narrative and nihilism

We could run this as though on a television screen, in the background.

Andre Amar from the Committee of Public Safety stands up to address the Convention. He is known as the “most elegantly dressed man in the Convention.” (Bire, 312) It is October 31, 1793 – the month of Brumaire – and he has been appointed the speaker for a committee that investigated the ‘woman question’. This is after Charlotte Corday answered that question by putting a knife very neatly in Marat’s heart. This is after Marie Antoinette cried out to the mothers at her trial to rise up, as she had been accused of incest. This was after Charlotte Corday had said, to her judges, that she was a “republican before the revolution” and remained one. This was after one of the judges had asked Do you suppose you have killed all the Marats – to which she answered, that one dead, maybe the rest will tremble. This was after David had drawn Marie Antoinette in the cart that drew her to the guillotine, no wig on her head, in a bare shift. This was after the executioner had taken Corday’s head from where it lay on the ground and had slapped it – for which offense he was put in prison. This was after the men of Paris were becoming rarer, as they were sent off to fight on all fronts. This was after the street scuffles had broken out concerning the law that women had to wear the cocard. This was before the trial of Olympe de Gouge, condemned on November 1, 1793.

Amar began his speech by saying, “I am denouncing to you a group of more than six thousand women, so called Jacobins and with pretention to a revolutionary society. Many of them, no doubt, have only strayed through an excess of patriotism; but others are only the instruments of the enemies of the public thing (chose publique), and have only put on the mask of an exaggerated patriotism in order to excite sectional movements and a kind of counter-revolution.”

Amar’s speech was the signal of another purge of the ultras, this time aimed at women. In it, Amar (imagine him speaking in a thunderous basso. Imagine his white linen shirt, and the washerwoman who ironed it. Imagine him at dinner) laid down the code: do women have the right to immerse themselves in government affairs? No. Do women have the “moral force and physique” demanded by the exercise of politics? “Universal opinion” responds to that. And what is the relation of women to the public thing? “Without doubt, it is necessary that they instruct themselves in the principles of liberty, in order to have their children cherish it; they can sit in as spectators at deliberations of the sections and discussions of popular assemblies; but, made to sweeten the moeurs of man, must they take an active part in discussions of which the heatedness is incompatible with the gentleness and moderation that make up the charm of the sex?” (Lairtullier, 185)

As this runs on the screen, so to speak, behind us, let’s return to the curious eclipse of place that I have outlined as it is detailed in E. Casey’s work. In essence, by the eighteenth century, place had been triumphantly expulsed from natural philosophy. Gilbert’s phrase is prophetic: there is no place for place in nature. But, in spite of this fact, in spite of the disrepute into which Aristotle’s proper place and power of place falls in physics, it does remain in the order of nature for the human sciences. One could even say that without place, it would have been impossible to grasp the world of the great transformation, must less try to subdue the subject to universal history. Place and its associated concepts, property, order, hierarchy, all remained social forces, as though in the same society and at the same time, place was not being hollowed out. There is a certain blank, a certain white space as though on a page, separating one column from another, here – the world reconstructed by mathesis and experiment in one column, and the human world, the world for humans, in the other. In the nineteenth century, that blank will find a name – nihilism. But the foreshocks were already being felt by the philosophes in the eighteenth century. Perhaps one could say that it was under the mysterious empire of that blankness that Rousseau’s conceptual structures seem always to suffer when the hand of his narratives are laid upon them. Nicole Fermon has mocked the tendency of Rousseau’s commentators to leave unexplained this gap between concept and mythos, as if it were a mystery, as if Rousseau were simply confused. She makes the case that instead, we are looking at a dialectical pattern.

I’m going to follow Fermon’s suggestion.