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.