Sunday, October 30, 2011

Derrida's "Typewriter Ribbon Limited Ink (2)

Derrida’s text sends me, machine-like, metonymically (?), to re-read and re-think previous texts of his and of others. For example, Frederic Jameson, in Postmodernism, writes,

For the moment, however, it is enough to signal the operative presence in DeMan’s texts of older categories [my emphasis] like ‘fiction’ or ‘irony’, which the Derridean text does not seem particularly to respect or acknowledge. Derrida’s interest (to summarize it overhastily) bears not on the fictionality of the ‘experience’ of the past that Rousseau’s account seems to presuppose but on the internal contradictions of his formulations” (226).

Jameson reads DeMan’s text, as I have mentioned in previous blog posts, as a kind of aufhebung of the primacy of the aesthetic rather than its erasure: “it is certain that DeMan’s form of deconstruction can be seen as a last-minute rescue operation and a salvaging of the aesthetic” (251). For Jameson, this is DeMan’s insistence on reading, an action that Jameson sees as a way to erase larger social, historical, and political contexts. Jameson sees “reading” as that saving gesture of the aesthetic—a seemingly outdated process (which Jameson prefers to replace with “transcoding”) that he puts in quotation marks (we are getting closer to the Derridean text). Jameson argues that DeMan covers up his politics with this “reading.”

Perhaps Jameson has refused to “read” de Man’s (and Derrida’s) text. Jameson really does not “need” DeMan’s text as much as Derrida argues that he “needed Paul de Man [. . .] in order to show [. . .] that he had no need of Rousseau in order to show and to demonstrate, himself, what he thought he ought to confide in us” (358). As Derrida points out, Rousseau is used as an example to show what de Man believes is true of writing and texts in general.

Derrida characterizes this trait as a text’s “materiality without matter” (Derrida 352). Materiality is the mechanical aspect of a text that resists being appropriated. Perhaps we could understand this “materiality” as that which makes the text both possible and impossible to read (to be read completely, to have ‘the last word’). The materiality of the Derridean text is what allows me to think each and every time I encounter another, “he discusses this in this text and this text and this text” and which poses the question: did he say it “differently” in that text? Should I go back and re-read those texts? Do I have the time?

The materiality is also that which can be mutilated or destroyed. Derrida’s notion of the text is not ideal—it is always already threatened with mutilation or a break in its integrity. Derrida points to a few places that de Man’s text is subject to a mechanical materiality. For example, de Man decides not to include two words of part of Rousseau’s text: “Why does he cut the sentence, mutilating it or dismembering it in this way, and in such an apparently arbitrary fashion? Why does he amputate two of its little words before the period: ‘quite old,’ déjà vieux’” (Derrida 318). Are these omissions as significant as the larger omissions of paragraphs that de Man cuts so that he may say, in a footnote, that “nothing in the text suggests a concatenation that would allow one to substitute Marion for Mme de Vercellis in a scene of rejection” (de Man qtd. in Derrida 296). Derrida asks how is it that de Man can see this, if it not there? It is obviously not merely nothing. Derrida seems to use such instances as a way to read de Man like de Man is reading Rousseau; Just as de Man claims Rousseau excuses and confesses, Derrida claims de Man makes similar performative gestures. Just as de Man claims Rousseau did not include “precisely stories that narrate mutilations, or, in the metaphor of the text as body, suppressions,” which would threaten the integrity of the text, so Derrida shows that de Man’s own omissions, revealed in footnotes, asides, and mechanical and arbitrary omissions, threaten the integrity of de Man’s own argument—his own text! De Man argues—no, there is nothing in the text that can suggest this association—he closes off reading (something that de Man surely would never “want” to do—but then again, remember, this is mechanical, it is not “unconscious” and has nothing to do with desire—it is merely an event, something that happens, mechanically, arbitrarily). De Man’s insights apply to his own text and Derrida brilliantly brings this out. It is as if one were to say, “ho, wait there, there is nothing in Shelly’s Triumph of Life that could ever have anything to do with Blanchot’s Death Sentence.” But indeed, Derrida has shown that these texts can “love each other.”

But this is not a “failure” of the text—this omission, mutilation, precariousness, perhaps, dare I say, materiality of de Man’s and Derrida’s texts are what make of them textual events. Or, to use de Man’s language, textual events are like  [following Derrida’s emphasis] l’ouevre—works—works in the sense of material work and work as performance, work as act. And here we need to re-read a passage cited above (never, never can I get to the last word). Derrida writes that he “needed de Man” to show that de Man did not “need” Rousseau. But this must be tongue and cheek on Derrida’s part, right? Such would be a pure performative and not an event, not a work. But then again, perhaps we should note that there was nothing essential about Rousseau’s text. Derrida is saying that, like Rousseau with Marion, used the first object presented to him.

Apropos of the previous reflections, is there a meaningful difference between the claims about the ‘work’ in “Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink” and those claimed for Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit in Aporias? Or what about the claim about work in “University without Condition.” Derrida writes in Aporias:

In order to welcome into thought and into history such a ‘work’, the event has to be thought otherwise. Being and Time would belong neither to science, nor to philosophy, nor to poetics. Such is perhaps the case for every work worthy of its name; there, what puts thinking into operation exceeds its own borders or what thinking itself intends to present of these borders. The work exceeds itself. (32)

Does the work of de Man “exceed” its own borders? Is this characteristic of texts “in general?”

If this is the case, how can we say, along with Jameson, that the Derridean text excludes such “old categories,” like an “old ribbon,” too old, worn out, dried up and out of ink bound to an outmoded typewriter, textual machine?

Furthermore, if the “materiality” of the de Manian (and, can we extend this to the Derridean?) text is not “matter” than what does that say about the relationship between the bugs in amber and de Man’s text in relation to the arche-fossil? What is the relationship between “realism” (QM) and “materiality” if there is any at all? 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Quentin Meillassoux's After Finitude

Quentin Meilassoux (from here on out, referred to as QM), in his After Finitude, wants to rid philosophy of superstition, belief, mystery, and enigma. Following in Badiou's footsteps, he wants mathematics and Cartesian substance (without its metaphysics) to lead philosophy out of what he calls the "correlationist circle." On one hand, it is a relief to read an incredibly rigorous critique of correlationism (Kantianism, phenomenology, etc.), but on the other, it leaves little room for mystery. QM writes, "We must free ourselves of the question--but this requires not just that we resolve it, but that we formulate an answer which is necessarily disappointing, so that this disappointment becomes its instructive aspect" (73).

Gone is the poetry and the ambiguity of Heidegger or Derrida. We are not on the level of 'language' but the level of logic and mathematics. This is not to say that this is bad or wrong, but my question is how useful it is for literary/textual studies? Heideggerian hermeneutics and Derridian deconstruction kept up the use of the Text, but there is no 'text' here to be interpreted. QM defines his terms and then proceeds to derive propositions from them.

The big-picture argument comes from the last chapter, where he argues that philosophy never acknowledge the true "revolution" of Copernicus and instead, reacted against its insight in a "counter-revolution" of Ptolmey. Philosophy claims for itself a privileged position to 'explain' science at the same time as it praises science: "Ever since Kant, to think science as a philosopher has been to claim that science harbors a meaning other than the one delivered by science itself" (119). In a way, QM seems to try and say: wait a minute--philosophy is not a privileged discourse that gets at the 'originary' meaning of science or mathematics, as in the case of Heidegger: "philosophical time has sought to demote the time of science to the level of a 'vulgar', derivative, or standardized form of originary correlational temportality, being-in-the-world, or the relation to a supposedly primordial historicality" (123).

Now, Derrida critiques this "originary" temporalizing movement as well,  but through a critique of the "as such," but the as-such. In contrast,  what must be 'absolute' is what QM searches for. QM thinks correlationism's 'critique of meptahysics' actually adheres to an idea that a "reason" exists--it does not think what QM calls "the principle of unreason" far enough. Thus, it is stuck in a fideism, where truth becomes 'mere opinion' or belief: "From the perspective of the strong model [of correlationism] religious belief has every right to maintain that the world was created out of nothingness from an act of love [. . .] These discourses continue to be meaningful--in a mythological or mysical register--even though they are scientifically and logically meaningless" (QM 41). It was by denying reason access to the absolute that we have "returned to the religious."

Because of this tranformation, "the condemnation of fanaticism is carried out solely in the name of its practical (ethico-political) consequence never in the name of the ultimate falsity of its contents" (47). This could be pinned on Levinas--Ethics as first philosophy. For QM, Mathematics is first philosophy. The ethical question of the 'wholly other' is displaced by speculative thinking.

The "falsity of its contents" would be assured by a re-affirmation of the principle of non-contradiction. According to QM, Chaos actually reaffirms the principle of non-contradiction because if a contradictory entity existed, it would be necessary (see pg 67).  He does this by an interesting thinking of becoming: "such an entity could never become other than it is because there would be no alterity for it in which to become" (69). He goes on to say, "accordingly, real contradiction can in no way be identified with the thesis of universal becoming, for in becoming, things must be this, then other than this; they are, then they are not" (70).

Does this not mean that there is no room for the specter, the ghost, the hauntology of Derrida? A present-absent entity would be contradictory, would it not? For QM, this is a 'metaphysical' statement--and its a statement that cannot be true. If he is right, all of these quasi-entities, the present-absent is gone. Is the present-absent that which exists "in itself"? Is it mere poetic fancy? Surely such a being-non-being cannot be "mathematizable." Such an entity is not "contingent" because it is contradictory? I am not sure.

QM also seems to eliminate the thinking of the "witness": "the question of the witness has become irrelevant to knowledge of the event" (116). We will have to interrogate this claim. The question of the 'witness' assumes a a givenness of being. QM speaks of the "ancestral event" because it is prior to any sort of 'given-ness of being: "the ancestral does not designate an absence in the given, and for givenness, but rather an absence  givenness as such" (21). Science conceives of a time in which "the given as such passes from non-being to being" (21).

The idea of givenness, the 'gift' of being (Heidegger), of death, of life, etc. is a theme throughout Derrida's works. But this "wonder" at why there is something rather than nothing is exactly what QM wants to eliminate: "Ultimately, the fideist is someone who marvels at the fact that there is something rather than nothing because he believes there is no reason for it, and that being is a pure gift, which might never have occurred" (72).

Another interesting way in to QM's work from our perspective in the course is to look at the question of the "human" in QM's work. The book suggests that science/mathematics leads us to a concept of time, space, and substance that is  "indifferent to humans": "From its inception, the mathematization of the world bore within it the possibility of uncovering knowledge of a world more indifferent than ever to human existence [. . .] a world that is essentially unaffected by whether or not anyone thinks it" (116). In other words, that there is an "in itself," something "out there" indifferent to what our own minds conceive it as.

But interestingly enough, his argument is based on human observations of mortality. I will now cite a couple passages that I think we need to go over carefully and find what is at stake (in terms of QM's argument) if these claims cannot hold:

"The very idea of the difference between the in-itself and the for-us would never have arisen within you, had you not experience what is perhaps the possiblity of its own non-being, and thus to know itself to be mortal" (59).

"For I think myself as mortal only if I think that my death has no need to my thought of death in order to be actual. If my ceasing to be depended upon my continuing to be so that I could keep thinking myself as not being, then I would continue to agonize indefinitely, without ever actually passing away. In other words, in order to refute subjective idealism, I must grant that my possible annihilation is thinkable as something that is not just the correlate of my thought of this annihilation" (57).

Ultimately, I am having a difficult time dismissing QM's critique of correlationsim and I suppose that I would have to merely add that I'm not sure how speculative realism/materialism, the question of the possible "as such" has much to do with my own work. It is the insistence that "what is mathematically conceivable is absolutely possible" that is perplexing me. Perhaps I am too ignorant of mathematics and the "possible," but I fail to see how this changes those of us who think more "poetically." QM writes that what Badiou has shown is "the idea that the most powerful conception of the incalculable and unpredicatable event provided by a thinking that continues to be mathematical---rather than one which is artistic, poetic, or religious. It is by way of mathematics that we will finally succeed in thinking that which, through its power and beauty, vanquishes quantities and sounds the end of play" (108).

The end of play? The end of play and the inauguration of the serious? What a terrifying prospect (to me--perhaps not to others). Is this not a way to say that the event will be calculable? No room of the impossible to-come?

For me, the question of whether this speculative philosophy will be useful will be what Badiou argues QM's work clears the ground for: "[QM] then goes on to draw some of the consequences of his resumption of the fundamental problem ('what can I know') toward two other problems: 'what must I do' and 'what must I hope'? It is there that what lies beyond finitude is deployed from contemporary thinkers" (VII).

My guess is that this "doing" and "hoping" might be the subject of his more complete work, where he takes on the ethical and political consequences of his work.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reverie on Space, Sound, and Noise

I sit in my chair, intensely concentrating on theory; I am near unaware of my body as I float in an abstract space of thought, even though the book I am reading may concern the flesh. Is it silent, here? No, not quite. If I try, I can hear the faint hum of my computer, halfway between a sound an a gust of wind. The fan ruffles the blinds and they click together as they sway back and forth. Still, I can ignore this and focus on my infinite abstract space of my thoughts and the comforting rhythm of my tapping fingers on the keys or the faint sound of my pen's impression under an important phrase or term.

But then, a dog barks. . .

I am jostled out of my thoughtful infinity into embodied existence. My apartment now feels small and oppressive, as I realize that I am not in a free space, alone, in a weightless ether of words. The bark interrupts the sentences in a rhythmic cadence. The word and the sound cannot correspond as the word loses to the harsh timbre of that dog. . .

The dog is my neighbor's. I can tell not only from the timbre, volume, intensity, but the direction of the sound. It is piercing through my window as it reverberates off the other apartment's walls. The call of the dog is echoed by another dog, fainter, probably the balcony on the other side of the courtyard. This dog is less annoying, but the counterpoint is irresistible to my musical brain. I cannot focus. The sentences move past, but all I hear are bursts of sound. 

Now my space is a small, cramped room. I begin to think about moving to the bedroom, but no, I cannot escape the sound. 

Silence again. no. BARK. BARK. BARK. I cannot take it.

I block it out with Elbow's newest album and my space opens up again. My head has become a concert hall as the dialogue of the dogs yields to the atmospheric polyphony of piano, guitar, drums, and voices. I am transported again, but I cannot focus on the words. 

This music does not interrupt, it engulfs and saturates my environment. A new mood, a new state-of-mind, but still--not an adequate space for reading--maybe for writing. 

I leave the concert hall, return to the apartment, and the incessant barking. BARK. BARK. "Shut up you stupid bitch," I say to no one in particular--perhaps the walls. My words merely return to me, mute and useless. The more I curse, the more I create sound, I only increase the cacophony of arbitrary sounds.

I am not as alone as I thought. This is not MY space, but a rented space, a space shared with others; not only fellow residents, but also the buzz of scooters and roar of cars on 23rd drive. But I am the lucky one. In one of my friend's apartments, located on the ground floor, a truck's passing on Old Archer makes his room buzz on its own frequency--the whole room becomes an unfortunate tuning fork for traffic. 

My apartment is located on the second floor, with a generously sized balcony perfect for reading on a bright, summer day. A tree protects me from the harsh sunlight, but nothing can protect me from the sounds. Sometimes, its a bird and sometimes a squirrel; other times, its that damn dog or my neighbor's music or chatter. The tree and I have a symbiotic relationship, but as a habitat, it conflicts with my own necessary environment. Our soundscapes clash. 

I am not a silent tenant. One can only read for so long. I often worry that I take up too much sound-space, when I decide to pick my guitar and sing on my balcony--or when I pump music through my speakers placed strategically near the screen door. My sound occupies the whole courtyard and people walking their dogs look up at the man who has intruded upon their space--some with interest, others with annoyance. When I am not reading, I have the urge to expand and fill my space with sound as I pour another beer and sing another song. 

I believe I have heard my neighbor pounding on my ceiling or through my walls as a polite (but inarticulate) sign to quiet down.

I am a loud singer. 

But it could have also been the maintenance men working on another apartment. Their saws and leaf-blowers sometimes wake me up and I realize that their sound is necessary for my space to exist in its best possible state. I try to think that their soundscape is a necessary evil. 

"We" are now occupying the streets (not me, of course--why?) Perhaps I should say 'they', the 99% (?). They occupy space with their bodies and their noise, their yells more articulate than the dog's but in a similar, punctuated,  rhythm, "this is what democracy looks like."

Meanwhile,  the majority of us take comfort in the warm space of a bar--a more 'intimate' public space than the plaza. We make noise--probably more noise, but the space is sanctioned for noise--a particular noise. What if I brought in my guitar when it wasn't Open Mic Night and, forgoing the need for a mic, decided to pick a little on a barstool, crooning bluegrass music over the house's 90's alt rock? Would not people stare?

"Excuse me, we are trying to talk."
"Excuse me, we are trying to play pool."
"Excuse me. . .what are you doing?"
"Excuse me. . .you are not supposed to be here"

Who has the right to occupy a bar with sound?

A "DJ's" occupation is the occupation of space with sound.

As a renter, I am an "occupant" as well as a "tenant." This is not my 'space', although, it becomes 'my space' when I fill it with sound, with atmosphere, with mood.


As I write, my statements disconnect. I am creating a space between--a space for sound?

Genetic Code and General Equivalents

In Technics and Time 3, Bernard Stiegler argues that we (and for him, this means the university/educational structure) need to take control of our tertiary retentions, a term he adds to Husserl's primary and secondary retentions. Stiegler spends most of his book moving carefully through Husserl, Heidegger, Kant, and Simondon, but toward the end of the book he looks at a shift in the paradigm of science--from Kantian science to Techno-science; From the "real" to the "possible." His paradigmatic example is biotechnology that makes human beings themselves into a "state of possibles at a given moment of evolution" (Stiegler 202).

Stiegler worries about this externalization because of our inability to control these tertiary retentions. Biotechnology is controlled by industry and market standards rather than thinking through the "best" possiblities of becoming human. Stiegler argues that as our genes become tertiary retentions, that is "manipulable," we create a kind of "human industry" (212). In a way, Stiegler seems to worry about the possibility of a transformation of the human, in a way that post-humanist (or unhumanist) texts like Donna Haraway and Thierry Bardini's Junkware do not. 

In fact, it seems that Bardini is "ahead" of Stiegler on his assessment of the current state of technology. Both Stiegler and Bardini affirm that there is something "new" about our state of affairs, but they disagree what this newness is. 

In order to see where they may differ, we can look at both of their understandings of the "general equivalent." For Stiegler, "digital technology is in fact mutlifunctional in the sense that binary code is the new 'general equivalent' [. . .] This general equivalent produces unprecedented integrations: systematic, subject to the same rules of calculation and control ,the same economic, cultural, and social activities" (216). In other words, for Stiegler, the issue is who controls these tertiary retentions and who selects them? Stiegler is horrified at the idea that these tertiary retentions could organize, control, and reproduce on their own and it is a question of gaining control over these tertiary retentions rather than transforming the logic by which we approach them. He writes, 
systematic control of modes of reproduction and inheritance means that thsi logi can potentially be applied to every area of human life and will constitute many of the new markets of techno-industrial development--the 'new economy'--whose basis will obviously increasing knowledges containing reproductive rights. (Stiegler 223)
Again, Stiegler calls for criteria and control. Bardini explicitly argues that "IT IS NOT ABOUT CONTROL; today's Nexus is beyond control" (205). He claims that his analysis goes beyond, but follows the line of flight of D&G's societies of control to what he calls "genetic capitalism" (25). Genetic capitalism acknowledges taht "genes, cells, and organs are becoming the new commodities, but rather than seek a way to control these tertiary retentions, it may be the "junk" of our genes and cells where we might find "redemption." Junk is "the organizing principle of that which cannot be organized," which may challenge Stiegler's own words of "organized inorganic matter."

Bardini uses the phrase "Junk is. . ." a frustrating amount of times, each time attempting to expand the significance of junk, which he says is the "master trope" of our culture. Junk is neither trash (which is stuff we throw away that is completely useless) nor waste or garbage which "refers to an organic and complementary figure of shit; earth, soil" (Bardini 63). The 'saving power' of junkfor Bardini, is that there is "some affect" in junk and that junk may be something we can 'put to use'. By emphasizing the distinctions among junk, waste, garbage, and trash, Bardini distances himself from Heidegger's concept of "standing reserve." Standing-reserve is a challenging forth from Nature, calling man to organize it into a useful store of energy. Junk is something that has already been "organized" and then discarded--with the idea that it no longer has any use, but might have use someday again. Junkware is the kipple of our culture, to use Philip K. Dick's terms, rather than the organization of nature that creates culture/meaning for man.

Junk will be the origin of Bardini's new ubermensch, which, like Nietzsche's, must be understood as a figure rather than as something that has arrived already. He is careful to say that we are the "ante-posthumans, the not yet radically transformed beings" (154). He claims that we are, "to Homo Nexus what Neanderthal was to us: a bad, fleeting, memory, an afterthought. Our e-toys are his transitional objects" (156).

Indeed, in his cultural diagnosis of current culture, he draws from Stiegler ideas about our dis-affection. Following a quotation from Stiegler, he states "the capacity for reaction is exactly what this particular human being is cruelly lacking" (158). But while Bardini argues the need for feeling--a feeling/affect that junk may be able to provide--Stiegler still wants to argue for criteria and selection. More than Stiegler, at least in TT3, Bardini draws on an economy of desire: "one is afraid to lack the support that absence provides, renew desire, make presence more enjoyable" (164). He argues that we do not fear the posthuman because it might fail or become terrible, but rather than "we fear success [. . .] his coming will be our obsolescence" (164). In this sense, perhaps we can see Stiegler's fears as a symptom of what we might become and that our old way(s) of beings may be replaced with a new prosthetic.

If we follow Bardini, we might say that Stiegler is afraid of the posthuman because of a castration anxiety: "In return of course, one might then feel that the human person, at least symbolically, has been severed of this organ; or, in other words, today's disaffection alludes tot he castration anxiety that we feel with respect to Homo nexus" (165). Are not the prostheses of tertiary retentions, our detachable phalluses that we no longer have control of our own history, our own sense of the human?

Bardini is not unaware of the technoscientific/industrial complex that may 'control' our genetics, but it seems as though he thinks that thinking junkware, rather than rejecting it, is the only way to move forward into what he calls Homo Nexus. He offers a thought experiment: if our culture is 'junk', if our DNA is junk in the sense that "junk is always present potentiality of a renewed function," then these are the consequences and this is the world we have to live in--a world beyond control and calculation (213). And certainly beyond individuals: "no individuals, only individuations" (138).

I'm not quite sure, in the end, what Bardini is calling for, but I find it an interesting counterpoint to the more reserved program of Bernard Stiegler.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jacques Derrida on Heidegger on the Animal and Being "as such"

“I have just a few notes and I’ll propose simply an outline of what I would have tried to do if I had time and if we had the time together” –Jacques Derrida (pg 141)

            I feel like the text of The Animal that Therefore I Am is really all over the place. Most of the text seems to be a close critique of Descartes, Kant, Levinas and Lacan on the question of the animal. Characteristically, Derrida does a good job at finding the point in the text where an unfounded bias toward human beings (as ontologically distinct from animals) as a privileged species. In sum, one of the most important arguments is the claim that though animals can make tracks or follow tracks, they cannot erase their tracks, which ties into the arguments about deception, “pretending to pretend,” etc. Derrida argues that it is within the structure of the trace that it can be erased. However, “the fact that a trace can always be erased, and forever, in no way means—and this is the critical difference—that someone, man or animal, I am emphasizing here, can of his own accord erase his traces” (33). One suspects that this is the reason for Derrida’s extensive recounting (as we also saw him do in Aporias) of his own “traces,” his own previous works.

Derrida, more than any other thinker I know, is an expert at actually “reading” his own works—taking into account the history of his own traces and taking responsibility for them. In order to “authorize” his investigation into the animal, he recounts the several places throughout his whole career that critters have popped up here and there, which forces us to see his texts in a different light (see pages 36-41). As we have pointed out before, I cannot relegate this self-reference to mere narcissism, as Derrida is showing that he takes responsibility for his previous texts. Furthermore, he is performing the fact that he, as an individual man, cannot erase his past traces. By writing and signing a text in one’s name, he or she has committed to answer for these remarks. Derrida, therefore, is showing the consistency of his thought, recognizing that he is not saying anything “radically new” or different here. He is showing that he, as well as we, are merely “reading” his own works differently, with a different valence, in different language—taking the Animal (in the singular) as the subject.

Despite the richness of this entire text and his close readings of the entire philosophical tradition, it is the last, ex-tempore lecture on Heidegger’s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics that deserves the most attention. We can see in this seminar Heidegger really struggling with his own thought (which is something I have always admired about Heidegger’s work). He claims something and then will say “but wait!” However, this is not the ‘but no!” of Levinas, which Derrida calls a “disavowal,” but rather a suspension of decision—a “modesty,” if you will, toward a definitive conclusion. Indeed, Heidegger, like the description of the animal he holds, struggles with his own encirclement: “life is nothing but the animal’s encircling itself and struggling with its encircling ring” (257).

Derrida’s critique of Heidegger is more subtle than Descartes, Levinas, Kant, and Lacan, because Heidegger still struggles with the question of the animal. He will not content himself to condemn the animal to the mere “imaginary” (as Lacan does) or affirm (unequivocally at least), that it is “the first person that is lacking from animal life, radically depriving it of any autobiographical relation to self” (Derrida 93). Heidegger, ironically, is less subject to Adorno’s critique of idealism: “Animals would be the Jews of idealist, who would thus be nothing but virtual fascists” (Derrida 103). This is because, for Kant, the animal is not only the animal as a being, but also the animal in the self—the animal in ourselves that is “taboo” and cannot participate in a Kantian morality of universalizable maxims. This is where Levinas gets tripped up: “Reckoning only by the measure of who we glimpses in a certain unconscious of pure practical reason, namely the cruel and merciless war that a virtual ‘fascist’ Kantian idealism decleares on animal life, calling Bobby a Kantian is no compliment” (Derrida 115, my italics).

And why does not Heidegger get the same treatment from Derrida? Because Heidegger is not trying to base his distinction between animal and human on clear distinctions between rational/non-rational, language/no language, response/reaction (at least not at first). Rather, Heidegger re-interrogates the concept of “world.” As Derrida points out, this comparative analysis that he takes, contrasting man as world-forming, animal as “poor in world,” and stone as worldless is rare for Heidegger. The concept of “world” here gets shaken, solicited, and deconstructed by Heidegger’s own text so that we cannot arrive at an easy definition.

Heidegger here is clear that the animal “has” world, but the animal “has a world” in a different way than man has world. Heidegger has a hell of a time trying to figure out how the animal “has a world.” He comes up with the phrase “poor in world” not as a sense of poverty as “less” than man. Heidegger does not want to make an evaluative hierarchal judgment, placing Dasein as superior to animal. So, Heidegger uses the language he uses to describe man to describe the animal: “Rather being poor means being deprived [. . .] the way in which it is in a mood—poverty in a mood” (Heidegger). Both man and animal, then, have in common that they are always in a “mood.” Our mood, as Heidegger writes in Being in Time and reiterates in the early parts of Fundamental Concept of Metaphysics is “Being-attuned” (B&T 172). And again, “A mood makes manifest ‘how one is, and how one is faring’. In this ‘how one is’, having a mood brings Being to its ‘there’” (173). So interesting enough, the animal does not lack mood, its mood, however, is one of poverty. Is man ever in a mood of poverty? In a way, is it not because we are in a mood that we are ‘limited’ in perhaps, the same way as the animal?

The way Heidegger writes about the animal’s world seems so similar to the way in which he understands the world of man: “Thus the intrinsic self-encirclement of the animal is not a kind of encapsulation. On the contrary, the encirclement is precisely drawn about the animal in such a way that it opens up a sphere” (Heidegger). Is the difference between man and animal, as he says at times, a difference of degree?

This does not seem to be the case at other moments in the text. I would argue that if the animal is “like” us in the sense that it has a mood, then there may be two ways to distinguish man from animal. The first is that the animal is always in a mood of poverty, whereas man finds himself in different moods—moods like anxiety (of course, this returns us to the question of death, the structure of care as fear-for-one’s-own-being). Alternately, can we say that Dasein  is its possibility in a way that the animal is not? That is, the animal is not “free” in some sense. That is, taking Heidegger’s phrase in all of its active connotations the animal is not world-forming à as in, it does not make its world? Heidegger may imply this when he writes,

Every animal surround itself with such an encircling ring, but it does not do so subsequently, as if the animal initially lived or ever could live without this encircling ring altogether, as if this encircling ring somehow grew up around the animal only at a later stage. (Heidegger 257)

Could it not be that Dasein, fundamentally, has the possibility of expanding his ‘encircling’ ring? Could it not be that ‘subsequently’ we can expand the ring to which we see something ‘as’ something? Is this not the power of language, the power of language as metaphor to see something “as” something else, to see something in a new way?

The other distinction we could focus on is that between ‘affect” and “gripped.” Heidegger says early in Fundamental Concepts, “the fundamental concern of philosophizing pertains to such being gripped, to awakening and planting it. All such being gripped, however, comes from and remains in an attunement” (Heidegger 7). In contrast, the animal can merely be affected: “Yet it is certainly true that the animal does announce itself as something that relates to other things and does so in a way that it is somehow affected by these other things” (Heidegger). So, perhaps man’s attunement is in “being gripped,” which allows us to form “Begriffen” –concepts, so that we are the “philosophical animal.” Indeed, Heidegger characterizes Dasein in Being and Time as “This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being” (B&T 27). Can the animal inquire into its own being, into its “meaning of being”?

On one level, Heidegger traps himself by saying that the animal is “self-absorbed” which is so close to the structure of care that Heidegger maintains is an essential existential condition of Dasein: “In this rejecting things from itself we see the animal’s self absorption” (Heidegger). So how is man’s ‘care’ or how is the ‘as’ of the as-structure different for man? Rather than focusing on Dasein as possibility, Heidegger ends up re-affirming the metaphysical priority of the present-at-hand! Heidegger, the thinker who made me think outside being as being-present-at-hand returns to this privileging in metaphysics. Heidegger, the thinker of the everyday, the ready-to-hand—the thinker of the meaning of being, the thinker who realized that the theoretical attitude (mood) of looking at a thing as a ‘thing’ is only one possibility of Dasein returns to the present-at-hand. A few passages to show this conclusion:

“If it is the case that the animal does not comport itself toward beings as such, then behavior involves no letting-be of beings as such—none at all and in no way whatsoever, not even any not letting-be” 

“But nor does this relational aspect belonging to behavior represent an attentiveness to what is present at hand within the environment

“It does not let anything present-at-hand stand as it is”

“However, this also implies that animals do not comport themselves indifferently with respect to beings either. For such indifference would also represent a relation to beings as such”

“The behavior of the animal, contrary to how it might appear, does not and can never relate to present-at-hand things singly or collectively”

And so we see that in order to relate to beings “as such” we must understand the primary importance of being present-at-hand, which, to me, refutes the whole power of Heidegger’s analysis of the everyday existence of Dasein. If I have to give this up in order to distinguish between man and animal, I would prefer for it to remain an open question.

For then Heidegger seems to want to think assertion and the proposition as the primary mode of understanding: “We formally traced the as-structure back to the propositional statement” (Heidegger). The proposition is then somehow, in this text, more originary. Compare this passage from Being and Time: “In its function of appropriating what is understood, the ‘as’ no longer reaches out into a totality of involvements [. . .] This leveling of the primordial ‘as’ of circumspective interpretation to the ‘as’ with which presence-at-hand is given a definite character is the specialty of assertion” (Heidegger 201).

This is the problem of Heidegger moving back to Aristotle in Fundamental Concepts: “Aristotle tells us: Discourse is what it is i.e. forms a sphere of understandability, whenever  there is a ____ of a ___,  whenever a being held together occurs in which there also lies agreement” (Heidegger). This is how Heidegger describes words: “this fundamental relation of letting something come into agreement and holding it together are words” (Heidegger).

But this denies the material and specificity of writing as something that leaves traces and that can never be fixed to a particular reference. Here, Heidegger denies the history of a word, of language, and, its untranslatability. The impossibility of a true “agreement” in terms of language. This is the problem with the “as-such.” The “as-such” is somehow the propositional, the “objective,” but it is Heidegger more than any other thinker—for me at least—who put the very possibility of the ‘objective’ in question! Even Dasein can never “let beings be in their being” in a kind of indifference (an ‘objective’ indifference), for this is merely the “theoretical attitude.”

I will end by following Derrida’s conclusion—or I suppose—he is following my conclusions—who follows who?

Can one free the relation of Dasein (not to say ‘man’) to beings from every living, utilitarian, perspective-making project, from every vital design, such that man himself could ‘let the being be’? For that is the relation to the being as such, that is to say, the relation to what is inasmuch as one lets it be what it is, that is to say, that one doesn’t approach it or apprehend it from our own perspective from our own design. (160)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Liberal Arts, Politics, and Education: A Response to Rick Scott, Rick Perry and university education reform

"This university without conditions does not, in fact, exist, as we know only too well. Nevertheless, in principle and in conformity with its declared vocation, its professed essence, it should remain an ultimate place of critical resistance--and more than critical--to all powers of dogmatic and unjust appropration" --Jacques Derrida, "University without Condition"  

In class, we have been discussing endlessly the idea of "education," as understood in Richard Rodriguez's "Achievement of Desire," Paulo Freire's "Banking Concept of Education," and David Foster Wallace's "Address to Kenyon College." All three of these pieces, we could generalize, are inspired by the spirit of the liberal arts, a spirit that maintains that education is more than information or "knowledge." It involves, to use Freire's terms, a "humanization" of the world. As such, a lot of emphasis is placed on the power of the humanities. The university, although it has extended its range (particularly as a state university) has always been rooted in 'humanistic' discourses, as even the notion of "science," in the classical university hardly concerns the producing of "jobs"--which seems the primary goal of Rick Scott: "“If I'm going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I'm going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.” Rather, the university has always been a place of discovery and invention of knowledge.

Now, I am a far cry from disagreeing that we need jobs in the state and people that are qualified for those jobs. However, is it not the case that most jobs are a function of "on the job training"? In other words, does it hurt people that  majored in English, Philosophy, Sociology, or Psychology? Is the University supposed to give anyone the practical know-how to succeed in a job right out of college? Are there not other institutions, aside from the four year State university that can prepare someone for a job better? Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, is not "humanistic" thinking conducive to innovation. I mean, is it an engineer's courses (for example) or their creative thinking that will lead to innovation? Is it not precisely the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that comes from an individual's creativity that "creates" new jobs.

I realize that I am asking several questions rather than giving answers. I guess what intrigues me about this whole "university reform" thing is how the terms of the argument keep slipping. At the beginning of the article, we have the idea that they want to eliminate Humanistic disciplines. Somehow this is linked to other changes, such as "weeding out unproductive professors and rethinking the system that offers faculty job security."

We might ask what he means by "unproductive professors." At University of Florida, we have, for example, and insanely productive faculty in terms of publications, research, and conferences. Of course, because English would be considered one of the degrees with the "least" job prospects, I suppose this makes English research irrelevant. So "unproductive faculty" seems to be a euphemism for professors who are producing "humanistic research," which, these politicians may argue, is not "research" at all.

And so we get to the other issue: Job security. Namely, that term that makes every conservative politician shutter: tenure. Tenure, people like Texas businessman Jeff Sandefer (who wrote a policy paper for Perry), argue "places too much emphasis on research. To be promoted, faculty must publish original work. As a result, they spend less time in the classroom and often delegate teaching to graduate students" ("Liberal Arts"). Agreeing with this sentiment, former Wall Street Journal Editor Naomi Riley claims, "there really needs to be a refocus on the students in front of you [. . .] They use the people at the bottom to do the teaching" ("Liberal Arts").

Ok, so, the logic is that by abolishing tenure, professors will focus less on research and more on students, which will somehow help produce jobs? But, again, I ask, are the courses that "Science and Math" students take going to help create jobs or simply qualify them for jobs that already exist? Is it not the case that abolishing research (in the sciences) will not allow such benefits of research that should eventually benefit our society?

Riley (Naomi Riley, above--not me--god I'm embarrassed that I have the same name as this person) claims that " top professors produce the kind of work that ensures job security, making tenure irrelevant" ("Liberal Arts"). But as many better and more qualified writers than me have pointed out, tenure is less about merely "job security" and more about academic freedom (see Cary Nelson) . Academic freedom allows professors to inquire and research into what they want to research in. It allows academics to research topics that may not align itself with certain ideologies or market imperatives, thus allowing the research (ideally) to be less influenced by people who, say, might threaten their livelihood if they don't produce the right results. This freedom is just as important in the sciences as it is in the humanities (think climate change research). Thus, tenure is not irrelevant, because it keeps people like Rick Scott from getting rid of departments that don't seem to be doing the right kind of research that supports a particular conception of a university's purpose.

So who is focusing on our students? Well, first off, tenured professors. In the English department, our faculty not only prolifically produce research, but most are teaching undergraduate courses in English. So the fact is, faculty, at least in the Humanistic disciplines, are focusing on undergraduates. Furthermore, it is true that a lot of our basic "survey" courses in English are taught by Ph.D. candidates. My question is, how exactly are we the ones "at the bottom" as if we were completely unprepared to handle undergraduates? Why can't we think about these people positively as those "future professors"?

If teaching in the Humanities is less about merely "transferring" knowledge--if teaching is instead about a co-creation of meaning and knowledge, about facilitating and creating conditions inside and outside the classroom for students to explore and learn, then how does a Ph.D. qualify me any more or less to teach survey courses in English, or, as I do, composition courses? A Ph.D. would qualify me as an expert in my field in research. This is why tenured faculty do research as well as teach.

Clearly, although the politicians try and justify what they do through utilitarian arguments about jobs and the functioning of society, this kind of thinking is an attack on thinking that disrupts the status quo's values. Although I am not someone who believes that my writing heralds the coming revolution or creates the possiblity for utopia, my research and thinking that I do in graduate classes produces the ideas and attitudes that I teach even in my composition class. For me, as for those like Blanchot, writing is disrupting and ambiguous. I would extend that and say that the "humanities" are ambiguous--even the status of humanistic "knowledge" is ambiguous. We deal in questions of value, questions of value that sometimes exceed immediate market gain or merely economic progress in terms of jobs. However, I would argue that it is precisely creative, innovative, and resistant thinking--in whatever discipline--that creates jobs and, ultimately, new human possibilities.By eliminating fields of knowledge,  we close down the possible and, perhaps, more importantly, the (im)possible.  As Jacques Derrida writes,

"I will speak of an event that, without necessarily coming about tomorrow, would remain perhaps--and I underscore perhaps--to come; to come through the university, to come about and to come through it, thanks to it" (Derrida 213).

Works Cited

Taking the liberal arts out of a state university education?

Derrida, Jacques and Peggy Kamuf. "The University Without Condition." Without Alibi. California: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print. 


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler on Virtualization of the world

In “University without Condition,” Jacques Derrida argues that place and nature of university work is disrupted by “a certain delocalizing, virtualization of the space of communication, discussion, publication, archivization” (210). More importantly, what has been most upset by this “virtualization” of the world is “the topology of the event, the experience of the singular taking place” (210). Derrida goes on to ask a crucial question: “What happens, then, when the place itself becomes virtual, freed from its territorial (and thus national) rootedness, and when it becomes subject to the modality of an ‘as if’?” (213). What happens to the event (or its (im)possibility) when place is virtualized and it is difficult to find the “real?”

Bernard Stiegler is addressing a similar issue in Technics and Time 3, except that he does not want to use the term “virtual”:

Rather than virtual space, we should more accurately speak of a new digital system of retentions affecting the intuiting of both space and time, a system no more nor less virtual than all other forms of tertiary retention. (137)

Although Derrida uses the word “virtual,” it seems that he, too, does not see this virtualization is not different in kind from the past, “for as soon as there is a trace, there is virtualization,” but the newness stems from “the acceleration of the rhythm, the extent, and the powers of capitalization of such a virtuality” (210). In Stiegler’s temporal terms, we could understand “virtualization” as another word for the “synchronization” of time (or perhaps to return to Derrida’s terms “asynchrony”). If there is greater synchronization, then societies, according to Stiegler, are not “societies of invention” but rather ‘mimetic and adaptive” (101). Synchronization happens in all societies, but in our society it has lost synchronization as a “moment of exception.” Stiegler writes,
This synchronization is the arrival through these very media of a generalized loss of individuation and a swallowing up of exceptional moments in the continuous event-ful flux the programming industries unleash on the hypermasses of consciousness. (100)

As Derrida writes, the topology of the event, which is the “experience of the singular taking place” is disrupted through what he calls “virtualization.” I think Stiegler does not want to use the term “virtualization” because it implies somehow that it is “immaterial” or has no effect on the world. In this sense, I do not find Stiegler and Derrida departing from one another on the question of the “virtual.”

For Stiegler, this synchronization, this hyperindustrial society leads us to re-think the role of technoscience. This leads him to his critique of Kant, a critique that Derrida has also leveled, namely, that for Kant, “science” is separate from techne. “Science” is a describing of ‘what-is’ rather than its creation. This presupposes the idea that science is merely “constative” rather than performative knowledge. The age of technoscience has revealed that this is not the case—that there is no pure constative: “Contrary to the ideal of pure, classical scientific constativity, the essence of technology as the producer of technoscience and whose purpose is invention is in fact always performative” (203).

Thus, science and technology have a different relationship than we once thought. Science used to believe it described “the real” so that the possible (what we can “find” as scientists) is a modality of the real. But technoscience reveals that the real is always a modality of the possible. For example, the kind of experiments we have been doing with genetic codes. Thus, technology is not an “application” of science, but rather science is and application of technology! “Technoscience is not applied science, and even less explicated science; it is implicated science” (Stiegler 207).

If the real has only become a modality of the possible, then Derrida’s notion of the “event” as the impossible to-come now makes more sense: “The event belongs to a perhaps that is in keeping not with the possible but with the impossible. And its force is therefore irreducible to the force or the power of a performative, even if it gives to the performative itself, to what is called the force of the performance its chance and its effectiveness” (Derrida 235). The event is not something we (as individuals) can bring out--the event is always the decision of the other.

Does Stiegler rest in the perhaps of the event? In Technics and Time 3 Stiegler seems to be more interested in a more “Kantian” solution, using the term “criteria.” In the place of event (perhaps?), Stiegler calls for a new critique. We have to ask ourselves what would be “the principle of subjective differentiation in an age of technoscience,” which would be a “faculty capable of judging the quality of technoscientific fictions” (199). That is, the ability to judge which fictions, which possibles that technoscience reveals are worth our pursuing—it is a question of what we want to become as human beings.

I am still trying to figure out what Stiegler means by “subjective principle of differentiation” (which, by the way, we cannot “discover” but which we have to make). He implies at one point that we used to think it as the ontological difference (of Heidegger) between being and beings and all that it implied. Is Stiegler simply articulating a fact that we all know: we need to decide how far we want science to go?

Our selection, what we choose to adopt, and our principl of subjective differentiation, all seem to be tied up in what Stiegler calls “tertiary retentions,” which is everything that pre and conserves human memory outside of the life of a singular individual. All of this is related to technics. Stiegler argues that we only have access to our “already-there” (is this what Derrida calls “the Faktum” in “Faith and Knowledge”?) through these tertiary retentions. This “pre-original” understanding is only possible on the condition that we get it from our tertiary retentions. Thus, there is no pure and original “revealing of being” because the meaning of being always has a history and that history is preserved in our tertiary retentions. What does Stiegler mean when he argues that the new critique is a “thinking of selection as the very heart of the primordial question of retention, and thus through a general epistemological re-evaluation”? (156).

Indeed, this seems to be what he calls our educational institutions to do. Is this different (or can we make a difference) between this and the project Derrida outlines for the New Humanities in “University without Condition”? Is this somehow different from thinking the institutions history and the history of what is “proper” to man? Is the subjective principle of differentiation what will allow us to know “what, currently and to come, creates the distinction between best and worst” (155). is this a call for a critique that takes into account a shaky ethics (but not an ethical system) in the way that Haraway calls for in When Species Meet? In which “the crucial ethical issues now in human cloning are the biological matters [. . .] The ethics is in the whole ontological apparatus, in the thick complexity, in the naturecultures of being in technoculture that join cells and people in a dance of becoming”? (Haraway 137-38) But is Stiegler’s a question of ethics? Is not any sort of question of what ought to be done a question of ethics?
I am not able to answer these questions. I can only hope they are productive questions to ask.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Blanchot and Kafka

We are dead while we are alive, we are essentially survivors. So death ends our life, but it does not end our possibility of dying; it is as real as an end to life and illusory as an end to death” –Blanchot, “Reading Kafka,”(pg 8).

Gerald Bruns, in Maurice Blanchot: Refusal of Philosophy, that for Blanchot, “death and art exert a fascination because they inscribe the limits of being human, or rather they beckon or draw us to these limits and only by forsaking ourselves can we respond” (68). For Blanchot, writing seems to be an “inhuman” act. As Bruns points out, writing is “a space without a world” or a space without a place. It seems contrary to the thought of someone like Heidegger, who maintains that it is through language that man creates world. Writing in Blanchot’s analysis is different from this use of language, the ‘everday’ language that creates a meaningful world. Instead, as Bruns points out, writing “preserves the anonyminity of words and things, which is to say their density or thickness with the il y a” (Bruns 61). As Blanchot puts it in “Literature and the Right to Death,” “My hope lies in the materiality of language, in the fact that words are things [. . .] a name ceases to be the ephemeral passing of nonexistence and becomes a concrete ball, a solid mass of existence” (383). This is the point at which language becomes senseless or meaningless. Language becomes resistance to sense. Language/writing is not altogether human, it is not ‘ours’, it seems that it is not “the house of being” of man’s dwelling.

The status of writing in Blanchot is incredibly difficult to parse out as each sentence in “Literature and the Right to Death,” shines (or perhaps shadows) with original thinking. So I will leave that task to (hopefully) some close read in class. I think that we should focus on how Blanchot, in a way, empties out (auto)biography. What I mean by this, is that Blanchot’s reading of Kafka, although he focuses primarily on the Letters and the Diary never seem to slip into a kind of pathos for Kafka the man. Blanchot skillfully refuses to “humanize” Kafka, even in readings of his most intimate moments. This is what, according to Blanchot, Brod does with disasterous results: “Brod seems to have yielded to a more intimate temptation, that of living off the life of the central hero, of bringhim himself closer to him, also of bringing him closer to us, to the life of this time, by humanizing him” (Blanchot 244). Ironically, it is through the addition of “the pathos and of humanity” that Brod erases everything about the story that makes it so moving (Blanchot 247). This is what is so powerful about Blanchot’s readings of Kafka—the refusal to make him “human,” the refusal to speak about his “life” as if we could ever understood who Kafka “was”.

Instead, Blanchot takes as his theme the very thing that Kafka wrote about: writing. Even when, in “The Very Last Word,” he discusses Kafka’s relationships, it is always with respect to how writing played a role. Writing, as a mediation, as a technology, refuses the comforts of the words “author,” “creator,” “genius,” “inspiration,” whatever. Writing is also not representation. Indeed, Blanchot seems to show a kind of iconoclasm. In regard to K.’s quest(ion) in The Castle Blanchot writes, “No, for all of this is but image, emptiness, the unhappiness of the imaginary, loathsome phantasms born of the loss of self and all authentic reality” (Blanchot 250). At times, it seems that Kafka mirrors Derrida’s Rousseau in Of Grammatology, as Kafka seems to feel writing is a guilty, almost sexual pleasure: “[Writing} is  vanity and concupiscence that ceaselessly circle around my person or around an unknown person and derive pleasure from it” (Kafka qtd. in Blanchot 259). Writing remains a supplement to actual pleasure and union gained from sexual intercourse, or, even the pleasures of actually living. Blanchot writes, “the writer is afraid of dying because he has not yet lived” (260). To put it in terms of his relationships with women, writing cannot be possessed (just as Felice cannot be possessed). Kafka seems to desire some real, unmediated connection as he begins to distrust writing (although, ironically, this is all he can do now that he has lost his voice): “I am perfectly willing to share my heart with men but not with the specters that play with words and read letters, tongues hanging out” (Kafka qtd. in Blanchot 262). Why does he come to distrust writing? Blanchot suggests at the end of “The Last Word,” that is because it seems that what Kafka “plays at” will really happen—that somehow his fiction becomes his reality. This recalls Blanchot’s understanding of literature as that which “plays at working in the world” (Blanchot, “Literature,” 395).

Another way to understand Kafka’s horror at writing is it’s immortalizing power. We tend to think of immortality as this powerful and comforting thing, but for Blanchot, it is this very possibility that we may not be able to die, “the impossibility of dying” that is the horror of existence. This kind of horror of existence recalls the work of Samuel Beckett, as Bruns points out. I find in this both a “mundane” (worldly) truth and an ontological profundity. The mundane truth is that by writing and by entrusting his writing to Max Brod, Kafka has ensured,  in a way, that he can never “die” because people will continually be re-interpreting and making meaning out of his work, which is always a (mis)reading of the work. But beyond that, we have here a different problem from Heidegger’s, when he argues that the ontological structure of Dasein is in care. This is (one of) Levinas’ critique of Heidegger: “Isn’t dread in the face of being—horror of being—just as primordial as dread in the face of death? Isn’t fear of begin just as primordial as fear for one’s being” (Levinas qtd. in Blanchot 392). That is to say, do we fear death or the impossibility of death. Or, to put it in Nietzsche’s terms, the eternal return?

Thus, if death, following Heidegger, “is man’s greatest hope his only hope of becoming a man,” then writing, which is an inhuman space, excludes death. We see this kind of thinking about writing when Derrida talks about writing as trace and specter—it is the ghostly existence that continually haunts and cannot be erased. Is it that death, like writing, never fully “takes place” in the world? Death is a space we can never occupy, it is always to-come, imminent.

Questions and Notes

I find a parallel kind of “hope in death/nothingness” in the works of Cormac McCarthy, particularly his final novel, The Road, and his short play, The Sunset Limited. The wife of the man in the book says, “my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.” (McCarthy 57). I suppose I note this in order to show how we could perhaps justify some of McCarthy’s seemingly “nihilistic” statements through Blanchot’s almost ‘positive’ understanding of nothingness.

In “Literature and the Right to Death,” Blanchot talks about the relationship between writing and Revolution. It seems that on one hand Blanchot sees writing as akin to revolution: “it is absolute freedom which has become an event. Such periods are given the name Revolution. At this moment, freedom which aspires to be realied in the immediate form of everything is possible, everything can be done” (375). Although Blanchot seems to wax poetic and argue that Revolution is somehow a positive force, he maintains that Revolution is “a temptation for the writer.” (376). Citing the Reign Of Terror, we get a picture of the Revolution as the elimination of individuation (through death): “Revolutionary action is in every respect analogous to action embodied in literature, the passage from nothing to everything” (376). And what do we make of this:

“No one has the right to a private life any longer, everything is public, and the most guilty person is the suspect—the person who has a secret, who keeps a thought, an intimacy to himself. And in the end no has a right to his life any longer, to his actually separate and physically distinct existence. This is the meaning of the Reign of Terror. Every citizen has a right to death so to speak” (Blanchot 376).

I make a lot of this passage because the essay is called “Literature and the Right to Death.” So, we seem to be called to read this title as opposing values. If Revolution is associated with action then this seems to be a position that Blanchot is not going to take. There is, as in Levinas, a kind of emphasis on passivity (beyond all passivity). Furthermore, I would argue that we can read this essay as an indirect response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s What is Literature. In this work, Sartre argues that literature needs to be “committed.” In this way, we can read Sartre as coming down on the side of prose (particularly, the novel) and Blanchot, along with Heidegger, affirming the values of poetry (which, as should be apparent from Blanchot’s work, is not limited to verse). Furthermore, Blanchot seems to maintain that writing is about writing and less about the “outside world.”  Blanchot writes,

It is easy to understand why men who have committed themselves to a party who have made a decision distrust writers who share their views because these writers have also committed themselves to literature, and in the final analysis literature, by its very activity, denies the substance of what it represents. This is its law and its truth. If it renounces this in order to attach itself permanently to a truth outside itself, it ceases to be a literature and the writer who still claims he is a writer enters in another aspect of bad faith. (367)

Unless Sartre had not published anything about his ideas on “committed” literature, it seems that Blanchot is directly addressing Sartre’s views, partially because of Blanchot’s use of the the Sartrean terminology of “bad faith.”  Thus, Blanchot sees the “resistance” of literature within the writing itself (the very fact of writing) and the possibility of ambiguity rather than the “subject” of the writer, which is related to some current cause or issue.