There is an advantage to being the last speaker at a conference. The stress of paper-giving is over for everyone else. There is a sense of festivity, of relaxation – of coming in the aftermath of hard work. Everyone’s mellow, a little weary, looking forward to a final drink. This isn’t the time-slot for the dry and the abstract. And so (I hope), there is a bit of licence granted to the last speaker, which allows him to go a little literary, perhaps. A little paraphilosophical…
Perhaps this is an appropriate timeslot for posing a valedictory question – a question to which I maybe shouldn’t give myself the right of posing: the question of what has been happening here over the last few days. Of what has been done, what has been thought. The trouble in answering such a question is that you only really know what you’ve been working on once you’ve finished it, or are at least moving towards its conclusion. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk. A real sense of a project can only be had retrospectively, only when it is complete, or moving definitively towards completion – that is to say, if I can play on words here, only as a re-ject. Deleuze and Guattari ask, what is philosophy?, but not until they come to the end of their career. It is a question, they note, that can only be posed late on, with the arrival of old age, when you have nothing else left to ask. My question – not ‘What is philosophy?’ but the much more modest, ‘What has been happening here at this philosophical conference?’ – is likewise one that can be posed only at the end of the event…
We live our lives forwards, but understand them backwards, says Kierkegaard. So perhaps it is only in the graveyard slot that we can really attend to SEP conference 2015. But there is another problem in grasping what has been going on here at this conference, for it is not only determinable tasks and projects with which we’ve been busy during the last few days – tasks that can work towards completion, or, at least, towards some measure of determinacy – there have also been activities that were part of no larger project, that might, indeed, have had no determinate end at all. Beside the serious labour of paper-giving, of formulating questions and answers, beside chat at tea-breaks and over dinner tables, beside gossip about who spoke well and who, badly, about scandals rocking this or that academic department, and so on, there is also that extempore fun, that fooling around and larking about which happens much more gratuitously. This is the festive aspect of the philosophy conference, which always gives it something of the carnival.
The sweet truancy of missing papers, of laughter breaking out in the lecture room, generalised irreverence, the exchange of comic banter, lucid or not so lucid to-and-fros, the room-to-room search for a source of alcohol after the pubs close, staying up all night with a bottle of spirits between you: these are not usually the kind of experiences whose details we remember or seek to remember. Perhaps you simply had to be there. It happened, and that was it. Who can remember who said what, or recall the specifics of one flight of fancy or another? What was so funny at four AM last night? Indeed, we might plausibly regard it as a betrayal, or a kind of impropriety to seek to remember the night before. What goes on tour stays on tour! Is there even a dignified vocabulary for such things: larking about? fooling around? — although they do seem related to what Bataille calls ‘unproductive expenditure’, what Levinas calls ‘enjoyment’, what Bakhtin calls the ‘carnivalesque’, what de Certeau calls, ‘wigging off’ and what Blanchot, as we will see, calls the ‘limit-experience’. And what of our partners in these crimes? They are not really friends in the strong sense – they are not bound to us in relations of intimacy, of trust, of constancy and so on. They are conference-frequenters, just as we are — conference habitués who want to have a laugh, who want high- or low-minded fun before the start of the next term. Short-term, sporadic, formed and dissolved by chance, idling without commitment, the equivalent in amity of a one-night stand, we might see such interrelations as really only a parody of friendship. And we might remember what Adorno writes: ‘parody means the use of forms in the era of their impossibility’.
So how are we to reflect on these carnivalesque, collective modes, which lie alongside ‘serious’ tasks and projects? What kind of philosophical or paraphilosophical framework is needed to understand or at least to witness the comic art of such interrelations? Here, I aim to follow a little distance the red thread of the concept of friendship, and in particular of intellectual friendship.
How is friendship faring in our time? The authors of Friendship: A History have it that the postwar period in the West has been the age of friendship, insofar as friendship has become ever more distinct from relationships with neighbours or kin, from relationships based on proximity, need or birth. Friendship, they argue, has become an emotional bond rather than a primarily instrumental one, a bond that, because of affluence, mobility and new technologies of mass communication, is based on ‘intimacy, shared pleasures and recreations, reciprocity, equality and negotiated (rather than necessary) interdependence’.
Friendship, on this account, has become defined by a concern for the other person, insofar as the other person is a unique individual, with whom we feel a sympathy in the context of increasingly fluid, increasingly contingent, extrinsic factors. Friends, so goes this account, share views and values in a manner that is hard-won from a society that does not support them. Now model of friendship has had its critics, who have pointed to the potential narcissism of the relation, to its characteristic retreat from public life – too little is at stake in such a sentimental remove from worldly affairs. But it is possible, even necessary now, to expand this criticism, and do justice to the extent to which this model of friendship is now the most worldly thing of all. To understand this, we must turn, briefly, to the transition our society has undergone from the mode of discipline to the mode of control.
In the societies of discipline, as Foucault tells it, power operated modestly, from the bottom as it were, quite differently from the spectacular excess of top-down sovereign power. But the fact that the populations of these societies continued to think of power as a top-down operation meant that they experienced themselves as free, and were free, even as discipline was producing its effects – free to pursue their vocation, free to exercise their power of judgement, and so on. Disciplinary power operated through normalisation, not repression – through comparatively hidden, modest, and liberatory exercises. One way to understand this is in terms of the contrast between doing a job and having a profession; having a profession does not just inform your identity, it defines it. The disciplinary don, like the nurse or the policeman, was the product of a process which saw norms of thought and action go all the way down. But it didn’t feel that way. The disciplinary don enjoyed respect, he was entrusted with judgement, and given the space and time to exercise it. Normalisation went hand in hand with authenticity, to the extent that we might say that these figures were their professions and experienced their relationship to institutions as liberatory. In one sense, we can see the old dons of Oxford and Cambridge, as described in Gilbert Annan’s history, as being confined – they had their wood-panelled offices, they gave their lectures in the great halls, they had to be available for students, and for college and university tasks. But this was not simply confinement, for the old dons saw themselves as part of the genius loci of Oxbridge, at least potentially becoming outstanding scholars, devoted teachers, cultivating originality and imagination, showing open-heartedness and magnanimousness, and having as their noble aim the transformation of the old universities into institutions of education and research. And they shared this ethos with other professionals — civil servants, school inspectors, secretaries of philanthropic associations, periodical editors — to whom they were often related by family, constituting what we might understand as a single disciplinary block, sharing a soaring patriotism, a sense of moral purpose and a reformer’s zeal.
In the societies of control, by contrast, as Deleuze indicates, professional figures of this kind have been supplanted by much looser assemblages with much more passing and precarious identifications. True, some elements of discipline do survive: we continue to be identifiable and representable subjects for administration and management; but the ‘I’ at the core of my disparate and precarious experiences, the seat of my desires and the source of all my interests, is now much more unstable. The post-professional of the society of control experiences a distinct of the space and time that the old don enjoyed. Our freedom to make decisions, to oversee things from a distance, is supplanted by new mechanisms of auditing and surveillance. Harried, over-managed, subject to intense bureaucratic scrutiny, never left alone, the contemporary academic is endlessly distracted, with a continual sense of being nudged, of someone pulling at her elbow. We are always behind now, in our work of filling out forms, making research bids, inputting our personal details, posting on Twitter… Today’s academic is hassled by on-the-job training, continual monitoring, lifelong learning. As Sinéad Murphy explained in her talk at this conference, it’s not even that we are now required to do a job rather than have a profession, we are now required continually to find our job, and to keep our job, to be employable.
What, then, of friendship? As Annan explains, the dons who walked with their hands behind their backs on the English lawn had ample space and time to cultivate friendship, even though the ‘dry fierce heat’ of unreserved affection and support did make considerable demands and imposed considerable duties. You could expect rebuke if you were not living up to your intellectual potential; your friend was a challenger and a goad, trying to push you to be better than you were. Educo, the Latin root of education means, ‘I raise up’, or ‘I lead forth’ – old-style dons sought to raise each other up, according to the old notion of Bildung – turning each other towards higher ideals, lighting each other on the road to full humanity.
Certainly, this mode of donnish friendship is no longer for us. The sense of common culture and shared endeavour on which it was premised has now been supplanted by a range of emotional tonalities that Paolo Virno describes very well: cynicism, opportunism and sentimentalism.
Cynicism, Virno explains, involves a fulsome awareness of the rules of the situations in which we find ourselves – we know what we’re doing; we perceive the conventionality and mutability of the rules of the game – but we play along anyway. Hence our opportunism – our readiness and willingness to avail ourselves of the chances that arise without any conviction in their lastingness or worth. Cynicism and opportunism are what allow us to push on in ever-changing conditions, to cultivate a sense of proactivity and can-do, and to maintain at least a public appearance of positivity in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity. How does this affect our relation to the friend? Well, the transition to contemporary society, to the contemporary university, means that we lack the older forms of personhood, of identity, of inwardness — the older norms and virtues that Richard Sennett argues are necessary for the flourishing of the established forms of friendship. And the rise of cynicism and opportunism means that intellectual interrelation risks being reduced to little more than a contractual dimension of recognised reciprocal interests.
The cultivation of cynicism and opportunism does, Virno allows, generate a kind of free-floating anxiety. But we overcompensate for this through a third emotional tonality, sentimentality, which makes us cleave onto the most clichéd and saccharine glimpses of meaning such that when contemporary friendship is not about the furthering of reciprocal interests, it is the kind of haven that is presented to us in television programmes such as Friends – a retreat from the vicissitudes of adult life onto the sofa in Central Perk, a retreat that is not founded on any shared values and substantial sympathies, but on only the most surface, the most happenstance, the most mawkish of alliances. Such relationships offer mutual reassurance, but of the most contentless kind, such as we find on social media, whether we congratulate one another on our promotions, complain about administration, celebrate the last day of the teaching term, and so on.
And what, then, of the forms of association that are my topic: those marginal, mischievous, pub modes of skiving off, those forms of having a laugh, of playing truant, of generalised irreverence? Are not these, too, a kind of sentimental retreat, a kind of Central Perk break from bureaucratised association? And if so, what then? Tonight, our small version of mob-joy, our mini-bohemia, our search for collective delirium, our freedom and laughter, our parody, pastiche and mock reversals of the social order. But tomorrow, what then? It’s not just as Brecht describes in ‘To Posterity’: ‘Truly I live in dark times!/ The innocent word is stupid. A smooth forehead/ Is a sign of insensitivity. He who laughs/ Has simply not yet heard/ The terrible news’. It’s not just that we must put away our childish things, and get back to work. Work, too, seriousness, too, cannot attend to the terrible news. Climate change, financial catastrophe, control society itself – our bureaucratised gravitas works to turn us from this news and not towards it. And yet, if as Virno argues, the modes of being and feeling available to us in the society of control are now our degree zero – if the strongly determined goals and identities of discipline can never be available to us again, then we have to find a way of passing through the modes of interrelation that mark the society of control, rethinking the framework in which they might operate and be understood.
Blanchot’s story, ‘The Infinite Conversation’, narrates an encounter between two weary men, a host and a guest, who have come together over the years in order to learn something from their weariness. But this ambition is continually frustrated – the men are too weary to learn anything. ‘I had not realised that what weariness makes possible, weariness makes difficult’, one of them says.
It is weariness in all its twists and turns that brings these men together, that gives them life and permits them to speak. But weariness does this without ever revealing itself. Why so? Because weariness is not something that happens to an intact subject, to an ‘I’. As one of the men tells the other, weariness is ‘nothing that has happened to me’: nothing, that is, that has happened to him in the first person. By attempting to think from and to answer to weariness as they continue their fragmentary, hesitant conversation, the men are able to discern a ‘background’ to the words, a murmuring that interrupts the language they use to express themselves, their ‘I thinks …’, their ‘I feels …’, their ‘I dos …’ and so on.
Émile Benveniste argues that saying the word, ‘I’, is a kind of performative. Subjectivity is enacted, he claims. One becomes a subject because one says ‘I’. The reality of the subject is fundamentally a reality of discourse. This reality allows the subject to appropriate language, using it on its own behalf, and thereby constituting itself as a subject. Once this subject-position has been attained, the rest of language follows. Indexicals, demonstratives, adverbs, adjectives, verbs and so on achieve the organisation of experienced space and time in relation to the subject, who becomes an ‘I’ in the moment he or she speaks. In this sense, we might say with Benveniste that the pronoun ‘I’ has a transcendental function, marking the speaker’s assumption of language as a whole through the successful identification between the pronoun and a life.
But on Benveniste’s account, this appropriation of and entry into language, this enactment of subjectivity, implies our removal from our pre-subjective reality. And it is this reality to which we are returned when the capacity to say ‘I’ fails us, when the identification of pronoun with life falters. Weariness, in Blanchot’s story, is just such a ‘limit-experience’, which is why the men in the story insist they are not present to undergo the experience. Yet, despite that, the characters do seek to reach weariness, to undergo what they cannot experience in the first person, to expose the ‘truth’ of this experience. In this sense, what the men want is to step out of discourse altogether, to undo the enactment of the ‘I’, but to do so as an ‘I’. The content of their conversation – and of Blanchot’s story as a whole – concerns this impossible attempt to undergo the ‘truth’ of weariness in the first person – and therefore to round it off as a particular event which could then be remembered, conceptualised, or assembled into a narrative.
How can Blanchot’s story help us with respect to the nature of the modes of interrelation that are our focus here, the larking about, the fooling around, at the margins of the business of life? We might begin with the very notion of the limit-experience, which provides a way of understanding the interrelation we’ve been exploring, in terms of a shared experience of depersonalisation. What I have been calling variously, play, larking about, festivity, and so on, are very different in kind from weariness, of course. But does this matter? The paradox of which Blanchot’s characters make so much is that we are only completely weary when we are no longer present in the first person to undergo our weariness. And something similar might be said about the ludism of play and festivity as ecstatic phenomena, which likewise dissolve the first person. Indeed, this is exactly what Nietzsche captures in his account of rapture [Rausch] as a communal experience of ecstatic passage, a becoming-other – as an ‘explosive state’, as a ‘superabundance of means of communication’. Rapture is, on this account, analogous to the limit-experience of weariness because it involves a depersonalisation. Those drawn together in rapture might be understood to be in search of an experience they can undergo only pre-subjectively, only in a dissolved, experientially diffused manner – an experience of a fleetness, of lightness of touch, of transpersonal ecstasy.
But how might this transport, this rapture, be fostered? How might it be more than just a momentary event, a momentary remove from which we return to ourselves as we were? As with Blanchot’s characters, who bring themselves over and again to seek the ‘truth’ of the limit-experience, this task demands a kind of deliberateness on the part of its participants with respect to what is at stake in their exchange. This deliberateness must not be overdone – it is not a question of theorising the exchange in mid-flow, of halting it in order to summarise its ‘results’. But there must be an effort to maintain it and redouble it – there must be a kind of tenacity, a constancy of effort to reach the ‘truth’ of the limit-experience, which is to say, to undergo it. And as is the case with Blanchot’s characters, this effort must be collective, marked by a shared vigilance concerning the nature of the limit-experience at issue – a vigilance which ensures that each continues to permit its transpersonal play. Which is to say there must be no predominance of individual will, no assertion of subjectivity, no attempt to lay claim to what is said in the first person. Lightness is all – a transpersonal fleetness that passes between the participants, moving to and fro for as long as the interrelation can be maintained, whether it be for a few minutes, hours, or a whole night. Each participant must show a thirst for self-effacement, for disappearance into joy or laughter, coupled with an effortful watchfulness over the mode of interrelation that is its condition. Each must take a responsibility for the suspension of ordinary relations, and of their former place in the world.
But is all of this hope that we are placing in the impersonal murmurings that are revealed through experiences of weariness and rapture – is all of this hope of interest and effect only in a society in which the personal, the subjective, is the dominant mode? What, in other words, of the society of control? What of the society, our society, in which strong subjective experience has broken down? In seeking to loosen up structures of identity, does the lightness of larking about do any else than render even more flexible the human interrelations that are characteristic of control? The objection might come that those structures are crumbling anyway, and are in need of no additional help from ludic practices. Fleetness, lightness, which would suspend ordinary relations, is insufficient if it does no more than allow us to adapt to new conditions. Indeed, it may be that Blanchot’s limit-experience is not only not effective but is actually acquiescent, being worryingly akin to the mode that Virno claims defines the society of control: the mode of idle speech.
Let me explain. Virno argues that the paradigm of the mode of production in the society of control is interrelation, exchange, forms of linguistic cooperation. Human labour directly involves our cognitive and linguistic powers, which are operative not only in sales, or in advertising, in marketing and PR, but also in the Fiat factory. An abstract, bureaucratised, technologised form of talk, infused with sentiment and a generic personalisation, has become universal. Workplaces which until recently were characterised by things they did or made — by modes of productivity that are now, for the most part, automated, outsourced or atrophied — are characterised by a bureaucratic language less tied to concrete processes and more to the exchange of abstract possibilities which are expected to operate across a range of contexts. As such, inter-worker communication is no longer a marginal activity that occurs alongside the real business of production, it is this production itself.
This occurs very clearly in the university. On the old disciplinary model, the Ph.D. supervisor was a professional – no one was checking directly on whether she was meeting her students, making sure that they were appropriately looked after. With the demise of the model of the professional, however, and with continual monitoring, we find the replacement of concrete, lived experience and possibilities with abstract roles. Instead of discussing ideas and the personal difficulties with our student, maybe in the pub or over coffee, we now have a scheduled mentoring meeting at 3.00 PM, which has to be recorded appropriately. This meeting transmits little that is real, because it imposes itself as the real thing. We are now mentoring – the abstractions accumulate before the experiences, as Virno puts it.
To understand this central feature of contemporary life, Virno historicises and politicises Heidegger’s analysis of idle talk. Heidegger writes of the idle talk which belongs to no one in particular and is held in common by the ‘eternal average’, or the ‘normal man’. In the everyday mode of being-with-others, my potential for becoming authentic, for seizing my existence for myself, is continually averaged out or levelled down by the temptation of doing what they do and saying what they say. The individual is not itself, but is ‘dispersed’ among a set of possibilities in which nothing is allowed to be original or genuine. My speech, as an idle speaker, is something other than mine; I cannot claim ownership over what I say, and the results for which I use it cannot be called my own work.
But here, the similarity with what Blanchot called the limit-experience should be apparent, except that the impersonal murmuring that used to reveal itself only in weariness and rapture are now all around, even atwork. In contemporary society, Virno argues, idle talk is the dominant mode, and the murmuring upon which it draws – the formless and inchoate chaos of words, which used to be the barely audible background of first person speech, has now drowned out the modes of the spoken constitution of subject experience. The heretofore background has come to the foreground of contemporary speech – it is that on which the flexibility of control society is founded. This is what accounts for the rise of the emotional tonalities Virno discusses, since there is no longer a straightforwardly secure and determinate relation between the referents of our speech and the speaking subject. And it is, strange to say, the condition for the superlatively uncreative forms of management-speak that flourish in our universities and everywhere else. Blanchot’s limit-murmuring is the soundtrack to our workplace.
Now, Virno holds that the impersonal mode of interrelation that the society of control has brought in from the limits can be the condition for a more creative use of language and even of flexibility more generally. Because, Virno argues, we are no longer bound primarily to describing or representing the world, we can change the world by drawing directly on the empty forms of language that are available to us as never before, on the impersonal nature of our murmuring. Idle speech, on this account, is potentially creative to the extent that it draws on the fissure that separates language from the world it names even if this creativity is at present almost concealed by the emotional tonalities of cynicism and opportunism.
It is in terms of this creative possibility that I would like to understand what might be operative in the modes of interrelation that I’ve been looking at here. Can these modes of interrelation, these light, humourful, fleeting interactions, achieve something with their impersonal style in a manner not to be co-opted by cynicism and opportunism? And might this point to a way to understand a role for intellectual friendship today?
Speaking this week at the Society for European Philosophy/ Forum for European Philosophy annual conference, hosted by the Centre for Continental Thought at Dundee University, Thursday 3rd to Saturday 5th September. Programme here.
There was a moment there, about 1916, let's say, when beards and thought separated. Until that date, to think was to have a beard. This was no mere fashion: women have no facial hair. Monks do. Scholars do. They are men. The practice of thought, of gravity, was the prerogative of the bearded. The threat of the modern was multiple: it threatened manhood, what was understood by 'thinking', and it allowed women to practice. The beards of the 'great' thinkers, Marx, etc. thinned out into the goatees of Freud and Lenin, as philosophy transitioned to modernity. Hair is not frivolous, as the British court still understands. Hair is philosophy. The fact that both men and women have it, in a manner domesticated by 'civilization' (which is only the manufacture of hair-islands), means that a strict division of labour had to be established when the bourgeoisie distributed commodities: thought was produced by face-hair, psychology by womanish long hair. bankers and Jews (identical in the mid-18th to late 19th centuries) were compelled to shave clean to show that they were producers neither of thought nor of reproduction. In an age when artists masqueraded as thinkers [...] Tzara's clean-shaven mug proclaimed its solidarity with abstraction, i.e., money and relativity. Until Wassily Kandinsky and Roman Jakobson, unbearded Russian philosohpers were inconceivable: abstraction was born in Russia only when the clergy shaved.
Nor should one underestimate the importance of the time spent being inactive. I think it was Flaubert who once termed “the marinade” those countless hours that you while away spread out on your couch, seemingly impassive and dejected, not doing much of anything, certainly nothing of social use. And yet, afterwards, when you’ve finished your text, you realize those protracted moments were not only vital but essential to where you were going.
Natural history museum, Vienna. The schoolchildren with W. in the dinosaur skeleton exhibit. W's theory that systems of a certain size tend to catastrophe. All inventions, the true ones, are in the beginning too small. All insane ideas by contrast are large. But also the true inventions grow eventually to insane ideas. The murmuring of children among themselves as W. comes to the end of his disquistion.
W.G. Sebald, passage from a draft for his uncompleted 'Wittgenstein Project', a film, abandoned by the late '80s.
[Beckett’s] late plays and fictions move […] from repetition as compulsion to repetition as release, testing out the ground, no longer concerned to separate the one firmly from the other. As we ourselves are lapped in the rhythm of repetition we sense that the work only exists, that we only exist, within the folds of that repetition, within the rhythm of that rocking.
I am called the last philosopher because I am the last man. No one speaks to me except me myself, and my voice reaches me like that of a dying man. With you, lovely voice, with you, last breath of a memory of all human happiness, let me be with you for just one more hour; through you I trick solitude and I let myself be deluded in multiplicity and love, because my heart refuses to believe that love is dead; it cannot sustain the shiver of the most solitary of solitudes and it forces me to speak as if I were two.
Do you still hear me, my voice? Do you murmur a curse? If only your curse could break up the viscera of this world! But the world still lives, and alone it watches me, full of splendour and ever colder with its pitiless stars. It is alive, stupid and blind as always, and only one dies - man.
And yet! I am still listening to you, lovely voice! Another beyond me also dies, the last man, in this universe: the last breath, your breath dies with me, the long Oh! Oh! breathed down on me, the last man of pain, Oedipus.
We ought perhaps to admire a book deliberately deprived of all resources, one that accepts beginning at that point where no continuation is possible, obstinately clings to it, without trickery, without subterfuge, and conveys the same discontinuous movement, the progress of what never goes forward. But that is still the point of view of the detached reader, who calmly considers what seems to him an amazing feat. There is nothing admirable in an ordeal from which one cannot extricate oneself, nothing that deserves admiration in the fact of being trapped and turning in circles in a space that one can't leave, even by death, since to be in this space in the first place, one had precisely to have fallen outside of life. Aesthetic feelings are no longer appropriate here. We may be in the presence not of a book but rather something much more than a book: the pure approach of the impulse from which all books come, of that original point where the work is lost, which always ruins the work, which restores the endless pointlessness in it, but with which it must also maintain a relationship that is always beginning again, under the risk of being nothing.
Blanchot on Beckett's The Unnameable, from The Book to Come
Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished, and the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions, are dumb. The statues are now only stones from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone. The tables of the gods provide no spiritual food and drink, and in his games and festivals man no longer recovers the joyful consciousness of his unity with the divine. The works of the Muse now lack the power of the Spirit, for the Spirit has gained its certainty of itself from the crushing of gods and men. They have become what they are for us now - beautiful fruit already picked from the tree, which a friendly Fate has offered us, as a girl might set the fruit before us. It cannot give us the actual life in which they existed, nor the tree that bore them, nor the earth and the elements which constituted their substance, not the climate which gave them their peculiar character nor the cycle of the changing seasons that governed the process of their growth. So fate does not restore their world to us along with the works of antique Art, it gives not the spring and summer of the ethical life in which they blossomed and ripened, but only the veiled recollection of that actual world.
Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, on the unhappy consciousness.
The end of my writing is coming, for things have now been revealed to me that make everything I have written and taught look foolish, and so I hope that with the end of learning that of life will also come soon.
All the things that I see, hear, breathe, touch, eat; all the beings I meet – I deprive the sum total of all that of contact with God, and I deprive God of contact with all that insofar as something in me says ‘I’. I can do something for all that and for God – namely, retire and respect the tete-a-tete … I must withdraw so that God can make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless of me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends. I am not he maiden who awaits her betrothed but the unwelcome third who is with two betrothed loves and ought to go away so that they can really be together. If only I knew how to disappear there would be a perfect union of love between God and the earth I tread, the sea I hear …
In this way, Company foregrounds equally the two dimensions of Beckett’s writing which make up the paradox I would like to discuss – formalizing abstraction and obtrusive affect, the ‘timeless void’, with its indeterminate blanks, and the time of life on earth – and it shows how these dimensions are inextricably linked in the language issuing from a narrative voice. And Beckett’s voices, despite their attenuation, are committed to being narrative voices: voices that tell stories and posit worlds in which events are said, however equivocally and indefinitely, to unfold in time. The repulsion of the subject and of a past thus draws into fictions that would be absolute, but that continually meet with the stuff of a singular time, on a scrambled border that divides ‘my own’ from the pure forms that make it possible.
Another way to pose this problem is to point out that, regarding the apparently forced synthesis of abstraction and affect in the preceding passage, for example, it is impossible to determine which of these two terms has priority – that is, which one was forced on the other. The passage suggests, as does most of Company, that an impersonal language drones on in a void and nowhere’ space, blankly and indifferently, determined more by a machinelike grammar than by anything like ‘experience’, injecting its tales with a perfunctory and artificial pathos.
But the fact that this droning language drones from a voice, and that each time it speaks it has a given source in a singular instance of language, entails its own inevitable structural implications. The most important of which is perhaps this: if a voice exists, it must have come into existence, thus it must have an origin in time and it must have a past that has marked it in its idiomatic singularity.
The unavoidable logic of this situation can be called a logic of birth, a logic of time and finite existence which necessarily saddles every voice with an at least implicit narrative of a life: am embodied existence marked by the violence of birth, and by all the dear old names. The logic of birth, however, is easily confuted by a logic implicit in the very conventions of literary, fictional narration, but which an unlocatable narrative voice is conceived as speaking anonymously from the void – or at least from the irreducible space separating the narrator from the empirical author – as positing its creatures with the sovereign speech of a god, that is, at the inevitable extreme so often evoked by Beckett, as an absolute and creative instance of language.
Such a logic of creation ex nihilo opens a space in which a voice may well exist without, apparently, being burdened by the eight, the deposits or ‘precipitates’ of a prior life, and Beckett is one of the first modern writers to radicalise the implication of this logic, revealing it both as inherent to any fictive gesture whatever, and as sharply untenable, riddled by the emptiness and vanity of a language that can in no way create what it names but that is strangely struck with the stuff it calls forth.
Now the paradox I am pointing to consists precisely in the simultaneous incommensurability and inseparability of these logics (of ‘birth’ and ‘creation’), and in the undecidable status into which this casts the question of what is real and what is artificial in a fictional text as such, what is irreducibly prior and what is a gratuitous supplement. For, referring again to the quote from Company, between the deadpan voice in the algebraic void and the sentimental attachment to a name and its past, which is the added artifice and which the true irreducible? Is there an originary impersonality inherent to language that somehow produces affect (and memory) as a sheer illusion of grammar and of the protocols of ‘verisimilitude’? Or is there a fundamental (and painful) affective drive, intimately bound to the names and places of a particular past, that has been distanced and defused by the fiction of a placeless language without history? Is the attachment to a past merely a palliative for the horror of being at bottom nowhere and no one (and therefore of being radically, uncannily interchangeable, as Beckett’s characters tend to be), or is the space of blanks and variables a desperate escape route from the places that stubbornly remain , from the painful residue, so hard to completely efface, of having been someone, of having had a life, out of which speech cannot help but draw its very breath – the rhythm, style, and contours of its habitus? Finally, which is more fundamental, the impossibility of expression, or the inevitability of expression?
It is well known that in his critical and polemical statements, Beckett placed much greater emphasis on the former than on the latter. But the same writer who insisted that ‘expression is an impossible act’, also made, in another critical piece, this crucial observation: ‘With words one can do nothing but tell one’s story. Even the lexicographers expose themselves. And we betray ourselves even in the confessional booth’.
What does it mean to conceive of education as the mastery of the relationship between generations and not as the mastery of the younger generation itself? Following Agamben's reading of Benjamin, we could say it means neither must the older generation master the young generation nor the younger the older, nor must both generations be surpassed in a third configuration that would represent their dialectical synthesis. Rather, Agamben writes, 'according to the Benjaminian model of a "dialectic at a standstill", what is decisive here is only the "between", the interval or, we might say, the play between the two terms, their immediate constellation in a non-coincidence'. When the oedipal tension between the generations is deactivated, the both can see the other as a harbour of potentials or images that, when encountered in the space between, can propel the lives of each to a new, more intelligible mode of existence, the collective forward dawning of thought wrought by the disappearance of the subject.
Politicians used to have the confidence to tell us stories that made sense of the chaos of world events.
But now there are no big stories and politicians react randomly to every new crisis - leaving us bewildered and disorientated.
And journalism - that used to tell a grand, unfurling narrative - now also just relays disjointed and often wildly contradictory fragments of information.
Events come and go like waves of a fever. We - and the journalists - live in a state of continual delirium, constantly waiting for the next news event to loom out of the fog - and then disappear again, unexplained.
And the formats - in news and documentaries - have become so rigid and repetitive that the audiences never really look at them.
In the face of this people retreat from journalism and politics. They turn away into their own worlds, and the stories they and their friends tell each other.
I think this is wrong, sad, and bad for democracy -...
Excerpts from Pieter Vermeulen, Contemporary Literature and the End of the Novel (Palgrave Macmillan 2015):
Lars Iyer: toward farcical life
A careful reading of McCarthy and Shields makes clear that their works deliver an affective dynamic that cuts across the borders of the individuals they present, and that exceeds their works' official messages. A third prominent intervention in contemporary debates over the end of the novel, Lars Iyer's 2011 essay 'Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss', is more clear-eyed about the power of affect to undo the alliance of feeling and the individual, as well as about the importance of that force for the question of the (im)possibility of the novel today. As the text's self-deprecatory subtitle ('A Literary Manifesto after the End of Literature and Manifestoes') indicates, this sobriety reflects the fact that Iyer is uninterested neither in epater le bourgeois nor in announcing a new departure for literature. For Iyer, these are struggles belonging to a past when 'Literature' was still alive. Today, it is not only the novel that has ended, but the whole literary regime in which a radical break with the novel, such as that performed by Eliot, still made sense. literature today no longer has a hold on the lives of individuals: 'The dream has faded, our faith and awe have fled, our belief in Literature has collapsed'. Iyer's essay lucidly registers that the ambition to bury the middlebrow novel is a belated attempt to reanimate that dream - to affirm the continued relevance of literature while declaring the death of its most popular form. Such illusory ruptures today mean no more than 'play[ing] puppet with the corpse'; staged attempts to bury the novel are covert ways of re-sacrilizing with one hand with what one wishes to profane with the other. Instead of writing the next chapter in literary history, 'the only subject left to write about is the epilogue of Literature'. For Iyer, 'Literature is a corpse and cold at that', and taking that lesson seriously means that one does not even bother to bury that corpse.
Iyer's 'literature which comes after Literature' does not feel the need to concern itself with the perpetuation of its own existence. The paradoxical strength of this position is that it thereby liberates writing to attend to other needs - to those aspects of contemporary life that can no longer be heroically transformed or redeemed. In the next chapter, I show how J.M. Coetzee's late work gives shape to this awkwardly persistent life that 'faces its own demise and survives'. For Coetzee, this materializes as a species of 'creatural life'; Iyer, for his part, refers to it as 'gloomy, farcical life': it is a life 'whose vast sadness is that it is less than tragic', or indeed less than novelistic, and for which the loss of tragedy makes itself felt as farce.
Iyer ends the essay with 'a few pointers' about what a post-Literary literature should look like. Remarkably, many of these elements correspond closely to the 'key components' of Shields' new poetics. Iyer's insistence on 'unliterary plainness' resembles Shields' 'deliberate unartiness'; his injunction to '[w]rite about this world' resonates with Sheilds' emphasis on reality; and his imperative to '[r]esist closed forms' echoes Shields' investment in '[r]andomness, openness to accident and serendipity'. The difference is that Iyer's openness is a willingness to engage with 'the draft of real life - gloomy, farcical life', while Shields' is a readiness to render individual experience in confessional form. Iyer notes that '[t]he author must give up on aping genius. Rather show the author as ape, the author as idiot'. For Iyer, the author is implicated in the farcical life to which his writing must respond, not its sovereign observer - an insight that Coetzee, as we will see, embodies in the personal of Elizabeth Costello. Liberated from the obligation to either debunk or promote sovereign selfhood, Iyer's position opens up a broad range of affects; farcical life is 'sickly and cannibalistic, preposterous and desperate, but it is also, paradoxically, joyous and rings with truth'.
Iyer's own trilogy of novels. (Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus, published between 2011 and 2013) has drawn comparisons to the work of Thomas Bernhard and Samuel Beckett. The books narrate the uneventful friendship and inconsequential conversations of Lars and W., two British academics and intellectuals surviving in the ruins of the contemporary university. The books consist of sections that are only one or two paragraphs long; their very loose sense of order or development, and their elaboration of a limited set of motifs (Judaism, Hinduism, German idealism, Kafka, the university, alcohol, ...) betrays the novels' origin in a series of blogposts that Iyer published in the years leading up to the publication of the novel. Even if the provenance of these chunks of texts is more straightforward than in Reality Hunger, Iyer's novels more successfully manage to escape the monological mode that overtakes Shields' book. They do this by almost never allowing their first-person narrator, Lars, to speak for himself; instead, Lars mainly renders W.'s verbal abuse of him, mostly in free indirect discourse (in which Lars is referred to as 'I'), sometimes directly (in which he appears as 'you'). Most first-person pronouns are in the plural - Lars himself is little more than an empty shell, and his 'I'm mainly appears in W.'s (that is, 'double-u's/double you's') discourse. Iyer's decision to lend his first name to his narrator reflects his awareness that authors are affected by the degradation and discomfort that their writing occasions. Both Spurious and Dogma open with Lars repeatedly being called 'stupid' on their first pages. Still, in the domain of the farcical, the two characters are riveted to one another precisely because it is the realm of farcical life, and not of an individual subjectivity: 'You can exorcise a ghost. But how can you rid yourself of an idiot?' (Dogma 31).
Most of the novels are taken up with inconsequential, rambling, and often highly intellectual conversations, which regularly deal with German philosophy and literature. There is a pervasive sense of bathos, as this high-minded talk is embedded in the pedestrian triviality of the actions of and the relationship between Lars and W., whose only way of connecting is by verbally abusing Lars and denigrating his (stalled) intellectual achievements. Their dialogue is propelled by intellectual cliches: 'long periods of warehouse work and unemployment' bring you 'into contact with the essence of capitalism' (Dogma 12); 'The Anglo-Saxon mentality is opposed to abstraction and metaphysics [...] It is completely opposed to German profundity' (Dogma 81); Kafka's The Castle 'was literature itself!' (Spurious 19). these remainders of literary life float through the novels without informing transformations or provoking reactions - they are just part of the infertile cultural landscape in which the two characters live out their tragicomedy of contemporary intellectual and academic life. Their lateness offers no consolations: 'What did we expect? Some Kant-like resurgence, late in life? Some late awakening from our dogmatic slumbers?' (Dogma 47).
W. and Lars are literary characters who have come too late for literature. They are 'landfill philosophers' (Dogma 55), living 'each day as though it were the day after the last' (214). Even though the novels (especially Spurious) evoke ideas of apocalypse and of the messianic, their sad fate is that their lateness will not end: 'It's time to die, says W. But death does not come' (Dogma 223). Human life no longer has a purpose and a meaning that literature can give significant shape, and yet it persists. Lars's and W.'s gloomy, farcical lives are suspended between lofty insights that they do not comprehend and the basest animality - it is divided 'between the highest thought and the basest idiocy' (207). Lars and W. 'felt things, great things' (212), but they cannot ascribe meanings to the limitations of significance to which they are remorselessly exposed: 'Like great, dumb animals, we were only feeling [...] What could we understand of what we had been called to do?' (208). For Iyer, the contemporary novel exposes a form of life that is protected neither from insights it cannot comprehend nor from its proximity to animal life; it is no longer a human possession that can be clearly separated from the realms of animal and supernatural being. In the next chapter, I theorize this precarious mode of persistence as 'creatural life', and I track J.M. Coetzee's literary figurations of it. Iyer and Coetzee share an awareness that the form of life to which the contemporary novel responds can neither be shaken off (as McCarthy wants to believe) nor valorized as significant individual experience (as in Shields): instead it is a farcical and creatural life to which the remainder of the novel finds itself attuned. (pp. 43-46.)
The disfigurement of human life by the anthropocene and the post-human comedy echoes tonalities and dissonances that this book has addressed before. If McGurl applauds genre fiction for its willingness to 'risk ludicrousness' ('Posthuman' 539), Lars Iyer's staging of farcical life and Coetzee's evocation of creatural life explore tonal and affective possibilities that make ludicrousness part of the repertoire of contemporary fiction. For Iyer and Coetzee, farcical and creatural life name a condition in which an outworn form of life(such as the novel) can no longer be comfortably inhabited, but cannot for all that simply be abandoned. This powerless persistence of disgraced forms of life also marks human life in the anthropocene: customary models of intention and agency, of responsibility and chance, are thrown into crisis as human life needs to think of itself as also a geological force, without that new designation cancelling its former attachments. The anthropocene reminds the human that it can never simply coincide with a particular form of life. The questions of the human, of form, and of scale come together in the close affinity between the anthropocene, on the one hand, and the novelistic elaboration of creatural - or farcical, or ludicrous - life on the other. (p.140)
To get back to how I go about writing my books: I’d say that it’s a question of rhythm and has a lot to do with music. Indeed, you can understand what I write only if you realize that the musical component is of uppermost importance, and that what I’m writing about only comes in secondarily. Once that musical component is in place, I can begin to describe things and occurrences. The problem lies in the How. Unfortunately, critics in Germany have no ear for music, which is so essential to a writer. I derive as much satisfaction from the musical element as from anything else; indeed, my enjoyment of the music is equal to my enjoyment of whatever idea it is I’m trying to express.
Not long after An Indication of the Cause came out, the German critic Jean Améry took me aside and said to me, “You can’t talk like that about Salzburg. You’re forgetting it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world.” A few days later, after I’d read his review of my book in the Merkur, which I was still fuming over, because he’d understood absolutely nothing, I heard a piece of news over the television: the previous day Améry had killed himself, and in Salzburg of all places. That’s no coincidence. Just yesterday three people threw themselves into the Salzach. Everybody blamed it on the föhn. But I’m certain that there’s something about that town that physically weighs down on people and ultimately destroys them.
Thomas Bernhard, interviewed (translated by Douglas Robertson)
Sometimes, in April, there are limpid mornings, with a gentle, very fragile grace. It seems as if the universe has just been born, that it has just emerged from the original, boundless water, that it is still damp, that it retains something of the transparency of lakes. The world seems all pure and new, its light intact. All is light and water.
It is the first day. The world has just emerged, it is still unreal, everything is still only an assemblage of colours, the outlines of its forms stand out, ready to be blurred. The world makes its appearance. Flowers grow out of the asphalt; fountains suddenly well up in the deserts. All the people are young, the girls walk without touching the ground. The universe becomes completely transparent, like a bride's veil. The air stirs like gentle waves.
The event will perhaps occur. The only event for which the world is created. Everything is no more than an expectation, a Sunday, and this light that is at once glorious and soft looks like a party dress. The great hope. A calm comes into being in the light and one hears the vibrations of the bells that are about to ring, organs barely hold back their sounds, the bows of violins are about to play. All the voices await the signal to sing the triumphal hymn. But the waiting is prolonged and the whole universe is now only arms stretched out.
The white bird is as motionless as the sky, the trees by the houses hold their breath to hear the announcement of the event. Will there be an outburst of joy? All eyes are fixed on the horizon to catch the moment when the light will melt into a greater light ...
Fernando Hernández Urias interviews José Luis Amores, of the Spanish publishing house, Pálido Fuego, which brought out Spurious in Spanish translation a couple of years ago (as Magma). Dogma to follow soon.
Neil Stewart reviews Wittgenstein Jr at The Salt House.
All I do is lose my way. But I have a chance to find myself again if I keep retracing my footsteps, instead of taking the first step, if I return to the explosion of the first image, there where words express nothing but light. I find myself again, and understand myself only were words, faces, figures, walls, myself are no longer to be understood, where sounds are strangers and strange, with meanings dislocated by a very powerful light in which definitions and forms melt, like the shadow that makes light disappear. it is from this silence that speech is born again.
Ionesco, Present Past, Past Present: A Personal Memoir
I often have insomnia. I open my eyes in the shadows. But these shadows are like a different kind of clarity, a negative light. It is in this black light that the revelation of 'disaster', of 'catastrophe', of the 'irremediable', of 'absolute failure' comes to me, with the undeniable evidence of fact. Everything seems lost to me.
[...] I have been tortured, and still am, both by the fear of death, the horror of emptiness, and by the ardent, impatient, pressing desire to live. Why does one want to live, what does 'living' mean? I have waited to live. When one wants to live, it is no longer a sense of wonder that one is seeking but in its stead, since only childhood or a simple and superior lucidity can attain it, what one seeks is to be sated. One never is; one cannot be. Material things are not life. One can't manage to live. This 'will to life' means nothing.
I had sought a false path to salvation, I gave myself bad directions.
Ionesco, Present Past, Past Present: A Personal Memoir
Most gamblers are bad players who want to control chance. They throw the dice and only affirm the outcome that they like. If they shoot craps, they roll again in an effort to overcome the unlucky roll and erase its consequences. Nietzsche's good players, by contrast, roll only once, and whatever the result, they affirm the result and will its eternal return. In this way, good players avoid the ressentiment of finding the world guilty of frustrating their desires, and thereby genuinely affirm the play of the world.