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Thoughts and Things

“Thoughts and Things accomplishes more in its pages than some full bookshelves in my office. This is an original and intellectually consequential book that will become, like multiple past books by Bersani, a classic.”–Zahid R. Chaudhary, Princeton University


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An Excerpt from
Thoughts and Things
by Leo Bersani

Father Knows Best

At the beginning of our discussion of Alain Resnais’s films in Arts of Impoverishment, Ulysse Dutoit and I ask : “Is there a nonsadistic type of movement? Would we go toward the world if we were not motivated by destructive impulses?” These questions seemed to us an appropriate response to Freud’s assumption of a fundamental, ineradicable antagonism between the human subject and the world. Toward the end of the 1915 essay “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” Freud claims: “At the very beginning, it seems, the external world, objects, and what is hated are identical.” The infantile ego, we went on in our summary of Freud’s argument, “must defend itself against the external stimuli by which it is bombarded; hatred is at first a self–preservative reflex.” The unobjectionable nature of this claim becomes problematic when Freud repeats it without either the tentative qualification of “it seems” or the temporal specifying of its relevance. The repudiation of the world—of all the difference that threatens the ego’s stability (indeed its very constitution as a distinct identity)—is, it turns out, by no means limited to infancy. “As an expression of the unpleasure evoked by objects,” Freud goes on, “hate always remains in an intimate relation with the self–preservative instincts.”

This is the psychoanalytic formulation of the structural relation generally recognized as central to the Western notion of the bond between mind and the world, the relation of subjects to objects. The originality of psychoanalysis in this history is its emphasis on the inherently violent nature of the subject–object relation. It is no longer a question of determining how mind, thought, or reason can know the world (can reach that truth succinctly described by Aquinas as “adequation of the intellect and the thing”), or of demonstrating the impossibility of any such equivalence (and arguing instead, as Kant does in the Critique of Pure Reason, against the mistake of taking the formal conditions of thinking, conditions that determine objects, for the cognition of things in themselves). The psychoanalytic shift of emphasis in this history does not, however, question the assumption of a difference of being between the subject and the world. Indeed, it gives an affective emphasis to that assumption. The subject–object dualism in the history of philosophy has been the generally unquestioned and justificatory basis for the primordial importance of epistemology in philosophical investigations. It has dictated the terms that frame discussion of the subject’s presence in the world. That discussion, as Richard Rorty pointed out several years ago, has, especially since Locke and Descartes, been heavily biased—a bias analyzed by Foucault as the elevation of knowledge over what he calls “care of the self,” or spirituality, in post–Cartesian constructs of subjectivity.

By its very insistence on the techniques the subject uses to erase the gap separating it from the world of human and nonhuman objects—techniques of incorporation, identification, and projection—psychoanalysis insists on the affective pressures that motivate supposedly disinterested pursuits of knowledge. Once the object is seen not only as unknown but as threateningly unknown (or, to extend Jean Laplanche’s use of the term, once the entire world is received as an enigmatic signifier resisting the will to know and the skills of knowing), the epistemological passion must be reformulated as the passion to appropriate the object and, at the limit, to destroy difference itself. The question of whether knowledge is possible eludes the assumptions that are its condition of possibility: first, that knowing or not knowing defines our primary relation to the world, and, second, that differences of being can be overcome by the mastery of difference, by what Freud, in “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” curiously calls a nonsexual sadism.

It is perhaps this sadism that the early Jacques Lacan reformulates as the aggressiveness inherent in the relational imaginary. Because, he writes in his seminar on the psychoses, a foreign image—the image of the other misapprehended as the reality of a fragmented subject—institutes the function of psychic unification, the equilibrium with the other in the imaginary register will remain unstable. The other is always on the point of readopting his original place of mastery. The conflictual instability traceable, in Lacan, to the misrecognition inherent in the mirror stage specifies, as a stage of ego development, the Freudian antagonism between the self and the world. Both accounts, however, rely on a prior structural assumption of essential difference between the subject and the world.

An intersubjectivity grounded in the subject–object dualism is perhaps inevitably condemned (however its etiology may be understood) to a paranoid relationality. If otherness is reduced to difference, the hatred of the world that Freud speaks of— which we might rephrase as a paranoid suspicion of the world’s difference—is, as he suggests, the affective basis of a logically coherent strategy of defense. The desire to know the other is inseparable from the need to master the other. The desire for mastery motivates the desire to know, and knowledge is the precondition of mastery. But what does it mean to know another human subject? As Foucault has emphasized, in the modern period to know the other is to know the other’s desire. The most distinctive aspect of the other’s individuality is how and what he or she desires. The most powerful pre–Freudian version of this view of intersubjectivity as a struggle to possess the other’s desire is the Hegelian master–slave dialectic, a process that assumes, as Alexandre Kojève puts it in his lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology, that “desire is human only if the one desires, not the body, but the Desire of the other. Indeed, the human being is formed only in terms of a Desire directed toward another Desire, that is—finally—in terms of a desire for ‘recognition.’”

This struggle between defensive fortresses of individualizing desires has been benignly and naively reformulated as the basis of the analytic cure: the analyst’s “possession” of the analysand’s desires becomes the gift the former gives to the latter, the key to a liberating self–knowledge. Psychoanalysis shifts the investigative emphasis from the nature and conditions of knowledge, or from the desire to know, to the desire to know desire. Even more: the success of analytic knowledge depends on the displacement of the knowing subject from the analyst to the analysand. In this shift within the subject–object relation, the dualism is re–created within the subject as subject–mind and object–mind.

The divided self—essential to the psychoanalytic notion of subjectivity—has perhaps always been the psychic ground supporting the subject–object dualism in notions of the relation between the self and the world. The world seen as differential otherness is the displaced repetition (and misrecognition) of the subject’s perception of a differential otherness within himself. Proust, who has given us the most complete representation of what we might call the psychoanalytic subject, analyzes Marcel’s jealousy of Albertine in exactly these terms. Once his obsessive jealousy—which in Proust always means the obsessive need to penetrate the other’s desires—has been unleashed by Albertine’s revelation of her friendship with the lesbian Mlle. Vinteuil, Marcel makes her a virtual prisoner in his parents’ apartment while explicitly recognizing that the Albertine who has suddenly become the object of his doomed need to know is actually not outside of him but within him. What Marcel calls the “inconceivable truth” of Albertine’s desires is a projection of the inconceivability of Marcel’s desires. Albertine’s consciousness is a screen for the otherness hidden within Marcel’s consciousness. “All jealousy,” the narrator writes, “is self–jealousy.”

What are the alternatives to a relationality guided by an ideology of difference, one in which the ontological premise of a subject–object dualism gives primacy to the quest for knowledge in the subject’s relation both to himself and to the world? Ulysse Dutoit and I have been studying for several years, principally in the visual arts, models for an aesthetic ethic of correspondences between the self and the world, a community of being in which the recognition of various degrees and modes of similitude is itself a sensually appealing deconstruction of the prestige of knowledge. And in Intimacies, our recently published book, Adam Phillips and I argue that “psychoanalysis has misled us into believing, in its quest for narrative life–stories, that knowledge of oneself and others is conducive to intimacy, [and] that intimacy is by definition personal intimacy.” Without attempting to write a history of the conception and representation of intimacy in Western culture, we use certain political, aesthetic, and philosophical texts with the intention of reconceptualizing psychoanalytic notions of intimacy—more specifically, to elaborate a concept of impersonal intimacy and even impersonal narcissism as a viable alternative to what seems to us the limiting and harmful assumption that intimacy necessarily includes, indeed may depend on, a knowledge of the other’s personal psychology.

It has seemed to me that at least as persuasively as most philosophical arguments, certain films have reflected cinematically on the issues just raised. More particularly, I’ve been interested in films that seem to be testing definitions and conditions of intimacy and, in so doing, have proposed new or at least unfamiliar relational configurations. The film I will discuss here addresses directly the question I raised earlier: Is there a nonsadistic type of movement? Claire Denis’s remarkable 1999 work, Beau travail (released only in 2000), focuses on a group of Foreign Legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, where the film was made. It was commissioned by the French film company Arte for its series Terres étrangères (Foreign Lands).

The Legionnaires of Beau travail are professional actors (the men stationed at the Djibouti Foreign Legion outpost received Denis and her crew with hostility), and the visual, pseudodocumentary account of their lives is very much an aesthetic and, more specifically, a choreographic construction. The African setting is nonetheless a fitting topographical metaphor for what Denis thought of as the center of her film : being a foreigner to one’s own life. The reality that historically supports Denis’s fable of foreignness is that of the Legion itself, created under Louis–Philippe in 1831 and consisting of recruits from several countries (only about a quarter of Legionnaires have been French). The men in the Legion, while under French authority, are the offspring of no single state. The Legion is an international collection of ethnically orphaned men, many of them displaced foreign nationals with a past from which the Legion allows them to escape, who as Legionnaires have no parental community outside the nearly autonomous, we might even say unengendered, collectivity to which they are expected to have a fierce loyalty. Their rallying cry is Legio patria nostra: The Legion [not France] is our homeland. The communitarianism of the Foreign Legion is entirely self–created; the Legion constitutes its own paternity.

It is within this unique human formation that belongs nowhere and is expected to be ready to move anywhere that Denis tests the identities—realized, potential, erased identities—produced by different kinds of movement. The film’s fundamental structure is a juxtaposition of two contrasting types of mobility. In addition to the choreographic mobility to which I will return, there is the narrative movement of the plot, a plot fairly close to yet also significantly different from the drama of Melville’s Billy Budd. The new, beautiful Legionnaire Sentain is singled out by Galoup, the men’s master sergeant, as bringing a discordant note to the group, as somehow not being an authentic Legionnaire. But except for the sense we may have of something exceptionally quiet or private about Sentain, of an occasionally perceptible withdrawal from the lively group spirit of his fellow Legionnaires, Sentain hardly stands out as someone radically different from the others in the way that the inarticulate, stuttering Billy Budd, called the Handsome Sailor, is recognized, affectionately and protectively, by his comrades as bringing a childlike innocence to the isolated sea–borne society of the Bellipotent. Galoup searches for and finally finds a pretext to punish Sentain (whom Galoup has provoked into striking him) by leaving him alone in the desert with nothing but a compass, deliberately damaged by Galoup, to guide him back to the Legion encampment. Galoup is told by Forestier, his commander (called in French le chef de corps), that having dishonored himself by his treachery against Sentain, he can no longer be part of the Legion, and Galoup returns to civilian life in Marseille.

The filmic account of these events is not entirely linear. There are shots of the disgraced Galoup in Marseille at the beginning of Beau travail. Scenes of his returning to France and of his daily life in Marseille alternate with the Djibouti narrative, as does what Denis has called the “parallel text” of Galoup’s voice–over recital of passages from his diary, almost all of it written after his return to Marseille. The filmic narrative, at once linear and retrospective, is thus partially detemporalized; it has the remoteness of events already settled in the completeness of an indefinitely repeatable, potentially mythic story. The quality of something that has already taken place (and that may always be taking place) does not immobilize the drama; yet it does give to the narrative movement of that drama the inexorable quality of a psychic story that doesn’t need time to unfold, that can’t be affected or stopped by time, that has an imaginary and, as a consequence, a historically invulnerable totality.

That story is a family story, the inherently violent narrative not, in this version of familial violence, of the son’s rivalry with the father for the mother’s love, but of the less familiar fratricidal rivalry for the father’s love. This is not, I might note, the story of Billy Budd. Melville renounces any attempt to explain psychologically the hatred that Billy’s beauty and innocence arouse in Claggart. “Apprehending the good [in Billy],” he writes, but powerless to embrace it, Claggart is driven to destroy the embodiment of that good by “the elemental evil in him.” Though he is at first “moved against Billy” by the latter’s “significant personal beauty,” Claggart’s envy, Melville insists, “struck deeper.” It is the “moral phenomenon” of Edenic purity shining through the young sailor’s good looks that enrages him, and that rage, irreducible to any psychic drive or conflict, manifests what Melville, appealing to both Plato and the Bible, calls “a depravity according to nature,” something “born with [Claggart] and innate,” a “mystery of iniquity.” Denis seems willing to make Galoup’s murderous rage more psychologically intelligible. “I was jealous of Sentain,” Galoup writes in his diary—jealous of everyone’s, and especially Forestier’s, esteem for Sentain. Forestier commends Sentain for saving one of his fellow Legionnaires from drowning after a burning helicopter crashes into the sea. The father’s emphasis on the fraternal bond fortifies a fratricidal impulse: Forestier’s public praise of Sentain as a model Legionnaire confirms and strengthens the hostility Galoup has felt since Sentain’s arrival as part of a band of new recruits.

It is tempting to read Galoup’s immediate antagonism as the symptom of a repressed homosexual desire, especially in light of Denis’s definition, in the course of an interview, of desire as violence. Beau travail specifies this general formula. Faithful to the spirit of her commission, Denis identifies foreignness as the cause of violent desire. But who or what, exactly, is foreign? It is Sentain’s supposed difference that awakens Galoup’s murderous fascination. At the same time, however, his desire “picks up” Forestier as its object. Forestier, Galoup writes, has a mysterious past (including perhaps some scandal during his military career in Algeria). He is without ideals and, unlike Galoup, is indifferent to his special identity as a Legionnaire.

Intrinsically violent desire is desire in search of an object. It has to be objectified, but how it is objectified is almost a matter of indifference. Sentain’s and Forestier’s gendered identity, as well as their fantasmatic familial identities (younger brother and father) are secondary attributes of their impenetrability, of their differential otherness. But their very difference is perhaps invented in order to make another difference visible, a hatred and impenetrable difference within Galoup himself. As part of his voice–over, Galoup announces: “We all have a trash can deep within,” which may be as close as Galoup comes to an accurate identification of the cause of his desire. That “trash can” travels, takes on recognizable sexual and social disguises, but no object could ever embody a constitutively unembodied otherness that is at once an alien self within the world and an alien world within the self.

The violence of Beau travail is the movement of the trash can to know and to master itself. But there is nothing to know, nothing to master, and in a sense, Galoup’s hatred, like Claggart’s, is irreducible to psychic content. But between Melville and Denis there is psychoanalysis, which breaks definitively with the vocabulary of depravity and iniquity. The account of the human given by psychoanalysis is closer to ontology than it is to psychology or morality. The mysterious revulsion aroused by the goodness of being can no longer be relegated to and sequestered within the ethical category of an evil innate to and occasionally visible within the human. Galoup is engaged in the rageful pursuit of being, of an otherness (which may be nothing but a void) that is constitutive of subjectivity itself. The narrative of appropriation nonetheless unfolds, although it has already been completed as failure. The unknown, inaccessible, imaginary self is enacted as a tragedy of failed, misplaced appropriation. While the type of movement exemplified by Galoup’s persecution of Sentain is aimless—the desire that motivates it is intrinsically objectless—it is nonetheless articulated as a direction and a goal. It seeks to remove and destroy Sentain as the fantasized obstacle to Galoup’s possession of Forestier’s desire. There are moments, or stages, in this story: the perception of difference in Sentain and in Forestier, Galoup’s exasperation at his inability to penetrate those differences, the plot to destroy, the consummation and failure of that plot, and the expulsion of Galoup from the family–world that has been his only home and his only identity.

What is most remarkable about Denis’s film is that it juxtaposes the violence of desire with a kind of movement from which desire is absent. The film begins with images of native women dancing in a club frequented by Legionnaires, who move rhythmically around the women as momentary partners. The women and the Legionnaires don’t dance in couples; each person is both dancing alone and participating in the rhythm of a mildly sensual sociability. (The only example of sexual coupling in the film is Galoup’s apparent affair with one of the women.) Women, however, are mostly absent from the sensual sociality in Beau travail. It is, rather, the movements performed by the Legionnaires that most forcefully enact this sociality.

There is no story included in the images of the Legionnaires’ life; apart from the suggestion of something special about Sentain to which the others are drawn, Denis makes no attempt to individualize them psychologically. At the beginning, she visually presents several of them to us, panning from one face to another, but this provides nothing deeper, or presumably more significant, than a physical identification. Though one black member of the group attends a Muslim prayer meeting in the village near their camp, the function of this incident is clearly not to tell us something about the Legionnaire himself, but to initiate the sequence of events that will lead to Galoup’s betrayal of Sentain. The Legionnaires do, however, enact nonpsychological designifying movements as the film progresses. The first exercises we see them perform are obviously intended to prepare them for combat missions. The fast crawling under wires ; the jumping over obstacles and in and out of ditches; and the exercise in which, carrying their rifles, they simulate taking possession of a building where enemies might be hidden—all this is part of their military training. We also see them as members of a self–sufficient domestic household: cutting each other’s hair, hanging up clothes to dry, setting the table for meals, shaving, ironing. The positioning of the men in the last two of these activities points not only to a documentary intention (Legionnaires are expected, for example, to be as good at ironing their clothes as at their exercises in military preparedness), but also to the filmmaker’s wish to compose images of the group that aestheticize their communal activities. The ways that the men are placed together (in contrast to the images of Galoup ironing and shaving alone) suggest in the early scenes that Denis will be less interested in telling us about the Legionnaires than in using them for a filmic experiment in bodily relatedness.

This becomes clearer in startlingly original ways in the second half of the film, once the group has moved and is setting up quarters on an arid plateau overlooking the sea and facing three volcanic formations rising from the water. Galoup admits to using the pretext of the Legionnaires being enlisted to repair a road in this desolate part of the country in order to separate Sentain from Forestier (who apparently stays behind). More important, Denis uses Galoup’s calculation as a narrative justification for removing the Legionnaires from all social contacts, from any purpose whatsoever except to reinvent their own being–together.

The exercises we now see have no clearly discernible combat function; they prepare the Legionnaires for nothing except the sociality being improvised by their bodies in their choreographed movements. The choreography demilitarizes them; it at once betrays the official mission of documenting the Foreign Legion and is profoundly faithful to the intention of representing another sort of foreignness, a foreignness perhaps always hidden within them as a potentiality and that we now see them dance into the surfaces of their bodies. I’m thinking of the Legionnaires forming a circle around Galoup, then moving toward and away from him in short rapid steps. And there is the extraordinary scene in which each Legionnaire flings himself into the arms of another Legionnaire with whom he has been paired for the exercise; each pair repeats several times the rushing together and a rapid movement away from the other’s body. Finally, when we see them in the more conventional activity of a rapidly paced march, the official training purpose of the march is undercut by the incongruous and ironic musical accompaniment of Neil Young’s “Safeway Cart.”

In describing the embracing exercise I write “paired” instead of “coupled” to avoid any suggestion of a sexual bonding between one Legionnaire and another as the grounding of their collective sociality. Indeed, it is as if the very possibility of such an intimacy is exhausted by the exhausting repetition of a strenuous and fundamentally indifferent coming together. An energetic choreography stifles the movements of desire before they can become psychic designs. Sensuality, depsychologized, is prevented from mutating into the sexual. The pleasures into which the Legionnaires exercise themselves are nonpurposive pleasures of touch, of each body having its place in a formal, mobile unity of communal repetition. The men, Rob White has written in a perceptive essay on Beau travail, are not masking violence; rather, they engage in “a shadow theater of violence in order to achieve mere gesture,” thereby evacuating meaning. The Legionnaires’ progressively more choreographed bodies initiate what Foucault calls a “new relational mode,” an as yet contentless sociality that seductively sets the stage for the invention of other manifestations of nonsadistic movement, both within the individual psyche and between the human subject and the world.

In the Legionnaires’ movements, something is stilled. It is the imminently violent restlessness of Galoup’s psyche, the chaotic lurching of his desire (toward Sentain, toward Forestier, toward himself ). Galoup’s small, compact body is a package of withheld movement, the cage that imprisons his murderous passions until his desire, always on the watch, finds the moment when it can strike out. That moment is, of course, when he sees how he might destroy Sentain (and, more profoundly, himself ).

Remarkably, the unleashing of his violent impulses is not only played out within the narrative of Beau travail; like what opposes it (the choreographic being–together of those he calls his flock), it is also danced. Lying on his bed after his expulsion from the Legion, holding the gun he may use on himself, in the film’s final sequence Galoup metamorphoses from the pulse we see beating in his arm to the frantic energy of his wild accompaniment to the music of Corona’s 1995 disco hit “Rhythm of the Night.” The music begins softly while the camera is still focused on Galoup’s arm; it continues, much louder, when the scene switches to Denis’s choreographic metaphor (also Galoup’s fantasy? or hallucination?) for violent desire no longer contained. He is back in the club where we saw the Legionnaires and the women dancing, but he is alone, his only partner appropriately his own reflection in the diamond–patterned mirror. He begins his response to the music slowly, then quickly accelerates into frenzied jumping and rolling across the floor and out of the left side of the frame, returns a few seconds later to roll spasmodically toward the right, and finishes, curiously, by suddenly standing just before he leaves the screen.

It is as if, at this final moment, the actor, Denis Lavant, were stepping out of his role just before the camera stops filming him. The abruptness of this normalizing of Galoup emphasizes the fantasmatic nature of his plot. Given the sociality performed by the Legionnaires, there is something gratuitous, perhaps even unnecessary, about the violent family drama he has set in motion. It is unlikely that the trash can within—within all of us—can ever be eliminated, but its obscene destructiveness can be modulated by way of a rejection of the familial imperatives that are its principal socializing vehicle. Director Denis ends her film with what seems to me a momentous possibility, a new imperative: stand up and simply leave the family tragedy by which Western culture has been oppressed at least since Oedipus’s parricide. An unintended parricide, a fact that seems to have been forgotten once it became a complex presumably necessary (as Lacan relentlessly insists in his seminar on the psychoses) in order for the human to give birth to the social. Leave the violence of a desire for the father and the son, a violence that transforms brotherhood into fratricide.

Small wonder that Denis multiplies witnesses to the collective psychic rebirth her film implicitly calls for. There is not only her film audience. Within Beau travail we see, at certain moments, groups of Africans standing nearby or riding in a minibus, simply watching the Legionnaires as they work or exercise. In a grander dimension, there are the impressive still shots of the mountains and the sea surrounding the Legionnaires’ camp, images of nature itself in a kind of stilled contemplation of humanity both destroying and renewing itself. Finally, there is the witnessing manifested by this discussion of Beau travail. Without claiming that it rivals the beautiful piece of work that is Denis’s film (or the “beautiful find,” as Forestier calls the orphan Sentain, abandoned and discovered in a stairwell), I would like my own exercise in witnessing to be taken as an admittedly exalted collaboration with the children who refuse the family game imposed on them, children who insist, in their play, on the foreignness of that game and on their determination to remain orphans.


Leo Bersani
© 2015, 128 pages
Paper $22.00 ISBN: 9780226705170 Cloth $32.00 ISBN: 9780226206059 E-book $10.00 to $21.99 ISBN: 9780226206196

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