Cabinet of past curiousities

1. A Lover’s Discourse

‘No more I Love You’s: The ‘Sovereign Good’ Effect of Writing’

Where to begin with: always a set of parameters.

One must lose a language to be able to write.

In his short “Lesson in Writing,” Barthes employs two correlations crucial to understanding the text, namely,

1) the correlation between Bunraku and Brecht, all instantiated by the effect of distancing:

….on the one hand, Bunraku plays up the tension between gesture and voice: the distance is maintained to allow for what is untranslatable in discursive language;

….on the other hand, Brecht’s alienation effect, the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’: unlike the popular drama, the overall performance does not create the effect of holding the audience in trance (in Derrida, what qualifies as de-effectuation of illusion through the effect of writing) at the same time that it also creates, in a somewhat similar gesture by Artaud, the conditions of producing the effect of something more elemental than conscious language (the subconscious for Artaud, but in Brecht would amount to making the audience emotionally involved in the performance [emotions are opposite complements of finished or consummated concepts]), that is, in the act of ‘Gest’ (a technique of Verfremdungseffekt), or ‘gesture with attitude’; and,

2) the correlation between speech and writing which, at least, in the Barthes’ text, is employed to bring out the conditions of possibility of an unusual mutation—as he expresses more clearly in another text (The Empire of Signs): a “revolution in the propriety of symbolic systems” (3).

In all these correlations, what is consistently held problematic is the notion of totality, and although Barthes (and Brecht as well) proceeds to attack it in terms of its constitutive effect on the formulation of the spectacle in the language of dramaturgy, the illusory goal of drama to achieve closure in terms of the synthesis of all elements involved in the performance, from the characters, setting, to lighting, etc., creating the overall impression of a unified plot or emplotment (in Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, the poetic function), its broader social and political significance is salient in his criticism of emplotment (along Brechtian lines). The poetic function of Aristotle is realizable not only in theatre but also, with the greatest effect, in the modern consummate state of social organization and compossibility.

To set our parameters in motion, permit me at this point to bring Derrida’s critique of phonologism (logocentrism by extension) to our discussion.

What in many ways complements Barthes’ critique of a certain notion of greediness, Derrida’s critique of phonologism exposes how, in a seemingly democratic gesture on the part of the signifier-voice, the phonic signifier creates an illusion of truth (Of Grammatology, 20). The signifier achieves this end by effacing itself in order to make itself transparent; in the process it affords the listener immediate access to the signified. The perennial model is the Socratic effect, the effect of parrhesia, truth speaking, in a word: the Socrates who did not write.

Crucial here is the effect of self-effacement of the phonic signifier. It effaces itself as signifier, as sound which in turn creates a mental image or concept. Seemingly, a concept is a mute speech (recall a similar argument in Plato about orphan words), devoid of sound. Truth becomes speechless, blind to sound, if that can be said at all.

This blindness is a crucial indicator of truth—it is transparent as nonsensuous. Transparency supposes the absence of an outsider, an onlooker, hence, its absence as the absolute limit of perception. If the phonic signifier has emptied itself of everything it possessed, it follows from this assumption that a feedback loop is unnecessary (the signifier has become a non-reference—irretrievable as sound vanishes into air). All we have is blindness, which, among others, does not discriminate, otherwise an essential function of writing in terms of ‘spacing’ that discriminates by producing an infraction in the non-space of the phonic, differance.

In phonic signification, the absence of space also creates the illusion that there are no gaps between speeches, words or objects (not a criticism of Benjamin; Derrida shares a lot with his predecessor), or between concepts, creating the ultimate illusion of unmediated presence. In this context, Derrida critiques Saussurean linguistics in which the arbitrariness of the relation between signifier and signified is only possible in a situation where one blindly sees truth (seeing truth is sheer blindness) but truth in relation to what is no longer accessible (the self-effaced signifier); doubtless, metaphysical: truth is inaccessible. More than anything, it appeals to a theological truth, the godding of truth, the proposition of revelation viewed from the standpoint of dogma and officialdom, vis-à-vis the act of interpretation, criticism, or, better, in Barthesian language, a ‘lover’s discourse’.

Here discourse acquires a different connotation from that of the Greek conception of logos as unmediated, unified presence.

“To expend without end in sight, without a crisis; to practice a relation without orgasm” (A Lover’s Discourse, 73).

In other words, I will take one more detour. Barthes is doubtless the inspiration.

He takes discourse to mean ‘dis-cursus’ or—

“[Originally] the action of running here and there, comings and goings, measures taken, ‘plots and plan’: the lover, in fact, cannot keep his mind from racing, taking new measures and plotting against himself. His discourse exists only in the outburst of language, which occur at the whim of trivial, of aleatory circumstances” (A Lover’s Discourse, 3).

Discourse from the lover’s position and writing are analogous. In this analogous relation, there is no self-effacement like the phonic signifier pouring out into another to the point of exhaustion, the kind of orgasm typical of the Western provocation to exhaust oneself to achieve the unity of categories (there, one can see truth in its finished form, yet as blind seeing, one sees pornography instead). But there is a kind of orgasm much preferred by lovers in the sense of dis-cursus, that is, without the penetration typical of the aggression of sex that pornography represents:

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words…. (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself)” (Ibid., 73).

In a chapter on “Dedication,” notice how Barthes positions each (discourse and writing) in a relation steeped in creative tension, roughly, what ‘language’ is, much like a situation in which lovers demand to each other the unforgivable, to be the lover and the beloved at the same time, which effectively dissolves each individual position as a lover, on the side of the lover, and as a beloved, on the side of the beloved: the redundancy is already pathetic at this point, but that is the point-

“We often notice that a writing subject does not have his writing ‘in his own image’: if you love me ‘for myself’ you do not love me for my writing (and I suffer from it). Doubtless, loving simultaneously two signifiers in the same body is too much! It doesn’t happen every day—and if it should happen, by some exception, that is Coincidence, the Sovereign Good)” (Ibid., 79).

The coincidence, this sovereign Good is language itself. But it gets even better.

Good is neither a positive term nor a negative term, instead a nominal image-figure. In short: it is always against itself.

Barthes would tell us, on the one hand, that the lover can be “greedy for coincidence … from which all accounts are banished” (Ibid., 187)

Even supposing, on the other hand, one has to be greedy. It is necessary to ask the lover “Why do you only love me a little?” “How do you manage to love a little?” Here the lover “[lives] under the regime of too much and not enough,” or the effect of the regime of blindness, seeing nothing to discriminate the little from enough; in other words, blindness is not blind enough. Yet it is necessary to be greedy in this sense in order to become, that is, in no time, tired of coincidences, of loving two signifiers, of body and writing, the unforgivable wish to occupy the site of language itself, in order, at last, to love the love for coincidence, which means to ask the question without crisis, perhaps, the only true question:

“Why don’t you tell me that you love me?” (Ibid.)

In Derridean fashion, this paradox without a crisis, without the illusion of being the lover and the beloved at the same time, that is, from the once elusive standpoint of greediness for coincidence, is analogous to the function of writing, which—

“Does not easily lend itself to this illusion or this lure: it wears its artificial status on its face … [It] does not give the impression of transparency…” (Sean Gaston, Reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology,” 114).

This is what the lover mourns; the loss of illusion as it undergoes an unusual, in fact, unwelcome transversal, a new image-figure; one that is not greedy enough. Isn’t a lover naturally greedy by the nature of her desire? And yet: “Isn’t the most sensitive point of this mourning,” Barthes argues, “the fact that I must lose a language—the amorous language?”

In a word, the effect of writing: “No more ‘I love you’s’” (A Lover’s Discourse, 107).

“Writing is after all, in its way, a satori (spiritual illumination): satori (the Zen occurrence) is a more or less powerful (though in no way formal) seism which causes knowledge, or the subject, to vacillate: it creates an emptiness of language. And it is also an emptiness of language which constitutes writing…” (Barthes, Empire of Signs, 4; underscoring mine)

But if one must lose a language to be able to write, it is pertinent to ask, what is a language? Barthes makes his own suggestions: a language is both a site and a regime (A Lover’s Discourse, 187). As a site, it is where “quantities are no longer perceived” and “from which all accounts are banished” (Ibid.) Accounts, quantities are of the familiar kind: measurable units, objectifiable values, signifieds into which signifiers empty themselves. Hence, a language, or any effect of writing is not also a signifier as it has become, in self-emptying, the exhausted. Devoid of desire/dis-cursus, unable to race against itself, it is the effect, the common effect, of stupid consummation, literal, non-pictorial (because the attempt is to penetrate the thing-in-itself): speculative orgasm. As a regime, it is caught in the pathetic pendulum of “too much and not enough,” desire entrapped in the illusion of becoming ‘it’, the enviable orgasm, a steady vitality—to become ‘it’ once and for all, to become the loss itself, to become the site in which loss occurs as an event, to see oneself in this self-emptying whose model is Narcissus; in Freudian idiom, the primal fantasy.

In all these variants of language, a language is the effect of making a loss; in Brechtian language—making strange, distance, alienation, Verfremdungseffekt.

A note of caution: language is not immediately perceived as either a site or a regime. One has to be a lover.

One perceives it as loss only as an outcome of writing. Writing is thus a Verfremdungseffekt, if that can be said of all writing, which attempts to make that loss through distancing; racing [dis-cursus] against the very loss as one loses a language to be able to write this loss under erasure (in Derridean fashion), making oneself estranged from the object of primal fantasy as one becomes it in as alienated manner as possible; in a similar Artaudian fashion, to become a body without organs.

Yet, in a manner more akin to the Brechtian formula, the Bunraku (here, the correlation is in effect) effectuates this alienation in a more perverse manner. There is a perverse relation to fantasy; more Freudian than Freud, that is, to exhibit this loss, self-emptiness—to exhibit language without crisis which makes us not want pornography (it isn’t pornographic enough). Insofar as Bunraku lets the audience see how the act of making strange, distance, and alienation cutting through the surface of writing (which is losing a language; performance is losing a language in a more direct sense), the Japanese art is perverse enough, but not pornographic. Insofar as it is gestural, Bunraku is, in Barthesian language, a skin; there is no appeal to depth and profundity, all the more, nothing to be ashamed of (it is in this sense that pornography, despite itself, still hides something in the same language in which it appeals to the dark, fatty deep). In a brief note, Barthes says something of Bunraku’s perversity as opposed to Western art (which is the model of pornography in terms of its appeal to depth and profundity), this time exposing how Oriental art, for instance, as instantiated in Bunraku’s characters, mostly transvestite,

“Does not copy the Woman but signifies her; not bogged down with the model but is detached from its signified. Femininity is presented to read, not to see; translation, not transgression…” (Empire of Signs, 53)

Translation is key to Bunraku, but it is a kind of translation from skin to skin, toe to toe, body to body, without appeal to organs (Artaud’s body without organs, or organs as invested truth values). As opposed to the transgressive ejaculatory self-emptying act of phonologism, Bunraku translates losses, signifiers without signifieds to pour into. Bunraku writes loss under erasure, the signifier without crisis—loving two signifiers simultaneously (man and woman in transvestite) is unproblematic—the Sovereign Good.

Translation in the sense of writing the signifiers without crisis amounts in Bunraku to giving the phonic signifier its voice in gesture, enough to preempt it from becoming a finished concept, an orgasm. In opposition to that, Barthes celebrates, as instantiated in Bunraku, a kind of coitus reservatus (A Lover’s Discourse, 73).


“[What] the voice ultimately externalizes is not what it carries … but itself, its own prostitution; the signifier cunningly does nothing but turn itself inside out, like a glove” (Empire of Signs., 49).

I can go on, and on

But like the lover in Barthes:

“I have no language left at all” (A Lover’s Discourse, 89).

January 2015