PB: I was thinking that, during the years of your philosophical training, writing became the object of a certain suspicion or mistrust. This attitude could take the form of the critique of ideology, of certain psychoanalytic precautions, of the practices of genealogy and deconstruction…in general, all these seemed to have in common a sort of critical distance towards the effects of writing itself, as well as an exploration of the blind spots that intervene in the very operation of reading, as a reader “translates” a text into a specific regime of visibility and intelligibility. Is there a connection between the risks of misinterpretation in the translation or the reception of a text—the gaps or margins that you just spoke of—and such a suspicion of the limitations, excesses, or dangers of writing?
JR: I don’t know if there was such mistrust and precaution towards the dangers of writing. One needs to remember that, on the contrary, there was a sort of faith, a somewhat materialist faith in the signifier. My youth coincided with this epoch of great faith in the materiality of the signifier; I would say that the mistrust was mostly directed towards images, towards anything that “made images” or “turned into images.” Against that, I would say that there was a contrary sort of trust in the text: the idea that one needed to stare at the text, to look at it up close, to read at a distance that could let the text appear as a pure signifier, a text without image, while at the same time there was obviously a whole network of images being developed in and around this vision. In those years, I don’t think there was a proper critique of writing; between 1960 and ‘70, structuralism was in a certain way a philosophy of truth, of the truth of writing.
PB: What do you understand by “image” as it relates to the act of writing? Is all writing a production or a manipulation of images?
JR: I was not making a personal statement about writing. I was just summing up the structuralist belief of that time: truth was put on the side of the signifier -on the relation of one signifier to other signifiers- while the signified was put on the side of ideology, or, in Lacanian terms, on the side of the imaginary. Everything that involved the relation of the signifier to a referential reality was suspected of being an “image,” a reference to the self-evidence of the given. Think of the criticism of the “reality effect” that Barthes opposes to the self-organization of the text. Such a criticism rested on the assimilation of the image to the appearance. If you think instead of the image as an operation, as I tried to do in The Future of the Image, it is clear that writing uses images, and conversely, that there are tropes in visual art.
PB: One could say that this faith in a text without image is in itself pretty old; one could trace it in the analytic dream of a writing without noise or style, the idea of a philosophy that could reduce itself to a series of transparent signs, pure acts of thought and communication.
JR: Yes, it is the old ambition to reach a language that would say exactly what it says; it is the drive and the pretention to define; it is this completely crazy idea, which inspires a trend within analytic philosophy, of making coincide beginning and definition. This is an ideology that our Hegelian training, I may say, has completely kept at bay. Despite everything, and in so far as we were raised as dialecticians, we were shaped into a way of thinking that is aware of the fact that beginnings have nothing to do with definitions, that definitions come at the end, that nothing is in itself in the word, and that concepts are only in the mode of a motion, that they are the result of a process. Already in the structuralist moment there was a clear opposition to this analytic position, but there was, nonetheless, a deep faith in writing itself too. And there was that other front as well, related to the world of psychoanalysis, this idea according to which truth is something that is written, even written on the body. This was certainly not my main aspiration back then. But when I became more sensitive to the fact that words are never definitions of things or states of things but are like weapons exchanged in combat, in dialogue, I naturally found myself very far away from such a conception of language.