Posts Tagged ‘Foucault’

‘ a file that was never closed’ – Foucault got it #disciplineandpunish

“The ideal point of penalty today would be an indefinite discipline: and interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without the limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgement that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of an examination , a procedure that would be at the same time the permanent measure of a gap in relation to an inaccessible norm and the asymptotic movement that strives to meet in infinity.”

 – Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

I have just joined a Foucault Discussion Group in which we are going to read and discuss, aided by the joys of Google Groups, Foucault’s 1983 Lectures. Entitled The Government of Self And Others, this collection is particularly poignant to me because it represents some of Foucault’s last public work before he died in 1984. The original transcripts are owned by his ‘widow’, Daniel Defert. I still can’t quite get my head round what it must have been like, what it still is like (Defert is now  75) to have been the lover and life partner of such a man as Michel Foucault.
Even a casual observer can’t help but convey some of the electrifying moments when seeing Foucault, Live! Journalist Gerard Petitjean wrote in 1975: 

‘When Foucault enters the amphitheater, brisk and dynamic like<

someone who plunges into the water, he steps over bodies to

reach his chair, pushes away the cassette recorders so he can put

down his papers, removes his jacket, lights a lamp and sets off at

full speed. His voice is strong and effective, amplified by the

loudspeakers that are the only concession to modernism in a hall

that is barely lit by light spread from stucco bowls. The hall has

three hundred places and there are five hundred people packed

together, filling the smallest free space . . . There is no oratorical

effect. It is clear and terribly effective. There is absolutely no

concession to improvisation. Foucault has twelve hours each year

to explain in a public course the direction taken by his research

in the year just ended. So everything is concentrated and he fills

the margins like correspondents who have too much to say for the

space available to them. At 19.15 Foucault stops. The students

rush towards his desk; not to speak to him, but to stop their cassette

recorders. There are no questions. In the pushing and shoving

Foucault is alone. Foucault remarks: “It should be possible to

discuss what I have put forward. Sometimes, when it has not

been a good lecture, it would need very little, just one question,

to put everything straight. However, this question never comes.

The group effect in France makes any genuine discussion

impossible. And as there is no feedback, the course is theatricalized.

My relationship with the people there is like that of an actor

or an acrobat. And when I have finished speaking, a sensation of

total solitude . . .’

– Gérard Petitjean, “Les Grands Prêtres de l’université française,” Le Nouvel Observateur

1983 and 1975 are a long time ago now.   When Foucault was giving his last lectures before his death, I was too busy trying on ra-ra skirts and buying Howard Jones records to notice. But since I first read Foucault in the early 1990s, I have been quite overwhelmed by the clarity and incisive force of his ‘voice’.  So I strongly disagree with philosopher John Searle, who, like many, describes Foucault’s writing style as ‘obtuse’:


‘Philosopher John Searle once asked Foucault why his writing was so obtuse when he was easily understandable in conversation. Foucault told Searle that 25% of one’s writing needs to be incomprehensible nonsense to be taken seriously by French philosophers.’

I think these lectures show that actually Foucault’s speaking and writing styles were quite similar, and his urgency to illuminate and interact with his audience/readers was as strong in both arenas. Beginning to read the transcripts I am already reminded of Freud, and how it is quite easy to switch between his written work and representations of his speeches/lectures. I am also pleased to see that whilst I’ve struggled to find in Michel’s oeuvre, any direct challenge to or description of the function of ‘power’ in academia, the comments on Foucault’s lectures do show he had some issues with the conventions of the university, and the problems of actually having a dialogue between lecturers and students. If I’d been there I have no doubt I’d have been one of the keen young things arranging to meet Michel for coffee off campus to get down to discussing the nitty gritty of his ideas.

The journalist who wrote the evocative passage above called his article ‘Les Grands Pretres de l’universite francaise’ – The High Priests of The University of France. Now I am a critic of the ‘Great Men Theory’ of history which holds up individuals as demigods. But as my novella Scribbling On Foucault’s Walls reveals, I am guilty of embodying it too.

At the risk of completely going into religious mode, a radio four programme last night called  The Voice Of God also seems relevant here.  Participants in the show talk about how, despite all the texts and rituals people use to ‘find God’, the voice of God is actually pretty difficult to hear. In order to get the full benefit of God’s message, you have to put yourself somewhere very quiet and still, you have to meditate and open yourself up to what He might want to say to you.

And it’s the same with Foucault – for me, at least. I think there’s an interesting dissonance between how his work is all about the ‘modern’ (or postmodern, or post-postmodern) age, with its institutions, discourse, power relations and ‘noise’, but the only way to really ‘get it’ is to sit back and stop, to read, to listen, to think.

That’s what I’m going to be doing over the next few weeks. But as my long suffering readers/friends know, I might find it hard to keep my meditations to myself!

This is an amazing photo of Ed Miliband (UK leader of the Labour Party) staring into space, at a visit to a school. The blog, Visual Culture have analysed it better than I could, so I recommend reading their post here.

It reminds me of Ed’s brother David, being attacked by confetti and caught on camera looking rather stupid:

I think Mark Simpson might be interested in these photos and the commentary that goes with them, because he is forever observing and analysing the ‘look’ of politicians, which, in these metrosexy times, is more important than their policies.

Someone else who may be interested is Michel Foucault. In an interview back in 1974 he said:

Power has an erotic charge. There’s an historical problem involved here. How is it that Nazism-which was represented by shabby, pathetic puritanical characters laughably Victorian old maids, or at best, smutty individuals-how has it now managed to become, in France, in Germany, in the United States, in all pornographic literature throughout the world, the ultimate symbol of eroticism? Every shoddy erotic fantasy is now attributed to Nazism. Which raises a fundamentally serious problem: how do you love power? Nobody loves power any more. This kind of affective, erotic attachment, this desire one has for power, for power that’s exercised over you, doesn’t exist any more. The monarchy and its rituals were created to stimulate this sort of erotic relationship towards power. The massive Stalinist apparatus, and even that of Hitler, were constructed for the same purpose. But it’s all collapsed in ruins and obviously you can’t be in love with Brezhnev, Pompidou or Nixon. In a pinch you might love de Gaulle, Kennedy or Churchill.

But what’s going on at the moment? Aren’t we witnessing beginnings of a re-eroticization of power, taken to a pathetic, ridiculous extreme by the porn-shops with Nazi insignia that you can find in the United States and (a much more acceptable but just as ridiculous version) in the behaviour of Giscard d’Estaing when he says, “I’m going to march down the streets in a lounge suit, shaking hands with ordinary people and kids on half-day holidays”? It’s a fact that Giscard has built part of his campaign not only on his fine physical bearing but also on a certain eroticizing of his character, his stylishness[i] – Michel Foucault.

[i] Michel Foucault (1996) ‘Film and Popular Memory’ in Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984),New York: Semiotext(e), p. 127. French original 1974.

Photo of D Miliband via

Foucault’s Brain

Posted: September 18, 2011 in Foucault
Tags: ,

A huge sculpture of Michel Foucault’s head has been incorporated into the construction of a Dutch Nursing Home:

‘The building of the De Burcht residential nursing home has the form of a panopticon. From the open well on the first floor there is an all-round view of the galleries on the upper floors where the entrance doors of the apartments are located. Inspired by the idea of a central point in the building from which everything can be seen in a single glance, and which can itself be seen from all angles, Harmut Wilkening proposed to make a large sculpture depicting the head of Michel Foucault, the theoretician of ‘panopticism’. The concrete portrait of the French philosopher sports a broad smile, his arm emerges from the floor and his hand is resting on his bald head.’

Photos of Foucault often focus on his ‘bald head’ and he is indeed often smiling his bright eyes blazing as if his ideas are right behind them waiting to pop out any moment. But this sculpture also seems like an ‘accurate’ depiction of my beloved Foucault, because it is the contents of that shiny bald head that have impacted so heavily on my and many other people’s lives. This physical, solid representation of ‘Foucault’s Brain’ reminds me of an essay by his friend Roland Barthes, about Einstein’s Brain.

Unlike Einstein Foucault has been remembered for other things apart from his original thinking. He is known as ‘that French gay’ to some, and as one of the first public figures to be recorded as having died from complications caused by the AIDS virus to others. And, with the reactionary ‘backlash’ against post-structuralism, even his ideas have been dismissed and debased.

So I am delighted to see this sculpture, of Foucault’s Brain, placed in an environment that reminds us of one of the  amazing concepts that came from that brain. It feels like at last, a fitting tribute, to the man I sometimes think of as ‘papa’.

h/t/ @bat020

What I Hate About Paglia

Posted: September 11, 2011 in Feminism, Foucault
Tags: , ,

This is an article by Camille Paglia about Michel Foucault and the Post-structuralists called ‘What I hate about Foucault’. I am not going to critique it yet. I just want you to read it yourselves, and tell me what you think.

I never met or saw Foucault in the  flesh. (He died in 1984.) My low opinion of him is based entirely on his solipsistic, mendacious writing, which has had a disastrous influence on naïve American academics.

I miss no opportunity to throw darts at Foucault’s scrawny haunches because he is the last standing member of the Terrible Triad of French poststructuralists, whose work swept into American universities in the 1970s and drove out the home-grown radicalism of our own 1960s cultural revolution. I militantly maintain that the intellectual gurus of my college years — Marshall McLuhan, Norman O. Brown, Leslie Fiedler, Allen Ginsberg — had far more vision and substance than did the pretentious, verbose trinity of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault.

Derrida’s reputation was already collapsing (thanks to the exposure of his ally Paul de Man as a Nazi apologist) when I arrived on the scene with my first book in 1990. Lacan, however, still dominated fast-track feminist theory, which was clotted with his ponderous prose and affected banalities. The speed with which I was able to kill Lacanian feminism amazes even me. (A 1991 headline in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera blared my Achillean boast, “I and Madonna  will drive Lacan from America!”)

Though much diminished with the  waning of the theory years, Foucault still survives, propped up by wizened queer theorists who crave an openly gay capo in the canon. I base the rhetoric of my anti-Foucault campaign on Cicero’s speeches in the Roman  Senate against the slick operator and conspirator Catiline (“How long, O Catiline, will you continue to abuse our patience?”). Greek and Roman political history — about which Foucault knew embarrassingly little — remains my constant guide.

Yes, I have indeed written at length about my objections to the grossly overpraised Foucault, in a 78-page review-essay, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,” published in 1991 by the classics journal Arion and reprinted in my first essay collection,

“Sex, Art, and American Culture.” One of my observations was that Foucault’s works are oddly devoid of women. Shouldn’t that concern you as a feminist? It is simply untrue that Foucault was learned: He was at a loss with any period or culture outside of post-Enlightenment France (his later writing on ancient sexuality is a garbled mishmash). The supposedly innovative ideas for which his gullible acolytes feverishly hail him were in fact borrowed from a variety of familiar sources, from Friedrich Nietzsche, Emile Durkheim and Martin Heidegger to Americans such as sociologist Erving Goffman.

Foucault’s analysis of “power” is foggy and paranoid and simply does not work when applied to the actual evidence of the birth, growth and complex development of governments in ancient and modern societies. Nor is Foucault’s analysis of the classification of knowledge particularly original — except in his bitter animus against the Enlightenment, which he failed to  realize had already been systematically countered by Romanticism. What most American students don’t know is that Foucault’s commentary is painfully crimped by the limited assumptions of Sussurean linguistics (which I reject).

As I have asserted, James Joyce’s landmark modernist novel “Ulysses” (1922) contains, chapter by chapter, far subtler and more various versions of language-based “epistemes” inherent in cultural institutions and epochs.

I’m afraid I bring rather bad news: Over the course of your careers, your generation of students will slowly come to realize that the Foucault-praising professors whom you respected and depended on were ill-informed fad-followers who sold you a shoddy bill of goods. You don’t need Foucault, for heaven’s sake! Durkheim and Max  Weber began the stream of sociological thought that still nourishes responsible thinkers. And the pioneers of social psychology and behaviorism — Havelock Ellis, Alfred Adler, John B.Watson and many others — were eloquent apostles of social constructionism when Foucault was still in the cradle.

A massive work like W.E.B. DuBois'”The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study” (1899) shows the kind of respect for empirical fact-gathering and organization of data that is completely missing from Foucault, who selectively tailors his material to fit a monotonous, rigidly dualistic a priori thesis. For those in the humanities, where anti-aesthetic British cultural studies (shaped by the out-of-date Frankfurt School) has become entrenched, I recommend “The Social History of Art” (translated into English in 1951), an epic work by the Marxist scholar Arnold Hauser that influenced me in graduate school. No one in British or American cultural studies has Hauser’s erudition, precision and connoisseurship.

Foucault-worship is an example of what I call the Big Daddy syndrome: Secular humanists, who have drifted from their religious and ethnic roots, have created a new Jehovah out of string and wax. Again and again — in memoirs, for example, by trendy but pedestrian uber-academics like Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt and Brown’s Robert Scholes — one sees the scenario of Melancholy, Bookish, Passive, Insecure Young Nebbish suddenly electrified and transfigured by the Grand Epiphany of Blindingly Brilliant Foucault. This sappy psychodrama would be comic except for the fact that American students forced to read Foucault have been defrauded of a genuine education in intellectual history and political analysis (a disciplined genre that starts with Thucydides and flows directly to the best of today’s journalism on current events).

When I pointed out in Arion that Foucault, for all his blathering about “power,” never managed to address Adolph Hitler or the Nazi occupation of France, I received a congratulatory letter from David H. Hirsch (a literature professor at Brown), who sent me copies of riveting chapters from his then-forthcoming book, “The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism After Auschwitz” (1991). As Hirsch wrote me about French behavior during the occupation, “Collaboration was not the exception but the rule.” I agree with Hirsch that the leading poststructuralists were cunning hypocrites whose  tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents’ generations in Nazi France.

American students, forget Foucault! Reverently study the massive primary evidence of world history, and forge your own ideas and systems.

Poststructuralism is a corpse. Let it stink in the Parisian trash pit where it belongs!

Camille Paglia SALON | Dec. 2, 1998

Q: Assuming that we aren’t doomed, chained to sex as our destiny: and from childhood as they say…

MF: Exactly; look at what’s happening in the case of children. They say the life of children is their sexual life. From the bottle to puberty, that’s all they talk about. Behind the desire to learn to read or a liking for comic strips there is still, always, sexualiy. Are you sure that this type of discourse is in fact a liberating one? Are you sure it doesn’t enclose children in a sort of sexual insularity? And what if after all they didn’t give a damn? What if the freedom of not being adult consisted precisely in not being subject to the law, the principle, the commonplace which ends up by being so boring, of sexuality? If there could be polymorphous relationships with things, people, bodies, wouldn’t that be childhood?  Adults call this polymorphousness perversity to reassure themselves, and in so doing colour it with the monotonous tint of their own sex.

From an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, 1977, Reprinted in translation in The Oxford Literary Review, vol 4, no.2 1980

Image from Ma Vie en Rose:

“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. More than one person, doubtless like me, writes in order to have no face.” -Michel Foucault

I don’t know what to do about Foucault. The real one. The one who wrote ‘in order to have no face’ .

The one who said his personal life was ‘nobody’s business’.

I have made it my business. I have invented a daughter for Foucault and I want to know him through her. I have  read his books and I have got to know him through his own words.

But I love this writer, this man, this ghost. I do actually respect his wishes. Even though he is dead, even though he said ‘nothing is fundamental’…

I have clicked on weblinks once or twice, looking for quotes by Michel, only to stumble on descriptions of parts of his life. I know he suffered. He would have to have really wouldn’t he? To be who he was. How else could he have written ‘Madness and Civilisation’ except by experiencing some madness, some interruptions to his civilisation?

I know how he died.

But I have turned away from these biographical descriptions. Partly as it genuinely feels like intruding on the life of a man who made it very clear he did not want to be intruded upon ‘I value my privacy’.  Partly because biography is always fiction anyway so what would I learn except for some juicy titbits to pepper my story with?

And partly I am reticent because, well, because I am a traitor and all I have said above is a total lie. I am plundering this man’s biography, taking his life as it was lived, and re-imagining it in a totally different way. Foucault’s daughter can only come into life by putting Foucault himself into some kind of shade… questioning his morality and his consistency. That’s what she seems to be doing anyway. I don’t want the ‘facts’ to get in the way of my story

In my defence I will say, that  this little girl appeared in my world, and I feel kind of protective of her. She is my responsibility and I don’t want to let her down. Let’s face it, her papa was bound to have let her down, big time. He always had his head in a book, his mind on the indefinable nature of power. He would not have been able to be ‘Michel Foucault’ and a great dad. Something had to give, and history suggests what he would have sacrificed. So I am sacrificing his ‘biography’. He didn’t think it was relevant anyway.
All writers are killers. All writers are magpies, highwaymen, adulterers.

At least I confess my sins.

And when I say I love Foucault I mean it with all my heart. But we all know what lovers are like don’t we?

Lovers are the worst of all.

I’m telling you stories. Trust me.


Nothing is fundamental. That is what is so interesting about the analysis of society. That is why nothing irritates me as much as these inquiries – which are by definition meptaphysical – on the foundations of power in a society or the self-institution of a society, etc. These are not fundamental phenomena. There are only reciprocal relations, and the perpetual gaps between intentions in relation to one another.’

Michel Foucault. (1991). ‘Space, Knowledge and Power’. In Paul Rabinow, (ed.), The Foucault Reader. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, p. 247.

‘So you’re a Modernist, then?’ he asks. Though it sounds more like a statement. She nods.


It is kind of a relief to admit it. You don’t go round saying things like that in polite ‘post-modern’ company. She doesn’t think many people know what modernism is. Or was. It certainly makes her a throw-back, to identify with such old-fashioned ideas.

She smiles inwardly, picturing him picturing her in some cold, white modernist appartment somewhere, a single Mondrian on the living room wall, reading To The Lighthouse.  If only life mirrored art so aesthetically.

When she speaks she sounds as post-modern as you can get. She is her father’s daughter after all. She finds it difficult to open her mouth without a qualification. She’d start all her sentences with ‘But…’ if she didn’t think it was bad grammar. ‘Nothing is fundamental’ . Meaning is as nebulous as the ocean, crashing against the shores of our consciousness with complete abandon, and certainly no respect for order. There are no straight lines.

In matters of  identity her post-structural mind goes into overdrive. She will sit and tell you over and over how the self is a site of conflict, creating and moulding multiple identities every day, every moment. She is not the same person now as she was five minutes ago. ‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same’. Whoever said that one was born just once? Certainly not Derrida.

The postmodern view of the self is perfect for people who want to enjoy multiple identities and experiences. They don’t have to make one aspect of their existence match up with another; all they need to do is create another identity, another mode of being. The internet makes this as easy as logging in.

We can be whoever we want to be. She knows this in theory. We can invent and re-invent ourselves, weaving webs of intrigue like wires at the backs of our computers. We can have a job and a wife by day, and then launch ourselves into a parallel virtual universe by night, where our hyper-real libido roams free. We can act out that splitting of the self in ‘real life’ aswell. (Yes, it needs inverted commas these days). It can’t be so hard, as everyone is acting all the time anyway. And how can you lie when there is no longer such a thing as ‘truth’?

But when she walks into the room to meet him. When he sits down beside her on the sofa. When their arms brush against each other, they can only ever be one person each.

So she watches and listens, amused, as he tries to maintain the split personality he presented to her online. This man is married, and also a casanova. An academic, and also an ‘anonymous sex blogger’.  He talks about his ‘lives’ as if they are two separate existences. But sat here beside her, sipping his pint, a  little nervous, all she sees is a man. Yet another man who heard her surname and wanted to meet her, to split the daughter up from her father, to take the ‘Foucault’ out of her, to rip her famous heart from its moorings and touch it, see it, know it, discarding the rest of her identity altogether. But sat there beside him, sipping her pint, a little jaded, all he sees is a woman. A slightly awkard, serious-eyed, beautiful, admittedly, woman. Not Foucault’s emissary. He can barely hide his disappointment.

For she will not be deluded. It is only one heart that beats inside her rib cage, and one set of lungs that drags the air in and pushes it back out of her body. If somebody killed her there would only be one corpse. Even her father, the daddy of multiplicity, could only produce one pathetic, disease-ridden corpse.

Knowing what she knows, she tries to  live in such a way that honours the limitations of the body that carries her. This means she attempts some kind of moral and narrative  consistency, going through her like the words in a stick of English rock. She may not succeed. But she tries. She thinks of how she might explain this to him, but decides against it. He seems so attached to his double-life, the illusion that he can split himself in two, half of him disappearing before her eyes. If she speaks her mind, he might disappear altogether.

So instead she just nods. Yes, she is a  modernist. It’s dreadfully quaint, she knows. It takes the fun out of meeting and fucking these international postmodern men of mystery for a start (though she doesn’t tell them so). And it makes her look at this world like an outsider might, coming from a previous age, peering into the LCD screen, reeling  in wonder and in horror at what she sees.

“The intellectual was rejected and persecuted at the precise moment when the facts became incontrovertible, when it was forbidden to say that the emperor had no clothes. ”
Michel Foucault
‘Gay people are not sexually interested in straights…The subtext to a lot of homophobic thinking is the idea that gays will try to get straight people into bed at the first opportunity, or that gays are looking to “convert” straights. Freud called this concept schwanzangst; the U.S. Army calls it Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’
   –  OK Cupid
I am too tired and hacked off to explain properly. But the whole thing the shadow that is hanging over this ‘It gets better’ , ‘growth in gay suicides’ , ‘gay teens need help’, ‘gays are persecuted by society’…. the word that describes what is going on is:                                                                                                                                                                                                                
And when you pathologise you make it likely that the people you are pathologising are the ones who are going to suffer in social and mental health terms. I had a friend who was a very unhappy teenager. He held on and ‘toughed it out’ till he was 25, when he finally killed himself. He wasn’t ‘gay’. He had another label stuck on him like an unwanted Star of David: ‘schizophrenic‘. And once he had that label I don’t think he had much chance of finding a way to be ‘well’. You can’t be ‘cured’ of schizophrenia just as you can’t be ‘cured’ of being ‘gay’. 
But you can reject the terminology. Not just you. Not just the individual who is labelled. We. We can reject how people are pathologised in society by labelling them according to certain characteristics and behaviours that they display at any given time.
My friend wasn’t a schizophrenic to me. He was my friend, a freckled faced wild-eyed boy, an adventurer, a fantasist, a painter, a poet, a dickhead, a lover of Bob Dylan, a joker, a worrier, a tightrope walker, a drinker of  cheap cider, and briefly, tortuously a man.
Nobody is ‘gay’ to me. Nobody is ‘straight’. Nobody is ‘schizophrenic’.  It’s ok. We will still exist without those titles. I do. Or, as Gore Vidal put it more poetically, via the voice of myra Breckinridge:
…I am right, for it is demonstrably true that desire can take as many shapes as there are containers. Yet what one pours into those containers is always the same inchoate human passion, entirely lacking in definition until what holds it shapes it. So let us break the world’s pots, and allow the stuff of desire to flow and intermingle in one great viscous sea…’
(Myra’s wisdom found in Mark Simpson’s It’s A Queer World)
Post Script: It Gets Weirder: I think i found myself agreeing with the words of a right-wing Republican and homophobe… Not ALL the words obviously.

“If repression has indeed been the fundamental link between power, knowledge, and sexuality since the classical age, it stands to reason that we will not be able to free ourselves from it except at a considerable cost.” Michel Foucault, The History Of Sexuality, Vol 1

A  beautiful day is breaking in Paris.  A sleepy-eyed girl comes downstairs as usual, to be greeted by her mother, and a petit dejeuner of croissants and chocolat chaud. Everything is in its place.  But as she holds the bowl up to her lips and peeks over the rim at her maman, just to make sure, the child senses something is wrong. The smile on her mother’s face is drawn tighter than usual. There is a piece missing from the jigsaw of family life.

Before she even thinks the word it escapes from her mouth.


The absent presence of her father is nothing new. But today his ghost is haunting her mother’s eyes.

‘Ou est papa?’

Her mother starts to cry at the sound of her daughter’s question. She has only seen her mother cry twice before. Once when their dog died, and once when, the memory has blurred in her consciousness. There was a phone ringing, raised voices, a door slamming.

The child leaves her place at the table and goes over to  her mother, clambering onto her lap like she used to when she was small. Today she senses she has to be a big girl, but she just wants to feel her mother’s arms around her and to breath in her comforting scent. That mixture of cologne, baking and cigarette-smoke she knows and loves so much.

‘Ou est papa?’ she repeats. His not being there grows and grows till it fills the room, her mind, her lungs, the world.

Her mother just shakes her head and holds her tight, almost squeezing the air from her body.

Suddenly it is as if they are the only two living people left on the planet, and this is how it is always going to be.

‘Mais ou est-il?’ she asks, louder this time, her own voice shaking with the beginnings of sobs, that come from somewhere deep inside.

‘Papa est parti’. Daddy has left.

There is one thing this child is not, and that is stupid. In those three words she hears all the possible contradictory meanings, all the discours. She senses with the precision only a child can, all the nuances of her mother’s grief, all the late nights he spent away at the university, or locked in his study, doing his writing. All those times she walked in on the couple, as they lowered their voices from shouting to hissing at eachother. That foreign word her mother spat at her father, only a few nights ago, before covering her mouth in shame, when she saw their daughter in the doorway: Pederaste.

Papa est pederaste’ says the girl, echoing her mother, spitting it out, trying it for size.

She does not expect the slap that descends on her flushed tear-stained cheeks. But it isn’t a surprise either. She knew that word had a power, a puissance, even though she doesn’t know what it means. She enjoys the shock of the sting of pain, the hatred she feels emenating from her mother’s hand. At least it replaces for a second or two, the sorrow in her heart and the nausea in her belly. Isn’t it amazing how you can make violence out of a single word? You just have to choose the right one.

Years later, when the girl has somehow grown into a woman, she still isn’t stupid. She still knows how to turn language into something much more – tangible. She goes to the cinema one afternoon, to hide from the bright lights of the world – its relentless gaze. She sits in the dark and watches Bicycle Thieves for the first time. It hits her like a slap across the face.

The blow comes right near the end of the film. Bruno, the boy, stands helpless in the street, as he watches his father steal a bicycle (as his had been stolen earlier), that he needs in order to get a job to feed them both. Bruno sees his papa get attacked by an angry mob, who hit him and shout at him for taking something that wasn’t his. The girl, who has somehow grown into a woman, looks at the expression on the boy’s face, and she sees her own expression in his eyes, herself as a little girl, that day in the kitchen with her mother. The girl and the boy are united in a freeze frame of  that precise moment in their lives, the point at which a child realises its parents are fallible creatures. Bruno will never again see his father as an authority figure to be respected and to aspire to, not after he’s seen him steal in broad daylight and then be humiliated by a bunch of angry thugs. And the girl could never look up to her father again, not after that day when she was slapped round the face by her mother, simply for finding him out. For speaking the truth.

Her father has since found himself surrounded by sons and daughters, far more than he is comfortable with (one child was hard enough for him to handle).  Needy, admiring sons and daughters who aspire to be like him, who are desperate to hear his ‘truth’. But the qualities they cherish in him are the very qualities that have caused his first, original daughter – a girl who has somehow grown into a woman – to be sitting alone in a cinema in the middle of the afternoon, crying like a child. This lost child is mourning far too late, the premature disappearance of her innocence. The collapse of her faith in the man she once knew only as ‘papa’.

Outside the sunlight dazzles her eyes. The world is in perpetual motion; as chaotic and splintered as it was when she briefly abandoned it, for the dark stillness of the cinema. ‘Freedom’ has not been achieved, except at a considerable cost. Not for the first time in her life, she wonders whether her father ever asks himself if perhaps the cost was too high.