Oedipus returns “to hide in death a while;” or, recurrent displacement: The Character of a Dark Precursor for a Theatre of Philosophy

Near the beginning of “Theatrum Philosophicum,” Michel Foucault’s essay reviewing Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense (this is where and when – the esssay appeared in 1970 – Foucault famously remarked that one day the century will be known as Deleuzian), there is a committal: Plato is dead. Deleuze, at the time, is very much alive. Foucault measures the philosophical force of Deleuze’s arguments by the effort the latter makes to bury Plato, not praise him. He finds in Plato, the “excessive and deficient father.” [p. 344]* Of course, Foucault goes on: however insistent they are and whatever those efforts consist in, Plato and Platonism will subsist on the surface as the series into which Deleuze is interpellated. Which is not without significance for the depth of the hole (or cave, is it?) wherein the body is interred.

Later in the essay, Foucault lets us observe scholarship’s conversation with stupidity, the studium philosophicum. The scenario is exactly graveside: Hamlet, direct from Wittenberg, where that fine Herr Doctor – Faust – some have said was still enjoying tenure, picks up a friend’s skull. How does he recognise him?

Foucault gives us the philosopher’s POV as his “sight plunges into the candleless skull.” [p. 362] No, of course, it’s not Hamlet; there is simply a family resemblance; and if it were Horatio, it would have been Hamlet’s old thespian chum’s best performance to date, albeit in dumbshow.

The philosopher contemplates the skull which is stupidity, stupid skull: “It is his death mask, his temptation, perhaps his desire, his catatonic theatre.” [Ibid.] I would like to illustrate this point with an illustration.

– copy of death mask, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), at Thielska Gallery, Stockholm, Sweden

The resemblance here is to the work of Italian Symbolist sculptor, Adolfo Wildt.

– Adolfo Wildt, Autoritratto, (1868-1931)

But it is not his. It is Nietzsche’s, a copy of the death mask allegedly at Weimar, in the keeping of Mrs. Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche. (I would like to thank Undying Faces® for this information and commend the site on its innumerable mortuary delights.)

Nietzsche was, after all, famous for his catatonia. But did he have anything to do with the theatre? Yes.

How does looking at a dumb skull, a skull identified with being a numbskull, equate to a “catatonic theatre?” How else but via Nietzsche?

Foucault takes up this issue, asking of the Eternal Return, “[…] should this excessive, this always-misplaced and displaced sign have been accentuated; and […] should it have been made to enter into resonance with the great signified that today’s thought supports as an uncertain and controlled ballast? Should it have allowed recurrence to resound in unison with difference?” [p. 367] He gives his answer: “We must avoid thinking that the return is the form of a content that is difference; rather, from an always-nomadic and anarchic difference to the unavoidably excessive and displaced sign of recurrence, a lightning storm was produced which will bear the name of Deleuze: new thought is possible; thought is again possible.” [Ibid.]

Among Gilles Deleuze’s conceptual personae, the object=x stands out as being particularly overactive: “Distributing the differences through the entire structure, making the differential relations vary with its displacement, the object=x constitutes the differenciating element of difference itself.” [“How Do We Recognise Structuralism,” in Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974, Gilles Deleuze, trans. Michael Taormina, pp. 170-203, Semiotext(e), New York, 2004, p. 186]

In Difference and Repetition, the algebraically innocuous object=x appears as the much more suggestive Dark Precursor (my capitals). This ambiguous sign, traversing structure, and series both symbolic and real, differenciating wherever it goes, faster than a photon, is also known as the White, or empty, Square (mine). Who is the Dark Precursor? Is he friendly? A friend, Horatio? or perhaps an “excessive and deficient father”?

Again it is a question of antecedence, of the ghost who comes before, before the action (of difference), appearing upstage and upstaging, for the moment, Hamlet, perhaps on a bicycle. The Dark Precursor allies himself with the Eternal Return: “a lightning storm which will bear the name” … – an ex machina, at least, for which reason Dorothea Olkowski wants to do away with him. (See The Universal (In the Realm of the Sensible): Beyond Contintinental Philosophy, Dorothea Olkowski, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007 (she perhaps wants to get him offstage for the sake of being sensible as well as to surpass Continental philosophy (Cf. Foucault’s hardly sensible discussion of drugs in the perverse and “catatonic theatre” [p. 363])).)

But I don’t want to put to proof – in these testing times – the identity of the Dark Precursor, because if nothing else, he, it, she, this masker, is an impersonation. What I want to suggest is that Deleuze’s is called a theatre of philosophy, theatrum philosophicum, because of a displacement, which displaces – the metaphor of theatre – principally onto the Dark Precursor. (“He’s behind you!”)

Foucault’s essay in review of Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense attests to this displacement, first, in regard to Plato, and second, in regard to Nietzsche, by way of the Eternal Return. I would further say that Foucault’s style of testimony is deliberately theatrical.

In “The Place of Death: ‘Oedipus at Colonus,” Samuel Weber distinguishes theatricality as medium from theatricality as a genre, from narrative, mythos, and from theatrical representation. The medium is one in which the audience, spectator, listener, reader or observer bears witness to events that as such cannot be seen, to events that are not staged and yet decide what is shown, differenciating the action, or otherwise distributing difference throughout the action, as a process of effects. [Chapter 5, in Theatricality as Medium, Samuel Weber, pp. 141-159, Fordham University Press, 2004]

The “place of death” in question is at Colonus, whither Sophocles has Oedipus come to die (in a cave, is it?). Oedipus makes Theseus promise to keep the place of death he has chosen a secret, saying that this secret will thereby impart protection to Athens better than shields, armies, and allies. Weber asks what power is being invoked in the gift of his secret place of death that Oedipus can make this claim.

The death itself happens off. A messenger recounts the effect of it: Theseus shielded his eyes and Oedipus was gone. The messenger therefore does not account for it and what occurs occurs in a cut between Oedipus’ being there and being gone.

Since what is necessary to the medium is unseen, happening off, it is neither a power of theatre as medium pertaining to representation, nor does what happens belong to the order of knowledge: it belongs first and foremost to memory, to the fate of the particular and the singular, to a place that is “both inaccessible and unavoidable.” [Ibid., p. 157] The object=x as place-holder equally refers to a place which is in recurrent displacement.

“Theatre, as a medium that cannot be contained in a story, involves a space that always tends to be a place of death […] a place where life brushes up against being dead. Whenever any thing or event takes place theatrically, it tends to be split between a glance that mistakes and an agent that dissimulates.” [Ibid., p. 158] It is in the Dark Precursor, I suggest, that we find the life of a theatre of philosophy, one that differenciates by displacement and perversely involves a space that always “tends to be a place of death.”

– Francis Bacon, Oedipus and the Sphinx (after Ingres), 1983

“What passes thus from hand to hand is more like a swollen foot than a clenched fist. Oedipus’ place of death is singularly inaccessible. It is inaccessible as a result of what happens, and does not happen, there. Death will have taken place, while at the same time never visibly happening. Like the place itself, it is always on the move, although never simply going anywhere.” [Ibid., p. 159]

*Quotations given in the text as page numbers from “Theatrum Philosophicum,” Michel Foucault, trans. D.F. Brouchard and Sherry Simon, in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James Faubion, Penguin, London, 1998, pp. 343-368.