The Speculum and the Scalpel:

The Politics of Impotent Representation and Non-Representational Terrorism


A Prospectus for a Dissertation in Philosophy

(January 2, 1992)

David Mertz [University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Department of Philosophy]


As I have indicated so many times before, the title of my dissertation will be The Speculum and the Scalpel: The Politics of Impotent Representation and Non-Representational Terrorism. And the first sentence will be, Terrorism is politics without metaphysics; and metaphysics, the textual form taken by [political] reaction. I have gotten a little way in the analysis of these words: My project will, in the first instance, be an outgrowth of much anti-theoretical philosophy which runs from Nietzsche through such living, or recently living, figures as Foucault, Deleuze, and Zizek (and hence Lacan).

My first observation will be that words do not mirror the world. Words also do not resemble things (besides other words); words do not picture the world; words do not describe the world; words do not refer to the world. Words have none of the mystical properties philosophically (and commonly) ascribed to them, of standing in some special, but always murky, relationship to other things. Words simply are events in the world. Whatever regularity governs them is the regularity of a fully material world.

The problems with the above paragraph are evident. For one, my proclamation of materialism in the last paragraph can have no meaning. My sentence the world and its words are only material can refer to no world, because it denies its own referentiality. So there is simply something out there (where?) to which words do not refer. Any effort to name, and hence hypostasize this something (even my own with my current word `something') is symptomatic of what Nietzsche would call a resentful consciousness; i.e. a consciousness which denies the unfixedness and, hence, indescribability of the world.

However, self-refutation is the lesser of two problems facing my irreferentialism. The arguments of self-refutation have already been dealt with, in a somewhat different context though I think adequately in the dissertation of Andrew Blais. More serious is naïve irreferentialism's blindness to the subjective necessity of the referentiality of language. It is here that a reading of Lacan becomes necessary. Through the use of Lacan, and of the Lacanianism of Zizek, I hope to be able to articulate the contradictory necessities embedded in the referential pretense of all use of language. As Zizek writes in a slightly different context, One cannot attain it, but one also cannot escape it. A major focus of my dissertation will be to articulate, in several different concrete contexts, what it means for linguistic phenomena to present themselves subjectively as simultaneously necessary and impossible. Such necessary and impossible linguistic phenomena will go by the very general name `metaphysics' in my dissertation; though `metaphysics' will be discussed mostly in its concrete instances, such as its manifestation as nationalism, or as the U.S. War on drugs.

Associated with my irreferentialist and anti-realist program will be an anti-semantic, pragmaticist program for linguistics. I have written at length (100 pages) on this topic before, for my honor's thesis. I do not wish simply to recycle what I wrote before on this topic, but something roughly on the same track as that will be relevant background for my dissertation. The reason, now, why I wish to make a pragmaticist (notice that linguistic pragmaticism is not philosophical pragmatism) move is that I thoroughly believe in the linguistic turn. Words are very important; they do things! What I wish to do in my dissertation is to move the paradigm of what words do from the dialectic and referential paradigm to a politicized pragmatic paradigm. It is for this purpose that I find the following prototypes very important: it used to be that the best case of what language does was dialogue Socratic, communicative, descriptive conversation which showed the essential, inter-subjectively available, nature of things. I prefer this: the best case example of what language does is a yell of Fire! in a crowded theater. All language does not more or less resemble dialogue, subject only to various distortions; all language more resembles a cry of Fire! subject, equally, to various ideological distortions, various denials of the power struggles contained in every utterance.

As a tributary, at roughly this point in my dissertation, would have to be a discussion of social-constructive accounts of science. Science is well known as the area of discourse which describes the world. Other discourses are more easily dismissed as being normative, meaningless, non-literal, et cetera. I believe that a presentation of certain of the more radical, and de(con)structive paths pursued in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) will allow me to dismiss the whole referentialist theoreticism often characteristic of understandings of science. If I can smoke out referentialism from its home fort, I stand a better chance of defeating it where things matter more.

As can be seen already, my dissertation must be composed entirely of tributaries and branches, with no more that the single word, `irreferentialism' composing its linear flow. The tributaries will number about five in number; and may, perhaps, be labelled PRAGMATICISM, SOCIAL-CONSTRUCTIVE EPISTEMOLOGY, MATERIALISM, BIOLOGY, and PSYCHO-ANALYSIS AND PHENOMENOLOGY. Not all of these tributaries have even been mentioned above, and none has been more than hinted at. However, I believe I will be able to demonstrate in a dissertation how critiques of referentialism may be made under each of these titles. The branches will be of two general sorts. Some will discuss concrete case-studies of the functionings of referential necessity, such as NATIONALISM, THE WAR ON DRUGS, and THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF THE WORD `TERRORISM'. Others will discuss, more abstractly (since any concretion flows to the other main branch), referential impossibility. THE LACANIAN REAL, THE TERRORIST THING = X, and SOREL'S MYTH AND SPONTANEISM are branches which could derive from the second fork. The meaning of each title mentioned above cannot be discussed in this brief paper, but hopefully my efforts below to clarify the general picture will allow the reader to guess the meaning of each.

All the above can only be the roughest preliminaries. My real question must be political. How, if theories cannot describe the world, can theory or discourse, in general - provide any guide to political action? How, even, can we ever speak and still recognize, let alone prescribe, political actions? This seems to me to be the first and only question that can be asked within political theory. It is the same question appearing in the wonderful title of a famous book by Lenin, What is to be done? To borrow another cliche (this time from Sartre), everything is political - and since everything is, we would like some guide to acting politically correctly, rather than in an opposite manner. All this is very basic, of course.

Let me return briefly to the posturing I made above with a title and first sentence. Let us just read it a bit more carefully, first:

 - The Speculum and the Scalpel:

Obviously, this is a metaphor whose terms are explicitly given in the subtitle. . . which I will get to. A speculum is either of two things, and I wish to play off of both meanings. In the one case, from the Latin, it is a mirror; i.e. it stands for the whole Western metaphor of philosophy/science/theory/whatever as the mirror of nature, or the mirror of something else. I wish, as I have written, to get rid of this metaphor. Secondly, a speculum is a medical, primarily gynecological, instrument which opens, and hence reveals the contents of, a bodily orifice, usually a vagina. Contrasted to a speculum is a scalpel. A scalpel simply changes the state of a body, in a violent intervention, without making any pretense of either reflecting or revealing anything. I know this is not entirely true, since there is such a thing as exploratory surgery (in fact, such will be my dissertation, I hope), but I think the contrast is OK. Sometimes the use of a scalpel does something good to a body. I am not unaware, however, of clitoridectomy, etc.!

 - The Politics of Impotent Representation and Non-Representational Terrorism.

The body is, in some sense, the body politic. I do not wish to say much about what organs, or what limbs this body has - for it is a great part of my purpose to problematize this very possibility. Only by staying at a metaphorical level can I avoid - or partially avoid the error of claiming to represent the composition of this body politic, which is epistemically something like Kant's noumena. If I were to state here that the body is composed of classes, or of genders, or of races, or of individuals in contradictory institutional roles, or something else like this, I would exemplify the first sort of politics: impotent representation, metaphysics, and reaction. Of course, this does not preclude using the same words, for example the political world is divided into two contradictory classes whose conflict shapes history, in other places, with other effects.

The phrase impotent suggests, of course, that the body is a sexual body in some sense. I hope, though, that the sexuality of words is not understood in a narrow teleological directedness toward biological reproduction. Sexuality is neither the phallocentric directedness of an organism toward reproduction, nor a mere libidinal release a simply entropic effect. Sexuality should instead be understood as Bataille does and/or as a simply transformative force with neither aim, origin, nor object.

Words can do many things. However, let me paradoxically exemplify two of the things words almost always do: words create representations and words intervene in existing representations. Let us say, neither arbitrarily nor truthfully, that these two functions are always simultaneously present in any utterance; and that these two functions exhaust the taxonomy of utterance.

 - Terrorism is politics without metaphysics; and metaphysics, the textual form taken by [political] reaction!

The first function of words, exemplified in my taxonomy perhaps epitomized by taxonomy in general is metaphysics; it is what Nietzsche, according to my reading of Deleuze on Nietzsche and to my reading of Nietzsche himself, called ressentiment.

Here my deliberately careless reading, or perhaps outright misreading, will be recognized. Would not a more defensible reading of Nietzsche consider the creation of representations active; and the mere acting within these given representations reactive, and hence resentful. What would be missed by the defensible reading would be that the acting (intervening) within existing representations which I mention is specifically an acting against those representations. To put it in a Spinozistic metaphysical figure (again, a Deleuzian Spinozism is indicated), the metaphysical use of words acts in a manner which pertains to the composition of existing representations, while the terroristic use of words is that which pertains to the decomposition of these representations. In either case a semiotic closure is assumed: words act upon words within language, but upon extra-linguistic things only as noumena act upon noumena i.e. in a manner about which we can say nothing.

The second function of words should not be named. Naming this function, even, for example, calling it a function only exemplifies the metaphysical function of words. Since one must write in the metaphysical mode at least in so far as one writes about something I will call this function terrorism. Why not? Baudrillard writes about the event with the same purpose. It is in the terrorist mode that Bataille, echoing Sade, likes sex, as that which exceeds all description and direction (it never was that way for my perhaps me readers have other experiences). I cannot both exemplify and name the terrorist function of language. I can point to the yell of Fire! mentioned above, and say that's what I mean. I can mention that I think some of my memos have attempted to be terrorist. But one cannot say what it is I am pointing at. The best I can do, perhaps, is choose the particular word terrorist to name the function which opposes metaphysics. Hearing the word especially hearing it fondly, passionately, sexually embraced and positively evaluated makes people react. It heats tempers. It prompts disbelief. It spreads confusion. It has many effects more difficult to name. Good.

Objections. First it may be objected that the creation of representations acts toward the decomposition of old representations; that, in fact, my opposition itself denies the reality of flux/the being of becoming/will-to-power, etc., since it pretends that there is an entire mode of language (the metaphysical one) which leaves in place representations. Insofar as the opposition I make is a metaphysical one, I am guilty, resentfully, of denying flux. But the level at which the objection operates is slightly different from that. The advocate of the being of becoming of representations claims that change is simply change tout court. I disagree with this.

To understand my disagreement it is necessary to backtrack. I should mention, here while I backtrack, that I owe the problem of my possible dissertation to Alison Brown; whose dissertation addressed precisely the problem I have been discussing (though perhaps not in a manner easily recognized). I raised a question at Alison's dissertation defense. I asked, approximately, whether her notions of a demogenic self and heterodemotic action her notations for her attempt to understand a ground for radical political action attempted to find a position outside of Ideology, or merely one opposed to particular ideologies as Althusser has distinguished the capital 'I' from the lower case 'i'. In brief, Althusser distinguishes, with the marker of capitalization, between the very Symbolic process of subjectivation and the particular contents which are interpellated into us. Particular Ideological State Apparati (ISA's) fill, transiently, subjectivity with content; and, in this sense, become temporarily determinate. However, the material base of subjectivation is referred to with the capitalized `Ideology'. Inasmuch as it is always subjects into whom ISA contents are interpellated, there must exist an outsideless Ideology which assure this interpellation in the last instance. This is the meaning of Althusser.

I was not satisfied that Dr. Brown gave an answer at that time (though that was understandable given the circumstance). However, let us suppose that since she is both ambitious and optimistic she would wish to find a position outside Ideology. I am not nearly so optimistic. The only notion I have of the political possibility of subjective actions, including and especially speech acts, is of acting against the particular ideologies in which we find ourselves, not of acting against Ideology. However, I now believe that there exists a sense in which anti-ideology can immanently constitute anti-Ideology but this sense can be neither subjective nor objective, and hence cannot be a position (but rather a utopian moment). This is the meaning of Adorno.

Althusser supposes subjectivation works. Suppose it doesn't. Perhaps when the Ideological imperative of subjectivation locates a desiring subject within the Symbolic order it locates it in a position which cannot be consistently held. This is the meaning of Lacan. Perhaps the very material base of Ideology already contains within it contradictions which are symptomatically expressed in the subjects into which it interpellated itself. This is the meaning of Zizek. Perhaps after the ground slips from under the speaking subject, she reemerges somewhere quite different than in subjectivity. This is the meaning of Deleuze and Guattari. These possibilities need to be explored.

I will make a geometric metaphor. If we imagine ideologies (i.e. systems of representation, regimes of signs) as so many positioned vectors fixed at a common origin, but not necessarily orthogonal, then we may conceive of Ideology as a (hyper-)space defined by all these vectors. An utterance considered under its metaphysical mode is simply a rotation from these vectors, but within the vector space; i.e. a vector sum of multiples of some number of existing vectors. Our purported Alison Brown would picture a demogenic self as speaking from an origin other than that common to the ideology vectors; and exercising a force which resolves the ideology vector origin to a new point in an absolute coordinate system. A terrorist act is one sharing the ideology vector origin, but pointing in a direction orthogonal to all ideology vectors. Such a vector is hence Kant's noumena, as I have said. However, since any particular speech act is a combination of its component (hence orthogonal) metaphysical and terrorist vectors, the total vector of a speech act lies outside the given vector space (Ideology), but nonetheless has a projection into it (the metaphysical vector). I imagine the effect of a speech act as expanding, reshaping, and resolving the vector space to include the combined speech vector which will leave the terrorist vector outside of the vector space, but no longer orthogonal to all vectors in the space (it will have a projection, not only onto the combined speech vector now included in the space, but also any metaphysical vector which has the most recent combined vector as an element to resolve). The continual resolution and expansion of the Ideology vector space allows me to capture the notion of co-optation. A terrorist vector is completely free of co-optation only at the very moment of its enunciation, but nonetheless does not, at least for a time, become merely another ideology vector.

A second objection is more serious. Namely, distinguishing terrorist and metaphysical modes of talking like praising terrorism, as the word is commonly used gives no ground for substantive political choices. The fascists may be terrorists, just as much as we may. But then, this is exactly the point: insofar as we speak in the metaphysical mode we do not act in a substantive political manner we merely rearrange and permute dead ideologies, dead metaphors, dead regimes. If I act differently from fascists (and I do not know if I do) it is not because I can name the differences, but contrarily simply because the acts are different. In fact, I am trying, not so subtly, to exemplify the very terrorist action I praise, in the realm of theory, by naming my opposite in a particular way: 'fascist'. Theory cannot make the ethical distinction between fascism and radicalism; only I can (only an existing, living, radically inconsistent actor can, not an ideological, theoretical position). The same applies to the claims I came on with in these remarks. Materialism, as a metaphysical position, is incoherent and quite indefensible; but I am a materialist as a political conviction. Metaphysically, it is foolish and naive to think that history is the history of class struggle (as Marx always knew), but I choose to identify myself with the interests of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and to identify the proletariat as THE AGENT OF REVOLUTION as a political choice.


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David Mertz (quilty@philos.umass.edu)