Lyotard and the Secret Self

I have been reading Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Postmodern Fables (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), one of which relates to what I am doing, or hope to be doing, with the Luke’s Wiki project that I am beginning on my Moodle site. In “The General Line”, Lyotard talks about the second life that we all maintain, the secret life, the no-man’s-land, that is separated from public life by a “general line”. This general line is what separates the life that everyone sees from the life of the individual, the life of absolute privacy and absolute freedom.

This private and secret life is not a way to conceal something, to hide a secret. It is a way to be alone with myself apart from any secrets that I may be hiding from myself. Lyotard says that the second existence suspends the first “a little; it dwells within it from time to time and sweeps it away, but without one knowing anything about it. The second existence does not really wrong the first one; it opens little parentheses within it.” He goes on to say that “You grant your hours of solitude to that existence because you have a need not to know more. That is how it is that you can encounter what you are unaware of. However, you wait for it. And you can try to make it come. You read, your drink, you love, you make music, you give yourself over to the ritual of your little obsessions, you write.”

This second life is critical to Lyotard because he sees it as being “at the very foundation of human rights.” He argues that it is “the human right to separation that governs our declared rights,” because “rights and respect for rights are owed to us only because something in us exceeds every recognized right.” If, therefore, the general line begins to dissolve, if there is no longer a secret and hidden life, “if humanity does not preserve the inhuman region in which we can meet this or that which completely escapes the exercise of rights, we do not merit the rights that we have been recognized.”

Yet, according to Lyotard, the general line is coming under attack in liberal democratic societies, not from the overt and violent denial of privacy that characterizes totalitarianism, but from a subtle and unrelenting demand that we express ourselves continually, that we give our opinions instantly, that we publish and represent ourselves entirely. “Heavy pressures,” he says, “are put on silence, to give birth to expression.”

All of which leads me to my current project, which, to no small degree, involves the kind of publishing and representing of the self that concerns Lyotard so much. By trying to find a way to present my writing in ways that permit it to be partial, incomplete, varied, and interconnected, I also permit it, in effect, to be presented in ways that are more total and more exhaustive. The more effective the project is, by which I mean, the more completely my writing begins to take place in this other mode, the less of my writing and my thinking remains in the second world and the more it appears in the first.

Lyotard’s concern is one that disturbs me, because it articulates a concern of my own that I have often felt but never been able to verbalize. It is obvious to me that my writing will necessarily differ depending on the audience to which I direct it, that this current mode of writing, intended for anyone who might want to read it, will be very different from the mode of writing in which I conduct personal correspondence or the mode of writing in which I struggle to articulate new ideas to myself. It is for this reason that I have resisted requests from several people to post our correspondence on blogs or other forums. I felt that, somehow, though there was nothing personal in these exchanges, to make them public was to violate a boundary of privacy, the “general line” of a conversation and a relationship, to use Lyotard’s phrase.

I feel much the same conflict about Luke’s Wiki. In most cases, including the short reflections I have already posted, the writing that I wish to present in this format was not intended for a general audience. It is the writing of my second and secret life. Publishing this sort of writing causes me discomfort, not because it embarrasses me, though some of it does embarrasses me for other reasons; rather, it causes me discomfort because it represents a radical reduction of the secret space that makes me separate as such.

After all, will it ever again be possible for me to write in the ways that produced this kind of secret and secondary writing when I am always cognizant that it will likely appear in my first life also. What space does this leave for me to be hidden and separate? This is one of the questions that I think the project will increasingly pose to me.

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