O is for Oedipus

| February 16, 2014

The psychoanalyst became the carrier of Oedipus, the great agent of antiproduction in desire. The same history as that of Capital, with its enchanted, “miraculated” world…

— Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

Oedipus, a cautionary tale against doing nothing, of avoidance. The great muting force that is discovered to blanket everything. The action of Oedipus the King has already happened. The drama is one of dawning, of actions inadvertently made already. A story of words in which it is discovered that what has been studiously avoided—to act in any manner—was already more than one could have said. Oedipus minimalizes his actions, wanders off rather than killing the father/king, preferring even to kill an arrogant stranger, with a walking staff in passing, rather than pause, or deviate, in his flight. Oedipus’ wisdom is to know that, in a word, “man” is the one who continually flees forward, with one voice, with whatever limbs are at ones disposal, minimally deviating into action. The fewest words, the least cleverness. This is Oedipus’ paradoxical hubris: he states only the obvious. The battle of the Sphinx is the barest response, the least conflict. The riddle is shown to be nothing. If Oedipus shoots his arrow further than the rest, it is toward the banal, undercutting singular action. We merely grow old. The Sphinx is bypassed by way of deflation. Oedipus’ act is thus excessively passive, avoiding the conflict. “The Sphinx is not killed, she is offended…” (Goux, Oedipus, Philosopher, 17) She kills herself in spite at being caught in nothing much at all. Thus action unfolds as vengeance on restraint.

Monty Python, of course, gets it right. In The Holy Grail, as the questing crew comes across the bridge of death, guarded by “the old man from scene 24,” Sir Lancelot proposes a strategic assault plan, only to be commanded by his King to simply answer the questions, which prove to be banal. What are you up to? What is your favorite color? Everything will hinge on a prior experience with a quasi-scientific analysis of the velocity of swallows. The marker of the king is a casual facility with migratory trivia.

Foucault is thus right to articulate the multiple forms of knowing threading through the play, jostling for position. Oedipus is not ignorant of himself, there is rather a surfeit of knowledge. Oedipus turns out, in having done so little and avoiding excess, to have been too much. Father and Brother, and so forth. But what the play accomplishes in the resolution of forms of knowing, in the attempt to evade or banish improper action, serves also to highlight the specific actions of avoidance themselves. Oedipus, rather than submitting to the classic imposed and deadly task of a threatened king, acts kingly in advance, banishing himself. Rather than taking the direct route to the monster, Oedipus finds himself a wanderer. We should recall, in fact, that he has already been displaced, sent out to another king’s domain ahead of his own coming of age. It is here, on the road, that he will find another king, slumming it. What is a king out of his place? He beats an old man to death with his walking stick. He solves the riddle of the sphinx without breaking a sweat.

All of these are the minimal actions that constitute the backdrop of the drama, that will in fact oscillate around a much tighter set of actions, those of a home or of a theater. One exits and enters. One can go inside or outside one’s home. Or send out a messenger further, out of sight. One can utter words, or twist an arm to make words flow. And when all of this closes in, one can hang from a rafter, or shut one’s eyes with an accessory. We should see, in all of this, the bare minimum actions by which modes of knowledge are sorted. There is no knowing without a minimal sign, a flock of birds, an aimless wandering in place of a forced trajectory. Can we not find in our modes of practicing knowledge today, this excessive minimalism? Just enough. School, a great deal of not so much. But not nothing. It fills our days.

It will be objected that nobody believes in Oedipus anymore, least of all modern education, pursuing different dreams through different techniques. Our modern tests have already dispatched the Sphinx, never to return. But is this not precisely the point, and Oedipus the first non-believer, installing diligent procedure in place of reading the flight of birds and the fickle interpretations of the chorus?

Oedipus is one of those things that becomes all the more dangerous the less people believe in it; then the cops are there to replace the high priests. (D&G, 81)

Nevertheless, it will be further objected, it all ends badly. Tragedy as a cautionary tale. The lesson is that even such striving is for naught. The tyrannical mechanism of discovering knowledge that Oedipus bring to bear—learning only from what can be interrogated, seen and attested to—is precisely collapsed and shown to be unnecessary. Hubris, we are fond of noting, is fated to be neutralized. But this would be to misunderstand the nature of sacrifice. Oedipus does not take his procedure with him, he shows himself to be unnecessary to it. Oedipus’ royal power is to banish himself, twice. The sacrifice further installs the technical—disbelief and the impersonal production of facts—as the bond closing the gap between the gods and a land. Oedipus, the first to insist on something other than his own power and word, hence showing his tyrannical position to be unnecessary. The tragedy does not teach us our lesson, it installs it as the essential, purified, minimum. The essential mode of production.

[E]verybody knows what psychoanalysis means by resolving Oedipus: internalizing it so as to better rediscover it on the outside, in social authority, where it will be made to proliferate and be passed on to the children…. Oedipus is like the labyrinth, you only get out by re-entering it—or by making someone else enter it. (D&G, 79)

The more our schooling leaves Oedipus behind, preferring to see only a quaint old tale, the more resolved it becomes. Oedipus, apparatus.

It is here that we encounter the essential externality of Oedipus. One does not confess to Oedipal feelings, one finds that having no feelings, wandering off, the act is accomplished anyway. Nowhere to hide. The schoolchild is framed. Today’s neutralization of the individual—the common core, for example—indicates that it does not matter what you desire, only that you hit your marks. It is in this sense that Jean Starobinski is right in summing up the Freudian position, “There is nothing behind Oedipus because Oedipus is depth itself.” Depth is not indicative of an interior life, but of the un-interogatable.

Was this the Sphinx’s fated misfortune, to finally pose the riddle to someone with no imagination? The answer to the riddle of the Sphinx—“What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?”—is, of course, “A man.” But what exactly is the question? Perhaps: what is predictably variable, finding a locomotive line that is enumerated differently with the arcing of the sun? A day is a life is also a journey, but in no simple way, and progress brings us closer to the gap, the threshold. Oedipus steps surely through it, and it is the Sphinx that will go head over heels into the sea, but isn’t this the very breach that will send Oedipus himself down a less certain line as well? He knew how to count feet and took his two eyes for granted, destined to walk the surface of the earth with no line. How quickly we tend to want to retell even this sequence—4, 2, 3 … -2, ∞—with a kind of sure footedness. Oedipus is a man, of course. The quintessential man. He is able to answer the riddle, the test, that no man before him could. But in doing so, the riddle becomes banal. Everyone afterwards will know it, will say it as a kind of repetition or evocation, will of necessity miss both the singularity of the question and the way in which it presages the whole scenario. A leading question, a mock trial. Oedipus is the first to confess that he is not the first. Man is this…

We are quick to accuse.

Oedipus’ answer to the riddle of the Sphinx—‘That being is man’—is repeated indiscriminately as enlightenment’s stereotyped message, whether in response to a piece of objective meaning, a schematic order, a fear of evil powers, or a hope of salvation. (Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of enlightenment, 4)

But what would it take to be struck by the strangeness of the question? To not read the answer as self-satisfaction?