Signatures and styles (Characters II)

1. Traces: In unfinished sentences. In the one sentence that refuses to leave, “like a handprint on your heart”. In the voices of indirect language, nothing is left unsaid yet, for all that, mutual understanding is eminently unsatisfying. I know that you know, but that is not sufficient. When it comes to another who remains an other—who remains distant, untouchable, and who possibly may not even hear what we have to say—we can find no satiety. In the midst of the most perfect understanding available to our language—for example, in an unspoken agreement, a slight nod, the upturned corner of a lip, or even in a sigh of content—we can find ourselves under the most violent, nauseating reduction, i.e., within the unbearable solipsism of absolute immanence. In such immanence there can be no exterior, “nothing else than this”. I am alone and present with myself (a divided being); I am bound to myself, unable to escape myself: this is the burden of identity, i.e., the impossibility of not being myself, even if I am nothing more than a solitary dreamer who is deceived into believing that there are others who see and understand me.

But even if all we have is the faint recollection of those we cannot even really be sure existed for us, they always leave traces—in words and lacerations, in images and memories, and in the spaces we refuse to visit because we are only able to walk the same paths as they, following the footprints that have been left behind. We follow, simply to see them fly ahead, even if every freedom leaves a trace that cannot be forgotten.

“Out of incidents comes a “Mark!” that would not otherwise be thus; or a “Mark!” that already is, that takes little incidents as traces and examples. They point out a “less” or “more” that will have to be thought in the retelling, retold in the thinking; that isn’t right in these stories, because things aren’t right with us, or with anything.” (Bloch)

2. “The Prose of the World”: Against itself, identity is compelled to fortify its integrity against dissolution into the impersonal “it” of the simple “there is …” [il y a], i.e., to be drawn into what is unthinkable (which, we say, always remains available to us as “the last option”). But so long as there remains even the smallest trace to catch our attention and to make us pause, there will always be room for one more story, even if it should be told to no one but ourselves.

In the immediate urgency and intensity of pathetic self-presence, we are tethered to a constant battle against a fundamental contradiction contained in the bidirectionality of appearance. The infinity of (self-)expression is restrained by the exigencies of a world that appears to us as finite. We ourselves are not the source of finitude, even if we are its servants. We find our possibilities scattered amidst a world of bare objects to be consumed, shaped, and resisted; we cannot find the right words; we are obligated to work, health, sex, and religion. This is why the story, for example, is often taken to be inferior to music: the former gives expression to our all-too-human destiny while the latter offers a glimpse to what is otherwise banished from our earthly life.

We find the “meaning” of our lives, our “own” lives, dispersed among the tenuous fragments of the world that come within our reach—in the friends and strangers who cross our paths, the books that find their way into our hands, or the motility that forms in our bodies. It is from these fragments that we assemble the secrets that we take care to measure carefully in the extent to which we trust that others at least know that they exist even if they do not know what they are. These private thoughts, however, are precisely the most visible about us because if they really are “who” we are, they give us the very form and figure by which we are seen at all. We are seen as ambiguous, which is to say we can be misunderstood and misrepresented. This does not mean, however, that we might be more “accurately” represented if only we could be seen for who we “really” are, but, on the contrary, that our very visibility precludes the transparency of our appearance. It is for this reason our silence, even if it is unintentional, reveals who we are by our refusal “to remove all doubt”. I appear in my silence, not with this or that meaning or as this or that kind of person, but as this or that, i.e., “I” become an effect of this “or”, for only when that “or” is decided do “I” appear.

This is why my possibilities are not my possibilities: we find our possibilities in lessons and auditions, in characters and role models, in greetings and surprises, and, of course, in language and in the names (by which) we are called. We must search for possibilities, of course, but so too they must offer themselves to us. This is also true of our language insofar as our prose admits only two terms in the relation (poetry require at least three)—nature and word—in which we are caught in a dizzying circulation that manifests as science, history, and literature. We are able to read the world (and to read the character of others), but so too our characters are capable of being read by being in the world. By the “cunning” of reason, in our very attempts to sketch our “own” characters, we become characters within the prose of the world.

It is for this reason that even the anonymity of a forgettable character is preferable to us than the oblivion of one who has never existed. There can still be ecstasy in the crowd, however, which is not, strictly speaking, impersonal but supra- or hyper-personal. To be “lost” in the crowd is still a mode of existence (this is why, for example, fascism is the shadow of democracy), but there is no existence for the one who is only a statistic (which is why we always struggle to give each statistic a story).

To be “lost” in the crowd is not only a negative mode of existence, however: insofar as the crowd offers a community of meaning, it functions positively as a mode of affirmation: “Yes, I agree” or “Yes, I know what you mean” or “Yes, we can”. We know, of course, that to separate ourselves from the crowd is only an initial gesture, since if the point is to be recognized as different, we are still affirmed as such by the ones who are the same.

This is why so many of the characters available to us are not only clichés but perversions (which, if they remain clichés, are perverions but not subversions). It is one thing for us to recognize the reduction of the human to the biological in the Third Reich; what does it mean for Littell’s Aue (a former SS officer) to say “So I came to think [at Auschwitz]: wasn’t the camp itself, with all the rigidity of its organization, its absurd violence, its meticulous hierarchy, just a metaphor, a reductio ad absurdum of everyday life?” This is the same character that opens his story with the words “My human brothers, let me tell you how it came to pass”. Who are these “human brothers” that, by virtue of their humanity, must have been absent for the story to need telling? Under what conditions of inhumanity (viz., of our inhumanity) does this character exist for us? What does it mean for a character such as this to exist at all? – But better to be a monstrous character than a well-functioning desiring machine.

“The whole outward visible world with all its being is a signature, or figure of the inward spiritual world … Thus everything which is generated out of the internal has its signature; the superior form, which is chief in the spirit of the working in the power, does most especially sign the body, and the other forms hang to it …” (Böhme)

3. “The Most Improbable Signature”: Though we often mistake style for the signature, we always look, for example, for the signature of the painter or we hear the unmistakable signature of the composer. When a counterfeit deceives us, when it is so good to mimic the signature of the “real”, it is precisely there that the artist’s signature is most visible: the counterfeit doubles the original and repeats, in every instance, the gesture of the original signature, which becomes a transcendental (metaphysical and temporal) presence. This is why, for example, under the “hyper-reality” of free signifiers, the contemporary problem of “identity theft” becomes so problematic: divorced from the real our signatures are autonomous and effective without us. Yet the “I” of the signature is not only “peculiar and special” (Austin’s qualifications) in its use and function but in the very mode of its being (Derrida): “My brothers, here is the story I have to tell.” The “I” here does not precede its utterance but is the “I” that has and will always have said it. We can no longer say “I am not that person anymore” and, if we had never told our story, we would never have existed. By the very same act that we leave our mark, we are surpassed by those to whom it is addressed and, in this surpassing, they leave their traces on us.

“Others form man; I tell of him, and portray a particular one, very ill-formed, whom I should really make very different from what he is if I had to fashion him over again. But now it is done.” (Montaigne)

4. Under the imperative of self-knowledge, the reflective consciousness always looks elsewhere. Our understanding runs the risk of being the mask behind which hide ourselves. The paradox is not simply that, to understand ourselves, we must be understood by others (in language, in communication, in archetypes, etc), nor that self-understanding requires the non-coincidence of myself to myself. The question is not one of intelligibility (how I do or do not fit); rather we have an essentially ontological question: where there is a fragment of being, there is a style of being (Merleau-Ponty); or, according to the great Plotninian insight, being is an effect of expression and not its cause. In the distance between the determinate individual and the idea of that individual there lies the expression without which existence cannot pass. It is not only the “unity of a world” that I recognize as a style but without a style nothing appears at all (which is also why the appearance of nothing is itself a style). Appearance, however, does not require a “universal” style if every appearance is itself a style.

Being and phenomenon converge in style. As Jameson observes in his earliest encounter with Sartre, “consciousness is pure, impersonal; even the feeling of having a personality is external to it, a kind of mirage … Mathieu is a consciousness at odds with the problem of freedom: impersonal and absolute, what he perceives is an ultimate reality. There is no other truth of things behind his perception unless we make the leap into a second consciousness and its truth and world, the reality of his consciousness is limited only by that of others, and there is no privileged place where these worlds finally meet and correct each other and form a single objective real world. Mathieu is his situation, his reality is a constant present developing itself; but at the same time, above that present in places we find traces of older recurrent character problems that remind us of their existence before our attention to the present sweeps them away again …” But, as we have seen with someone like Littell’s Aue, it is not the case that “the reality of the novel does not exactly coincide … with the reality of the human beings which are its subject matter”. We say, for example, that the characters of a novel are always in their situations—in which they are the heroes, the victims, and the accomplices—but they lack the possibility of reflecting on their situations, which is the task of consciousness. Yet we know that our own reality never comes under the purview of consciousness, either (at best we retain such awareness as a possibility by analogy with the unity of God’s essence and existence).

In addition to a style of being, characters have a style of life. To resist the conflation of a style to a type or a category (which has especially befallen so-called “alternative” styles such as punk, the avant-garde, etc), style must be understood not only as the inflections of a language, but the creation of new languages. What matters is not the scene of thoughts—the fields and milieux in which they appear as concepts and systems—but their style. On the one hand, a style of life manifests in a certain power of doing and acting, of creation and generation, of drawing those famous “lines of flight” of which Deleuze spoke. We might, alternatively, call a style of life what Ravisson called “habit”, which is “the infinitesimal differential, or, the dynamic fluxion from Will to Nature. Nature is the limit of the regressive movement proper to habit. Consequently, habit can be considered as a method—as the only real method—for the estimation, by a convergent infinite series, of the relation, real in itself but incommensurable in the understanding, of Nature and Will”. We must, in other words, always “find our way about” even as we already know our way about. We are simply this self-transcending nature—that creates its own differences, variations, and fractals—but what we are only appears as an identity, i.e., in time as the point where being contracts into the singularity of a unique appearance.

“[S]tyle also uses its spur as a means of protection against the terrifying, blinding, mortal threat (of that) which presents itself, which obstinately thrusts itself into view. And style thereby protects the presence, the content, the thing itself, meaning, truth—on the condition at least that it should not already be that gaping chasm which has been deflowered in the unveiling of the difference. Already, such is the name for what has been effaced or subtracted beforehand, but which nevertheless left behind a mark, a signature which is retracted in that very thing from which it is withdrawn. Withdrawn from the here and now, the here and now which must be accounted for.” (Derrida)

5. If we have survived the destruction of experience at the hands of war, the viral proliferation of information, and the sublimations of enjoyment, in its continued destitution, what we require today is not only a style of life (such as some have called philosophy), which is manifest in our appearance, but new styles of thinking that are neither mine nor yours, subjective nor objective, mythic nor logical; not Greek but perhaps, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis says, Etruscan; whose matter and form are not only words but sounds and movements; whose task is not to think itself but “to sing its other” (Desmond); whose language is the regard in which we hold each other or the promise offered to a young child; whose vessel is the justice that continues to elude this world; that can construct a world from a single tear, a note, a sentence, a gust of wind or an afternoon storm, a one-way street, or a peal of laughter.

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