A Literary Theory Project in the Department of English at Rice University

The following interpretations of Just Gaming by Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thebaud (1979/1985) emerged from a seminar on "Performing the Self" at Rice University (Fall 1997). This is an open discussion and comments are welcome.

At the end of the "Second Day" Lyotard remarks that Oedipus Rex might be considered a comedy because Oedipus "does not know how to ruse as a narrator with the story of which he is the hero" (Just Gaming, 42). What is it "to ruse" in this way? Above all, it is "pagan", which in Lyotard's discursive politics means that "there is always the possibility of relating things differently" (Just Gaming, 41). For Oedipus, specifically Sophocles' version, Apollo's oracle narrates a story of which Oedipus is the hero, but in the discursive pragmatics of paganism such stories are not determinative. Apollo's oracle is essentially: "Be Oedipus," but Oedipus fails to "negotiate" (Just Gaming, 43) an identity that would reinterpret the oracle, that would (much in the style of Odysseus telling of his own adventures) recaste his "being-as-hero" of a story that he tells about himself. He fails to perform as a narrator who is not bound to reiterate just what he has been told. In the "pagan" schema, Apollo's oracle is subject to misprision, to a retelling that allows for, perhaps demands, revision. It is this revisionary agency that is characterized by Lyotard as rusing.

Oddly, what is at stake here is not a matter of genre distinctions so much as a failure of responsibility. The "flaw" in Oedipus is not tragic; it is ethical, and consequently political. Oedipus becomes "stuck to Apollo's text" (Just Gaming, 42) because he does not act according to his "obligation" to "relay" (Just Gaming, 35) not the exact contents of Apollo's narration but the very nature of obligation itself, the foundational ethics upon which community and political justice rest. He breaks the communaltradition. Oedipus is, therefore, a comic figure but in a postmodern sense. We must see him in the mode of Tom Stoppard's imported characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are "stuck to" Shakespeare's text, fated so that they are always already "dead." But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot renegotiate their fateful interpellation into Shakespeare's play; the "terrorizing" (Just Gaming, 99) prescriptive of Hamlet unjustly prevents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from rusing. Stoppard's parody is not genuinely "pagan". Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are caught up in Shakespeare's plot which follows the classical tragic paradigmto of returning order to the state. They are consumed by this plot/process that Stoppard exposes as a comedy of terror.

Oedipus, of course, is not Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. Nor is he Hamlet. Unlike Hamlet, Oedipus is the principle of disorder in his state and not the one "born to set it right" (Hamlet, I, v,188). It is, in a special sense, a lack of "wisdom" that underscores the fall of Oedipus and accounts for the disorder of the state. Wisdom is not theory but judgment, not knowledge but acknowlegment of the ethics of obligation. We must believe here that fate, articulated by Apollo in his story of Oedipus, is, like all prescriptives, a discursive performance without criteria; it is, "pagan". Again, unlike Hamlet (for all of his hesitation), Oedipus does not "take up arms against a sea of troubles/ And by opposing end them" (Hamlet, III, i, 59-60). It is far more appropriate to ask Oedipus, rather than Hamlet: "Why do you not act?" or "Why do you not ruse?" Oedipus, as far as we know, does not relay the story at all, whereas Hamlet's curtain speech passes on his story, by way of obligating Horatio to perform the task of relay. "Absent thee from felicity awhile/ And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/ To tell my story" ( Hamlet, V, ii, 350-52). This prescriptive binds ethical force with the politics of succession by establishing a "social bond" (Just Gaming, 99) that purges us of the fear of social disorder (or death). It is a tragic catharsis in the purest Aristotelian sense. Conversely, the blind Oedipus who appears before us at the play's conclusion merely reiterates his failure to ruse, to relay the foundations of justice: the ethics of obligation.

In The Words Sartre recomposes the Cartesian axiom as: I write, therefore I am. Lyotard further revises this grounding principle of Western subjectivity by arguing: Someone obligates me, therefore I ruse. We must not think of this as "personal," as a one-time event that binds us forever. Yet it has status as an event of consciousness and, therefore, of subjectivity, the significance of which is a specific kind of social bonding, an historical or "traditional" "being-there." Such an obligation concentrates the flows of energy and power, through the event, that is, through repetition, passing on. The danger is that this "relay" could solidify into Law, into the determinative structure of significations that Lacan seems to see in the Symbolic Order and against which Judith Butler (Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter) struggles. Such determinative power Lyotard associates with the "classical" and with "terror," the antidote to which is the pagan (or postmodern), rusing. For Butler the way out lies in our grasp (understanding) that determinism, the "natural," is a form of intelligibilty or signification that is, in Foucault's sense, "constructivist" and not "essentialist," and that repetition ("iteration" in the register of Derrida's citationism) is a specific version of rusing that we may call "performative". For both Lyotard and Butler the site of such creativity, self-construction, and subversion is political and ethical.

It is also juridical. The coercive force of social signification, the determinative terror of assigned identities, specifically gender identities, can be seen clearly in the trials of Oscar Wilde. It is not an innocent legal ploy that ultimately convicts Wilde of "posing" as a sodomite. The Marquis of Qeensberry and his lawyers employ constructivist methods to ratify essentialist ideology. Foucault's observation that discursive subjectivities displaced existential identities in the nineteenth century reveals the strategy of Queensberry's counsel to inscribe Wilde's significations (his writings, conversations, and dress) onto his body, to create an image of Wilde (bolstered visually in the press by vicious cartoons) as THE homosexual without having to prove any specific acts of sodomy. Similarly, The Picture of Dorian Gray is linked to an intelligible and constructed model of illicit homosexuality even though it represents no overt homosexual incidents. Wilde's moving lament about "the Love which dare not speak its name" proves Foucault's point that a proliferation of discourses on sexuality does not necessarily result in a revelation (and liberation) of that which is unspeakable, forbidden. Wilde's famous inversions, to some degree all contained in his aphorism: "Life imitates Art" ("The Decay of Lying"), were sufficiently threatening as ruses (as counter-constructivist) to evoke an essentialist judgment of "unnatural" behavior. The Queensberry essentialism is a knowledge system linked to social power, and Wilde's transgressive inversions, his rusing, could not challenge the hegemony of this heterosexist authority. What might be termed "essentialist constructivism" (two can play this game!) is a strategy designed to relay heterosexist politics, that is, to reiterate, as Foucault argues in The History of Sexuality, the health and power of bourgeois masculinity, through a court-ordered verdict of "guilty." Unhappily, the link between constructivist transgressive or subversive play and the flows of power is not guaranteed, so constructivist politics has as its primary task "instruction." Deconstructive theorizing is designed to make us understand that essentialism is a construct. For some, this results in endless argumentation, in constant tweakings of arcane systems, in a slow and frustrating procedure that often seems to delay rather than promote reform. A counter strategy, impatient with academic-style critique, phrases its objections in traditional Marxian terms: constructivism theorizes too much and acts too infrequently. In this guerrilla strategy, performance is direct, local action against a specific evil rather than a reiterated rusing (against an agent of repression rather than a structure of power relations). Thus, Hamlet sets his choices in "To be or not to be" and rejects theory in order "to take up arms against a sea of troubles,/ And by opposing end them" (III, i, 56-60). Hamlet speaks for a theatrical (and essentialist) historicism rather than for an anti-essentialist, discursive rusing. The argument here, also an old one, debates the proper site of political struggle; will it best be contested in the academy or in the street?

But who ruses? Hamlet chooses "to be or not to be" and Oedipus fails to ruse, but must we assume a prior subjectivity that decides or an existential "throwness" with its "existence" (read: "subjectivity") preceding its essence? Can we choose to "become," say, Hamlet or Foucault or Lyotard? With hindsight we can say that Hamlet chooses to be Hamlet; the choice arising from "cursed spite." We can only read backward toward a choice; for if Hamlet had not confronted Claudius, he could not have "proved most royally" (Hamlet V, ii,387), and we would not know Hamlet. To be Hamlet is to be named "Hamlet," that is to be legitimized, crowned. To be Hamlet is to do as Hamlet (father/son) does, a fact no different from Stoppard's claim that to be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is "enough." There is no "before" only an after. Judith Butler suggests ( Gender Trouble) that to be is to perform by repetition. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as Stoppard sees them, are caught in a machine that repeats with every performance; that is, they are scripted in a most terrorizing way. Wholly imprisoned within language, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern nevertheless emerge in the spaces between the words of the script. Ana Miljacki suggests that this is a shift from the existential (how did I become what I am?) to "am I what I say I am" where we have "introduced ourselves as the conscious audience of our own presentation." The "world" of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "names" them and judges them, but they ruse in the very act of repeating. We confront here the infinite space of improvisation, and rusing is seen as interstitial. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "are" before they "become." They are named (Lacan), or we can say that they are obligated before all action (Lyotard). One can ruse only after being addressed.

To abandon the origin or priority, however, is not easy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern worry about the before of their interpellation. Memory, for Stoppard, seems limited by language (the text of Hamlet), but Djuna Barnes represents the body as older than words in Nightwood. In the famous passage describing Robin Vote she writes, "Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person's every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory. . . (p. 37). Barnes suggests a before of the script, a (biologically situated ?) memory which can be recalled only in images of repressed experiences. This pre-symbolic realm, which Jody Rowan compares to Julia Kristeva's "semiotic," extends across thresholds, violates borders. Against the character of Robin Vote, Barnes sets language itself in the figure of Dr. Matthew O'Connor who cannot contain Robin even within the vastness of his seemingly endless ramblings. Yet Robin and O'Connor penetrate one another in crucial ways; the threshold between body and words, beast and human is unstable and potentially transgressive of cultural or textual terror. The spaces between words are more than improvisational, they are revolutionary.

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