the second horn, and my polemics will (with few exceptions) mainly be by omission. However, omission from the bibliography may also indicate that some modern classics, mentioned by name only, are omnipervasive in our–my–discourse (so that they can be found in the apparati of other works cited, including mine). As to the rest, I imitate Molière and je prends mon bien où je le trouve.

3/ Usually, however, it can be observed that there are limitations on those admitted to fully individual status, roughly similar to the Athenian exclusion of women, children, slaves, strangers, and other “speaking cattle” from democracy. Much of the Foucauldian micropolitics of “human rights” (from Blacks to gays and indeed “animal rights”), taking note of the failures of revolutionary changes of the capitalist framework, consists of efforts to break down these limitations yet staying within that framework.

4/ In this cluster of problems the present extraordinary fashion of denigrating vision would have to be faced. As Jameson suggests in this issue, the original Foucauldian and then feminist onslaught on vision–including image, e.g. in movies–unfortunately  relied much too one-sidedly on the “essentially theological tradition of the sinfulness of looking as such, and the relationship of that visual libido to the sinfulness of the body in general” (“Representations” 55); it should be added that the main perpetrator of this translation of monotheism into psychoanalysis,  Mulvey,  has laudably had second thoughts though the harm persists (a stimulating brief critique is in Kipnis 8-10, 108-09, and passim, and a critique of Foucault in Jay, “Empire,” now in Downcast Eyes). Cf. beside the fundamental Merleau-Ponty (all titles below) Berger, Bryson, Code 140-53 and 252-53, Jonas, Keller and Grontkowski, Lowe, Strawson 90ff., and the splendid pages by Vernant in this issue on the close link between vision, cognition, and sight as presence to the community (40-44), which could well be extended from the Hellenic polis to all other non-individualist civilizations (cf. Suvin “Soul”). Having been much preoccupied with this in my work on theatre, I sketched  in “Theses” some first questions about the necessity of vision with an acknowledged seer and with the proper (e.g. Brechtian) distance for understanding–without a Truth in the depths–as well as in an alliance with other senses. From that point of view (sic), I find the argument that vision necessarily means alienation and subjugation useless for discriminating when it actually does so–e.g. often in Cartesianism and post-Cartesian “objectivism” relying on an absolutized “mind’s eye” (cf. Haraway, “Situated” 581).

5/ I confess to sharing deep suspicions against that (seemingly dominant) post-Cartesian individualist psychology which usually does not concern itself with relations between people but with the individual’s mental events (perceptions, sensations etc.). I would much rather follow the lead of Mauss and talk about possible bodily “syntaxes of gestures”–walking, eating, erotics, etc.–into which “psychological” phenomena are embedded or indeed resolvable and which can be understood as given stances. Even Freud, whom–despite what I see as the nonsense of his key concepts, beginning with the Oedipus complex–, I revere as a great if mistaken Columbus of our mental life, great novelist, and great literary and cultural critic, assumes the bourgeois individualist body as his basis and horizon. Therefore, he has little to say about class or race, what he says about women is best forgotten, he limits his dethroning of consciousness mainly to an apparatus of a few, relatively neatly divided thermodynamic levels (cf. Suvin, “Subject” 192-94), and the practice of psychoanalysis has been coopted for adjustment to rather than questioning of the status quo. Turning to it connotes usually “a lack–of a mass movement or of successful counterhegemonic strategies” (Kipnis 103). Jung’s horizons seem to me unacceptable for much the same reasons as Heidegger’s. Even so, I have found a number of texts in psychology, from James and Piaget to Bruner, as well as in psychoanalysis, fascinating, and I attempt to use some of them in “Cognitive.”

6/ See on “subjection” also Barker. I wish to eschew here debates by historians of philosophy (and Blut und Boden  etymologists like Heidegger) whether the post-Cartesian “subject” is really in a straight line of descent from Aristotle’s hypokeimenon (the underlying), which with Balibar and Williams I strongly doubt. At any rate the legal-cum-political subiectus, the subjected person, seems to me at least as important as (and probably the origin of) the subiectum, the subjective person or indeed the underlying existent. Again, we could take the foreshortened process in Japan as an example: “The modern Japanese subject… emerged through the conflation of [being subject to the feudal Lord], whose historical origins had been forgotten, with the psychological ego” (Karatani, Origins 95).

7/ The interested reader may wish to consult, as I did, their works available up to 1962 in European languages from Piovesana’s bibliographies on pp. 93 and 140; general secondary bibliography is on pp. 266-74 and on particular writers in the respective chapters. Other important works have been translated since, e.g. by Nishida: “Die morgenländischen und abendländischen Kulturformen in alter Zeit vom metaphysischen Standpunkte aus gesehen,” Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 1939, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Nr. 19 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1939), 3-19; Die Einheit des Wahren, des Schönen und des Guten, Sendai: 1940 (both missed by Piovesana); Intelligibility and the Philosophy of Nothingness (Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1966; rpt. Westport CT: Greenwood P, 1973); Fundamental Problems of Philosophy (Tokyo: Sophia U, 1970); Art and Morality  (Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1973); Intuition and  Reflection  in Self-Consciousness (Albany: SUNY P, 1986); Last Writings: Nothingness and the Religious Worldview  (Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1987); a new translation of his Inquiry into the Good (New Haven: Yale UP, 1990); and La Culture japonaise en question (Paris: POF, 1991). For other English and German translations of less than volume length and secondary literature see the survey by Schinzinger and the commented anthology by Ohashi ed., 508-19 (both deal also with Tanabe and many others, but exclude Miki and Tosaka). See for further comment also Maraldo and Heisig, eds.

8/ A whole further domain would be subjectivity both in and seen from Japan by psychology and psychiatry, often also within sociological and anthropological perspectives. I can only list below some secondary literature for further orientation by those interested, in Blankenburg, Caudill, De Vos, Doi, Kawai, Kimura, Lebra, Mita, and Reynolds. It might also be pleasant to mention, especially in Montreal where we are well acquainted with it, that the butô dance movement is closely akin to the protest movements of the 1960s and ’70s mentioned above so that its bodily metamorphoses can tell us much about the pains and joys of dismantling the nuclear Subject–cf. Klein 31-34 and passim.

9/ In his latest book Spectres de Marx (éd. Galilée, 1993) Derrida wishes to reactualize the lesson of “a certain Marx,” most urgent in face of the new consensus that glosses over its spreading “plagues”: “never on Earth have so many men, women, and children been enslaved, starved or exterminated.” I am very happy that my essay converges with such bearings (of a book I have only had time to superficially peruse, and quote mostly according to review echoes) and with their horizon that intellectuals have responsibilities toward suffering people and economic justice. Derrida’s appeal for a “new International” is here a key strategic move. It is, however, not clear how he thinks this link “without coordination, without party, …an alliance without institutions” (141-42) could effect “a (theoretical and practical) critique” of such matters as “international law or the concepts of State and nation.” Surely at least a loosely linked (to begin with, telematic) focussing of cognitive forces is a precondition for any impact beyond evanescent academic effervescence–which is a welcome oasis but also a debilitating ghetto unless transcended. For a “practical critique” to intertwine with lectures and books, intermittent and non-freezing groupings (and what else are e.g. the Deconstructionists?)  and institutions (to begin with probably teaching  centers and publications) and a solidarity around concrete, democratically chosen objectives seems absolutely needed. Otherwise, we shall have vague horizons without political agents or Subjects of resistance.

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