Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Review of Julian Pefanis, Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard, and Lyotard,

In his short work Orders of Discourse, Michel Foucault draws attention to curious bodies which he describes as “societies of discourse”. The function of these “societies” he says is “to preserve or produce discourses, but only for circulation within a closed space, distributing those discourses according to strict rules, so that the owners are not dispossessed by this very distribution” [1]
Julian Pefanis’ book Heterology and the Postmodern would constitute a marvellous example of the hermetic proceedings of such a society. Indeed, so closed and exclusive is its discourse, so unwilling is it to dispossess itself of its secrets that even other members of the same society may have some difficulty in grasping the threads of its argument. The problems begin with the very title of the book. If the term “postmodern” now decorates the jackets of a vast array of contemporary works, (even if nobody can agree on its precise definition), the word ”heterology” remains obscure, even in the original French. The author equates the term with post-structuralism in the introduction but it is not until chapter three that a more extended explanation is offered. The term was in fact first used by the French novelist and essayist Georges Bataille, to describe the analysis or “science of the heterogeneous”. Heterology analyses those “things and practices which are subject to prohibition and censorship” and which do not fit into the everyday mainstream world (48). It addresses the experience of limits and the transgression of those limits and strenuously rejects what Pefanis describes as “the homogeneous body: be this body political, textual ... corporeal” or social (43).
Thus the intellectual movements grouped under the labels of heterology, postmodernism and post-structuralism are all dealing with roughly the same issue. They all involve the rejection of certain types of “totalizing historical or social schemas” (1) as they have been inherited from Hegel and Marx and other nineteenth century forms of thought. They all entail criticisms of the notions of “monolithic identity” and “imperial centre” wherever these are to be found. Discussions concerning the evils of “identity” as opposed to the purity of difference, of the carnivalesque virtues of the heterogeneous as opposed to the drab and sinister conformity of enforced social consensus, have reached epic proportions in recent years, with a host of thinkers reiterating similar points form a wide variety of standpoints. But it is not until the very last pages of his book that the author warns his readers of the reductivist dangers of the indiscriminate use of the vague and all encompassing banners of “post-structuralism” and “postmodernism”. Indeed, one could argue that in recent years these labels have lost most of their descriptive force and have become instead moral terms of abuse or praise.
When it comes to taking the moral high ground, the political reference is of course essential, thus Pefanis begins his work by invoking the recent crises in Eastern Europe suggesting that the rejection of totalizing thought is not a mere matter of words but is also occurring at the most fundamental social and political levels. But having made this initial connection, the author quickly vanishes into the highly abstracted realms of “theory”. As he states somewhat obscurely towards the end of the book, his aim is in fact “the narration of the heterodoxical tradition of French thought, this cartography of a ruptured and abyssal territory” (85) specifically as it occurs in the work of Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard. Pefanis also makes frequent and well informed reference to other thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida and earlier thinkers such as Alexandre Kojève and Marcel Mauss.
Unfortunately the terms “ruptured and abyssal” could equally well describe the organisation and style of the book. The purposes of individual chapters are often only explained in the middle or towards the end, and the chapters themselves should have been presented in a different order. Indeed, the book might have been more successful as a series of self contained articles than as a sustained work. Apart from problems of organisation, the book also suffers from problems of style which is a bizarre mixture of the poetically grandiloquent (“the great historical machine lurches, groans and grinds to a halt in the sands of time”), the casually colloquial (“was the great machine ever all it was cracked up to be?”) and the theoretically turgid. And, if the author generally provides competent translations for most of his quotations from the French, every now and then he will inexplicably leave a phrase or words untranslated.
Criticisms aside, however, the most valuable feature of this book is that it departs from the beaten track in its excellent selections from the French authors. The material selected from Foucault, for example, is well away from that which usually forms the focus of standard Anglo-Saxon interpretation. In an interesting introduction to Bataille, Pefanis notes his seminal influence on much contemporary French theory in particular on Foucault. As he perceptively remarks, it is quite likely the Foucaldian version of transgression which will outlive the original ideas of Bataille. To extend the argument here, whereas Bataille’s excursions into Sadean pornography and (a)theologies of ecstasy render his work of somewhat specialised appeal, Foucault’s exploration of the historical and social limits between the Same and the Other offers a far more subtle and productive tool for analysis. It is probably the former’s highly poetic interest in a purely individual rebellion, which more than anything else explains the “delay” in his English speaking reception. Pefanis, in fact, goes to some lengths to explain why it has taken so long for Bataille’s work to penetrate into the English speaking world and why it is currently the object of such fashion. He dismisses “a conspiracy theory on the part of publishers desperately dredging the field to bring us ever more obscure figures from French theory” adding that “the enormous energy required for translation for little return would discount this scenario” (41). But if a conspiracy amongst publishers might be rejected, one would do well to examine a little more closely, à la Bourdieu, the motives of authors and academics in this domain. [2] The “French theory” industry has now reached considerable proportions in the English speaking world. Enormous intellectual prestige, not to mention careers, have been closely associated with the introduction of “new” French theorists to an avid market since the late 1970s. One might argue that even the pains of translation would be more than richly rewarded in these terms.
The fashion for Bataille may still be in its early stages, but Lyotard and Baudrillard have long been well known names on the Anglo-Saxon French theory circuit. If Bataille stands in a class of his own (heterology) these two contemporary authors can be readily assimilated under the “postmodern” rubric. Indeed, Lyotard’s immensely successful work The Postmodern Condition is, of course, largely responsible for the introduction of the term into contemporary social and cultural theory. But the author avoids well trodden ground here and chooses to focus instead on Lyotard’s difficult and often eccentric text Economie libidinale written in much the same spirit as Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. In doing so, he offers a valuable contribution to English language discussion of Lyotard.
If Baudrillard can also be classified as “postmodern”, his work differs significantly from Lyotard’s. Baudrillard, as Pefanis points out, is of all contemporary writers, the most preoccupied with the famous ”crisis in representation” which means that signs begin to refer not so much to “things” as to each other. There is no longer any link between our sign systems and a central reality or “meaning”. Indeed, the image or sign becomes more real or “meaningful” than the thing it purportedly represents, as a number of commentators, invoking Baudrillard, have pointed out in relation to the media coverage of the Gulf War. Disneyland is more quintessentially the “real” America than America itself. Although Pefanis might not necessarily agree, Baudrillard, far more than Lyotard, represents the nihilist tendencies in postmodernism. For Lyotard there is still a monolithic system (“a great monad”) which must be resisted and transgressed. [3] But for Baudrillard, all boundaries have already disappeared as the sign “is liberated from any archaic obligation to designate anything at all” and endlessly circulates in a totally indeterminate and indifferent interplay of equivalences (80). This indeterminacy reaches its apotheosis in America where even bodies become obscenely obese as if to mark at the most physical level the absence of determined boundaries.
To conclude this discussion, this is by no means a book for the uninitiated and even those “in the know” might find it unduly abstruse. It does offer, however, a useful resource in its concentration on some of the less familiar French material and with its excellent references and bibliography.