A Passion For Yes: Coming Out and Affirmation


Photograph by Joe Shlabotnik

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

Dear friends,

I would like to offer you today a beginning of a meditation on the word yes, on the gesture of affirmation. We should take great care not to conflate affirmation and saying yes – saying it once, twice, or many times over  – and in which language? All too easily. As I will try to elucidate, there is an abyss between saying yes and affirming that is not easily crossed, let alone bridged.

One of my entry points will be Jacques Derrida’s essay on this word – but is it really a word? In James Joyce’s Ulysses,[1] which opens with the question of the translatability of the French oui, but which concerns as well – though through different inflections – the English yes, Dutch ja, or Albanian po. One could even say that Derrida grafts the question of translatability as such onto this word, which in French first answers to the ouïe, “I hear,” as a response to a call, as the word in which communicability as such is at stake. He reminds us that yes also names language itself, not only in the sense of langue d’oïl or language d’oc,[2] the two main French dialect groups which derive their names from their respective ancient words for yes, but also because “the affirmation of a language through itself is untranslatable.”[3] And indeed names themselves are notoriously untranslatable, because they – especially the proper ones – hook into reality in a way that always suggests a more intimate relation between language and the world than linguists would want us to believe. I would invite anyone who doubts this to drive through the Kosovar countryside and observe the place name signs. The linguistically unstable status of yes – as adverb, interjection, or some other outsider category – only adds to its supposedly untranslatable status. And yet, it is the first word of any foreign language we venture to learn.

These issues of translatability and responsibility are further compounded by the question of conditionality: To what extent is a full responsibility which a yes would correspond to possible at all? A reading of the word yes in our present context would not be complete without at least a marginal mention of the uses of the Albanian word po, which not only translates the English yes but also introduces conditional sentences and accompanies the habitual verb form. If I would say “I am talking,” po flas, I first of all affirm my own speech act. This is easily turned into a conditional, po të flas, “If I speak.” In this sense – that is, my sense – yes does not always answer; it contains a trace of irresponsibility. Every yes contains something of a but, an outside or condition to affirmation that we continuously try to erase in repetition. We can think in the same line of Avital Ronell’s reading of Heidegger’s yes-saying to the Nazi party official,[4] or the more general epistemological problem of knowing what you’re saying yes to. If we borrow the limited vocabulary of classical speech-act theory, the question then doesn’t become so much “Do you know what you just said?” but rather “Do you know what you just did?”

Both Derrida and Ronell suggest that saying yes is “telephonic,” both in the sense that it resounds over a distance and therefore always is affected by distortion and delay, and that the telephone as technological apparatus not so much adds to these inherent obstructions as it stands model for them. According to Derrida,

Yes on the telephone can be crossed, in one and the same occurrence, by a variety of intonations whose differentiating qualities are potentialized on stereophonic long waves. They may appear only to go as far as interjection, the mechanical quasi-signal that indicates either the mere presence of the interlocutory Dasein at the other end of the line (Hello, yes?) or the passive docility of a secretary or a subordinate who, like some archiving machine, is ready to record order (yes sir) or who is satisfied with purely informative answers (yes, sir; no, sir).[5]

These multiple interferences in saying and hearing saying yes, these obstacles that somehow materialize in the telephonic circuit, constitute the traumatic dimension of yes that I would like to address today, namely the non-moment at which an individual yes, oui, po or ja becomes, constitutes an affirmation. Derrida asserts that in order for a yes to carry the value of affirmation, “it must carry the repetition within itself,”[6] yet “[t]his essential repetition lets itself be haunted by an intrinsic threat, by an internal telephone which parasites it like its mimetic, mechanical double, like its incessant parody.”[7] At the same time yes “cannot be replaced by ‘approval,’ ‘affirmation,’ ‘confirmation,’ ‘acquiescence’, ‘consent.’”[8] It is impossible to arrive at an immediacy between saying yes and affirmation, the confirmation of this yes in one’s own and other people’s memories. Yes is always out of joint, and never coincides with the affirmation in and of memory itself. There is only, as Derrida puts it, a “dream of a reproduction which preserves as its truth the living yes, archived in the very quick of its voice.”[9]

The gap that Derrida marks between saying yes and affirmation that is already operative between speaking, archiving, and commemorating, and which stands model for the technologically externalized, but no less internal, telephone, multiplies in the context of television, online video channels, and the currently ubiquitous capturing and recording devices, both private and public. This is precisely because, as Avital Ronell has put it, different from telephony, television – whether on- or offline – “has become the locus of testimony, even if we are faced with false testimony or resolute non-coverage.”[10] Every yes on television is inscribed within a testimonial logic, can no longer count on the intimacy of private confession but is subjected to an inevitable legislative framework. The idea of a talk show, and by extension the majority of contemporary televised journalism, is founded on such globalization of testimony: It is determined to exploit the testimonial value of saying yes far beyond any affirmative value such a yes may carry. That it is a testimony has become a value in itself, a fact no longer integrated into any mode of evaluation, juridical, epistemological, archival, or otherwise. This is precisely what Ronell designates as trauma: pure testimony, without remainder.

One problem with television is that it exists in trauma, or rather, trauma is what preoccupies television: it is always on television. This presents us with considerable technical difficulty, for trauma undermines experience and yet acts as its tremendous retainer. The “technical” difficulty consists in the fact that trauma can be experienced in at least two ways, both of which block normal channels of transmission: as a memory that one cannot integrate into one’s own experience, and as a catastrophic knowledge that one cannot communicate to others.[11]

Although Ronell’s essay was written before the ubiquitous presence of wireless networks and permanent internet access, its central claim still stands, if not stronger than ever. Trauma is always on, anywhere. Within the context of a conference on pedagogy, and the current monstrous increase in certain forms of online learning and other forms of telepedagogy, this traumatic element ought to be scrutinized in more detail than this brief text allows for. But within a televised context, the essential pedagogical moment of a student “getting it” becomes suspended, as is the teacher’s relative certainty that at least part of the message has arrived. The traumatic dimension of any lesson therefore runs the risk of being repressed or evacuated and never becoming constitutive as a stable or unstable foundation for thinking and acting.

But let’s put this pedagogical call on hold for a moment and return to the technological stress position in which my own teachers have placed the couple yes and affirmation. Would it be possible to think of a speech act that exacerbates the discontinuity between the two that potentially allows us some measure of the abyss that divides one from the other, where a soft-spoken yes suddenly affirms the tacit knowledge of the Other – thus annihilating its power over the speaker in a moment of what Foucault perhaps would refer to as parrhēsia.

I am speaking here of what usually called “coming out,” a philosophically problematic term in itself as it seems to be external not only to the regular philosophical discourse but even to most queer theory. The coming out of an – in my case – gay philosopher is supposed to be implicit in his writing and is never explicitly treated as a condition for his enunciations. One of the reasons for this common disavowal is that it immediately implies the speaker as a sexual being, and as Anne Dufourmantelle has pointed out, sex and philosophy have proven to be the eternal uncomfortable bedfellows.[12] In this context, I only want to point out my own rhetorical device to speak of myself in the third person as one of so many ways that actually avoid coming out in my own text or in your presence today.

Coming out does not fit precisely into the strict categorization of parrhēsia that Foucault sets up and which for example stands at the basis of varied contemporary activities such as the leaking of information into the public domain or psychoanalysis. But it could perhaps be thought of as a limit case, or, even better, a point where the internal contradictions of his definition become apparent. Hardly an enunciation, a coming out – a “yes I am gay” – nevertheless “speaks” the truth, incurs danger to the speaker, offers a critique of the Other – namely in its idea that knowledge of one’s supposedly “hidden” sexual orientation wields a certain power, and it should in some circumstances be considered a duty.[13] Moreover it constitutes an essential moment in the “care of the self” of any gay person and the result of a long process of self-critique and reflection. Yet its parrhesiastic power is paradoxical, as it shows the one speaking the truth as someone who is not supposed to speak it; the parrhesiastic yes of the coming out at the same disaffirms the speaker in his capacity to speak at all – he is minority, sick, and so on and so forth. Therefore, although for example a teacher by definition cannot engage in parrhesiastic activity while teaching because of his status, coming out as a teacher subverts the entire pedagogical situation.[14]

This situation is compounded by the fact that, as Derrida reminds us, yes itself is not gender neutral. Throughout the history of literature and philosophy it has been consistently cast in a feminine light, be that in the work of Nietzsche, Blanchot, or Molly’s soliloquy at the close of Ulysses.[15] Whereas from Foucault’s perspective, the parrhēsiastēs may risk his life in telling the truth, that he is in the position of telling the truth and risking his life is never at stake in the activity of truth telling itself. In the case of coming out, this no longer holds and this parrhesiastic failure, we may perhaps say, is constitutive of the gap between yes and affirmation: it is a yes that destabilizes any firm ground for affirmation because it in the same gesture calls into question, publicly, the so-called healthy archival capacities of the one who utters it.

Now that we have provisionally found a parrhesiastic limit case illustrative of the non-coincidence of yes and affirmation, it would perhaps be instructive provisionally to end this line of thought by extending Derrida’s analysis of yes as telephonic through Avital’s shift to the televised and maybe beyond. Let me formulate this as follows. Technology is that which occupies the rift between saying yes and any possible affirmation.


It has become my habit to treat of poetry in the texts that I prepare, because it has functioned, throughout the history of philosophy, as a privileged site where certain traumas are staged or relegated toward, or perhaps even attenuated. We may refer here for example to Heidegger’s attachment to poetry in thinking the disasters of technology, or even Badiou’s idea of the event as poetic interruption of the planes of mathematically rigorous boredom. Similarly, the famous expulsion of poets from Plato’s polis should be read as a rather unsuccessful attempt to rid the perfect state from trauma by expelling its mediators. While being conscious of the fact that I may execute a similar operation at this point in an attempt to dissolve by own trauma in the oceanic feeling of language, a point that deserves a treatment well beyond the edges of this paper and which once again stretches the limits of the biographically proper, I would like to stage a short confrontation with Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard” from his volume Parts of a World, if only because this confrontation in itself forms a repetition.

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket’s horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart,
Green in the body, out of a petty phrase,
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:
The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,
The aureole above the humming house…

It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.[16]

There has been some speculation about whom this “well dressed man with a beard” refers to, but once we keep in mind that any well-formed poem synthesizes the universal with the particular I have no doubts on whom this is about. Nor do I doubt what this poem is about. It is precisely about the repetition of yes – this “thought to be rehearsed all day” – in the affirmation that we have encountered before, and on the self-reflection of the “speech of the self that must sustain itself on speech” and the risks that come (out) with it. But also about the blissful landscape once this yes – “this present sun” on which “the future world” depends – is spoken, in spite of the numerous obstacles I have thrown in front of it. As Derrida stated in the archaic language of metaphysics, “[Y]es is the transcendental condition of all performative dimensions.”[17] And once this “thing believed,” out of the pettiest of phrases, a yes, becomes “a thing affirmed”: “The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps, / The aureole above the humming house…,” Stevens recalls precisely the care of the self that is implied in the last sentence, a care of the self that I would like, for the last time, explicitly to bring into relation with the activity of coming out, of saying yes stripped of the desire for immediate affirmation. It is this yes that I would like to claim as the properly pedagogical yes.

Cover image by @Doug88888

Essay originally published in Pedagogies of Disaster, ed. Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, Adam Staley Groves, and Nico Jenkins (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2013)

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[1] Jacques Derrida, “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce,” in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York: Routledge, 1992), 253-309.

[2] Ibid., 264n5.

[3] Ibid., 257.

[4] Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

[5] Derrida, “Ulysses Gramophone,” 275.

[6] Ibid., 276.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 297.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Avital Ronell, “TraumaTV: Twelve Steps Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in Finitude’s Score: Essays for the End of the Millennium (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 305-327, at 314.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Anne Dufourmantelle, Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy, trans. Catherine Porter (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

[13] “[P]arrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself).” Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001), 19.

[14] See for example the reflections in Mary Bryson and Suzanne de Castell, “Queer Pedagogy: Praxis Makes Im/Perfect,” Canadian Journal of Education 18:3 (1993), 285-305, at 286: “We have resisted writing this article for a long time now, knowing from past experience that to speak publicly about the possibilities and the dangers created by being ‘out’ as ‘queer’ educators is a speech act of either unconscionable arrogance or profound masochism! Invariably, speaking ‘as a lesbian’ one is the discursive ‘outsider — firmly entrenched in a marginal essentialized identity that, ironically, we have to participate in by naming our difference — like having to dig one’s own ontological grave.”

[15] Derrida, “Ulysses Gramophone,” 287.

[16] Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, 224.

[17] Derrida, “Ulysses Gramophone,” 298.

About the Author:

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a Dutch philosopher, writer and conceptual artist.