LYOTARD ON WRITING AS A (BEAST OF) BURDEN (1): the stumbling child


I wish to give a reading of “A l’écrit bâté”, a dense enigmatic poetic text by Jean-François Lyotard, belonging to his “later” period. It is quite short, only twenty paragraphs, and is published in Lyotard’s posthumous book MISÈRE DE LA PHILOSOPHIE (2000). a collection of diverse essays and articles. The title is ambiguous, like many of Lyotard’s key concepts and expressions. It can be translated Misery of Philosophy, but also Poverty of Philosophy.


“A l’écrit bâté” is not printed as a continuous text, unlike the other essays in the volume. It is layed out on un-numbered pages, one paragraph to a page, the paragraphs ranging from four to nineteen lines, like Nietzschean aphorisms or fragments. Printed normally, without breaks, this text would amount to four or five pages. This aphoristic spacing as an integral part of the text gives it a “figural” dimension, as does the lack of punctuation. The text is both discourse and figure.


Yet discourse and figure are separate, between them there is no conciliation, no fusion, no dialectical synthesis.”To speak is not to see”, Maurice Blanchot tells us. To which Deleuze responds, commenting Foucault’s archeology, “to see is not to speak”. Enunciability and visibility are two different and incommensurable régimes, with no necessary hierarchcal relation between them. But this demarcation is too structuralist, and its reversion is only a first step in its deconstruction. Underneath these two régimes there is something else.


“Only a first step”, because such boundaries are not absolute, we can limp back and forth between them. I once asked Lyotard a philosophical question, about a quandary that was bothering me. I felt that my attachment to pluralism left me in an impasse where I had to choose between an eclectic relativism where anything is possible and a sceptical paralysis or mutism where nothing definite can be said or decided on. He responded that this was a problem for him too,but that there was no solution except to “limp”, to advance haltingly, clumsily leaning on one foot then the other, stumbling along, bestriding the line between relativism and mysticism.


There is no punctuation, but the presence of capital letters at a logical or respiratory pause seem to indicate a meaningful breakdown into sentences.The syntax is paratactic, clauses juxtaposed without indication of subordination. Parataxis, dixit Lyotard, is the appropriate mode for the post-modern condition.


“Only a first step”, I say, intending to develop this later, planning to take a further step. Interestingly, the text is about paces and steps and their relation to childhood. The first “sentence” (but there is no punctuation) reads

L’écrit cet enfant va d’un pied à l’autre tant bien que mal

“The written this child steps from one foot to the other clumsily” (my translation)


The style is imagistic, poetic, non-referential and non-argumentative. I say non-referential to distinguish it from denotative or cognitive discourse. Philosophy does not belong to the referential genre. Yet this is not wholly true. According to Lyotard, philosophy belongs to the reflexive genre. The text “A l’écrit bâté” is self-referential, reflexive. I have translated the deictic “cet” in the quote above as “this” rather than “that”, which is equally possible and acceptable. Reflexively understood, the expression “this child” refers to the text itself, the written. “Tant bien que mal” is a familiar expression meaning as best as one can, but I cannot help seeing a Nietzshean resonance as “beyond good and evil” is “par-delà le bien et le mal”. Once again, a dualism is undone, or at least side-stepped.

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6 Responses to LYOTARD ON WRITING AS A (BEAST OF) BURDEN (1): the stumbling child

  1. I would so much like you to read Francoise Dolto’s case study Dominique:Psychoanalysis of An Adolescent Boy. Before each session she writes a page or two about the family situation then goes to a complete transcript he said, she said for the session. It is the most astonishing case study I ever read. Dolto was Lacan’s analyst and his partner in their theoretical work.


    • terenceblake says:

      OK, I will read it. I read a lot of Dolto many years ago, she was very popular in France. I read a few books, listened to her on the radio, and saw her on TV, but I don’t recall reading that case study.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have read a few things by her online but not much. I have just heard of her “popularity.” The only other one I read was her one on Jesus (she was a devout Catholic, like McLuhan), and of course liked it so much. But nothing else by her would have changed me clinically the way Dominique did. Completely different for a clinical case study.I’ll wait until you do read it because I can’t wait to read what you will say about it.


  3. Dominique’s first words to Dolto:

    Well, me, I’m not like everybody else. Sometimes when I wake up I feel I’ve lived through a true story.

    Dolto: A story which made you untrue.

    Dominique: That’s it! But how do you know?

    And so it goes. An astonishing dialogue with a child on the edge of madness whose evolving descent she wants to stop.


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