Jean-François Lyotard, Soundproof Room:
Malraux's Anti-Aesthetics. Trans. David Harvey. Stanford, CA:
Stanford UP, 2001. (Originally published in French under the title
Chambre Sourde: L'Antiesthétique de Malraux. Paris:
Editions Galilée, 1998.)
Soundproof Room, the final completed work by the cultural philosopher Jean-François Lyotard,
reads like a crystallization of the essential elements of his 1996
biography of André Malraux, entitled Signed, Malraux
(and also translated into English by David Harvey). Soundproof
Room is rich in references to that text, but abandons the
"junkyard writing" of the earlier work--a style that purportedly "apes"
Malraux's own writing--to return to the dense, poetic style more familiar
to Lyotard's readers. Although
Signed, Malraux is a narrative of Malraux's work and the
life that is indistinguishable from it (and this from one who famously
declared himself suspicious of "grand narratives"), Lyotard creates a new
genre he calls "hypobiography," declaring in effect that postmodern
biography will be scenic, much as Malraux's own work has often been
called cinematic for its syncopated rhythms evocative of physical
sensations. In Soundproof Room, subtitled "Malraux's
Anti-Aesthetics," Lyotard clearly strives to elucidate the relationships
between Malraux, politics, aesthetics, and Lyotard's own body of work.
The biographical concerns of Signed, Malraux are further
condensed into moments or scenes of ontological questioning that
beautifully, if stridently, illustrate the central concerns of
periodization in art and the fragile status of the individual political
or aesthetic gesture that have animated all of Lyotard's work.
- Robert Harvey's facing-page translation makes it
convenient to consult the original French, which is useful for a text
that rests so heavily on Lyotard's previous work on Malraux, and on his
own prior writings on aesthetics, notably in The Inhuman.
For in positing the work of art as a soundproof room, as an "empty trachea
[...] in which silence might stir," Lyotard further develops his
fascination for the inhuman in art, for the way in which the work of art
bears witness to the unpresentable, the "it happens" of the sublime
developed throughout his oeuvre. Malraux as historical
individual is subsumed; voice and ego are eclipsed, having gone over to
the side of the third person, and out of this death comes an account of
the renewal of the rise of the work of art. As Lyotard writes, "man is
only that which exceeds the inhuman of artwork" (38).
- Malraux is not the first thinker Lyotard has
adopted from an earlier period in the service of postmodernism: He is
indebted to Kant (in The Differend and Lessons in the
Analytic of the Sublime), Freud (in The Libidinal
Economy), Diderot, Newmann, Duchamp, and even Rabelais--and yet it
would be wrong to accuse him, as some have, of "modernist" tendencies.
Postmodernism is a non-periodizing concept for Lyotard, one that arises
out of a differend or irreducible heterogeneity, and must be viewed as a
critical stance. Language is insufficient to convey an incommunicable
content, and the postmodern arises out of this incommensurability.
Malraux, in his life and work, repeatedly comes up against precisely this
kind of a differend in which death (Lyotard's La Redite, which
Harvey renders as "the Redundant One") appears as the only possible
outlet. Lyotard has always interpreted postmodern politics and thought
in terms of this sort of aesthetic formulation, and in Soundproof
Room he reduces the biography of Malraux to its aesthetic heart:
the quest for the limits of experience and the eclipse of the first
person of biography by the annihilating, redundant force of death.
- Why should one talk about "anti-aesthetics" in
Malraux? Aesthetics refers to the analysis of things perceived by the
senses, to material forms, and has further come to connote a response to
the beautiful in art or in nature, "taste" deriving from the Kantian
sensus communis. But for Lyotard, as for Malraux, art evokes
the sublime. There is no community of feeling or of like-minded
connoisseurs, no recourse to reassuring forms. In The
Inhuman, Lyotard writes, "we find sublime those spectacles which
exceed any real presentation of a form" and "these works appear to the
public of taste to be 'monsters, 'formless' objects, purely 'negative'
entities," deliberately using the Kantian terms for the occasions that
provoke the sublime sentiment (113, 125). An anti-aesthetics, then,
would refer to the negative presentation of the sublime; that is, one can
present merely that there is an immaterial absolute that can be thought
beyond material representation. Throughout Soundproof Room,
Lyotard will use the term "stridency" to refer to this monstrous
apparition beyond the harmony of accepted forms, and he sees throughout
Malraux's life and work (as the two become indistinguishable, one
"signing" the other) the attempt to bear witness to this unpresentable
- Soundproof Room follows no linear
argument and develops instead according to the elaboration of a concept
or theme in each chapter--for example, "Lost Voice," "Scene," "War,"
"Stridency," and "Throat"--just as Malraux himself rejected chronology in
favor of the development of "scenes" in his writing. The first chapter,
"To End, To Begin," addresses precisely this question of linear
development. Ending for Lyotard always implies continuation; the "break"
of the end always presupposes the thinking of an "after," a "post"
(leading him to state that "modernity is constitutionally and ceaselessly
pregnant with its postmodernity" [Inhuman 25]). In this
proposition of the "post" Lyotard sees two heterogeneous levels: "the
one on which things take place, and the one on which they are recounted"
(4). In the words of Malraux's Lazarus, "one has no biography except for
others" (42). The modern, with its impulsion to exceed itself, upsets
the principle of this gap to privilege the present, and for this
precarious present moment Lyotard introduces the idea of "voice," thereby
summarizing the history of twentieth-century politics:
The voice is incarnated and promises ultimate fulfillment through
redemption from the pain of enduring. Such is the Christic mystery
elaborated by Saul of Tarsus and Augustine and propagated by the West
across two millennia of Western thought and practice. The diverse
modernities that follow this initial move repeat the incredible gesture:
Here is my body, says the voice, here and now. [...] In the American and
French Declarations, the same ostentation: Here we are, free peoples.
And in the Bolshevik Revolution: Power to the Worker's Councils
(Soviets), right away and here. (6)
Against the immediacy of the voice, Lyotard (with Malraux) locates the
redundant and inexorable motion of history that dooms each of these
narratives (or meta-narratives) to the pourrisoir or "rotting
pit" of history. The voice is extinguished repeatedly and becomes
inaudible, as "the West is condemned to this obscenity of repeating the
gesture of beginning" (10).
- Lyotard situates Malraux's work within the tradition of
"writing at the limit of writing" (10) that includes Céline,
Bataille, Artaud, and Camus:
To append Malraux's oeuvre to this group is what I intend to do here.
Despite some compositional shortcomings, a tendency toward the epic, a
public speaker's eloquence--all of which caused it to be underrated--his
work plunged no less than the others into the ontological nausea, was no
less anxious to understand and to show how the miracle of artworks can
In Signed, Malraux Lyotard fully demonstrates the theme of
decay in Malraux's life and work, in which death is not an end, but an
endless recurrence of the same (l'éternelle redite). For
in that work Lyotard concludes that the relationship between the living
body (the bios) and the writing (the graph) are
intertwined in such a way that Malraux's life is "written" for his
oeuvre, an oeuvre that draws so much from it. And life
has no meaning for Malraux other than constant contact with death, which
he defines in turn as a moment of life which can be metamorphosed into an
artwork. This moment of creation is privileged by both Lyotard and
- In a lengthy passage from Malraux's The Royal
Way, Lyotard demonstrates the continuity of the cycle of decay and
regeneration in the oneness of the Khmer forest:
Claude [...] had given up trying to distinguish living beings from their
setting, life that moves from life that oozes; some unknown power
assimilated the trees with the fungoid growths upon them, and quickened
the restless movements of all the rudimentary creatures darting to and
fro upon the soil like march-scum amid the steaming vegetation of a
planet in the making. Here what act of man had any meaning, what human
will could conserve its staying power? Here everything frayed out, grew
soft and flabby, assimilated itself with its surroundings [...]. (14)
This moment of ontological doubt in fact has its analogue in Lyotard's
thinking on the sublime, and his debt to Kant becomes clear. For out of
the dissolution of the self and its assimilation into the surrounding
landscape comes the reassertion of being through language. As Lyotard
writes, "in the ostensibly mute swamp where everything gets engulfed,
larvae stagnate by the billions, fomenting renewal. Plants, animals,
humans, cultures: everything will begin again. Plots resume" (12).
- A central question of Lyotard's book, then, concerns the
state of first-person subjectivity in the face of death and so many
"isms," both political and artistic, doomed to decline, sameness, and
assimilation. "What 'I' would still dare to introduce itself as master
of narrative when the promise of final freedom that it proffers instantly
runs aground on the inextricable and restrictive perversity of the
language in which it is formulated?" (32) Malraux is acutely aware of
the precariousness of the subjective voice, as evidenced by his interest
in Jewish history and the "recounting of the forgotten voice" (26).
Further, Lyotard sees a correspondence between Malraux's psychology of
art and the validity bestowed upon artworks and "this unforgetting of
forgetting and listening to the inaudible whose is paradox is sustained
in the Jewish tradition" (28). Malraux's theory of art, his
"anti-aesthetic," may therefore be summed up by his realization that the
artwork simply is without reference to a voice, an author, a
reader, or a hero. It is authorized by no voice, and aims at no end.
- Art, for Malraux as for Lyotard, takes on the status of
event, a birth outside of narrative in the face of the disappearance of
the ego, at the very moment when it is no longer capable of "hearing its
own voice" (36). The subjective element (ego) dissipates, making way for
an absolute writing. At this moment "a 'there, now' oblivious to history
slices the interminable ebb and flow with the thinnest of wires" (38).
In this sense, the artwork means nothing, but is rather a singular
arrangement of its constituent elements. It does not serve as
self-expression or expose the subjectivity of its author, hence its
"inhuman" stature. As Lyotard writes, "the artwork breaks with
convention, with the commonplace, with the flow. It is obtained through
a conscious and conscientious labor that relentlessly endeavors to lay
bare the ego. Through art the human bends its will to strive toward this
inhuman that sometimes forces it wide open" (50).
- What Lyotard admires in Malraux is his repeated gesture
to transform the "staged idleness" of Europe in the 1920's into an
artwork, to take the raw material of life and impose on it a style. For
it is the act of metamorphosis or rebellion that is valuable for
Lyotard/Malraux more than the result of any such act. Human endeavors
are doomed to redundancy at the hands of history, but something in the
artwork resists this motion; the artist "plants his claw right into the
event, and signs it" (64). The artwork thus produced is "reality gashed,
short-circuited at a given moment on itself, a wounded mouth gaping over
the void" (64). Following the logic of simulation, by substituting
another world for the paucity of reality the work of art in fact forces
the real world to confess that it is an illusion, an idea that Lyotard
elaborates with respect to Diderot's Salons in an earlier
essay. For Lyotard, the act of metamorphosis (or the act of rebellion on
the political plane) is essential as an assertion of being, whether or
not it is doomed to failure. The gesture is born of nothing ("idleness,"
or "the void," to use two other of Lyotard's formulations), and makes
war with this nothingness; as such it is an indispensable affirmation of
being or presence.
- The metaphor of war is central to Malraux's life
as well as to his art. Not only is life a continual war with death, but
artistic creation is a war with nothingness. Lyotard contends that wars
and revolutions are opportunities for Malraux to come to terms with the
limits of experience and to demonstrate that "we die and write for nothing"
(66). And writing does entail a kind of death, that is to say the
eclipse of the ego in favor of a different "I": the monstrous "I without
a self." For this reason, Lyotard contends that "war is not the
confrontation one thinks it is" and the battlefield is not a place so
much as an internal struggle between ego (le moi) and the "I" of
writing (le je d'écriture) (68). The image recalls
Baudelaire's image of the artist as escrimeur in "The Painter of
Modern Life," his essay on Constantin Guys: "c'est un moi insatiable du
non-moi" (552). This same impulse causes Lyotard to ask, in his
introduction to The Inhuman, "what if human beings [...]
were constrained into, becoming inhuman?" (2). War, indeed, is a differend.
- The thesis of the "I-without a self" in Malraux
and throughout Soundproof Room refers to the dimension of a
self that is not within life--one might say the inhuman. According to
Lyotard, "it evokes a closure, a deafness, but also the insistence of an
anguish that biographical time, which resists it, does not sweep away in
its flow" (86). Having written extensively about visual artists and art
throughout his lifetime (Duchamp, Monory, Adami, Newmann), Lyotard
nonetheless introduces an aural metaphor to describe this anguish:
"painting is not for seeing," writes Lyotard; "it demands this
listening: the eye listens to something beyond the harmonious music of
the visible" (100). This "something" is what Lyotard calls stridency, a
sound lacking bearing and restraint through which "the unheard-of is
exhibited, in a flash, at the threshold of the audible." (76).
- We don't hear ourselves through our ears,
according to Malraux, but rather through the throat. The figure of
"hearing through the throat" also leads Malraux to a figure for
communion, since "one hears that other whom one loves, if one loves him
like a brother, with one's throat" (86). For Lyotard, this is the
central intuition of Malraux's theory of aesthetic creation as elaborated in
his numerous essays on the psychology of art. This is the essence of
Malraux's anti-aesthetics, in which what is left of subjects communes through what cannot be shared--something like the
return to the ineffable in art, a response to the work of art as event or happening in all its
singularity. Art is thus an expression of stridency, the unheard-of, a
violent act of giving form to the formless, with all of its parallels in
the Kantian sublime.
- The Kantian sublime resists the sensus
communis and the "good taste" of the beautiful, but Lyotard's
formulation of the "it happens" of aesthetic experience seems to offer
the hope of communion, albeit of a limited sort: "just as we are lovers
or brothers through fusion of airtight throats, the artwork places
absolute solitudes in communion with each other and with the stridulation
of the cosmos" (102). And yet there is no hope for mediation or dialogue
between or among these solitary entities. "Singularities fuse only to
the extent that they cannot exchange or hear each other" (102). The
outer form of the work, its facies is a mere simulation, or
dissimulation; the "soundproof room" of its empty inside "allows the mask
to pick up the truth--nothingness--in the form of strident apparitions"
- In the final chapter of Signed,
Malraux Lyotard evokes Malraux's concept of a museum without
walls, a "place of the mind" impossible to visit that rather inhabits
us (304). For Lyotard, as for Malraux, great works of art are sublime
epiphanies, "brush strokes of the absolute" (303). A precarious
museum that lives within, apart from the corrupting narrative of art
history, Malraux's gallery exists in limbo, in this zone of the
ineffable. The museum without walls represents what Lyotard calls "a
perpetual disturbance"; no institution can be established based upon it.
Art offers the promise of escape (rather than escape itself), and an
intimation of truth as stridency.
- The question of biography and the dynamic by
which a body of work can "sign" a life and vice versa surface at the end
of the philosopher's life in Signed, Malraux and
Soundproof Room. The idea of an inhuman art that
regenerates beyond the grave is therefore all the more pressing.
Lyotard's works have asked the most provocative questions of postmodern
theory: From "What is the Postmodern?" to "Can Thought Go on Without a
Body?," Lyotard persistently returns to questions of presence and the
status of the human, often expressed in terms of an irreconcilable
differend. Soundproof Room is an important culmination of
this body of writing and necessary reading for theorists of the
postmodern in art and politics.
Department of Foreign Languages
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1. Robert Harvey has commented on the
heterogeneity of Lyotard's writing, and thus characterized the style of
Signed, Malraux, following Lyotard's own characterization of
Malraux; see Harvey 99.
Baudelaire, Charles. "Peintre de la vie moderne." Oeuvre
completes. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968.
Harvey, Robert. "Telltale at the Passages." Yale French
Studies 99 (2001): 102-16.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Inhuman: Reflections on
Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford:
Stanford UP, 1991.
---. Signed, Malraux. Trans. Robert Harvey. Stanford:
Stanford UP, 1999.