However, even given the reactionary forces at work in the 1760s, Emile was targeted by extraordinary persecution. It caught Rousseau off guard, as he had been assured by the enthusiasm of his protector, le Marechal and Marechale Luxembourg, and the royal censore, Malesherbes, that Emile’s publication would pose no problem. When it did, the Luxembourg’s spared no time in telling Rousseau to fly – they were not going to expend any social credit in defending the son of a poor Genevan watchmaker. In the last thirty reactionary years, since the eighties, under the watchful eye of Furet, historians have tended to emphasize the awfulness of the terror and the ‘civilization’ of the ancien regime. One has to remember that in the historian’s book, the beheading of a queen counts for much, the decimation of a regiment counts for nothing. And thus, that patchwork of dynastic wars and famines that constituted Louis XV’s policy melts into the hazy background, while in the foreground we concentrate on the plump rumps of Boucher’s pinups. But this picture is, of course, utter bullshit.
In actuality, the ancien regimes never stop coming on line, and their awful decline is structurally constant, whether it is Marcos’ Philippines or Louis XV’s France. They all generate a structure of covert culture. On the one hand, there is the official culture and its fierce protection by the police, and on the other hand, what is allowed in the private space created by the elite. The parlement’s judges could well have the hangman burn the same books that were treasured in the judges’ library. It is this double system that Rousseau set out, in his literary practice, to slay. And it is for this reason that the same system that could give a pass to the materialist atheism of Helvetius (as long as the volumes were anonymous and printed in Holland), could find so much to burn in Emile, for all its piety.
Since Paul de Man made the second preface to Julie the subject of one of his essays in the Allegories of Reading, it has become a much commented upon text. But there seems to be a gap between de Man’s reading of it within the system of Julie itself, as a text, and the system of texts in which Rousseau’s signature was consciously set in defiance against the erasures of the censure. Derrida, in On Grammatology, extensively analyses an episosde in Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques in which Levi-Strauss recounts how he was able to obtain the ‘real’ proper names of the Nambiwara. The people kept their real names a family secret, for their real names had power. Levi-Strauss tells of how he was able to obtain those names, nevertheless, from some ‘little girls’ in the tribe, who he manipulated, very simply, into making a game of name telling. In a passage that is still thrilling, to me, Derrida uses this story as a scene in which the alliance between logocentrism and power exposes itself:
Before we approach this, lets remark that this prohibition is necessarily derived from the gaze of the erasure constitutive of the proper name in what we have called archi-writing, that is to say in the play of difference. It is because the proper names are already no longer proper names, because their production is their obliteration, because the erasure and the imposition of the letter are originary, because they do not supervene on a proper inscription; it is because the proper name has never been, as a unique appellation reserved for the presence of a unique being, anything else than myth of origin of a transparent and present legibility under the obliteration; it is because the proper name has never been possible as anything other than by its functioning in a classification and thus in a system of differences, in a writing retaining the traces of differences, that the interdiction has been possible, could play, and eventually be transgressed, as we are going to see. Transgressed, that is to say restored to the obliteration and the non-proper of the origin.”[159 – my translation]
There is a queerly compelling parallel here with Rousseau’s system of signing his name, and thereby bringing to the surface not just the anonymity by which the ancien regime could sustain in the play of its own classifications both the condemned book and the celebrated name (as Christopher Kelly points out, Montesquieu used the Persian Letters as his way to gain entry into the Academie Francaise even as he officially denied his authorship of the letters, which would have interdicted his entrance into the Academie Francaise). In a sense, Rousseau combined the function of the ‘fillette” and the anthropologist. The second preface is a powerful illustration of Derrida’s point, here, for the name of the author of Julie is caught up, in the dialogue between R. and N., in a double bind: on the one hand, Rousseau felt the need to throw one’s name against the regime by signing his text; on the other hand, Rousseau called himself the ‘editor’ of this collection (recuil), and throughout retreats from saying that he wrote the letters. In fact, N., his interlocutor (who is written by R., but figures, commentators say, as D – for Diderot) says at one point that if the letters were truly from Julie, he would treasure the book and read it a million times over, but if they were from R., then the book is flat and inartistic. Julie, N. claims, maliciously, acts like a sorceress in the book – everybody ends up sounding like Julie.
The dialogue in which R. and N. discuss the name is as follows:
R: Does An honest man hide himself when he speaks to the Public? Does he dare to print what he doesn’t dare to recognize? I was the editor of this book, and I will have myself named as editor.
N: You will name yourself here? You?
N: what? You are going to put your name to it?
R: Yes, Monsieur.
N: Your real name? Jean Jacques Rousseau, all the letters?
R: Jean Jacques Russeau in all the letters.
N: You aren’t thinking about it! What will people say?
R: What they want to. I am naming myself at the head of this collection not to appropriate it, but to respond for it. If there is bad in it, let it be imputed to me. If there is good, I don’t intend to make that honor me. If they find the book evil in itself, it is a reason more for me to set my name to it. I don’t want to pass for better than I am.
N: You are satisfied with this response.
R: Yes, in a time when it is not possible for anyone to be good.
N: And the beautiful souls, have you forgotten them.
R: Nature made them, your institutions spoil them.
N: At the head of a love story one will read the words: by J.J. Rousseau, citizen of Geneva.
R: Citizen of Geneva? No not that. I am not going to profane the name of my country. I only put it on writings that I believe will do it honor.” (oc 1769: v:xxx – my translation)
Since I promised Northanger in the comments that I would write a ps, here it is:
Anonymity, in the ancien regime, is systematic and signed. When Rousseau, in effect, tells on the system by signing his name, he is not only contrasting his work to the philosophes, he is also pointing to the essential subservience that possesses the writer who has signed into, signed onto, his anonymity. While the philosopher can criticize the entire system from under the shadow of that anonymity, the entire system has signed that criticism with every one of the critical writer’s pseudonyms. The writer has made the regime responsible for his or her name.
The regime, even in a period in which a considerable minority can’t sign their names, has already developed a system of who signs for what. Thus, to deliver a blow against the system and the enlightenment crewe that depends on very the system whose foundations in truth and reason they destroy - Rousseau signs his name. Everything, at this moment, is clear. Through the signature, you can see the man. Or so goes the first movement. In the moment of signing his name, Rousseau takes responsibility – and who does he take it from? The system that cares for responsibility, that guards it, that keeps it – the whole of the social order.
But the first movement will turn out to be not enough. For it will turn out that one has to sign somewhere. And as one searches for the place to sign, what role the signature plays, what text it is part of, becomes an issue for the man whose honesty, whose responsibility, is embodied in the signature. Now, on the conventional level, these problems are brushed aside. Rousseau is the author of Julie and the preface to Julie. Rousseau signs for R. and N., for the citizen and the philosophe, for Emile, for every letter he sends to the authorities, for his “philosophical” works and his Confession. Sign here, sign here. And yet, as soon as the conventional view has had its say, has dispensed with the cobwebs woven around the signature, it begins the work of identification – N., it will turn out, is Diderot, and the tutor in Emile, it will turn out, is Rousseau. And so the figure who advises R. not to sign is both assimilated to Rousseau and assigned to Diderot, and the figure who tutors a fiction, an imaginary figure, turns out to be a real figure, who signs his name Jean Jacques Rousseau.
This, however, returns us to our dilemma, except on a second level. On this level, N. is so taken with, shaken with Julie that if the letters were “real”, it would be the best book in the world. And yet, if the letters are Rousseau’s invention, the value of the book will be inversed. It will be flat, stale, provincial, badly written.
At this point one has to ask about the power of the signature. For it is on this level that the problem of the place of the signature, whether in the text (and thus, signing itself signing itself, in the vertigo of a hall of mirrors that has no limit), or outside the text, and thus forming – what? Another text?
You can frame Rousseau’s gesture in breaking with the system of anonymity as one of those moments when the hidden transcript, to use James Scott’s term, composed of all the gestures, jokes and beliefs of the subordinate, the enslaved, ‘storm the stage’ – suddenly the hidden dissolves and the content of that thought, of what was said in the kitchen and in the yard and among the apprentices and among the women in the needle factor suddenly gets said and named and names. But at the same time, there is curb, here, and it is the curb of the truth – for the opening of the hidden is not, after all, the truth. And the signature is never protected from the elaboration of the text, or the dream – it is never totally safe from the power of ficticity, a power that may seem to zap the charisma of responsibility, that emancipatory gesture, before it even get going.
And yet, much as I hate to say this: there is no revolution in language. While Rousseau fights against the anonymous system, he works within the hybrid genre that the enlightenment writers perfected, none more so than Diderot. In this genre, real figures show up next to fictitious ones and thus are both real and fictitious: real arguments are absorbed into the fiction of conversation. And who can tell who is signing?
Another remark needs to be made about the ancien regime’s enforcement of the regime of anonymity. Rousseau very shrewdly saw that this system of rule was nurturing intellectual irresponsibility. Or perhaps I should say thwarted responsibility. It was not just the oppression that stroked the rage of the subordinated population, but its feckless inconsistency. Rousseau experienced to the full the senility of the system in trying to publish Emile, for he was guaranteed by the Luxembourg’s and Malesherbes, and yet neither was able to prevent Emile from being burnt by the public hangman. And thus was the system of patronage debased – not, of course, in the eyes of the patrons, who forget everything except their own generosity, but in the eyes of the patronized. This is no little thing. Any system that forces you to swallow your name is manufacturing poisons, for a name will rankle. The system that allowed and then censored Emile tore a breach in its structure, the homogeneity of the face it turned towards the governed and obscure. Like a crack in the foundation of a house, that breach was bound to tell a story one day or another.
But – to sum up and return to the problem of the signature – what Rousseau could not escape by opposing the system of signed anonymity with his own signature as a citoyen of Geneva is the fact that this opposition on behalf of transparency and authenticity inevitably threw him into a self-undermining process in which no closeness of the text to the signature or of the self to the responsibility it took on could ever be total. Although it could be mortal – we should always remember that the anchors of history are made out of human flesh, throw them out for mooring or bait, one. The signature’s very place, or placelessness – sign here and here – makes the task of absolute authentification hopeless.