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Comparative Literature Studies 39.1 (2002) 48-67

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Performance of Negation, Negation of Performance:
Death and Desire in Kojève, Bataille and Girard

Bo Earle

Horatio, I am dead,
Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.

--Hamlet. V, ii.

If philosophies of modernity characteristically invoke themes of loss (of God, traditional social authorities, epistemological and discursive norms, etc.), much modern philosophy is distinguished by a kind of discursive reflexivity, or poetic license, that allows such loss to be rhetorically rehearsed, and its subtler implications probed, rather than merely lamented. Nietzsche's Fröhliche Wissenschaft, to take a paradigmatic case, does not simply proclaim the death of God, but puts the proclamation in the mouth of a "crazy man" who also, in snowballing self-contradictions, continues to "seek God" by the light of a lantern held out to illuminate "the bright early morning." 1 To neglect such rhetorical texturing of doctrine is to overlook the distinctive elevation in significance philosophical discourse has won in the wake of modernity's loss of stable epistemological and moral norms. As Nietzsche's account of the "crazy man" attests, whatever may be the truth of the modern predicament, at stake in assessments of that truth is not only doctrinal validity, but also the practical and aesthetic sustainability of the kinds of discursive performance a given doctrine allows. Nietzsche's rhetorical account of the death of God suggests that the objective assertion of God's absence pales in significance relative to its implications for the subject who would make that assertion. Indeed, Nietzsche indicates that propounding that assertion only [End Page 48] exacerbates the conflict it pretends to resolve: the mere "fact" of God's death is thus only the beginning of the problem, not the end.

According to the philosopher Robert Pippin, it was Hegel's conception of self-consciousness per se as a fundamental experience of insufficiency, or desire, that "virtually inaugurated," if not this theme of desire itself, then the distinctly literary modes of treating it that have come to characterize what is known as "Continental Philosophy." 2 The turn to rhetorically inflected exposition is an appropriate response to Hegel's concept of desire, since, if our self-relation is an expression of our innate insufficiency, then this is a relation that we can never unequivocally articulate, for any such articulation will always be more than what it says: while what it says may appear to constitute a coherent proposition, such coherence is in fact always also a response to insufficiency, and thus not coherence at all but precisely a want of coherence. In itself such desire cannot be defined without begging the question for whom? Whose desire, whose inadequacy, does this ostensibly "adequate" definition express? Philosophical exposition of self-consciousness as desire is by nature perpetually undermined by the fact that, as Hegel says, "in coming on the scene, it is not yet developed and unfolded in its truth." 3 Hegel's very formulation of the problem, however, implicitly transforms this conceptual paradox into a dramatic conflict: philosophy, in Hegels words, "tritt auf;" it literally takes to the stage. Hegel evokes philosophy itself as a dramatic character in strife, at odds with itself, not yet having achieved what it wants for itself (truth). But, as a dramatic performance, philosophy may indeed manage to significantly penetrate the paradox that so utterly defeats conceptual analysis. For, as such, philosophy does not pretend to objectively define the truth of self-consciousness, but to subjectively participate in the "development and unfolding" of that truth. The effect of Hegel's original conception, then, is to transform the problem of defining desire into one of performing it. Rhetorical texturing is philosophy's manner of "Auftreten," taking to the stage. In turn, as readers we may discern the discursive forms desire assumes without being seduced into believing we have definitively and conclusively comprehended its content. Like Nietzsche's account of the death of God, such exposition deprives its readers of the satisfaction of knowing that they have reached the end...


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