THE NATURAL BEAUTY OF DECONSTRUCTION
To reiterate common-places is a daring enterprise. To say that the notion of the sublime is the big buzzword of the postmodern epoch means to state the obvious. And yet it is precisely the visual evidence which more often than not should be disbelieved in the first place.
On a more careful inspection we are bound to conclude that poststructuralism could not have chosen a less fortunate battle-cry, for it is nowhere else than in case of the sublime that the recent theorizing is more at odds with itself. So much so that what at first glance appears as a radical break-through to the beyond of logocentric tradition turns out to be an attempt to find the way out of the impasse which, as we shall see, the alleged detractors share with their adversary. And yet the situation is even more paradoxical than that.
One irony (among so many others which surround the notion) is that the proposed amendments to Lyotard's theory of the sublime are made in view of ensuring the usability of the theory as well as of the notion itself. Witness Timothy H.Engström's suggestion to adopt "the pragmatic ... point" (1993: 194)(0) of view on the whole affair and in so doing to make a shift from the sublime of the philosophers (i.e. a Kantian and, eventually, a Lyotardian one) to the rhetorical sublime (197): "What the concept gives up thereby in Kantian formality it gains in critical acuity and use ... The rhetorical sublime is employed for its effect" (197; my italics). However it is precisely the uselessness which, in the last analysis, is the distinctive feature that allows us to set sublime aside from the beautiful. So no wonder that it is with making a charge "in favor of a modest acknowledgment that escape is not possible, not desirable, and that mere beauty may not be such a bad thing" (204) that our author winds up. As we shall momentarily see, Engström's conclusion is quite exemplary and should be treated as such. All the painstaking efforts notwithstanding, it does not set him apart from the mainstream of the postmodern theorizing, baring instead the inability of the latter to attain its aims, however urgent and honorable those certainly are. If we are not to give up these aims, we have at long last to examine the logic of the reversal which we have just witnessed. Since there are no volunteers in sight it is up to us to undertake the toil.
The recourse to the rhetorical sublime is necessitated not by the fact that the philosophical sublime is a priori an affair of metaphysics: the reason is that the sublime of philosophers - be it Kant, Bataille or Lyotard - cannot purge itself of utopianism. The trouble with these sublime mental constructions, as the celebrated epigraph to Huxley's The Brave New World reminds us, is that it is always possible to put them to practical use and in so doing to transform the sublime into the beautiful (1). Whence the impossibility to sustain the subversive claims of the theory of useless technology - the most recent scenario of postmodern sublime (cf. Critical Art Ensemble 1995).
The sublimity of useless technology is of rhetorical order precisely because the superfluous elements, all the useless, unnecessary trinkets with which the technological products come to be adorned serve a purpose and this purpose is a symbolical one. A car bought solely for its design becomes a mark of social distinction: "The products which members of this class consume transform themselves into stand-ins for the obscene debauchery of excess, in which, they, as chieftains, should personally participate" (Critical Art Ensemble 1995; italics added). The theorists would readily grant that still this is not the excess they have in mind when speaking of uselessness: "Too often, excessive luxury in the center realm of the visible is mistaken for the limits of excess, but the limits of excess go far beyond the visible. To comprehend extreme excess, one must go beyond conspicuous consumption". Consequently, the useless object that seems to answer the requirements of our theorists is an object that one buys knowing that it will never be used: "... the desire that consumer economy (the economy of surplus) has most successfully tapped is the need for excess, that is, the need to have so much that it is beyond human use. Pleasure is derived through negation - by not using the product ... these pieces of bourgeois wonder will take their rightful place in upper cabinets and in closets as useless pieces of bric-a- brac that did not even serve the function of delivering enriched consumer privation ... these pieces of technology require human contact before they achieve purity" (italics added). If an object should not deliver "enriched consumer privation", i.e. if it should not be re-utilized as fetish - a psychoanalytical useful object par excellence, it is to be allowed to gather dust. That is to say, an allegedly useless object is in actual fact an object that is deliberately not used. Which obviously does not foreclose the possibility of its being used one day. In other words, uselessness conceived along these lines is not immanent, and therefore, not imminent.
Sociologically, what should make the culture of the late capitalism sublime is the shift from production to consumption. Logically, to wit, rhetorically, this is precisely what makes it beautiful. Which explains why, contrary to the popular prejudice (cf.Readings 1992: 410-411) there is no actual difference between the views held by Anglo-American critics (Jameson, Eagleton) and the French school (Lyotard, Nancy). For the consumer culture is the culture of usage par excellence, of usage pushed to its ultimate limit. And this due to, and not despite of, the fact that the objects consumed in the first place an und für sich are certainly quite useless, of no practical use-value, i.e. superfluous: an act of consumption becomes an act which effectively denies their useless sublimity, their voidness with which the notion of the sublime is generally associated in postmodern theory (Zizek, Lyotard, Readings 1992: 418-419)(2) . If late capitalism knows nothing about the crisis of over-production, then precisely because the Marxian threat is effectively counter-acted by over-consumption, which, consequently, is the motor of economy. To see in the increase of consumption the evaporation of matter, the advent of virtual reality is a metaphor(3) . Witness the grub - the matter made strange, in perfect accordance with Bakhtin's notion of carnivalesque celebration of consumption qua defecation and dirt (Cf. Bakhtin 1990). Which means that on these premises we can speak not of the deconstruction but of a quite common-sensical destruction of the object rendered useless as a result of over-extensive use or non-use. In privileging the latter the radical neo-poststructuralists take recourse to the natural course of events: once it is allowed "simply to exist" (Critical Art Ensemble 1995), technology may outlive its human possessor(s), but sooner or later it is also doomed to decay. Which means a deferral of the same outcome as in case of ordinary use. To make matters worse the deferral itself cannot escape the tenets of naturalism: those who may wish to dismiss our argument as being pursued from the conservative standpoint of common-sense should note that the proponents of semiotic radicalism wind up with more than a trivial conclusion which is quite in line with the tradition of Western pessimistic humanism: "the will to excess" itself, the motor of useless production, "is grounded in human uselessness in the face of death" (ibid) (4).
From the economic standpoint the increase of consumption is fostered by credit and has a corollary in an enormous increase of debt. However, Derrida is sufficiently realistic to specify that the debt rendered "either infinite or insolvent, and hence null and void" (1980: 415) disrupts "not economy in general but an economy in which the principle of equivalence would have been forced" (415). Meaning obviously the textual economy precisely because the dismissal of the privileged instance of equivalence, to wit, the notion of mimesis, in structuralist theory leads to the re-inforcement of the principle on a deeper, structural level. Whence all the brunt and thrust of his attack on Lacan's reading of "The Purloined Letter" which, as the cursory readers believe, limits itself to elaborating the equivalence between the two scenes.
There are good reasons to return to the celebrated debate. For one thing, because, conceivably enough, there would be a certain resistance to this return on the assumption that nothing more can be teased out of the controversy, i.e. that the texts have become virtually useless. However this surmise bares what is really at stake for poststructuralism in the notion of uselessness. Secondly, because far from being an affair of conservative restrictions, to limit the discussion to the matters of textuality proper is the only way to appreciate the Derridaean endeavor which is nothing else than an effort to make a narrative sublime instead of dismissing the very notion of narrativity as allegedly running counter to sublime (5).
Let us start with the title of Poe's tale which seems to suggest that textuality is governed by the notion of use, for nobody would care to steal a useless object. On the other hand, it is precisely the latter which is more likely to be returned to the possessor, and, what is more, returned automatically. Whence the necessity to privilege the act of returning in order to make of the whole affair an example of repetition automatism in which one would like to recognize the very essence of the unconscious. So no wonder that Lacan's primal concern is to secure the practical uselessness of the letter to its current possessor (1988: 45), i.e. to stress not only the impossibility of the letter's being used but to empty it of all semantic significance: a letter "must ... of all objects, be endowed with the property of nullibiety" (38; his italics). However Lacan fails to prove that this endowment is an immanent property of the pure signifier: at least in Poe's tale it takes time for a letter to become null and void (45). Which means the dependency on the natural course of events. As a result the semiotization becomes synonymous with the latter and it is this equivalency in which all other equivalencies, the one between two scenes included, originate. In other words, it is not the naturalization of the cultural effort, but an attempt to semiotize nature which is the core of logocentric ideology. The irony of the matter is that the most radical poststructuralists, to wit, the advocates of useless technology subscribe to this patently logocentric point of view, just as their structuralist precursors have done.
Not only because a useless object is "a signifier which has no more signification" (51), but precisely because the dependence on the natural course of events that allows for its becoming one makes of a signifier a virtual object, for "so total dependence on the letter as such ... in the long run no longer involves the letter at all"(45). Which comes very close to acknowledging that, semiotically, the issue of whether the letter arrives at its point of destination has no significance. Or, to be more precise it should have none if the Lacanian marriage between psychoanalysis and semiotics is to take place.
In effect, the unconscious conceived of as an "automaton" (51), as a postal service which never misdelivers letters, is an unconscious that behaves itself, to wit, a discipled and sublimated one. To make matters worse, on these premises, we have to conclude that the sublimation has always already taken place. Whence the two-fold irony of postmodern theorizing which, on the one hand, has to tacitly adopt the mentioned view in order to grant culture primacy over nature, whereas the primacy itself turns out to be at odds with uselessness which it should have helped to promote. Now we begin to perceive whence all the sound and fury about the notion of uselessness which is an answer to the inadequacy of the Freudian theory of sublimation that leaves no chance to conceive of subversive art (6). According to Freud, it is "the components of the drive ... which have become useless for sexual aims ... that suffer sublimation" (1908: 205; my italics), i.e. are once again reutilized. Freud's idea is of course that only, if sublimated, the unconscious can participate in the cultural production causing thereby the discontent in the latter, i.e. the feeling that the objects produced are useless. It is this train of thought to which Lacan and post- as well as post-poststructuralists succumb. However, only Derrida was stout-hearted enough to push it to its logical end which turns out to be the total deconstruction of the psychoanalytic theory and the destruction of deconstructive method.
Of yore the discontent in civilization and its objects has led luddites to destruct machines. A neat narratological counterpart provides a proverbial cad's jumping onto the stage in order to save Desdemona. The precursors of French structuralism, Russian Formalists, have seen in this practice of device baring (ostranenije) or literal/natural reading of metaphor the essence of aesthetic activity qua intertextual production. It was precisely this view which was destined to become the apple of dissent between the Formalists and Bakhtin and/or his collaborates prompting the latter to write The Formal Method and Literary Scholarship and to argue therein that the device baring means the destruction of art and the baring of formalism as psychology in disguise (7). This is a worthwhile reminder, for, as the subsequent developments prove, all the conventional praises notwithstanding, it is not Bakhtin's but the view of his adversaries which continues to inform literary theory beyond structuralism. And no wonder, for the literal reading of metaphor is the basic form of misreading to which every version of dialogism/intertextuality boils down. The names of Harold Bloom or Paul de Man are those to come to mind first. And yet in order to answer at long last one of the most Frequently Asked Questions - what's wrong with postmodernism? (cf. Norris 1990) - we have to return to Lacan's reading of Poe for the postmodern troubles in general, those of the cultural studies concerned with new forms of media and the "mediated sociality" in particular originate there.
Ironically, to take the letter's arrival as the last word of Lacan means to read the metaphor literally, and yet to reject doing so does not mean to misread Lacan, precisely because the letter which reaches the point of destination is not the one which was stolen by the Minister. Momentarily we shall see that it is the former that Lacan is compelled to focus on.
The unappreciated irony of the Lacan-Derrida controversy stems from the fact that the participants seemingly speak about two quite different things. In effect, Lacan has said and done all to empty the letter returned to the Queen of all semantic significance even for the Queen herself (51). Which means that the returned object is an useless one, to wit, not a letter but an envelope, whereas the loss of the former is necessitated by the production of uselessness. The crucial problem, however, is how to account for this loss in such a way that would not imply the return to nature and psychology, i.e. the sublime impasse mentioned above. Whence Lacan's attempt to load guilt on Dupin who at first makes a deal of delivering the letter and then allows himself the luxury of excess, to wit, plays a practical joke on the Minister substituting his own message for the original one. In so doing he seemingly subverts the economy of the useful governed by the principle of equivalence. However, precisely from the psychoanalytic standpoint this subversion is bound to remain a promise so long as we continue to hold firm to the belief that dreams and jokes are related to the unconscious in one and the same way. Significantly, it is precisely the belief in this equivalence which comes to be strengthened by recent attempts to prove that the gist of the matter, to wit, the differánce is a difference in the relationship of jokes and dreams to consciousness. Witness Samuel Weber's seminal "Remarks on Freud's Witz" (1977) (8).
According to Freud, dreams and jokes are useful devices in the psychic economy allowing for a provisional removal of inhibitions which threaten to totally suppress the unconscious, i.e. to exhaust this reservoir of libido. According to Weber, "... a reduction of psychic energy, an "economy" or saving (Ersparung) ... plays a curious role in Freud's joke-book: indeed, it is probably the biggest (theoretical) joke in the book. For it implies a conception of pleasure which literally has nothing to do with the notion that Freud had already begun to elaborate in "The Interpretation of Dreams". What characterizes the Freudian notion of pleasure, the Lustprinzip, from its very inception and beyond all equivocation, is that it is conflictual in nature, involving not absolute quanta of energy - as implied in the notion of Ersparung - but a relation of forces, a state of tension (a Spannungsverhältnis). Thus, the notion of "economy", which Freud employs throughout his book on Witz, has nothing to do with his economical theory of pleasure as the moving force of psychical activity" (19). What this all boils down to is the, by now familiar, patently poststructuralist attempt to subvert the economy by an enormous increase of consumption - be it of psychical energy, financial and/or narratological credit or technological products. Appearances notwithstanding, to stake on this increase is the only way to counter the danger of an aphanistic exhaustion owing to the stimulating effect which the increase of consumption has on the production. And it is the threat of an hermeneutic aphanisis (9) which is at issue in the current debate causing all the sound and fury about the notion of sublime uselessness. For an attempt to let the object (of art/technology) be, to avoid using it is nothing else than at attempt to save its hermeneutic potential for future generations (10).
The (im)possibility of (re)production has everything to do with intertextuality/dialogism to which the theory of useless technology boils down (11). In this respect the dream-model seems to be more advantageous, for one can dream the same dream for an umpteenth time, whereas the problem with joke is that it ceases to produce laughter already at the second re-telling. It remains to thematize this difference and in so doing to place the notion of uselessness in its true light.
However precisely this task is carefully avoided by poststructuralists, who, as an example of Weber shows, are at pains to ensure the second-life of a joke by means of delineating it from dream along the lines of intelligibility/rationality/sociability. All the conventional rhetoric notwithstanding, in so doing they remain quite faithful to Freud. The result is that not only the widely publicized dialogic subversion of allegedly logocentric psychoanalysis remains in abeyance, but the psychoanalytic as well as the poststructuralist theory is cornered into an impasse out of which cannot extricate itself.
The irony of the situation is that on a more close inspection it becomes clear that a sociological view on the matter is pungently at odds with an attempt to settle the issue in terms of rationality involved in dream- and joke-production, whereas this attempt runs counter to the dialogical stance.
"Like the dream, the joke only 'takes place' after the fact, as it were; but unlike the dream, the alterity of its 'afterlife' can no longer be confined to the space of a single subject, however divided" (Weber 1987:82; his italics). The reason, says Weber, is that "laughter breaks in place of self-consciousness" (83; his italics), "excludes ... cognitive consciousness" (Weber 1977: 25). And this is what allows our author to set joke as an instance of pure unintelligibility aside from dream which, however subtle displacements and condensations may appear to be, remains interpretable. As an ultimate evidence in support of his conclusion Weber calls upon Freud's suggestion to see the essence of laughter in that "we do not know what we are laughing at" (Weber 1987: 25; Freud 1969/1905/: 111 ). Momentarily we shall see that our author could not have chosen a less fortunate evidence, for this phrase which certainly "returns with the insistence of leitmotif ... in Freud's study of jokes" (25) has much more to it than poststructuralist eye is willing or able to perceive.
In effect, not only does the Freudian dictum imply that practically everything can cause laughter but, more importantly for us now, that ultimately to break out laughing one does not need anything or anybody at all. Precisely because the solitary laughter borders on hysteria, it is the form of laughter which should interest psychoanalysis most (12). However, the latter has good reasons for once to diverge from one of its fundamental premises, for to acknowledge that laughter, just as dream, can well "be confined to the space of a single subject" (Weber 1987: 82) means to put in question transference which in the Lacanian and poststructuralist perspective is equated with psychoanalysis itself (cf. Felman 1985; Soler 1996). So no wonder that it is the alignment of the joke-production with transferential (inter)textuality with which Weber's remarks on Freudian Witz wind up: "... this process ... would ... have to be conceived as the (after-) effect of a story: that is, of a diachronic narration, directed towards ... /which/ involves the assertion of ambivalence. And that assertion, which is now manifestly made at the expense of the listener, forces him, in turn, to become an Erzähler..." (Weber 1977: 26; his italics). This becoming is what Freud's suggestions on the method of training the analysts boil down to (cf. Freud 1910, 1912): to pun on a famous dictum: where the analysand was the analyst should come to be. Which means that, contrary to Weber's assumptions, his elaborations have nothing subversive in respect to "the status of psychoanalytic theory" (19) about them. The same applies to the poststructuralist sublime from the discussion of which we have only seemingly diverged.
At the face of it the transferential appropriation of joke makes of it a sublime affair, and what is more, in the rhetorical sense of the term. Just as the rhetorical sublime in general "is employed for its effect" (Engström 1993: 197), the joke "emerges as a quintessentially 'pragmatic' process: what it is only comes to be through the 'effects' it produces" (Weber 1987: 82; his italics). Meaning the transferential/intertextual possibility "to go on and on" (Weiskel 1976: 26; his italics) which, according to Kant, characterizes the mathematical sublime and sets it aside from the dynamic one. Now it is precisely the poststructuralist stance to propound as a distinctive feature between jokes and dreams their relation to consciousness with the ultimate aim of safeguarding transference, which by blurring the border between these psychic productions in the same stroke blurs the one between both sublimes (cf. Weiskel 1976: 12, 27 ). The result of this procedure is that the postmodern discourse, instead of being the discourse of/on the sublime, turns out to be the discourse of/on the beautiful (13).
In effect, in all accounts (those of Longinus, Burke and Kant included), of which Fr.Ferguson (1992: 37-55) provides a succinct summary, the beautiful is the domain of deception. Now it is precisely deception on which the transferential treatment of jokes in their realtion to consciousness vitally depends: "... this /that is, his, Weber's/ joketeller has no 'object', except for the calculated deception of another subject ... the tendentious deception and duping of the listener" (Weber 1977: 18-19; author's italics). Since the joke-paradigm is the poststructura-list version of (inter)textuality (cf. Flieger 1985), we have to conclude that the recent theorizing does not diverge from the conventional view, according to which art is there to deceive - humans along with non-humans (remember the apochryptical birds). Whence "the premium that tradition places upon the concealment of one's art" (Ferguson 1992: 52) and Freud's privileging of good jokes as an instance of successful concealment of the art of a joketeller. For his part, Weber strikes the same well-trodden path: the thrust of his analysis is to rectify Freud's view on word-play which becomes not simply a good joke but the best possible one, and this because the word-play is the nec plus ultra of the concealment of art, or, as Weber puts it, "the joke of a joke", "the simulacrum of a joke" (1977: 18). The irony of the matter is that this is the only way in which poststructuralism can conceive of the sublime, i.e. to take it literally as an evaporation of art.
This outcome is inevitable precisely because poststructuralism succeeds in solving the problem that has all along haunted the Western aesthetic tradition which is a history of failed attempts to reconcile the theory of art for art's sake with the pragmatic, utilitarian attitude (14). Or, to be more precise, the answer, as the Lacanian letter, has always already been there, lying hidden in plain view "to whomever would seize it"(Lacan 1988: 32). I mean of course Kant's definition of aesthetic activity as aimless intentionality, purposiveness without purpose. Thus far nobody has bothered to note that the formulation is a perfect example of Freudian parapraxis which in its turn is an instance of Zeno's paradox of the Cretan Liar whose assertion that all the inhabitants of his isle are liars was formalized by Gödel in the theorem of undecidability. Recently suspicions have been uttered in respect to the subversiveness of the latter on the grounds of its apparent compatibility with logocentric subjectivity (cf.Thomas 1995). Ironically, this sort of critique strengthens the belief in the Cretan discursivity as a sure means of "fiction-building" (255), whereas it is precisely this capacity, to wit, the compatibility of Cretan discursivity with aesthetic activity as such which should be questioned in the first place.
The paradox is that only by assuming that the prototype of the joke-production is the word-play (Weber 1977: 16), i.e. subsuming the whole affair under the rubric of art for art's sake that one can mount the pragmatic standpoint. For the reincarnation of the prototype (15) would be a practical joke - the only type of joking that always implies "the necessity of there being not one or two persons who participate, but three" (21). Whence the vogue of Poe's tale in poststructuralist theory, for the joke to which "The Purloined Letter" boils down is precisely a practical one. It remains to see whether a practical joke does actually allow to intertextually purloin Poe(16).
The essence of the practical joke is that the victim should remain unaware of it. This is what distinguishes the practical joke from a dirty one (Zote), for the latter, as Freud has noted, presupposes the presence and awareness of a victim and becomes culturalized, sublimated when told in an exclusively male company (1905: 108-11). But what is more important is the peculiar temporality of a practical joke: it produces pleasure only so long as the victim does not discover that s/he has become one: the longer the time it takes the joke to arrive - the greater the pleasure of its practitioner and auditorium (17). However in order to prolong it both should refrain from laughing. Laughter is the end of a practical joke: its effect on the victim is that of an alarm-clock. Which means that laughter is synonymous with consciousness, with arrival at the final meaning.
In effect, the Lacanian (first) letter, or, to be more correct, the notorious envelope would not arrive properly only so long as the Minister would remain blind to the joke played on him, but his failure to get the joke is concomitant with his not using the second letter, which therefore is not a useless sublime object but the object provisionally "put aside" - the meaning read by Lacan into the term "to purloin" (1988: 45). Ironically, for his part, Derrida cannot think of anything better than to take Lacan's de jure as de facto and in so doing to rely on the natural course of events. It remains to see that at the same time Derrida's proposal implies the return to economy, equally in the logocentric sense of the term.
Witness the recent postscript to the controversy, Derrida's examination of the Counterfeit Money. An act of giving the latter, aligned with Poe's letter (1991: 131), is an act of giving time. The impossible possibility of this act, its self-contradictory Cretan - Witzähnlich (18)- character stems from the fact that one always gets time, takes it, and this taking is primordial, meaning the primordial discursive (intertextual) indebtedness. And once again the problem with taking is that it obviously implies the use of the given. To preclude which one has to conceive of taking as keeping and in so doing to introduce the notion of undecidability. And in effect this is the gist of the Derridaen exegesis of Baudelaire's piece. Undecidability concerns the status of money given by narrator's friend to the pauper: whether it is counterfeit or not would remain open to conjecture so long as the beggar does not use the gift, that is, keeps it. However, under the given circumstances, the theoretically desirable conduct of the beggar can be accounted for only by recourse to psychology, i.e. by surmising that he is that character type which is known in psychoanalysis as anal. As Freud has suggested in his paper on "Character and Analeroticism", anal eroticism underpins economy precisely because in this case sublimation promotes the most basic conventions (1908: 207-209), i.e. from the structural/semiotic - as opposed to the semantic/natural - viewpoint turns out to be the mechanism which produces the discourse of/on the beautiful.
If our aim was limited to a critique of deconstruction we could have rest satisfied with the conclusion that the much hailed undecidability depends on the economic model which should have been subverted by its means - for the same reasons which account for the reliance of postmodern semiosis in general on natural processes (19). However it is too early to give ourselves a tap on the back, not only because our aim is not so modest as a critique of for its own sake, but because on second thought it appears that the notion of undecidability far from being a matter of free choice is a corner in which poststructuralist theory puts itself due to its inability to cope with the notion of uselessness, i.e. to properly conceive of the sublime so that to preclude its traditional (20) merger with the beautiful. In its turn this merger is a direct corollary of another one, namely, of the merger between aesthetic and hermeneutic attitudes characteristic of the Western tradition. Whence all the troubles tradition and its would-be deconstructors have with sublime.
What makes of the Derridaean undecidability an economic/hermeneutic notion, and by the same token undermines well-minded efforts to set it aside from deManian unreadability (cf. Allen 1993), is that it hinges upon the tension between the two terms/discourses, say, between the envelope and the body of the message in Poe's tale. The joke is that the latter which has been always already disclosed to the reader cannot be once again enclosed in the envelope. Put otherwise, if the letter does not arrive, then simply because it was never mailed out, was retained, kept by an author. At first glance this fits the first part of the postmodern sublime scenario according to which blockage/tension should be followed by a release (21). The joke is that neither literary nor theoretical practice allow for the latter to take place, albeit for different reasons.
Consider the patent example of a practical joke, that of a seemingly abandoned purse with a string tied to it, after which Dupin's joke is modeled. Just as with every joke, the victim "has only one possibility of recouping his losses", namely "by himself repeating the tale and becoming an Erzähler" (Weber 1977: 19; his italics). But there's the rub! For in order to succeed the prospective re-teller has to wait, and this waiting tends to infinitely prolong itself, since it implies a change of the auditorium, a change so total that it comes to closely resemble a deluge of sorts which should leave the only survivor, to wit, a would-be author. That is why the transferential joke paradigm of textuality cannot dispose of an author, moreover elevates him if not to the status of an immortal being, then certainly to that of a patriarch. In Poe's case this means to allow Dupin and, by extension, an analyst to retain the upper-hand, to remain a master, and in so doing to acquiesce with the Minister's getting/destructing the joke. It follows that the only way to disempower the author, i.e. to reinscribe the notion of uselessness is to surmise that the victim will not get the joke, for only on this premise the letter will become useless and Dupin's deployment of wit wasted. Interestingly enough, Poe's text does allow for such a surmise owing to the Minister's double-identity as a poet and mathematician. That is to say, if he fails to perceive meaning the meaning of the quotation from Crébillon, then due to the fact that he is not poet enough. Whence the paradoxicality of the situation: Dupin's assurance that precisely the disparity, the tension, the lack of equivalence between two parts of the Minister's personality(22) allowed him to retrieve the letter either thwarts his confidence that his joke would not be missed or else puts in question the exploit, the delivery itself (23). The irony is that the only way to release this aporia, to wit, to introduce the happy postmodern sublime end is to concede that the gist of Poe's story is the triumph of scientific over poetic discourse, of hermeneutics over aesthetics. And in fact the advocates of sublime wind up with celebrating anti-aesthetics (cf. Hebdidge 1987) and in so doing bare the beautiful as an anti-aesthetic hermeneutic stance (24).
In effect the blockage/tension which underpins the undecidability is a basic feature of the natural language in which "two planes ... (form and content) are not conformal" (Eco 1995: 23; his italics). On the other hand an attempt to resolve the tension is an attempt to make both planes conform, i.e. an attempt to make of a natural language a perfect, beautiful one (23). Significantly, or, if you prefer, ironically, it is precisely this transformation on which the latest attempt to conceive of the sublime in what allegedly at long last is a properly postmodern way (Dainotto 1993), i.e. to delineate it from Kantian and Burkean sublimes, comes to hinge. What allows us to add "the excremental sublime" (Dainotto, Cook and Kroker 1986) to the list of philosophical sublimes and at the same time leaves no chance to differentiate the latter from the rhetorical one is that, by the author's own admission, it is not shit but the process of digestion which matters: "The movement from retention to release--is far more important, for the postmodern Muse, than the excremental result" (Dainotto 1993). However to produce pleasure, i.e. to allow for the second part of the scenario (release), one's belly has to function perfectly, and this implies the adherence to the most basic conventions which are drummed into the child's head in course of the sublimating Erziehung (Freud 1905: 207): thou shalt not overeat etc.etc (25). The same applies to the punishment which is primarily a natural one: dispepsia, bellyache (26). Put differently, the perfect functioning of the cultural mechanism depends on the perfect functioning of the natural organism - and not the other way round, as structuralism (Levy-Strauss and his herd) and its successor (Foucault and his flock) would like to have it (27). Differently, still, the prosthetic artifice fits all too well "in/to/ the very heart of the most humanistic of discourses, the artistic" (Wills 1995: 10) to produce the uncanny haunting effect (10-13) that the (intertextual) discourse of/on the sublime should have (cf.. Derrida 1983, 1994; Miller 1984; Ronell 1984, 1989; Royle 1991, 1995). Which explains why poststructuralism cannot help but reconfirm "the most humanistic of discourses", that of/on the beautiful and, in an attempt to make virtue out of necessity, has to denigrate aesthetics in toto as "ideology" (cf. de Man 1979; Norris 1988). The result is that instead of deconstruction we can speak only of destruction, and it is the destruction qua release which happens to be Derrida's last word.
That the Minister is bound to open the letter does not necessarily imply that he will get the joke: in the analysis, the pursuit of the means to disempower the author/signer makes the issue appear irrelevant. According to Derrida, the deconstruction of logocentric semiotics is the possibility to deconstruct the signifier, to tear the letter to pieces. Now this is precisely what the Minister is bound to do upon opening the substituted letter whether or not he will guess its author: he will give in to the feminine rage, according to the best wishes of Lacan (1988: 47-49), and, according to the best wishes of Derrida, destroy the signifier, destruct it (1988: 195). Ergo: instead of an useless object/remnant which is the Derridaean writing (28) there remains no object at all. And it is this natural - for in destructing the letter the Minister acts in perfect accordance with his feminine nature - evaporation of an object which, ironically, has subverted all attempts to theorize the sublime, to wit, to find a place for it in aesthetic theory, from Kant to his postmodern progeny (29).
To make our story complete it remains to see what evidence can be teased out of textual practice. For the outcome we have just spelled out is virtual in respect to the textuality proper, albeit it is certainly inscribed in the latter and, as far as the detective fiction is concerned, inscribed there as one of the basic conventions of the genre (30). My point is that the textual practice is essentially a sublime and aesthetic one precisely because it preserves the object and at the same time renders it useless, meaning useless for any hermeneutic appropriation, the one along the lines of postmodern transferential intertextuality included.
Consider Elizabeth Gaskell's "The Cage at Cranford". The problem which confronts the narrator is the impossibility to choose a gift "that would be acceptable to Miss Pole" (1978: 327): fortunately "Mrs.Gordon wrote me word. I was glad ... for just then I was waiting to make a little present to Miss Pole, with whom I was staying; so I wrote to Mrs.Gordon, and asked her to choose me out something pretty and new and fashionable ... Mrs.Gordon wrote back to me ... She told me she had been out for a day's shopping ... and had got a cage for herself of the newest and most elegant description, and had thought that she could not do better than get another like it as my present for Miss Pole, as cages were so much better made in Paris than anywhere else. I was rather dismayed when I read this letter, for, however pretty a cage might be, it was something for Miss Pole's own self, and not for her parrot, that I had intended to get" (327-328). However, Miss Pole herself is quite pleased: "I shall always think of you Mary, when I see him in it ... I dare say a French cage will be quite an ornament to the room" (331). The trouble with the cage is that it turns out to be rather a strange model:
"'Please, ma'am' said Fanny, 'there's no bottom to the cage, and Polly would fly away.'
'And there's no top', exclaimed the cook. 'He might get out at the top very easy.'"(334)All the argument notwithstanding Miss Pole is bent upon treating "this French thing ... (alas! that my present should be called a 'thing')"(336; italics added) as a cage: one has only to improve it by sewing a bottom. As the work nears completion there comes Mr.Hoggins:
"'Hallo!' said he, almost tumbling over us, as we were sitting on the floor at our work.
'It's this present for Polly-Cockatoo,' said Miss Pole ...
Mr.Hoggins began to laugh in his boisterous vulgar way.
'For Polly - ha! ha! It's meant for you, Miss Pole - ha! ha! It's a new invention to hold your gowns out - ha! ha!'" (337; italics mine)Since Miss Pole finds it a dirty joke (337), he leaves "to fetch his wife's fashion-book ... and holding the fashion-plate open ... demonstrated the identity of the two"(337; italics added). The baring effect of the practical joke is directly opposite to the one envisaged by the postmodern theorists of the sublime: it becomes impossible once and for all to use/read a gift (of technology) neither as a cage nor as a "new invention". However, the precondition of this becoming-useless is a gift/technoproduct's purging of its hermeneutic potential, to wit, of ambiguity/undecidability. Which is precisely what Miss Pole does by assigning the gift a status of "a French thing".
To be sure a story ends with an attempt that seems to (re-)confirm the postmodern sublime scenario of fragmentation followed by recuperation: the virtually useless object should be cut and then put together (made useful) again (31): "... we were quite ourselves again /i.e. recovered from the sublime joke/, when Miss Pole proposed that we should cut up the pieces of steel or whalebone - which, to do them justice, were very elastic - and make ourselves two very comfortable English calashes out of them with the aid of a piece of dyed silk which Miss Pole had by her" (338; italics mine). And yet it is advisable to think twice before taking this bait.
First, there is the theoretical implication. The destruction of the sublime/practical joke would mean the return to the dream model and to the confinement of the woman "in a cage" (32). As the examination of a practical joke suggests, the crucial difference between jokes and dreams is that only the former are directly related to the unconscious, whereas the latter presuppose a detour through reality. Contrary to Lyotard (1989: 19-55), the dream-work does think: prior to operating on the cultural level of metaphor and/or metonymy, the selectivity (33) of the dream-work concerns the material objects of the natural/real world: not every object can find a way into a dream, moreover, an unsuitable object (which, more often than not, is an useful object, i.e. the one closely related to mundane concerns of the waking life) is a "bad object" which immediately destructs the dream: the effect of its appearance in a dream is the same alarm-clock-effect which laughter has on the joke: a bad dream is that from which one awakes(34) . Which means that, unable to cope with joke, poststructuralist semiosis falls back upon the dream model with all the logocentric biases implied in it. Whence the failure of contemporary theory to conceive of aesthetic subversion. On the other hand, the joke does not depend on a quality of an object, is not selective and therefore can make eventually every object useless, "unpalatable" even for the most (hermeneutically) coarse stomach. If "we do not know what we are laughing at", then precisely because the joke-production, contrary to dream-work, hollows out its product from the inside (35), i.e. undermines the usefulness of laughter. Whence the resistance of textuality which deploys the model of a practical joke to (intertextual) aproppriative efforts and its subversive force in respect to reality - social and otherwise.
The second instance which should give us pause is the textual explication, i.e. the fact that Gaskell's piece we have cast a glance on is itself a remnant useless to the novel: first published as a separate sketch, it was not collected in volume form in the author's lifetime, the current practice is to attach it as an appendix to the Cranford editions. That is to say its status is exactly the same as of the second letter in Poe's story.
The joke of the latter is that the letter was always already opened for us, readers. Which means that we are the first to confront all the problems which virtually should confront the Minister. If s/he introjects/incorporates them, as the scenario of sublime bulimia advises him/her to do(36) , the outcome will be the destruction of the fictive status of Poe's discourse: not only there will be no "new stories" (Dainotto 1993), but no stories/fiction at all. Therefore s/he has to (p)re/oject the postmodern final back upon the hero (e.g. Poe's Minister) and in so doing, i.e. by remaining an exotopical outsider (37), to foster the deconstruction of the (postmodern) discourse of/on the beautiful that conceives of projection as a participatory/transferential identification (cf. Fuss 1996) and thereby promotes the basic claims of Western hermeneutics (38). Which means the reader's not reading the letter, to wit, his becoming exactly "an unauthoritative other" in perfect accordance with Bakhtin's scenario of author-hero relationship in aesthetic activity (Bakhtin 1979 /1920-1924/). As was meticulously elaborated elsewhere (cf.Linetski 1996a) the sublime/practical joke of Bakhtin is that it leaves the reader no chance to use, author the story in an intertextual/transferential postmodern way.
Put otherwise, the lesson which fiction in general, Poe and Gaskel's tales in particular have to teach us is the impossibility to use, to intertextually purloin anything which is there in the textual reality.