Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Derrida, Disaster, and Sovereignties in Question--For Celan

I can now, perhaps, address the significance of Blanchot’s dis-aster.

Disaster: “ill starred,” a calamity blamed on “an unfavorable aspect of a planet”

Constellation: “conjuncture,” “set with stars.” OED: “Originally, in astrology, of position of planets,  (“stars”), in regard to one another on a given day, usually one’s birthday, as a determination of one’s character

Sternbild (constellation): Stern, star. “bild” –image, picture, figure from bild (verb) – “build, shape, construct,” etc. “Star-image”

In Writing of the Disaster (I am still tempted, every time I write this title, to say Writing the Disaster, omitting the genitive possessive), Blanchot writes,

Levinas speaks of the subjectivity of the subject. If one wishes to use this word-why? But why not?—one ought perhaps to speak of a subjectivity without any subject, the wounded space, the hurt of the dying, the already dead body, which no one could ever own, or ever say of it, I, my body [this is my body, take this an eat it, do this in memory of me]. This is the body animated solely by mortal desire: the desire of dying—desire that dies and does not thereby subside. (30)

Could we substitute the notion of a “subject” with the name “identity”? To take one example of the “subjectivity without subject,” the Jew does not possess any determinate characteristics; rather, according to Derrida, “Anyone or no one may be a Jew. Jew, no one’s name, the only one. No one’s circumcision” (55). Or, more concretely, “what is proper to the Jew is to have no property or essence. Jewish is not Jewish” (35). “Jew” is not an identity, a knowledge, but a secret, a crypt, and perhaps most importantly a performance of the body. The performance is the “shibboleth” that requires a certain pronunciation. So to be a Jew (to be anything) is subjectivity without the subject, without the “sovereign” subject that says I. This is related to Heidegger’s notion that Dasein is both near and far, which we may associate with Celan’s line: “it is now possible to conceive a meeting of this ‘wholly Other’ and an ‘other’ which is not far removed, which is very near” (180).

Could the disaster be understood as the ripping apart of constellations, constellations that determine and tie us to our fate as such and such a being or such and such a person? Celan offers the hypothesis: “But are we all not descended from such dates? And to which dates do we attribute ourselves?” (180). But if our dates disseminate into other dates, if our dates are not entirely “our own” this may be the disaster—the planetary drift. Astrology is useless because it pretends that these are our stars , that the stars determine our character, which is at once individuating us too much and at the same time not enough! It does not individuate beings or events enough and yet it is still singular.  That January 20th signifies no one event unequivocally since it calls out and sends itself toward a future (or past date) than the one “intended” by its author. January 20th, Derrida finds out, is also when Hitler and his collaborators finalized “the final solution” (113). What if Celan had included the year? Still, there might be strange, unheimlich, coincidences. Some one reader may read January 20th and notice it is his or her birthday! Imagine being part of the constellation that would link your birth and the final solution!

 Rather than constellation of singularities, if we take astrology as constituting our identities, we become a type of person, a type of being (according to astrology). But might this not foreclose the possibility of an encounter, if the encounter is a “random occurrence, as chance, as luck or coincidence” (9)?  This random occurrence might be something like the ‘disaster.’  The disaster that does not, according to Blanchot, “acquire meaning” but “a body” (41). The disaster might be something along the lines of what I discussed above—finding oneself entwined with other events, from other years, on the same date as one’s birth. Is this “meaningful” or does it acquire body? The disaster of dates that opens us up to other events and other persons.

In this sense, the ego, the self, is like a date, which brings together a constellation: “several heterogeneous singularities [] consigned in the starry configuration of a single dated mark” (35). The date, like any mark, also risks the meaning of other dates. The date “was already a sort of fiction, reciting singularity only in the fable of conventions and generalities, of what are, in any case, iterable marks” (47). In this sense, the date is an “image,” (the reason I translated constellation into German), one might say a metonymic and ‘poetic’ “image.”

But this meaning of “image” does not seem quite appropriate for this text, as Derrida will speak of the date as “a cut, or incision that the poem bears in its body like a memory” (18). And further on claims that “there is a holocaust for every date, and somewhere in the world at every hour” (46). The idea of the burning of the word, turning it to ashes, recalls Blanchot’s image of knowledge that burns thought: “When knowledge is no longer a knowledge of truth, it is then that knowledge starts, a knowledge that burns thought, like knowledge of infinite patience” (43). This image recalls to my mind a kind of burning of an experience into one’s retina or into one’s mind—and indelible experience. Derrida generalizes this branding: “As one might engrave a date in a tree, burning bark with ciphers of fire” (48). This, in turn, recalls a poem by Celan Derrida discusses in another essay, “onto a ram’s silicified forehead/I brand this image, between/the horns” (141).  The date is also a circumcision: “The circumcision of a word must thus be understood as an event of the body” (59). Again, the image of a cut, a burn, a brand on the body—even if it is on the body of “language.”

This incision, cut, opening, burn, on the body of language may be the tropes that Derrida uses for what he calls in the interviews an “idiom.” Derrida writes, “but it seems to me he touches the German language both by respecting the idiomatic spirit of that language and in the sense that he displaces it, in the sense that he leaves upon it a sort of scar, a mark, a wound” (100). So this is what we are able to do with language—touch it, leave a mark, a scar, maybe burn it into brains; However, one thing we can never do is appropriate it: “it is the essence of language that language does not let itself be appropriated. Language is precisely what does not let itself be possessed but, for this very reason, provokes all kinds of movements of appropriation” (101). Writing (and language—are these two synonymous?), as for Blanchot, always remains other.  Perhaps we cannot appropriate ‘dates’ either as dates are part of language, fictions that “constellate” events?

I want to shift gears here and ask a few questions about Celan’s poem “Meridian,” particularly concerning his reading of Buchner and Art. If art is that which “produces a distance from the I,” and Art is somehow “at home” with mechanism, marionette, and monkey, then art is something distinct from the human, and perhaps something distinct from “life.” I am trying to figure out how (and if) Celan is distinguishing his own conception of art from Buchner, which he calls “naturalism” (176). Celan quotes Lenz saying that there is “life in the thing that has been created” is the most important aspect of art (176). He contrasts this lifeless art (the marionette? Mechanism? Robot?) with “that which is natural. With all living creatures” (176). Buchner writes, “at times one might wish to be a Medusa’s head so as to be able to transform such a group into stone, and call out to the people” (176). So would this frozen tableau constitute art?

Celan then writes, “Here we have stepped beyond human nature, gone outward, and entered a mysterious realm, yet one turned toward that which is human, the same realm in which the monkey, the robots, and accordingly. . .alas, art seem to be at home” (177).

This is a really strange passage to me. Somehow we have stepped “beyond human nature” yet turned toward the human. But the human here is in the same realm as what we would generally consider not human: monkeys and robots. So is Celan deconstructing this idealized notion of Nature as opposed to wooden puppets? It does not seem like Celan is so much interested in naturalism or art as representation (image). He writes,

The poem attempts to pay careful attention to everything it encounters; it has a finer sense of detail, of outline, or structure, of color, and also of the ‘movements’ and the ‘suggestions.’ These are, I believe, not qualities gained by an eye competing (or cooperating) with mechanical devices, which are continually being brought to a higher degree of perfection. No, it is a concentration which remains aware of all our dates. (182, emphasis mine)

So, an art of “representation” would try and mimic life so as to try and capture all of its movements in mechanical detail. In contrast, Celan’s poems, “take form and gather around the I who is addressing and naming it” (182). It is a movement of gathering and concentration rather than representing in some “naturalistic” detail. It is an encounter with the other, which may be construed as the reader? “But the one who has been addressed and who, by virtue of having been named, has, as it were, become a thou also brings its otherness along into the present, into this present” (182). Who is the one who is addressed and who is the one who addresses? Does the poem address the reader or the reader the poem?

I suppose that this is not a gathering toward a unity, but rather a collection—and it is not only a collection of present things but sends itself into possible future dates. Furthermore, there is always an expropriating gesture in the encounter that may constellate and concentrate, a gesture that expropriates an I. As Derrida puts it in his essay on (for) Gadamer, “To carry now no longer  has the meaning of ‘to comprise, to include, to comprehend in the self, but rather to carry oneself for bear oneself toward the infinite inappropriability of the other [. . .] the infinitely other in me” (161).

Here, there is no reassuring cosmos: “the cosmic reassures us, for we can identify with the measureless vibration of a sovereign order even if in this identification we venture beyond ourselves entrusting ourselves to a holy and real unity” (Blanchot 88). Nor may there be Heidegger’s being-in-the-world (162). Heidegger conceives of poetry as a way of opening up possibilities of new worlds, but for Celan,  “The world is gone, I must carry you,” but the world is not necessarily “gone” but “far” (fort as opposed to da). Derrida asks about Fort-sein as something distinct from the stone, the animal, and the human and their respective relationships to world:

But what would happen if, in our poem, the departure, the Fort-sein of the world, in its proper instance, did not answer to any of these theses or categories? What if the Fort-sein exceeded them, from a wholly other place? (163)

Derrida claims that this is one thing he would want to ask Gadamer for help—I would want to ask Derrida for help. In a way, these few words at the end of an essay point beyond anything else we have read on Heidegger’s concept of “world.” What is the Fort-sein, the far-being? To ask this another way, what if Heidegger worked on the ontology of the fortsein—does that even make sense as a question? Could the Fort-sein be an ontological project? The being that is not there—the being that is far (from itself)? Perhaps this could be a useful way to understand Derrida’s project for is not the ghost, the specter, the revenant, all “living without being,” living far-being (110)? I cannot answer these questions, but the questions intrigue me.

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