Friday, July 1, 2011

The Writer

The Writing of the DisasterThe writer, his biography: he died; lived and died.

The writer writes to live on. Writing to live on, her life is a kind of survival. Sur-vival: a living beyond. Beyond what? One's own death. The writer's biography, then, continues long past her anterior death, before she ever writes a word. The writer can survive only by disallowing the text written, to be written. Bereft of text, the writer lives in a terminal interruption of the work of writing. In writing's failure.

The writer's life, her biographical material, has only an "anecdotal significance." Therefore, let's begin again.

Blanchot writes that literature—or what he later simply terms writing—has two slopes. One side slopes toward typical literary interpretive strategies by way of negation. By negation Blanchot here articulates the manner in which writing, by becoming transparent, communicates a certain content of language through language. That is, for example, by employing the cat, I negate any particular cat and in its place offer a universalized cat. The presence of the idea of a thing replaces the absence of the thing itself. With this idealized cat, I transmit, re-encode, and translate communicative content that you, to some extent, are able to decipher. Ultimately, however, no cat is there: an idea about a cat has passed between us, so there has been communication and translation, but I have not handed you a domesticated, carnivorous quadrupedal mammal of the genus Felis. That cat has already slunk away out of sight.

The other slope of writing further vexes language’s power of abstraction. Literature does not merely re-present a metaphysical reality and then disappear after performing its conveyance of information. Upon the first slope, my word cat, whether spoken or written, refers to something with material reality, with metaphysical presence. Yet cat itself does not simply represent that corporeal feline; rather, it ideates the cat’s fur, tail, and whiskers, replacing its attendant body with a conceptual cat. The presence of the concept stands in for the absence of the thing. But upon this second, non-informational slope, cat exposes not only the absence of an actual cat but also the absence of its idealized concept. We translate the cat’s nonbeing not into the idea of cat but rather into an actual word that has its own weight, form, and rhythm—that is, we spell it c-a-t, we pronounce it /kæt/, and in English it rhymes with the words hat and rat. Upon this second slope of writing, there is a double absence: both the cat itself and the idea of cat have gone astray. It is as if that cat had never existed in the first place, leaving behind on the page the materiality of the word cat.

Informed, of course, by Mallarméan and symbolist poetics, which emphasize the literary effect of language over representational function—correspondence over coherence—concrete poetry asserts that typographical layout is more important than the words themselves. The importance of the impermanent presence of the written word stresses textuality over representationality. This translation of a cat and the idea of cat into cat, then, achieves literature’s désœuvrement—its inertia, uselessness, inoperability, and unworkability. For Blanchot, then, literature demands that we experience this double absence as absence, that we too allow for the essential solitude of literature to exile us altogether from the text. Our seclusion and banishment from the text as readers, interpreters, and translators, however, do not reassert, by any means, the author in a privileged position. For lost among the infinite displacements of meaning and between the double voids of literature wanders also the writer.

The text, in this way, de-authorizes even the author’s authority as an intimate expert. The author herself finds herself outside her own text: because of the work’s essential solitude, “He who writes the work is set aside; he who has written it is dismissed.” According to Blanchot’s anti-theory, we certainly can read any text as inscribed by the author’s biography. Many readers do exactly (and only) that. But my criticism of interpreters and translators who endorse these kinds of modernist and structuralist agendas do a disservice to reading in general by not allowing the text to speak any more than what they themselves are able to read into it. These stifled and stifling readings allow for only one possibility from upon only one slope of the text. If we stay put upon this first slope of literature, content with our clever, insightful, and historically as well as biographically accurate readings, we certainly have accomplished our self-congratulatory exegetical task. But that is not how Blanchot would have us phenomenologically understand our task as readers, writers, and exegetes. We still, nonetheless, must contend with our own inability to enter the emptiness at the heart of the text itself.

The facticity of the writing’s ontological truth—the fact that it is and the fact that it speaks its own being—writes off both author and reader: “The poetic word is no longer someone’s word. In it no one speaks, and what speaks is not anyone. It seems rather that the word alone declares itself.” While Freudian, formalist/structuralist, and reader response theories indeed can help open a text to our understanding, once inside—after we analyze all allusions and word play—language’s matter, the exterior shell of meaning that while containing meaning also obfuscates and disseminates the possibility of absolute knowledge, lingers. Words themselves do not disappear after providing conveyance of information from one person to another. The text ultimately remains unworkable as we confront words—devoid of both material and conceptual referents—that simply refer (back) to other words in an infinite dispersion of meaning across the doubly aporetic center of language.

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