Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Zum Beispiel (For Example): A Reflection on Michel Serres' The Parasite

I am currently working on two things in my summer “off.” One, is reading several texts that I will use for my independent study this summer. The other, is preparing for my language exam that I will take in the fall, and, should I not pass it, the spring as well. I only mention these personal ventures in order to give the conditions of possibility for the reflections that follow. While reading Michel Serres The Parasite, which may be one of my favorite books I have read in years, a footnote concerning ‘the example’ caught my eye. Serres writes, “I ask you, says Socrates to the Sophist, for some definitions; you give me praise and examples. Later on, Socrates says that he too sells them” (Serres 29). Plato’s relationship with examples as opposed to concepts is complex, as many critics more astute that I have pointed out. But to give a specific example (zum Beispiel), let us take the discussion of piety in the Euthyphro. Socrates criticizes his interlocutor’s use of examples when he is asking for a definition, an essence of piety:

Remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples of piety, but to explain the general idea which makes all pious things to be pious. Do you not recollect that there was one idea which made the impious impious, and the pious pious?

However, Socrates himself constantly resorts to examples and figures of speech in order to explain concepts. The “allegory of the cave,” for instance. The example seems to play a similar role to writing in Plato—it is a technique of the sophists! Thus, the example is a kind of approximation to truth, a simulacrum that stands in the place of truth, a metaphor, a figure, an image—not the thing itself. Derrida frames writing as a supplement, but we might frame writing and the example, in Serres’ terms, as a parasite.

The word “example” caught my eye because I had just (re)learned the phrase “zum Beispiel” in my German textbook. While the etymology I may perform here might be completely false in one sense, I believe that an investigation into the pieces off this word “Beispiel” is in order to figure out the composition of an “example.” We will break it up into two words: Bei and Spiel. I will look at three meanings of Bei.

1.) Bei as “in (the?) case of” (as in the understanding of the phrase zum Beispiel). Ex: “In case of fire”

2.) Bei as in “By Jove!” (a curse, a swear)

3.) Bei as in near

In the first sense, I have modified the definition a bit to connect this bei with the bei-spiel. The phrase “in case of” tends to preface a warning or a hypothetical statement. “In case of” indicates a particular context or situation—indeed, it indicates a ‘for example’—if this occurs, then this.

In the second sense, we have ‘bei’ as referring to the gods or God. Serres claims that the ‘noise’ at the door that interrupts is precisely the gods! “For the first time we know who knocks at the door, who makes a noise behind the door frame. The gods.Who warn us to move, for the sky is about to fall” (31). In the realm of the gods, Serres writes, “the given comes before the owed.” We say “By Jove!” or “By God!” when something unexpected comes to us—an interruption, a disturbance, a disaster. Our “bei” indicates our necessity to respond to the given of the gods (Heidegger’s es gibt?)

In the third sense, we can understand bei as near, relating to neighbor, but also to the para in parasite, which indicates a ‘to the side’ according to Serres. So the example is always on ‘this’ side of truth (wherever this side of truth may be), it is to be located near the site of truth, but not quite there. We approach truth—truth is a neighbor or, to put it in Serres terms, truth is the producer, and we have to pay (in Heidegger’s terms, ‘give thanks’) to the producer through our words. Serres writes, “the parasite pays in parables.” What is the parable, but a mode of example, an example that is not meant as an illustration, but as a complication and interruption of easy meaning. A parable is an ambiguous enthymeme, where interpretation is at once necessary and impossible. The parable is the parasite of truth and objectivity, it requires the participation of the subject, of the reader to make sense of it (and yet will never make sense of it).

And so we can now understand that in German the example is always a parable. How? By introducing the meaning of the second word “spiel”:

Spiel: “game, match, to play a game, (fig) “to be in the game,” “to be involved,” “(free)play,” (see spielraum—playspace, clearing)

If the example is related to being involved with the game, which is also to occupy a ‘playspace’ than we can understand how the example is always a parable, which is always a parasite. Play is always parasitical on someone else’s work. In order to play, in order to occupy one’s time in leisure, one usually is playing on someone else’s time (which is why employers always speak of “working on their time”). Play involves a surplus of time as do examples and parables. They not only require time to create and tell, but also time to interpret and to “play within.” Parables, parasites, are noise that looks like order—only when a reader or a node or whatever we want to call him/her involves oneself in the play of the parable does the noise become a message. Usually, this message actually looks closer to disorder than the ordered narrative of the parable. The parable seems self-contained and simple—beginning, middle, end—but like a poem, it contains layers of interpretations. People ‘pay in parables’ because parables are entertaining. Parables give us ‘work’ to do that seems like play.

Of course, the issue then comes when we consider that for most people an “example” tends to clarify an abstract concept rather than complicate it. But this is only if they take the example for the concept. Or, to put it differently, if they take the example as unmediated truth, as unrhetorical. Or, to place it within Derrida’s terms, if they take the example to without tracing its history and without realizing that the example reveals a relation rather than the thing or concept. If we do not lose sight of this relation, then our task becomes tracing the history of the trope. The example when looked at as a parable seduces us into play, it persuades us to give the parasite (the one telling the parable) food. The parable creates an enigma (as does the riddle), giving us a meaningful (and impossible task). They create mystery and enigma, tempting us to interpret while constantly eluding our ability to do so.

As Cary Wolf points out in his introduction to The Parasite in different language: “These questions bring us back, in the end, to Serres’ ‘method’, to his writing, perplexing and unwieldy here as perhaps nowhere else in his body of work. Perhaps to answer those questions, we just have to do the impossible anyway. Perhaps it is a question of what we think ‘thinking’ is, not a reflection or representation but a performance, a practice” (Wolf xxv). I think this is what I love most about Serres’ writing. He interprets and performs others’ texts in ways that I think pluralize meaning. I enjoy his writing like I enjoy good literature (I am planning on a post on Serres and Cormac McCarthy in the distant future). As Serres writes,

“These customs and manner can be the object of anthropological study; they were once the pleasures of idle reading, when literature still existed. Literature made clear, even for the blind, a kind of figural instructive anthropology that was both accessible and profound, but without theory, without awkward weight, not boring but intelligent. Why do we have to pay nowadays with lead for what we used to get from a quill pen?”

Is this “figural instructive anthropology” not another name for the parable?

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