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Contemporary European Cultural Studies

Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala,
Series Editors
This series publishes English translations of works by contemporary European
intellectuals from philosophy, religion, politics, law, ethics, aesthetics, social
sciences, and history. Volumes included in this series will not be included
simply for their specific subject matter, but also for their ability to interpret,
describe, explain, analyze, or suggest theories that recognize its historicity.
Proposals and suggestions for this series should be directed to:
Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala, Series Editors
The Davies Group Publishers
PO Box 440140
Aurora, Colorado, 80044-0140

Manfred Frank, The Boundaries of Agreement

Antonio Livi, Reasons for Believing
Jsef Niznik, The Arbitrariness of Philosophy
Paolo Crocchiolo, The Amorous Tinder
Jos Guimn, Art and Madness
Daro Antiseri, Poppers Vienna
Remo Bodei, Logics of Delusion
Giovanni Mari, The Postmodern, Democracy, History
Philip Larrey, Thinking Logically

Giacomo Marramao, Kairs. Towards an Ontology of Due Time

William Egginton, A Wrinkle in History

A Wrinkle in History
Essays on Literature and Philosophy

William Egginton

A volume in the series

Contemporary European Cultural Studies
Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala, Editors

The Davies Group, Publishers

Aurora, Colorado

A wrunkle in History: Essays on Literature and Philosophy. Copyright

2007, Willieam E. Egginton.
All rights reserved. No part of the contents of this book may be
reproduced, stored in an information retrieval system, or transcribed,
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inquiries and requests to the publisher: The Davies Group, Publishers,
PO Box 440140, Aurora, CO 80044-0140, USA

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Egginton, William, 1969A wrinkle in history : essays on literature and philosophy / William
p. cm. -- (Contemporary European cultural studies)
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN-13: 978-1-888570-93-9 (alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 1-888570-93-8 (alk. paper)
1. History--Philosophy. 2. Literature--Philosophy. I. Title.
D16.8.E45 2006

Printed in the United States of America



Foreword: Between History and Theory vii

1. A Wrinkle in Historical Time 1
2. On Dante, Hyperspheres, and the Curvature
of the Medieval Cosmos 31
3. Mimesis and Theatricality 61
4. On Relativism, Rights and Differends,
or, Ethics and the American Holocaust 79
5. Cervantes, Romantic Irony,
and the Making of Reality 115
6. Psychoanalysis and the Comedia: Skepticism
and the Paternal Function in La vida es sueo 145
7. Intimacy and Anonymity,
or How the Audience Became a Crowd 169
8. Reality is Bleeding: A Brief History of Film
from the Sixteenth Century 191
9. Keeping Pragmatism Pure: Rorty with Lacan 213
Notes 255


a wrinkle in history

Between History and Theory
The essays collected in this volume, although written on subjects
as historically and thematically disparate as medieval theology and
contemporary neopragmatism, nevertheless share a common focus
or question: what is the relevance of philosophy for thinking about
politics, literature, or, more generally, history? This last is perhaps the
most fundamental in that it encompasses all the others. On the one
hand, all discourse, be it philosophical, political, or literary, has its
history and is thus, perhaps irremediably, limited or constrained by
that history. On the other, politics, literature and, most obviously,
philosophy all strive to articulate visions that transcend the historical
constraints of their production. The paradox that these contravening
forces engender finds a particularly persistent expression in the fields of
the humanities, and perhaps most clearly in the study of literature, in
which scholars have increasingly felt the obligation to define themselves
as being primarily either historians or theorists. The acceptance of
this divide leads to a pitched battle of styles, between those who deride
theoretically minded scholars as presentists whose contamination of
the past with faddish theories deprive their conclusions of any plausible
claim to truth, and an opposing camp that criticizes in historicists a
lack of theoretical sophistication that relegates their conclusions to the
irrelevant torpor of mere academic bookkeeping.
Such Balkanization leaves many scholars, among whom I
count myself, with strangely divided loyalties. For one thing, it is
unfortunately the case that these invectives are sometimes (I hesitate
to say, often) true. The application paradigm of literary studies, in
which one spices up a text with fashionable theory, represents the
bankrupt extreme of theoretical tendencies, while the denigration
of theory in the name of historical accuracy at times covers for a
simple and lamentable lack of anything interesting to say. That said,
I am convinced that the very best work in what can be broadly called


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cultural studies necessarily operates in an enriched environment in

which theory and history are impossible to disentangle. To paraphrase
(if not to bastardize) Kant, theory without history is blind, and
history without theory is stupid.
The blending of historical and theoretical concerns in this book
is manifested in two general ways: in the first, the question of the
relevance of a philosophical question to a historical period or artifact
is explicitly addressed; in the second, historically distant periods
or artifacts are repeatedly shown to be integral to a philosophical
concern of the present. In both manifestations, what becomes clear is
that theory and history, far from being mutually opposed disciplines
or fields of inquiry, are in fact interrelated vocabularies or groups
of vocabularies whose mutual concern is indispensable to their
functioning. This insight finds its expression in what could be called
a pragmatist orientation toward the object of study present in all
of the essays but explicitly thematized in several, and especially the
last according to which the goal of literary scholarship in literature
and the humanities in general is not, as it has often been generally
believed, to say what texts mean; rather, literary, historical, and
philosophical thinking is understood to be a fundamental inquiry
into the way meaning is produced under different circumstances and
using different vocabularies.
The essays gathered here were written over about a ten-year period,
and the people who influenced me during that time and before, people
who were and are my teachers, and who therefore have a somewhat
immeasurable claim on my gratitude, are more numerous than I can
mention here, or at least than I can be confident of recalling without
serious omissions. Of those, however, there are a few who must be
recalled, again, as I feel that with without them the author whose views
are represented in this book would certainly have been another. To
Peter Canning, Carla Freccero, Sepp Gumbrecht, Robert Harrison,
Lynn Higgins, Marianne Hirsch, Ren Jara, Valentin Mudimbe,
John Rassias, Richard Rorty, Bob Russell, Nicholas Spaddaccini,
Jeffrey Schnapp, Hayden White, Sylvia Wynter, Slavoj iek, and
many others, I say thank you. I can only hope to do for at least one
student of mine what each of them has done for me.



Further thanks are due to Santiago Zabala and Gianni Vattimo,

editors of this series, for their interest in my work, as well as to Keith
Davies, for his encouragement and support of the project.
Finally, to my wife, Bernadette Wegenstein, my partner in
everyday life and the world of ideas, and to our children, Alexander
and Charlotte, who ensure we never neglect the former for the
Many of the chapters in this book have appeared previously as
articles in journals or chapters in edited books. I am grateful to the
following presses and publications for the permission to reprint these
A Wrinkle in Historical Time, SubStance 81 (1996): 30-55
On Dante, Hyperspheres, and the Curvature of the Medieval
Cosmos, Journal of the History of Ideas 60.2 (1999):195-216
On Relativism, Rights and Differends, or, Ethics and the
American Holocaust, Qui Parle 9.1 (1995, appeared 1997): 33-70
Cervantes, Romantic Irony, and the Making of Reality, MLN
117.5 (2002): 1041-1068
Psychoanalysis and the Comedia: Skepticism and the Paternal
Function in La vida es sueo, Bulletin of the Comediantes 52.1
(2000): 97-122
Reality is Bleeding: A Brief History of Film from the 16th
Century, Configurations 9.2 (2001): 207-230
Intimacy and Anonymity, or How the Audience Became a
Crowd, in Crowds, eds. Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Matthew Tiews
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006)
Keeping Pragmatism Pure: Rorty with Lacan, in Egginton and
Sandbothe, eds., The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy: Contemporary
Engagements Between Analytic and Continental Thought (Albany,
NY: SUNY Press, 2004)

a wrinkle in history

Chapter 1
A Wrinkle in Historical Time

This is not to say that there is nothing to be gained from the

different meanings uncovered in the general march of history
along the path which runs from Bossuet (Jacques-Bnigne)
to Toynbee (Arnold), and which is punctuated by the edifices
of Auguste Comte and Karl Marx. Everyone knows very well
that they are worth as little for directing research into the
recent past as they are for making any reasonable presumptions about the events of tomorrow. Besides, they are modest
enough to postpone their certainties until the day after tomor
row, and not too prudish either to admit the retouching that
permits predictions about what happened yesterday.1
Jaques Lacan, crits
The narratological analysis of historiography, since the groundbreaking work of Hayden White and Roland Barthes,2 has succeeded in confounding many of the traditional assumptions regarding
not only the methods and means of historical inquiry, but its ends
as well. Having, in its most radical form, blurred the boundaries
between openly rhetorical and fictive discourses and the supposedly
objective pursuit of truth that was History, narratological analysis
has managed to problematize the historical, as both a category and
a discipline, in most fields outside of traditional history departments
[the obvious example being literature]. Paradoxically, perhaps, in
these same disciplines in particular that of literature there
has begun to appear a renewed interest in self-consciously historical
approaches to the subject-matter, to the extent that, in so much as
the historical has undergone a severe critique of its epistemological
foundations, it has at the same time emerged as a valid, and indeed
preferred, parameter of literary research. One explanation for this

a wrinkle in history

curious phenomenon is that those of us who work in the field of lit

erary studies, content with narratologys coup, have become compla
cent in the certainty of our relativistic claims, and have felt justified
in settling the historical territories newly annexed by theory without taking into account the practical difficulties brought on by that
conquest. What are we, as cultural historians, to do with the
historical now? What does it mean to historicize a text? How do
we rationalize historical readings in an epistemological landscape
in which the distinctions between the historical and the literary have
been so radically weakened? Or are there new distinctions to be ar
ticulated, some particularity of method and purpose that would dis
tinguish historical readings from semiotic, deconstructive, or more
traditional methods of literary scholarship? Has the narratological
turn shown history to be nothing but construction, and, if so, does
a concept such as truth have any meaning in relation to the past?
In order to respond to some of these questions, I propose to
carefully re-examine the narratological turn and the constructivist
assumptions it implies. By refocusing the discussion around history
onto issues of causality and subjectivity (those many selves being
constituted by the stories we tell), I hope to deconstruct the commonplace dichotomy between representing the past and living in the
present, arguing that the very theoretical impossibility of historical
knowledge is at once its grounds of possibility and its necessity. I
will also suggest that a logical destination for the literary theorist
turned cultural historian is the critique of ideology, whose object is
not some ineffable reality to be pieced together from the traces of the
past, but rather those contexts of symbolic mediation that one may
glean from the historical text, contexts that, in turn, point to the
ideological constitution of the present.
The politics of history
The following two quotes represent opposing sides in a debate that
took place in 1995 concerning the Smithsonian Museums proposed
exhibit on the subject of the atomic bombing of Japan that ended
World War II.

a wrinkle in historical time

1. [Museum Officials] have restored to the exhibit highly

debatable information which calls into question the morality and motives of President Trumans decision to end World
War II quickly and decisively by using the atomic bomb.
The hundreds of thousands of American boys whose lives
were thus spared [...] are, by this exhibit, now to be told
that their lives were purchased at the price of treachery and
2. The United States Senate recently adopted a resolution [...]
which reminded the Smithsonian of it obligation under Federal law to portray history in the proper context of the times.
[...] The current (fifth) script of the Enola Gay exhibit utterly
fails to portray history in the proper context of the times.4
These letters offer a rich example of the continued prevalence of de
bates concerning the objectivity of historical knowledge. The second
excerpt is from a letter written by a group of scholars, presumably
historians, who represent the objective, ostensibly non-politicized,
side of the debate. In their letter they invoke the Smithsonians legal
obligation to portray history in its proper context, which implies, first, that history and its context are two separable entities,
and, second, that a single, proper context exists and that the historians again presumably are the ones who can identify it.
Now, what exactly is history, if it is different from its context?5 If
we assume the context to be textual, the frame we construct around
history, then history can only be the event itself, the thing as it occurred. This event, of course, cannot exist for us now, but it appears
that according to the rhetoric of the letter of the two historical
elements, this event is the less contentious. Perhaps, then, we could
call this the fact: the simple statement, the date, etc. If this is the
case, then it is really only the context that supplies us with history
as it matters most.6 It is the context, the narrative, that tells us why
we should care, what it has to do with me, or with them, or with
the other events that constitute the past; and it is the context that
depends on the point-of-view of its writer.

a wrinkle in history

The first excerpt, from the commander of the American Legion,

does not linger on long definitions of history, but rather makes its
point in bluntly political terms.7 The strategy of the argument is to
suggest that the historians are not, in fact, impartial they have
questioned Trumans morality and to stress their own political
rationale respect for the soldiers who came back from the Pacific
alive. These charges are hard to respond to, precisely because those
who base their own position on claims to historical objectivity are
liable to stumble in the face of a skepticism which, if it has not entirely managed to infiltrate the halls of the historians discipline, has
become a hallmark of postmodern culture.8 As a result, the Smithsonians position, the desire to problematize the American victory over
Japan, to provoke questions, thought, and perhaps debate about the
dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima 50 years ago, had, at least at
that juncture, failed.9
Fictitious histories
While the father of twentieth century critiques of objective knowledge is Nietzsche, it was in the 1960s that scholars began to examine
concertedly the conduit of historical knowledge narrative in
order to determine the elements that were responsible for its reality effect. Roland Barthes article, The Discourse of History was
published in 1967, and was shortly followed by treatises on the subject by Hayden White, Michel de Certeau, and Paul Veyne, all of
whom share an interest in history as a form of writing. The founding
skepticism of this wave of scholarship could be captured in the following question, found on the first page of Barthes essay:
Does the narration of past events, which, in our culture
from the time of the Greeks onward, has generally been
subject to the sanction of historical science, bound to some
unbending standard of the real, and justified by principles
of rational exposition does this form of narration really
differ [...] from imaginary narration, as we find in the epic,
the novel, and the drama? (Barthes 7)

a wrinkle in historical time

In the course of his brief article, Barthes proceeds to subject the dis
course of history, in its manifestation in the work of four traditional historiographers, to the tools of structural discourse analysis, and
in doing so shows that historys difference lies primarily in its rhetorical move to conceal its dependence on rhetorical, or subjective,
discourse. The main trope that Barthes identifies in historical discourse, the one most responsible for producing its realistic effect,
is its collapse of the linguistic dimensions of signified and referent
into one reality: In other words, in objective history, the real
is never more than an unformulated signified, sheltering behind the
apparently all-powerful referent (17). However, this obscuring of
the signified is an effect of a particular method of representation,
namely narrative, the privileged signifier of the real (18); Barthes
thus stops short of indicting all historical representation, distinguishing the historical science of the present day as being interested in
exposing structures rather than chronologies.
With his 1973 book, Metahistory, and his 1978 collection of es
says, The Tropics of Discourse, Hayden White initiated the most farreaching application of discourse analysis to historiography. Arguing that there can be no proper history without the presupposition
of a full-blown metahistory by which to justify those interpretive
strategies necessary for the representation of a certain segment of the
historical process (Tropics 51), he goes on to articulate a method of
critique of historiography, by which one can presume to reveal the
metahistorical perspective underlying any work of historiography.
While Whites work does not in any way suggest a repudiation of
history as a practice,10 it does lead to a radical relativism in which no
form of representation is privileged above others:
The historian operating under such a conception could thus
be viewed as one who, like the modern artist and scientist,
seeks to exploit a certain perspective that does not pretend
to exhaust description or analysis of all the data in the entire
phenomenological field but rather offers itself as one way
among many of disclosing certain aspects of the field. (46)

a wrinkle in history

To deny that a historical account may exhaust description or analysis of a given field is not to say, however, that any event is subject to
unlimited interpretations. As White points out, the relative truth
of representation is always inscribed in a limited context of application by its inherently intersubjective system of notation:
When we view the work of an artist or, for that matter,
of a scientist we do not ask if he sees what we would see
in the same general phenomenal field, but whether or not
he has introduced into his representation of it anything that
could be considered false information for anyone who is capable of understanding the system of notation used. (47)
Since all acts of communication are contextualized within some
linguistic community, Whites critique would apparently allow for
distinguishing true from false information in a historical representation, all the while recognizing that the interior context of the
account, i.e., its narrative ordering, will inevitably be inflected by a
particular ideological perspective.
In current theoretical discussions of history, one may ascertain
at least two ways of responding to or incorporating the relativism of
Whites critique: one I will call, with Keith Jenkins, the making of
postmodern histories, the other, as expressed by Jacques Rancire,
embracing a self-consciously subjective poetics of history. Accepting enthusiastically Hayden Whites relativism, along with Michel
Foucaults somewhat more radical skepticism, Keith Jenkins argues
against the existence of any grounds for knowledge, not only knowledge of a historical nature, but in general. Pointing to the trend
in philosophy from Nietzsche to the present, Jenkins claims that
modern thought has been led from all sides to the inexorable conclusion that there are no objective foundations for any philosophical
As they have searched even harder for some foundations for
their own positions, what they have all realized is that no
such foundations exist either for themselves or for anybody

a wrinkle in historical time

else and nor have they ever done so: every idol has had
feet made of clay. As a result, skepticism or, more strongly,
nihilism, just do now provide the dominant, underlying intellectual presupposition of our times. (Jenkins 64)
Jenkins is perhaps well advised to use the perfunctory postmodern
quotation marks around our times, as his exulting claims could be
taken by some to be not as representative of the present as he might
like to think; indeed, Nietzsche, for all his skepticism, would probably have preferred to call everyone else nihilistic, while retaining
for himself the title of Yeah-sayer to life. That said, Jenkinss is
certainly an adequate generalization of the contemporary epistemo
logical scene, and his approach to producing history is a good approxi
mation of what must be the unspoken norm among those informed
enough to know that they live in postmodern times:
My own view on these possibilities that post-modernism
has constituted at the very same time as allowing expression, is that such attempts at status quo recuperation and
closure are unlikely to be effective within the trajectory of
democratising, sceptical/ironic social formations and that,
aprs Widdowson, they ought not to be anyway. Between
the Scylla and Charybdis of, on the one hand, authorized
history and, on the other, post-modern pastlessness, a space
exists for the desirable outcome of as many people(s) as possible to make their own histories such that they can have
real effects (a real say) in the world. (67)
This statement is given in the context of a minor sparring with Widdowson over the effects of postmodern relativism for well-meaning
proponents of minor histories. Widdowson apparently thinks that
the less powerful challengers to official history will feel the weight
of truthlessness more than their opponents; Jenkins is optimistically
certain that a dropping tide will scuttle all boats (although it might
be appropriate to wonder if his panacea of democratising sceptical/ironic social formations is a guaranteed product of the reign of

a wrinkle in history

a postmodernism that is rapidly showing itself more cynical than

In Jenkins postmodern view, then, what is important about
history is not its service as an adequate representative of the past,
but rather the role it can play as a [fully] partial representative in
a politicized present. The idea of some objective totality almost re
turns here, not as a past reality, but as the spectrum of subjective
perspectives which compose the contemporary discourse on history.
This position differs somewhat from that of both Hayden White
and Michel Foucault. It differs from the former in that, while White
sees the job of the historian as establishing the value of the study of
the past, this is so not as an end in itself, but as a way of providing
perspectives on the present that contribute to the solution of problems peculiar to our own time (Tropics 41). In other words, there is
a sense here of real problems that transcend the particularity of indi
vidualized perspectives, and to which the research of the historian,
although ideologically inflected, might offer possible solutions. In
contrast, Jenkinss position differs from the perspective of Michel
Foucault in its optimistic forecast of a discursive field of fair political combat, a field in which a democratic irony seemingly permits
everyone to freely communicate his or her perspective. For Foucault,
language is coterminous with ideology, and the strategic positioning
for power is in deadly earnest.
Jacques Rancires book, The Names of History, juxtaposes his
ideal of history against attempts in recent times to positivize it by
making its methods cohere more to the standards of research in the
other social sciences. While he applauds the move in historical stud
ies to change its object of choice from the life of the great man to the
great constants of human activity,11 he deplores the dualistic mode
of thinking that requires one to choose scientific methodology, the
tools of quantifications, over the traditional discourse of history:
The distinctive feature of the revolution in historical study,
then, does not simply consist in knowing how to define the
new objects long periods, material civilization, and the
life of the masses and how to adapt the new instruments

a wrinkle in historical time

of the language of numbers. It consists in knowing how to

recognize, in the siren song of the scientific age, the threat of
ruin of historical study, the dilemma hidden under the propositions of its scientificization: either history or science. (6)
The aspect that must be retained for history to persist is precisely
that element that has opened the door to the critique of its founda
tions, namely, language: But history can become a science by re
maining history only through the poetic detour that gives speech a
regime of truth (89). In other words, far from chastising the historian for using poetic language to create a realistic effect, Rancire
claims this to be the very purpose of history, and the only way history can achieve the status of science. Far from having to rid itself
of the contamination of poetry, history becomes science by virtue of
being the only regime of truth that acknowledges its debt to rhetoric. The epitome of this ethics of style for Rancire is Michelet, often thought of as simply a version of Romanticist historiography
(xv), whom he uses to launch what he calls a poetics of knowledge, a
study of the set of literary procedures by which a discourse escapes
literature, gives itself the status of a science, and signifies that status
(8). In this way, by virtue of an almost Hegelian inversion, Rancire
returns to historys claim to scientific status by way of its negation in
literature, finding its final identity in a unity of opposites, science in
the poetic, objectivity in the subjective.
This ostensible return to objectivity via a subjective poetics also
marks the ground for a turn in my own narrative, as it suggests a
connection between Rancires poetics of knowledge, and the theo
retical edifice of another contemporary thinker of history, Fredric
Jameson. The connection is that Jameson also appears to be trying to
lift from the postmodern web of perspectival subjectivities a thread
of objectivity, some slender strand of knowledge that could grant his
latter-day Marxism the status he desires for it as the ultimate horizon
of interpretation. But if Michelet is for Rancire the sine qua non of
poetic history, he is only the close but no cigar of Jamesons hierarchy
of historicism, a representative of the category he names existential
historicism. It does not appear that this denomination would greatly


a wrinkle in history

displease Rancire, since that subjective union of past and present is

foremost in Jamesons description, in which existential historicism
designates something like a transhistorical event: the experi
ence, rather, by which historicity as such is manifested, by
means of the contact between the historians mind in the
present and a given synchronic cultural complex from the
past. This is to say that the methodological spirit of existential historicism may be described as a historical and cultural
It is the existential historicist who, by the power of his language and
his intensity, endows the past with life and makes it pertinent for
the present in a way (one could imagine Rancire echo) that mere
numbers could never do. The problem for Jameson lies not in the
subjective infusion of the past, but with the more properly ideological presuppositions that tend to accompany this methodology,
presuppositions that have the purpose of containing the threat of
relativism that emerges from this subjective agency (159). Such containment strategies might include any type of psychologizing about
human nature in an attempt to universalize, explain, or empathize
with the experience of a historical event.13 Jamesons method, following Althusser, is to avoid the possibly ideological contamination of
humanism by envisioning history as a structure with neither telos
nor subject.
In the domain of critique
The desire that underlies Jamesons cultural critique is to establish,
amidst the myriad critical tendencies of postmodern culture, the priority of one methodology. If the current epistemological situation
may be adequately described with the relativistic ardor of Jenkins,
as brimming with democratising skeptical/ironic social formations, the project of isolating a dominant interpretive code would
seem to be of questionable value, not to say feasibility. But Jamesons idea is not to replace or repudiate the other hermeneutic codes

a wrinkle in historical time


deconstructive, semiotic, psychoanalytic but rather to argue

that they only have critical worth when used under the aegis of a
totalizing master narrative. Marxism is that master code precisely
because it encompasses what he calls the social:
To affirm the priority of Marxist analysis as that of some ulti
mate and untranscendable semantic horizon namely the
horizon of the social thus implies that all other interpretive
systems conceal a seam which strategically seals them off from
the social totality of which they are a part and constitutes their
object of study as an apparently closed phenomenon. (148)
Thus it is by way of a logical argument that Jameson intends Marxism to hold sway, namely, that all other codes aim for universality
while bound in some way to the particular. They all aim, he says,
at a final representation of History as something representable; the
Althusserian Marxism he espouses, however, escapes the traps of
historicism because its master code is not given as a representa
tion but rather as an absent cause, as that which can never know full
representation (150).
The extent to which one is trapped within the ideological per
spective of ones code of choice, sealed off from the social totality,
depends on ones relation to the past, i.e., ones mode of historicism. Jameson portrays the great dilemma of historicism as being
one of identity and difference, resonating again with the problem
of subjective versus objective knowledge. The problem is that just
as Hayden White showed that all historical undertaking implied a
full-blown metahistory, this metahistorical position, for Jameson,
always chooses to presuppose a fundamental difference or identity
between itself and the past it aims to represent.14 While he does not
receive the work of Michelet for him the salient (or even borderline) example of existential historicism in the same light as
Rancire does, the trajectory of his argument is the same. If Rancire
envisioned a return to historys scientific status as only being possible
via an open espousal of its literary form, Jameson is also designating
the goal of Marxist historicism as a unity of opposites:


a wrinkle in history

[...] the Marxist solution to the dilemma of historicism

outlined here will consist in squaring the circle we have already traced, in positing a mode of Identity that is also one
of radical Difference, and in producing a kind of structural
historicism, in which the vital and, if one likes, properly libidinal investment of existential historicism in the past is
somehow derived from or positioned within a conception of
the logic of historical and cultural forms more satisfactory
than that proposed by structural typology [an organization
of the past ostensibly based on its own inherent structural
logic]. (172)
This organizing concept, this more satisfactory logic, is none other
than the (revised) Marxist idea of modes of production, not merely
economic, but vast synchronic structures that subsume the cultural, the linguistic and the political as well. This concept of mode of
production will be for Jameson the key to a totalizing narrative, a
concept which will articulate the synchronic unit of a diachronic
structure called History.
Is this not, however, just a bit too easy? If the introduction of
this concept seems rhetorically unanswerable, is it not because it is
really a signifier intended to signify (in absentia) an answer to any
possible objection? Does it not merely indicate the place of a totality
that by definition can only be comprehended in the abstract? By asking these questions, we interrogate the viability of Jamesons concept
of history as a critical tool, as he clearly intends it to serve. The act of
critique, while the result of an individual agency, is inscribed in a social domain, and is itself a mediation for a non-individual and more
collective process. This process is, for Jameson, the confrontation of
different modes of production: We must try to accustom ourselves
to a perspective in which every act of reading, every local interpretive practice, is grasped as the privileged vehicle through which two
distinct modes of production confront and interrogate each other
(175). If the relativity of the subjective perspective has vanished
from this formulation, it is because the subject itself is also absent.
But is it so easy, or even desirable, to banish subjective agency from

a wrinkle in historical time


the interpretive act? Jamesons 1981 book, The Political Unconscious,

is an examination of the act of interpretation, in which he shows his
position to rest, in the final instance, on a model of historical causality in which History, in Althussers words, is an absent cause.
The stories that we tell of our past are, for Jameson, inherently
incomplete, necessarily the product of some process of exclusion.
The quality of the Marxist interpretive mode that would justify its
ascendancy against all others is precisely its claim to recover these ex
cluded elements within the unity of a single great collective story,
a story in which all endeavors share a common theme, the collective
struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of necessity.15
The ethical aim of the Marxist critique, then, is to tell this story in
all its plenitude: It is in detecting the traces of that uninterrupted
narrative, in restoring to the surface of the text the repressed and
buried reality of this fundamental history, that the doctrine of a
political unconscious finds its function and its necessity (21). In
this passage Jameson clearly makes reference to the historical totality as an uninterrupted narrative, leading one to believe that the
past, in his view, is indeed a story, a text, of which fundamental
parts have been excluded in the creation of official histories. But
such a formulation seemingly flies in the face of his articulation of
history as a diachrony of modes of production, a concept whose theo
retical enormity would necessarily exclude the possibility of its en
capsulation in a narrative. In fact, a few pages later he replaces this
narrative model of history again:
We would therefore propose the following revised formulation: that history is not a text, not a narrative, master or
otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to
us except in textual form, and that our approach to it and to
the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious. (35)
We find here a concise articulation of a new distinction: one must
apprehend the historical in the realm of narrative because the past
is always-already narrated, told in ways that assume a meaningful,


a wrinkle in history

expressive causality. To ignore these prior textualizations of history

would be to ignore their resonance in the political unconscious of
our own cultural contexts. But history itself must be thought of in
a different way; the totality of history is expressed by Althusser in
Lacanian terms, as the Real, that which resists symbolization abso
lutely (35), and which can only be read through its effects.
The place of history, then, is the place of the Real; it is a totality
unassimilable to the various attempts to symbolize or make sense of
it. In Jamesons Althusserian model of structural causality, it is also
the place of structure, or modes of production, as the ultimate causal
agent in historical change that, nonetheless, can never be imagined
as a single agent effecting change upon some object. Unlike the me
chanical or expressive models of causality, structural causality is
immanent in its effects (24), such that,
[i]f therefore one wishes to characterize Althussers Marxism
as a structuralism, one must complete the characterization
with the essential proviso that it is a structuralism for which
only one structure exists: namely the mode of production
itself, or the synchronic system of social relations as a whole.
This is the sense in which this structure is an absent cause,
since it is nowhere empirically present as an element, it is not
a part of the whole or one of the levels, but rather the entire
system of relationships among those levels. (36)
But with this formulation have we not returned yet again to
the fundamental problem of historical knowledge? Jameson, using
Althusser, using Lacan, has theorized history as an absent cause,
separating it at its root from the recurrent narrations of it that consti
tute the political unconscious. But if the structure or modes of pro
duction that are the causal agent of history are indeed inaccessible
to the historian, how can the knowledge of this in any way contribute to the creation of a master narrative that could account for this
impossible totality? It would appear that the gap between the real
of history and any attempt to narrate it would be, in ieks terms,
constitutive. The third part of the introductory essay to The Political

a wrinkle in historical time


Unconscious outlines an allegorical praxis of reading that Jameson

believes will work to reveal the political unconscious of a text, i.e.,
its relation to the historical as the absolute horizon of meaning; but
this method, while in many ways an excellent hermeneutic device,
must fail in its ultimate goal, and take its place among all other interpretive codes, if it does not rectify this fundamental theoretical
inconsistency. One possible solution lies in a return to the origin of
this absent cause, namely, to the Lacanian concept of the Real. In
Slavoj ieks critique of Althussers model of ideology and subjectiv
ity we find a more adequate and flexible model of the Real, which in
turn provides the philosophical grounding for, if not an objective
knowledge of history, then perhaps that sublation of objective and
subjective, of past and present, on which Jameson seeks to ground
his methodology.
A different model of causality
One of the more striking elements of the Jameson/Althusser model
of history is it subjectlessness, which can be best illustrated by a
homology between Althussers definition of history as a process
without a telos or a subject (quoted in Political Unconscious 29) and
Jamesons articulation of the act of reading as the confrontation be
tween two modes of production. In either case, the individual sub
ject does not exist as subjective agent but rather as product or, at
most, mediating agent. It is precisely at this point that Slavoj iek,
in his 1989 book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, criticizes the Althusserian model of subjectivity, in which subjects are nothing but
vehicles for ideology, and as such constantly practice the rituals
of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects.16 In the introduction to his book, iek notes that
contemporary critical theory has been dominated by a (would be)
debate Habermas versus Foucault that in reality is masking
another opposition, another debate which is theoretically more farreaching: the Althusser-Lacan debate (1). His point is that, from
a certain perspective, Foucault and Habermas represent relatively


a wrinkle in history

similar models of subjectivity,17 whereas the real break comes

with Althusser, by his insistence on the fact that a certain cleft, a
certain fissure, misrecognition, characterizes the human condition
as such: by the thesis that the idea of the possible end of ideology is
an ideological idea par excellence (2). In contrast to this model of
subjectivity as alienation in the process without telos or subject,
iek posits the Lacanian concept of separation, aimed at the fact
that we must not obliterate the distance separating the Real from its
symbolization: it is this surplus of the Real over every symbolization
that functions as the object-cause of desire (3), and, consequently,
of freedom.
The principal element in the Lacanian response to Althusserian
interpellation is the insight that the symbolic order, the place from
which the call issues, and to which we respond with recognition,
is itself fundamentally lacking:
This lack in the Other [symbolic order] gives the subject
so to speak a breathing space, it enables him to avoid
the total alienation in the signifier not by filling out his lack
but by allowing him to identify himself, his own lack, with
the lack in the Other. (122)
Consequently, a subjects desire, that surplus of the Real over any
possible symbolization of it, is also his or her freedom, a freedom,
in Jamesons words, wrested from the realm of necessity. But this
freedom, this breathing space, far from liberating the subject from
the thrall of ideology, is in fact the very condition of possibility of
ideology. In Althussers system, in which language, subjectivity and
ideology are coterminous, ideology simply collapses into mentality;
there is no need for the distinction since, by virtue of being a subject, one is already ideologically determined. The Lacanian model
of subjectivity, on the other hand, creates a distinction between a
subjects position and that of the ideological discourse interpellating
her; but, as iek points out, it is this lack in the symbolic order
that, in the last instance, supports its ideological function: In ideology, all is not ideology (that is, ideological meaning), but it is this

a wrinkle in historical time


very surplus which is the last support of ideology (124), since it

beckons to the subject with the fantasy of his or her lost plenitude of
being, or jouissance.
This relationship between the symbolic order and the subject
suggests a modification on the model of causality theorized by Jameson. Rather than history being viewed as an all-encompassing but
inaccessible structure carrying within itself its own effects (subjects,
ideologies, etc.), this new model understands the cause in structural
causality to be precisely the radical disjuncture between the symbolic order and the Real, the phenomenal reality that always exceeds it
in some way. The ever repeated efforts and failures to symbolize the
Real are themselves the cause of both individual subjects and of the
political unconscious itself. The causal agent of History is not the
unattainable totality of some deep synchronic structure, but rather
the radical impossibility of any structure taking full account of its
reality, past or present. As iek writes:
Thus, Lacans next step involves precisely the insight into
how this gap between the Real and the Symbolic affects the sym
bolic order itself: it functions as the inherent limitation of this
order. The symbolic order is barred, the signifying chain is
inherently inconsistent, non-all, structured around a hole.
This inherent non-symbolizable reef maintains the gap be
tween the symbolic and the Real that is, it prevents the
Symbolic from falling into the Real and, again, what
is ultimately at stake in this decenterment of the Real with
regard to the Symbolic is the Cause: the Real is the absent
Cause of the Symbolic. The Freudian and Lacanian name
for this cause is, of course, trauma.18
Thus we see again here the formulation of Real as absent cause;
but this Real has little in common with the Althusserian notion of
a totalizing but ineffable synchronic structure. Rather than a totality, the Real is the internal and inherent impossibility of a structure
ever attaining totality. This is the Real as trauma, the missing link
in the chain (33) of rational, symbolic narrations, but for all that,


a wrinkle in history

the trauma has no existence of its own prior to symbolization; it

remains an anamorphic entity that gains its consistency only in retrospect, viewed from within the symbolic horizon it acquires its
consistency from the structural necessity of the inconsistency of the
symbolic field (31).
It should be clear that with this conception of the Real as trauma we arrive at the phenomenon discovered by Freud that he called
Nachtrglichkeit, or deferred action. Freud developed this concept
as an attempt to understand how certain childhood experiences, or
traumata, could produce neurotic symptoms in adults without ever
having been recognized as traumatic during childhood. This event,
originally theorized by Freud as either a parental seduction or a se
duction fantasy, at first does not enter the infants symbolic reality;
it has no meaning for her. It is only later, in the context of a new
symbolic order, that the memory of the event returns and may be
assigned a meaning. As Laplanche and Pontalis note, there are clear
similarities between this formulation and the Lacanian concept of
forclusion, in which an event which has not been admitted to sym
bolic expression reappears in reality in the form of hallucination.19
But of what use can a psychoanalytic concept, developed as part
of an etiological theory of neurosis, be to an understanding of history? In fact, Freud himself found his concept useful enough to make
it the central theme of his history of monotheistic religions, Moses
and Monotheism:
From then on I have never doubted that religious phenomena are to be understood only on the model of the neurotic
symptoms of the individual, which are so familiar to us,
as a return of long forgotten important happenings in the
primeval history of the human family, that they owe their
obsessive character to that very origin, and therefore derive
their effect on mankind from the historical truth they contain.20
In Freuds view, events and their symbolization work similarly
whether in the context of an individuals psychological development

a wrinkle in historical time


or a civilizations cultural history. Certain events are either repressed

or forgotten from the collective unconscious21 and return with greater force at a later time when they are made meaningful by a new
context. Of course, along with this theoretical edifice comes Freuds
belief in phylogenesis, in which not only dispositions are inherited
from ones forbearers but actual ideational content as well, memory
traces of the experiences of former generations (157). But as Lacan
has shown with his broad based re-reading of Freud, there is no need
to base the commonality of the unconscious on biology; the uncon
scious is common to people insofar as it exists outside them, in the
realm of intersubjectivity, in the medium of language.
The concept of Nachtrglichkeit is fundamental to this discus
sion because it serves as the vinculum between the symbolic and the
real, between narrative and its traumatic origin; it is the paradoxical
symbolic positing of a real cause that marks the illusory limits between inside and outside, subjective and objective, present and past.
If this is the case, then the absent cause of history is always posited
as such from a present symbolic constellation, always constructed
retroactively. But is this tantamount to denying the reality of the
past? Laplanche and Pontalis confront the same problem in their
article Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality: is the original event
which is later to be incorporated as traumatic real, or is it imaginary?
Is the event an initiation into sexuality, or does it depend on the
infants pre-existent sexuality, and, if so, how is it recognized as sex
ual? For them, the answer to the question of whether this is a case
of circular causality or simultaneous appearance is that however far
back one may go they originate from the same point (16). Can the
same be said about the cause that is history, namely, that it is neither
an objective fact nor a subjective fantasy but rather originates at
the very horizon marking the impossible chiasmus between the real
and its symbolization? The cultural historian, by reading the traces
of the political unconscious, at the same time reveals the presence of
this traumatic past, and participates in its reinscription in an everchanging future.


a wrinkle in history

Narrative and subjectivity: an analytic approach to history

At this point we can nuance Jamesons and Althussers view of history
a causal structure that includes within itself its own effects to
read that history is also a series of effects that retroactively posit their
own cause, an exact homology with ieks definition of subjectivity:
the subject is an effect that entirely posits its own cause (Metastases
37). How, then, does this theoretical proposition help solve the more
methodological question of the nature of a properly historical reading? As the door has been opened by Jameson and Althusser toward
a psychoanalytic re-evaluation of historical knowledge, I will use
this opportunity to explore the depths of a relationship that often
threatens to be more real than analogous, for, as Lacan would surely
allow, an analyst is little else if she is not a historian of the unconscious. To begin with, Lacan grasps fully the historical implications
of the concept Nachtrglichkeit, referring to the retroactive symbolic
positing of original events as a primary historization: Events are
engendered in a primary historization. In other words, history is already producing itself on the stage where it will be played out, once
it has been written down, both within the subject and outside him
(Lacan 52). This formulation seriously challenges the most commonsensical approach to the historicization of an event, in which
the Real thing in its phenomenological presence actually occurs,
and then is subject to repeated and perspectivally diverse representations. Rather, at the most primordial moment of contact, the experience of the event is already subjected to a primary historicization, an
inscription, categorization or evaluation that logically precedes the
event that it might follow chronologically.22 Furthermore, primary
historicization marks an intrusion of the outside of symbolic mediation into the inside of phenomenological experience, an interior which, in the words of Laplanche and Pontalis perhaps did not
exist as such before this intrusion (5).
The ramification of this insight for our incipient historical
methodology is that the historical analysis is always a history of the
Symbolic, not of the Real. Lacan, lecturing to his psychoanalysts in
training during his seminar on the psychoses, tells them:

a wrinkle in historical time


Some imagine that we have to totally restore the undifferenti

ated lived experience of the subject, the succession of images
projected onto the screen of his lived experience, in order
to grasp it qua duration, la Bergson. What we apprehend
clinically is never like this. The continuity in everything
a subject has lived through since his birth tends never to
emerge and doesnt interest us in the slightest. What interests us are the decisive moments of symbolic articulation,
of history, but in the sense in which we say the History of
Lacan is speaking about the analysis of patients, but is this not
equally pertinent for the analysis of a societys past? In such a case
the phenomenal experience of people whose bodies we have never
shared is even more inaccessible to us; and empathy, as many have
noted, is a sure path to a completely ideological misrecognition of
the past (Jenkins 45).
But what would a symbolic history entail? Let us briefly re
view the three dimensions of experience in the Lacanian epistemol
ogy, for which there can be no logical order of exposition as they
all interrelate and mutually imply one another. The Real is the dimension of bodily drives and of all that which exceeds comprehension, notation, symbolization; the Imaginary is what is left of phe
nomenal experience, the mediating product, imbued with fantasy,
of the insertion of the most radically formative symbolism, into
corporeal reality (Laplanche and Pontalis); and the Symbolic, finally, is the differential order of meaning, language, and the law. It
is the insertion of symbolism that creates the subject as such, and
it is also the Symbolic which is the only conduit between one subject
and the past, between a subject and others. Symbolic history, then,
deals with the constitution of reality, the construction of memories
and, more urgently, the restoration of continuity to subjects. This
is where, of course, Jamesons idea of the repressed narrative returns:
it is not the purpose of either history or psychoanalysis to assume the
impossible task of returning to the subject her lost phenomenal reality; rather it is the restoration of the narration of that loss, because


a wrinkle in history

the always-already narrated history of subjects and societies is itself

the subject of repressions, and the ethical attitude of analysis is to
seek these out. This, in turn, implies two more fundamental distinctions: first, the practice of history (or analysis) can only occur in an
intersubjective space in that its very purpose is to partake in the
mediating function of language; and, secondly, the ambit of history
(or analysis) is not reality, but truth, in so far as history constitutes
the emergence of truth in the real (crits 49).
In both traditional history and psychoanalysis, anamnesis, the
recollection of the past whether social or subjective is the
central concern. Psychoanalysiss primary insight into subjective
anamnesis is that it is useless unless it takes place in an intersubjective context. That is to say, a subjects own memories may be brought
forth by modern drugs, or even transmitted directly to him through
rediscovered diaries or other forms of recorded discourse, but precisely because it comes to him through an alienated form [...] [it]
cannot have the same effects as psychoanalytic interlocution (49).
Restoration of historical continuity is only possible as an intersubjective effort, precisely because it is here that, the subjects history is
constituted (49). What is more, such a formulation recognizes the
transindividual nature of the unconscious, which is never at the
disposal of the subject (49), but rather exists outside in the intersubjective community.
It is a commonplace to point out that in the constant struggle for
power that is the social sphere, certain histories are constituted upon
the repression of others, and that, as a result, narrative continuity
itself is politically suspect. But such a position fails to recognize the
constitutive nature of the primary historicization; the analytic ethic
is to reveal the holes, the lacunae,24 which are the structural truth of
any narrative, but also to recognize that beneath the ideological
facade of narrative there is no ideal ground of harmony. The antagonism, the fissure between the Symbolic and the Real, is constitutive of both, and there is no pre-symbolic reality to speak of. This
spectre of a pre-symbolic reality that grounds an inherent truth is
the often unspoken condition of possibility of many radical relativisms. For an example need only look so far as Nietzsches Genealogy

a wrinkle in historical time


of Morals, perhaps the founding text of modern relativistic thought,

in which he criticizes the plebeianism of the modern spirit, and
the retarding influence exercised by the democratic prejudice in
the modern world in his genealogical substitution of the moralistic (ideological) concept of good with the more natural and
primordial reign of power.25 Lacans position here may be seen as
antithetical to Nietzsche and to the brand of relativism that follows
him, in that he denies the existence of a ground of absence of ethics
from which to criticize ethical thought, or of a ground of meaning
lessness from which to problematize the creation of meaning. The
weapon of critique is always wielded from and within the domain of
language, and it alone supports the possibility of mediation or nego
tiation between and among conflicting drives. Taking his cue from
Hegel, Lacan also believes that human beings constitute themselves
through struggle:
Servitude and grandeur in which the living being would be
annihilated, if desire did not preserve its part in the interfer
ences and pulsations that the cycles of language cause to
converge on him, when the confusion of tongues takes a
hand and when the orders contradict one another in the
tearing apart of the universal work.
But for this desire itself to be satisfied in man requires
that it be recognized, through the agreement of speech or
through the struggle for prestige, in the symbol or in the
imaginary (crits 68).
The symbol, then, is not just a tool in the struggle for power, an au
tomatic conduit of ideological identification; it is equally the only
possible mitigator of the struggle that both Hegel and Foucault rec
ognize as the constant in human existence. History, that discourse
that spans the gap between individuals by telling the story of a polit
ical unconscious, is not merely a luxury of antiquarian idleness, but
is, in fact, an indispensable necessity for the survival of community.
The responsibility of the analyst of history, then, is to read
the symbolic traces of the past for their resonance in the political


a wrinkle in history

unconscious of the present. The ideal of historical praxis, writes

Lacan, is the identification of the subjectivity of the historian with
the constituting subjectivity of the primary historization in which
the event is humanized (75) i.e., not the subjective resuscitation
of a dead objective past, nor even the objective confrontation between two structures or modes of production, but the recognition
of the subjective role of the historical in the constitution of subjectivity, a understanding that the objective, symbolic past which we
approach as our radical other, is at one and the same time the most
intimate truth of our subjective being.
In this sense we are justified in saying that in history, like in
psychoanalysis, it is not a question of reality, but of truth (48).
This distinction between truth and reality is fundamental for under
standing the function of history, and for maintaining a difference
between it and other discursive forms. Those who believe that
because historical discourse is always positional, always rhetorical,
and always expressive of an ideological inflection, it cannot therefore make a claim to truth, are relying on a straw man version
of truth. The guarantee of truth is that the symbolic order is never
within an individual, under her domination, but rather always exists
outside. The truth is always contextual, always radically dependent
on language, on situation; in short, it a result of signification, not
of reference. In the same way as the relativist debunking of truth
requires as its target an impossibly naive definition, so does the
deconstructivist impossibility of reading or communication require an untenable (though certainly widely held) understanding of
communication as referential as opposed to signifying; the mistake
is to believe that by revealing the dissemination of language, or
the constant slippage of the signified under the signifier, one has
thereby shown communication to be impossible. On the contrary,
languages quality of eternal regress of meaning is the very condition
of possibility of communication. For were this contextual flexibility
not an inherent element of language, it would not be capable of me
diating between the entirely distinct imaginary worlds of individual
phenomenal existence. This is also Michel de Certeaus position vis
vis writing, which for him is

a wrinkle in historical time


born of and treats of admitted doubt, of explicit division;

in sum, of the impossibility of its own place. It articulates
the constant initial fact that the subject is never authorized
by a place, that he could never be founded on an inalterable cogito, that he is always foreign to himself and forever
deprived of an ontological ground, and hence is always left
over, superfluous, always the debtor of a death, indebted in
respect to the disappearance of a genealogical and territorial
substance, and bound to a name lacking property.
This loss and this obligation generate writing. (de Certeau
In the same way that the loss of place guarantees the obligation of
writing, the impossibility of immanently experiencing the past is
what allows one to speak of historical knowledge, not in terms of
reality, but in terms of truth. For historical knowledge does not
refer, it signifies, and truth is the standard of its communicability,
and of its efficacy as a mediator between subjects.
By now it should be clear how one can claim, with Jameson,
that the founding dilemma of historicism the choice between
identity and difference is itself false, since the presupposition of
radical difference implies a subject in the position of enunciation
who can span that difference in order to enunciate it, and since the
assumption of identity still requires an objectification of the past
with which to enable that comparison. The contemporary, or postmodern, position of Jenkins, in which one relativizes ones own
historical moment, runs up against this fundamental philosophical
impediment. As iek argues, by claiming to historically relativize our own position, we actually conceal its split,26 we deny the
universalistic claims of our enunciative position, and imply that
our own subjective place is above the perspectival and ideological
squabbles over the truth of historical discourse. It is only by realizing that our own subjective positions, whoever we are, are radically
implicated in the histories we write not insofar as everyone is
entitled to her own view of the past, but insofar as we are engaging in a discourse that is by definition trans-individual that we


a wrinkle in history

can begin to recuperate the repressed narratives that constitute our

living selves.
Historical reading: the historian as cultural analyst
This said, we may now return to my initial question concerning the
historical as a category of literary or cultural research. It is my be
lief that the idea of causality outlined above solves what I suggested
was a fundamental problem in the Althusserian concept of structural causality upon which Jameson builds his scholarly methodology. By theorizing the absent cause of history as cause in the
sense of trauma, a retroactive positing of origins that continually
reconstitutes its past in light of an ever changing present, I have proposed a model of history that sublates the oppositions of subject and
object, identity and difference, and which at the same time permits
access to the fundamental narratives that structure subjectivities in
the present. From the perspective of this understanding of history, it
would be useful to return to Jamesons essay on The Political Unconscious to see what ramifications it might have at a practical level.
Jameson concludes his discussion of Althussers models of causality with the claim that there exists a methodology to correspond
with the concept of structural causality, one which could reconstruct from the text that context of mediation which in the subjectless process of history would constitute the political unconscious.
The method he develops consists of
three concentric frameworks, which mark a widening out of the
sense of the social ground of a text through the notions, first, of
political history, in the narrowest sense of punctual event and
chroniclelike sequence of happenings in time; then of society,
in the now already less diachronic and time-bound sense of a
constitutive tension and struggle between social classes; and,
ultimately, of history now conceived in its vastest sense of the
sequence of modes of production and the succession and des
tiny of the various human social formations, from prehistoric
life to whatever far future history has in store for us. (75).

a wrinkle in historical time


These three different horizons of reading imply as well three differ

ent interpretive acts. In the first, the reader takes the text as a symbolic act, which has the function of inventing imaginary or formal
solutions to unresolvable social contradictions (79). Since any
symbolic system of coordinates must contain contradictions, points
at which their symbolic consistency breaks down, the idea that cultural or aesthetic production production that seeks to make
sense out of life will in some way conceal those contradictions is
logically sound, and not only conceivable within a strictly Marxist
social theory. At this point, then, the reader, treating the social contradiction as the point of the Real, and therefore itself inaccessible,
distinguishes a secondary political or ideological subtext, which
takes the form of the aporia or the antinomy (82), and which then
may be shown to be subject to a narrativization or ideological closure. We can see here, however, the theoretical difficulties that arise
form maintaining a non-textual, radically separated understanding
of absent cause.
Having taken the step of reading the text as a case of ideological
closure of a social contradiction, the next move is to see that text as
an utterance of a deeper instance or language, which he calls the
an amphibious formation whose essential structural characteristic may be described as its possibility to manifest itself
either as a pseudoidea a conceptual or belief system, an
abstract value, an opinion or prejudice or as a protonarrative, a kind of ultimate class fantasy about the collective
characters which are the classes in opposition. (87)
The symbolic act can thus be seen to embody or imply a certain
package of values, an underlying understanding of the natural or
of the true. The identification of this second level of interpretation
leads then directly to a third, that of the ideology of form, in which
both the symbolic act and the ideologeme are seen as indices of the
properly historical, effects of the confrontation between modes of
production, the structure of history in its most totalizing sense.


a wrinkle in history

Nevertheless, the question still remains: if the Real of history is

forever inaccessible to the historian, Marxist or otherwise, what is
left to guarantee that this, the dimension of the historical, can sub
sume all other interpretive codes and sustain itself as the ultimate
interpretive horizon? Jameson must finally answer this question by
asserting that it is the experience of Necessity that acts as this guar
History is therefore the experience of Necessity, and it is
this alone which can forestall its thematization or reification as a mere object of representation or as one master code
among many others. Necessity is not in that sense a type of
content, but rather the inexorable form of events; it is therefore a narrative category in the enlarged sense of some properly narrative political unconscious which has been argued
here, a retextualization of History which does not propose
the latter as some new representation or vision of some new
content, but as the formal effects of what Althusser, following Spinoza, calls an absent cause. (102)
This experience that alone grounds this vision of history is an
experience of narrative. Its authority derives from the fact that its
referent cannot be known. Are we not, at this point, stuck in the
dilemma of desiring an objective knowledge while acknowledging
the object to be utterly unattainable? It is only by re-envisioning the
cause, turning not to Spinozas monistic God but rather to Lacans
traumatic Real, the retroactive positing of origins, that the subject/
object model of historical knowledge is shown to be false. By the
practice of symbolic history one can argue for the existence of a political unconscious that is the persistence of the past in the creation
of the present, that is grounded in attainable narratives buried be
neath repeated repressions.
Perhaps this is the ultimate meaning of Benjamins cryptic definition of history as being the subject of a structure whose site is not
homogeneous, empty time, but time filled with the presence of the
now.27 Certainly he had some of the very concepts I have proposed

a wrinkle in historical time


in mind when he wrote his Theses on the Philosophy of History; here,

for example, is Benjamins articulation of Nachtrglichkeit:
Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connec
tion between various moments in history. But no fact that is
a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical
posthumously, as it were, through events that may be sepa
rated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes
this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of
events like the beads of a rosary. Instead he grasps the constellations which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. (263)
This, Benjamin writes, is the time of the now. My only addition is to
note that in the constellation of which he speaks must be recognized
the indebtedness of the subject who seeks, and that the response he
or she hears, echoing back along the corridors of time, is that of the
voices with whom he or she must speak, and continue speaking. For
we know that when the speech is over, the violence has just begun.


a wrinkle in history

Chapter 2
On Dante, Hyperspheres,
and the Curvature
of the Medieval Cosmos

In the course of his lectures on medieval literature at Oxford

University in the 1950s, C. S. Lewis would ask students to walk
alone at night, gaze at the star-filled sky, and try to imagine how it
might look to a walker in the Middle Ages. It would not likely have
occurred to him that some forty years later, several astrophysicists
would ask that their readers perform the same activity, at least
figuratively not, however with the intention of experiencing
medieval conceptions of the cosmos, but rather in order to begin to
imagine the shape of our own. One of the astrophysicists in question
is Stanford Professor Emeritus Robert Osserman, whose 1995 book
The Poetry of the Universe is an attempt to acquaint lay readers with
what recent research suggests is the shape of the universe, by leading
them through a brief history of the mathematical and technological
developments that made such boundary-breaking thought
possible. Paradoxically, when it comes to trying to imagine that
all-encompassing form, which is derived from a four-dimensional
mathematical model called a hypersphere, he turns not to ultramodern computer-generated images, nor to dry-but-technicallyaccurate exegeses of mathematical formulae, but rather to the verses
of a fourteenth-century Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. His claim
is that in the third canticle of the Divine Comedy, which details
his ascent through the heavens, Dante describes the cosmos with
astonishing precision as a hypersphere, exactly as modern physics
has determined it to be.
If the cosmology of the present makes use of Dante heuristically,
however, it never asks the most obvious question: Why? Why does
one need to go back to the fourteenth century for a poetic description


a wrinkle in history

of how the universe appears to modern science? Osserman assumes

it to be a mere coincidence, and why should he not? What possible
access would a thinker a poet even of the European Middle
Ages have to the highest achievements of almost six centuries of
subsequent thought? In answering this question, I am not proposing
to navely interpret the past in our own image, claiming Dante to be
a mathematical genius before his time. I am, however, suggesting that
there is an excellent explanation for why one must look to the fourteenth
century for models of expression adequate to the challenges posed by
nineteenth and twentieth century advances in mathematics: namely,
that in the course of the Scientific Revolution, wherein were laid the
epistemological foundations for the discoveries of modern science,
certain possibilities of thought and imagination were discarded,
forgotten, certain abilities were if only temporarily lost. The
Middle Ages has long been painted as a period whose culture was
hostile to free thought and new knowledge; perhaps it is now time to
recognize that it was also a time in which phenomena could sustain
mutually exclusive and contradictory explanations, when the battle
between faith and science had not yet been conclusively won by either
side, and when the efforts to bridge the stories they told could produce
conceptual edifices whose mere possibility would be unthinkable
only 200 years later. This essay is about one such conceptual edifice,
and how openness to its perspective allowed a poet to put into words
what could not be imagined by his descendants, and what eludes us
even today.
The first section of the essay attempts to describe the shape of the
cosmos as it is understood by modern physics, and then summarizes
the connection that Osserman makes between this structure and
the image of the cosmos in Dantes Paradiso. The second section
examines the state of natural philosophy in Dantes time, in order
to foreground the philosophical problems namely, the nature of
space and of place that necessarily confronted Dante on his poetic
and cosmological journey. The third, fourth, fifth and sixth sections
provide a detailed account of the debates concerning the concepts
of space and place in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,
emphasizing the epistemological instability of these conceptions,

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


and tracing a change of radical proportions, from a medieval concept

of space as finite and substantive, through a seventeenth century
concept of space as infinite and void, and finally to a modern, postEinsteinian concept that looks suspiciously medieval. The seventh
section deals with the specificity of Dantes project, at once poetic
and theological, and at the same time scientific and cosmological.
Finally, I conclude with some remarks concerning the debate in the
history of science between what have been called the continuity
and discontinuity positions, and suggest that both positions have
traditionally accepted a progressive structure to history that ignores
the possibility that certain knowledge structures may be forgotten or
suppressed in order to make way for the new.
The shape of the modern universe
Imagine that you are a completely flat creature, living happily in your
two-dimensional world.1 As observers, we are outside this world, and
we can see you milling about with your flat friends, blissfully unaware
of the uncharted regions one dimension away on either side of you.
Now imagine that this plane is not flat in the sense of rectilineal
as you might have created it in your mind, but rather is curved,
in fact it is a sphere. Assuming that this sphere is large enough, there
is no reason that you, an inhabitant of this surface, should be aware
of its curvature; even we, the three-dimensional observers, if close
enough to the surface, would not recognize its curvature. One could
conjecture, however, that for you, the inhabitant, such recognition
would be impossible; a line could be seen to curve to the left or
the right (assuming that those are the available dimensions) but
curvature along an up/down axis would not be an option. If the
sphere were made small enough, you would encounter some bizarre
effects, such as continually returning to that same place you just
left, despite not having changed directions. Or, if the sphere were
really small, you could scratch your own back by simply stretching
your arm out in front of your body. Now imagine that this world is
not small, but rather immeasurably large, and that we are now all
inhabitants of this space, a space that has, in fact, three dimensions.


a wrinkle in history

The space in which we live is still curved, it is still the surface of

a gigantic sphere, but this sphere is no longer a two-dimensional
surface, it is rather what mathematics calls a hypersphere, a sphere
whose surface is extended in three dimensions.2
What are some of the properties of such a universe? To begin
with, we inhabitants have no way of perceiving, in our day-to-day
experience, the curvature of space, for many of the same reasons
that the curvature of the surface of our own Earth is not obvious to
the average observer. When we arm ourselves with some of the tools
provided by modern science, however, we begin to see strange things
indeed. For one, when we aim our increasingly powerful telescopes
toward the edges of the universe, we find that the images we receive,
in terms of the density of galaxies and the prevalence of what is called
background radiation, are almost perfectly uniform, no matter in
what direction we choose to gaze. And yet, our observations also inform
us that our universe is expanding, that the distance between us and
every other object we observe is growing at a rate proportional to
that distance. These two, relatively simple, facts become remarkably
difficult to reconcile on the basis of a three-dimensional model
of space. One imagines matter spraying out though an infinite ex
panse of this space, with its origin in an enormous explosion that
scientists call the Big Bang. Yet if this were an accurate model, the
only way to explain the evidence that all other objects are receding
from us at a rate proportional to their distance is to posit that we
occupy the center of the universe, i.e., the point of the Big Bang,
a hypothesis that is in hopeless conflict with observations of more
nearby phenomena, such as our apparent position in our own galaxy,
the Milky Way.
If, on the other hand, we imagine the universe as a threedimensional spherical surface, the difficulty is removed, for any
point on the sphere can now be conceived as its center, and from
that point all lines of vision, for example must be drawn as
meridians on a globe, converging on one point on the opposite side
of the sphere. As we train our vision into the distant reaches of
space, we are also looking back in time, such that the light that has
traveled the furthest is also the oldest, and the uniformity we see at

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


the edges of the visible cosmos is the uniformity of the cosmos itself,
a relatively short time after its birth. Osserman calls the hypersphere
that conforms to this structure a retro-verse, in that its poles stretch
from the here-and-now to a remote past, some 20 billion light years
away.3 The seeming paradox of the retro-verse and the aspect that
makes it most difficult for us to grasp is that from our point of
reference, as from any point in the universe, we appear to be at the
center of an enormous sphere, the circumference of which is in fact a
single point, the point that marks the beginning of time.
One of the reasons for which this is so difficult for us to
conceptualize, according to Osserman, is that, while we have
learned to overcome our flat-earth mentality in measurements on
a global scale, we have not yet overcome our tendency to think
in terms of a flat universe (Osserman 85). Clearly, advances in
mathematics have enabled physicists to propose such a model, despite
our apparent inability to imagine in four dimensions (which is what
it takes to conceptualize a hypersphere). In particular, a nineteenthcentury mathematician named Georg Riemann developed a noneuclidean geometry with which one could theorize the curvature
of space, and which, right from the start, began to suggest plausible
solutions to ancient conundrums, such as the problem of the edge
of the universe. If the universe is finite rather than infinite, as most
ancient philosophers, apart from the Epicureans, believed it to be,
what would occur when one arrived at its edge? What would lie on
the other side, and how could that other side not be, itself, part of
the universe?
Riemanns model resolved that paradox, which is rooted in the
assumption that the universe is flat, or Euclidean. If, instead,
it is positively curved and Riemannian, then it can be finite
in extent and still not have any edge or boundary. In
Riemanns model, every part of the universe looks like every
other part, as far as shapes and measurements go. (88)
Acknowledging that it is one thing to explain an abstract mathematical
model, and quite another to have a reader or a listener understand


a wrinkle in history

and imagine this model, Osserman turns from mathematical theory

to poetry, namely, to Dantes Paradiso, in which, he claims,
the poet arrived at a view of the universe with striking
similarities to that of Riemann. In the Divine Comedy,
Dante describes the universe as consisting of two parts. One
part has its center at the earth, surrounded by larger and
larger spheres on which move the moon, the sun, successive
planets, and the fixed stars. The outer sphere, bounding
all the visible universe, is called the Primum Mobile. What
lies beyond this is the Empyrean, which Dante pictures
as another sphere, with various orders of angels circling
on concentric spheres about a center where a point of light
radiates with almost blinding intensity.4 (89)
For Osserman, this image is a startlingly accurate rendition of
the retro-verse, in which the point of light the poet depicts at the
center of the universe representing, of course, God coincides
perfectly with the Big Bang in contemporary cosmology (118).5
It is perhaps best to view this passage from Paradiso in the
context of a larger cluster of verses detailing Dantes approach to
the place of God at the center of the Empyrean. The first pertinent
moment occurs in canto XXVII, wherein Dante and his guide, the
beloved Beatrice, step into the outermost sphere from a terrestrial
perspective, the Primum Mobile, an invisible sphere beyond the
heaven of the fixed stars that accounts for the diurnal rotation of the
heavens. Upon entering this sphere, Dante notes that it is everywhere
uniform, [l]e parti sue vivissime ed eccelse/ s uniforme son, chi
non so dire/ qual Batrice per loco mi scelse (XXXVII, 100-102).
[Its parts were all so equally alive and excellent, that I cannot say
which place Beatrice selected for my entry.] 6 The fact that Dante
stresses this aspect of the Primum Mobile suggests another parallel
between his vision and that of modern cosmology: it should not
matter what path Beatrice chooses to enter the Empyrean, for as
long as one continues up, one will eventually arrive at the same
point, in this case the seat of God. The uniformity of the Primum

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


Mobile shows that the Empyrean is not just perched on top of the
mundane cosmos in one specific place, as it necessarily appears in
any two or three-dimensional rendition; rather, the edges of the
Empyrean are everywhere around us and, like the contemporary
cosmos, homogenous. Having been informed of its uniformity,
Dante immediately wonders of its location, or better, it locatability.
As she is wont to do, Beatrice answers his as-yet-unasked question
as follows:
La natura del mondo, che queta/ il mezzo e tutto laltro
intorno move,/ quinci comincia come da sua meta;/ e
questo cielo non ha altro dove/ che la mente divina, in che
saccende/ lamor che l volge e la virt chei piove./ Luce e
amor dun cerchio lui comprende,/ s come questo li altri;
e quel precinto/ colui che l cinge solamente intende./ Non
suo moto per altro distinto,/ ma li altri son mensurati
da questo,/ s come diece da mezzo e da quinto;/ e come
el tempo tegna in cotal testo/ le sue radici e ne li altri le
fronde,/ omai a te pu esser manifesto. (XXVII, 106-120)
[The nature of the universe, which holds the center still and
moves all else around it, begins here as if from its turning
post. This heaven has no other where than this: the mind
of God, in which are kindled both the love that turns it
and the force it rains. As in a circle, light and love enclose
it, as it surrounds the rest and that enclosing, only He
who encloses understands. No other heaven measures this
spheres motion, but it serves as the measure for the rest,
even as half and fifth determine ten; and now it can be
evident to you how time has roots within this vessel and,
within the other vessels, has its leaves.]
The place of the Primum Mobile which, as we shall see, was a
central concern for cosmological speculation in Dantes time is
attributed to Gods mind; this, however, does not detract from its
reality. On the contrary, time, motion and the physical existence of


a wrinkle in history

the lower spheres are utterly dependent on this place, and God is
seen as encircling it, providing both its force and the incentive
love of its motion, and hence the motion of the entire universe.
Now, if there is no physical location for the Primum Mobile, what is
the nature, or form, of its spiritual location in the mind of God? As
it turns out, the Primum Mobile forms the outer boundary of a new
set of concentric spheres, toward the center of which Dante directs
his gaze:
[...] un punto vidi che raggiava lume/ acuto s che l viso
chelli affoca/ chiuder conviensi per lo forte acume;/ e quale
stella par quinci pi poca,/ parrebba luna,/ locata con esso/
come stella con stella si collca./ Forse cotanto quanto
pare appresso/ alo cigner la luce che l dipigne/ quando l
vapor che l porta pi spesso,/ distante en torno al punto
un cerchio digne/ si girava s ratto, chavria vinto/ quel
moto che pi tosto il mondo cigne;/ e questo era dun altro
circumcinto,/ e quel dal terzo, e l terzo poi dal quarto,/ dal
quinto il quarto, e poi dal sesto il quinto. (XXVIII 1630)
[...] I saw a point that sent forth so acute a light, that anyone
who faced the force with which it blazed would have to shut
his eyes, and any star that, seen from earth, would seem
to be the smallest, set beside that point, as star conjoined
with star, would seem a moon. Around that point a ring of
fire wheeled, a ring perhaps as far from that point as a halo
from the star that colors it when mist that forms the halo
is most thick. It wheeled so quickly that it would outstrip
the motion that most swiftly girds the world. That ring was
circled by a second ring, the second by a third, third by a
fourth, fourth by a fifth, and fifth ring by a sixth.]
And thus it continues until he observes nine spheres, mirroring the
nine spheres on the other side of the Primum Mobile, except that
these increase in speed and perfection as their size decreases and
they approach the absolute center, which is God.7

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


Dantes description of this absolute center as the origin of all

movement and force in the universe is indeed, as Ossermans puts it,
an eerie (118) likeness of what he terms the retro-verse, through
which an imagined journey would require ascending away from
the central point of the earth, until at some moment the traveler
would find him or herself descending toward the fixed point,
the origin of the universe. Naturally, we must stress the imaginary
nature of such a journey, since our traveler would have to be outside
of space as well as time in order to see the convergence of spacetime to a single, infinitely dense point. The fact that Dante imagined
something so similar is extraordinary; but does it make sense to
attribute this similarity to anything more than a rare confluence
of the poetic and mathematical imagination, as Osserman reason
ably assumes? (89). Rather than as a mere coincidence, perhaps
we should try to understand this convergence as an indication of
a deep-seated epistemological difference between Dantes world
and our own, as a sign of some possibility of knowledge that, while
incapable of generating the abstract theories of Riemanns geometry,
could still imagine a world where space was curved, and where the
universe could be at once finite and boundless.
Natural philosophy in Dantes world
The principle tension characterizing all knowledge in the Middle
Ages was that between Natural Philosophy the study of nature
by way of reason, observation, and, most importantly, the study and
commentary of texts by Aristotle and Christian Theology. As E.
Grant puts it, [i]n the Middle Ages, the structure of the world was
never conceived solely in physical and metaphysical terms, but had
to be made compatible with a variety of theological concepts which,
in the end, transformed the Aristotelian cosmos into a Christian
universe.8 Many of the texts of the pagan philosophers had been a
recent discovery for scholars of the Christian Occident and while the
power of the Aristotelian system was particularly attractive, it became
rapidly evident that much work was required in order for this new
knowledge base to be assimilated into a theologically-correct world-


a wrinkle in history

view.9 In fact, it is fair to say that in many areas, such as cosmology,

no satisfactory synthesis was ever developed (Grant, Cosmology
267), which is of particular interest when we consider that, in many
ways, such a synthesis is precisely what the representation of the
cosmos in Paradiso was intended to produce.10
By the beginning of the thirteenth century, scholars in Europe
had access to Latin translations of most of Aristotles works, and
there was no doubt that his was the dominant intellectual system by
the second half of the century (Lindberg 212, 216). Nevertheless,
Aristotles conquest of the medieval universities did not come without
ecclesiastical protest. Partial bans were placed on the teaching of
his works on several occasions, but their effectiveness faded over
time, and in 1255 the faculty at Paris made the teaching of Aristotle
compulsory at all levels (218). This hegemony went unopposed for
another twenty years, until, in 1277, the Bishop of Paris published a
list of specific points of Aristotelian doctrine, the teaching of which
would be considered an excommunicable offense. Paradoxically, this
act of censorship on the part of the Church had the effect of opening
certain avenues of thought, in that it was no longer permissible to
deny God the power to do anything, and thus almost any fantasy
could be treated as a viable hypothesis, no matter how ludicrous it
may have appeared from the vantage of Aristotelian assumptions.11
Even these condemnations, however, were eventually repealed (largely
as a result of Thomas Aquinas work in assimilating scholastic and
Christian doctrine), but not before they had their effect, and not
before Dante Alighieri had finished his Divine Comedy.
The problem of place
Speaking again to his Oxford students (and to later readers), C. S.
Lewis compares the way the night sky appears to a modern with how
it might have been perceived by a medieval walker: Whatever else
a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that
he is looking out like one looking out from the saloon entrance
on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and
lonely moors. But if you accepted the Medieval Model, you would

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


feel like one looking in.12 In this way, Lewis expresses the paradox
of Dantes cosmos: a sphere in which the circumference, what we see
out there, coincides exactly with the center. Is this, then, a common
topos in medieval thought? It would seem to be from the prominence
that Lewis grants it, and yet his one example is none other than our
But I have already hinted that the intelligible universe
reverses it all; there the Earth is the rim, the outside edge
where being fades away on the border of nonentity. A few
astonishing lines from the Paradiso (XXVIII, 25 sq.) stamp
this on the mind forever. Seven [sic] concentric rings of light
revolve around that point, and that which is smallest and
nearest to it has the swiftest movement [...] The universe is
thus, when our minds are sufficiently freed from the senses,
turned inside out. (116)
Let us not pass over in silence the subordinate clause, when our
minds are sufficiently freed from the senses, for this is precisely the
crux of our discussion. For the modern reader, it requires a radical
wrenching of mind from sense to conceive of a universe turned inside
out. And yet Lewis implies that this way of thinking comes naturally
to the medieval mind. Perhaps we cannot say with certainty whether
such a model came naturally to medieval thinkers; we can say,
however, that such a model occurred to Dante, whether naturally or
not, and that it was, therefore, well within the realm of possibilities
for a poet of his time to imagine the universe in a way that, while
paradoxical to the modern mind, solved certain problems peculiar to
the medieval mind. The problem that Dante solved was, of course,
the age-old problem of the edge of the universe that, according
to Osserman, had stumped philosophers until Riemann (Osserman
88). However, while it was still a problem for the Middle Ages, it
would appear that, by the time of Newton, the universes edge could
not be a problem, because the universe was believed to be infinite
and thus have no edge. In order to best understand the nature of
Dantes solution, then, let us consider how the problem was phrased


a wrinkle in history

during his time, in the form of questions concerning the nature of

space and the definition of place.
Prior to the Condemnations of 1277, which prohibited those
aspects of scholastic doctrine that would restrict divine omnipotence
in any way, the Aristotelian cosmos of nesting spheres, while still the
most prevalent model, was trapped in a serious logical conundrum.
According to book four of the Physics, the definition of a things
place was the innermost, motionless surface of the containing body
in direct contact with the contained body (Grant, Cosmology 272).
In addition, place was understood to necessarily remain immobile
with respect to the body it contained, because that bodys motion
could only be perceived and measured with respect to its place.13
However, since Aristotle also insisted on the finite nature of the
cosmos, and the absolute non-existence of void space, the cosmos,
almost by definition, could not have a place of its own (Grant,
Cosmology272). But if the cosmos did not have a place, it could
not move, and this conclusion, although rigorously drawn, was in
blatant contradiction with observed reality (Duhem 158).
Throughout the late Middle Ages, various natural philosophers
and commentators of Aristotles works tried to grapple with
this problem. First came the solutions offered by the Islamic
commentators, such as Avicenna (Ibn-Sin):
According to Ibn-Sin, the revolution of a sphere upon
itself is not the movement from one place to another; it is
movement in place; for a body to be animated by such a
movement in place, it is not necessary for it to be in a place;
the eighth heaven, then, is in a place neither per se nor per
accidens; yet it can, nevertheless, turn upon itself. (Duhem
Averros, whose interpretations of Aristotle were so influential that
he became known as simply The Commentator, did not find this
answer satisfactory. Even if the entirety of a sphere can be said not
to require a place, the sphere can easily be divided into parts, each
of which will require a place in order to be said to be moving as the

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


sphere rotates (Duhem 160). If, however, by virtue of its perceived

motion, the cosmos must have a place, there is no requirement that it
be a place per se. Rather, Averros argues, the outermost sphere of the
cosmos has a place per accidens, because one of its parts, its center,
is a place per se (Grant, Cosmology272-3; Duhem 166). This was
also the eventual conclusion of other noted scholastics such as Roger
Bacon and Albert the Great.
Dissent arrives with Thomas Aquinas, who finds ridiculous
the idea that heaven has its place by virtue of its center, in that it
would thereby require a center that moves and exists independently
of the whole. He opts, rather, for Themistiuss answer: that place is
determined accidentally by virtue of the place of its various parts
(Duhem 176). In addition, he develops a new distinction: two kinds
of place must exist, mobile and immobile place. On the one hand,
the immediately contiguous environment can change; this is the
bodys place, which is mobile and relative. On the other hand, there
is place as determined by the relationship between the outer limits
of the body and the borders of the universe, which cannot change.
This is rational, or absolute, place: The rational place of whatever
container comes, therefore, from the first container, the first lodging
place, that is, heaven (Duhem 177).
Avempace proposes another theory, also based on Themistius,
which is, according to Pierre Duhem, the most curious of all. His
solution is of particular interest here because it requires one to think
of the cosmos of nesting spheres as inverted in some way, such that
the last sphere, containing all the others, is in turn contained by the
sphere immediately interior to it (Duhem 160). Unlike the motion
of the sublunar realm, which is imperfect and hence linear, and
therefore needs to be limited by an outside, the spheres are perfect
and circular, and hence may be contained by their inside: The
celestial spheres have no need whatsoever to be lodged in such a
way; neither are they lodged by the outside, but rather by the inside;
each one of them has as a place the convex surface of the sphere that
it encloses and around which it turns (Duhem 161). In Avempaces
solution, therefore, the last sphere may have nothing outside it and
still be in a place, because it is enclosed by the convex surface


a wrinkle in history

of the very sphere it encloses in this case, the sphere of Saturn

(Grant, Cosmology 274).
Although Aristotles two-dimensional container model of place
was taken very seriously by medieval thinkers, maintaining its
prominence well into the fourteenth century, it did not represent the
exclusive possibility of thought. While they would eventually reject
it on logical grounds, Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics played
with a definition of place that was much closer to what a modern
mind would consider commonsensical: the three-dimensional space
that a body occupies. Aristotle himself had considered this possibility
and rejected it, and his medieval followers, for the most part, thought
of it as a vulgar notion.15 The ultimate rejection of this position
depended on its involving a choice between two fundamentally
untenable options: either the space that the body in question occupied
was itself substantial, in which case there would be an impossible copenetration of substances; or it was entirely insubstantial, i.e., nothing,
and therefore did not exist and could not be said to be a place.16
What this reasoning shows is that, while dimensional nothingness
was a possibility of the imagination, it was not a logical possibility.
Empty space was simply an empty logical category that could not be
reconciled with the physical world. Dimensionality was a predicate of
substance, not its precondition. In fact,
[n]ot until the sixteenth century, perhaps first by Francesco
Patrizi, was the nexus between dimensionality and
corporeality broken by assigning tridimensionality to place
essentially and to body only accidentally. For Patrizi, place
is prior to, and wholly separate from, body, whose primary
property is resistance. (Grant, Place and Space140)
If modern space is predicated on the notion of nothing as something,
a positive negativity that is itself dependent on a subjective projection,
a filling out of something that is phenomenally just not-there with
positive content, the medieval imagination could still countenance
the exact opposite of this notion. Medieval space opted for a more
phenomenally correct conception of space, as that which could

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


be perceived as being there. Nothing was exactly that; it did not,

and could not, exist. All of which was in perfect accordance with
Aristotles orthodoxy that there could be no void space in nature.
The problem of empty space
Even in Aristotles time there was no total consensus on the
impossibility of a void. The stoic philosophers resisted this notion
by way of the following thought experiment, available to medieval
thinkers through Simpliciuss sixth century commentary on De
Caelo, as translated by William of Moerbeke:
[...] the Stoics, however, thinking that there is a vacuum
beyond the sky, prove it by this kind of assumption: let it be
assumed that someone standing motionless at the extremity
[of the world] extends his hand upward. Now if his hand
does extend, they take it that there is something beyond
the sky to which the hand extends. But if the arm could
not be extended, then something will exist outside that
prevents the extension of the hand; but if he then stands at
the extremity of this [obstacle that prevents the extension of
his hand] and extends his hand, the same question as before
[is asked], since something could be shown to exist beyond
that being.17
This is, of course, the medieval formulation of what Osserman
called the age-old problem of the edge of the universe, a problem
that, as we can see in this context, had everything to do with a
particular notion of space. In fact, for the stoics themselves, this
edge was not a problem, in the same way that it ceased being a
problem for the modern mind: their answer was that the edge did
not exist, for the known cosmos was itself suspended in an infinite
void space. Such a conception, however, was not widely accepted in
the Middle Ages, because, as we have seen, medieval thinkers could
see little purpose in a mere privation made three-dimensional
(Grant, Infinite Void42).


a wrinkle in history

What was not a problem for the stoics became a real conundrum
for the scholastics, one intimately related to the problem of the place
and subsequent motion that had to be attributed in some way to the
cosmos. In attempting to deal with what lay outside the universe,
some thinkers, such as the thirteenth century Henry of Ghent,
were willing to advance the notion of a vacuum that would qualify
as something by the mere fact that it was dimensional, but they
insisted on distinguishing this space from a pure nothing without
dimensions, which they argued could not exist (Grant, Place and
Space 151). In other words, dimensionality would necessarily remain
an attribute of something; even if this something were void space, it
would still exist in the sense of being substantial. But a majority of
thinkers maintained their opposition toward the existence of extracosmic space despite the paradoxes it seemed to spawn. This was
the case throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (150),
although, for reasons we will now consider, thought experiments
concerning such space became increasingly common.
Place and Space after the Condemnation of 1277
As Grant says in regard to the Condemnation, [a]s a consequence
of three articles in the Condemnation of 1277, it became an
excommunicable offense to deny Gods power to create an accident
without a substance or to deny the possibility of the separate existence
of a quantity or dimension on grounds that such an entity would be
a substance (Place and Space142). That it to say, as a consequence
of establishing the theological doctrine of Gods omnipotence,
the Church created an institutional space in which the problems
of space and place could be rethought and new presuppositions
tested. If, before, thinkers had balked at the seeming absurdity of
attributing dimensionality, an obvious attribute of things that exist,
to pure, empty space, such a hypothesis would now be supported by
the immense authority of the Church. Equally, while scholasticism
and theology had always agreed that, de facto, God had created
only one world, the Condemnation made clear that no one could
deny the possibility that He had made others, or that He had the

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


power to do so (Grant, Cosmology 270). Indeed, in the wake of the

Condemnation, [a]ppeals to Gods absolute power were made in
order to justify formulation of a host of thought experiments that
were, in one way or another, contrary to Aristotelian physics and
cosmology (Grant, Place and Space142).
Despite this new freedom to hypothesize, most thinkers still
desired to reconcile the dictates of the Philosopher to theological
orthodoxy rather than relinquish them entirely. Consequently,
attempts were made to think of multiple worlds in a way that would
not necessitate the intermediation of void space. The new problems
tended to turn on the question of distance: if another world were
to exist somewhere outside of our own, and yet there were nothing
actually separating the worlds, how would one measure distances
between them? Or, more generally, if one acknowledged the
existence of a void, could the void itself be measurable, or would
this require the mediation of some form of matter? In the view of
Marsilius of Inghen,
God could cause a stone to separate from the convex surface
of the last celestial sphere only if He also created a body
or bodies between the celestial surface and the stone.
Otherwise, says Marsilius, a void space would intervene
without the capacity to function as a corporeal interval
of separation. In another example, Marsilius argues that
if God created three spherical worlds in mutual contact,
no measurable distances could be said to intervene in the
vacua that lie between their convex surfaces. In such a
configuration of worlds, distances could only be measured
curvilinearly between the points of any particular surface,
since these would be separated by the continuous matter of
the surface. (Grant, Place and Space151)
Space could not sustain measurement because, despite the express
intent of the Condemnation, it was still preferable to medieval
thinkers to avoid attributing dimensionality to something that was,
by definition, the absolute absence of substance.


a wrinkle in history

John Buridan, a fourteenth century French scholastic, took a

decisive step toward the modern view of space as pure dimensionality,
but stopped short of the notion that such a space could ever exist
separately from matter. Considering the stoic paradox, Buridan
insists that there is nothing stopping the hypothetical man from
thrusting his hand through the last barrier of the universe, because,
while there is no space there into which his hand may extend, the
hand itself provides its own space, since that space is nothing but the
dimension of your body.18 Space is still not capable of independent
existence, such as in the case of a vacuum, because this space
would not be a substance; and if it were an accident , then it would
be an accident without a subject which is not naturally possible
(253). Nevertheless, it does exist as an abstract dimensionality, the
dimensionality or extension of matter itself.
Another fourteenth century thinker, Nicole Oresme,
entertained the notion of void space as really existing outside the
boundaries of the universe, as well as that of the possible existence
of multiple worlds, each with its own center and directional system
(Grant, Cosmology 270). His notion of void space, however, is also
completely identified with God, who may occupy any space, but
is himself dimensionless, which suggests that his infinite and void
space is equally dimensionless (Grant, Infinite Void48). Neither
Buridan nor Oresme accepts the notion of an infinite void space
extended in three dimensions, but each does take a fundamental
step in that direction: Oresme in his allowance of the notion of a real
but dimensionless void space; Buridan in his conception of a real,
existing, three-dimensional space, nevertheless inseparable from
matter and, hence, abstract. In this sense, both can be seen (and
often have been, though for different reasons)19 as precursors of the
Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century.
Beside Oresme, only two other thinkers before the sixteenth
century argued for the existence of an infinite, extra-cosmic void: Jean
de Ripa and Thomas Bradwardine; and not one of the three believed
that the void could have dimensions. Rather, as best exemplified
in the work of Bradwardine, the infinite void was associated with
God himself, who was defined as infinite but lacking dimension

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


or extension.20 Nevertheless, it was such theologically inspired

speculation about the possibility of extra-cosmic space that paved the
way for the infinite, geometrical space of the seventeenth century.
A far more radical departure from the medieval model of space
does not occur until the sixteenth century, when there emerges
a conception of space as both dimensional, in Buridans abstract
sense, and independent, in Oresmes sense of an external void. While
even then one could still find the occasional fanatical Aristotelian
who denied the reality of external space, that Aristotelian would
nevertheless grant the validity of abstract three-dimensional space as
a distinct entity from the matter that inhabits it. One such sixteenth
century voice is that of the Aristotelian Toletus, who distinguishes
imaginary space as a fiction of the mind, and as an
abstraction, which is nonetheless entirely true. Extracosmic
spaces and voids are wholly fictional, whereas the abstraction
of space, what we might call mathematical space, is perfectly
valid: by abstracting from this or that space of particular
bodies, [we arrive at] the space common to the whole world
in which there are only bodies, by abstracting, I say, from
this or that body; and this consideration is not a fiction.
(Grant, Place and Space157)
This abstract world space is common to all things and completely
immobile, and provides the foundation for one of the fundamental
epistemological foundations of the Scientific Revolution: the
abstract, universal and, most importantly, flat 21space in which
things interact according to universal laws, and upon which things
can be adequately measured in their interaction.
The next step in our narrative, then, is to show that this abstract
space indeed became real, and that the Aristotelian final and desperate
distinction between the abstract and the imaginary was, at the height
of the seventeenth century, rejected for good. In short, nothing
became something. In the words of Otto von Guericke, from his New
Magdeburg Experiments on Void Space (1672): the nothing (nihil)


a wrinkle in history

beyond the world and space (spatium) are one and the same; and
so-called imaginary space is true space, for imaginary space (in the
common opinion of philosophers) is nothing and nothing is space,
and the space which they call imaginary space is true space (spatium
verum) (Grant, Infinite Void55). Not only is the imaginary nothing
to be animated as something, it will become the most important
something of them all, the sine qua non of all existence:
For the Uncreated is that whose beginning does not preexist; and Nothing, we say, is that whose beginning does not
pre-exist. Nothing contains all things. It is more precious
than gold, free of origin and distinction, more joyous than
the appearance of beautiful light, more noble than the
blood of kings, comparable to the heavens, higher than the
stars, more powerful than a stroke of lightening, perfect and
blessed in every part. Nothing always inspires. (57)
In the passage of time between the thirteenth and the seventeenth
centuries, then, we have moved from an epistemological configuration
in which it was difficult to imagine space as an independent entity,
and certainly not as one with the attribute of dimensionality, to
one in which such a concept with such an attribute is the necessary
condition for all being. It is important to stress two fundamental
aspects of this new conception of space: first, that it was flat, the
embodiment of an abstract, geometrical (Euclidean) system; second,
that it was real, the ultimate hypostasis of what had once been
merely a thought experiment. As Koyr puts it, the replacement
of the Aristotelian conception of space a differentiated set of
innerworldy places, by that of Euclidean geometry an essentially
infinite and homogeneous extension from now on [was] considered
as identical with the real space of the world.22 According to Grant,
it is this entity that allowed for the fusion of Theology and Natural
Philosophy that had never been possible during the Middle Ages:
In the seventeenth century, the secular and theological
currents would merge for the first time, when God was

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


deemed omnipresent in an infinite, three dimensional,

immobile, homogeneous void space. It was this God-filled
space that would serve as the infinite container for the
motions of bodies whose lawful relationships were described
by Sir Isaac Newton in the Mathematical Principles of
Natural Philosophy. (Place and Space161)
This story of the emergence and eventual triumph of a concept
of space as flat, three-dimensional and infinitely extended, which
doubles as an abstract, mathematical space that was among the great
enabling forces behind the development of modern science, differs
little from its narration by such canonized historians of science as
Grant and Koyr. What I want to emphasize, however, is a certain
foreclosure of possibilities that accompanied this progress. Let us
take a look at a passage in which Grant compares scholastic and
modern cosmological assumptions:
The Scholastics, for whom the issue of infinite extramundane
void space was divorced from their physics, were content to
assume the reality of extramundane void space after all,
God could create a body there but deny it dimensionality,
choosing to take refuge in transcendent meanings of terms
such as extension and dimension when applied to God.
Authors in the seventeenth century had no such options
and devices. (Infinite Void60)
I agree with Grant that these authors had no such options that
these devices had, in fact, disappeared in the face of the rigor of
the scientific method. And it is almost certainly in this sense that
Grant intends his observation: modern science does not have the
luxury of dispensing with rigor, of taking refuge in transcendent
meanings. However, the results of this progress in thought were
not always right ways of thinking; it is the teleological historicist
who sees in every turn the past took the straightest route to present
knowledge. The great irony of much of the story we have been
telling is that the right way that emerged in the seventeenth


a wrinkle in history

century, regardless of the specific brilliance of Newtons or anyone

elses contributions, may be farther from the current view in terms of
its most fundamental presuppositions than the systems of thought
it replaced. When we look back at Newtonian physics in order to
judge it in terms of where physics is today, we are, in fact, inscribing
it in a story about how physics became what it is today, which is not
saying the same thing. The following section will examine in greater
detail the emergence of what we might call the regime of abstraction
that formed the foundation of modern, Newtonian physics, with
an eye toward juxtaposing that regime with two others: the first
contains the fundamental presuppositions and possibilities upon
which Dante designed his cosmos; the second, those upon which
Einstein built the Theory of Relativity and thus opened the window
on a new vision of the cosmos. When we tell a story leading to the
present, the mentality of Newtons age is the rock we stand on; when
we spread out those presuppositions like cards on a table, we see how
medieval we are, and how much we have forgotten.
The regime of abstraction
As we have seen, the dogmatism of scholastic thought received a
blow from the Condemnation of 1277, and while the reputation
of Aristotle had fully recovered by fifty years later, the prohibitions
had opened certain speculative possibilities that would never again
disappear. The example of greatest interest to the present study is,
of course, the existence of an outside to the cosmos, an extra-cosmic
space, perhaps void, providing the cosmos with a place that, in turn,
could explain its movement. As we have also seen, one philosopher
of the fourteenth century, Nicole Oresme, argued for the possible
existence of a multitude of worlds separated by an intervening space
that, while necessarily infinite, appeared to lack dimensionality.
However, if this multitude of worlds is only a possibility and
one, in fact, which Oresme rejects in actuality it appears that the
concept of an outside is already becoming an exclusive necessity:
Human understanding consents naturally that beyond the heavens
and world, which is not infinite, there is some space, whatever it may

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


be; and one could not readily conceive the contrary (qtd. in Grant,
Place and Space144). Such a belief, that one cannot imagine the
non-existence of an outside a non-existence that was itself a point
of doctrine only a short time before indicates that already in the
fourteenth century a process of foreclosure was beginning in which
the abstraction of infinitude would finish by colonizing completely
the imagination of reality.
It is during this same time frame that, across the sciences,
abstraction begins to become an intrinsic element of analytic
methodology. Oresme himself adapted some of the insights of a group
of thinkers associated with Merton College, Oxford, who had devel
oped a way of thinking about an objects qualities, such as motion,
temperature and weight, as abstract, i.e., separately analyzable,
entities (Lindberg 295). Oresmes particular contribution was to
adapt and improve upon a geometrical system of representation of
qualities originally developed by one Giovanni di Casali in 1351
(297). Oresmes idea was that changes in a particular quality could
be mapped in time, if the subject of the quality in question were
abstracted, represented in two-dimensions as a line. In this way,
changes in quality could be measured quantitatively, in that a
particular geometric shape could be taken as an adequate substitution
for what had previously been largely unrepresentable.
Thomas Kuhn associates the emergence of methods based on
abstraction at this time to a renaissance of neo-platonism, which
valorized ideal, immutable forms over empirically-existing objects.23
That geometry could be used to predict and standardize observations
could only be a sign that the abstract elements of geometry,
mathematically perfect forms, were in fact the reality upon which
the physical world was based. According to Kuhn, it was just such
an epistemological change, a change in the value accorded to forms,
that explains the possibility of the Copernican revolution: No
new discoveries, no sort of astronomical observation, persuaded
Copernicus of ancient astronomys inadequacy or of the necessity for
change. Until half a century after Copernicus death no potentially
revolutionary changes occurred in the data available to astronomers
(132). If renewed valorization of abstract forms was a major impetus


a wrinkle in history

behind the eventual acceptance of a heliocentric model, one of these

abstract forms namely, infinite, three-dimensional, flat space
had become, by the time of Newtons famous treatise in the
seventeenth century, an exclusive possibility of thought.
Newton insists upon the importance of recognizing two
components of both space and time: the relative and the absolute.
This should remind us of Thomas Aquinas, who also insisted on
this division with regard to place. However, for Aquinas, absolute
place was still place with regard to the walls of a container, whereas,
for Newton, [p]lace is a part of space which a body takes up and
is, according to the space, either absolute or relative. I say, a part of
space; not the situation nor the external surface of the body (qtd. in
Koyr 163). In other words, the place of a body is indistinguishable
from the space it occupies, a space that, if understood relatively,
may change with respect to surrounding objects and points of
reference, but, if understood absolutely, also remains part of an
eternal, immutable backdrop, infinitely extended in all directions.
The same distinction is true of time: whereas the time of an event
may be measured relative to other, longer or shorter durations, its
own duration also has an absolute value, with respect to an absolute,
utterly abstract yet utterly real temporality: Absolute, true and
mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably
without regard to anything external (qtd. in Koyr 161). This
absolute character of space and time becomes, for Newton as for
the modern age, the condition of possibility of knowledge itself, the
foundational table upon which the organization of things and their
relation to one another can be mapped out. In such a universe, not
only does the closed world of Dantes cosmos of nested spheres
become foreign to us, the particular problems that his poetry tries
to address cease to exist. The arrangement of the heavens beyond
the Primum Mobile appears fanciful, almost psychedelic, and if
contemporary mathematicians remark upon the similarities between
his descriptions and certain four-dimensional figures, we wonder at
his ingenuity but refuse to consider a systematic connection we
cannot think in four dimensions, we say; how could Dante do so?
While Dante made no pretension that there even was such a thing

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


as a fourth dimension (Aristotles negation of such a possibility in

the Physics was never questioned), the universe he described was,
from a vantage informed by Riemannian mathematics, in fact fourdimensional.24 And it was four-dimensional because the basic notion
of space available to the Middle Ages did not exclude curvature;
that exclusion, and perhaps our own difficulty in imagining curved
space, is a legacy of the modern age. Dante conceived the cosmos as
a form in multi-dimensional, curved space, because his age had not
yet been taught the impossibility of doing so.
On the privilege of poetic scientificity
Dante wrote the Divine Comedy between 1306 and 1321, at a mid-pint
between the Condemnation and its eventual repeal, a time marked
by the tension between Aristotelian hegemony and the prohibition
against impinging on the omnipotence of God. It seems logical to
imagine that such a time would offer exciting possibilities to a poet
of Dantes age, especially a poet whose immediate task is to write
an imaginary journey from the physical to the theological world. In
other words, Dante had to make explicit what many thinkers could
disregard; he had to build a poetic bridge between worlds that had
as yet not been made commensurable.
Dante was concerned to make a cosmo-theology, a journey from
the lowest, basest, most specific place in the universe to the highest,
most exalted, and most universal place. He had to do so, however,
as a person, as a point of view. In the course of his journey, his point
of view would necessarily encounter, in a real sense, some of the
most fundamental problems of metaphysical speculation: Does the
cosmos have a place? What lies outside the edge of the universe?
How can God be both everywhere and at the same time be a single
entity? As we have seen, the scholastics dealt with these problems in
various ways, but Dantes eventual solution, in which the universe
becomes an enormous sphere whose surface is a singularity lying at
the center of space and time, is closest to the notion subscribed to
by the commentator Avempace, in which the outside is contained by
the outer surface of the sphere that it, in turn, contains. Of course,


a wrinkle in history

Dantes solution is not identical. His theological concerns make it

essential to efface any hint of symmetry between the poles of the
universe: God is the center that contains, the earth is the center
that is contained. In doing so he foreshadowed a startling revelation
of modern, secular physics: the earth is the center (from its own
perspective) of an enormous sphere whose surface is a singularity at
the origin of time and space.
The point is, while scientific knowledge at the time was
sufficiently unconstrained to allow for the possibilities of such
apparently paradoxical conclusions, such an exact formulation was
enabled precisely by a series of constraints: just as the constraints of
the Condemnation permitted the circulation of volatile combinations
of conflicting ideas, so the particular constraints of Dantes poetic
project to tell a story across an antagonistic divide, to locate the
placeless in language propelled him to offer a solution to an ageold problem. When Riemann offered his solution to the age-old
problem in the nineteenth century, it was not so much a solution as
a reminder to the world that this was a problem. It was a revelation
at the time that the flat space of Euclidean geometry might be a tool
of knowledge rather than an ontological certainty.
When Einstein praised Riemann at the beginning of the twentieth
century, he emphasized the dynamism of his new conception of
space: Only the genius of Riemann, solitary and uncomprehended,
had already won its way by the middle of the last century to a new
conception of space, in which space was deprived of its rigidity, and
in which its power to take part in physical events was recognized as
possible (qtd. in Osserman 79). It is precisely this lack of rigidity,
this involvement of space with physical events that characterizes the
space of the medieval imagination. According to Einstein, physicists
need to lose their tendency to think of space as an empty precondition
of the being of matter. Rather, space-time is a result of the very
existence of matter, its geometrical properties are not independent,
but they are determined by matter.25 If medieval thinkers could
not conceptualize space as a separate entity from matter, Einstein
argues that we should not: I wished to show that space-time is not
necessarily something to which one can ascribe a separate existence,

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


independently of the actual objects of physical reality. Physical

objects are not in space, but these objects are spatially extended
(Einsteinvi). In other words, Einstein was concerned to explain
the universe in immanent rather than transcendent terms. Just as
Relativity posited space and time as observer-dependent entities, so
it required a mode of space-time that was immanent to the objects
in the observable world. Of course, the state of knowledge in physics
has changed dramatically since Einstein, but current thought has
bolstered this conception of space. This conception and the space
of Dantes natural philosophy have far more in common than does
the space of the intervening five hundred years, which explains why
Dante could imagine his cosmos, while lacking the language or tools
to call it such, as a hypersphere.
Beyond continuity vs. discontinuity; toward positive forgetting
As Lindberg discusses in The Beginnings of Western Science (355
68), one of the most important issues for the history of western
science is the extent to which medieval learning influenced, or was
continuous with, the development of modern science. The opinion
that was dominant from the seventeenth century onward was that
medieval thought had little, if any, importance to the progress of
science and, in fact, may have been detrimental. In the words of
Francis Bacon, in his New Organon, neither the Arabians nor the
Schoolmen need be mentioned, who in the intermediate times rather
crushed the sciences with a multitude of treatises, than increased
their weight (qtd. in Lindberg 356). Such a view held sway until
the early twentieth century, when a radically different opinion
found expression in the work of Pierre Duhem. For Duhem, the
advances of modern science would not have been possible were it
not for the multitude of treatises that Bacon so decried. Duhem
offers what has been called the continuity thesis, in opposition to
the radical discontinuity assumed by earlier historians and scientists,
claiming that the mechanics and physics of which modern times
are justifiably proud proceed, by an uninterrupted series of scarcely
perceptible movements, from doctrines professed in the heart of the


a wrinkle in history

medieval schools (qtd. in Lindberg 357). Duhems claims initiated a

debate that has lasted to this day, in which historians have alternately
claimed, like Alistair Crombie, that the innovations of the Scientific
Revolution were merely repetitions of a revolution in methodology
dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (358), or, in the
words of Alexandre Koyr, that the innovations of the seventeenth
century were so radical that they required the dissolution of previous
world views:
What the founders of modern science [...] had to do, was not
to criticize and combat certain faulty theories, and to correct
and replace them by better ones. They had to do something
quite different. They had to destroy one world and replace
it by another. They had to reshape the framework of our
intellect itself, to restate and reform its concepts, to evolve a
new approach to Being, a new concept of knowledge, a new
concept of science. (Lindberg 359)
Lindberg himself adopts a position somewhere in between these two
extremes, arguing that, while the Middle Ages should in no way
be seen as the Scientific Revolution avant la lettre, there can be no
doubt that important strides were made that helped prepare the way
for the discoveries of the seventeenth century.
All sides in the continuity/discontinuity debate, however, take
for granted that, whether the Middle Ages prepared the way for or
was largely irrelevant to the Scientific Revolution, the knowledge
associated with that paradigm-shift was of a purely positive
character.26 In other words, regardless of the side one adopts in this
debate, the general assumption is that knowledge is cumulative,
and that the seventeenth century had more of it than the Middle
Ages. I have suggested in this essay that this is not always the
case. While civilizations may not lose the effective technology, the
specific methodologies, and the compendiums of observations that
comprise the existing knowledge of a given time, the fundamental
presuppositions of knowledge themselves may change, a cultures
framework for viewing the world may be forgotten. With splendid

on dante, hyperspheres, and the curvature of the medieval cosmos


self-assurance, the western empirical tradition assumes that such

forgetting has only a utilitarian character: one only loses what one
no longer needs. But such an assumption rests on a theory of history,
implicit though it may be, which only exists to justify the grounds
of the assumption itself. We need to recognize that, at times, the
very gains that open new possibilities of thought can, at the same
time, foreclose other possibilities, ways of thinking, and forms
of imagination that future ages will need to rediscover. A debate
between continuity and discontinuity would seem to cover the entire
horizon of historical options, and yet we must see that the theory of
history that the very choice embodies is not all there is; that, in the
space of a coincidence, in which an ancient poet seems to wait for
us, smiling, on the crest of the modern cosmos, we may glimpse a
palimpsest of paths not taken, and a hint of the possibilities that lie
beyond our own horizons of thought.


a wrinkle in history

Chapter 3
Mimesis and Theatricality

According to Luiz Costa Lima, the notion of mimesis that has

developed in the Modern Era is predicated on the prohibition of
fictionality, itself a normal aspect of other and for Costa Lima
more preferable, if not ideal notions of mimesis, notions of mimesis for which estrangement and difference are as important as
identification and imitation. The question he poses at the outset of
The Control of the Imaginary, the question that transfixes, envelopes and obsesses him is: Why? Why did this prohibition, this
powerful limitation on the possibilities of mimetic work take place
at all and, in particular, at the moment it did? The hypothesis he
explores, that the prohibition of fiction served the interests of social
control by allowing for the reconciliation of classical aesthetics with
the increased prevalence if individual expression in the Renaissance,
is based at least in part on the theory of the development of subjectivity in the Modern Age. It is at precisely this point that I envision
this essay intervening in the debate, offering an argument that, by
way of a critique of his appropriation of the vocabulary of subjectivity, is ultimately a confirmation of his insight. In my view, the theorization of the concept of subjectivity is too broad, too amorphous,
too contested to be of great help in answering a question as richly
specific and yet profoundly universal as Costa Limas. As an
alternative to the more problematic spectrum stretching between the
poles of (modern) subjectivity and (pre-modern) lack-thereof, I argue that the solution lies rather in the emerging dominance of one
of the poles of a spectrum of experiential space defined by the terms
theatricality and presence.1 The pole that comes into dominance precisely at the time of the debates that form the core of Costa Limas
discussion is theatricality. This mode of spatiality is predicated on a
fundamental distinction between lived and representational space,


a wrinkle in history

a distinction that comes naturally to spectators versed in its conventions, but one that was phenomenologically unavailable to Europeans living prior to the sixteenth century. Its absence, however,
allowed for an experience of mimesis that had no requirement of a
prohibition of fiction, for the simple reason that fiction itself, defined
as Costa Lima defines it as dependent on the manipulation of
frames of experience was not a possibility. The space of depiction,
of imagination, of narrative, and of spectacle, for this culture, rather
than in an opposed, representational relation to the world, was both
radically of the world and potently in the world. And as such it allowed for modes of mimetic experience quite alien to the limited
options of Renaissance aesthetics.
At the outset of Control of the Imaginary, Costa Lima identifies the problem that for him has taken on the allure of an obsession: why did the Italian literary theorists of the Renaissance, at the
beginning of what we identify today as modernity, predicate their
notion of mimesis on a prohibition one Costa Lima calls scandalous a prohibition of fiction itself?2 Such a prohibition is scandalous for two reasons: it contradicts other actual theorizations and
manifestations of mimesis in western history; and it betrays potential
ideal theorizations and manifestations, ones that Costa Lima himself is engaged in liberating from the overly restrictive mold cast by
the thinkers of early modernity.
The notion of mimesis that Costa Lima is committed to advancing emphasizes the essential fictionality of mimesis itself, acknowledging that all acts of artistic production contain elements
of both identification and estrangement, and that this latter element is what must be theoretically salvaged from the destructive
prohibition of the Renaissance. I will return to this argument in
greater detail below; for now it is the former claim that is of interest to us.
For Costa Lima, the early modern theorization of mimesis subordinates all artistic production to the strictures of a some object
existing in reality, a subordination he associates with a metaphysical
world view.3 The centrality of this real, exiting model, whether inside the human subjects psyche or outside in the observable world,

mimesis and theatricality


translates into a rhetoric that separates the feigned, or the work of

art, from the true, the reality it represents, subordinating the former to the latter. But far from representing the only possible model
of mimesis, such theorization is a betrayal of the very classical texts
it claims as its sources:
The very subordination of the feigned to the true shows
that the theoreticians with whom we are dealing, even when
translating or commenting on Aristotle, maintained themselves radically estranged from him on key issues. Aristotelian mimesis presupposed a concept of physis (to simplify,
let us say, of nature) that contained two aspects: natura
naturata and natura naturans, respectively, the actual and
the potential. Mimesis had relation only to the possible, the
capable of being created to energeia; its limits were those
of conceivability alone. Among the thinkers of the Renaissance, in contrast, the positions of the possible would come
to be occupied by the category of the verisimilar, which, of
course, depended on what is, the actual, which was then
confused with the true. (Control 22)
The limits of mimesis ought to be those of conceivability alone. This
is certainly a great departure from the discourse of the Renaissance,
a discourse that, as he puts it, replaced the category of the possible
with that of the verisimilar. But if the horizons of mimetic work
have been, at times, and should be, in principle, only those of conceivability, why, in the name of what interests, was such a concerted
effort made at the dawn of modernity to contain those horizons
within the limited boundaries of the verisimilar?
Costa Limas thesis is that the reigning aesthetic values of the
Renaissance, classicism and formalism, were in danger of coming
into conflict with another tendency aesthetic as well as political
and epistemological of the time: the emergence of subjectivity.
The doctrine of verisimilitude, and its corresponding prohibition of
the fictional, became a tool for reconciling the expression of individuality with classicism and formalism:


a wrinkle in history

Moreover, that reconciliation was successful only if imitatio

permitted the control of the individual subjectivity and if one
of its possible discourses, the fictional, were controlled aprioristically as well, through its subjugation to legitimate models.
Only thus could classicism and formalism be rendered compatible with expression of individuality. (Control 19)
What is new in the equation, then, is what Costa Lima calls the
experiencing of subjectivity (4), a development traced by some
critics to the twelfth century. The core of the subjective experience
is a conferral of agency and responsibility onto the individual, most
fundamentally in cosmological and theological matters: To the extent that the notion that truth had been inscribed by the Divinity in
the things of this world and therefore revealed itself in unequivocal
signs was being abandoned, phenomena were increasingly allowed
multiple meanings; and it was the subject who was made responsible
for apprehending the correct one (5). Whereas the phenomena of
the world had been previously ordered according to an immanent
logic whose matrix was God, from the late Middle Ages, the burden
of discovering a guiding logic is increasingly bequeathed to the
individual (a thesis that, albeit with different chronology and terminology, echoes that of Foucault in Les mots et les choses).
This thesis is supported by evidence from 12th century legal
discourse, according to the work of Howard Bloch (5); from medieval poetry as manifested in the growing identification between
the I of the poem and the individual person of the poet according to the work of Paul Zumthor; and from the many personal
self-references of Juan Manuel, according to Menndez Pidal (8-10).
This individual, increasingly liberated from strict adherence to social hierarchy is, according to this thesis, also increasingly liberated
to engage in the production of a discourse entirely of his or her own
choosing, a discourse that would be, properly speaking, fictional.
It is precisely in order to protect social order against the potentially
anarchic forces of fictional freedom that the Renaissance theorists
issues their prohibition; which is not to say that a prohibition against
fictionality equates to a negation of subjectivity. On the contrary,

mimesis and theatricality


the pure expression of subjectivity can itself act as a veto of fictionality

(17). And this, in the end, is the work that Costa Lima believes the
Renaissance prohibition was engaged in: the adaptation of subjectivity, of individual agency, to the strictures of social control, an adaptation that required its purification via the erasure of all potentially
chaotic elements. Fictionality was one such element.
One specific problem this thesis presents for contemporary
scholarship arises from its reliance on the notion of subjectivity.
The usefulness of this term for marking distinctions in the areas of
aesthetics or politics between modernity and whatever came before
them has, in the 1990s, come under serious criticism, principally
from medievalists who object to the pernicious tendency in criticism to marginalize the Middle Ages as being best characterized by
something hopelessly alien from the spirit of modernity. This myth
of medieval exceptionalism and the reactions it has provoked are
perhaps best summed up in a deservedly famous essay from 1990 by
the medievalist Lee Patterson, in which he attacks the grand rcit
endemic to western cultural history that perceives the Renaissance as
the historical moment marking the birth of the modern and, hence,
idolizes it as the vital source of the presents self-knowledge, while
summarily rejecting everything medieval as premodern:
According to this universal scheme, the Renaissance is the
point at which the modern world begins: humanism, nationalism, the proliferation of competing value systems, the
secure grasp of historical consciousness, aesthetic production as an end in itself, the conception of the natural world
as a site of scientific investigation and colonial exploitation,
the secularization of politics, the idea of the state, and, perhaps above all, the emergence of the idea of the individual
all of these characteristics and many others are thought
both to set the Renaissance apart from the Middle Ages and
to align it definitively with the modern world.4
In support of this claim, Patterson shows convincingly that even
those recent methods and practitioners of cultural and intellectual


a wrinkle in history

history that purport to return to history and allow the past to speak
for itself e.g., Foucault, Stephen Greenblatt and the new historicism are guilty of reducing the Middle Ages to a caricature in
order to prove some point, a point inevitably having to do with the
newness of the sixteenth or seventeenth century and its pertinence
to modern life.
As it happens, many of the voices Costa Lima turns to in order
to support his subjectivity thesis are engaged in refuting, from the
vantage of medieval studies (Howard Bloch is an excellent example) the claim that subjectivity is particular to a modernity born in
the Renaissance. By citing such scholars, Costa Lima is indicating
that he too does not subscribe to such a limitation of the notion;
and yet it seems that for the development of subjectivity to be
a substantial part of his explanation for the historically specific
prohibition of fictionality in sixteenth century poetics, he would
per force have to defend such a historically specific notion of subjectivity, one that appears quite a bit later than that described by
Howard Bloch.
Now, my feeling is that there is something to the myth of medieval exceptionalism, and that, in fact, there is something quite
radically different about notions of aesthetics, conceptions of political agency, and even experiences of personal identity between,
say, times prior to the fifteenth and after the sixteenth centuries.
And I think Costa Lima is right in fingering sixteenth century
attitudes toward mimesis as being central to this difference. On
the other hand, I agree with Patterson in rejecting the vocabulary
of subjectivity as a catch-all explanation for this change. For one
thing, the concept is too general; there is a tendency to confuse the
philosophical notion, derived from one pole of the subject/object
divide, with historically specific models of political agency, with
phenomenological descriptions of self awareness, with psychoanalytic typographies, and so on. What I am proposing is a notion
quite specific to the sixteenth century, and to the poetic theories
that Costa Lima is discussing. It is a notion that corroborates Costa
Limas contention that the verisimilar mimesis of the Renaissance
is not the only option, while at the same time suggesting that al-

mimesis and theatricality


ternative options lie not only along the estrangement/identification

continuum, but along a different continuum entirely: the one linking the experience of theatricality to that of presence.
The legacy of the Renaissance prohibition of fictionality, according
to Costa Lima, has been a tendency, throughout the Modern Age,
to associate mimesis with representation. The problem we face, he
adds, does not consist in trying, under the pretense of searching for
an idea of mimesis that does not depreciate its production, to dissociate mimesis from representation, but rather in grasping the world
view which makes this association possible (Social 447). This world
view, I would argue, is supported and made possible by a particular
experience of space, an experience I call theatricality. In one regard,
theatricality refers to the capacity of a spectator to experience meaning as separable from the substantial dimension of a spectacle, as
occupying another spatial realm existing in a mimetic relationship
to the real, substantial one. This capacity marks a change from the
medieval experience of space, which experiences meaning as immanent to its substance.
Consider, for example, the words of the Abb DAubignac, as
he ridicules what those of his time (the mid-seventeenth century)
referred to as the thtre libre, the theater free of the constraints of
the unties if time, place and action that became the principal rules of
composition in France from 1630 through the Classical period:
Il ne fallait point demander combien de temps durait une
action que lon reprsentait, en quel lieu se passaient toutes les choses que lon voyait, ni combien la comdie avait
dactes. Car on rpondait hardiment quelle avait dur trois
heures, que tout stait fait sur le thtre, et que les violons
en avaient marqu les intervalles des actes. Enfin, ctait assez pour plaire quun grand nombre der vers rcits sur un
thtre portt le nom de comdie.5


a wrinkle in history

[One could not ask how long an action that was being represented lasted, or in what place occurred all the things that
one saw, nor how many acts the comedy had. For one would
be answered hardily that the action had lasted three hours,
that everything had taken place on the stage, and that the
violins had marked the intervals of the acts. In the end, it
was enough to please that a great number of verses recited
on the stage carry the name comedy.]
The Abb is criticizing what he takes to be a defect of the preclassical theater, its inability to distinguish between what we call now
the time (or space) of action from that of performance. Indeed, I am
claiming that such a distinction was phenomenologically inaccessible prior to the modernity. But this inability is at the same time an
ability, an ability to experience as a unity a distinction that for the
Modern Age has been fundamental, perhaps even foundational. For
not just modern theater, but the very experience of space that modern theater as well as most other forms of modern spectacle, most
all of which, I would argue, take their form from the template of
the theater presupposes, is predicated upon the separation of the
dimension of meaning from that of being, and the subordination of
the latter to the former.
The theme of verisimilitude, developed with such urgency by
thinkers like Robortello, Scaliger, and Castelvetro, had to do with
the relationship between two spaces: the space of lived experience
and a new space, separated from the spectator by a virtual screen
and existing in a mimetic relation to the first. The appearance of this
space is what sparks the debates concerning verisimilitude i.e.,
the prohibition of fiction that Costa Lima describes but it does so
precisely because it is the appearance of this space that makes fiction
possible. Costa Lima is also aware of this, pointing out that a sensation of similarity does not exhaust literary mimesis:
Instead, it must be added that it is carries out within a specific sphere, that of aesthetic experience. That sphere, in its
turn, presupposes that those who participate in it under-

mimesis and theatricality


stand, as Stendhal argues, that time inside the theater is

not the same as stage time, that time within a poem is not
the same as the time in which the everyday, empirical I of
the poet exists, that the experiences and values of narrators
and characters are distinguishable from the experiences and
values of the author. (Control 53)
This sphere of aesthetic experience is the space of theatricality, and
the screen that enables it may be described in the same terms that
Costa Lima borrows to explains the functionality of fiction, Erving
Goffmans frames.6
Frames, for Costa Lima, are the essence of representation, in
that representations are themselves the numerous frames we move
into and out of on a daily basis, that organize and condition our
perceptions and interpretations (Social 452). The ability to comprehend fiction as fiction depends on a process Costa Lima, following
Goffman, calls keying. Paraphrasing Goffman, he defines keying
in a particularly concise way as a device by means of which an agent
carries out a series of actions that, from the standpoint of the primary frame, would convey a specific meaning that in fact does not
apply (454). The metaphor of framing should be taken quite literally. If we are watching a play we can experience an action, say the
performance of a wedding ceremony, as if it were really happening, without ever in fact believing that the man and woman involved
are really married. Rather, we understand that in the aesthetic
sphere of the drama, their characters are now husband and wife,
but that this has no standing in our reality, in which the two may
in fact detest each other (although this is equally a possibility of
their marital life in the aesthetic sphere). This apparently simple act
of comprehension, however, requires what from some perspectives
could be an extremely complex process; this process is keying.
The example of a wedding taking place on a stage is not innocent, since both wedding ceremonies and stages are elements in
John Austins formulation of his theory of performative language.7
The phrase I declare you man and wife, while not performing
an action via a threat or a direct order, in fact causes something to


a wrinkle in history

occur in the moment of its enunciation, something that all those

around, witnesses, experience as meaningful. This occurs because
the statement has what Austin calls illocutionary force. The keying
of frames involved in the comprehension of fiction, much like the
etiolations (Austin 22) of language uttered upon a stage, suspends
the performativity of utterances and actions. In other words, we understand them as if we inhabited their space, but at the same time
we recognize that we do not inhabit that space and are not affected
by them in the same way we would be if we did.8
As Costa Lima puts it, [t]his opening out to otherness through
the feigned I of a character, and/or through the transformation of
language, requires on the part of the recipient a keying of frames he
is familiar with. (Fiction is not realized if the recipient is ignorant of
this flexibility) (460). In fact, at least for modernity, such an inability to distinguish, say, between fantasy and reality has been taken
as one of the primary indicators of madness. Charles Pallisers charmingly naive homicidal maniac in Betrayals, for instance, is utterly incapable of recognizing the framing function of his television set. He
is convinced that the family whose lives he peeks in on every week
for his favorite show is in fact a real Scottish family; when actors from
the show appear on other shows he has to come up with explanations
that account for, in real life, such a remarkable coincidence; and
when a fictional character is mentioned in the context of a fictional
show, he can make allowance neither for the fictionality of the character nor for that of the show. He records in his journal the following
event from an episode of Biggert his favorite detective show in
which the protagonist Biggert has just discovered an actual murder
committed on stage by an actor playing Sherlock Holmes in a play:
At that moment Biggert came jumping up out of the audience and arrested Sherlock Holmes for the murder of Maturin. Sherlock Holmes of all people! I couldnt believe it!
I thought he must of been framed, but apparently not, because he broke down and admitted it, standing on the stage
in front of hundreds of people. We saw Dr. Watson looking
at him in horror. How the man must have felt betrayed! 9

mimesis and theatricality


In this scene there are a number of frames that normally would be

active, suspending performativity, but which are all, in his case, inoperative: the frame separating the space of the program from that
of the mans living room; the frame separating the space of the play
from that of the audience; and the frame separating the fictional
reality of Sherlock Holmes from that of the play, from that of the
program, and from that of his own. The result for a modern reader
is amusing; but is it too much to suggest that a medieval reader
(aside from the obvious fact that she would not know TV) would
be equally incapable of performing the keying necessary to comprehend this scene as fiction?
Though perhaps not so explicit in his explanation, Foucault
would probably not have taken me to task for this claim. If we take
seriously his reading of Don Quijote (perhaps the founding moment
of fiction in the sense I am proposing), the Knight of the Mournful
Countenance suffers from just such an ailment; and Foucault diagnoses his madness as being the result of existing in the wrong historical episteme. A character from an age in which language and the
world were perceived to partake of the same substance, Don Quijote
draws no frame between the world he travels and the words he reads,
and for that reason becomes the next ages paradigm of a madman:
Don Quixote is the first modern work of literature, because
in it we see the cruel reason of identities and differences
make endless sport of signs and similitudes; because in it
language breaks off its old kinship with things and enters
into that lonely sovereignty from which it will reappear, in
its separate state, only as literature; because it marks the
point where resemblance enters an age which is, from the
point of resemblance, one of madness and imagination.10
Foucaults idiom is different, but the notions translate: if in the new
age (the Classical Period for Foucault, which he distinguishes from
the Modern as well) identities and differences can play with signs
and similitudes, it is precisely because the relation of the former to
things is bracketed, separated via a framing function. To maintain


a wrinkle in history

languages kinship with things in the way that Don Quijote does
makes of one a madman, a man of primitive resemblances in the
eyes of the new order; but the new order also has its madness, the
realm of madness and imagination opened up by languages
detachment from things, and by the emergence of theatrical frames
that, from the perspective of resemblances solid certainties, must
look threatening indeed. Such a reading corroborates Costa Limas
thesis: the continuity of social institutions is protected, in a certain
sense, by the prohibition of the realm of fiction, of madness and
But if theatricality as the dominant experience of space is new,
then it must have replaced another experience, that of presence: an
experience, I have suggested, which may turn out not to support
a concept of mimesis that can be classified along the spectrum of
identification and estrangement. To the extent that there is mimesis
in presence, it is not a mimesis that could fall prey to the veto against
fiction, quite simply because fiction in the sense we have understood
it involving necessarily the keying of frames is not even a possibility in the spatiality of presence. This is not to say that people
who experience this spatiality do not tell or even act out stories, just
that the stories they tell convey meaning in a different way. They
are not experienced as simultaneously occurring in an alternate, but
viable, imaginary space to that of the telling or the enactment; they
are not predicated upon a keying of frames; which is to say, they retain the power of their performativity and, as such, are experienced
in different ways: as invocations; instructive allegories; truths to be
mastered through repetition; even spells, curses and incantations.
In The Golden Bough, James Frazer described a mode of interaction
with the natural world that he called magical. In analyzing the principles on which this magical relation is based, he posited that there
existed two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles
its cause; and second, that things which have once been in contact
with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the

mimesis and theatricality


physical contact has been severed.11 Calling the former principle

the homeopathic, or the law of similarity, and the latter the law of
contact or contagion, he combined both under the general rubric of
sympathetic magic:
since both assume that things act on each other at a distance
through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted
from one to the other by means of what we may conceive of as
a kind of invisible ether, not unlike that which is postulated
by modern science for a precisely similar purpose, namely, to
explain how things can physically affect each other through
a space which appears to be empty. (Frazer 27)
Two elements I wish to stress in his definition are the notion of
mimesis implicit in homeopathic magic, or like acting upon like,
and the conception of space underlying both the homeopathic and
the contagious. The latter is especially interesting in this example
because of his obviously powerful impulse to interpret as a single
problem a series of relations that might have been otherwise incomprehensible, namely, the problem of how objects can be understood
to act on other objects across distances. If, as science since the seventeenth century had insisted, space is infinitely extended dimensionality with no substance, the idea of action at a distance would
necessarily involve a medium to fill that apparently empty space.12
The ether was one such substance, posited by nineteenth century
scientists as a means of explaining, for example, the observation that
light behaved as a wave moving at a finite speed, or that large objects
such as planets could affect each other gravitationally at a distance.
What I am suggesting is that the Middle Ages experienced space in
a fundamentally different way from this abstract, empty, infinitely
sub-divisible space as full, impressionable and substantial, with
dimensions existing relative to observers and, more specifically, participants, as opposed to being empty and independent of them.13
The other element to underscore is the notion of mimesis implicit
in Frazers description of homeopathic magic, a notion which, rather
than in the sense of verisimilitude propagated in the Renaissance,


a wrinkle in history

conceives of the mimetic action as somehow participating in the

reality it mimics, either affecting it directly or appropriating in some
way qualities associated with it. The power of the copy to draw on
the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the
representation may even assume that character and that power, is
a notion of mimesis that Michael Taussig has cultivated, in his Mimesis and Alterity, as an alternative to the representational model of
imitation dominant in western culture,14 and is, I believe, one of the
keys to understanding the experience of space in the Middle Ages.
Perhaps the most evocative practice associated with this magical world-view is what has come to be known popularly as voodoo death, the practice of killing or causing pain to some one by
means of torturing a likeness of that person (Frazer 28). Instances
of such practice were widely recorded throughout medieval Europe, and, although certainly with less frequency, were reported
by Frazer to have continued among certain peasant communities
up to the present. A sorcerer in fourteenth century Coventry, for
example, is said to have made a wax figure of a neighbor and driven a needle into its forehead, causing intense pain in the head of
his neighbor. Later he removed the needle and drove it through
the figures heart, at which point the neighbor immediately died.15
Such a practice, while considered a perversion of science because
of its evil effects, was nevertheless not considered supernatural, but
rather an intrinsic capacity of nature, just as plants whose leaves
were shaped like livers were believed to promote the health of the
liver, or a talisman made of a vultures eye could promote improved
vision (Kieckhefer 13).
Just as the modern distinction between science and magic is
not applicable to everyday common beliefs and behavior in the
Middle Ages, so too the common distinction between magic and
religion becomes problematic. In this view, magic is held to be distinct from religion in that the former coerces higher and/or natural
powers and the latter supplicates them. But the attitude of medieval
people toward the sacred and toward prayer was seldom so well defined (Kieckhefer 15). From the bodies of saints to the recitation of
prayers to the paper and ink with which holy words were written,

mimesis and theatricality


the objective presence of the sacred was held to have a special and,
indeed, quite practical power. The cult of the saints, for instance,
led not only or even principally to the pious imitatio of their deeds,
but rather to the obsessive adoration of their preserved bodies. As
Huizinga writes, [t]he physical presence that the saints possessed
by virtue of their depictions was unusually intensified by the fact
that the church permitted and even favored the veneration of their
relics.... Before St. Elizabeth of Thuringia was buried, a crowd of
devotees cut or tore strips from the winding-sheets of her face and
cut off her hair and nails, pieces of her ears and even her nipples.16
These relics appear at times to have served as amulets, imparting
peace, fertility and good weather everywhere they were carried
(Kieckhefer 78).
Likewise, the words of prayers could also function as charms that
could either work alone or be used to intensify the effects of a particular ritual. Indeed, sometimes the words did not even need to be
recited, as if the very substance of the paper and ink that bore them
had become imbued with their magical power. One manuscript on
exorcizing demons, for example, recommends drawing the sign of
the cross and writing the beginning lines of the Gospel according to
John on a sheet of parchment, and then scraping the words into holy
water for the afflicted person to drink (Kieckhefer 74).
Finally, the experience of sacred objects and words as practically
effective cures, talismans, and charms extended even to the holy Eucharist. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as the doctrine
of the Eucharist was being redefined and the Real Presence of Christs
body was explicitly claimed to become present in its substance at the
moment of the blessing, people increasingly demanded to see this
miraculously transubstantiated host, and the custom spread of having the priest elevate it over his head after the consecration so that
people at mass could behold it (79). This gesture, which had traditionally been meant as an imitation of Christs gesture of slightly
raising the bread while blessing it at the Last Supper, became highly
exaggerated by the second half of the twelfth century in response
to the peoples desire to see and adore the body of Christ.17 For the
people who came flocking to witness the elevation, the motivation


a wrinkle in history

tended to be straightforward: it was held by many, for example, that

having seen the elevated host in the morning, one was safe from
suffering a stroke or going blind, and that, in addition, one did not
age during the time spent in church (Huizinga 177). Nevertheless,
this practice provoked serious concern on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities, who endeavored to determine the exact moment
of the transformation in order to assure that at no time would the
masses be adoring a simple piece of bread. In order to prevent such
idolatry, the Bishop of Paris ordered the clergy to keep the bread under the altar and out of site until they had finished pronouncing the
words, This is my body, at which point they could raise the bread
for the people to see (Schmitt 346).
What each of these examples shows is a case of a performance
of kinds, but a performance whose efficacity is not bracketed by a
framing function, whose performativity, in other words, is not suspended. Whereas one might argue that three are still performance
of this sort in modern, industrial society, I suspect that even those
that claim to retain a truly performative aspect to their ceremonial
religious sacraments are the outstanding example are quite
simply not experienced in the same way as their counterparts were
in medieval times. Quite clearly, in the context of a short articles,
such a suggestion must remain just that, a suggestion, at best a mild
provocation.18 But if we grant some plausibility to this speculation,
then we are tempted to conclude that these performances were perceived as occurring in a different kind of space one lacking the
capacity to splinter into separately framed dimensions; one full and
impressionable, a conduit of tangible effects, rather than abstract
and empty, a mirror for representations a space that, in turn, supports another kind of mimesis.
If the prohibition of fiction that marks the aesthetic beginnings
of modernity is, for Costa Lima, scandalous, his critique is intended
to lead us to a solution, a cure for this scandal: a return to and rediscovery of a notion of mimesis freed from this particular historical
limitation. Such a notion of mimesis would, as I indicated above,
recognize the presence in any act of mimesis of a necessary element
of fiction or, as he reformulates it, estrangement:

mimesis and theatricality


Identification and estrangement identification through

estrangement these constitute the basic and contradictory terms of the phenomenon of mimesis. When we think
of it in relation to social representations, we can say that
mimesis is a particular case on its own, distinct from other
modalities because it operates the representation of representations. (Social 461).
However, while this description of mimesis implies a corrective to the
highly restrictive notion promulgated during the Renaissance, it still
partakes of the same fundamental structure. It is, in other words, still
a theatrical model of mimesis. The difference is that it is a mimesis
that consciously appropriates its own theatricality in the service of
estrangement; it plays, that is, with the very element of theatricality
that makes estrangement possible: the screen or frame separating and
constituting the imaginary space. The performance of the wedding
ceremony mentioned above is already a representation of sorts, in that
it requires a primordial frame of reference to even become visible
for what it is, and hence be effective, Mimesis, separated from the
original representation by yet another frame, is a representation of a
representation, and therefore creates for the spectator the possibility
of distance, parody, the perversions of the imagination, the freedom
not to take seriously lifes objects or its rituals.
The mimesis of the Middle Ages, while not representational
in the sense canonized in the Renaissance, cannot be described as
fictive in this sense outlined above either. Rather, the mimesis of
the Middle Ages represents another possibility, one that cannot be
described with the vocabulary of identification and estrangement.
The prohibition of fiction of the Renaissance theorists was, as Costa
Lima argues, a form of control of the imaginary. But this reaction
was prompted by changes that can be much more specifically attributed than the discourse around the emergence of subjectivity
allows. Both mimesis as identification and mimesis as estrangement
are aspects of theatrical mimesis; the prohibition of one of these
aspects was prompted by the emergence of theatricality as a mode
of experiencing space. Such a revision both expands and strengthens


a wrinkle in history

Cots Limas argument, while at the same time confirming its essential premises.
It may well be that, to us moderns, this fictional aspect of mimesis is our only alternative to the verisimilitude of the Renaissance
theorists; it may be that the non-representational mimesis of a magical world view is beyond our realm of experience. But despite Costa
Limas insistence that the view of mimesis to which he is committed
is one of the cases of keying of primary and habitual frames (Social
456), he gives, from time to time, a hint that he may be in search
of an even less restrictive description of the aesthetic experience. In
his discussion of Freud, for example, he claims that what is decisive in the constitution of mimesis, then, is the creation of a staging,
which is not so much the repetition of a model as the organization
of a response to that model carried out at the level of the sensorial
(Control 50). While the use of the word staging would suggest that
we are still in the realm of theatricality, the rest of the sentence belies
that impression. For to look at mimesis as the way a body organizes
a response at the level of the sensorial is to open the door to different modes of perception, creation, and interaction with the world
around us, ways that could, perhaps, transcend the aegis of social

Chapter 4
On Relativism, Rights and Differends, or,
Ethics and the American Holocaust

The shades of those to whom had been refused not only life
but also the expression of the wrong done to them by the
Final Solution continue to wander in their indeterminacy.
By forming the State of Israel, the survivors transformed the
wrong into damages and the differend into a litigation. By
beginning to speak in the common idiom of public international law and of authorized politics, they put an end to the
silence to which they had been condemned. But the reality
of the wrong suffered at Auschwitz before the foundation
of this state remained and remains to be established, and it
cannot be established because it is in the nature of a wrong
not to be established by consensus.1
Jean-Franois Lyotard

In David Stannards manifesto of remembrance, American Holocaust, the author makes explicit the connection between the Jewish
Holocaust of the 1930s and 40s, and the destruction of the native
populations of the Americas in the decades following Columbuss
arrival in Hispaniola in 1492:
Elie Wiesel was right, the road to Auschwitz was being
paved in the earliest days of Christendom. But another conclusion now is equally evident: on the way to Auschwitz the
roads pathway led straight through the heart of the Indies
and of North and South America;2


a wrinkle in history

[j]ust twenty-one years after Columbuss first landing in
the Caribbean, the vastly populous island that the explorers had renamed Hispaniola was effectively desolate; nearly
8,000,000 people those Columbus chose to call Indians
had been killed by violence, disease, and despair. It took
a little longer, about the span of a single human generation, but what happened on Hispaniola was the equivalent
of more than fifty Hiroshimas. And Hispaniola was only
the beginning. (AH x)
Almost every aspect of the problem Lyotard grapples with in the epigram as regards the Jewish Holocaust has relevance for the American
Holocaust3: where the Nazis intended to obliterate an entire race, the
Europeans, in many cases, succeeded; where a differend arises between the claims of survivors and the apologists of Nazism, there are
no survivors of the American Holocaust, if only because of the historical distance that separates it from the present; where the defeat of the
Nazis allowed for a regime in which their actions could be judged and
condemned (if only according to the juridical rules of cognitive discourse4), for 500 years the historical discourse of the West has classified the colonization of the Americas not as a holocaust but as a discovery, and has celebrated 1492 as one of the great events of world history.
As the editors of one volume marking the quincentennial put it:
Most of modern history has been written, analyzed, and interpreted with the emphasis on what has been described as
the Discovery, perceived predictably from the perspective
of the people who presumably did the discovering. Those
who were discovered have had little or no real say in how
that history is written and limited opportunity to tell it as
they feel it is.5
But, if this is the case, and given the fact of the almost total silence
imposed on the native idiom, how can we explain that we, the

on relativism, rights and differends


descendants of this event,6 can now cast a critical gaze on our own
history, and judge that a wrong was committed? And, assuming
the existence of such a desire, how do we go about attesting that
wrong, restoring that idiom?7
The immediate answer is, of course, that the silence was never
total, that Europe was never a monolithic unity, and that even at the
time of the conquest an alternative story was emerging, concerning,
for example, the Black Legend of the Spaniards barbarous treatment
of the natives. But while these narratives reveal and describe practices that might have otherwise never come to our attention, they do
nothing to restore the idiom of the vanquished. The French or the
English idioms were not incommensurate with the Spanish idiom;
between their genres of discourse there is no differend, for theirs is
the discourse of colonialism, and of mercantile competition. If this
is the case, then we are still left with the task of regaining what was
destroyed, of finding an idiom to express what has been silenced,
or, at the very least, of bearing witness to the differend between the
peoples who came into contact in 1492. As Sylvia Wynter asks,
Can we, therefore, while taking as our point of departure
both the ecosystemic and global sociosystemic interrelatedness of our contemporary situation, put forward a new
world view of 1492 from the perspective of the species, and
with reference to the interests of its well-being, rather than
from the partial perspectives, and with reference to the necessarily partial interests, of both celebrants and dissidents? 8
Such a new world view implies a new consciousness, a consciousness not rooted exclusively in the hegemony of one idiom, a consciousness whose existence is perhaps only attested to by the desire
some have to attain it. And it is this desire that remains to be explained, for it is a desire that suggests an obligation in the sense of the
ethical, an obligations that reaches us from outside the boundaries
of an idiom, or of a world view, and that can account, in some mysterious way, for how that world view might change without ever being defeated. I suggest that the roots of this change must be sought


a wrinkle in history

in the discourse of the conquerors themselves, in the struggle among

thinkers of the time to justify the conquest, and in the conceptual
leap that allowed a few people to think outside that justificatory
discourse and their culture in order to condemn it as unjust.
To this end, the present essay begins with a discussion of the debate that took place in Valladolid, Spain, in 1550, between the scholar
Juan Gins de Seplveda and the Bishop of Chiapas and vocal defender of Indians, Bartolom de las Casas, on the question of the legality
of Spanish policies and practices in the New World. My discussion of
this debate is not intended to be an exercise in historical hermeneutics,
to deliver the definitive interpretation of this fabled event in light of
the conceptual framework I am bringing to bear. Rather, I use this
reflection on history as a ground from which to turn a gaze back onto
our present situation, and to grapple with a philosophical question
concerning our relation to the past, and our attitudes toward those
who are culturally different in a society where multiculturalism is
becoming ever more a demographic fact. This philosophical question
is often described in terms of the antagonism between universalism
and cultural relativism, but more fundamentally it is a question of
ethics, of how one feels one ought to behave toward a being one cannot
understand, of what one owes this being. This is the form the question attains in Lyotards The Differend, and much of the framework
this essay advances is borrowed from that book. However, the nature
of my starting place, and of the historical event that grounds this
discussion, brings me to challenge Lyotards unequivocal rejection of
the concept of humanity as an appropriate mediator for encountering
difference, and to look instead to the work of Renata Salecl and Slavoj
iek for a model of the human that can serve as a basis for the formation of ethical communities across cultural divides.
The encounter between the Spanish adventurers and the native Americans was also almost immediately an encounter between
what Lyotard would call different genres of discourse. The most blatant example of this was the use of a certain juridical document,
called the Requerimiento, which the Spaniards were required to read
aloud to the natives before pillaging their lands and dwellings. (Of
course, the document was often read at a great distance from where

on relativism, rights and differends


the natives were standing, well out of earshot, which is basically

irrelevant, as it was also always read in Spanish.9) The purpose of
this document was to inscribe the alien people into the legal ambit
of Spanish Christendom, such that any actions taken against them
would be justifiable in Christian, legalistic terms.10 One part of the
document read as follows:
I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country and shall make war against you
in all ways and manner that we can, and shall subject you to
the yoke and obedience of the church and of Their Highnesses. We shall take you and your wives and your children,
and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as Their Highnesses may command. And we
shall take your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and
damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey and refuse
to receive their lord and resist and contradict him. (AH 66)
From a modern perspective, for which nations are autonomous and
may reasonable expect a certain respect for their sovereignty, such a
document could hardly be taken seriously. But the Spanish royalty
took most seriously the legality of its policies in the new world, and
at times was far from certain that these policies were completely
just.11 To be sure, the religious legitimacy of spreading the Catholic
faith had been well established by a series of papal bulls throughout
the 15th century (in light of Portuguese exploration of the African
coast), and particularly by the bull of 1493, which authorized the
Spaniards under the guidance of the orthodox faith to induce the
peoples who live in such islands and lands [as you have discovered or
are about to discover] to receive the Catholic religion, save that you
never inflict upon them hardships or dangers (F 29).
But the question of the right of the Spanish crown to subjugate
these people was not established to the satisfaction of the Crown
until the first junta of civil lawyers meeting to discuss Spanish policy
in America, called by Ferdinand in 1504, decided in the presence
and with the opinion of the archbishop of Seville [Diego de Deza]


a wrinkle in history

that the Indians should be given [to the Spaniards] and that this was
in agreement with human and divine law (F 28).
If this decision satisfied the Crown for a given time, the question
of the conquests legitimacy continued to be posed in the Universities, particularly among a group of scholars that came to be known
as the School of Salamanca.12 One basic problem they considered
was that while slavery, as a legal institution, could be imposed on
those captured during the course of just warfare, the Spanish Crown
wished to consider the inhabitants of the Indies not as enemies conquered through warfare, but as its own subjects and vassals, whom it
would not make sense to enslave. As Queen Isabel informed Nicols
de Ovando, we wish the Indians to be well treated as our subjects
and our vassals (F 34). Apologists for the enslavement of the Indians therefore had to look not to the juridical rights of the conquerors for their legitimacy, but rather to the very nature of the native
peoples (39). From this need arose the debate in the early sixteenth
century over the Aristotelian doctrine of natural slavery.
According to Aristotle, some commentators said, there is a type
of man whose reason, the defining feature of men, has, for some
reason, failed to achieve proper mastery over his passions (42). Such
a man is not capable of self-mastery and it is therefore necessary that
he be subjected to the mastery of another for his own guidance. That
such natural slaves existed was not a difficult proposition to accept;
but to justify on this basis the enslavement of the Indians required
that the Indians, or barbarians in general, be identified with the
idea of the natural slave (47).
For Francisco de Vitoria, leader of the Salamanca school, just
as there are physical laws that determine the behavior of things in
nature, so there are laws of human behavior that determine how
one ought to behave vis--vis others. The difference between these
two types of law is that man, graced with a free will, may choose to
disregard the law (59). But if man may disregard the law, how are
individual humans to know what the natural law actually dictates?
Humans have access to this knowledge, says Vitoria, because it is
reflected in custom and popular opinion. Knowledge, he says, is
that thing on which all men are in agreement (60).

on relativism, rights and differends


Now, while a certain variance in customs may be explained by

differing interpretations of the natural law, the fact that mankind
belonged to a single genus, an essential principle of Christian cosmology (19), meant that customs conforming to natural law must
be contained within certain well-defined boundaries (634). Behaviors that fell outside of those boundaries were clear indications of
a lack of knowledge of the natural law, and hence a sign that a group
was not fully human and was, hence, barbarian (64). The debate
come down, then, to the question of whether, on the basis of this
distinction in terms of natural reason between fully human and
barbarian, the Indians could be judged as barbarians and therefore be justly enslaved. Francisco de Vitoria faced this question by
examining the customs of the Indians as they had been described by
travelers to the new world, and came to the conclusion that
the Indians lived in a society which fulfilled all the basic
requirements for a civil way of life. If this were the case,
then on the empirical evidence alone they were not barbarians in Aristotles sense of the word and hence could not be
deprived of their rights and property on the grounds that
their culture was one created by men incapable of deliberate
choice. (79)
As Pagden goes on to explain, however, the fact that they lived in a
civil society of sorts did not guarantee the quality of their customs.
Certain of these customs were clearly not in conformity with natural
reason, but rather, as in the case of cannibalism, could be seen as
mistakes of reason, in which basic categories, such as enemy and
food were confused (85). Although even human sacrifice was not
per force unnatural, as it was evidence of a desire to honor God by
giving Him what was held most dearly on earth, the existence of
this custom demonstrated that the Indians had misinterpreted the
principle of natural law that one should worship God (90).
If, as Vitoria held, we can only know the natural law through
custom, then how could the Indians have been so misled by theirs?
The answer, he suggested, was that when customs were imposed by


a wrinkle in history

powerful individuals, who had used their free will poorly, they could
have the effect of leading a people away from the knowledge of the
natural law, since [t]he impulse to follow a bad ruler if he has
some claim to legitimate authority, is as strong as the impulse to follow a good one (101). Ultimately, therefore, while Vitoria could
conclude that the Indians were not entirely irrational creatures, he
could not say with certainty that they were fully rational either, and
thus left open the possibility that they were something in between
the two (79).
The conflict over the legality of the Spanish campaigns in the
new world came to a head in the debate at Valladolid in 1550 between
Seplveda and Las Casas. The debate centered around Seplvedas
claim that it was just for the Spanish to wage war against the Indians
and to enslave them if need be. He supported this claim with four
theses, namely: 1) Indians are barbarous13 ; 2) Indians commit
crimes against natural law (AM 87); 3) Indians oppress and kill
innocent people (89); and 4) War may be waged against infidels
in order to prepare the way for preaching the faith (95).
To the first of the theses, Las Casas rebuttal was that Seplveda
had generalized and simplified Aristotles definition of barbarian
to suit his own purpose, and he responded by deriving three classes
of barbarian from Aristotle, and later adding one more derived from
scripture. The first three were: 1) Those who are barbarians because
of their savage behavior; 2) Those who are barbarians because they
have no written language in which to express themselves; and 3)
Those who are barbarians in the correct sense of the term (83). Of
the first two definitions, neither one justified their referents being relegated to the category of natural slave: the first because it was a relative term, which even highly developed peoples such as Spaniards
could merit if their behavior was sufficiently savage; the second
because it is used only in a restricted sense, and had no relevance to
a peoples rationality. Of these two, only the second, highly specific
sense of barbarian applied to the Indians, but, since it was a value
free description, saying nothing about their rationality, it could not
justify warfare against them as natural slaves. Las Casas also added
a fourth definition of barbarians as those who are not Christians,

on relativism, rights and differends


but concluded that the first, second and fourth definitions were all
improper and had nothing to do with Aristotles concept of a natural slave (87). He was left, therefore, with only the third definition
barbarians, who in the proper and strict meaning of the word, are
those who, either because of their evil and wicked character or the
barrenness of the region in which they live, are cruel, savage, sottish,
stupid, and strangers to reason.14 Not content merely to demonstrate that such a definition failed to describe the native inhabitants
of the new world, Las Casas would argue that such a people could
not be imagined to exist in a Christian universe.
First he established that, indeed, of Seplvedas three definitions, only this third one could actually fulfill Aristotles definition
of natural slave, because such creatures
lacked the reasoning and way of life suited to human beings
and those things which all men habitually accept. The Philosopher discusses these barbarians and calls them slaves by
nature since they have no natural government, no political
institutions (for there is no order among them), and they
are not subject to anyone, nor do they have a ruler. [...] They
have no laws which they fear or by which all their affairs are
regulated. There is no one to evaluate good deeds, promote
virtue, or restrain vice by penalties. Finally, caring nothing
for life in a society, they lead a life very much that of brute
animals. (ID 33)
Ironically, Las Casas would not allow that a race of such men
could even exist, except as a rare exception, for God would not allow
for such an imperfection in his plan. In other words, a race of such
men could not, in fact, be men, since men are definable primarily in
term of reason.
And since a rational nature is provided for and guided by
divine providence for its own sake in a way superior to that
of other creatures, not only in what concerns the species
but also each individual, it evidently follows that it would


a wrinkle in history

be impossible to find in a rational nature such a freak or

mistake of nature, that is, one that does not fit the common
notion of man, except very rarely and in far fewer instances
than in other creatures. (35)
Since Las Casas can be certain that his opponent will at least accept
this much, that the defining essence of humanity is a rational nature,
he may argue that, by virtue of that nature, divinely guaranteed, no
species of humans can be inherently less rational than another, for
this would mean that Gods creation was essentially flawed. If certain
men are de facto deficient in this regard, slow witted or barbarous,
it could only be accidentally so, since a rational nature, receiving its
power from the Creator alone, should include men who, as a rule,
are endowed with the best gifts of their nature and are rarely slow
witted or barbarous (35). Should his opponent be so bold as to argue that, in fact the Indians were, as a race, barbarous in this third,
exact sense of the term, he would be committing the unspeakable
heresy of suggesting that God has erred in His creation of a people
who completely outnumber all other men (35). In other words,
before he even begins to argue empirically that the Indians customs do not resemble any definitions of barbarism, Las Casas has
already demonstrated the logical impossibility that they could be so
Seplvedas second thesis was that the Indians could be justly
punished by the Spaniards for committing crimes against natural
law in the form of their idolatry. Las Casas rebutted this argument
by claiming that the Spaniards had no jurisdiction over those who
had never pledged loyalty to their faith:
Therefore, since the Church does not punish the unbelief of
the Jews even if they live within the territories of the Christian religion, much less will it punish idolaters who inhabit
an immense portion of the earth, which was unheard of in
previous centuries, who have never been subjects of either
the Church or her members, and who have not even known
what the Church is. (79)

on relativism, rights and differends


The third thesis, that war was justified in the name of the innocent victims of Indian rituals, provoked the most complicated,
and most radical, of Las Casas rebuttals. Of the many principles
he invokes, two are of particular interest here. The first is that, even
if one accepts that the Indians do unjustly kill innocent people as
part of their religion, to allow this to happen is a lesser evil than
to wage war on them, thereby killing many more innocents, and
perhaps earning such hatred as to never again hope for their willful
conversion to Christianity (190). The second principle is perhaps
his clearest articulation of what we could call cultural relativism,
that the impulse to offer what one values most to God, hence human
sacrifice, is in itself a noble expression of natural law, whereas what
one chooses to sacrifice is subject to the vagaries of human laws and
customs. Therefore, the fact of human sacrifice is not at all contrary
to the dictates of natural reason, and, if it is ultimately an error, it
is one that should be excused, as it can owe its origin to a plausible
proof developed by human reasoning (242).
As to Seplvedas fourth thesis, that war was justified as a prelude to preaching the faith, in order to attain, as it were, a captive
audience, Las Casas had recently published a treatise on this topic
called The Only Method of Preaching the True Faith. In this treatise,
as in his rebuttal, Las Casas argues from both a pragmatic and a
moral perspective that conversion by force is neither effective, since
it can only inspire hatred and fear rather than love and trust, nor is it
right, since the method is in direct contradiction to the message.15
The central goal, then, of Las Casas discourse was to attribute
to the Indians a dignity deserving of the Spaniards respect, a respect
that would encourage the Spaniards to persuade the Indians of the
advantages of their civilization and of the truths of their religion, but
not to do so violently. The central rhetorical maneuver he adopted
to pursue this end was to counter Seplvedas concept of a graded
humanity, in which different races could be more or less human,
with the notion of an absolute humanity, guaranteed by the perfection of Gods creation. It was this principle that allowed him to
argue for the viability of different forms of expression of the essence
of humanity, natural reason, but it was just as much the observed


a wrinkle in history

differences in cultural expression that led him to posit the essential

unity of the human species. As Sylvia Wynter points out,
Against his antagonist Seplveda, who argued that the physical sacrifice carried out by the Aztec peoples in their religious ceremonies, as well as their practices of cannibalism,
proved that the indigenous peoples lacked natural reason,
and, were, by nature, irrational humans and lesser men (homunculi) intended by nature to be the encomienda serfs of
the Rational Spaniards, Las Casas counterargued that the
religious customs and practices of the Aztecs, rather than
being the signs of a Lack of Natural Reason, were instead
signs of an error of natural reason.16
In other words, Las Casas, while building on the arguments of previous thinkers such as Vitoria that the Indians did not conform
to the characteristics of the Aristotelian natural slave because they
showed a potential to know the natural law in their attachment to
laws and customs went beyond them as well. The Indians did not
just show a potential for natural reason that fell somewhat short of
the Spaniards, they had their own natural reason, which, if incorrect in absolute terms, i.e., in terms of Gods ultimate desire, was
nonetheless appropriate for their culture and time. As Las Casas said
later about his own treatise, I put forward and proved many propositions that no one before me had touched upon nor written about,
and one of them was that it was not against law and natural reason
to offer men as a sacrifice to God, assuming their false god to be the
true one.17 But if their reason was faulty, due to the specific nature
of their history, their culture and their environment, in what substantive way was the natural reason of the Spanish, or Christians,
more correct? Clearly, the only answer to this is that, from Las Casass and the Spaniards perspective, their reason was in conformity
with the will of God, or with the natural law (as the symbolic codes
organized around both of these concepts were in use at that time).
Each of these names, of course, designates the place of a tautology,
an absolute end-point and ultimate support for the symbolic code,

on relativism, rights and differends


that point beyond which one cannot explain ones adherence. Why
should I do what God ordains is right? Because God ordains it. Because it is right. The point is not that such a response shuts down
dialogue; although in many cases it may, the very phrase to shut
down dialogue implies that there would more dialogue where that
came from, if only it were not shut down. Rather, the tautological
definition or the ethical phrase mark the point beyond which there
is no discourse and no current ground for dialogue. The essential
difference between Las Casas and Seplveda in this respect is that
whereas the latter grounded his vision of human potential in a particular, existent and national model, that of the Spanish people,18
the former left his idea of humanity somewhat more indeterminate,
grounded not in a tangible set of attributes but in a tautological
equation and an ethical conviction: all men are rational, and all who
are rational are men, and this is so because God says so.
Although Las Casas and Seplveda each claimed victory following the debate (AM 113), there was no immediate change in Spanish colonial policy, a fact that can only indicate that, whichever one
might have been the most persuasive in that given context, the ideas
and interests that Seplveda represented prevailed. Sylvia Wynter
attributes this victory to an epistemic receptivity to the secular, and
nationalist, underpinnings of Seplvedas theoretical position:
[...] the debate at Valladolid can be seen as the official occasion of the conceptual revolution that formally ushered in
the modern world. It was a debate which Seplveda as the
Spanish nationalist won (as OGorman argues, according
to Phelan) precisely because his mode of reasoning corresponded to the great changes that were taking place in Europe, ushered in by the commercial revolution both before
and after 1492. These changes were to lead to the organization of human life on secular rather than on religious terms.
Seplveda, in spite of his still hybrid use of religious terminology and concepts, can be said to have provided the first
secular operational self-definition of the human subject,
one whose universally applicable verbal symbol was that


a wrinkle in history

of natural law rather than that of the Christian God, even

where still couched in terms of the latter. (NS2 53)
If this secular operational self-definition of the human subject
was couched in theological terms, it was also couched in nationalist
terms. Seplveda described the Indians faults and barbarous characteristics not in terms of an absolute standard of natural reason,
but against the standard of a race (although not in the physicobiological sense of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries19), that of
the Spanish people. As Wynter puts it again,
[o]ver against Seplvedas natural law thesis with its new
secular concept of the Spaniards as constituting a natural
body of the elect, Las Casas, both at Valladolid and in his
Apologtica Historia defined the human as being the same
(per esse) everywhere even and because of the fact that they
[humans] were geohistorically different (per accidens). (NS2
In this opposition, we also see encapsulated one version of the philosophical dilemma of universalism and cultural relativism; curiously,
though, both horns of the dilemma appear on the same side of the
debate. Whereas Seplveda bases a notion of the human on the particular collection of attributes of a given national group, Las Casas
defends the notion of culturally variable modes of humanity, valued
by the addresser despite their difference. But he can only do this
once he has posited a universal category, one whose substance is
not a collection of attributes, but rather is one without attributes,
whose only guarantee is an ethical one, God, reason, or the call of
an obligation from the limits of his own knowledge.
A recent report to the United Nations Commission on Human
Rights on the proliferation of displaced persons begins with the following words:

on relativism, rights and differends


When President Jimmy carter first startled the world with

his insistence that the United States would henceforth take
seriously its commitment to the advancement of human
rights without conventional regard for national boundaries, many around the world and within the United States
considered the attitude recklessly idealistic. Some disparaged it as a naive view of foreign policy which, they reasoned, should serve discernible national interests and not
altruistic moral objectives. Others argued against the policy
by invoking the relativism of the values behind the principle
of human rights. Few today, however, would express such
views without some serious pause, whatever their political
persuasion or national affiliation.20
From its first lines, the report reveals the intention to transcend a
dilemma, a dilemma that the former Secretary General of the United
Nations, Javier Prez de Cuellar, described as separating respect for
sovereignty and the protection of human rights (PD 16), and a dilemma on whose horns he too thought we could avoid impaling
ourselves. Unfortunately, this dilemma seems hard to dismiss. The
community of nations may often agree in principle on the idea of human rights, but individual nations will balk when these general principles translate into policies that might slow economic development,
or when they take the form of international disapproval of their internal management or of their deep-seated cultural practices. In fact,
when the author of the report states that world developments suggest
that transcending sovereignty is no longer a forbidden territory for
discussion (PD 13), it is hard to believe that such a view represents
the perspective of all or even a majority of the worlds nations. The decision to transcend sovereignty will always be taken by one or several
parties against the protests of another or several others who will claim
that the party or parties initiating the intervention are not doing so
on behalf of humanity, but rather in the service of their own interests
and in the furtherance of their own political power.
The respective horns of this dilemma, human rights and national sovereignty, are grounded epistemologically in those with which


a wrinkle in history

I ended the previous section, universalism and cultural relativism:

the idea, on the one hand, that there are fundamental values, corresponding to objective truths, which should apply to all human
beings, regardless of culture or creed, gender or race; versus, on the
other hand, the conviction that values are only conceivable within
a given cultural community, and have no validity outside such a
community. In proclaiming the dilemma moot, the proponents of
a universal doctrine of human rights are effectively adopting the
former of these two philosophical positions, and relegating the latter
position to the backwater of reactionary nationalism. The problem
with such a move is, of course, that it presumes that the we whose
values most closely conform to the doctrine of human rights is, in
fact, an adequate representative for the we of all humanity, past,
present and future.21
Such an assumption is fine if you are what Barbara Herrnstein
Smith calls an objectivist. For an objectivist, in fact, it is not even
a question of finding a representative we for all humanity; that human beings have these values is an objective truth, in that it is part
of the very definition of being human. Such values are therefore essential to humans and are not subject to the vagaries of culture and
history. Needless to say, this dichotomy between objectivism and
relativism does not correspond to any neat political categories, there
are objectivists of the Left just as there are objectivists if the Right,
and the same goes for relativists. Regardless of the political disparities between objectivist opinions, the critique they level at relativism
is essentially the same: relativists are incapable of judgment, be it
factual, moral or aesthetic, as they have no stable concept of Truth,
Goodness or Beauty. As Smith puts it: Allegedly, the author of this
study must look on bad things benignly as simply what the other fellow prefers and on all things, good and bad, with passive, egalitarian
tolerance. As a relativist, she must, it is said, face the choice of being
either morally and politically nerveless or logically inconsistent.22 A
relativist of the Left, for example, could never convincingly battle
for social justice, because he or she could never be certain that the
justice he or she was fight for was really justice for all, rather than a
merely personal, or culturally determined, understanding of justice.

on relativism, rights and differends


Smiths response is that relativism and objectivism are not merely

different philosophical preferences, but rather are incompatible epistemological configurations. A criticism of relativism only has validity if one presupposes an objectivist epistemology. Therefore, Smith
says of the dire consequences objectivist critics predict if relativism
were to gain dominance,
[t]hese dread occurrences consist, in other words, of the loss,
breakdown, collapse, and disappearance not of various
moral, aesthetic and scientific practices, phenomena, and institutions, but, rather, of the possibility of describing and accounting for various practices, phenomena, and institutions
in familiar objectivist ways. Given the tendency of objectivist
thought to reify theoretical constructs, it is not surprising
that it regards the articulation of alternative conceptualizations as an attack on fundamental entities. (CV 153)
Rather than moral disarray, Herrnstein Smith argues, a world in
which relativism were dominant would still be filled with people
holding strong moral convictions and activists willing to dedicate
their time and their lives to causes they believed in; literature and
the arts would still be vibrant, despite the fact that no one would
insist on the objective validity of his or her interpretation or evaluation; and discussions concerning the truth or falsehood of certain
propositions would still occur even though the participants recognized that the scope of the terms under examination was limited to a particular linguistic and interpretive community. Indeed,
Hernnstein Smith finds that, in many ways, such a world would be
morally better, which, clearly, is why she is willing to exert so much
effort defending her position. One reason for this moral superiority is, she claims, that such a world would be markedly less violent.
Since the contingency of all value cannot be evaded, whoever does
the urging cannot ultimately suppress, or ultimately evade taking
responsibility for the particularity of the perspective from which
he does so. Therefore, someone who conceived of all values as
radically contingent would, in dealing with those in her charge, be


a wrinkle in history

edged toward this last alternative [use of force] less readily than the
absolutist/objectivist, and would be, under these conditions, more
reluctant to exercise that force (160).
If the relativist is just as ready as the objectivist to engage in activism for a cause, although less likely to use violence in doing so, what
can account for this strength of commitment that is not based on a
belief in the absolute rectitude of ones world view? Smiths answer
would appear to share some of the assumptions of certain schools of
pragmatism: the relativist, she claims, would perform actions that
she saw as part of a longer-range pattern of acts that appeared to
have, as their likely outcome, a state of affairs that she, along with
other people, saw and evaluated as desirable (166). In this sense,
what an objectivist mistakes for absolute aesthetic or moral values,
the relativist recognizes as being beneficial or disadvantageous in respect to her desired ends: when we allude to a work as great, good,
bad, or middling, we usually imply great, good, bad, or middling for
something and also, thereby, as something: that is, with respect to
whatever functions or effects works of that kind might be expected
or desired to serve or produce (13). While such a description makes
the relativist appear admirably in control of, and unusually aware
of, his or her own dispositions and desires, it does not indicate a
great deal of concern for what those desires are, why she has them or
where they might have come from. To Richard Rortys attempt to
answer this question by defining ones ethnos as the group formed of
those who share enough of ones beliefs to make fruitful conversation possible (CV 169), she responds by defining it instead as those
who share situations or conditions and, therefore, also share histories
and economies and, accordingly, have developed, over time, more
or less congruent routines and patterns of behavior, and, therefore,
engage in mutually consequential interactive practices (169). If,
then, the relativist appeared to us to be unusually aware of his or her
desires and dispositions, it is because she believes them to emerge,
unproblematically, from ones environment. But if this is the case,
her critique of Rortys self-consciously adopted ethnocentrism becomes purely academic: while Rortys pragmatist seeks to ground
his or her actions in community as opposed to objective truth, and

on relativism, rights and differends


must, therefore, admit to an ethnocentrism as regards choices and

values,23 Smiths relativist escapes this charge precisely because he
or she does not choose to ground her actions at all. Acting as she is
inclined to act, she admits that those inclinations are culturally, i.e.,
ethnically determined, but feels that she can call herself a relativist
as opposed to an ethnocentrist because she made no active choice
to be so inclined. And it is clear why Smith needs this trope: in her
glossary, relativism and ethnocentrism are opposite concepts; what
is good about a relativist is that she recognizes the contingency
of her own value system, and, therefore, refuses to establish herself
and her community as central. Nevertheless, to give full credence to
her own deterministic presuppositions is to admit that one will be
ethnocentric regardless. Which is not to say that the relativist could
not adopt a universalist posture, but only to say that her freedom to
do so could only be a result of her specific historical and cultural matrix, i.e., it would be an ethnocentrically determined universalism.
But what if, Smith might ask, ones cultural context has determined
one to be truly relativistic, i.e, non-ethnocentric, a true multiculturalist? To this I would respond, with Stanley Fish, that multiculturalism is a demographic fact, but an epistemological impossibility.24
Fishs idea is that there are, or seem to be, two types of multiculturalism, boutique and hard. Boutique multiculturalism is
the kind that has become a demographic fact in many societies,
particularly in the cosmopolitan centers of the West. It involves the
intermingling of cultures at the level of taste, such as the variety of
ethnic cuisines now available in American cities, or ethnic art
exhibits and music festivals. A boutique multiculturalist may choose
to dine Indian or Thai, and then take in a Pedro Almadvar film at
the local art-house cinema, all without compromising, in any serious way, the central beliefs and values that situate her in her own
culture. A hard multiculturalist, on the other hand, is one who truly
believes that other cultures are equally valuable to her own, that
their art is just as beautiful, and that their morality is just as right.
A boutique multiculturalist would, perhaps, on a trip to Saudi Arabia, admire the Arab architecture, but withdraw in repulsion at the
brutality of Arab penal codes, or at the injustice of Arab treatment


a wrinkle in history

of women. A hard multiculturalist, on the other hand, would accept

the appropriateness of the Arab penal system for Arab people, and
would claim that Arab attitudes toward women are perfectly proper
for their context. Fishs point is that of the two ideal positions, only
one exists in actuality; that is, we are all, more or less, boutique
multiculturalists. Hard multiculturalism, as an epistemological position, is impossible. The reasoning is that even if you, as an aspiring hard multiculturalist, take as your posture an ethics of radical
tolerance for any and all cultural practices, sooner or later you will
come upon a culture that refuses to tolerate some trait of another
culture whose practices you are busy tolerating. In other words, certain cultural practices and beliefs are simply incompatible, and do
not share a common ground upon which their differences can be
adjudicated. When aspiring hard multiculturalists comes upon one
of these situations, they must choose between mitigating their ethics
of absolute tolerance, and hence remaining boutique multiculturalists, or adopting the particular intolerance of the other culture, and
therefore becoming monoculturalists.
In a similar way, Fish argues, surprisingly, against relativism, a
position he relates with the desire to adjudicate all difference according to a standard, neutral principle.25 It is only the relativism of, say,
First Amendment absolutism that would lead one to argue for equal
protection for a Shakespearean sonnet and a racial slur, or lead one
to defend the right of neo-Nazis to parade in a town populated by
Auschwitz survivors as being equal to that of the survivors to condemn their treatment at the hands of the Nazis. But saying that Fish
opposes relativism is not to say that he embraces objectivism. In fact,
it is precisely because he rejects the notion of an objective truth that
he cannot conceive of a neutral principle that would satisfy all the
contingencies one threw at it. A truly neutral principle would necessarily stand on a transcendent ground, a ground that anyone and
everyone would accept as valid regardless of their own values and
customs. As there is no such ground, no principle can truly be neutral, but rather will be inflected according to the interest of the party
wielding the greatest power within the domain of the adjudication.
Therefore, instead of commitment to an abstract, neutral principle,

on relativism, rights and differends


Fish advocates commitment to substantial, moral conviction, and

favors an activism that devises different pragmatic strategies for furthering this moral conviction in different situations.
Ultimately, this moral commitment is a remarkably similar notion to the desired ends of Herrnstein Smiths relativism, and the
ethnocentric solidarity of Rortys pragmatism, and we can ask of
it the same question that we asked of these other two positions: what
is its origin? How does it arise? Whom does it serve? If we recall
Smiths formulation of aesthetic relativism, that when we allude
to a work as great, good, bad, or middling, we usually imply great,
good, bad, or middling for something and also, thereby, as something, we can see a striking homology between it and a critique of
ethical notions advanced by Wittgenstein in a lecture given in 1929
at Cambridge University, in which he faced the question that each of
these critics of objectivism reject (for whatever reason, be it that they
do not see it, that they find it inherently unanswerable, or that they
just do not consider it an interesting question). In the course of this
lecture, Wittgenstein separates two types of ethical statements,
the trivial, or relative, and the truly ethical, or absolute.26 It is his
description of the trivial, or relative, ethical claim that most recalls
Smiths formulation, in that such a claim gives an ethical form, i.e.,
is expressed by means of an ought, to what is merely a statement of
fact. Rather than good referring to some absolutely and universally desirable goal, [i]n fact the word good in the relative sense
simply means coming up to a certain predetermined standard (LE
5). Just as with Smiths aesthetic relativism, the relative prescriptive
statement, for Wittgenstein, only makes sense as part of a larger,
hypothetical syntax.
Unlike Smith, however, who does not appear concerned with
the nature of the desired ends or predetermined standards that
guide ones aesthetic or ethical judgment, Wittgensteins aim is to
isolate and examine this aspect of the ethical apart from its trivial or
relative manifestation. The problem, as he sees it, is that
[o]ur words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense,


a wrinkle in history

natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural, and our words will only express facts [...]. The
right road is the road which leads to an arbitrarily predetermined end and it is quite clear to us all that there is no sense
in talking about the right road apart from such a predetermined goal. (LE 7)
Of course, one might immediately dissent by pointing out that language is far from being limited to expressing facts; such a use of language is only one, to use Lyotards term, genre of discourse, one that
happens to be preferred by the scientific disciplines. But such an objection misses the point that ethics, whatever it is, cannot be reduced
to descriptive, factual language. As Wittgenstein puts it, although
all judgments of relative value can be shown to be mere statements
of fact, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of
absolute value (6). By saying this, Wittgenstein is not denying the
existence of ethics; but whatever ethics is, it exceeds the limitations
of descriptive language, it is not reducible to a factual description of
a strategy for attaining some desired end, it is, rather, a fundamental
part of whatever determines those desired ends.
The maneuver that accounts for the association between true
ethics and a certain kind of ethical statement resides, he claims, in
an endemic misuse of language in ethical and religious expression,
which makes the ethical statement a simile of a factual statement:
Thus it would seem to me that when we are using the word right
in an ethical sense, although, what we mean is not right in its trivial
sense, its something similar... (LE 9). The trivial statement, then,
refers indirectly to another level of interaction with the world that
has no adequate expression itself. If it did, one could drop the simile,
and tell it like it is, an impossibility since, in our case as soon as
we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand
behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first
appeared to be a simile now seems to be mere nonsense (LE 10).
But again, the problem is not that there is nothing to express, but
rather that there is an urgency, a feeling, a need to express, which
cannot be put into words:

on relativism, rights and differends


[...] I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only

that no description that I can think of would do to describe
what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every
significant description that anybody could possibly suggest
, ab initio, on the ground of its significance. That is to say,
I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions,
but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all
I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world
and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole
tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever
tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against
the boundaries of language. (12)
This sense of the ethical, a feeing of obligation from beyond the
boundaries of language, of the explicable, is one way of expressing
the question rejected by each of the three critiques of objectivism we
have discussed. By saying this, I am not suggesting that we simply
relegate the question of ethical obligation, or of the origins of desired
ends, to a mystical or ineffable realm. On the contrary, the inquiry
into the rivalry between universalism and relativism must, if it is to
proceed, take on this question of the ethical, of the origins of desire,
of the feelings that cement communities and identities, and of the
possibility of obligations that transcend them.
This question of obligation as the call of the ethical is the central
concern of Jean Franois Lyotards The Differend. While my purpose here is not to recount in detail Lyotards appropriation and
revision of Kants second Critique, it is important to note that he
does distance himself in several fundamental ways from Kants position. The principle departure is to define the ethical in terms closer
to those we have taken from Wittgenstein, as a realm that thrusts
against the boundaries of language and hence cannot be described
in rational terms.27 As Lyotard puts it, [i]n the idiom of cognition,


a wrinkle in history

either the law is reasonable, and it does not obligate, since it convinces; or else, it is not reasonable, and it does not obligate, since it constrains (D 117). For Lyotard, the cognitive, that genre of discourse
distinguished by its recourse to reason, is entirely heterogeneous
from other genres, such as the prescriptive. The ethical cannot, then,
be phrased in descriptive, i.e., cognitive terms, and therefore cannot
be explained or derived according to the rules of logical causality:
Obligation is not a fact that can be attested, but only a feeling, a
fact of reason, a sign (D 122).
If the ethical experience cannot be explained or attested, this is
not to say that ethical situations cannot be described. One characteristic of such a situation is that it involves a relation between an
addresser and an addressee, like most instances of phrasing, but
one in which a party used to conceiving itself as an I finds itself inexplicably trapped in the position of the you, of the addressee:
An addressor appears whose addressee I am, and about
whom I know nothing, except that he or she situates me
upon the addressee instance. The violence of the revelation is in the egos expulsion from the addressor instance,
from which it managed its work of enjoyment, power, and
cognition. It is the scandal of an I displaced onto the you
instance. The I turned you tries to repossess itself through
the understanding of what dispossesses it. [...] But it cannot annul the event, it can only tame and master it, thereby
disregarding the transcendence of the other. (111)
The question is: what sort of occurrence has the power of removing
the I from the addressor instance. If two parties who are fluent in
the same genre of discourse meet and converse within the boundaries and rules set by that genre, then neither is removed from the
addressor instance, although each addresses the other. In such a situation, the identity of the I is not shaken, for, as in Lacans description
of an act of communication, the sender receives his own message
back from the receiver in inverted form.28 The ethical cannot play
a role in such an encounter because it, the ethical, is a mode of the

on relativism, rights and differends


I/you situation which happens unforeseeably as the scrambling of

the phrase universe in which I is I (D 112). This scrambling of the
phrase universe must, then, be the result of a clash between genres,
each governed by different rules and driven toward distinct goals. In
such a clash there is certain to be a power differential, in which one
party tries to impose its genre upon the other, but this is not the only
violence of which Lyotard speaks. Whether the egos addressor is
more or less powerful is less important as regards the feeling of the
ethical than the fact that he/she/it be a mystery, some one or thing
whose existence, or whose genre of discourse, presents an obstacle to
being interpreted, narrated, explained in the egos own idiom: You
ought to implies an addressor who is undoubtedly a mystery, who is
incomprehensible and inscrutable, whom Kant calls freedom in
the second Critique, but also God in the Opus postumum (121), but
the inscrutable and the incomprehensible may just as well describe
the other in his or her destitution, as when the other arises in my
field of perception with the trappings of absolute poverty, without
attributes, the other has no place, no time, no essence, the other is
nothing but his or her request and my obligation (111).
But what is specific to this relationship with an inscrutable
other that induces in one a feeling of obligation? If the others presence is totally alien, if there is no table of equivalences between
them, no conceptual framework that encompasses the possible
meanings of each culture, how can its request even be translated as such? Lyotard phrases this question in another way, as the
possibility of a community of ethical phrases, which becomes the
problem of the second half of his book. The Kantian answer he
discards as unsatisfactory:
Kant introduces the term humanity in order to answer
this question. Humanity is a concept which does not belong to the genre of anthropology (in the Kantian sense of
the word). The community of practical, reasonable beings
(obligees and legislators, since that is the hypothesis) includes just as well entities that would not be human. This
community cannot be empirically attested. (125)


a wrinkle in history

This is an objection that appears at several moments in response

to similar attempt to legislate between competing genres by means
of universal concepts. Any attempt, he claims, to treat an object of
an Idea, i.e., a conceptual abstraction like humanity, as if it were
an object of cognition, i.e., an empirically attested reality, is a mode
of totalitarianism (5). There can be no ethical community because
community implies a shared genre of discourse and the ethical
situation is characterized by the lack of such a common ground.
An indispensable element of ethical experience is, therefore, what
Lyotard calls the heterogeneity of genres, as this is the precondition for the experience of otherness. The conflicts that arise between
competing genres of discourse are called differends. Differends
exists precisely because there can be no all-encompassing genre of
discourse to legislate between claims emerging from heterogeneous
genres: As distinguished from a litigation, a differend [diffrend]
would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable
to both arguments (xi). For a connection, or linkage, to occur
between these two parties, one of them must suffer what Lyotard
calls a wrong [tort], a damage [dommage] accompanied by the loss
of the means to prove the damage (5). The wronged party loses the
means of proving the damage done because it is no longer operating
within the framework of its own genre; the phrases it offers as arguments or testimonial are not recognized within the framework of the
opposing party. Such a conflict creates a differend,
the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be able to be put into phrases cannot yet
be. This state includes silence, which is a negative phrase,
but it also calls upon phrases which are in principle possible.
This state is signaled by what one ordinarily calls a feeling:
One cannot find the words, etc. A lot of searching must
be done to find new rules for forming and linking phrases
that are able to express the differend disclosed by the feeling, unless one wants this differend to be smothered right
away in a litigation and for the alarm sounded by the feeling

on relativism, rights and differends


to have been useless. What is at stake in a literature, in a

philosophy, in a politics perhaps, is to bear witness to differends by finding idioms for them. (13)
The test case for Lyotards exploration of the differend is the
debate sparked by the historian Faurisson in the early 1980s in France
when he questioned the historical validity of the Holocaust, stating,
for example, I have tried in vain to find a single former deportee
capable of proving to me that he had really seen, with his own eyes,
a gas chamber (3). The problem, as Lyotard formulates it, is that
the plaintiff, in this case a Holocaust survivor, cannot successfully
pursue his or her claim according to the rules of Faurissons juridical
genre of discourse, because to have seen and verified the existence of
a gas chamber would have most likely meant to die in it. Differends
arise, then, when people from competing perspective vie for a single
understanding of history. In such a competition, those who cannot
furnish proof (of a damage, for example), in a mode conforming to
the rules of the historical genre, are silenced by that history.
The lack of universally valid genres of discourse (History, the
Law) results in the proliferation of these epistemological gaps and
inconsistencies called differends. But there is no shortage of genres
that present themselves as universally valid, and such discourses have
as their aim the elimination of differends. This elimination of differends, according to Lyotard, is the aim of speculative reason (Hegel),
the dominant cognitive genre of modernity: Speculative dialectics
get stuck in the genre of mythic narrative. The latter yields no result,
only identical repetition. What does not enter into this repetition,
such as the Jewish idiom, is not sublated but disregarded, it is shoved
into oblivion (D 106). Speculative reason is totalizing, constantly
generating stories in which the inconsistencies of real occurrences are swallowed up, translated, gentrified, made to make sense.
Everything real is rational, everything rational is real, in Hegels
notorious words. But Auschwitz, says Lyotard, refutes speculative
doctrine. This crime at least, which is real, is not rational (179).
This appropriation of Hegels phrase is itself an interpretation consistent with a popular anti-Hegelian tendency among contemporary


a wrinkle in history

French thinkers. But Hegels edict becomes more ominous and critical if it is read not as a naive confidence in the ability of reason to
assert itself through the movement of Spirit, but as a melancholic
realization of the historicity of Truth. If the real is coterminous with
the rational it is because reality eventually conforms to what is reasonable, but rather because what is real dictates its own terms, it
presupposes its own reason, its own rectitude. In terms of this logic,
rather than dismiss Auschwitz as being unreasonable, we must face
the far more brutal task of bearing witness to the fact that at a
certain time, for certain people, it was rational, it was, in fact, the
ultimate ethical duty.29
What is also real, and also rational, is our dissent, our refusal and
condemnation of Auschwitz. However, is this dissent not the result
of a contingent gift of history? Are we not free to condemn and
criticize and explain away the stain of Auschwitz because the party
whose genre of discourse legitimated Auschwitz was defeated in war?
What if a similar damage occurred, the destruction of millions of
lives, resulting in a similar wrong, the silencing of their history, the
invalidation of their genres of discourse and hence their modes of
redress? And what if the party that perpetrated this wrong was never
defeated in a war, never brought to trial? In such a case could there
even be a differend? And, if not, how could we, descendents of the
criminals, ever know that a crime had been committed?
And yet, in the case of what I have called, with Stannard, the
American Holocaust, we are questioning the narrative of conquest;
we are seeking to redress a wrong; we are trying to bear witness
to a differend. What allowed for the emergence of this desire, what
accounts, at least in part, for this failure of speculative reason to
make rational the real, was apparently present in the culture of the
conquerors from the first years of the encounter. If, as I have tried
to suggest in the first section of this paper, Las Casas described and
advocated the possibility of a much more respectful interrelation
with a radically foreign culture, he could only do so on the basis
of a universal concept of humanity, precisely that tool of speculative reason that Lyotard rejects as being complicit in the erasure of
cultural difference.

on relativism, rights and differends


As we saw in our previous discussion of The Differend, Lyotard is suspicious of any discourse that attempts to account for or resolve conflicts or differends through the imposition of a universalizing code.
Humanity was the term he rejected from Kant, and yet we see that
it is also the term used by Las Casas more than two hundred years
earlier as a precondition for extending respect across a cultural divide.
But for Lyotard, who takes his model of the discourse of rights from
the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the universalizing impulse of the discourse of rights always originates from,
and is inflected by, the particular ethnos of a nation:
The Declaration [of rights] legitimates the legitimation of
the prescriptive. It adumbrates a regression in the authorizations by passing to a rank of legitimacy above that of political (meta-normative) legitimacy. This passage is stirred by
the imperialist principle of legitimation which impels it to
universalize itself in the same movement by which it sets
boundaries on the extension of legitimacies. This tension
is resolved by the legitimation of the very bounds of legitimacy. The limits brought to bear on authority determine a
political constitution (Article 16). What authorizes the fixing of the said limits (the Declaration itself) is the Idea of
man [...] As the supreme authority, addressor, and sense of
the meta-normative, man should have signed the Preamble
of the Declaration. Such is not the case. (D 145)
A declaration is still a phrase, and as a phrase must have an addressor and an addressee. A phrase that is intended to establish law must
authorize itself in reference to another phrase. The Declaration of
Rights seeks to transcend this regression of authorizations by universalizing its legitimacy as the ultimate limiting agent of all other
codes of authority. However, in order to accomplish this it still must
authorize itself, its addressor must lay claim to universal authority,
which it does, Lyotard says, by referring to the Idea of man. But the


a wrinkle in history

Declaration is not signed by man, it is signed by the representatives

of the French Nation, and the authority which the representatives
of the French nation arrogate to themselves by speaking in the place
of man is itself authorized by Article 3 of the Declaration: The
source of all sovereignty is essentially in the nation (D 146). But
the nation has nothing to do with the Idea of man, or humanity:
[t]he nation, inasmuch as it is a community, owes the essential of its consistency and authority to the traditions of
names and narratives. These traditions are exclusivist. They
imply borders and border conflicts. The legitimacy of a nation owes nothing to the idea of humanity and everything
to the perpetuation of narratives of origin by means of repeated narrations. (147)
Lyotards critique of the discourse of rights, then, is that it claims as
a universal authority what is, in fact, a particular, exclusivist genre:
a narrative of origins or founding narrative. If this is true, the discourse of rights has similarities with Seplvedas attempt to define
humanity in terms of certain national characteristics he associated
with the Spanish Empire. So, if Lyotard places the nation at the
point of enunciation of human rights (although even the nation is
spoken for by its representatives), this universal notion of human
rights must have a guarantee, a support, in a particular ethnic substance, just like Seplvedas definition of humanity. Regardless of the
intent of its framers, the declarations ostensible universality will always be substantiated by nationalistic assumptions. The question
is, however, must this be so?
With Las Casas we saw an attempt to extend respect to different
cultures on the basis of a universal concept of humanity, a concept
that was, in his case, supported by a religious notion of mankind as
that being to whom God had granted reason and free will. That different cultures had laws and customs proved that they were reasonable, that these customs were different, demonstrated their free will.
This is not to say that Las Casas believed that other cultures were
right in their interpretations of the law, but only that they shared with

on relativism, rights and differends


Europeans some fundamental substance that could not be described

in terms of specific attributes, but only by way of a tautology: all men
are rational, and all who are rational are men. But is not this concept,
humanity, this universal guarantee or support of particularity, not
also a substance of sorts? Does it not run the risk of being inflected,
filled, attributed with some national, racial, gendered, or religious
specificity that will, in turn, exercise a tyrannical judgment over others who are different? This is, of course, Lyotards great fear, and it
is because of this fear that his motto might be expressed as: Always
bear witness to the differend! For, if any one genre of discourse, say
the economic (homo economicus), imposes its hegemony (and it always does), the only impediment to its domination is the differend:
The only insurmountable obstacle that the hegemony of the
economic genre comes up against is the heterogeneity of
phrase regimens and of genres of discourse. This is because
there is not language and Being, but occurrences. The
obstacle does not depend upon the will of human beings in
one sense or another, but upon the differend. The differend
is reborn from the very resolution of supposed litigations. It
summons humans to situate themselves in unknown phrase
universes, even if they dont have the feeling that something
has to be phrased. (D 181)
The sentence: The differend is reborn from the very resolution of
supposed litigations, coming on the last page of Lyotards book,
could be an explanation as to why conflict, dissent, and change can
exist. It is an answer to the question we posed as to how, when the
vanquished have no voice, no history, and no survivors, when their
being is defined solely in terms of the interests of the conquerors, the
we who are the descendents of their demise can know anything of
it. At another moment, Lyotard describes this power of the differend
in terms very much like the Freudian return of the repressed:
Whatever genre this is, from the sole fact that it excludes
other genres, whether through interdiction (slaves or


a wrinkle in history

women), through autonymic neutralization, through narrative redemption, etc., it leaves a residue of differends that
are not regulated and cannot be regulated within an idiom,
a residue from whence the civil war of language can always
return, and indeed does return. (142)
So the differend is Lyotards melancholic response to utopian hope;
it can in no way guarantee a better world, but it can provide obstacles to hegemony, and ensure that civilizations are not swallowed up
by history, never to have a second chance on this earth.30
However, the problem with differends is quite possibly both
better and worse than Lyotard would have us believe: worse because,
rather than pose an obstacle to a universalizing genre, like the economic, or a totalizing narrative, like that of nationalism, the differend may be the ultimate support of these forms of, to use ieks
term, ideological fantasy; better, on the other hand, because, if
this last idea is true, the differend could also, despite Lyotards denial, open the possibility of an ethical community as opposed to a
community of exclusion. The key to this duality is a term we have
seen in conjunction with the debate between Seplveda and Las Casas: substance. Before, I distinguished between national substance
and ethical substance; let us use the term spiritual substance to
refer at a more general level, without evaluating it in any way, to
the feeling of cohesiveness that permits a given group of people to
conceive of themselves as forming some sort of social whole. According to iek, the spiritual substance of some group or community
is neither born of that group nor pre-exists it independently, but is
the result of a fundamental blockage, the impossibility that one will
ever have immediate access to the intentions and desires of ones
fellow individuals. This substance emerges because individuals can
never fully coordinate their intentions, become transparent to each
The very surplus of the objective Spirit over (other) individuals, of the collective over the mere collection of others,
thus bears witness to the fact that others remain forever an

on relativism, rights and differends


impenetrable enigma. In short, impossibility is primordial

and the spiritual substance is the virtual supplement to this
impossibility: if individuals were able to coordinate their
intentions via shared knowledge, there would be no need
for the big Other, for the spiritual substance as a spectral
entity experienced by every individual as an external Initself the Habermasian intersubjectivity, the interaction
of subjects grounded in the rules of rational argumentation,
would suffice. (PP)
In other words, the extra-individual cohesiveness of any form of
community exists not despite the ultimate ineffability of our individual experiences and consciousnesses to one another, but because
of it. Differends do not only exist between different cultural groups,
they exist between the very individuals that make up these groups,
and are a necessary component of that groups solidarity, of its ethnos,
i.e., its spiritual substance. Given this general understanding of spiritual substance, the task becomes to determine to what extent a distinction can be made between different variants of this substance.
In other words, is the experience of a substance in excess of the mere
collection of individuals within a group (an ethnic identity, a class
solidarity), always governed and articulated by a particular code,
laden with a specific content? And if so, does this fact preclude the
possibility of connections forming between groups without those
groups lapsing into relations of mastery and subordination, in which
the subordinate group is interpreted by and interpellated into the
superordinate group? Or, to put the same question in a slightly different form, can their be solidarity without ideology, without exclusion and demonization?
As iek argues in The Sublime Object of Ideology, in opposition to the standard poststructuralist celebration of difference and
discontinuity over unity and totality, ideological discourses depend
on inconsistencies and contradictions for precisely the same reason
that a groups spiritual substance is dependant on the impossibility of true communication: because it is by way of such internal
blockages that one enters into a relation of desire with the other.32


a wrinkle in history

But he also argues that this relationship of desire, because it is anchored to an element of absolute contingency, a rupture in the logic
of the symbolic order, provides the subject with a breathing space,
a glimmer of freedom: This lack in the Other [symbolic order]
gives the subject so to speak a breathing space, it enables him
to avoid the total alienation in the signifier not by filling out his lack
but by allowing him to identify himself, his own lack, with the lack
in the Other (SO 122). I am suggesting that the differend that apparently separates different cultural groups offers similar dangers, in
that it may ultimately support nationalistic and imperialistic narratives, but that it also offers the possibility of supporting a different
sort of bond between people, one based on a substance that is not
national but ethical, in that it depends on a sense of obligation that
is distinguishable from both the specific reason of a given national
narrative and the constraint of forced participation. Rights, rather
than being solely vehicles for the erasure of heterogeneity, can create
the space for the emergence of precisely this sort of bond.
In her powerful defense of the notion of universal human rights,
Renata Salecl takes into account the traditional critique of such
theoretical positions as Marxism and feminism, which share basic
aspects of Lyotards critique. The basic argument common to these
theoretical positions is that whenever a claim is made in the name
of, or for, humanity, as a universal entity, it is made from a particular social perspective, and, as a result, risks generalizing one groups
experience into a truth about the human condition. Thus, for certain feminists, human rights are actually mens rights, and the state
uses them as a means of social control (of sexuality).33 Or, for Marxists, rights are a product of bourgeois ideology which, by establishing the abstract categories of human equality and freedom, tries to
mask existing relations of domination in capitalist society and the
actual inequality and unfreedom of concrete individuals (WS 91).
In response to these (more than justified) fears, Salecl proposes a
different notion of human rights, as precisely that space in which
such relations of dominance can be limited, not because of some
explicit authorization, but because of the radical indeterminacy of
that space: The contribution of human rights to democracy lies in

on relativism, rights and differends


the fact that human rights can never be totally defined, that their
character cannot be determined in full, that they cannot be enumerated (WS 92). Rights, instead of being articulated on the basis of a
series of universal attributes of the category of the human, should be
conceived of as an always expandable space in which the power one
has over another is limited, not merely the power to physically affect
the other, but the power to interpret and define him or her in terms
of ones genre of discourse. In other words, humanity is invoked, but
not as a concept providing an adequate description of the human
and his or her needs and desires, but rather as an absolute limit on
the power of definition, on the power to substantialize what makes
one group different from another. What this means politically is
that those leftists who have accepted a basically relativistic, or antiobjectivist, epistemology, should not, as a result of that epistemology, be afraid to advocate for the universality of those rights they
believe ought to be universally attainable, and that they need not
ground this ethical posture in any specific set of attributes of the
human, but rather on the infinite spirit of a tautologically defined
humanity, as, say, those beings who deserve these rights. Why? Because we owe them that, because we ought to.
If both iek and Salecl have stressed the dire importance of
retaining some concept of universal rights in a time of reemerging
nationalist violence and ethnic hatred, it is not despite but rather
because of their mistrust of universalizing narratives. The principal
difference between Lyotards and their position is that while Lyotard
may be paraphrased as saying differends happen, iek and Salecl
could be imagined to respond, yes, but substance happens too, and
differends wont stop it. To bear witness to the differend, to maintain a sense of obligation to another despite her difference, requires
a bond nonetheless, an ambit for the experience of substance, but
one not limited or defined by specific attributes or qualities. As we
saw in the case of the debate between Seplveda and Las Casas, each
one founded his argument on a concept of humanity; but while the
formers had its guarantee in a national substance, the latters was
anchored to an ethical notion, a substance without attributes and
tautologically defined. This notion does not allow Las Casas to enter


a wrinkle in history

into a relation of immediacy with the other, to truly know the other
on its own terms (as iek would say, the other doesnt know itself
either). It does, however, create the space for a relation of respect,
a relation based on a feeling of obligation toward a humanity that
remains fundamentally ineffable, yet unavoidably present.

Chapter 5
Cervantes, Romantic Irony
and the Making of Reality

Irony is a deceptively simple trope. That a sentence means other

than what it appears to mean is all that is required to qualify it as
ironic, at least according to classical definitions. But a querulous
history and a virtual infinity of divergent viewpoints belie the ostensible sincerity of ironys feint. The real point of departure in ironys
trajectory is a relatively modern one, one bequeathed by romanticism
when its poets and predicators chose this trope to be the standard of
a new understanding of the human and its relation to the world. At
this moment, a second genus emerged to house the swarming species of ironic progeny: if the first had always been rhetorical, the new
home would be properly philosophical.
To say that a concept has become philosophical can itself mean
various things. So let us be specific: irony became philosophical
when it ceased merely to refer to how one used language and began
to describe a mode of being, an historical organization of consciousness. This is what happened with romanticism, when Friedrich von
Schlegel first identified this trope as being somehow the essence of
the new art, an art that was not merely artifice but that reflected a
fundamental and fundamentally new way of being. In his
lectures on aesthetics, Hegel will also admit that this is what has
happened, but will bemoan the deed and criticize the doer on the
grounds that he Schlegel is not really a philosopher, that his
creation is a stillbirth, a literally half-baked idea about which people
have prattled on far too long. In what follows I contest this charge,
and argue that, whether because of merely hasty reading or because
of personal animosity, Hegel offers only a partial reading of the
Schlegelian notion of irony. After presenting what I hope is a more


a wrinkle in history

complete version of Schlegels concept, I go on to argue that irony

as a philosophical problem is theorized on the basis of a series of
narrative principles deriving in large part from one book: Miguel de
Cervantess Don Quijote.1 Cervantes, my argument goes, wrote the
ground on which romanticism theorized itself. Finally, armed with a
refined and historically specified notion of irony, I return to Hegel,
to demonstrate that this irony, his protests and criticisms notwithstanding, is an indispensable element of his own system of thought.
My beginning and ending with Hegel notwithstanding, the
central argument of this paper has to do with Don Quijote and
its relation to romanticism and romantic irony, which means that
what I argue here will impinge unavoidably on one of the most persistent debates in Cervantes scholarship: between those who treat
Cervantess work as providing a foundation for asking questions of
a philosophical nature, and those who criticize this approach as
ahistorical.2 The most influential critique of the philosophical or
romantic reading is that of Anthony Close, who argues that the
attempt to accommodate the novel to modern stereotypes and
preoccupations involves a willful ahistoricism on the part of the
critic.3 This position is also held by P. E. Russell, who moreover
denies that Cervantes can be accurately read as having contributed
anything original to the general history of ideas.4 My position is in
fundamental agreement with the argument of Joan Ramon Resina,
that there is nothing ahistorical about a philosophical understanding of Don Quijote (Resina 220). But whereas his argument is based
on a detailed demonstration that the philosophical or romantic perspective can and in fact does incorporate the humorous elements
of Cervantess writing one criticism of the romantic approach
being that it fails to take humor into account (Russell 97; Close 2)
mine is that some of the very modern stereotypes and preoccupations that Close attributes to romantic and post-romantic readings in fact owe their existence to Cervantess writing.
For the critics of the romantic approach, an original contribution to the history of ideas could only be an idea that was consciously conceived of and presented as just that: an original contribution. But this judgment carries with it some enormous assumptions

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


concerning the nature of knowledge and historical change. Can we

assume that only consciously recognized and intended utterances entail intellectual contributions? What if those conscious, intentional
utterances themselves depend on an unarticulated ground or range
of possibilities which had to emerge in order for one individual to
say just that? I am alluding, of course, to the limits of intentionalist
readings, which all talk of the intentional fallacy aside quite
simply fail to take into account that the author might be saying quite
a deal more than whatever he or she ostensibly intended to say.
Indeed, if the intentionalist-historicist5 methodology depends
on unearthing the limits of what Cervantes could have intended to
say on the basis of what others writing within his historical context did in fact say,6 then it runs afoul of a serious methodological
quandary: the author is granted the possibility of having intended a
given contribution only if the historian is able to find, in the documents forming the authors intellectual context, evidence that someone else actually uttered the intention. However, having established
these parameters for identifying the possibility of the authors having intended the contribution, it becomes clear that the intention
we have determined in our author will never count as an original
contribution, because if we are to determine that it is really what was
intended, then by our own stringent historicist rules we will have
already located at least one other thinker who actually uttered the
thought. Hence the importance of a methodology of literary-historical research that does not put such primacy on the alleged authorial
In the conclusion to The Romantic Approach, Close makes a
statement I assume we can safely take as representative of the attitude of all the critics I am arguing against: We are essentially
concerned in literary criticism with what literature means. We presuppose that what is meant was what was intended, because we are
congenitally unable to do otherwise (RA 249). Over the next two
pages he modifies his intention with regard to the phrase what was
intended, arriving eventually at the distinction between intentional activity and the capacity to rationalise it, by which I take it he
means put it into sentences. While admitting that Cervantes might


a wrinkle in history

not rationalize his intentional activity in the same way the historicist
critic would, he insists that we have to imagine him [Cervantes]
being able to assent to them [the rationalizations] once their terms
had been made clear to him (RA 251). It is important to emphasize,
however, that if we historicists succeed in traveling back in time and
making clear to Cervantes certain terms being applied to his work,
we will have also changed the nature of Cervantes the author and
his relation to the world, for it is precisely by means of adding new
concepts and relating them to existing ones that people come to have
different outlooks and new ideas.
The notions of epistemological irony and the making of reality that I formulate in these pages would not have made much
sense to an unadulterated Cervantes. Indeed, there would be a lot
of clarifying to be done for them to be acceptable to the very romantic thinkers who I claim conceptualized them for the first time.
Nevertheless, I still claim to be making true, and historically accurate, statements about the meaning of the texts I discuss. How is
this possible? Close ends his book with a criticism of the presentism
implicit in the argument that we cannot be interested in a work of
art without somehow feeling that it is of our own time. Such an
argument makes the assumption that there is a temporal zone Our
Time freed from the ties of history, and within which all that has
been created is accessible to us in terms of easy and natural familiarity (RA 252). But Close and the intentionalist-historicists who
share his way of thinking have made another, equally prejudicial
assumption: that there is a temporal zone Cervantess Time freed
from the ties of the present, and within which all can be observed
and commented on without disturbing its primordial and objective
rest. Such a zone does not exist, because the road to the past must
always be built with the tools of the present. My romantic reading
of Quijote should be understood in this light.
Hegels Critique of Irony
In the introductory lectures in which he prepared his 1820s Berlin audience for a systematic framing of the principal questions of aesthet-

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


ics, Hegel deals with the question of irony in a way that has become
more famous for its dismissive tone and cursory analysis than for its
actual content.7 In this passage, Hegel correctly credits Friedrich von
Schlegel as the first theorist (in the romantic sense) of irony, and then
goes on to describe and condemn a version of irony mostly striking
for its utter lack of similarity to Schlegels. Hegel justifies his dismissal of the aesthetic category of irony entirely on its supposed heritage
from Fichtes philosophy, insofar as the principles of this philosophy
were applied to art (A, I 119).8 For Hegel the philosophical essence
of irony is to be found in Fichtes epistemology, and its insistence on
the primacy of the ego: With respect to the closer relation of Fichtes
statements with the one tendency of irony we need only emphazise
the following point: that Fichte identifies as the absolute principle of
all science, reason, and knowledge the I, and specifically the quite
abstract and formal I (A, I 119).9 While Hegel appears to be limiting this connection to only one tendency of irony (mit der einen
Richtung) in fact his criticism of the concept remains at all times a
criticism of Fichtes idealism, and of nothing else.
As regards this one tendency of irony, then, it is characterized
for Hegel by these three, fully Fichtean, aspects: first, it is, as stated
above, based on the ego as an abstract and formal principle. Second,
all particular, objective content of the egos world is negated by the
fact that it has existence only through the ego, and therefore nothing
exists in and for itself but only as produced by the egos subjectivity
(A, I 120).10 Finally, because the ego is a living being, it must realize
itself in a world populated by other living beings; however, when
the ego realizes its individuality in an artistic way, as an artist, this
involves converting this real world into a world of appearances dependent in every way on his caprice. He is not bound by reciprocal
relations, but rather looks down on them from the heights of his creative genius, knowing that he is at any time as free to destroy them
as he was to create them. Having outlined this critique of Fichtean
idealism as applied to art, Hegel nonchalantly attributes the entirety
of his straw adversary to Schegel, saying This irony was invented by
Mr. Friedrich von Schlegel, and many others have prattled on about
it and continue to prattle on about it still (A, I 121).11


a wrinkle in history

This first tendency of irony, then, deals principally with the

negation of external reality. The second half of Hegels critique is
aimed at a further possibility, in which the world-negating ego fails
to take satisfaction in its self absorption and begins to thirst for solidity and substance, for specific and essential interests (so dass es
nun den Durst nach Festem und Substantiellem, nach bestimmten
und wesentlichen Interessen empfindet) (A, I 122). Ultimately the
ironic genius not only negates the objective world but negates in fact
everything the Divine, the noble, the great, and finally its own artistic endeavor and its very subjectivity. This inevitable tendency in
irony Hegel calls infinite absolute negativity (unendliche absolute
Negativitt), which, he concedes, is a moment in his own dialectic.
When the apostles of Romanticism take this moment, however, as
the true end and essence of art, they are deceived in that they fail
to see what Hegel has seen: infinite absolute negativity in which
the Idea negates the infinite and universal so as to become finite and
particular, and then again negates finitude and particularity in order
to reestablish infinity and universality in the finite and particular
is only one moment in the progress of the Idea (A, I 125). Romanticism, with its praise of irony, has simply jumped off the train too
soon, and mistaken a moment of the process for its whole result.
Schlegel on Irony
Hegel is correct in attributing to Schlegel the romantic, and hence
modern, notion of irony, a notion that must be clearly distinguished
from its predecessors. Until its romantic adaptation, irony remained
solidly in the field of rhetoric, and while a broad typology existed,
all acknowledged forms derived from the central idea of a figure or
trope dependent on stating the opposite to the intended meaning.12
But it is clear that the romantic version of irony graduates from being a mere tool of rhetoric and begins to signify an event or an entity
of existential proportions. As Glicksberg puts it,
Romantic irony represents the outcropping of subjectivity
in its most extreme form. The romanticists fled from an

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


unknowable and intolerable reality into the inner fastness

of the self. Romantic irony is thus to be identified, for better
or for worse, with this outbreak of subjectivity, a rebellious
impulse on the part of the literary artist to rise above the
restrictions of reality. Irony provided an essential expression
of the Weltanschauung of the romantic temper.13
Glicksberg is under the influence of a thoroughly Hegelian interpretation of ironys trajectory, accepting uncritically its ostensible
origins in Fichtes philosophy and propagating the consequent thesis
of irony as the literary sign of an emerging subjectivity, where subjectivity is understood as a philosophical embellishment of rampant
subjectivism. Nevertheless, he grasps, as did Hegel, that the irony
identified and theorized by the romantics has exceeded the bounds
of rhetoric and entered the realm of the individuals experience of
selfhood and the world. This realm of human experience falls under
the rubric of subjectivity, but the term suffers the weakness of failing to distinguish itself sufficiently from mere subjectivism. For
subjectivism, the heart of what Hegel criticizes in the notion, is not
what is at stake in Schlegels concept, which nonetheless does posit
irony as being both particularly appropriate to the Zeitgeist of his
time and having everything to do with the individuals experience
of self and the world.
Depending on what period of Schlegels career one focuses on,
one will find a variety of often confusingly divergent definitions of
irony.14 My purpose is to draw from this variety of formulations three
general principles of irony, and to demonstrate that none of these can
be understood as an expression of rampant subjectivism, but rather
that in all cases the definition treats of a complex and balanced relation between subjective and objective poles. The three formulations
are: (1) irony is the paradox of self-consciousness; (2) irony is the
epideixis15 of infinity; and (3) irony is the structure of love.
Perhaps the principal philosophical structure of romanticism
was enunciated by Schelling in his description of existence as an
eternal tension between the idea undetermined, the essence of
human freedom, the expression of desire, of a reaching beyond the


a wrinkle in history

here and now and reality the dead, physical limits of a contingently determined world.16 In a world characterized by such a
tension, the consciousness of self that forms the essence of human
being faces an impressive paradox. Because human being consists of
both spirit and matter, self-consciousness requires the simultaneous
occupation of mutually contradictory categories: on the one hand
one must be conscious a characteristic of ideality of oneself as
part of the world, as material being; but at the same time one must
be conscious of oneself as consciousness. As a material being, one
exists as an element in a causally determined chain of being. But as
an ideal entity one is essentially undetermined. Equally disturbing is
the effect of self-consciousness on the subjective/objective polarity:
as consciousness one is a subject in relation to the objective world;
but self-consciousness must be simultaneously the subject grasping
and the object being grasped.
In light of this philosophical problematic, Schlegel identifies
irony as the form of paradox itself.17 Irony is the very form of paradox because it refers, most specifically in artistic production, to the
act by which consciousness pulls itself up from its conditioned nature as material being and apprehends itself as simultaneously conditioned and unconditioned, as partaking of spirit and of the world.
In this way irony not only signifies the paradox of consciousness, it
participates in it: it is [t]he freest of all licenses, since by way of it
one overcomes oneself; and also the most lawful, since it is unconditionally necessary (PJ, II 198).18 As self-conscious beings, in other
words, we cannot avoid being ironic.
Such an understanding of irony, however, can no longer be the
sole domain of the artistic genius. Indeed irony seems to take on a
double life in Schlegel: as on the one hand a principle of human existence, and on the other an artistic discovery proper to the romantic
movement. But then the same could be said of romanticism in general, which was thought by all involved to be both a historically specific artistic movement and a stage in the development of consciousness that humanity had finally attained. According to Hegel, for
example, with the advent of romantic art, the nature of beauty and
of the relation of the Idea to art had to be grasped in a deeper way

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


than had hitherto been possible, and profoundly connected to this

change was the fact that [t]he concept for itself, the thinking spirit
now on its side came to know itself more deeply in philosophy and
thus did the essence of art become immediately graspable in a more
fundamental way (A, I 62).19 The artist, by exercising his unique
ability to overcome himself (sich ber sich selbst wegsetzen) in his
art, is simultaneously revealing an aspect of the essence of spirit, or
free self-consciousness. For Schlegel this revelation is the result of art
and philosophy merging into one practice, whereas for Hegel it is a
sign that art has run its course and that spirit may now reveal itself
through the application of pure reflective thought.
The paradoxical nature of irony as the supreme index of artistic
creation would then seem to be an instantiation of the self-referential paradox, or a poetic manifestation of any of the paradoxes made
possible by self-reference. Poetry, theater, any act of representation
that includes itself and its very creation in what is being represented
fall into this category. The ironic representation itself partakes neither entirely of the representer nor of the represented, but rather
oscillates eternally between the two, creating an effect that Schegel
likens to the infinite proliferation of images in two facing mirrors:
And yet it (the irony) can also float, free from all real and ideal
interests, on the wings of poetic reflection, between the represented
and the representer, making this reflection ever more potent and
multiplying it as in an endless row of mirrors.20 Irony in Schlegels
sense, then, is art that has become conscious of itself and, by dint
of this consciousness, infinitely self-reflexive. It is, to use the famous
phrase, poetry of poetry or, to draw an analogy, metatheater, theater
in which the actors play characters who in turn are actors playing
characters.21 For Schlegel, the representation itself becomes an analogy for creative consciousness. Consciousness is not an expression of
pure, arbitrary subjectivism, but rather is instantiated by the paradox of artistic creation: it is neither the creator nor the created, but
rather the paradoxical space between the two.
The second of the formulations can be found in Schegels
own words: Irony is, so to speak, the epideixis of infinity.22 To
understand this formulation we need to refer back to the tension


a wrinkle in history

underlying the previous formulation of irony as paradox. This tension appears variously as one between determined and undetermined
existence, between the ideal and the real, and between the subjective
consciousness and the objective world. The analogy for this tension
in the realm of representational practice is the relation between a sign
and a referent or, to make the analogy clearer, between a series of signs
and some objective whole to which the series refers. In the original
series of opposed terms, the notion of infinity lay on the side of the
ideal, or of consciousness, and was opposed to a physical world that,
in its essentially determined nature, was perceived to exhibit a quality
of finitude in relation to the unbounded freedom of the ideal. That
physical existence might itself be deserving of the predicate infinite, in
the sense of infinitely extended space, was dealt with prototypically by
Hegel with his notion of bad infinity, an endless, meaningless alteration or negation of the finite, devoid of the divine element of spirit.23
For Schlegel the semiotic relationship has the curious effect of reversing this philosophical commonplace, in that the sign, in the hands of
the poet, makes of mundane reality a mystical whole, and does this by
injecting the real with the quality of infinite significance.
Poetry is romantic, then, insofar as it denotes (bezeichnet) the
tendency toward a deep, infinite meaning (PJ, II 364, qtd in Romantische Ironie 67).24 Although the whole, das Ganze, can no
longer be equated with such an idea as mere reality, we need not
assume the working of some mystical, esoteric agency. By writing of
the world the poet bestows meaning on something inert existence
that would remain meaningless independent of poetic intervention. By bestowing meaning on reality the poet makes of reality
a vessel of spirit makes, in other words, the finite infinite. The
poets words, then, produce meaning while at the same time indicating a further meaning beyond those words, a meaning that tempts
consciousness ever forward, ever outward, and yet never satisfies it.
It is this tendency, and this relation between consciousness and the
infinite, that Schlegel associates with irony.
Just as the second formulation derives in part from the first, so
does the third unfold from the second. If we were to schematize the
second formulation it would look something like this:

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


[Art] the Whole = Meaning

or, meaning is what mediates between art (conceived of as
framed) and the whole (unframed, uncontained existence). What
becomes clear from this schema is that the active ingredient of this
dynamic relation is in fact the frame, in that it is the frame that
establishes the possibility of a projection of infinite meaning into
the whole. It is the frame, in other words, that puts art into relief
against the greater background of the real, and that consequently
invites consciousness to continue its quest for meaning beyond the
confines of the frame. The frame, insofar as it fulfills this function,
is irony.
It should be clear, however, that by invoking the notion of a
tendency Schlegel has introduced what we might call a libidinal
element into the dynamic relationships constituting romantic art, a
libidinal element that we can perhaps associate with the contemporary popular usage of the term romantic in all languages as having to do with love.25 This libidinal element becomes central in the
last of the Schlegelian formulations irony is the structure of love
with which Schlegel completes the fusion of artistic method and
human psychology. This fusion is clarified by the following analogy:
as art is to the whole, so individual being [Dasein] is to being in
general. In schematic form, the resultant formulation is
[Dasein] Being = Love
where love is now the mediating term between a framed Dasein and
unframed being. Just as with the previous schema, the operative principle what I have indicated with the brackets and referred to as a
framing function is irony: The true irony... is the irony of love.
It springs from the feeling of finitude and ones own limitations, and
from the apparent contradiction between this feeling and the idea
of infinity inherent in any true love.26 It is the contradiction between the selfs own feeling of finitude and limitation and the idea
of infinity that is the origin of irony, and it is this contradiction as
well that characterizes the libidinal dimension we call love.


a wrinkle in history

To sum up, Schlegels concept of irony, far from being a monolithic application of Fichtean ego-philosophy to artistic practice, can
be characterized by a series of three propositions, none of which is
reducible to an expression of pure subjectivism. In the first formulation, irony is positioned at the crossroads of philosophy and art
and marks the coming to self-consciousness of artistic practice. In
this view, irony encompasses any and all manifestation in artistic
practice of what we have called the self-referential paradox, the representation that includes itself within itself. Insofar as the creative
consciousness finds itself in its own creation, it infuses that objective
creation with meaning, and endows it with the attribute of infinity.
Hence the second formulation of irony describes it as an epideixis of
infinity. The experience of the self as a bound entity in a boundless
universe of meaning then introduces a libidinal element into the
dynamic of irony, an element that emerges in the third formulation,
in which irony is equated with love, the force of attraction pulling
Dasein out of its familiar territory and into the world of infinite
meaning. It is in light of this interpretation of irony, and its full
association with romanticism in Schlegels system, that we must understand his claim that Don Quijote is the only through and through
romantic novel (Romantische Ironie 79).
Epistemological irony
According to Bertrand, when Schlegel encountered Don Quijote in
1797 his ideas on irony were largely established (Bertrand 221). As
we have seen, however, Schlegels irony-concept is multi-faceted; to
grasp it in its complexity one needs to consider his writings from
throughout his career.27 That some early aspect of Schlegels thinking about irony had already been solidified by the time he read Don
Quijote says nothing about the extent to which the book influenced
the totality of his conception. But regardless of whether one can
claim Cervantes as the direct influence behind Schlegels and in
general German romanticisms notion of irony, it can certainly be
argued that the Spanish author had an important hand in fashioning the cultural world28 in which the romantics lived and wrote.

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


Bertrand says as much himself, when he asks: But why did Schlegel
make right away such a large place for the Spanish poet in his aesthetics? Why, if not because Cervantes responded to the new needs
of his spirit and because his work placed him on the route toward
new ideas? (Bertrand 103).29 I want to argue that if Cervantess
works, and in particular Don Quijote, corresponded to some set of
new spiritual needs of Schlegel and the romantics, that is so precisely because Cervantes put into prose the kind of world and temper
that their writings would later theorize. Cervantes, in other words,
created the ground from which romanticism thought itself.
To understand the nature of this ground, let us recall that, for
Schlegel, art and philosophy were converging on a new manifestation of human being, and that his concept of irony aimed to describe
the essence of that new spirit. The three formulations of that concept
that we have derived imply a common, schematic structure: a frame
distinction in which reality appears as a representation that potentially includes the representer and the act of representation within its
diagetic space. In large part, Cervantes may be said to be the creator
of a new genre precisely insofar as he uses the medium of the written
word to develop techniques of self-referentiality to their paradoxical
extreme. Recall that what is at stake here is not subjectivity as it is
commonly understood. As many medievalists have argued, a stable
first person narrator figure is detectable in European writing from as
early as the twelfth century.30 Rather, what is at stake is a technique
that projects the very act of literary creation into the literary world
being created, that short-circuits, in other words, a barrier dividing
the fictional and the real.
a) Fictionality
Strangely enough, the act of short-circuiting the barrier between
the fictional and the real is by a kind of retroactive efficacy
constitutive of that very distinction. To understand this apparently paradoxical formulation, we need to first consider Luiz Costa
Limas distinction between the fictional and the fictitious. According to Costa Lima, prior to and during the sixteenth century written


a wrinkle in history

discourse was consistently submitted to one inexorable standard: to

what extent did it correspond to the truth? If works were judged
as morally detrimental, this was so based on their falsehood. Such
falsehood a shortcoming in the face of a general truth-standard
Costa Lima refers to as fictitiousness.31 Under the aegis of the
Aristotelian interpreters of the sixteenth century, a fictitious work
would be condemned for its lack of verisimilitude. Such, in fact, is
the basis of those condemnations of the romances of chivalry that
form the literary-critical backbone of Don Quijote.
Quijotes great antagonist in the battlefield of criticism is his old
friend and would-be censor, the cannigo. In the following passage
the canon distinguishes his engagement with writing from Quijotes
based on his ability to discern truth from falsehood:
For my part I can say that when I read the tales of chivalry,
as long as I avoid thinking about the fact that they are all
lies and frivolity, they give me some enjoyment. But when I
realize what they are, I throw the best of them against the
wall, and would even throw them into the fire if I had one
close by, which they richly deserve, as false and deceiving
and outside of the treatment required by common nature,
and as inventors of new sects and new lifestyles, and as giving the common people reason to believe and accept as true
all the stupidities they contain. (Q I 5667)32
The potential pleasure of reading is, for the canon, a pleasure that
exists in the moment of a forgetting, of a failure to institute a prohibition that should, he feels, be automatic, instantaneous. But this
prohibition is not against lies per se, it is rather a prohibition against
the very forgetting that begets this potential pleasure, a forgetting to
situate all writing within the jurisdiction of the tribunal of truth.
Don Quijote, on the other hand, is not to be judged mad on
the basis of such a forgetting to judge. He too sees no other option
but to judge writing against the criterion of its verisimilitude. His
failure is a failure within the confines of the verisimilar, a failure to
distinguish correctly between truth and falsehood. Quijote merely

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


believes false facts to be true. His response is never nor could it

be that the criteria of truth and falsehood are not pertinent to the
case at hand, but rather that his interlocutor must be mad to think
that these truths are in fact lies:
For to wish to persuade someone that Amadis didnt exist,
and that neither did all the other adventuring knights of
which the stories are filled, is to wish to persuade that the sun
doesnt shine and the ice doesnt freeze and the earth doesnt
sustain life; for what genius exists in the world who could
persuade us that there is no truth to that of princess Floripes
and Guy de Bergoa, or that of Fierabrs and the bridge of
Mantible, which happened in Charlemagnes time, and which
I swear is as true as right now is daytime. (Q I 568)33
Perhaps the butt of Cervantes joke, then, is not as the traditional
Enlightenment reception would have it the novelas de caballera
themselves and all the outmoded ideologies they implied, but rather
the failure of his contemporaries to recognize the possibilities of a
new space of reading, a space in which the tribunal of truth no longer held sway. Quijote is a comical figure; but the way he is comical
is not qualitatively different from the way the canon or any of the
other figures pontificating on literature are comical, because they
apply to reading standards that are, for Cervantes, no longer appropriate.
For Costa Lima, the standard these characters are applying to
literature rests on the distinction between the verisimilar and the
fictitious. The space opened when one forgets to apply this standard
is the fictional.
Against the navet pre-supposed by pre-Cervantine fictitiousness, based on the illusion that its own territory is not
to be distinguished from that of truth, modern fictionality
is based on irony, on distancing, on the creation of a complexity that without alienating the common reader, does not
present itself to him as a form of illusionism. (Dark Side 7)


a wrinkle in history

This space of the forgetting this suspension of judgment that

opens the door to modern fictionality is allied in Costa Limas
thought with irony. Irony is the name for that frame distinction that
allows the reader to coexist with writing without having to bring to
bear on it the distinction-generating mechanisms that guide him or
her through daily existence.
The distinction between reality and fictionality, then, is the
function of the establishing of a framework such that the contents of
that framework are no longer experienced as beholden to the rules
governing the outside of that framework. But this definition begs the
question, because what is at stake is precisely the process by which
readers became capable of this function, of experiencing writing as
fictionality. The best tool to help us conceptualize this process is Erving Goffmans frame analysis.34 For Goffman, any number of creatures exhibit the ability to, as he calls it, key a given frame. Keying
is that maneuver by which the value or meaning of a certain action
or set of actions is implicitly suspended by the participants in the
action. Animals engaged in play that resembles fighting are keying
their actions. When we refer to a discourse genre, say chivalric romance, as false, we are simply, with the canon, making explicit what
was already implicitly the case: that the content of that discourse
genre is (or ought to be) keyed in relation to other discourse genres
(edifying histories, for example). From this perspective, Quijotes
madness results from a failure to key what he ought to be keying, a
failure he attributes in inverse form to his interlocutors: men who are
keying and hence falsifying what ought to be treated as true.
This first result of keying what we will call primary keying
establishes the distinction between verisimilitude and fictitiousness. The space of fictionality is brought into relief by a secondary
keying that treats the first distinction as the content of the frame to
be keyed, since in fictionality the distinction between the verisimilar
and the fictitious is precisely what is not taken seriously. Because
the primary keying, however, is still an operation performed by an
agent, secondary keying is essentially a self-reflective act: the agent
of secondary keying must experience him or herself as at least a potential participant in the activity being keyed, because that activity

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


is a primary instance of the very activity he or she is now engaged

If we represent primary keying with the following schema:
A V[F]
or an agent keys the fictitious with regard to the verisimilar, then
secondary keying would take on the following schematic form:
A R[A V{F}]
or, an agent keys with regard to reality some fictional space, in
which an agent is keying the fictitious with regard to the verisimilar. If we read the first agent as any reader of Cervantess novel, the
second agent then becomes that readers representative within the
space of the novel one or the other interlocutor locked in heated
battle over the value of chivalric romance (and who, as the case may
be, is getting it all wrong). Therefore, unlike the at times purely fantastic realm of the fictitious, what occurs in the fictional could also
occur in reality. The space of the fictional, in other words, is viable,
is a world in which a reader can imagine him or herself participating.
The self-reflexive short circuit between the agent of the primary keying and the agent of the secondary keying is, therefore, a necessary
constituent of the new distinction between reality and fictionality,
and it is this technique of short-circuiting that represents the fundamental innovation of Cervantes fiction.
b) Reality
At first, it appears hard to reconcile this interpretation with Foucaults highly influential argument that Don Quijotes madness is
a result of his being in the wrong episteme, that he is a man of
primitive resemblances caught in a modern world in which the
cruel reason of identities and differences makes endless sport of
signs and similitudes.35 The fact that other characters constantly
remark on how Quijote comes across as entirely sane except when


a wrinkle in history

engaging with the topic of chivalry would seem to support the contention that, if Quijote is a representative of a bygone organization
of knowledge, his contemporaries are in most ways just as lost as he
is. They are lost insofar as they have not yet learned the fictional
technique of dissociating writing from the truth standard generally
applied to life. The play of identities and similarities that characterizes Foucaults classical age of representation might be seen in this
light as an epistemological effect of a narrative practice that relativizes
reality with respect to a series of reports concerning its nature.
Epistemology, as its critics are fond of pointing out, takes as
its basic model a spectator who distinguishes between the truth
of what he or she is seeing, which is corrigible, and the fact that
he or she is seeing something, which is judged to be incorrigible.36
This distinction evolves into that between noumena and phenomena,37 and ultimately into the epistemological deadlock in which the
knowing subject cannot come to know anything of certainty regarding the thing in itself. An episteme in which knowledge was
conceived to be an imminent expression of the real, the prose of the
world, would not presume such a distinction: species or phenomena would be perceived as inseparable from qualities of certain noumenal substances; it would not occur to anyone to think
of certain realms of experience as essentially more or less corrigible
than others. Reality, in other words, would not be a distinguishable
entity about which one could have more or less correct perceptions,
because perceptions and statements about perceptions would be part
and parcel of the same reality, all portions of which would be beholden to the same standards of judgment. If such was the case when
the world produced its own prose, what sort of a narrative practice
might have the effect of relativizing that reality with respect to reports concerning its nature?
It is of course my claim that the narrative practice in question
is best exemplified by Don Quijote, a novel whose overriding theme
is the contrast between reality and its various renditions on the
part of differently positioned characters. Let us consider the case of
the helmet of Mambrino. Quijote has attacked a poor barber and
robbed him of his barbers basin, convinced that he is an enemy

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


knight and that his barbers basin is in fact the long lost and much
coveted magic Helmet of Mambrino. When confronted by Sanchos
laughter over the helmets appearance, Quijote explains the series of
adventures that must have occurred in order that the helmet should
appear in its present, broken condition, which he implicitly admits
falls somewhat short of a great warriors helmet:
You know what I think, Sancho? That this famous piece of
this enchanted helmet must have, by some strange accident,
come into the hands of someone who didnt know to recognize or esteem its value, and without knowing what he was
doing, seeing that it was made of the purest gold, he must
have had the other part melted down to take advantage of
its price, and from the remaining half, he made this, which
looks like a barbers basin, as you say. (Q I 260)38
The logic of this dispute is thus: we see the same thing, but we disagree as to its nature, as defined by its origins, which seems to satisfy Sancho, especially given that he has taken advantage of the adventure to exchange his old packsaddle for the barbers newer one.
But Sanchos opportunism comes back to haunt him when the
same barber later recognizes him and his packsaddle and accuses
Sancho and Quijote of theft. While fighting over the packsaddle,
the barber announces to all present that Quijote and Sancho had
taken it from him by force at the same time that they took his brass
barbers basin. At this point Quijote intervenes, claiming that the
barbers mistaking a magic helmet for a barbers basin only proves
that he is in error about anything else he is claiming:
So that your graces see clearly and manifestly the error in
which this good squire has fallen, well, he calls basin what
was, is, and will ever be the helmet of Mambrino, which I
took from him in a good fight, and of which I made myself the master with legitimate and licit possession. As for
the question of the packsaddle, Im not going to get into
that; what I will say is that my squire Sancho asked my


a wrinkle in history

permission to take the trappings from the horse of this defeated coward, with which to adorn his; I gave it to him, and
he took them, and if they have turned from trappings into a
packsaddle my only explanation is the usual one: that such
transformations are to be seen in the events of chivalry; for
the confirmation of which, run, Sancho my son, and bring
out the helmet that this man claims is a basin. (Q I 528)39
Sancho, of course, is less than enthusiastic about going to fetch the
helmet, since he knows that it is in fact a barbers basin, which
evidence might persuade the others present that he has no right to
the packsaddle (a right that is already suspect given Quijotes interpretation of the packsaddle as jaez, a chargers trappings). Moreover, Quijote himself remains somewhat uncertain as to the stand
he should take in regard to the trappings, which Sancho and the
barber are both referring to as packsaddle. The most he is willing
to assert is that if they have in fact turned into a saddle, then this is
not so surprising, since such transformations are the occupational
hazard of knight-errantry.
The chapter that ensues is appropriately titled Wherein is
finally resolved the question of the helmet of Mambrino and the
packsaddle and other adventures having occurred in all truth.40
Cervantess habitual reference to the notion of truth is especially remarkable in this chapter, which is in many ways concerned with the
very nature of Truth. Seeing the opportunity for an excellent prank,
Quijotes barber friend, nuestro barbero, immediately weighs in
and, claiming the authority of an expert in the field, strenuously
denies the other barbers claims that the yelmo is a baca.
Sir barber, or whoever you are, know that I am also of your
profession, and I have been for more than twenty years and
have a certificate of examination, and I know very well all
the instruments of barbery, without missing one; and not
more or less was I in my youth a soldier, and I also know
what a helmet is, and a morion, and a headpiece with a visor, and some other things about soldiering, I mean, about

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


the weapons of a soldier; and I say, excepting better judgement and subjecting myself to better understanding, that
this piece before us and which this man has in his hands not
only is not a barbers basin, but is as far from being one as
white is from black and truth from a lie. (Q I 529-30)41
Truth, as I said above, is what is in question here, and it is worth
noting that our barbers implicit standard of truth is equivalent to
the distance between the essence of a thing and a report made about.
The basin, he insists, is as far from being a basin as truth is from
falsehood. The other barber, it follows, is either deceived or lying.
He is of course deceived, and quite purposefully, by the companions, who are having some good fun at his expense. One by one
they enter the fray, until finally the nobleman don Fernando suggests that they resolve the issue democratically and proceeds to take
a secret ballot, with the unanimous result that the asss packsaddle is
judged to be a horses trappings, and the basin a helmet. We should
not make the mistake here, however, of reading this scene as some
sort of statement about the undecidability of reality. There is no
question but that this is a joke, and that in reality the packsaddle
and the basin have never been anything but what they are. In one of
the books great comic moments, Quijote is even heard to say that,
if they want his opinion, the packsaddle looks like a packsaddle,
but that he is not about to, as he said before, take a position on that
matter. Our reading, therefore, should not be that reality has become undecidable, but precisely the opposite: the truth of the identity of the objects in question is guaranteed by the existence of an
independent reality that we, as observers outside of the framework
of the narrative, can confirm.42 In other words, the characters at
hand can argue about the nature of their perception precisely insofar
as we, the readers, have a concept of reality that is independent of
their various reports. As Rorty puts it by way of a criticism of the
epistemological world-view, its assumption is that you can have
reality in one hand and a sentence about reality in the other and
compare the two to see if they match.43 It is precisely this world-view
that Cervantes is busy constructing.44


a wrinkle in history

c) Ironys paradox
As I suggested above, Cervantes prose might be well characterized as
a pushing of the paradoxes resulting from self-referentiality to their
logical extremes. Examples of this thematic in Don Quijote are legion. One need only mention the abyss of narrative frameworks in
which the actual authorship of the story we are reading is couched:
we the readers are presumably reading a translation (the accuracy of
which at times comes into question) the narrator made of a manuscript he found in a market, ostensibly written by an Arabic historian;
Cervantes himself (who might be the narrative voice) is referred to
obliquely as an historical figure (in the captives tale: Q, I 476); and
the entire vortex of authorship falls into temporal paradox when, in
the second book, the adventures of the first book have already been
published, distributed, read, and even translated into other languages although only a month has passed since their first outing.45 This
collapsing spiral of self-referentiality corresponds well to the novels
overall obsession with its own medium of transmission, that is with
its focus on the relation between frame and content. Already within
the telescoping framework of authorship the novels content begins to
adopt a similar form, in which Quijote and Sancho become the audience for interpolated stories, which they in turn reflect on.
In this light, the transition between the novel of 1605 and that
of 1615 can be seen as one between a world in which we the readers
laugh at the characters for not knowing how to read fiction, and a
world in which a new subgroup of fictional-readers/readers-of fiction has been born, a population that simultaneously came of age
and became fictional by reading the 1605 novel. For it is certainly
the fundamental and significant difference between the two the
difference that makes of 1615 another novel and not merely a sequel
that the entire structure of the narrative has become doubly selfreflective. The characters of part two are now often characters who,
like us, have read 1605 and from it learned the art of secondary keying, have learned to actively forget to submit writing to the tribunal
of truth, and thereby create a world capable of experiencing the bizarre and the fictitious as possibilities of the imagination.

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


Within the borders of their reality, the effect for the characters
of this generalization of fictionality is that the previously sound distinction between the fictitious and the real is sundered, and characters everywhere start to lose their bearings. Perhaps one of the most
beautiful examples of this loss-of-reality effect is the episode of the
lackey Tosilos. In this episode, the duea Rodriguez, being herself
somewhat simple of mind, has asked Quijote who is now being
treated as a fictional character by the Dukes court to rescue in
real life the honor of her daughter, whom a nobleman and friend
of the Duke has deceived with a false promise of marriage. When
Quijote presents his challenge to the Duke, the Duke accepts in his
friends name, and then orders his lackey Tosilos to play the role of
the deceiving nobleman. But on the day of the battle, when Tosilos,
dressed the role of a knight ready for battle, first lays eyes on the dueas daughter, he falls in love with her for real and, instead of crossing lances with Quijote, renders himself and agrees to marry her.
When he takes off his helmet and the duea and her daughter see
that it is not the nobleman but the Dukes lackey whom the daughter will marry, they strenuously protest. Quijote, however, addresses
their complaints by suggesting that the new husband is still, in fact,
the nobleman, but that his countenance has been changed to that
of the lackey by enchanters jealous of Quijotes latest victory. His
advice to the daughter is to accept the offer of marriage from a man
who without doubt is the same you wish to attain as a husband
(Q, II 449),46 to which the daughter evetually responds: Whoever
it is who asks my hand I thank him; for I would rather be the legitimate wife of a lackey than the dishonored lover of a gentleman,
which he who dishonored me is certainly not (Q, II 450).47 What
we see in this scene is a double collapse of the borders between the
fictitious and the real and the opening of the space of the fictional:
on the one hand, the lackey playing a role realizes that role by really falling in love within the confines of a game, and subsequently
speaking real words from a fictitious position; the daughter, on the
other hand, recognizes an offer proceeding from the fictitious as
potentially more real than that which she had set her hopes on, and
in effect realizes its potential by accepting it.


a wrinkle in history

Realizing the fictitious, stepping across a border that had previously been sealed, implies a space with a new quality: viability. The
fictional space is viable precisely insofar as characters from one side
of a frame distinction can feel they occupy the same space as characters on the other side that they can, for instance, fall in love with
those characters or, at the very least, identify with them. But this
maneuver, inherent to the experience of fictionality, entails to its full
extent the paradox of self-referentiality, the paradox of a creator who
creates him or herself in the very act of creation, who is both subject
and object, simultaneously and, in a sense, seamlessly.
Perhaps the most renowned version of the self-referential paradox is the liars paradox, in which a listener is asked to judge whether
the speaker of the statement I am lying is in fact lying or telling the
truth.48 The listener is unable to answer consistently, because if the
speaker is judged to be speaking the truth, then by his own report he
is lying, but if he is judged to be lying, then his report that he was lying is true. One, Lacanian, solution to this paradox is to argue that it
is not in fact a paradox for one who is a subject in the proper sense. A
subject is one who is always divided into two agencies, linguistically
speaking, which Lacan labels the subject of enunciation and the subject of the utterance.49 The liars paradox is merely a demonstration
that the subject is never entirely identical to himself, that he cannot,
in other words, simultaneously occupy the I of enunciation and
the I of the utterance. When analyzed in this form, then, I am
lying, breaks down into The I of the enunciation is reporting that
the I of the utterance is lying, and there is no longer any paradox.
To push this a bit further, the reason there is no paradox is really that
there is no true self-referentiality; one can only refer to a representative of oneself, in this case, a linguistic shifter.
Analogously, the self-referentiality of fictionality, which we
schematized as
A R[A V{F}]
must be hiding a fundamental disjunction between the A outside
the frame and the A inside the frame, which we should therefore

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


schematize as A and A, the agent who represents and the agent as

represented.50 Given that this liars paradox and its resolution are
structural element of fictionality, it should not surprise us that they
should make an appearance in Don Quijote, as they do in the following form.
A foreigner to the landlocked island of Barataria, now formidably governed by the great Sancho Panza, presents to the famed
governor this problem: there is a river over which spans a bridge, at
the end of which there stands a gallows. Presiding over the bridge
and gallows are four judges, whose job it is to pass judgment over
those who would cross, on the basis of their answer to the question to where and what purpose are you going? (Q II 410). If the
travelers answer truthfully, they are allowed to go in peace; if they
are determined to have lied, they are to be executed on the spot. At
the moment, however, the judges are in a quandary over the answer
given by one recent traveler, that he was going to die on those gallows over there (Q II 410) As in the classical formulation, if the
traveler is speaking the truth that he will die on the gallows, then the
judges should let him go in peace, in which case he would be lying,
and the judges should have him executed, etc.
Sancho Panzas solution is suggested by the logic of fictionality:
let the part of the man that lied be killed and the part that told the
truth go in peace.
I say then, now said Sancho that of this man that part
that swore the truth shall be allowed to pass, and that part
that spoke a lie shall be hung, and in this way the condition
of passage will be met to the letter.
But sir governor replied the petitioner it will be
necessary that the said man be divided in parts, in truth
telling and lying parts, and if hes divided, he must per force
die, and in this way what the law asks is not satisfied, and
yet we must satisfy the law. (Q II 41011)51
As the petitioner notes, Sanchos judgment would imply the death
of the traveler, since to let one part of him go and to hang the other


a wrinkle in history

part would necessitate cutting him in two.52 To which Sancho replies that since the reasons for condemning him and releasing him
are equally balanced, they should let him pass, because it is always
better to do good than evil.
Sanchos compassion must be seen here as an unreasonable supplement to a reasonable law, a law that precisely on account of its
fidelity to reason to the letter is at odds with a humanity that
it cannot perfectly circumscribe. For the letter of the law demands of
the subject his self-identity, a self-referentiality without remainder that
the human, as a subject of language, cannot attain. To analyze this
dynamic in its historicity, however, we should precisely not say that the
subject has changed from a monolithic creature capable of self-identity to a dualistic one lacking that capability. Rather, we should stress
a gradual alteration in the understanding of the individuals relation
to public discourse. The notion of an objective realm of judgment as
distinct from subjective experience and hence the grounding notion of law in the Occident is emerging out of a time when ones
guilt or innocence in the face of the law was conceived as inseparable
from ones capacity to force all of existence (and hence opinion) to the
truth of ones view. The law passes judgment on A, on that aspect of
our selves that has, structurally speaking, the status of a fiction. A critique of epistemology may take much comfort in the notion that the
philosophers modern profession was born of a storytellers technique;
but the critic should also keep in mind the extent to which the most
fundamental institutions of the modern world owe their ground to
this same fictionality, and to its ironic fission of self-identity.
Back to Hegel
At the outset of this paper, I argued that Hegel had, in his Aesthetics, misconstrued romantic irony, attributing it to an expression of
unbridled subjectivism inspired by Fichtean idealism. In this final
section, I claim that, whereas Hegel might have condemned his own
idiosyncratic interpretation of the Schlegelian notion, another notion of irony narrativized by Cervantes and theorized by Schegel
is everywhere present in Hegels system.

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


In order to demonstrate this, it will be necessary to briefly rehearse

Hegels historical argument and the position Cervantes and irony hold
in it. For Hegel, art, like religion and philosophy, is one of the ways
in which spirit manifests itself in the world, one of the ways spirit
moves along its historical path toward absolute self-consciousness. Art,
however, is a lesser manifestation than either religion or philosophy,
because art, although through and through spiritual, nevertheless depends upon the sensual world for its expression. In the time that Hegel
is lecturing to his students, art or better, the period in which art was
the primary manifestation of spirit has come to an end:
The establishment of reflection in our life today makes it
necessary, as much in relation to the will as to the judgment, for us to maintain general points of view on which to
base the regulation of particularity, such that general forms,
laws, duties, rights, maxims are what count as the grounds
of determination and are the principle ruling forces. For the
interests of art, however, as for the production of art, we require in general more of a liveliness, in which the universal
is not present as law and maxim but acts as one with mind
and feeling, just as in the imagination the universal and the
reasonable are contained only as brought into unity with a
concrete, sensual appearance. For this reason our present is
in its general state unfavorable to art. (A I 49)53
Our present is not favorable to art because our culture has become
reflective, it has abstracted the objects of will and judgment into general principles, duties, rights and laws, and these abstractions form
the basis of social life, i.e., the life of spirit. But art does not function
in such an environment, because art belongs to a time or a culture
in which spirit has not yet learned to abstract itself from the living
world. Art shows us the way in a time and culture when spirit has
not learned how to simply say what it means in words, and when individuals are not capable of abstracting themselves from their physical environments and conceiving of themselves as the ideal denizens
of a universal state.


a wrinkle in history

Romantic art was, for Hegel, the last step in arts trajectory.
It was an historical form invented in the high Middle Ages, and
characterized by the turn to inwardness one finds in the ideologies
of chivalry. The three pillars of chivalry honor, fidelity, love
perform in artistic expression the newly found principle of infinite
subjectivity: honor constitutes the insertion of the entire individual
into the substance of a demand or prohibition; fidelity the insertion
of the entire individual into a political relation of personal, not abstract, nature; love the insertion of the entire individual into a deliberate sacrifice of independence to the beloved (A, II 607-633). But
such rampant inwardness leads necessarily to a desire for concrete
actuality, which the individual then searches for in representations,
which become ever more realistic (rise of realism) and with which
he or she can then identify. Therefore, on the one hand we have the
withdrawal of the individual into his or herself and the resultant extremes of subjectivism that entails, and on the other the represented
world, characterized by a proliferation of more and more meaningless details independent of subjective intervention and constitutive
of an increasingly prosaic reality. These, then, are the conditions for
the end of art and for the beginnings of (modern, skeptical) religion,
a religion in which God becomes the equivalent of an answer to the
question emerging from this sundering between the subject and the
real. These conditions are also, it should be clear, exactly those that
Hegel criticized under the name of irony in the work of Schlegel
and his followers. But in that case, Hegels anger would appear to be
directed not at irony per se, but at the tendency to conceive irony as
an aspect of art instead of as the herald of its end.
For Hegel, Don Quijote is a romantic work not because of its
thoroughgoing irony, but despite it. It is a kind of border work, retaining on the one hand all the characteristics that Hegel finds so
delightful in romantic art Quijotes noble character, the interpolated tales and on the other hand tolling their death knells via its
ironic mockery of its very own contents (A, II 657). Romantic art
dies with Quijote because, quite simply, its time had come. When an
art form reveals what was previously concealed, this revelation removes whatever interest the subject had in it, and the space is created

cervantes, romantic irony, and the making of reality


for a new form, with a new purpose to be created. Such, for Hegel,
is Cervantess relation to chivalry, to the heart and soul of romantic
art. But then irony, insofar as it brings about the dissolution of art,
must be understood as fulfilling arts vocation, a vocation Hegel describes in the following words: Against this must we claim that art
is called to reveal the truth in the form of the sensual art creation, to
represent that reconciled antithesis, and thereby it has its vocation in
itself, in this representation and revelation (A, I 108).54
The reconciled antithesis in question is the one that has been
badgering spirit throughout Hegels lectures, between the abstract
universal, logos, conceptual thought, on the one hand, and life, embodiment, passions, on the other. If this antagonism is to be revealed
as already reconciled in arts last gasp, the revelation can only be the
following: that the modern individual, the individual whose world
is no longer favorable to the production of art, is ironic. He or she
is ironic in precisely the sense that I outlined above, insofar as his
or her core experience of the world is fictional: an agent capable of
differentiating (abstracting) his or herself as an agent acting within
the world. This secondary agent could be the one who guides our
identificatory adventures in fictional places, or one who represents
us in the abstract arena of public law, but the truth to be revealed
is that the individual is both, simultaneously and inseparably, the
representer and the represented, the actor and the character.


a wrinkle in history

Chapter 6
Psychoanalysis and the Comedia:
Skepticism and the Paternal Function
in La vida es sueo

The usefulness of psychoanalytic approaches to the study of

early modern culture has been, rightfully, I believe, brought into
question. But the criticism of these approaches begs first of all the
question of the utility and appropriateness of psychoanalysis to the
reading and teaching of literature, or to cultural studies, in general.
As Andr Green has noted, psychoanalysis is a specific form of criticism, and does not nor should it purport to say anything about the
general meaning of a text.1 This said, it can also be reasonably added
that the history of literary criticism to date has brought its practitioners to a more or less similar conclusion about criticism in general: if
traditional intentionalist criticism, Russian formalism and the New
Critics, as well as structuralist, Marxist and deconstructivist movements, had in common the drive to say something in general about
the meaning of the text be it its meaning per se, or that of its social context, or the ultimate inability of textuality to mean anything
the eclecticism and historicism that have become dominant since
the mid-1980s openly eschew this task. And if they do not, perhaps
they should.2
There can be no doubt that in some sense it is the literary critics
job as Stanley Fish would put it3 to say something about what
a text means. But if the history of criticism, and deconstruction in
particular, have left us anything, it is the realization that to really
and completely say what a text means would be to rewrite the text in
exactly the same words in which it presented itself to us. Therefore,
the prudent critic of any critical stripe will not claim to say what a text


a wrinkle in history

means in its entirety, but rather attempt to illuminate, interrogate,

unpack (whatever comfortable euphemism for interpret comes to
mind) one aspect of a text, the aspect that interests him or her for
whatever reasons he or she might or might not want to share with us.
Now, from the perspective of this caveat, the variety of approaches huddled together under the psychoanalytic umbrella already begins to appear more palatable. For if one is not claiming
that ones psychoanalytic paradigms, ones Oedipal triangles, ones
phallic symbols and partial objects reveal the meaning of the text as
a whole, then it is hard to begrudge one ones foibles. On the other
hand, one specific aspect of the plaint against psychoanalysis still
stands: no other approach has a framework so rigid, so idiosyncratic,
so historically specific while claiming such universal relevance.4 If
we have all the answers already, why bother asking the text anything? And indeed, as Green has also said, psychoanalysis as a practice gains nothing from having its theories confirmed by literary
critics (Green 19).
In my mind this is valid criticism, which should be heeded to
the letter. Indeed, psychoanalysis should not be used as a framework for reading texts, as a lexicon for decoding meanings, specific
or otherwise. But for what, then, should it, can it, be used? Psychoanalysis, like Christianity, logical positivism, quantum theory,
surrealist poetry, dentistry, or the science of baking, is a vocabulary, a set of linguistic tools that originated in a particular historical
moment in response to a set of problems and developed over time
into its multifaceted present form. This vocabulary has shown itself
particularly prone to producing adherents and opponents who voice
their adherence and opposition in particularly vociferous ways (and
has hence been accused on many occasions of being more like a
religion than a science). But it is, nonetheless, a vocabulary. The set
of problems that this vocabulary tries to deal with are of a generality and prevalence such that psychoanalysis, like the vocabularies of
philosophy and religion, tends to make for an attractive (for those
who are tempted or convinced by its specific claims) companion to
other meaning-making activities in life. One of these activities is
reading or studying literature.

psychoanalysis and the comedia


Given this pragmatic view of psychoanalysis and its potential

relation to the act of reading, I would suggest that the appropriate
way to employ the vocabulary of psychoanalysis when reading literature is to use it to formulate questions, to take those questions and
mull them over in the vocabulary offered by the literature you want
to read, take the resulting questions back to your psychoanalytic
vocabulary, and so on. Not only can such a practice enrich the activity of reading (as, I would argue, does any such cross-fertilization
of vocabularies, although I have my doubts about baking), what is
enlightened in the end is not the text, but the questions asked of the
text, questions whose answers reflect back equally on the text itself
and on the personal and ever-changing psychoanalytic vocabulary
with which we began. Which leads me to one further caveat: Green
has also said that only psychoanalysts should practice psychoanalytic
criticism.5 Not being a psychoanalyst myself, I find this extreme. But
I do believe that only people who have really read and to some extent
internalized (i.e., brought to bear on their own lives) the teachings
of a particular school of analysis should practice it as literary criticism. Unfortunately, the libraries are brimming with the scribblings
of people who do not heed this advice, and who hastily scrape together a hodgepodge of ideas gleaned from a book by the adoring
acolyte of some master and proceed to plaster it all over an innocent
and unsuspecting poem, play, or novel, the result being little more
than embarrassment for themselves and shame for the practice of
psychoanalytic criticism and criticism in general. As Lacan once said
to his students, I wouldnt want to encourage you to produce the
sort of hogwash that psychoanalytic texts are full of.6
Now, in the criticisms of psychoanalysis I outlined earlier, there
was one point to which I would like to return, and that is the notion that psychoanalysiss pretensions to universality conflict with
its hyperhistorical rootedness. This criticism is the most pertinent
to a discussion of the appropriateness of psychoanalysis to the study
of early modern culture, and will also provide me with the question
I would like to showcase, a question posed from the perspective of
psychoanalysis to a canonical text from the Spanish Golden Age
theater, Pedro Caldern de la Barcas La vida es sueo.


a wrinkle in history

Before setting out, it is important to note that in many ways my

choice of this particular play is not innocent. Whereas the Spanish Golden Age drama has not been subjected to the intensity of
psychoanalytic attention that its French and particularly English
cousins have, of those pieces that have been, La vida es sueo has
certainly enjoyed the lions share. The reason for this is, quite clearly,
that Segismundos story is so strikingly similar in so many respects
to that of Oedipus. And indeed, the majority of psychoanalytic interpretations have dealt predominantly with the plays oedipal issues.7 Even Henry Sullivans specifically Lacanian bent has resulted
in an interpretation that stresses the plays oedipal conflicts, albeit
via Lacans structuralized version of the myth.8 Matthew Strouds
strictly Lacanian analysis of the play is certainly one of the few to
have delved beyond the plays more obvious relations to the Oedipus
myth, demonstrating in quite remarkable depth how the Lacanian
model of subjectivity can be seen to resonate with Calderns characters and their struggles for self understanding (Stroud 28). To my
mind, Strouds analysis is an example of a certain kind of criticism
at its best: a criticism that is intent to show, in painstaking details,
how a literary text in fact contains within it a structure identified
in another kind of text, one presenting a different series of truth
claims. The literary text is then read, i.e., explained, in the language
of the non-literary text. This is the model I am trying to push psychoanalytic criticism beyond, with the initial question: if there are
indeed some fundamental similarities between a twentieth-century,
psychoanalytic understanding of human consciousness, and that
of a seventeenth-century priest and dramatist, why is this the case?
And furthermore, why is it important, i.e., what new knowledge
does such a juxtaposition produce? By specifying a historical dimension to the question, we can endeavor to avoid blithely universalizing
psychoanalysiss claims9 ; by treating the two as vocabularies for the
discussion of a common topic, we invite the possibility that some
light might be shed that is new to our understanding of both.
In asking this question, as in the asking of any question, one
brings to the table a number of presuppositions, presuppositions
that, in my case, originate in the work on early modern theater that

psychoanalysis and the comedia


I undertook in How the World Became a Stage. In part, the thesis presented there states that, indeed, the model of consciousness theorized
by psychoanalysis is largely historical, in that its basic parameters are
what I term theatrical. This theatrical model of consciousness corresponds to a specific mode of experiencing space, a mode conditioned
by transformations in the everyday practices of spectacle in the cultures comprising early modern Europe. The Spanish Golden Age
theater was one of the great institutionalizations of the new staging
practices of the modern period. Consequently, psychoanalysis and
the Spanish Golden Age theater are likely to share certain presuppositions regarding the nature of the self, and questions asked of one
can quite possibly illuminate the other, and vice versa.
What is most relevant about the concept of theatricality for a
discussion of La vida es sueo is that the period marked by the ascendancy of theatricality in the phenomenal realm corresponds to
the ascendancy of skepticism or epistemology in intellectual history.
The trope in question is the infamous Cartesian theater, in which
phenomena prance by on the stage of the minds eye, and the foundational task of all knowledge is to guarantee that these phenomena
accurately (clearly and distinctly) represent the world as it really is.
In light of this historical convergence, the question that La vida es
sueo can be heard to ask is: How does one found a moral order in
a skeptical universe?10
Psychoanalysis, or to finally become more specific, Lacanian psychoanalysis, claims that certain problems beset any system of rules
governing human interaction, problems involved in, for instance,
the distribution of sexual roles and identities, individual gratification versus social constraint, the legitimation in the individuals
psyche of that power exercised on the individual, and so on. The
common root behind any and all formulations of this problem is the
existential trauma of what Heidegger called Geworfenheit, normally
translated as thrownness, and what Lacan described as the simple
and unavoidable fact that the language the individual speaks always
pre-exists his or her entry into the world.11
From this starting point we climb a little further, and perhaps
more precariously, into Lacanian territory. For in its existential


a wrinkle in history

situation of thrownness in the world, the human animal gains knowledge in the form of language, of having a name, an identity, an
idea of good and evil in exchange for the loss of a certain promise
of satisfaction, an ignorant, bestial, sublimely complete satisfaction
of the one who cannot question and hence cannot desire. Whether
or not this satisfaction actually exists is irrelevant because, for the
speaking being, it does exist in the unconscious, as something lost.
It is what comes to stand in for this lost promise of satisfaction that
Lacan calls the phallus, a philosophical abstraction based on Freuds
observation that the childs blissfully hermetic, symbiotic relationship with the mothers body is rent by the realization that the mother
desires someone else, the father, the phallus being then that which
the father has but the child does not.12 The phallus, this signifier of
lacking enjoyment, is repressed and replaced by the first signifier to
take on the role of the name of the father, a homophonic wordplay meshing nom du pre with non du pre, namely, that language
of social constraint that allows the being on the verge of language to
justify its new-found dissatisfaction on the power of the other or of
the law, that is to say, that allows the young speaker to replace constitutive impossibility with a merely contingent prohibition.
La vida es sueo presents us with a model of an individual, who
is man as such as well as a man, and more specifically a prince.13
The action we are invited to witness concerns the problem posed
by Geworfenheit to the embodiment of the law, for kings, unfortunately, must also be born, and they are not born already made. A
king, then, must be the law, but also must undergo the process of
the imposition of the law on the human psyche. He must respond,
in other words, to a power greater than himself, namely, the power
of his own father, king at his own birth.
In La vida es sueo, the problem of this simultaneous becoming
a king and becoming a man brings together the general trauma of
Geworfenheit with that specific aspect of it involved with the constitution of the individuals identity as a sexual being, and does so
all within the intellectual context of that form of consciousness I
have called theatricality. Segismundo has grown up in a tower with
no contact either with his father, who has never seen him, nor with

psychoanalysis and the comedia


his mother, who died at his birth. He has definitely lost the phallus
his entire existence is nothing but pain and loss but there has
never appeared a master signifier, a name of the father, a voice authorized to give reason to his loss via a definitive prohibition. Clotaldo,
his caretaker, has not filled that role, for he is also acting in the guise
of another, to whom he himself never gives a name:
Si sabes que tus desdichas,/ Segismundo, son tan grandes,/
que antes de nacer moriste/ por la ley del cielo; si sabes/ que
aquestas prisiones son/ de tus furias arrogantes/ un freno
que las detenga/ y una rienda que las pare,/ por qu blasonas?14
[If you know that your misfortunes, Segismundo, are so
great, that by heavens decree you died before being born;
if you know that this prison are a bit to detain and reins
to stop your arrogant furies, then why are you heralding
In Clotaldo, who has done his best to raise and educate Segismundo
despite the circumstances, Segismundos complaints and impotent
rage find no answer, no apodictic justification. Clotaldo can only
tell him that his living death was decreed by the law of heaven. In
place of the positive prohibition of a present father, Segismundo is
given only the empty answer of fate, an answer that is no answer at
all but rather a question in return, por qu blasonas? There is no
power willing to take responsibility for what psychoanalysis terms
the subjects symbolic castration, the realization of powerlessness in
the face of the world. In the formulation given above, Segismundo
is left to suffer in the face of the impossibility of his own satisfaction
and receives no solace from the threat of a tangible prohibition.
In order to test the prophecies that foresaw Segismundos violent temperament and his eventual overthrow of his father the
prophecies that motivated his imprisonment at birth his father
Basilio decides to release Segismundo on a trial basis. His plan is to
let Segismundo out of the tower where he has been held captive his


a wrinkle in history

entire life, restore him to his place as prince and heir to the kingdom,
and tell him the truth about his captivity. If then, knowing the truth
and restored to his power, the prince behaves in a proper, princely
way, he will be allowed to remain in power. If he acts improperly, or
abuses his power, he will be drugged, returned to his tower, and told
that the interlude he just experienced was nothing but a dream.
As might be expected, Segismundos sudden and unexpected release provokes in his psyche a certain crisis of identity, a crisis that
will remain one of the pivotal themes of the play:
Yo, en palacios suntosos?/ Yo entre telas y brocados?/
Yo cercado de criados/ tan lucidos y brosos?/ Yo despertar
de dormir/ en lecho tan excelente?/ Yo en medio de tanta
gente/ que me sirva de vestir?/ Decir que sueo es engao;/
bien s que despierto estoy./ Yo Segismundo no soy? (II. iii.
[I in sumptuous palaces? I in fabrics and brocades? I surrounded by such bright and shining servants? I awaking
from my sleep in such an excellent bed? I, in the middle
of so many people helping me to dress? To say that I am
dreaming is a mistake, I know well that I am awake. I, am
I not Segismundo?]
The last of this series of questions, if not the question of existence
itself (a question which Segismundos exercise in doubt, unlike Descartess, does not lead him) is nevertheless the ultimate question of
identity. Faced with the radical metamorphosis of every aspect of
his lived existence, Segismundo is forced to ask whether he is in
fact Segismundo, that name signifying his existence, the particular
nature of his thrownness in the world, which had, nonetheless, always been attached to a completely different reality. This forceful
bifurcation of the self into two potential agencies, the self named
Segismundo whose experience has until this moment been unitary,
and the self that now pronounces that name from an estranged perspective, will be instrumental to the change Segismundo undergoes

psychoanalysis and the comedia


in the course of the play, from uncontrollable brute to the ideal

Christian prince.15
Such a bifurcation is also central to the psychoanalytic model of
normal subjective development, in which the self splinters into different agencies, each empowered or driven to monitor the actions and
thoughts of the other. Lacan gives two versions of this division of the
self, each markedly distinct from the classical Freudian triumvirate of
Es, Ich, and ber-Ich (Id, Ego, and Super-ego). The first, which derives directly from Freud,16 is the division between the ego-ideal and
the ideal ego (Ichideal and Ich in Freud), between the part of the self
identified with the perspective from which we are watched, and the
part that identifies with the self as an object of affection. The second
Lacanian distinction is a more properly linguistic one, between what
he calls the sujet d nonc and the sujet d nonciation, the subject of
the utterance and of the enunciation respectively.
What is important to grasp is that these are all variants on the
same bifurcation, the very one that Segismundo undergoes when he
asks the question, Yo Segismundo no soy? While, as I said above,
this question does not probe as radically into existence as Descartess
question did, it is nevertheless an instantiation of the question with
which, according to Lacan, Descartes ushered in modern philosophy. For Lacan reads Descartess cogito ergo sum as the description of
a speaking thing chasing endlessly after its unconditioned being: Il
ne sagit pas de savoir si je parle de moi de faon conforme a ce que je
suis, mais si, quand jen parle, je suis le mme que celui dont je parle
[Its not a question of knowing whether I am speaking of myself in a
way that conforms to what I am, but if, when I speak about myself,
I am the same as he of whom I speak] (crits 517). This particular
manifestation of subjective division, the one that appears in philosophy at precisely this historical moment as the skeptical question, is
a division conditioned by a theatrical experience of space, in which
the space one inhabits is perceived as being infinitely sub-divisible
into nesting realities, the ultimate meaning of each depending on its
relation to the reality immediately framing it.
Such an experience of space, subtended by the very form of
spectacle institutionalized in the seventeenth century, in turn


a wrinkle in history

conditions an experience of self based on the relation between actor

and character: the self is perceived as a role or character that changes
or develops to adapt to certain social exigencies, the actor as the real
bodily being, the ultimate anchor of identity posited behind all the
different roles. To become the actor again would be to regain a lost
certainty, to erase the constitutive divisions of selfhood, to reclaim,
in effect, the phallus; and reclaim the phallus is precisely what Segismundo attempts to do when he recovers his senses and realizes that
he is finally and really free:
No/ me estorbe nadie, que es vana/ diligencia; y, vive
Dios!,/ si os ponis delante vos,/ que os eche por la ventana
(II. iii. 131215).
[Let no one try to stop me, which would be an effort in
vain; and, by God, if you get in my way I will throw you
from the window.]
Which is exactly what he does, killing the servant to whom he has
addressed this threat and later attempting to rape Rosaura, in his
drive to satisfy immediately every impulse and desire he feels. He
is, in other words, incapable of self-control, of self mastery. His expression of self, his yo, is indistinguishable from the immediate
satisfaction of his inclinations; the concept of law as such, as some
external standard by which to govern ones actions, is alien to him:
Nada me parece justo/ en siendo contra mi gusto (II. v. 142728).
[Nothing is just to me, if it goes against my desire.]
If the omnipotence of the phallus is an existential impossibility,
recall that in normativel development this impossibility is replaced
or legitimated by a prohibition, the name/no of the father, the paternal function. It is important to note that there is nothing inherently male about this function. The paternal function is paternal in
contradistinction to the function or position of the mother, in that it
is always supported by the mothers desire. The disturbance intruding on the mother/child relationship is only intrusive insofar as it is
capable of drawing the mothers attention away from the child. The

psychoanalysis and the comedia


law, then, is always built on the foundation of the first signifier, the
first word to give a name to the infants new found dissatisfaction.
The sense of obligation the individual feels toward the law, toward
doing what he or she ought to do, is based on this initial submission
to the paternal function. In Segismundos case, it is precisely this
sense of obligation that lacks:
BASILIO: Bien me agradeces el verte,/ de un humilde y
pobre preso,/ prncipe ya!
SEGISMUNDO: Pues en eso,/ qu tengo que agradecerte?/ Tirano de mi albedro,/ si viejo y caduco ests,/
murindote, qu me das?/ Dasme ms de lo que es mo?/
Mi padre eres y mi rey;/ luego toda esta grandeza/ me da
la naturaleza/ por derechos de su ley./ Luego, aunque est
en este estado,/ obligado no te quedo,/ y pedirte cuentas
puedo,/ del tiempo que me has quitado/ libertad, vida, y
honor;/ as, agradceme a m/ que yo no cobre de ti/ pues
eres t mi deudor. (II. vi. 1500-1519)
[BASILIO: How it pleases me to see you raised from a poor
and humble prisoner to a prince!
SEGISMUNDO: And what do I have to thank you for?
Tyrant of my will, if you are old and frail, dying, what are
you giving me? Do you give me more than what is mine?
You are my father and my king; so all this greatness is owed
to me by nature, by right of its law. Therefore, even in this
state, I am not obliged to you, and rather can ask of you a
reckoning for the time, freedom, life, and honor you have
taken from me; so be thankful rather to me, that I do not
collect from you, as you are in my debt.]
Segismundos argument has a certain reason to it, until we realize
that it applies not just to the special case of Segismundos captivity,
but in general to the theme of filial obedience. For once the captivity of the age of legal minority is over, what obligation does a young
adult owe to his or her parents and to the world? Is it not, in some


a wrinkle in history

sense, the logic of youthful rebellion to exact a payment on the world

for the pain of adolescence? What explains the fact that despite this
pain and despite the logic of Segismundos argument, most people
nevertheless maintain a greater or lesser respect for the law, and for
the constraints of social institutions in general?
The difference lies, again, in the fact that for most, unlike for
Segismundo, the loss of the phallus is repressed and replaced by the
paternal function. So whereas the letter of Segismundos argument
applies to most anyone, its libidinal content differs, in that most
individuals are socialized in such a way that their very self identity
depends on at least some submission to a primordial law. In other
words, we are ourselves only insofar as we, at some point, feel a sense
of obligation to the law. But Segismundos experience is exactly the
opposite, in that his self identity is stitched not to the law, but to
its absence. He believes he has, in his sudden freedom, recaptured
his true self, which was only kept from him through his enforced
Y aunque agora te arrepientas,/ poco remedio tendrs:/ s
quin soy, y no podrs,/ aunque suspires y sientas,/ quitarme el haber nacido/ desta corona heredero;/ y si me viste
primero/ a las prisiones rendido,/ fue porque ignor quin
era./ Pero ya informado estoy/ de quin soy, y s quin soy:/
un compuesto de hombre y fiera. (II. vi. 153647)
[And even if you repent, it will do you no good: I know who
I am, and you will not, even if you sigh and show sorrow,
take from me my having been born inheretor to this crown;
and if you first saw me rendered to the prisons, it was because I did not know who I was. But now I am informed of
who I am and I know who I am: a composite of man and
Apodictic self certainty entails omnipotence, and the identity of
which he is now certain is one founded on an exclusion of the law, an
exclusion that he also recognizes constitutes him as something other

psychoanalysis and the comedia


than human, precisely insofar as to be human is to be socialized, to

have submitted at least in part to the demands of a social code.
In a sense, Segismundo is one face of a specter haunting European culture at the dawn of modernity. This specter, whose threat
produces many other of the legends and heroes of modern literature,
could be called the weakening of social and metaphysical stability
once guaranteed by the feudal order.17 From the perspective of the
schema of relations presented by La vida es sueo, this traditional
stability is of an order of power guaranteed by the presence of the
father, a power or legitimation of power perceived as imminent to
the world per se.18 While the notion of the transcendent and perfect
order of heaven in contrast to the corruptible mundane order was
certainly widely accepted in the Middle Ages, this distinction was
not one of phenomenal representation versus real but transcendent
entities. On the contrary, the worldly order was illusory because all
its promises were ephemeral, eventually to be replaced by the perfect
and eternal ethical order of heaven. If the world was also a stage in
the Middle Ages, it was so in that ones actions were scripted by and
for the will of a higher being, not because ones identity was a constantly changing mask worn for the benefit of ones companions. It is
this latter interpretation of the world-as-stage metaphor that attains
prominence from the sixteenth century, the interpretation that is the
intellectual correlate of a theatrical experience of space.
Theatricality describes a space experienced as empty, divisible,
and flexible, a space capable of opening further spaces inside of itself,
spaces in which stories and characters can be portrayed whose truth
is a function of their relation to the space by which they are framed.
Such an experience is founded on the practices and conventions of
the modern theater, which replaced the participatory spectacles of
the late Middle Ages with the paradigm of the actor/character distinction. It is this distinction that provides the phenomenological
basis of philosophical skepticism in the modern period: the spectators, sitting in an audience, can doubt whether what they see portrayed on the stage is true (the space of the character), but they
cannot doubt that they are seeing something portrayed by someone
(the space of the actor).


a wrinkle in history

Let me try to bring this all together. The speaking human subject
experiences a gap or slippage between the sentences its utters about
itself, and the self these sentences are supposed to represent, a gap
manifested by the fact that it is neither omnipotent (it cannot realize
every desire that comes to its mind) nor is it omniscient (it cannot
answer basic questions concerning who it is, or why it has come into
being). This gap is filled in or legitimated by the paternal function, a
function that replaces impossibility with prohibition (e.g., the question of my ultimate identity is answered by reference to my name,
the name of the father). In macro-social and philosophical terms,
the basic structure of authority in the Middle Ages was characterized
by the presence of the father exercising this function: Gods will was
manifest in the world, his body present in the Mass; princes were
local entities, deploying a power that was always tangible, visible; no
distinction was made between how a thing appeared to the senses
and how it was in itself. In the early modern period, authority begins to be founded in a different way: it is argued that Gods presence
is represented in the Mass (the fact of the Spanish Counter Reformation is ideological evidence of the power and pervasiveness of this
interpretation); kings become the centerpieces of vast bureaucratic
empires, seldom coming in direct contact with their subjects, and
their power is said to be derived from God; phenomena are no longer
attributes or species of the things in themselves but are rather the
effects of those things on the observer. If the father signifies the
function of the legitimation of powerlessness at its most fundamental
level, one way of categorizing the general sway of these changes is as
the absence of the father. An order based on the absence as opposed
to the presence of the father is an order we can describe as skeptical.19
Ultimately, goes the logic of such an order, you cannot know why you
must obey, yet you must nonetheless.
Faced with the rebellion of his son, Basilio admits that Segismundo has indeed discovered the truth of his identity, and that
therefore he, Basilio, has in some sense failed in his paternal function of maintaining the separation between self and identity, between actor and character. But if Basilios absence has resulted in the
failure in Segismundos person of the paternal function, this failure

psychoanalysis and the comedia


must be redressed, and the function recuperated in another way.

This way is via skepticism:
Y aunque sepas ya quin eres,/ y desengaado ests,/ y
aunque en un lugar te ves/ donde a todos te prefieres,/ mira
bien lo que te advierto:/ que seas humilde y blando,/ porque
quiz ests soando,/ aunque ves que ests despierto. (II .vi.
[And although you now know who you are and are undeceived, and although you find yourself in a place where you
are preferred above all others, pay attention to what I tell
you: be humble and soft, because you may be dreaming,
although you see that you are awake.]
Even though you now have access to your real identity, says
Basilio, even though you think you have regained your lost power,
beware! Never fall into the trap of thinking that you really know,
that you have attained the truth, for everything you perceive may
be merely the illusions provoked by a dream. And, indeed, the law
itself, the very stability of the social order, must now be founded on
this fear. It is no longer the presence of the father that supports and
maintains the castration of submission to social norms and prohibitions, but rather his very absence, the ultimate uncertainty of all
knowledge, is the grounds for an auto-castration, a submission by
ones own accord. Clearly this non-coerced submission is in its nascence in the social context of early modern Spain, and is merely one
aspect of social control in a vast amalgam of new bureaucratic functions and retained traditional relations. Nevertheless it is the first
inkling, in the most reactionary of political and theological systems,
of the sense of self that will become the core of Enlightenment theories of subjectivity and citizenship, Rousseaus citoyen who bends his
individual will to that of the volont gnrale that he himself has
helped enunciate.
The second jornada ends with Segismundos second awakening,
which finds him yet again in captivity. From this point on the plays


a wrinkle in history

concern is Segismundos formulation and acceptance of the skeptical thesis that life itself is a dream, and his deriving from this thesis
an ethics of self mastery that eventual returns stability to the social
order. Even before he wakes, Caldern sets the stage, as it were, for
the conversion to skepticism, while at once reminding us that the
skeptical thesis is also a theatrical thesis. Segismundo is heard, yet at
the portal of consciousness, to mutter
Salga a la anchurosa plaza/ del gran teatro del mundo/ este
valor sin segundo,/ porque mi venganza cuadre;/ vean triunfar de su padre/ al prncipe Segismundo. (II. xviii. 207377)
[Let this unsurpassed valor step out onto the wide plaza of
the great theater of the world, that my vengeance take place;
let them see prince Segismundo triumph over his father.]
Unaware as of yet that he has returned to his former condition, that
his enjoyment of unlimited power was merely a dream, Segismundos
real dreams continue to express his fantasies of revenge and domination. But the fact that his revenge will be enacted on the great stage
of the world suggests that the metaphor of the dream and that of
the stage are involved in the same work, that of warning us against
identifying ourselves too completely with our earthly roles, because
in heaven we are likely to be judged by a different standard.
The invocation of Calderns other great moral allegory, El gran
teatro del mundo, might suggest a different interpretation of the
plays ethical argument from that of the skeptical thesis I have been
advancing. For in Caldern classic auto sacramental, it is not skepticism that founds the moral order but rather the threat or promise
of eternal punishment or reward depending on how one plays ones
ephemeral, earthly role. Indeed, such a model is skeptical only insofar as it implies that our present role is not real, as in eternal, but
rather temporary, like the world itself. But such a view, perfectly
in keeping with medieval theology, is precisely not an example of
the skeptical thesis as I outlined above. In El gran teatro del mundo

psychoanalysis and the comedia


the father is in fact quite present, in the person of the holy autor de
comedias responsible for the story, casting, and mse en scne of the
earthly comedy.
One could conclude from this that Caldern is in fact trying
to defend against the skeptical thesis, not advance it. Here I would
agree with Henry Sullivans claim that the Spanish baroque theater,
far more than its English and French contemporaries, is straining
to maintain a foothold in a transcendent truth and a sense of obligation to a higher order (Lacan and Caldern 39). There is no
doubt as to the desire of Spains religious intelligentsia for the retention of a theology of presence to accompany the absolutist political
agenda. What I am suggesting, against Sullivans argument, is that,
even in Caldern, the attempt was often unsuccessful, and therefore failed to ward off the ascendancy of skepticism. Sullivan supports his claim by means of an intepretation in which the comedia is
seen as maintaining a neoplatonist realism in the face of a menacing
nominalism from across the Pyrenees and the Channel. This realism, in which the magic sense of the word was not lost but rather
the shimmer of the signifying relationship was retained and held in
public view (42), is apparently attested to by the fact that objects
and events on the Spanish stage are consistently endowed with an almost paranoid (my modifier) significance by the characters perceiving and interpreting them (45). My response to this is twofold. First,
it sounds backwards: a world in which a dagger as signifier refers to
no set of facts in the real world of events but rather merely represents a subject for another signifier (45) sounds like the epitome of
a nominalist universe, not a realist one. And there I would agree: the
world is becoming progressively more nominalist, Spain included.
Secondly, the examples Sullivan cites Gutierres interpretation
of the dagger in El mdico de su honra, Basilios interpretation of the
horoscope in La vida es sueo are all perfectly common topoi in
world literature and not at all limited to Counter Reformation Spain
(think of Othellos interpretation of the handkerchief, or any one
of an infinite number of examples of cosmic irony from Oedipus
to the present, in which the protagonists interpretation of an event
brings about the precise end he is trying to avoid).


a wrinkle in history

It is clear that Caldern is trying to distance himself from a

purely skeptical position in La vida es sueo as well. The problem
is that the attempt simply doesnt work. El gran teatro del mundo
benefited from the medieval conventions of allegorical representation to illustrate a literally Gods-eye-view of humanitys ephemeral
role-playing essence. But La vida es sueo is theater, a modern form
of spectacle exhibiting the moral problematics of a modern, theatrical humanity, a humanity whose fluency with the actor/character
distinction, whose knowledge of the relativity of theatrical space ( I
can never be certain that what I am seeing is not merely an act as opposed to the real thing) is incompatible with a certainty concerning
Gods will. So although Caldern makes the occasional attempt to
frame Segismundos development of an ethics of self-mastery within
the medieval pragmatics of punishment and reward, such a pragmatics is insufficient as an ultimate justification.
If the thesis Life is a dream is intended to commend a particular ethical behavior, the first objection might be, Why? If life is
merely a dream, why shouldnt I just enjoy it and do what I want?
Clotaldo tries to preempt this objection in an aside: mas en sueos
fuera bien/ entonces honrar a quien/ te cri en tantos empeos,/
Segismundo; que aun en sueos/ no se pierde el hacer bien (II. xix.
2143-47). [but in dreams I would be well, then, to honor the one
who raised you with such effort, Segismundo; for even in dreams
is doing good not lost.] But the claim that even in dreams good
deeds are not lost is merely an assertion. Segismundo has no more
reason to accept it than to reject it. A convincing argument would be
one that, like the theological argument of El gran teatro del mundo,
leads from the thesis that life is a theater piece put on by God to the
conclusion that, therefore, what we role we play is less important
than how we play it, since we will be rewarded or punished for our
performance after the play is over, or, in the case of the dream, when
we awake: Mas, sea verdad o sueo,/ obrar bien es lo que importa./
Si fuere verdad, por serlo; si no, por ganar amigos/ para cuando
despertemos (III. iv. 2423-27). [But, be it truth or a dream, to do
good is what is important. If it be truth, then for its own sake; if not,
then to win friends for when we are awake.] Yet it is precisely such an

psychoanalysis and the comedia


argument that is excluded by the metaphor of the dream, since what

characterizes a dream, unlike a theater piece, is that no one is watching you, and therefore any friends you make through your good behavior in the dream are not likely to recall your charitable treatment
of them when you awake. (The caveat that God is watching solves
the logical problem but obviates the metaphor, because if we accept
as an axiom that God is watching then we already have a reason to
behave well.) Segismundo also seems to realize this point, for when
he holds his hand against Clotaldo, the reason he gives himself is
quite simply that he does not know whether he is awake or sleeping.
Mas, cielos!,/ reportarme me conviene,/ que an no s si estoy
despierto (III. iv. 2412-14). [Heavens! It behooves me to contain
myself, for I still do not know if I am awake.] But why should that
uncertainty stop him? If he is in fact dreaming, he could at least play
out his fantasy and garner a modicum of enjoyment, even if only
What eventually convinces Segismundo to curtail his enjoyment, as is clear form his first long speech to the soldiers who come
to release him from his prison, is not the threat of punishment when
he awakes or the promise of reward for keeping his dreams virtuous,
but rather the knowledge that if he assumes he is dreaming and refuses on his own accord the satisfaction of his desires that the dream
proffers as real, his desengao the disappointment accompanying
the revelation of his true situation will be less:
pues que la vida es tan corta,/ soemos, alma, soemos/
otra vez; pero ha de ser/ con atencin y consejo/ de que
hemos de despertar/ de este gusto al mejor tiempo;/ que
llevndolo sabido,/ ser el desengao menos;/ que es hacer
burla del dao/ adelantarle el consejo. (III. iii. 2356)
[since life is so short, let us dream, my soul, let us dream
again; but it must be with attention and the knowledge
that we will awake from this pleasure at the best time; and
knowing this, the disappointment will be less; for to be
forewarned is to lessen the damage.]


a wrinkle in history

Doubt your own knowledge! Doubt your own power! Because

when the truth is finally revealed, a truth which might in fact be
that you are not who you think you are, that you cannot do what you
desire to do, you will be the less deceived for it. Given the choice between assuming your power (in both senses) and refusing to assume
it being skeptical of it always opt for the latter. Be skeptical,
because you cannot know the truth. In the absence of the father,
skepticism is its own justification.
The phallus, in the combined vocabularies of psychoanalysis
and Calderonese, is the absolute certainty of ones knowledge, and
ultimately of ones self-identity; symbolic castration, the acceptance
of the loss of the phallus, is likewise the acceptance of ones fallibility, and ones submission to an earthly, established order. In early
modern Spain, the principal signifier in this moral code was honor.20
By submitting themselves to the code of honor, individuals tacitly
upheld a series of norms concerning primarily the theme of sexual
purity, but also of religious purity of blood and of class. The perception of ones compliance or failure to comply with these norms
determined to an extraordinary extent ones sexual, religious, and
social identity. One becomes who one is, in other words, by relinquishing the phallus, by rendering up ones enjoyment and submitting to a moral order.
In early modern Spain, the maintenance of this code was understood to be the responsibility of the monarch, and honor was seen
almost as an essence that flowed out from his person to nourish the
nation. La vida es sueo puts into play the problem of relinquishing
the phallus, of submission to the moral order, in an age when the
father is eternally absent (kings are absent, their power represented
bureaucratically), space has become theatrical, philosophical skepticism is on the rise, and like it or not, a powerful religious movement
has succeeded in questioning Gods Real Presence in the Mass. In
such a universe, all power relations are anchored by the king. The
king, born and raised by humans in a human world, must also have
a relation to the phallus, must also submit to the code of honor. But
how can the king, whose power must also be absolute who is,
after all, the embodiment of the law also submit to the law?

psychoanalysis and the comedia


The symbolic universe we encounter at the beginning of La vida

es sueo is, to put it mildly, out of whack: Polands crown-prince lives
locked in a tower, unaware of his identity; his father, the king, is
about to render his rule to a foreign prince; and the identity crisis of
the nation is redoubled in the identity crisis of Rosaura, the bastard
daughter of Clotaldo who has come to Poland in the guise of a man
to restore her lost honor. Lacking both sexual and social identity, she
is a symptom of the nations unsettled state.
Rosaura, like Segismundo having grown up without the name
of a father, repeats her mothers transgression and loses her honor to
Astolfo, who refuses to live up to his promise and sanctify their union
because her father is unknown. Clotaldo will not fulfill his function
and reclaim Rosaura as his daughter because he is allied with Basilio
and Astolfo against Basilios son and the rightful heir Segismundo, an
imbalance due to Basilios failure to accomplish his paternal function,
all of which is ultimately due to Basilios unwillingness to be castrated himself, i.e., to be without knowledge about the future, to be
open to Gods will. For indeed it was his astrological interpretations
of his wifes dreams that led him to try to change the future, and that
caused him ultimately to bring the prophecies about. Nevertheless it
is his actions that teach Segismundo the patient skepticism that he,
Basilio, should have had, and that eventually allow Segismundo to
return to power and restore the moral order.
This conversion to skepticism and Segismundos incumbent assumption of the virtue and honor of kingship comes to a head in the
tenth scene of the third jornada, in which Rosaura presents him with
her plaint. With the ultimate object of his desire in his power, Segismundo has the option of fulfilling his wish and enjoying her, or of
resisting temptation and restoring her honor; and in his soliloquy he
mulls over all of the arguments for and against each option. His reasoning for eventually resisting his desire and opting to restore rather
than further damage Rosauras honor, while partaking as well of the
discourse of eternal punishment and reward, is more fundamentally
a reflection on uncertainty, and it his uncertainty that finally determines his decision. Esto es sueo; y pues lo es/ he says of Rosauras
vulnerability, soemos dichas agora,/ que despus sern pesares.


a wrinkle in history

[This is a dream; and since it is, let us dream pleasures now, as later
they will be sadness.] But this very conclusion reminds him of the
resulting desengao and dissuades him from this course:
Mas con mis razones propias/ vuelvo a convencerme a mi./
Si es sueo, si es vanagloria,/ quin por vanagloria humana/ pierde una divina gloria?/ Qu pasado bien no es
sueo?/ Quin tuvo dichas heroicas/ que entre s no diga,
cuando/ las revuelve en su memoria:/ sin duda que fue soado/ cuanto vi? Pues si esto toca/ mi desengao, si s/
que es el gusto llama hermosa/ que le convierte en cenizas/
cualquiera viento que sopla,/ acudamos a lo eterno; que es la
fama vividora,/ donde ni duermen las dichas,/ ni las grandezas reposan./ Rosaura est sin honor;/ ms a un prncipe
le toca/ el dar honor que quitarle. (III. x. 2964-88)
[But I finally convince myself of the opposite by my own reasoning. If it is a dream, if it is vainglory, who will, for human
vainglory, lose out on divine glory? What past good is not
a dream? Who has had heroic delights who does not say to
himself, when he relives them in his memory, Doubtless all
that I saw was a dream? Because if this touches on my honor,
if I know that pleasure is a beautiful flame that is turned to
ashes by whatever breath touches it, let us rather turn to the
eternal; for it is life-giving fame where not even delights sleep
nor greatness rests. Rosaura is without her honor; but to a
Prince corresponds the giving of honor, not its removal.]
Certainly Segismundo touches on two positive theses: that to resist
temptation is to opt for divine glory; and that while earthly pleasure
is intense, it is also ephemeral, and therefore one should choose the
eternal pleasure of reputation. However, each of these positive justifications for his ultimate decision are framed and made possible by
the irreducible, inescapable skeptical thesis that everything he is experiencing may only be a dream from which he could awake at any
moment. It is ultimately this uncertainty, and his acceptance of it,

psychoanalysis and the comedia


that leads him to restore the moral order originally disturbed by his
own fathers hubris, his unwillingness to remain without knowledge
about the future.21
In the sociology and political historiography of modernity, perhaps no question has been more central than that of the legitimacy
of political power, for it is the peculiar fate of modernitys political
offspring, the citizen, that we should owe allegiance to an order we
are also responsible for upholding, that we should, in other words,
simultaneously rule and obey. In bringing together the vocabularies of psychoanalysis and the Golden Age theater, in asking of each
the question, posed in the language of the other, of the structure
of human consciousness, we have arrived at a startling thesis for
the sociology of political power in the modern age. According to
this thesis, the ultimate force of legitimacy in the modern world is,
paradoxically, the very problem that is its historical counterpart in
the realm of philosophy: skepticism. For any regime to function it
requires its individuals to feel a sense of obligation to the law, but it
is precisely this sense of obligation that is ostensibly sacrificed in a
regime characterized by the absence of the father, a regime, in other
words, founded on the explicit refusal of direct, coercive leadership.
What our combined vocabularies of psychoanalysis and Calderonese
have revealed is that in regimes depending on a diffuse and representational deployment of power, skepticism functions, even at the
level of the individual psyche, as its own legitimation. Skepticism
bridges the gap between individual psychic development and social
cohesion because it is precisely the individuals acceptance of the
paternal function, of the name of father as the marker of the limits
of his own knowledge an acceptance that is also constitutive of
his own identity that founds the sense of obligation to the law required for such a system of social organization. Caldern wrote at a
time when western culture was discovering this dynamic for the first
time. Psychoanalysis is a product of a culture in whose unconscious
it was already deeply embedded. Perhaps by reading them together
we can simultaneously increase our understanding of a culture in
which our roots are firmly planted and grasp more clearly the shady
outlines of our own.


a wrinkle in history

Chapter 7
Intimacy and Anonymity,
or How the Audience became a Crowd1

If we are to grant credibility to the notion, advanced by Gustave Le Bon and other crowd psychology theorists of the turn of the
twentieth century, that the notion crowd is profoundly historical,
and that its historicity must be located in the period of high modernity,2 then it becomes germane to ask of this concept the question
of its origins: if an assembly of individuals did not always have the
characteristics of a crowd in the modern sense, what sorts of cultural
practices might have led to the emergence of this specific mode of
mass phenomenon? The thesis I would like to present here is that a
powerful crucible for the transformation of generic assemblies into
modern crowds is to be found in the audiences of early modern European playhouses. This is not to say that an equivalence is to be
established between the terms audience and crowd. Indeed, I am in
full agreement with Gabriel Tarde that an audience is not a crowd,3
that, to be more specific, essential characteristics of crowds as defined by the crowd psychology theorists are definitively absent from
early modern theater audiences. Rather, what must be underscored
is how the theatrical establishments of early modern Europe, in responding to distinct social and political anxieties provoked by the
assemblage of large numbers of people in limited spaces, worked to
bring about the very sort of social formation that would spark contrary anxieties among political theorists in high Modernity. To put
it in straightforward terms, if the early modern state, its functionaries, and its theoreticians were concerned with the chaotic potentials
of individuals when they came together as masses, the primary concern of nineteenth and twentieth-century political theorists is with
the possibility of crowds acting non-chaotically, as a unified force.


a wrinkle in history

The danger implicit in the democratic diffusion of political power

was, according to these theorists, precisely that the people would
lose their ability to reason individually and act en masse. Needless to
say, the very same fear emerged as a desideratum of political movements on both the left and the right who saw in that very people the
source of their revolutionary strength. The irony is trenchant: fearing the horizontal and vertical mobility of a newly formed urban
society, the early modern state co-opted its theatrical institutions to
the end of guiding the theater going masses toward a more unified
form of behavior via homogenized models of identification; 4 by the
late nineteenth century, the societies whose theoretical fabric is woven of the same homogenized models of identification are haunted
by the specter of that very unified behavior the theater had sought
to instill.
I begin the paper by sketching out what the assemblies of spectators at late medieval dramatic events might have been, if they were
neither, as I will argue, audiences nor crowds in the modern sense.
From there I go on to describe the emergence of early modern theatrical institutions and their apparatuses for the control and guidance of audiences, whose primary threat was that of being disorderly and of imposing through shear number and volume cultural
forms deriving from their own patent lack of taste. Underlying this
concern with public disorder there emerges at the conceptual level
a distillation of experientiae whose extremes can be located along
the axis spanning the concepts of anonymity and intimacy. Precisely,
in other words, as the rabble (vulgo) coalesce and are relegated to
a certain negative collectivity, a distance is espoused between the
realm of that collectivity (publicity) and an interiority whose depths
are theorized as being both constructable and potentially infinite.5
If seventeenth-century texts evince an anxiety mixed with disdain
for the disorderly nature of the crowd, and advance the theater as
the ultimate institution for crowd control, eighteenth-century texts,
and in the case of Spain most spectacularly the writings on public spectacle of Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, seem split between
demonstrating an intensification of this anxiety and holding out the
image of an ideal public as shaped by appropriate theater policy. The

intimacy and anonymity


crowd as a unity of individuals, conformable to models of decorum

and enlightened behavior, is deemed the ultimate goal of public administration. This progression can be seen as achieving its apogee
in Mesonero Romanoss descriptions of theater audiences in 1840s
Madrid, assemblies operating as crowds in the strictest sense of a
group of individuals responding harmoniously to shared affective
situations, the same crowds, so congenial to bourgeois commerce,6
that will haunt the manifestos, barricades, and theater halls of the
late nineteenth century. The key, it will be shown, to understanding
the power of the crowd lies in this historical analysis of intimacy
and anonymity: for in the modernity that opens at the crux of the
opposition between these concepts, the crowd is that entity that precipitates in the zone of their very indistinction.
Origins of the audience/the public (el pblico)
When a multitude of the faithful crush together at the moment of
the raising of the host during a celebration of the Eucharist in a
cathedral in Worms in the fourteenth century (1316),7 is it anachronous to postulate that their behavior is identical to that analyzed
under the rubric of crowd psychology in the late nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, describable, for instance, in terms of the predominance of unconscious personality, or the possession of a collective mind? 8 An admittedly tentative answer to this question
would have to be in the affirmative, and for the following reason:
modern descriptions of crowd phenomena depend on the unification
of experientiae on a conceptual schema that is inadequate for describing medieval group behavior. Whereas the modern descriptions
presuppose the experiential primacy of an individual core of intimacy, which, upon joining in sufficient number with other intimate
individuals, melts away into or abandons itself to the often ecstatic
and contagious anonymity of the crowd, it can be argued that the
medieval experience described above works according to somewhat
different principles.9
It should be clear that intimacy and anonymity form a conceptual coupling: without a contrasting experience of anonymity there


a wrinkle in history

is no such thing as an experience of an intimate sphere whose secret

life is precisely what remains unknown to the anonymous one, whose
members own intimacy stays reciprocally beyond our ken. Likewise
the feelings, both positive and negatively connoted, of anonymity so
often invoked in the context of the urban setting (Baudelaire, Benjamin, Mesonero Romanos) are only conceivable in opposition to
the sphere of intimate knowledge that anonymity negates. And yet
anonymity, be it the somewhat comforting invisibility of the flaneur
or more in line with Chaplins alienating vision of urbanity in Modern Times, seems to be inextricably tied to the particularly modern
experience of the mass metropolis. As Engels writes, [t]he greater
the number of people that are packed into a tiny space, the more repulsive and offensive becomes the brutal indifference, the unfeeling
concentration of each person in his private affairs.10 How can we
expect a similar notion to arise in a culture whose sense of space was
so deeply rooted in place and in a profound familiarity not only with
ones physical surrounding but with ones fellows as well?11
Manuscript records indicate a powerful tradition of collective
participation in religious and profane festivals, spectacles, and other
group events in the late Middle Ages, enough as to warrant Hans
Ulrich Gumbrechts assessment of medieval culture as being a culture of performance.12 In fact, one could go so far as to stipulate that
the primary focus of medieval existence was local community: the
life of community participates in the individuals existence as well as
in the existence of the universe in micro and macro-cosmic ways, as
is exemplified by the festivals celebrating seasonal change in which
an individual familys sustenance was connected to the communitys
performance of rites intended to influence climatic change.13 Spectacle, whether we classify it as religious or profane, thus enacted the
same set of relations: those gathering to watch were indistinguishable from those performing (were in fact, also themselves always
implicit participants in the performance), and the subject matter
of the performance was as inseparable from the local place of its
presentation (hence the superimposition of church architecture onto
the exterior playing space of, for instance, a town square14) as it was
from the eternal truths of history or faith that its words and gestures

intimacy and anonymity


repeated. In such a context there is no place for the implications of

absorption out of intimacy into anonymity inherent in modernitys
descriptions of its crowds.
Such a depiction of collective interaction must be seen in stark
contrast to that which takes emerges from an analysis of assemblies
and the anxieties they provoked starting in the fifteenth century.
As Jos-Antonio Maravalls famous thesis states it, the baroque as
the cultural structure of an historical epoch corresponds to a concerted effort on the part of entrenched interests to assert control
in the face of what he terms a crisis resulting from an expansive
movement unleashed at the end of the fifteenth and reinforced in
the sixteenth century (From the Renaissance 5). This expansion
vertical (loosening of the embeddedness of estate identification)
and horizontal (geographical movement of bodies, exploration, expansion of national borders) threatened the underpinnings of the
medieval cast system and prompted the implicit formation of a monarchical-seigniorial alliance whose interests clearly lay in resisting
and constraining these expansive tendencies. While I part ways with
the functionalist assumptions inherent in this hypothesis, what cannot be refuted is the development, in the new urban contexts of the
seventeenth century, of a consciousness of mass identities and the
open theorization of the possibility and desirability of controlling or
guiding masses through the manipulation of popular cultural institutions. As the first and most obvious institutional setting for the
gathering of masses and in this respect it becomes the preeminent
social metaphor of the seventeenth century the theater becomes
the testing ground for the implementation of certain mechanisms
of control.15
While the details of such implementation are in themselves of
interest, what is of primary importance here is that the descriptions
of such measures always project a particular image of the collectivity they are intended to control, and moreover evince traces of what
we can term a general cultural anxiety concerning the nature of the
collectivity presented by the pblico. As suggested by the wording of
this petition, presented by the city of Seville in 1647 so as to have
its theaters reopened, se evitan muchos alborotos que ocasiona la


a wrinkle in history

jente de la armada por recojerse el ynvierno en esta ciud., don[d]e no

aviendo comedias suseden muchas desgracias por no tener entretenimiento en que divertirse y particularmente los das de fiesta [one
avoids the many disturbances occasioned by the people of the armed
forces who are lodged in the city during the winter, where, having no
comedias many unfortunate incidences occur as a result of the lack
of entertainments with which to divert themselves, particular on
holidays].16 The fear of outbreaks of violence was thus influential
in determining public policy as regards the theater, including the
organization of seating within public theaters (Sentaurens 63-4), as
well as the very rate of production of theatrical spectacles, since fear
of violence fed the urgency officials felt to put on at least two new
productions a week (66).
What is crucial to grasp is that the threat of violence, of alboroto, as the Seville petition describes it, is emphatically not of the sort
we would associate with that posed by a unified, angry crowd. The
potential and undesirable disturbance posed by the vulgo was of an
explosive, uncoordinated nature, and the closest audiences came to
acting in concert were the joined voices of displeasure, so greatly
feared by an autor de comedias, sparked by those ancestors of the
modern theater critic, the mosqueteros.17 The greatest danger from the
standpoint of the literary elite was that the theater gave the vulgo the
unprecedented opportunity to turn the tables on established literary
taste. As Cervantes famously grouses through the character of the
canon in Don Quijote, estas [comedias] que se usantodas o las
ms son conocidos disparates y cosas que no llevan pies ni cabeza,
y, con todo eso, el vulgo las oye con gusto y los autores que las
componen y los actors que las representaban dicen que as han de ser,
porque as las quiere el vulgo, y no de otra manera [these comedias
of todayare all or most of all known to be absurdities and things
that cant tell up from down, and, with all that, the vulgo hears them
with pleasureand the authors who compose them and the actors
who represented them say that this is how they have to be, because
thats how the vulgo wants them, and not in any other way].18 Insofar as the vulgo existed as a unified concept, in other words, the object
of this unity referred not to much to the people composing the vulgo

intimacy and anonymity


as to the inherent vulgarity of their taste, a taste they were likely to

impose on educated culture via a kind of collective economic power:
y que a ellos les est major ganar de comer con los muchos, que no
opinin con los pocos [and that it is better for them to earn food
with the many than reputation with the few].19
Although public theaters were consistently organized toward
the end of re-inscribing class and gender boundaries, it is just as
clear that they were a place where those boundaries were continually
under attack. Despite the endeavors, consistent through to the eighteenth century, of Spanish authorities to mandate the strict separation of the sexes in public theaters, the borders of the cazuela (stew
pot, as the section for women was called) were fabled opportunities
for clandestine trysts, as were the back stage areas themselves, where
gentlemen often ventured in search of those women who, unlike in
Britains early modern theater, did grace the Spanish stage.20 As concerns the anxiety provoked by the threatening of class boundaries,
this description of the parterre of the Parisian public theater the Htel de Bourgogne comes down to us from the seventeenth-century
writer Charles Sorel: The parterre is very difficult because of the
pressed in crowd: in the space are a thousand roughnecks mixed in
with honest citizens at whom from time to time the low types hurl
insults. A quarrel arises out of nothing, swords are put to hand, and
the whole comedy is interrupted. In their most perfect repose these
rascals never stop talking, yelling, and whistling.21
Just as the stage itself became modernitys most prevalent metaphor for questions of truth and knowledge,22 the anxiety provoked
by the image of the theater-going public became nothing short of
a generalized cultural motif for thinking about the dangers of collectivities in seventeenth-century thought, as evidenced by Baltasar
Gracins choice of titles for his chapter dealing with this topic in El
criticn: Plaa del populacho y corral del Vulgo [Plaza of the Masses and Theater of the Vulgo]. As is clear from any one of a number of
examples, Gracins principle concern in dealing with large assemblies of people is the threat posed by an accumulation of stupidity
and its likelihood of overwhelming the discrecin of the few. The
fact of the sheer multiplicity of those lacking discrecin leads Gracin


a wrinkle in history

to the paradoxical, as he himself understands it, admission that what

demonstrates true understanding is not to wish to be respected by
los varones sabios y prudentes [wise and prudent men], but rather
to be successful among los ignorantes y necios [the ignorant and
fools]: Mir, los sabios son pocos, no hay cuatro en una ciudad;
que digo cuatro!, ni dos en todo un reino. Los ignorantes son los
muchos, los necios los infinitos; y ass, el que los tuviere a ellos de
su parte, sse ser seor de un mundo entero [Look! The wise are
few, there arent four in a city; what am I saying four! There arent
two in a whole kingdom. The ignorant are the many, fools infinite;
and in this way he who had them on his side would be lord of an
entire world].23 Granted, the ability of the crowd to be swayed, its
tendency not to reason individually, is also a specific concern of the
modern crowd theorists: in the collective mind the intellectual aptitudes of the individuals, and in consequence their individuality, are
weakened (Le Bon 8). Nevertheless, what stands out in Gracins
case is that his vulgo is not made stupid by way of their collective
commingling, but are congenitally stupid. If anything, they should
be brought together in crowds, if only because then there might be
some shadow of a hope that someone with real understanding would
come to be influential in their eyes.
Even when speaking directly about the dangers of political revolt, Gracin spins the issue away from the threat posed by concerted action and instead emphasizes that the danger in power falling into the hands of the masses is that individuals with no natural
capacity for leadership might take it upon themselves to lead, with
disastrous consequences for themselves as well as for society at large.
Thus he makes four specific references to leaders of revolts, identifying them by their practicing a particular trade and hence more
broadly by their lack of nobility, education, or distinction (Criticn
385). As with the mix of people in the parterre of the Parision public
theaters, Gracins vulgo poses a threat of confusion, of impurity,
of throwing into imbalance the organizing principles of the world:
los letrados era cosa graciosa verles pelear, manejar las armas, dar
assaltos y tomar plaas; el labrador hablando de los tratos y contratos, el mercader de la agricultura; el estudiante de los exrcitos,

intimacy and anonymity


y el soldado de las escuelas [it was amusing to see the scholars

fighting, wielding weapons, going on the attack, taking plazas; the
workman speaking of treaties and contracts, the merchant of farming; the student of armies, and the soldier of schools] (386-7). In
the final analysis, the greatest damage is that done by the ignorant,
in their multitudes, to the hard won taste of the discriminating, que
lo muy bueno es de pocos, y el que agrada al vulgo, por consiguiente,
ha de desgradar a los pocos, que son los entendidos [since the very
good is of the few, and he who pleases the vulgo must consequently
displease the few, who are the intelligent] (396).
The extrusion of intimacy
Gracins world is that one which Maravall described as being the
first to host the entity called society, an agglomerate of individuals unhinged and indeed trastornado (overturned) and al revs
(backwards) are among Gracins preferred descriptors for this world
from the social structures that grounded existence in traditional
medieval cultures.24 Nevertheless, the anonymous multitude that
forms the negative context of Gracins moralizing tales and selfhelp manuals has as its essential counterpart an intimate core extruded, as it were, from the relentless publicization of social life.
This intimate core is a treasure to be protected, to be sure, but it
is also a powerful tool to be used in navigating the perilous public
world, and in controlling its weak-minded denizens. Gracins word
for this core is caudal, and if there were a leitmotif among his strategies for how to get ahead in the dog-eat-dog world of early modern
society, it would be best expressed in the motto, incomprensibilidad
de caudal, or incomprehensibility of capital. Of course this has nothing to do with actually having infinite resources at ones command.
The point is rather that the depths of ones resources should never
be made known to others. What others do not know about your
hidden resources they will respect and desire, and the result will be
more power for you. The most powerful in any society is the one
who manages to convince all others that his inner resources are the
most unfathomable, and hence infinite in terms of social capacity:


a wrinkle in history

...mayores afectos de veneracin causa la opinin y duda de adonde

llega el caudal de cada uno que la evidencia de l, por grande que
fuera [greater affects of veneration are inspired by public opinion
and doubt as to how deep ones resources go, than by evidence of
them, as great as they may be].25
It should be clear that this image is relentlessly theatrical. We
only have caudal insofar as we present ourselves socially in the person
of a character. Or, to put it in another way, a persona which, as is
well known, derives from the Greek word for mask is Gracins
chosen word for the ultimate goal of personal development,26 all the
while implicitly importing into that figure all the trappings of the
stage. What distinguishes the persona is his ability to stay within
character, to convince the greatest number of people possible that
his character is his character all the way down, that there is no other
self, or actor, behind it to ground it in the world and limit the eternal sounding of its resources: Hombre con fondos, tanto tiene de
persona [As much depth as a man has, so much is he a person]
(Orculo maxim 48). Persona is externalized spirit; it is intimacy extruded from public anonymity and worn on an actors sleeve; it is the
secret self we strive to represent in public, and desire to know and
ultimately to be like when, as public, as audience, we extinguish,
momentarily, our own characters in order all the better to take in
those of the stage.
Anonymity and public power
The rise of what we can call publicity27 or with Richard Sennett
public man28 as condition of possibility of those forms of social organization associated with the modern state, depends in large
measure on the relation between intimacy and anonymity.29 The
relationality typical of feudal power must be characterized along an
imaginary axis: each link in the power hierarchy was established
across bonds of familiarity, mutual dependence, and personal coercion.30 The power structures necessitated by the massive bureaucratic state apparatuses that emerged in the seventeenth century could
not sustain such imaginary relationality across the distances and

intimacy and anonymity


among the numbers of citizens entailed by state and imperial borders. Symbolic power, in which the sovereign could be represented
in his absence as an entity embodying the national identity, became
the norm for the modern state, and in many ways still remains the
norm, although the normative sovereignty of the state system shows
signs of being superceded.31 The relationality entailed by symbolic
power assumes a complex play of intimacy and anonymity, and takes
its model from the stage.
For an individual to conceive of him or herself as belonging to
an extra-communal entity such as a nation requires a double process
of distantiation from a communal matrix and re-identification with
a larger, abstract entity. It demands a process like that described
above as the extrusion of the intimate, if only in order that the intimate core find its home in a desired conformity with a greater whole,
a people or even a general will whose concerted action provides the
legislative (first as merely subject, then as author) body of the nation.
This model is theatrical in that the force of such desired conformity
follows precisely the pattern traced above of identification with a
core of intimacy posited as being withheld by the character on the
stage. But it is also theatrical in a much more concrete sense, in that
the theorists of state policy both took advantage of theatrical models
and turned to the institution of the theater itself as a potential tool
for habituating agglomerates of individuals to the basic elements of
group identification.
One overriding concern of Gaspar de Jovellanoss generously
titled Memoria para el arreglo de la polica de los espectculos y
diversiones pblicas, y sobre su orgen en Espaa [Memo for the
improvement of behavior at spectacles and public diversions, and on
their origin in Spain] is to criticize the decay of Spains contemporary theater scene, to vituperate the license and liberality of its writers, while at the same time proposing in the strongest possible terms
a defense of the theater as an institution, providing the government
adopt appropriate public policies concerning its management. Jovellanoss assessment of his contemporary theater scene is reminiscent
of that of a theater snob like Cervantes speaking about the undue
influence of the vulgo in his day; but now it is not mere taste that is at


a wrinkle in history

risk but public morals in general. In other words, the vulgo who once
threatened the integrity of art has now been replaced by a vulgar art
that threatens societys integrity:
Se cree, por ventura, que la inocente puericia, la ardiente
juventud, la ociosa y regalada nobleza, el ignorante vulgo,
pueden ver sin peligro tantos ejemplos de impudencia y
grosera, de ufana y necio pundonor, de desacato a la justicia y a las leyes, de infidelidad a las obligaciones pblicas y
domesticas, puestos en accin, pintados con los colores ms
vivos, y animados con el encanto de la illusion y con las gracias de la poesa y de la msica? Confesmoslo de buena fe:
un teatro tal es una peste pblica, y el gobierno no tiene ms
alternativa que reformarle o proscribirle para siempre.
[Shall we believe, perchance, that innocent childhood, that
ardent youth, that leisurely and dainty nobility, that the ignorant vulgo, can see without danger so many examples of
impudence and ill-breeding, of conceit and foolish honor,
of disobedience to justice and the laws, of infidelity to public and domestic obligations, put into action, painted in the
most lively colors, and animated with the charm of illusion
and the grace of poetry and music? Let us confess in good
faith: such a theater is a public nuisance, and the government has no other alternative than to freeform it or proscribe it for ever].32
Since proscribing public diversions amounts to either at best an impossibility or at worst a public catastrophe, reform is the only answer. But it is precisely in the specific nature of his recommendations
for reform that we glimpse the emergent outline of that entity whose
cultivation Jovellanos sees as essential for the construction of a malleable body politic.
In all of Jovellanoss description of social life, the negative and
undesirable is depicted in terms of disunity and unpredictable
movement la pereza y falta de unin y movimiento que se nota

intimacy and anonymity


en todas partes [the laziness and lack of unity and movement that
is noticed all over] whereas the desirable takes the form of unity,
tranquility, and stability:33 El estado de libertad es una situacin
de paz, de comodidad y de alegra; el de sujecin lo es de agitacin,
de violencia ye de disgusto; por consiguiente, el primero es durable,
el segundo expuesto a mudanzas [The state of freedom is a situation of peace, of comfort, and of happiness; that of subjection is one
of agitation, of violence, and of displeasure; consequently, the first
is durable, the second likely to undergo perturbations].34 The obvious means, then, of bringing about a happy, peaceful body politic
is through the facilitation of stable unity and the discouragement
of disruption and unnecessary movement: Por el contrario, unos
hombres frecuentemente congregados a solazase y divertirse en
comn formarn siempre un pueblo unido y afectuoso; conocern
un inters general, y estarn ms distantes de sacrificarle a su inters
particular [on the other hand, men who congregate frequently to
enjoy themselves and have fun together will always form a united
and affectionate people; they will know a general interest, and will
be less likely to sacrifice it to their private interest].35 It is worth
noting here that affect is conceived of here as a group attribute, one
moreover that has both effective and resulting qualities insofar as it
is a kind of affect that helps create communal bonds (a solazarse y
divertirse en comn) as well as the affect of union that results from
this congregation. Furthermore, it is precisely this affective union
that constitutes the body politic that Jovellanos describes, in terms
clearly resonant with a Rousseauian spirit, as a general interest that
outweighs or overrules private interest.36 Finally, this investment
in the general body politic is described ethically in quasi-Kantian
terms as being the condition of possibility of freedom, porque
sern ms libres.37
If the making of the perfect crowd is the recipe for a successful and enlightened body politic, the theater is the place for its
el Gobierno no debe considerar el teatro solamente como
una diversin pblica, sino como un espctaculo capaz de


a wrinkle in history

in[s]truir o extraviar el espritu, y de perfeccionar o corromper el corazn de los ciudadanos.

[the government should not consider the theater only as
a public diversion, but rather as a spectacle capable of instructing the spirit or leading it astray, of perfecting or corrupting the hearts of citizens]. (Jovellanos 183)
Indeed, if the model of everything undesirable and deserving of censure in modern society is the unruly crowd, and that of everything
desirable and deserving of promotion a stable unified one, this is
the ultimate justification for a strict policy of public intervention in
all aspects of theater life, since it is the very nature and quality of the
spectacle that determines the constitution of its attendant crowd:
quin no ve que este desorden proviene de la calidad misma de los espectculos? Qu diferencia tan grande entre
la atencin y quietud con que se oye la representacin de
Atala o la del Diablo predicador! Qu diferencia entre los
espectculos de los corrales de la Cruz y el Prncipe, y los del
coliseo de los Caos, aun cuando sean unos mismos!
[Who does not see that this disorder comes from the quality of the spectacles itself? What a great difference between
the attention and quiet with which one hears a performance
of Atala or of the Diablo predicador! What a difference between the spectacles in the corrales de la Cruz and el Prncipe
from those of the Coliseum of Los Caos, even if they are
one and the same!]. (192)
Precisely because for Jovellanos the human being is so vibrantly reflective of his or her physical and social environment, the form and
content of a theater piece as well as, fundamentally, the organization
and decoration of a theatrical establishment are essential for determining the ultimate nature of a crowd. Moreover, what ultimately
fixates and hence liberates the crowd from the slavery of individual

intimacy and anonymity


excess and violence could be described, in the terms I am advancing

here, as the capture of intimacy. For those other souls that surround
us provide us with a screen of anonymity against which to act out
and hence fall slave to our most irrational impulses; but in a well lit,
comfortable theater space, there I and my fellow spectators may be
seated in such a way that we both see the stage and each other (and
are seen by each other):
Sintense todos, y la confusion ceser; cada uno ser conocido, y tendr a su lado, frente y espalda cuatro testigos que
le observen, y que sean interesados en que guarde silencio y
[Let all be seated and the confusion will cease; each will
be known, and will have at his side, front, and back four
witneses who will observe him, and who will be interested
in his keeping silent and circumspect]. (193)
If this last description reminds us of Foucaults theorization based
on Jeremy Benthams influential design for the panopticonic prison
of the disciplinary society, we should not be too surprised.38 What
reins in our individual behavior, and hence what sets us free to act
for the greater good, is the danger that we be known, that, in other
words, against the backdrop of a greater anonymity, what our fellow
strangers can see is our most intimate hearts, worn on our sleeves,
public, like the very stage in whose shadow we are gathered.
The age of crowds
Baudelaire loved solitude; but he wanted it in the crowd [Baudelaire liebte die Einsamkeit; aber er wollte sie in der Menge] Benjamin wrote,39 and perhaps the same could be said of others in the
nineteenth century who, when not endowed with a Nietzschean
distaste for herds,40 found in the figure of the crowd what we might
call the fulfillment of that dream of unity and peace proposed by
Jovellanoss public theater policy. A strange sort of solitude it was,


a wrinkle in history

however. Rather than consisting of a detachment from others, this

solitude emerges from a general dispersal of otherness per se. The
many, among whom one might feel the warmth of companionship
or the oppressive nearness of their unwanted touch, has become the
crowd, in which the one is absorbed into blissful solitude. Let us be
clear, however, that such loss of self is in no way akin to a return
to the structure of such prior collectivities as we have discussed in
the case of the late Middle Ages; the phenomenon of absorption in
crowds to which the modern world so copiously bears witness must
be understood within the experiential scope of intimacy and anonymity: namely, the phenomenon of absorption is produced by the
inflation of the sphere of intimacy out to the horizon of anonymity.
Other people, what Heidegger referred to as das Man, are relieved of
the resistance, or distantiality [Abstndigkeit], to my intimacy that
their status as anonymous others has granted them,41 at the same
time as my intimate reserve is shattered. The resultant experience
does not undo the coupling of intimacy and anonymity, but rather
produces a remarkable and ephemeral hybrid: the crowd remains
fundamentally and at the same time an intimate and an anonymous
entity. The recognition of this characteristic of the crowd is, it seems
to me, essential for understanding both the importance of the crowd
in modern political movements and the relation the crowd has to the
historical development of theater audiences.42
As we have seen from the preceeding historical analyses, the
particular audience structure capable of producing the effect of a
collective mind was not present in theater audience through the
eighteenth century, although Jovellanoss writings reveal the desideratum of such a structure as being instrumental for public policy in
its efforts to engineer a free, enlightened society. Although an attribution of any kind of direct causality would be out of the question,
it may certainly be claimed that in the European theater culture of
the nineteenth century at least some central aspects of Jovellanoss
vision do begin to become a reality; which is to say, popular thinking about crowds and theater audience in particular begin to acquire
precisely those attributes that were lacking but desired in Jovellanoss
vision: unity of identity in the form of shared affective response.

intimacy and anonymity


Nevertheless, while for Jovellanos as for later proponents of revolutionary politics such unity would ultimately lead to the ability to
place the general good over the individual good, and hence to the
possibility of freedom, modern times would reveal a dark side to this
vision, concern for which was clearly at the forefront of the crowd
psychologists considerations.43
The first thing one notices about audience descriptions from
this period is the abundance of organic and fluid metaphors. Mesonero Romanos, one of the great documenters of Spanish customs
in the nineteenth century, describes the theater without people as
a cuerpo sin vida, un cadaver yerto e inanimado [body without
life, rigid and inanimate cadaver].44 Although quick to focus his
painterly eye on individual disturbances, making of them fodder
for his sarcastic caricatures, Mesonero nevertheless more often than
not allows individual action, whether intrusive or not, to be registered in harmonious interaction with others, such that women, so
often criticized in the misogynist tradition for their garrulousness,
become here the source of an undifferentiated roar: mil y mil voces, si quier gangosas y displicentes, si quier melfluas y atipladas,
se confunden naturalmente en armnico diapasn, y ms de una
vez sobresalen por entre los dilogos de los actors o sobre los crescendos de la orquesta [thousands and thousands of voices, perhaps
nasal and disagreeable, perhaps mellifluous and shrill, are naturally
confused in a harmonious tuning fork, and more than once leap
out from among the dialogues of the actors or over the crescendos
of the orchestra] (Mesonero 139). As a whole the audience can even
be expected to respond in kind and on cue, albeit according to the
dictates of a leader, namely, of that section of the audience occupied
by the theater intelligentia, of whom he says: los unos y otros esperan con atencin la muestras inequvocas de su sentencia, y aplauden
si aplaude, y silban por simpata cuando escuchan a la inteligencia
silbar [one and all wait with attention for the unequivocal show of
their sentence, and applaud if they applaud, and whistle in sympathy
when they hear the intelligentsia whistle] (141). Finally, the overall
impression one is left with of this theater from the outside, as he
calls it, is the simtrica variedad of the audience, an extraordinary


a wrinkle in history

uniformity of behavior that transcends class and gender distinctions

to form out of conspicuous individuals a fluid, if momentary whole.
Even as he separates groups out according to their social identity and
the place they occupy in the theater, this paradoxically symmetrical
variety remains common to all: Los dems compartimentos de la
planta baja son ocupados en simtrica variedad por aquella parte del
respectable pblico, que en el diccionario moderno solemos llamar
las masas [the other compartments of the first floor are occupied in
symmetrical variety by that part of the respectable public that in the
modern dictionary we tend to call the masses] (141). These masses,
as he says with an withering condescension that the heartfelt Jovellanos probably would not even grasp, are all here to divertirse con
la mayor fe del mundo, y pillar de paso, si pueden, una leccioncita
moral [to have fun with the greatest faith in the world, and to grab
in passing, if they can, a little moral lesson] (141). The greater irony,
of course, is that while Mesonero scoffs at the moral lessons these
theatergoers are likely to bring home with them, the audience he
describes is precisely the kind that Jovellanos dreamed of affecting
with such a moral.
Nine years before Mesonero pens this portrait of the theater
in Madrid, Victor Hugo publishes a novel that opens with some of
the most memorable descriptions of crowds ever written, a crowd,
moreover, that waits in ever growing impatience for the opening
of a theatrical spectacle. He writes, La foule spaississait tout
moment, et, comme une eau qui dpasse son niveau, commenait
a monter lelong des murs [The crowd grew denser by the moment, and, like a water that surpasses its level, began to rise along the
walls].45 Note how Hugo the poet captures the waves of people in the
waves of assonance in these lines, comme une eau qui dpasse son
niveau, commenait a monter As they are made to wait later into
the day, the temper of the crowd began to rise. A storm, which was
yet only a rumble, was ruffling at the surface of that human sea.46
Yet, for all the apparent powers of nature at its disposal, the crowd is
remarkably malleable, for when the curtain is raised to make way
for a personage, the mere sight of whom arrested the crowd, []
as if by magic, [it] changed their anger into curiosity (Hunchback

intimacy and anonymity


22). Nevertheless, the volatility and power of the crowd is never far
from sight.
Even biographically speaking, there is some logic to having this
magical effect on this oceanic crowd take place specifically at a theater. Victor Hugo was, after all, in addition to the acclaimed author
of Notre Dame de Paris, the defamed author of Hernani, that play
that put such a violent end to the dominance of neo-classical rules in
French theater. Hernani played in the face of vicious and desperate
opposition for forty-eight nights, bringing in each night, as Hugo
writes in his journal, five thousand francs.47 And yet if Hugo has the
audience to fear, there is another crowd, properly speaking, forming,
and coming to his defense. If Hernani plays on, it is because for
forty-eight performances, ever-renewed by new blood, the romantic
army kept up the fight. Inside the theater, outside in street and parlor, in the papers, the battle went on, throwing the young men of
the Latin Quarter into a frenzy. In Toulouse, a young man died in
a duel over Hernani (Miller 25). A culture war, certainly, the force
of whose advent is announced, by Hugo, by his followers, by his
romantic army with the prophetic power of an insatiable crowd.
Why bother to hiss Hernani? Hugo asks. Can one stop a tree
from greening by crushing one of its buds? (25). The implication is
clear; the place may have been merely the theater, but Hernani was
no longer alone; this audience had become a crowd.
The crowd on the streets of the world
February 17, 2003. The New York Times begins one of its lead articles stating that the world knows now two superpowers: the United
States, shrill in its insistence on pursuing war with Iraq, on the one
hand, and on the other, public opinion, expressing its dissent worldwide in the form of crowds taking to the streets as they have apparently never done so before. Even if we can explain away the numbers
by saying there is approximately a billion people more on the planet
now than there was thirty years ago, that is certainly not a growth
attributable to those western societies that have been hosting this
dramatic showing of popular discontent. This is curious because if


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Le Bon and other predicted that the twentieth century would be the
era of crowds, in recent times voice whose own political progenitors
would have embraced this motto as their own have issued a sober
CAE [Critical Art Ensemble] has said it before, and we will
say it again: as far as power is concerned, the streets are dead
capital! Nothing of value to the power elite can be found on
the streets, nor does this class need control of the streets to
efficiently run and maintain state institutions. For CD [civil
disobedience] to have any meaningful effect, the resisters
must appropriate something of value to the state. Once they
have an object of value, the resisters have a platform from
which they may bargain for (or perhaps demand) change.
At one time the control of the street was a valued item.
In nineteenth century Paris the streets were the conduits for
the mobility of power, whether it was economic or military in
nature. If the streets were blocked, and key political fortresses
were occupied, the state became inert, and in some cases collapsed under its own weight. This method of resistance was
still useful up through the 60s, but since the end of the nineteenth century it has yielded diminishing returns, and has
drifted from being a radical practice to a liberal one. This
strategy is grounded in the necessity of centralizing capital
within cities; as capital has become increasingly decentralized, breaking through national boundaries and abandoning
the cities, street action has become increasingly useless.48
The streets are dead, in other words. In the age of digital commerce and multinational capital, the appropriate form of resistance
is thought not to involve the slow, brute numbers of massive crowds,
but to surge rather in the flow of information so vital to capital itself.
Even if large crowds gather to disrupt the meetings of those shepherds of the new world order, analysis of their strategies emphasizes
the quick and fluid organization that their own use of digital technology enables, over the sheer force of their numbers.

intimacy and anonymity


But perhaps we are to quick to write the obituary of the crowd.

If Richard Sennetts thesis may be granted, then what was to be
the age of crowds quickly degenerated into the fall of public man,
a perhaps understandable result of the excesses of crowd politics in
the first half of the twentieth century in particular, but nevertheless
more pertinent to the rise of an obsessive individualism that made
such fertile ground for the consumerist passions of contemporary
life in the post-industrialized world.49 As the character Will, played
by Hugh Grant in About a Boy, puts it in response to a quote from
that infamous line of Donnes, In my opinion, all men are islands.
And whats more, nows the time to be one. This is an island age. A
hundred years ago, for instance, you had to depend on other people.
No one had TV, or CDs, or DVDs, or videos, or home espresso
makers. As a matter of fact, they didnt have anything cool. Whereas
now, you see, you can make yourself a little island paradise. The
obvious backdrop to his solipsistic consumerist identity would appear to be the intimate life of family he has forsaken and will manage to recuperate through the course of the film; but his solipsism is
merely the epitome of modern intimacy itself. Such intimacy can be
shared with a chosen few, but might just as well be kept to oneself,
in private, at home. It sees the world through a TV screen, or a computer screen, but always as representation.50 The true antonym for
this intimacy is not, then, family, but rather the lost anonymity of
public man. It is this fact, it seems to me, above all others that would
explain why, at a time when the streets are supposed to be dead, they
could come alive again to such effect. Perhaps CAE is premature in
its dismissal of the streets because it locates the power of the streets
in the street as a place, as physical versus virtual geography.51 The
power of a crowd, however, might mean more than its ability to occupy something of value. The power of the crowd, the embodiment
of that anonymous sphere from which the intimate soul was born,
is also the aporetic power of a kind of freedom from freedom itself.
Freedom, the Enlightenment thinker said, is the freedom to transcend your individual desires and act for the general good; freedom,
the liberal capitalist said, is the freedom to fulfill you individual
desires over and against the dictates of what others hold to be the


a wrinkle in history

general good. But the crowd has a way of confounding both versions: it haunts the general good of universal reason with the terror
of unified unreason; it haunts the freedom of individual desire as the
desire for something more, for shared affect, for community, for a
greater good. That is why, even today, especially today, when a hegemony of screens creates the illusion of intimacy with a billion other
souls, the crowds that walk the streets of the world present a power
that, win or lose on any given day, cannot be ignored.

Chapter 8
Reality is Bleeding:
A Brief History of Film
from the Sixteenth Century1

The past several years have seen a surge in the number of films
that call into question the nature of the reality represented within
the diagetic borders of the screen. In some cases this is a result of the
blending of the diagetic reality into other represented realities, and in
one extreme case The Blair Witch Project of 1999 reality broke
out of the very borders that define it as fictional and was perceived
as real by its viewers.2 In this essay I argue that this thematic convergence is not new, but is rather the logical extension of a narrative
trope whose history predates the invention of film and, in fact, reaches
back to the invention of theater in the sixteenth century.3 This trope,
which I refer to as bleeding, has been the obsessive concern of writers ever since spectacle began to be organized in such a way as to
presuppose an ontological distinction between the space of the viewer
and the space of the character. Moreover, the splitting central to this
organization of space, this rending of experienced space into reality
and some other dimension that represents it, is foundational for a
good deal of cultural production in the modern western world, particularly that involving narrative, theater, television, and film.
In the first section of the essay I distinguish between two ways
of making represented realities realistic. One, which I call illusionism, functions by convincing the spectator that the medium
the film, the pixels, the oil and canvas is an object; the other,
realism proper, convinces the spectator that the object is merely a
medium for another, not yet discovered, object. Whereas technological innovation has its largest cultural impact on the experience of
illusionism, the sort of subversion of the spectators place and peace


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of mind that is associated with bleeding, I claim, is a function of

realism. The second section then traces the history of this mode of
realism back through the history of recent film to its origins, then
further back to the beginnings of modern theater, in order to argue
that the bleeding proper to realism is one of the constitutive mediatic tropes of Modernity. Finally, in my conclusion, I apply this
media-historical account of the experience of viewed space to the
philosophical notion of Reality per se that has dominated epistemology since the seventeenth century, in order to argue that philosophical realism, along with aesthetic or narratological realisms, is itself
the product of media, and that media-theory and history therefore
underlies, in some fundamental sense, the epistemological questions
central to (at least some branches of) modern philosophy.
Realism versus illusionism
In the summer of 1999, The Blair Witch Project was released amidst
an internet-enhanced media blitz that ensured in many cases
precisely the reception its makers had hoped it would have: terrified viewers believed that what they were seeing was real i.e.,
they believed they were seeing the actual footage left behind by three
young film makers who disappeared while making a documentary
about a legendary witch. It is worthwhile asking, however, in what
exact sense viewers flocking to see Blair Witch perceived it as real.
They did not merely take it to be historically real, as in based on a
true story. Moreover, they obviously did not experience what was
occurring on the screen as immediate reality, a misperception associated with at least some fictionalized versions of psychosis.4 The Blair
Witch experience of reality was somewhere in between these two extremes: viewers believed that the moving images they were perceiving were in fact reproductions of images recorded by and about the
protagonists of the story they were engaged with. They experienced,
in other words, the images as a kind of testament, a synthetic eyewitness to a real event.
Given this distinction, it would seem uncontroversial to deduce that the sense in which viewers accepted Blair Witch as real is

reality is bleeding


determined by a set of specific historical and technological circumstances, that, in other words, this particular kind of reality-effect
in which the spectator experiences the spectacle as if it were the
actual reproduction of some real event is the logical outcome
of progressing technologies of visual and audio reproduction. What
stymies such a theory, however, is the simple fact that Blair Witch
created this effect with only the most basic equipment, technology
that has been widely available for years (apart from the hand-held
video recorder, technology available since the invention of film itself). In fact, more or less the same stunt was performed with audio
technology already in 1936 when Orson Welles convinced thousands
of panicked listeners that Earth was being attacked by Mars.
The key to understanding the independence of the Blair Witch
reality-effect from todays increasingly sophisticated technologies
of audio and visual reproduction lies in a tension apparently inherent to the medium of film, a tension between two tendencies that
we will call illusionism and realism. Both terms need to be defined
within the parameters of a representational schema. Let us symbolize this schema as
V M[O]
where V stands for the viewer, M for the medium, and [O] for the
object, content, or reality that is framed by the medium. The
statement then reads: the viewer perceives the object as framed by
the medium. The function of the frame, as analyzed by Goffman,
is to key the represented reality, such that the viewer implicitly
understands that a new set of rules are involved in interacting with
it (e.g., suspension of disbelief as an enabling rule of fiction).5 With
this basic, more or less nave schema, we can now differentiate between the respective structures of realism and illusionism.
Both tendencies have, on the surface, similar aims (which is why
they have traditionally been conflated into a single concept: namely,
realism). These aims could be stated as the desire to reduce, and
ultimately to eliminate, the distinction for the viewer between M
and O to present, in other words, the mediated representation of


a wrinkle in history

reality as an immediate perception of reality. Each of the tendencies

has, however, a radically opposed means of attaining this aim, in
that illusionism attempts to erase the distinction by presenting the
medium as the object, and realism attempts to erase the distinction
by presenting the object as the medium.6
Illusionism, the filmic technique of presenting the medium
the filmic image as if it were the object reality itself is the
impetus behind most technological advances in film. It is the tendency that drives, for example, the great special effects studios like
Dreamworks, and that led George Lucas to declare that with The
Phantom Menace the last barriers to creating the perfect illusion had
been swept away. 7 What he meant was that with the near perfection
of computer animation, there is no longer any scene a director could
desire to portray in a film that the special effects studio could not deliver and make look real. Whether this claim remains to some extent
hyperbolic is not important. The point is that this desire and tendency exist in film and to a certain extent have always existed in it.
The extraordinary authority granted to photography and then
motion picture at the end of the nineteenth and throughout the
twentieth century was due to the special feature of these visual media
that they objectively reproduced a given state of things at a given
time. The subjectivity of the photographer or film maker was always
perceived to be secondary to the force and presence of the objective
content of film. For this reason photography remained for much of
the twentieth century an implicitly lower form of artistic expression.8
Photography and the cinematic arts could make inroads against this
prejudice only to the extent that their practitioners mastered techniques of distortion, techniques that allowed them to imprint their
subjectivity on the original, objective contents of the shot. What has
occurred in recent years, however, is that the subjectively manipulable content of the cinematic image is no longer distinguishable
from the original object that once granted it its special authority,
that endowed it with its aura of truth.9 This is what I mean when I
define illusionism as the technique of presenting the medium as object: any inherent limitation of objective reality fades away as the
filmmaker develops the technology to impose his or her subjective

reality is bleeding


vision on the original objective content of film. In the end, entire

scenes and eventually entire films are still experienced by viewers as
remaining within the representational framework defined as
V M[O],
when in fact O the original object filmed by the camera is no
longer there. Nevertheless the truth aura attached to the original
objective content of film anchors the viewers belief and guarantees
that instead of apprehending the film as
V M,
as, for instance, an exercise in the medium akin to abstract painting,
viewer apprehends the cinematic image as
V [O],
as being realistic, or true to life. Such an experience of realism,
however, never threatens the borders of the viewers own reality.
The viewer still experiences the images as comfortably framed [O],
which guarantees that while in some sense realistic, these special
effects are never taken as real.
The second tendency, realism, we defined as the erasure of the
medium/object distinction by presenting the object as if it were
the medium. Although the realistic tendency has also been present
throughout the history of film (as we shall see further on), unlike
illusionism, it is more or less independent of technological progress.
Lets take the most terrifying and extreme example of cinematic realism, the snuff film. The snuff film is realistic in our sense of the
word because when presented with it, the viewer takes what is in fact
the object images of a human beings death as a medium as
a trace of a further, real death, a mysterious and terrifying (or titillating, depending on the viewer) event. In this case,
V M[O]


a wrinkle in history

V O[O],
in which the second O now stands for a further reality, a reality that
naturally impacts on our own because what in the first case was
perceived as a relatively innocuous medium framing the represented
reality is now perceived as part of the objective, represented reality
itself, a trace of some real act of violence.10 This is, of course, exactly
the logic of The Blair Witch Project: a snuff film adapted for popular
The result of having distinguished the representational structures of illusionism and realism is the following thesis: whereas illusionism reinforces the viewers sense of his or her own space as
ontologically distinct from the diagetic space of the screen, realism
does the opposite, undermining this ontological security. This is because, as we noticed above, by presenting the medium as object, illusionism retains and even reinforces the original framing function
of the medium, and the viewer continues to key the medium just as
he or she had keyed the object via the medium before. In realism,
however, in which the object is presented as medium, the framing
function ceases to distinguish the viewers dimension of being from
that of the object. The frame now serves solely to indicate a temporal or spatial distance between two objects, that which is present at
hand and some other to which it refers. No ontological distinction
is produced.
Why is it, however, that with realism the object is so easily accepted as a medium? What is it about the cinematic presentation
of, for example, Blair Witch, that tempts us to step over the frame
that normally protects our reality from the intrusion of fictional objects?
If we return to our original representational schema
V M[O],
and to our definition of realism as

reality is bleeding


M = O,
then we might ask the question: can we ever have an immediate
knowledge of the object against which to measure the accuracy
of its representation via medium M? The answer, it seems, is that
while an object might be perceived free of the effects of medium
M, it will never be perceived free of all effects of mediation. When
we judge a representation as realistic, then, what we are actually
saying is that M = O where O stands for our context-dependent
expectation of some experience Q. V M[O] becomes, therefore
V M[M{Q}], and so forth, with no logical limit to the number
of interior mediations. The cinematic object, to put it simply, is
always already mediated.11
What enables cinematic realism to undermine the framing
function supporting the viewers sense of reality is a technique I will
call bleeding,12 in which the frame separating two or more levels of
represented reality fails. In the language of speech act theory, one
keys a frame by rendering its signifying contents non-performative.13
The trick of bleeding, therefore, is first to create within the primary
frame of the film another frame that mimics the performative/nonperformative relation of the original frame distinction, and then to
deactivate the newly keyed frame. The result is that the spectator,
who is fully expecting the interior reality to remain fictional with
respect to base reality, is caught off guard when these rules no longer
hold. While this technique does not always lead to the reality-effect
produced by Blair Witch, Blair Witch can nevertheless be understood as the result of the technique pushed to its logical extreme. In
the next section, I present some recent examples of bleeding, as well
as a brief history of the trope in film, and then proceed to show how,
far from being a technique inherent to film, bleeding has its origins
in the sixteenth century, with the birth of the modern theater.
A history of bleeding
This section begins by considering a curious though perhaps coincidental thematic convergence among a group of films released


a wrinkle in history

from 1997 to 1999. All of these films, The Truman Show (1998),
Pleasantville (1998), The Matrix (1999), and eXistenZ (1999),14 feature as their principal narrative trope the bleeding between what we
have been calling base reality and a representation of that reality within the already representational reality of the film. While in
some cases the impulse behind the narrative seems to be the new
possibilities offered by computer-enhanced special effects (The Matrix, Pleasantville), this is certainly not the case for the relatively
simple visual effects of eXistenZ and The Truman Show. Indeed, in
principle, the presentation of a virtual reality in film requires no
special effects, since the better the illusion represented the more that
reality should resemble the base reality of the film and the less need
for technological fireworks to pull it off (a fact that the makers of
some films dealing with VR seem not to have considered, e.g., Johnny Mnemonic [1995]).
In order for bleeding to be successful to be cinematic, aesthetic, desirable the distinction between the realities to be bled
must be established. In Pleasantville this is the distinction between
violent, jaded, contemporary American culture, and the bland, sexless utopia of family values represented by the reruns of the 1950s
television show Pleasantville, watched obsessively by the sensitive
and nerdy David Parker. The black-and-white world of Pleasantville
is clearly metaphoric of the sort of moral stability and certainty the
young David brought up with his sex-pot sister Jennifer by his divorced mother, and abandoned by his dead-beat dad so earnestly
desires. When an unsolicited television repair man (played, rather
disturbingly, by Don Knotts) replaces their remote control with one
that might have been designed by Jules Verne, David and his sister
are transported into Pleasantville, where their nineties personalities
play havoc on its innocent and isolated citizens for the remainder
of the film. Once Pleasantville itself has become the films base
reality, the bleeding is experienced quite literally as a color bleed.
As the characters and their simple world are gradually introduced
to the complexities and attractions of a more modern world, this
infection appears to us and them as the transformation from a
black-and-white to a Technicolor reality.

reality is bleeding


In The Truman Show, Truman himself is presented as the embodiment of a sort of pervasive media bleed emblematic the film
appears to be telling us of contemporary life. Truman is the starring character of a television show that has aired continuously since
the day he was born. The problem is hes also the starring actor.
Whereas all the other actors on the show exist as normal people,
i.e., have a split existence as actors (who presumably have another
life, a life in which they can give interviews about their involvement
with the show) and characters (who exist in real world for Truman, on the Truman Show for everyone else), only Truman exists
exclusively in one world. For Truman, reality is representation; or,
at least, our representation is his reality. But Trumans world also
has representation, in the form of 1950s black-and-white television
shows basically indistinguishable from Pleasantville, whose purpose
in his world is to quell his desire to venture out from his own, hermetically sealed Pleasantville. Both films, then, thematize the desire of a modern, profligate world for the unattainable innocence
of simpler, happier times, as well as the irresistibility of the modern
world to the denizens of the naive utopias we create. But whereas
for Pleasantville bleeding is a narrative trick intended as a vehicle for
this cultural exchange, The Truman Show presents bleeding as part
of the problem: we are so jaded and so medialized that we run the
risk of bowling over the distinction between reality and representation, between real life and mere entertainment. Bleeding, for the
Truman Show, is a symptom of contemporary society, and Truman
himself the emblem of its newest form of victimage.
If Pleasantville and The Truman Show emphasize the distinction before the bleed, the interest of The Matrix and eXistenZ is how
they follow the logic of bleeding to its logical conclusion, asking, if
the realities are so close that bleeding is a potentiality, then how are
we to know which reality is really real? Both films trap the viewer
into believing, as a viewer is trained to believe, that the films initial
diagetic space is in fact reality, and then go on to subvert that acceptance in surprising ways. In The Matrix we are led to experience
a truth that, according to the character Morpheus and paraphrasing the early Wittgenstein,15 cant be talked about but can only be


a wrinkle in history

shown. This truth is that the mysterious Matrix is, in fact, this, here,
now. Everything we (since we have accepted the films version of
reality) are experiencing is in fact an illusion, the effects on our consciousnesses of a powerful computer program; we are, in essence,
living in a virtual reality program run by artificial intelligences who
are keeping our bodies alive for the purposes of their own energy
consumption (the fact that this is a scientific non-sequitur doesnt
detract from the effect of the revelation). When the hero Neo swallows the pill proffered by Morpheus containing a drug that inhibits
the programs effect on his actual, physical brain, he, and we, are
ripped out of the old real world now revealed to be an illusion
and plunged into the new real world of enslavement to machines
and covert revolutionary activity. If The Matrix presents us with one
of the most radical possible examples of bleeding it does so by implicating us, unavoidably (if you werent warned in advance, there
was no way of avoiding the trap), in the trope: when Neos reality is
questioned, so is ours; the Matrix took over reality, and we bought
it, hook, line and sinker.
Cronenbergs eXistenZ is the lower-budget, gross, slimy-thing
version of The Matrix. As in The Matrix, we are introduced into a
world that we have no choice but to accept as base reality, despite
ample evidence that it is not our world (the gross, slimy things in
question are game pods that plug into bio-ports drilled into the
base of ones spine.) It is also the most narratively complex version
of reality bleeding, in that the films characters game characters also
play VR games, games within the games that themselves thematize the original game as well as the very notion of virtual gaming
and its foundational distinction from reality.16 The film begins in
a reality that will only be revealed as virtual at the end of the film;
but by the time we come to that recognition, Cronenberg has succeeded in undermining our trust in any notion of a stable or base
reality. When the world of the game dissolves into the final scene, we
are confronted with a product testing contact group similar but not
identical to the one with which the film started. Gone, however, are
the slimy game pods, and in their place are suitably high-tech, unbiodegradable, blue-plastic helmets and hand controls. The entire

reality is bleeding


story, from the first moment on, was part of this game; none of the
characters were who we were led to believe they were. Nevertheless,
the normally-relieving reality-effect of returning to some ground is
sabotaged by the frame shifting we have just endured, and when the
lead characters themselves turn out to be terrorists, and turn their
guns on an innocent bystander, we can empathize completely with
the last words of the film: Wait, isnt this still a game?
Perhaps the first thing to note about this new trend in cinema
is that it is not entirely new. In recent years viewers have been treated
to not a few films whose principal trope revolved around the keying
of the external or base frame, and hence a shifting of the ground the
viewer could call home. One such example is The Game (1997), in
which a rich man learns that the purpose behind a mysterious game
he has been given as a birthday gift was in fact a ruse designed to
swindle him of all his wealth, only later to discover that this discovery itself was merely part of the original game, intended to put
in him the midst of a life and death struggle that he would really
believe, that he could not, in other words, dismiss as a mere game.
Another is Jacobs Ladder (1990), which tells the story of a Vietnam
veteran suffering from what could be a demon possession, paranoid
delusions about a government experiment with noxious chemical agents, paranoid delusions resulting from such experiments, or
all of the above. Only in the last scene do we realize that, like the
Civil War soldier in Ambrose Bierces An Occurrence at Owl Creek
Bridge,17 the entire story has been the hallucination of a dying soldier
who has never left Vietnam.
Given that the loss of reality is a priori one of the most unsettling feelings one can have, it should come as no surprise to learn
that bleeding came into its own as a technique peculiar to horror
films. While Wes Cravens recent popularity is due to the autoreflexive kitsch of such Clearasil horror films as Scream (1996), Scream
2 (1997) (the sequel about sequels), and Scream 3 (1999) (we got it
already), he honed his aptitude for irony with the classic Nightmare
on Elm Street (1984), an original that spawned its own sequence
of sequels, until Craven returned and capped it off with one of the
great bleeders of all, Wes Cravens New Nightmare (1994). Whereas


a wrinkle in history

the original Nightmare fluidly shuttled the viewer back and forth
between dreamed and real life, the New Nightmare did so between
the story line of a Freddy Krueger film and the base reality of the
movie crew making the movie. In a scene indebted in equal parts
to Borges and Julio Cortazar, Craven himself is interviewed about
the movie in progress, after which the camera pans to his typewriter
where we see typed out the last words of the very interrogation we
have just witnessed. Shortly thereafter, John Carpenter joined the
fray with In the Mouth of Madness (1995), about the release of a
book so frightening that as people read it they go mad. In the final
sequence, we learn that not only is the hero, John Trent, himself
living out master horror writer Sutter Canes last novel, it is in fact
this novel that we are experiencing; the book has been released as a
movie, the very movie that we are in the midst of watching (which
presumably then justifies any inconsistencies in the plot as possible
results of the insanity weve fallen into by watching the film).
What Craven and Carpenter realized was that cinema had a
heightened capacity for frightening the viewer owing to its tendency
to coerce him or her (without his or her noticing) to adopt a certain
point of view, to accept, in other words, new coordinates for the
experience of what we are calling base reality.18 Film has this capacity first because the moving image is such an (apparently) close
correlate to the visual phenomenal experience of everyday life, and
second because the flexibility of camera movement and montage allows the director to get into, as it were, the viewers head (subjective
camera, or POV shots), by approximating the closest possible point
to the apex of the angle of his or her (again, visual) perception. Both
of these remain valuable observations despite the fact that the second reason in some striking ways contradicts the first (we tend not
to visually perceive the world in cuts, fades, and rapid close-ups,
at least until our viewing practices and conventions have taught us
to do so). Once a viewer has accepted the directors coordinates, it
becomes quite easy to bleed that constructed reality into a new one,
or vice versa, be it the reality of a dream or hallucination, a paranoid
fantasy, a holodeck,19 a virtual reality program, a television show or,
indeed, another film.

reality is bleeding


But certainly this capacity, the ability film appears to wield to

construct the perfect illusion, is itself not a phenomenon new to the
last two decades. Already in its earliest moments, at the end of the
nineteenth century in France, the experience of the moving picture
was marked by a fascination with the possibility of complete illusion. While the anecdote of people fleeing from the projected image
of a train approaching the Gare de Lyon may have been mere hyperbole, there is plenty of truth to the notion that what the invention
of cinema engendered was a fear that reality could in some way be
manufactured, that even the most real and irrevocable realities of
existence, the death of another human being, for example, could be
falsified.20 The crime of cinema, then, was that it could actually
reproduce reality while at the same time erasing any trace of its
forgery, convince us, in other words, that there was no simulation
Nevertheless, perhaps it would be wise to sound a note of caution here. Cinema does not, in fact (any more then landscape painting or the realist novel before it), perfectly render reality. This should
be even more clearly evident when we consider early black-and-white
silent pictures with their jerky movements. How could viewers ever
worry that such a rendering of the train at the Gare de Lyon would
actually run them over? The answer is most likely that they didnt.21
Nevertheless, it seems that humans have a remarkable ability to adapt
their sensory-perceptual mechanism to what I earlier called new and
different coordinates for a base reality.22 This does not mean that we
are so readily able to reject the experience of our own lived existence
in favor of a new, competing one offered by the first passing artist. It
does mean, however, that much of aesthetic experience is grounded
on a process of projecting oneself into the frame of an alternate, but
viable, imaginary reality. When I say that a director or artist offers
us new coordinates, the coordinates in question are those determining the dimensions and nature of that frame.
For this reason, not only is the threat of the simulacrum and of
reality bleeding not new, neither is it exclusive to cinema. The avantgarde playwright Luigi Pirandello, for example, made use of similar
techniques so frequently and effectively that in literary circles one


a wrinkle in history

simply calls a work in which reality is bleeding Pirandellian. The

trope appears to a greater or lesser extent in all of his works, but the
classic example of Pirandellianism in Pirandello is Six Characters in
Search of an Author,23 in which the characters of a theater production
come to life and make existential proclamations about their inability
to be other than as they were drawn. The point for our purposes is
to note that, even without the technological support of the moving
image, the theater can produce such an illusion quite seamlessly.
Why? Because the base reality the audience has accepted is that of
the theater itself; in order to key the interior frame, the audience
temporarily forgets to key the primary frame. If we have already
stipulated that the actors we watch moving about on the stage are
in reality the characters actors moving about on the stage, then
we are somewhat forced to take at their word the characters who
suddenly inform us that, unlike the others we see, they are in fact
characters per se, characters devoid of a real world analog.
But this trope is also not new to the twentieth century. Already
in the seventeenth century, Cervantes saw and ridiculed the tendency among his countrymen to uncritically adopt the base reality proposed by Spains new national pastime, the theater. In his masterful
one-act play, The Stage of Wonders,24 he portrays the institution of
the theater in the form of a traveling confidence-game in which the
director and his assistant take an entire town for all its worth with
a completely imaginary spectacle. By telling the gathering crowds
that the stage before them is magical, and that they will only be able
to see the wonders that appear on it if they are pure of blood and of
unstained honor the most important attributes of Spanish social
life at the time they thereby ensure that the spectators, cowed by
what their fellows will think of them, will behave as if everything the
director narrates to them were absolutely real, despite the fact that
the stage remains, throughout the performance, utterly empty. Cervantess point seems to be that the spectator is the ultimate mark; so
long as the conventions framing a spectacle conform to some degree
with a set of social prejudices or expectations on the part of the audience prejudices whose own relation to the real is no less arbitrary
than is that of the representation the spectator is happy to put

reality is bleeding


aside a lifetime of learned experience to claim that spectacles reality

as his own. That the spectator might not actually perceive what he
claims to be perceiving (what he appears to be perceiving, what his
behavior would indicate he was perceiving, etc.) is beside the point.
When the show is over weve paid our money, jumped when we were
expected to jump and, so long as the reviewer accepts the same rules
we have, the show is a critical success.25
The necessary, and perhaps sufficient, condition, then, for reality to bleed, is the existence of what I have called an alternate,
yet viable, imaginary reality. This reality is, to begin with, alternate
because it is verifiably not the one in which we are, in the course
of our daily existence, living. Different things occur in this reality
than we would expect to occur in our own. However, the things
occurring therein are not so different that we would not recognize
it as a possible reality, a reality in which we might very well exist as
characters ourselves. Hence the alternate reality is also viable. Finally, the alternate but viable reality is imaginary in two senses: first,
whether we encounter it via printed symbols (written text), audible
phonemes (spoken words), projected scenes, living bodies, or some
combination of the above, the basic unit of the reality is some form
of mental image, or more broadly, of sensory-perceptual duration
(image or sound, or, less frequently, odor, taste, or touch); secondly,
in the more popular sense of the word, it is imaginary quite simply
insofar as we distinguish it from what is real.
The very energy with which this distinction is at times defended
bears witness to the viability of certain alternate realities, and with
this I am not merely or even principally referring to debates concerning film. Already intellectuals in sixteenth century Italy and seventeenth century France, engaged in interpreting Aristotles Poetics
and deriving from it rules for the composition of theater pieces, were
driven in some of their considerations by the assumption that the
audience might not realize that what was being represented on the
stage was not actually happening before their eyes. For Ludovico
Castelvetro, for instance, the twelve hours that Aristotle recommended as an outside limit for the time-frame a tragedy should
represent were to be taken literally, not, however, merely because


a wrinkle in history

Aristotle had said so, but rather because twelve hours was the longest
amount of time an audience could reasonably be expected to remain
in a theater without attending to the necessities of the body, such as
eating, drinking, excreting the superfluous burdens of the belly and
bladder, sleeping and other necessities.26 This is not to say that such
a strict correlation was always accepted; on the contrary, even during
the Classical period in which the unities enjoyed such preeminence
there were those who would criticize overly strict adherence to them.
At the time of Castelvetro, for example, Alessandro Piccolomini argued against his position, claiming that audiences knew perfectly
well that what they were seeing was not truth, that were it truth
there would be no need for imitation and that, therefore, exact temporal correspondence was not necessary (Carleson 54).
The occurrence of such debates in the sixteenth century demonstrates that the viability of alternate realities is not necessarily or
solely determined by the technological capacity of the medium of
reproduction at hand. Theoretically, not only bodies moving around
on a minimally appointed stage but also the printed word can be
marshaled for the creation of a viable alternate reality. The trick is
to persuade the spectator to accept, even if only momentarily, the
proffered coordinates as being those framing his own reality. But
how? How does one convince spectators to alter even in the slightest
degree a set of coordinates that have been serving them pretty well
for as long as they can remember?
It turns out, surprisingly and perhaps a bit circularly considering where this argument began, that the answer to this question
might well be: by causing two represented realities to bleed into one
another. Circular indeed! If, as I have apparently argued, a precondition for bleeding is the establishment of an alternate, but viable,
imaginary reality, how can I now proceed to claim that the viability
of this reality hinges in part on the technique of bleeding? The only
way I can make this claim is historically: first, by suggesting that it
is through the practices and conventions of the theater that western
culture first learned how to construct and experience alternate, but
viable, imaginary realities; and second, that a fundamental aspect of
this historical apprenticeship, a pivotal step in the acquisition of the

reality is bleeding


skills and conventions involved in learning how to see theater, was

learning how to bleed.
With this claim that bleeding emerges coterminously with
the possibility of alternate but viable realities we come to the
central historical question of this essay: where are we to look for
the cultural and material origins of bleeding? As Bolter and Grusin
write of the concept of remediation the tendency in our culture
to a simultaneous hypermediation and erasure of mediation Remediation did not begin with the introduction of digital media. We
can identify the same process throughout the past several hundred
years of Western visual representation. All of them [various practitioners of representation] seek to put the viewer into the same space
as the objects viewed (Bolter and Grusin 11). Bolter and Grusin
identify this tendency as an integral part of western representational
practices at least since the Renaissance, and mention examples as
historically varied as Albrecht Drer, Cartesian perspectivalism,
Albertis optics, and baroque trompe loeil (24-5). But the question
persists, if these practices share the desire of putting the viewer into
the same space as the objects viewed, whence the bizarre for if not
to us, we can certainly imagine a consciousness to which it would
seem bizarre idea that the hard materiality of a physical surface,
for example, is subject to erasure and transformation into a viable
Although the argument concerning the novelty of alternate realities to early modernity is too detailed to rehearse in its entirety,27 for
the purposes of the present discussion, I will claim that what was a
structural impossibility prior to the sixteenth century, becomes, with
the rise of the modern theater in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the structural essence of what we could call the experience of fiction. The main idea to grasp here is that prior to the early modern period (in western European culture, that is; what the ancients might or
might not have experienced through their stories and stages is moot
for our purposes), the frame distinction constitutive of film, fiction,
and theater the distinction that creates the alternate, but viable,
imaginary reality we have been discussing simply didnt exist. For
the Middle Ages, a story told or performed was fundamentally and


a wrinkle in history

ontologically part of the world, the only world. Distinctions could be

and were commonly made between the corruptible, ephemeral world
and the incorruptible eternal world of heaven. But such a distinction
in no way marked the boundary of a reality that we could call
either alternate (heaven and earth were poles of existence, not alternatives to one another) nor, consequently, viable.
Such a distinction emerges first with the practices and conventions of the theater, with, more specifically, the barrier or screen
vaguely alluded to in theater architecture by the stage dividing
the space of real bodies (the bodies of the actors as well as the bodies of the audience members observing them) from the space of the
imaginary characters they portrayed. The moment the space inhabited by characters is finally experienced as being potentially viable,
that is, the moment it becomes a space in which we could also exist, is
marked in the history of spectacle by the first time a character whom
the audience is observing sits down, simultaneously with the audience itself, to watch another character put on a play for him or her. At
that moment, the representational reality has succeeded in representing all of the original reality, including that very aspect of reality that is
the condition of its own existence: the screen, barrier, or frame marking
the original separation. But there are immediate, striking ramifications to the creation of this second screen. By creating a screen on the
other side of an already existing screen, by keying the newly framed
reality within the primary frame, one effectively suspends the keyed
status of the original frame. In other words, the audience forgets, if
only momentarily, that they are watching a representation, and the
represented world becomes viable in a radical sense.
For this reason, the alternate, but viable, imaginary reality of the
theater is always and at the same time a potentially metatheatrical
space, in that it always contains within it the power to reproduce the
very distinction that engendered it. And, in fact, the technique of the
stage within the stage, and with it, the bleeding of the staged realities, has been around ever since the earliest stirrings of the modern
theater in the sixteenth century, and achieved its greatest popularity
in the mass spectacles of the great baroque theatrical institutions of
seventeenth century Spain, England and France.28

reality is bleeding


From the outset playwrights grasped the insight the metatheatrical essence of the theater had into their characters psychology
and hence into that of their public. Think of Shakespeares deservedly famous use of the trope in Hamlet, the play within the play,
a mousetrap, set to catch the conscience of the King.29 Hamlet
directs a theater piece, the Murder of Gonzaga, in such a way as to
represent for an audience that includes his uncle the murder of his
father by his uncle. As he intends, his uncles conscience is sorely pricked by this spectacle, suggesting that, in some subtle way,
the screen separating reality and representation within the reality
of the play has been breached. Other canonical examples include
Calderns La vida es sueo (1635), in which the violent prince Segismundo is convinced that the few moments of freedom he has experienced in a lifetime of captivity were merely the workings of a dream.
In this case, we are treated to a sort of reverse bleeding, since the
main character has been deceived into perceiving the existence of
a screen the one separating his real reality as a lonely prisoner
and his dreamed reality as a powerful prince where there is in
fact none. Segismundo is never disabused of this fantasy, and is left
believing that his two realities have decisively if not permanently
bled into one another; the final, skeptical moral being that life is
a dream, and we can never be too confident of our identity or of our
power.30 In the French theater, Corneille used the technique in his
short play, L illusion comique (1636), and Rotrou in his retelling of
the Genesius tale, Le vritable Saint Genest (1647); but bleeding was
probably most effectively adapted by Lope de Vega, in his version of
the same story, Lo fingido verdadero, or True Pretence, staged several
decades before Rotrous in 1608.
Which Reality is bleeding?
Realism functions at a level I have called ontological because it involves the human beings apprehension of reality at the most basic,
phenomenological level.31 It is in this sense that I claim only halffacetiously in the title that with this essay I am presenting a history
of film from the sixteenth century. For the organization of spatiality


a wrinkle in history

that undergirds the age of film has its origins in the change of spatiality ushering in the early modern age. In this form of spatiality,
a viewer experiences the act of spectatorship as organized around
a fundamental division between various dimensions of being: the
spectator exists as a body engaged in the physical act of viewing, but
also as a potential character projected onto the other side of a spatial border, be it the edge of a stage or the screen. It is precisely this
ontological distinction that enabled the emergence of the very representational schema with which we began our analysis of realism and
illusionism, for the body of the actor is a medium for a characters
reality in exactly the same way that the cinematic image mediates
the cinematic object.
Realism, therefore that tendency in film to present the object
or content of a cinematic representation as a medium of a further
reality is a tendency not merely of film, but of any form of representation starting with theater that has as its most basic
element a screen, an ontological separation between realities. This
means that realism has existed for as long as realities have existed. To
push this formulation one step further, we might add that the very
notion of Reality has only existed in its present sense since theatrical spectacle allowed for the proliferation of realities. For why insist
on the notion of Reality if there is nothing to defend it against? It
should not, therefore, surprise us that the concept reality did not
enter the vernaculars of western Europe until the sixteenth and in
some cases seventeenth centuries.32 Although the concept of real
certainly existed in philosophical discourse prior to the early modern period for Aquinas what was real was that which existed as an
expression and representation of the word of God it is only in the
sixteenth century that the idea begins to emerge of reality as existing
in contradistinction to intellectual fictions.33 For it is only when
what is real becomes a question to be brought from the conflictridden world of the senses to the tribunal of the mind that Reality
begins to take form as a place, a dimension, a value, or a quality.
It is already common to identify the literary-aesthetic concept
of realism as one of the essential historical markers of Modernity.34
What we must add to this is the insight drawn from Heideggerian

reality is bleeding


and neo-pragmatist critiques of representationalism 35 that the notion

of a Reality that exists prior to and independent of our perceptions of
it, or as constituting an objective presence over-against our subjective
perceptions of it, is also, from the perspective of the history of philosophy, Modernitys decisive trait; and that, furthermore, the two
are part and parcel of the same historical process. Realism becomes
an issue for literature and the arts only insofar as there is a notion
of Reality to be concerned about representing; and representationalism, that is epistemology or modern philosophy tout court, becomes
an issue only insofar as philosophers and others have become accustomed to representational practices predicated upon the ontological
distinction described above, that is, between the reality of characters
and the reality of bodies.
Let us turn briefly to what has become perhaps the canonical
founding moment in the history of philosophical realism, which is,
paradoxically perhaps, Descartes decision to place into doubt everything he could of what his senses could know about the world. Upon
taking this decision, Descartes comes to the infamous conclusion
that although the content of his perceptions are all subject to doubt,
the fact of his perceiving is not. Rorty quotes Descartes third Meditation in an effort to show where the notion of incorrigibility (of the
total and exclusive pertinence of a belief, thought or feeling to its
owner) comes from: Now as to what concerns ideas, if we consider
them only in themselves and do not relate them to anything else beyond themselves, they cannot properly speaking be false; for whether I imagine a goat or a chimera, it is not the less true that I imagine
the one rather than the other,36 As we can clearly see, the operation
of separating a content from its presentation in order to relativize the
former is an exact analogy to the framing operation of the theatrical screen, which allows for the suspended performativity of all that
occurs within the frame without in anyway affecting the validity of
the world outside the frame. The spectators, in other words, may feel
free to doubt the validity of the actions they see represented on the
stage, but can in no way doubt the existence of the stage itself, or the
fact that they are present in the audience watching the performance.
But it is precisely this separation that constitutes the idea of Reality


a wrinkle in history

as such, because the very act of negating the potentially viable space
of our perceptions produces the notion of an ultimate a true Reality
against which the various alternate realities are to be weighed.
The big claim of this essay, then, is that this Reality that is
the core reference of epistemology is itself a product of the media
practices developed in the sixteenth century, media practices that
required participants to organize perceptual space into compartmentalized realities whose ultimate value was determined only in
relation to those other realities that framed them and that were in
turned framed by them. That these realities started to bleed into one
another almost immediately should also not surprise us, since the
very path that led us to question our knowledge of Reality guaranteed that we would never find a definitive answer, because, like the
phantom object at the end of a series of mediations, that Reality was
never there. It is a structurally necessary element of one peculiarly
modern way of organizing experience; it had a beginning; it has
had a history; and perhaps it will come to an end. In the meantime,
when we see reality bleed in fiction and in film, and at times bleed
into that reality we like to call our own, we can read it as a sign: a
sign of its mortality.

Chapter 9
Keeping Pragmatism Pure:
Rorty with Lacan

Given Richard Rortys oft-confessed appreciation for the work

of Freud, it is curious that he has had so little to say about Freuds
most influential follower, Jacques Lacan. This would not be so surprising if Rorty were universally suspicious of the French intellectual
style of which Lacan was so infamous an example. But if there is one
European thinker for whom Rorty has confessed an even greater
appreciation than for Freud, it is Jacques Derrida a philosopher
whose syntactical acrobatics and love of poetic word play were forged
in the intellectual world built at least in part by Lacan. Nevertheless, with the exception of a disparaging reference to a contemporary
enthrallment with phrases like the unconscious is structured like
a language and a passing suggestion that his thought may simply
be too bizarre to be worth bothering with,1 Rorty has never written
anything, positive or negative, about Lacan.
The purpose of this essay is to commend certain aspects of
Lacans thought to Rorty as being compatible with his pragmatist
project. The aspect that I wish to commend may seem at first glance
the aspect most antithetical to Rortys project: namely, Lacans notion of the real. The concept of the real could be taken opposed to
Rortys project for two reasons: first, in that it would seem to connote an ultimate reality, one that could be taken for a foundation
for truth; second, in that Lacan himself describes the real as that
which exceeds symbolization, hence something that is part of human experience and yet beyond the ken of language, in direct contradiction to Rortys nominalism. The first ground for disagreement
is easily dismissed, because the Lacanian notion of the real does
not connote what is but rather what is desired. Lacans notion of the


a wrinkle in history

real as an integral aspect of human being, as opposed to something

outside it that grounds it, is entirely compatible with Rortys refusal
to consider truth-as-correspondence versus truth-as-coherence to be
a serious philosophical problem.
The second reason for disagreement, on the other hand, is substantial. Rortys nominalism, his conviction that nothing is better
than a something about which nothing can be said, leads him to an
intransigent refusal of any notion of ineffability or of any concept
that purports to refer to that which cannot be talked about. But it is
precisely here that the Lacanian notion of the real becomes useful
for pragmatism, because with it Lacan developed a vocabulary for
discussing human experience and behavior that takes into account
that gives utmost importance to the effects of ineffability on
human behavior. And it is precisely insofar as pragmatism gives
precedence to behavior, precisely insofar as it respects vocabularies
that are better able to predict and explain behavior, that pragmatism
should pay attention to Lacan.
The intellectual position I sketch out in the pages that follow
is that of the psychoanalytic pragmatist, the pragmatist who has
a use for, as Rorty has said we should have a use for, the language
of psychoanalysis.2 But the psychoanalytic pragmatist is also a specifically Lacanian pragmatist since, as I will argue, Rortys obvious
preference for Freud notwithstanding, it was Lacans focus on the
linguistic dimension of being that ultimately pragmatized psychoanalysis, transforming it from a discourse involved in the positivistic
search for truth to one that understands the subject as a process of
poetic self-creation or, in ieks words, an effect that posits its own
Rorty, in very much the way Lacan would do, reads Freud
strongly, making of him one of the heroes of early pragmatism:
He [Freud] is not interested in invoking a reality-appearance distinction, in saying that anything is merely or really something quite different. He just wants to give us
one more redescription of things to be filed alongside all
the others, one more vocabulary, one more set of metaphors

keeping pragmatism pure


which he thinks have a chance of being used and thereby

But the problem with trying to make of Freud a pragmatist is that
one often runs into passages like this:
[T]he ego must observe the external world, must lay down
an accurate picture of it in the memory-traces of its perceptions, and by the exercise of the function of reality-testing
must put aside whatever in this picture of the external world
is an addition derived from internal sources of excitation.5
Nevertheless, my point is not to bicker with Rorty over whether
Freud really believed in truth as correspondence, but rather to suggest the Lacanian vocabulary of subjectivity as a strong ally for pragmatism, an ally that enables one to avoid some of the problems into
which Rortys purer pragmatism has led him.6
These problems are the following: Rortys attraction to nominalism, to the motto that nothing is better than a something about
which nothing can be said, has led him to a dogmatic refusal of the
notion of first-person experience. Since what would remain irreducibly first-person about such experience is precisely everything about
it that one could not communicate to another person, and because,
according to (a certain interpretation of) the above dictum, there
is nothing you could not communicate to another person, it follows
that first person experience and everything that goes along with it
consciousness, raw feels, sensory perception simply do not
exist. Coming to such a conclusion is what I call using Occams razor to cut your own wrists. For not only is such a conclusion patently
absurd in its own right, it also and ultimately cripples pragmatisms
ability to confront what is for psychoanalysis the central component
of human being, desire. Where Rorty rejects the notion that the
unconscious is structured like a language on the grounds that it
tempts people to think of language as something that might have a
structure and that therefore might make for a philosophically interesting problem, psychoanalysis insists that it is just that, a structure,


a wrinkle in history

and furthermore one whose principal ramification, desire, is and

ought to be the fundamental philosophical problem. This problem,
which has manifested itself in the history of philosophy as the desire
for an ultimate or metaphysical ground, cannot, the pragmatists own
desire notwithstanding, merely be disposed of as a category mistake,
for ultimately it is an analysis of this problem that allows us to make
sense of so much of human behavior. The behavior such an analysis
illuminates includes not only the pragmatists own central desire, the
desire for progress, but also the extraordinary passion with which
humans cling to their ethical worlds, the worlds, in other words,
composed of their final vocabularies.
A discussion of the Rortian and Lacanian understanding of the
role of metaphor in language and in the construction of these final
vocabularies brings me to a critique of Rortys public/private distinction, namely, that the activities relegated by Rorty to the private
realm determine in part the individuals final vocabulary, which itself determines in part how the individual relates to those outside
of his or her community, and hence to the degree of cruelty he or
she is capable of engaging in or of tolerating. Therefore, whereas
Rorty believes the problem of cruelty can be solved by more and
better descriptions of the others suffering, psychoanalytic pragmatism insists that description is irrelevant without identification, and
that the capacity for identification with an outsider is a function of
what for Rorty constitutes an intrinsically private matter, that is,
the ultimate contingency of ones final vocabulary. Both Rorty and
psychoanalysis hold this contingency to be a fact; the difference is
that for Rorty this fact will ultimately not be a problem for an individual who simply stops playing certain language games, whereas
for psychoanalysis metaphysical desire, the desire for our vocabulary
not to be contingent, is not just a language game but is essential to
being-in-language as such. Recognition of this fact implies that in
some cases it is only a process of private humiliation, the implosion of certain fantasy structures, will pave the way for the ultimate
diminution of public cruelty.
Finally, I will only add that the purpose of this essay is not to
be a reading of Lacan and that, in fact, many of the Lacanian

keeping pragmatism pure


points I make might make some Lacanians indignant. My intention, rather, is to cull from Lacan and in some cases from Slavoj
iek, Lacans most influential contemporary interpreter another
vocabulary, palatable for pragmatists like me, without keeping any
of the obscurantism that is the residue of Lacans Zeitgeist. I will be
doing (to quote Rorty on Heidegger) to Lacan what he did to everybody else, and what no reader of anybody can avoid doing (EH
49), i.e., reading Lacan by my own, pragmatist, lights.
Nominalism and experience
If I were forced to sum up the core of Rortys philosophy, his most
passionate commitment, in one short phrase, I would say that his
philosophy is one that endeavors always and everywhere to dismantle epistemology, to debunk the notion, entrenched in our culture
since Descartes, of the human subject making judgments about
the accuracy of its mental representations of the world-out-there.7
An immediate objection to reading Rorty with Lacan is that while
Rorty is explicitly anti-Cartesian, Lacans model of subjectivity is
explicitly Cartesian.8 But Lacans Cartesianism is itself the product
of a strong reading of Descartes, a reading that removes the epistemological divide from between the world and the subjects perception of the world and replaces it with a divide between the subjects
world and its language.
For Lacan, Descartes founds the modern subject not only in that
le cogito philosophique est au foyer de ce mirage qui rend lhomme
moderne si sr dtre soi dans ses incertitudes sur lui-mme9 [the
philosophical cogito is at the portal of that mirage that renders modern man so sure of being himself in the midst of his uncertainties
about himself]10 but also and more importantly in that the language
of his self-certainty becomes the model for the modern desire for
self-identity. Rather than taking as the subject of psychoanalysis the
strong and certain center of apperception that watches impressions
go by in the theater of its mind, Lacan reads Descartes cogito ergo
sum as the description of a speaking thing chasing endlessly after its
unconditioned being:


a wrinkle in history

Il ne sagit pas de savoir si je parle de moi de faon conforme

a ce que je suis, mais si, quand jen parle, je suis le mme que
celui dont je parle.
[Its not a question of knowing whether I am speaking of
myself in a way that conforms to what I am, but if, when I
speak about myself, I am the same as he of whom I speak.]
Phenomenologically (and here the term must be voided of any
contrastive value with the real world) the subject inhabits what
Lacan calls the imaginary, which we should take to mean the sumtotal of sensory experience. We need not distinguish here between
what is fantasy and what is accurate representation, since, in a sense
very much in tune with Rortys Darwinism, the imaginary is an
adaptive mechanism, a way with dealing with an organisms environment.11 Truth is simply not an issue for the imaginary; there need
be no question of separating the subjects phenomenal world from
the real world of objects. The subject is only what Lacan calls a
subject, however, insofar as it is a speaking being a being who, as
Rorty would put it, exchanges marks and noises with other beings
as a means of better adapting to its environment. These marks and
noises have value (meaning) as tools to be used and as a function of
their relation to other marks and noises. Because the environment
(imaginary) is not made of marks and noises (there are no sentenceshaped objects12), truth is not a matter of corresponding to reality.
The truth of a mark is a function of another mark.
The above Lacanian model, however, contains one element that
might be questionable to Rortys pragmatism, namely, the distinction between language and experience. In the following pages I hope
to make explicit exactly what is entailed in that distinction, to point
out that Rorty is more ambiguous about such a distinction than one
might at first glance suppose and, finally, to explain why, if he in fact
does not accept such a distinction, he should.
If Rorty disapproves of Cartesian dualism the belief that
there is a philosophically interesting distinction to be made between
the corrigible impressions the world-out-there makes on our senses

keeping pragmatism pure


and the incorrigible certitude that we are indeed receiving some such
impressions he is equally disapproving of any attempt to distinguish between those things we can talk about and those things that
might be out there but for which we have no adequate vocabulary.
This second disapproval, called nominalism after Wilfred Sellars,
is based on the later Wittgensteins injunction not to try to get between language and its object. As both the elder Wittgenstein and
the younger Heidegger knew, our language, like our historical and
cultural world, is coterminous with our ability to think. To try to
transcend this condition would necessarily lead to self-deception or
inauthenticity (EH 51).
According to Rorty, whereas the younger Wittgenstein had
hoped to be able to find the nonempirical conditions for the possibility of linguistic description, he later dropped the whole idea
of language as a bounded whole which had conditions at its outer
edges, as well as the project of transcendental semantics:
He became reconciled to the idea that whether a sentence
had sense did indeed depend upon whether another sentence was true a sentence about the social practices of
the people who used the marks and noises which were the
components of the sentence. He thereby became reconciled
to the notion that there was nothing ineffable. (EH 57)
Rortys agreement with this form of nominalism leads him down
a logical path from the pragmatic and interesting claim of Sellars
that all cognition is a linguistic affair to a highly unpragmatic alliance with what I will call a priori physicalism (even if, as he claims,
of a non-reductive sort) and its collapsing of distinctions between
machines, non-human animals, and humans. My suspicion is that
this is an instance of Rortys (in my view) healthy dedication to
philosophical pragmatism being tainted by the temptation of keeping his philosophy pure, of following a train of thought to its logical extreme. My own feeling is that there is no need to stay on the
train that long, and that by maintaining one distinction between
experience and language use, a distinction that Rorty himself at


a wrinkle in history

times does seem to hold on to one avoids making a number of

rather absurd claims for the sake of philosophical purity and manages to explain a lot more human behavior in the process.
Where I would suggest getting off the train is in the middle of
the quotation above, right before He thereby became reconciled to
the notion that there was nothing ineffable. Whereas Wittgenstein
may have become reconciled to this notion, I will argue below that
he should not have. And while I accept his dictum that nothing is
better than a something that does nothing, I will be arguing for a
notion of ineffability, or at least of present ineffedness, that in fact
does quite a lot. But before pursuing that line of reasoning I will
make clear why I think that the acceptance of the non-utility of the
concept of the ineffable gets one into a lot of trouble.
One of the first consequences that Rorty draws from his agreement with the tenets of nominalism is that once you have described
a beings behavior to the best of your linguistic abilities, there is
nothing left for you to say about it. There is no, as Nagel would call
it, something it is like to be that being which your descriptions
cannot get a hold on. There is, in other words, no irreducible first
person perspective, no consciousness, no awareness of phenomena.
In contrast, followers of Wilfrid Sellars (such as George
Pitcher, David Armstrong, Daniel Dennett, and myself)
lump the neurological arrangements that make possible
such differential responses to stimuli together with the internal states of (for example) thermostats. We treat perceptions as dispositions to acquire beliefs and desires rather
than as experiences or raw feels, and hence we disagree
with Thomas Nagel that there is something it is like to
have a perception. (TP 20)
Rorty here follows Dennett in believing that accepting the basic
tenets of phenomenology, that there is something it is like to be
you, leads to positing a distinction between thinking...something
seems pink to you and something really seeming pink to you.13 Once
you have posited such a distinction (as does Dennetts unfortunate

keeping pragmatism pure


straight man Otto, when he says in frustration, I dont just think

there seems to be a pinkish glowing ring, there really seems to be a
pinkish glowing ring!) the physicalist Dennett can come along and
point out to you that such a distinction is in fact illusory, and that
the consequence of its being illusory is that [t]here is no such phenomenon as really seeming over and above the phenomenon of
judging one way or the other that something is the case.
But lets look more closely at poor Ottos situation. Lets say you
were given a pill to take that was supposed to grant you any one
wish.14 Immediately upon swallowing the pill, however, you were
overcome with unbearable stomach pains, such that you had to
cry out I wish I had never taken this pill! The pain immediately
stops, and the pill is back in your hand. When you express to your
companion-in-adventure at this point how awful the experience of
taking the pill was, he dutifully informs you that you never in fact
took the pill, and that, therefore, you never really felt any pain. You
insist; he goads; and before you know it, you come out with a sentence like Ottos: Look! I dont just mean it. I dont just think I felt
terrible pain, I really did feel it! The point is that by uttering this
sentence you are not in fact positing a distinction between thinking
you felt pain and actually feeling it. You are, like Otto, replying to
your interlocutors clever goading by denying what you take to be
his suggestion: that a) there is such a distinction; and b) given that
distinction, you merely think you felt the pain. The proper response
then is not that there is no such phenomenon as really seeming
over and above the phenomenon of judging in one way or another
that something is the case, but rather that thinking one is in pain
as distinct from being in pain makes no sense. It is the language
game of thinking, not that of feeling, that is out of place.
Dennett, with Rortys support, wants to do away with language
concerning the experience of phenomena, and with words referring
to things like consciousness or raw feels, by explaining why there
seems to be a difference between judging and feeling when in fact
there is not. But this strategy fails if one refuses to be goaded into
the distinction in the first place. For this distinction is not in fact
what a phenomenology need be about. Lets take another example.


a wrinkle in history

I am sleeping but awake suddenly, certain that someone just called

my name. I look around the house, but no one is there. I go back
to sleep confident that I was mistaken, that I just thought I heard
someone call my name. But thought in this sentence functions
merely to relativize a certainty that I at first felt. At first I heard
someone calling my name. When later I say I thought I heard
someone, this is the language game I use to indicate that I was
mistaken, that I heard something that turned out to be nothing. I
am not terribly surprised, of course, because it is part of my daily
experience to occasionally think I heard something. The Cartesian and the pragmatist need not be in disagreement about the
phenomenological fact of this perception; the Cartesian simply goes
on to make a philosophical point that the pragmatist finds useless:
namely, that while I was mistaken about a voice being what I heard,
I was not mistaken about the fact of the illusion that I heard it, and
that therefore truth is a function of ascertaining how clearly and
distinctly my perceptions accord with reality. For the pragmatist,
however, there is no philosophically interesting difference between
mistakenly hearing a voice and mistaking one friend in the distance
for another: in each case the mistake is a function of a language
game that seeks to classify perceptual reports as cohering or not
cohering. In the case of the pain-pill or a trip to the dentist, there is
no difference between thinking something hurts and it really hurting, whereas there can be a difference between the doctors needle
entering your gum and the pain it causes. But to argue this is not to
say that there is no such phenomenon as pain, or no such experience
as seeing pink.
Nevertheless, Rorty will reply, we agree that there is no difference between thinking that something seems and something seeming. Now, we have a handle on thinking something seems, because
it involves the same propositional attitude we can take to any belief
or desire: you say you see pink, I think youre a trustworthy person,
so I take you at your word for it. What possible need is there for
positing yet another distinction, or using yet another formulation
to say the same thing: not only do you judge/think/formulate a
sentence about seeing pink, you actually have the phenomenological

keeping pragmatism pure


experience of seeing pink? According to Rorty, this adds absolutely

nothing to the picture we already have. But Rortys opponents, philosophers like Nagel and John Searle, need to make this distinction in order to be able to claim that there is something, something
unique and ineffable, it is like to be a particular individual endowed
with a sensory perceptive mechanism.
Rortys response to this is that
the intuition that there is something ineffable which it is
like to be us something which one cannot learn about
by believing true propositions but only by being like that
is not something on which anything could throw further
light. The claim is either deep or empty.
The pragmatist sees it as empty. (CP xxxvi)
For Rorty, this claim is part and parcel with the claim he makes a
little later in his famous essay The World Well Lost, that the
world is either the purely vacuous notion of the ineffable cause of
sense and goal of intellect, or else a name for the objects that inquiry at the moment is leaving alone (CP 15). But whereas I agree
with this formulation, I do not see how accepting it ties me to his
claim that there is nothing ineffable that it is like to be me. To deny
that there is a world out there, separate from our perceptions and
from the statements we make about it, but nevertheless governing
the truth of those statements, is not the same as believing that there
is nothing ineffable it is like to be me. I prefer to fall back on a
rule of thumb that is also one of Rortys favorites: if a vocabulary
makes a difference, then it is meaningful; if it does not, then it is
not. Getting between the words and their objects in the world out
there does not make a difference, but phenomenal experience and
the category of the ineffable, as I will show below, do.
To take Rortys position, one can certainly argue that because a)
there is no describable difference (and hence no difference) between
the world and its description, then b) the same standard should apply to the use of the word consciousness, if we wish to claim it
as a part of the world. Therefore, c) there is no need to accept the


a wrinkle in history

existence of something like awareness apart from the description of

beings who act in ways that suggest to us beliefs and desires. Perhaps, however, the real disagreement lies with the term ineffable,
which Rorty, in the quote above, is using to describe Nagels caveat
for subjective experience: we do not have the vocabulary to describe it adequately (CP xxxvi). What could adequate in this case
mean? Perhaps it should be taken to mean in such a way that it is
no longer exclusively first-person. In this case, we could claim that
our first-person perceptual reports are not adequate to our experience because even if there is no difference for me between the world
and my perception of it (and I accept that deceptions and errors are
part of my world) it does not follow that there is no difference between that world and my description of it to a third party. If no such
difference existed, and if my descriptions were adequate, the third
party would have no desire to experience what I am experiencing.
But this desire is an observable behavior in most speaking beings.
Lets take an example: I live in California, but I have a friend who
lives in Vienna. I do not feel there is any use in positing a difference
between her experience of Vienna and Vienna as it is in itself. The
concept if Vienna as it is in itself has no apparent meaning to me. I
also have an uncle who lives in Vienna, a 60 year-old ex-pat who has
lived there half his life. When he describes Vienna to me, I get an
entirely different impression than when she describes it to me. But,
still, I have no need at this point to posit experiences on their part
different from their individual linguistic judgments of Vienna, and
certainly no need to posit Vienna as it is in itself, apart from these
various impressions. So far so good. But now I experience a strange
feeling. I miss my friend. I realize that I would like to be with her,
would like to experience being in Vienna with her. I call her and ask
her to tell me more, tell me as much as she possibly can about life in
Vienna, about herself, about what we would do together were I there
with her. But much to my surprise (being the good nominalist that
I am), after all her descriptions, I remain unsatisfied. I still want to
experience it for myself.
This example is absurdly simplistic, but if we are to take nominalism seriously take seriously, that is, the claim that nothing is

keeping pragmatism pure


better than a something about which nothing can be said then

my need to actually be in Vienna is irrational: once my friend has
told me everything there is to be said about it, there should be nothing left. But there is, and that something is called desire. For, as
should now be obvious, no one can ever say all there is to be said.
The inability to say everything is built into language, and is, in fact,
one of the conditions of our desire to speak. This is ineffability, or
ineffedness. Lacan begins his seminar Tlvision with the lines, I
always tell the truth. Not the whole truth, since no one can manage that. To tell the whole truth is impossible, materially speaking:
words fail. But it is just on this impossibility that truth hangs onto
the real.15 As I discuss below, truth hangs on to the real is Lacans
way of saying that, rather than truth being a function of an ultimate
correspondence between language and reality, it is supported in the
final instance only by a series of metaphors, what he calls signs of
the lack in the Other, words that stand in for the fact that we cant
say everything.16
Now, it is quite clear that Rorty does not really think that there
is an absolute correlation of language to experience in the sense described above. He is perfectly willing to grant that when I am using
words like consciousness, or subjective, or mental I am using
them to explain what he calls my epistemological authority, an
authority that organisms have to report back on internal states to
which external observers have no access. Nevertheless, he argues,
we should not use words like subjective or mental because these
words have the effect of convincing us that we are talking about
something special, unique, and mysterious when in fact all they do
is refer tautologically to that epistemological authority (TP 111).
But beyond the simply aesthetic and practical problems of using
bulky phrases like my judgment about which I have epistemological authority is that this butter tastes rancid, there is a philosophical issue involved: with this epistemological authority, Rorty is in
fact referring to the same problem of adequacy that, for someone
like Nagel, is missing in any attempt to convey the entirety of firstperson experience. For Nagel, this inadequacy indicates the existence of an intrinsically mysterious entity: consciousness. For Rorty,


a wrinkle in history

it indicates merely the presence of a category mistake, an instance

of the tendency in philosophy to treat a confusion in language as a
serious philosophical problem. For the psychoanalytic pragmatist,
however, it is this very inadequacy, this gap between experience and
linguistic expression, that constitutes human being as such. Consciousness is not, in other words, a mysterious something beyond
the ken of language; it is rather the name we give to the fact that our
experience, and that of others, exceeds our ability to talk about it. It
is the very fact that the others words present themselves to me as a
world that exists and that nevertheless is beyond my experience that
produces my awareness of my own experience as being something
unique, as being, in other words, first-person.
Let me stress that to make these arguments one need not distance oneself from nominalism. Rorty is right to follow Wittgenstein and Sellars in claiming that to become aware of qualia is the
same thing as learning to make judgments about qualia a process
that involves relating qualia to non-qualia (TP 104). All I want to
stress is that awareness, judgment, and relation all take place against
a greater backdrop of experience that, while not separable, describable, or distinct, is nevertheless in excess of the former. I could not
agree more when Sellars writes,
all awareness of sorts, resemblances, facts, etc., in short all
awareness of abstract entities indeed, all awareness even
of particulars is a linguistic affair []. [Not] even
the awareness of such sorts, resemblances and facts as pertain to so-called immediate experience is presupposed by
the process of acquiring the use of language,17
But when Wittgenstein takes a nothing would be as good as a
something about which nothing can be said to mean that we ought
not speak about private sensations, to my mind he has gone too far.
There is a lot we can say about another persons private sensations,
starting with the fact that we cant feel them ourselves. The need to
have recourse to a vocabulary of private sensations is even required
by nominalism, if we derive from Sellars slogan a difference that

keeping pragmatism pure


cannot be expressed in behavior is not a difference that makes a

difference (TP 124), the positive statement a difference that is expressed in behavior makes a difference and needs a vocabulary. For
behaviors like my paying a large amount of money to fly to Vienna
when I could just as well read about it are not explainable by vocabularies that collapse the difference between first person experience
and third person description.
Pragmatic ineffability
It is my view that, as I stated above, many of these disadvantages
of Rortys thought may be avoided by not following him when he
derives his doctrine of the non-utility of ineffability from Sellars
doctrine that all awareness is a linguistic affair. Rorty agrees wholeheartedly, as do I, with this statement from Hilary Putnam: elements of what we call language or mind penetrate so deeply into
what we call reality that the very project of representing ourselves as
being mappers of something language-independent is fatally compromised from the start.18 But, unlike Rorty, I do not feel that holding
this belief commits one to a further belief that there is nothing special or distinctive about language, that because language and reality
are not distinguishable entities, it therefore follows that we cannot
say anything interesting about language.
Rortys interest in saying just that comes in part from his commitment to a Darwinian understanding of human development.
Such an understanding views language as just one more complex
tool for dealing with an environment:
According to this story [the Darwinian one that speaks of
the brain, throat, and hands as organs that let humans
coordinate their actions by batting marks and noises back
and forth], these organs and abilities have a lot to do
with who we are and what we want, but have no more of
a representational relation to an intrinsic nature of things
than does the anteaters snout or the bowerbirds skill at
weaving. (TP 48)


a wrinkle in history

But the fact that language does not have a representational relation
to the intrinsic nature of things does not mean that there is nothing specific or philosophically interesting that we can say about it.
One of the difficulties Rorty apparently has with Lacan is that his
thought leads people to treat language as if it were unique and philosophically interesting:
One begins to be enthralled by phrases like the unconscious is structured like a language,19 because one begins
to think that languages must have a distinctive structure,
utterly different from that of brains or computers or galaxies (instead of just agreeing that some of the terms we use
to describe language might, indeed, usefully describe other
things, such as the unconscious). (EH 4)
At the same time he insists that [l]anguage [should not] become
the latest substitute for God or Mind something mysterious,
incapable of being described in the same terms in which we describe
tables, trees, and atoms (EH 4). But if he allows that languages can
be studied like trees, and that we can use words to describe them,
then it seems pragmatic to allow that they might have a specific
structure, that it might make more sense to use one vocabulary to
describe languages and another to describe galaxies. In fact, much
as he would like to deny it, Rorty is in a minority in claiming that
there is nothing mysterious, or at least philosophically interesting,
about language. Consider just a few examples from the litany of
mysteries that language presents for a linguist like Noam Chomsky, who, incidentally, is no more a fan of structuralist approaches
to language than he is of the metaphysical naturalism that the
contemporary cognitive science Rorty finds so attractive presents
for him. For Chomsky, no approach to the study of language has
come even close to eliminating the problems brought up by twentieth-century thoughts favorite whipping boy, Descartes: the fact
that it is unbounded in scope, not determined by external stimuli
or internal state, not random but coherent and appropriate to situations but not caused by them, evoking thoughts that the hearer

keeping pragmatism pure


might have expressed the same way a collection of properties that

we may call the creative aspect of language use.20 Even Rorty at
times finds qualities of language interesting enough to talk about:
with Heidegger, that we are thrown into it, that it is the House of
Being; or, with Wittgenstein, [t]hat the search for nonempirical
truth about the conditions of possibility of describability raises the
self-referential problem of its own possibility (EH 54).21 This last
point is close to one of the central notions of Lacans understanding
of linguistic structure, namely, that it represents everything for us,
in that we cannot get outside of it, and yet it is not all, in that there
always remains something to be said. In other words, what is specific
about language is that words fail. Lacans innovation in saying that
the unconscious is structured like a language was to point out that
this interesting fact about language had some even more interesting,
and useful, ramifications for psychoanalysis, and for understanding
how people behave.
Let us return, then, to what a Lacanian version of linguistic
ubiquitism looks like. For Lacan, as for Sellars, Wittgenstein, and
Rorty, there is no separate real world to which our thoughts correspond; we are thinking things insofar as we inhabit what he calls
the symbolic order. This symbolic order has much in common with
Quines notion of the web of belief, like Putnams notion of cluster concepts and Wittgensteins image of overlapping strands (TP
107) and, like them, helps to break the notion of semantic rules
nested in our heads for answering questions. Furthermore, as with
these other vocabularies, the symbolic order is not anchored to reality; there is, as Lacan puts it, no other of the Other,22 it is not
founded or guaranteed by anything. Truth cannot be a matter of
correspondence because we speak but things do not. Therefore, our
world has a special character, one imposed by signification.
One aspect of this character we could call the symbolic orders
incompleteness not in the sense that we can stand outside of it and
see where it comes short, but rather in the sense of coming to places
in our language where words no longer refer back to other words for
their meaning. Since our symbolic order ultimately is not founded
on anything external to it, since it has no final, referential anchors


a wrinkle in history

things, in Wittgensteins terminology, which can be shown but

not said our words acquire meaning by virtue of their use in
concrete situations (context) and by referring back to other constellations of words. This, then, is the meaning of Lacans reworking of
Sartres en-soi/pour-soi distinction (the subjects alienation in meaning produces an aphanesis, a fading, of being): the speaking beings
situation is such that it has no ultimate anchor in Being (because
there is none), but also and for that very reason it desires such an
anchor, such a certainty, much as the early Wittgenstein desired to
stand outside the limits of language in order to calculate its a priori
rules. Living in language then entails a loss of being, but only insofar as the specter of that loss exists only in and for the speaking beings
This Being that the speaking being perceives as lost is what
Lacan called the real. The real, then, is not a Ding-an-sich supporting our phenomenal world, but rather is the name Lacan gave to
the apparently irrepressible desire to seek out such a thing. To sum
up, the real equals the finitude of signifiers over the infinitude of
experience. But for thought or language to be finite does not mean
that there are limits of language that we can go out to and explore.
Like the closed universe of Dante or that of Riemannian space, the
universe of language is finite but boundless, there is no getting outside of it.
Now, if experience as opposed to reality exceeds the symbolic, then it follows that there is something that is ineffable or, more
specifically, some aspect of all experience that remains ineffed
something which Rorty heartily denies. But at times Rorty lets a
belief in the ineffable slip out. People, he says, often feel grateful that
they were not born disabled or mentally retarded. This is in part
because of a calculation of the obvious socioeconomic disadvantages
of being so born, but not entirely. It is also the sort of instinctive
and ineffable horror that noble children used to feel at the thought
of having been born to non-noble parents, even very rich non-noble
parents. Then he adds in a footnote: This is the sort of ineffable
horror that creates a sense of moral abomination (at, e.g., intercaste
marriage), and thus furnishes the intuitions one tries to bring into

keeping pragmatism pure


reflective equilibrium with ones principles (TP 224). This use of

ineffability is completely commensurate with one of the modalities
of the real analyzed by psychoanalysts of an Ideologiekritik stripe
like iek. The utility of such analysis is not that it explains the
ineffable any better than Rorty does in the above-quoted section
(for to explain it would be to eff it and hence to show that it was not
ineffable), but rather that it fills in the above picture with some of
the vocabulary provided by analytic experience, the experience of
generations of humans dealing with the troubles other humans have
with ineffable horrors and desires.
The vocabulary used for this purposes is that of what Lacan
called jouissance, which iek translates as enjoyment, although,
paradoxically, it is an enjoyment that can as easily be horrible as
pleasurable.23 One of the functions of jouissance is to name the
bodily sensations that accompany our commitments to the various
key words in what Rorty calls our final vocabulary: the flush that
accompanies what we call righteousness when a liberal answers the
unanswerable question of why homosexual love is just as good as
heterosexual love with the words, Because it is, thats why!, or,
conversely, the feelings of disgust and moral superiority of the bigot
interrogating her, when he responds that the liberal is as sick as the
fag is. This is, perhaps, another way of describing what Rorty calls
the intuitions one tries to bring into reflective equilibrium with
ones principles.
One model that helps to imagine the relation between language
and experience is that of a sponge saturated with water. Like the
sponges relation to the water, our languages, again in Putnams
words, penetrate so deeply into what we call reality that the very
project of representing ourselves as being mappers of something
language-independent is fatally compromised from the start. Our
thought, our ability to be conscious of things, extends only so far as
the material of the sponge is in contact with the water. Nevertheless,
there are pockets of water that the sponge does not touch, just as
there are aspects of experience that we are not conscious of, that we
do not eff, but which we nevertheless must posit in order to better
describe our behavior, in particular that behavior that has to do with


a wrinkle in history

desire. Even if one could posit that the combination of all possible
languages would be the equivalent of a sponge with no holes, one
must realize that it is also in the nature of languages that, as Rorty
says, you cannot let all possible languages be spoken at once (EH
46). The ineffable, then, would be precisely the word that indicates
this relation to what cannot be said at any given time.
Metaphysical desire
For the younger Wittgenstein, the sentence that summed up his
Tractatus, and that, hence, for Rorty, gets everything wrong, is
what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk
about we must pass over in silence.24 The problem with this sentence for the pragmatist is that it posits a clear distinction between
the whole of language, which can be described in its full complexity,
and the realm of the ineffable, of those things that can be shown
but not said and hence must be left in silence. The psychoanalytic
pragmatist also disagrees strenuously with this sentence, but for different reasons than does Rorty. The psychoanalytic pragmatists reversal of this sentence would be, What we do say is almost never
clear, and every sentence we utter piques us with the possibility of
something that has not yet been said. What the second half of this
formulation suggests is that there can be a notion of the ineffable, or
at least the persistently ineffed, that does not thereby suppose the
ability to get between language and its object and study or map
out language as distinct from the world, and vice versa. The suggestion of the first half, which I will spell out in greater detail below,
is that clarity in the sense of objective certainty as to the meaning
of the others speech, or total transparency of the others intentions,
is a phantom, the desire for which whether exhibited by logical
positivism or a priori physicalism is in fact explicable in terms of
the effects the ineffability of experience has in our unconscious.
Another way to put the distinction central to the Tractatus is
as one between the available and effable world and the unavailable
and ineffable substance of the world (EH 58). This is a felicitous
formulation in light of ieks Lacanian/Hegelian treatment of the

keeping pragmatism pure


notion of substance. Jouissance, according to iek, is the only substance acknowledged by psychoanalysis. But what we need to keep
in mind when we read such a statement is precisely the fact that by
means of it iek undermines any possible Tractarian effort to find
an invariable substance upon which to found an analytic of knowledge. For substance, like the Lacanian real, is the word iek uses
to refer to the that which must stay the same in all circumstances,
the Gods eye view, the Ding-an-sich, and every and all such manifestation of what we can also call, quite simply, metaphysical desire25
or the desire for something metaphysical. When he says, as he often
does, that jouissance is not historical,26 what he means is that what
Rorty calls the ambition of transcendence has always haunted us,
and part of facing up to ones finitude, or even facing up to ones
contingency, involves the realization that if you cant found certainty on jouissance, you cant get away from it either.27
One of the few arguments against pragmatism that Dewey
ever countenanced was made by G. K. Chesterton, when he said
[p]ragmatism is a matter of human needs and one of the first human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist. Although
Dewey accepted the point, he believed that this human need was
merely a need, one that, like a childs need for constant maternal
attention, could be outgrown: Dewey was quite aware of what he
called a supposed necessity of the human mind to believe in certain absolute truths..... But he thought that the long-run good done
by getting rid of outdated needs would outweigh the temporary
disturbance caused by attempts to change our philosophical intuitions (TP 77). Psychoanalytic pragmatism differs from Deweys
and Rortys pragmatism by placing the yearning for transcendence
along with contingency and finitude, not as a human need that it
makes sense to grow out of, but as a useful way of describing human being with which it makes sense to come to terms.28 One way
to describe the practice of psychoanalysis is as a method for helping
humans beings deal with the disturbances metaphysical desire provokes in their physical, quotidian, mundane existence.
Rortys term for this desire is the ambition of transcendence,
which, in the form it took in modern philosophy, gave us the


a wrinkle in history

distinction between the world and our conception of the world, between the content and the scheme we applied to that content, between the truly objective and the merely intersubjective (TP 109).
But the ambition of transcendence is for Rorty a philosophical illness, something for which philosophy should serve as a therapy in
that it should always do its best to extirpate it from any philosophical discourse. The late Wittgenstein and the early Heidegger wrote
exemplary books in this sense, in that,
[f]rom the point of view of both Philosophical Investigations
and Being and Time, the typical error of traditional philosophy is to imagine that there could be, indeed that there
somehow must be, entities which are atomic in the sense
of being what they are independent of their relation to any
other entities (e.g., God, the transcendental subject, sensedata, simple names). (EH 59)
Psychoanalytic pragmatism is of a kind with these books in refusing
to posit such objects, but differs (at least from Wittgenstein and his
nominalist followers) in that it sees as one of its purposes, and as
an interesting philosophical project, the explanation of why people
suffer from metaphysical desire,29 the discussion of whether in some
forms it might be socially and individually beneficial, and the consideration of how best to avoid its possible ill effects, both social and
Ultimately, the fact of ineffability and its resultant metaphysical
desire explains much of what Rorty wants to erase from traditional
philosophy, but it also explains an aspect of Rortys own belief system that without it would remain mysterious. This is the aspect of
progress that is so important to Rorty as a liberal. For if we take
seriously the notion that there is no world out there to which the
ever-increasing correspondence of our linguistic practices is the motor of all knowledge, then what takes the place of that motor? What
drives us forward? What constitutes progress?
Rorty defines progress in terms of the belief that the situation
one sees in ones community is better now than what it was in the

keeping pragmatism pure


past, and the hope that it will be better in the future than it is now.
For the pragmatist, better means merely having more of the things
that her community in its present historical condition desires
and less of what it abhors. What a liberal community most abhors is
cruelty, so it follows that the liberal pragmatist sees progress in terms
of a march from a greater to a lesser prevalence of cruelty in her community and in the world.
This is straightforward enough, and yet it seems reasonable to
inquire not on what does the pragmatist base her desire for progress, for that is the kind of senseless metaphysical question that
pragmatists rightly dismiss out of hand, but rather whence the
various future options that constitute possible paths along which
to progress? For certainly one could imagine a world, perfectly
in keeping with the pragmatists non-essentialist view of language,
in which a given community simply continues to play one and the
same language game for all eternity, never desiring to change, since
its members are not aware of the existence of other options, and
certainly are not being caused to change by environmental stimuli,
since their languages and tools do a pretty good job of managing
and predicting their environment as it is. In other words, one could
imagine a situation in which the idea of change simply never occurs.
Why, then, if Rorty is right, does change occur? Why does it make
sense to talk about progress the way he does?
Rorty himself acknowledges that for Dewey the notion of progress was a kind of transcendence. Dewey, he says,
wanted us to keep something vaguely like a sense of transcendence by seeing ourselves as just one more product of
evolutionary contingencies, as having only (though to a
much greater degree) the same sort of abilities as the squids
and amoebas. Such a sense makes us receptive to the possibility that our descendants may transcend us, just as we
have transcended the squids and the apes. (TP 196)
This interpretation of the transcendence of progress in Darwinian terms is, predictably, attractive for Rorty, for in this way he can


a wrinkle in history

explain human progress as simply a much more complicated manifestation of the same kind of change present in biological evolution:
The history of human social practices is continuous with the history of biological evolution, the only difference being that what Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett call memes gradually take over
the role of Mendels genes (TP 206). This statement is of use for a
metaphilosophical perspective that wishes to emphasize the random
aspect of human events over their planned aspect. But random mutation seems an inadequate model for the notion of human progress
as Rorty wants to describe it. For human beings use the human tool
called language to imagine the future, to sich vorstellen (set before
themselves) various scenarios, to choose from them, and then to try
to realize these projects. In order to better do this, they invent new
languages for the description of new possibilities. No vocabulary I
have come across to discuss the random mutation of genes responsible for evolution would employ such terms.
Although in general Rorty would agree with the statement above
that progress depends on a process of inventing new vocabularies for new purposes at times he seems to negate this in order
to defend the discourse of liberalism against the possible intrusions
that as yet unseen vocabularies might constitute. His principal disagreement with Foucault, for instance, is about whether in fact it is
necessary to form a new we (CIS 64). In Contingency, Irony, and
Solidarity, Rorty even suggests that there is something about being
an ironic intellectual that inhibits one from being a radical, or even
a progressive and dynamic liberal (CIS 91), since the ironist
cannot offer the same kind of hope that the metaphysician can. But
given that our selves and communities are nothing but webs of beliefs, descriptive centers of gravity, it seems that the development
of a new vocabulary is tantamount, in many cases, to the formation
of a new we.
Apparently and fortunately, in my view Rorty has changed
his mind on this issue. In an article on Catherine MacKinnon and
the utility of pragmatism for feminism, he argues that it is precisely
pragmatisms willingness to dispense with present vocabularies
and not to believe that these vocabularies are adequate to expressing

keeping pragmatism pure


all viable political goals that makes it an ideal partner for political
movements like feminism, political movements whose success depends on what Foucault would call inventing a new we.
Universalist philosophers assume, with Kant, that all the
logical space necessary for moral deliberation is now available that all important truths about right and wrong
can not only be stated but be made plausible, in language
already to hand. I take MacKinnon to be siding with historicists like Hegel and Dewey and to be saying that moral
progress depends upon expanding this space. (TP 203)
If the webs of beliefs and desires that constitute our identities perceive progress as doing things better than they used to be done, using
more effective vocabularies than did our forbears, we must conceive
of progress toward the future as continuing to allow poets and revolutionaries to develop new vocabularies for as yet unimaginable worlds.
But this ability to invent new vocabularies, to imagine a contrast
between a painful present and a possibly less painful, dimly seen future (TP 214), requires another factor, one that pure pragmatism
does not account for: desire. It is not enough to answer the question of motivation with the same dismissive shrug that we answer
the question of the ultimate foundations for our beliefs, and claim
that people just desire change and that to ask why is an uninteresting
question. The fact is that not everyone desires change. Progressives
are the kind of people who do desire it. And, in contrast to Rortys
earlier claim above, that there is something incompatible between
ironism and progressive liberalism, I would even say that the more
ironic, the more nonmetaphysical ones belief system is, the more
one will be devoted to progress (whether or not we like the direction
that progress might take). Metaphysical desire, the desire that derives
from our specifically symbolic being-in-the-world, requires transcendence, and if not expressed in one form, it will appear in another.
Of course its quite doubtful that Rorty would accept such a
formulation, given his tendency to think of desires as a subgenre
of beliefs. There is little in common between the notion of a


a wrinkle in history

fundamental and unconscious desire, responsible for both the fact

of human progress and the ambition for transcendence, and the sort
of desire that one can treat as follows: By a familiar trick, you can
treat desires as if they were beliefs. You do this by treating the imperative attitude toward the sentence S Would that it were the case
that S! as the indicative attitude It would be better that S should be
the case than that not-S should be (ORT 93). I can only respond
by pointing out that, by a less familiar trick, one can collapse the
difference in another way, and read indicative statements like the
things in the world are but shadows of forms, the phenomena are
our impressions of the things-in-themselves, or all reality is ultimately explicable by corpuscular science, as instantiations of metaphysical desire, the desire to undergird the instability, uncertainty,
and throwness of our various worlds with some bedrock of apodictic
Metaphors and quilting points
Whatever we might believe about the utility of a metaexplanation
for progress, I agree with Rorty about what it consists of: changes in
the way people think, and hence in the way they use language. We
are also in agreement about how languages change, and hence about
how knowledge of any kind progresses. The basic idea is that vocabularies change when people accustomed to speaking in that vocabulary begin to creatively misuse it in one or another way. These creative misuses, however, are not reasons for changing ones beliefs (the
reasons come afterward, justifications spoken in the new language
for its superiority over the old); rather, they are causes (TP 213). In
general, there are three ways in which a new belief can be added to
our previous beliefs, thereby forcing us to reweave the fabric of our
beliefs and desires viz., perception, inference, and metaphor (EH
12). Perception refers to the non-inferential and nonrational causal
influence our environments have on our bodies. Inference refers to
how our languages are altered internally as a result of applying the
consequences of one proposition to another. Such change is rational,
because inferences are reasons for changing or adding a belief. The

keeping pragmatism pure


third way, metaphor, is different in that it belongs to the realm of

use rather than of meaning: Davidsons view is that there is a strict
distinction between meaning (the property which one attributes to
words by noting standard inferential connections between the sentences in which they are used and other sentences) and use, and that
metaphor belongs exclusively to the domain of use (EH 13).
For Davidson and Rorty, the notion meaning refers to the
way our words work in a limited, though constantly shifting, realm
of usage, usage that is predictable and literal (ORT 164). Words or
phrases that have meaning in this sense can always be paraphrased
with other words or phrases. They are usages that anyone with a
working knowledge of the language should be able to engage with
unproblematically and with limited possibility for confusion. Metaphors, while they are still alive, are precisely those usages of language that cannot be paraphrased. When such a paraphrase becomes
widely available the metaphor dies, becomes literalized, becomes a
piece of quotidian language (ORT 168).
Words that mean, then, are words that refer back to other words.
Metaphors do not mean, because they are not immediately integratable into the constellation of words and sentences that constitute us at
any moment. They are foreign intruders into our world of meaning,
coming across at first glance as either nonsensical or downright false.
Their appearance in our linguistic world then causes one of two possible reactions: we can ignore them offhand, or we can be intrigued
by them and try to integrate them into our world. If the latter is successful, they will eventually die as metaphors, but in the meantime
our knowledge, and our identity, will have incrementally (or radically, in some cases) changed.30 Some now-famous former metaphors
might be, the earth revolves around the sun; the universe is finite
but boundless, class-struggle is the motor of history; the soul is
the prison of the body; the unconscious is structured like a language. The possibility that such metaphors will change our current
beliefs is what Davidson and Rorty mean by their belonging to the
realm of use. Without metaphor, we would still be able to form new
beliefs by way of perception and inference, but our knowledge could
not in any sense progress, because the fundamental structure of our


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belief system, what Rorty calls our final vocabulary, would forever
remain unchanged.31 (When a new perception is so new as when
the telescope allowed men to see craters on the face of the moon
its integration can indeed cause a revolutionary change in belief,
but the actual change will still be produced by metaphors, such as
the moon is made of corruptible substance.)
The parallel with Lacanian semiotic theory would be as follows.
There are basically two ways in which words relate to one another
and hence in which our symbolic order and unconscious function the names for these, which he takes (in altered form) from
Jakobson, are metonymy and metaphor.32 Although he does not use
the same terminology as Davidson, it is not too much of a stretch
to say that, for Lacan as well, metaphor belongs to the domain of
use, in that metaphor is the name Lacan gives to the words we use
to stop the metonymic sliding of signifiers. At a microsyntactical
level, the metaphoric function can be fulfilled by any element, word,
gesture, indication, pause, or silence that serves to stop a sentence
and inform the listener: My most recent string of noises has ended,
you should make sense of them now.33 At a macrosyntactic level,
metaphor is the active ingredient in any acquisition of knowledge,
as it involves the insertion of a new word (or of an old word used in
an initially unrecognizable way) into the normal, metonymic chain
of words. Any constellation of words comprising ones knowledge
(either about specific subjects or, theoretically, the entirety of ones
knowledge) consists of a great number of words related metonymically34 to one another (in that one refers to another for its meaning
and so on), and a very small number of words that hold the place of
the constellation, that respond dumbly to the question, But why,
finally, is that the case? that do not refer back to the next word in
the chain for their meaning but rather, tautologically, to the constellation as a whole.35 These special words, which are also the principal
elements of each individuals or groups final vocabulary, are called
by Lacan quilting points (points de capiton), in that they hold together the webs of beliefs that constitute the descriptive centers of gravity that are ourselves and our communities.36 Like democracy
or freedom to an American, these are words that are conceived of

keeping pragmatism pure


as requiring no justification, as being desirable per se. There can be

no communities without quilting points, and there can be no selves
without them either.
If indeed it can be argued, as I am arguing, that Lacans and
Davidsons theories of metaphor are similar in a fundamental way,
this is of some consequence for Rorty, since Lacans theory implies a
notion of ineffedness of the sort I have been advancing. Metaphors
or quilting points, for Lacan, are produced and have their function precisely insofar as the symbolic order is limited in relation
to the imaginary, precisely insofar, that is, as not everything can
be said. Metaphors are signs for the lack in the Other [symbolic
order], they stand in for the symbolic orders incompleteness and
as such are the principal symbolic element in the production of
unconscious desire. Subjects acquire new metaphors only insofar
as old ones die, insofar as they render up their promise of infinite
jouissance and show themselves to merely exchangeable concepts
as opposed to containers of divinity which is why, as I argued
above, the critique of metaphysical certainties (otherwise described
as a way of killing essentialist metaphors) can be such a powerful
engine for progress.
The psychoanalytic pragmatism I am advancing is compatible
in many ways with Rortys thought, but in some ways it can be seen
as being more pragmatic. Principally, the space this model creates
for a notion of ineffedness allows for a viable and useful notion of
desire, in contradistinction to Rortys tendency to conflate desire
and belief and his refusal to analyze desire on its own terms. The
notion is pragmatic in that it is a difference that makes a difference,
a distinction that helps to interpret successfully the ways people
actually behave, instead of theorizing, due to a misguided desire
for physicalist purity, their ultimate identity to machines. Finally,
it also is a model that explains the imaginative, utopian thinking
that is central to Rortys theory of progress, recognizing in it the
same impulse that manifests itself in traditional philosophy as the
ambition to transcendence, but that, when turned away from the
promise of metaphysical fulfillment, is instrumental in achieving
the kind of society the pragmatist desires.


a wrinkle in history

Contingency, ineffability, and psychoanalysis

Toward the end of The Consequences of Pragmatism, Rorty admits
that his admiration for what he calls textualism, the practice of
strong misreadings in the intellectuals quest for self-creation, falls
prey to one criticism in particular, namely, that
the stimulus to the intellectuals private moral imagination
provided by his strong misreadings, by his search for sacred
wisdom, is purchased at the price of his separation from his
fellow humans.
I think that this moral objection states the really important issue about textualism and about pragmatism. But
I have no ready way to dispose of it. (CP 158)
Seven years later Rorty answered that objection, in Contingency,
Irony, and Solidarity, by arguing for a strict division between two
realms of behavior: a private one in which all are free to pursue idiosyncratic projects of self-creation and perfection, and a public one
in which the primary goal is the diminution of cruelty. In private
we can work to our hearts content to achieve autonomy vis vis
the rest of the world and the particular intellectual, poetic, artistic,
and familial traditions and communities from which we hail. But in
public it is our duty to build solidarity, to make connections with as
many people and as many communities as possible, and ceaselessly
to understand how what we in our community are doing may be
causing pain to others in theirs.
The person who can successfully balance these two poles of existence is the liberal ironist. The liberal ironist is liberal in that he
or she thinks that cruelty is the worst thing we do; he or she is
an ironist in that he or she is the sort of person who faces up to
the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires
someone historicist and nominalist enough to have abandoned
the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance (CIS xv). Private irony
is a useful correlate to public solidarity because progress which

keeping pragmatism pure


the liberal desires in order to ensure that present levels of cruelty

continue to diminish, rather than simply stay the same requires
poets and revolutionaries inventing new languages, not languages
they keep to themselves but ones they circulate among their communities, searching for new adherents.37 But while this freedom can
contribute to liberal progress, it must nevertheless be kept strictly
separate, since, as Rorty has famously said, I cannot imagine a
culture which socialized its youth in such a way as to make them
continually dubious about their own process of socialization. Irony
seems an inherently private matter (CIS 87). Irony should be kept
a private matter because of its tendency to put into question final
vocabularies. Given that final vocabularies are what define individuals and communities, while it should be everyones right to ironize
about their own and other final vocabularies to themselves, to allow
it to be done in public is to risk subjecting others to humiliating
critique, precisely the kind of cruelty and pain that it is the liberals
vocation to diminish at any cost.
The public realm, then, for Rorty, includes any and all actions
(including uses of language) by which one risks causing others
pain; the private realm consists of those behaviors and uses of language that do not run that risk. While at first glance this may seem
a commonsensical and classically liberal distinction, his interpretation of the kinds of language-use that might constitute causing
pain to others leads to curious passages in which he recommends
relegating to the private realm the writings of certain philosophers
who might see themselves as engaging in a public battle against
cruelty, and hence as participating in the sort of debate for which
the public realm exists.
It is precisely this sort of yearning [for total revolution]
which I think should, among citizens of a liberal democracy, be reserved for private life. The sort of autonomy which
self-creating ironists like Nietzsche, Derrida, or Foucault
seek is not the sort of thing that could ever be embodied
in social institutions.... Most ironists confine this longing
to the private sphere, as...Proust did and as Nietzsche and


a wrinkle in history

Heidegger should have done. Foucault was not content

with this sphere [...]. Privatize the Nietzschean-SartreanFoucauldian attempt at authenticity and purity, in order
to prevent yourself from slipping into a political attitude
which will lead you to think that there is some goal more
important than avoiding cruelty. (CIS 65)
This injunction to privatize forces us to consider two important
questions: first, what exactly does it mean to privatize a writer; and
second, who has the authority to decide when a writer is due for
privatization? When Rorty claims that Proust confined his desire
for autonomy to the private sphere, while Nietzsche and Heidegger
should have, what exactly does this mean? Does it mean that they
should have written in a different way, or that we should place warning stickers on the covers of their books saying Caution! This book
is for private perfection-seeking only. Any use in the public realm
may lead to serious social problems like fascism or a generalized
yearning for total revolution?38 Does it mean rather that fiction
is inherently private and philosophy public, and that therefore Nietzsche and Heidegger should have written novels like Proust? Or
does it merely mean that we should endeavor to read them only as
private writers, while continuing to read Habermas and Rawls as
public writers, as writers whose ideas and proposals have currency in
the public realm?39 As to the second question, it seems quite arbitrary
to decide that a philosopher like Habermas should be considered a
public thinker, while Foucault whose lifes work could certainly
be interpreted as a battle against cruelty should be privatized.
Further problems crop up when we turn to the question of
progress. If the liberals desire for progress is aided by the freedom
granted to ironists to distance themselves from their own final vocabularies and hence to develop new vocabularies, the question
arises of whether the work these ironists accomplish is in fact public
or private. Given that poetic, artistic, philosophical, scientific, or
political progress results from the accidental coincidence of a private obsession with a public need (CIS 37), the modes of expression of these private thinkers must be publicly available, or else the

keeping pragmatism pure


accidental coincidence he describes will never have a chance to occur. It seems, then, that much of Rortys position as outlined in
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity eventually runs afoul of the objection to his criticism of Foucault that I discussed above: namely,
that to guarantee progress, to bring about dimly-sensed future possibilities for diminishing pain, he must allow for the possibility that
new wes will be formed, and it is only the work of the thinkers he
defines as private thinkers that will eventually bring that about. A
strict divide, then, between the public and the private is not desirable if one cherishes, as Rorty does, the constant mutation of final
vocabularies that constitutes progress.
Among the various practices that Rorty categorizes as private
in that they have to do with the individuals effort to define
herself as autonomous over and against the blind impresses that
have formed her and the final vocabularies into which she has been
thrown psychoanalysis holds a special place. Psychoanalysis is
important to Rorty because it showed how every individual life, not
just the poets or the revolutionarys, can be seen as a poem, as a
process of self-creation.
By seeing every human being as consciously or unconsciously acting out an idiosyncratic fantasy, we can see the
distinctively human, as opposed to animal, portion of each
human life as the use for symbolic purposes of every particular person, object, situation, event, and word encountered
in later life. This process amounts to redescribing them,
thereby saying of them all, Thus I willed it. (CIS 37)
By recasting human Being in terms of poetic self-creation, Freud
helped distance us from the traditional Platonic model of morality in terms of which what one ought to do was conceived of as
a function of a universal truth concerning human nature. Rather
than working toward the Good, whose truth resided in each individual human being, Freud helped us see moral consciousness as
historically conditioned, a product as much of time and chance as
of political or aesthetic consciousness (CIS 30). If Platos project


a wrinkle in history

had been to bring together the public and the private, by claiming
that individual perfection was inherently commensurate with social
justice, Freuds demonstration of the contingency of moral identity
helped make it clear that the quest for self-perfection would not automatically lead to social justice, that in fact the opposite was just as
likely true (CIS 34).
Because the quest for self-perfection does not lead to social justice, Freuds own method for seeking autonomy a method that
constituted a valuable contribution because it conceived of this quest
as available to everybody, not just poets ought as well to be confined to the private realm. Rorty is, consequently, quite dismissive of
attempts to make of psychoanalysis a tool for social change, claiming that Freudo-Marxist analyses of authoritarianism have offered
no better suggestions about how to keep the thugs from taking over
EH (162). But what Rorty fails to mention in his discussion of Freud
is that while Freud may well have helped destroy any notion of the
individuals conscience partaking of an essential, extra-individual
morality, much of his writing nevertheless argues that it is precisely
the interaction and overlap between the individuals private drives
and the demands that society makes of him that is responsible for so
much of the pain (and pleasure) that occurs both at the individual
and the social level. Psychoanalysis, then, cannot be relegated purely
to the private sphere, for the problems it treats are reflections of public norms and the individuals it helps create in turn change and affect those norms. If the purpose of public discourse is to find ways
of ensuring that the thugs not take over, it may turn out that some
of the Freudian veins of Ideologiekritik that Rorty dismisses do have
some proposals to make.
The problem of how to keep the thugs from taking over can also
be stated as that of how to ensure that a liberal society continue to
be liberal in the sense of the word that Rorty emphasizes, i.e., that it
continue to strive for the diminution of cruelty. The problem stems
from the fact that, for Rorty, there is no such thing as a universal
ethical sense, a built-in mechanism for recognizing the humanity
in another human and automatically respecting it, treating it as an
end in itself. Rather, individuals recognize others because they have

keeping pragmatism pure


something in common with them that is not something abstract

and universal, like humanity, but is rather something concrete, specific a series of shared beliefs and desires, ideals, experiences and
memories. When one identifies another as being one of us, this
term is, typically, contrastive, in the sense that it contrasts with a
they which is also made up of human beings the wrong sort of
human beings (CIS 190). How one distinguishes one of us from
one of them has to do with ones final vocabulary, that constellation of words, beliefs, and desires that is the non plus ultra of ones
identity, the destruction or changing of which would be tantamount
to becoming a different person altogether. The vocabularies are final
in the sense that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their
user has no noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as
far as he can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless
passivity or resort to force (CIS 73). Since Rorty does not believe
that we can do without final vocabularies, and as he doesnt much
like the idea of a completely universalistic community, a community
whose final vocabulary is shared by everyone on earth, the most he
feels a liberal community can hope to achieve is to be as open and
sensitive as possible to the final vocabularies of other communities
without giving up on its own. If the intellectuals of that community
are ironists too, their responsibility is to put into doubt the validity
of their own final vocabulary, but to do so in private, so as not to
disturb the socialization of the community at large. As contact with
other communities increases, the hope is that the liberal community
will propagate those elements of its final vocabulary that have to do
with the diminution of cruelty, with the end of diminishing cruelty
around the entire world, as well as among its own members.
As I pointed out in the discussion of metaphor above, Rortys
final vocabularies consist of words expressing values that need or
stand no further justification because they form the subjects ultimate moral horizon: I do the right thing because its right. Democracy is simply the best political system, even when it doesnt
work. Of course freedom is preferable to confinement, what planet
do you come from? Men are supposed to sleep with women, not
with other men. These are metaphors insofar as their function is


a wrinkle in history

defined paradigmatically in relation to an entire structure as opposed to in relation to their local position in a syntagm, as red and
tree usually are. Each refers to a global semantic field, an ideology concerning what is right, what it means to be a man, etc., that
goes far beyond being able to use a word correctly in a sentence.
Of course these examples can also be defined by their position in
a sentence, but when they function in a final vocabulary, their unjustifiable nature is analogous to the metaphoric function of standing-in-for-something. Insofar as they function as metaphors, these
words can also be seen in a Lacanian vein as being constellations
of quilting points. The added benefit of thinking of them in these
terms is that one realizes that insofar as the identity of an individual
is constituted by a web of quilting points words that stand in
for the ultimate lack of foundation in some metaphysical reality,
that stand in for the symbolic orders incompleteness vis vis lived
experience it is also held together by desire, by the desire for the
real that supports any system of meaning. In community politics,
this desire manifests itself as that ineffable pleasure or horror that,
as we discussed above, accompanies any invocation of the final vocabulary. Communities, then, are not only held together by agreement concerning fundamental beliefs and desire; they are also and
more fundamentally held together by libidinal investments.40 These
libidinal investments are as responsible for all the good that is done
in the name of a community everything that a liberal like Rorty
says we should be proud of when we think about our country41 as
they are for all the evil that is done its name, racism and nationalistic
violence being the prime examples.42
For Rorty, as long as one includes in ones final vocabulary the
importance of not causing pain, then all one needs to guard ones
society from becoming comfortable with the pain of others are good
What would guard such a society from feeling comfortable
with the institutionalized infliction of pain and humiliation
on the powerless? From taking such pain for granted? Only
detailed descriptions of that pain and humiliation de-

keeping pragmatism pure


scriptions that brought home to the powerless the contrast

between their lives and the lives of others (thus inciting revolution) and brought the same contrast home to the privileged (thus inciting reform). (TP 322)
But such a prescription still demands that the participant identify
with those who feel pain. Just as certain people feel pain or guilt at
the killing of an animal, and as a consequence dont become hunters (even if they may not feel their pain deeply enough to become
vegetarians), so people who do not identify with other people may
quite easily cease to feel their pain, and cease to feel moral approbation at the thought of being the cause of their pain. What is needed
is not description torturers who are in direct contact with their
victims do not need a description to know what they are feeling
but rather identification. Rortys final prescription is for a society
that knows how to distinguish the question of whether the other
shares my final vocabulary from the question of whether she is in
pain (CIS 198). The psychoanalytic pragmatist thinks that ones
relationship to ones final vocabulary as well as the kind of final
vocabulary one has determines the extent to which one can identify with others and therefore recognize the pain one causes them,
for it is precisely to the extent that a subjects fundamental fantasy
presents his or her final vocabulary as a necessary order of things, as
grounded in the real, that the subjects psyche will need to produce
symptoms to account for the failure of the fantasy, for the rifts in
his or her world, for the difference in the way others describe the
world. Psychoanalytic pragmatism sees many social ills as precisely
such symptoms.
For Rorty, one of the main reasons why the intellectual ironist
should keep her activities private is that ironizing threatens final vocabularies, and threatening final vocabularies is a form of causing
pain, a very specific kind of pain: humiliation. The redescribing
ironist, by threatening ones final vocabulary, and thus ones ability
to make sense of oneself in ones own terms rather than hers, suggests that ones self and ones world are futile, obsolete, powerless.
Redescription often humiliates (CIS 90). But the psychoanalytic


a wrinkle in history

pragmatist sees intellectual ironizing as being useful both in public

and in private. You learn to redescribe and to distance yourself from
your final vocabulary in private so that in public others dont have
this power over you. In the private practice of psychoanalysis, the
analysand suffers, in effect, a kind of humiliation, a realization that
his fundamental fantasy is empty, not grounded in the real, that
in the less violent language of pragmatism his final vocabulary
is contingent. This process of humiliation is also essential to the racist becoming a non-racist: the realization that one hated the others
enjoyment (the others presumed attainment of what one lacks oneself) out of a desperate attempt to avoid the humiliating fact that
ones own enjoyment was lacking. The goal of iekian critique is to
bring individuals to a point of identification with the ethnic, racial,
or sexual other that they have constructed as their symptom, i.e.,
to a recognition that this other is a stand-in, a dupe for their own
constitutive inability to ground their final vocabulary on something
real, or to make their fantasy of a seamless social body a reality. The
analysis, then, should bring about a confrontation and ultimate acceptance of contingency and finitude, and a consequent dissipation
of the particular jouissance that the destruction of the other seems
to promise.
When Rorty confronts a hypothetical Nazi, he does not believe
that philosophical argumentation will demonstrate to him the horrid nature of his beliefs. But he does have some idea of how to set
to work converting the Nazi, even if he has no guarantee that his
method will work.43 The method consists, of course, in describing
to the Nazi how horrible things are in the Nazi camps, how his
Fhrer can plausibly be described as an ignorant paranoid rather
than as an inspired prophet, etc. But is this not, in effect, a form
of humiliation? All the psychoanalytic pragmatist adds is a way of
understanding peoples attachments to their final vocabularies and
some techniques for dealing with that attachment that might make
this necessary (from our perspective) process of humiliation more
effective, less likely to (as it will in most cases) backfire and provoke
a full-scale reaction. Again, we need not have too many scruples
about resorting to this kind of humiliation. From our perspective,

keeping pragmatism pure


some final vocabularies are simply better than others; because from
our perspective some are more likely to promote social ills than others; these are the ones we would like most to dismantle.
What we call social ills always have to do with vocabularies.
One needs a vocabulary to make distinctions. This does not mean
that, for instance, love is more natural than hate, but rather that the
differentiation that supports both requires a vocabulary. There is
no more likelihood of a natural aggression to the other prior to it
meaning something (i.e., having a place in a vocabulary) than there
is of a natural hatred of grass or small furry animals. The natural man might kill the furry animal, or might leave it in peace, but
he is unlikely to feel that its eradication is necessary to his way of
life. Psychoanalytic Ideologiekritik of the kind that iek promotes
believes that such a desire to hurt or to eradicate the other is an indication that the other has been constructed as a symptom, that which
is perceived as keeping the subjects of a community from truly being
what their final vocabulary promises they really are. When this is
the case, the only thing that will prevent violence is what iek calls
traversing the fantasy, coming to the realization that ones fantasy,
the final vocabulary upon which ones community is founded, is
contingent. This is humiliating. But sometimes what a society needs
is a little humiliation just to keep it honest.44
Ultimately, whether in public or in private, in philosophy, Ideologiekritik, or clinical practice, pragmatism and psychoanalysis have
the same goal: to make people more comfortable with contingency.45
The psychoanalytic pragmatist sees that this goal has positive public
consequences as well, since it sees racism, sexism, homophobia, and
ethnic hatred as ways that people who are not comfortable with the
contingency of their selves and their societies react to that contingency via a direct expression of their jouissance. In other words, it
feels good to hate when one sees the object of ones hatred as responsible for what is wrong in ones world. But if one learns to recognize
that what is wrong in ones world is wrong because worlds are human creations and human creations never can tap into the perfection of pure correspondence to an ideal (the metaphysical fantasy
par excellence), then one can learn to direct ones jouissance in other


a wrinkle in history

directions. One can learn, for example, to sublimate ones ambition

for transcendence into a desire for progress.
One last objection to these conclusions might be that, as nice as
it sounds, one cant really sublimate ones ambitions for transcendence into a desire for progress, because there really isnt any difference between the two to begin with. All this talk about traversing
the fantasy and thereby making people less racist is ultimately just
that, talk the kind of talk that participates in those endless leftistintellectual fantasies (what Stanley Fish calls leftist theory hope)
about provoking social change without actually doing anything. In
part, Im sympathetic to this critique. I do not think that by becoming psychoanalytic pragmatists we intellectuals are going to become empowered to go about the world traversing racist fantasies.
But nevertheless I will not join in the facile and trendy belittling of
intellectual activity implicit in such complaints. Intellectuals do do
something: they create vocabularies. And it is eventually the creation
of vocabularies assuming these vocabularies are adopted and disseminated that ultimately is responsible for changing beliefs.
As I said at the outset, this essay is not intended as a pragmatist reading of Lacan, nor is it my hope to establish a new theory
called psychoanalytic pragmatism. My wish, rather, is to engage
Rortys pragmatism as a pragmatist and to present him and those
who agree with him with the possibility of appropriating a vocabulary that pragmatism has as of yet failed to acknowledge. The intellectual position that might result from such an appropriation, what
I have been calling psychoanalytic pragmatism, is in fundamental
agreement with Rorty that the question of whether truth is a function of the correspondence between ones words and ones reality or
merely of the coherence between ones words is a false question. It
is a false question because it leads one to suppose that human beings inhabit worlds-out-there, worlds made of very different stuff
(real stuff) from the stuff we are made of (ideas). Psychoanalytic
pragmatism differs from Rortys version in that it recognizes that, at
least in modern cultures, this false question is on everybodys mind
in the form that Ive called metaphysical desire and is not
merely a philosophical problem. Psychoanalytic pragmatism sees

keeping pragmatism pure


the prevalence of this question, along with its social and individual
concomitants metaphysical desire and its various offshoots, the
desire for progress included as having much to do with the notion of ineffability. But since metaphysical desire is a social and not
just a philosophical phenomenon, it behooves us not to try, as Rorty
does, to eradicate it from a minor discourse, but rather to analyze it,
to think about the ways in which its manifestations act to increase
pain, as well to imagine how it might be redirected toward better
ends. All of this requires a vocabulary that refuses the temptation to
keep pragmatism pure, that knows, in other words how to talk
about the ineffable.


a wrinkle in history


Notes to chapter 1
1. Jacques Lacan, crits: a Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York:
Norton, 1977), 51.
2. See, for example, Metahistory (Baltimore and London: The Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1973, and The Discourse of History, in The
Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (University of California Press,
3. Letter to President Clinton from William M. Detweiler, national commander of the American Legion, Jan. 19, 1995, The New York Times, E5,
Feb. 5, 1995.
4. Letter to I. Michael Heyman, Secretary of the Smithsonian, from a
group of scholars, Nov. 16, 1994, The New York Times, E5, Feb. 5, 1995.
5. Almost everyone who thinks at all about history speaks about it by
way of some dualism, be they the German terms Historie and Geschichte
(de Certeau), or historiography and the past (Jenkins), the purpose is to
acknowledge the traditional separation between the real thing (the events
themselves) and the retelling of those events by the historian, in which the
events are subject to ordering and interpretation. One of Hayden Whites
innovations is to locate within these traditional distinctions a more fundamental one between history and metahistory, and then show that distinction to be practically null. See Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 52.
6. As Jenkins argues, such facts, though important, are true but trite
within the larger issues historians consider. Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking
History (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), 32.
7. The case of the Smithsonian debate is pleasantly ironic in that elements
that usually represent the political Right, and share its rhetoric of certain
fundamental values right and wrong, truth and falsehood, etc. are
forced to adopt the terms of relativism conveys, gives the impression
and to have recourse to openly political justifications of their position,
since the institutional banner of truth and objectivity is being waved by
the other side.
8. This recalls ieks characterization of the cynicism of postmodern ideology, no longer Marxs classic They do not know it, but they are doing
it, but rather They know very well what they are doing, but still, they


a wrinkle in history

are doing it. Slavoj iek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso,
1989), 29.
9. A personal epilogue: Having already written the above section, and
feeling, myself, some dismay at the lost opportunity to bring a different
view of the Hiroshima bombing to Americans, I happened upon an editorial in the New York Times entitled The Crimes of Unit 731 (March 18,
1995), 15. This editorial was intended to inform Americans of Japanese
brutalities during the war, mainly against the Chinese which included
the deliberate release of deadly epidemics and the experimental torture of
individuals but also to remind us of the role of the U.S. government in
downplaying these atrocities after the war, in order to please a new ally and
to hide its own interest in Japanese research into biological warfare. The
clear suggestion is that the U.S. government might have just as much interest as the Japanese in attempting to minimize the facts or offset them with
Japanese sufferings, especially the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki. The fact that such information, itself largely unrelated to the
historical question of the American decision to bomb Hiroshima, would
lead me to question my own position on the debate underlines the fact that
what passes for discussions on historical reality are almost always informed
by ones ethical positions.
10. I have never denied that knowledge of history, culture and society was
possible; I have only denied that a scientific knowledge, of the sort actually
attained in the study of physical nature, was possible (23).
11. Jacques Rancire, The Names of History (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1994), 5.
12. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Historicism, in The Ideologies of Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 157.
13 .As he writes, paraphrasing Althusser, any statement about human
nature, is necessarily and irredeemably ideological (160).
14. This is one of the weaknesses, for instance, of contemporary new
historicist work in what is called the early modern period. As Lyndal
Roper says of Stephen Greenblatts article concerning the problem of psychoanalytic codes for the interpretation of early modern texts, In other
words, we know that we are dealing with early modern, historical subjects
because they do not evince a concept of the individual this is what
their historical distance consists of and yet it is the poststructuralist critique of the subject and of psychoanalysis which is drawn upon to
read our evidence in this manner. Lyndal Roper, Oedipus and the Devil:
Witchcraft, sexuality and religion in Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 1994), 11.



15. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 19.
16. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy (New York and London:
Monthly Review Press, 1971), 172.
17. This claim is based on his observation that Foucaults notion of the
subject is, rather, a classical one: subject as the power of self-mediation
and harmonizing the antagonistic forces, as a way of mastering the use
of pleasures through a restoration of an image of self (2). While the accuracy of this description might be subject to debate, it is irrelevant to the
discussion at hand.
18. Slavoj iek, The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso, 1994), 30.
19. J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, Fantasy and The Origin of Sexuality,
The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 49.1 (1968): 1-18, 8.
20. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
1939), 89.
21. Although for Freud the unconscious is already collective: I do not
think that much is to be gained by introducing the concept of a collective unconscious the content of the unconscious is collective anyhow, a
general possession of mankind (209).
22. Although questions of preceding and following are actually moot,
since the unconscious is always already present as a screen between perception and consciousness.
23. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book III: The Psychoses, ed. JacquesAlain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg (New York: Norton, 1993), 111.
24. This position, that the lacunae of speech are the truth for which a
psychoanalytically inspired history should strive, is also that of Michel de
Certeau, The Writing of History (New York: Columbia University Press,
1988), 326: We are thus led back to the connection of theory with fiction,
in play within that space between history and the novel, and developed on
the level of the visible text within the relation between demonstration (historiographical verisimilitude) and its lacunae (an analytical truth).
25. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter
Kaufman and R. J. Hollingdale, and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufman
(New York: Vintage, 1989), 28.
26. Slavoj iek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (London: Verso, 1991), 102.
27. Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 261.


a wrinkle in history

Notes for chapter 2

1. The scenario is, of course, reminiscent of Edwin Abbotts Flatland (San
Francisco: Arion Press, 1980).
2. Technically we should say the space-time in which we live. Where the
universe has three possible overall shapes that satisfy both the requirements of symmetry and fit the observed data, more and more the data
is suggesting that that space is flat as opposed to positively or negatively
curved. But when we speak of the overall spatial and temporal shape of the
universe, or retro-verse, the three-sphere is still the preferred model. See
Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of
Reality (New York: Knopf, 2005), 517, n14.
3. R. Osserman, The Poetry of the Universe (New York: Anchor Books of
Doubleday, 1995), 112-3.
4. This might not, in fact, be the most accurate reading of the poem;
after all, Osserman is interested in illustrating a mathematical model,
not offering a historically viable interpretation. His reading hinges on a
translation of Dantes term, cerchio, as sphere, rather than the more
exact circle or ring. While there are several reasons to think that
the referent might indeed be a sphere (that from the outside, concentric
spheres might appear as rings; that, as I will show later, Dante makes a
point of noting that he could have stepped onto the Primum Mobile at
any point and still have been greeted by the same sight), it is not my purpose to argue for one or another interpretation of these lines. My point is,
rather, to show that Ossermans use of Dante is commensurate with a historical reading; in other words, that given the epistemological configuration within which he lived, Dante could have conceived of the universe
as something very like what mathematics today calls a hypersphere. So,
while I will accept Ossermans reading for the rest of this paper, my own
conclusions should be read independently. It should also be noted that
Osserman was not the first to argue for the homology between Dantes
universe and a hypersphere. See J. J. Callahan, The Curvature of Space
in a Finite Universe, in Cosmology + 1, ed. O. Gingerich (San Francisco:
W. H. Freeman and Co., 1976), 20-30; and Mark Peterson, Dante and
the 3-sphere, American Journal of Physics 47.12 (1979): 1031-1035, for
earlier instances. Of the three, Peterson probably makes the strongest
claim for the exact parallel between Dantes model and the 3-sphere,
but I have chosen to summarize Ossermans arguments as they are more
recent and benefit from almost 20 years of advances in astronomy since
Peterson published his article.



5. Another possible objection is to point out that Dantes model is not a

physical one but a moral or spiritual one, and that he is not, in fact, intending to represent the universe as it actually is. Such a distinction strikes
me as untenable: while Dante would undoubtedly have granted that his
description of the universe was morally or spiritually inspired, he would
not, for that reason, have accepted that it was any less true or representative of physical reality. Why else would he have gone to such lengths to
ensure that the contents of his verses corresponded to both theological
as well as experimentally ascertainable truths? See, for evidence as to the
latter, another article by Peterson, Dantes Physics, in The Divine Comedy and the Encyclopedia of Arts and Sciences, eds. Giuseppe di Scipio and
Aldo Scaglione (Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing
Company, 1988). See also Alison Cornish, Dantes Moral Cosmology,
in Cosmology: Historical, Literary, Philosophical, Religious, and Scientific
Perspectives, ed. Noriss S. Hetherington (New York & London: Garland
Publishing, Inc., 1993), in which she states, Dantes task, as a poet, is
to represent these various astronomical and philosophical notions as they
would appear to someone journeying through them (205).
6. All translations of Dante are from Mandelbaums bilingual edition,
Paradiso, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Bantam Books, 1984).
7. Peterson adduces this inverse relation between the position of the spheres
and their velocity as yet another example of Dantes almost exact rendition
of a 3-sphere. See his Dante and the 3-sphere.
8. E. Grant, Cosmology, in Science in the Middle Ages, ed. David C.
Lindberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 265-302, 266.
Rpt. in E. Grant, Studies in Medieval Science and Natural Philosophy London: Varorium Reprints, 1981.
9. David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago and
London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 215.
10. Another important tension was specific to cosmology, namely, the
incommensurability of the Ptolomaic and Aristotelian models. Richard
C. Dales, The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: The
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1973), 125. The former was a geometrical model of eccentrics and epicycles that was extraordinarily successful
in saving appearances and predicting the position of heavenly bodies,
but lacked the grace and (relative) simplicity of the Aristotelian model of
nesting spheres. Earlier treatments of cosmology in Dante have failed to
differentiate the two models and, as a result, have mistakenly referred to
Dantes depiction as Ptolomaic. See, for example, M. A. Orr, Dante and the
Early Astronomers (London: Gall and Inglis, 1913), 210.


a wrinkle in history

11. This is Grants thesis, which I will discuss in more detail at a later
12. C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 119.
13. Pierre Duhem, Le Systme du Monde: Histoire de Doctrines Cosmologiques de Platon Copernic, 10 vols. (Paris: Hermann, 1913-59), VIII 158.
14. All translations of Duhem are mine.
15. E. Grant, Place and Space in Medieval Physical Thought, Motion
and Time, Space and Matter: Interrelations in the History of Philosophy and
Science, eds. Peter K. Machamer and Robert G. Turnbull (Columbus,
Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1976. 137-67, 138. Rpt. in E. Grant,
Studies in Medieval Science and Natural Philosophy (London: Varorium Reprints, 1981).
16. In the words of Pseudo-Siger of Brabant, if such dimensions are assumed to be a place and since such dimensions are nothing, it follows that
place is nothing, which is impossible (Place and Space 140).
17. E. Grant, Medieval and Seventeenth-Century Conceptions of an Infinite Void Space Beyond the Cosmos, ISIS 60 (1969): 39-60, 41. Rpt.
in E. Grant, Studies in Medieval Science and Natural Philosophy (London:
Varorium Reprints, 1981).
18. E. Grant, Jean Buridan: A Fourteenth Century Cartesian, Archives
internationales d histoire des sciences 64 (1963): 251-255, 252. Rpt. in E.
Grant, Studies in Medieval Science and Natural Philosophy (London: Varorium Reprints, 1981).
19. See, for example, Dales, The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages.
20. E. Grant, Much Ado About Nothing: Theories of space and vacuum
from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1981), 135-147. Bradwardine actually denied that God
could make an infinite void that would be independent of Himself, as such
a space would therefore be coterminous with God or contain him, impossibilities since God contained all and could not be contained or equaled.
Grant, E. Planets, Stars and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 176. Therefore the infinite
void was God, and hence could not have extension or dimension.
21. Flat is to be understood here and for the remainder of the essay as
22. Alexandre Koyr, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957), viii.
See also Jacques Merleau-Ponty and Bruno Morando, The Rebirth of Cosmology, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), who



argue that what is shared by both factions of modern, seventeenth century

science (Cartesian cosmology and Newtonian physics) is the centrality
of geometry, for which [s]pace is a universal container whose metrical
properties are absolutely invariable and totally independent of time (72).
Grant disputes the claims of these French thinkers, arguing that [t]he
mere endowment of infinite void with extension does not, and should not,
imply any conscious geometrization of space (Much Ado 233). However,
his concern seems to be that we not credit geometry, or mathematics in
general, with having been the principal influence of those who eventually accepted the dimensionality of space (see 233 and 234). Nevertheless,
regardless of what influenced what, it seems clear that the space of the
Scientific Revolution, and the space that would eventually be overturned
by Riemann and Einstein, has all the properties of Euclids geometry.
23. Thomas, S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge, Mass: The
Harvard University Press, 1957), 128.
24. In this respect I agree with Peterson wholeheartedly; see Dante and
the 3-sphere 1033.
25. Albert Einstein, Relativity: the Special and the General Theory, (trans.
Robert W. Lawson. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1961), 113.
26. The term paradigm-shift will, of course, recall the thinker who
coined it, Thomas Kuhn, who, while generally sympathetic to the discontinuity position, tempers this view with a distrust of the presentist prejudice characteristic of many discontinuity proponents. In his seminal The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he praises the tendency he sees among
historians of science to ask new sorts of questions and to trace different, and often less than cumulative, developmental lines for the sciences.
Rather than seeking the permanent contributions of an older science to
our present vantage, they attempt to display the historical integrity of that
science in its own time (3). In this way he positions himself as a sort
of new historicist avant la lettre, stressing the integrity of the historical object over the subjective reality of the historian. While I admire and
emulate his avoidance of a cumulative prejudice, nevertheless I insist upon
the importance of the historians subjective position, because the integrity
of the historical object is unavoidably a function of that subjective, organizing gaze.
Notes for chapter 3
1. See my How the World Became a Stage: Presence, Theatricality, and the
Question of Modernity (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003).


a wrinkle in history

2. Luiz Costa Lima, Control of the Imaginary: Reason and Imagination in

Modern Times, trans. Ronald W. Sousa (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 4.
3. Luiz Costa Lima, Social Representation and Mimesis, New Literary
History 16.3 (1985): 447-467, 448.
4. Lee Patterson, On the Margin: Postmodernism, Ironic History, and
Medieval Studies, Speculum 65 (1990): 87-108, 92.
5. DAubignac, Practique du thtre par lAbb, 3 vols. (Amsterdam, 1715)
I,4,I,18; qtd. in Eugne Rigal, Le Thatre Franais Avant la Priode Classique (Paris: Hachette, 1901), 297.
6. Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP,
7. John Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2d ed. (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard UP 1975, 1977 printing).
8. Costa Lima makes the same connection, quoting John Searle, Austins
student: Literature imitates the illocutionary and, by virtue of this, suspends the latters normative force, thereby allowing the recipient to see
from afar the relationship between the enunciation and its social context
(Social 460).
9. Charles Palliser, Betrayals (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 202.
10. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, Vintage Books Edition,1994), 48-49.
11. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A study in Magic and
Religion (London/New York: Oxford University Press, Worlds Classics
edition, 1994), 26.
12. For a survey of these ideas, see Alexandre Koyrs influential From the
Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957); and E. Grant, Medieval and SeventeenthCentury Conceptions of an Infinite Void Space Beyond the Cosmos, ISIS
60 (1969): 39-60. Rpt. in E. Grant, Studies in Medieval Science and Natural Philosophy (London: Varorium Reprints, 1981).
13. For a detailed analysis of the conception of space in medieval thought
and literature see the previous chapter, On Dante, Hyperspheres and the
Curvature of the Medieval Cosmos.
14. Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses
(New York/London: Routledge, 1993), xiii-xiv.
15. Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1990), 82. For further examples of harmful magical practices see also
Jules Garinet, Histoire de la Magie en France, depuis le commencement de la
monarchie jusqu nos jours (Paris: Chez Foulon et Compagnie, 1818).



16. Johann Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J.
Paton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1996), 192.
17. Jean-Claude Schmitt, La raison des gestes dans lOccident mdival (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), 346.
18. The extended argument, from which the preceding examples were
culled, is to be found in my How the World Became a Stage.
Notes for chapter 4
1. Jean-Franois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press,
1988), 56. Hereafter cited as D.
2. David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of
the New World (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992),
246. Hereafter cited as AH.
3. I wish to emphasize that I use the term magnified in its strictest, most
mundane sense, and in reference only to Lyotards philosophical problem,
not in any way to the magnitude in moral terms of either event. This is not
an essay in comparative victimology.
4. Hannah Arendts Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Viking Press,
1963), is a critique of precisely this application of juridical reason.
5. Vera Lawrence Hyatt and Rex Nettle Ford, Introduction, in Race,
Discourse and the Origin of the Americas (Washington and London: The
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 1. Hereafter cited as RD.
6. that we inhabit a world indelibly altered by it.
7. I borrow the terminology I am using to frame these questions from
Lyotard: As distinguished from a litigation, a differend [diffrend] would
be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments.
[...] A wrong results from the fact that the rules of the genre of discourse by
which one judges are not those of the judged genre or genres of discourse
(D xi).
8. Sylvia Wynter, 1492: A New World View, in Vera Hyatt and Rex
Nettlefored, eds. Race, Discourse and the Origin of the Americas (Washington and London: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 8. Hereafter
cited as NW.
9. The sick humor of this practice is not only evident to modern readers.
Las Casas confessed that on reading it he could not decide whether to
laugh or to weep and even its author, Palacios Rubios was reported to have


a wrinkle in history

laughed out loud when told about the manner in which it was read. See
Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949), 35.
10. According to Sylvia Wynter, The function of the juridical document
was therefore to draw the culturally alien people of the Caribbean and the
Americas within the classificatory logic of the Judeo-Christian local culture
theology, and yet to do so in specifically monarchical-juridical terms that
could make their subjugation and expropriation by the Spanish state seem
real and normal. See Sylvia Wynter, The Pope Must Have Been Drunk,
The King of Castile a Madman: Culture as Actuality, and the Caribbean
Rethinking Modernity, in Alvina Ruorecht and Cecilia Taiana eds. The
Reordering of Culture: Latin America, The Caribbean and Canada in the Hood
(Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995, 17-42), 19. Hereafter cited as P.
11. Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and
the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge, England: The Cambridge University Press, 1982), 31. Hereafter cited as F.
12. For this section concerning the Natural Law philosophy of the Salamanca School, important in order to give a sense of Las Casas immediate
intellectual progenitors, I have relied almost entirely on Pagden.
13. Lewis Hanke, All Man Kind Is One (DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974), 83. Hereafter cited as AM.
14. Fray Bartolom de Las Casas, In Defense of the Indians, trans. Stafford Poole (DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1992),
32. Hereafter cited as ID. There is no extant text of Las Casas Defense,
which he prepared in Spanish and read to the audiences and judges at
the Valladolid debate. The version I have used is Stafford Pooles English
translation of a Latin translation of the original made some time around
1740. Lewis Hankes summary and discussion of the debate is based on
the same source.
15. What do joyful tidings have to do with wounds, captivities, massacres, conflagrations, the destruction of cities and the common evils of
war? They will go to hell rather than learn the advantages of the gospel
(ID 270).
16. Sylvia Wynter, Do Not Call Us Negroes: How Multicultural Textbooks
Perpetuate Racism (San Francisco: Aspire, 1992), 87.
17. Qtd. in Sylvia Wynter, New Seville and the Conversion Experience of
Bartolom de Las Casas. Part II, Jamaica Journal 17.3 (1984): 46-56. 46.
Hereafter cited as NS2.
18. [...] there is no people, among the civilized, which surpasses the
Spanish in prudence, wit, strength, skill in war, humanity, justice, religion,



temperance and, in general, in all Christian, civic and political virtues.

Juan Gins de Seplveda, Democratus alter, qtd. in Las Casas, Apologtica
historia sumaria, ed. Edmundo OGorman (Mxico: Universidad Nacional Autnoma de Mxico, 1967), LXXII. My translation.
19. It was not until Europeans became obsessed with the idea of a graded,
and then of an evolutionary, scale of being, that physical traits moved to the
forefront of the argument. J. H. Elliot, Spain and Its World 1500-1700. Selected Essays (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 48.
20. Francis Deng, Protecting the Dispossessed: A Challenge for the International Community (Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 1993), 1.
Hereafter cited as PD.
21. Such a we, according to Jean Franois Lyotard, only exists as the
object of an Idea; and yet treating an object of an Idea as if it were an object of cognition, e.g., making policies on the basis of it, is one of the basic
characteristics of totalitarianism, itself at odds with the doctrine of human
rights (D 5).
22. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1988), 150. Hereafter cited as CV.
23. For Rorty, relativism is an epithet leveled by realists (his term for
Smiths objectivists) at any number of positions that reject the realist definition of truth as an ultimate correspondence to reality. The form of relativism that his pragmatist embraces is the ethnocentric view that there is
nothing to be said about either truth or rationality apart from descriptions
of the familiar procedures of justification which a given society ours
uses in one or another areas of inquiry. Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth. Philosophical Papers, Volume 1 (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1991), 23. Hereafter cited as OR. However, for Rorty the
emphasized ours of the pragmatists community is not an easily defined or
highly confining border. The ethnos is a fuzzy web of interrelated beliefs
and values, such that in the final analysis the distinction between different cultures does not differ in kind from the distinction between different
theories held by members of a single culture (OR, 26). Therefore, while
the pragmatist does admit to grounding her beliefs ethnocentrically, we
should not read this ethnocentrism as being fundamentally deterministic
in any sense; while the pragmatist must start with what she is given, her
desire is to extend as much as possible the web of solidarity, an amorphous
us that has no theoretical limits.
24. This and other ideas I attribute to Fish in this section came from a talk
and workshop he held at Stanford University, May 6, 1996, on the topic


a wrinkle in history

of Boutique Multiculturalism, or, Why Liberals are Incapable of Talking

About Hate Speech (Or Anything Else). A version of this paper appeared
in Critical Inquiry 23.2 (1997): 387-395.
25. See his article At the Federalist Society, in The Trouble With Principle
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
26. Ludwig Wittgenstein, A Lecture on Ethics, The Philosophical Review
74 (1965): 3-12, 5. Hereafter cited as LE.
27. Kant, as is well known, opposes ethical duty to the inclination one
might feel to perform some act. My own discussion of the ethical, however, has placed it, so to speak, at the vanishing point of inclinations, as a
sort of meta-inclination. For the purposes of this argument, I will assume
as demonstrated the several similar critiques of Kantian ethics that have
shown the imperative to evacuate ones motives of all inclinations to be the
most insidious inclination of all. See, for example, Jacques Lacan, Kant
Avec Sade in crits (Paris: ditions du Seuil, 1971). This problem is in
part the theme of my Perversity and Ethics (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2006).
28. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and
London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1977), 85.
29. The most powerful illustration of this is, again, Arendts Eichmann in
Jerusalem. See, in particular, chapter 5.
30. My paraphrase and translation of the last line of Gabriel Garca
Mrquezs novel, Cien aos de soledad. (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1969), 351.
31. Quoted from a manuscript by Slavoj iek, Paranoia and Politics.
Hereafter cited as PP.
32. See Slavoj iek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso,
1989), chapters 2 & 3. Hereafter cited as SO.
33. Renata Salecl, Woman as Symptom of Rights, Topoi 12 (1993), 8999, 89. Hereafter cited as WS.
Notes for chapter 5
1. Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, 2
vols. (Madrid: Ctredra, 1996). Henceforth abbreviated to Q.
2. See Joan Ramon Resina, Cervantes Confidence Games and the Refashioning of Reality, Modern Language Notes 111.2 (1996), 218-221 for a summary of these positions. Henceforth abbreviated to Resina in the text.
3. Anthony Close, The Romantic Approach to Don Quijote (Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1978), 249. See also Anthony Close, Don Quixote,



(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990), henceforth abbreviated to RA and

Close respectively.
4. P.E. Russell, Cervantes, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985), 105. Henceforth
abbreviated to Russell in the text.
5. I use this compound to distinguish from other scholars, myself included, who are just as concerned with historicizing their readings, but who do
so without attaching much importance to the notion of authorial intent.
6. E.g., E.C. Riley, Cervantess Theory of the Novel, (Oxford: Oxford UP,
7. G.W.F. Hegel, sthetik, 2 vols, (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1976). Henceforth
abbreviated to A in the text.
8. insofern die Prinzipien dieser Philosophie auf die Kunst angewandet
9. Was nun den nheren Zusammenhang Fichtescher Stze mit der einen
Richtung der Ironie angeht, so brauchen wir in dieser Beziehung nur den
folgenden Punkt herauszuheben: dass Fichte zum absoluten Prinzip alles
Wissens, aller Vernunft und Erkenntnis das Ich feststellt, und zwar das
durchaus abstrakt und formell bleibende Ich.
10. an und fr sich sondern nur als durch die Subjektivitt des Ich hervorgebracht.
11. Diese Ironie hat Herr Friedrich von Schlegel erfunden, und viele
andere haben sie nachgeschwatzt oder schwatzen sie von neuem wieder
12. Dilwyn Knox, Ironia: Medieval and Renaissance Ideas on Irony, (New
York: E.J. Brill, 1988), 149.
13. Charles I. Glicksberg, The Ironic Vision in Modern Literature, (The
Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969), 5.
14. For what follows on Schegel and irony, the clearest and most exhaustive study is Ingrid Strohschneider-Kohrs Die romantische Ironie in Theorie und Gestaltung (Tbingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1977), henceforth
abbreviated to Romantische Ironie. I am largely in her debt for my understanding of Schlegels conception of irony.
15. Schlegel uses the Greek word to mean something between demonstration and indication. In English it survives only as the adjective epideictic,
or demonstrative, designed primarily for rhetorical effect.
16. This opposition also dominated the romantics interpretations of Don
Quijote. See J.-J. A. Bertrand, Cervantes et le romantisme Allemand, (Paris:
Librairie Flix Alcan, 1914), 131; henceforth abbreviated to Bertrand. See
also Lienhard Bergel, Cervantes in Germany in Angel Flores and M.J.
Bernadete, eds. Cervantes Across the Centuries (New York: Dryden Press,


a wrinkle in history

1947), 322: For Schelling, Don Quijote was a mythical saga symbolizing
the inevitable struggle between the ideal and the real, a conflict typical of
our world, which has lost the identity between the two. Although there is
no citation, he is probably quoting from Schellings Philosophie der Kunst.
17. Friedrich von Schlegel, Lyceums-Fragment 48 in Prosaische Jugendschriften, (Vienna: J. Minor, 1882), II, 190. Henceforth abbreviated to PJ.
Qtd. in Romantische Ironie 22.
18. Qtd. in Strohschneider-Kohrs 22. die freyeste aller Licenzen, denn
durch sie setzt man sich ber sich selbst weg; und doch auch die gesetzlichste, denn sie ist unbedingt nothwendig.
19. der Begriff fr sich selbst, der denkende Geist, sich nun auch seinerseits in der Philosophie tiefer erkannte und damit auch das Wesen der Kunst
auf eine grndlichere Weise zu nehmen unmittelbar veranlasst ward.
20. Schlegel, Athenums-Fragment 116 in Kritische Schriften, ed. Wolfdietrich Raschm (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1964), 39: Und doch
kann auch sie [die Ironie] am meisten zwischen dem Dargestellten und
dem Darstellenden, frei von allem realen und idealen Interesse auf den
Flgeln der poetischen Reflexion in der Mitte schweben, diese Reflexion
immer wieder potenzieren und wie in einer endlosen Reihe von Spiegeln
21. See my How the World Became a Stage: Presence, Theatricality, and the
Question of Modernity (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003), especially chapter 3.
22. Schlegel, Schriften und Fragmenten aus den Werken und dem handschriftlichen Nachlass zusammengestellt und eingel (Stuttgart: E. Behler,
1956), quoted in Romantische Ironie 66: Ironie ist gleichsam die Epideixis
der Unendlichkeit.
23. Hegel, Hegels Logic trans. William Wallace, (Oxford: Oxford UP,
1975), 137.
24. die Tendenz nach einem tiefen unendlichen Sinn.
25. The true etymology is, of course, somewhat different: romantisch in
German proceeds from the tendency of the literary critics of that age to
focus on the literature and national identities of the Romance cultures,
which literature was written in the vernacular Romance (French and Spanish) in contradistinction to the traditional language of literacy: Latin. By
the sixteenth century the majority of published material in the Romance
vernacular was adventure literature of the kind today denoted by the notion of chivalry, and hence the Romances central connotation was this
type of literature and its attending content of the dedication of knights
to their ladies. See Gumbrecht, Eine Geschichte der Spanischen Literatur
(Frankfurt: Surkamp, 1990), vol. I, 185-6.



26. Schlegel, Smmtliche Werke (Vienna: Original Ausgabe, 1846), XV,

56, quoted in Romantische Ironie 82: Die wahre Ironie ist die Ironie der
Liebe. Sie entsteht aus dem Gefhl der Endlichkeit und der eigenen Beschrnkung, und dem scheinbaren Widerspruche dieses Gefhls mit der
in jeder wahren Liebe mit eingeschlossenen Idee eines Undendlichen.
27. For a resume of the different periods of Schlegels thought, see Romantische Ironie 89-91.
28. That Cervantes belonged to a different cultural world Spain and
not Germany should not cause us concern. Don Quijote was staple literature in Germany from the appearance of its first translation in 1648.
In fact, the 1605 book was already familiar among the courts of German
princes before the 1615 book was published in Spain (Bergel 307).
29. Mais pourquoi Schlegel fit-il tout de suite au pote espagnol une
si large place dans son esthtique? Pourquoi, sinon parce que Cervantes
rpondait des besoins nouveaux de son esprit et parce que son oeuvre le
mettait sur la voie de conceptions nouvelles?
30. For a review of this literature see Luiz Costa Lima, Control of the
Imaginary: Reason and Imagination in Modern Times, trans. Ronald W.
Sousa, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 4.
31. Costa Lima, The Dark Side of Reason: Fictionality and Power, trans.
Paulo Henriques Britto, (Stanford: Stanford UP), 6. Henceforth abbreviated to Dark Side.
32. De m s decir que cuando los [libros de caballera] leo, en tanto que
no pongo la imaginacin en pensar que son todos mentira y liviandad, me
dan algn contento; pero cuando caigo en la cuenta de lo que son, doy con
el mejor dellos en la pared, y aun diera con l en el fuego si cerca o presente
lo tuviera, bien como a merecedores de tal pena, por ser falsos y embusteros, y fuera del trato que pide la comn naturaleza, y como a inventores
de nuevas sectas y de nuevo modo de vida, y como a quien da ocasin que
el vulgo ignorante venga a creer y a tener por verdaderas tantas necedades
como contienen.
33. Porque querer dar a entender a nadie que Amads no fue en el mundo,
ni todos los otros caballeros aventureros de que estn colmadas las historias, ser querer persuadir que el sol no alumbra, ni el yelo enfra, ni la
tierra sustenta; porque, qu ingenio puede haber en el mundo que pueda
persuadir a otro que no fue verdad lo de la infanta Floripes y Guy de Bergoa, y lo de Fierabrs con la puente de Mantible, que sucedi en el tiempo
de Carlomagno, que voto a tal que es tanta verdad que es ahora de da?
34. Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis, (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974),


a wrinkle in history

35. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human

Sciences, (New York: Random House [Vintage], 1994), 49.
36. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979), 56.
37. between objects of knowledge and objects of the senses.
38. Sabes qu imagino, Sancho? Que esta famosa pieza deste encantado
yelmo, por algn estrao accidente debi de venir a manos de quien no
supo conocer ni estimar su valor, y, sin saber lo que haca, vindola de oro
pursimo, debi de fundir la otra mitad para aprovecharse del precio, y de
la otra mitad hizo sta, que parece baca de barbero, como t dices.
39. Porque vean vuestras mercedes clara y manifiestamente el error en
que est este buen escudero, pues llama baca a lo que fue, es y ser yelmo de
Mambrino, el cual se le quit yo en buena guerra, y me hice seor de l con
legtima y lcita posesin! En lo del albarda no me entremeto; que lo que
en ello sabr decir es que mi escudero Sancho me pidi licencia para quitar
los jaeces del caballo deste vencido cobarde, y con ellos adornar el suyo; yo
se la di, y l los tom, y de haberse convertido en jaez de albarda, no sabr
dar otra razon si no es la ordinaria: que como esas transformaciones se ven
en los sucesos de la caballera; para confirmacin de lo cual corre, Sancho
hijo, y saca aqu el yelmo que este buen hombre dice ser baca.
40. Donde se acaba de averiguar la duda del yelmo de Mambrino y de la
albarda y otras aventuras sucedidas con toda verdad.
41. Seor barbero, o quien sois, sabed que yo tambin soy de vuestro
oficio, y tengo ms ha de viente aos carta de examen, y conozco muy bien
de todos los instrumentos de la barbera, sin que le falte uno; y ni ms ni
menos fui un tiempo en mi mocedad soldado, y s tambin qu es yelmo,
y qu es morrin, y celada de encaje, y otras cosas tocantes a la milicia,
digo, a los gneros de armas de los soldados; y digo, salvo mejor parecer,
remitindome siempre al mejor entendimiento, que esta pieza que est aqu
delante y que este buen seor tiene en las manos, no solo no es baca de
barbero, pero est tan lejos de serlo, como est lejos lo blanco de lo negro
y la verdad de la mentira.
42. With this statement I am not necessarily siding with the realist reading of Don Quijote as advanced by Spitzer in his influencial perspectivism essay. The point is rather that with Cervantes reality first becomes
something about which one can take realist or anti-realist positions. I
therefore am still in complete agreement with Resinas characterization of
Cervantess world as one without ontological guarantee (229). Where
the ontological is guaranteed, reality is not an issue. See also Jos-Antonio Maravall, Utopia and Counterutopia in the Quixote, trans. Robert



W. Felkel, (Detroit, Mich., Wayne State UP, 1991), 126-130, for further
arguments concerning reality and its transmutations.
43. Rorty would not agree with the use of world-view, because the whole
point of his argument is that the notion of differing world-views, or conceptual schema through which we interpret the world, is misleading. For
this argument see his essay, The World Well Lost, in his Consequences of
Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 3-18.
44. The epistemological world-view corresponds, of course, to the rise
of skepticism in western intellectual life. As Robbins argues, Spain was at
the forefront of this historical development insofar as it confronted most
insistently the issues regarding knowledge and perception which lay at the
heart of intellectual developments elsewhere in the conteintent, albeit
primarily via works of fiction. Jeremy Robbins, The Challenges of Uncertainty: an Introduction to Seventeenth Century Spanish Literature, (London:
Duckworth &Co, 1998), 41.
45. See Allens note in Q, II 44.
46. que sin duda es el mismo que deseis alcanzar por esposo.
47. Sase quien fuere este que me pide por esposa, que yo se lo agradezco;
que ms quiero ser mujer legtima de un lacayo que no amiga y burlada de
un caballero, puesto que el que me burl no lo es.
48. For an exhaustive history of the paradox and its various (attempts at)
solutions see Alexander Rstow, Der Lgner, Theorie, Geschichte und Auflsung, (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1987).
49. See, for example, Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 800-802.
50. With this division of the agent we are now also in agreement with
Lukacss understanding of irony, a formal constituent of the novel form
that signifies an interior diversion of the normatively creative subject into
a subjectivity as interiority, which opposes power complexes that are alien
to it and which strives to imprint the contents of its longing upon the alien
world, and a subjectivity which sees through the abstract and, therefore,
limited nature of the mutually alien worlds of subject and object, understand [sic] these worlds by seeing their limitations as necessary conditions
of their existence and, by thus seeing them, allows the duality of the world
to subsist. Georg Lukcs, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock,
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1973), 74-75.
51. Digo yo, pues, agora replic Sancho que deste hombre aquella
parte que jur verdad la dejen pasar, y la que dijo mentira la ahorquen, y
desta manera se cumplir al pie de la letra la condicin del pasaje.
Pues, seor, gobernador replic el preguntador , ser necesario
que el tal hombre se divida en partes, en mentirosa y verdadera, y si se


a wrinkle in history

divide, por fuerza ha de morir, y as no se consigue cosa alguna de lo que la

ley pide, y es de necesidad expresa que se cumpla con ella.
52. Rstow suggests that Sanchos solution is just a dressed up version of
Aristotles failed attempt, in which he explains away the paradox by claiming that any given sentence can include true and false parts. This is clearly
not the case of Sanchos solution, however, which claims that the speaker
must be divided into true and false parts.
53. Die Reflexionsbildung unseres heutigen Lebens macht es uns, sowohl in Beziehung auf den Willen als auch auf das Urteil, zum Bedrfnis, allgemeine Gesichtspunkte festzuhalten und danach das Besondere zu
regeln, so dass allgemeine Formen, Gesetze, Pflichten, Rechte, Maximen
als Bestimmungsgrnde gelten und das hauptschlich Regierende sind.
Fr das Kunstinteresse aber wie fr die Kunstproduktion fordern wir im
allgemeinen mehr eine Lebendigkeit, in welcher das Allgemeine nicht als
Gesetz und Maxime vorhanden sei, sondern als mit dem Gemte und der
Empfindung identisch wirke, wie auch in der Phantasie das Allgemeine
und Vernnftige als mit einer konkreten sinnlichen Erscheinung in Einheit gebracht enthalten ist. Deshalb ist unsere Gegenwart ihrem allgemeinen Zustande nach der Kunst nicht gnstig.
54. Hiergegen steht zu behaupten, dass die Kunst die Wahrheit in Form
der sinnlichen Kunstgestaltung zu enthllen, jenen vershnten Gegensatz
darzustellen berufen sei und somit ihren Endzweck in sich, in dieser Darstellung und Enthllung selber habe.
Notes to chapter 6
1. Andr Green, The Tragic Effect: The Oedipus Complex in Tragedy, trans.
Alan Sheridan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 25.
2. See, William Egginton and Peter Gilgen, Disciplining Literature in an
Age of Postdisciplinarity, Stanford Humanites Review 6.1 (1998): vii-xiii.
3. See his Professional Correctness (New York: Clarendon Press, 1995).
4. See Stephen Greenblatt, Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture, in
Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, eds. Patricia Parker and David Quint
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986), 210-224.
5. Andr Green, The Unbinding Process, New Literary History 12.1
(1980): 11-41.
6. Jacques Lacan, Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet,
trans. James Hulbert, Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977): 11-52, 20.
7. See Matthew Stroud, The Play in the Mirror: Lacanian Perspectives on
Spanish Baroque Theater (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1996), 27.



8. Henry Sullivan, The Oedipus Myth: Lacan and Dream Interpretation, in The Prince in the Tower: Perceptions of La Vida es Sueo, ed. Frederick A. de Armas (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1993), 117-31,
9. Sullivan is in fact a dedicated historicist. (See, for instance, Henry
Sullivan, Lacan and Caldern: Spanish Classical Drama in the light of
Psychoanalytic Theory, Gestos 10 (1990): 39-55.) As I make clear below, I
simply disagree with some of his historical conclusions.
10. The discussion of the problem of skepticism is an important theme in
the history of the criticism of La vida es sueo. See, for example, Marcelino
Menndez Pelayo, Caldern y su teatro, Estudios y discursos de crtica literaria (Santander: CSIC, 1941), 224, in which he argues that Calderns
play stages a transition from skepticism to dogmatism. Jos Mara Valverde, in the introduction to his edition of La vida es sueo (xiii), argues
precisely the opposite, claiming that unlike Descartes, Segismundo never
escapes from his doubt, and can only proceed by replacing certainty with
moral conscience. As will become clear below, Valverdes interpretation
convinces me more.
11. In keeping with the attitude toward theory that this article is meant
to showcase, I will not quote formulations by Lacan or followers of Lacan
in order to seek out their corrolates in the play. Instead I will make only
synthetic remarks based on my own knowledge and interpretation of
Lacanian ideas and provide occasional references for the interested reader to consult in more detail. For Lacans ideas about the human beings
throwness in language, see his Linstance de la lettre dans linconscient
ou la raison depuis Freud, in crits (Paris: ditions du Seuil, 1966). For
more on Heideggers notion of Geworfenheit, see Sein und Zeit (Tbingen:
Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1986), 167-180.
12. See Lacans article, La signification du phallus, in crits (Paris: ditions du Seuil, 1966).
13. Menndez Palayo, in the chapter cited above, also argues for an allegorical understanding of the work as a symbol of human life in general.
14. Caldern de la Barca, La vida es sueo, ed. Jos Mara Valverde (Barcelona: Planeta, 1981),
I. iv. 319-327.
15. See Everett Hesses classic article, Calderns Concept of the Perfect
Prince in La vida es sueo, in Critical Essays on the Theatre of Caldern, ed.
Bruce W. Wardropper (New York: New York University Press, 1965).
16. Sigmund Freud, Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse (Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997), 66-72.


a wrinkle in history

17. In order to avoid a long digression into the debate around the social
transformations leading from the late Middle Ages to the early modern
period, let us just say that even the strongest critics of the various theses
of medieval exceptionalism grant that the world in 1600 was enormously
different form that in 1300. See, e.g., Lee Pattersons article, On the Margin: Postmodernism, Ironic History, and Medieval Studies. Speculum 65
(1990): 87-108. For the sake of this discussion let us stipulate merely that
the general tendency of these changes was to greater social mobility and
a corresponding undermining of the traditional social and metaphysical
18. What follows is a brief summation of ideas and definitions from How
the World Became a Stage.
19. For another argument supporting the presence of skepticism in Calderns thought, see Daniel Heiples Life as Dream and the Philosophy of
Disillusionment, in The Prince in the Tower: Perceptions of La Vida es
Sueo, ed. Frederick A. de Armas (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1993), 111
- 116.
20. David Castillo and William Egginton, All the Kings Subjects: Honor
in Early Modernity, Romance Language Annual 6 (1995): 422-27.
21. Edmund M. Wilson corroborates this argument when he argues that
all the major characters in the play are too confident in their own abilities.
La vida es sueo, Caldern y la crtica: historia y antologa, eds. Manuel
Durn and Roberto Gonzlez Echevarra. 2 vols. (Madrid: Ed. Gredos,
1976) 1:300-328, 318.
Notes to chapter 7
1. Thanks are due to my assistants Andrew Franklin, Megan Pendergast,
and Aimee Woznick, without whose tireless research this chapter would
have been inconceivable.
2. Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (Dunwoody,
Georgia: N.S. Berg, 1968). See also Robert A. Nye, The Origins of Crowd
Psychology: Gustave Le Bon and the Crisis of Mass Democracy in the Third
Republic (London: SAGE Publications, 1973). As Walter Benjamin writes,
The crowd no subject was more entitled to the attention of nineteenth
century writers. On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, in Illuminations, trans.
Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 166.
3. Gabriel Tarde, The Laws of Imitation, trans. Elsie Clews Parson (New
York: H. Holt, 1903), passim.
4. The terminology and theses are those of Jos-Antonio Maravall. See in



particular From the Renaissance to the Baroque: The Diphasic Schema

of a Social Crisis, trans. Terry Cochran, in Literature Among Discourses,
eds. Wlad Godzich and Nicholas Spadaccini (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1986), 3-41; and The Culture of the Baroque: Analysis of
a Historical Structure, trans. Terry Cochran (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1986).
5. See the analysis of Baltasar Gracins work below.
6. I am grateful to Rebecca Haidt for this insight. Unpublished lecture,
University at Buffalo, February 2003.
7. Gustave Cohen, Histoire de la mise en scne dans le thtre religieux franais du moyen ge (Paris: Librairie Honor Champion, 1951), 48.
8. Le Bon 11, 6.
9. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans, Carol Stewart (New York: The
Viking Press, 1962), 15: it is only in a crowd that man can become free of
his fear of being touched, a statement that reflects both the modern thematic of abandon in the crowd, as well as the modern prejudice, prejudicial
to our understanding of medieval group dynamics, which asserts a prior
antagonism between the individual and the multitude. The arguments in
this section derive from my How the World Became a Stage: Presence, Theatricality, and the Question of Modernity (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003). For a
largely corroborating analysis of the English context, see Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachin, The Culture of Playgoing in Shakespeares England: A
Collaborative Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
10. From The Condition of the Working Class in England, qtd. in Benjamin
11. Some of the best evidence for this generalization is collected and analyzed in Philippe Aris and Georges Duny, eds., A History of Private Life.
Volume II: Revelations of the Medieval World (Cambridge, Mass. And London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988). See in particular
Georges Duby, Private Power, Public Power 3-32. See also David Castillo and William Egginton, The Perspectival Imaginary and the Symbolization of Power in Early Modern Europe, Indiana Journal of Hispanic
Literatures 8 (1997): 75-94.
12. The Body vs. the Printing Press: Media in the Early Modern Period, Mentalities in the Reign of Castille, and Another History of Literary Forms, Poetics 14 (1985): 209-227, 190. Jelle Koopmans has made a
similar point in the context of her discussion of the medieval theater of the
excluded. Koopmans, Le Thtre des exclus au Moyen Age: hrtiques, sorcires et marginaux (Paris: Editions Imago, 1997), 31. Gumbrechts notion
of play, developed in part on the basis of Huizingas famous thesis (Homo


a wrinkle in history

Ludens: Vom Ursprung der Kultur im Spiel [Hamburg, 1956]), argues that
there was a practice of play peculiar to the Middle Ages that involved the
generation of the very spaces that would normally distinguish the serious
from the playful or fictional. See Gumbrecht, Laughter and Arbitrariness,
Subjectivity and Seriousness: The Libro de Buen Amor, the Celestina, and
the Style of Sense Production in Early Modern Times, Making Sense in
Life and Literature, trans. Glen Burns (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P,
1992), 111-122.
13. See, for example, E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, 2 vols. (London/Edinburgh/New York: Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1903), I 187.
14. Elie Konigson, LEspace Thtral Mdival (Paris: ditions du Centre
National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1975), 50.
15. See my An Epistemology of the Stage: Subjectivity and Theatricality
in Early Modern Spain, New Literary History 27 (1996): 391-414.
16. Splica de la Ciudad de Sevilla al Consejo de Castilla, sobre licencia para
representar comedias, quoted in Jean Sentaurens, Sobre el pblico de los
corrales sevillanos en el Siglo de Oro, in Creacin y pblico en la literatura
espaola, eds. J.-F. Botrel and S. Salan (Madrid: Editorial Castalia, 1974)
56-92, 62-3.
17. Wallace Sterling, Jr., Carros, Corrales, and Court Theatres: The
Spanish Stage in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Quarterly
Journal of Speech 49 (1963): 17-22, 20.
18. Don Quijote de La Mancha (Madrid: Ctedra, 1996), I 557; quoted
and commented in John J. Allen, El papel del vulgo en la economa de los
corrales de comedias madrileos, Edad de oro XII (1993): 9-17, 12.
19. Cervantes 557. The figure of the vulgo has a long and troubled history
in Spanish letters, which we will only touch on here. Of note is the idea
that one of the implicit butts of Cervantess wit and resentment is his rival
and far greater success in the world of the stage, Lope de Vega, who, as a
writer who benefited extravagantly from the adoration of the vulgo, might
be thought to treat them in a more generous light. See Kirschners comparative study of the figure of the mob in Shakespeare and Lope, in which she
argues that the Lopean mob is portrayed in somewhat better terms than its
Shakespearean equivalent. Teresa J. Kirschner, The Mob in Shakespeare
and Lope de Vega, in Parallel Lives: Spanish and English National Drama
1580-1680, eds. Louise and Peter Fothergill Payne (Lewisburg: Bucknell
University Press, 1991), 140-151. Nevertheless, when speaking of the vulgo
as the recipients of their own work, individual playwrights tended to be
quite withering. See, for some examples, Hugo A. Rennert, The Spanish
Stage in the Time of Lope de Vega (New York: Dover Publications, 1963),



117. The English context corroborates this disdain for the taste of the
masses: for Jonson, for example, the uninstructed reader is bound to be
cozened by plays and the source of the cheat is to be found in the multitude, though their excellent [supreme] vice of judgment. Leo Salinger,
Dramatic Form in Shakespeare and the Jacobeans (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1986), 200. See also Nicoll Allardyce, The Garrick Stage:
Theatres and Audiences in the Eighteenth Century (Athens: The University
of Georgia Press, 1980). As the case of the Drury Lane theater riots indicate, the threat of random or individual violence in the theater did not
mean that theater audience could not on occasion also act as more or less
unified mobs. Henry William Pedicord, The Changing Audience, in
The London Theatre World, 1660-1800, ed. Robert D. Hume (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press, 1980), 245. See also Leo
Hughes, The Dramas Patrons (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971) for
descriptions of English audiences behavior in the eighteenth century.
20. Egginton, Epistemology of the Stage 408. Cf., for the case of the
English stage, Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender
in Shakespeares England (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
21. Lemazuriers Galrie historique, quoted in W. L. Wiley, The Early Public Theatre in France (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 21112.
22. For a historical examination of the Cartesian theater, see my How
the World Became a Stage, chapter 5.
23. Baltasar Gracin, El Criticn (Madrid: Ctedra, 2000), 381.
24. See my Gracin and the Emergence of the Modern Subject, Hispanic
Issues 14 (1997): 151-169.
25. Maxim 94 of Orculo manual; Gracin, El hroe, el discreto, orculo
manual y arte de prudencia (Barcelona: Planeta, 1984).
26. Todo est ya en su punto y el ser persona en el mayor [Everything is
now at a crest, and being person is the utmost]. Orculo maxim 1.
27. For arguments concerning the history of publicity in this sense, see
the articles collected in A History of Private Life, as well as Jrgen Habermass influential The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans.
Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1989).
28. The Fall of Public Man (New York: Knopf, 1976).
29. That the experience of anonymity is both ubiquitous within the
historical epoch of modernity and pivotal in modern power relations is
supported by a linguistic analysis of forms of address. More specifically,
the burgeoning of publicity as the stage for the organization of power


a wrinkle in history

structures, which itself involves the bifurcation of experientiae along the

axis of intimacy and anonymity, is registered in the language of address
as the emergence of distinct forms for intimate and anonymous interaction, the latter being composed of formerly third person and plural forms
of address now appropriated as indicators of social distance as well as
authority. See, for example, Ferdinand Brunot, Prcis de grammaire historique de la langue franaise (Paris: Masson et Cie, diteurs, 1937), 393.
As regards the commonality of some third person forms, there is no
sign of the Latin pluralbeing used with singular reference to indicate
respect, a device widely adopted in Romance. Christopher J. Pountain,
A History of the Spanish Language through Texts (London: Routledge,
2001), 17. That there was a theoretical consciousness of the political nature of the relation between the singular and plural forms of address in
France is evidenced by the attempt during the early years of the Revolution to reduce all forms of address to the singular tu: Les tentatives
de niveler aussi la langue ne manqurent pas. La plus notable a t sans
doute le remplacement de vous par tu, dcrt par la Convention, mais
rvoqu ds 1795. Walter von Wartburg, volution et structure de la langue franaise (Berne: A. Francke, 1946), 234. It is also noteworthy that
this should have been revoked in the wake of some of the excesses of the
terror, suggesting perhaps the need for abstract embodiments of power
in the modern state. The case of German is made in Paul Listen, The
Emergence of the German Polite Sie: Cognitive and Sociolinguistic Parameters (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 3. Ralph Penny argues that Spanish
did in fact adopt a differentiated system from late Latin, expressed in the
distinction between a more formal Vos and a less formal T. But, as he
goes on to say, during the fifteenth century the type Vos sois/ sos (<sodes)
became gradually less deferential, coming to be used among equals at
various social levels and therefore often becoming indistinguishable in
tone from T eres. Since society continued to require modes of deferential
address, for occasions when one was speaking to someone of higher rank,
speakers of fifteenth-century Spanish often remedied the situation by
using two-word phrases consisting of an abstract noun preceded by the
hitherto deferential possessive: vuestra excelenceia, vuestra seora, vuestra
merced, etc. (Variation and Change in Spanish [Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2000], 152). Where I would intervene, of course, is to
suggest that the emergence of these third person forms in the fifteenth
century was not inspired by the mere persistence of a need for modes
of deferential address, but rather by a fundamental change in the kind
of deferential address required or, more specifically, by a change in the



nature of deference itself, from the deference in the face of a personal,

familiar source of power to the deference before abstract authority that
characterizes the power structures of modernity.
30. I refer again to Castillo and Egginton. For a fascinating analysis of
the emergence of what am calling symbolic power in the writings of Gmez Manrique, who served as royal overseer of Toledo under the Catholic
Kings, see Jos Mara Rodrguez-Garca, Poetry, Politics, and Penal Practice in Fifteenth-Century Toledo: Re-Reading Gmez Manrique, unpublished manuscript.
31. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 2002). Although the direction of my analysis is
different, Anthony Giddens claim that the possibility of intimacy means
the promise of democracy (The Transformations of Intimacy: Sexuality,
Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies [Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992],
188) can be seen to resonate here. The modern manifestation of democratic institutions is constructed on the idea of the public or anonymous
negotiation of an intimate core of private desires. Hence, as he puts it,
political democracy implies that individuals have sufficient resources to
participate in an autonomous way in the democratic process (195), or to
put it in Gracianesque terms: democracy = the assertion of autonomy via
the display and concealment of resources (caudal).
32. Obras escogidas de Jovellanos (Madrid: Imprenta La Rafa, 1930), 173.
33. Dismay over disorder and desire for order was widespread in eighteenth-century European writings. See, for example, some of the descriptions quoted in John Kelleys German Visitors to English Theaters in the
Eighteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936).
34. Jovellanos 175.
35. Jovellanos 176.
36. Although Jovellanoss reputation is, deservedly, that of a committed
Enlightenment thinker, one cannot fail to notice what could be termed a
romantic tug in these theater writings, an observation that is sustained
by Jos Mara Rodrguez-Garcas treatment in The Avoidance of Romanticism in Jovellanoss Epstola del Paular, Crtica Hispnica xxiv.1&2
(2002): 93-110.
37. Explicitly political mass spectacle was, of course, an important recurrent practice of the French revolution. Davids fte de Chteauvieux as well
as other spectacles at the time could be seen in some ways as a realization
of the potential for the production of unity that Jovellanos so desires from
the theater. See Mona Ozouf, La fte rvolutionnaire, 1789-1799 (Paris:
Gallimard, 1982) 92.


a wrinkle in history

38. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, trans.
Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979).
39. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des
Hochkapitalismus (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969), 52.
40. See Jobst Welges contribution to Crowds, eds. Jeffrey T. Schapp and
Matthew Tiews (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006).
41. Sein und Zeit (Tbingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1986), 126.
42. A psychoanalytic explanation for this phenomenon can emerges from
a reading of the debate Freud stages in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (trans. James Strachey [New York: Bantam Books, 1960])
with what he refers to as Le Bons deservedly famous work on crowd psychology. If the libidinal bond constitutive of mass behavior requires explanation in that love usually describes a relationality between individuals
across a barrier distinguishing an object or another person, whereas the
crowd phenomenon clearly seems at odds with this formulation Freud
solves this problem by arguing that individual members of the crowd have
put one and the same object in the place of the ego ideal and have consequently
identified themselves with one another in their ego (61). Likewise, by attending in a nonparticipatory way to the performance taking place on the stage,
audience members effectively shift toward the outside the ego-boundary
normally demarcating the separation between self and other, the result
being that the audience can react to affective input in a non-differentiated
way, thus producing the effect so characteristic of the crowd as described
by Le Bon and others: that of the collective mind.
43. For an analysis of a specific example of the political mobilization of
theatrical crowds, see Jeffrey T. Schnapp, Staging Fascism: 18 B L and the
Theater of Masses for Masses (Stanford, California: Stanford University
press, 1996).
44. Obras de Don Ramn de Mesonero Romanos, Biblioteca de autores espaoles, vol. 200 (Madrid: Ediciones Atlas, 1967), 139.
45. Notre-Dame de Paris (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 15.
46. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, trans. Walter J. Cobb (New York: New
American Library, 1965), 21.
47. Richard Miller, Bohemia: The Protoculture Then and Now (Chicago:
Nelson-Hall, 1977), 26.
48. Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience,, 11.
49. See Lynn Jamieson, Intimacy: Personal Relationships in Modern Societies (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 19: intimacy is again
becoming attenuated not because people are being re-absorbed into a pre-



modern type of communal life but because mass consumer culture promotes a self-obsessive, self-isolating individualism which is incapable of
sustaining anything other than kaleidoscopic relationships.
50. thats RL [real life]. Its just one more window, as Sherry Turkle
quotes from one of her wired informants. Life on the Screen: Identity in the
Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 13.
51. Electronic Disturbance,, 3.
Notes to chapter 8
1. The thoughts presented here were inspired by a talk given by Scott
Bukatman at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in
May of 1999, and by further discussions with Bernadette Wegenstein. See,
for example, Wegenstein, Shooting Up Heroines, in Reload: Rethinking
Women and Cyberculture, eds. Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth (Boston,
MIT Press, 2001), and Bukatman, Terminal Identity : the Virtual Subject
in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham, Duke UP, 1993).
2. This essay focuses primarily on the manifestation of this phenomenon
in film, although it is obviously part of a general zeitgeist that finds expression in a variety of media. The trope of bleeding I describe below has
become so common that the television series Falcons Crest actually ended
its long and successful run by revealing that the entire world it depicted
had been the dream of a character from another popular show. For some
analyses of media other than film, see, for example, Sherry Turkle, Life
on The Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1995), and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation:
Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1999).
More than just a history of the trope in film, this paper seeks to contextualize this zeitgeist as a whole.
3. And am I not, in so doing, merely rehearsing what Jean-Louis Braudy has
claimed is the historical move par excellence in film studies, namely, finding its origin in practices other than film? Or what of Braudys own claim,
that cinema is the realization of a desire to represent inherent to human psychology, a realization next to which painting and theater were merely dry
runs? Jean-Louis Braudy, The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches
to the Impression of Reality in Cinema, in Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen,
and Leo Braudy, eds., Film Theory and Criticism (New York: Oxford UP,
1992), 690-707; 697. My reply is that the particular desire realized by film
is not universal, as Braudy argues, but rather specific to the epistemology of


a wrinkle in history

modernity. The representationalism of Plato, to which Braudy refers, must

not be confused with that of Descartes. Even Heidegger, who consistently
located the birth of metaphysical thinking with Plato, insists on this distinction: What it is to be is for the first time defined as the objectiveness
of representing, and truth is first defined as the certainty of representing,
in the metaphysics of Descartes (The Age of the World Picture, in The
Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, William Lovitt, trans.
(New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 115-154; 127.
4. See Charles Palliser, Betrayals, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), in
which a charming, homicidal maniac is portrayed as being incapable of
distinguishing lived reality from that, for instance, represented on television.
5. See Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974),
40-47, as well as Luiz Costa Lima, Social Representation and Mimesis,
New Literary History 16.3 (1985): 447-467, for an appropriation of his
theory as the basis for an understanding of practices related to social representation .
6. The distinction I am suggesting between illusionism and realism parallels the double logic of remediation described by Bolter and Grusin: Our
culture wants both to multiply its media and erase all traces of mediation:
ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them (5).
As I argue in more detail below, this paper should be understood as presenting a kind of material history of this desire.
7. On the theoretical implications of new techniques of computer animation, see Vivian Sobchack, ed., Meta Morphing: Visual Transformation and
the Culture of Quick-Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
2000). As to the connection between illusionism and computer animation, Grusin and Bolter agree: Photorealistic computer graphics seeks to
create a space that is purified of all references to itself as medium and to
other media, and yet it never seems to be able to maintain that purity
(115). For their views on the incorporation of computer graphics into film,
see 147-150.
8. Maya Deren, Cinematography: the Creative Use of Reality, in Film
Theory and Criticism 59-78; 62.
9. This aura of truth has a correlate in Barthes notion of the punctum,
that aspect of a photograph that is there despite the intention of the photographer, and that quite possibly could not not have been there. Chambre
Claire: Note sur la photographie (Paris: Gallimard Seuil, 1980), 80.
10. In this way, the very rumor of snuff constitutes a kind of limit-experience of representation. See Thomas Landess, The Snuff Film and the



Limits of Modern Aesthetics, in Literature and the Visual Arts in Contemporary Society, Suzanne Ferguson and Barbara Groselclose, eds. (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State UP, 1985), 197-210, 1985
11. While this chapter is not the place to pursue it, a connection between
this model and a Lacanian analysis of mediation suggests itself, in which
the ever-receding {Q} has the value of the objet petit a, the piece of the
real that is both the object and cause of desire. This Lacanian analysis
has tended to focus on how the medium of film temps the viewer to evercloser identification with a given viewer position precisely insofar as a total
identification a collapse of mediation, in other words always fails.
The literature on this topic is extensive; see, for example, Slavoj iek, In
His Bold Gaze My Ruin Is Writ Large, in Everything You Always Wanted
to Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock , Slavoj iek, ed.
(London and New York: Verso, 1992), 211-272; and Joan Copjec, Read My
Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists (Cambridge, Mass. and London: The
MIT Press, 1994), 15-38.
12. Reality bleed comes from Cronenbergs eXistenZ (1999), and refers
to a phenomenon in virtual reality gaming in which elements of the real
world begin to invade the created world of the game.
13. Costa Lima 460. The term, of course, refers to John Austins How to
Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP 1975 [1962]).
14. And of course there are more, as others have noted. See, for example,
Daniel Argent, The Reality of Reality: How eXistenZ and The Thirteenth
Floor Reflect Their Filmmakers View of Film and Audience, Creative
Screenwriting 6.2 (1999): 74-76. One element all these films clearly have
in common is that they are all to some extent about mediation. As I will
argue below, such example should not be seen as exceptional, however, but
rather as the actualization of an ever-present potential of representational
practices since theater. Realism proper, then, is always about mediation.
15. This mention is not entirely gratuitous. The fact that the Matrix is
itself the product of a language (albeit digital) and hence in some quite
literal sense has been put into words (or symbols) belies Morpheuss claim
and provides support for the later Wittgensteins contention that one cant
get between language and reality. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, third edition, G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. (Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice Hall, 1958), 21-22, passim. I am grateful to my student Kenji
Arai for this insightful argument.
16. A new breed of video games partakes of this bleeding effect. One
such game, Majestic, takes over the mail program of your browser in order
to deliver real-time updates of your virtual characters whereabouts and


a wrinkle in history

activities. See

17. In Ambrose Bierce, Civil War Stories (New York: Dover Press 1994).
18. Emphasis on the coercive nature of this positioning of the viewer is, of
course, where the Laura Mulvey-Louis Althusser-Jacques Lacan family of
film criticism enters the picture. For a summary of these ideas see Sandy
Flitterman-Lewis, Psychoanalysis in Film and Television, in Channels
of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism, ed. Robert C. Allen
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 170-210.
19. The innovation of the holodeck in Star Trek: the Next Generation
paved the way for a series of episodes heavily concerned with bleeding. See,
most importantly, Ship in a Bottle, in which the brilliant holodeck character Dr. Moriarty convinces the crew that he has taken over the ship by
constructing a simulacrum of the ship within the holodeck. Picard finally
trumps him by constructing another version of the ship, and indeed of the
entire universe, within Moriartys already constructed world. In the end,
Moriarty is allowed to believe that he has escaped the holodeck and the
Enterprise when in fact he has merely entered a computer program with,
as the captain says, enough memory to give him adventures for a lifetime.
The question then becomes, whats the difference?
20. See Melissa Goldman, Realism, Deception, Illusion: Understanding
Cinema in the Belle Epoque, Dissertation, Stanford University, 1999.
21. Cf. Tom Gunnings thesis that the real scare of these early cinematic experiences was not due so much to the belief that what was happening was real
as to the overwhelming nature of the medium itself. Gunning, The Cinema
of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectators, and the Avant-Garde, Wide Angle
8.3,4(1986): 63-71. Cf. also his argument that there is an excess of mimesis
inherent to the photographic image that can overwhelm narrative content.
D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative in Film. The Early Years
at Biograph (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illenois Press, 1991), 17.
22. Hugo Mnsterberg argues that film provokes a different psychological
experience to that of the theater because it projects what normally goes on in
ones mind and memory onto the screen, hence breaking down the boundaries between reality and the soul (The Film: A Psychological Study [New York,
Dover,1970], 41). I would argue that while each and every medium provokes
a different type of psychological reaction, no one is per se more apt than others to break down the barriers of reality; as I argued earlier, realism regards
the perception of an object relative to a context of expectations.
23. Luigi Pirandello, Sei personaggi in cerca d autore (Milano: A. Mondadori , 1936).



24. Cervantes, Retablo de las maravillas, in Entremeses (Mexico: Austral,

1947), 99-116.
25. See Egginton and David Castillo, The Rules of Chanfallas Game,
Romance Languages Annual 6 (1994): 444-49.
26. Lodovico Castelvetro, Poetica dAristotele vulgarizzata e sposta (Basel,
1596), 109; Quoted and translated in Marvin Carleson, Theories of the
Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, from the Greeks to the Present
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 49.
27. For an earlier, but concise version of this argument, see my Epistemology of the Stage: Theatricality and Subjectivity in Early Modern Spain.
New Literary History 27 (1996): 391-414. For its full development, see my
How the World Became a Stage: Presence, Theatricality, and the Question of
Modernity (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003).
28. For more details regarding the history of this technique, see Robert
J. Nelson, Play within a Play. The Dramatists Conception of his Art: Shakespeare to Anouilh (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958), and Georges
Forestier, Le Thtre dans le Thtre sur la Scne Franaise du XVIIe Sicle
(Genve: Librarie Droz, 1981).
29. See Stephen Orgels discussion in The Play of Conscience, in Performativity and Performance, eds. Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
(New York/London: Routledge, 1995), 133-151.
30. For a more detailed reading, see my Psychoanalysis and the Comedia
in this volume.
31. The arguments presented in this paper are, as this assertion suggests,
based on a Heideggerian approach to media analysis, one in which ontology, as Heidegger famously wrote, must be done as phenomenology (Being
and Time, John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, trans. [San Francisco:
Harpper Collins, 1962], 60), and phenomenology is understood as a practice not of purifying perception of all mediation, as in its classical, Husserlian version, but of revealing the mediations ineradicably inherent to all
32. Reality is first recorded in English in 1550; and realidad in Spanish in 1607, only two years after the publication of Cervantess great bleeder, Don Quijote.
33. Realitt/Idealitt, in Joachim Ritter and Karlfried Grnder, eds.,
Historisches Wrterbuch der Philosophie, 10 vols. (Basel: Schwabe & Co.
Verlag, 1992), 8, 186.
34. The critic most responsible for this insight is Gyorgy Lukacs. See for
example, his Theory of the Novel, Ana Bostock, trans. (Cambridge, Mass.:
The MIT Press, 1971), passim.


a wrinkle in history

35. Heidegger, World Picture, passim; Rorty, Richard, Introduction,

and The World Well Lost, in The Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), xiii-xlvii; 3-18.
36. Descartes, Meditation III (Alqui edition, II) 193; quoted in Richard
Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 56.
Notes to chapter 9
1. The first reference is to be found in Essays on Heidegger and Others,
Philosophical Papers Volume 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1991), 4, hereafter referred to in the text as EH; the second reference is
to Wittgenstein Reads Freud: the Myth of the Unconscious, New York
Times Book Review (Sun., Sept. 22, 1996): 42, col. 2.
2. Richard Rorty, Freud, Morality, and Hermeneutics, New Literary
History (1980): 177-185; 177; hereafter referred to as FMH.
3. See iek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality (London: Verso, 1994), 30-33.
4. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1989), 39; hereafter referred to as CIS.
5. Quoted in Charles Hanly, The Problem of Truth in Applied Psychoanalysis (London: The Guilford Press, 1992), 18. Hanlys agenda is to secure
a correspondence theory of truth for psychoanalysis. I agree with Rorty
against Hanly in thinking that psychoanalysis helps transcend the philosophical pseudo-problems of realism vs. antirealism and coherence vs. correspondence. The only difference is that I think Lacan is a better ally in
this matter than Freud is.
6. The use of pure here and in the title is a reference to Rortys criticism
of philosophers tendency always to seek purer methodologies, and thereby
arrive ever closer to the truth (see Consequences of Pragmatism [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982], 19; hereafter referred to as CP).
Although I do not wish to imply that Rorty believes one form of pragmatism comes closer to the truth than any other, I am suggesting throughout this paper that he has fallen prey to the temptation of another kind
of purity, a purity produced by erasing as many distinctions as possible,
sometimes before their usefulness has been exhausted. Thomas McCarthy
also notices this tendency, calling it Rortys all-or-nothing approach to
philosophy. See An Exchange on Truth, Freedom, and Politics II: Ironist
Theory as a Vocation: A Response to Rortys Reply, Critical Inquiry 16
(Spring 1990): 644-55; 644.



7. See Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton

University Press, 1979), his polemic against dualism and representationalism; hereafter referred to as PMN.
8. See, for example, crits (Paris: Seuil, 1966) 856, where he identifies
what he calls the subject of science with the historical period inaugurated
by Descartes cogito.
9. crits 517.
10. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are mine.
11. This is a simplification, as the subject at all times inhabits all three
dimensions: real, imaginary, and symbolic. The point of this stipulation
is to stress that the imaginary/real distinction is not one between what
we perceive and what is really out there, but rather between the world of
our conscious perception and that of our desire. This distinction is developed in great detail in Le sminaire. VII. Lthique de la psychanalyse (Paris,
Seuil, 1986).
12. The reference is to Strawsons sentence shaped objects, of which
Rorty says, [i]insofar as they are nonconceptualized, they are not isolable
as input. But insofar as they are conceptualized, they have been tailored
to the needs of a particular input-output function, a particular convention of representation (Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers Volume 3
[Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998], 36; hereafter referred to
as TP). Another way of putting this is to say that in a wider sense of social construction, everything, including giraffes and molecules, is socially
constructed, for no vocabulary (e.g., that of zoology or physics) cuts reality
at the joints. Reality has no joints. It just has descriptions some more
socially useful than others (TP 83).
13. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991), 364;
TP 98.
14. The example comes from an episode in Frank Baums series of books
about the land of Oz.
15. Tlvision (Paris: Seuil, 1974); my translation.
16. Jonathan Scott Lee also emphasizes the agreement between Lacan
and pragmatism on issues of truth and representation, noting that Lacan
explicitly rejects representational theories of knowledge in his seminar XI.
See Lee, Jacques Lacan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 154-55; Lacan, Le
sminaire XI. Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse (Paris:
ditions du Seuil, 1973), 201.
17. Wilfrid Sellars, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, sec. 29,
Science, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge, 1963); quoted in TP


a wrinkle in history

18. Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 20; quoted in TP 43.
19. This metaphor (simile, in this case), which inaugurated Lacans combination of structural linguistics and psychoanalysis, is actually of the kind
that Rorty would usually admire, because it initiated new possibilities of
thought on the basis of an utterance that at first glance seemed absurd. See
my discussion of metaphor below.
20. Noam Chomsky, Language and Thought (Wakefield, Rhode Island &
London: Moyer Bell, 1993), 36.
21. Rorty makes this point himself about that aspect of language he calls
our final vocabularies: ... we do not construct final vocabularies. They are
always already there. We find ourselves thrown into them. Final vocabularies are not tools, for we cannot specify the purpose of a final vocabulary
without futility twisting around inside the circle of that final vocabulary
(EH 38). Which is to say that at least some aspect of language, our final
vocabularies, is unique, since we can describe pretty much everything else
without twisting around in it. Rorty might add that the same thing can be
said of thought or brains or neurons. I agree, but I dont see how this
is an objection to the statement that there might be something philosophically interesting to say about language.
22. Jacques Lacan, Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet, in
Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977): 11-52, 25; an excerpt from the unpublished Seminar VI on Le dsir et son interprtation.
23. See, for example, Slavoj iek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques
Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1991),
147-154, and For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political
Factor (London: Verso, 1991), passim.
24. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness
(London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961) forward; quoted in EH 57.
25. This phrase comes from Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An
Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 1969).
26. See The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), 50, for only the
most recent example.
27. The ahistoricism of this account can made perfectly compatible
with the pragmatist historicism that I share with Rorty by saying, on the
one hand, that the statement all human beings partake of metaphysical
desire implies merely that metaphysical desire is central to my (historically situated) definition of a human being and, on the other, that one
can make any pronouncement one wants without thereby assuming that



the vocabulary one is using would be valid or comprehensible for all

28. Rorty denies that there is something called philosophy or metaphysics which is central to our culture and which has been radiating evil influences outward (EH 104), a view he attributes to Derrida. But my point
is that metaphysical thought does exist (evidence: Rortys own polemic
against it), and that it can be understood as a symptom or manifestation of
a more generalized way people think about the world. Rorty later admits
that this claim has some plausibility, and comes up with some evidence
of his own for it. See An Exchange on Truth, Freedom, and Politics I:
Truth and Freedom: A Reply to Thomas McCarthy, Critical Inquiry 16
(Spring 1990): 633-643; 636. Thomas McCarthy makes a similar claim
to mine in Private Irony and Public Decency: Richard Rortys New Pragmatism, Critical Inquiry 16 (Winter 1990): 355-70; 360: ...whatever the
sources, our ordinary, nonphilosophical truth-talk and reality-talk is shot
through with just the sorts of idealizations that Rorty wants to purge.
29. Rorty has asked me whether psychoanalysis explains metaphysical
desire, or whether it just renames it. My feeling is that if renaming a phenomenon allows one to think of it in a different way, and to make connections between it and other phenomena with which it wasnt connected
before, this is explanation.
30. On Davidsons view... live metaphors can justify belief only in the
same metaphorical sense in which one may justify a belief not by citing
another belief but by using a non-sentence to stimulate ones interlocutors
sense organs hoping thereby to cause assent to a sentence (ORT 169).
31. [N]either knowledge nor morality will flourish unless somebody uses
language for purposes other than making predictable moves in currently
popular language-games (ORT 169); and, ... metaphor is an essential
instrument in the process of reweaving our beliefs and desires, without it,
there would be no such thing as a scientific revolution or cultural breakthrough, but merely the process of altering the truth values of statements
formulated in a forever unchanging vocabulary (ORT 124).
32. Lacan develops his theory of the function of metaphor and metonymy
in the unconscious in his Linstance de la lettre dans linconscient ou la
raison depuis Freud, in crits 493-530. See, in particular 508: On voit
que la mtaphore se place au point prcis o le sens se produit dans le nonsens... [one sees that metaphor is placed at the precise point where sense
is produced in non-sense] and 515, for the relation between metonymy
and metaphor in more detail. My interpretation, while tailored for greater
commensurability with Davidsons theory, nevertheless also owes a great


a wrinkle in history

deal to J. D. Nasios Enseignement de Sept Concepts Cruciaux de la Psychanalyse (Paris: ditions Rivages, 1988). See 240 for his explanation of the
association of metaphor with S1, the meaningless master signifier whose
authority supports all knowledge.
33. This function is explained in Subversion du sujet et dialectique du
dsir dans linconscient freudien, in crits 798-828. ieks commentary
throughout chapter 3 of Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989)
is extremely useful.
34. It is certainly reasonable to dispute Lacans use of this term, which
ultimately seems to have little to do with the poetic device of the same
name. The point to infer from his metaphorical appropriation of metonymy is that when words are used normally they may be understood to
lie adjacent to one another in a chain, what structural linguistics refers to
as the syntagm. This metonymy of words linked together in a signifying
chain becomes itself Lacans principal metaphor for desire because of the
movement or sliding along the chain that occurs as we produce or listen to
language, a sliding in which the meaning of the present word always hangs
on the next, and so on.
35. The former Lacan refers to as S2, or knowledge, the latter as S1, or the
master signifier.
36. For the diachronic and synchronic effects of les points de capiton, and
their identity with metaphor, see crits 805.
37. This is actually my extrapolation. Rorty explicitly denies the usefulness of the ironist intellectual at times, saying that ironist theory is at best
useless and at worst dangerous (CIS 68) to the quest for social justice.
But his ambivalence on this issue is demonstrated by his belief, expressed
at other times, that the ironist is needed to construct new vocabularies, as
I indicated in the section on progress above.
38. Rortys response to this rhetorical question is an emphatic Yes!
39. McCarthy also touches on this criticism in Private Irony and Public
Decency 365. Later, in his reply to Rortys reply, he asks a similar series
of questions to mine, a series intended, like mine, as a reductio of Rortys
position. See An Exchange on Truth, Freedom, and Politics II 650.
40. When orthodox Jews in Israel band together and throw feces at conservatives and women trying to pray at the Wall, they are not driven to
do so by an agreement concerning fundamental beliefs and desires, but
rather by the feelings of enjoyment that accompany striking a blow in
Gods name.
41. See his essay, Achieving Our Country (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1998).



42. The source of this analysis is, of course, ieks Sublime Object chapter
3, Identification; passim; although the theme is touched on in all of his
43. On Truth, Freedom and Politics I 637.
44. iek himself discusses Rortys public/private split, in Looking Awry
157-60. There he argues that the very social law that, as a kind of neutral
set of rules, should limit our aesthetic self-creation and deprive us a part
of our enjoyment on behalf of solidarity, is always already penetrated by
an obscene, pathological, surplus enjoyment. ieks critique of Rorty is
that he seems to be positing the possibility of a universal social law not
smudged by a pathological stain of enjoyment (160). But I dont see
how this can be the case, given that Rorty (unlike iek) doesnt believe
in anything universal, much less a social law. In fact, while his language
differs greatly from ieks flamboyantly continental psychoanalese,
Rorty would probably agree completely with the notion that the fantasies
or vocabularies that hold communities together are run through with particular libidinal investments. He just would refuse to derive from this the
belief that therefore it makes no sense to strive for solidarity. Where the
two viewpoints should naturally meet would be an acknowledgment of the
importance of an analysis of such libidinal investments for the establishment of local solidarities. For a discussion of ieks particular brand of
universalism, see my On Relativism, Rights, and Differends, or, Ethics
and the American Holocaust, in this volume.
45. If one starts off from the view that freedom is the recognition of contingency rather than of the existence of a specifically human realm exempt
from natural necessity, one will be more dubious about the social utility of
philosophy than Habermas is (TP 326)