Monday, October 04, 2004

Sontag and silence () Derrida and belief

I've had a chance to finish reading this article by Susan Sontag, which is extremely rich and provoking, although I'm disappointed when she doesn't dwell a little more in certain places. After touching on several areas where 'silence' might, after all, perform a positive, importantly affirming gesture (for instance a certain silence can be optimistic about language, without being naive, or merely "serious", while still reflecting what might be called 'a will to purity'), she ends on the familiar claim that while 'private' irony may be a productive and necessary tool, collectively irony is (increasingly) more problematic. The so-called 'problem of irony' thus haunts her discussion of 'silence' to a degree that remains somewhat enigmatic, or at least unclear. Sontag writes:

So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience which is a leading motif of modern art, with its tireless commitment to the "new" and/or the "esoteric." Silence is the artist's ultimate other-worldly gesture; by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, audience, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.

Still, in this renunciation of "society," one cannot fail to perceive a highly social gesture.
For, to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else.
Plenitude — experiencing all the space as filled, so that ideas cannot enter — means impenetrability, opaqueness. For a person to become silent is to become opaque for the other; somebody's silence opens up an array of possibilities for interpreting that silence, for imputing speech to it.

The ways in which this opaqueness induces anxiety, spiritual vertigo, is the theme of Bergman's Persona. The theme is reinforced by the two principal attributions one is invited to make of the actress' deliberate silence. Considered as a decision relating to herself, it is apparently the way she has chosen to give form to the wish for ethical purity; but it is also, as behavior, a means of power, a species of sadism, a virtually inviolable position of strength from which to manipulate and confound her nurse-companion, who is charged with the burden of talking.

But it's possible to conceive of the opaqueness of silence more positively, free from anxiety.

Susan Sontag, "The Aesthetics of Silence," Aspen no. 5+6
via wood s lot.

Once the simplistic binary of speaker vs. the one who is silent has been problematized, Sontag clears a certain space that remains nevertheless anxious, charged with something that is neither silence nor language, neither purely void nor sovereign-subject manipulation. A simpler way to put this might be: there is silence in all speaking. That is, silence is not so much bare, as it is always a textured palimpsestual covering (of another covering). Sontag also distinguishes between the quivering gaze and the vacant stare. Yet I think she hints at a certain negotiation with silence - or a possessiveness, even - one that insists on acknowledging the (non)relation with the other, and proceeding in a thoughtful, though a priori flawed, manner. To be even more Blanchodian, a non-relation that is neither wholly free nor dogmatically constrained by silence. A 'trembling' at once beyond agency or value and yet active, persisting.

Having thus violently glossed Sontag, and ignoring many of the most intriguing places she steps, I think the following passage from Giovanna Borradori's book, which concludes her interview with Derrida, is perhaps worth citing. In any case, it's what came to mind, and it seems to be lingering there, so here it is:

Let us not forget, since we have been talking so much about the world and about worldwide movements, that the very idea of world remains a regulative idea for Kant, the second one, between two others that are themselves, so to speak, two forms of sovereignty: the "myself" (Ich selbst), as soul or as thinking nature, and God.

These are a few reasons why, without ever giving up on reason and a certain "interest of reason," I hesitate to use the expression "regulative idea" when speaking of the to come or of the democracy to come.

Borradori: You thus follow Kierkegaard in this regard.

Derrida: No doubt, as always. But a Kierkegaard who would not necessarily be a Christian, and you can imagine how difficult that is to think. I tried to explain myself on this subject elsewhere. I always make as if I subscribed to the as if's of Kant (which I am never quite able to do), or as if Kierkegaard helped me to think beyond his own Christianity, as if in the end he did not know that he was not Christian or refused to admit that he did not know what being Christian means. (In the end, I cannot quite bring myself to believe this, indeed I cannot quite bring myself to believe in general, that is, what is normally called "to believe.")

But what makes the rule of such an interview a law of the genre that orders us always to make as if: as if everything we are speaking about in a quasi-spontaneous fashion had not already been treated elsewhere, by others and by ourselves, in already published writings and with more developed arguments. As you can see, I believe I must, at each moment, make as if I were at once honoring and breaking our contract.

Derrida, "Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides." Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, 2003.

Sontag notes, with a nod to John Cage, that silence is never pure, that in fact there is no such thing as silence per se (after all, one's heart is always beating).

When Derrida says, "I believe I must" he is, in addition to being cute, asking seriously for the good (but hardly blind) faith that is required for his responses to be understood in their character-clothinng as a 'necessary-impossible', in other words as always the product of impossible (perhaps a bit mad) decision, cut or genuine choice on the part of a subject eternally fraught, and divided. (Granted, this may come across as pretentious French pseudo-intellectual theatrics, or the insistent vain profundizing of banal truism, to some, and one runs the risk of making too much of what is, simply, a wonderfully economical statement, but the referencing contained in the other half is important to. These improvised answers will always have been provisional at best; the books themselves remain there to be read.) Or, to abuse Agamben's Heideggerian-inflected lexicon (and in a manner to which Derrida might well object), D is also pleading for a retention of potentiality. That is, his is a gesture of response that refuses to ignore its own inherent disquiet, nor is it complacent within the illusory self-presence of dialogue, or speech. A gesture perpetually disturbed by the inevitable flattening of an infinite discretion (as it must be flattened, although not without various degrees of self-consciousness, or responsibility). And yes, it would seem that 'death' has something to do with all of this.

Thinking of Blanchot's "interruption of the incessant..." an incessant that is already an interruption. Do we say that words fail to contain a silence that never stops speaking? Though this "speaking" is perhaps neither language, nor spirit, nor essence? In Acts of Religion, Derrida is relentlessly critical of Heidegger - far moreso than Agamben. Are 'we' irresponsible when we fail to recognize such failure?

"The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence," Sontag writes, before going on to say:

Behind the appeals for silence lies the wish for a perceptual and cultural clean slate. And, in its most hortatory and ambitious version, the advocacy of silence expresses a mythic project of total liberation. What's envisaged is nothing less than the liberation of the artist from himself, of art from the particular art work, of art from history, of spirit from matter, of the mind from its perceptual and intellectual limitations.

What a few people know now is that there are ways of thinking that we don't yet know about. Nothing could be more important or precious than that knowledge, however unborn. The sense of urgency, the spiritual restlessness it engenders cannot be appeased. Surely, it's some of that energy which has spilled over into the radical art of this century. Through its advocacy of silence, reduction, etc., art commits an act of violence upon itself, turning art into a species of auto-manipulation, of conjuring — trying to help bring these new ways of thinking to birth.

A productive force of 'autoimmunity' then, somehow disgintuishable, if yet never quite neatly severable, from all the so-called 'postmodern' neuroses? What are the limits of this prescriptive, psychoanalytic language? More Derrida another time, maybe.

For the moment, left wondering why Sontag's analysis neglects the likes of Bartleby, or the specific eloquence of Cordelia - her refusal to flatter her father on demand. It seems to me that such a sense of near silence - one permeated, yet not ruled by irony - is close to what Derrida retains; he insists upon his right to this silence, in all its contradictory, elusive and restless movement.

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