Discussion of Lyotard's concept of the "pagan."
Discussion of Lyotard's importation of Levinas's idea of
Discussion of performativity.
Discussion of the relation of performance to tradition.
Comedy in a postmodern context: Oscar Wilde and Tom
Responses to discussions.
Abstracts of term projects on Performance.
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
(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
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
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
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
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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