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 this difficulty signals 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 a new incarnation had been born. 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 "I" quickly detaches and becomes "He".

The three points of Badiou's triangular cogito are better seen as three such incarnations from 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. Again, 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, for it underlines that we are dealing with sequence and series, not with a spatial 'Triangulation', 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. But what Badiou identifies as underlying structure is in fact a series of effects with nothing underlying.





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.