Before I had ever read the phrase “l’expérience-limite”, I had felt it. In the rather peculiar way one gropes around a hole in the dark, gaining a hand understanding which is, of course, difficult to put into words that belong to the world of light. The feeling, which was especially strong in me in the eighties, was that the norms of success, success as I had imbibed it in the burbs where I grew up, encoded, at a deep level, a ghastly defeat. The term of success were simply the terms of a dishonorable surrender, a betrayal of the forces one’s ego could muster, just so as to retire to a lifetime of being able to purchase enough stupifiants to help one forget the treason, that failed slave revolt. This is, of course, a child’s view of that artificial paradise, our life now. On the other hand, our criteria are determined by our situation – I have no overall vision of this time in which to judge it absolutely.
So, when I encountered the phrase in Blanchot, who I read after reading Bataille (and Bataille has always been closer to my heart) – I was magically caught up in it. In fact, in the early nineties, under the banner of l’expérience-limite, I fucked up in a number of ways that I’m not going to go into – some of them I am still paying for.
Since, at the moment, I am using the “human limit” to help me define that way of being in the world which was eclipsed by the happiness culture, I thought I’d go back and see what Foucault said about l’expérience-limite – he whose life was, according to his biographer, James Miller, so enthralled by that notion. Actually, Foucault doesn’t say much about it directly. But he does make one of his flashing, gnostic remarks in an interview with Duccio Trombadori in 1978:
“ The phenomenologist's experience is basically a way of organizing
the conscious perception (_regard reflexif_) of any aspect of daily,
lived experience in its transitory form, in order to grasp its meaning.
Nietzsche, Bataille, and Blanchot, on the contrary, try through
experience to reach that point of life which lies as close as possible to
the impossibility of living, which lies at the limit or extreme. They
attempt to gather the maximum amount of intensity and impossibility at
the same time. The work of the phenomenologist, however, essentially
consists of unfolding the entire field of possibilities connected to
Moreover, phenomenology tries to grasp the significance of daily
experience in order to reaffirm the fundamental chracter of the subject,
of the self, of its transcendental functions. On the contrary,
experience according to Nietzsche, Blanchot, and Bataille has rather the
task of "tearing" the subject from itself in such a way that it is no
longer the subject as such, or that it is completely "other" than itself
so that it may arrive at its annihilation, its dissociation.
It is this de-subjectifying undertaking, the idea of a "limit-experience"
that tears the subject from itself, which is the fundamental lesson that
I've learned from these authors. And no matter how boring and erudite my
resulting books have been, this lesson has always allowed me to conceive
them as direct experiences to "tear" me from myself, to prevent me from
always being the same."
This way of looking at the experience limit has, unfortunately, only been applied to Foucault’s own biography. I think, however, it contains the seed of an experience of reading and writing, of the third life, which brings together the adventurer and the book. The book, the use of which becomes the sign that separates the savage from the civilized, would, it seems, not have a savage use – useless to the savage who can’t read it, and transforming the savage who does read it – into the civilized. Perhaps, however, there is a savage literacy, a way of taking the book too seriously, of being driven mad by it, or of going through it – writing it and reading it – as an experience of de-subjectification.