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Prescription Jean-Fran^ois Lyotard T HE PENAL COLONY will serve as a pretext for exhibiting some of the meanings of the Latin praescribere: to write (a name, a title, etc.) at the head of something, to prescribe or appoint, and in a later Latin, to trace an outline in advance, to sketch out. There is also, of course, the meaning of the lower Latin, praescriptio, a “ limitation,” from which derives “prescription” in the French civil code, and which designates “the means of acquiring or of freeing oneself, through a cer­ tain passage of time, and under the conditions determined by the law.” The English “ prescription” embraces nearly all of these nuances of meaning. The German language, for its part, does not run together the regulation, Vorschrift, the decree, Verordnung, the ordinance, Anord­ nung, and the Verjährung, which is the statute of limitation for a law or obligation. As always, the violence and simple clarity of Kafka’s text require no commentary. If anything, commentary will diminish them—a fact to which I resign myself. My excuse is that I think I can hear, and think I can make heard, in these pages white with hallucination, the echo of what has been called the intractable. I hear them saying that the intracta­ ble (/’intraitable)—what resists all law—is also an absolute condition of morals. And I think I hear something about the consequences of this for politics. The officer describes to the Western voyager, in French, the machine for execution and the functioning of its parts: the tilting Bed, the box of cogwheels called the Designer, and the Harrow, with glass needles irri­ gated by water. The machine writes the sentence on the body of the con­ demned, recto and verso. Or rather, it cuts it into his body until he dies, bloodless. The coup de grace is given to him by a long steel needle (the only one in the apparatus) which pierces his forehead. After which, the bed tips the tortured body into a pit. The officer describes, the machine inscribes. The officer describes the machine, the machine writes the judgment. I’ll return to the description; let us consider the inscription. The machine executes blindly; one places the program for the inscrip­ tion corresponding to the sentence in the box of cogwheels and it carries Vol. XXXI, No. 1 15 L ’E spr it C réa te u r it out. This box is what we term the dead memory of a computer, the text of the program being its living memory. Once the program is inserted, one presses the Send key. The machine is blind not because it does not know how to read, but because it can read only the prescriptions written in the language of the former Commandant. Let us say for expedience (too much expedience), the prescriptions of the old law. The officer loves the machine because he loves the old law and because the machine is the automaton of the old law. An artificial intelligence whose memory operates only in the old language. The officer is the servant of this automaton. In his pocket, he has the papers on which are drawn all of the schemas corresponding to all of the prescriptions, which in them­ selves constitute the entirety of the old law. He might be called a main­ tenance engineer. Such drawings were termed, in late Latin, praescripta, lines inscribed in advance; we would say “ sketches,” lines that direct the execution of something. This is a late, and apparently limited, meaning of praescribere, a spatial, and one might say, esthetic sense of the term. The hand (as one speaks of the hand of the executioner), here the Harrow, will reproduce the drawings on the body of the condemned. It accom­ plishes its work according to the model or the template of the lines traced by the former Commandant on the sheet the officer has in his pocket. It executes in the two senses of the word. Latin also gives for this term, “perimere.” Perimere means to “make perish” only because it means first of all “ acquire,” or “ to take,” “ to buy,” completely. The Harrow executes thoroughly and without...


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