Eyal Peretz is a professor of comparative literature at Indiana University and a literary critic who has written books about Moby-Dick, Denis Diderot and the films of Brian De Palma. In late May, I started a correspondence with Eyal about the connection between certain nightmarish images—images that, as we might say, take your breath away—and the meaning of human speech. Peretz is especially interested in images that open a window to what he calls the moment of creation, or, suggestively, the birth of speech: our initiation into a life of meaning and communication. After the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide demonstrations this summer, we continued our conversation about what Peretz calls the “interrelated questions of images, speech and suffocation” and their uniquely American significance. This is an edited record of our conversations.
ANASTASIA BERG: When you talk of “images,” you have something a little more specific in mind than we might surmise from the outset. Could you say a little more about that?
EYAL PERETZ: Yes, perhaps I could first briefly explain what I understand an image is more generally. Take the Mona Lisa, one of the most famous of Western images, as an example. She is often described as having a double quality: on the one hand, she is said to be infinitely enigmatic, withdrawn and elusive. Her smile, it is said, is utterly inscrutable. On the other hand, she seems to be looking directly at each of us from wherever we look at her. In this, she seems to possess us intimately, refusing to let us simply observe her unobserved from any of the perspectives we try to have on her. Instead of us grasping her and possessing her, it is she who does not let us go. These two aspects of the Mona Lisa are essentially interrelated: It is precisely her enigmatic ungraspability that is at the source of our own being grasped by her, thus “looked at” by her, with no escape. And this is the essential quality of what I call “the image.” It is something that seems to emerge from everyday situations—in this case, the artist’s encounter with the woman Lisa—yet which remains unassimilable. It stays with us beyond what we can grasp of it, beyond what we can say about it and articulate; we cannot shake it, it haunts and disturbs us, and thus it comes to fascinate and possess us.
This is the place where we can start seeing the relation of the image to speech and language. In the most basic sense, when we first confront powerful images we say that we are out of words, right? All of a sudden we don’t know what to say. Or we say they take our breath away. We can’t just immediately articulate what is happening. We feel called by the encounter with the image to say something, yet we also feel that we are losing speech. This is a kind of simple concrete experience, I think, of, in extreme cases, the almost suffocating dimension that an image can have on us. What I call the moment of the image is this double thing: we are both given speech, inspired to speak, but by something that first takes speech away from us, reducing us to silence.
AB: So thinking about images immediately opens up to thinking about language and speech. How do you understand “language” and “speech” here?
EP: By thinking about images we come to recognize something about language. When I speak of the question of language or of communication I mean the question of language at this very specific moment, which we can understand as the moment of creation or, we can say, the origin of language, which we can also call its Adamic or paradisiacal moment, the moment of its genesis. At this moment, we receive language that is not our own, or language, that is, to some extent, fundamentally foreign to us because it is not something that belongs to us. By that I mean that language is not our capacity, like a skill, we don’t create it ex nihilo, and we don’t simply “master” it; it’s something into which we are called and it belongs to the world. In being confronted with images, we experience our being introduced or being called into language or into the dimension of meaning—something that happens, paradoxically, by being first deprived of our capacity to speak and control meaning. As we are helpless in relation to the image, we are helpless in relation to language itself, because what we are experiencing is not something that we possess. It’s rather something we are “called into,” and possessed by. And in this sense, it’s something in relation to which we are passive and vis-à-vis which we are helpless.
Every true encounter with an image always has to do, among other things, with this almost suffocating feeling, the feeling of speech being taken away from one, at the same time as speech is being born in one. In this sense, every image is related to the nightmare, in that the nightmare, in its original definition, describes a moment of being suffocated.
AB: You’ve suggested that, in order to understand why the footage of George Floyd being suffocated to death had the dramatic social and political effects that it did, we should recognize it as a paradigmatic nightmarish American image. What do you mean by that?
ep: The question of “How can we even start thinking about images as specific to a culture or specific to America?” is a wide one, and one which I hesitate to answer. It is very difficult to generalize. But I think we can, by examining some elements of the Floyd suffocation, start by asking the question of how these images of a policeman suffocating another human being are connected to the paradigmatic question of the image. And then we can start thinking about why there is possibly something particularly American about them, which I think there is. I’m sure these kinds of events can happen anywhere, but I think it’s not for nothing that it has also triggered such an enormous response in America and throughout the world.
AB: Right, there are many questions about why things happened when they did as they did, and you’re suggesting the answer must take into account that it all started with this one image. It matters how he died. It matters the way it was framed.
EP: Exactly. It matters how he died, and it matters that we were all witnesses to this moment, which is deeply traumatizing, rendering us speechless. I mean of course it’s always traumatizing seeing someone killing someone else, but I think the dimension of suffocation here is fundamental or crucial. It’s not for nothing that he says, “I can’t breathe.” It’s not the first moment that this utterance arose, but in both of these more recent cases—Floyd’s and Eric Garner’s—it’s a repetition, almost, of a primal scene or a primal image. I would venture that’s what we need to explore to answer why this image belongs to America, why it resonates so deeply here.
AB: Perhaps we could start by asking: What makes this an image in the sense that you defined?
EP: First of all, I think it’s an “image” in the sense I introduced because the image here relates to speech, and it relates to breath. Breath is essentially related to speech: both are ways we interact with the world through our mouths. And then the question of the breath is related, of course, fundamentally, to the question of the origin of speech, as arising or emerging out of this limit, which is also a physical limit between us and the world.
Even at the very simple level we can see how in breath we are exposed to the world. I think the image resonated even more because it happened at the time of the coronavirus, and this is another, of course, crucial and fascinating dimension of this moment—this context, because the virus is itself related to the question of breath in such a fundamental way, and also to the question of our interaction with the world where we both receive something essential from the world, our breath, and our speech, but what we receive can also kill us. So this moment of our birth into the world, the breath, is also the experience of the possibility of our dying or dissolution. And this is related to why I think it’s such a shockingly pregnant image.
But it’s not just an image in this sense, of it being the moment between what we understand as the birth of the speech in an individual and the loss of speech, the suffocation, where speech is being taken away from us. It also relates to the birth of the speech insofar as it is the fundamental dimension of our life in common, our life as a community. The birth of speech at the level of community can be understood as the birth of that entity we can call “the people,” who demand speech, or receive speech from this moment. By people I understand all those who share the world at the moment of the birth of communication or speech, before any decisions and distinctions have been made between who has the right to speak and who does not. To be born into speech as an individual is always also a moment of being born into the people, into a community sharing the communication of the world before any prejudice. So, the moment of the image in general and of George Floyd’s suffocation, with whom we identify, in particular is both a moment where we each feel the individual loss of speech, the literal suffocation, but we feel that loss of speech at the level of the community, as the birth of the speech of the people. We feel their co-implication. In this sense, our responsibility, our being responsive, toward the world as a community of which we are part, opens.
Then, it is of course essential that the suffocation here is that of an African American man by a white man. The racial identities bring with them a history where the problem of the birth of speech—which is always also a moment, as I was saying, of feeling helpless in relation to speech, and deprived of speech—and the birth of the people, has immediately been implicated in the violent exclusion of some from belonging to the people, in large part by depriving them of speech. In other words, by suffocating them, at least metaphorically, and often literally, as the long history of violent scenes of suffocation of Blacks by whites attests—in cases such as hangings, for example.
And the final fundamental aspect to the George Floyd footage, looked at from the point of view of the question of what makes this such a paradigmatic image, is the aspect of the police. If you understand the law as a certain kind of ordering of the world, the image, which marks the moment of the creation of the world, but before its ordering, always precedes and exceeds the law. The law, whose task is to order and regulate, aims to keep the moment of creation, which is the moment of the image, out, even if the law has moments of creative birth of its own, such as the Constitution. In this sense, every image is in tension with the law, and therefore potentially transgressive. Every image calls for the police to arrest it, on some level. The image is an outlaw.
AB: Perhaps this is a good moment to return to the question of how particular images are important to understanding America or the American experience or American history.
EP: Absolutely. Through the image of Floyd the world experiences the significance of America as the place where the question of speech opens in a complex new way. America functions, I think, in the world imaginary, precisely in these moments, as a new birth of speech, and the new birth of the freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech is something extraordinarily complex precisely because it’s not like the possession of speech, or the right to speak as we will. There’s a possible misunderstanding of what freedom of speech is like, you know: I can say what I want; if I want to be, whatever, a Nazi or anything, I can say it in public space without anyone disturbing me. This is, I think, a wrong understanding of free speech. But there’s a right, correct understanding of free speech, which is what America seems to bring to us, in that we receive speech without authorization from any privileged source, receiving it from the world as I say, as truly becoming part of the world. So speech, as free speech, is something that we receive—and this reception, precisely because it does not originate in us, and is not in our control, is both a traumatic moment and a liberating moment for us, since it is the moment of our freedom as those who become part of the world that is equal to any other part.
And all of these things are at work also in our encounter with these images of Floyd and then of the protests. We realize that within America, America cannot fully deal with its own experience of freedom of speech, because there is a traumatic moment in it. In America there is a need that sometimes seems like an essential part of the American experience, to defend against one’s originary trauma, the trauma of the loss of speech, by trying to become masters of speech. And this is done through suffocating others who become substitutes for our own originary suffocation or helpless deprivation of mastery, scapegoats to carry for them the trauma of suffocation. In this way a suffocation of others is at the very heart, as I mentioned above, of the historical relegation of African Americans to the rank of speechless slaves. There is a sort of perverse pleasure in this suffocation of others, very visible in the footage, which has to do with the movement of transformation from helplessness to mastery. This constitutes the moment of suffocation.
AB: In the aftermath of the Floyd video, there have also been allegations that certain kinds of speech (Tom Cotton’s New York Times op-ed, for example) are dangerous, and to give them a platform puts people directly in harm’s way. What you’re suggesting is very interesting because it might help us make sense of this response in a new way, or help us understand the deeper meaning of the claims about the speech being dangerous. Perhaps we can better understand the damning of speech, the attempts to prohibit certain kinds of speech, and replacing it with other prescribed forms, as related to the moment that sparks it, a moment of suffocation, of snuffing out speech.
EP: Yes, the moment of a new opening of a community, or of the freedom of the people, can unfortunately also be immediately accompanied by the need for group identification or group identity where everything that cannot be fully incorporated into the feel-good together must be left out. The liberating experience of becoming part of the people carries a traumatic shadow, as I’ve said, but it is this shadow that the newly born people also has a hard time living with and would like to eliminate. You don’t want this thing to exist at this moment of solidarity. But this feeling of complete unification that people want from this moment is also problematic.
Here Melville would be useful. I was thinking of this famous moment in Moby-Dick where all the sailors are working on the ship together and there’s the feeling of brotherhood and togetherness. But it’s just another fantasy, it’s just another case of repressing the trauma of the world.
There’s a profound dimension of coming together precisely in the moment of giving birth to speech and taking responsibility for the world, but there’s also the more problematic dimension of this, which is the problem of any crowd always. And this is the problem of this attempt to construct a unified identity which no foreignness can infiltrate, which is precisely the opposite of being in the world in this originary moment. That’s why there’s never actually been any paradisiacal moment or any Eden: every moment of freedom—at least so far, though I would like to think there are other possibilities—immediately brings with it unpredictable regressions.
AB: All the while, on the other hand, we have this president who says anything and everything and nothing can contain or control him. A sort of free-speech machine.
EP: Yeah, that’s really interesting: What exactly does he perform? Because on the one hand, I think, as you’re saying, he performs this strange type of free speech, in the bad way: “I can say whatever comes to my mind.” At the same time, for Americans who are so invested in the freedom of speech, or some of the Americans, something resonates in such speech, which they find liberating, since it seems to exceed moralizing speech, which we can also connect to policed speech. He’s not giving us reading lists. So his is a deep misinterpretation of free speech, but at the same time, as if through him, something of the nature of free speech, its excess over moralizing speech, is also glimpsed.
AB: So could we say that there are two ways of misunderstanding the idea of free speech? One is, I can say what I want. I could say it just for the sake of saying it, I could say it just for the sake of exercising my “free speech.” And in fact this misunderstanding has become its own way of expression—we call it trolling—where it’s just: “I can and will say things precisely because I shouldn’t say them.”
EP: Yeah, they think freedom of speech means: “I control speech.”
AB: Right. And the other sense of freedom of speech, that is its own misunderstanding of what it means to be free in speech, is something like, “We can use speech to advance our causes of freedom.” So we have reading lists, and our public speech is understood entirely as just a form of resistance. Here, in the name of freedom and liberation, these restrictions on speech are born.
EP: Yes. Such free speech is something that is given to you by an authority. You can be subjected to it. There is an authority that tells you how to be a good person and to be educated into it. So, to be educated into free speech or be moralized into it—I’m not against education. If “free speech” is given to you as something that you are assigned from some specific authority, that would be another mistake.
AB: It seems to relate then also to the performance of certain speech acts in public. In the aftermath of the killing there were demands to post certain images, make certain perfunctory public statements.
EP: Right, it’s a demand that’s part of being introduced into the completely unified community. Forced into a community that no foreignness can corrupt. So the moment when there is authentic feeling of community in a profound sense, of the kind of common birth of speech, there’s the recognition that the common birth of speech is dangerous, because this sense of “common” is precisely not a community of agreement. There is no specific content to speech that is truly new, truly free, so immediately there is something threatening in it. The moment of liberation is also the moment of traumatic threat that you need to immediately transform into an oppressive community of agreement. And this is a very American thing too, which you see already in Tocqueville: On the one hand, a new type of a profound community, with a creative dimension. On the other hand, a demand for a group. And this is unprecedented, probably, precisely because in America there was no other community you could fall into, no social hierarchies, classes, etc., in this sense.
AB: So as you see it, this has been playing out historically from the very founding of America.
EP: It’s unbelievably complex. I mean, there is, of course, the question of slavery, and what’s the relation of America to slavery, and is it different than the historical relation to slaves?
America is on the one hand the land of the people, and of the birth of the people as the birth of an unprecedented event of speech and communication without prejudice, and on the other hand the land where the people have immediately created a class of slaves deprived of belonging to the people. This is perhaps the most essential paradox at the heart of the experience we call American.
AB: Slavery existed before America did.
EP: Yes, but I would suggest that there might be an American difference regarding the question of slavery, precisely because in America slavery takes place within the context of the unprecedented birth of the freedom of speech. This is why in America but possibly not elsewhere, or at least to a greater degree than elsewhere, slavery also serves as what I’ve called the substitute or scapegoat to the traumatic aspect of being born into the freedom of speech. The slaves are those who precisely have no speech, they are those who are originally suffocated. Yet there is a flip side to this scapegoat aspect of slavery: only through our community with the liberated slaves can we truly gain the freedom of speech. I think that in this sense it is not for nothing that perhaps the most profoundly resonating moments in American history, those of Lincoln and of Martin Luther King, Jr., have to do with the coming into the freedom of speech of those who have been deprived of it.
AB: And you think this is why the world was so drawn to this moment that was happening in America and to a struggle that might seem at first glance not to have direct resonance in other parts of the world.
EP: Yes, America is itself a new Eden—that is, a desire to return to an originary creative moment of the birth of speech and of the human as gifted with the freedom of speech. It is clear. It was conceived in this way, by those within it and by others outside it. It is a desire to return to a paradisiacal, creative moment, out of the corrupt history of the fall, you know, and the birth of free speech in America, in this sense, is fundamental to what America is, as the New Paradise. It’s both the moment of being born into a new speech, but also in it we experience the trauma of Paradise or a trauma of Eden, or the trauma of losing speech.
AB: It’s interesting how in the current moment it’s become standard, in certain circles at least, to think of American exceptionalism only in terms of how exceptionally corrupt and fallen it is. In our last issue we published a piece that argued that this idea, that America is not the new Eden but a new inferno, is key to understanding Bernie Sanders’s campaign’s success, as well as its ultimate failure. Only if you realize that Sanders reversed American exceptionalism, whereby America is an exceptionally bad place—relying on images of American desolation, failure, injustice—can you see why it was that no gradual reform would do, why it had to be a revolution. It’ll have to be a revolution because it is completely corrupt.
EP: Yeah, the problem was they didn’t connect to the paradisiacal or the Edenic desire of America, as I’m calling it.
AB: Yeah, that’s interesting. The author argues something similar: that what mobilizes people is a sense of joint identity, and some sort of history that shows that this “we” that people belong to has the capacity to get something right. So what Sanders should have done is appeal to particularly American progressive achievements, rather than constantly point out to the ways in which Denmark has rather easily succeeded where the U.S. has miserably failed. It often seemed as if it were easier for Sanders to praise Cuba for certain achievements than to admit the same about the U.S.
EP: That’s a really good point. He’s “un-American” in that sense, yes. And if the most important thing about America is the birth of speech, you know, then there is nothing like that in Sanders. There is like, a kind of European social justice, I guess. One always has to remember that America is a new birth of the world and of the human. Or at least is guided by the desire to be.
AB: Right. But of course today, as you know well, for increasingly many people it’s hard to hear that as anything but a denial of the wrongs of America, and therefore as racist, xenophobic, etc. In Trump’s recent RNC speech he picked up on exactly this point when he said, “We understand that America is not a land cloaked in darkness. America is the torch that enlightens the entire world.” He’s picking up on the idea that for much of the left, there’s no room for any kind of pro-Americanism or nostalgia for how it used to be perceived.
EP: Exactly. And that’s a mistake. It’s important to see, of course, what I call the defensive, perverse moments that come with the birth of speech. The moments that come as the defense against America to some extent, or against what it wants to be, as a New Eden, the place of the birth of speech and therefore the creation of the world. These defensive attempts are intrinsic to America, as I said, and constitute its dark, nightmarish side. But it is a mistake to only see the nightmarish aspect of America, and to disconnect it from its creative, paradisiacal component. One has to understand their interrelation.
AB: Do you really think America is still capable of delivering on its promise to be a New Eden? Perhaps it is because we are cynical but the time when such ideas made sense can sound like a very distant past. The ideas themselves can sound like a delusion.
EP: America always conceived of itself this way, and so many of the American experimental projects have been attempts to construct these new Edens and new communities of being in the world, today no less than in the past. It’s not a question of whether the promise is true or false. I think it’s a question of why this call is being felt in America. It is clear that America is the historical registration of the call for the birth of the demand to return to Genesis. Even in criticizing this call you acknowledge it.
In America we are called into free speech in a new way. And it’s both profound, as I said, and also immediately misinterpreted and manipulated. It immediately creates division between those who can speak and those who cannot.
AB: If the birth of speech really comes immediately with this demand to take away speech from others, then it seems almost inconceivable to think that we would just open ourselves up to speech and then keep ourselves, our communities, genuinely open somehow, not try to immediately close ranks.
EP: Exactly, keep doing the positive—why not? Why not just experience the fact that the people is being born as a new experience of the world, without this side of immediately trying to control it, demanding identification with the community, censoring, being censorious?
That’s the tragedy of America. It can never experience this profound dimension of the birth of speech and of the world without immediately trying to control and, exactly, suffocate others. Hopefully it’s not inevitable.
Art credit: Terrance Purdy, Jr., “Untitled,” from the Cøruscare series., 2020.