Privilege of Unknowing: Diderot’s The Nun
Nicole Devarenne

‘Privilege of Unknowing: Diderot’s The Nun’ begins with a familiar and instructive metaphor, used in a defamiliarising way. If knowledge is not power but the “magnetic field of power”(1)1) Sedgwick, Tendencies, 24. then what we are being asked to envision, even at this early stage in the chapter, is a powerful force created by the relationship between polarised concepts, also the vigour with which these concepts attract and repel each other, also the capturedness of the objects that surround them within a closed system. Magnetic field lines are circular, directional, and infinitely large, so the extent of magnetic influence is both immeasurable and knowable (in the sense that we have the conceptual vocabulary to describe infinity if not measure it). That a metaphor appropriated from a science we all learn early, and whose terms already order our understanding of sexual behaviour, launches the endeavour at the heart of this chapter, should perhaps come as no surprise. As Sedgwick puts it, a process of coming to “know” how “to interpret sexual meanings” involves making “acrobatic leaps of yet unearned identification consolidated by recoils of a more violent repudiation”.(2)2) Sedgwick, Tendencies, 47. Arguably a metaphor which is perhaps the ultimate popular expression of the effects of polarisation, and which simultaneously implies the mobility of poles and their capacity to shift, moving the apparently fixed location of concepts such as ‘north’ and ‘south’ with them, is already at the heart of the deconstructive project. As is the sense that the purpose of that project is to identify the forces by which meaning is created and gesture towards the potentialities which are occluded by that productive and reproductive process. It is obvious that the language of the chapter is fascinated by, and continually returns to, the terms of this initial metaphor.

I’m no expert on Sedgwick, or on deconstruction, but it seems to me that the jouissance of Sedgwick’s critical enterprise is evident not just in her application of methodologies which cause us, with a particular eye on sexuality, to look anew at the conceptual history of literature and literary criticism and to focus our attention on the dangerous dualisms that have tended to structure it. In her work as I understand it, there is simultaneously an implication that these dualisms are inevitably upheld, perhaps even created anew, by the critical methodologies available to us. This is not a particularly interesting thought in itself, and may even seem a reprehensible observation to make about someone whose investment in the activism of the page is so obvious. Two things interest me about it, though. One is the possibility that such an implication might be invigorating or a source of pleasure. The other is the counter-pull created by my desire not to see her work as self-defeating. When she spoke here at York in 2007, she made a remark which I can recall only partially, about people who are skilled in language, and the power that brings, and how one might want to move away from that position of privilege in language, towards one which does not hold such dangers and which might offer other ways of coming to terms with, or submitting oneself to, forces beyond our influence. 

But as well as thinking of language as discourse I would like to think about it in more literal terms. It must be important that this chapter begins not only with the metaphor of a magnetic field, but also with a conversation between M Mitterand and Mr Reagan. What this example illustrates, in a very obvious way, is the privilege ignorance affords, in contrast with a more conventional understanding of privilege as a function of knowledge. (From a sociolinguistic perspective, one might argue that what it really illustrates is not so much the power not knowing French affords Mr Reagan as the power he gains through being a native speaker of a globally dominant language—but no matter). At any rate this example, or metaphor, becomes strikingly enigmatic when viewed in the larger context of the chapter’s focus on a French text in translation. What is significantly absent from the Mitterand-Reagan conversation—but present, if rather quietly—in the English version(s) of the French text the chapter presents to us, is the interpreter or the translator, the bilingual for whom speaking in either language presents no particular disadvantage. This may seem even more significant when we consider that translation plays such an important part in the original semiotic discovery that because languages are different from each other, there can only be an arbitrary relationship between words and things. Why is a figure so central to the semiotic project omitted from the scene which gets us thinking about ignorance (or ignorances), understood in a deconstructive way, as acts of power? And why is this figure effectively effaced by Sedgwick’s discussion of La Religieuse (except where the translator is also the writer of an offending introduction to the work)? Why, furthermore, does she consistently refer to the novella by its French title, as if it were not a work in translation?

I am also puzzled as to why the urbane Dr Sedgwick does not know the eighteenth-century French word for “lesbian”.(3)3) Sedgwick, Tendencies, 45. Is she claiming the privilege of ignorance? Does she mean to spur us to find out for ourselves? Did such a word not exist, although what it described existed both in the form of Suzanne and her Mother Superior, and in the fears of the confessors and patriarchs who seek to prevent Suzanne gaining the words to describe it herself? Sedgwick’s apparent signposting of her ignorance of this word seems all the more perplexing when Suzanne is apparently taken to task for “refusing ever to allow anyone to attach a name to anything”.(4)4) Sedgwick, Tendencies, 45.

The only answer I can propose is that Sedgwick does not want the role of translator, perhaps because what translators and editors say about this text is so suspect. Or perhaps because to be a translator must mean being painfully aware of the habits—ethical, conceptual, epistemological—that do survive translation as well as those that don’t. 

But a less pessimistic view is possible if we return to the place where we began—with the language of science. One could also think about language here in terms of the boundaries of disciplines and methodologies. One of the things that researchers in the sciences, and researchers in language and culture, could be talking to each other about, is how differently we understand the relationship between language, concepts and phenomena. Also how different our objectives and aspirations are for both language and theory. So, to my husband, who is trained both in language and in the empirical process, the idea that one might stop at the irreconcilable relationship between signified and signifier is quite alien and unintelligible. As is the prospect that an account of the world which stops at that point should call itself a ‘theory’. Science uses metaphor too, obviously—the “field” in “magnetic field” is itself a metaphor which is at times not up to the job. But its inadequacy is not a reason to stop there, so much as to keep looking. Or to entertain a flexible relationship with metaphor whereby two very different conceptualisations—light as waves for example, but also as particles—do not so much delegitimate each other as operate in fluid cooperation. I suppose what I’m suggesting here is that Sedgwick’s use of popular scientific language in the chapter, together with her compliment to M Mitterand for being “urbane”—he is a linguistic polymath who can hold his own in an acquired tongue, even at a disadvantage—might reveal an awareness of a territory that lies beyond the limits of discourse and discourse analysis. Even if it is not, in Sedgwick’s view, available to Suzanne Simonin, the placed called “elsewhere” in which “her desire to survive could operate differently: a place called, in the vocabulary she here recklessly borrows from one side only of her double bind, ‘freedom’”(5)5) Sedgwick, Tendencies, 35. might be available to discourse, or the people who currently live within its walls.

Nicole Devarenne
Department of English, University of Dundee