Sunday, 6 July 2014

From Fargo to Byzantium

Both No Country for Old Men and the recent adaptation of Fargo feature a character who is, we might say, an implacable agent of Death. They travel in one undeviating direction and leave bodies in their wake. Yet both men, Malvo in Fargo and Chigurh in No Country, are strange attractors. We enjoy their time on screen. We don't find them repulsive or creepy. We don't simply want them eliminated as soon as possible.  Malvo has something of the charm and mandarin politeness sometimes ascribed to the devil. Chigurh seems irresistible both in his trajectory and in terms of his seduction of the viewer. We are drawn to him despite ourselves, or at least forgoe any kind of ethical judgement.

Why is this? The quick and not inaccurate first reply might be that we invest in characters who drive the narrative. When the hapless Lester comes into contact with Malvo, this is the chance conjugation that activates the story proper, and thence does the story follow Malvo like a detective following a lead.Malvo and Chigurh are force fields which disrupt the repetitions of the everyday so that something happens. And as a viewer we want events, so we go with the narrative prime movers. Something similar is true of Othello, whereby we're shoehorned into a kind of complicity with Iago at the price of our ethical judgement.We're made into daemonic accomplices and voyeurs of choreographed misfortune. 

The second response is both Malvo and Chigurh are not quite of the same world as the other characters. Or rather, and it amounts to the same thing, they aren't quite of the same genre. When, in No Country, The bewilded storekeeper is asked to toss a coin - unwittingly deciding whether he will live or die -  Chigurh becomes the shadow of Fate itself, or a cipher for the  arbitrary ambush of death that awaits us all. It’s as if - like in Greek mythology, where the Gods assume human form - something metaphysical shines through the fabric of the everyday world and breaks or interrupts that world from the outside. And because we are deprived of any biographical or psychological detail, they - Chigurh and Malvo- stand before us as abstract and pure as a command. In short, we can afford to like them because they verge on the allegorical. Like all allegorical figures, they point towards another level of existence from which we are separated by habit, by everyday life. 

Both in narrative and Symbolic terms, then, they have the same effect: They derail or disrupt the Everyday.  On the symbolic level, they seem bigger than, or of a different substance from, the world in which they are placed. They manifest a meaning, a value, a principle that the Everyday world cannot accomodate. On the narrative level, they make something happen and that something suspends the rules of normalcy.  Lester is an insurance salesman, an employment which, as much as "Accountant," is in almost every fictional world a by-word for the humdrum and the put-up-on Mr Average, a soul reconditioned and made quietly sad by the rhythms of the 9 to 5. Malvo is the force that breaks open the humdrum and releases a a different Lester.

Everyday life is typically buttoned to the normalcy of two (related) things which are always sacrosanct: a) the couple and b) the family. A is of course the nucleus of B. Anything which injures these two things is marked as Evil, and can unleash the most fearful retributive violence. Indeed, some films are almost entirely given over to such retribution, with legions of casualities on the way, and the family injury serving as little more than a pretext for this cathartic violence.Such retributive violence is often meted out against a killer designated as Evil or Creepy. And it might be worh pausing to consider why neither Malvo nor Chigurh are so represented. With the creepy killer there is typically an emphasis on their repulsive physicality  - a deformity, a lubricious mouth, a bulging eyes. Both Malvo and Chigurh are handsome. 'Creepy' killers are invariably castrated, defective beings. Their violence is a failed attempt to redress some more basic impotence or exclusion. With  Malvo and Chigurh their murderousness is almost an indication of the force that marries them to their purspose, like the flattened fence left by a tornado. What attracts us is their self-possesion, their ability to follow only their own rule. They do not deviate, they always return to their path. They are supremely free, in the sense of unbound to any social or ethical code, but free with the force of necessity. 
Malvo and Chigurh. are 'lone' without been 'loners'. And whereas the 'loner' serial killer is a reject, an item of trash discarded by the community, returning in mutant form, the Lone Agent (as we might call them), by contrast, was never part of the community in the first place. They are visitors, figures from another land, emissaries from Elsewhere. Where the creepy killer is pathetically parasitic on the society they attack, the Lone agent needs no one else. Their solitude is elective, an original state of nature. Whereas the 'creepy' killer is identified with sickness, the Lone Agent has a kind of vitality, an irrepressible resolve. 
 
The curious thing about Fargo is that we do not long for the return of the everyday. It's suspension is part of what attracts us to Malvo. The Everyday, the world of work and domesticity, is in Fargo never really that desirable a space. It is often reduced to parody by the benign, mild-mannered idiom of the characters themselves, the "Minneasota nice", an idiom which is also a restrictively sanguine and cosy world-view, unable to absorb or utter any trauma or radical Event. At the end of the series we see the detective Molly and her postman husband curled on the settee watching Deal or No Deal, where the element of chance in the latter is a like kitsch mirror of the more radical and terrifying Chance that has driven the narrative, the role of the dice on the table of the earth that infects our existence from the off. But finally, it stands before us as an image of the homeostasis of domestic life. And we long for a Malvo to set things in motion once again, we are sat waiting for the storm clouds and the rumble in the sky to fill the vacume.

The violence of our two Lone Agents is marked less as either Good nor Evil and more a principle of nature, a gale from the outside. We might also think of the ominous close of the Coen Brothers' re-telling of Job, A Serious Man, where, after fruitlessly seeking answers from a succession of sophistical and ineffectual Rabbis, there appears on the horizon, in the form of a tornado, what seems like the annihilating vacuume of god's implacable, and inexplainable force. The publicity poster for No Country for Old Men would seem to position Chigurh as something like that ominous dark weather. 

"That is no country for old men" begins Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium. With That he removes himself, and us, from the mortal country (This would place us among our fellow citizens), he points at it from another shore. His fidelity is to another place, a Byzantium. The image of such a place casts light and shadow over the actually existing world and reveals its imperfections. To remove ourself from this world - so it becomes a That rather than a This - doubtless always presupposes an such an Elsewhere, from which we travel again to our own country and find it lacking. And perhaps the reason why we find Malvo and Chigurh so attractive is that their destructiveness, which warps and destroys the socio-symbolic community, open up a space which is also an exit route to such an elsewhere.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The "I" dissolved in time; or, objections to Badiou, part 1

So in the last post we saw Badiou's Beckett undertaking the "analytical decomposition of the cogito." 



Let's see how Badiou says the Cogito is triangulated in Beckett. First he quotes Beckett (the ellipses are Badiou's):
[...] one who speaks saying, without ceasing to speak, Who's speaking?, and one who hears, mute, uncomprehending, far from all [..] And this other now [..] with his babble of homless mes and untenanted hims [...] There's a pretty three in one, and what a one, what a no one.
Then gives his own philosophical gloss:
How is this infernal trio distributed?1) First there is the "one who speaks" [Qui parle], the supposedly reflexive subject of enunciation, or the one capable of also asking 'Who's speaking?' [Qui Parle], of enouncing the question concerning itself [...]2) Then there is the subject of passivity, who hears without understanding, who is 'far away' in the sense of being the underside, the obscure matter of the one who is speaking. This is the passive being of the subject of the enunciation.3) Finally, there is the subject who functions as the support of the question of identification, the one who, through enunciation and passivity, makes the question of what he is insist [..] 
What's wrong with this reading? First a general point. Time and again in Texts for Nothing the 'present speaker', the 'narrative voice' (it is hard to find the right designation, and the invitation to find a new word is symptomatic of the Texts' success) is assailled by, or refers back to, some of its previous incarnations. This can happen quite stealthily, before the reader has realised that they're dealing with a new incarnation. For example, in Text V "he tells his story every five minutes, saying its not his"; or in IV "Who says this, saying its me". The three points of Badiou's triangular cogito are in fact better seen as three such incarnations from among a whole overlapping series. Thus the "latest Other", with his "homeless mes and untenanted hims" is surely the narrative voice from earlier in text XII, preoccupied with the relation between "him" and "me" ("will they succeed in slipping me into him"). Similarly, the "one who hears, mute, uncomprehending" might well be the voice of text V, the "scribe" who describes himself as "mute forever", "not understanding what I hear, not knowing what I write". And the " one who speaks saying, without ceasing to speak, Who’s speaking?" recalls the speaker of text IV "who says this, saying it's me". 

In any case, we do not simply have a 'three,' a 'trio'. What we have in Beckett is an altogether stranger proliferation. Each "I" appears as eccentric to its predeccesors and sequents. To explain by example, In text xii, we begin with "It's a winter's night, where I was..". This "I" quickly becomes "He" - "A winter night, [..] he sees his body". What was "I" now appears as another, a "He". Hence we now have a new "I", the "I" from whose point of view the previous "I" is a "He". But this new "I" might in turn slip into "He", become a "One", a "one who speaks", an "Other". This is indeed what happens, it seems to me, when, later the narrator refers to "this latest other, with his babble of homeless mes and untenanted hims"  The word 'latest' here is crucial, but it is absent in Badiou's fatally edited quote from Beckett.

Here again is the full passage in Beckett:
 ... pah there are voices everywhere, ears everywhere, one who speaks saying, without ceasing to speak, Who’s speaking?, and one who hears, mute, uncomprehending, far from all, and bodies everywhere, bent, fixed, where my prospects must be just as good, just as poor, as in this firstcomer. And none will wait, he no more than the others, none ever waited to die for me to live in him, so as to die with him, but quick quick all die, saying, Quick quick let us die, without him, as we lived, before it’s too late, lest we won’t have lived. And this other now, obviously, what’s to be made of this latest other, with his babble of homeless mes and untenanted hims,  this other without number or person whose abandoned being we haunt, nothing. There’s a pretty three in one, and what a one, what a no one.
 What we need to note here (and through texts for nothing) is that there is an unceasing temporal process. The narrator at the end of xii (doomed in his turn to become He etc) refers to this "latest" Other and this "firstcomer". It is this temporal extension of the "I" into Hes and into "ones" and "Others" that Badiou overlooks completely. Badiou makes no mention of and does not try and account for "latest" or "firstcomer" - words that clearly designate something that is happening in and through time. He omits this because he wants to say that Beckett has laid bare a basic triangular structure, the structure of the subject, of the cogito. But where Badiou sees structure there is only really process, and the 'trinity' - which the prose itself scorns as merely 'pretty' (pat, overly convenient) - is written on water and subsequently dissolved.The "firstcomer" and the "latest" other are not elements of a trio, but moments of a series: "who's this raving now?" asks the narrator, where now is obviously opposed to a then, to the previous raving voice; and "there are voices everywhere" he opines, so that the three voices he selects are clearly three of a multiple, not three of a trinity. Badiou spatialises this succession of states - part of the movement of the prose - into a kind of triangle within which the prose moves.

Will continue in a seperate post...



Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Badiou on Beckett

I'd like to use Alain Badiou's interpretation of Beckett, and of a passage from Texts for Nothing in particular, as a way in to some more general reflections on literary interpretation. I'd like to start by addressing what I think are some real problems with Badiou's reading and approach. Before that, an excerpt from Badiou's On Beckett:

The Texts for Nothing proceed in a more theoretical way, since they are less engaged in the terrifying fcitional set-ups of the solipsistic subject. The main discovery that these texts bear witness to is that the cogito, besides its tormenting and unbearable conditions, is ultimately without finality, because identification is impossible. The injunction that the "I" addresses to itself concerning the naming of its own founding silence is object-less:  in effect, the cogito is not a reflection, a Two (the couple of enouncement and enunciation), rather, it sketches out a three-fold configuration.There are three instances of the "I" that cannot be reduced to the One except under conditions of total exhaustion, of the dissipation of all subjectivity.

The crucial text in this regard is the twelth 'text for nothing', one of the densest and most purely theoretical texts written by Beckett. Here is a passage that undertakes the analytical decomposition of the cogito:

"[...] one who speaks saying, without ceasing to speak, Who's speaking?, and one who hears, mute, uncomprehending, far from all [..] And this other now [..] with his babble of homless mes and untenanted hims [...] There's a pretty three in one, and what a one, what a no one"
How is this infernal trio distributed?1) First there is the "one who speaks" [Qui parle], the supposedly reflexive subject of enunciation, or the one capable of also asking 'Who's speaking?' [Qui Parle], of enouncing the question concerning itself [...]2) Then there is the subject of passivity, who hears without understanding, who is 'far away' in the sense of being the underside, the obscure matter of the one who is speaking. This is the passive being of the subject of the enunciation.3) Finally, there is the subject who functions as the support of the question of identification, the one who, through enunciation and passivity, makes the question of what he is insist [..] 

The subject is thus torn between the subject of enunciation, the subject of passivity, and the questioning subject. The third of these subjects is ultimately the one for whom the relation between the other two is at issue, the relation that is, between enunciation and passivity.
The passage from Beckett, without the ellipses reads:
... pah there are voices everywhere, ears everywhere, one who speaks saying, without ceasing to speak, Who’s speaking?, and one who hears, mute, uncomprehending, far from all, and bodies everywhere, bent, fixed, where my prospects must be just as good, just as poor, as in this firstcomer. And none will wait, he no more than the others, none ever waited to die for me to live in him, so as to die with him, but quick quick all die, saying, Quick quick let us die, without him, as we lived, before it’s too late, lest we won’t have lived. And this other now, obviously, what’s to be made of this latest other, with his babble of homeless mes and untenanted hims,  this other without number or person whose abandoned being we haunt, nothing. There’s a pretty three in one, and what a one, what a no one.
I'll be referring back to this in subsequent posts.

Monday, 26 May 2014

One Who Speaks: The Impersonal



More thoughts after reading Texts for Nothing.

1. When we are reading we hear a voice, a “someone” – exhorting, suffering, gasping. When we close the book, the voice falls quiet; we press it back into silence. It can be resurrected at any time, by us or by another. Who is it? It is not quite Samuel Beckett. It is not quite me. For it comes at us like a wind from the outside. (And perhaps it came at the writer that way too). This ‘someone’ is a kind of event.  It exceeds what we might call its causes: the ‘intentions’ and person of the writer, on the one hand, and, on the other, the presuppositions of a reader.  It happens ‘in between’ these two things, a kind of spectre, impersonal, uncanny. It is a kind of “one who speaks”, unattached to either writer or reader.


2.    There is a face of writing turned away from the writer and towards the reader. The symmetry of this formula is betrayed by the fact that the writer is one particular flesh and blood individual, whereas ‘the reader’ refers to anyone and everyone, a multitude, a vacancy. This latter is a face the writer never sees, an Other who lives outside and beyond him and constitutes precisely the territory abandoned by the writer. Perhaps this face of writing testifies to something in language which was never ‘his’, which speaks through and beyond him, something ‘without person’ and numberless.  The reader ‘haunts’ an edifice constructed by another, a territory where that other (the writer) once lived most intensely. 

3.   Perhaps this “One” who speaks is the ghost of the indifferent universal that haunts any particular utterance.  When the ‘me’ speaks what also speaks is the indifferent universality of language, which will allow the text to zigzag from reader to reader – where none of these readers are émigré Protestant Irishmen – long after the writer is dead.








Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Deleuze, "The Problem of the Self.."

From here:
Now me, to my knowledge, I’ve never seen an Englishman take seriously the self, the problem of the self, at no level. This is curious ! All the great texts of the English, there are some marvellous, they are all turning around the following idea, that’s why there is a kind of boundary of unintelligibility, of non-communication between for example a Cartesian and an Englishman. A Cartesian it’s a little French flower, it can only be seen in France, Cartesians, but what a pack of them we have ! Well, but roughly speaking you all know it, Descartes it is a certain philosophy based on the self and on the formula which we may find again later, if I’ve got time, on the magic formula, “I think”, “I think therefore I am” ; well, why does an Englishman... The Germans have taken up the “I think therefore I am”, why ? Because they raised the self to a superior power still, they made it what they themselves called “the transcendental ego, e-g-o”, “the transcendental self”. Well, this is good. This is so a German concept, “the transcendental self”. The English, it’s quite good, you understand, under the explicit discussions, there are so much more beautiful things, it makes them laugh. It makes them laugh. Each time the French or the German philosophers talk about the “self”, the “subject”, English philosophers find it to be so very funny, so weird ! They think that this is a truly funny way of thinking. They all turn around a very curious idea ; you know what it is the “self”, they keep saying, but yes the “self”, it certainly means something, it is a habit. To the letter one expects it to go on. I say -me (the self) because of certain phenomena, according to a belief it is due to go on ; that is all they put on... There are the beatings of a heart, there is someone who expects it to go on and says -me (the self, I) ; it’s a habit. It is very beautiful their theory of “the self” as a habit, if we link it to a kind of lived experience. Why don’t they live like us ? This, it requires an analysis of civilizations. Why don’t their thinkers live in any case the concept of “self”...

Sunday, 11 May 2014

"Words are only the excipient". Beckett

Directing Footfalls, Beckett apparently told Billie Whitelaw that "Words are only the excipient; the pacing is far more important".
Could this idea also apply to the prose? Drama of course is always embodied language: language is housed in a body, expressing it, the words are completely filled with, for example, the old rasping voice of the actor (This noise, incidentally, is a part of the real world outside the theatre, not just a part of the fiction enacted on stage). The words are directed outward to others or to a situation. They are transitive, doing things - ingratiating, insulting, seducing, marking out territory etc. There is no exact equivalent on the page. The printed words are in a sense intransitive, surrounded by silence, existing not in physical space but the mental space of the reader. The words come to the reader not directed and inflected, not inflated with the noises of another body. And yet, the words still have a cadence, a rhythm. And this cadence is redrawn in the reader. It is a cadence which is also, at the same time, an affect. To take the example cited in the last post: "name, no, nothing is nameable, tell, no, nothing can be told" is from Beckett's Texts for Nothing. There is a propositional sense: Nothing is knowable, nothing is tellable. But what's important is not so much this propositional sense, which is fairly unremarkable. It leads people to say things like "Beckett is saying that nothing is knowable". What's actually important is the cadence, what i tried to describe when I called it 'a little lullaby of negatives sung to an absent self'. There are of course other, better ways to describe it. But the point is that the cadence requires these particular words. However, cadence is not just sound and rhythm. It wouldn't be possible to bring together a nonsensical but phonetically similar string of syllables to produce the same sound and rhythm ('hey, hey, heaven is mowable'), for the cadence is completely embedded in the actual words and they are its only 'excipient'.

 I thought back here, once more, to Wittgenstein's famous example "I have a toothache". He says we can see this as a proposition reporting on the "I"'s experience, giving us a unit of information about a state of affairs. Or, we can see it as a way of moaning, a particular form given to moaning, an effect, a controlled release of pain through the conduit of language. Similarly, we can see the Beckett quote as "he is saying you cannot know anything". This assertion would be pretty indifferent to its formal envelope. We would have skinned the text of its specifics in order to grab the kernel of 'meaning'. But the little rising string of negatives (the homonyms Know and No), somehow folding the No inside out into a fragile affirmation, that stands before us having removed the ground from under its own feet, hanging in the darkness.,, All this constitutes what the words are doing as opposed to 'what they are about'. 

And so, I am not quite making an argument for the literaryness of the text. I am not quite saying that we must attend to the specifics of literary language and cease to remove these as some inessential integument. For 'literary language' in this sense is not quite confined to literature. The propositional dimension of our language in general is often rather meagre and unimportant in relation to what the words do, their effects, their form, the lines they trace and their repercussions in the minds and bodies of others.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Beckett and the Movement of Sense: Texts for Nothing



The way out, this evening its the turn of the way out, isn't it like a duo or a trio, yes, there are moments when it's like that, then they pass and it's not like that any more, never was like that, is like nothing, no resemblance with anything, of no interest.
"an unbroken flow of words and tears"

I wanted to write something more about the movements of sense in Beckett, the various ebbs and flows. By 'sense' i mean not just meaningful propositions, or propositions that acheive Meaning, but images, memories - whatever seems to arrest the flow and offer definition and recognition.

By 'bubbles of sense- no sooner formed than dissolved, retracted' - i mean passages like this:

When I think, no that won’t work, when come those who knew me, perhaps even know me still, by sight of course, or by smell, it’s as though, it’s as if, come on, I don’t know, I shouldn’t have begun.
Sense stutters, barely emerging before collapsing  in the ‘murmur':
Name, no, nothing is nameable, tell, no, nothing can be told, what then, I don’t know, I shouldn’t have begun.
Or words scramble breathlessly to replace each other, gasping for air:
It’s a winter night, where I was, where I’m going, remembered, imagined, no matter, believing in me, believing it’s me, no, no need, so long as the others are there, where, in the world of others, of the long mortal ways...
But there are also pools or eddies of sense -  images, memories, fictions, the little bays in which the narrator finds provisional rest. ..  The image of Mother Calvet foraging in the garbage (Text ii), quickly drawn characters or brief grotesques from the world of Dublin betting shops and republican politics (Text iii), the hand-drawn itinerant companions – “I’ll have a crony, my own vintage, my own bog, a fellow warrior,” “Vincent arriving in sheets of rain”(Text iii), like the flotsam of other lost fictions, brief wrecks of beauty, the narrator’s own creatures - offering the brief promises of embodiment (“To be bedded in that flesh or in another”).... all of these inhabit only a conditional tense, all are dispersed in the flow of the prose.  This flow and movement are the basic facts of the prose - the way in which sense collects, reforms, breaks up, and the cadence and affect which is absolutely immanent to this movement.  We would need to look at how movement modifies or defies sense. For example "name, no, nothing is nameable, tell, no, nothing can be told" has a sense, clearly, but running through it is a little lullaby of negatives sung to the absent self. Or the various motifs (e.g. “When come those who knew me, Text xi) – where each reoccurrence of the motif, regardless of its content, is a kind of affirmation, a persistence, a rising again to the surface where sense is sinking.  The flashes of sense that jump and fizzle, the repetitions, the divisions and splitting of the “I” in the ebb and flow, the I turning into He as soon as uttered (Text x, for example: "I've slept, He's slept") .. all this constitutes a movement traced on the mind of the reader like a breeze on water.
The temptation - and it is probably impossible to avoid - is to look at particular temporary pools of sense – propositions, assertions, images - and treat them as if they were exempt from this movement. A sentence or proposition from the text is made to act as a key to the text, or a mirror in which the text as a whole - or its essential problems - can be seen.

This, it seems to me, is what has happened in Badiou’s interpretation of a passage from Texts for Nothing xii. Here, first, is the passage:

... pah there are voices everywhere, ears everywhere, one who speaks saying, without ceasing to speak, Who’s speaking?, and one who hears, mute, uncomprehending, far from all, and bodies everywhere, bent, fixed, where my prospects must be just as good, just as poor, as in this firstcomer. And none will wait, he no more than the others, none ever waited to die for me to live in him, so as to die with him, but quick quick all die, saying, Quick quick let us die, without him, as we lived, before it’s too late, lest we won’t have lived. And this other now, obviously, what’s to be made of this latest other, with his babble of homeless mes and untenanted hims,  this other without number or person whose abandoned being we haunt, nothing. There’s a pretty three in one, and what a one, what a no one.
Here is the text as quoted in Badiou,

"[...] one who speaks saying, without ceasing to speak, Who's speaking?, and one who hears, mute, uncomprehending, far from all [..] And this other now [..] with his babble of homless mes and untenanted hims [...] There's a pretty three on one, and what a one, what a no one"

And then Badiou's interpretation:

How is this infernal trio distributed?
1) First there is the "one who speaks" [Qui parle], the supposedly reflexive subject of enunciation, or the one capable of also asking 'Who's speaking?' [Qui Parle], of enouncing the question concerning itself [...]
2) Then there is the subject of passivity, who hears without understanding, who is 'far away' in the sense of being the underside, the obscure matter of the one who is speaking. This is the passive being of the subject of the enunciation.
3) Finally, there is the subject who functions as the support of the question of identification, the one who, through enunciation and passivity, makes the question of what he is insist [..]
             The subject is thus torn between the subject of enunciation, the subject of passivity, and the questioning subject. The third of these subjects is ultimately the one for whom the relation between the other two is at issue, the relation that is, between enunciation and passivity.
What I would like to return to is why I think this reading is questionable, questionable not simply in what it asserts but in how it reads the text, it’s method. I would like to open up those ellipses [above, in Badiou's quotation] and make a case for restoring to the passage the element of temporality. And perhaps to suggest that to extract an image or a proposition which would interpret the rest of the text is arguably precisely what the prose denies. In other words, the movement of the prose is to seek succesively-  and sucessively to reject  -such ports of sense.