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This article appeared in Volume 5 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

SRB Insights: The Physiognomy of The Unique Sign

By Albert Liu

In 1965, Pierre Klossowski, the French painter, novelist, critic, classical scholar, philosopher, as well as translator of Vergil, Nietzsche, Hamann, and Heidegger, published his extraordinary set of novels, La Révocation de l'Edit de Nantes, Roberte Ce Soir, and Le Souffleur under the collective title of Les Lois de l'Hospitalité - The Laws of Hospitality. In an eighteen-page afterword, Klossowski describes the particular set of circumstances that led him to write the novels. Of this afterword, Blanchot (1971) said, "these are the most dramatic pages an abstract writing could give us today." Blanchot in fact shies away from interpreting the text, citing its extreme difficulty. Despite this caveat, I will propose a reading of this brief afterword, to show how just a year or two before Foucault's The Order of Things and Derrida's Of Grammatology inaugurated a reinterpretation of Western culture along the lines of what Gianni Vattimo has called "post-structuralism's linguistic idealism." Klossowski, with his characteristic singlemindedness, elaborated a perverse semiotic in which the sign's dominance is no less absolute but in no way dependent on notions of arbitrariness or difference.

The novels themselves are constructed on a scandalous premise of hospitality: Octave, who is an art collector, in his capacity as host offers his wife Roberte to the guests who pass through their chateau. Octave desires thereby to discover the true identity of Roberte by observing her in contact with others, because he believes that the familiarity and habitual intimacy of the marital bond hide her true essence, leaving him with only a superficial knowledge of his wife. While witnessing Roberte's infidelities, Octave thinks he perceives multiple natures which are only revealed in these passing encounters The success of the encounters depends on the stranger's acceptance of the host's gift without reciprocity. If the stranger manages to elicit a secret side of Roberte, the host is satisfied and assumes the role of guest in his own home.

This scenario is Klossowski's way of posing the following question: "Can a couple multiply itself otherwise than by having children, deploying, projecting, deepening, exalting, caricaturing themselves - can they each time recreate, re-wed themselves in another dimension - and all the while remain the same without ever exhausting their resources?" (Klossowski 1965: 8).

To approach this question, one might have expected a lengthy discourse on sexuality, reproduction, and voyeurism, but strangely enough, Klossowski's explanation seems to amount only to a jumble of abstractions and baroque terminologies. The afterword begins as follows (all translations from the French are mine):

"At the end of a period in which I was led three times in a row to the same theme, resulting in three validations, the phenomenon of thought came back to me - how it is produced, with its rises, its falls and its absences-when one day, having sought to relate some circumstances from my life, I soon came to be reduced to a sign".
Seized by what he will call the signe unique, the unique sign, in this case the name "Roberte," Klossowski is trapped between the madness of the obsessive word and the perfect lucidity of its coherence. I present some representative excerpts from the text to give a sense of how it begins relatively coherently and very quickly goes haywire:
"Fascinated by the name Roberte as a sign, while I was in the garden seeing nothing more of the sunny greenery around me having no other vision than the unstable penumbra in which the glow of her ungloved hand played - I resolved to describe what might happen in the penumbra, which was illusory. In the name Roberte I referred all that I saw, which I would not have been able to see without this name.

"The penumbra, the glow of her epidermis, the glove, these are so many designations not of things existing here within my reach, but forming a set in conformity with the unreal penumbra ...

"Will I still claim that it is not "representation" and that thought belongs to itself alone, not as my faculty, but as an intensity that found me here, in the middle of the greenery?... Will I say it is not I who designate what I understand by penumbra but thought, outside of me, which sees itself in the terms penumbra, epidermis, glove, etc.?

"But haven't I said that the sign's malice consisted in answering, as name, to a physiognomy exterior to the sign?

"And, indeed, it seemed that the shadow projected by the sign onto the reality of the world covered over so perfectly the physiognomy exterior to the sign that it dissimulated it under this name...."

"But, unable to limit myself to the simple coincidence of the name with this physiognomy seeking instead an equivalent to this coincidence, under the constraint the sign exercised over me, yet seeking the sort of equivalent as much to escape my madness as its constraint, though not being able to keep myself to the shadow of the sign...

"From the moment I set myself to describing this very physiognomy in the notation of the utterances flowing, outside of time, from the name Roberte, and from the moment that, in these discontinuous facts, it figured, no longer by its mere coincidence with the name, but as physiognomy, which until then was exterior to the sign that had covered it over with its shadow, the description of the shadow itself came to establish the contours of the physiognomy as its participation in external reality, and this physiognomy emerged as if from itself from the shadow spread over reality by the sign...."

"What did the silence of this physiognomy opposed to its name as sign amount to? Was the sign to be taken as a portrait? Wasn't it the model, since it had become this sign?... Instead of the equivalent to the madness I had avoided, I found between the silence of the physiognomy and the silence of the appreciation of the outside, a portrait. But since it was still a question of juggling the unique sign, I wanted to exploit this silence of the portrait to make a painting... Then, this portrait, suddenly peopled with other figures, became a painting destined to teach through its image. But the lesson taught by the image is only the institution of a custom: the laws of hospitality."

Here is what I think can be pieced together of Klossowski's unstable semiotic as it shades into cosmology, aesthetics, and social practice: the unique sign - in this case, the proper name Roberte - is obsessive, constraining, and refers to no one in particular, but is the term by which, according to Klossowski, thought refers to itself as it traverses individual subjects; the unique sign is not a "rigid designator" in the analytical philosophical sense, but is so universal that it encompasses everything that takes place in the world; rather than seeking to interpret its meaning, Klossowski must seek an equivalent which, like every equivalent, is not equal to what it replaces. This search for something that will stand by (and thus "divulge") the unique and universal sign gives rise first to a physiognomy, then a potrait, then a painting, and finally leads to the institution of a custom, elaborated in the novels as the practice of giving one's wife as a gift to strangers, what Klossowski calls the laws of hospitality, a phrase that first appears, as Benveniste points out in an unrelated context (1969: 69) in Book IX of Homer's Odyssey. The Greek term is themis xeinon - a custom regarding strangers.

On the one hand, Klossowski's scheme can be seen as a scrambled metaphysics of free love or Sadean universal prostitution, but it also contains in germ a rigorous refutation of the system of Western culture modeled by the Levi-Straussian paradigm in which monogamy, the prohibition of incest and the exchange of women underwrite the circulatory systems of language and capital. In concluding The Elementary Structure of Kinship, Levi-Strauss had said, in what today seems like an extremely archaic formulation: "women are not primarily a sign of social value, but a natural stimulant, and the stimulant of the only instinct the satisfaction of which, in the act of exchange and the awareness of reciprocity, the transformation from the simulant to the sign can take place, and, defining by this fundamental process the transformation from nature to culture, assume the character of an institution" (1969: 63). In his account of anthropological origins, woman is the specific sign who through her proper use - in other words, through the prohibition of incest and the reciprocity of inter-societal marriage exchange - guarantees the consistency of all other cultural sign systems.

For Klossowski, however, the unique sign Roberte - which is an androgenous name, a feminized patronym - is severed from any iterative chain; it is singular and meaningless; instead of facilitating communication, it obstructs it; rather than the sign functioning as the organising principle of human practices, these practices are conceived as a mere string of equivalents that must be found to elude the sign's domination. Polygamy and polyandry, behaviours transgressing the prohibitions at the heart of Levi-Strauss' culture, set in motion a paradoxical system of capital; in order for Octave truly to possess his inalienable good - his wife - and to keep her inalienable, she must continually be alienated. Klossowski's incoherence begins to make sense when it is seen as a point-by-point contradiction of Levi-Straussian models; not as their critique, but as their reversal and the creation of a counternarrative or a counter-mythology of the origins of culture.

On the other hand, if Klossowski's sole intention had been to build this counter-myth, why then does he resort to the tortured locutions cited above, which appear to express a curiously modified Platonism: an independent realm of thoughts is accessed by an originary or primitive cosmological sign, and, through a kind of inverted structure of reference, an ordered series of human practices is derived from the sign - physiognomy, portrait, painting, hospitality. It is this primordiality of the sign that has led all previous commentators, including Blanchot, Deleuze, and Foucault, to relate Klossowski's notion of the unique sign to theological debates concerning the unpronounceable name of God.

What none of these critics has recognized is that Klossowski's strange vocabulary is not entirely of his own invention, but is in part taken from an unlikely source for someone so closely allied with poststructuralist thought. Klossowski not only read Wittgenstein, but was in fact translating the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations as he was writing Les Lois de l'Hospitalite (These translations were published by Gallimard in 1961). The afterword is littered with terms and themes built or borrowed from Wittgenstein; the concept of the set, the shadow of reality, the notion of rule following, the problem of the institution of customs; the obsessive questioning of a word; the picture theory of language.

In particular, Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations, repeatedly used the term physiognomy In Part I, 568 he writes: "Die Bede is a physiognomy" ("Meaning is a physiognomy). In Part II, vi: "Though every word has a different character in different contexts, at the same time there is one character it always has; a simple physiognomy. It looks at us. But a face in a painting looks at us too." And in Part II, xi, he says: "The familiar physiognomy of a word, the feeling that it has taken up its meaning into itself." Wittgenstein is here speaking about a word's look, which arouses not so much a feeling that implies an affect but perhaps some thing more like a feel: This feel is the fundamental enigma of a word, the suspicion that there is an essence to a word which in spite of its arbitrary positing, in spite of its etymological drift, would unite all of its disparate usages - or characters - under a common rule.

Ever since Hegel's critique of Lavater's measuring of faces and skulls, physiognomy had been discredited because it operated only on the basis of unstable signs that suggested but could never demonstrate the existence of an inner law derivable from appearance. In Hegel's example, physiognomy could say that one had the capacity to be a murderer but could never say that one was a murderer (Hegel 1977: 200-202). Now, for Wittgenstein and Klossowski the sign itself is said to have a physiognomy or to be equivalent to one.

The sign has a face, and it is in the experience of looking at the sign, seeing in its physiognomy an equivalent for its hidden lawfulness, over and above its arbitrariness, its designation or reference, its figurative or tropic operations, that a word's "feel" is generated as a simulacrum of affect whose force instantiates perception and cognition as perpetual repetitions of this experience. In Klossowski's account, the world of human productions is ultimately to be seen as a set of equivalents proceeding step-by-step from this Wittgensteinian experience of the word.

It seems to me then, that what Klossowski is really after in this afterword is a strictly logical, non-psychological account of the movement from thought to the production of artistic and literary works, a task so seldom attempted that it requires the invention of a new vocabulary, whence the use of terms such as penumbra, shadow, physiognomy, equivalence.

And this is also why the Law of Hospitality is the particular custom compatible with this experience of the physiognomy of the unique sign; what Octave seeks in Roberte's face, in her physiognomy, during her transgressive ecstasies, is the appearance of an essence which he knows not to be there.


Benveniste, Emile, 1969. Le Vocabulaire des Institutions Indo-Européennes. Vol. 1. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.

Blanchot, Maurice, "Le Rire des Dieux." In L'Amitie. Paris: Gallimard,1971.192-207.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1990 (1969). "Klossowski or Bodies-Language." The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester. Ed. Constantin V. Boundas. New York: Columbia University Press,280-300.

Foucault, Michel. 1964. "La Prose d'Actéon." La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 135: 444-459.

Hegel, G.W.F. 1977 (1807). The Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller, New York: Oxford University Press.

Klossowski, Pierre. 1965. Les Lois de l'Hospitalité. Paris: Gallimard.

Levi-Strauss, Claude, 1969 (1949). The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Trans. J.H. Bell and J.R. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press,62-3.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Albert Liu is currently doing research on twentieth-century formalisms in the Humanities Center at The Johns Hopkins University. His recent publications include: "The Last Days of Arnold Schwarzenegger" Genders 18 (Winter 1993); "Cousteau With Lacan," Lusitania 6 (Fall 1994); and "Theses on the Metalmorph," Lusitania 4 (1993).

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