Questions to which answers are not the right answer


In an interview titled “Les Choses signifient-elles quelque chose?” (1962) Barthes gave, en passant, an interesting definition of literature as the art of presenting questions, not answers, nor solutions.

These literary questions, says Barthes, are powerful, disturbing and long-lasting. More importantly, it is only literature that can ask this kind of long-lasting questions. Kafka and Balzac, adds Barthes, have become canonic because they have left us with such long-lasting and disturbing questions.

Rephrasing Barthes: Literature produces and presents questions to which answers are not the right answer.


We’re habituated to input-output production lines: question-in, answer-out; problem-in, solution-out. But some questions and some problems are simply different. So what is the “right answer” to those long-lasting literary questions? How should we refer to them?

Probably, living the question, in each and every Time Capsule, is what we should do?

I think that these informal observations can be used to clarify the way a group of French philosophers, such as Lyotard, Foucault, Deleuze and, of course, Barthes, understand the relation between literature and philosophy. After all, what has been described so far is commonly perceived as the realm of Philosophy, and yet Barthes ignores Philosophy altogether, charging Literature with the burden of asking those questions, insisting that it is the only place where such questions can (be asked? live? survive?).

My feeling is that western philosophers have never considered philosophy as the art of presenting long-lasting questions. Rather they have used questions as a pretext, an excuse, a platform for their… answers, for their irrefutable ontological or epistemological solutions, constructs and architectures.

In fact, it is western philosophers who have tried, along centuries, to kill, eradicate and annihilate those disturbing questions. Too often they have resurrected some murdered questions but only to try and kill those poor bastards once more. The dead body of metaphysics is an example. So the Problem of Philosophy, if by philosophy we mean those long-lasting questions, is that Philosophy refuses to die!

Lyotard et al. think that indeed some questions must die – but that their execution should be carried out by Science, not Philosophy. Other questions, on the other hand, must live – that was the role of Philosophy – to give birth and a living place for this kind of questions – but Philosophy has fallen from grace.

Long-lasting questions live now only in Literature.

(and see also Lyotard: against input-output philosophy)

7 Responses to “Questions to which answers are not the right answer”

  1. ecko4inc Says:

    The new physics is less concerned with an atomistic, cause and effect universe than with forces and relations between forces, non-locality, or as Einstein called it, “spooky action at a distance.” The paradoxical tale of Schrodinger’s cat is an example of the undecidability quantum mechanics has introduced into the old paradigm of physics. What was originally conceived to be the atom as tiny particles, a solar system model of subatomic particles, no longer holds “true.” There is no solution – only probability, wave function – for the question: where is the electron?
    Richard Feynman even went so far as to suggest a theory of a singular electron (albeit as a kind of a joke) as the “vulgar” concept of a linear time no longer applied to sub-atomic particles (which are not really particles as they behave in a weird manner like communicating at faster-than-light speeds, seeming to be able to be in two positions at once, superimpositions).
    The implication for a literature asking those questions to which answers are not the right answer, is obviously prefigured in the way we view human relations, between the author and the text, the subject of the work and the “first reader.” (What is interesting in Gleick’s “Chaos” is there is no mention of “post-structuralism.”) Truth-value is suspended in literature, analogous to the way physicists are obliged to suspend the question of sub-atomic particles (or waves): is the cat alive or dead? which way did the (singular) electron go? Singularity and the intentions of an author posing a problem seems to be contingent on the observer or reader. Only an observation can tell, what constitutes the event. The body of the work (text) is the site of experimentation. In this sense, there is nothing outside the text, no Author(ity).
    Not that Derrida confirms or is justified by, physics. Deconstruction produces its own reading, a trace in (a) literature, putting truth-value, metaphysics, under erasure. Derrida tracking the singular electron… philosophy as literature.
    Sorry for the length of this comment. Its a thorny post and resurrects some questions I haven’t visited since I was a student emale. To say already ‘what is'(literature)’ is the founding question of (a) metaphysics and the answer to that question is not a simple one. If, indeed, a comment can be construed as an “answer” – or as a supplement to the post. I prefer to think of it as what the quantum physicists called a “wave-function collapse.”
    “Physics does not tell us how nature is; it only tells us what we can say about nature.” Niels Bohr

  2. muli koppel Says:

    Ecko, thanks for your comment (length doesn’t matter).

    Actually, when writing down this thorny post, as you call it, the title of your post Die, Philosophy, Die! became comprehensible for me, reader.

    Author(ity) – yes. All those deaths (God, Father, Author) have authority as their victim. Authority [control] needs distance [space], and distance requires time to get from A to B. But the Electric Age is timeless. Hence the collapse of meaning, authority included (actually, authority collapsed first – la tête la première, to use some Candide observations).

    I am (still) very cautious with Derrida. His voice… deconstructs my ability to go behind the lines of his words. I’m living on Audio (Oh Dieu, odieux, audieu), and Derrida has an erased voice, unlike the rest who I usually mention. In his writing style, he is less of the genre I’m speaking of – the genre of the literary philosophers. But I’ll find my way to him, slowly, going in circles, picking a fruit here a fruit there. Currently I’m juggling with the concepts he used or rebranded, many of them, deconstruction being the flagship, containing a Schrödinger’s Cat, dead and alive, ways that lead nowhere, and so forth. From the ends of man I took the political grounds of any philosophical congregation. In those two signs – politics and paradoxes – I currently see some similarities to the others.

    Foucault, indeed, was a physician, claiming to be interested only in relations never in substance, such as truth. There’s this kind of people who will always get to the point or wish to get to the point. There’s this other kind of people, myself, yourself, most probably, included, who will never get to the point. Actually they will avoid, as much as they can, getting to the point, circling forever around and around, telling everything they can about the suburbs, hoping that through that the city will be revealed – by itself.

    long-lasting philosophical questions, such that retain their quantum potential, are to be found in literature in particular, in poetry – in an even greater particularity, and in art in general. Western Philosophy, capital P, Capital Philosophy, used to open the Box and peep inside, like in a trial, sentencing the poor cat by describing his state in a pure atomic sentence.

  3. ecko Says:

    There is so much point in just writing even in an informal genre like the weblog. Definitely, I have some reserve about getting to the point where these eckoes might be taken seriously. All those links to publishers on I am emale, is a reminder to keep tending towards that point as I do have a tendency to make unclear points (and if you can’t speak of a subject, can it be really said one knows about tha subject?). The comment you just made about “Die, Philosophy, Die!” shows me that. IT is obscure. But one gets better with feedback; like an open system, its a process of chaosmosis. Isolated systems die (but do not flower as Narcissus did in the pool of Nemesis). As Stendhal writes, every (wo)man of letters needs a set. Even Zarathustra had to come down off his mountain.

    Prompted by your mention of Kafka in “Questions…” I have just finished reading Kafka’s story, “Josephine: A Songstress” this morning. The point in writing – and by writing, I mean recording, creating a memory that is writing in the broadest possible sense – is I believe, well-encapsulated in this metaphor of the “Mouse People” and the writers relationship to the reader is the same as Jospehine’s to the Mouse People. Its a “problem” that concerns us still today.

  4. muli koppel Says:

    But Ecko, speaking to the point is making that point your interlocutor. I don’t want the point as my interlocutor – I want you, fella human being, and so I’m talking to you, and never to the point. It’s like speaking under erasure…

    I remember my reading of Theaetetus. The text appeared to me like a quest, a description of a challenge placed before the brave knights of the Holy Grail, logos being as elusive as that grail they were after. In that platonic version of the legend, you have to successfully complete three consecutive missions before it can be said that you know something, one of the missions being inherently impossible, but, heck, that’s the thrill, the fascination of this entire logos game.

    1. Decompose the concept into its constituents.
    The first mission is a mission impossible one, and from it, if I’m not wrong, the philosophers’ substance had come to exist.

    2. Put what you’ve got into words.
    Linguistic turn? You kill me! It happened thousand of years ago. Unwordy knowledge is an unworthy one.

    3. Place those words in a context of a dialogue.
    If there’s no interlocutor, there’s no knowledge (and I assume that some members of the language as a virus connection, would especially like this third mission, insisting that here lies the foundations of the great viral distribution mechanism of that virus which is the word, logos, word virus)

    Blogging – finally, we got the platform to become knowledgeable. The Writer needs the Reader for the third mission, for otherwise s/he will remain an empty vessel.

  5. ecko4inc Says:

    Aah yes – I hear what you’re saying Muli.
    Its a noble quest, this search for knowledge, tales and high adventure of the Word – an original mission fit for a Don Quixote (still a modern classic in literature after four hundred years!), a wayward Fool, visiting at the King’s Court…

    1. The time capsule decomposes – its in our blood now, it affects our whole system by its presence: the eternal present… As Derrida put it in Given Time: “let us begin with the impossible. Later.” To differ and to defer, tracking the singular electron if only in its truth-effects if not as cause and effect. Its a tendency a force in between – it is not a point in time and space one can put into Cartesian coordinates
    2. Putting it into words – I love those who write in blood.
    3. Place those words in a context of dialogue. Opening the flows, keeping the blood pumping, the passions burning, the soil turning. We enjoy the fresh air in the blogosphere instead of the musty confines of an institution. But there is a field of perpetual interaction between the two.

    We all tend to our gardens, cultivating a little. You have to keep the tools sharp and clean.
    Some people have royal gardens that are a place for tea parties and gazebos, the sort of gardens requiring professional gardeners.
    (I always liked that little story from the Western Lands when the gardener assassinates the tyrant after years of undercover work, getting closer every day while the whole time sharpening the point to his blade.)
    Others have sustainable, self-sufficient little backyard numbers, a setting for talk of substance and wine of goodness (intoxication is a necessary condition for art to occur! in vino veritas) – the gardens of delights perhaps but I’d like to cultivate an Epicurian garden. One where we can speak freely without being under erasure, bearing our own double crosses. Perhaps it is impossible but, in effect, we can tend towards it.
    Another space and time – there is a season for all things. Given Time. Appreciate your post, Muli. Always a pleasure to Read and to Write Methods and Black Squares.

  6. Four Stories: Josefine, the Songstress « I am emale Says:

    […] feel responsible for Josefine and why her song ‘works’ even if its not singing, is one of those questions to which answers are not the right answers. “There are questions we could never get over if we were not dispensed from them by our very […]

  7. Derridianity « I am emale Says:

    […] thunk therefore I am eckoing language is a virus (as Burroughs put it), or literature is a question without answer (as Muli Koppel posted it): the incommensurability of man’s interiority (what could otherwise […]

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