DAVID AMES CURTIS
27, rue Froidevaux 75014 Paris FRANCE TEL/FAX:
33 (0) 1 45 38 53 96
So, you, the reader, have found yourself here, which is perhaps as good a place to start, or to end, as anywhere else. Perhaps you are looking for words of explanation as to what the author I have chosen to translate has wanted to say, or--the height of embarrassment for a translator, whose role is eminently self-effacing (though, as I have written before, (1) there is also on the translator's part a civic duty of presentation of a translated author, as well as of self-presentation, in the transnational Republic of Letters)--what I myself have to say. Perhaps you have come across this sentence by pure accident. Or, perhaps--a greater (?) embarrassment--you have been assigned these lines as a textbook example of how not to begin a translator's foreword. In any case, you, the reader of the published version of the present text, are someone I probably do not know, from a millennium in which I have not (yet) lived. Almost everything I have to say to you whom I address these lines is enveloped in the precarious indeterminacy of our only now commencing dialogue--your personality, your experience, your motivations remain in suspense as I write these lines which I am constantly going back over to revise, not sure, beyond a vague outline and a general sense of both form and content, what it is I have to say or what you might be expecting, and yet I write them to you and you, somehow, are reading them and trying to discern what purpose, if any, may lie behind the generalities I have recorded so far. Even the physical basis by which these words come to you has been opened to question: recently, I myself read (on newsprint) a piece about the advent of the e-book, and the day thereafter I read (again on newsprint) that DNA, apparently an excellent electrical conductor, could replace silicon chips (which I am now using to write to you), so that that former support for ink, dead trees ground to pulp, might one day be supplanted by some kind of engaged symbiotic encounter with an organic machine (a twentieth-century writer takes this last phrase to be anoxymoron), (2) thus making possible in a new and unforeseeable way what is already (still?) being described as a discreet and unique "event" conjured up in hypercyberspace.
What, in order to go on, can be retained from the foregoing? I take the word encounter--more specifically, an open-ended, vulnerable, never fully assured and always to be recommenced improvisatory experience whereby the subjective and objective elements in both reading and writing do not so much "meet" as arise together within a temporally diffuse and divided space, one surrounded on all sides by question marks--therefore bounded, but in an abeyant, interrogative mode. This choice of word, and my other word choices so far, it may already be obvious, have been made in response to some of the themes raised in the book I have chosen to translate, which includes extensive and wide-ranging reflections on the arts of reading and writing.
I could thus cite here some general reflections the author Claude Lefort shares with us while discussing "Machiavelli's writing art":
"If one wants to know the intentions of a writer, it seems worthwhile to ask oneself who are his privileged interlocutors, what are the opinions he targets, what are the circumstances that summon up his desire to speak. Let us note in passing that, in order to account for his thinking, it doesn't suffice to answer these questions, supposing that one could, for it is equally true that he writes for no one, that he becomes intimate with a reader who has no definite identity. The reader's place will be occupied, in a future he could not imagine, by unknown people. And again it is true that he draws on circumstances for an ability to think that transcends the contingency of his situation."
A multifaceted sense of uncertainty would therefore seem essential to the writer's situation and to his relationship to his reader. In order to look at the other half of this variable equation and to see if it has any solution, we could turn to Lefort's thoughts on "the art of reading," inspired by his examination of the Marquis de Sade's combination of his writing art with an "art of jouissance":
"What I mean to say, in short, is that every reading of a text implies, for the one who reads it, some manner of saying it to oneself--and, always already, some manner of interpreting it, simply by the inflection one gives to the words, the rhythm to the phrase, by a modulation of speech that in oneself remains unpronounced. One does not read Molière as one reads Racine or Descartes. But the difference is not dictated entirely by the text; it also arises from the operations performed by the reader. Indeed, what would be the point of learning to read if not to decipher and to communicate what are called "messages"? The thing is well known, but usually everything happens as if this knowledge served no purpose. Ordinarily, we are reluctant to admit that the interpretation based on one's understanding, the learned interpretation, is inseparable from this first sensible interpretation of which every reading is made. And there is an indefinable shuttling back and forth between them. It is one's manner of reading that leads to understanding, and it is also one's understanding that leads to rereading, to rearticulating, to scanning the text in another way. Of course, the distance between the actor-performer [l'interprète-acteur] on stage and the scholar-interpreter may be unbridgeable, but there is still a sort of mediation: the art of reading, which is impossible to define."
In this latter case, writing and its art seem to come partially to the rescue, when faced with the avowed impossibility of providing any reliable definition for this art of reading; for, Lefort continues: "Since I have just advanced the idea that the manner of reading is not dictated entirely by the text, I must qualify this statement by adding that it is nevertheless from the power of a piece of writing that a reading draws its power. For, the reader knows that there has to be a proper reading." And yet this comforting talk about a "proper reading" suggested by the power of writing proves to be only a prelude to his introduction of the disturbing idea that there is an inherent "insecurity of reading" and to his assertion that, furthermore, Sade's own writing is of a sort to "throw us into a state of the greatest insecurity." Speaking, in another chapter--"Philosopher?"--of philosophy's potential relationship to nonphilosophical writing (we are reminded here of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's "Philosophy and Non-Philosophy since Hegel," a posthumous text Lefort himself edited), (3) he goes on to ask himself: "What remains, then, of the exigency of philosophy . . . that prompts one indeed to declare that it can manifest itself in writings that do not know that they are philosophical?" and he admits: "I still couldn't find an answer to a question like that. But it doesn't seem to me to be a futile one because it leaves me disarmed." An interesting response indeed, one that indicates that the uncertainty, and the danger, of any true thought by which writing and reading might attempt to advance are not only ineluctable but, as far as he is concerned, also in some way welcome.
In providing you with these quotations, I am, however, getting ahead of, or perhaps behind, myself. For, I have offered the reader a series of English words that Lefort himself has never spoken or written: all the words chosen in this translation have been chosen by me (4)--a crushingly banal point, except if we reflect upon the strange situation of the translator, who, in performing his daunting and nearly absurd job, imagines himself over an extended and exhausting period of time to be someone who not only isn't himself but also doesn't exist--in this case, a native English-speaking "Claude Lefort"--while at the same time endeavoring in some creative and indefinable way to "retain" within the translated text a sufficiently alien presence, so that the translation can also honestly fulfill its eminent, though implicit, civic purpose--that is, the introduction of foreign ideas into what we think of as a determinate yet evolving literary community or "body politic," so as to open that body to the possibility of a considered assimilation of something that is not (yet) itself. It is in emerging from this experience of speaking (writing through translating) in an imaginary voice that is not my own--that is, strictly, no one's and that will now somehow live on, in its own right and closely associated with Lefort and, to a lesser extent, with myself--that I, changed forever by this disconcerting and destabilizing experience, try to find again my own voice in order to indicate to you in writing some provisional guidelines for reading what I have, and yet have not, written in this translation.
It will perhaps not be surprising if I now say that another word I could retain from the first paragraph, besides encounter, is embarrassment. The discomfort built into the constant insecurity of the translation encounter is an experience every translator knows unmistakably, in his constant hesitations as well as in his ultimate choices. That old adage, traduttore, traditore (the translator as traitor), is manifestly true, yet it speaks to the translator's experience only to the extent that the translator has also adopted the apparently contradictory, yet truly complementary, project of rendering a "faithful" translation--which is an infinite and impossible yet unavoidably necessary as well as positively desirable task.
I could begin my endless list of embarrassments with the problems surrounding my translation of the book's subtitle. Whereas the title, Écrire, is fairly straightforward--"writing" or "to write" (though the entire book is an extended meditation on what it means to write!)--this subtitle, À l'épreuve du politique, has posed fairly insurmountable problems. An épreuve is a "test," a "trial," even an "ordeal"--or, to use another French word also found in English, a "travail." I have called upon or called attention to all of these options in the present translation--though the first may sound too scientific or academic, the second too tentative or legalistic, the third overly harsh or downright medieval, and the last merely a melodramatic literary flourish--in order to capture the term's sense of a challenging experience that involves a confrontation with reality. Compounding the inevitable polysemy of épreuve is the appearance, almost right after it, of the curious masculine noun of recent vintage, (5) le politique--"the political" or "the political sphere," as is sometimes said now in English--which contrasts in French with the more straightforward, concrete, and familiar feminine noun la politique--"politics" or "policy," depending upon the context--and which derives from das politische, a neuter German word popularized by the Nazi-era German constitutional scholar and political thinker Carl Schmitt and then by his American emigrant former student Leo Strauss (to whom, moreover, Lefort devotes three extensive and critical Notes). "The political" has been associated, too, with the writings of Hannah Arendt (wrongly, according to one young political scientist, who claims that "this term, developed by the right-wing jurist Carl Schmitt, has been ascribed to her by Marxist thinkers more influenced by Schmitt than she is"), (6) and le politique is employed today by a wide variety of other French-speaking writers besides Lefort, including the late emigrant Greek political and social thinker Cornelius Castoriadis, whose usage of the le/la politique distinction differs markedly from his, (7) and leading French classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant, who, in insisting that "the political," like "politics," has a datable birth and origin in the poleis of Ancient Greece, differs from both Castoriadis and Lefort on this score. (8) Yet, "the political," as substantive noun, still reads rather inelegantly on the cover of an English-language book (9)--even if we note the existence of Reinterpreting the Political, a recently published American anthology of "Continental" political theory that borrows its title directly from a passage in Lefort's influential 1985 essay, "The Question of Democracy." (10) After considering, and then rejecting, the nearly literal Writing: The Test[or the Ordeal] of the Political and the simpler Writing the Political, I searched, without much success, for more satisfactory alternatives, ones that somewhat deceptively transform this unusual noun, however, back into an adjective: Writing: The Political Test ultimately survived only because it seemed mildly less dissatisfactory than Writing and the Ordeal of Politics and marginally less deceptive than such precious (though not entirely misleading) options as The Literature of Politics and the Politics of Literature or such trendy ones as Writing/Politics, which employ the alternative noun, politics, and without incorporating épreuve. (11)
Adding to the humiliation of not finding, for the first time in my fourteen years as a professional translator, a book title with which I could feel reasonably satisfied was the disquiet I felt before what might appear to be a widely disparate collection of essays--a quick glance at the table of contents begins to reveal part of the wide range of Lefort's "privileged interlocutors," both living and dead: George Orwell, Salman Rushdie, Alexis de Tocqueville, the Marquis de Sade, François Guizot, Niccolò Machiavelli, Leo Strauss, Pierre Clastres. (12) I purchased the book shortly following its publication in 1992 by Calmann-Lévy and a while after I had attended some lectures on the fall of Communism given by Lefort here in Paris, because it contained some "reflections" on that topic and with the idea of translating it eventually. (Lefort cofounded the now-legendary postwar left-wing anti-Communist group Socialisme ou Barbarie with Castoriadis, of whose vast writings I have now translated and edited about a million words. (13)) I quickly realized that what seemed to be a bunch of occasional pieces preceding those "Reflections on the Present" had a much greater depth and a much tighter thematic organization than I had first suspected, but my enthusiasm, which increased considerably as I read through the volume, was of no avail with publishers, who, one after another, rejected my translation proposals on the basis of their initial negative impression of its apparently eclectic contents.
It was, however, precisely Lefort's linkage of political reflection with a
literary concern to investigate the arts of reading and writing that tied these
chapters together thematically and offered, I came to think, an excellent opportunity
to introduce English-speaking readers to his work--which, despite the publication
in English of two previous collections more than a decade ago,
(14) and notwithstanding the occasional appearance in English translation
of writings by his former teacher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, edited and prefaced
by Lefort himself, (15) has not gained the recognition
in the English-speaking world that that work undoubtedly deserves.
(16) A first opening came by chance, when Vassilis Lambropoulos was
seeking contributions for a 1996 special issue of Duke University Press's literary
journal South Atlantic Quarterly on "Ethical Politics." Lefort's article
on Sade, subtitled "The Boudoir and the City," fit perfectly Lambropoulos's
goal of encouraging "nomoscopic analysis," that is, a critical examination of
laws and ethical norms as explored in literary texts. The fact that this chapter
from Écrire looked at Sade's Philosophie dans le boudoir--a
hybrid (17) work hovering somewhere between
the genres of the novel, the dialogue, the political tract (i.e., the performative
reading of the celebrated and fabled "Français, encore un effort" pamphlet
embedded in the text), and the theatrical play--was also propitious, for "nomoscopy,"
in Lambropoulos's view, (18) would privilege
criticism of more public forms of literary engagement, such as drama, which
have taken a back seat to the novel in recent times. Subsequent interest from
Duke University Press editor J. Reynolds Smith and a grant from the French Ministry
of Culture and Communication have made this translation a reality.
(19) The Sade gig also provided me with an unprecedented and very
welcome opportunity to challenge myself as a translator while trying to capture
the extraordinary richness and subtlety of Lefort's literary-philosophical investigations
and descriptions. (20)
Georges André Claude Lefort was born April 21, 1924 in Paris to an artisan painter, Maurice-Alphonse Lefort, and his wife Rose, née Cohen, a fashion designer. His high-school years under the Occupation were spent at the Lycée Carnot, where he had the extraordinary experience of taking a young Maurice Merleau-Ponty's course in philosophy, and then at the Lycée Henri IV, where, upon joining with French Trotskyism, he became a politically active radical with a considerable following. After encountering Castoriadis (1922-1997) at a postwar Trotskyist meeting, the two joined forces to build an oppositional tendency that eventually transformed itself into the independent group of workers and intellectuals Socialisme ou Barbarie which published a review by the same name. Lefort attended the University of the Sorbonne, receiving there his doctorate in literature and human sciences, and passed the agrégation to teach high-school philosophy courses himself, first in Nîmes (1949) and then in Reims (1950). He was employed from 1951 to 1953 as a scholarly researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, returning to work at the CNRS from 1956 to 1965 and again from 1971 to 1976, with teaching stints in between at the University of São Paolo in Brazil (1953-1954), the Sorbonne (1954-1956), and the University of Caen (1966-1971). In 1976, he was elected as a Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, teaching there until his retirement in 1989. Since Merleau-Ponty's death in 1961, Lefort has also acted as the French philosopher's literary executor.
What, then, are "the intentions of the writer" Claude Lefort, who has set out to scrutinize the political aspects of literary texts and the literary aspects of political ones? We have already mentioned some of his "privileged interlocutors," but a few more words are still in order on that score. There is, especially, the Italian political thinker Machiavelli, "to whom I devoted a work that occupied me for so long that I dare not tell the amount of time," he tells us quite humbly about this monumental 778-page work in his autobiographical piece on philosophical reading and writing, "Philosopher?" (21) Tocqueville, the thinker of the advent and significance of modern democracy, is an author Lefort has already investigated prior to the two Notes he devotes to him here. (22) What is particularly interesting in these Notes is how he explores not only the contradictions and complexity of Tocqueville's thought in Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution but its underlying meaning: Tocqueville himself, Lefort argues in sum, became caught up in, and ended up expressing in his own writing, the improvisatory and open-ended character of the democratic experience. Not only Tocqueville, alongside Sade and Guizot, but also a number of other revolutionary-era and nineteenth-century French thinkers including the historians Jules Michelet and Edgar Quinet (who pop up several times in Écrire) have been central to his work for the past two decades. (23) Turning to German eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers, we note that one chapter of Écrire is devoted to Kant's Perpetual Peace and broaches the question of the difficult and halting genesis of an international community dedicated to the values of human rights and peace (a theme addressed in his Rushdie text, as well). While Hegel is mentioned several times, it is usually only in quite cursory historical or critical terms that Lefort discusses the latter's work. (24) Marx, of course, loomed large for the former cofounder of Socialisme ou Barbarie. In Écrire, however, Lefort, who no longer identifies himself as a Marxist, makes no more than passing references to the founder of "scientific socialism," even though Marx remains a focal point for his reflections in other writings. (25)
Weber's influence, by way of contrast, may be felt throughout the present volume, yet without his ever being especially highlighted in any one chapter. (26) One of the distinctive contributions of Socialisme ou Barbarie, and specifically of Lefort and Castoriadis, is to have extended and eventually to have gone beyond Marxism, doing so by introducing the question of bureaucracy into the heart of Marxian discourse and by bringing this Weberian category of analysis to bear on the bureaucratization of the socialist movement in general and of Bolshevism in particular, as well as of Western capitalist societies. (27) In this way, S. ou B. went far beyond the analyses Leon Trotsky formulated merely as warnings in his very last writings. It was with an in-depth critique of the "Soviet" bureaucracy and a militant advocacy, in contrast, of workers' management that S. ou B. broke from the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI), the French section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, in 1948 and set itself up as a separate organization the following year. (28) Paired with Weber, and also not the object of a separate chapter but turning up on several crucial occasions, is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose thinking on democracy and modernity, Lefort reminds us, played such a key role in informing Weber's thought.
The name of Leo Strauss, another thinker influenced by Nietzsche, has already
been mentioned, but it should be noted that the presence of this distinctive
thinker, who did so much to revive the study of classical political philosophy,
can be felt throughout Écrire and that Lefort is now generally
recognized as himself the person who has done the most to revive political philosophy
in modern France. Significantly, Lefort examines at length Strauss's practice
of "reading between the lines" of political-philosophical texts. In this case,
not "paired" with Strauss but accompanying Lefort along his own path of political
thought is another political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, whose mid-century analysis
of The Origins of Totalitarianism and whose championing of the workers'
councils during the 1956 anti-Communist Hungarian Revolution remarkably parallel
positions taken by S. ou B. (29) Lefort, in
fact, was recently awarded the Arendt Prize from a German foundation. Nevertheless,
in the present volume her overt presence is minimal. Another thinker of democracy
and totalitarianism, more sociologist than political philosopher, is Raymond
Aron, who appears in a rather critical light during Lefort's discussion of the
collapse of Communism at the end of the book. It was under Aron's direction
that Lefort wrote his thesis on Machiavelli. Also, Alexander Solzhenitsyn is
discussed briefly in this last chapter. Un homme en trop was Lefort's
1976 book that helped bring attention in France to the analyses of the author
of The Gulag Archipelago. (30)
The sixteenth-century French author La Boétie makes several appearances,
especially in the chapter Lefort devotes to his late friend and colleague, the
anthropologist Pierre Clastres, whose remarkable work analyzing tribes of South
American Indians, and "primitive" peoples in general, as instances of a Society
against the State is given a fresh, in-depth examination there.
(31) One can sense the poignant significance of a friendship lost
due to the premature death of one of the parties--which doesn't stop Lefort
from offering a critical appreciation of his friend's substantial, if incomplete,
body of work, applying to it his own idea of the political as the mise en
forme ("setting into form") of a human society. He joined Clastres in contributing
original texts to a 1976 scholarly edition of La Boétie's famous essay
on voluntary servitude. (32) Both of them, we
may also note, collaborated with Castoriadis, Miguel Abensour, Marcel Gauchet
and a number of other uncommon French intellectuals at the journal Libre
from 1977 to 1980. This was Lefort's and Castoriadis's second and last attempt
to work together on a journal after their final S. ou B. split in 1958. A dispute
over the contemporary significance of totalitarianism, occasioned by the Russian
intervention in Afghanistan, put a definitive end to one of the most remarkable
and fecund political-intellectual collaborations in postwar times.
Almost last, but certainly not least, is the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who taught Lefort's 1941-42 high school philosophy class and who first suggested to Lefort that his youthful political views might receive concrete expression in French Trotskyism, which is where Lefort met Castoriadis and formed a tendency that became Socialisme ou Barbarie. (34) Merleau-Ponty's proximity is palpable throughout the book, and not just when Lefort speaks of Tocqueville's exploration of the "flesh of the social" or talks personally and explicitly in "Philosopher?", about the great influence his former teacher continues to exercise over himself and his thought. Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology, makes a few appearances, too, but Husserl's student, Martin Heidegger, who maintained a long personal relationship with Arendt and with whom Merleau-Ponty entertained an enduring but ambiguous intellectual affinity, only appears once, and then in quite negative terms. "Nothing," Lefort says decisively,
"better instructs one about the phantasm of a world entirely ruled by technology than the argument advanced by Heidegger, who shows his disdain for any attempt to distinguish its centers, its uses, and its effects, and who, in order to respond to what he calls its "challenge," joins with Nazism, that is, a totalitarian formation that wanted to rivet everyone to his particular post and to destroy every sign of independence in society--to achieve, in short, under cover of a moral revolution, that strict integration of men and things that was being imputed to the artificialist philosophy of the West."
Evidently, Lefort is not to be classified among the French Heideggerians, who have exerted such a baleful influence over large portions of America's academic "Left." In "The Question of Democracy," Lefort had already expressed surprise and dissatisfaction in his criticism of many of his contemporaries in the philosophical profession: "How," he asked, "can they handle ontological difference with such subtlety, vie with one another in exploiting the combined resources of Heidegger, Lacan, Jakobson, and Lévi-Strauss, and then fall back upon such crass realism when the question of politics arises?" (35)
Lefort also counsels us, when examining a writer, to inquire as to "what are the opinions he targets." As far as recurring themes found in Écrire are concerned, relativism as well as absolutism and a universalism divorced from actual experience, along with sociologism, culturalism, historicism, and positivism are repeated targets of his criticism. The challenging idea of an interminable and unresolvable "war of the gods" introduced by Weber has led today, regrettably, to a rather slack and slippery response--for example, in the uncritical affirmation of a generalized and undifferentiated "right to difference"--on the part of many who are unmindful of the methodological and indeed philosophical problems this idea raised for Weber himself, problems that retain a political as well as a philosophical urgency for Lefort:
"Now, just as much as respect for the other's identity or the critique of egocentrism, of ethnocentrism--and particularly of Eurocentrism--can be fully justified and tolerance, consequently, can be erected into a principle, so an unbridled relativism turns out to confer a legitimacy upon all sorts of impostures and, more precisely, upon all systems of oppression that, under cover of an ethic placed in the service of the purity of a race, of the integrity of a nation, or of the instauration of a classless society, goes about hounding individuals and groups whose characteristics are judged not to be in conformity with the right model."
Likewise, the recent claims concerning "the end of philosophy" leave him cold. Continuing his positive evaluation of questions that challenge him, that leave him "disarmed," he adds:
"As I have already said, it is the discourse about the disappearance of philosophy that I deem to be futile. But that very discourse isn't devoid of motives. Its only error is to convert an interrogation into an affirmation--that is to say, in the present circumstance, into a negation."
The fashionable discourse on the "death of man" (or of "the subject") is, in his view, no less vain. Without taking a stand in favor of a warmed-over "humanism"--as a younger generation of French intellectuals has done in reaction against Louis Althusser's ridiculous idea that a still-extant humanism explains Stalin's errors and against Jacques Derrida's reprehensible attribution of Heidegger's Nazism to a residual "metaphysical" humanism--Lefort explores, upon several occasions, the complex, sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory components that go to make up "man" in society and that give "human rights" a force and a value today that, he argues, go beyond any ideological defense of "bourgeois democracy."
Democracy and totalitarianism, the dual theme that served as a title for a book by Aron, one that Lefort discusses in the last chapter of the present volume, have long been at the center of Lefort's concerns, and increasingly so as time goes on, even after the progressive decomposition, collapse, and ultimate disappearance of "Soviet" Communism. (36) Here, Merleau-Ponty's idea of the body and of perception as central and privileged phenomenological categories of existence is given a unique political-philosophical twist in Lefort's study not only of the "flesh of the social" in Tocqueville's exploration of democracy but also in his study of totalitarianism's attempt, in the wake of the rise of democracy, to "revitalize" the "body politic" (37) from both above and below. (38) This leads us to mention Ernst Kantorowicz--another of Lefort's "privileged interlocutors," in fact--whose The King's Two Bodies Lefort returns to again and again in order to comprehend the distinctiveness, by contrast, of modern democracy (39)--where power, law, and knowledge are, so to speak, disincorporated and can no longer be embodied unambiguously in a distinct sovereign entity, the king (who once doubled as Christ's earthly representative but whose head has since been severed)--as well as of totalitarianism--which endeavors, in its hatred of democracy's characteristic dissolution and disentanglement of these three spheres, to effect a total reunification of them in "an impossible swallowing up of the body in the head," which also entails "an impossible swallowing up of the head in the body." (40) We are evidently quite far from Michel Foucault's "power/knowledge" rhetoric--which would have us believe that there is an inescapable identity between power and knowledge and which so many of his American followers have confused with being a radical posture of contestation and defiance. (41) Lefort receives inspiration, rather, from Freud, when conducting his fine literary-political study of "the interposed body" in Orwell's antitotalitarian novel 1984.
In trying to revive political philosophy--as the effort to think the constituting political element in the formation of a society and not simply as some kind of historical-interpretative undertaking or an empirically based policy-making endeavor--Lefort also targets "political science" in general: "Interpreting the political means breaking with the viewpoint of political science, because political science emerges from the suppression of this question," he had said in "The Question of Democracy." (42) The debt owed to Strauss here as well as in his criticisms of relativism, sociologism, culturalism, historicism, and positivism is obvious, but their mutual affinity on this score has in no way prevented him from criticizing Strauss's formulations or from questioning whether Strauss himself, in his most extreme formulations (i.e., when our reading between the lines of Strauss's own exoteric texts yields what we think we can glimpse to be his own esoteric doctrine), doesn't end up, contrary to Strauss's own intentions, putting into question the very possibility of our continuing to do political philosophy today. Instead of making the supposed shortcomings of democracy his ultimate target, as Strauss had done (while also confounding democracy with a mass society still riddled with the ever-transmuting destructive contradictions of capitalism), Lefort argues for a nuanced point of view:
"There is nothing to hide about the ambiguities of democracy. Criticism is healthy. Still, such criticism must not sink to the ridiculous level of putting reason or unreason on trial. It must know how to denounce relativism without abandoning the sense of relativity that the totalitarian system sought to destroy."
The reflection on the legacy of totalitarianism, modern democracy's historically contemporaneous and contiguous Other, again proves to be crucial to his revaluation of democracy and to his reevaluation of its inherent problems.
Lefort advises us, finally, to look at "what are the circumstances that summon up [a writer's] desire to speak." We might recall here that one of Lefort's very first published texts--written in 1948, as he and the Socialisme ou Barbarie tendency were withdrawing from the PCI--brought out "The Contradiction of Trotsky" by attacking head-on the myths Trotsky himself had propagated which concealed his longtime hesitations with regard to Stalin before he was excluded from the Party and sent into internal and then foreign exile. (43) This article proved controversial both in "revolutionary" circles--because it appeared in the nonrevolutionary press, that is, in Jean-Paul Sartre's Les Temps Modernes--and at Les Temps Modernesitself--where Merleau-Ponty, the review's political editor, had to serve as Lefort's protector within an otherwise hostile environment. (44) A few years later, in response to Sartre's long serialized Les Temps Modernes article, "The Communists and the Peace," (45) which heralded Sartre's closer ties with the French Communist Party (PCF) in the aftermath of the 1952 anti-Ridgway demonstrations (PCF-led protests against the visit of an American army general), Lefort published in the same review a strongly-worded assault on Sartre's nascent fellow-traveling. "Marxism and Sartre" elicited an equally strong "Response to Claude Lefort" on Sartre's part, Castoriadis entering the fray in Lefort's defense with an S. ou B. text, "Sartre, Stalinism, and the Workers." (46) All this proved to be a historically significant prelude to Merleau-Ponty's departure from Les Temps Modernes and the publication of his Adventures of the Dialectic (1955), which included a long penultimate chapter on "Sartre and Ultrabolshevism." (47) Lefort returned to the offensive in a 1958 S. ou B. article, "The Method of 'Progressivist' Intellectuals," criticizing there "the 'critical' thinkers ofLes Temps Modernes, L'observateur, L'express, or L'étincelle" who were unable to come to terms in a forthright and creative way with the upheavals then taking place in Eastern Europe and Russia--Khrushchev's secret report, the Hungarian and Polish Revolutions, the "Soviet" invasion of Hungary--upheavals which S. ou B. had not only understood clearly (a rarity on the French Left at the time) but could be said to have anticipated. (48) These texts, of an unmistakable polemical bent, are still worth reading today to remind us of the historical circumstances surrounding the heyday of totalitarian Communism, especially since the collapse of the "Soviet Union" and the ensuing chaos (fostered by IMF-tutelage, in a Russia run by apparatchiks turned rapacious capitalists and Mafia-like thugs, and a very weak democratic tradition there) might now lead some on the Left to wax nostalgic for the era of French intellectuals' fellow traveling.
As Lefort's understanding of totalitarianism, informed by his growing interest in political philosophy, deepened, another approach, often still quite sharp in tone but no longer so polemical, began to take shape. He was still, in the tradition of Socialisme ou Barbarie and of a few other radical French workers and intellectuals, willing and eager to challenge not only the orthodoxy of the PCF but also the heterodoxy of those who gravitated around the PCF merely as its internal or external oppositions. Nevertheless, in order to engage his readers in a more transformative sort of way he sought to find the words, the ideas, and the themes that would move them beyond their settled positions. "Now," he asks in "Philosopher?", offering a retrospective account of his changing orientation as a writer:
"how could I have tried to gauge, to take the measure of what was meant by totalitarianism's denial of social division--denial of the division between the State and civil society, of class division, of the division of sectors of activity--its denial, too, of the difference between the order of power, the order of law, and the order of knowledge (a difference that is constitutive of democracy) without seeming to legitimate, without fearing to see myself legitimate, the de facto divisions that characterize the established democratic regimes in which we live? How was I to provide a glimpse of the deadly finality of totalitarianism without justifying the conditions of oppression and inequality belonging to our own regimes? How, too, was I to carry out a critique of Marxism, which reveals everything that has fed the phantasm of totalitarianism, without erasing what constituted the truth of Marx's critique of the society of his time?"
It was through a revaluation of democracy, as an open-ended political form of society--as "savage democracy," he has said on occasion (49)--and not merely as a set political system of established procedures, that questions and problems associated with the arts of reading and writing came ever more clearly to the fore and eventually became his own questions and problems. (50) "To give readers a feeling for the dynamic of democracy, the experience of an ultimate indetermination at the bases of the social order and of an unending debate over right and law," he goes on to say,
"I had to try to shake up not only their convictions but their intimate relationship with knowledge; I had to try to reawaken in them a sense of the kind of questioning that would induce them to undertake the necessary mourning of "the good society" and, at the same time, I had to escape from the illusion that what seems real here and now is to be confused with the rational. Is this undertaking philosophical or political? I wouldn't know how to answer. What is certain is that this task, which little by little had taken shape inside me, had driven me to a method of reading that I had never decided to adopt. It is one that merges with my way of being and that is not normally associated with philosophy."
Lefort's revaluation of political philosophy and "the political" in general and of democracy as an unprecedented political form of society in particular doesn't entail, however, a denigration of "politics" or the adoption of an ostensibly a- or antipolitical perspective that is characteristic of much contemporary liberal discourse (the term liberal being taken here and elsewhere in its Continental acceptation as a generally conservative ideological defense of supposedly unrestricted "free-market" policies). In his chapter on Machiavelli, for example, Lefort takes time to explain that "Reflection on the political and reflection on politics are at once distinct and intertwined. Everything happens, nevertheless, as if for many people the political was noble and politics trivial." Nor does he champion "civil society" at the expense of everything else. In the first of his two Notes on Tocqueville, he comments that Tocqueville "is always keeping an eye on adversaries in his own country who seek only to reinforce state power and do not understand the new character of civil society"; but, in bringing out Tocqueville's contradictions and thus not adopting an uncritical Tocquevillean outlook himself, as some other French intellectuals have done recently, he also asks:
"In our time, don't we still need to denounce the illusion of those who would wish to protect the state administration from the effects of all kinds of associations, since their demands hinder its action and don't easily lend themselves to projects crafted by experts? And don't we likewise still need to denounce the inverse illusion of those who place their only hopes in strictly civil associations and who hold "politics" in contempt?"
A simplistic, smug, and celebratory liberal attitude is by no means being endorsed here by this political philosopher for whom questions count at least as much as any provisional "answers" that might be obtained. This is evident in his chapter on Kant: "The critique of all forms of totalitarianism would be futile if it were reduced to the statement of a de facto preference for a regime based on liberties. The meaning of the relative does not erase, but rather carries within it, a universal exigency." This "universal exigency," or overriding moral requirement, which is not to be confused with any sort of blind or automatic universalism and that is expressed, he believes, in a foundational and generative democratic "right to have rights," means that no convenient formula can be found that would allow one to limit in advance what becomes in fact an unending and ever-expanding search for truth and justice in the social sphere. In his "Reflections on the Present," Lefort adds:
"Furthermore, is it not true that the search for democracy is by its nature tied to the desire for an improvement in the material conditions of existence? And isn't it true that this desire in no way obliterates the value of political freedoms? How would one remove from democracy the social question and therefore that of economic organization, if not by joining up with the most reactionary form of free-market liberalism?"
Lefort no longer speaks in terms of "workers' management" or of a "republic of Councils," (51) but this does not necessarily put him in the camp of the present, heavily ideological status quo, the minimalist and difficult-to-challenge "invisible ideology" of "the Western democracies of our time." (52) Indeed, as he goes on to ask in his early 1990s "Reflections on the Present":
"In response to the aspirations now dawning in the East and to the kinds of resistance to which these aspirations are giving rise, are we doomed to fall back on a cramped position, limiting ourselves to Isaiah Berlin's notion of "negative liberties"? Isn't the task before us to conceive democracy as a form of political society, a regime in which we have an experience of our humanity, rid of the myths that conceal the complexity of History?"
If we thus begin to understand "what are the circumstances that summon up" Lefort's own "desire to speak," and to speak in such a way that he can be heard amid the clamorous and repetitive rhetoric of outdated Marxist and Liberal dogmas, we still need to try to understand that "way of being" of which he spoke that is his both as a person and as a writer. I was struck by the prefatory remarks Lefort made at a Paris dance concert/colloquium I helped to organize recently. The object was to relate the main ideas of his life's work in an extemporaneous way to the themes of the multimedia choreographic event, Corpsensus, which was intended to "explore the connections that unite the Body--lived as field of the sensual experience of a flesh that is an already socialized tissue--and the City--considered as the space of political experience, the weaving together [tissage] of acting and reflecting bodies." (53) Before presenting a lucid and succinct exposition of his political-intellectual itinerary and connecting that itinerary with the democratic and improvisatory themes of the evening's performance (which included the European premiere of a solo violin piece written by jazz musician and classical composer Ornette Coleman), Lefort first told the audience with candor, and in a hushed voice, that he felt rather "embarrassed" and "intimidated." Lefort is not someone who launches into a topic directly, with a clearly defined thesis to be "defended." He approaches the themes he wishes to discuss via a process that develops in close and ongoing contact with the subject matter itself. That is why one finds it so hard to extract a concrete "lesson" from his writings and also why he may easily be misunderstood, for his process-oriented exploration of a line of thought may be (mis)taken as conclusive, whereas in fact it is one side of a continuing exploration that "concludes" only with new questions, not ready-made answers or a full-blown doctrine. "For [the practitioner of political philosophy], quite particularly," he says in his preface, clearly thinking of himself as well,
"writing is therefore facing up to a risk [l'épreuve d'un risque]; and the risky test he faces offers him the resources for a singular form of speech that is set in motion by the exigency that he spring the traps of belief and escape from the grips of ideology, bringing himself always beyond the place where one expects him via a series of zigzag movements that disappoint by turns the various sections of his public. No doubt, it is toward the true that he tends, otherwise he wouldn't be a philosopher; but he must, via a winding path, clear apassage within the agitated world of passions. Such an undertaking always fails by half, moreover, as shown by the welcome he most often receives from his contemporaries and, still more, by the stupidity of readers who will later press upon him a vulgar or scholarly discourse in order to celebrate or condemn his "theory" or to discover his "contradictions." Think only of the fate that awaited Machiavelli or Rousseau."
Characteristically, he adds that "he therefore is not, cannot be the master of the effects of his speech."
The broad but winding path Lefort has chosen has led him away from the straight
and narrow one of spotting and exposing the "contradictions" and errors of a
Trotsky or of another political or literary writer, whether Marxist or Liberal.
He thereby invites the reader, too, to face the "risky test" of thinking (reading
thoughtfully) through a text's implicit political mise en scène
(its "staging") as well as its explicit political positions and implications.
The ties between philosophy and literature become both apparent and themes for
further literary-philosophical reflections and investigations. The "result"
is not a grammatology, a unilateral--and shaky--assertion that the text is everything
and the author and/or reader nothing, or a proclamation of the end of philosophy
and/or its dissolution in the element of the literary--the sorts of "high-altitude
thinking" Merleau-Ponty had denounced for having lost contact with our experience,
which is aesthetic, political, and philosophical, as well. It brings out the
difficulties associated with reading and writing and makes the "arts" of reading
and writing central to the problem of philosophical reflection today, which
is now also unavoidably caught up in the enterprise of reading and writing about
texts both philosophical and nonphilosophical. And for Lefort it is their political
meaning that continues to be of crucial importance, even as their literary character
is being foregrounded--in the first place because they continually remake the
social bond in their very act of being written and being read. Thus you, the
reader, are potentially one of Lefort's privileged interlocutors, upon the condition
that you are ready to have the opinions you hold most dear become on occasion
his targets for criticism, that you have been able to summon up a desire to
listen to him, as part of a precarious mutual relationship only you can activate--and,
finally, upon the condition that you, too, will summon up a desire to speak,
to talk back to him, to question him and his questions.
Ever since I was first faced with the task of writing a foreword to a book I had translated, I found myself placed before a series of quandaries. If I had done my work well in the translation, it seemed superfluous, I thought, to tell the reader, in a separate introduction, what it is that he would be reading or had already read in the body of the text. Since the principal authors I have chosen to translate--Castoriadis, the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, now Lefort--are themselves quite articulate in their own right and historically associated with a libertarian socialist outlook, it also seemed to me presumptuous as well as premature on my part to tell the reader in advance what he should think of work only now becoming available for the first time in the English language. Yet it also seemed to me that the translator has a civic duty, in the transnational Republic of Letters, to present an author to his foreign reading public--and to make a self-presentation, an explanation of reasons for making this choice of author and an exposition of the problems encountered and solutions discovered in the course of translation. And this entailed a challenging self-reflection on my part in my work as a translator and, more broadly, as a go-between who introduces an author to his new public.
What seemed most appropriate, I thought, would be to provide some background knowledge the reader might not otherwise have. I have done this knowing that it involved choices of emphasis and subject matter for which only I could take responsibility and which others would handle differently. Yet the last thing I wanted to do was just to repeat the same format each time, for I would thereby be avoiding the challenge of the specific work I had translated and the inspiration to new ways of thinking that work contains. (And we now know Lefort's own stated opinion that knowledge of such background information does not suffice for the reader to gain an adequate understanding of a writer.) Thus, the problem of the literary form of the translator's foreword was posed for me in a radical way from the very outset and continues to be so for each new one I write. Since the writers I have consciously chosen to translate have been ones who do not try to impose some doctrine or other but who seek, rather, to raise philosophical, political, and/or historiographical questions, it also was clear that my forewords should include improvisatory, experimental, or otherwise open-ended features not necessarily associated with a traditional introduction written by a translator. If I, as first reader in English of a foreign author's writings, had indeed been moved by his work (and what would my translation be worth if I hadn't been?), I should also be able to express in my introductory remarks some of that moving experience, to face up to that risky épreuve, as Lefort himself might say. I constantly wonder to what extent, if at all, I ever succeed in conveying this enterprise, which is bothemulative and, I hope, somewhat creative on my own part. (54) And I continually worry that what I say and how I say it will remain too repetitive and derivative of the ways in which the author I have translated has already expressed himself (now through me, in translation) or that, on the contrary, I might be going too far afield, thereby losing the connection with the author whom I am supposed to be introducing. I thus find myself placed in new quandaries (ones reminiscent, however, of my initial translation encounters with the author), never settled down upon any solid and secure ground. And that is perhaps not a bad thing.
Musical metaphors, and specifically the democratic experience that is jazz, have been foremost in my mind when I composed these essays. It was not a matter of mere "variations on a theme" or an "accompaniment" in the sense of a strict subordination to the author as main instrument but, rather, of riffing and improvising on a given theme that remains open to further interpretations. Here "accompaniment" is expressing oneself in a voice of one's own that has something else to say but that also speaks in response to the living work at hand. I have been inspired especially by Ornette Coleman's musical theory in this regard. (55) In Coleman's democratic conception of "Harmolodics," harmony, motion (or rhythm), and melody are treated as equal elements of improvisatory composition and performance, so that any instrument (or voice) can intervene at any moment to help move the music in new and unprecedented directions. Everyone "solos" at once, (56) and yet the result of such a collective improvisation is not mere cacophony if there is a general and genuine "participation in a value-idea," to borrow his phrase. (57) Coleman, I note, has never conceived "Harmolodics" as a strictly musical concept but one applicable, rather, to all aspects of life and at the same time specific to democratic societies.
What I have gained from translating Écrire. À l'épreuve du politique and from writing about Writing: The Political Test is a heightened sense of a simultaneously self-reflective and political challenge to encounter the work--and my translation work on the work--in such a way that the arts of writing and reading now come ever more clearly to the fore, and yet without that occulting what the work has to say, even as one examines and endeavors to express how it is said. (58) If I have been able to impart to the reader a small bit of the adventure this experience has inspired in me, then this Foreword will not have been written, and perhaps read, totally in vain.
--Paris, April-May 1999