Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Ruination and Salvation of Life/Writing, Part I

The myth of the origin of written language as told by Socrates in the Phaedrus: Theuth declares that written language, the materiality of the word, will make the Egyptians wiser by improving their memory. But Thamus instead insists that the technical gift of letters will, in fact, produce forgetting. When Egyptians rely solely on writing to remember, they are reminded from the outside with foreign signs and no longer trust the authentic memory emanating from within their souls. How could writing, as seen from this perspective, ever bring about an ethical relation?

It can be argued, perhaps, that it was not until Blanchot, who lived at the junction of phenomenology and poststructuralism, and within the milieu of post-World War II French philosophy, that writing finally could be accorded its inherent ethical essence, that the intrinsic ethical nature of writing could be uncovered. Is it simply that thinkers since Plato never fully examined the phenomenality of written language? Perhaps so. Approaching an answer to such a question is beyond the scope of this project. Nonetheless, we can most likely agree that Heidegger’s work on language began to set the stage for this rather late development that sought to locate ethics within writing. Heidegger’s verdict—“Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins.” —begins to reveal not only the ethos (ή̃θος qua dwelling—das Haus—as well as ethics) of language but also—and equally important to Blanchot’s project—the da of Dasein, the thereness of human being which Blanchot, by way of Lévinas, will come to understand as the terrible il y a of non-relational, neutered ontology.

For both Lévinas and Blanchot, language serves as the only escape from neutered being. Lévinas comes to understand, at least initially, dialog and conversation (interpellation) as the site where relational metaphysics (ethics) can occur. We need to remember, however, that for Lévinas, one’s subjectivity is always already riddled with alterity. That is, I cannot (ever) be myself without the (prior and primordial) dispersion of identity across the differential field of otherness. At its most fundamental, I would never have been myself had it not been for the genetic material inherited from my parents and grandparents or for the historical exigencies that moved my family from Europe to the United States. But Blanchot goes even further: he problematizes the pharmacology of the text by putting into question the question of writing and its relational distance to and from non-subjectivist ethics.

Here I would like to explicitly move from the understanding of writing as a pharmakon that poisons—as well as cures—in order to examine more carefully the ethics of writing for Blanchot. One obvious way to make such an approach is by way of Lévinas’ work on writing and ethics, especially as found in his groundbreaking Totality and Infinity. As far as Lévinas, in this text, is concerned, writing is unethical. Only the speech act itself—interpellation—allows for the opening toward exteriority, which is Lévinas’ own formulation of how the I escapes its totalizing, narcissistic, identitarian egology.
Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Martinus Nijhoff Philosophy Texts)
Within interpellation, the other disrupts the homology of the I, supervening within the I’s perspective that the I is a self-contained whole. In the face-to-face dialogic of Lévinasian ethics (metaphysics), the fact that dialog arises overrides any signification of the words themselves. The ethical import of conversing—the act of conversation—then, resides in the back and forth of communication and not (ever) in the content of what is said. The saying, for Lévinas, overcomes the said (or anything that can be said). The fact that there is, outside of me, another human being with whom to converse trumps any kind (of) word I may receive from him. From this view, we can see how any communicable, ethical content (of communication) is denigrated, at least at first, in Lévinas’ phenomenological approach to ethics.

So much of Lévinas’ critique of writing hinges upon his understanding of objectivity, insisting that the other always already stands in relation to the I and does not arise καθ̉ αυ̉τό. This relation functions as the foundation of ethics that one human being has with another. One, then, is never purely objective or disconnected from the other. We can see a basis for this view by thinking through the phenomenality of a so-called individual self, who is not only biologically and genetically composed of other selves but also, throughout its existence, existed as other selves.

The ethical relation is primarily the relation we human beings share and participate in within discourse. Lévinas contends, “The face speaks. The manifestation of the face is already discourse.” In this way, discourse is “an original relation with exterior being.” The other presents the fullness of himself in the fullness of his words through discourse. Lévinas thereby aligns himself with the Platonic tradition when it comes to the decidedly unethical nature of writing. Accordingly, writing merely signifies the other’s presence, disallowing ethics altogether. Lévinas goes so far as to insist that not only does writing refuse ethics but also that it establishes a traditionally unethical situation to arise:
To approach someone from works [as opposed to through discourse, by way of the saying] is to enter into his interiority as though by burglary; the other is surprised in his intimacy, where, like the personages of history, he is, to be sure, exposed, but does not express himself. Works signify their author, but indirectly, in the third person.
By referring to the injustice of entering into the otherwise inviolable interiority of the other (or even of the self) as “burglary,” Lévinas forgoes allowing writing its ethical aspect. Despite the severity of such a critique, it is upon writing’s foundation and the materiality of language itself that Blanchot is able to divulge the ethical dimension of writing. Precisely because writing has the ability to alienate the I from itself, it, too, exposes the self to exteriority, not only of language but of alterity as well. Furthermore, Blanchot disagrees with Lévinas’ initial assessment that written works signify their authors. By relegating the author into the third person, signification, representation, description all come up against language’s outside, which is where Blanchot will situate ethics in (written) language.

Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot: Ethics and the Ambiguity of WritingThe fact that writing renders the author useless by dismissing him or her into the third person turns out to be precisely the means by which Blanchot is able to explain, indicate, and perform the ethical nature of his anti-theory of literature. Blanchot’s own attempt to employ this kind of deauthorization of both the author as well as the subject (who, in turn, becomes the object of writing) marks his writings about his most intimate interlocutors: his friends Georges Bataille and, of course, Lévinas. I do not mean here to imply that we can simply substitute the alterity of the text (in Blanchot’s work) with the alterity of the other (in Lévinas’). Such substitution and exchange is fraught with the same kind of violence imposed upon language and interpretation that we can find evidence of in the tendency to generalize and universalize (terms and experience) in order to erode and cover over difference. It is this “uneasy analogy” that William Large critiques.

Large instead argues that, for Blanchot, the narrative voice and the imaginary event of literature and writing undergirds reality itself, allowing for the externalization (in words, in the text) of the self. In writing, we do not ever merely deal with the interiority of a (Cartesian, Kantian, Freudian) subject. Writing displaces the subject, dislocates the time of the subject, and neuters subjectivity itself through the materiality of the word. For example, the I, in its lived experience, is always experienced as an engendered being, but as soon as the I is written and transcribed onto the page, neutrality—“neuteredness”—befalls it in its pervasive and persistent thereness. We see this most obviously in the employment of the neutered pronoun it when writing of the I. It is at the moment when one writes “I” that authorship and authority come undone, that the author steps outside of him- or herself.

Through the text’s materiality, selfhood finds itself expressed and described upon the page. But this exterior “selfhood,” in having nothing to say of the self, becomes other, an alter eclipsing the originary ego so much so that the “I” transcribed no longer speaks of the I who transcribes. Writing, then, phenomenologically establishes and maintains a distance between author and text, even when that text is “about” its author. Of course, we can argue that only one of those “selves” is “real,” defiantly asserting that the person who writes is “more real” than a character in a novel. But this is not how Blanchot understands the problem of writing.

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