Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Little Blank Stones

Lee Edelman's lecture, "The Queer and the Zero" (UC Irvine, April 20), included powerful close readings of Derrida's Archive Fever and interview "9/11 and Global Terrorism" that highlighted Derrida's investment in survival. I don't have the text of Edelman's lecture, but I remember especially his citation of Derrida's statement in the interview with Giovanna Borradori that "If we are to put any faith in the perfectibility of public space and of the world juridico-political scene, of the 'world' itself, then there is, it seems to me, nothing good to be hoped for from that quarter [of the 'bin Laden effect']" (9/11 and Global Terrorism: A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida [Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003]). Against Derrida's ultimately conservative tendency to defer to a future that is not really entirely unknown since it must include the imperative to survival, Edelman places a confrontation with annihilation, impossible to realize stably, that would open the way to the heretofore unknown thinking that the reflexive commitment to survival forecloses.

In principle, I agree with all of this. I've written some similar things about late Derrida, and one thing that interested me as I listened to Edelman's talk was that I started to think of reasons to unwrite those things. Reading a passage of Derrida's "Faith and Knowledge" in which "Derrida associates 'keeping quiet' with letting live, 'stop[ping] short of that which must or should remain safe and sound, intact, unscathed, before what must be allowed to be what it ought to be'" (“Faith and Knowledge: Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone” [1996], in Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, trans. Samuel Weber [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998], p. 50, quoted in Terada, "Scruples, or, Faith in Derrida," SAQ 106 (2007), 237-264, p. 256), I wished that Derrida had not felt the need to make the religious gesture of remaining tactful about what everyone knows, even if no one can prove it--that eventually everything living will be gone, and no one left to remember. Derrida seems to use the unprovability of this eventuality as a pretext for discretion, allowing a conceptual space for the tiny probability of survival, which he associates in turn with the sacred. My point was that the rhetoric of magical thinking does no actual saving, while the category of sacredness tends to repress other thoughts and feelings one might have and need to know about. I contrasted Derrida's pathos to de Man's laconic observation, preferable to my taste, that we are “quite powerless to convert even the smallest particle of nature into something human” (“The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed. [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983], 214).

During Edelman's attack on Archive Fever, though, I wanted more of a sense that what Derrida usually likes in his late work is discretion in the handling of objects and situations, a freedom to act towards things in a certain way, and not delusion in one's actual beliefs about survival. One might argue that resistance to annihilation per se gets displaced, in Derrida's concern for manner, into the management of annihilation. In the style of radicalized utterance we find in works such as Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, however, Derrida might respond that this kind of discretion depends for its performance on the utter realization of its futility; on that realization its Kantian ethic--an ethic for nothing--depends. In Edelman's terms, such acts of discretion show denial or disavowal of annihilation. They might be conceived instead as expressive responses to the recognized inevitability of complete annihilation.

It's true that they are memorial gestures. Derrida writes such a gesture for the Wolf-Man, averring respect for the secrecy of the "magic word" that Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok argue was the Wolf-Man's obsession. "Derrida identifies himself with the Wolf-Man, describing himself as writing only the words that come before the magic word: 'I’ll stop here . . . setting down on the edge of the crypt the little blank stone of a scruple, a voiceless word for the thought alone, on the sole path, in order to engage others to it, of a crypt'" (Derrida, “Fors,” trans. Barbara Johnson, foreword to Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Wolf-Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy, trans. Nicholas Rand [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987], xiii; quoted in Terada, "Scruples," 259). There are imaginary others here to be engaged in some future. But a scruple is not an act, but a holding back. The memorial language is "a voiceless word," and the memorial stone is a "little blank stone" that does not seem likely to be distinguished from a common pebble and that therefore seems to be imagined not to be legible to the "others" that would supposedly be engaged. Future memory isn't completely released here, and that is certainly Derrida's point, but that's just it--it's "not released" instead of being expected and pursued.

That tenuous attitude has been as frustrating to readers who want Derrida to take more constructive actions as it is now to Edelman, who wants him to give up entirely on the weak futurity it implies. Listening, after a while these positions sounded closer to one another than to Derrida, and Derrida began to sound resistant and queer. Leaving an illegible stone for others to read--and this is archive fever, preserving things even from ourselves by placing them where we can never find them again--is either disavowal or perversity. Reading it as disavowal seems to assume that, annihilation having been glimpsed, there is only one possible attitudinal response, a kind of being swept away, breathless, to the "blank page of freedom" (Edelman). But are there other attitudes, between being so taken (however briefly) and disavowal? (Similar questions could be asked of other truths, or what gets cast as truths.) Bearing the example of the Wolf-Man in mind, what would a perverse response to the apprehension of annihilation look like? Leaving the stone would seem to be an oblique mode of consignment to annihilation rather than a disavowal of it.... What is gained by moralizing, pathologizing this gesture?

image: pine nuts, Bell Canyon, CA


sodapopinski51 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
RT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
etc said...

It is interesting to think about pairs of psychological responses in which one is assigned the function of defense as other examples of the attitudes involved in such gestures. I am thinking about mania and depression, as well as about anxiety and depression, and thinking about how mania and anxiety can both be classed as defensive (i.e. signals or motors of repression). In these cases, the gesture of disavowal becomes so much more its own thing--i mean a thing that is understood through its symptomatic emergence and characteristics rather than through its classificiation as a disavowal--that it would seem dangerous or at best unhelpful not to have some means of thinking about these manic, anxious, other states.

Cuff Link said...

I had a problem with Derrida’s “The Gift of Death”. I’ve only read it once but I’m going to make another pass through it. He tackles “True Gift” by suggesting that death itself is outside of economy. He says that death can neither be given nor taken, that each death is to the person. One might delay another’s death but one can never face it for them or take it from them. It is a personal privilege and an experience that falls outside of all economy. And I was very impressed with that.

The obvious dilemma, the repayment of faith in the afterlife, is settled with a resurrection of Nietzsche. He basically ends with a wink and a question mark. I wasn’t impressed. But I could change my mind when I go back through.

What I was left with fell into two parts:

First: Death is not perceived as a gift, typically. Why? I’ve resolved myself to the belief that the mechanisms inherent to our survival, mechanisms that coat and contain events from our conscious, are vigorously at work when we think of death.

Second: If we were to unwrap death and attempt to define the contents as a gift then there is only one way that it could be described. That death is the gift of the human’s relationship to time. That is to say that my perception of being has no relevance without an end.

The gift death delivers is a realization of the ephemeral nature of our being and, when we are in the right mind, an ability to truly appreciate the state of being alive. And it doesn't cost a penny.