Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Survivor ... I must carry you ...

Extracts from 'We who are left behind: Poetry as Testimony in Derrida and Celan, by Mathew Landis.

Read these selected quotations below out loud if you can. Just the resonance, timbre and sound of the language is extraordinary. John Milton in Paradise Lost, T.E Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Michael Ondaatjie in The English Patient, D.H. Lawrence in Sons and Lovers; all of these authors have the power to horripilate the skin, warming the senses with that paradoxical cool breeze of wonder and recognition: 'I know how this feels ... I know what this is made of ...'. These texts below were inscribed in search of truths pertaining to absence, aloneness, solitude, surviving, laying a foundation of quiet power in the language of the vision shared.

'The survivor, then, remains alone. Beyond the world of the other, he is also in some fashion beyond or before the world itself. In the world outside the world and deprived of the world. At the least, he feels solely responsible, assigned to carry both the other and his world, the other and the world that have disappeared, responsible without world (weltos), without ground of any world, thenceforth, in a world without world, as if without earth beyond the end of the world.' (see below)

The absent body. Traces of duration spent in apparent solidity:

To write is to arrange language under fascination and, through language, in language, remain in contact with the absolute milieu, where the thing becomes an image again, where the image, which had been allusion to a figure, becomes an illusion to what is without figure, and having been a form sketched on absence, becomes the unformed presence of that absence, the opaque and empty opening on what is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet. ~Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude”

Landis asserts that poetry is distinctive in its basis for the interrogation of writing itself and the layers of hidden meaning inherent within, wishes which may be from the collective and unspoken associations with which it is drenched. Landis suggests that the wealth of devices employed within poetic syntax are really methodologies which focus on form. Such devices as the sonnet, the ode, the villanelle, aleatoric writing, oulipan constraint, supplementary adjuncts and departures, when used used in poetry can refer to multiple layers of meaning, literal imaging, illustration or representational or supra-textual ideogramme. 'Even a blank sheet of paper folded into a bottle carries a message'.

Landis, through Celan, brings up again, the Other: 'Celan refers to the poem as if it is a solitary organism in search of an ecology. “The poem”, writes Celan, “wants to reach the Other, it needs this Other, it needs a vis a vis. It searches it out and addresses it.”1 The poem pays great attention to and in fact lusts after this Other. Celan’s description of the poem’s “sense of detail, of outline, of structure”2 is reminiscent of the great care taken by a lover examining her partner’s body. The curves, textures, and totality of the body are subject to the gaze of the one who desires after it. It is a desire which is intensified in it’s repetition. But this repetition is not differential; for Celan the images in the poem are “perceived and to be perceived one time, one time over and over again, and only now and only here.”3 Each poem is the one path that seeks to send the voice to a receptive “thou”, it is a “sending oneself ahead of oneself [...] A kind of homecoming”4 which is always already a striking out for one’s home at the moment of arrival. It is a homecoming deferred; the poem emerges as that which is not yet found, but is to be found. The poem seeks itself, seeks its own homecoming even as it embarks upon the journey which is the coming-home.

The singularity of one’s death, that death is one’s “ownmost possibility” as Heidegger repeatedly claims in Being and Time is marked by the wound which erased the voice of Celan’s mother. The glottal stop, the breach, is not followed by a phonetic conclusion. In this instance it is pure, it is silenced. Celan cannot speak for his departed mother. His voice cannot take the place of her own because the presence of his voice cannot undo the erasure of his mother’s. Her absence is marked by the impossibility of a return. There is no homecoming. The interruption does not open a “conducting path”. The erasure of the trace leaves nothing in its wake but silence in this instance. The only way that Celan can “speak” for his dead mother is to bear witness. To give testimony to this wound. The poem then, the voice of the poem, of Celan’s mother, of the dead, of the silenced, of the pure victim is silent. It is expressed only through images, through substitution, through a supplement. The supplement attempts to make up for the absence of the victim, of their voice. Writing is all that remains in its stead. Rather than the threat of presence, writing substitutes itself for the presence of the departed and provides a testimony ... Spacing as writing is the becoming-absent and the becoming-unconscious of the subject. By the movement of its drift/derivation [dérive] the emancipation of the sign constitutes in return the desire of presence. That becoming-or that drift/derivation-does not befall the subject which would 
choose it or would passively let itself be drawn along by it. As the subject's relationship with its own death, this becoming is the constitution of subjectivity.

Derrida makes an equivocation in this passage between spacing, that is distance or the result of the breech and writing itself. Writing, in itself, is a breach or interruption which constitutes itself as a process of becoming (recall Celan’s reference to the path of the poem). What writing posits is a testament of absence. In the absence of the subject, writing becomes the subject; it constitutes itself as a testament in place of the subject. Celan not only testifies to his mother’s own departure or his own grief, but he also gives testament in a more collective fashion.

Landis tells us: 'In his extended contemplation of the final line of Celan’s “Vast, Glowing Vault” from Atemwende, Derrida teases out the position of the survivor in the poems final pronunciation: “The world is not here, I must carry you.”23 Derrida precedes his analysis of the poem with his own pronunciation about the survivor and what it means to be one who is left behind, one who gives testimony.

The survivor, then, remains alone. Beyond the world of the other, he is also in some fashion beyond or before the world itself. In the world outside the world and deprived of the world. At the least, he feels solely responsible, assigned to carry both the other and his world, the other and the world that have disappeared, responsible without world (weltos), without ground of any world, thenceforth, in a world without world, as if without earth beyond the end of the world.24

'The singular position of the survivor: he who is left behind to carry the other as a wholly departed and singular other, a wholly departed and singular world. The survivor not only dwells within the breach, but carries the weight of the breach, “the tear/ compacted of silence.” In that moment, this tear, this glottal stop (the cleaving, in both senses, of the glottal folds) the survivor carries on with the other, with the other’s world, a conducting path gives testimony in its absence and writing “breaks into song”, the specter of a singular, departed voice etched onto the tableau through the pen, its medium.

The testimonial (in this case a poem by Celan) is a counter-signatory to the erasure of the trace. It is a substitute, just as the ram is substituted by Abraham in place of Isaac. The sacrifice, the burden of “I must” is fulfilled in the substitution: the sacrificial lamb carries the burden of the other and his world. We who are left behind to testify and to hear testimony are given “the gift of the poem to all readers and counter-signatories, who, always under the law of the trace at work, and of the trace as work, would lead to or get along a wholly other reading or counter-reading.”25 This reading or reception of the work of the trace, of this arche-writing, of this remembrance is then the world of the other, the wholly other that we must carry. It is the counter to erasure, it is the inscription. The inscription of reading is the “I must carry you”, you the other, your world, your wounds, your sickness. We carry the singularity of the other with us and we become their testimony and that becoming is the constitution of the testimonial not only for us, but in us; it is the constitution of testimony for itself '.

Therefore, in '... carrying you ...' we as survivors who are left behind become ourselves, the trace of that other. The inscription on us of our remembrance and testimony informs our presence as one of the constituents of our non-departure on that other`s path, even though we, ourselves, are always leaving and as we leave, inscribing our traces on others who would stay behind.

Retrieved from:

Friday, 4 September 2009

An Independent State of Self or Dark Space for potential Avatar other?

Linda Martin-Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy and currently the Director of Women`s Studies at Syracuse University in the USA, asserts in The Political Critique of Identity,

'... in classical liberal political theory, the initial state of the self is conceptualized as an abstract individual without, or prior to, any group allegiance. It is from this "initial position" that the self engages in rational deliberation and thus achieves autonomy ...'

This is a scenario involving 'free choice' (if choices are not viewed as subject to indeterminant factors - my brackets). 'As (Immanuel) Kant developed this idea, a person who cannot gain critical distance from and thus objectify their cultural traditions cannot rationally assess them and thus cannot attain autonomy. In Kant's view, an abstract or disengaged self is for this reason necessary for full personhood. Moreover,the process of modernity, which was conceptualized as analogous on the societal level to the process of individual maturation, became defined as just this increased ability to distance oneself from one's cultural traditions. In this way this distancing ability also became a key part of the global, European-centered teleology of intellectual and moral development, defining the terms by which societies were to be labeled advanced or backward.’

Martin-Alcoff goes on to stress that, … the norm of rational maturity, then, required a core self stripped of its identity …

One side of this theoretical and often as history has shown, prejudicially-lived debate, has sought to locate and resolve in us an independent state of self. We can now see that this state may be defined perhaps imperfectly and dichotomously, responsible not only for shaping but also for ignoring it seems, the collateral damage occurring to that other aspect of personal and collective identity - the issue of our belonging. Could it be that this aspect of which Kant speaks, this process of maturation, the graduation to ‘… full personhood’ is a contributor to the erosion of our sense of belonging? Has the manifestation of this balanced autonomous identity so carefully harboured by us, comprised merely a veneer over that reality which now emerges as a lost locus? To what extent might we be vulnerable?

Elizabeth Grosz (1995) maintains that neither the subject`s consciousness or interiority, nor its essential humanity or distinctive individuality can any longer provide for us a firm base for identity. Grosz posits an alternative territory for coherency in this debate; that subjectivity of the individual and its relations with others be investigated through consideration of its corporeal self rather than its conscious lineaments and textures. Grosz cites the so-called French feminists who suggest that bodies are never just human or social bodies but bodies mediated by gender, asserting that this is significant in relation to the nature or mode of corporeality assigned to any subject. Grosz suggests that through the groundwork into sexed corporeality and the links between corporeality and conceptions of time and space established by Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, if bodies are to be reconceived, not only must their matter and form be re-considered but also their relational environments and spatio-temporal locations. So conceptions and understanding of space and time are necessary correlates for the investigation into corporeality and in turn, identity. The sociologist Roger Caillois`s (1917-1938) work is perhaps best known for his interrogation of the boundaries between the sacred and profane, the sociological and ethological and the human and animal, but his work centring upon the scientific and the uncanny, dealing with perceived spatial characteristics of the insect world and its predilection for mimicry also furnishes us with a useful analogy. Mimesis is significant for identifying ways in which the relations between an organism/body and the spatial characteristics of its environment can become confused and ambiguous because there is a reflexivity existing between the two. Camouflaging characteristics of both, the host and the surrounding space appear in both 'parties'. Mimicry in this context is a consequence of the representation of space in terms of how this may be perceived by insects. This presents a correlation for us as humans when we consider Pierre Janet`s description of 'legendary psychasthenia', that state which manifests when a psychosis is responsible for creating such confusion and ambiguity within a given space`s properties that the identification for the subject of an actual location in that place becomes impossible:

It is with represented space that the drama becomes specific, since the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself ...' (1999 p.124)

Caillois regards psychasthenia as a response to an imperative introduced by space for the identity of the subject. For the subject to be valid as 'subject' they must be able to locate themselves in the same space inhabited by their body. This for the subject, is conditional in the establishment of coherent identity. This process of locating and affirming subjectivity is also cognisant with personality, where the subject as organism identifies a feeling of distinctness and separation in themselves from the surrounding space, an anchor which provides a coherent condition from which their identity emerges. From this vantage point the subject has a perspective on their world, which becomes the locus from which vision and perception emanate - that state of Tuurangawaewae, a place to stand, which in turn forcibly suggests that where you stand determines what you see of that location which surrounds you, physically, psychoemotionally and metaphorically and symbolically through signs and signification. Legendary Psycasthenia, as another entity-descriptor or inhabitant of the self moves in at the point where the subject loses their ability to clearly establish their standpoint - the location where their personality may reside spatially, which leads to a loss of that sense of place which denotes the the self-as-place in any given space and time. Through Caillois, Grosz suggests the subject may be both, captivated and replaced by space, blurred with the positions of others:

I know where I am, but I do not feel as though I`m at the spot where I find myself. To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force. Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis. It ends by replacing them. Then the body separates itself from thought, the individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself from any point whatever in space. He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put. He is similar, not similar to something, but just similar. And he invents spaces of which he is the 'convulsive possession' (30) (:p.125).

Grosz assures us that there are clear correlations between mimicry realised through the human analogue and that of the insect world. Both represent what Caillois describes as the 'depersonalization by assimilation to space'; both, the psychotic and the insect renounce their abilities to occupy a point of perspective and abandon themselves to being located spatially by an/as others:

'The primacy of one`s own perspective is replaced by the gaze of another for whom the subject is merely a point in space and not the focal point around which an ordered space is organized. The representation of space is thus a correlate of one`s ability to locate oneself as the point of origin or reference of space: the space represented is a complement of the kind of subject who occupies it' (p.125).

The above reference represents an extreme example of disassociation with self through the '... depersonalization by assimilation to space', yet there is an implication here indicating that a life spent immersed primarily in spaces which are potentially overwhelming in their lack of reciprocity; their disinclination to contribute a dialogue with us in that reflexive process of person-becoming-place-becoming person, (the sublime of urban sprawls, rush-hour crowds, city centres, underground railway platform throngs ...) may place at hazard our sense of ownership or belonging while we endeavour to assimilate the data coming at us from each new location, which in turn if prolonged, places our sense of identity in jeopardy. If we choose to live in this way in a semi-permanent fashion, inhabiting airport arrival and departure lounges; driving, coccooned, across town to shop for food in hypermarkets which possess the spatial characteristics and proxemic cultures of commercial aircraft hangers; commuting for hours every morning and evening in 'virtual' conduit spaces of automobiles or trains which remove us from the opportunity to dwell in places of corporeality which match our own, (although the constituents of our own corporeality are debateable) to arrive at sealed, multi-storey containment*, is it still possible to maintain that sense-of-place with which we might resonate, that space in which we may belong?

*('After the novelty of telegraph wore off, the Weather Service was shifted over to the Department of Agriculture and it ultimately wound up in the Department of Commerce, which oversees aviation and interstate trucking. Regional Weather Service offices tend to be in very grim places, like industrial parks bordering metropolitan airfields. They have sealed windows and central air-conditioning. Very little of the air being studied actually gets inside.') (Junger, S. (1997) The Perfect Storm, HarperPerennial a Division of HarperCollins 1997 p.99)

It is difficult then, if not impossible to ascertain to what extent the maintenance of our self within identity may be vulnerable to apparently anomalous relations with spaces which have the power to confuse us. Spaces which betray no reciprocity of intent, that condition which is reflexive identity building, where each party, both individual and space, contribute to a balanced assimilation of self awareness. In 'normal' conditions of the everyday, most manage the business of being an unbalanced human quite well. (In the sense that our other personna is largely ignored). Much of my research into the archive of the self and its sub-portfolios have suggested to date that as sentient beings we are nothing if not resilient and manage (and often actively initiate) our transformative Avatar/Cyborg/other potential within our own makeups extremely well. We can only speculate as to what may be occurring beneath the surfaces of our acknowledged and openly manipulated surfaces of communicable endeavours. Is there a growing awareness within the excitement of the 'New Technologies of Becoming' (my inverted commas), those challenges and extensions to our reality, like post-structuralist and metaverse constructs; re-formulations of and adjuncts to the Real, that there may exist for us all, a '... dark space where things cannot be put'?

Is this a comment pertinent to the articulation of Avatar personna in apparently representational spaces like Second Life? Clearly, spaces which are reflexive with and mirror our own intent to blend with, to interact effectively with the space, provide opportunities for us to foster a sense of self-identity. It is all very well to talk about 'mixed-reality' in relation to metaverse environments, but if we do not have a way in to enable fluidity across the interfaces involved, it makes the composite description a little one-sided.