Deligny, Fernand (1913–1996)
Since the past couple of years, the life and works of the French educator Fernand Deligny (1913–1996) increasingly have attracted the attention of artists, professionals, and academic scholars coming from divergent backgrounds. This current interest in Deligny’s work partly seems to be triggered by the 2007 publication of Deligny’s collected works and recently has led, among other things, to the publication of the first volume of texts translated from French into English, namely, The arachnean and other texts. Current interest in Deligny’s work, however, also needs to be framed within contemporary discussions about what it means to be human. Amplified by the societal challenges posed to both European as well as non-European countries in the past few years – one, for example, can think about the ongoing refugee crisis and the rise of ecological concerns – the question, for example, of how we can live together seems to address itself anew. As it becomes more and more unclear on the basis of what we can define what being human is about, how one should shape education in order to bring it about, and how we can continue to live together in our rapid changing societies; the radical ideals about language, subjectivity and education to be found in the work of Deligny will undoubtedly end up in thought-provoking debates and refreshing experiments.
The Art of Evading Language
Who was Fernand Deligny? This time, to pose the question is not to answer it. Drifting around on that huge ocean of twentieth-century intellectual thought, Deligny’s work cannot be fixed or turned into a system. It excels in its resistance toward all kinds of classification. Drifting around on the words, sentences, paragraphs, and images he produced throughout his life; the raft that consists of his actions, ideas, and dreams both departed from and floated upon the different (educational) theories and practices that alternated one another. There are of course things that can be said like the fact that Deligny was born in the city of Bergues in the North of France, that he started but did not finish his psychological studies at the university of Lille, that he lost his father during the First World War, and that he died at the age of 83 in the Cevennes, the region where he arrived in the night of the 13th on the 14th of July 1967. If this information can be said to provide the framework of his life, Deligny would time and again paint the canvas of his life anew, never to end up in a fixed state of mind, to produce a system or become institutionalized. Together with his aversion to institutions and becoming domesticated by some kind of symbol, Deligny’s continuous attempts to live together with people who were dismissed as incurable, unlivable, and insupportable run as a red thread throughout his life. In the existing overviews of his life and work in general, four phases are distinguished. Not satisfied with his studies in psychology at the University of Lille, Deligny, first of all, started to work in the nearby psychiatric hospital of Armentières in the beginnings of the 1930s. Secondly, one refers to his work as an educator in some of the special schools for ‘feebleminded’ children in Paris around 1936. In the third phase, Deligny devotes himself to the development of a huge network for young delinquents called La Grande Cordée. And finally, one refers to Deligny’s experiences with autistic individuals from 1967 onward. Two anecdotes taken from the first two phases might help to set the stage for which Deligny wrote innumerable scripts – some of which have not yet been explored as they are archived in some 38 boxes in the Institut Mémoires de l'édition Contemporaine (IMEC, Abbaye d’Ardenne, Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe, France).
The first example is taken from Deligny’s passage at the psychiatric institute of Armentières.Besides the adult psychiatric patients, the walls of that institute also contained some children who were said to be “idiots” or “imbeciles.” As at that time no special educational initiatives were deployed for these children, Deligny started a kind of sheltered workshop in the basement for these children. In order to run the workshop, Deligny needed some additional personnel. Instead of looking out for trained and certified educators or psychologists, however, Deligny deliberately only wanted to recruit his personnel from the large number of unemployed laborers that populated the North of France at that time. Not being plunged in and convinced by the contemporary pedagogical and psychological theories about human development and learning already at that time seemed to have been for Deligny a conditio sine qua non for the creation of opportunities where the self and the other could meet in a non-domesticating way. Not trying to frame the gestures and appearances of the other in some kind of preestablished order or structure also seems to have been central to his work as a special educator in the special school and classes in Paris toward the end of the 1930s. What does it mean to educate, Deligny asks himself in the preface to the 1976 reedition of a 1949 collection of stories entitled Les enfants ont des oreilles. When answering this question by saying that it is all about telling stories, Deligny refers to a particular experience he had with one of his pupils in the special class he was responsible for. All of a sudden, Deligny states, the boy found himself to his own surprise in front of the blackboard on which he had drawn something that appeared to be a rectangle. The boy probably had done so because he once had seen someone drawing a similar shape. Deligny, however, instead of asking the boy what precisely he had been drawing, what he was doing there in front of the blackboard, started to tell his class a story: “Once there was a table that had lost its legs….” Together with the previous anecdote, this story about the boy in front of the blackboard demonstrates Deligny’s continuous preoccupation not to end up in systems that consequently would form the basis in order to represent the other. On the contrary, representation in general and language in particular seemed to stand for everything that Deligny tried to avoid. According to Deligny, our language did not differ much from the iron grids that were to be encountered when one opened the window of, for example, the psychiatric institute of Armentières. It was our words themselves who imprisoned the other and denied him or her the necessary time and space to develop a lifestyle of its own. Education, for Deligny, therefore should not be focused on the other – be it based on emotions of love or hatred. Education, first of all, should be directed to oneself and should consist in looking out for ways to evade one’s own norms and values, deep-seated presuppositions, and jammed way of speaking. In a letter written to the communist Louis Althusser in 1976, he formulated this very clearly: “In our practice, what is the object? This or that child, ‘psychotic’ subject? For sure it is not. The real object one should transform, is ourselves, us there, close to those ‘subjects’, who, when we speak clearly, are hardly there and it is therefore, that THEY are, there.”
Deligny refers to his initiatives as tentatives or attempts. In order to make clear what he considered to be a tentative, he at one point refers to the pearl divers. Intrigued as he was by some of the anthropological research conducted by, for example, Victor Turner and Daniel Fabre, Deligny came across this peaceful population whose main activity consisted in diving for pearls. In Deligny’s account of the pearl divers’ history, the fishermen in the beginning were confronted with a major problem. Time and again, when they wanted to locate the pearls on the bottom of the ocean, the men were confronted by their own image and thus not able to look through the ocean’s surface. What they saw was the reflection of themselves. This, according to Deligny, is also what happens when we are confronted with another person. We are not capable of perceiving or making sense of the otherness of the other as this otherness is always hidden behind the reflections of ourselves. In order to counter the problem they were confronted with, the pearl divers needed to invent something that would enable them to look through their own reflection and thus beyond the surface of the ocean. The simple technique they invented consisted of an old metal cookie box whose metal bottom was replaced by a piece of glass. It was this simple instrument that enabled the pearl divers to evade their own reflection and find the precious pearls on the bottom of the ocean.
Deligny’s aversion toward language, however, did not end up in a kind of radical silence. Deligny continued to use words, to write and to speak. What he looked for were cracks and abysses where it would become clear that “water” – to mention just one example – was not only made for drinking. Applied to the question mentioned in the introduction, Deligny attempted to create spaces where subjects could again become individuals and show their humanity in ways that could neither be predicted nor restrained. The transformation Deligny was looking for was a transformation from a way of speaking that started from ONE to a way of speaking that originated from WE. The French word “on” (as in “on parle” or “one speaks”) represented for Deligny everything that he wanted to stay away from as far as possible. The “on” referred to the innumerable ideologies that tried to mold the lives of individuals into particular shapes and to frame these by particular names.
The importance of this conspicuous attitude toward language again became clear to Deligny when he was confronted with the mother of a boy who was diagnosed by contemporary psychiatry as severely autistic and therefore intolerable, unbearable, and incurable. The boy’s mother did not know what to do anymore as time and again psychiatric institutions and other organizations had refused to offer help. After being introduced to the mother and her son, Deligny decided to go to the Cevennes where he at first stayed in a house owned by Guattari. Confronted with the many negative reactions of students and intellectuals that frequented the same house – some of them simply could not handle the presence of the individuals Deligny decided to live with – Deligny moved to a neighboring commune where he continued his attempt to live close to those individuals contemporary psychiatry had abandoned. Besides the fact that Deligny had contacts with Guattari – due to his stay in the psychiatric institution of La Borde – the Cevennes also attracted Deligny for some other reasons. Apparently the Cevennes played an important role in the French resistance during World War II. On top of that the Southern region was well-known for its bygone silk industry that matched perfectly well with the idea of wandering lines Deligny developed while living in the presence of people like Janmari, the teenage boy with whom Deligny arrived in the Cevennes in the year 1967.
People like Janmari constituted and still constitute a real problem for phonocentric societies structured around the primacy of the spoken language. In a 2007 video autism activist Amanda Baggs has offered the spectator a translation of her criticism toward this phonocentrism: “I find it very interesting by the way that failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit but failure to learn my language is seen as so natural that people like me are officially described as mysterious and puzzling rather than anyone admitting that it is themselves who are confused … We (autistic persons, PV) are even viewed as non-communicative if we don’t speak the standard language but other people are not considered non-communicative if they are so oblivious to our language as to believe they don’t exist.” Baggs’ plea for accepting the manifold forms language can take on – rather than to reduce these to one or two accepted ones – can be found back in Deligny’s attempt to create a communal space where the people with whom he lived could demonstrate their humanity on their own terms. Instead of normalizing the behavior and the communication between the “autists” and Deligny and his collaborators, a silence was looked for that would enable both to hear new sounds. It’s important to note, however, that in order to speak of an attempt, all intentionality should be out of the question. Attempts cannot and could never for Deligny be considered a kind of project that already knew where it would land. Attempts rather emerge from mere activities, actions, and gestures that for no reason in particular are repeated and after a while seem to contain some meaning that could not have been foreseen. That for instance was the case with the drawings Deligny and his collaborators started to make from the end of the 1960s onward. While living in small communities in the mountainous area of the Cevennes, life consisted mainly of some daily activities (“coutumier” or “customary” in English) and daily walks. At some point one of the collaborators started to keep track of the wanderings of the boys and also those of the collaborators who lived together with them. After some days, weeks, or years of drawing, the practice consisted of drawings made on regular paper and drawings made on transparent wax paper, the former presenting the wanderings of the collaborators and the latter those of the boys. While the drawings nowadays increasingly seem to attract a lot of interest from art galleries, for Deligny they consisted of a technique that tried to avoid his own reflection, the domesticating nature of the language, and the symbols that we use when speaking about and with the other. After being put on top of one another, the regular and the transparent wax paper seemed to draw the attention of the collaborators to something they were not aware of, points of contact that both the collaborators and the boys/girls frequented. In between the gaze of the collaborators and the gestures/movements of the boys/girls, a space seemed to become visible where the other could show him-/herself in a way that was not predefined. For Deligny, as stated in his Le groupe et la demande: “il serait peut-être temps de repenser l’éducation en fonction de notre monde à plusieurs profondeurs.” The practice of drawing is only one of the attempts Deligny created throughout his life. Other examples of his eagerness to find cracks in the language we use and be able to reach new and unheard territories of humanity consisted in making use of the camera, for instance, something he reflected upon in one of his publications entitled Le caméra, outil pédagogique.
Up till today people are working and living in the Cevennes in the presence of one another/the other along the lines of what Deligny had called tentatives. Among others the French Jacques Lin who published numerous publications on his experiences like Le droit au silence or La vie de radeau. As a trembling line of flight, Deligny’s thoughts, actions, words, and gestures seem to inspire aesthetical as well as intellectual searches for new grounds where humanity can reinvent itself. Among other things one, for example, can refer to the work of the Belgian choreographer Alain Platel who already several times based one of his performances on the intangible heritage of Fernand Deligny. But Deligny also seems to have attracted the attention of philosophers like Giorgio Agamben in order to rethink the ways we can think about community. In a world that is hesitantly thinking about leaving the primacy of the individual in such a way that it will be able to avoid the pitfalls of nationalism and communism, the work of Deligny might become a simple empty, metal cookie box.
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