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  • Make Believe:Manhattan’s Folittérature
  • Eric Prenowitz (bio)

Make believe is a verb, often used in the imperative, forexample when you say "Make believe you're the mummy andI'm the daddy." But when the verb's two verbs are conjugated with a hyphen, make-believe is a noun or an adjective, it is something or it qualifies something—and already to say that make- believe is this or that is to take us into an intractable paradox out of which we are unlikely to emerge intact. Because make-believe is, by definition, something that isn't. It flies in the face of ontology and even any process of becoming, dialectical or otherwise. Make-believe is not a station, not even a theory, on the way to being. Furthermore, make-believe does not make anything believable—except, perhaps, belief itself, if such a thing exists. Only the incredulous make believe. In other words, seeing is not believing, to translate, after a fashion, Jacques Derrida's oft-repeated affirmation that one can only believe the unbelievable: to believe what is believable does not in fact involve belief, in the "strong sense" of the word.1 If I believe it will be sunny later, I might be wrong, and it might well be wishful thinking, but since I know it is possible, it is already a kind of hedged forecast, the adherence to a plausible, probabilistic calculation. This is not at all the same thing as if I believe or make believe that stones speak! or that you're the king and I'm the queen.

This definition of belief depends on the establishment of a clear distinction between the believable (it will be sunny, or not, later) and the unbelievable (stones speak!). As with metaphor—or translation—the two domains, which are, in a certain sense, "kingdoms," must be rigorously separate. For this reason, by the way, and insofar as metaphor really is make-believe, "metaphor is make-believe" is not a metaphor. But just as a metaphor, through its very success, precipitates its own collapse or "death" (call it the becoming-literal of the figurative), so belief seems to intervene in its own conditions of possibility, to undermine the [End Page 147] establishment upon which it depends. Maybe stones do speak, after all . . . The point is not simply that make-believe has effects in or on "reality." The two must be at once absolutely separate and inseparable.

I said, a moment ago, "believe or make believe." Are they the same thing? Make-believe is not a mode of measured philosophical enquiry. It is not for real, only a game. Something children do, for the fun of it. Readers likewise, and theatergoers. It engages knowingly in untruth and a certain artificial reality. One never makes believe unintentionally or by mistake. It therefore supposes a conscious, self-present, responsible subject—but only to divide itself, to absent itself, without any possible response, from itself. Belief, on the other hand, is hardly a game, especially at the dead serious eschatological extreme to which Derrida pushes it. One can never believe intentionally or by design. Are belief and make-believe therefore opposites? Perhaps not in the end, perhaps there is always some make-believe in belief, and perhaps one must believe, for real, in order to make believe. And yet if belief is precisely what cannot be made, if no one can be made to believe, then to make believe would be to do something impossible.

I am talking about Hélène Cixous's writing, of course, for example about Manhattan,2 a book Cixous published in 2002, and which attempts to tell the impossible story of its own prehistory wherein the author herself, as a young woman, and thus before becoming the author she is, falls in love with a bookish young man in Manhattan, only to find out—but it is already too late—that she has it all wrong, because her true love is another, etc. I am talking about Manhattan, therefore, as if to say that it is quite literally incredible, unbelievable, but therefore singularly worthy of belief. That it makes believe like no other. Commanding something that...


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pp. 147-167
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