Can a discourse be critiqued or modified from without that discourse?
A brief analysis of the economics of life and thought.
Discourse, like language, functions as a system of exchange. Every time we speak, we enter by virtue of our words into a chain of signifiers - just as currency enters into circulation.
The Savings Account
Guy Debord. His Situationist musings were conceived as strategies to fight commercialization, reification, and re-appropriation of art works after observing that even subversive art becomes normalized when successful, landing in an art museum. The Situationist solution is taking art out of circulation: to construct art that is ephemeral, i.e. situations, which can never be assimilated into exchange. If an act or work does not enter into exchange, it leaves no trace on that system of exchange, can it then affect that system of exchange?
Priming the Pump
Brice Parain. Nana’s first words to him are “Do you mind if I look?” Parain responds to the question of what he is doing “Reading,” – Nana and Parain are opposed as the “looker” and the “reader.” As the conversation continues, we learn that speaking and thought are one thing. Through a parable (Nana saw the movie, but didn’t read the book), thought is identified with death and yet speaking is a rebirth, a redemption while at the same time the death of silence. Errors and lies are more or less the same thing – not finding the right word. Love is a contingent truth and is something we mature into by making mistakes. Eventually we must find “the word that says what it must say and does what it must do” words become identified with action again – but only after critical distance is created “you cannot speak well until you see life with detachment.” Parain cites German philosophy as teaching us that we must come to truth (the right word, the right love, the right action) dialectically – i.e. through error.
The Bottom Line
Nana’s inability to find the right words is her fear of making a mistake in life and love, her unwillingness or hesitancy to enter into circulation, into discourse. The dialectic presented here is that we act, we observer our behavior with detachment (the only way to observe), and then we find new words/acts that represent modified behaviors. As our new words become new acts they can be seen once again with detachment before we once again modify them. But we must be willing to kill off our silent selves, we must be willing to make a mistake, and we must be willing to reenter the fray, reenter circulation before we must be willing to look once again upon our new behaviors with detachment for future modifications. In the same way we love, we love again, we love better. “We pass from silence to thought, that’s the movement of life.”
It seems to me then that the Situationist solution does not accept this dialectic movement and this explains Debord’s fear of the artwork’s commodification. It is a desire like Nana’s to remain above the fray by not investing herself. “Why must we speak… Wouldn’t it be nice if we could remain silent?” Debord is afraid that his artwork will be coopted, in other words, that he’ll choose the wrong word. Of course, he’s right. It will. He will. But I think the point is, and he would agree: they’re all wrong words. But perhaps he’s forgetting the bit of truth in the error/lie. The question is, what do you do faced with this reality – speak anyway, knowing you’ll have to speak again, or remain silent? We must stand outside of discourse to establish critical distance, but then we must re-enter circulation to affect it. Eventually, Nana does choose to act, to love, to be her own agent and to enter the fray, and she suffers the death of her silent self.
In many ways I feel that many of Godard’s films forget this, his own lesson, and that by using Brechtian distanciation and didactic non-identification among other techniques, he attempts to avoid assimilation, avoid affirming the dominant ideology, i.e. avoid making a mistake, avoid picking a story. But that’s a thought to be elaborated in another venue.
· Nana says in her conversation with Parain that words lose meaning if we over use them indicating a fear of a kind of linguistic inflation.
· When Parain says that “to speak well one must renounce life for a while” he then says “that’s the price” suggesting that we pay with our lives.
· Is this rhetorical analysis of the economics of discourse and exchange speaking through the ideology of capitalism and therefore subject to criticism from without on these grounds?
"Whenever I hear the word 'culture' I break out my checkbook."