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  • Can We Save What We Have Destroyed? Transmitting Literature
  • Hélène Merlin-Kajman (bio)
    Translated by Marta Figlerowicz

“To save” (sauver): in recent years, this verb has become pervasive. We need to save our planet, animal species on their way to extinction, cultures and languages menaced by globalization. But we also need to save schools, writing and literature, research, the university, and the humanities themselves. All told, we need to save humanity, nature and culture alike. This strange panic betrays a strange unreadiness. Rescuers perform their work of “saving” during disasters and emergencies, and especially during accidents. Thus, we say, “We have to save the furniture.” And, “Women and children first.” Through such rhetoric we figure our future only in terms of life itself, of human beings and things we need for our survival. The task we keep giving ourselves is a radical one: that which we cannot save will disappear or die. It will not transform itself into something else, it will not continue becoming. A catastrophe—be it political, such as a genocide, or natural, such as a tsunami—has suddenly forced history into step with itself. We assume that we are at fault, that to achieve salvation—salvation and rescue by now are meshed together—we need to make amends.

But can education, can teaching, be part of this troubling worldview? Do they, too, need to be saved? [End Page 179]


Until recently, social and political struggles, as well as literary and artistic avant-gardes, inscribed themselves into carefully thought out programs, or grounded themselves in projects and utopias. Their manifestos declared a new era that differed radically from what had previously been known. The “no” these manifestos pronounced refused the established order with a fervent conviction both that a new world needed to be built and that it was possible to do so. Paradoxically, all the hopeful master terms by which one then felt carried forward advocated destruction. One of them thus exultantly announced “the death of Man.” To wipe clean the slate of the past—to burn all our bridges—this was what could save us. We all know the very frequently glossed fragment from Marx, the one that opens The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”1 By “farce,” Marx meant the revolution of 1848 as it repeated and parodied that of 1789. By “tragedy” he meant the noble, theatrical fashion with which the revolutionaries of 1789 had imitated Roman culture, style, and garb to accomplish “the task of their century.” Whence his grandiose, radical conclusion: “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. . . . In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead” (B, 18). To change the world, we had to start by destroying the old one; not only its social structures but also that which reproduced these structures: the old world’s ideology and its culture, and notably its education. We were to head into the light and not turn back, leaving the dead behind us.

“To save,” “to destroy.” This would be an easy parallel, and not a very enlightening one, if all that I used it to convey was the distress which I don’t think I am alone in feeling given the catastrophist sentiments dispersed, these days, across all media: by public forums, associations, radio broadcasts, manifestos, petitions, [End Page 180] alarmingly titled books.2 I do feel ready to join in this general apprehension that the old humanities are perishing. But as a former activist of the radical left (a communist and a follower of Althusser) who also studied modern literature at a time when New Criticism, structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, Foucault, and Deleuze were opening new, enthusiastically greeted critical horizons—as a person with such a background I find no less than stupefying this sudden, unpremeditated leftist re-embracing of signifiers whose signifieds had been not merely contested but quite literally pulverized during the last...


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pp. 179-204
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