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.

Characters

1. “What are you hiding?” – If something were truly hidden, would we even know that it were? Or, perhaps the more interesting question is on the other side: to hide something, must we know that we are hiding it? Are we always so jealous of what we hide that we need to display it for all to see or, perhaps, only for those who know us better than we know ourselves? – “Only something precious, or something terrible, is worth hiding.” – But we cannot choose the circumstances that impress themselves on us. This is, however, precisely why we must press on: because hope is not who we are but who we might be. (But the price we pay for hope is one that is not always easy to bear.)

2. Under the ideology of authenticity, clichés are to us what natal charts are to the astrologer. Just as our character is written in the stars, so too we call ourselves by what we think we are. It is not our fate that is read from our resemblance to the stars but it is this resemblance that makes us worthy of having a fate which, by definition, we cannot know until we are forced to suffer it. And just as our fate is conditioned by our character, so too our characters are conditioned by the very descriptions we use, i.e., by the way we are seen as characters and always represented in a genre.

3. There are some characters that we say we would like to be, but the more interesting question is who the characters are that we refuse to be. These are usually the ones we would like not to give a second thought. Some of these have names (Willie Loman, for example) but there are those whose names are unknown to us—the clichéd, forgettable ones: the barfly, the groupie, or even the victim.

But then we are caught in a double-bind. We cannot exactly “aspire” to the average. It’s by being beholden to the role cast by “others” that we are already a part of the crowd and the value of a life will always be buried in the enjoyment parceled in paid time off, ounces, and dollars.

But, on the other hand, any attempt to write our own character will also be confronted with another economy: our characters only have meaning insofar as they are recognizable within a genre. In other words, there will always be a general name for our characters, since any non-Adamic language contains more than proper names (“the unique one” is itself a cliché).

4. What we require, then, is not a model of authenticity but a theory of communication that is not merely linguistic but narrative: an “inter-subjective” account of language still requires subjective models (without being constructed from the latter). All this means is that just as language is originally metaphorical, so too discourse occurs as an effect of the way in which we express our characters, replete with the deceptions and ambiguities that such expression entails.

Why write? (On the prelude, à la manière de Sartre)

The danger of writing is falling into the false dichotomy of production and consumption. In both cases, writing is therapeutic and, therefore, outside the economy of use: either we write to “express ourselves” (discharge of affect) or we take pleasure in words that express what we are not ourselves able to say. In both cases, the appropriate response is merely “Amen” and our words fall flat despite our enthusiasm precisely by being absorbed into the economy of exchange according to which the meaning of our words is exhausted by either our intention or by our understanding. There is writing, however, whose existence is not that of understanding. This is not, of course, to say that the purpose of such writing is to be misunderstood. This is a writing that enables us to go on, i.e., not to persist in being but, in a precise sense, to ex-ist. This is the sense of the corpus that we get, for example, in its most profound sense in Nietzsche (here Gasché is most certainly correct). What, Nietzsche asks, is a writing that sounds? What is the body the writer creates? What is the experience that writing makes possible?

Affliction; or: fate and circumstance

1. The existence of fate depends on the extent to which we have ceased to believe in it. This will seem paradoxical only to the one for whom fate is nothing but circumstance—especially those circumstances in which we find ourselves burdened by the weight of exteriority (including the projected aspects of our character that we assign to the carelessness of nature)—“my father was an alcoholic”; “our family has always been susceptible to heart disease”; “what are the chances we would both cross this intersection right now?”; “I had the moral good fortune to be born into a democratic state”; “I just have an addictive personality”.

It is by crying against the injustice of fate that we are able to love everything about ourselves that we hate—for if this is our fate, then there is no one to blame. It cannot be the fault of God since to hold God accountable for our miserable fate would be to believe in him (and to believe in God we cannot hold him accountable for our suffering); neither can we blame a nature indifferent to my own sense of dessert (apart from the providence of God) in which I have merely the illusion of uniqueness due to the fact that I must experience the world from its exterior—I am only “in” the world by being able to separate myself from it in/by thought.

But, of course, fate is not always unkind. But we all know how difficult, how terrifying, and how breathtaking it is really to affirm fate and not simply to delight in the immediate enjoyment of our present circumstance. This is precisely why we can be afflicted only by fate and not by circumstance. Fate is neither the cause of circumstance nor its justification, for we would then be affirming fate by suffering it. We suffer fate when we consign ourselves to “the way things are”, even if we are merely accepting the consequences of our own decisions. The most terrible psychological task is not to affirm fate but to deny it, i.e., to be afflicted by it. To deny fate does not mean simply to rail against its injustice but, rather, to strive to be all one is not. But such a task is by definition impossible—we can only be that which we are. If it is a matter of will, then we might say that to be afflicted by fate is to will one’s inexistence (which should not be confused with the impulse to non-existence or, in other words, the will not to exist—we all know why suicide cannot be the will to non-existence, since it has meaning only from within the immanence of life), which often manifests, confusedly, as feeling trapped under one’s skin, as a rebellion against the state of the world or an incongruity between self and world. But at stake in such a will is not the preservation of what one is. But we can have no knowledge of what is not and, therefore, we cannot will what is not. To be afflicted by fate, then, is to have an objectless will or, in other words, a purely subjective will, an I willing nothing—not the will “to be nothing” nor the feeling of “being nothing”, but willing as the middle term between the phenomenon of the I and the mark of nothing.

2. There is a vulgar materialism that is simply another name for an inverted dualism and not, as it would have us believe, a pure monism according to which there are only bodies. The thesis that “I am my body” still accomplishes the feat of imprisoning the soul by reducing soul to body. The mistake here is to consider soul as “immaterial” (and therefore not-body) or to confuse materiality with body. The political consequences of such a materialism are banal at best and deadly at worst: in the reduction of personality to the shape of a contorted face (equivalently in pleasure or in anguish), we are left with the figure of a “bare humanity” (to adapt one of Agamben’s terms)—a humanity defined biologically, yet in such a way that separates humanity and nature even when, ostensibly, such a “materialism” should do the opposite—for the meaning of “right” ceases to have any meaning unless humans have a special kind of body. But, we should wonder, what exactly is so special about the human body? This is the ideology behind the banality “prick us, do we not bleed?”. To accomplish such normalization, do we not need precisely to prick? to test? to abstract? What is then left of such a humanity other than objects in place of bodies?

Images

1. Deleuze wants the creation of concepts, like the ritornello. Perhaps (also/instead) what we need is the creation of images, like the prélude. Why the prelude? Like the rhapsody, the prelude was once a miscellaneous archetype that freed the composer from the autocratic laws of structure and architecture (the only difference between the prelude and the rhapsody is contextual). These laws determined, a priori, two sets of relations: the internal relations of sound within the piece and the experience of the listener. It is true that, as Boulez points out, the former relation is left intact in the prelude; reconfiguring this relation would require someone like a Cixous. But, consider: some of Chopin’s most evocative moments occur in his preludes when he either releases the linearity characteristic of most of his music or his lines converge into something more like a Rachmaninovian tableau. Unlike, say, a sonata, a prelude is not a narrative; the listener is thus always led to go on—the prelude always signifies beyond itself (pre-lude). Often a prelude leaves us asking “what next?” or “is that it?” (perhaps Bach presents a special problem here). Sometimes one gets a prelude to a larger narrative (say in Gershwin); other times the prelude is simply a prelude. But the question “to what?” must never be lost. The closest equivalent to a prelude is an aphorism that, as Dienstag has recently reminded us, is the form par excellence to communicate the discontinuity that is thought itself (Adorno, Derrida, Bergson). If there is a difference between an aphorism and a prelude, I would say it is this: the aphorism is a statement; the prelude is a question (another image!).

2. Adler in the 80s wrote a series of books such as “How to Speak/How to Listen” and “How to Read a Book”. These are, unfortunately, outdated and, paradoxically equally unfortunately, little read today. What perhaps is needed desperately today, in a climate of total technologism (particularly in education), in both philosophy and art, is the book “How to Listen/How to Read” (admittedly, I have yet to read Nancy’s book on listening). By “listen”, in addition to music, I intend things like “seeing” a painting or “experiencing” a space: if philosophy has been dominated by the “hegemony of vision”, perhaps it is time to assert the rights of hearing; in other words, if vision and touch are indicators of space, equally so hearing.

It is precisely the inability to read that frustrates both the teacher of philosophy and the Continental insofar as s/he fights the ideologies of discourse, persuasion, and philosophy itself (i.e., reading Quine, held as an exemplar of clear academic writing by the MLA, is but one technique of reading; reading Bataille is another). Analogously, aside from Barenboim’s recent precipitous remarks about the experience of sound, noise, and music in contemporary culture, it is the inability to listen that threatens not only the quality but the very existence of art. To take one example, Listisa and Kocsis (in their Rachmaninoff), and Hamelin (in Alkan) are often criticized for losing melodies for the sake of speed. And yet—all three have revealed sonorous aspects of various pieces hitherto unknown precisely because of the reconfiguration they effected by changing that one modality of sound. The error, in short, is an analytic conception of sound: that sound can be analyzed into its components of pitch, rhythm, volume, timbre, tempo, and so on; this is also the error that thinks music can be analyzed into melody and harmony (or, better, that thinks “melody” has any significant meaning at all; “melody” needs to be replaced by the “line”, one species of which is Schönberg’s “row”).