Signed Paine, or Panic in Literature
Though it reflects on the play of Paine's name and links it can establish, this essay is concerned with the role of fiction in the performativity of texts, both literary and nonliterary, and especially texts which, like Thomas Paine's Common Sense, affect to abjure any literariness for their political efficacy. The author reads Paine with Blanchot in elucidating the power of a certain fictionality, at work for instance in the performatives that found a democratic nation.
Before addressing our subject, I want to say a few words about the proposed title.1 You will have recognized there the diverted quotation of the titles of two well-known works. First, an allusion to another lecture given right here at Cerisy, twenty-seven years ago in August 1975, by Jacques Derrida, during the colloquium on Francis Ponge. The singular title Signéponge, inappropriable for any other purpose, would nevertheless let its sonorities resonate in “Signé Paine.” As for the place, here we are again. With this title, I was not thinking to do more than substitute and displace a few letters, so as to maintain the reference to a place and a certain situation. But upon rereading the beginning of Signéponge, I discovered that my gesture repeated that of Jacques Derrida, who in 1975 likewise referred to the place from which he was speaking by evoking an earlier lecture given there. I cite Signéponge commenting on the just-pronounced sentence, “Francis Ponge will be my thing today”:
in fact I know, myself, and others here may also know, that I am citing only myself . . . consigning in today’s event an allusion to another that took place already at Cerisy. Three years ago, grappling with Nietzsche’s styles, I had here pronounced: “Woman will be my subject.” You will say that “Francis Ponge will be my thing today” is something else, that the sentence is very different. You can always say that and will be all the more justified in so doing because of the difference of a “today.”[Signéponge/Signsponge 10; trans. modified]
Thus, the reference of my title relaunches what was already a scene of reference and citation, with, however, the difference that I know that I am not citing myself but the other, the one who is again present here: Jacques Derrida.
But there is a second aspect of this allusion that I wanted to point out: to speak of Jacques Derrida, in his presence, of what he has said and written here or elsewhere is a situation that he has to know very well since it has happened hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Here, then, he must be readying himself, you, Jacques Derrida, sitting over there, must be readying yourself to undergo yet again the ordeal during this fourth Cerisy colloquium organized around your work. When you yourself began to speak here, twenty-seven years ago, you did anything but pass over in silence the situation of speaking before Francis Ponge, who was then sitting in this room, as you are now. On the contrary, from your first words, you were intent on recalling that “Francis Ponge” were words to be heard also in the mode of possible address to the one before whom you were going to [End Page 30] speak and, moreover, to speak about his name, about the thing of his name, of the name as thing, for example, sponge: “the entire name of Francis Ponge,” you said right away, “can just as well form the whole of an interpellation, apostrophe, or greeting addressed to him. Not only in his presence, but to his presence . . .” [Signéponge/Signsponge 2]. You continued, however, by saying that this name can just as well designate someone, that is, it can speak of him in the third person rather than address him. You even pretended to point him out in the room: “the name can in its entirety designate. It can name him, Francis Ponge, for you, with a silent indication accompanying the call: here is Francis Ponge, it is him that I name, a third person over there that I point to with my finger.” I say that you pretended to point him out in this way, but actually I do not know, and not only because I was not then, like today, in the same room. But the beginning of this lecture and what follows leave no doubt about the fact that you chose not to speak as if the bearer of the name were absent, even though, in what follows, you went very far in demonstrating why the presumed presence of the bearer of a name exerts not the least effect on the work of the signature.
By recalling these features of the lecture delivered right here by the other here present—I could point him out with my finger—I would seek to inaugurate this series of lectures by a similar remarking of the situation of possible address. My mimeticism would even go as far as to take up again your first words in Signéponge, replacing the name of Francis Ponge with yours, thus: “Jacques Derrida—from here I call him, for greeting and praise. . . .”
It happens, however, that it is not your name or signature that I am preparing to treat, but that of a certain Paine. Paine, like Ponge, is a name that allows easy assimilation to a common noun, following the path of its homonym, pain. A signature en souffrance and whose pains are not over, that is what will be in question. Perhaps you will say: in this, it is like every signature, every signature remains en souffrance so long as it calls for the countersignature of the other to come. Yes, and all the more so, if one can say that, when the “work” to be signed is, like Paine’s, the work of a democracy called upon to come and be installed in a new state, a new state of affairs. Such a signature, as you have shown, suffers from being unable to sign in the name of any present signatory, even as it requires that someone lend himself/herself to this nameless act. In what follows, I will try to show that it fell first of all to Paine to undergo this suffering in the name of a state still without proper name other than that of the plural “states,” the United States. As if his own proper name, Paine, already called upon him to know this pain. I will return later to your luminous analysis, which is indispensable for what I am preparing to discuss. I mean your “Declarations of Independence,” the text you delivered far from here in 1976, the bicentennial year, at the University of Virginia, whose founder, Thomas Jefferson, was also the author of the founding document that you pluralized in your title. The author, or rather, the secretary or the spokesman who does not sign what he writes under the dictation of God, in whose name is opened the promise that still awaits fulfillment. It would seem that you do not name the other Thomas, Thomas Paine, but I will try to show that you left his place there in sufferance.
To conclude these preliminaries, I will pass quickly over the second title alluded to in my own. I mean Jean Paulhan’s famous Fleurs de Tarbes, the second title of which, ou la terreur dans les lettres, is only slightly modified by the substitution of the word panic. I confess that I at first let language do the work of suggesting a link not only between Ponge and Paine, but also between the latter name and that of panic, in the atmosphere of terror unleashed in the sky on the date of September 11. For if I decided then to speak here of Paine, on the subject of democracy to come, it is because I wished to turn our attention toward the founding gestures of a country where the promise of democracy, if indeed a promise remains, must now confront what is called terror, but also and perhaps [End Page 31] in an indissociable way, panic. The question I bring to our colloquium would thus be the following: how might this promise be kept open, even in the face of terror, not just in spite of but through or by the state of panic that terror calls up or that it is also called, perhaps inevitably? Might there be, in other words, a promising reserve in the panic state, contrary to all appearance and every expectation? I imagine that, in one form or another, it is the question we are all asking ourselves. My only originality, if any, would be to treat the question in the company of certain writings that helped to put in place, more than two centuries ago, a state that was at least promising for democracy. They did so at the time, if not under a similar reign of terror, then by confronting panic, but in a sense that remains to be specified. I underscore—and this is the second attraction of Paulhan’s title and essay—that it will be a question of what writing, “les lettres,” and literature have done so that one might have this promise of democracy: signed and dated. But at the end of the analysis, I will have to leave suspended the question of whether or not this role of writing or “letters” is definitively past, révolu, along with the age of the great revolutions and the legacy of the state terror that Paulhan is constantly thinking of and that caused Thomas Paine so much suffering, without, however, leading him to renounce the will to speak loudly and strongly of democracy’s promise.
Let us begin then by tracking the sense of panic that, in a like manner, might be able to find shelter, if possible, from terrorized fear. The task seems difficult since panic was for a very long time used exclusively as an adjective to qualify terror: one said, and one still sometime says, panic terror or panic fear. It is only in relatively modern usage that panic is used as a noun, but one still understands it more or less as a simple synonym of terror: panic is, in other words, an overwhelming fear. Between the two nouns, terror and panic, any semantic difference tends to disappear in modern usage. And yet, of course, one can also speak of terror not only in the sense of fear but also in the sense of the program of techniques for inducing it. According to this use, terror produces or seeks to produce fear or panic. The latter would therefore be the effect of a cause, whereas metonymy permits one to say terror for both cause and effect. It is thus the question of cause that would seem to distinguish between the two states, even as it continues to associate them. But if, in the past, panic was limited to its use as an adjective, it was precisely in order to qualify a fear or terror without apparent cause or danger. Panic terror is without reason, cause, or source—other than its source in Pan, who was said to be able to induce such reactions in flocks of sheep, shepherds, or army battalions. Pan’s figure and name thus stood for the cause of an experience of fear-without-cause, without source, without origin—without other origin, that is, than Pan, the god whose name can be confused with everything and with the name of everything.
In modern use, however, we abbreviate panic terror as simply panic, promoted for some time now to a noun. We also tend no longer to distinguish panic from terror according to the cause. Here is the OED’s relevant entry: “A sudden and excessive feeling of alarm or fear, usually affecting a body of persons, originating in some real or supposed danger, vaguely apprehended, and leading to extravagant or injudicious efforts to secure safety.” Panic is identified here less in relation to its cause or origin, the danger that may be “real or supposed,” than by what are called “efforts to secure safety.” Classically once again, panic always manifests itself in flight. Those affected by panic terror, whether men or beasts, flee blindly and recklessly. It was this ability to induce panic flight that made Pan the valued ally of a warring army. There are accounts of such panic flights in Herodotus, Theocritus, Lucian, Ovid, and elsewhere.2
E. M. Forster shows his familiarity with many of these accounts in the short story titled “The Story of a Panic,” which was his first piece of published fiction. Here’s the [End Page 32] passage from the story depicting the flight of the narrator, one of a group of picnickers, all of whom have, at the same moment, been spooked by what is described as no more than “a cat’s-paw of wind” rustling the trees:
in one second we were tearing away along the hillside. . . . I only saw for a brief moment; for I ran across the little clearing and through the woods and over the undergrowth and the rocks and down the dry torrent beds into the valley below. The sky might have been black as I ran, and the trees short grass, and the hillside a level road; for I saw nothing and heard nothing and felt nothing, since all the channels of sense and reason were blocked.
Forster’s narrator goes on to characterize the quality of fear he and manifestly everyone else alike felt, although without having been given more cause to flee than that “cat’s-paw of wind”: it was not, he affirms, the sort of “spiritual fear” one has known before (for the narrator is a God-fearing gentlemen), but brutal and physical fear. And he concludes: “for I had been afraid, not as a man, but as a beast.” Of course, there is nothing in the least original about the association of panic fear with bestiality. Pan is the god who is half beast, the Goat-god. Forster is quite evidently taking over these associations so that they may be keyed into encoded legends underwriting many devices of his tale.
I am not going to pursue this path of classical associations between the Acadian god Pan and what is today still called panic. These associations are endlessly rich, traversing every age and literature in the West, surviving in Christianity through links to the figures of both Christ and Satan.3 Forster was also obviously familiar with this Christian assimilation of the Goat-god Pan and the representation of panic as fear of Satan’s power to confound and damn you. One of the panicky picnickers in his tale is a cleric, who explains, after they’ve all recovered from their fright, that the Evil One has just paid them a visit. In a “solemn speech” following their headlong flight down the hillside, he offers this explanation for their fear, but he also can be heard seizing the moment to shore up belief among his frightened lambs.
But if I don’t want to plot any further this trail of classical and then Christian associations with panic, that is also because it is time to bring Paine into the picture. Although Tom Paine gave himself quite a good education in many things, including the history of the Bible, he was never a scholar and never pretended to be. Because he was educated as a Quaker by his father, he was expressly forbidden to learn Latin, since Quakers believed one should remain forever unable to read the language in which the greatest fictions, the greatest falsehoods had been written. Whatever Paine suffered from this paternal injunction (and he did suffer in his “career,” as did all Quakers at the time, for he could enter no profession), he never renounced his reservations about fiction, even though he was given to practicing allegories and fictions of all sorts. In any case, classical allusions are all but absent from his writings, but as Paine himself would often say, he was writing also and even above all for a common reader, the one who embraces and thus should be embraced by common sense, by writing and interpretation of other writing, including those writings called sacred, that follow the rules of common sense. “Common sense” was not only the title of Paine’s perhaps best-known essay; it was also the signature he adopted by metonymy [End Page 33] for other texts, in particular The Crisis Letters, the first one of which begins with that signature line for Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
If, then, Paine’s writings leave us with something to think as regards panic, one will not find it in the expected place, the locus classicus. Another contemporary usage will prove even less helpful in approaching Paine on the subject. For one often speaks today of panic in a very precise relation to sexuality, and in particular homosexuality. The notions of sexual panic or of gay panic are common in many discourses, including those that treat of literature.4 Thus, Forster’s story is frequently read today, and quite easily, as a fable of gay panic.5 But once again, this is nothing new; panic’s sexual charge can be derived once again from its namesake, the old goat-god who is perpetually chasing nymphs and causing them to take flight. One might even say that designations like sexual panic, gay panic, and so on, are essentially redundant, but that is not why they won’t be needed in what follows.
Rather, it is because Paine’s signature has contrived to come down to us as a public thing through and through, without or almost without trace of some private life lived outside the work it signs. The large Paine archive now at the disposal of historians and biographers keeps a remarkable silence about the so-called private life of the writer. Without property, home, or family, Paine lived what his most recent biographer titled a political life [Keane], one which was highly visible, as we’d say today, in momentous political events of the three countries of which he was a citizen.6 The point of invoking Paine’s biography is that this cosmopolitan work, at once the work of politics and of writing, where the two have become indissociable, attempts to sign itself wholly in the public domain. Witness the fact that Paine failed to invoke copyright for his texts whenever it would get in the way of the work’s publicity (he did so not only for Common Sense, but also for The Rights of Man, which was even more of a runaway bestseller of the day).7 This gesture resonates with the other fundamental gesture of the work itself, the call issued to found and preserve a republic, a res publica, a public “thing,” matter, affair, object, and so forth. It is into this public thing that the private Paine, whatever or whoever that was, could dissolve without trace, as it were. Even a cursory review of Paine’s biography makes plain that from the publication of Common Sense in 1776, the direction of Paine’s life was taken over by the two revolutions out of which come all of his major writings. From that point on, the biography of a life is being written by the necessity to continue the public work of the res publica. This necessity dictated Paine’s movements between [End Page 34] the American colonies, England, France, and the United States, and it also marked out a rough road. He lived long under bans of censorship, was imprisoned during Robespierre’s Terror, only narrowly escaped the guillotine, and finally came under general opprobrium after the publication of The Age of Reason in 1794. It was this fearlessly outrageous book that, by the end of his life, in 1809, saw to it that his name was assimilated for many to the pain of sin, blasphemy, or general unwholesomeness. He thus became Tom the Pain, to be avoided, not mentioned in good company. He became, in other words, that public thing called a scandal. He died penniless, soon to be largely forgotten, and his remains having been lost, the name of Thomas Paine today marks no one’s final resting place.8
I am insisting on Paine’s work as such a public thing, a res publica, because it will bring us closer to another sense of panic to which I have so far only alluded. For panic has also been thought to draw on the near homonym of the god’s name, pān, meaning all or everything. As Patricia Merivale shows in her now-classic study, the confusion of the god’s proper name with the common noun has long been in place. She writes: “At least as early as the Homeric Hymn to Pan, writers had been struggling, with varying degrees of implausibility, to account for the apparent derivation of ‘Pan’ from pān meaning ‘all,’ whereas the correct derivation appears to be from pa-on (grazer)” [Merivale 9]. Such a long tradition of confusion or contamination might well have produced a meaning of panic rather different from our modern noun’s. Instead of unreasonable fear, it would allow us to plot the possible intersection between Paine, the public thing, and this all or everything qualified as panic.
It is toward something similar that Maurice Blanchot is working in a fragment of The Infinite Conversation that speaks of a certain “panic question.” He does so without naming Paine, of course, but one could argue that the latter’s place there has been left en souffrance. This is at least what I would like to try to demonstrate by sketching a brief reading of these pages.
They are found early in the work, in the second chapter, titled “The Most Profound Question.” This chapter searches into the difference between the question of the whole or of everything and what is called the panic question, which is tied to that other question, the most profound question whereby the wholly other questions the whole. If one isolates from this reflection the thread of panic, the first thing to remark is that Blanchot uses the term exclusively as an adjective to qualify a certain number of nouns: panic question, but also panic relation, panic character, panic movement, panic flight, panic reality, and panic profondeur [Blanchot 19–23]. As soon as it is introduced into his discourse, Blanchot draws the term explicitly into that play of the signifier just signaled, which confuses Pan or panic with totality. But he does so in order to mark the difference between the question of everything and what he is calling the panic question.
The similarity between these words in ancient Greek involves more than word play.9 The question of everything and the panic question have this in common: each draws “everything” into its play. But in the first, “everything” is with regard [End Page 35] to the same (for example, the same that is the singular identity of the one who questions, or the principle of unity), and if this question always refers back to everything, it does so always in order to come back to the same, and finally, to reduce everything to the same. With the second question, “everything” is with regard to the other—not content with being everything, but designating what is other than everything (what is absolutely other and has no place in the whole), thus affirming the Entirely Other where there is no longer any return to the same.
By panic relation, then, Blanchot means a relation to the wholly other (le Tout Autre—wholly other than the whole), which is an altering relation because it does not return everything to the same. This relation is not at all exceptional, and, for comparison or explanation, Blanchot will refer it to the most ordinary experiences. For example, “In all the great movements in which we exist only as interchangeable signs, the panic question is there, designating us as anyone at all and depriving us of all power to question.” Or again, there is the “panic character” of rumor or opinion, for which no one is accountable and which seeks only to be spread about. The panic character is the quality of being everywhere and yet nowhere in particular or originally. Such opinion is unspoken speech, tyrannical “because no one imposes it and no one answers for it.” Its movement is that of the “pure relation of no one and nothing.”10 There is also an evocation of the panic being of a crowd, that is, the confusion of flight that characterizes it:
If, in the crowd, being is in flight, it is because belonging to flight makes of being a crowd, an impersonal multiplicity, a non-presence without subject: the unique self that I am gives way to an indefiniteness that is paradoxically always growing, that sweeps me along and dissolves me in flight. At the same time, the empty self that is undone in the crowd in flight remains solitary, without support, without contour, fleeing itself in everyone who flees: an immense solitude of flight where no one accompanies anyone else. All speech then belongs to flight, precipitates flight, orders all things upon the confusion of flight—and this is speech that, in truth, does not speak, but flees whoever speaks, drawing him into a still more rapid flight.
Once again, these lines call up an unexceptional experience of impersonal multiplicity and everyday indefiniteness, the movement of crowd or opinion in which none is accompanied because each dissolves into the flight. At the same time, this flight is not a flight from anything as such, or else it is flight from everything and from itself. And yet, as the text continues, one is invited to consider how “this immensity, disoriented and deprived of a center, this immobile dispersal of movement” might strangely be able to turn on itself and face something that it flees. This is the possibility of “the overturning that is called revolt, at times revolution” . It is a turnabout, a retournement, accomplished, Blanchot will insist, “in and through speech. Speech is this turning” [22–23].
From this point on, at this point that is a turning point, I will take the liberty of pressing Blanchot’s text into a conjunction with the pamphlet published anonymously in Philadelphia, January 1776, under the title Common Sense. But one does not need to force this conjunction; The Infinite Conversation more than allows for exchange with Common Sense. The texts read each other, the way one says that two interlocutors speak with or [End Page 36] question each other. Nevertheless, I admit that it is a most improbable conversation, and if by conversation one means only viva voce speaking-together, then it will always have been simply impossible. But living contemporaries do not always speak with each other; true speech is even absent most of the time, when time passes between and among everyone in panic mode, in which, as we read, “All speech then belongs to flight, precipitates flight, orders all things upon the confusion of flight—and this is speech that, in truth, does not speak.” Conversation does not take place in such flight from speech among those who consider themselves contemporaries. If, with one’s contemporaries, taken as a whole, one exists as in a crowd, a rumor, “in an immense solitude of flight where no one accompanies anyone else,” then true con-versation, true speech, or what Blanchot also calls “essential speech,” makes its appearance, so to speak, only as writing, that is, as that which accompanies speech, but also turns it aside from any one address into infinite detour or infinite conversation.
I will thus insert a partial reading of Paine’s historic pamphlet, Common Sense, between these lines in which Blanchot, without naming either literature or democracy, evokes a certain power of writing to effect democratic revolution, to keep open, as he puts it, “the future of the whole (l’ensemble) where the whole (le tout) withholds itself.” This figure of a future ensemble names without naming democracy, at least if democracy’s name is never properly a name in the present, but only ever a name with which one calls to the future and to justice. As for literature, its names or one of its names occurs in these pages by Blanchot only in quotation marks, in a sentence that will serve to take us directly to Paine’s pamphlet. At the end of the section we’re reading, which begins with the evocation of the entropic, panic crowd, before following the turn into revolution, Blanchot evokes “the essential speech of detour, the ‘poetry’ in the turn of writing,” which “sometimes turns in a visible manner into revolution.” If it can sometimes so turn, that is because, in this essential speech, time turns; it is “also a speech wherein time turns, saying time as a turning” .
These phrases can take us to the event that was Common Sense because they point to what one might call the essential performative of the pamphlet, which indeed seems to have performed something quite extraordinary, as it turns out. I mean the performative that consists in saying: It’s time, the time has come, the time is now, now we must grasp the time as our own, the present.
For such would have been the principal or at least most critical “message” received through the pamphlet’s broadcast, its wildfire dissemination across public opinion in the Colonies, but also in Britain and France. While Paine also supplied reasoned, lengthy, and vehement arguments supporting the idea that the time had come to declare independence and get prepared to fight for it, he had also effectively to perform the decision in everyone’s name, in the name of common sense. What does “effectively” mean in the case of such a performative? On one level, it means simply that the effect confirms the performative as such, as having had the power or potential to produce such an effect. But can one say that it did have this power to perform a decision, a decision for all and in the interest of an “all” that had not yet even declared itself as such? The writing could only have the power after the fact, it would seem, and yet the fact of the decision, its character of act and deed, of something made or done, this fact had to be brought to declare itself as fact or in fact through a writing that had no power to act, to constitute or institute any decision, at least none that could stand before the law. This is the strange performative that Common Sense effects or brings about, although in such a way as to leave one permanently unable to fix its precise moment, its status as cause or effect. Whatever power it appears to exercise is necessarily fleeting precisely to the extent that it succeeds in provoking the act it calls for in the name of common sense. It is as if the performative “It is time,” “The time has come” could never be performed in the present, even though it says nothing but [End Page 37] the presence of time, the time of the present that it is. It is time: what an amazing thing to say! What does it say? What is “it” that is time?11
Before we get too carried away with such questions, however, it’s time to notice that in the passage that bears most clearly the force of this performative language, Paine does not in fact write either “It is time” or “The time has come,” but “the time hath found us.” This italicized phrase comes at the beginning of the last section of Common Sense, subtitled: “Of the Present Ability of America: With Some Miscellaneous Reflections.” The preceding section likewise named the present, in very similar terms: “Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs.” Posing the present state of affairs is preliminary to the leap of the performative decision. It is as if Paine were getting set, a solid foothold in the present, before taking off. The leap is taken in the first two paragraphs of the last section, where it is said, where someone who is no one or everyone says: “the time has come,” or rather “time hath found us.”
Paine begins the chapter in his usual conversational tone with remarks about a universal opinion:
I have never met with a man, either in England or America, who hath not confessed his opinion, that a separation between the countries would take place one time or other: And there is no instance in which we have shown less judgment, than in endeavoring to describe, what we call, the ripeness or fitness of the Continent for independance [sic].
I interrupt the quotation in order to underscore a few traits that prepare the coming leap. By denouncing the lack of judgment shown by his contemporaries, Paine does not mean that one should show more or better judgment by endeavoring to describe this “ripeness or fitness” (that is, the best time to grab for the fruit of independence), but that such an endeavor is entirely foolish. The time that is coming passes all description, unlike either present or past time. Opinion will never learn the time of what “would take place one time or other”; it can only defer the decision between them so long as it remains opinion, that is to say, so long as variance in the “opinion of the time” is unable to move toward resolution or decision of the question. If we understand “opinion” here to be a relative of the rumor Blanchot speaks of, then this inability to move, that is, opinion’s powerlessness to judge and decide, would share the character of being imposed by no one, answered for by no one, seeking only to be spread about. This is the powerlessness that Paine here calls to account, in the name of common sense, that is, a certain “us” that is being answered for here by an anonymous “I.”
As the passage continues, it is this “I” who steps forward to propose that “we” take “a general survey of things,” and conduct an inquiry to know “the very time” for decision. But as we’ll see, this inquiry is opened for “us” only to be closed right away, in a kind of syncope or ellipsis whereby “I” affirm that the decision has already been made by time itself, which has found “us,” as if time was looking for us for its own purposes. Eschatological time, therefore. I continue the quotation in the next paragraph: [End Page 38]
As all men allow the measure [that “a separation between the countries would take place”], and vary only in their opinion of the time, let us, in order to remove mistakes, take a general survey of things, and endeavor if possible to find out the very time. But I need not go far, the inquiry ceases at once, for the time hath found us. The general concurrence, the glorious union of all things, proves the fact.[emphases added to “let us” and “But I need not go far”)
Only one need take the step toward finding out that no one needs to take any steps at all. “But I need not go far, the inquiry ceases at once.” As if the decision will have been made already, made by time when it decided it “hath found us.” Here then is what a moment ago I called the syncope or ellipsis of decision when it is turned over to time, to be made by time. Paine had written in the first lines of the introduction that “Time makes more Converts than Reason.” Yes, but, if we follow Blanchot’s conversation on this point, then this conversion, decision, or turning of time is the essential speech of detour, which can speak “time as turning” and, without any more power than that, produce the effective truth of the performative, as if it had all along done nothing more than assert a fact that everyone already knew: the time hath found us.
We’ve come back to the question of Paine’s performative, if indeed we can call it Paine’s, since it would belong immediately to all in the “general concurrence, the glorious union of all things.” In continuing to ask about the event of this performative, we’re inquiring about a certain powerless or elided power of the writing, the “poetry” that assisted at the founding moment of a union, of a whole, of an eventual United States. If we can and still do today invoke that name, and always more solemnly in what is called political, public discourse, well, we still somehow owe that power to the event of Common Sense, and to its uncanny genius for timing, for effectively saying time as the time to turn. But what is it exactly that is thereby owed if it is true that the very time, that is, the true time, had sooner or later to find those it sought?12 If no one had yet said it, and published it, would this time still be making us wait? And since many others did say it and publish it in their own way and at the same time, why is it that to one of them has to go the privilege or the pain of signing this event or this coming of the time that would have come about by itself in any case?
You are right if you hear these questions as arising directly from some of those that animate the analyses of Jacques Derrida, especially in “Declarations of Independence.” Arising from, but also underlying and supporting them. For the strange event I am trying to account for here will have been something like the necessary prelude to that other declaration whose performative force went so far as to efface, eclipse, or elide its own staging, its own mise en place, by an act of the signature of time that had to precede it. What is necessary, then, would be that time manages to turn before it is so declared in a document that from then on has the force of law. This document begins—and you cited this incipit [Derrida 11]—by a reference to the moment in “the course of human events” [End Page 39] when “it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another people.” The famous phrase leaves one to understand that this moment has indeed arrived for this people, the people who constituted themselves as one by signing this sentence and all those that follow from it, even as they appropriate, but not without remainder, the signature of just one among them. All the same, if the sentence says that pragmatically or effectively, it nevertheless does so without saying it as such, without announcing that for us, the delegated signatories, who here sign for all, this time has arrived. Or, as it had already been written some months earlier, the time hath found us, this has happened to us. In Jefferson’s words, all of this is sous-entendu, as if it had become obvious and could go without saying.
To put it in a word, it is this “going-without-saying” that I am calling the ellipsis, the eclipse, or the syncope of another effaced signature of the time and by time. This erasure would be of a different order from the one to which Jefferson had to consent as the first redactor of a Declaration of Independence that would subsequently be mutilated by a committee of rewriters. Still, Jefferson consented to this mutilation while remaining more or less certain that something of him or of his would remain in what he was the first to sign. Perhaps Jefferson knew better than did his friend Paine how to save a signature from time. As for Paine, he threw his signature into the moment so that the event of time might take place, the events of his time, all that cannot happen except on the pain of engulfing whoever would dare to say “my time,” to move to appropriate it—as if one could inscribe one’s name at the bottom of time as on a page and make it turn.
Blanchot can rejoin the conversation right here, along the axis of this question about the power of speech to turn everything around, so that effectively time turns. How then is it possible for the “dispersal of movement” that is panic flight, rumor, crowd to “turn into that which turns strangely around”? I continue the quotation from The Infinite Conversation.
. . . this immobile dispersal of movement would turn into that which turns strangely around if out of the depths it were to succeed in reconstituting itself as a whole, a power to be everything and to gather everything unto itself in the face of something else that it flees. Let us assume this were possible. It would “suffice” that the alteration that is flight—the becoming-other that it is—be cast outside, incarnated and affirmed in a reality that is other, in an adversity such that one might flee it, and thus also combat it. . . .
The power to cast out “alteration,” to flee and combat it are all conjoined here in the power to affirm adversity. Like conversation and conversion, adversity names a kind of turn, which turns the other out, produces it outside the whole that is now able to stand united over against an adversary, the other who or which has been turned out. The power to cast the other out is the power “to be everything and to gather everything unto itself,” thereby posing a relation of the whole to itself. Although this self-relation still has to pass through the other, it would now be able or have the power apparently to return to itself, posing as the adversary of the adversary.
This adversarial version of the turning power of speech resonates clearly with the power of the performative that took place in and around Common Sense. The pamphlet was, lest we forget, also a vigorous, indeed at points bloodcurdling call to war. It is time, it shouted, to turn around and face the British crown as the adversary, to cast the adversary out as evil, and even the very principle of evil in civil society, an evil made all the worse by the monstrosity of hereditary monarchy, the passage of sovereign, royal power from father to son, or rather from some fathers to some sons. Paine’s regicidal rhetoric is bolstered by lengthy appeal to Scripture. Specifically, the Old Testament is cited as authority for equating evil’s name with that of the reigning king. Here is Paine, the former [End Page 40] itinerant preacher, this son of a strict Quaker father, thundering out the conclusion of this lengthy appeal to Scripture’s authority. The final words of the Scriptural quotation are in all capitals, as if to drive home the lesson for the dimmest vision among us: “And all the people said unto Samuel, Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God that we die not, for WE HAVE ADDED UNTO OUR SINS THIS EVIL, TO ASK A KING.” Paine’s commentary concludes by invoking elementary common sense about the thing called writing or scripture: “That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false.”
Such appealing to divine authority, Paine will later admit with disarming naïveté, was the great error of all political regimes, but the greatest error of all in democratic republics. Although as far as I know he never repudiated or regretted his own appeal to theological-political authority in Common Sense (its fait was accompli and could not be repudiated), he would undertake, in a doggedly obsessive and, again, naïve manner, fifteen years later in The Age of Reason to overturn the very premise of scriptural truth, once more appealing to common sense, that is, to what the ordinary reader of the Bible could make out of it, even after some serious examination. What would turn out to be the last of Paine’s books has been famously banned one place or other ever since, and it still circulates with the mark of contraband, a schoolboy’s and schoolgirl’s cheat book for winning arguments against authority in a doctrinaire world.13 As I have already mentioned, The Age of Reason devastated Paine’s reputation as political thinker, thus ironically illustrating its point about the danger of mixing theology with politics.
To remain, however, only with Common Sense, its speech act tapped directly into divine authority as ground for political decision and judgment, indeed as ground for the very founding of a new political-national unity. Whatever power it has or has abrogated to itself is lent/borrowed to/from God. This is the familiar troping of authority, but it still leaves one with the question of whether the speech act has any power in itself, or if all the power it has is finally something borrowed, a trope of God.
Turning from Paine’s language back to Blanchot’s, we’ll press on with the question of the power of speech, la parole. Recall that Blanchot has just evoked the movement that strangely turns around on itself via the figure of adversity. The text then continues:
This movement is what occurs in the overturning [renversement] that is called revolt, at times revolution. The abject [malheureuse] disorganization of the crowd, that immense common powerlessness that is not even lived at first in common, turns into [se retourne] exigency. It is dispersal itself—disarrangement—that by turning about now affirms itself as the essential, reducing to insignificance every power already organized, suspending any possibility of reorganization and yet giving itself [se donnant elle-même], outside every organizing organ, as the space between: the future of the ensemble where the whole [le tout] withholds itself[se retient].
When I commented earlier on the last phrase cited here, it was to stress the mention of the future and the link to what is called democracy. Replaced now in more context, one may see that the strongly nominal phrase (future, ensemble, whole) occupies a place of maximum suspension: everything (tout) is suspended, held back, but also held up and held [End Page 41] together, ensemble. But everything is suspended, held up by what? By an affirmation of dispersal itself as essential. “It is dispersal itself—disarrangement—that by turning about now affirms itself as the essential.” Notice that this affirmation both gathers dispersal into an “itself,” which speaks to affirm itself as ensemble, and at the same time affirms the necessity of the other affirmation, the prior affirmation of “the reality of the other,” thus the affirmation of dispersal as dispersal, essential dispersal, dispersal of every essence, dispersal of itself without self. Were it not for this double affirmation, dispersal would go on only affirming itself as essential, taking itself to be everything, the whole. What keeps it from imposing itself, without relief, is the other affirmation of dispersal as dispersal or disarrangement. What keeps it, in other words, what guards the other affirmation and its strange power is being called speech, parole, but also language, “poetry,” writing, speaking. This parole is the guardian of dispersion and suspension, the guardian as well of the ensemble it promises to a future, by the force of affirmation that turns everything about: conversion, reversal, adversity, conversation. “A turning about that accomplishes itself in and through speech. Speech is this turning.”
The turning dispersion of speech is beyond all measure. And thus it can preserve the movement of dispersion. Blanchot, in the lines I’m summarizing, is careful not to write that speech preserves itself, in a circle of self-relation. Speech disperses itself, without the return of the self-relation. What is thus preserved or retained is a “power” speech has or is to steal “itself” away from even panic flight, where the power of essential speech is lost, it seems. Or it would be lost, were it not for the power of speech to “s’y dérober,” to steal itself away from flight.
Well, Blanchot asks at this point, “What sort of power is this? Is it still a power?” To save space, I will cite just one last passage that follows from those questions and dispense with any more commentary. This will allow the profile simply to float there one last time, as if en souffrance, of the figure of one who could have been called Paine—or, more commonly, pain.
What sort of power is this? Is it still a power? Speech flees more rapidly, more essentially than flight does. It holds in it the essence of flight in the movement of stealing away; this is why speech speaks it, pronounces it. When someone, in flight, begins to speak, it is as though the movement of stealing away suddenly took to speech [prenait la parole], came to the surface and restored depth as a whole [ensemble], but a whole without unity in which the irregularity of disarray is still decisive.[23; emphasis added]
Did it not happen that, with Common Sense, someone began to speak with the effect described here? I mean the effect that in effect abolishes its cause, or submerges it in a general reversal of depth and surface. Common Sense would have “succeeded” or sufficed for this effect precisely to the extent that it dissolved its quality of someone’s speech back into a general language of surface and depth. This dissolving of the speaker’s identity is not merely the effect of anonymity. With time, the Time that makes more converts than Reason, Common Sense would have dispersed its own moment as the power of someone’s signed speech. To put it otherwise: Paine would have bequeathed but a panic signature. Or yet again and with altered words: he could sign only with his painic signature.
It is here that one should invoke again your analysis in “Declarations of Independence.”
Although in principle an institution must, in its history and in its tradition, in its permanence and thus in its very institutionality, make itself independent of the empirical individuals who took part in its production, although it must in some [End Page 42] way undertake its mourning of them, even and especially if it commemorates them, it happens that, by the very reason of the structure of the instituting language, the founding act of an institution, the act as archive as well as the act as performance, must keep within itself the signature.
In saying that, you were also thinking of Thomas Jefferson, the one whom a nation continues to celebrate and commemorate today as one of its Founding Fathers. His signature remains and must remain visible, readable, as you have shown, beneath the name of “We, the People.” As for the other Thomas, who was the father of no one and nothing, the one who mistrusted paternity as the principle of sovereign tyranny, whether divine or monarchic, this Thomas perhaps signed nothing with his own name, that is, the name of his father. Or else he signed everything, and for everyone, with this name that says also pain. That is what I have tried, painfully, to call the painic signature, there where the common language breaks down before the name of someone condemned, like everyone else, to know only a father’s language—but also, of course, a mother’s, even if nothing is said there either about a mother’s suffering for her son, or a son’s in his mother.
It is in this maternal-paternal language, then, that he would have given the reply reported as his final living words, words with which he persisted in signing once again a public life. The response refused one last time to confess belief in a Father-God who, according to the tradition precisely of the Holy Fathers, would have allowed his son to be tortured and executed. This is an idea that Thomas Paine always professed to find, since his earliest boyhood, an absolute scandal. As for the question and the response that refused finally to give in to fear, I cite them in conclusion: “Mr. Paine,” someone is supposed to have said to him at his deathbed, “Allow me to ask you once again: Do you believe, or rather do you want to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?” It is said that Paine replied, softly: “I have no wish to believe on that subject” [Keane 536]. Let us leave him this last word.
Peggy Kamuf is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. She is one of the primary English translators of the works of Derrida and is the author of Book of Addresses (2005).
1. This essay is a translation and a revision of the version that first appeared in French as “Signé Paine, ou la panique dans les lettres,” in Mallet, ed., La Démocratie à venir: Autour de Jacques Derrida, the volume collecting the papers from a 2002 colloquium of the same title at Cerisy-la-Salle, France. The signs of this original context, where “Signé Paine” was the first lecture in the ten-day colloquium, and in particular the signs of the presence there of Jacques Derrida, have been retained.
2. For an overview of the classical sources, see Merivale, chap. 1. For another, Jungian approach to the Pan material, see Roscher and Hillman.
3. The association between Pan and Christ goes back to Plutarch’s famous account of the rumor of the death of Pan, in Moralia (“De Defectu Oraculorum”). A tradition of commentary, whose beginning Merivale situates in Eusebius in the fourth century CE, built on a chronological coincidence. Commenting on Plutarch’s account, Eusebius writes: “But it is important to observe the time at which he says that the death of the daemon [i.e., Pan] took place. For it was the time of Tiberius, in which our Saviour, making His sojourn among men, is recorded to have been ridding human life from daemons of every kind” [qtd. in Merivale 13].
4. See, for example, Smith. Sex Panic is also the name of the activist organization founded in New York City by Michael Warner.
5. See Martin and Piggford. By contrast, writing in 1969, Merivale discusses Forster’s story at length [180–86] without any mention of its strong homoerotic undercurrents.
6. Or rather, he was a citizen of the US and France, but born a subject of Great Britain. The distinction meant everything to Paine, who throughout his career as political writer took vicious aim at monarchs and the institutions of monarchy, although he would end up imprisoned under Robespierre’s Terror for writing against the execution of Louis XVI. Paine’s vehement hatred of kings, and his fulminations against authority in all but its democratic form, has led commentators and biographers to speculate about unresolved resentments toward his father [Davidson and Scheick, esp. 21–25]. These authors concede, however, that they have very little to go on: “Whatever the detail and wealth of biographical information on Paine throughout his career . . . there is almost nothing about him as a living person. . . . there is no presence of Thomas Paine, the ‘person,’ in all of that record that has survived him: no intimate disclosures, no variable and suggestive touches of a man as he was, little or nothing of signs of affection or hate or resentment” .
7. Keane writes that “Rights of Man broke every extant publishing record. . . . Paine himself estimated that in Britain the sales of the complete edition of Rights of Man reached ‘between four and five hundred thousand’ copies within ten years of publication, making it the most widely read book of all time, in any language” .
8. As he neared death, Paine asked to be buried in a Quaker cemetery in upstate New York. His request having been refused by the Quaker congregation, it was said that he cried at the prospect of being buried on his own farm: “The farm will be sold, and my bones dug up before they are half rotted” [Keane 534]. Keane notes that Paine’s fear was justified because in 1819, ten years after his death, one of Paine’s most zealous admirers, William Cobbett, had his hero’s remains exhumed and shipped in a box to Liverpool. Cobbett hoped to raise enough money to put up a monument to Paine. But when this failed for lack of funds and after Cobbett’s own death, Paine’s remains went from hand to hand until finally all trace of them was lost [Keane 617n201]. Concerning the ambivalent attitude that Cobbett displayed toward Paine, see Wilson.
9. The phrase “in ancient Greek” has been added by the translator.
10. In the relation between panic and rumor, one might also think once again of the famous rumor of the death of Pan as passed down from Plutarch’s Moralia, repeated throughout the ages and still heard by poets (e.g., Pound, Frost).
11. In The Infinite Conversation, the chapter “The Most Profound Question” begins with the question of time, in a mode that echoes but also swerves away from the opening of Heidegger’s Being and Time: “We ask ourselves about our time. This questioning is not pursued at privileged moments, but goes on without pause; it is itself part of time. . . . Time seeks and tries itself in the dignity of the question. Time is the turning of times. To the turning of time corresponds the power to turn oneself back into question, into a speech that, before speaking, questions through the turn of writing” .
12. Many years later, after Paine had returned to the United States following his adventure in France, he began to find himself repaid by the American people only with ingratitude. Congress had refused every request made by Paine or by his friends for compensation for the author of Common Sense, in recognition of his services to the new nation. Although an act of Congress eventually gave him the deed to a property that had been expropriated from royalists, this ungrateful delay in recognizing its debt to him left Paine with the sense of the “‘cold attitude’ of America toward its own writers” [Keane 245]. Before it finally resolved to acknowledge its debt, Congress had offered Paine the position of first official historian of the US Congress. In refusing this offer, Paine fulminated to the effect that the government sought thereby to restrict his independence in political affairs, or else, quite simply, that it did not understand that he sought recompense for services already rendered rather than a job. These episodes attest, albeit in a different way, to the effect of eclipse or ellipsis of the signature on Common Sense.
13. Davidson and Scheick recount in separately signed prefaces their encounters with The Age of Reason as teenagers who had been raised in religious households. Scheick writes that his questions about this education “were rebuffed rather than answered, and it was no surprise that my curiosity was piqued by a magazine advertisement proffering an inexpensive copy of The Age of Reason for open-minded readers. Paine’s book arrived in a plain brown envelope, as the advertisement had promised, and I furtively read it, or large parts of it, as a bad, even dangerous, book” .