- Scattering BeingLeo Bersani and Diasporic Modernity
In The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Transnationalism, Brent Hayes Edwards introduces a term to diaspora studies that has since the book’s publication gained considerable traction: décalage (2003). Borrowing it from Léopold Sédar Senghor, Edwards mobilizes the French term to render visible the varied practices that African-descended intellectuals, activists, and artists deployed in the 1920s and 1930s, a period of effervescence in black trans-national activity. For him, décalage offers a way to consider the negotiations, encounters, translations, and misunderstandings that constitute black transnationalism. It designates a mode of movement in a diasporic world fractured by disparate histories, languages, and national ideologies. Rather than focusing on the most familiar genres, Edwards excavates an archive of “minor” modernisms in letters, anthologies, journals, and newsletters published across the diaspora. The uneven circulation of these [End Page 53] texts across national borders and languages reveals the diaspora as a system of multiplicity.
Variously translated as a “gap” or “hiatus” or “jet lag,” décalage allows Edwards to theorize diaspora as a field whose functioning is premised on a constitutive incompleteness and instability. As he explains, the term refers to the removal of a prosthesis that has supplemented a structural insufficiency:
The verb caler means “to prop up or wedge” something (as when one leg on a table is uneven). So décalage in its etymological sense refers to the removal of such an added prop or wedge. Décalage indicates the reestablishment of a prior unevenness or diversity; it alludes to the taking away of something that was added in the first place, something artificial, a stone ort a piece of wood that served to fill some gap or to rectify some imbalance.(2003, 13–14)
The chronotope suggests a damaged structure, an entity whose movement is predicated not on the perfection of its system, but on that which is constitutively missing from it. In denoting “jet lag”—décalage horaire—it evokes the temporal dislocations that have frequently attended representations of modernity, of a world whose speedy technologies confound the body’s adaptive capabilities. This is a world whose central dilemma Pauline Hopkins and Richard Wright—diasporic intellectuals whose work immediately antedates and succeeds the period that concerns Edwards—suggest is condensed in the query “What’s the time?”1
As it happens, the term with which Edwards asks us to reconsider modernist diasporic practices plays a crucial role in certain psychoanalytic ontologies. In The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art, his study of the aporetic structure of psychoanalytic thought, Leo Bersani claims: “Sexuality is a particularly human phenomenon in the sense that its very genesis may depend on the décalage, or gap, in human life between the quantities of stimuli to which we are exposed and the development of ego structures capable or resisting or, in Freudian terms, binding those stimuli” (1986, 38). Bersani borrows the term from Jean Laplanche, whose reading of Freud inspires what may be called “the psychoanalytic turn” in Bersani’s earlier studies A Future for Astyanax (1976), “The Other Freud” (1978), Baudelaire and Freud (1977) and—less explicitly—The Death of Stéphane Mallarmé (1982). [End Page 54] In The Freudian Body, Bersani alludes to the theory that he draws from Laplanche, according to which sexuality names a mode of survival in which the hilflos organism turns overwhelming excitations into an experience of jouissance, a pleasurable undoing of the incipient egoic structures. For Laplanche, and Bersani after him, the temporal delay of décalage precipitates hominization, becoming-human, in several senses. It names the missing foundation, in deconstructive terms the aporia, of the structures that are called human. The constitutive difference that Freudian psychoanalysis locates in the self suggests that (human) being— rather, (human) becoming—must be thought in terms of a belated accounting of an originary dispersal.
The repetition of the term across a number of intellectual traditions invites us to approach décalage as a “keyword” for thinking about the investments involved in twentieth-century conceptualizations of modernity’s ontologies.2 Ann Cvetkovich suggests we understand...