Friday, 28 March 2014

Plots Thicken: Time and Text

“it’s for ever the same murmur, flowing unbroken, like a single endless word.."

Reading Beckett's Texts for Nothing, I'm very struck by the ebbs and flows of sense, the bubbles of sense that immediately dissolve, the bright pools of meaning that collect and then disperse. There are memories that swim into clarity, vivid and beautiful, before in turn being borne downstream or sinking into oblivion. And it seems to me that we should attend to this ebb and flow as much as individual statements or images. So, for example, not just the "I" and what is said about the "I", but the "I" congealing into "he" - this very process of congealment. Anyway, this is for another post, prompted by some of what Alain Badiou extracts from "Texts for Nothing". I'd like to preface that with something rather more general.

Here is Deleuze on Bergson:
 Take a lump of sugar: It has a spatial configuration. But if we approach it from that angle, all we will ever grasp are differences in degree between that sugar and any other thing. But it also has duration, a rhythm of duration, a way of being in time that is at least partially revealed in the process of its dissolving, and that shows how this sugar differs in kind not only from other things, but first and foremost from itself.

Bergson's famous maxim is "we must wait for the sugar to dissolve." In other words, things reveal themselves in time and through time. We need to be attuned to how things evolve, persist, endure, change and recompose or decompose themselves. Again there is a slight but symptomatic problem of grammar. Grammar says that there are things which then undergo the effects of time. As if the default state of things was immobile, spatial. But they are of course always already in time to begin with. Nothing is exempt.

We prefer to take snapshots, to arrest the flow of things. It's convenient to think of things as basically immobile, solid. The camera is in this sense the rechnological realisation of what consciousness does in any case - it arrests, turns time into static images, extracts from ongoing experience immovable segments.We then regard these segments as the basic units, and time as secondary.

Writing focuses this problem in a very immediate way. Typesetting, layout, etc are of course spatial arrangements of the written word.  The text lies before us in its entirety. we could if we wish paste its seperate sheets on a wall and draw arrows and lines to create a map of linked words, phrases, patterns, a geography of the text. But the text, every text, is composed in time, words by word, and read in an analogous way. The first "I" was inaugural, anticipatory.. incrementally, and with each clause, it thickens, develops - and the illusion grows that we are gradually discovering something that was already there - uncovering a past. Whereas of course, the writer perfomatively creates this past by moving forward in a continuous unfolding of commas and full stops. With each word the writer writes the 'plot thickens' - builds, deepens.And the reading process is an analagon of this.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Lightning Strikes, I Think..

There’s an often quoted passage in Nietzsche where he says the expression “lightning strikes” implies that there is a something which then performs the act of striking, whereas in fact there is no lightning separate from the striking. It’s symptomatic of how grammatical categories create ontological fictions, and the world seems to take on the shape of these fictions as soon as we think - for we think only through language.

Thus, for Nietzsche, and for a whole strain of modern thought, language ‘thinks’ on our behalf, without us knowing. The writer or philosopher must start by trying to throw a spanner in the works and refunction the language-machine to stop it thinking in our place. 

For some philosophers, the reward of such linguistic disruption is a more immediate contact with life and reality:

Beyond the ideas which are chilled and congealed in language, we must seek the warmth and mobility of life.

The great writers have all had and have all sought to give us a direct vision of the real, in cases where we perceive things only through our conventions, habits and symbols.
Both these quotes are from Henri Bergson, and we find something similar expressed in - for example- Proust:
 Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our conception of them.

It is language which fixes and immobilises things, which sorts the flow of experience into static categories and concepts, and which provides the frames though which we encounter the world.

Perhaps the most basic of these categories is the first person pronoun. The spontaneous philosophy 'dialled in' to our language offers us a neutral subject who acts and thinks. But perhaps only grammar places the "I" at the origin of thought or action. Thus, What Nietzsche says of lightning might also be true of the “I” which, unlike lightning, has a multiplicity of verbs wedded to it - I think, I speak etc - but this doesn’t mean that any of these verbs are less dissociable from the I than striking is from lightning. 

Of the writers who dissolve the lightning of the "I" back into its strikings, few are more rigorous and exhaustive than Beckett in his post war prose writings.

"The subject dies before it comes to the verb". "I" is no sooner uttered than it becomes an object in the field of vision, a "he" floating downstream. What Beckett is aiming for is an ongoing action, a ceaseless mobility with scarcely any arrest or segmentation. It is this movement which precedes any and every “I”: the “mobility of life” beneath the grammatical fiction. A proposition no sooner appears than it's qualified, negated, restated. Bubbles of sense no sooner form than are dissolved. What's continuous is the 'babble' from which sense emerges. The “me”s and “I”s that form dissolve in the flow along with all else. 

"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."

“it’s for ever the same murmur, flowing unbroken, like a single endless word..”

Just as Bergson says that we only understand sugar when we dissolve it in hot water, we only understand the "I" when we dissolve it in the ceaseless babble of language.

Friday, 28 February 2014

The fictions petrified in our language

A quantum of force is equivalent to a quantum of drive, will, effect - more, it is nothing other than precisely this very driving, willing, effecting, and only owing to the seduction of language (and of the fundamental errors of reason that are petrified in it) which conceives and misconceives all effects as conditioned by something that causes effects, by a "subject," can it appear otherwise. For just as the popular mind separates the lightning from its flash and takes the latter for an action, for the operation of a subject called lightning, so popular morality also separates strength from expressions of strength, as if there were a neutral substratum behind the strong man, which was free to express strength or not to do so. But there is no such substratum; there is no "being" behind doing, effecting, becoming; "the doer" is merely a fiction added to the deed: it posits the same event first as cause and then a second time as its effect.
The absence of posts in February will hopefully be compensated for in March. The above quote (Nietzsche) as a prelude to the next post.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Beckett: The Lure of the Image

In Jacques Lacan's little myth, the mirror image seen by the infant is always a 'contraction', a shrinkage. The uncoordinated infant - waves of joy or terror passing over and through it, motor function not yet centralised - finds visual security in the bounded image, invests in the image, able now to say "That's me! there I am!". But note it is there , hanging in the mirror, outside, something you can point to.

In this sense the jubilant recognition of a self, is also the alienation of the self – it is something external, out in the world, a thing. It is not longer the inward, uncoordinated place of actual experience.

The solace offered by the mirror image sets a fatal precedent. We forever seek out images as ways of giving to chaos a local habitation and name. 

In Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, there are many such images. Mother Calvet, “with her dog and skeletal baby-buggy”, the younger narrator in the waiting room of the railway terminus. These images  are like little oases promising a kind of destination or anchor,  a place where the self might be located. The restless text almost succumbs to this but then pulls away and, extravagant, flickering, ventures elsewhere.  These images, brief wrecks of desolation or beauty, are evidence not that the self is still tied to its past,  but of the marmoreal isolation of the latter, revolving forever in another dark, sundered and unreachable. 

The temptation to seek out the image, to house the self therein, is itself deftly figured in Text viii: 
But what is this I see, and how, a white stick and an ear-trumpet, where, Place de la Republique, at pernod time, let me look closer at this, it’s perhaps me at last. the trumpet, sailing at ear level, suddenly resembles a steam-whistle, of the kind thanks to which my steamers forge fearfully through the fog. That should fix the period, to the nearest half-century or so. the stick gains ground, tapping with its ferrule the noble bassamento of the United Stores, it must be winter, at least not summer. I can also just discern, with a final effort of will, a bowler hat which seems to my sorrow a sardonic synthesis of all those that never fitted me and at the other extremity, similarly suspicious, a complete pair of brown boots lacerated and gaping. These insignia, it I may so describe them, advance in concert, as though connected by the traditional human excipient, halt, move on again, confirmed by the vast show windows. The level of the hat, and consequently the trumpet, hold out some hope for me as a dying dwarf or at least a hunchback. The vacancy is tempting, shall I enthrone my infirmities, give them the chance again, my dream infirmities, that they may take flesh and move, deteriorating, round and round this grandiose square which I hope i don’t confuse with the Bastille, until they are deemed worthy of the adjacent Pere Lachaise or, better still, ….
An image - brief, histrionic, absurd - that the narrator might completel. He might 'discover' himself in it -  "It's perhaps me at last". The image is always like this, a kind of vacancy. An empty suit of clothes we might try on. But of course, he pulls away..  The succour of the image would be a cheat, an escape from that "other dark", in which, featureless, he dwells.
I would know I was here, begging in another dark, another silence..

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Activity of Writing.

 “For it would seem - her case proved it - that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver.”

In the usual image of the writer and of writing, writing is always belated. It comes after, it lags behind, it re-captures or re-presents.. Life.

 We might say of Joyce, for example, that he manages to render the vicissitudes and minutiae of consciousness, the creative mutations of dreaming. There is a process, a mode of life, which the writer follows, captures and then sets before us. Writing is judged in terms of its fidelity to what has already gone before it.

But if dreaming and thinking (for example) are two of the modes of mental life, writing is another. Writing is not simply an attempt to re-present those other modes. It is a mode in itself, with its own movements, energy, articulations. But it happens on the page not in the head.

The writer is not someone who lags behind life. For the writing is itself the signature and declaration of a mode of life. And the writer is the conductor of this mode of life.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Samuel Beckett: The Mad Abstract Dark

“Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving.” (Beckett, The Unnamable)

A sentence with a subject, gasping for air between two without. But the “I" is not so much a narrator piping up, laying claim to speech. It’s part of a gambit (“try saying I, that might work”) or the object of a wearied imperative (Speak, self!), issuing from a place before any “I”, a place from which the “I” is cast into language.

Because this place is formless and silent, lightless and shapeless, it is unnameable. This place, from which the “I” is thrown into language, is always betrayed by language. Each time the self contracts into language it loses something; each time if shrinks into a noun something slips away into darkness

We confront the same thing everywhere in Beckett. The moment the “I” is pitched into language - the vocalised or written I - it is also adrift in language, to some degree out-there, separate. It no longer bears the defining watermark of the pre-linguistic self (for want of a better word): the property of being before every object, silent, formless, ‘in recess’. It is now a kind of object itself, posited not positing.

Ordinarily, we are happy to forget the distinction, between the “I” that is posited and the “I” that is doing the posting. We shrink-fit ourselves into the ‘I’; it catches us.

Indeed, for Lacan, this is the elementary gesture that sets up the self - the ‘contraction’ of our being into the “I”. The gesture whereby we assume an “I” (as we speak of ‘assuming responsibility') also then becomes something assumed in the other sense – unconscious, already presupposed, behind us. This is the gesture that Beckett refuses. Or the set-up stalls at the crucial moment. What is ordinarily behind us is for Beckett out there in front, as a problem.

But to speak of an “I” pitched into language is already a fatal concession. Again, Who or What introduces this gambit; who or what wagers an “I”? Here’s the nub. This ‘who’ or ‘what’ has no positive attributes – it is only a kind of vacant point or (in Yeats’s phrase) a mad abstract dark. To call it ‘the self’, ‘the subject’ (or the anything) is only perhaps a continuation of the same gambit.

In the ‘mad abstract dark’ before the “I” strikes up and assumes sovereignty , what do we hear? Memories, intentions, thoughts, borne along by the impersonal circuitry of the brain. The churning and chatterings of a kind of pre-language, a babble, without narrative, belonging to nothing that could be called a self, an ego. This is what Beckett’s prose does, to tarry with pre-utterance, the 'mutter' and 'murmur', the continuum of sounds before the 'contraction', the contractive force of utterance allows you to begin.