© Andrea Montano

How do humans, the only species not equipped with any instinctual hard-wiring, manage to consist? Well, by means of other humans – especially in the early years, when the terms of the problem are very simple: be helped or perish. But what becomes of an individual who, instead of constituent encounters, has too early a too-awful encounter? One that causes them to de-consist, when their psychic and corporeal make-up is still at issue?

What happens to a child’s body-mind that is violated by an otherness normally responsible for its strengthening? This body grows, but with the wreckage which someone – a familial someone – has placed within it. It has been marked by a hieroglyphic experience, which will be deciphered much later – liberating its terrible power of pulverisation. Hieroglyphic: the first experiences depend on the interpretations given to them by the adults, relaying the social body. The problem is that the statements purporting to characterise incest are a hindrance to decipherment. They don’t designate anything other than the jumble of things they pretend to be sorting out.
In the heat of the moment, »Uncle Bernard« says to you: »I’m not raping you, I’m trying to understand you.«[1] An infigurement and a disfigurement combined: your ability to react is paralysed. Later, as a grown-up, they – a social they – go one better: »incest is the main prohibition – it can’t happen.« The social body bends over backwards to maintain its point of civilisation at the cost of a denial that plunges you, finally, into a symbolic limbo. For Levi-Strauss assures us: that particular taboo is the foundation of properly human societies, the absolute proscription – even though incest is repeated all over the planet, time after time.[2]

Clara and her brother Félix have had the same bad encounter with Uncle Bernard when they were children. They know now that he raped them, yet they haven’t gotten over the brute fact. In order to tear themselves away from what is ruining their souls, they must reprocess the incest. For starters: extricate themselves from the infigurements and disfigurements. And then: find a different signifying anchorage for themselves. In the face of all the mendacious, or too ambiguous, veridictions that imprison them.

The play opens onto the symbolic non-place where the victims of incest are trapped. »In outer space«, as Clara and Félix say, from that black car where they are at a standstill, in a thick fog. Night or daybreak, no idea whence one has come or where one is, »a car park in a forest«, a vehicle with no licence plates: altogether indefinite, these young persons, for the time being, don’t have their place among the structuring signifiers of the social body. A radio programme confirms the relentless work of symbolic deformation they are facing, a deformation that begins with a delocalisation: there where the real needs to be said, we are transported instead to a fantastical locale. The programme involves aliens entering children’s rooms at night, repeatedly. Witnesses and experts bring a would-be closure to the disfiguring interpretive system, attesting that many are the boys and girls who, at the tenderest age, become the object of »sexual experiments [conducted] on them«, and one can only conclude that such phenomena are supernatural in nature. What else? The brother and sister comment: »No, you were not raped, you were taken up into a flying saucer.« Between rage and derision, they recast what the programme makes unrecognisable. The struggle takes shape. On the one hand, the effort of the social body to project onto extra-terrestrials what characterises it in particular; on the other, the effort of incest victims to restore this experience to its place, give it back its contours – make it thinkable. And surmountable.

It’s a hampered progression. Noticeable in the halting movements of the two protagonists, as if they were stuck in an endless nightmare. A persistence which, for a long time, takes dead-end paths, stagnating in repetition. Not having found the right means, the effort to get oneself out of it at first finds no other option than to reimagine the traumatic scene – in displaced forms. Clara eats non-stop, Félix tries to escape the drug-detox cycle. Intensities of diversion to keep from falling into the chasm opened up by the fracture of the meaning bloc: the social signifier, taken on by incest victims (in spite of themselves), says something that its affects vehemently contradict. The sense of it is shattered by the clash of its two components, the signifier and the affect – where a concordance of the two is required in order for sense to be appropriated without the emergence of symptoms. A sense intrinsically split, a perpetual widening – and a panicked filling of the gap. A third character, Clara’s double, she too in jogging attire and gold tights, an anonymous woman sporting a baseball cap, spatialises her psychic traits, beginning with the repetition compulsion. As in Freud, through her its dual nature can be distinguished: rediscovering the traumatic imprint ad nauseum, at the same time, because one can’t escape it, and because one strives incessantly to regain the upper hand over it.[3]


It’s the task of this second Clara, the choreographed form of her psyche, to manoeuvre in a space crisscrossed by laser beams: categorial partitions and normative corridors. The invisibles that determine existence in society – which is to say, that condition human consistency. The structures of lawful sense cause this third body to stumble as it advances. Literally, the double embodies the traumatic repetition. The same identical sequence is reproduced several times. Smacked in the face by the laser wall, her cap projected far behind, she turns around, retraces her steps, picks up her cap, puts it back on, straightens up, resumes her walk – and again the wall. So it goes: the blow, the cap, the backward return. Once more, and always – but one perseveres. Her robotic gestures are those of a consistency prevented by an abandonment remaining intact from not having been processed. Its power coming from invasive markings never linked to any sense-making by which the mind can orient itself. Worse still: it is handed over to the insistence of disfigurements.

In the play, these latter gradually assume a face and a voice: a scary marionette who snickers in the back seat of the car. The brother and sister give themselves a shared imaginarisation of the incest – until such time as they will have completely transported it into the intelligible and the sayable. Félix calls it Frankie; Clara gives it her voice, at first that of the cartoon they watched as children. And little by little, Frankie materialises – oxymoronically:  the cute voice gets joined to a grimacing face – until things devolve into strident and generalised cruelty. Félix yells to make it shut up. It continues to speak through Clara. This odious marionette is the memory that insists – all the more monstrous as it finds itself without any appropriate classification.

How is repetition to be transformed into displacement? Gisèle Vienne provides the form – music, light and dance – of this process, made up of changes of physical and psychic states. A crossing: from a darkness without reference points to the constitution of new moorings, which, alone enable one to enter into combative dispositions. The reopening of affectability – free of debilitating fixations – is a jubilation. Visible in the gradually restored range and vigour of bodies rescued from self-destruction.

One has consistency only in and through others. One can escape the nightmare, but not the human condition. In reality, it’s through the human condition, properly understood, that one will get out of the nightmare. It’s necessary to find a subgroup by means of which one can adequately characterise the experience, which, without a symbolic net to capture it, is unassimilable, and transforms itself into a horror.


When one doesn’t have the right others, one must find other others. Frankie shows up where the social body shrinks away: a so-called taboo around which, in truth, society makes shameful compromises. By default, the others are reflections of the symbolic order, of what it says or doesn’t say, of what it brings to light or what it obscures. Here, the others-by-default can’t furnish any support: they participate in the consignment to limbo. Yet there always exist enclaves in the social body, subspaces that don’t ratify the collectively stabilised delimitations of sense. Zones where collectives have formed and have drawn the lines of sense-making differently. They’re the different others: the right encounters. With and on the basis of which the partitions can be knocked down and things can be set in motion again.

[1] The quotes in italics are drawn from Gisèle Vienne’s play.
[2] Dorothée Dussy, L’inceste, berceau des dominations (Incest, Cradle of the Dominations), Pocket, 2021.
(3] Sigmund Freud, Au dela du principe de plaisir (Beyond the Pleasure Principle), Payot, 2010.

Translated from the French by Robert Hurley

Sandra Lucbert, born in 1981 (Paris), studied at the École Normale Supérieure and got there the agregation in modern literature. She also graduated with a master’s in psycho-analytical studies from Paris VII. Her literary work revolves around the following question: how do institutions hold us in place – and among them, those of capitalism especially. For capitalism maintains control not only through violence, political and economic coercion but also by calling to impulses and thanks to the imaginary and linguistic work of what Gramsci calls »hegemony«. As a basis for this text, Sandra Lucbert, a companion of Gisèle Vienne, attended a staged rehearsal of EXTRA LIFE.