Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Syntactic Panopticon and Mallarmean Resistance

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Syntactic Panopticon and Mallarmean Resistance

Article excerpt

In Discipline & Punish, Foucault describes discipline as a modality of power that aspires "to construct a machine whose effect will be maximized by the concerted articulation of the elementary parts of which it is composed" (164). Bentham's "Panopticon" is, according to Foucault, "the diagram of a mechanism of [disciplinary] power reduced to its ideal form" (200)--a mechanism that enforces compulsory visibility of its subjects while insuring the invisibility of operative power, "a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, [and] of hierarchical organization . . ." (205).(1) Disciplinary power, then, is structured like a language. It is simultaneously a language that is readable, the technology that constructs the object of reading, and the syntax that conditions readability. The poetic language of Mallarme, I wish to argue, constitutes a formidable resistance to that technology and thus to disciplinary relations of power and the knowledge they produce.

Syntax is the architecture that renders words visible to understanding; it watches language, insures its efficient functioning, and produces meaning by distributing individual words within a system of subordination--by "training" wandering, useless (dangerous) words to function within (docile) productive--"meaningful"--groupings. Indeed the notion of syntax derives from that seminal disciplinary power--the military; a [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [taxis] is an arrangement of soldiers; [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [suntassein] designates not only the act of ar- ranging and organizing, but commanding, assigning and imposing punishment, assessing for taxation. Hence to function within a syntax is not only to cooperate within a regulative system; it is to comprise an accessibility that extends the reach of power. It is to participate in the surveillance of deviation; it is to produce a construct from which power can be extracted; and it is to collude in producing a reserve of latent violence. Syntax, moreover, has to do with the eradication of chance. In Quintilian, syntaxis is distinguished from accidentia: while accidentia designates the changes to which words are subject, syntaxis is that which regulates those changes--the exasperatingly mobile phenomena of gender, number, case, mood and tense.

The disciplinary modality of power, which we might also call the syntactic modality of power, oversees the production of scientific, historical and philosophical truth. It is productive of a specific modality of meaning and conditions a correlative conception of "understanding" which is subordinate to, and dependent upon, syntax's operations. But the poetry of Mallarme routinely dismantles syntactic order and obscures the relations on which that order depends, as "Le Tombeau d'Edgar Poe" and the "Hommage" to Richard Wagner will testify below, though almost any poem of Mallarme offers similar examples.(2)

According to Kristeva, Mallarme's syntactic dismantlements fall into two groups:

1. des inversions, des appositions et des ellipses dont on peut reconstituer

les structures sous-jacentes . . . 2. des emboitements infinis

et des suppressions non recouvrables dont on ne peut pas

reconstituer la structure sous-jacente. . . Dans le premier cas, il

s'agit non pas d'une defaillance de la capacite syntaxique, mais au

contraire d'un surplus entrainant une ambiguite ou une polysemie

qu'on ne saurait desambiguiser . . . Dans le deuxieme cas, . . . le

surplus de transformations aboutit a des compressions et a des

emboitements tels que la linearite indispensable a la predication

s'en trouve empechee . . . (269)(3)

Although this syntactic dismantlement, as well as the conditions to which Mallarmean language aspires, resist the operations of syntactic panopticism and its hegemony over the production of meaning, readings of Mallarme, confronted with such deviation, have customarily begun either with making an implicit decision about what syntactic relations should be--normalizing syntax to construct an object of knowledge accessible to, and useable by, history or philosophy, one that confirms by reiteration the authority of the syntactic modality of meaning--or by documenting and tabulating the possibilities of arrangement. …

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