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The abandonment of the centrality of the subject

Donatien Grau

A Life in Philology

Published: 17.07.2021


The legend goes that philologists are unsuited to our present – that they are people who have grown old amidst manuscripts, isolated from the outside world, debating this or that reading of a passage from papyrus alpha or codex gamma. They are said to be creatures lost both in their books and in their minds ; dysfunctional people, dissociated from the call of the present, the last defenders of an academic specialty practiced amongst Oxford or Cambridge gentlemen, heavily-mustached German professor-doctors, or the champions for the egalitarian republic; all convinced that the centrality of their field practically matches the centrality of Western culture.

There may be such a thing as this philology of certainty in a world of uncertainties, openly severed from contemporary life in all its aspects; and yet it is but a mere reflection of a broader spectrum of practice and thought. The sharpest, most lucid philologists – like historians – know that they exist in the present and that their questioning of the text also relies on the assessment of their own existential conditions. This philology, at once focused and connected, is the one practiced across a wide ranges of perspectives, by many analysts both of texts and of their time. Philologists move between textual materiality and a form of oscillation between one text and another, one matter and another; oscillation, not abstraction.

Philology is anchored in the object of its study, as well as on synkrisis, the Greek notion of comparison at the heart of classical methods. A Synkrisis operates between two texts, between a text and an image; it can therefore engage with differing materials— between the life of the text and life itself. Philology may well be nothing more than a mechanism for perpetual synkrisis, establishing chains of meaning along the way. The separation of textual life and external life is an illusion, while the premise of philology is to produce continuity. For every example of lives in separation, many more examples of united, integrated life are to be found. In a famous example from his De Philologia, Guillaume Budé describes Philologia as the subject of a love beyond erotic love, beyond even the love owed to the sovereign. The love of Philology - itself the love of discourse – is the highest form of love for life.

Salomon Reinach, the great historian and archaeologist of ancient Greek culture, the editor of classical texts he often contributed to discovering, was also a close friend of Liane de Pougy, the most famous courtesan of his time. She entrusted Reinach with the task of editing her correspondence with Natalie Barney. We can read this trust as the outcome of social interactions and bonds; we can also – more deeply – decipher in it a trace of the powerful bond between philology and life. The letters were Liane de Pougy’s life, the fabric of her very existence, which she entrusted to one of the masters of text.

Pierre de Nolhac, who published the manuscript of Petrarch's Canzoniere, was also a prince of society. In his texts on Rome collected in Memories of an Old Roman, he discusses his rapport to a city that is no mere urbanism, but where everything invokes textuality. This is certainly one of the reasons for the success of the Roman section of the Grand Tour as a literary genre: in this form, life and text merge, vision replaces fiction. Here, where you are walking, Cicero walked. There, where your eyes are looking, Caesar was murdered. Right there. Much of this information is based on uncertainty, belongs to the realm of invention, fiction. Nevertheless we believe it to be History.

Philology is rooted in the recognition of signs, the complement brought to those signs, and the construction of an overarching structure: this makes it the exact equivalent to the action of the brain, and to the action of fiction. It is a permanent invention, and does not aim for radical novelty. One might play on the meaning of “logos” and say that loving philology means loving the love for order: and yet, philology is, rather than an order, a process of ordering, stemming from the selection a person operates within a material, from the structure they grant to such a selection in order to lend it meaning. Thus meaning is created as well as found: it is properly invented.

If one considers philology only as a system of constraints related to methods of editing and transcribing, one runs the risk of missing its vital force. Certainly, philology implies “dancing in chains,” but it also comes with the acknowledgement of one’s full capacity to arrange, to see— a boundless, if hidden, freedom. The philologist’s freedom comes wearing a mask, but it comes. Thus philology reconnects with the original act of the rhapsodes, who sewed fragments together, assembled episodes. The rhapsode is the first author, the first editor, the first philologist establishing an edition. Everything, from archaic Greek poetry to biblical texts, is a matter of edition. Homer is an editor of text as much as he is an author. He is the editor of the words that the muse indicates, as well as the perpetual creator of a shared version. Homer is the pen name of all the philologists avant l’heure who prepared the text for centuries before him. Poetry is philological from the beginning, insofar as it operates according to a logic of ordering which is not necessarily a logic of writing.

When returning to the roots, we are offered a way out of the necessary association between text/writing and tangible, physical reality. The philological act, once radicalized, is not Western as such, because it is an act of the brain— it is the narrative, textual transcription of cerebral action. It is sometimes said that the language of Europe is translation, but this can be said even more convincingly of Africa. Each region has historically had dozens, if not hundreds of languages. Many of these languages have been able to exist without writing, but they create their own text, outside the physical boundaries of documentation, to which they nevertheless sometimes belong. Some of the most significant texts have passed through and been reinterpreted in Timbuktu. Yet the textuality of Africa is not exclusively documentary, as Bachir Souleymane Diagne has shown. Stripping the word “text” from its documentary implications and retrieving its etymological meaning of “fabric”, is to redeem it from its limitations. Moving philology out of the manuscript and moving it to the language’s text opens up rich possibilities. This approach erases chronological and geographical limitations— thus the rhapsodes and the griot have similar practices, similar to any writer’s, any human being’s. Philology is not an island facing the Barbarians; it is the microcosm of human endeavor. Philology is the symbol of life.

Paradoxically,philology puts into perspective the primacy of writing: if all life is a form of simultaneous writing/reading, then the written, published text has no necessity. All that would be true if, in confrontation with the structures of oblivion set up in this world, writing hadn’t been for so long the only way to produce narrative memory. The famous quote from the Phaedrus, according to which “writing is an art of memory, not of remembering,” marks how much it is both a poison and an antidote. Writing destroys recollection, and replaces it with memory, as the only possibility of keeping track of words, facts, existences. If we were to radicalize this conception of philology, we could envisage a world without writing, since everything is text— or at least a world in which the written word would exist among a plurality of forms of inscriptions within life. Writing would then be only one form among others. To follow that reasoning, because of the force of suppression tied into the cycle of life, every creation would imply a form of obliteration in line with the rhythm of metamorphosis; then the documentary text would become a kind of metonymy for the text of the world. Text would be no contradiction to the world, but a signal. Text would not be life’s bulwark, but an ever-bright signal for forms of life, and this at a time when other forms of transmission – notably oral, even visual – have weakened. Text has caused the death of remembrance and so imposes itself as the only mode of memory. Philologists may therefore believe that their life is the text, which has come in to replace living; but to be a true philologist, one must bring the act of remembering back into life, thereby recreating the lines of transmission. It may be that, in order to be a philologist, we have to be ready to give up books. That’s what we’re told by all the stories of scholars who, after reading and working through books, left the book— such as Nick Land. The library is a microcosm of the world, not just a refuge. Its action is only powerful once you leave it.

What would happen if a philologist went to CBGB’s? Sylvère Lotringer wanted to be that philologist. The first issues of Semiotext(e) were launched in nightclubs. Lotringer wanted people to dance with the magazine. It was designed by PhD students at Columbia University and filled with new critical essays by Felix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, John Cage, the Black Panthers... Lotringer never stopped seeing the connection between the most intense, ear (and eye) burning forms of text and modes of life that burn the body. Sex, drugs, dancing through the night— this was how Nietzsche's thoughts had to be discovered, with the same intensity and immediacy. The clarity brought on by hard living is not the same clarity that readers at the library experience— and yet... One could, supreme paradox, ask oneself if being intoxicated by a text does not parallel the clear view one gets at 4 AM, after having heard Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ rhythmic poetry. Richard Hell’s success, beyond his genre-defining appearance, is that he has created a form in which music does not accompany poetry, and poetry is not composed for music, but where the two become one. This union of two intensities in one manifestation of life is a way to radicalize both music and poetry— sound and language come together in a sensory and intellectual experience. In fact, this could be a radicalization of the very notion of philology, which is not simply the ordering of elements, but also the contact with the page, the sensory experience.

What happens when a philologist goes onto the battlefield? Philologists think they have seen and heard everything because they speak with the knowledge transmitted by books – a knowledge extracted from all forms of knowledge. Unlike historians, with whom they have much in common, they are not aiming for a narrative per se, but for the conditions and the material structures of the narrative. Philologists have less ambition – far less than philosophers – but their discourse has to be anchored. The nature of philological interpretation is more on the order of oscillation than of abstraction— more a matter of movement among sources than a grand, all-encompassing narrative. But what happens when philology directly confronts its material? Can philology exist in the face of suffering, of gut-wrenching fear? Does it make sense for a classical philologist to go to these places? Are there spaces that block philology?

These questions open up the possibility for a philology of existence— since war reporters are philologists too. They know how to recognize dangers, faces, find information. Philology as well is rooted in the specialization and expertise of its practitioners. Philologists specialize in a certain fragment of the text of the world, and they have to focus on it— the comparative outcome, the synkrisis, has to be anchored in the initial fragment in order not to lose its grounding, the angle for the reading of the text that establishes the legitimacy of the philological practice. Without this textual grounding, there is no philology. If the confrontation is anchored in an initial text, then it can operate with comparison. Life, tied to the life of texts, is the field of classical philologists; but we must recognize that war reporters can also come to the text— from war.

The question then arises of the separation, the delineation of text and life: are they of the same nature, or cut from two different cloths united in a single garment, the world’s robe? Can we envision a form of unity that would allow us to define universal rules of reading and writing, applicable to all material? It seems necessary to recognize the philological activity of the mind as well as the proliferation of forms that the philological act can take, manifesting itself in many, or even all fields. One could then expand philology to include all forms of attentive technique. A third, comparative form of philology could then rise, but it would run the risk of losing its specificity, of coming dangerously close to philosophy, the art of abstraction. Philology, like philosophy, can expand to the point of presenting propositions, but not from a contemplative perspective – as philosophy does. Philology strives to remain within the grain of the text, the grain of matter, even if its oscillation opens a way to a new interpretation. According to this pattern, life would be the first object of philology, and the written, documentary text, a deduction, a complement, a continuation. Life is the original philological text.

Philology is not Allan Kaprow, the erasing of the boundaries between art and life, the will to make sure that there is no difference between the two, as if the purpose of art was to merge with life – without any separation. Philology acts from specific materials, and cannot exist in a vaporous state. Unlimited philology runs the risk of madness— again, the case of Nietzsche. But in-conversation philology opens up possibilities. Philology does not exist without a framework. The text of the world and the written text are not cut from the same cloth. There are many kinds of fabric, and the text of life encompasses them all. In fact, in the philology of life, the written text, the manuscripts, the papyrus, are the minority form.

Philology keeps it possible to open a space for the minority: philologists are always a potential minority, if they take their task seriously. Editing is based on confronting all voices that have come before, on considering the reversal of all of their authority. Philology is therefore an extremely solitary activity—How else could one feel when about to contradict an entire tradition?—as well as being the voice of the majority in its public entirety, since one is to exist with all those voices.

Nietzsche is one of the most powerful practitioners of philology – the very philology he attempted to redefine, against Wilamowitz and the documentary historicist tradition, in favor of another philology, one that would tackle life itself. Nietzsche’s thought is the voice of the minority— that of the solitary individual facing the majority herd that denies any right to existence. His vitalism may have been read as a defense of force, of violence; but this is also the exposition of the conditions for minority survival. The remark is often made that the members of minorities of many forms in fact make for a majority, but the very principle of the minority is to be a community; while the majority claims to be the community. Philology is in itself the art of minorities connected to create a majority— it is not the discourse of the majority, but a series of small voices that together form a chorus. Philology is the chorus of the little voices uttered by readers, whose individuality remains infinitely audible.

What happens when the choir follows the model not of Bach, but of Sid Vicious? What of punk philology? Is that an oxymoron or a reality? For philology, as for philosophy, the yearning is one, the forms are many, made more numerous from accepting to belong in an open, multiple life. Just as there can be a separational, experimental philology, there can be a punk philology. There is nothing against it. For the apparent separation of domains – texts, lives, artworks, feelings – only exists as a schema, a principle doomed to always be challenged. It is this challenge that allows philology to take measure of itself, to grasp where it can and cannot go. It also makes it possible to understand that philology is not merely a field of knowledge— it is in fact the method of understanding that encompasses all others, with the right blend of depth and distance. The sensations of philology are in constant flux— there isn’t one ‘right way’ to live out philology. Its only principle sine quo non is a form of attention, of precision. Without attention, there can be no philology; but there can absolutely be an acute form of philology without text, without books—with memory alone. Erich Auerbach, for example, famously had his entire library in his head.

Books exist to continue the libraries of lives, but life is the supreme library. Nevertheless, it burns at the end of each existence. The only way to study a text is to measure the limited, fragmentary character of what we read. And yet, when we do this, we are granted access to a tiny fragment of a library that has remained. It is impossible to access it without the intense and intimate feeling of life. When you dance, when you get lost at a rave in the middle of the night, in a meadow with friends and strangers, shadows among the thickets— it is given to you to sense the feeling of life.

These two modes seem like opposites. One is patient, aspiring, modest; the other has all senses in frenzy. But they are the two sides of the same reality— Foucault’s experience of the San Francisco nights was contemporaneous with his philological works on Stoic and Patristic texts; Barthes’ nights at the Palace concordant to his semiotic works, which are a form of contemporary philology. Nothing is isolated: even if you choose to separate things, everything is connected, either by the illusion of a dichotomy, or by the honesty of plural unity. One may, like Proust, strive to deny it, try to uphold the two separate lives, the two worlds. This very attempt is an illusion, and the illusion of an illusion. For the rave’s intensity makes even more sense when the next mornings are not sad and gray, but when they take on an even greater intensity, beauty, strength, for being different — this renewed way of looking at the world is what philology brings.

According to the theology of philosophy, there is no other, perfect world opposed to the disappointing present world, but one in which a myriad of worlds exist and where everything can be read, at the measure of one’s reading. Bodies at night, texts during the day, texts at night, bodies during the day, landscapes— reading is then no partially-active, passive, or apparently inactive experience. It is the most active of experiences, but it does not necessarily offer the dramatization of its activity. Dancing at night, on the other hand, offers performance and, even within the limits of its unconsciousness, is also full of facts, ideas, dreamed thoughts. To accept that these two worlds are not far apart is to perform the primary philological act— perceiving all preconceived ideas, taking note of them, even analyzing them in order to then be able to free oneself from them. This is the starting point of philology in its narrowest sense, and it is also what it brings to life, its primacy of existence. If, at 6 AM, the rising sun does not bring sadness, but the excitement of the possible return to the text, it is because we embody the perfect form of punk philology. If nights alternate between the iconographic analysis of a recurring image and the consideration of self-abandonment, then we are indeed in the realm of punk philology. For philology, like punk, is both the fulfillment and the abandonment of the centrality of the constituted subject in opposition to other forms of existence. This is both the price to pay, and the wonderful offering that philology presents to the world.

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Donatien Grau

Donatien Grau

is a scholar and author. He currently serves as head of contemporary programs at the Louvre and as chair of the Association Pierre Guyotat.
Other texts by Donatien Grau for DIAPHANES