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  • Poetics of History: Rousseau and the Theater of Originary Mimesis by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe
  • John McKeane
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Poetics of History: Rousseau and the Theater of Originary Mimesis, trans. Jeff Fort (Bronx: Fordham Univ. Press, 2019). Pp. 176. $28.00 paper.

First published in French in 2002, Poétique de l'histoire seems to have little to do with either poetics, history, or indeed the poetics of history. To some extent, this changes when the work is viewed within the context of Lacoue-Labarthe's broader thinking, notably La Fiction du politique (1987), Heidegger: la politique du poème (2002), and his various translations, stagings, and theorizations of the work of Friedrich Hölderlin. In these writings, Lacoue-Labarthe reflects on the ways that literature is caught up in and distorted by political and philosophical considerations. The most unsettling instance of this schema is evident in Lacoue-Labarthe's response to Heidegger's use of Hölderlin's work, but the schema also takes in his views of theater in Rousseau, Plato, and Aristotle, and of mythology in early German Romanticism.

This text consists of two essays, "The Scene of Origin" and "Anterior Theater." As Jeff Fort rightly points out, the French title of the first ("La scène de l'origine") is difficult to translate—scène referring both to a scene understood as [End Page 502] a given phase of a process, and to a theatrical stage. (Lacoue-Labarthe, who with Jean-Luc Nancy published a text named Scène, is playing here on the Freudian "primal scene," on which he has also written.) Elsewhere in this English translation, a further round of proofreading might have been beneficial (see, for example, the inconsistency between "the big Books of the Moralists" and "the fat Books of the Moralists" (18, 19) and in that between "the preliminary and the exordium" and "the Preface and the exordium" (19, 23). Also perhaps regrettable is the adoption of the forms of terms used by Rousseau from the translations of Rousseau's works. This decision is understandable on scholarly grounds, but it leads to some missteps in the rendering of particular phrases: for example, "savage man" seems too strong a translation for l'homme sauvage; would "wild man" not have been better?

The alleged savageness (or wildness) of man is central to the book's first essay. In Lacoue-Labarthe's account, Rousseau defines mankind in relation to a complex interaction between art and nature, technè and phusis. Ventriloquizing the eighteenth-century thinker, he writes that

man, in that he is originarily tekhnitès, is not an animal, that is, a living being endowed in addition with this or that quality. The nature of man is not to have a nature. Or, if you like: Man is not a being of nature, but a being originarily lacking or in default of nature. He is, according to an oxymoron that is completely different to the one passed down by the tradition, a denatured animal.


In other words, man lacks any essential defining quality (such as strength or speed) but is able to make up for this through supplementary intelligence or cunning. This supplement has, of course, taken many forms, beginning with Prometheus's decision to steal fire, but also going all the way up to technology, art, culture, and statecraft. Lacoue-Labarthe refers to this broad range of phenomena as poetics, which is close, in his usage, to the semiotic term poietics, the art of fashioning, constructing, or confecting, what he calls la fiction or le fictionnement (fictioning).

As mentioned above, Poetics of History is part of an undeclared series within Lacoue-Labarthe's oeuvre: because of its intertextual relation to his other works, oblique moments in Poetics of History can often be attributed to the broader pull of his argument across several works, as he attempts to maneuver the large conceptual cargo carried by his thinking. His engagement with Rousseau's view of technè in this particular work, then, takes place in terms of his response to Heidegger's reading of Rousseau, which he tells us is characterized by "a blindness" (9). On the most superficial level, we are told...


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