Monday, July 08, 2024

Veronique Nahoum-Grappe and existential vertigo


Véronique Nahoum-Grappe is almost unknown in the anglosphere.

More’s the pity.

She is the daughter of Edgar Morin and the associate of Felix Guattari – she’s spent her career in the circuit between Morin’s communication principle and Guattari’s schizanalysis. It is a bit unfortunate to haul in the two patriarch’s to locate Nahoum-Grappe, however.  It shows, in me, a certain lack of imagination.

She is that rare thing, a real philosophical anthropologist.

She has written a column in Esprit, and she was a strong voice pointing out the massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s. She’s a good old fashioned French intellectual of the type coined in the early Cold War period.

Her notion of good old Anthropos does not see it in terms of cogito. Or rather, not in terms of calculation. Or rather, to rather this up, in terms of a successful calculation, although there are calculations on the path. Instead of I think, she begins with “I am dizzy”.  The ontological meaning of dizziness fascinates her, in as much as dizziness is played with, chosen.  Vertige is at the bottom of it all. Which is why Nahoum-Grappe writes so much about violence, drunkenness, and the sublime. To use a term  I am borrowing from Caillois’s book on games, we begin with ilynx:

“The attempt to redefine human nature as capable or not of an extreme exploit can only be given in a radical alternative décor, at the antipodes of the average framework of life, situated in the imagination at the end of the civilized world, where nature is extreme. Down there, one attains, one touches the limits of the possible, of the thinkable, of the envisageable. Human nature that produces the performative extreme distances itself from the social and fixes itself in relation to a natural abyss, or rather, nature as an abyss. The idea of extreme natures implies a distance from society, the world of the “milieu’.” – From the Siesta and the Adventure.

Nahoum-Grappe’s work on dizziness – on, so to speak, existential vertigo – was developed in a number of essays from the 90s, published for the most part in Communications, the journal co-founded by Roland Barthes and Edgar Morin. To my mind, her richest essay in this series, and one that remains curiously isolated so far as I can see in literature, is “L'ingouvernable gratuité : les conduites de vertige” – The ungovernable gratuity: vertigo lines.

Nahoum-Grappe consciously organized this essay to be an extension and transformation of certain themes in Bataile – especially Bataille’s exploration of extremes (of sexual desire, of violence, of power).

It is remarkable that Nahoum-Grappe’s coordinates, in this and the essays that group around it – her essay on beauty, her essays on intoxication – are so close to those in Aristotle’s Poetics, where we have a fourfold space, with the vertical axis being the high and the low, and the horizontal axis described by the ugly and the beautiful.

These poles are both preserved and violated in laughter – that is, as it relates to the absolute comic. Bataille wrote of the laugh in terms of the mouth and the lips – as a rictus, mimicking astonishment or frear. For Nahoum-Grappe, the relationship between high and low, in terms of dizziness, is the relationship between the extreme moment of suspense and the plunge. The moment of suspense traverses a number of behaviors – just think, for instance, of sexual arousal. Why should it be the case that being aroused – being hard, being wet – is so often accompanied by a distinct light feeling in the stomach? Is so often enfolded in drinking? Is so often merely the breadth of a slip away from dizziness, a disorder in the thoughts – a disorder that is classically present in 18th century novels, where women, under the influence of seduction, are always described, or describe themselves, as thinking in a confused fashion. Order, here, the moral order, certainly preserves the Aristotelian grid that separates the high from the low. Interestingly, there’s a certain coordination between the plunge that is the parameter of suspense and a certain movement between ugliness and beauty. N-G relates this to speed – both acceleration and slowing down in what she calls “vertiginous sequences”.
Nahoum-Grappe’s method, like Bataille’s, is to take the phrases that are ordinarily overlooked from diverse everyday routines, and see that they have a functional seriousness:
“It is rare that an attempted suicide will explain himself with the phrase, “I am a more than 50 year old male, a transient agricultural worker and excessive consumer of alcohol” – the kind of thing we extract from the all too felicitous appropriations of statistical data. Instead, there will be phrases like – “everything seemed pointless,” “everything was going wrong”, “nothing worked”, “why live?” which risk being unheard prior to the silence preceding the fatal act: phrases which have in common the vertiginous closure of time (never again, always) and space (the world is just a pile of shit”). The addicted toxicomaniac who tries to give an account of his ‘relapse’, the excessive drinker who closes his eyes and accelerates his speed taking a hairpin curve in the night. Even the lover shutting the door in an access of chagrin, ordinary heroes in the field of social suffering, have recourse to these vertiginious closures…
This ‘nothing more is possible’ consists, on the plane of an invisible topic, to put oneself above an emptiness: a functional sociology will tend to evacuate that manner of seeing as a subjective point of view of the social actor, whereas the poet will make it a song and the psychologist will dig out its implications. But here, that attitude of ‘suspended above everything’ is taken as an objective segment of signification, as an effective intellectual posture, as a kind of belief effect the totality of behaviors. It is rendered possible by a corporal competence: that of the vertiginous perception.”
May I suggest that the idea that “French theory” is over has a very superficial view of what the period of French theory, in France, generated. And more substantially, that Nahoum-Grappe’s work on existential vertigo deserves some belated Anglophone echo.


“The domain of ordinary aethetics also offers tottering occasions : to follow intently with your eyes or in thought the extreme slowing down of an enigmatic moment (that of a leaf moving in a very light breeze, that of a poetic phrase of which the sense remains in suspense) changes our manner of being physically present, as if all imperceptible variation puts us in a light trance, as if absolute delicacy makes us slightly crazy. Besides the vertigo of acceleration there is also the vertigo of slowing down, the rhyme of imperceptible mobility of a baby’s hand when it is asleep.”


Suspense, to go further with N-G’s theme here, incorporates both rhythms. The implausibility of slo-mo in the movies, used for fight scenes, is made, perhaps, unconsciously acceptable by our own quotidien experiences of times that are both speeded up and slowed down. My dad once described to me being in passenger seat of a car being driven by a man who, coming around a curve on a mountainside, confronted a truck coming towards him in the same lane. Dad said everything seemed to slow down. There are a lot of accounts of such slowing down – battlefield accounts especially, when physical danger is immanently present.



Anonymous said...

I've probably exceeded my comments quota for the week but this is such a wonderful post it deserves some response. I didn't know of Veronique N-G but that bit about dizziness does remind me of ....yes, you've already guessed. I'm not going to use LI to repeatedly quote from her notebooks, so instead a story. Hey, you did say you liked Amie stories.
My younger sister N. and Amie had a wonderful sense of dialogue between them, that I loved witnessing. N. would ask the most direct blunt questions and wait breathlessly for Amie's response. On this occasion, N. said in effect, I know you're always reading books, but is it true you study philosophy, I don't believe it, you're way too pretty to be studying philosophy! Amie's response was something both N. and I treasure even today. You want to learn some philosophy right now? was Amie's response. N. of course nodded that she did. So Amie picked her up by her legs and twirled her around till she was screaming and laughing at the same time. She was dizzy when finally put down. After she stopped staggering about she looked at Amie and said in an incredulous voice, that's philosophy!? Amie said, the beginning.

Roger Gathmann said...

What a great story! Amie was a sage, a definite sage.

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