Frontiers: Of Literature and Philosophy – Geoffrey Bennington

This is a frontier. Here and now, here we are crossing it now, something is ending and something else is beginning. And like all beginnings, it’s a moment of risk and chance, fear and anticipation: something new might happen, something strange might happen, something awful might happen – or nothing at all might happen. Any lecture starts in this sort of anticipation and anxiety. But what’s true of the beginning of any lecture is the more true of this type of lecture. For, symbolically at least, this type of lecture, which used to be called an ‘inaugural’ lecture and is now called a ‘professorial’ lecture, is duty bound to be something new (and unique – you only get to give one of these), and to start something new. Where before I merely lectured at the University of Sussex, now, here and now, crossing this frontier and beginning this, I start, symbolically at least, to profess. A professor (it’s a nice word, ‘professor’, isn’t it, compressing into itself profession as the act of professing (what I’m doing now, from now) and profession as the career or vocation that here today, symbolically from today, is mine: a professor is one who professes as a profession, one who professes professionally) – a professor symbolically starts his professing with a lecture which is essentially a profession, if not quite of faith, then at least of academic intent. An inaugural lecture announces the shape of things to come: here and now I bring you the good or bad news of what I hereby promise to profess in years to come, starting…, well, already a couple of minutes ago.

What does a professor profess? The verb ‘to profess’, already divided between professors and professionals, seems to divide again, on the side of the professing that professors do, along an internal frontier: on the one hand, I profess in the sense that I ‘declare or admit [assert or confess, for profession is interestingly, perhaps perilously, close to confession] openly or freely’ or ‘acknowledge without constraint’ (Webster). I profess my admiration, for example, for my distinguished predecessors and colleagues as professors of French at the University of Sussex and elsewhere in the Great British University System (GBUS, pronounced ‘Bus’). But, on the other hand, I can also profess in the sense that I merely profess something, that I ‘declare or admit in words or appearances only’. Here professing implies pretending or purporting, putting up a front behind which I really think something different: here I might profess, for example, to disapprove of something for which I in fact have a secret liking or admiration, or else for various reasons I might profess to admire something or someone I do not in fact hold in very high esteem (Voltaire, Zola, Malraux, Bourdieu, to name but a few… Truffaut. Fellini. Habermas. Rorty.). How confident can we be of the frontier it seems imperative to draw between these two quite different and even contradictory sorts of profession? It seems absolutely important to be able to make a clean distinction, to draw an unambiguous frontier between these two senses of professing, the one the affirmation of deep and sincere conviction, the other a deceptive (‘merely verbal’, as they say), façade, afront. But that importance measures up – like most important things – to an impossibility of achieving certain knowledge: how can we ever know which kind of professing has been professed? There seems to be a radical uncertainty (what it has become fashionable in my field to call an ‘undecidability’) as to the value of a profession, and professors (professional pro-fessors) ought perhaps to have a keener awareness of this than anyone else. If anyone can tell us the difference between these two senses of professing, surely a professor can. But who will be able to tell what sort of professing the professor professes in professing to know, and to profess, the true sense of the profession of professing? Not even the professor himself, who sits very precisely and rather uncomfortably on or perhaps in the frontier between these two senses of what he is doing, in the no-man’s-land of undecidability. Not only the old paradox, stated by Kant before Marx, of knowing who will educate the educators, but a tighter version of it: who, if not the professor, will profess the professor’s true profession? I tend to call situations of this kind, where a formal impossibility lives with, and probably generates, even inaugurates, a practical urgency, by that rather tired old epithet ‘political’, and for around 15 years I have been struggling to describe this perhaps rather Judaic political paradox as the paradox of the legislator, as described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, my first literary-philosophical hero, or father-figure, this evening, my first point of identification: over the frontier comes someone who perhaps brings the law, but if he does, we can have no way of recognising it for certain – for the legislator by definition always speaks a foreign language, or at least a language foreign to the language and law we understand: and so the supposed legislator is always perhaps only a charlatan. Yet the only chance for what arrives across the frontier to be the law is that it always might not be the law at all; so the legislator’s always possibly fraudulent identity is a positive condition of the law to come. This undecidability, and especially the fact that it cannot in principle ever come to an end (so we never know if what we’ve got is the law or just some imposture: and if it is the law we never quite understand it) – this undecidability is what I call politics. And let that be my first, solemn, profession this evening (for professing is a solemn business, of course): wherever there is a frontier, be it between two countries, be it between literature and philosophy, be it between two senses of the verb ‘to profess’, there is something of the order of politics.

But if there is politics in this extended sense wherever there is a frontier, I want to say this evening that the particular frontiers I have elected to talk about, the frontiers of philosophy and literature, are not just any frontiers on which or along which this political effect might be observed, but that they have a specificity and a privilege with respect to understanding frontiers (and therefore politics, and therefore professing) in general. So, as an extension of my first profession, here’s a further equally solemn addition to it, a corollary or a scolium: the ‘something of the order of politics’ I have just said is to be found wherever there is a frontier, is to be found more especially or at least more saliently and perspicuously at, on or in the frontiers of philosophy and literature.

It may be that something about being a professor of French makes these questions – which must somewhere, sometimes, if only in the small hours when all is dark and quiet, agitate every professor, of whatever subject or discipline, or should do at least – makes these questions more acute still. Teaching a language and a culture other than one’s native one is an intrinsically rather odd thing to do, and generates a definite unease all round: teachers of subjects defined by foreign languages typically find themselves on the wrong side of the frontier wherever they are – in Britain I’m out of place because French is my thing: but in France I’m not quite at home because I am after all, like it or not – and I haven’t always liked it, I don’t always like it – British. Professing French when one is British comes close to being a fraudulent attempt to profess oneself to be French, to pretend to be French, and in return generates a sense of no longer being quite English, or of being only fraudulently English. (When I was a student in the mid-70s, it had only just stopped being fashionable for eminent Oxford French dons to speak French with a strong, confident and unapologetic English accent, no doubt so that no such fraud could ever be suspected: there was never the slightest doubt as to their nationality.) The obvious advantages of speaking another language bring with them a definite but persistent sense of always speaking the wrong language. And this can give people working with language a strong and not always very comfortable sense of the irreducible plurality of languages even within a supposedly single national language, something I first consciously became aware of from reading Flaubert (second hero or father-figure), in whom just that situation is a persistent object of reflection. And if this situation – which I’m suggesting might make a professor of languages especially sensitive to the paradoxes of professing and professions which must affect all professing – ought to hold for anyone teaching a language, it may be especially striking for someone working with French, because it happens that recent thinking which stresses the paradoxes of frontier situations in general has been to a large extent conducted in French. I doubt if I would have been able to think anything about frontiers without the help of recent French thought, notably – more heroes – the work of Jean-François Lyotard, but more especially the thought of Jacques Derrida, with which – with whom – it has been my immense intellectual privilege to work for over fifteen years. And working with Derrida has always meant working more or less closely with the frontier, or the frontiers, of philosophy and literature.

* * *

Frontiers, then. Philosophy traditionally begins by asking the question, ‘What is the frontier?’, and demanding something like a definition. Literature – or something we might perhaps call ‘literature’ for want of a better word, because, as everything I shall say will be suggesting, we don’t know what literature is, where it starts and ends, where its frontiers are (and this will end up meaning we don’t know what philosophy is either) – literature, to which this question was not even addressed, answers anyway, by putting up to be read something we might call an experience of the frontier, an experience of life as life on the edge, or even on the edge’s edge, ‘the edge of Edge’ as a character in a William Gibson short story puts it, in a slightly different context (1995: 135). This ‘experience’ is not so much what usually goes by that name in the empirical or even phenomenological traditions, nor the experience from the height of which fathers habitually condescend to their children, the experience doubted by Eliot in Four Quartets and mocked by Sartre in La Nausée, but rather ex-perience itself, the new experience that always comes to surprise and defy all my previous accumulated experience, that makes of fathers always children still, experience in the sense recently retrieved by French thinkers such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe as ex-periri, where we can hear the same root in the -periri as in periculum, peril or danger: experience is intrinsically perilous in that as such it exposes to something as yet unknown on or beyond a frontier, and this experience is perhaps none other than what gives rise to the sense of wonder, of thaumazein revived by Heidegger from Aristotle as the root of all philosophy. (I wonder, for example, if it is by chance that the first few pages of Montaigne’s great essay ‘De l’Expérience’ find themselves almost immediately grappling with vertiginous frontier-questions of identity and difference, legality and contingency, invention and repetitive commentary, institution and transgression? For me, at any rate, Montaigne is a thinker of the frontier, another of my philosophico-literary heroes this evening, still today on the very edge of Edge.) At the frontier, says literature, life is on the line, identities tremble, something passes into something else, somewhere new opens up. ‘Experience’ in this sense is never quite mine, never a simple accretion of knowledge or wisdom, because on the frontier, at the edge, I am not quite me, but the opening of identity to an alterity which in principle has no truck whatsoever with the poor supposed self gathered up against this exposure without which it would be nothing at all, but because of which it always might be annihilated. This experience, which modern continental philosophy typically refers, rather too hastily in my opinion, to death as its ultimate horizon of explanation, can be one of communication in Georges Bataille’s very strong and strange sense of that word, a rending open in which ‘I’ all but expires, rather than the complacent and confirming sense of communication that has recently become so popular and influential from the work of Jürgen Habermas. I want today to try to approach the point of contact (the frontier, for frontiers are always points both of contact and of separation) between this philosophical question, in all its solemnity and dignity, and this uncalled-for, slightly unseemly or impertinent literary reply, which can so easily look – to philosophy – so vapid and insubstantial. That point of contact is itself a frontier, perhaps, between the frontier as question and the frontier as experience. Always between. And let that be my second solemn profession: a frontier is always between, or, if you prefer, between is always a frontier. This is less of a truism than it might sound, as I we hope we shall come to see as we go, and it means among other things that, although we can try to approach the frontier, we can never quite get at it, but find, as in some of those now familiar fractal images, ever more frontiers lurking in the frontier itself. (And let that fractal be an image of this lecture this evening, organised in more or less identifiable zones with more or less unidentifiable frontiers.)

What is a frontier? What happens at the frontier?

Frontiers are places of risk, places it always might be difficult or impossible to cross, places where passports and customs ask difficult questions about identity and legitimacy and rights. Think of John Le Carré, for example, as Karla finally defects and walks out of the Berlin no-man’s land at the end of the Smiley trilogy, or, in The Little Drummer Girl, as Charlie drives the car packed with explosives across the Austrian frontier. In that odd genre usually called travel literature, which itself has a complex frontier with fiction, think of how many books begin with accounts of frontier incidents, the frontier of the book negotiated almost automatically by telling how the literal frontier of the country in question was crossed.

Or, more dramatically perhaps, think of the figure of the frontier in American literature and culture and all it stands for – honesty and simplicity and decency, simultaneously with violence and lawlessness, the frontier itself, the fading line where civilisation and nature meet, always a little further on than the simple dialectic of cowboys and Indians, bandits and sheriffs I spent my boyhood uneasily aping. Or science fiction, which is famously all about the final frontier, the absolute opening to an absolute outside called space (which is just a figure of the future itself) which makes sense to us only insofar as there is the idea of something else to be found outside, with which to form a frontier. These two last examples (the Wild West frontier and its displaced surrogate, the final frontier of space) appear different from, and more dramatic than, the sort of frontiers – let’s call them bilateral frontiers – we cross from one country to another. Here civilisation meets its frontier with nature beyond, the new thing to come always maybe the primitive place from which we originally come (whence the typical coexistence in science fiction of futurism and prehistory). But this nature (which is always in principle threatening and even terrifying, the place of Kurtz’s horror at the end of Heart of Darkness, the place of the apocalypse, always now, the revelation of ex-perience itself) – this nature is, or so I shall be suggesting a little later, just what bilateral frontiers compress into their vanishing line, and just this is why they are dramatic places. So here’s another profession, the third I think: there are no natural frontiers, but frontiers are always the place of nature.

Frontiers are places for an impressive array of control mechanisms, for the display of national identity and power, both symbolic and real, somewhere where, for example, we see more more or less legitimately flaunted weapons than elsewhere, uniforms, dogs, barriers, places where the transfer from one zone of legality, and maybe even of truth, to another (Pascal’s truth this side of the Pyrenees and falsity beyond) leaves that hiatus, however small, where we all feel guilty of something, that uncomfortable distended moment when the passport is in the official’s hands and he’s looking grimly at that ridiculously unconvincing photograph, the hiatus, however short, in which there’s always time to imagine the consequences of an exposure however unreal, the dripping cell of the illegal immigrant.

Let’s look briefly at a slightly more ‘noble’ example than Le Carré or Star Trek provide, from Stendhal’s great 1839 novel La Chartreuse de Parme (I am, after all, starting here and now to be, or to profess to be, a Professor of French, and Stendhal, who knew a thing or two about confession and profession, and fraudulent identities (‘Stendhal’ being scarcely more Henri Beyle’s real name than it is mine, and of course it is only the best known of Henri Beyle’s many pseudonyms and false identities), Stendhal is another of my heroes this evening, in part because, while famously saying – more than once – that politics in a work of literature is like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert,1 he managed to write intensely political fiction, arguably the most consistently political fiction in French literature. (I should also say that Stendhal, who seems to me to take on the paradox of the legislator and the charlatan quite explicitly and lucidly, also feels able to claim in his autobiographical writings to be one of the rare non-charlatans he knows (1983: 87).) The second part of La Chartreuse de Parme is dominated by a figure of centralised repressive state power in the form of the Tour Farnèse in the centre of Parma, where Stendhal’s hero, Fabrice del Dongo, is imprisoned, in which he experiences the famous peace and happiness all of Stendhal’s heroes’ experience in prison, from which he escapes dramatically, and to which he voluntarily returns. But the first part of the novel, leading up to that imprisonment, is dominated by images, not of centres and enclosure, but of frontiers and what Deleuze and Guattari would call lines of flight. The novel opens with a reminder of a violent but liberatory frontier-crossing, that of Napoleon’s armies into the city-state of Milan in 1796, and this opening places the whole novel under the sign of the frontier. Bonaparte, the frontier-crosser, something like the legislator I invoked earlier, figures in Stendhal (who of course wrote a life of Napoleon) as a sort of italianate Frenchman whose arrival in Italy liberates the Italians from dour Austrian rule and, as it were, returns them to their properly Italian nature. (You don’t have to be an Italian to be ‘Italian’ in Stendhal. Insofar as Stendhal’s major value, that of the ‘imprévu’ (with its various avatars, such as imagination, or silence, or hilarity, or madness), implies a suspension, however brief, of identity (for the imprévu is just ex-perience in the sense I was giving that word a moment ago), then Stendhal’s tendency to relate it to Italy rather than France is a complex gesture to say the least – if only because Stendhal’s own fiction, which embodies that value as much as it praises it, is of course written not in Italian, but in French. This can be referred to Stendhal’s (and Stendhal’s hero’s) own ambiguous identifications with Bonaparte, but tells us too something more general about how any identity is established (always only provisionally) by a crossing of its own frontiers, a getting outside itself or beside itself which keeps identity alive by making it different. In Stendhal, to be really Italian, you may actually have to be French, but if you were really and only French, you’d actually be English, of whom Stendhal says, ‘Les Anglais sont, je crois, le peuple du monde le plus obtus, le plus barbare’ (1983: 115).2 It is not insignificant that Stendhal’s hero, though Italian, is always referred to by the French form of his name, Fabrice: something that is inevitably lost when Scott Moncrieff’s English translation puts it systematically back into Italian as ‘Fabrizio’.) Fabrice spends a lot of time in this earlier part of the novel more or less clandestinely crossing frontiers and encountering danger and violence in those crossings. His movements in his pursuit of Napoleon, and his eventual uncertain participation in the battle of Waterloo are all about frontiers encountered and crossed (at one point Stendhal talks about Fabrice going to the ‘extreme frontier’ (1964: 64), the edge of Edge again), and about those mobile frontiers called fronts. (Frontiers in the political sense are really just more or less stabilised fronts in the military sense: however quiescent a frontier may in fact appear, it is always the standing possibility of confrontation and violence.) A little later, in a famous incident in the frontier zone of the states of Parma and Austria, Fabrice gets involved in a fight and, in self-defence, kills a certain Giletti (this is the ostensible cause of his imprisonment later in the book). He decides to flee until the situation is clarified: for various reasons, Austria is the only plausible place to go, although in Austria Fabrice always runs the risk of being arrested for his known Bonapartist sympathies.3 So he flees with the two women (mother and daughter, actresses) Giletti was accompanying and ‘protecting’, burns his own passport and decides to cross the frontier with Giletti’s:

Indépendamment de la répugnance bien naturelle qu’il avait à confier sa vie au passeport du malheureux Giletti, ce document présentait des difficultés matérielles: la taille de Fabrice atteignait tout au plus à cinq pieds cinq pouces, et non pas à cinq pieds dix pouces comme l’énonçait le passeport; il avait près de vingt-quatre ans et paraissait plus jeune, Giletti en avait trente-neuf. […] Il pensa à une terrible objection qu’on pourrait lui faire et à laquelle il ne trouvait que de mauvaises réponses: il allait dire qu’il s’appelait Giletti et tout son linge était marqué F.D. Comme on voit, Fabrice était un de ces malheureux tourmentés par leur imagination; c’est assez le défaut des gens d’esprit en Italie… (1964: 211)

(Quite apart from the very natural repugnance which he felt towards entrusting his life to the passport of the unfortunate Giletti, this document presented material difficulties. Fabrizio’s height was, at the most, five feet five inches, and not five feet ten inches as was stated on the passport. He was not quite twenty-four, and looked younger. Gilletti had been thirty-nine. […] He thought of a terrible objection which might be raised, and to which he could find no satisfactory answer: he was going to say that his name was Giletti, and all his linen was marked F.D. As we have seen, Fabrizio was one of those unfortunates who are tormented by their imagination; it is a characteristic fault of men of intelligence in Italy… (1964: 231-2))

There follows a wonderful comic scene, beautifully and excruciatingly drawn out by Stendhal over several pages involving a rare piece of sustained description4 (motivated here only by the dilated time of the frontier as it preys on Fabrice’s imagination, as we have seen, and inspiring in him further imaginations that Stendhal calls ‘romans’, novels, or ‘romances’, as Scott Moncrieff has it:5 the characters in Stendhal’s novels are often described as writing novels in their heads, and this is one index of the allegorical nature of Stendhal’s fiction, which constantly figures its own fictionality in this way – the frontiers between characters, narrators and authors in Stendhal are notoriously complex) – a comic scene in which the official called upon to check Fabrice’s passport immediately recognises that the passport is not Fabrice’s but Giletti’s (whom he happens to know):

Cet homme était ami de Giletti; on peut juger de sa surprise lorsqu’il vit son passeport entre les mains d’un autre; son premier mouvement fut de faire arràªter cet autre, puis il songea que Giletti pouvait bien avoir vendu son passeport à ce beau jeune homme qui apparemment venait de faire quelque mauvais coup à Parme. Si je l’arràªte, se dit-il, Giletti sera compromis; on découvrira facilement qu’il a vendu son passeport; d’un autre cà´té, que diront mes chefs si l’on vient à vérifier que moi, ami de Giletti, j’ai visé son passeport porté par un autre? L’employé se leva en baà®llant et dit à Fabrice:- Attendez, monsieur; puis, par une habitude de police, il ajouta: il s’élève une difficulté. Fabrice dit à part soi: Il va s’élever ma fuite.

This man was a friend of Giletti; one may judge of his surprise when he saw his friend’s passport in the hands of a stranger; his first impulse was to have that stranger arrested, then he reflected that Giletti might easily have sold his passport to this fine young man who apparently had just been doing something disgraceful at Parma. ‘If I arrest him,’ he said to himself, ‘Giletti will get into trouble; they will at once discover that he has sold his passport; on the other hand, what will my chiefs say if it is proved that I, a friend of Giletti, put a visa on his passport when it was carried by someone else.’ The official got up with a yawn and said to Fabrizio: ‘Wait a minute, sir;’ then, adopting a professional formula, added: ‘A difficulty has arisen.’ On which Fabrizio murmured: ‘What is going to arise is my escape.’

The scene continues to lengths I cannot quote, before Fabrice is safely across. Let’s keep from this passage a tightening of all our themes: the frontier is a place of violence and the risk of death, of negotiations around doubtful and always possibly fraudulent identity, of imagination and fictionalising, a place of extreme danger that also provides a possible escape route from worse danger, and a place that communicates both with what is beyond and, more or less directly and immediately, with the political centre and its symbolically dominant prison-tower.

* * *

In spite of Stendhal’s refined comedy, it’s hard not to think of frontiers as Bad Things. Frontiers, even if they are not always the place of experiences as dramatic as the ones I’ve been talking about, still separate us from others, inhibit or discourage the free exchange of ideas and knowledge and goods, retard the development of a truly fulfilled global humanity, the re-uniting of the supposed family of mankind, they mark the persistence of unfortunate suspicions, unnecessary violences and repressions. There’s a confident and optimistic internationalism which, in spite of all the evidence, looks forward to the inevitable removal of frontiers and the establishment of a world-citizenry unfettered by merely local customs and prejudices, an internationalism that typically appeals to peace as the value guiding it forward, and probably gets excited about the globally democratising potentialities of the Internet. This admirable but incurably naive humanist and cosmopolitan impulse, which comes to us most obviously from eighteenth-century thinkers, is currently fashionable and attractive, and indeed the name of Immanuel Kant, who provided perhaps the most rigorous philosophical account of this type of cosmopolitanism in the 1780s and 1790s, was to be seen in pieces by the more serious newspaper columnists in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But Kant’s arguments, which are explicitly and consistently about the question of frontiers, are in fact more ambiguous than has always been noticed. (Incidentally, in one of his many autobiographical sketches, Stendhal, writing about himself in the third person, tells of studying the German language and philosophy as a young man in Brunswick, and says that he ‘conceived a fair degree of scorn for Kant and Fichte, those superior men who succeeded only in building learned houses of cards’ (1983: 167). Although this is a typically ‘literary’ and really rather crass way to talk about Kant, the epitome of a certain literary snobbery about philosophical thought that is quite widespread in literary circles and the last thing I would want to espouse or profess, the opposition of Stendhal and Kant has become a commonplace since Nietzsche at least – on the frontier of literature and philosophy, I want to argue, rather, for a more stendhalien Kant (who was as aware as Stendhal of the power of the imagination) than Nietzsche, or Stendhal himself, would have cared to recognise, and certainly a more stendhalien Kant than Habermas would even dream of. I don’t imagine Kant would much have liked it either, come to that, but let’s use this now as a way of slipping across the frontier into a more philosophical zone.)

Kant’s political writings tell a story about mankind emerging from a state of nature (which is in principle a violent state just because no law is there to prevent the violence that always might break out, however peaceful things seem in fact: nature, says Kant in a decisive and far-reaching argument, may, empirically, happen to be peaceful, but transcendentally speaking it is intrinsically violent: this is the nature of the American frontier) – a story about mankind emerging from a state of nature into political groupings where constitutions, however imperfect, seek to limit that violence. But these groupings of individuals then clash again amongst themselves, and a new, supposedly secondary state of nature emerges just where a frontier between them forms. It seems reasonably clear that this supposedly secondary state of nature is in fact primary, that no state of nature really precedes this one – which means, among other things I won’t be able to go into here, that what we often call ‘culture’ in fact logically comes before what we often call ‘nature’, which complicates some of the most traditional and influential thought-patterns we have, and motivates my earlier claim that the apparently open frontier of the wild west of or space is not essentially different from the bilateral frontiers of nation-states, and would give support to an argument that nature itself is essentially a political concept. Fleeing this frontier violence provides a temporary respite, and even, in Kant’s providentialist view, has the beneficial effect of obliging mankind to scatter far enough to occupy the whole surface of the globe. But eventually those fleeing violence West encounter those fleeing East, and frontiers, with the violence they entail, become an inevitable problem. Frontiers subsisting between lawfully constituted groupings are evidence that the relations between those groupings are still in a state of nature, and therefore in principle of violence. This persistence of frontiers as places of violence and lawlessness is a scandal for rationality, and indeed, in his religious writings, Kant is prepared to see in frontiers the clearest sign of the persistence in man of a principle of what he calls radical evil. In his 1784 essay on Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, Kant looks forward to the eminently rationalistic solution of this problem of violence through the creation of a frontierless world state of lawfulness and therefore peace (peace naturally being the only rational end for mankind to aim at); but by the time of his essay on Perpetual Peace ten years later, there’s a strong sense that that sort of peace could only ever in fact be the peace of the cemetery, the peace in which we may hope, eternally but not very interestingly, to rest, and there’s a new insight that the only rational view is that some maintenance of frontiers (and therefore violence, for frontiers are violence) is the only hope for a peace which, to the extent that frontiers subsist and that they are places of violence, will never be perpetual in the desired cosmopolitan sense from which Kant began. The insight informing Kant’s change of mind is that the only way a frontierless world state could possibly emerge would be under the dominance of one existing state which would in fact simply have subsumed all others under it (in the late twentieth-century we might use the words Pax americana as shorthand for this, and maybe translate it as ‘MacDonald’s in Moscow’). I can’t here begin to show how Hegel’s solution to this problem bequeathed by Kant (which solution broadly consists in justifying the dominance of any one given state at a given time in history by appealing to the movement of Spirit in a broader dialectic of world-history, which could still at a pinch accommodate America as an extension of what at Sussex we still call the Modern European Mind) – I can’t begin to show how this solution relies on a dogmatic presumption about how the difference-as-dispersion of states has to be thought of as difference-as-opposition and contradiction which can then be sublated. What I can profess here, though, is the thought that if Kant is right to draw back, in the name of rationality itself, from the apparently fully rational solution to the problem of frontiers6 (i.e. their abolition in a frontierless cosmopolitan state) to a mitigated defence of frontiers – and therefore to an affirmation of a certain irreduciblity of politics, violence and states of nature, and if Hegel’s dialectic breaks on his attempt to sublate the question of frontiers into the dialectic of World-History, then this resistance of the frontier to rationalistic dissolution ought to have profound implications for the philosophies of Kant and Hegel as a whole, and even implications for what more grandiloquent times called ‘the fate of reason’. Fourth, increasingly solemn, profession: frontiers are the non-rational condition of reason.

What this means is at the very least that frontiers are always duplicitous. In an apparently quite different context, Kant – searching for a way of thinking through the sense that human understanding, and therefore objective knowledge, is limited to certain objects or certain sorts of objects, but that human reason constantly strives to cross those limits and achieve knowledge in whatever lies beyond the limits of knowledge – points out that what he calls ‘limits’ (Grenze) partake duplicitously of what is on both sides of them: the limit of knowledge is still on the side of knowledge and can therefore be known, but it is also already on the other side, on the side of what is out of reach of knowledge, or what can merely be thought, and so gives a glimpse of the great beyond. This intrinsic duplicity of frontiers, the place where, as I said at the start, identities tremble, means that it is impossible to identify the frontier as one thing, or even as the thing that it is. At which point it evades the philosophical question as to what it is, and becomes a political issue in the wider sense I invoked earlier. The frontier, making identities tremble, itself has no identity (and so strictly speaking we can’t say the frontier). The frontier slips out of definitional, and even ontological grasp: on the one hand it is nothing, the mere gap between two things (as I said earlier, ‘a frontier is always between’); on the other, it is double, a bit of this and a bit of that.7 ‘Less than one and double’, as Jacques Derrida puts it in a different context, meaning that the frontier is never one, never simple, but an originary complexity of the sort philosophy finds difficult to think, and of which the curious shapes of fractal geometry give us, perhaps, an analogical representation. But we cannot deal with this feature of frontiers by thinking of them as strange ‘things’ among less strange things, because this strange ‘thing’, which is no thing at all, is the only ‘thing’ that gives anything any identity. All things are identified by or from their frontiers, but at those frontiers their identities tremble because the frontier itself has no identity. As Frege famously demands: concepts must have sharp frontiers; but as he perhaps less famously admits, the concept of ‘frontier’ (and therefore the concept of ‘concept’ itself) cannot be given sharp frontiers, so concepts never quite get determined the way philosophy requires if they are genuinely to be concepts. Insofar as they have frontiers, and they must have, concepts never quite get to be themselves, and the demand that they be sharply defined immediately falls foul of the first concept that demand would require us to define: the concept of concept itself.

Which is another reason why all I’ve been saying directly about frontiers entails another zone of this lecture, that of fraudulent identity, which is perhaps the frontier zone itself. Now I begin to understand why there was always an arriving foreign legislator who always might be a charlatan. The more general argument now says that frontiers are necessary for anything like identity, but because of the duplicitous nature of frontiers, identity is always more or less fraudulent – so here’s another solemn profession: there’s nothing like identity. Two of my ‘heroes’ or fathers tonight, Rousseau and Stendhal, stand at apparently opposite ends of the scale of this problem: the one, Rousseau, insisting endlessly on the virtues of achieved identity only to find that the very process of self-identification leads to the crumbling of identity and eventually, in his case, to a state it is difficult not to call madness; the other, Stendhal, celebrating a multiplication of identities, pseudonyms and mobile fronts, and indeed something he is quite happy to call madness. Let Rousseau and Stendhal stand for the two senses of professing I began with: the one drawn to profession as confession (remember that Rousseau wrote both a great ‘Profession de foi’ (interestingly enough, for once, under the assumed – fraudulent – identity of the Vicaire Savoyard8), and of course, most famously, a monumental, inaugural book of Confessions), the other, Stendhal, drawn to profession as feint and façade and strategy.

Let me conclude with two brief sets of observations of quite different types.

First conclusion. An obvious way of reading my insistence on heroes and identifications this evening is to refer all these heroes and identifications in psychoanalytical style to the figure of the father. Montaigne, Rousseau, Kant, Stendhal, Flaubert, Derrida and all the rest (Proust, Beckett… ) would form a series in that they are what Freud calls ‘ego-ideals’, objects for my more or less ambivalent admiration and identification. On this sort of reading, the ultimate explanatory point of reference for this series of ego-ideals would be the Father, in this case my father (sitting here this evening listening to me, for the first time in an academic context). On this view, after a more or less tidy resolution of the Oedipus complex – and it was reasonably tidy, I suppose, I think, I hope – here I am, finally able to address myself to a father now more or less comfortably integrated as part of my own achieved identity, the original of the superego that has driven me more or less relentlessly this far, to this moment of symbolic professional and professorial arrival.

There are a number of reasons why this compelling type of reading – which I apologise for simplifying a bit – seems to me to be flawed, and if it’s true that I have been talking about nothing but my father this evening, then it’s also true that managing to talk about nothing but my father while equally obviously talking about anything but my father already militates against the powerful reductions the Oedipal scenario entails. ‘It’s a wise child that knows his own father’, as Telemachus says to the disguised Athene early in the Odyssey, and as Freud and Joyce pick it up 3000 years later. And if this is so, it is because although everyone may indeed have only one male engenderer (one ‘biological father’ as they say, but ‘father’ already means something more than ‘biological’), everyone also has multiple fathers if, as Derrida argues in a reading of Plato’s Phaedrus, paternity entails logos: reason or language. Here is my father, but here too are my many other fathers (Montaigne, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Stendhal, Derrida, to name only a few). And if the father is multiplied in this way, dispersed across the reason and language to which I have access (or the reasons and languages in the plural, for reason and language are no more singular and identifiable than fathers, and for the same reason), then the concept of ‘father’ itself begins to disperse, losing its explanatory authority as it does so, probably aghast at its inability to control its offspring and how that offspring turns out, but inheriting in return just the problem of fraudulent identity it is supposed to guard against, for a father who cannot quite identify his offspring is something less than, or other than, a father. A rapid (perhaps rather too literary) characterisation of philosophy is that it just is this paternally anxious attempt to identify itself and therefore rigorously to control its offspring, and it is almost irresistible to balance this with the thought that ‘literature’, what we call literature, not knowing what it is, literature which always implies a certain abandonment of paternal responsibility for meaning in the interests of the imagination and the imprévu, a promise of unconditional love of offspring whatever it may become in the contingent scattered future of its readings, is on the side of the mother. Maybe it’s no accident that Rousseau, Stendhal and Derrida all write a lot about mothers. Here too, then, also for the first time, is my mother.

* * *

Second and final conclusion. Everything I have said this evening implies that the ungraspable and uncrossable frontier differently figured in philosophy and literature and their family relationships is a pre-requisite for anything like thought or experience. To the extent that the frontier cannot be successfully subjected to the philosophical question ‘What is it?’, the question of theory and the prelude to positive knowledge, then it is troublesome for any institution whatsoever, including the institution of the University. Institutions require for their existence an inaugural temporal frontier which is their foundation – their institution, the instituting moment of the institution – and which they cannot comprehend within themselves, and they also require a quasi-spatial frontier or delimitation to define themselves against other institutions of all sorts. Of all institutions, the University is, traditionally speaking, unique in that its mission is one of rigorous self-understanding. The mission of the University – although what we now have to call its mission statement understandably enough makes no mention of this – is to understand the institutionality of institutions in general, including itself. Everything I have said suggests that this mission is an impossible one, but that just that constitutes its dignity and importance, and makes it a political one in the sense I outlined at the start. Although Universities may have many useful functions, they cannot in principle be understood, nor begin to understand themselves, if they are thought to exist primarily for the sake of providing someone with a qualified labour-force. Nor even (although this is a more subtle error, and one nowadays eagerly perpetrated by many Universities themselves – just look at the job-adverts in the paper) is it their purpose to pursue what is now so often – and rather meaninglessly – called ‘excellence’. Rather, Universities have a raison d’àªtre (if at all) on the frontier of anything currently identifiable as ‘knowledge’, on the edge, on the edge of Edge, in just the sense William Gibson in fact gives to that expression. This situation can be described in a variety of ways (rolling back the frontiers of knowledge, being at the cutting edge of research, and so on), but such descriptions are already tending to forget the moment of radical non-knowledge implied by the frontier, the moment of risk and danger, the inaugural instant when anything or nothing might happen and a thought – be it legislator or charlatan – might arrive. One of the most epistemologically and politically insufferable forms of sedentarism is the one that claims to be securely installed at the cutting edge. This is not at all to argue for a traditional other-worldly ivory-towerism (the frontier is neither another world – rather it’s the most indubitable sign there is that we are still always in this world – nor anything as stable and confident as a tower, as La Chartreuse de Parme showed us), but to insist that the commitment and responsibility of those professing this profession – be they on the side of what we still call ‘arts’ or ‘sciences’ – cannot be to any value of utility or calculable return.

I’ve said a little, and hinted a lot, at questions of disciplinary frontiers. The University of Sussex, to which I owe a great deal, and for which I’d like this lecture also to have been a plea, a plaidoyer, a defence and illustration, made its name in the name of ‘interdisciplinarity’. Much of that spirit remains here, so that it seems perhaps less incongruous here than it might elsewhere for a Professor of French to give an inaugural lecture which is to a large extent informed by philosophy, and German philosophy at that. I have never taken interdisciplinarity to mean a situation where established disciplines, firm within their frontiers, are invited to have dialogues or debates, those more or less polite academic conversations over their garden fences, but rather one in which disciplines are rigorously – politically – exposed at their frontiers to the risk of skirmishes, invasions, violence, change, and death, with no horizon of quiescent ‘knowledge’ in view. If interdisciplinarity means anything, it is that academics, however much knowledge they may more or less incidentally produce, are not defined by the production of knowledge. All the recent government prescribed exercises in teaching and research assessment act against this strong sense of interdisciplinarity and enforce safe enclosures, hierarchies and quiescence. The logic of these exercises, and the perfectly vacuous concept of ‘excellence’ that informs them, is to condemn thinking to mere scholarship, disciplines to mere disciplinarity, professing to a mere professionalism, and the University to a mere bureaucracy or management of established learning, a delivery-system for a commodity called knowledge to the ‘customers’ we used, once, to call students. There is some, I must admit rather cold, comfort to be had in the thought that in principle this is impossible (frontiers are irreducible, but they are also irreducibly unstable and undecidable), but a good deal of disquiet in the thought that the ex-perience of suspension on the frontier that thinking is, is made so much the harder and rarer thereby. If all professing promises and confesses something, and professors hold out a promise of thinking without being able even to guess at what will be thought, let that be my concluding confession or profession this evening: professing is promising, and I promise, malgré tout, here and now, on this frontier, to continue to profess.

(Professorial Lecture delivered 4 June 1996, University of Sussex)


1. ‘La politique dans une oeuvre littéraire, c’est un coup de pistolet au milieu d’un concert, quelque chose de grossier et auquel pourtant il n’est pas possible de refuser son attention’ (Stendhal, 1964: 419). This is a knowing quotation of the more famous statement in Chapter XXIII of the second book of Le Rouge et le noir: ‘La politique au milieu des intéràªts d’imagination, c’est un coup de pistolet au milieu d’un concert. Ce bruit est déchirant sans àªtre énergique. Il ne s’accorde avec le son d’aucun instrument’. The passage from La Chartreuse de Parme goes on to say, ‘Nous allons parler de fort vilaines choses, et que, pour plus d’une raison, nous voudrions taire; mais nous sommes forcés d’en venir à des événements qui sont de notre domaine, puisqu’ils ont pour théà¢tre le coeur des personnages’ (Stendhal, 1964: 419). This introduction of ‘politics’ into the heart is just what Stendhal does throughout his fiction. For example, Fabrice’s calculations with respect to Clélia when he knows she might think he has eaten the poisoned food in the prison are indicative of a politics of passion entirely characteristic of Stendhal’s heroes (1964: 452); this is also true of Julien Sorel’s dealings with both Mathilde de la Mà´le and Mme de Ràªnal in Le Rouge et le noir, and makes of De l’amour a much more political than psychological treatise.

2. He goes on, ‘Cela est au point que je leur pardonne les infamies de Sainte-Hélène’ (Stendhal, 1983: 115).

3. Just like Parma in the second part of the book, Austria in Stendhal is dominated by a symbol of absolute centralised power in the form of a prison, the Spielberg (referring to Austria, Stendhal writes, ‘ce pays, dont la capitale à ses yeux [de Fabrice] était le Spielberg’. States are thus defined on the one hand by a central – elevated – point of power which gathers the space of the state to its identity, and on the other by a frontier where that identity is intrinsically at risk and therefore symbolically to be confirmed.

4. In the Souvenirs d’égotisme, Stendhal says ‘moi, j’abhorre la description matérielle. L’ennui de la faire m’empàªche de faire des romans’ (1983: 76).

5. ‘La présence du danger donne du génie à l’homme raisonnable, elle le met, pour ainsi dire, au-dessus de lui-màªme; à l’homme d’imagination elle inspire des romans, hardis il est vrai, mais souvent absurdes’ (1964: 213).

6. On this view, rationality more generally would constitutively involve this type of pulling back from its own apparent end-point: reason (as Kant also knew) must be self-restraining if it is to remain rational. Left to its own devices, reason rapidly runs off into irrationality.

7. If the occasion lent itself to a more technical exposition, I would try to show how that most enigmatic part of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the chapter on the ‘schematism’, which tries to formulate the frontier as point of junction between concept and object, answers exactly to this set-up: the schema in Kant is always both nothing and double.

8. The complications of Rousseau’s attempts to profess and confess, and the fraudulent identities this implies are the subject of my book Dudding: des noms de Rousseau (Paris: Galilée, 1991). For the specific question of the ‘author’ of the ‘Profession de foi’, the publication of which got Rousseau into deep legal trouble, and led to years of exile and persecution, see especially pp.114ff.


Gibson, W. (1995) ‘New Rose Hotel’, Burning Chrome. Harper Collins.

Stendhal (1964) La Chartreuse de Parme. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion.

Stendhal (1983) Souvenirs d’égotisme. Paris: Gallimard.

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