On Ciphers

I’ve always been interested in the various strategies of writing. Inevitably, when we begin to think about writing we always bring into play questions about the relationship between our own teaching and the audience toward whom we direct our transmission. I remember at one time being intrigued by an essay written by Roger Farr called “The Strategy of Concealment” (I can no longer locate a copy of it). He seemed to be arguing for a return to the old Situationist argot.

The Situationists wanted to build a dictionary that resisted recuperation. Mustapha Khayati even began to write a preface to The Situationist Dictionary in 1966, inaugurating it as an attempt at  “a sort of code book enabling one to decipher the news and rend the ideological veils that cover reality.” A codebook, with ciphers.

It struck me that if we were going to ever produce anything new in the world it would have to involve a careful attempt at learning how to protect our discoveries from recuperation. Unfortunately, this necessarily meant that we would have to exclude some people from the products of our struggle, particularly those intimately connected to the establishment and most prone to lapse. Mustapha wrote: “Since any new interpretation is called a misinterpretation by the authorities, the situationists are going to establish the legitimacy of such misinterpretation and denounce the fraudulence of the interpretations given and authorized by power.” And so the strategy of concealment would be called elitist, cliquish, and obscurantist. As it should. And the Situationists learned how to protect their discoveries by kicking out, one by one, members of their club.

Yet Mustapha maintained that our ciphers would also be inadequate, precisely because definitions are always open, signifiers pin themselves differently to signifieds over the course of our lives. New meanings are developed, old meanings fade away, and so on. Apparently, the Situationists believed that their ciphers were only of any use during the unique moment in history through which they were discovered.

But we hardly care about history as it is commonly invoked. Especially if we are Lacanians. Who, more than Lacan, was prepared to hear the charge of obscurantism, elitism, and cultishness? Some Lacanians have tried to convince me that Lacan made great use of examples so that everybody could understand him. I find this claim to be patently false. The fact is that Lacan addressed himself to an audience whom he supposed to know a thing or two. Miller put this rather well recently: “you can’t deny that Lacan only exceptionally addressed idiots, as he himself called them, those who were not experts or cognoscenti.”

The fact is that Lacan spent his time with those who were willing to struggle with him. Miller writes, “his teaching was conceived as directed to the natives of the country of psychoanalysis, to those who know.”

This is the real paradox, isn’t it?: to struggle with those who know something, and what they know is really how to not know; and to avoid those who do not know but often in fact believe themselves to know a thing or two. It is a strange comedy: “It means that they are supposed to know and at the same time supposed not to know, not to know as they should, that is to say, they are supposed to come up with ideas.”

It seems to me that the real cultish and elitist writing strategy is precisely to speak in a way that even idiots can understand. This is a teaching that teaches absolutely nothing.


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