Preliminary to a Restless Ethics
Writing the Frontier
If I wish to proceed metonymically, I do not see how I am to reach the end. And this is how I wish to proceed. Perhaps I can suggest a metonymic procession before it properly begins--but this is impossible, if the metonymic is the frontier of sense itself. But, if I can make a suggestion that we proceed metonymically, acknowledging this suggestion is predicated upon what it suggests, and this is precisely what I propose, it seems only fitting to set as the pivot of this suggestion a slippery moment of metonymic association that, at first glance, may seem mere repetition: frontier, frontier.
To associate one instance of a word with another instance of that same word, via the literal proximity of the sonorous and visible features of each instance, and to call it metonymy, would not be anything new. Gertrude Stein, at the very least, has been here before. But to take with Stein a running leap across a frontier of a differentiation so bare as to call that differentiation itself into question, and to construe in the writing of this differentiation a method which follows the logic of Gilles Deleuze and Emmanuel Levinas, and to find in this method an ethic that reverberates across the writing of a very specific literary and historical frontier, that of the American West, may be, if not entirely new, at least a novelty of combination.
And it may be a badly needed novelty, if we take seriously, for instance, the charge made by William E. Bevis, that “most postmodern critics . . . 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. Is there an answer to this ethical quandary that actually stems from the very mobility that Bevis brings under disapproval here? And can it be articulated both at the rhetorical level of the frontier as division between abstract entities (either the subject and its others or the proposition and the thing) and at the historical level of the American frontier as it has been written? Can it mobilize the restlessness which characterizes both frontiers, in such a way as to call into question the territorializing machine which, on the heels of that restlessness, comes to appropriate and exploit?
That Frederick Jackson Turner himself was both rhetorician and historian may lend its own pivot around which to turn the historical and rhetorical frontiers and see if the rhetorical frontier has anything at all to offer in the way of counteracting the excesses of violence and conquest that haunt the "real," historical frontier. In fact, the metonymic slide from frontier to frontier will suggest a certain reworking of the entire metaphysical frame which considers the rhetorical as apart from the real and instead locates the frontier actually in question here between rhetoric and the real.
One may wonder at the equation of historical and real here, especially if, in deconstructive theory, the historical is itself an operation of language and thus itself "rhetorical" and divorced from anything like a real substrate upon which language acts. At the risk of launching into a long digression on various figurations of the real, allow me simply (simply!) to point out that the oscillation I intend to set up at just that frontier between history, or the text, and the real--or, depending upon your philosophical affiliation, experience, the body, concrete reality, the specific, or the Real--will make clear the extent to which signification itself informs the real at the level of a primordial articulation, and the extent to which that which is assumed as unsayable, the traumatic point of origin that language cannot reach, is no origin, but an effect of articulation which acts, paradoxically, as its precondition. Something like this traumatic point has been figured in various ways, but here I will focus on two specific moments which I believe can be located, or not located, as events of the frontier: Levinas' approach of the Other, and Deleuze's aleatory point of sense itself.
Thus, after an introduction that offers brief surveys of the American Frontier as it has been historically written and of the possible intersections of that frontier with rhetorical notions of metonymy and philosophical figurations of a restlessness haunting certain abstract frontiers, I will argue in my first chapter that the Deleuzian and Levinasian moments converge as descriptions of a frontier which may be thought of as the inaugural event of language itself: the frontier between the subject who comes to speak and the approach of the Other which makes that speech possible, or the frontier between propositions and things where sense itself operates as both the precondition for and the consequence of linguistic differentiation.
That this frontier itself can be figured as an event which calls into question the discrete boundaries between the entities which result from it will be the be the basis of my claims in Chapter Two, where I will investigate the extent to which the irresponsibility construed by Deleuze to issue from such an event can be reconciled with the infinite responsibility that Levinas passionately advocates as a result of much the same sort of event. I will do so with an eye towards combining them in Levinas’ idea of restlessness, and further explain how the concepts of an-archy and impropriety might be seen to stem from this restlessness. For a gloss on impropriety I will turn to Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community, and will suggest that the oscillatory prose found there may function as one articulation of restlessness and, subsequently, as a conception of a kind of ungrounded ethics.
Chapter Three will explicate the trope which binds and separates: that of associational metonymy. I expect it to be the hinge linking my consideration of philosophical texts with that of literary texts. I have not yet worked out the logic of my affinity for metonymy, but plan on doing so here. Briefly, I will try to articulate metonymy as the point at which dichotomy dissolves, or oscillates so madly as to disintegrate. If, as I anticipate showing, metonymy is a preliminary trope to representation, it might be figurable as a strange linguistic turn that is somehow pre-linguistic, and which takes on the attributes of the Deleuzian/Levinasian event--and thus of a certain frontier--insofar as it is a moment that is at once produced by and productive of language itself.
My turn in the fourth chapter to Gertrude Stein will then be not so inexplicable in a work dedicated to ethics and frontiers, for not only can much of her work be construed metonymically, but also restlessly. Most specifically, I will take a long look at The Making of Americans as both “a space that is filled with moving,” as Stein herself characterizes her tome, but also as a space where metonymy runs rampant, undoing her ostensible and apparently modernist attempt to categorize the American subject definitively, resulting instead in an obsessive repetition which fills page after page, 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. At the end of this chapter will be a hint as to how this restless and repetitive metonymy might be read as an ethical literary strategy which issues from what is by now a multiply-articulated frontier.
Finally, in Chapters Five and Six, I will bring this somewhat abstract discussion around to the literary and historical American frontier as it has been written from the late Nineteenth through the Twentieth Centuries. The exact organization of these two chapters is not yet finalized in conception, but I want to conduct a survey of both literary and historical texts that mobilize the frontier as historical trope, as well as to consider just what or who, if this frontier can be accommodated to Levinas, functioned (or functions--for it is not clear to me that the frontier is entirely closed, or even if it can be closed, if one takes Deleuze and Levinas seriously) as the regions between which this frontier ran (or runs). It seems that, at the very least, I must take into account Native American narratives, but also perhaps narratives from early European explorers of various stripes. One could even go so far as to try to determine where, if anywhere, the American frontier lies today, and who or what moves along it and speaks.
There is, however, only so much space in a single dissertation. If I am certain of anything in these last chapters, it is that they will include a look at Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, wherein I will dwell on what may seem a minor writerly tic in both, in which the narratives each become stuck, and begin to unravel as narratives, upon a particular repetition of a phrase. In Zane Grey I will call attention to the repetition of “the sage,” in Riders of the Purple Sage, whereas in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian I will interrogate the function of the constant reiteration, “They rode on.”
This will only take a moment; the question will become one of how this metonymic unraveling affects an animating violence at the heart of both that troubles me. I am more troubled by Blood Meridian in that this violence itself seems to undo identity and individualism, whereas in Riders of the Purple Sage I would think that it would be fairly easy to point out how, at least explicitly, violence underwrites a territorializing enterprise. That is, if the “orgies of violence” in Blood Meridian “fail to constitute a pattern, to unveil a mystery or serve any comprehensible purpose,” as Steven Shaviro argues, and if this incomprehensibility is at all like the incomprehensibility which founds Levinas’ ethics--insofar as the other absolutely other is incomprehensible, refractory to territorialization, and, in this way, something like death itself--then how can one make sense of the collision between a proximal peace and a limitless violence at a frontier, which, as Shaviro points out, is not to be transcended in Blood Meridian but simply will be “swallowed up in death” which is “the very life of the darkness”?
I do not have the answer to this question, and I might still not have the answer by the time I finish the dissertation, but I have been struck by the assimilability of the unknowable other and death itself, if both are the infinite region in which knowledge founders on unknowing. I will, however, offer the figure of a kind of restless unknowing as the movement in which object and subject become paradoxically intertwined and ir/responsible, and where the other can never be, for precisely this reason, an exploitable object at all. And as a twist, I will suggest that one might find articulations of a kind of metonymically ethical relation not only between human beings, but between the human and the non-human, or even the animal and the non-animal. For exposure surrounds us on all sides, and everywhere are Others in their Levinasian precariousness. It is at this frontier where I hope the postmodern can find its properly ungrounded ethics.