Erik M. Schneider
Department of Rhetoric
A Restless Ethics:
Along the Frontier from Levinas to Stein to the Wild West,
being a preliminary statement to a project
that will not sit still
Call it a fascination with the unrepresentable limit, with the infinitesimally small, with the impossibly restless, with that which cannot be pinned down or definitively located or made to take a stance. Call it an obsession with a paradoxically positive nothing. It probably is one. What I am hoping you can call it additionally is an ethical project which will not quite be a project but more like a sortie.
To be somewhat less abstract, what I hope to achieve from juxtapositioning notions of the frontier, of a certain restlessness which is not yet subjective, and an idea of a metonymic method for delineating the relations between entities at their frontiers--a method which is bound to fail--is an articulation of the undoing of subjectivity itself. This would be nothing new except for two things: the celebrated postmodern “undoing” of the subject has resulted in some ingenious efforts to shore it back up in the name of ethics, whereas an ethics proper to its very undoing has yet to be fully articulated. That such an articulation might, strictly speaking, be impossible is precisely the source of its hold over me; it may be that, in the end, I only undertake this as an excuse to go head over heels over the very idea of a restlessness which promises everything while granting nothing.
Be that as it may, the problem I wish to engage while undergoing this fall, is that of how to construe an ethics out of a relatively new tradition which has seemed bent on ungrounding anything like a metaphysical moral order. But rather than resurrecting something of the kind, even contingently or ironically, I wish to interrogate thoroughly the possibility that, as Deleuze puts it, the “Aion” of the surface, the very point at which moral depth unravels, “commands another ethic” (62). In doing so I hope to take seriously the charge leveled at “most postmodern critics” by William E. Bevis, that “they are themselves speaking from within liquidity, from within a bias towards free-thinking, mobility, and variety” and that from such a bias surfaces an ethical irresponsibility towards place and those who would draw their identities from a specific regionality--in this specific case, Native Americans. As Bevis argues, “capitalist modernity seeks to create a kind of no-place center, compared to which all ‘places or ‘regions’ are marginal,” and which moves from region to region in search of resources to exploit for profit (21-22).
Mine is not a project of economics, but criticisms of postmodern subjectivity as an irresponsible “liquidator” of such obscure categories as “the real,” or “experience,” or “lived history,” are varied enough that I believe I can approach the one Bevis is making, along with implicit others, from an ethical point of view. That this ethics might have economical consequences is certainly possible, but I will leave those for another time. For now I wish to focus on the sort of ethics that can be construed as emerging from a frontier which is neither, properly speaking, transcendent nor corporeal. This frontier will be figured variously as I go along, from the frontier between the self and the other as figured in Emmanuel Levinas’ writings, to the frontier as an event horizon which occurs between propositions and things in those of Gilles Deleuze, to the very concretely historical frontier which has been imagined as a central, if not the central, figure in the history and literature of the American West.
I plan to devote at least the first third of my dissertation to hammering out the convergences and differences between Levinas and Deleuze, in an effort to see what can be salvaged from the collision of a sensibility burdened by an infinite sense of responsibility, with one which champions the idea of an “ideal game,” innocent and “without responsibility,” which plays itself out on that frontier which is sense itself. I wish to take as my jumping off points not only Deleuze’s declaration concerning “another ethic,” which would seem to imply that he discerns something not so irresponsible in his analysis of how sense appears between propositions and things, but also the points of isometry between the two thinkers’ models of the frontier region between, on the one hand, the self and the other, and on the other hand, propositions and things.
The tie that binds them is language: for Levinas it is the approach of the other as signifying which at once commands and calls into question the self being approached, whereas for Deleuze the incorporeal event which arises from in between--bodies, propositions, things--is coextensive with language itself and is, perhaps, a primordial form of articulation which defines entities while delineating a region, smaller than any imaginable region but productive of infinite sensical events, which lies between these entities and cannot be properly said to “belong” to either one. I believe that in this kind of a region one can locate not only Deleuze’s event of sense but also Levinas’ “one-for-the-other” of signification, and that these are regions of paradox and indistinction even as they articulate the difference between irreducible entities. Both can be figured as frontiers of exposure, be they the radical exposure of the self to the other or the exposure of the corporeal to the proposition; both can be figured as problems for an ethics which would take into account the extreme fragility and vulnerability of entities which suffer the approach of other entities.
Indeed even to say this is to say too much, for in both Levinas and Deleuze the exposure of the one to the other is the very precondition of representation and cannot be represented as such. Herein is one paradox: the frontier of exposure preexists any representation of entities as entities, and implicates them in one another in a relation that cannot be figured as a relation between properly bounded beings. It is from here that I wish to draw out an ethics that I do not yet know quite how to state; it is here that I wish to investigate conditions on the frontier as such and the degree to which a certain impropriety in figuration and a borderline-sensical, metonymic deployment of language can express, or at least gesture at, an unrepresentable border region and its ethical implications.
For Levinas, this border region signals a “restlessness” of the self; hence my emphasis on the restlessness of any ethics that can be construed from the relation between self and other. I plan on interpreting this inquiétude broadly, from an obligation not to remain quiet in the face of the call of the other, to the very contestation of anything like a subjective space or position in which an ego can rest, given its paradoxical implication in the other at the frontier of its exposure. At this frontier will pivot the terms I hope to keep in play with one another: restlessness, impropriety, metonymy, ethics.
That one can point to obvious instances of a kind of ethical metonymy in the literature of the American West is perhaps not particularly obvious; however the figure of the frontier looms so greatly over this genre that it seems only imperative to interrogate it as to the way in which the frontier has been imagined and the ways in which the foregoing analysis of Levinas and Deleuze can inform its further interpretation. For it continues to be interpreted: whether or not Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis is still credible, argues William Cronon, “We continue to use the word ‘frontier’ as if it meant something” (160). I believe I can argue that the figure of the frontier continues to play a considerable role in any unfolding of an American ethical viewpoint.
Perhaps not so inexplicably, then, I will open what will turn out to be the larger portion of my dissertation, that dealing with the American West specifically, with an extended look at Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, along with the occasional reference to other of her works. I do not expect everyone to agree with me right away that one can think of Stein as an author of the American West. The mundane detail of her having spent her childhood in Oakland, California might be mobilizable in such an argument, but the key to identifying a text such as The Making of Americans as an heir of the frontier lies in its method. As Stein herself writes:
"Think of anything, of cowboys, of movies, of detective stories, . . . and you will realize that it is something strictly American to conceive a space that is filled with moving, a space of time that is filled always filled with moving and my first real effort to express this thing which is an American thing began in writing The Making of Americans." (286)
To be sure, one need not take Stein’s word for it, but a case can be made for The Making of Americans as just such a space, in which repetition fills page after page in an effort to “say it all” while chasing down perhaps that one thing that cannot be named: the “sense” of the exposition, or the event which occurs at a certain frontier between the narrator and the characters described, and draws the narration restlessly onwards.
Of course it is no narration, or at least narration quickly and obsessively gives way to a repetitive litany of “types” of people. Among the questions that I plan to pursue across this text will be that of the function of repetition in the formation of the narrative “I,” and the extent to which this repetition contains the trace of the frontier region where sense itself, and the “I” itself, is under both pursuit and interrogation. Of special interest will be those moments in the text where the narrative “I” finds itself “a little unhappy” in its efforts at categorization, and I do not think I will have to stretch too far to compare this slightly unhappy “I” to the inquiet ego at its frontier with the other in Levinas, as well as to compare its subsequent textual performance to Deleuze’s frontier-event of sense. As Barrett Watten has maintained, “[Stein’s] narrative becomes its own presentation as an event” (4); what I would like to investigate is the function of this event in calling into question the narrative ego performing it, and indeed whether any “presentation” of the event within language is even possible or if here we are again speaking of the un(re)presentable.
In any case, if I have brought myself back around to inquiétude at this point, I will then ponder the possibility of an ethics construable from an oeuvre as apparently indifferent to such questions as Gertrude Stein’s, and attempt to draw out less esoteric moments in other American Western authors where the frontier has, at times in spite of the author’s best efforts, called into question the tenets of American individualism and its self-involved ethical stance.
What remains is a conclusion. The one towards which I hope to strain involves an ethical encounter at the frontier that is signification itself and an assertion that this encounter takes place along the pole of the metonymic in language and can be characterized as inquiétude. I do not yet know if I will emerge triumphantly with an ethics that can be proclaimed; it may be that this sort of an ethics cannot be proclaimed at all, and this might just be its most salient characteristic. That is, the very fragility of a moment that cannot be contained in signification but which makes signification possible, the region of exposure in which the “I” and its self-preservative instincts are called into question, may be the inarticulable moment from which something like a non-metaphysical ethics can emerge.
the nice thing is that this fills up almost six pages when double spaced which means that with this statement my prospectus might be almost halfway done. on the other hand i have yet to look at the "sample prospecti" to see exactly what one is, so this could be all wrong. but if you were asked to write about what you were going to write about, how else would you do it?