Erik (eriktrips) wrote,
Erik
eriktrips

you asked for it

you all have splunty to thank for this: the entire text of my exam answer. i didn't quite finish today but here is the mess i've managed to make so far. yes it is rather long and i would advise reading with coffee.



I suspect that what follows will turn out to be excursion x in a series of n excursions into something like the same thing, although it causes me some suspicion that I might think that what I am up to is delineating the same thing everywhere. But that I might nonetheless be obsessed with this thing (which might turn out not to be a “thing” at all) seems plausible given that I (almost) see “it” everywhere and feel compelled to talk about “it” even though “it” escapes every effort at talking about “it,” thus necessitating more talking in order to -- what? cover over the empty place of the “it” gone missing? continue to pursue “it” in the hopes that such a pursuit might at least gesture in the approximate direction of where one thought one almost saw “it” once?

I realize that I am wasting words. I am not sure I could do otherwise.

Wandering as quickly as possible, then, from the contentless “it” to the concretion of what, specifically, I am going to talk about in the place of “it,” let me be slightly grandiose and declare that what I think I am obsessed with is the unsayable in the said and the unthought in thought and that I wish to approach this non-entity from two directions at once: that of language, and most specifically that of the metonymic in language, and that of subjectivity, and most specifically the relationship between the subject and its others. That the metonymic in language may in some way be involved in the relationship between the subject and its others will be the explicit question at which I worry repeatedly. In the course of things I expect to touch on such diverse concerns as the consistency of the unconscious in certain strands of psychoanalysis and the figuration of restlessness in the American West in American literature. I realize that doing so might make for a many-headed essay, but I wanted to make sure that the theory I am after is clear both in relation to itself and in relation to my more literary concerns, and thus I thought it best to do this all at once.

To the extent that I will be able to do it at all.

The two directions of language and subjectivity may well turn out also to be close to the same thing, and this is where I again become suspicious of trying to construe the same thing over and over out of very diverse texts. But, to be grandiose again, the “what” that I suspect I may say -- or not say -- repeatedly may be something like difference itself, or a certain non-indifference at the heart of both language and its subjects. The question then becomes whether difference itself is the same thing repeatedly or always a little different. Or as Gertrude Stein would say, “there is no such thing as repetition”; if it is slightly astonishing that she of all people might claim this, it is also slightly astonishing that difference itself may be the core of repetition itself. This has been said before, and it may be that the only consequence of saying -- or not saying -- it again is that I might come to understand a little better what all these people are talking about, seemingly rather obsessively themselves. But it may also be that saying -- or not saying -- it again could have other, more consequential consequences as well: that Levinas, for instance, is trying to articulate a sort of foundationless ethics, and that the very theme of language and repetition in the constitution of the subject might raise questions regarding not only the agency of the subject but the very possibility for a subject to exist as such, “proper” to itself, will become clear as this essay unfolds.

Let me explain. [1]

The question of where to start presents itself. And if the question is that of repetition then the question of where to start becomes more problematic, as repetition itself circulates through the texts at hand with no discernable originary voice. Thus whether or not this can be justified, I wish to start with Levinas, if only because I think his text can be used as a sort of key for many others. I will add that I expect a certain hint of Agamben will inform my text from beginning to end, to the effect that perhaps Agamben becomes the pre-origin of what I am about to say. Where his influence becomes unmistakeable I will try to remember explicitly to refer to him, even though the function of the proper name may implicitly be called into question throughout.

But if the urge to go back to the origin could be indulged at all, it could start with Levinas, especially if one is investigating the origins of subjectivity. Although psychoanalysis certainly has its say on this subject, it is in Levinas that one can find a particularly compelling, if paradoxical, articulation of just how subjects begin. “Subjectivity” itself becomes a paradoxical term for Levinas, as the existence of the subject, its ability to begin at all, is implicitly put into question in both Totalité et Infini (TI) and Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence (AE), and I would argue that in Levinas “subjectivity,” rather than referring to identity and being, stands instead for a certain non-lieu where the subject impossibly gets it start, for even if “La manière du Moi contre ‘l’autre’ du monde, consiste à séjourner, à s’identifier en y existant chez soi,” and even if “Le Moi, dans un monde, de prime abord, autre, est cependant autochtone” (TI, 26, author’s emphases) [2], it is questionable whether, for Levinas, this “autochthonous I” is construable as such from its relations with “the other absolutely other”. Or, if it is thus construable, it is nonetheless paradoxically so, and becomes its own point of impossible identification which is truly autochtonous and yet “non-indifferent” from its other(s) [3].

To begin again, if we are to find our way from the other to the same, from exteriority to interiority, or from its others to the subject itself, we should first come to an understanding of just what “the other absolutely other” means in Levinas. Briefly, “L’absolument Autre, c’est Autrui” (TI, 28). The sense of “Autrui” as opposed to the more generic “l’Autre” seems to consist in its being at once indefinite and particular. Derrida notes this in his essay on Levinas in L’écriture et la différence, and draws attention precisely to the difference between the indefinite and the particular. This is a crucial difference for understanding the relationship between the Same and the Other (“Autrui”) in Levinas, for it will turn out that it is perhaps the difference between the Same and the Other which the very approach of the Other delineates in a kind of inaugural metonymic moment for language and, by extension, for subjectivity itself, which is the point I eventually want to push for in reading Levinas. [4]

For now, let us focus on the characteristics (if one can say so much) of the Other as Levinas lays them out here: “[L’Autre] ne fait pas nombre avec moi. La collectivité où je dis ‘tu’ ou ‘nous’ n’est pas un pluriel de ‘je.’ Moi, toi, ce ne sont pas là individus d’un concept commun. Ni la possession, ni l’unité du nombre, ni l’unité du concept, ne me rattachent à autrui” (TI, 28). [5]

The rupture of any possible unity of number or concept is the result of the approach of the Other as absolute “alterity,” and Levinas repeats to the point of obsession that it is the approach of the other which at once institutes the idea of infinity and the impossibility of comprehending that idea in any subjectively constituted concept. That the approach of the Other is signification itself I will address in just a minute or two; by bringing it up here I wish to point out that one way in which the infinity of the Other can be understood is as the infinite iterability of signification itself, or rather the potential for that iterability, or what Agamben refers to as the exposure of whatever being to the workings of signification itself. Levinas himself attributes a certain “unpredictability” to the Other, and Derrida will go so far as to say that alterity can be thought of as the unpredictibility inherent in the moment which succeeds this moment. In any case, (-- i don't remember what i was going to say here and if i haven't remembered by tomorrow the 'in any case' will disappear)

But to be more succinct about the infinite unpredictibility and the refractoriness to concepts that the Other embodies, one must ponder for a moment the difference between le Dit (the said) and le Dire (saying) for Levinas. Le Dire will be one in a series of terms, beginning -- if one can begin anywhere -- with “l’approche” of the Other, and figured repeatedly both as “proximité” and “la signifiance même de la signification” (AE, 6), or “the very signifyingness of signification.” It is important to note that the priority of le Dire to le Dit consists in this approach which, although it only occurs with le Dit, founds the very possibility of anything being said at all. As that which is “antérieur aux systèmes linguistiques” (AE, 6), le Dire, or signification itself, “n’est pas une essence idéale ou une relation offerte à l’intuition intellectuelle, encore analogue en cela à la sensation offerte à l’oeil. Elle est, par excellence, la présence de l’extériorité” (TI, 61), [6] but this presence will also be an absence, prior as it is to all possible saids, including categories of Being. In this way it is the approach of alterity or exteriority itself which is au-delà de l’essence and which calls into question not only the Same of the subject but the very categories of Same and Other. In a paradoxical way, the approach of pure alterity founds the possibility of there being any concept of alterity, and always surpasses that concept in such a way that it is simultaneously “une présence plus directe que la manifestation visible et une présence lointaine” (TI, 62). [7] The approach of the Other is prior to any self, any cognition, and therefore to any recognition which can be bestowed by the Same upon the Other, and is an ethical relation between two moments which are “non-indifferent” while at the same time not yet distinguishable as entities.

This places Levinasian ethics in a region prior to recognition. I will briefly touch on some consequences of this below. For now I would like to linger on this zone of non-indifference which becomes the non-lieu where the subject, as purely subjected to the Other, first arises as “l’un-pour-l’autre” (AE, 97) of a signification that is itself “taught” by the Other, or inaugurated by its very approach as other. Although Levinas wishes to make of the Same-Other relation a strictly assymetrical one, there is some reciprocity in the way in which signification passes from the Other to the Same and becomes the ground for the saying of the Moi; one might say that what is repeated in signification is the approach, or signification itself, as the difference, or non-indifference, between the Same and the Other but yet prior to their categorical differentiation as such. As taught, signification, or the approach, is the “pre-origin” of the subject, prior to memory and thus prior to a personal history but founding the possibility of these and coming to the surface in them as said while being yet silent as the unsaid of the said.

Thus Levinas speaks of a “diachronie” of the same and the other (AE, 90) which corresponds to the “pre-origin” of the subject as a self-founding moment without prior foundation. That is, signification as taught by the Other is both itself a rising to the occasion of “exposure,” another term specifying the vulnerability of the Same to the command to appear before the other, and the teaching of that “exposure” -- which is also the one-for-the-other of signification -- by the Other to the same and thus the teaching of the giving of signs which is subjectivity according to Levinas. At the same time, however, Levinas seems to imply a native exposure to even this teaching, a uniqueness hailable by the other. To think this, one must think of a process that founds itself, i.e. that the Other teaches the very exposure which the other must presuppose in its approach to the Same. Exposure or signification or expression would thus antedate itself in an irrepresentable past.

Levinas also suggests that the Other comes to disrupt the Same, to call it into question, which would make of the teaching of signification and exposure a subjectifying process similar to Derrida's désistance in which the subject is at once constituted and contested via a sort of (dis)identification. This pre-orginary origin of the subject is not representable as an attribute or identity because it divests as it invests. For Levinas then, the Other comes to the Same before the distinction Other/Same can be made and founds that distinction as their difference, or as difference itself in the approach of alterity. The proximity of the Other to the Same, as well as its “escape” as prior and refractory to the said of both concepts and of perception, results in a condition which Levinas himself names “obsession” with the other, an obsession “où la différence frémit comme non-indifférence” (AE, 105). [8]

It is this “shuddering” that itself indicates a certain rhythm and repetition in the pre-origin of the subject, where a certain diachrony and a certain silence reverberate as the immemorial past of the subject constituted via the teaching of signification, the one-for-the-other, of the Other. The subject predates itself in a way that confounds and founds discourse and identity in an obsessive repetition of exposure and signification as received from an Other that, in its proximity, never was quite other, and yet in its distance, was always beyond any comprehension of the Same.

Although I suspect that Levinas would maintain that his is not a psychology of the self, since in his discourse all takes place prior to and outside of the selfsame, it is interesting to consider the psychoanalytic turn he linguistically takes with his invocation of obsession. In Radical Passivity, Thomas Carl Wall suggests that there are similarities between Levinas’ account of the approach of the Other and Borch-Jacobsen’s account of the identifications the self with its others; certainly there seems to be an isomorphism between Levinas' exposure and Borch-Jacobsen's unconscious that comes to the surface but is not intelligible but rather is intelligibility itself. Rather than a theoretical and specular subject on the “other side” of the unconscious, Borch-Jacobsen wants to posit an impossible beginning of the subject in proximity to the other before the distinction can be made between the subject and the other, a situation which is perhaps the very susceptibility to distinction-making. As Wall points out, Borch-Jacobsen wants to make of the ego “a point d’autri: a hypnotic and somnambulistic contraction of otherness into sameness” (44).

At the end of the first essay in The Emotional Tie, entitled “The Primal Band,” Borch-Jacobsen suggests that Freud has “passed off as an essential law what is only a teleological, ethical, and political prescription, perhaps the oldest and most indestructible one: ‘Be a subject’” (14). Although he does not come right out and say it at any point, one of the implicit arguments that wends through this collection of lectures and papers seems to be that this command to “be a subject” may well be impossible to carry out. At the very least, the “autoenunciating” subject of psychoanalysis is called into question and made problematic by the mimetic ghosts which haunt it and perhaps form its very core; but further, and only suggested here rather than made explicit, the subject as such might have such an abyssal beginning that it cannot be said ever properly to begin, in the literal sense that what is to become proper to the subject, the subject’s own “properness,” or its “self,” is not, in the beginning, ever proper to the subject and perhaps cannot be made so. The inauguration of the subject may only inaugurate its own irreparable impropriety, to borrow Agamben’s terminology.

This question of the beginning of the subject arises right away in The Emotional Tie. In “The Freudian Subject: From Politics to Ethics,” Borch-Jacobsen notes that “narcissistic” or “egoist” desire, in the Freudian scheme, contains its own paradoxical foundation: this desire is “about being an ‘I,’ a ‘self,’” and yet as such it must be a desire for that which the “I” is not, which is to say, precisely, an “I.” Borch-Jacobsen points out that this follows from “elementary logic”: “if I desire myself, then . . . it must be because that is not what I am. Thus this singular desire is not, on the whole, the desire of any subject” (22). And as that desire is directed towards an other as that which the (not) I desires to be (does the not-yet-self thus attribute a subjecthood -- which must remain a phantom -- to the other as that which is desired..?), as it characterizes that primary identificatory “emotional tie” that Freud writes about in Group Psychology, then as such it betrays an “unrepresentable ‘point of otherness’” which founds the very identity of the ego which is to be born of this desire (23).

But can an ego -- or a subject, which, as Borch-Jacobsen carefully points out, is a philosophical concept incorporated by psychoanalysis beginning with Lacan (17) -- be said “properly” to start here? The mimetic “emotional tie” with the other seems abyssal in its own beginnings: as the author himself notes, “everything converge[s], in many ways, to undermine the mutual posing of subject and object” (22). And yet, in the narrative given here, we are presented with a sort of primary, narcissistic desire which “assimilated, consumed, incorporated” the other “from the very beginning” (23). Indeed it is difficult to use the language of subjects and objects to describe just what is going on here. On the one hand, as Borch-Jacobsen himself does, one can say such things as “the other that I am no longer exists, has never been in front of me, since I identified myself with him from the start,” but on the other, one must realize that if we are writing about a point in the “subject’s” development where there is not yet an “I,” not yet a “self,” where subject and object cannot be distinguished, then the very workings of identification and the very possibility of the utterance of the “I” are called into question here.

Thus for both Levinas and Borch-Jacobsen, the ethical relationship between the Same and the Other appears prior to any institution of the categories of same and other, prior to the founding linguistic gesture which I would like to call metonymic differentiation. Further on I will explain my own desire to name it thus; for now the question remains as to what sort of ethics can be construed from either or both of these formulations, and whether the “obsession” with the other is a “compulsion” to be a subject, and whether any agency remains for a subject thus subjected to the call to be a subject.

For Levinas it would seem that the obsession of the subject with the Other is indeed a compulsion to the extent that one is responsible in front of the Other -- that is, one must respond. However, the abyssal foundation of the subject in both Levinas and Borch-Jacobsen makes this formulation problematic if not paradoxical. For how can the subject ever satisfactorily answer the call to be a one-for-the-other if it is itself enmeshed with the other in the double relation of proximity and distance? What can the subject do other than repeat the signification which it has learned from the Other, but which is an empty signification insofar as the Other “him”self is infinitely absent from the act of signification even as he is infinitely near? If we are to consider the Other as an other speaking being, It would seem that the regress from one same to its other, to the other of that other, and so on, would be infinite, and that in all cases “responsibility” is a crushing impossibility even as it is made possible by the approach of the other absolutely other.

A strange conundrum, where one -- if we are indeed dealing with a “one” -- can perhaps only “shudder” and repeat the signification which will never fully constitute “one” as subject. Levinasian ethics, as Wall also puts it, “is no ethics per se, no relation as such. What happens is a relation that is no relation, that cannot but be betrayed” (33) in the silence of le Dire, a non-relation between two entities which are not yet distinct but nonetheless “non-indifferent.” One might think of the approach of the Other as the approach of difference itself from a zone of indistinction which nonetheless is not reducible to the Same, if only for the reason that this zone is outside of any demarcation of Same and Other.

Given then, that alterity as such approaches prior to any constitution of a Moi, the demand from the other to be a one-for-the-other, or to signify, arises before there is a self who can either voluntarily obey or be involuntarily obligated. Levinas points this out many times, and the question of agency, a self-determining method for escaping a possibly dreary “obligation to express” while having “nothing to express,” might devolve around this notion of an anterior moment to the split between voluntariness and involuntariness, the split between activity and passivity. It may be that any thought of agency versus compulsion is itself confounded by a thought of that which is anterior to both.

I would like to come back to this question a little later. For now let me pause on a certain “restlessness” which Levinas attributes to the subject, or the always subjected-to, which can find no place from which to take a stand in this non-relation with non-indifference [TRANSITIONAL DEVICE?]

Thus Levinas himself describes that which comes to disturb the subject in the "champ ontologique," where it has “made and feathered its nest,” as something other but which, if we are to take him seriously, is only other in the sense that it is the approach of alterity completely exterior to any concept of Same or Other. The logic we are asked to follow in Levinas is self-negating while being at the same time self-founding: the basis for signification, for being a one-for-the-other, is paradoxically prior to any Same and any Other, and yet makes these possible. How is one to figure a discrete subjectivity out of such an impossible beginning? As “inquiet” (“restless”):

la sensibilité est affection par le non-phénomène, une mise en cause par l’altérité de l’autre, avant l’intervention de la cause, avant l’apparoir de l’autre; un pré-originel ne-pas-reposer sur soi, l’inquiétude du persécuté -- ou être? comment être? -- c’est-à-dire tortillement dans les dimensions angustiées de la douleur, dimensions insoupçonnées de l’en-deçà; arrachement à soi, moins que rien. (AE, 95) [9]

This restlessness perhaps leaves its trace in the Bataillean desire to throw “oneself or something of oneself out of oneself,” but if we follow Levinas, the outside is all there “is” (for it cannot “be” prior to its own differentiation as such) or all that can possibly found an inside/outside distinction when the other “does not yet appear” and yet approaches. And speaks, and in speaking (le Dire), expresses that which cannot be manifested and which falls away at the very moment when it is most near. If this is what happens in signification, and if signification is taught by the Other to the subject, then in any conversation between a subject and an other there is an expression and a falling away on both sides: both sides are perhaps “restless” in their having no place to stand and appear, to be. Arrachement.

In L’Attente l’oubli, Blanchot stages what might be thought of as a conversation between two restless speakers who paradoxically stay put while they are talking. That is, the entire conversation, as well as a fair amount of narrative and reflective writing, takes place in a single room, where the male and female protagonists “wait” and converse about waiting, forgetting, presence, and speaking, to name a few themes which all seem to point in something like the same direction which is not a direction at all but a mobilization of terms which fill in for the indescribability of a presence which is always absent, and thus which precipitates an interminable waiting, which is both the awaiting of a promise and the awaiting of nothing, or the awaiting of that which cannot take place even as it is expressed: awaiting of the restless, or that which has no place to stand.

“L’attente stérile, toujours plus pauvre et plus vide. L’attente pleine, toujours plus riche de l’attente. L’une est l’autre” (53). [10] What makes waiting both poor and rich at the same time? What is awaited might be that which can never arrive and that which appears only in disappearing in the saying or the much sought after parole. That is, the presence of any selves which are here present are paradoxically absences in that they are only the saying (le Dire) and never the said (le Dit), only the condition for representation and never represented. If one may say this, the halo of saying both precedes and follows the said but never coincides: precedes in that the prescription for the said is signification itself or the inaugural moment of differentiation of the indifferent, and follows insofar as saying is itself always a promise of a future and unanticipateable saying. Waiting is rich in and of itself: in waiting, the said proliferates as that restlessness, which is the s/he who speaks, “shudders” in between presence and absence. Always falling away to an infinite distance, the saying is always infinitely near.

Poor and rich: the one is the other. Of course one can take the sense of “l’une est l’autre” to apply to the restlessnesses themselves which speak in this text, and Blanchot implies as much from the very beginning: “Qui parle?” asks the woman speaker. “Qui parle donc?” Elle avait le sentiment d’une erreur qu’elle ne parvenait pas à situer” (7). [11] This “error” may be the speakers themselves, caught in a Levinasian relation which is no relation, the proximity and distance between the Same (figured here as the male voice) and the Other (figured as the female voice), which calls into question the very differentiation between Same and Other while exposing the moment which will become the Same to that exteriority which will become the Other, although they never will properly keep their places, as they are already without proper names.

Thus the saying exhausts itself in the said without itself ever coming to have a voice or a name. The expression of the impossible self of the interlocutor is borne upon speech as a certain silence which the male protagonist will characterize as a “parole égale”: “Cette parole égale, espacée sans espace, affirmant au-dessous de toute affirmation, impossible à nier, trop fable pour être tue, trop docile pour être contenue, ne disant pas quelque chose, parlant seulement, parlant sans vie, sans voix, à voix plus basse que toute voix” (156). [12] Here, the female presence which is always turned away from the male protagonist is the expression itself of the woman’s speech, always silent but “heard” in the “even speech” of her voice, where it leaves its traces as it withdraws. It withdraws. Well, there is no “it” if we are talking here of Levinasian au-delà d’être; “it” is the outside of it-ness and is the sheer tendency-to of potentiality. But “it” attends speech in a such a way that one can never grasp it as it slides away into “its” own past and future. Presence is not even virtual but slips away from an interminable waiting even as it comes to the surface of unfolding speech.

If anyone has “grasped” the potential for the absence of the self to engender a “rich” waiting filled with speech, it would be Samuel Beckett. Although it is to him we owe a certain gloomy negativity arising around the thought that the subject may be impossible to say, Beckett does nonetheless go to the heart of a possibility of language which founds itself on this impossibility. In Compagnie, for instance, that the scene -- which cannot be seen or if so only by demi-jour -- is imagined by someone (but who?), and that the question is that of “why or” and “who asks,” suggests a subjectivity “shuddering” between differentiation and nondifferentiation, and though one might not think to attribute any sort of “inquiétude” to “quelqu’un sur le dos dans le noir” (7), there is a certain linguistic unrest haunting and calling into question the very personages in this text. It is not clear, even with the denouement of “toi tel que toujours. Seul,” just how alone the protagonist is or for that matter how many protagonists there are and which of them are narrating and which are narrated. One “autre” follows “un autre” and at times we are not sure even if the narrator is a figment when we are faced with an “Imaginant imaginé imaginant le tout pour se tenir compagnie” (63); the suggestion seems to be that “tu” is himself imaginary or perhaps that he who is imagining “tu” is imaginary and one begins to suspect an infinite regress of others imagining others imagining.

This raises some interesting ontological questions regarding him who speaks: “compagnie” only lasts while someone is speaking, or imagined to be speaking, and when words come to an end “you” are left alone, and considering that “you” too might be imaginary, or only discursively existent, alone and silent might equal non-existent. That “you” might persist once the words end at the end of Compagnie we can’t say for certain, for there is quite literally no more mention of “you” and the indication seems to be that one (the narrator?) must keep speaking in order to keep being. Remembering, though, that “you” might be imaginary, that is, a feature of the discourse of “un autre,” we see that Beckett is addressing a radically linguistic question to the ontology of speaking and spoken beings. “You” are dependent on the designation as such by an other, who is dependent on the designation as such by “un autre encore,” and so on down the line. As Bersani and Dutoit suggest, we are dealing with the spread of company and linguistic identity from the mouth of one to the mouth of another and I would suggest even the very being of company is dependent upon transmitted utterance. That is, without a call to “you,” you never come to be as such.

And of course the call is repeated, not only in the postulated regress of others imagining, but, as elsewhere in Beckett, under a kind of compulsion to constitute something, anything, out of speech or writing. A work such as Pas moi, where the speaking subject is nothing but a mouth which is apparently refusing an unheard command to say “moi” in reference to itself, could be seen to underscore a Levinasian realization that the self is always lacking its own presence and that this unavoidable disinvestiture results in a speech gone mad in its inability ever to say itself with any finality. In this play, “moi” is not repeated at all, as the point here seems to be that “moi” is out of the question, yet speech itself repeats itself ad nauseum, unable ever to close upon the subject. The interesting thing about Pas moi is that it dramatizes a refusal to answer the call to be a subject and yet this refusal does not result in any kind of release from the obligation to say, to narrativize, to attempt to make present in some way, even if only in the third person.

In contrast, the compulsion in Compagnie, if there is one, stems from a desire for “compagnie” on the part of someone, although just who that someone is -- the narrator? the writer imagining the narrator? the figure on its back in the dark imagining it all? “encore un autre,” unspecified? -- is up for question, although here again the call issuing from “un autre” inaugurates the whole scene as “Une voix” which “parvient à quelqu’un” (7). A discourse on the role of desire in the approach of the Other to the Same would take up far more room than I have left here; what I do want to point out, however, is that a certain desire underwrites this approach -- and Levinas is explicit about the desire of the Same for the Other -- and that this desire is itself rendered problematic as any kind of personal desire, or desire for an object, again by the confounding of the very categories of self and other implied in the thought of absolute exteriority. What might a desire look like which arises prior to any appearance of a personal “will,” or “need”? What would a “restless” desire, outside of the bounds of a proper desiring subject turned towards a discrete object, constitute as its “subject” and “object”? Or could it constitute such entities? These questions again imply that the question of agency on the part of the subject towards its object is also problematic, and any thinking of the will prior to propriety will have either to oscillate between the poles of voluntariness and involuntariness or figure itself outside of both.

This of course would be a figuration outside of figuration, insofar as it would “figure” the event of signification itself, or the one-for-the-other of a primary coming-to-be of language, the moment at which alterity approaches and institutes the mark, the differentiation of Same and Other, which becomes the first differentiation of language itself. I mentioned earlier that I would like to employ the figure -- which may not be a figure, or which may name something which couldn’t possibly be figured and thus misses its object entirely (and yet I’m going to employ it anyway) -- of metonymy to delineate this process of delineation. I feel the necessity to emphasize that this move is an experiment of sorts, and that I am using “metonymy” in a perhaps slightly “loose” fashion, in that what I wish to emphasize in metonymy are the relations of contiguity and differentiation sustained by its terms. These relations bear some parallel to the relations of proximity and distance which the approach of the other absolutely other institutes in regard to the Same, and a certain “play” of metonymy may itself bear the trace of the initial “senseless” -- because prior to sens -- differentiation of the Same and the Other as such, or signification as such. Thus I wonder if metonymic differentiation can function as a sign of difference itself, of the unsaid and the unsayable. Again, I undertake an impossible undertaking here, as even metonymic speech or writing is a said, and always the signification or sens of that said retires immediately into an unsaid.

It may also be that metonymy could be used as a figure for the restlessness of discourse, for its pure iteration without ideal limit, and thus as a sort of prefigurement of an infinite potential, an infinite exposure to the linguistic gesture, and an infinite withdrawal of that exposure from the linguistic gesture. Thus metonymy may stand in for both the promise and destitution of language, its ever multiplying iterations and its constant failure at saying its own signification, both of which result in a stream issuing from the very impropriety inherent in the impossible distinction between Same and Other, between subject and object.

To make what can only be the briefest of ponderings of the possibilities of a poetics of metonymy and restlessness, I would like to make a turn towards Gertrude Stein and then to the literature of the American West. In Stein we can construe a metonymic method of composition straining at the limits of sens and I would like to frame an ethical question, which will necessarily remain unanswered, upon the restlessness and flatness of the metonymic field, by taking a look at the tradition of frontier literature, at Jack London and at the dystopic vision of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I fully expect to do little but scratch the most superficial of surfaces; however, the questions raised will be among those I wish to pursue in the months ahead.

Although one might expect of metonymic association a stream of orthographically and sensically differing terms, it may be even more instructive to take a look at a metonymy of the apparently same, in order to locate there the minimum of difference which fuels repetition itself. In “Natural Phenomena,” Stein writes: “There can be past and present and future which succeed and rejoin . . . The only complexity is the time sense that adds that creates complexity in composition. Let us begin over and over again. Let us begin again and again and again.” There are two chains of association here: “past and present and future which succeed and rejoin,” and “Let us begin again and again and again.” Although it repeats the “same” word over and over “again,” I wish to argue that it is the second chain which is metonymic and which pushes the boundaries of good sense as well as presence.

That a declaration which seems to repeat itself in the present (for if we begin again and again and again, how can we move out of an obsession with standing still in time?) might call presence into question may seem paradoxical. And it may just be so. However, the linking of “past and present and future” constitutes a sort of totality,to borrow from Levinas, of all possible time and as such would seem to want to render present and solid the whole of any event, of any time which passes. In contrast, a series such as “again and again and again” has no natural stopping point and is implicitly infinite and thus ungraspable in concept, to borrow from Levinas again, and thus refractory to being made present to any kind of cognition. Here the repetition of the “same” suggests the totally other of infinite iteration and in doing so illustrates a sort of minimum of difference in repetition itself, a difference that does not rely on any concept but rather the very enactment of contiguity and differentiation in a metonymic chain.

Stein has her own way of designating this minimum of difference. In “Portraits and Repetition” she writes:

Is there repetition or is there insistence. I am inclined to believe there is no such thing as repetition. . . . [O]nce started expressing this thing, expressing any thing there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis. And so let us think seriously of the difference between repetition and insistence. (288)

For Stein the thing that varies in the repetition of the “same” is emphasis, but I would like to suggest that this emphasis is the pulse of the alterity of the moment which succeeds the moment, or a difference over a time which is given in the approach of alterity, as Derrida points out in his essay on Levinas in L’Écriture et la différence. This “insistence,” a sort of silent pulsion at the heart of repetition, creates a chasm of alterity between “again” and “again” and “again” even while the differences between each “again” are not construable on the basis of the concept signified by each “again.” “Good sense” is confounded in the sheer iterability of difference without a concept, and the implication that this series could be repeated to infinity renders it incomprehensible.

The result is a certain restlessness of the present, a certain impossibility of making the present present, or of catching that present in the web of memory and recognition, where not only would it be already said and thus past, but from which the “alterity of each instant” would already have escaped. Stein has this to say about repetition and memory:
anything one is remembering is a repetition, but . . . being listening and hearing is never repetition. It is not repetition if it is that which you are actually doing because naturally each time the emphasis is different just as the cinema has each time a slightly different theing to make it all be moving. (295)

After all, is it not memory that fixes the present panoramically as this past, resembling others? In Stein memory is suspect for just this fixing of resemblances, but the difference which appears in apparent repetition unfolds itself as the infinitely reiterated singular (but exchangeable: one “again” can substitute for another “again”) moment that eludes re-membering. Always fugitive, the reverberation of this present which cannot be recognized, which cannot be present, which is exterior to any concept, could be thought of as the repetition of difference itself.

I have relied here on a more or less reflective piece wherein Stein ponders her own methods; there is of course a near-infinity of (non)repetitive examples from her more primary works. Allow me to look very briefly at How to Write, at part of a passage I like to call “the symphony of ‘it’”:

It is past and best known as their delight and they can encourage it with more than it is within and called for as it has without any reserve been left to them. It has been left to them. Could homes be known as not known.
This is it with it as it is. It is better to have two and seven that is two longer and seven smaller than to be left to be delightful as they please and they do please they like to have it known as very much which within when they made it change from their having been all alike owning for them what is after all to guess well as much as for the change of their adding this to nearly there which is why it is not . . . . (287)

This passage occurs in the chapter headed “A Vocabulary of Thinking” and as such might seem a nearly formless succession of words, the stuff of which thoughts are made, but there are two different metonymic moves being made here that suggest that Stein is referencing something which cannot be referenced, and that is the very signification of thought itself. The repetition of the word “it” lends a certain senseless order to the proceedings, both invoking and provoking what could easily turn out to be an infinite series of phrases which never quite say any thing. Thus the two metonymic progressions here consist, one, of the variety of the repetition of the “same,” and the other, of a stream of loosely associated phrases which if anything only emphasize their apparent similarities as interchangeable clauses that might be used to form a sensible sentence or two. As a result -- and this occurs everywhere in Stein -- the repetition of the bare differentiations which make thought possible, that is, the differentiations which begin to flow once the differentiation between Same and Other occurs, which is to say, the differentiation of signification itself which falls away from its own mention, is all that arises from this text without a referential depth but emblematic of the possibility of referentiality, of reflection, of recognition. The title, How to Write, suddenly becomes clear in a sort of perverse simplicity: to write, one must make the mark of signification, must chase after that which cannot be made present and yet which rises to the surface of any telling whatsoever.

This next shift may seem untoward and it will thankfully be my last, but I would like to pass a little from the abstract idea of restlessness toward a literary instance of restlessness depicted and a historical instance of restlessness recorded.

(from here i go on to talk about the frontier imagination and the restlessness of the "avant-garde" of American "civilization," a group whose "lawlessness" not only calls into question the values of the empire whose imperialism it made possible, but founds the discursive formations of that empire on violence itself. i don't know if i can do this in four paragraphs. i need to.)

------

Notes:

[1] And is this the point at which to acknowledge that my use of the first person looks glaringly uncritical in the light of what I am about to undertake regarding the subject? Perhaps. For now I will just say that for “I” one might simply think: “a particular voice.” I hope my questioning of the “I” is explicit enough to call me into question. I have much thinking to do on this problem, but in the meantime I am irresistably drawn towards first-person writing. You might call it an obsession.

[2] All translations of Levinas into English will be those of Alphonso Lingis. He translates the above as: “The way of the I against the “other” of the world consists in sojourning, in identifying oneself by existing here at home with oneself. In a world which is from the first other the I is nonetheless autochthonous” (37).

[3] Levinas himself does not explicitly pursue the possible plurality of others in either text under consideration here; however, the translation of “autrui” as the (singular) Other seems problematic to me in that it elides the plurality inherent in the French. Together with Derrida’s assertions concerning “autrui” (see below), I think it is important to keep the ambiguity of the original word in mind when thinking about “the Other.”

[4] I must admit to not yet having worked out the precise differences implied by Levinas’ alternating use of “l’autre” and “Autrui”; at times it seems the other (l’autre) is a larger category designating a sort of generic otherness while the Other (Autrui) is a non-indifferent singular “other” who is precisely a “who” or an “anyone” without being a generic category for “all others.” In this essay I will use “the Other” to speak of the “who” who approaches, whereas Levinas sometimes uses “l’autre” and sometimes “Autrui.”

[5] “[The Other] and I do not form a number. The collectivity in which I say ‘you’ or ‘we’ is not a plural of the ‘I.’ I, you -- these are not individuals of a common concept. Neither possession or the unity of number nor the unity of concepts link me to the Stranger” (39).

[6] “Signification is not an ideal essence or a relation open to intellectual intuition, thus still analogous to the sensation presented to the eye. It is preeminently the presence of exteriority” (66).

[7] “a presence more direct than visible manifestation, and at the same time a remote presence” (66).

[8] “Obsession, in which difference shudders as non-indifference” (83)

[9] “sensibility is being affected by a non-phenomenon, a being put in question by the alterity of the other, before the intervention of a cause, before the appearing of the other. It is a pre-original not resting on oneself, the restlessness of someone persecuted - Where to be? How to be?It is a writhing in the tight dimensions of pain, the usnsuspected dimensions of the hither side. It is being torn up from oneself, being less than nothing” (75)

[10] The translation of L’Attente l’oubli is that of John Gregg. Thus the above: “Sterile waiting, always poorer and emptier. Full waiting, always richer in waiting. The one is the other” (26).

[11] “She sensed an error that she could not put her finger on” (1).

[12] “This even speech, spaced without space, affirming beneath all affirmation, impossible to deny, too weak to be silenced, too docile to be contained, not saying something, only speaking, speaking without life, without a voice, in a voice lower than any other” (82).
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