Friday, 28 March 2014

Plots Thicken: Time and Text

“it’s for ever the same murmur, flowing unbroken, like a single endless word.."

Reading Beckett's Texts for Nothing, I'm very struck by the ebbs and flows of sense, the bubbles of sense that immediately dissolve, the bright pools of meaning that collect and then disperse. There are memories that swim into clarity, vivid and beautiful, before in turn being borne downstream or sinking into oblivion. And it seems to me that we should attend to this ebb and flow as much as individual statements or images. So, for example, not just the "I" and what is said about the "I", but the "I" congealing into "he" - this very process of congealment. Anyway, this is for another post, prompted by some of what Alain Badiou extracts from "Texts for Nothing". I'd like to preface that with something rather more general.

Here is Deleuze on Bergson:
 Take a lump of sugar: It has a spatial configuration. But if we approach it from that angle, all we will ever grasp are differences in degree between that sugar and any other thing. But it also has duration, a rhythm of duration, a way of being in time that is at least partially revealed in the process of its dissolving, and that shows how this sugar differs in kind not only from other things, but first and foremost from itself.

Bergson's famous maxim is "we must wait for the sugar to dissolve." In other words, things reveal themselves in time and through time. We need to be attuned to how things evolve, persist, endure, change and recompose or decompose themselves. Again there is a slight but symptomatic problem of grammar. Grammar says that there are things which then undergo the effects of time. As if the default state of things was immobile, spatial. But they are of course always already in time to begin with. Nothing is exempt.

We prefer to take snapshots, to arrest the flow of things. It's convenient to think of things as basically immobile, solid. The camera is in this sense the rechnological realisation of what consciousness does in any case - it arrests, turns time into static images, extracts from ongoing experience immovable segments.We then regard these segments as the basic units, and time as secondary.

Writing focuses this problem in a very immediate way. Typesetting, layout, etc are of course spatial arrangements of the written word.  The text lies before us in its entirety. we could if we wish paste its seperate sheets on a wall and draw arrows and lines to create a map of linked words, phrases, patterns, a geography of the text. But the text, every text, is composed in time, words by word, and read in an analogous way. The first "I" was inaugural, anticipatory.. incrementally, and with each clause, it thickens, develops - and the illusion grows that we are gradually discovering something that was already there - uncovering a past. Whereas of course, the writer perfomatively creates this past by moving forward in a continuous unfolding of commas and full stops. With each word the writer writes the 'plot thickens' - builds, deepens.And the reading process is an analagon of this.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Lightning Strikes, I Think..

There’s an often quoted passage in Nietzsche where he says the expression “lightning strikes” implies that there is a something which then performs the act of striking, whereas in fact there is no lightning separate from the striking. It’s symptomatic of how grammatical categories create ontological fictions, and the world seems to take on the shape of these fictions as soon as we think - for we think only through language.

Thus, for Nietzsche, and for a whole strain of modern thought, language ‘thinks’ on our behalf, without us knowing. The writer or philosopher must start by trying to throw a spanner in the works and refunction the language-machine to stop it thinking in our place. 

For some philosophers, the reward of such linguistic disruption is a more immediate contact with life and reality:

Beyond the ideas which are chilled and congealed in language, we must seek the warmth and mobility of life.

The great writers have all had and have all sought to give us a direct vision of the real, in cases where we perceive things only through our conventions, habits and symbols.
Both these quotes are from Henri Bergson, and we find something similar expressed in - for example- Proust:
 Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our conception of them.

It is language which fixes and immobilises things, which sorts the flow of experience into static categories and concepts, and which provides the frames though which we encounter the world.

Perhaps the most basic of these categories is the first person pronoun. The spontaneous philosophy 'dialled in' to our language offers us a neutral subject who acts and thinks. But perhaps only grammar places the "I" at the origin of thought or action. Thus, What Nietzsche says of lightning might also be true of the “I” which, unlike lightning, has a multiplicity of verbs wedded to it - I think, I speak etc - but this doesn’t mean that any of these verbs are less dissociable from the I than striking is from lightning. 

Of the writers who dissolve the lightning of the "I" back into its strikings, few are more rigorous and exhaustive than Beckett in his post war prose writings.

"The subject dies before it comes to the verb". "I" is no sooner uttered than it becomes an object in the field of vision, a "he" floating downstream. What Beckett is aiming for is an ongoing action, a ceaseless mobility with scarcely any arrest or segmentation. It is this movement which precedes any and every “I”: the “mobility of life” beneath the grammatical fiction. A proposition no sooner appears than it's qualified, negated, restated. Bubbles of sense no sooner form than are dissolved. What's continuous is the 'babble' from which sense emerges. The “me”s and “I”s that form dissolve in the flow along with all else. 

"The way out, this evening its the turn of the way out, isn't it like a duo or a trio, yes, there are moments when it's like that, then they pass and it's not like that any more, never was like that, is like nothing, no resemblance with anything, of no interest."

“it’s for ever the same murmur, flowing unbroken, like a single endless word..”

Just as Bergson says that we only understand sugar when we dissolve it in hot water, we only understand the "I" when we dissolve it in the ceaseless babble of language.