Sunday, November 12, 2006

further proof of the affinities shared

Timothy Deines on Dylan, Melville and Nancy:
Dylan will not, cannot, satisfy the calculated desire of the reporter to know him, or affirm what others may wish to know of him, of his ‘popularity.’ And even if he were to tell everything he knows or thinks he knows about himself, he could never satisfy others’ desire to know him, nor even his own for that matter. Besides, ‘others’--in this case a reporter surrounded by other media types--simply wish to capture the social phenomenon called ‘Dylan’ in a consumable, commodified form, a form they can put to work for the profit industry. But even if they wanted to know the ‘authentic’ Dylan, such desire would still know no satiation, since authenticity is also a fetish. Thus, there is no suitable reply; he literally must remain a secret to them, and to himself...

Today, immanent community is always at stake because where community unceasingly works towards the fulfillment of its own essence, or the confession of its secrets--for Nancy, this means liberal regimes as much as totalitarian ones--it extinguishes thought itself. Nancy’s sense of thought, however, is not that of calculation but of the intellectual experience of intellectuality’s limits. At this limit, in the experience of this limit, not only does freedom become available as its own kind of experience, but more generally the opening, in space and time, that thought frees is the opening through which futurity itself may enter. The alternative is, literally, self-immolation. Strong as this language is--language only possible, perhaps, after having endured the twentieth-century--it is the problematic Nancy invites us to share. The problem is thus how to think ‘community’ in such a way that remains a question of ‘resistance to immanence’ and ‘to all the forms and all the violences of subjectivity’ (Nancy, 1991: 35)...

Another reason for taking up these texts--and Bartleby, yet again--is to gain some perspective on what I perceive to be a developing tendency in Americanist literary criticism, a tendency that everywhere claims for itself the mantle of political activism, progressivism, and justice. It is in the work of Russ Castronovo, for example, who writes of recovering ‘material prehistories’ and ‘specificity’ of ‘the dead’ as ‘the first step toward thinking about democracy’ (2001: 23, 249). It is in Lauren Berlant, who seeks ‘a new form of American historical consciousness’ and the ‘counter-memory’ to fill up this form (1991: 38, 6). And it is in Priscilla Wald, who recognizes a ‘need for a new, an expanded, official [national] story’ (1995: 304). This concern with storytelling, national or otherwise, is not troubling in itself. But can such storytelling ever do justice to the finitude of singularities? Are these historiographical strategies capable of overcoming the violences of subjectivity for which Nancy expresses concern? In Americanist scholarship, is subjectivity the end of thought where community is concerned? I can only register these questions here. One thing is certain: after deconstruction, Bartleby can no longer be appropriated in the traditional ways. Deconstruction resists those readings that would reduce Bartleby to a narrative about existential humanist anxiety in a bureaucratized world or a psychoanalytic portrait of a split, even psychotic, personality. Nor can Bartleby continue to be read as a historically-inflected meditation on the alienating effects of modern American capitalism. Deconstruction even troubles recent Americanist approaches to literature that attempt to identify literary scenes of historical effacement in an empty, formalized world of statism and citizenship. At stake in all of this, then, is the imposition of a kind of revelation of secrecy, through the strategy of ‘history,’ upon the singular in the name of social justice, the full historical manifestation of subjectivity, so to speak, in the name of political activism. One can raise these concerns without also abandoning the ‘cause’ of justice.1

Bartleby, in short, can no longer so easily be read as a narrative about a subject. If Americanists are persuaded by Nancy’s critique of immanent community--particularly with respect to the strong claim that liberal ideology is as beholden to ‘all the forms and all the violences of subjectivity’ as the worst political regimes, even if the former are therefore not reducible to the latter--then they cannot affirm ‘the pragmatic workings of citizenship and democracy’ without the equal and opposite affirmation of what these pragmatic workings entail, which is precisely ‘all the forms and all the violences of subjectivity’ (Castronovo, 2001: 247). Too often, in my view, this affirmation of liberal polity is not sufficiently qualified by an equal and opposite denunciation and a refusal of the violence that such a polity presupposes. How is it possible to affirm ‘pragmatic’ community--‘citizenship and democracy,’ for example--while simultaneously denouncing the ‘violences of subjectivity’ that such pragmatism presupposes?

The entire issue is worth reading.

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