Print
PRINT
James Joyce
Louis Armand
JAMES JOYCE & THE OBSCENE OBJECT OF POST/HUMANISM

At a point in time when the “post-human” has been broadly proclaimed, we are entitled to ask anew the question: What is Humanism? And if we are inclined to suppose that a certain mode of questioning, of reflection and of self-consciousness should in itself characterize the meaning of the term Humanism, then the question of the post-human would presuppose the resolution—independent of man—of what Humanism is. Stated otherwise, we might say that understanding of the human (of “the more or less presupposed unity of a [human] subject”),(1) by way of a humanism, has always implied a stance cognate with what today is called post-humanism—the apparent objectification of subjective experience, the world as prosthesis, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and so on—but without necessarily sharing its aspirations of a subsequent transcendence or even negation of the human. For it is a simple contention of this paper that in the discourse of posthumanism neither the human nor Humanism is effectively transcended or negated. Rather, something entirely else is at work, and it is my contention that this “something” very much becomes the focus of Joyce’s writing—and of his thinking about and with writing—beginning already in “The Sisters,” and again and again reprised throughout Finnegans Wake.

I

My starting point will be a slightly tangential examination of the status of writing in its relation to self-identity and agency, in consideration of the question: what is it that writes in Joyce? Between Dubliners and Finnegans Wake, Joyce configures a series of writing mechanisms which are described recursively, as a textual “body” that writes or signifies upon its own surface. This body assumes the function of a both an agent (something that acts) and a thing.

Contrary to certain principles that vest the act of writing uniquely in a human “subject,” the Joycean “thing” adopts the position of a writing that returns out of what Slavoj Žižek refers to as the obscene realm of the Real and inscribes subjectivity as a fantastical “interface.” Žižek’s terminology, here, points to the radically Cartesian formulation that underwrites Freud’s thinking: that it is the ego that is the true subject of the unconscious. In other words, that the apparently thinking and acting individuality of the ego (cogito) is nothing more or less than a subjection to some thing, to a thing that acts and thinks in advance of it. This is Žižek’s obscene “secret” about Cartesianism,(2) and it returns in various guises throughout the last two decades in the question—as Lyotard frames it—of “what if what is ‘proper’ to humankind were to be inhabited by the inhuman?” (2)  It is for similar reasons that I would venture to suggest that Humanism stands less in confrontation with the inhuman, than that it describes a subjection to the so-called post-human, and that (to re-phrase Lyotard) humanism is constitutionally and ceaselessly pregnant with its posthumanity.(3)

It is no accident that discourses of post-humanism necessarily engage with a certain humanistic tradition, whether it be called enlightenment, scientific rationalism, or—seemingly paradoxically—technologism, and what we might call the “method” of knowledge, certainty, truth. In short, the very technē of human understanding. In this view, the human is regarded not as the instigator of particular technologies, but as a prosthesis of technology. The idea of man does not give rise to the deadly efficiency of the mechanized world, but is rather the prosthesis of that world—and here we must allow the word “prosthesis” to resonate with several apparently contradictory meanings, centred around the notion of extensibility and addition, as well as of something “placed before.” The category of the human may be given as something more than merely a surplus produced by a system of technologisation bound to political economy, for example, and yet it shares the evanescence of the commodity and of spectacle, as a type of dream flickering across a “paralytic,” entropic surface of mechanical reason.

If humanism is in part that discourse which finds its expression most forcefully in the project of civilization and technological modernity, then it is necessary to examine the implications of Žižek’s formula against the accepted understanding of Freud’s proposition that “civilization is based on the permanent subjugation of the human drives.” (Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation, 3). What would it mean, in other words, to treat the human drives as precisely this “excess in advent” (as Lyotard says [25]) of a generalised technicity—not what is subjugated by technology, for example, but rather what is expropriated to it? This is what it would mean to think “the human” as a prosthesis of technology.

And yet, of course, this thinking is not in any way alien to Freud’s project, nor is it a novelty to introduce it to Joyce’s. Luke Thurston, in his book James Joyce and the Problem of Psychoanalysis, provides one context for approaching the question of the post-human in Joyce, which can usefully be extended back through Donald Theall and Marshall McLuhan’s investigations into Joyce’s techno-poetics. Thurston points to a Dantesque technicity at work in Joyce’s writing, redolent of a certain (Freudean) repetition compulsion, from which the concept of “will” emerges as a type of cybernetic circuit, tied to the Nietzschean conception of eternal return—or what Pierre Klossowski terms “the vicious circle principle.”

It is within this genealogy that Thurston positions an as yet un-named “post-humanism” in Joyce as the consequence—so to speak—of Nietzsche’s “metamorphosis of the individual” (Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, 71): “not as the transformation of individual human beings, but as the break with the very concept of self-identity—the Principium Individuationis—that Nietzsche borrowed from Schopenhauer to designate modernity’s mechanistic expropriation and alienation from the primal chaos of nature.” (Thurston, 5). Consequently we witness a shift from the idea of technological modernity as expropriation and alienation of human identity and so on, to a technicity of self-identity. In other words, to the invention of the human as a movement of the post-human and of the “factification,” as Joyce says in the Wake, of the Schopenhauerian “world as will and idea.”

II

In a well known analysis of the opening passage of Joyce’s “Sisters,” Hélène Cixous draws attention to precisely such a “factification” in Joyce’s text by way of the operations of paralysis.(4) This term, which haunts Dubliners and much of the critical literature surrounding it, implies a fantasmatic doubling of the analytical scene and of its hermeneutic—towards the interior and radically alien “identity” of this text, its “sinful and maleficent being,” into which the so-called subject is expropriated by a series of ellipses, repetitions and displacements. “There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.” And so on. All of this is well known.

What is of especial interest here, however, is the propositional and causal structure that underlies this expropriation and points towards something like a rationale, even an operation approximating reason, in what at first appears to be nothing more than a paralytic technicity. “There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.” Throughout, the text supplies reasons. The reason that there was no hope for him this time is because it was the third stroke. What these terms mean is far from clear and yet, on balance, there appears to be no real uncertainty: everything that needs to be expressed is expressed through that colon. Reason is given: a post-effect. Not because it fills a gap, but because it presupposes itself, as it were, in the figure of the missing object; the occluded; the other. Precisely “it”—this thing that somehow thinks, in language.

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind, for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: ‘I am not long for this world,’ and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work. (D 1)

The word “paralysis” links the so-called subject to something like an agency within language which is not a signified agency, but rather the agency of signification “itself” and which appears to go about its business autonomously—a type of golem of inscriptions, recalling the obscene, alchemical body of Shem towards the end of Book 1 of the Wake. Here, Shem is depicted as producing:

nichthemerically from his unheavenly body a no uncertain quantity of obscene matter not protected by copriright in the United States of Ourania or bedeed and bedood and bedang and bedung to him, with his double dye, brought to blood heat, gallic acid on iron ore, through the bowels of his misery, flashly, nastily, appropriately, this Esuan Menschavik and the first till last alchemist wrote over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body, till by its corrosive sublimation one continuous present tense integumented slowly unfolded in all marryvoising moodmoulded cyclewheeling history. (FW 185.29, 186.02)

What we encounter here is a “paralysis” which, as in “The Sisters,” is no longer an inertia, an immobility or rigidification as such, but rather a perversion of the body as something bound, of the fixed materiality of the “text,” in which the subject (which, in any case, is never a discrete entity) is confronted with a radical insufficiency: the body, the text, wills itself—so to speak—and henceforth the subject is seen to exist as a type of putrefactive superfluity. It is no longer that vehicle, that prosthesis of reason, but rather the fully fledged autonomous thing, the undead, the Freudian “partial object” metamorphosed here into a series of metonymy and synecdoche. Like the tongue, playing dead (as Cixous says), in the mouth of the priest-father who returns, in nightmares, in order to communicate something unsayable, obscene. The grey, disembodied face of the paralytic which is also an (“undead”) thing; an “it”—“it murmured”; “it desired to confess”; “I found it waiting for me”; “it began to confess”; “it smiled continually”; “it had died of paralysis.” (3)(5)

In the dark of my room I imagined that I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I drew the blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas. But the grey face still followed me. It murmured; and I understood that it desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region; and there agin I found it waiting for me. It began to confess tome in a murmuring voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so moist with spittle. But then I realised that it had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly, as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin. (D 3)

At every point, the “it” provokes and also determines the actions of the protagonist. At every point the protagonist is in this way situated, even as the coherence of any subject remains in question, as though on the verge of a constant re-covery. As in the Freudian algorithm: where it was, there ego shall be. And there, too, will be that evanescent humanism which is, as Sartre says, “the predicament of having to choose without appeal to any concept of human nature that would guarantee the rightness of his choice and the efficacy of his actions” (Krell, 214).(6) But more: because while it appears that the protagonist in this drama of human action is constantly putting words in the mouth of an absent “human nature” (the boy in Joyce’s text is constantly analysing and thereby recovering the posthumous speech, the “desire” of the paralytic—i.e. to confess [its sin]); it is rather a question of this “human nature” as that thing that (posthumously) returns and which, in returning, decides in advance of us—the primal, originary character, we might say, of this “sinful being.”

How can this be? Precisely because it is the perversely autonomous object—this suppressed or excluded “nature”—that gives the form of the human dilemma in the first place. The terms of the dilemma cease to be of primary concern; rather we are—as Sartre says—in the domain of a predicament “of having to choose and act”; it is not, then, a question of the rightness of the choice, but that, in being situated as the apparent necessity of action, the “human” describes a prosthesis of reason masked by indeterminacy. In a schema of generalised paralysis—in which the mark of the paralytic anticipates the subject at every point—a moment of indeterminacy appears to arise; an ellipsis is given to be filled; a parenthesis in which the subject is seemingly enabled to inscribe itself in the reality of “its own” actions.

This, of course, is the mark of the phantasmatic; the very contrary of Sartre’s insistence that “there is reality only in action.” (Sartre, 62) Its counterpart is that conception spelled out by Heidegger in his “Letter on Humanism” (1947) where—among various other things—Heidegger argues that “Thinking acts insofar as it thinks. Such action is presumably the simplest and at the same time the highest, because it concerns the relation of Being to man.” (217). Again, the human resolves itself into a type of object of a “thinking” which “acts,” and whose acts do not belong to man, but instead concern “the relation of Being to man.” It is an already posthumous relation; of what stands outside “it,” as a prosthesis of Being.

Necessarily this is a simplification. Nevertheless, let us return for a moment to Joyce’s text. From the very outset, we are given a series of propositions in which a kind of “reason” is generalised by way of a “figure” of paralysis, between the “I” of the protagonist and the “it.” It, we learn, “was the third stroke”; “was vacation time”; “sounded strangely in my ears”; “filled me with fear”—“and yet I longed to be nearer to it and look upon its deadly work …” (1). Above all, “it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being …” We notice, immediately, how the word paralysis operates in an environment in which all else appears suspended: time as repetition, as vacancy (“it was vacation time”); idleness (“I had thought his words idle”); deduction (“I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse”), speculation (“I … studied the lighted square of window”) and knowledge (“now I knew they were true”) reduced to geometric principles (“the word gnomon in the Euclid”) and the relation of objects outside thought, etc.

Above all, we notice that the word “paralysis” operates. Its environment is one in which signification constantly feeds back, recursively, metonymically, in the figure of the “it” attributed with all sorts of verbal features and whose generalised materiality is foregrounded. The word paralysis, the way it sounds on the protagonist’s lips, the way it names some “maleficent and sinful being” that—despite the apparent signification of the term—works, links the nascent subject in to an agency within language. And it is this agency—even if this may seem a contradiction—by which subjecthood is effected as a relation of terms. For it is solely in this relation that the objecthood of language is insisted upon; an objecthood in which meaning, knowing, thinking and Being are conflated in a series of oppositions (for which reason Heidegger notes that “the essence of humanism is metaphysical” [247]).(7)

Here, too, we see at work the logic of a humanism which is the installation of a negativised technē—which Heidegger defines as “a process of reflection in service to doing and making.” (218) A product, in other words, of a type of scientism and a “technical interpretation of thinking” (i.e. utilitarianism). The insufficiency of this definition of technē obtains from certain other insufficiencies in Heidegger’s argument, most noticeably to do with the critique of the animale rationale, which Jacques Derrida and others have examined in some depth.(8) What is important here is to recognise in technē a structural operation—of relations, as Heidegger says—by which any humanism is necessarily underwritten, even if this is solely in the form of a dilemma. (It is for this reason that we cannot simply limit post-humanism to a type of transcendental cybernetics—the sublation of human/machine or human/animal—it is not a matter of transcended dichotomies or of a gesture of negation.)

And here, too, resides the apparent paradox of my thesis, according to which agency is effected in the figure of the Cartesian subject as a type of deadly work—the work of paralysis “itself,” of language “itself,” of that thing that, constantly returning (as in dreams), thinks. The human obtains in the predicament of having to choose only through a mode of deferral—a mode which is the composite of a desire for the obscene in which it, the “subject,” is both posited and rationalised. This reflective movement, in which humanism emerges as a post-effect of a generalised (and not simply utilitarian) technicity, recalls again the very familiar scenario underlying the protagonist’s dream of the paralytic in Joyce’s text. We recognise a human eye turned upon a kind of afterlife, where consciousness seems to live on after death, to be omnipresent, to speak from a kind of abyss, so that through “it” we may bear witness—paradoxically—to our absence, as the (dis)embodiment of a kind of thinking that may be said to bear witness to the end of thought, to the unthought.

1 Jean-Fançois Lyotard, The Inhuman, 1.
2 Slavoj Žižek, Cogito and the Unconscious, 1998.
3 Lyotard, writing of “modernity,” is especially attentive to the “pointlessness of any periodisation of cultural history in terms of ‘pre-’ and ‘post-,’ before and after, for the single reason that it leaves unquestioned the position of the ‘now,’ of the present from which one is supposed to be able to achieve a legitimate perspective on a chronological succession.” (24) It is important to add that the tropological character of the post, as in post-humanism, is necessarily in the order of a “metonymic forethrow” which in fact underwrites any conception of a “now.”
4 Hélène Cixous, “Joyce: The (r)use of writing,” trans. Judith Still, Post-structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French, eds. Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 23.
5 James Joyce, Dubliners, ed. Robert Scholes with Richard Ellmann (New York: Viking Press, 1967).
6 Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell. Rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 1993). Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, 1946.
7 Heidegger: “In this regard ‘subject’ and ‘object’ are inappropriate terms of metaphysics, which very early in the form of Occidental ‘logic’ and ‘grammar’ seized control of the interpretation of language” (218).
8 See, e.g., Jacques Derrida, “And Say the Animal responded,” trans. David Wills, Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal, ed. Cary Wolfe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). Heidegger: “Expelled from the truth of Being, man everywhere circles around himself as the animal rationale” (245).