July 19, 2024

Text, Body, and the Ethics of Raymond Federman’s Spectator (Roger Green)

In this post, I argue that postmodern writer, Raymond Federman’s reluctant commitment to text, his necessity to return to and interrupt narrative and to make text, emphasizing its artificial nature, exhibits a Jewish ethical commitment to resist representation.  In doing so, Federman continues longstanding themes in Jewish hermeneutics as well as presenting examples of what one might call ethical critifiction.

In Federman’s (1928-2009) essay, “Fiction Today, or the Pursuit of Non-Knowledge,” he points to Antonin Artaud’s emphasis on self-consciousness with Antonin Artaud’s words:  “You don’t see my thought . . . I know myself because I am my own spectator, I am Antonin Artaud’s spectator . . .I am the one who has most clearly felt the bewildering confusion of his language in its relation with the world. I am the one who has best marked the moment of its most intimate, imperceptible shifts” (1).

Federman then synthesizes his take on Artaud’s words: “The question of one’s existence and one’s language becomes in the New Fiction its highest justification – if a justification is needed.”  His article was originally published in 1978 for a journal titled Humanities and Society.  It sets itself up as a defense of works of “New Fiction” in their innovation over mimesis. Such works “challenge the traditional bases of both cultural and aesthetic judgment” because contemporary fiction, “does not relate the reader directly to the external world (reality), nor does it provide the reader with a sense of lived experience (truth), instead contemporary fiction dwells on the circumstances of its own possibilities, on the conventions of narrative, and on the openness of language to multiple meanings, contradictions, paradoxes, and irony.”

In other words, Federman characterizes New Fiction’s aesthetic as resisting fixed meanings and representations.  It is in some ways anti-representational or aniconic.  For Federman, the world in New Fiction is to be experienced, “no longer as an image (a realistic representation) or as an expression (vague feelings) of what we thought it was, but as a newly invented, newly discovered reality – a fictitious reality” (16).  These thoughts may as well be an artist’s statement for the rest of Federman’s writing career, and it is especially necessary to understand them as a counter to strict autobiography in order to understand the depth of “Federman’s spectator.”

Federman worked as a professor, a literary theorist, and a novelist until dying of cancer at 81 in 2010.  Multiple times in his life he attempted capturing aspects of his biography in print, endlessly renegotiating this source material as his work took on different formal qualities.  His perpetual returning to his own past served both to disrupt a sense of fixed identity and to establish a distinction between repetition and difference.  Identity is established as a constant repetition and fragmentation, but each work presents a different entity.

Works both preceding and following the essay, “Fiction Today, or the Pursuit of Non-Knowledge,” reflect commitment to his clearly stated artistic objectives.  For example, Double or Nothing (1971), explicitly uses text as image. The Voice in the Closet (2001) presents its narrative as one uninterrupted sentence across about thirty pages and published in both French and English. Federman A to X-X-X-X: A Recyclopedic Narrative collects significant “entries” of friends and memories in the writer’s life, and SHHH! The Story of a Childhood presents multiple personalities of the same ‘self,’ personalities who interrupt a narrative about Federman’s last memories of his family before they were taken by Nazis to perish in concentration camps.

While many of these aesthetic features may be more broadly termed ‘postmodern,’ I argue that Federman’s reluctant commitment to text, his necessity to return to – and interrupt – narrative, making text emphasize its artificial nature, exhibits a deeply Jewish ethical commitment to resist representation and an ethical aestheticcommitment to accounting for absence in the aftermath of the holocaust.  In doing so, Federman continues longstanding themes in Jewish hermeneutics, as well as resonating with themes from Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy.

I invoke Levinas here to elucidate what is at stake with respect to Federman as an artist and as a Jewish survivor of the Second World War.  Levinas notably has a difficult relationship with art in general.  Jill Robbins notes that “there is an incommensurability between the more originary level of Levinas’s ethical discourse and the discourse of literary criticism”(39).  In his early essay, “Reality and Its Shadow” (1948), Levinas is deeply suspicious of aestheticization.

At times, Levinas critics have sought to defend Levinas’s feelings about art as becoming more open throughout his career. Jill Robbins points to John Llewelyn’s discussion of Levinas and art where he argues that while early on, Levinas denigrates art, figure, and rhetoric, his relationship to art softens in his later work (40).  I, however, do not make such a claim.  Levinas’s concern with art is only in its relationship to the priority of ethics as first philosophy. Robbins notes that Levinas – whose work is full of literary allusions – “has a tendency to treat the literary work as if it were transparently denotative” and constitutes a “turning away from figure.” There is an austerity present in Levinas’s criticism that I think Federman’s aesthetics address.

In “Reality and Its Shadow,” Levinas sees something obscuring and unrevealing about art: “it is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow.”  His thesis is that, far from illuminating reality, Art is created by an eventual rupture in time that obscures reality, moving “in just the opposite direction” of creation.  Criticism, Levinas says, is “the public’s mode of comportment. Not content with being absorbed in aesthetic, the public feels the irresistible need to speak.”

The critic is “the one that still has something to say when everything has been said, that can say about the work something else from the work”(2).  Criticism, then, has the possibility of integrating “the human work of the artist into the human world.”  It is in doing so that criticism “links this disengaged and proud man to real history.”  For Levinas, “the artwork must be treated as myth: the immobile statue has to be put into movement and made to speak”(13).  Myth becomes, “the source of philosophical truth.”  By nature, criticism must “choose and limit.”

It is in the interpretation of criticism that we speak in “full self-possession.”  Modern literature, according to Levinas, although it is “disparaged for its intellectualism” is to be praised for manifesting “a more and more clear awareness of this fundamental insufficiency of artistic idolatry.”  The artist comes to be an interpreter of myths “himself.”  The modern artist has the possibility of moving beyond the Renaissance mimetic “creator-God,” but that remains only a possibility. Criticism remains necessary in its return to the living from the shadows.

It is tempting to read in this shadow / light metaphor a broader gloss on Western civilization.  One hears in Levinas’s conclusion at once the distant echoes of Odysseus leaving the underworld, leaving Circe’s helpful magic behind; and simultaneously, his invocation of an emergent ethical conversation concerning “the relation with the Other” that will become the focus of Totality and Infinity.

When one combines this gloss, however, with Levinas’s conception that art’s obscuring of reality is a covering-up as opposed to an unveiling, we see a different take on Western culture.  For Levinas, Art cannot open to the “light” of truth or reveal, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, and his argument does not indulge in Platonic adequation of ‘truth’ and ‘light.’

Anti-Semitism historically instills a sense of alarm in being singled-out in public and in the frequent Christian claims that Jews are “blind” to the “light.”  Darkness becomes a tacit way of invoking Jewishness.  Levinas’s broader point is that neither binary end of the light-dark spectrum is sufficient to account for a prior relationship with the Other, and that relationship must be accounted for before, nor can the Other be reduced to conceptual adequation or eidetic form.

In Federman’s work, darkness is no hero’s journey to the underworld.  Mythological fascination, as Robert Ellwood addresses in his study of among Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell, can often have implicit rightwing leanings.  For Federman, darkenss is literally the closet his mother pushed him into as a boy, saying “SHHH,” – and being disappeared from Federman’s life by the “progress” of Western civilization. Fiction and memory are both constructed.

Similarly, “Truth,” in Federman’s remarks above, are only indicative of the representation of a subjectivation or psychologism.  Modern literature, according to Levinas, although it is “disparaged for its intellectualism” is to be praised for manifesting “a more and more clear awareness of this fundamental insufficiency of artistic idolatry”(13).   Levinas points to writers such as Mallarmé and Proust as examples.

The artist comes to be an interpreter of myths “himself.”  The modern artist has the possibility of moving beyond the Renaissance mimetic “creator-God,” but that remains only a possibility. Criticism remains necessary in its return to the living from the shadows.

Federman and Levinas appear to be in some agreement with respect to the Western tradition of aesthetics.  However, Levinas is wholly unconcerned with articulating a “New Fiction,” while Federman’s assertions about the new aesthetic appear to address the very concerns that Levinas has with art.  Federman’s novels and his notions of critifiction and surfiction point toward an ethical aesthetic that, while certainly not to be mistaken for Levinas’s call for ethics as first philosophy, is wholly undeserving of a condemnation that often gets associated with postmodern art: that of moral relativism.

Moreover, Federman’s work alerts us to anti-Semitism beneath culturally conservative claims that Western civilization is in a state of decline due to its “degenerate” art and moral relativism.  In this sense, being attentive to Federman’s work does not advance a humanistic view of artistic flourishing.  It signals, rather, that disrupting the narrative of the West that gave rise to the Final Solution is the best way to account for the Holocaust without representing it.

In an essay titled, “The Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jewish Writer,” Federman writes, “It is NOT through content but form, NOT with numbers or statistics but fiction and poetry that we will eventually come to terms with the Holocaust and its consequences” (qtd. in Suleiman 215).  He told one interviewer: “My work is really about the post-Holocaust, what it means to live the rest of your earthly existence with this thing inside of you – and I don’t just mean me, I mean all of us, wherever we may be”(in Bernstein 17).

In SHHH: The Story of a Childhood, he writes, “In our home, we didn’t pay any attention to the Sabbath or any religious holidays.  My father was an Atheist.  So my sisters and I were raised without any religion.  During my childhood I never set foot in a synagogue, and I knew nothing of Jewish customs”(117).  The Holocaust, he says, “was a universal affair in which we were all implicated and are still”(in Bernstein 17).  This language is reminiscent of Emmanuel Levinas’s call for responsibility in the face of the Other, yet it is important to note that what Federman qualifies as the “New Fiction” is not couched within the identity-perspective of Judaism, but at the same time it draws on uniquely Jewish experience and participates in a metaphysical view that individual identities expand into not just culture but responsibility for cultural and historical actions.

This responsibility is echoed in his descriptions of the New Fiction (not to be confused with the French nouveau roman), which he sees as arriving with novels such as Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.  He sees self-reflexivity, which although present in novels since Don Quixote, as changing around 1960.  Self-reflexive rupture comes as a result of a rupture “between official discourse and the subject.  By official discourse I mean that of the State, that of the Establishment, and by the subject the individual who receives the official discourse whether it is political, social, economic, or cultural”(“Self Reflexive Fiction, Or How to Get Rid of It” 23).   Federman’s work thus exhibits an ambiguity between postmodern aesthetics and Jewish identity.

Kalman P. Bland has articulated the historical situation giving rise to both Levinas’s and Federman’s conceptions of Art with respect to a long and racist-tainted discussion of whether or there is such a thing a Jewish art going back to at least the 18th century.  While such a thought is ridiculous today, as Lee I. Levine’s documentation of archaeological discoveries throughout Israel in the twentieth-century attests, Bland documents how a discourse of Jewish aniconism arose in the nineteenth century that served Jewish and Gentile communities in contrasting ways: “Aniconism was both a vice to be condemned and a virtue to be praised.  Condemnation served Gentiles who hoped to rid Europe of Judaism.  Praise served Jews and Gentiles who struggled to perpetuate assimilated Jewish life in the Diaspora”(15).

Being “aniconic” thus served as an identity marker during a period of emergent racial constructions and nationalisms, paralleling a variety of Zionist attitudes.  For some Jewish artists, aniconism perpetuated aesthetic moves toward abstraction. As is well known, abstract art was indicative of both high modernism and a “degenerate” decline in Western civilization.  Perhaps most famously, this attitude was expressed by the Nazi-curated 1937 exhibition, Entartete Kunst, or “degenerate art,” in Munich.

Nazis, of course, conflated Jewish identity with communism, but some modern art movements, such as surrealism, both tended toward abstraction and communist ideology (vi).  Although Federman was not a religious Jew, his Jewish identity permeates his work, as does his father’s communism.  He inherits a tendency toward aniconism, a rejection of nineteenth-century realism, and a suspicion toward the state apparatus articulated aesthetically (which for him is not communism).  This, however, is far from moral relativism.

Federman’s critique of literary realism (naturalism) is evident in a self-interruption that occurs in SHHH: The Story of a Childhood:

Federman, if you continue like this, you’ll sink into Zolaesque miserabilism.

I don’t care. I have to tell the truth, even if the truth hurts. Yes, I know what my readers will say.

It’s not a novel you’re writing Federman, it’s just plain straightforward autobiographical writing. Or worse, what the French call autofiction.

Well, I’ll tell them they are mistaken.  What I’m writing is pure fiction, because, you see, I’ve forgotten my entire childhood. It has been blocked in me. So I have to reinvent it, reconstruct it. (19)

Although seemingly simple, Federman’s choice of graphic design creates a semiotic use of text as image.  Employing a sans-serif font, which my formatting options here cannot do justice to in my citations, gives the text a kind of austerity.  Italics signify interruption ant meta-reflection on the production of the text itself.  Bold italics generally signify an alter-ego who is self-critical of Federman the storyteller.  But as the second set of text in bold above exhibits there are no fixed visual categories either.

While the first interruption in bold is clearly an alter-ego, the second is actually Federman the writer’s imagination of his readers critiquing him.  Federman the writer then continues to directly address his alter-ego, referring to the readers in the third person.  While self-reflexive and interruptive, Federman does not break the fourth wall and directly address the actual reader.  The reader is drawn into an internalized irony.  If a classic definition of dramatic irony is that the audience knows more than the actors on stage, here the audience identifies with a split internal discourse that includes them while dis-identifying them as the audience.

The result is comedic signaling of attention to the fictive construction of the text itself.  As Menachem Feuer argues with respect to Federman, “it is in the interruption of history, caused by humor, that the modern novel challenges the worst evils against humanity and freedom”(278).  Federman’s feigned austerity is deceptive.  It presents a nonchalant attitude that invites the reader into an internal psychic trauma only to draw the reader’s awareness to dis-identification.

Nowhere is Federman’s strategy more apparent than in his retelling of visiting his old neighborhood in France during the postwar years in SHHH: The Story of a Childhood.  Federman builds into his narrative a very bourgeois gift of silverware engraved with his family’s initials as his mother’s wedding present.  The family did not use the silverware and it was the one untouchable item for his gambling-addicted father, who was always pawning things.

Federman recounts running into a childhood friend from his neighborhood while visiting as a young man after the war.  As children, Federman and Bébert were friends who swam together, but after Federman was required to wear a yellow star, Bébert told Federman that his parents would not allow them to play together anymore (103).  Federman was also blocked from the public pool.  Bébert tells Federman he knows what happened to his family and is sorry.  He invites Federman to dinner with his family.  Federman accepts the invitation: “Let’s just say that I was curious to see how anti-Semites lived now”(105).

At dinner, Federman looks down only to realize that the spoon he’s been given for his soup was one of his mother’s: “I remained seated at the table for a moment, my hand holding the spoon before my face, my eyes fixed on it.  Then I put it down slowly on the table. Got up. Didn’t say anything.  They all had lowered their heads over their soup”(106).  As Federman is recounting this, there is a sudden narrative break where he says as he was writing this episode he got a phone call from his daughter. He reads his daughter what he was writing and she calls him out for lying and being melodramatic.  Federman then writes:

I should have told her that readers of fiction like to be told sad stories, as long as they appear to be true.  I mean convincing, and the chronology is faithful to the principle of non-contradiction.  It is well known that testimonies cause indignation and make those who listen feel good.  What I wrote in that scene is a kind of testimony of what happened at that time, not only to us, but to many Jews who were deported.  Their things, their possessions were stolen.  Especially the silver and the works of art. (109)

In admitting the narrative “lie” of fiction, Federman here once again draws the reader into the drama of self-construction.  The result is that the work of art admits to its own covering-up of the truth and the falsification necessary to create narrative itself.  At the same time, Federman plays into stereotypes about the lack of artfulness and the deceptive qualities of “Jews” who seek to exploit anything material for their own gain.  As Sara Lipton has addressed (both in print and public lectures I have attended), one irony among Jewish stereotypes is that they come to occupy both a “communist” rejection of culture while simultaneously being the paragons of good capitalist materialism.

While scholarly attention has been given to visual aniconism within Jewish communities, the visual experience of text itself is harder to track.  Certainly, attention to various layers of hermeneutic suspicion within Jewish interpretations is well-known.  The idea that a text is not self-evident or not to be read “literally” but because of and in spite of its contradictions, is a lesser-known phenomenon.  It speaks to a cultural paradigm in which Protestant fetishization of the “Old Testament” was used to promote an austerity that was simultaneously anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.

But aniconism itself is representative of this distortion in which nationalist and essentialist notions of Judaism conflate nationalism and religion; indeed, the question of aniconism gets at the political-theological foundations of ‘Religion’ as a concept.  Federman’s admitted lack of religious upbringing is helpful here, but to make my point I will draw on a scholarly discussion of midrash.  Daniel Boyarin, in Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, argues:

Midrash has been largely suppressed in Jewish hermeneutics, as much as it has been marginalized in the West.  The allegorical-Aristotelian tradition of Judaism best represented by Maimonides, has been hostile to the view of language that midrash supposes, and this tradition has gained hegemony in the dominant Jewish culture(xii)

Boyarin here is emphasizing hermeneutic strategies that move away from figural interpretation but tying it back into Jewish religious culture.  He goes on to say:

Jewish thought and interpretive practice for over a thousand years has been thoroughly caught up in the logocentric tradition, and midrash has been devalued in Judaism as much as without.  Moreover, while in some ways similar, the Kabbalistic understanding of language must be understood as significantly different than midrash and must not be conflated with it.  Reification of “Jewish” modes of thinking actually masks the “primitive” (as opposed to the “civilized”) critical force of the midrashic mode.

Again here, we see with relation to text and textual interpretation, a discussion concerning the artful obscuring that midrash produces, but Boyarin, following Isaak Heinemann’s reading of Maimonides, notes that midrash is more than mere poetic conceit; it is “encoded as biblical interpretation and not mainly as poetry and homiletic”(3).   It might be characterized as “a poetry which nevertheless does intend to be an interpretation of the text”(6).

While Federman is certainly not performing an interpretation of text, his work perpetually revisits his pre- and post-Holocaust life, in both fiction and poetry as an attempt to both make and simultaneously disrupt sense.  He embraces a kind of “primitivism” that is the stereotype of the “artless Jew” but turns the stereotype against itself through an avant-garde modernist, emphasis on form.  His “postmodernism” is a radicalization of and disruption of modernist essentialism.  Just as his “lie” about the spoon episode disrupts the seduction of the literary narrative, it makes visible the literary itself.

Even when Federman alludes to biblical events, it is through literal historical events from his own life.  In SHHH: The Story of a Childhood he tells the story of the Exodus or Le Grande Exode when masses of Jews, including his family, fled Paris to Argentan, only to find the Germans already occupying it.  Federman says the Germans looked “magnificent”: “They looked like they had just stepped out of a Hollywood war movie.  I kept getting close to them to see if they were real, but my mother kept pulling me by my sleeve”(148).  The language here hovers just outside of allegory.  Later in the chapter he says:

It was along this road to Normandy that I saw dead people for the first time.  Real dead people. Not false dead people like in the movies.  I was eleven.  Even if I didn’t understand yet what it meant to be dead, it made me feel strange to look at these people lying on the ground bleeding.  Maman kept telling me not to look. (152)

The parallel construction with the final sentence emphasizing his mother is unmistakable. Again, Federman’s literalness in the historical event places an ethical hold over an interpretive move to allegorical figuration.  It also does not prevent such a move.  He later says, however, “It’s true that the Great Exodus has been swept under the rug of French history. It was a great humiliating debacle for the French. Soldiers and refugees on the roads of Normandy”(153).  The theme of his mother and memory becomes more complex through self-interruption.

He gets annoyed at the interrupting voice who says, “Federman, to tell one’s childhood, one’s life, demands an honest participation with memory. The stories you are telling, even if you deform them, are souvenirs that you have kept in you. Don’t you feel a responsibility towards them? Don’t you feel responsible for their veracity?”(208).  Federman the writer says the bugs him. He answers:

And why should one have a sense of duty to one’s souvenirs? As if one owes them something. A tax. A debt that must be repaid.

To remember is to play a mental cinema that falsifies the original event. Souvenirs are fiction.

When I write, I don’t give a damn about what I owe to memory. Otherwise it would mean that I write to repay what I owe to those who forced me to write. What do I owe them?

Those who have read me up to now will say, he owes his life to his mother.  His duty is to repay her.

Yes, that’s true. But this mass of words I have left behind, in English, French, Charabia, that’s my recompense to her.  I have written all that for her, in order to decode the great silence she imposed on me with her CHUT.

My duty, if I must have one, is to fill the hole of absence that my mother dug into me.  My duty is to render her absence present. And thus give a little dignity to those whose lives were humiliated. (209)

Here again, Federman’s text plays with the distinction between text and image / text as image in its composition to the page, its austere graphic design, and its emphasis on literal history as opposed to literary figuration.  Like the passages cited earlier, it builds momentum toward a memory of his mother, but this time after locating his duty to address a hole she put in him, Federman transfers the gesture’s necessity to stand in for “those whose lives were humiliated.”  In this sense, the work is building toward a social responsibility while also addressing his mother’s absent-presence.

The unmentionable aspect, the absent-presence of the Holocaust remains doing the work of what Maurice Blanchot calls the writing of the disaster, something that moves us outside of psychological desire or what Levinas calls “adequation”: “Desire, still a relation to the star – the great sidereal desire, religious and nostalgic, panicky or cosmic. It is thus that there can be no desire of the disaster.  To wake, to watch is not to desire to do so; it is without any such desire, but is the undesirable nocturnal intensity (more, and less than can be desired)”(50).

Characterizing darkness through the nocturnal, through insomnia, as his friend Levinas famously and repeatedly characterizes responsibility as being “hostage to the Other,” Blanchot writes of something akin to Federman’s responsibility to his mother: “That is why responsibility is itself disasterous – the responsibility that never lightens the Other’s burden (never lightens the burden he is for me [or Federman’s mother for him]), and makes us mute as far as the word we owe him is concerned”(27).

Although I have mentioned text design in SHHH, Federman for a long time blurred the relationship between text and image in more dramatic ways. It is probably most evident in Double or Nothing (1971) And while Federman signifies absent-presence in gaps between texts in SHHH, his later work is generally less playful than his early 1970s work in the ways it experiments with textual formation on the page.  I have mentioned ambiguity between persona, but generally the reader is able to identify the shifts in voice through the visual cues of bold fonts and italicization, gaps in sentences, etc.  This refined work is the fruit of years of graphic experimentation.

In Double or Nothing, Federman tells the story of writing the book itself by planning to lock himself away in a room for a year.  Like his father, Federman is a gambler who had won enough money to begin his literary career by producing his first novel.  In the book, he obsesses over what food will store best because he needs to buy a year’s supply up front.  The juxtaposition of noodles, which will keep longer than potatoes, which are cheaper, and memory asymmetrically imposes itself on the page design. Once again, font conveys meaning, the comical decision between a year of two kinds of bland food materializes the memory of the trains in the Second World War.

As Federman writes, “Yes but the potatoes the raw / potatoes on the train remember? what a story: on the way to the camps/ the camps X*X*X*X” and then descends into the image of the swastika”(11.1).


The line breaking produced through repetitions of words. The bold “remember?” is an early indicator of the signification for vocal interruption we see constantly in SHHH.  Down the right side of the page he writes, “And I followed my shadow.”  The same self-conscious deliberation about what stories to tell in this particular book and ideas for more books document a process of creative generation. It is funny but quickly turns tragic with “The Starvation Comedy.”  Later in the book he tells the story of his gambling, framing the narrative with the hand of cards:

The formal experimentation goes on and on.  At times, the playfulness carries over into exhaustion.  Exhaustion and absurdity is certainly something Federman gets from Samuel Beckett, on whom Federman wrote his dissertation.  But I would argue that his materialistic treatment of text, his attention to its graphic production, combined with his resistance to literary styles considered flowery and bourgeois – an extension of Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero – speaks to a particularly Jewish sensibility he brings to the text, not as religion but as the critique of sidereal desire that Blanchot calls “religious and nostalgic.”

Instead, and this is in no way less religious, Federman attends to a non-adequate Desire through an art and criticism that calls attention to their own fictive production.  It is as if he has taken Emmanuel Levinas’s concerns about art in “Reality and Its Shadow” quite seriously.

To conclude, I want to point not to another work of Raymond Federman’s but to a staged interpretation of Federman’s SHHH: The Story of a Childhood produced by MC93 – Maison de la Culture de Seine-Saint-Denisin 2014.  The performance is directed by Sarah Oppenheim, who also stars in it.  One can watch a brief clip of it titled “2013/14 La Voix dans le débarras/Raymond Federman/Sarah Oppenheim/Bande-annonce”.

In “The Voice in the Closet,” Oppenheim uses Federman’s text but sets a stage with two outlined boxes or “cubbyhole / closets” in which two actors stand.  One is a man who speaks in English with an eastcoast American accent.  The other is Oppenheim, who speaks in French.  At times, the actors speak the two languages over each other simultaneously.

The audience is able to make out occasional words and phrase, but the attention is largely drawn to pitch and inflection, and to the desperate speed in which the actors deliver their lines.  Later in the performance, the two Federmans appear to face one-another in a mirror, conveyed as a beam of light that appears like a door that is slightly cracked open.  They recognize each other but go on speaking to each other in desperate French and English. Oppenheim’s emphasis on sonic simultaneity is an interesting choice in the disruption of the text itself, and her emphasis on Federman’s American English in contrast to his youthful French accomplishes a kind of post-traumatic forked-tonguing, or doublespeak.

This disrupts the figuration which is the necessary condition for stage acting.  Although they both wear similar costumes, with brown trench-coats, underneath hers, Oppenheim wears a long nightshirt.  The gendered ambiguity in Oppenheim’s “young” Federman invokes the presence of his mother-as-memory while also drawing on a theatrical tradition of women playing young boys (as was convention in Peter Panthroughout much of the twentieth-century).  Still, the clip tends to avoid any direct Oedipal allusions.

The historical emphasis on Federman’s past and his alter-egos already draw attention to a traumatic collapse between exteriority and interiority.  In My Body in Nine Parts (2005), Federman divides himself into hair, nose, toes, voice, sexual organ, a broken molar, ears, eyes, hands – and scars.  As usual, Federman’s added part extends the body of the text and the discussion of his body itself, delaying the completion of the narrative.  He writes, “Do you know why people are afraid to look at their scars, and even moreso to touch them? Because it is the place on the body where the soul struggled to escape but was forced back in and the flesh tightly sewn”(114).

The stories of his scars keep him up at night telling him their stories again and again.  He casts his scars as “feminine” and gives them all mythological names like Eurydice, Daphne, and Antigone (115).  In this way these female literary figures literally keep him in the present.  He ends his book with two lists – one in English and the other in French – of what he does to his body every day. One day is in English, the next in French or “depending on its mood”(128).

Oppenheim’s blurring of the two languages thus seems an appropriate aesthetic choice in transferring artistic mediums.  I say appropriate because it preserves the ethical aspect of Federman’s aesthetic, which intentionally conflates criticism and art, memory and fiction, and reality’s shadow.  In this way, Federman’s spectator, unlike Artaud’s, is not merely the schizophrenic other inside one’s self indicative of the cultural plague haunting western civilization as articulated in his theatre of cruelty.

It is that, and so benefits from the kind of schizoanalysis that Deleuze and Guattari develop in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, which like Federman’s postmodernism perform tedious critique and exhaustion. But Federman’s work is more than that too.  In the insomnia of the disaster it maintains alertness amid a somnolence that would drag us into the dogmatic slumber of the Enlightenment and the unexamined hubris of Western civilization.  In doing so, Federman’s work not only preserves Jewish identity against cultural forces that would try to erase it from history but calls its readers to attend something “prior” to history, not through religious nostalgia but through aesthetic persistence.  One can only wonder what Emmanuel Levinas would have thought of such work.


Roger K. Green is a lecturer in English at The Metropolitan State University of Denver.  He is the author of  the forthcoming A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics  and numerous short articles in Political Theology Today. He is general editor of The New Polis, where he writes monthly articles related to concerns that have come out of political theology.  He is currently ABD in Joint Doctoral Program in Theology and Religious Studies at The University of Denver, where he is completing his second PhD, writing on ayahuasca and religious politics.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *