Textual Power


Textual Power

Gunnar Olsson,
Lines of Power/Limits of Language.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

To think that difference produces the subject means taking up a position without thematizing it as ones own and hence not risking the experience — also linguistic — of this attitude…but what are we talking about? While we try — with words that fail us — to decipher an unheard of place beyond ourselves, we are in reality trying to describe a movement that is our very own gesture.

– Pier Aldo Rovatti, “The Black Light,” in Recoding Metaphysics

Perhaps the epigram from still another book is a necessary precaution, underscoring the danger inherent in undergoing a practice of writing (theory) that would venture a rich and supple analysis of the being of the social and of the subject effect. I’m talking about complex nexus that remains to be described among those regions that sustain us and which theory still treats as being all too separate: the theory of signs and of textuality, historical materialism, practical reason, aesthetics, ethics, the discourse on freedom, eroticism and other mit-sein. “We are in reality trying to describe a movement that is our very own gesture.”

The beginning is auspicious. Wassily Kandinsky’s pictograph, Intimate Communication, is reproduced a number of times throughout the pages of the book, once in the form of a study bearing the legend by the artist: “Horizontal-vertical structure with contrasting diagonal and point tensions”. If the model for Olsson’s practice of the analyses of the being of the social is that interpretive work which would reproduce and perhaps even explicate the tensions inherent in an advanced work of art, then maybe we can hope for a supple analysis of concrete social ensembles (one version of the plans for which were sketched out in Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaus).

Olsson approaches this region through an exploration of the notion of power as that which produces or makes things happen. Here the author quotes Foucault:

What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms of knowledge, produces discourse. (Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 119).

The primary model of power that functions throughout this book is rhetorical or textual, in the sense understood by both, Foucault and Derrida, as that force which structures the text in such a way as to set in place hierarchies and produce objectivities. And with regard to understanding such a power, the exegetical move is even more towards the body than towards textuality. Olsson begins with the insight (and here he is still following Foucault very closely) that we as embodied subjects are the sites traversed by this power: “My only contact with the world is through the holes in my body. It is through them that Myself is penetrated by the social norms of nature. (p.48).” Along the way towards “decomposing the glue that makes us hang together” he holds fast to the Bataillean realization that the points at which the social touches us most profoundly (and most objectively) are precisely those which seem most subjective: “Relations like beauty, sincerity, trust, malice, disgust and nausea are not in the things themselves but in culturally determined conceptions and behaviors.(100)”

Mapping the region in question demands a number of disciplinary turns. In the first place is a stepping away from the study of objects (and of an epistemology that legitimates judgments about them) to a study of the relations and figurations that construct and distribute these things: “Logic is permeated by rhetoric, the idea of truth by the notion of trust.” Here, rhetoric must be read as figuration, and establishment of trust (of assent) has always been the proper end of rhetoric.

But this manoeuvre remains abstract and does not go beyond the insights of the first generation of critical theorists to a way of talking about how powers and bodies come together to produce a world comprised of words, things, and actions. In the approach to this region, language plays the transitional role (as is evidenced by the title Lines of Power/Limits of Language) and Olsson enlists the resources of two advanced (or merely impending) forms of theory: rhythmology and mimetology:

Does it follow that the power of words lies not in their users but in the social relations that knot them together? Is power in the abcedf-mindedness of rhythmic expressions? Is power a tautology anchored in conventional rules of inference. Are the external and the internal hiding behind the same veil of being? Is it there that ontologies are transformed? (112)

Rhythmology: The study of the region of beings (specifically, of representations) that do not stand between us and any reality to be apprehended and of the event in which the subject is swept up by these representations and carried along. This study has become a major preoccupation of Lacoue-Labarthe, and, more surprisingly, of Henri Lefebvre who, in his Production of Space, explicitly calls for the establishment of such a science as a means for understanding the relations between the body and space. Mimeticism: the propensity to imitation, which according to Aristotle, is the quality that most sets us apart from other beings (the lack of difference that makes all the difference), and the mechanism through which the desire of the other becomes my own. Both themes, open up onto a study of traditionality, and Olsson’s work is especially fine when he treats the relations between genre and the production of trust (and the way in which generic aberrations affect this production).

However, Olsson does not convey to us to that which matters most to him, a rich multi-level account of the subject and society. One detects a certain weakening or folding back of his arguments from the n-dimensions into which he wants to launch his audience, to just two. This I think is due to the more, restrictive interpretation of power that is also at work here, one which is based on semiotics and which is therefore inextricably bound to the more general textual model to which he claims to adhere. In Of Grammatology, Derrida called for a thinking of the trace that would move beyond the binary analysis produced by semiology, and it was Roland Barthes, more than anyone else, who popularized this binary notion of power as that (force) which holds in place a particular signified over a particular signifier. With respect to the sign, Olsson explicitly announces his filiation: “Now I follow Lacan and put the signifier on top of the signified. This is yet another way of emphasizing that to be creative is not to have an idea that searches for its expression, but to have an expression that searches for its meaning.” (49) A heavy investment in this model causes Olsson to shift away from an analysis of the complex constellations in which the subject is suspended (one has to be specific to a historical and institutional site) to a utopian formalism, in which the recombination of signifiers is understood as being able to produce explosive effects in the realm of the signified (of meaning), and producing, by analogy “ontological transformations” as well:

The reader or viewer should be jolted into novel chains of association through deliberate changes of context. The strategy is to play with the insight that just as meaning is context-dependent, so is context meaning dependent. (160)

Not that this analogy does not hold true. Under modernity, utopian formalism as a well thought-out position has been around ever since at least Mallarme and the Russian formalists. Its influence on the social sciences reached its zenith with the generation of 1968. Sometimes Olsson’s enthusiasm for this position, and its imperative to take up the experimental attitude, (along with the unexamined valorization of any such experiments), might strike the reader as naive; as if he has remained blissfully unaware of the fact that the shock that inheres in the surrealist juxtaposition (the umbrella on the dissection table) had not long ago become the very power that maintains, as Benjamin once wrote, the “catastrophe that things just keep going.” That is, he forgets that every text, and especially a concrete social text, works precisely through the play of structuring/destructuring to which it subjects us and by which we are subjected. Instead he falls back to a simple Manicheism: “the human condition reveals itself as a struggle between certainty and ambiguity, necessity and possibility.” (46) In terms that might be translatable into those of an emancipatory discourse (Deleuze’s), Olsson forgets that any such intervention may have reterritorializing as well as deterritorializing effects. These forgetting/remembering tendencies are entwined in complex ways throughout the essays that make up this book. When wakefulness holds sway, the reader experiences something of that which binds and unbinds us to the world. When the it is a matter of forgetfulness (and remember your Nietzsche, forgetfulness is a necessary prerequisite of a certain kind of virile, healthy action), Olsson may remain at the threshold of doing the kind of work he himself calls for, though at these moments he also exposes himself and the constellation in which he as a singularity is both done and undone. Though, somewhat naggingly, we are reminded much more of the virile practice of an Andre Breton than that of his ostensible models, Bataille or Blanchot.

Robert Moskal is a graduate student in philosophy at the New School for Social Research.