One Creature of Writing Transforms

‘[Brecht] is reported to have kept, next to his typewriter, a little wooden mule with this sign around its neck: “Even I must be able to understand it.”’

Hal Foster, ‘Towards a Grammar of Emergency’, New Left Review 68, Mar/Apr 2011, pp. 105 – 118.

If this anecdote is useful for the essay in which it appears, the problems it poses us are manifold. In our posts the mule is admitted as a figure of stupidity, if at all, only as a stepping stone towards considering the more profound insufficiency of the stupid/intelligent opposition. With one step further (or is there a swivel too?) qualities of the negative mule-pole that had been hidden are exposed; visibilities are altered. With thought’s swiveling step one might say that clarity is shunted elsewhere – or if not shunted, then bounced, allowed to occupy another level. Any post would do but take the one entitled “M.Ü.L.E.S.K.I.N.D.E.R.” as an example. Look again at the penultimate paragraph. Clear reasoning would have been easy enough to follow, would it not? But to do so would have  silenced the voice of doubt that one can hear already, an ill-defined murmur, before the writing’s attention brings it so affectingly to audibility (and into view) as the voice of the water cooler. Not without significance it ‘roars’, the volume of the interruption when attributed to this unlikely throat describing an odd form of power. Only in that odd power is there a credible threat to reason’s progress.

Foster is discussing the work of Thomas Hirschhorn and the concept of a ‘non-exclusive public’ named as important for the artist in his development. The concept, here characterised as a ‘proclamation of the equal intelligence of human beings’, is traced to Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, (Stanford University Press, 1991.). In his attempt to ‘sum up’ with an anecdote regarding Brecht, Foster brings his passage perilously close to a misreading and seeds our suspicion that neither he nor Hirschhorn is sufficiently aware of a distinction that’s stated concisely in Rancière’s own writing: the ‘equality of intelligence’ it is not the equality of all manifestations of intelligence, but the equality of intelligence in all its manifestations. (Rancière, J., ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, Artforum, March 2007, pp. 270-281.) What’s striking in Rancière is that intelligence comes first – it is not evidenced by the case as we might commonly assume, but, on the contrary, vouches for the so-called ‘human being’ who manifests it this or that way. The mule in the anecdote as Foster gives it is another case of mule-humanising, implying precisely the different intelligences that Rancière is at pains to deny.

Learning, before it is granted by masters or experts, is the achievement of the student through aleatory processes like those of a child learning language. These processes are not ‘clear’ in the way the master’s instruction is intended to be, but something sure is built all the same on the basis of small-scale or modest comparisons between what’s known and what’s not known.

We do not accept the anecdote that Foster gives regarding Brecht. Or if it is true, the mule’s advice was never intended  to impact on Brecht’s writing in the way implied. It was used elsewhere, in an argument with extremists whose self-righteousness demanded an equal measure of destructive fire.

A proto-document of the Müleskinders project makes the point. (Stent, D. ‘A Skinned Mule’, The Region of Disillusionment, PhD, University of Reading 2011.). The great and thumping steps of reason in writing that produce clarity for a supposedly all-inclusive public are hammer blows too, reducing the world to bland shapes. With attention to what is nearly inaudible at thought’s margin on the other hand, with a ‘voicing’ that in endlessly inventive ways protects the precise nature of such near-silences, writing’s world unfolds into complexity. Or as the document has it: ‘by the smallest of interventions […] one “creature” of writing transforms into the other’.