by Perry Meisel
PM: At what moment in French intellectual history would you say you arrived in Paris?
JK: It was a very interesting moment. Politically, it was one of the highest moments of Gaullism, that period when Charles de Gaulle said that he wanted to create a sphere of influence stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. Intellectually, there was the very interesting coexistence of the discovery of Russian formalism through Lévi-Strauss; a certain revival of Marxism, also on the background of structuralism (I mean a rereading of Hegel); and a third very important current, the renewal of psychoanalysis through Lacan. All these movements were, for me, the real background of the 1968 events. Because if you look at the people who were involved in the 1968 revolution - students - most of them were involved beforehand in very advanced theoretical writings. Les Cahiers pour l'analyse, for instance, at the Ecole Normale were done by people who became Maoists after 1968. So it was a kind of intellectual turmoil, a sort of real theoretical fever. Where can you speak of Marxism, structuralism, Freudianism? Not in the Eastern countries; it's not possible. American society is too technocratic and too dominated by positivist ideologies, whereas that's not the case in French society. It was a very, very rare conjunction.
PM: At what point did existentialism give way to this new wave and why?
JK: On the one hand, existentialism was, in my view, a regression with regard to the great philosophical and aesthetic formal movements, to take only my own fields. The whole development of linguistics, of formal logic, was fundamentally ignored by Sartrean existentialism. If you're interested, on the other hand, in art, the great revolution of the avant-garde, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, and after them the surrealists - the entrance of psychosis into the life of the city which modern art represents - these were also ignored by existentialism. Thus, it was a reaction to all that. Structuralism, Marxism, Freudianism, joined together, are a reaction.
PM: And yet Lacan was, with the surrealists, already at work in the late 1920s. Why did it take so long, indeed, twenty years, maybe more than that, for this to break out? Lévi-Strauss had already begun his work before the war as well.
JK: Because of political reasons: you had the war. At that moment there was a sociological way of thinking, more rooted in the everyday and looking for immediate and simple causalities, that prevailed. Existentialism lasted after the war, for historical reasons and because of economic difficulties.
PM: So that a movement that claimed to interpret history was itself part of the determination.
JK: Precisely. It couldn't distance itself.
PM: It has been said that Sartre was unable to think the unconscious.
JK: Absolutely. I think that Sartrean thought has no means to deal with the unconscious and, similarly, with everything which is material and formal, in other words, with the whole problem of the modern arts, of poetry, of plastic art. The unconscious as a logic, as a language, which is the essence of the Freudian discovery, is entirely foreign to Sartrean thought.
PM: And yet in Marxism, even in orthodox Marxism, there is, implicitly at any rate, even before Lacan tells us so, a notion of the unconscious.
JK: It's not the same unconscious. I think that what seduced us in Marxism was rather a materialist way of reading Hegel and a concept of negativity. It was and still is a matter of finding the agent, the agent of process, the agent of history, the agent of the unconscious.
So, to summarize, there were some lacunae that had been pointed out in each - Marxism, structuralism, Freudianism - and, at the same time, some positive elements which had been brought in by the others. For example, Marxism had undergone a grafting of the theory of structuralism, but structuralism had undergone a grafting of the theory of subjectivity. In structuralism the subject was missing, so the subject was brought in in the form of different technical considerations: in linguistics, for example, the subject of enunciation, the speaking subject in literary texts, etc. There was a sort of exchange that enriched the three disciplines.
PM: In a sense, then, structuralism provided the link between Marxism and Freudianism that had never been accomplished before.
JK: At the moment we're in the middle of a regression which is present in the form of a return to the religious, a return to a concept of transcendence, a rehabilitation of spiritualism. It's a vast problem which can be interpreted in various ways. It is not uninteresting. There are now in France all sorts of spiritualist movements: pro-Christian, pro-Jewish, pro this and pro that. Here the Sartrean problem returns. I think that there's a religion of reason in Sartrean thought, just as in the new spiritualists there's a religion of transcendence. But both of them obliterate those forms in which the fact of signification is produced, the form in which meaning is produced.
PM: So, from this point of view, a religious notion of transcendence, a fetishizing of reason à la Sartre, are structurally the same.
JK: I think so, and both are regressions with regard to the current of thought which is most acute, most lucid in the twentieth century, and which involves, as well as the discovery of the determining role of language in human life, the whole adventure of contemporary art. There's a blindness in Sartrean thought in that regard which gives it extremely charming ethical and humanistic positions, just as it gives extremely precursive ethical and humanistic positions to all the new spiritualists today, who are often in the foreground of the cultural, ideological battle in Paris.
It would be better to take up again the basic presuppositions, start from the small things, the small notions. I had a professor who bequeathed to me a great wisdom in this area: Emile Benveniste, a professor of linguistics at the Collège de France. He used to say to me, "You know, Madame, I concern myself with small things, the verb 'to be,' for example." Well, I think one must have this ambitious modesty, leave the meaning of history, production, leave all that and take up instead the minimal components that constitute the speaking being. The little elements that make me speak, the little elements that make me desire. It's still too difficult to be able to separate them. I mean that it would be necessary to start from a minimalism, to simplify things, and to be satisfied with more rigorous thinking rather than stir up emptiness with grand theories.
PM: So could we say that Lacan and Benveniste together in some sense provided this next step, and that at this point one could situate the beginning of your work?
JK: Exactly. Benveniste's work is important because it sees the necessity of introducing the notion of the subject into linguistics. Chomskyan linguistics, even though it recognizes the place of the speaking subject (although in its Cartesian form), has finally stayed very far behind the great semantic and intersubjective field within discourse that Benveniste's perspective has opened up. What Benveniste wanted to found was not a grammar that generates normative sentences in limited situations. He wanted to constitute, and this is what is happening now, a linguistics of discourse. In other words, the object, language, has completely changed. Language is no longer a system of signs as Saussure thought of it; nor is language an object in the sense of generative grammar, that is, sentences generated by a subject presupposed to be Cartesian.
PM: What is the difference, then, from our traditional assumption of the artist as subject - that is, the artist who speaks in the work?
JK: I think that when you say that the artist speaks in the work, you suppose an entity that exists before the work. Yet we all know artists, and we know that very often their individuality is in total discordance or enormously different from what they've produced. In other words, the work of art, the production, the practice in which they are implicated extends beyond and reshapes subjectivity. There is, on the one hand, a kind of psychological ego, and on the other, there's the subject of a signifying practice. One mustn't imagine that there exists an author in itself, not that there is no relation between the two. I'm convinced that personal experience is very important for the materiality, the formal features, of the work of art, but there's no equivalence between the two. The work of art is a kind of matrix that makes its subject.
PM: In other words, our traditional understanding of modernism as the assertion of the free will of the subject over inherited forms is a misapprehension of what the twentieth century has given us?
JK: Precisely. Even more so because the problem of art in the twentieth century is a continual confrontation with psychosis. It's necessary to see how all the great works of art - one thinks of Mallarmé, of Joyce, of Artaud, to mention only literature - are, to be brief, masterful sublimations of those crises of subjectivity which are known, in another connection, as psychotic crises. That has nothing to do with the freedom of expression of some vague of subjectivity which would have been there beforehand. It is, very simply, through the work and the play of signs, a crisis of subjectivity which is the basis for all creation, one which takes as its very precondition the possibility of survival. I would even say that signs are what produce a body, that - and the artist knows it well - if he doesn't work, if he doesn't produce his music or his page or his sculpture, he would be, quite simply, ill or not alive. Symbolic production's power to constitute soma and to give an identity is completely visible in modern texts. And moreover, all of his experience, literary as well as critical, is preoccupied with this problem.
PM: So there is, then, to your mind, no way of one's role as an artist and one's role as political activist ever being entirely coincidental?
JK: I think that the artist, since we were just talking about form which is "content," is never more engagé than in his work. To ask an artist to s'engager in order to justify himself is an imposture into which many artists fall for reasons I have just mentioned: the work presupposes a lot of solitude and a lot of risks. You need to justify yourself; you need to identify yourself. But you have to know that, and if you know that, you can carry out engagement with humor; when you can, you take your distance. If not, engagement is the antidote to art. There's nothing more murderous for art than engagement. This is not to say that I am for art for art's sake. Art for art's sake is the reverse of l'art engagé. It presumes that there is such a thing as pure form, and contents that would be abject. I think, on the contrary, that contents are formal and forms are contents. Again, if you understand modern art as an experience in psychosis, to work with forms is the most radical way to seize the moments of crisis.
PM: So there is a political component to artistic activity and it cannot be direct.
JK: It's not direct and it's not immediate, because I think you know that you always ask yourself what the political component is, although that's a very recent question. Why not ask what the moral or religious component of aesthetic activity is? I think it's a relevant question. Remember Nietzsche's famous distinction between cursory history and monumental history. I think that the artist is in monumental history, and in monumental history, his relationship to history is through what one used to call morality or religion.
Originally published in Partisan Review 1, 1984