The Aesthetics and Politics of Error
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Había una sola puerta, con un cartel encima que decía: ERROR. Por ahí salí. No era como en los restaurantes o en los cines, donde hay dos puertas vecinas, una de ‘Damas’ y otra de ‘Caballeros’, y uno elije la que le corresponde. Aquí había una sola. No había elección. No sé qué palabra debería haber tenido la otra puerta, cuál habría sido la alternativa de ‘error’, pero no importa porque de todos modos no había más que una. Y no estoy seguro de que yo hubiera elegido la otra, en caso de que la hubiera. Sea como sea, tengo esa justificación: que era la única puerta para salir, la que decía ‘error’. Y yo tenía que salir...
César Aira, El error
I want to begin by asking for forgiveness. I’d wanted, intended, to write this paper in Spanish, to repay the hospitality of my colleagues at the Univerisdad Complutense de Madrid, where I initially presented this work, by delivering a paper in the language promised by its title in the program. I sat down to write it in Spanish, even though it’s part of a book I’m writing in English on the Rancièrian concept of literary misunderstanding (malentendu littéraire, which the philosopher links formally to political dissensus, mésentente politique). The book argues, not uncontroversially, that we in Latin American Studies have “misunderstood” (in the weak sense) aesthetics, ethics, and politics, and goes on to propose “misunderstanding” in a strong, productive sense: one that allows us to read aesthetics, ethics and politics against the grain, with misunderstanding at the very core of each (as well as at the core of the encounters between them). Of course, in seeking to reciprocate the gesture of hospitality extended to me by my Spanish hosts, I’d already misunderstood hospitality, erroneously overlooking its unconditional, and thus necessarily non-reciprocal, quality. What’s more, in seeking to avoid misunderstandings (by delivering a paper in the lingua franca of the Madrid workshop), I’d presumed that, were I to speak in Spanish, I could make myself understood, falsely assuming that misunderstanding, or untranslatability, restricts itself to the zone between languages and—what’s worse—treating misunderstanding, or untranslatability, as something to be avoided, rather than nurtured, guarded. As it stands, the paper was written in English: I’d intended to do one thing; yet something, I can’t say what, intercepted this intention. The error may have proven fatal: I may not be forgiven.
In what follows, I want to focus on a conceptual cousin of misunderstanding: error. As I think through what “error” might mean for a theory of aesthetics, or a theory of politics (as a political concept that we might imagine through or from the literary), I also want to reflect upon what it is that we do when we turn to one discourse, practice, discipline or method to think about another. We might rely upon literature, or literary discourse, for clues on how to think about a particular concept, political or otherwise. We might, alternatively, lean on philosophy, theory, for guidance on how to think about this or that aesthetic practice. Or we might look to political discourse to help us understand this or that philosophical concept. What I want to do is slightly different: I’ll start with an image, Mantegna’s depiction of San Sebastián after he’s been pummeled with arrows, which seem to arrive from all directions at once.
An inverosimile image: we’d expect a saint, a politician, to be crucified, or to face a firing squad, or to be assassinated by a lone bullet or arrows emanating from a single point of origin. I’m going to begin with a concept—error—and aim several arrows at it at once, from different directions. I’ll ask how literature (contemporary narrative, through César Aira’s El error), critical theory (deconstruction, through Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight), and political discourse (contemporary activism, through the theatrical actions of the Internacional Errorista) can work against, with, and through one another to offer a working definition of error. I won’t suggest that “error” is the same for each, nor will I argue that we can arrive at a consolidated definition of “error.” Rather, I hope to demonstrate that the concept “error”—indeed, every concept—can be thought only at the point of mutual exposure, or encounter, between discourses, disciplines, fields. An encounter between literature and philosophy (to give one example) would expose the constitutive flaw or lack in each (one could say, the “error” of each) that simultaneously and necessarily serves as its condition of possibility and impossibility.
You’ll have noticed that I’ve already introduced the language of intentionality, of decision, in my apology. What if we were to imagine error as something that is not chosen deliberately? One means to tell the truth, one tries to act correctly (one intends to write in Spanish), but one errs, one “commits” an error (this is different from a mistake, which one “makes”). Is that what Aira’s narrator-protagonist describes in the epigraph to this essay (our first arrow, if you will) when he describes an error-without-alternative, an error-without-truth, a universal error that one has no choice but to commit (“No había elección [...] era la única puerta [...] yo tenía que salir” )? What is the particular role of literature, of literary discourse, in the conceptualization of a strangely universal, compulsory (and thus not decidable) error? Is the door described by Aira’s narrator a door into the literary text, into literary language, a world that has error as its defining quality? Or is the literary text a door, a threshold, entryway into the error that we all are?
“Había una sola puerta, con un cartel encima que decía: ERROR. Por ahí salí” (7). This is how Aira’s El error opens: the narrator exits through a door marked “error” into the novel itself. Not quite an exit into pure exteriority: indeed, we are accustomed to exiting out from or to and entering into. Typically, we imagine entering a novel or a world of fiction or fantasy, although this figure might be compatible with the equally tired trope of fiction or fantasy as an escape from reality. This will be the first of at least four strange salidas or, more precisely, deviations, errancias, for each plot abruptly pauses and gives way to another. I count at least four sub-plots: the story of the narrator and his spouse visiting El Salvador during a moment of crisis in their marriage; the adventure of a Salvadorean outlaw, Pepe Dueñas, the subject of a mural viewed by the married couple; the history of a woman on the run after having murdered her husband; and that of a woman in jail who enters an epistolary relationship with a sculptor.
In the first of the four plots, the narrator enters/exits into a formal sculpture garden, which strikes him as out of place or senseless in a country as impoverished and troubled as El Salvador:
Era un tanto incongruente, en un país tan pobre como El Salvador, un jardín formal de esas dimensiones, tan cuidado, tan lujoso. Aunque quizás tenía su razón de ser, en media de la miseria y el caos político: daba trabajo a una legión de empleados estatales, un trabajo que los distraía y les ocupaba la mente. Debía de cumplir también una función simbólica, al desplegar para sus visitantes un orbe de regularidades geométricas, en medio de las sucesivas catástrofes históricas que vivía el país. (10)
We see already from this passage that aesthetics and politics, the symbolic and the real, exist in an unexpected and “incongruent” relation to one another. In addition to the uncomfortable contrast between luxury and poverty, national political catastrophes are compensated for by the “geometric regularities” of the garden, the luxury of which can perhaps be justified by the fact that it provides employment to numerous state workers. The narrator confesses that he, too, would benefit from the order imposed by the garden: “del orden de un regimen de signos que le diera algún sentido a mis actos” (10). Yet this wished-for symbolic order cannot be delivered by means of the present novel, the structure of which never comes full circle, the conflicts of which are never brought to a resolution, but instead ceaselessly open up onto new problems, until the novel is abruptly and unsatisfactorily brought to a conclusion
The existence of the sculpture garden, the narrator’s friend Óscar explains, has indeed drawn protests, not for any matter related to the content of the works, but rather for its placement: “Óscar se había puesto a nuestro lado y decía que esa instalación permanente de esculturas había levantado protestas en la ciudad. No por el contenido, sino por la ocupación de un lugar público, y el sesgo vanguardista de la obra” (14-15). The works of art do not pose a threat for their aesthetic content or merit, but rather for their misplaced or improper installation in a public space. What threatens about the garden is precisely the uncanny co-belonging of public (the realm of politics) and private (the realm of aesthetics). The garden, which the narrator describes as resembling an abandoned factory full of machines to produce “cosas inimaginables” (16), therefore sets a curious scene of art that may be considered politically irresponsible (and thus, as I will argue, politically provocative) for its uselessness but, above all, for its eccentricity, its “out-of-placeness.”
The formal displacements of plot in Aira’s narrative to which I’ve alluded take place within as well as between each subplot, and the narrator and his friend find themselves suddenly facing a mural on the wall of a nearby café. The narrator struggles to interpret the painting, before which he’d hoped to confide in his friend the secret of his marital crisis. He thinks better of confessing (what if the story were to get out? stories are known to rebel against their authors and wander off, errar...), and instead they discuss the mural itself, which the narrator struggles to understand. It is only when they cease to speak about the mural that interpretation becomes possible: “Paradójicamente, fue cuando dejamos de hablar del mural y pasamos a otros temas cuando empecé a discernir las figuras y la historias que ilustraban” (27). Interpretation-as- decision, here, takes the form of what Derrida has called a passive or unconscious decision: as soon as the narrator ceases to try to make out the figures in the mural, he begins to detect a possible meaning.
The link between historia and image, narrative and painting, finds a curious echo in other recent works of Aira (I am thinking of “Picasso,” and Triano, among other works), which ponder the strange rapport between genres and media. Here, as in “Picasso,” Aira dwells upon the way the passage of time might be represented in painting: “la repetición de su figura indicaba una sucesión temporal” (27). Yet if temporality is precisely that which might distinguish narrative from painting, and if the painting that could somehow represent time would prove “more” readable, here we find the opposite case: “Un cuadro así era difícil de contar, precisamente porque intentaba reproducir la técnica de un cuento” (28). Paradoxically, a painting that approximates narrative turns out to be more difficult to interpret than one that eludes narrative coherence or linear time.
The difficulty does not hinder the narrator, however, who, using the mural’s alleged opacity as a point of departure for his analysis, explains that “En este mural, Pepe Dueñas, Dante sin Virgilio, vengador solitario de las injusticias sociales salvadoreñas, se repetía en un paisaje boscoso” (30). Faithful to the politically-themed history of its genre, the mural tells the story of the quest for social justice and, in an exceptional moment for the novel, anticipates one of its future subplots: one of a handful of momentary flashes of coherence and clarity of signification amidst an otherwise enigmatic, wandering narrative. But aesthetic and political readability are ultimately avoided or eclipsed in El error in favor of an aesthetics and politics of opacity, equivocation. The particular version of opacity, in Aira, is through the image of the “paisaje boscoso”—a forest-like (or Bosch-like landscape)—which, in addition to imagining a Virgil-less Dante, a poet without his classical guide, (“En medio del camino de nuestra vida / me encontré en un oscuro bosque, / ya que la vía recta estaba perdida”) recalls Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastically perverse tryptich The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Rather than account for the entire novel, the structure of which makes accountability impossible, I’ll jump to one last scene that thematizes “error” and permits us to consider its consequences for politics through or from literature (as well as, we might add, literature through or from politics). The final sub-plot, as I’ve mentioned, involves the imprisonment and subsequent release of a woman accused of an unnamed crime. She can’t imagine how her minor, private offense can measure up to the massive, public crimes taking place across the country:
No terminaba de convencerse, con una sensación de perpleja incredulidad, de que su crimen privado y particular siguiera importando cuando arreciaban los combates, las bajas se contaban por centenares cada día, menudeaban los bombardeos, los fusilamientos ilegales y las degollinas. ¿Se habían encanizado con ella? ¿O la estarían tomando como un caso testigo, para mantener la fachada de una ficticia legalidad? (80-81)
After a month of captivity—carried out, she reasons, in order to uphold the “fiction” of legality on a broader, national scale—the woman is inexplicably set free. Just as her arrest strikes her as senseless, asymmetrical, so too does her release seem erroneous. “Su liberación había sido un error,” the narrator writes: “El modo más vigoroso de pedirle perdón fue asegurarle que no habría más errores y que se pasaría el resto de su vida presa” (85).
After the woman’s (possibly mistaken) release, however, the narrator continues to recount the goings-on in jail, where the prisoners read defective books donated by publishers: “Las presas, leyendo a su paso lentísimo, encontraban un día al volver una hoja, una página en blanco; su poca frecuentación de libros las llevaba a creer que era lo normal y que así debía ser” (90). As unlearned readers, the prisoners take the defective books to be the norm; the crimes related in the books, consequently, seem “lighter” because of the blank pages: “Los crímenes mismos, tan abundantes en las páginas de esas novelas (al menos en las páginas que no habían quedado en blanco), se volvían livianos y sin consecuencias (las páginas en blanco, justamente, escamoteaban consecuencias, y muchas veces la falta quedaba sin castigo gracias a ellas)” (92). The blank pages give the impression of a skewed justice—crimes appear to go without punishment—but in fact this is precisely how the narrator has characterized the political climate in El Salvador. The flawed pages of the defective crime novels—in addition to suggesting the spectral presence of murdered and disappeared insurgents—mirror the fiction of justice projected by the Salvadorean legal system (as well as, hauntologically, Argentina’s). Error, therefore, serves not only as the constitutive trait of literature, but of justice as well. Reading, or misreading, then, offers a possible avenue into political critique. Yet do we need literature, or literary theory, to alert us to the constitutive flaws of the law? Can literature, or literary theory, claim authority over politics, or authorship of the concepts we fashion in order to understand politics? What would it mean to read political theory in the work of Paul de Man, the man who brought deconstruction from philosophy to the field of literary criticism? How can de Man be read as an unwitting political theorist, given that a redemptive ethico-political quality was attributed to deconstruction to exonerate it following the discovery of de Man’s wartime journalism supporting the European fascist cultural program?
Error and Blindness
Let’s find out.
I claim above, somewhat clumsily, that “error” is a conceptual cousin of “misunderstanding.” In his 1971 collection of essays Blindness and Insight, Paul de Man (slightly less clumsily) marshals a collection of concepts, if not interchangeably, as synonyms, then as a sort of rhetorical performance of differential repetition. This conceptual cluster, or cluster of concepts—blindness, error, misunderstanding, misreading, among others—serve, for de Man, as irreducible names for literature and for the deconstructive reading of literature, and later, of the literariness even of non-literary texts: a reading practice that engages with the blind spots, errors, of the literary text in order expose their relation to the text’s (unwitting, unintentional) insights. This will be our second scene, our second arrow. In one of Blindness and Insight’s most provocative essays, “The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida’s Reading of Rousseau,” de Man locates such errors at the core of the literary tradition: “The existence of a particularly rich aberrant tradition [...] is [...] no accident,” he claims, “but a constitutive part of all literature, the basis, in fact, of literary history” (141). Several decades later, in “Literary Misunderstandings” (an essay that seeks to respond to the question “Does literature have a particular relationship with misunderstanding as a form?”), Jacques Rancière makes the slightly different but, in my view, compatible argument that gaps in understanding are in fact constitutive of language, and thus of literature (and interpretation), “a non-relationship constitutive of the very faculty of producing and interpreting signs” (33). Yet while Rancière draws a clear distinction between a concept of “misunderstanding” that implies and depends upon an opposing concept of “understanding” (which he critiques), and one that is constitutive of literary language, and therefore a kind of strange universal, de Man uses “error” to refer both to “bad” readings, the readings that serve as the object of his critique, and to the insightful readings (often his own!) that he’ll privilege.
Stanley Corngold addresses this ambivalence in his 1982 essay “Error in Paul de Man,” in which he claims that de Man contrasts “error” with “mistake” or “mere error” (and then seeks to correct several of de Man’s mistakes). De Man responds that the effort to draw such a distinction is itself misguided, erroneous, and that he prefers to inhabit the undecidable territory between such false opposites:
[T]he refusal to decide between them, since it is itself a conceptual rather than a contingent decision, is always already a choice for error over mistake.
Conversely, any decision one makes with regard to the absolute truth or falsehood value of a text always turns out to be a mistake. And it will remain one unless the perpetrator of the mistake becomes critically aware of the abusive schematization that caused his mistake and thus transforms the mistaking of error (for mistake) into the error of mistaking. (“Letter,” 511)
It would seem that de Man does indeed draw a distinction between error (related to a refusal to decide) and mistake, here, synonymous with a “decision.” Here, he’s characterizing two modes of reading: one that would insist upon its “truth” (or falsehood), and one that would remain undecidable, even though he makes such a distinction playfully, dancing with and juggling the concepts, performing the undecidability to which he refers constatively.
At the same time, a current of tension run through “The Rhetoric of Blindness,” for isn’t de Man claiming authority to decide which critics have read blindly? Doesn’t he carry out his critique of such blind readings as a sort of corrective, even if he does so in the service of guarding the blind, erroneous qualities of both text and reading? He describes contradictions internal to the literary text as non-dialectical (“the one always lay hidden within the other as the sun lies hidden within a shadow, or truth within error”), and then seems to invest himself with the authority to see:
Their critical stance [...] is defeated by their own critical results. A penetrating but difficult insight into the nature of literary language ensues. It seems, however, that this insight could only be gained because the critics were in the grip of this peculiar blindness: their language could grope toward a certain degree of insight only because their method remained oblivious to the perception of this insight [...] To write critically about critics thus becomes a way to reflect on the paradoxical effectiveness of a blinded vision that has to be rectified by means of insights that it unwittingly provides. (106)
In principle, this is a radical statement on the power of interpretation. It can only be argued, or most powerfully argued, through the multiplication of readings, through the critical readings of critical readings carried out by de Man.
De Man concludes the essay with the following statement:
The existence of a particularly rich aberrant tradition in the case of the writers who can legitimately be called the most enlightened, is therefore no accident, but a constitutive part of all literature, the basis, in fact, of literary history. And since interpretation is nothing but the possibility of error, by claiming that a certain degree of blindness is part of the specificity of all literature we also reaffirm the absolute dependence of the interpretation on the text and of the text on the interpretation. (141)
Here, de Man not only makes the claim that literature exhibits the constitutive quality of blindness, error, aberration; he makes the secondary (really, primary) claim that literary criticism necessarily participates in this aberrant tradition by reading for blind spots. Reading for the possibility error should be understood in a double sense: first, that error is always possible, I may be proven wrong, and second, that error can also be a source of possibility, error makes things possible. Of course, we could also be talking about the impossibility of error, if by error we mean a deliberately chosen decision to make a mistake or to commit an error—in that sense error is impossible, since my decision to err is necessarily not itself an error when I make it (it may prove to be a mistake at some later point, but by virtue of the fact that I am deciding now on this or that thing, I can’t be said to be in error yet, to be mistaken yet—error never coincides with itself—it only reveals itself as error after the fact).
What seems to be missing from de Man’s account of error and/as blindness, however, is an allusion to the possibility of a critical reading of de Man’s critical reading (of critical readings). If there is always the possibility of error, if, as de Man asserts, the work of interpretation is infinite, unending (“an endless process in which truth and falsehood are inextricably intertwined” [ix]), more would need to be done, rhetorically, to guard a structural opening in his own argument: a formal gap that would point to the possibility of de Manian error. Is this merely a question of tone, or style? Surely de Man “knows” what he is doing.
The question then becomes, as I’ve already begun to suggest, the role of intention (and the related concept of decision) in the production of error, a problem that implies a series of consequences in the realm of literature, and quite another set of problems in the field of politics. Of course, the question of authorial intention and the related idea of interpretation as decision have been debated ad nauseam by de Man and others, but I believe there is more work to be done to link the concept of literary “error” to the problem of sovereign decisionism in politics, and its relation to the act of reading, of interpretation.
This brings us to our third, and final, arrow. In 2005, a group of activists formed in Buenos Aires under the name La Internacional Errorista. An offshoot of the Grupo Etcétera, a collective founded in 1997 by artists hailing from the areas of theater, visual arts, poetry and music, the Internacional carried out their first acción teatral against George W. Bush during his visit to Mar del Plata in 2005.
Protesting the US President’s “War on Terror,” the group thought to unite under the banner (“Todos somos terroristas”) but—due to a typographic error—claimed to be erroristas instead. The manifesto joins the long tradition of aesthetic-political manifestos from avant-garde movements on both sides of the Atlantic without grounding itself in the radical break that these vanguardias proposed.
- Internacional Errorista
- 1. Todos somos Erroristas.
- 2. El Errorismo basa su acción en el Error.
- 3. El Errorismo es una posición filosófica equivocada. Ritual de la negación. Una organización desorganizada.
- 4. El campo de acción del Errorismo abarca todas las prácticas que tiendan hacia la LIBERACIÓN del ser humano y del lenguaje.
- 5. La falla como perfección, el error como acierto.
- 7. El Errorismo: No Existe y Existe. Se acerca y se aleja. Se crea y se autodestruye. Se asume en viejas y nuevas formas. (a veces no da explicaciones y quizás, también es muy banal) (ME, 6)
Rather than a governing logic of rupture, there is, instead, a governing logic of spectrality, hauntology: the collective plays with—irreverently, parodically and spectrally—the missing “t” that haunts their name, “una ‘t’ no-teclada.” “El errorismo nació por error,” they recall, blaming or crediting contingency for their very existence. They go a step further to suggest that all existence has a great, haunting error at its core, its constitutive trait. “Todos somos erroristas,” they write and chant, parroting and parodying past (and present) political slogans of solidarity based on identification (and on the subsequent abolition of difference): “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands,” “Todos somos Ayotzinapa,” “Je suis Charlie,” etc. “Todos somos erroristas,” it would seem, makes a universal, even identitarian claim, while simultaneously alluding to the potential fallacy of the statement itself (if we are all erroristas, if error is what defines us, keeps us, this statement, too, may be an error or equivocation).
The erroristas, then, not only propose a new mode of activism, they critique what has often served as the ground for politics: identity, agreement, consensus. Employing humor to disrupt such a politics of consensus and sameness, the group proposes—and performs—a politics of dissensus. I am interested in the performative linguistic play of the movement, what the erroristas call palabra-acción (inseparable from their theatrical actions on the street), linking error to dissensus and, especially, to misunderstanding. We can begin to trace an unexpected but productive rapport between the erroristas, de Manian error, and Rancièrian misunderstanding and dissensus, the simultaneous, cross-arrowed, reading of which makes possible a new way of thinking about the rapport between aesthetics and politics, a relation not grounded in recognition or readability, but (un)grounded in (and by) disidentification, unreadability and misrecognition.
The gap, or error, at the core of every community, every collective, every universal that the errorista slogan seems to indicate can be traced back to the foundational (linguistic, or literary) error of the group: an error whose intentionality we cannot determine. Was there a decision, a (poetic-political) intention, to omit the “t” of “terror,” or was it left out by accident (and then deliberately left uncorrected)? In neither case is there a lack of intention, of political calculation; rather, we see that the intention can be interrupted, hijacked: perhaps it is always interrupted. Sovereign decisionism begins to look very different once this possibility is granted.
And if we grant it, the (political) force of error (indeed, what makes it utterly terrifying) is precisely its incalculability, its undecidability. Such undecidability reappears in the manifesto’s anarchic oppositions (“organización desorganizada”), poetic antitheses (“error como acierto”), and logical impossibilities (“no existe y existe”), as well as in the group’s equivocal use of “error” more broadly: on the one hand, as object of critique and denunciation (on the bicentennial they celebrate “200 años de un error”); and as a defective universal, on the other.
In this sense, the erroristas are not altogether unlike the de Man we see in his response to Corngold when they refuse to decide between different modes of error. This may be attributable to what we could call the poetic or literary quality of their discourse. We’ve seen that the collective, comprised of artists hailing from different genres and media, employs aesthetic strategies such as antithesis, and logical tactics like paradox or contradiction in their written texts, and theatrical elements in their acciones. While de Man talks about the specificity of literary language in Blindness and Insight, he does not restrict it to a particular discourse: Lukacs, Blanchot and Derrida can also be read as “literary,” he argues, insofar as their writings exhibit the blindness we witness in literary texts (BI 141). If we can assign a “literary” quality to political discourse (such as that of the erroristas), then, might we also identify political theory in literature (such as Aira’s) or literary criticism (de Man’s)?
The errancy that takes a narrative form in Aira, the salida with which the novel opens, when coupled with the subsequent plot digressions, can be understood not as an exit to pure exteriority, but as an errancy or exposure, a going off course that threatens to compromise the integrity or autonomy of that which preceded it or to reveal the fact that it was never whole, autonomous to begin with. I began with the image of the arrows aimed at San Sebastián from multiple, even unexpected angles, and then “took aim” at the concept of “error” from multiple angles myself. I suggested that this model of imagining political concepts, by deviating from its classical “place” in philosophy, might offer a promising avenue for thinking not only because of its deviation or errancy into other, less “likely” fields—narrative, literary theory, activism—but also, more precisely, because none of these fields (genres, disciplines) becomes a privileged mode of thought. I am not arguing that it is only through literature that we can conceive of new political concepts, thus reifying “literature” as a system and “literary criticism” as a discipline. Nor am I claiming that literary theory, through the politically problematic figure of Paul de Man, can provide a more adequate method for political thought. Nor, finally, am I reversing, and thus reproducing, the theory/practice divide by claiming “true” politics can only be theorized “outside,” “on the street.” I am claiming, rather, that it is only through the “possibility of error” that literature opens, through multiple erring and errancies, through the mutual exposure between genres, disciplines, fields, that the internal errors or flaws of each can be exposed, which then serves as the condition of possibility for thinking. “Error” can then be understood a political concept, but it is a political concept that exposes the error or flaw within itself, and therefore wihtin all political concepts: if we imagine “error” politically, so, too, may we imagine politics to turn upon the possibility of error.
Where, exactly, does thinking, inasmuch as thinking means producing the “theory” of this “possibility of error” happen? Is the possibility for thought opened up in the university, on the street, in a novel or an artist’s studio, or in the murky spaces in which they meet, or clash? The exposure of one discipline to another, the turn from one discourse to another—a turn that implies a decision, even an erroneous decision (an errant, wandering decision, una decisión errante)—enables us to do more than unsettle the boundary between disciplines, languages, genres. It allows us, I want to suggest as a mode of conclusion, to (un)ground the politics of identification in, and by means of, “possibility,” unreadability, and misrecognition. The aesthetic, logical, and performative paradoxes, antitheses, and overdetermined effects that the exposure of one discipline to another throw out allow us to confront the unsettled and unsettling error, the terrible and terrifying error—(t)error—within each discipline, which is also to say each expression of an interest or each way of making a claim, epistemological or political, and then to ask what kind of thought, what kind of thinking such exposure makes possible. If the richest translations carry within them the untranslatable qualities of the translated text, if the most astute critical readings include that which is unreadable in the literary text, we can now imagine that in the realm of politics, the most promising—but also the riskiest—decisions might just be those that guard within them a fundamental undecidability, the possibility of error. This is a much easier, cleaner claim to make in the realm of political activism (the Occupy movements, say, or la Internacional Errorista), of politics as irruption in the Rancièrian sense, and a good deal more difficult, grittier in the realm of institutional politics (Podemos, Syriza...). Looking forward, we might ask: what would a governing party look like if it were to seek to take into account its own fundamental errors or blind spots? What kinds of decisions would it make? Is it a mistake, an error, to want to imagine, to hope for such a thing?
This essay is a revised, expanded version of a paper I originally delivered at the July 2015 meeting of the Seminario Crítico-Político Transnacional, hosted by the Department of the History of Philosophy at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. I want to thank the participants in that seminar for their crucial feedback to this essay.
What is a concept? Adi Ophir argues that a concept “is neither given nor created but rather performed or played in the act of conceptualization. This play both invents and discovers the concept, both lets it appear and gives it existence, and in doing all this it also blurs the distinction between what is given and revealed, and what is invented and created.”
There is a difference between undecidability and compulsion, but still a certain relation: undecidability is not synonymous with free will, for example. Yet the non-coincidence between undecidability and free will is significant: for Derrida, undecidability always involves a (passive or unconscious) decision. This is where the ethico-political injunction, the demand of the other, comes in.
Recall that in “El sur,” Borges already plays with such clichés, as the protagonist Juan Dahlmann enters/exits Thousand and One Nights as well as the fantasy of autochthony through the figure of the gaucho in the South of Argentina.
This “orbe de regularidades geométricas” recalls the description of the garden and the house in Borges’s “La muerte y la brújula,” also about the “danger” of looking for “el orden de un regimen de signos que le diera algún sentido a mis actos”:
Lönnrot avanzó entre los eucaliptos, pisando confundidas generaciones de rotas hojas rígidas. Vista de cerca, la casa de la quinta de Triste-le-Roy abundaba en inútiles simetrías y en repeticiones maniáticas: a una Diana glacial en un nicho lóbrego correspondía en un segundo nicho otra Diana; un balcón se reflejaba en otro balcón; dobles escalinatas se abrían en doble balaustrada. Un Hermes de dos caras proyectaba una sombra monstruosa. Lönnrot rodeó la casa como había
rodeado la quinta. Todo lo examinó; bajo el nivel de la terraza vio una estrecha persiana. La empujó: unos pocos escalones de mármol descendían a un sótano. Lönnrot, que ya intuía las preferencias del arquitecto, adivinó que en el opuesto muro del sótano había otros escalones. Los encontró, subió, alzó las manos y abrió la trampa de salida. Un resplandor lo guió a una ventana. La abrió: una luna amarilla y circular definía en el triste jardín dos fuentes cegadas. Lönnrot exploró la casa. Por antecomedores y galerías salió a patios iguales y repetidas veces al mismo patio. Subió por escaleras polvorientas a antecámaras circulares; infinitamente se multiplicó en espejos opuestos; se cansó de abrir o entreabrir ventanas que le revelaban, afuera, el mismo desolado jardín desde varias alturas y varios ángulos; adentro, muebles con fundas amarillas y arañas embaladas en tarlatán. Un dormitorio lo detuvo; en ese dormitorio, una sola flor en una copa de porcelana; al primer roce los pétalos antiguos se deshicieron. En el segundo piso, en el último, la casa le pareció infinita y creciente. «La casa no es tan grande - pensó-. La agrandan la penumbra, la simetría, los espejos, los muchos años, mi desconocimiento, la soledad.»
De Man’s work, of course, goes against an exegetical tradition that would privilege a hidden meaning (what I’ve called, in previous work, Inquisitional logic). Yet, as I argue here, I’m not sure that he’s fully moved beyond it. He’s able to show how, in the literary text as well as its critical readings, blindness and insight, truth and falsehood are always intertwined, but he doesn’t sufficiently manage to allow for that possibility in his own critical reading.
This opens onto what we might call a politics of possibility that depends on what I intend and what I judge to be true or the case, not because such judgments are true or accurate, but because they may possibly be wrong: politics grounded on the possibility of error, in both senses of the genitive “of.”
Such a reading finds a kind of strange precursor in what Louis Althusser calls symptomatic reading, as Warren Montag describes in Althusser and his Contemporaries: “[Althusser] argued that to read en matérialiste or in a materialist way is thus not to accept or reject a philosophical doctrine in toto as if it were homogenous but instead ‘to trace lines of demarcation within it,’ to make visible and palpable the presence of conflicting forces within even the most apparently coherent text and to heighten and intensify its contradictions. To do so is to take the side of a text against itself” (5-6). Montag links Althusserian symptomatic reading, in turn—in what itself is an against-the-grain reading of Althusser—with Derrida who, in Of Grammatology, characterizes deconstructive reading in the following way: “The movements of deconstruction do not address [or perhaps ‘shake’—Derrida uses the verb ‘solliciter’] structures from the outside.
They are only possible and effective, they only aim their blows by inhabiting these structures. By inhabiting them in a certain way, for one inhabits always and especially when one does not suspect it. Operating necessarily from the interior, borrowing from the former structure all the strategic and economic resources of subversion, borrowing them structurally, that is, without being able to isolate their elements and atoms, the enterprise of deconstruction is always in a certain way led astray by its own labor” (Of Grammatology, 24, qtd. in Montag, 6).
Members of the collective include Eluney Caputto, Cristian Forte, Loreto Garín, Mancy Garín, Federico Langir, Ariel Martínez Dericenzo, Antonio O’Higgins, Luciana Romano, Leopoldo Tiseira and Federico Zukerfeld.
According to Diana Taylor, “‘acción’ brings together both the aesthetic and political dimensions of ‘perform.’ [...] ‘Acción’ seems more directed and intentional, and thus less socially and politically embroiled than ‘perform’ which evokes both the prohibition and the potential for transgression. We may, for example, be performing multiple socially constructed roles at once, even while engaged in one clearly defined anti-military ‘acción.’” (http://scalar.usc.edu/nehvectors/wips/acts-of-transfer-1)
“Un día, un compañero nuestro estaba escribiendo un texto en la computadora y cometió un error. En vez de escribir ‘Teatro y Terrorismo’, olvidó la ‘T’. Cuando apretó el corrector F7 la primera palabra que apareció marcada como incorrecta fue ‘errorismo’. El corrector decía ‘errorismo no existe’, usted quiso decir ‘erotismo’ o ‘terrorismo’. De ahí surgió el nombre. Por un lado, como oposición y denuncia al estereotipo. Pero por otro, hallamos la palabra justa, que tiene su propia discusión filosófica sobre el tema del error.” (http://www.unidiversidad.com.ar/el-error-como-alegoria-de-la-contracultura)
We recall that in Disagreement, Rancière writes that “Politics begins with a major wrong: the gap created by the empty freedom of the people between the arithmetical order and the geometric order. [...] It is the introduction of an incommensurable at the heart of the distribution of speaking bodies. This incommensurable breaks not only with the equality of profits and losses; it also ruins in advance the project of the city ordered according to the proportion of the cosmos and based on the arkhê of the community” (19). What Rancière will call a foundational “wrong” of politics, that constitutive disturbance in the arkhê of the community, its anarchic core, is slightly distinct from the concept of “error.”
We could ask this question differently: how would the untranslatability of the ethico-political demand (for justice, let’s say) be guarded in the translation, institutionalization, conversion into law of the demand (marriage equality, for example)?
As I expand this project, I will consider the concept of political error in the work of Spinoza, “those views which, simply by being put forward, dissolve the agreement by which each person surrenders their right to act according to their own judgment” (Spinoza, TTP, XX, 254; quoted in Biareishyk, 8). Siarhei Biareishyk argues that, for Spinoza, “Because a political error threatens to undermine sovereign’s monopoly on interpretation, it aims at the very essence of singular sovereignty” (8).
- Aira, César. El error. Barcelona, Spain: Mondadori, 2010.
- Althusser, Louis and Etienne Balibar. Reading Capital. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: Verso, 2005.
- Biareishyk, Siarhei. “Spinoza’s Politics of Error.” Unpublished Manuscript.
- Borges, Jorge Luis. “La muerte y la brújula.” Ficciones. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Sur, 1944. Corngold, Stanley. “Error in Paul de Man.” Critical Inquiry 8.3 (1982): 489-507.
- Derrida, Jacques. “History of the Lie: Prolegomena.” In Without Alibi. Ed. and trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. 28-70.
- — — —. Of Grammatology.
- De Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
- — — —. “A Letter From Paul de Man.” Critical Inquiry 8.3 (1982): 509-513.
- Graff Zivin, Erin. “Beyond Inquisitional Logic, or, Toward an An-archaeological Latin Americanism.” CR: The New Centennial Review 14.1 (2014). 195-211.
- — — —. Figurative Inquisitions: Conversion, Torture and Truth in the Luso-Hispanic Atlantic. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2014.
- Internacional Errorista. Manifiesto Errorista. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Milena Caserola, 2009. Montag, Warren. Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War. Durham, NC:
- Duke University Press, 2013.
- Ophir, Adi. “Concept.” Trans. Naveh Frumer. Political Concepts. A Critical Lexicon vol. 1 (2011). http://www.politicalconcepts.org/issue1/concept/.
- Rancière, Jacques. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
- — — —. The Politics of Literature, trans. Julie Rose. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.
- Saccavino, Emma. “El error como alegoría de la contracultura.” Unidiversidad. 29 Nov 2013. http://www.unidiversidad.com.ar/el-error-como-alegoria-de-la-contracultura.
- Spinoza, Benedict de. Theological-Political Treatise. Ed. Jonathan Israel, trans. Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Taylor, Diana. “The Act of Transfer.” In What is Performance Studies?, eds. Diana Taylor and Marcos Steuernagel. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. http://scalar.usc.edu/nehvectors/wips/acts-of-transfer-1.