Within the humanities, palimpsests have become a popular metaphor for describing the movements of history. The present rewrites the past imperfectly with the tools at hand, while the past survives in traces, fragments–the evanescences that haunt us. It’s not original for me to use it as a title for this documentary essay, but it is relevant, since writing over history was precisely the practice Marx was engaged in. Marx’s meta-narrative of world history as class struggle was a writing over of history; history was not simply the particulars of a time and place, but the universal movement of a great predestined struggle between oppressor and oppressed. His advocacy for the idea that class emerged from the peacefully egalitarian state of nature was a writing over–really an adaptation–of the Christian myth of the idyllic garden world of Adam and Eve. Marx sought an apocalypse of the masses–to overcome oppression, overthrow the existing social order, overcast the sky with the fires of revolution.
Lest you accuse me of applying the preposition meaninglessly, however, let me defend my generalization by making an even broader one: every theorist in every discipline in every place is trying to write above their particulars. One of the big Frenchies–Derrida, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Lefebvre–I can’t remember which one, said that theory precedes fact, that once theorizing begins, all facts become dubious. It’s a sexy idea, really sleek and attractive, until the facts kick you in the teeth. I’m not saying the idea’s completely without merit. Certainly we need a context for all this information, but the ordering reveals a deep bias. Theory does not simply precede fact. Facts are not a handmaid. Theory is fact’s tortured lover. Each needs the other. Theory cannot live without fact, and fact cannot move without theory.
What does this have to do with Marx and my documentary? Theory writes over everyone–usually women, the poor, the slight, the untouchables–even when it seeks to redeem them, because theorizing, which is always the practice of writing, is violent. By necessity it truncates the facts of bodies–facts from the Latin facere, “to do.” Indeed, the doing of bodies, which is their living, can never survive the brutalities of writing, of theorizing. So I chose to write over my own doing, to use Marx to write myself, the way Marx used history to write himself. My narcissism becomes a tool to combat itself, much the way a koan is used to confound the ego.
Importantly, I do not believe this technique is the only way to deal with theoretical violence. There are many ways to confound the magisterial survey of the theorizing monkey. All writing that self-consciously modulates its power can properly attend the body–even if imperfectly.