Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A Hesitation Before Birth

  A theatre director who has to create everything from scratch, he even has to father the actors. A visitor is denied admittance on the grounds that the director is engaged in important theatre business. What is it? He is changing the nappies on a future actor.
 The idea of someone who before he can begin, first has to make himself: someone who is stuck in the lumber-room of preparation.
 .......In the Great Account of my life,it is still reckoned as if my life were first beginning tomorrow,and in the meantime it is all over with me.
In Kafka, there is a kind of induction into the world, a 'primal baptism' which somehow he has missed, and this oversight, this failure to assume full existence, is irreversible and ongoing. "Still unborn and compelled to walk the streets." Or, famously, "My life is a hesitation before birth".

There are other writers who are similarly, creatures of the anteroom, waiting behind the door, inhabiting a kind of pre-life. There is, for example, something very similar thing in Schulz:

There are things that cannot ever occur with any precision. ... They are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of reality can carry them. And they quickly withdraw, fearing to lose their integrity in the frailty of realisation.

 There is a kind of writing that prefers the limbo of the unfulfilled, the incomplete, the antechamber of existence. Beckett seems to fall into this category. In Texts for Nothing, for instance, there are many formulations like this:  "Where would I go if I could go," "Leave, I was going to say leave all that.." In the latter, we think we are looking at an enjoinder - Leave! - venture forth (or/and 'jettison, reject'), but only for a fraction of a second. It's immediately recuped as a merely quoted word, as an unfulfilled intention. The French Comment C'est contains both 'Commence!' and 'How it is', as if the command to begin is at once countermanded by resignation ('that's just the way things are'). We are with him in the anteroom of unfulfilled intentions, of things that have failed to come into being, grown sick and bodiless.

We are dealing with an aesthetic of failure, in which the very inability to acheive embodiment is embodied in a text. 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Returning to Palestine



I’ve been reading a number of books on Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel recently. My grandfather was stationed there after the Second World War, so it’s always been a subject that I’ve read about and returned to.  It is of course, still, one of the most politically charged areas of historiography, because the interpretations at stake are not simply of archival interest. Many of those interpretations and narratives are the ideological supports of present belief and policy. Often the war of interpretation concerns questions over ‘fact’ and the marshaling of fact. But prior to the marshaling of facts are framing assumptions which seldom make themselves visible, so that as long as the frame is uncontested, the marshaling and bandying of facts will only reinforce the frame. 

Some years ago a book was published by Joan Peters with the title “From Time Immemorial”.  Outside the U.S., and to a lesser degree within it, the book has been comprehensively dismantled by serious scholars of Middle East history. It is riddled with errors and misrepresentation. Peters falsifies or, through simple inexperience, misunderstands the available data to suggest that Palestinian Arabs are a comparatively recent arrival, and this with a view to invalidating their claims to the land. This is a curious argument, not so much because it is clearly false at a factual level, but because it would certainly also disqualify the claims of the Jewish settlers who arrived in increasing numbers from the late nineteenth century.

In fact, this book can only be understood as part of a bigger ideological project. There is a long tradition of Zionist writers and politicians for whom the Palestinian Arabs are not a 'legitimate people' (Avraham Stern), have no true bond to the land of Palestine, or simply don't exist. This tendency, to discriminate between a true people and a false people, one with real and ancient ties and another with recent superficial ties, and to assume that only the people with ancient ancestry have rights and entitlements has its roots in 19th century nationalism. It is an anti-enlightenment and racist doctrine. It's political consequences have been appalling. But this is the frame within which the marshaling of facts takes place.

In fact, like the Jewish population of Palestine, some Arabs (and other non-Jews) had been there for generations and some were more recent additions. It actually does not matter. If you've lived and worked in a land even for one generation, or less, and you are part of the majority population of that land, then you have a right to be consulted about the partition of that land, you certainly have a right not to be expelled or 'transferred' somewhere else, or, of you flee in conditions of war, you have a right to return to your homes. And so finally, the whole debate as to which 'people' has the longest ancestry, which ‘people’ has the more atavistic attachment, is false and pernicious at its very inception. The framing assumptions are false. 
The notion of ‘a people’, is also made to do much more ideological work. It was Gilles Deleuze, among others, who pointed out that for mainstream Zionism, there was and is no Palestinian people, but only “Arabs”, who “being only Arabs in general... must go merge with other Arabs.” The Arab people are only attached to ‘Arab land’, which spans Syria, Iraq, the Lebanon etc, and so can they be moved indifferently between those places. In reality, people are attached to this olive grove, this field, this neighbourhood with its coffee shop, and not to abstractions such as ‘Arab land’ or the “Arab people”. Similarly, I am attached to certain parts of London, not, as a European, to Europe in general so that I might be re-settled anywhere within it.  But in the politicised historiography of the Middle East, it is abstractions that walk the earth, not flesh and blood individuals and communities, just as it as an abstract earth.  If you are dealing only with the abstractions of ‘Arab territory’ and the ‘Arab people’ then this enables you to justify transfer and dispossession. 

In pro-Zionist historiography, one frequently hears comments like this: "it has become fashionable to examine Israel's war of independence from an Arab perspective"; "the new historians were effectively reiterating the standard Arab narrative of the conflict, in an attempt to give it academic respectability." Note firstly that there is no "Palestinian" perspective. It has once again been collapsed in the abstract empty category of the "Arab". Let us ascend from the abstract to the concrete and ask what exactly constitutes an "Arab perspective". Is it a Palestinian villager who fled in 1948 with their memories and oral testimony, is it a senior academic Arab-Israel academic at a university in the U.K, and so on? The Arab perspective will soon fragment into the variousness of acutal human beings. Note also that the "Arab" perspective can only be 'given' respectability from the outside. It has none in itself. These are again, framing assumptions rather than stated beliefs. But they are more than that, because they are part of the intellectual armory that helps perpetuate and ongoing injustice.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Lemon Tastes Yellow: Digressions Around Sartre

I wanted to write something about a passage in Sartre where he says something like "the lemon tastes yellow", except I couldn't remember where I'd read it. It's actually from Being and Nothingness, and memory had amended it:
The lemon is extended through all its qualities, and each of its qualities is extended through each of the others. It is the sourness of the lemon which is yellow, it is the yellowness of the lemon which is sour. We eat the colour of the cake, and the taste of the cake is the instrument through which its shape and its colour are revealed to what we might term the alimentary intuition. 

It's one of those passages that we 'get' on first reading - a brief flash of sense - but can't then translate it into 'ordinary language'. The question is how we tackle ideas with this rather torsive phrasing.  If we're being a hard-nosed literalist we say it's simply nonsense. Colour is one thing and taste another, and although there's something called synesthesia, that's a rather exceptional and special case.

But this hard-nosed literalist response is something we're happy to suspend if we're dealing with poetry or fiction. In literary writing "the lemon tastes yellow" is certainly something we'd allow without demanding paraphrase* . With literature we turn ourselves to the new direction from which meaning arrives. (We might compare Beckett's metaphorical use of the square root of minus one in Texts for Nothing versus Lacan's use if it in psychoanalysis. The latter is typicaly condemned as a nonsensical misuse of mathematical formulae, whereas Beckett's is an inspired analogue of the self - something at once non-existent but necessary). But, and especially in poetry, 'meaning' is also somethin rather different. The 'meaning', or sense, of a line of poetry, comes in an instant and has a peremptory finality. It names something with exactidude and justice to such a degree that paraphrase neither has nor wants an answer. This instantaneous flash of sense, which illuminates mind and body at once, is indeed part of the attraction of poetry.

Many philosophers tend towards the poetic. Not as an evasion of logic or plain sense. For them, the metaphor, the image, the paradox are ways of taking by surprise an Idea that would otherwise see us coming and take flight.  And these philosophers are the ones condemned by hard-nosed literalism and common sense. Sartre is one of them.

Associated thoughts:

1. Let's say we hear a record from our childhood, and experience a Proustian reprise of our world back then. I suggest it not that we're hearing some tones and sounds that then send us to our childhood, or onto which we then project the flavours of childhood. Rather do we directly hear our childhood.

In fact, hearing is perhaps always minimally synesthesiac in a way that's easy to understand. We hear the hardness of wood when its tapped against another surface, the brittleness of glass, the volume of something is reveaed when it hits the floor, its hollowness etc The squelch of a rotten fruit reveals its inner consistency. Sound complements touch. Each sense is a new revelation of the object, and so is the object equally distributed through these revelations.


2. The infectious contiguity of colour. It's most obviously noticeable in painting: the tone and mood of a colour changes radically according to what colours surround it. Each colour is infected by the others. Each colour is somehow distributed through the others. 

3. A more anecdotal approach concerns the impossibility of repeating a flavour from a trip abroad. There was a wine in Florence, which we had at a hilltop restaurant in Fiesole. I thought it was the best wine I'd ever tasted. Many months after we popped into a shop on the King's Road and saw the same wine, and took it home, eager to savour again that unique taste. Of course, it was very nice, but not at all the same. Something similar hasppens with cold beers tasted in hot dry countries. In fact, whenever I've come back from somwhere I've always made this mistake. A liqueur, in Prague, a coffee from Italy.. I want to reproduce the taste at home. To drink again that taste which always disappoints because there was never anything as discrete, as individualised as a taste. In fact, at the origin, all the elements interpenetrate. The wine, the breeze, the wild cat in the street below, the view over Florence. We think of the Experience as the sum total of its parts - the individual tastes and sensations. But in fact, what comes first is the Experience in its unity, which we then cut up into various individual tastses and sensations. There is perhaps a low-level synesthesia that inflects all our experience. Like the colours in a painting infecting oneanother.








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.