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Michel Leiris and the power of art.

Art, for Michel Leiris, acquires its potential to re-enchant a rigidly rational and ordered world from its autonomous status, always at a remove from the laws and codes that govern society. (1) The autonomy of art, rather than disabling its political dimension, permits it to comment critically on the sociopolitical field. In Cinq etudes d'ethnologie, Leiris links the work of democratisation with artistic experimentation; revolutionary art does not propagate a certain ideology, but through its reformulation of, or break with, conventions, it can delineate the contours of the new. If art has to espouse a particular ideology, it loses its revolutionary spirit, since it ends up repeating stereotypical ideas that maintain rather than disturb the status quo. Leiris therefore stresses that we can only foster revolutionary art if we give free rein to investigation and experimentation: "Travailler sans directives donnees de l'exterieur, sans idees preconcues--ou presque--et comme s'il allait a la decouverte, c'est sans doute le meilleur moyen pour l'artiste ou l'ecrivain d'echapper aux stereo. types et de faire ainsi oeuvre vraiment authentique et creatrice." (2) To demand that art should act as an expedient for a political cause risks weakening its force as an autonomous realm that can attest the radical difference that gets concealed by the attempt to understand and rationalise the world through a particular ideology.

The relationship between art and politics constitutes a persevering theme in Leiris's writings. In Fibrilles, the third volume of La Regle du jeu, Leiris radically questions the overarching aim of the autobiography: that of discovering an ethics of poetry, the "rules of the game," that would articulate artistic innovation and socio-political concerns. He doubts this aim, when he becomes aware of its potentially self-cancelling character. (3) Such an ethics, if it were truly possible, would convert the aesthetic process into a bureaucratic procedure where artistic effect could be calculated or predicted m accordance with a preestablished set of rules or criteria; this would destroy the inventiveness proper to art. However, Leiris fears that without this wider aim, artistic production risks slipping into pure solipsism or mindless play without wider relevance. He therefore has to conceive a way of giving up the desire to formulate the rules of the game in a concrete form, without giving up the promise held out, in a larger perspective, by aspiring to it.

At the age of 68, in Frele bruit, the final volume of his autobiography, Leiris laments still being haunted by the friction between the demands of the voice from within and the need for political activism from without: 'rude epreuve pour qui l'affronte en poussant l'oubli de sol aussi loin qu'il peut mais, en aucun cas, n'acceptera de mettre en veilleuse ses capacites critiques [...]. (14) As Leiris implies here, unwavering commitment to a political project might involve suppressing personal concerns or desires in the name of the collective cause. Such an act of self-negation could prove problematic insofar as knowledge of social and political phenomena, for Leiris, can only be acquired by studying their impact on the self. His insistence on the link between social consciousness and self-awareness founds his innovative approach to ethnography which combines anthropological observation with the self-reflection of autobiography. (5) Leiris's understanding of the role of the ethnographer relates closely to his vision of the role of the poet in revolution. Leiris, in L'Afrique fantome, questions ethnographic assumptions about scientific disinterestedness, by foregrounding the constant interaction of subjectivity and objectivity, imagination and reality in any study of cultural otherness. (6) The self constitutes the ethnographer's sole instrument of observation and it is through recognition of the fallibility of this tool, ambiguously placed as it is vis-a-vis the other, interposed between identity and difference, that the ethnographer can begin to reflect critically on his object of study. He writes: 'c'est [...] par le maximum de subjectivite qu'on touche a l'objectivite. (17) What comes to define objectivity, for Leiris, is the looming presence of phantom Africa; that is, the impossibility of fully eliminating ethnocentric prejudices and preconceptions to achieve a totalising and objective study of this continent. The persistence of illusion in ethnographic observation demands that the ethnographer constantly interrogate and redefine his subject position vis-a-vis his object of study. Leiris therefore instates failure as an intrinsic part of ethnography. Failure exposes the persevering alterity of the other that disallows its full representation, thereby indicating the need to find innovative and selfcritical representational modes that do not simply repeat stereotypes or preconceived ideas. The ethnographer's ceaseless self-questioning also characterises the position of the artist in revolution:
   Dans le domaine artistique et litteraire, un createur ne peut pas
   etre un homme satisfait de la culture existante. Ce qui le pousse a
   la recherche, c'est le besoin de rompre avec ce qui existe et de
   faire autre chose. De sorte qu'une societe, meme communiste, ne peut
   prendre des mesures visant a 'l'encourager', car cela tiendrait ipso
   facto a le domestiquer. Elle ne peut que lui garantir l'exercice de
   son absolue liberte d'investigation. Cela, sans reticences, et en
   considerant que ces travaux effectues en toute liberte ne peuvent
   qu'aider la Revolution dans sa marche vers la totale liberte. (8)


Like the ethnographer, the artist cannot deny his subjectivity in the pursuit of ideological purity or an objective account of society because the urge to create takes root in a feeling of dissatisfaction with the current order and its determination of social truth. The critical force of art depends on its being able to liberate the singular or the subjective from social constraints so as to move beyond the present description of what is and to imagine what could be. In this way, art can perhaps participate in the calling for political change. The transgressive nature of certain forms of art points to the failure of institutions to define the social fully. This failure then demands the creation of new spaces of representation whose divergence from the dominant regime possibly allows for the reformulation and displacement of that sphere. The aesthetic domain, through its intimacy with the incommensurable, supplies, for Leiris, one such space. This function of art emerges in Leiris's exploration of the aesthetic experience of states of possession and jazz, where the clash of cultural differences dislodges the restrictive boundaries of social and cultural identity to create an opening for new modes of interaction and formation. These phenomena, through their bringing together of seemingly contradictory elements, relate closely to Leiris's notion of the merveilleux.

The Merveilleux

In Frele bruit, Leiris explicitly looks to art as a source of re-enchantment, when meditating on what he terms the 'merveilleux,' the magical or the miraculous, (9) which displaces the metaphor of the sacred in earlier works. (10) We can understand the magical as a secular form of epiphany in which the opaque force that binds together, and yet always exceeds, ordinary existence, reveals itself in a derivative form. These moments appear as a sensual intimation of the radical difference that our logical or everyday organisation of the world at once exploits and dissimulates behind a semblance of order. The miraculous, as the heterogeneous or the singular, emerges at the limits of reason where imagination strains to uncover the underlying meaning of the affective disturbance felt at such moments: "Sentiment d'etre comble au-dela du possible, impulsion donnee a l'imagination, chance, enchantement, tels ont ete mes recours pour tenter de depouiller de sa brume ce mot si lumineux qu'il m'aveugle: 'merveilleux.'" (11) However, as Leiris hastens to point out, any attempt to 'demystify' the miraculous goes against its very nature as the unknowable, or the unconditioned. Its intensity exhorts us to submit totally to its force, thereby momentarily disabling our capacity for critical reflection. (12)

Through its defiance of the rational and its aspiration towards the new, the magical unsettles the borders of personal identity, opening us to the other:
   [...] ce sentiment--que, faute de pouvoir positivement le definir,
   j'ai regarde en derniere instance omme I Impression d etre soudain
   delivre de tout ce qui m'oppresse--sera-t-il plus qu'une euphorie
   s'il est mon bien a mol seul? Et pour qu'il y ait pleinement
   "merveilleux" ne faut-il pas que plus ugacement ou plus durablement,
   les bornes de ma personne soient dies ausssi abolies, que [...] je
   passe a une toute autre facon d'etre que mon habituel isolement
   Qu'un autre vive [experience avec moi? (13)


The way in which the miraculous blurs the borders between self and other becomes, for Leiris, one of its most important elements, since, by transporting the self outside itself and exposing it to the other, it creates a space in which new modes of identification can occur. This aspect of the miraculous links it closely to poetry. Leiris explores this aspect of poetry in the final pages of Fibrilles, where, after abandoning his dream of discovering, in a tangible form, the 'regle du jen'--an ethics of poetry that would combine the life of the citizen with that of the poet--he expresses his commitment to the poetic over politics--the latter to be understood, here, as the demand for unwavering commitment to a particular cause or ideology. His preference for poetry does not, however, entail his giving up the pursuit of political art in favour of a 'pure aesthetic,' but rather, awareness of the fact that poetry, on the most primary level, has ethical and political repercussions, because it involves communication with the other. (14) By this, Leiris does not mean communication in the conventional sense of conveying ideas limpidly, but poetic transgression, which, like the miraculous, unsettles the boundaries of personal identity (15): 'Tiree de roots qui ne sont pas les miens et adressee quiconque l'accueillera, la possie--fondamentalement, expansion aveugle hors de mes frontieres--ne me lie-t-elle pas au partenaire indiscrimine qui est un autre par rapport a mol mais mon sembable a l'echelle de l'espece?' (16) Communication covers two aspects: an aesthetic action, 'emouvoir' which involves moving the other by making him share what you have thought and felt, and amorous communication (s'emouvoir l'un de l'autre). (17) Poetry, as a manifestation of the miraculous, possesses the ability to push the subject to the frontiers of existence where self and other, identity and non-identity, the social and non-social meet.

The feeling of otherness, of self-estrangement, associated with poetry and the magical, marks the point at which we can begin to identify with the other, not only as an other vis-a-vis the self, but as a fellow being who forms part of humanity as a whole. Identification occurs, then, not through a specular effect where self and other perfectly coincide, but, on the contrary, through the lack of coincidence between them that prevents any identity from being fully constituted, leaving it always incomplete and therefore forever susceptible to transformation from without. Poetry communicates at once the impossibility of transparent communication and the desire to overcome that impossibility through linguistic innovation. The ethical dimension of poetry lies, then, in its desire to break the isolation of the self and open it to the other, that is, in the desire for community. It conveys this desire by implying the absence of community in any concrete form and the freedom that gives us to imagine it in open-ended and multiple ways. This leads us to infer that the ethical, for Leiris, is not grounded in the application of, and adherence to, rules, but precisely in what remains incommensurable with those rules, that is, in what transgresses their parameters, and, as a consequence, calls them into question. The ethical, as La Regle du ieu illustrates, can never be reduced to a particular moral order, since it requires a constant process of interrogation and invention, the writing and re-writing of 'the rules of the game.'

Poetry communicates the incommunicable in a derivative form; it expresses what exceeds existing categories of knowledge or modes of representation. In this sense, poetry responds to and echoes the movement of the miraculous:
   Et n'est-ce pas a un mouvement du meme ordre que repond la
   poesie qu'on ecrit: fixer les incommensurables par quoi l'on s'est
   laisse subjuguer ou, a l'inverse, tenter de fabriquer, par
   l'ecriture, des incommensurables qui--un temps au moins--pourront
   nous subjuguer? Merveilleux, poesie, amour, n'existent que si je
   m'ouvre, sans marchandage, "a quelque chose--evenement, etre vivant,
   objet, image, idle--que mon desir d'illimite coiffe d'une aureole
   durable ou momentan4e. (18)


The miraculous of which art partakes can only be an echo or aesthetic reconfiguration of the miraculous that the external world harbours in its unknown depths. Poetry and the miraculous evoke a momentary feeling of the illimitable, or the absolute. Not only do they suspend the distinction between self and other through their exposure of our shared otherness, but, through their being situated at the outer limits of reality, they also suspend the distinction between fact and fiction. The equivocal status of the miraculous increases the difficulty of completely defining it, because we can never clearly distinguish between its immediate and constructed form. (19) The incomplete separation of fact from fiction, which characterises both poetry and the miraculous, at once enables critical reflection as we strive to understand and represent the feeling of radical difference that they invoke, and, equally, disenables it as we realise the impossibility of fully transposing that feeling into language, of attaining absolute truth.

The madness of Don Quijote and Nerval emanates, according to Leiris, from a confusion of these two levels. However, it is only by blurring the boundaries between lived experience and the imaginary that we can give ourselves over to this energy, whose authenticity cannot be substantiated. In its ultimate form the miraculous pertains to the supernatural, manifesting itself in those incidents that violate natural laws. Acknowledging that the notion of a force which generates magical effects and is not susceptible to rational explanation can be a theological allusion; Leiris nonetheless refuses to conceive it either as divine or as a simple aberration in the mechanism of the universe. He remains faithful to his primary perception of it as inexplicable and unclassifiable. Because of its opacity, such a force sets our imagination in motion as it struggles to present the unpresentable:
   Ce qui--sans gifle necessaire a nos poids et mesures--depasse le
   quotidien mais ne se reduit pas a l'insolite, ce qui--ni piece pour
   cabinet mental de curiosites, ni mouton a cinq
   pattes--exalte to-talement ou met l'imagination en branle, porte a
   fever, "laisse reveur", sans doute est-ce sur ces deux terrains-la
   (EFFUSION ET REVERIE dans un cadastre symbolique) que pousse,
   multiforme, le merveilleux. (20)


Leiris provides two broad categories of the miraculous: 'le merveilleux par exces,' which involves the shattering of limits, and the 'merveilleux par defaut,' which involves a void, a gap, an absence, a lacuna. This opposition between excess and lack breaks down as the two categories contaminate one another: the feeling of excess as much as the feeling of lack indicate, through their defiance of the ordinary, the inadequacy of logic or reason as the sole means of understanding our existence, thereby pushing us to transcend the confines of the real and find imaginative and inventive modes of representing the unconditioned. The miraculous, as an affective disruption of normality, can therefore never enter cognition in an unadulterated way, being always entwined with the work of fiction. In this sense, the miraculous could even emerge out of its own absence:
   Y aurait-il donc, eu face d'un merveilleux par exces, lie a un
   eclatement des limites comme sous l'effet d'un trop-plein, un
   merveilleux par defaut, oh tout irait comme si une lacune, un
   ecart ou un mauvais joint, trahissant un flottement dans ces limites
   moins frontieres que confins du reel et de l'imaginaire, s'offrait
   comme un appat a notre folle du logis? (21)


Leiris views this manifestation of it as a fundamental antidote to death. Indeed, as he points out, it enters into a mutually deconstructive relationship with what it is supposed to vanquish: 'Bref, il semble que le merveilleux aide a vivre en suspendant l'inquietude mais qu'il faille, pour y acceder, etre d'abord en etat de faire bon marche de celle-ci.' (22) The experience of the miraculous, through its unsettling of a rational framework, at once generates the pleasure of crossing the borders of the empirical and of the freedom that entails, and also the pain of touching its founding negativity. The miraculous requires a degree of self-dispossession, whereby the controlling and categorising operations of the ego temporarily decline to expose the subject to new sensations or affects. The loss of self-control takes imagination, 'la folle du logis,' to its very limits as it endeavours to present the incommensurable to understanding.

Despite the distinction between the horizontal axis of the miraculous (the changes in response from person to person) and its vertical axis (the changes over time), what perseveres over and above its diverse revelations is that paroxysmal state that can transport us to a boundless world. In short, it gives us the feeling of the possibility of possibility. This overriding feature of the miraculous gives it a central role in fermenting revolutionary fervour: 'le merveilleux [ ... ] se retrouvera toujours au centre de tous les paroxysmes, dans l'aventure, dans le crime, dans l'amour, ou dans l'intense exaltation morale des grandes periodes revolutionnaires.' (23) Any transformation of reality will automatically entail the force of the miraculous, since the attempt to imagine and re-shape the future has to have recourse to the work of fiction, because the future, by definition, relates to the unknown or undetermined. Leiris incorporates a quote from the legendary political activist, Che Guevara, into his meditation on this strange phenomenon, reinforcing its political overtones: 'Quand l'extraordinaire devient quotidien, c'est qu 'il y a la Revolution.' (24) The oxymoronic character of this quotation suggests the fallacy of construing revolution as an achievable state: its force works as a perpetual disruption of the everyday, thereby disallowing its location within a particular socio-cultural terrain. The way in which the miraculous disturbs spatial order by causing borders to shift and realign themselves endows it with political consequences.

The Merveilleux and States of Possession: the Disruption of Cultural Identity

The political force of Leiris's conception of the miraculous becomes more apparent when he explains why he chooses certain areas of anthropological study. Although Leiris does not explicitly defend his interests in terms of their embodiment of this phenomenon, its presence seems implicit in them all. In his anthropological research, he prefers to focus on moments of cross-cultural translation or hybridity. For example, the confluence of Africa and Europe in the culture of the West Indies motivated him to travel there. Moreover, his fascination with states of possession or trance stems from their dissolution or reconfiguration of conventional boundaries. (25) Leiris emphasises the aesthetic aspect of such moments when he describes them as, 'un theatre vecu', a 'lived theatre': a theatre in which the element of theatrical artifice is minimised, allowing the state of possession to be experienced as real for both the person involved and the spectators. (26) Its theatricality is not purely adventitious, for 'la possession elle-meme est deja du theatre puisqu'elle revient objectivement a la figuration d'un personnage mythique ou legendaire par un acteur humain.' (27) For this ritual to be effective, the participants cannot merely act out the mythical or legendary characters that possess them, but they must incarnate them fully, thereby considerably attenuating the aspect of theatrical illusion. Like the miraculous, the state of trance thus partakes of the same 'statut equivoque de chose tantot touchee du doigt et tantot de l'ordre de fiction' (28):
   les adeptes singent les dieux, espece de theatre vecu qui se joue
   sans barriere, meme ideale, entre acteurs et spectateurs, chacun
   pouvant en principe etre soudain visite par un dieu, de sorte qu'un
   ethnographe, porte par son gout de l'ailleurs mais rationnaliste
   comme il sied, peut en etre un participant plenier qui, sans se
   departir de son role de regard ni endosser une autre peau, se trouve
   integre la comedie au meme titre que n'importe quel comparse. (29)


States of trance dissolve the normal boundaries of the theatrical space. (30) The division between actor and spectator, the stage and the audience, self and other, fiction and reality vanishes, producing a theatrical effect that suspends socio-cultural stratification. The segregation of the subject from object becomes momentarily concealed by the possibility for the subject, the Western anthropological observer in this case, of succumbing to a state of trance, his object of study. As Leiris's writings show, the inconceivable task of the ethnographer consists of transposing into cognition this experience of radical difference where subject and object briefly merge. This aesthetic event locates the anthropologist at the fold of the constitution and dissolution of meaning, whereby what refuses understanding demands to be put into language.

The constant osmosis between actors and public in the ritual of trance connects it to Leiris's conception of fraternity, understood as the ability to accept and participate in others' differences without seeking to normalise or eradicate them by imposing one's own norms and values. Leiris develops his understanding of fraternity in the second section of Fourbis, 'Les Tablettes sportives', where he attempts to reconcile himself with the fact that, despite his heroic aspirations, he has only ever played secondary roles in life events. (31) Notwithstanding Leiris's initial disparagement of secondary roles, his notion of fraternity actually depends on them. Their importance in fostering fraternal relations becomes evident by force of comparison with the exclusiveness entailed in identifying with leading figures.

Leiris indicates that identification with great sportsmen or heroes is passive: the spectator wants to mirror the sporting champion or hero without placing his own identity in question. It is this passivity which destroys Leiris's passion for bullfighting. The audience at a bullfight is seduced by the graceful control of the torero into believing that the threat posed by the bull can be fully mastered. (32) By unquestioningly identifying with the controlled artistry of the torero, the spectator sees himself as a 'demi-goo, playing with death, when, in reality, he runs no risk at all. (33) The spectator's illusion of full identification becomes subverted from within, since the feelings of transcendence, immortality, and mastery which this illusion generates, actually isolate him from the other, thereby undermining any notion of identification. (34)

The building of fraternal relations does not require full identification (35)--such a demand would only lead to the imposition of oppressive forms of unity founded on the sterile reduction of differences to the same. Fraternity rather requires us to recognise that it is actually a feeling of difference that incites us to identify with others in the first place. (36) Recognition of the constitutive force of differences urges us to relinquish our desire for mastery and dominance and to assume a more subdued position, a secondary role, with regard to the other where we observe the other's differences, allowing them to question and even transform our own subject position, without simply setting them in opposition with our own norms and values or absorbing them into preconceived ideas. This recalls Leiris's description, in 'L'Ethnographe devant le colonia lisme,' of the role the ethnographer should play in the post-colonialist era. He argues that the ethnographer should help to facilitate the future that the formerly colonised imagine for themselves. (37)

Out of the three terms liberty, equality and fraternity, Leiris describes

fraternity as the most 'alive.' (38) We could argue that Leiris's understanding of fraternity acts as a bridge between the other two terms. It at once exhorts us to acknowledge the mutual difference existing between self and other, our equality, and also, the need to preserve that difference as the basis of our freedom to enter into varying modes of identification and association that do not eliminate or disavow particularity in the pursuit of conformity. The reciprocity of the 'lived theatre' of possession offers an example of this type of fraternity.

Leiris's exploration of this ritual shows how identification with the other is always concomitant with non-identification. At such moments, cultural differences collide precisely because the distinct identities of self and other can never be fully constituted as an objective whole:
   Que deux cultures aient l'air de ne s'etre entremelees en une louche
   et fascinante embrassade que pour chacune infliger a l'autre un
   dementi plus visible, qu'on fasse venir les dieux en des epiphanies
   qui prennent figure de mascarades, voila qui satisfaisait mon besoin
   (rarement desarme) de fondre le oui et le non, de n'admettre qu'a
   travers une incessante remise en question, de m'attacher plus qu'a
   la beaute sublime a celle dont on dirait qu'elle se denigre
   elle-meme ou, apparemment legere, n'en est que plus dechirante a
   moins qu'inversement son outrance tragique ne brave le gout avec
   tant de cynisme ou de candeur qu'on en est presque egaye,--besoin
   qui tantot me semble denoter--s'il va plus loin qu'une coquetterie
   m'interdisant l'enthousiasme sans detour--une inclination perverse
   a ne me plaire que dans l'ambiguite ou dans le paradoxe et
   tantot m'apparait santifie par l'dee que le mariage des contraires
   est le plus haut sommet jusqu'auquel on puisse metaphysiquement
   s'elever. (39)


Similar to the feeling of the illimitable associated with the miraculous, the state of trance, through its blurring of the inside and outside, exposes the unbounded nature of cultural identity. It foregrounds the antagonism that inheres in all socio-cultural formations, whereby the system of oppositional differences that we erect to mark off and protect our identity from others becomes undermined by the re-emergence of equivalence. (40) The mutual disavowal of the two cultures, or in other words, their common differentiation, which occurs at this instant, can be understood as their point of identification. Their equivalential relationship reveals itself in the fusion of yes and no that Leiris senses in this state. Equivalence, in this context, does not refer to sameness but precisely to its opposite, that is, to the negativity that founds all cultural plurality, preventing any one culture from trying to dominate others by posing as the positive identity underlying and explaining their multiplicity.

This staging of the void appears in Rousseau's understanding of the national festival as a form of theatre. Rousseau's conceptualisation of a dynamic theatrical space in the Lettre a d'Alembert, which could ferment and foster social change, adumbrates Leiris's portrayal of that space. (41) Rousseau equally aims to dissolve the divisions of the theatre to avoid the reification, stasis and intolerance they cause. As Starobinski points out, in Le Remede dans le mal, Rousseau's antidote to the stultifying and divisive effects of conventional theatre consists in extending the theatrical space beyond the circumscribed arena of the theatre to the open space of public festivals. (42) The theatre thus becomes the general condition of social interaction:
   Mais quels seront enfin les objets de ces spectacles? Qu'y
   montrerat-on? Rien, si l'on veut. Avec la liberte, partout off regne
   l'affluence, le bien-etre y regne aussi. Plantez au milieu d'une
   place un arbre couronne de fleurs, rassemblez-y le peuple, et vous
   aurez une fete. Faites mieux encore: donnez les spectateurs en
   spectacles; rendez-les acteurs eux-memes; faites que chacun se vole
   et s'aime dans les autres, afin que tous en soient mieux unis. (43)


The festival, by making the participants into actors (of) themselves, shows how identity is mimetic or performative, that is, without an essential foundation, and therefore ultimately dependent upon identification with the other. (44) By staging the impossibility of a pure, immanent identity, the festival thus be-speaks the fallacy of social hierarchies that are set up to exclude the other in the vain hope of securing cultural supremacy. The liberating nature of the festival, like the magical, rests upon the indeterminate power of imagination. An alternative representation of the social--one that does not merely rehearse existing prejudices and stereotypes--comes from the participants' capacity to engage in imaginary acts of identification with one another.

Like Leiris, Rousseau situates the unifying effects of the theatre in an interworld, located somewhere between affects and cognition, where self and other merge through a purely aesthetic event that has no concrete object to substantiate its existence. The public spectacle precisely shows or represents nothing, implying how any identificatory act emanates from non-identification. It is the negativity upon which the social is founded that unifies us across divisions as we attempt to build the impossible object of society. (45) Both Rousseau and Leiris intimate that a staging of social plenitude goes together with a staging of social lack. (46) This paradox calls upon the imagination to generate new understandings of the other that do not simply further entrench existing prejudices and, as a result, engender oppressive forms of unity based on opposition to that other. The negativity that gives rise to this intersubjective experience temporarily stops the other from being subsumed by the categories of cognition, thereby preserving his aherity and insisting on the need for new understandings of him. By figuring the social negativity that makes us fundamentally equal through the incomplete nature of our social identity, the Rousseauean festival, like the 'lived theatre of trance,' could suspend social divisions and thereby create an opening for diverse modes of interaction. This situation of difference through equivalence, unity through division, identity through non-identity provides fertile ground for more dynamic socio-cultural configurations.

The theatre, interposed between the inside and outside of the social space, can function as a meeting-point of the social and non-social. This domain, as a site of antagonism where what is internal to the constructed identity of society makes contact with its constitutive outside, can be a place for redefining what is included and excluded in social construction. The aesthetic experience of trance or festival causes fiction and reality to converge, thwarting attempts to police their dividing border. This exposes the fictional derivation of the cultural norms and rules that give imaginary consistency to our perception of normality. This weakening or suspension of normative and classificatory systems creates an opening for cross-cultural translation or fertilisation to happen.

Jazz as Resistance to Imperialism

Leiris identifies, in L'Age d'homme, an example of this type of social transformation in the post-war phenomenon of jazz. (47) His description of this era retrieves his portrayal of the frenzy and boundlessness associated with tribal possession. Early jazz works to counteract the feeling of fragmentation and isolation subsequent to the atrocities of the First World War by offering a secular version of the integrative aspect of religious communion:
   Brasses dans les violentes bouffees d'air chaud issues des
   tropiques, il passait dans le jazz assez de relents de
   civilisation finie, d'hu
   manite se soumettant aveuglement a la machine, pour exprimer
   aussi totalement qu'il est possible l'etat d'esprit d'au moins
   quelques-uns d'entre nous: demoralisation plus ou moins consciente
   nee de la guerre, ebahissement naif devant le confort et les
   derniers cris du progres, gout du decor contemporain dont nous
   devions cependant pressentir confusement l'inanite, abandon a la
   joie animale de subir l'influence du rythme moderne, aspiration
   sous-jacente a une vie neuve ou une place plus large serait faite a
   toutes les candeurs sauvages dont le desir, bien que tout a fait
   informe encore, nous ravageait. (48)


The mesmerising beat of this new music induces a state of self-dispossession where the cultural determination of the self becomes de-contextualised. Like the spectator of the tribal ritual of trance, the subject listening to jazz, through the heterogeneity of this aesthetic experience, comes to occupy a fluid zone or perhaps even a non-place. This non-place forms the point of cultural exchange where the equivalential negativity, which allows for cultural diversity, vaguely surfaces as the dividing line between self and other becomes blurred. Leiris makes this idea explicit in an interview, when he affirms: 'Ce que j'aime beaucoup, c'est l'Autre qui n'est pas tout-a-fait un autre, l'Autre qui apparait chez vous. Ainsi ce que j'ai trouve fantastique dans le jazz, c'est au fond l'espece d'africanisation des musiques europeennes.' (49) Jazz gives Leiris a distracted sense of the incomplete nature of his social identity. This incompletion, the ever-present dichotomy between the self and its representation at the level of the system, highlights its indeterminacy or determinability. The instability of identity, as a constructed phenomenon, leaves it susceptible to external influence or more accurately, its formation, due to its lack of essence, actually depends on that influence. Cultural identity results from interaction with, and differentiation from, other cultures.

Leiris insists on the mobility of cultural identity in his essay 'L'Ethnographe devant le colonialiasme, stating that '(la) culture n'est pas une chose figee mais une chose mouvante.' It therefore becomes imperative to distinguish the desire to safeguard a culture in the sense of ensuring its perseverance from the desire to preserve it in an 'untouched' state: 'Quant a la sauvegarde des cultures, j'ai deja dit qu'a mon sens il serait vain de les conserver telles quelles car, en admettant qu'on puisse le faire, cela reviendrait a les petrifier et signifierait d'ailleurs, du point de vue colonialisme, le maintien du statu quo.' (50) Confining a particular society to traditional values and practices, as a way of maintaining cultural purity, would eventually lead to the extinction of that society, as it would restrict its potential for growth and adaptation. But Leiris also recognises the implicit danger of describing culture as 'une chose dont l'essence est d'evoluer,' since such a description 'peut sembler apporter au colonialisme une justification: la necessite d'eduquer les peuples regardes comme attardes, et cela dans leur propre interet comme dans celui de tous, est, en effet, l'un des arguments dont les colonialistes usent le plus volontiers (bien qu'en fait ils redoutent et tendent meme a ralentir, sous des pretextes divers, une evolution d'ou ne peut resulter finalement que leur elimination).' (51) As Leiris demonstrates, resistance to the oppressive force of colonialism cannot come from a strict policy of either preservation or enforced progress, because either policy presents the indigenous group as retrograde, thereby justifying the colonisers' move to impose their own cultural norms and practices in the name of modernisation. Resistance to empire can only be enacted through a complex process of exchange that makes cultural difference the condition of new forms of social interaction. This process finds a metaphor in Leiris's portrayal of the aesthetic experience of jazz.

The clash of European and African cultures, audible in the rhythms of early jazz demonstrates how art, through a process of cross-cultural translation where two cultures collide and contaminate one another, can show the constitutive non-convergence of differing cultures. (52) As we have seen, cultures are not bounded entities; their mode of exchange actually determines them. The friction involved in their configuration refers the universal claims of any social group back to the particularity at its origins, illustrating the contingency and mutability of universality. Jazz assumes its political import by foregrounding the necessity of plurality for socio-political development and growth. The simultaneous conjunction and disjunction of African and European rhythms supplies a metaphor for the generative and constitutive properties of cultural difference. It thereby exposes the destructive and ossifying repercussions of the imperialist drive towards social homogeneity. It deconstructs the idea of socio-cultural supremacy by highlighting the fact that the formation of any culture is contingent upon its attempt to distinguish itself from another. The colonialists' move to try to eradicate or suppress difference proves ultimately self-cancelling because it denies what founds their identity in the first place. The clash of Europe and Africa in jazz therefore dislodges and questions any ethnocentric hierarchy by underlining the improbability of one culture's totally subsuming another: the divergence of cultures is what constitutes each culture on the most fundamental level. Recognition of this inter-dependence could provide the basis for dynamic political forms.

Concluding Comments

The constant oscillation between identity and difference that characterises the aesthetic space, for Leiris, resists the disenchanting, objectifying force of authoritarian political practice. The estranging effect of both the poetic and the miraculous has the potential to decontextualise the self, thereby exposing the lack of essential foundations for its social and cultural identity. This effect marks the point at which self and other meet, demonstrating how the desire to identify with the other originates in a feeling of difference from that other. Any identity that we assume is always mediated by otherness, leaving it forever incomplete and open to change. This creates equality through the shared incompletion of our social identity, making possible modes of association that seek not to eradicate the intensity of differences--the intensity experienced in trance or in early jazz--in the pursuit of fusion or conformity, but to preserve that intensity as the condition of the ability of such modes of association to respond and adapt to new social demands. The aesthetic experience of trance and jazz challenges any notion of cultural supremacy or dominance.

The miraculous, as a disruption of the ordinary, therefore has the potential to trigger the critical work necessary to allow for the confrontation and interaction of the social and the non-social, which make possible the emergence of the new. Its unsettling force alerts us to what falls outside a logical or rational definition of the world, subverting any claim to full representation or understanding and so reminding us of the incomplete separation of all knowledge from fiction. The interpenetration of fact and fiction in any definition of reality confers on us the responsibility of endlessly interrogating and reformulating our understanding of social truth in the endless search for more open representations of the human. The impossibility of attaining total objectivity, of discovering the regle du jeu, without descending into authoritarianism, connects the ethical to invention and creativity. The persistence of the incommensurable in art indicates the impossibility of totally closing the gap between the description of what is and the projection of what can be: the very space of Utopian hope. (53)

(1.) Adorno and Horkheimer attribute a similar function to art, locating its original powers in its affinity with the forces of magic and animism--the purposive spirit of the world. In the disenchanted modern world, it is only the autonomy of art that can potentially endow it with the 'aura' that it has lost: 'It is the nature of the work of art, or aesthetic semblance, to be what the new, terrifying occurrence became in the primitive's magic: the appearance of the whole in the particular. In the work of art, the duplication still occurs by which the thing appeared as spiritual, as the expression of mana. This constitutes its aura. As an expression of totality, art lays claim to the dignity of the absolute.' Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, John Cumming (trans.), (London: Verso, 1997), p. 19. This concept of aesthetic potency has informed my reading of Leiris's empowerment of art through its links with the tribal ritual of trance.

(2.) Michel Leiris, Cinq etudes d'ethnologie, (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), p. 149.

(3.) This realisation does not occur suddenly in Fibrilles (Paris: Gallimard, 1966); he constantly places his project in question throughout La Regle du ieu.

(4.) Frele bruit, (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p. 389.

(5.) For a rich discussion of Leiris's innovative approach to anthropological discourse, see Anna Warby, "The Anthropological Self: Michel Leiris's 'Ethnopoetics'", in Forum for Modern Languages Studies, 26:3, (1990), pp. 250-258.

(6.) L'AiCrique fantome, (Paris: Gallimard, 1981).

(7.) Ibid., p. 214.

(8.) Cinq etudes d'ethnologie, p. 151.

(9.) I am basing my translation of the term 'merveilleux' on the Grand Robert (1994) that gives both 'magique' and 'miraculeux' as synonyms. Leiris's notion of the 'merveilleux' can be understood as a secular transformation of what medievalists would term 'the Christian miraculous.'

(10.) See Frele bruit, pp. 323-379 and also his posthumously published work, Le Merveilleux, Michel Leiris, Catherine Maubon (ed.), (Brussels: Didier Devillez, 2000). For a discussion of the transition from the sacred to the 'merveilleux', see Paul Chanton de Brancion, "La Chouette Minerve: du sacre au merveilleux chez le litterateur Michel Leiris", Revue Romane, vol. 18, (1983).

(11.) Frele bruit, p. 364.

(12.) Ibid., p. 374.

(13.) Ibid., p. 377.

(14.) Leiris recognises that the notion of the pure aesthetic or art for art's sake is illusory. Although we may attempt to adhere to such a notion, that is, to create without being seduced by any larger aim, we always end up going beyond our intention of pure confection. Indeed, by simply making the pure aesthetic our goal, it automatically obtains wider significance than mere practice (Fibrilles, p. 230). Leiris would therefore probably concur with Jean-Francois Lyotard that the idea of the pure aesthetic proves conservative, and thus ultimately political, because it limits art to a particular status. This allows politics to discard art as inconsequential and to ignore its possibly disturbing effects on the status quo. So the pure aesthetic is a notion that restricts critical thought. See J-F Lyotard, Derives a partir de Marx et Freud, (Paris: Galilee, 1994), pp. 21-22.

(15.) This is similar to the distinction that Georges Bataille makes between strong and weak communication. See his La Litterature et le Mal, (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), pp. 148-154.

(16.) Fibrilles, p. 265.

(17.) Ibid., p. 284.

(18.) Frele bruit, p. 341.

(19.) Ibid., p. 363.

(20.) Ibid., p. 346.

(21.) Ibid., p. 348.

(22.) Ibid., p. 346.

(23.) Michel Leiris, Le Merveilleux, Catherine Maubon (ed.) (Brussels: Didier Devillez, 2000), p. 45.

(24.) Frele bruit, p. 346.

(25.) In a later interview, Leiris recognises the stereotypical nature of his portrayal of black culture. C'est-a-dire, Entretien avec Sally Price et Jean Jamin, (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1992), p. 22. However, I aim to demonstrate how the descriptive level of Leiris's accounts of cultural otherness is outstripped by their performative level, which, by identifying the irreducible element of ethnocentrism in such accounts, exhorts us to find innovative and self-critical approaches to anthropology.

(26.) Michel Leiris, La Possession et ses aspect theatraux chez les Ethiopiens de Gondar (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1989), p. 119.

(27.) Ibid., p. 129.

(28.) Frele bruit, p. 363.

(29.) Ibid., p. 271.

(30.) Leiris explores at length the stultifying effect of theatrical division in 'Mors,' the first section of Fourbis, pp. 7-74.

(31.) Ibid., pp. 111-112.

(32.) Ibid., pp. 123-124.

(33.) Ibid., p. 124.

(34.) This may be compared with the experience that Leiris has at a poetry recital to commemorate the death of the poet, Max Jacob. Whilst on stage, Leiris perceives his audience as a mass of indistinct beings only discernible through their vague murmuring. He describes this experience as one of 'grandiose isolation', giving him the impression of being the sole existent in the world, of transcendence, of immortality. His feeling of being beyond death is concurrent with a feeling of being beyond real life: immortality paradoxically implies the isolation and closure of death. The lack of reciprocity between performer and audience, self and other, transforms Leiris into a statue; an image that implies completion or totalisation, in short, immutability. In contrast, Leiris's portrayal of the ritual of trance suggests a form of theatre that aims to foster critical thought and self-awareness by foregrounding the impossibility of conceiving self without other, subject without object. Ibid., p. 44-45.

(35.) Leiris, in comically portraying his naive attempt at fraternisation with the indigenous population of Dakar, shows the dangers of trying to forge fraternal relations without placing in question your own position vis-a-vis the other. On hearing the news of the German defeat in 1945, he decides to celebrate the end of the war with the local Africans. After preparing for the dissolution of barriers through alcohol, he ends up meeting three blacks to whom he proposes a walk arm in arm 'dans la douceur des tenebres.' He is eventually beaten up and stripped of his personal belongings. This one-sided attempt at fraternity fails, and the episode culminates absurdly in the complaint that Leiris lodges with the police, not about the blacks who assaulted him, but about the European who came to his aid and treated him as a homosexual. Ibid., pp. 161-174.

(36.) We need to identify with others because we lack a fully constituted identity. This fundamental lack, as the condition of all identificatory acts, at once allows us to assume new identities and yet leaves them forever incomplete and thus exposed to change. See Ernesto Laclau, 'Introduction' and also Laclau and Lillian Zac, "Minding the Gap: the Subject of Politics" in The Making of Political Identities, Ernesto Laclau (ed.), (London: Verso, 1994).

(37.) Leiris, "L'Ethnographe devant le colonialisme," Cinq etudes d'ethnologie, pp. 83-112.

(38.) Fourbis, p. 137.

(39.) Frele bruit, p. 271.

(40.) I take this understanding of antagonism from the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. See their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, (London: Verso, 1985), in particular pp. 122-134.

(41.) Nathalie Barberger briefly considers the links between Rousseau's and Leiris's understanding of the theatrical space. See her Michel Leiris, l'ecriture vers une ethique de l'endeuillement, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Septentrion), pp. 71-72. I intend to compare Rousseau's and Leiris's representation of the theatrical space in a future essay.

(42.) Jean Starobinski, Le Remede dans le mal: critique et legitimation de l'artifice a l'Age des Lumieres, (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), p. 176.

(43.) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre a d'Alembert, CEuvres completes, vol.5, (Paris: Gallimard, 1995), p. 115.

(44.) Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe radicalises Starobinski's idea that Rousseau, as a remedy to the perverse consequences of traditional theatre, generalises the effects of the theatre. Lacoue-Labarthe argues that Rousseau makes theatricality 'the general law of the social.' For Lacoue-Labarthe, Rousseau's critique of conventional theatre illustrates the impossibility of self-presence or transparency, the fact that nothing is 'present' without being mediated or represented; that is, everything is 'staged.' Mimesis only becomes dangerous, for Rousseau, when it poses as a direct and complete representation of reality, thereby disavowing the negativity or incompletion at the root of social relations. For example, the audience, in conventional theatre, becomes lured by theatrical illusion into believing that by merely pitying the characters on stage, they have fulfilled their obligations towards others and are therefore exonerated from performing 'real duties.' Lacoue-Labarthe argues that, for Rousseau, the cathartic effect of mimesis, taken to mean a transparent representation of reality, consists in an imaginary relieving of the conscience rather than in an actual purging of the passions. This sense of relief becomes dangerous, because it gives us the feeling of being completely exempt from the suffering of others, and therefore from the need to offer help. The festival functions as an antidote to this negative effect by staging otherness as the condition of all relations, even our relation to the self. See his Poetique de l'histoire, (Paris: Galilee, 2002), in particular pp. 94-101 and pp. 134-135.

(45.) I am referring, here, to Laclau's idea of the impossible object of society. As both Rousseau's and Leiris's portrayal of the theatre implies, social identity is constructed through a constant play of differences whose ultimate meaning remains constantly deferred. If we accept the relational nature of identity, its being constructed differentially, then it follows that the identity of the social is also constructed around differences. This means that we can no longer conceive society as an intelligible object that has a determinate meaning that explains and defines its empirical variations, but as being fundamentally indeterminate. We only need to identify and forge relations with one another, to build society, because society does not exist in an essential a priori form. See Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of our Time, (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 89-92.

(46.) Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe describes the Rousseauean festival as a figure of the impossible itself, of pure contradiction, in that it shows that nothing is present which is not mediated or (re)-presented, and therefore, that nothing is actually present at all. Poetique de l'histoire, pp. 134-135.

(47.) For an informative discussion of Leiris's relationship with jazz, see Yannick Seite, "Lage du jazz," Gradhiva. Revue d'histoire et d'archives de l'anthropologie, 25, 1999, pp. 27-44.

(48.) Michel Leiris, L'age d'homme, (Paris: Gallimard, 1939), pp. 161-162.

(49.) "Entretien avec M.Haggerty," Jazz Magazine, no. 324, 1984, p. 35.

(50.) "L'Ethnographe devant le colonialisme," p. 99.

(51.) Ibid., p. 95.

(52.) My interpretation of the political force of jazz is assisted by Judith Butler's understanding of the disruptive, but constitutive force of cross-cultural exchange in political formation. See Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 35-41.

(53.) I wish to thank Ms. Felicity Baker for her critical reading of the first draft of this article.

Kevin Inston

University of Manchester
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