Ground and Negation (Bartleby)

Let me briefly summarize the claims we made in our post about Kant on his deathbed. The conclusion was quite interesting and involved a claim about memory and feedback — which I want here to (eventually) relate to “negation”, as two approaches that are in fact closely linked.

Now, there, the claim was that writing was a kind of “new virtuality”. — I’m not going to summarize that essay exactly or anything —  So writing is involved in virtual worlds in two ways: first, as “dematerializing”, which we relate to “violence”, and which we claim characterized the early Kant. But in the second half of the essay, we made the claim that there was a kind of “pure writing”. Let me just quote something I wrote down somewhere (very vain, yes, doubly so when you consider what the quote is about):

WHY I AM AN AMAZING WRITER — I’m an amazing writer because because of my ability to accurately keep track of the last few minutes when I write. This accuracy of memory, as if it were a single linear experience, derives from the richness of the repository of different intentional states of the self. My writing is dramatic, contradictory, and conflictual without trying to be — ie, without resorting to cheap tricks like style, diction, character, pathos, etc. (This also means that I the only one patient enough to read it.) That’s the illusion of criticism anyways, or perhaps can be called “pure style”, the illusion of a single progression or uniform purpose. Pure style is a variation of memory or condition without the need for external markers, it’s pure movement without appeals to nostalgia.

So this is the second form of virtuality, which we contrasted with the “violence” of the first form. The second form is “pure”, it doesn’t make reference to “external markers” as violence does. Nonetheless, to those in the know, apparently, it is “dramatic, contradictory, and conflictual”, it is full of a kind of violent movement. But this movement does not occur in time but rather is merely due to a “rich repository” — the passage of time is illusory. In fact, the argument made about writing with Kant was that there was a “feedback”, where one is able to form accurate memories only because writing allows us to have those memories. This can be viewed highly pragmatically — ie, it is still, in the end, an expansion of mnemonic capability, which can be used in various way. Of course, the argument made here is not all that revolutionary, the idea that the material of memory is the very possibility of experience.

The question being begged here is whether there is something specific that links writing and the form of memory that is thus formed, between writing and “culture”, if you will. The preliminary answer is “No”, at least, not non-trivially: I mean, trivially speaking, we obviously have to be seated when we write, we could make references to the various institutions that spring up with writing — but that’s not really of enormous interest to us. The second answer is “yes, but only historically”. I once made the argument that language could only evolve with the aid of religion. That is, language does not give enough benefits as a communicational medium: you don’t need language to communicate, to put it bluntly. We don’t even have to talk about wolves — even bacteria can cooperate, ask for help, warn — even lie. And, to put it bluntly — I’m feeling tough, I know — language could only evolve with the aide of genocide –– by the systematic exclusion and elimination, whether violent or non-violent, of those who aren’t in the language club. Thus, what interests us here would be the morality or the metaphysics of this society that is based on language — ie, not the pragmatic but the metaphysical benefits that it affords.

Let’s talk now about negation — it is really a different way of approaching the same problem. With negation, we are thinking about the deathbed vision, but we must emphasize here that it is a kind of work, that is, a continuous sustained effort. It is very hard to say no. Again, we are dealing with the two virtual worlds. One says “no” to all claims to violence, or, one says “no” to all attempts to decipher intention. This always reminds me of Bartleby, where really, the lawyer, nice guy and all, is trying to figure out just hat Bartleby is doing. Is he sick? Is he trying to make a point? Is he being rebellious? Is he taking a stand? The answer is always no. Importantly, Bartleby is most certainly not “liberal”, not about, you know, trying to tell us that he has unalienable rights or something. What’s most striking about the book is how much of a jerk Bartleby is at the end, when the lawyer goes to visit him in the prison — or rather, throughout the book, since the lawyer is not an awful person — he tries to help. But Bartleby — without this being his ultimate intention of course — sort of puts him on a guilt trip. The lawyer is doing something wrong, something that Bartleby is saying no to — something having to do with writing. The lawyer is living in the virtual world of writing — I mean, we obviously would not call the law offices, you know, the world of substance — law is not substance — but the lawyer is doing things with writing, he is setting foward events, sealing deals, etc.. Law is really the figure par excellence for the performative, virtual, functional aspect of writing. But here, Bartleby insists on this second world, in this pure world, a world that I can only vaguely understand but cannot fully grasp, cannot reincorporate into intentionality.

 — Philosophy can never not be reflexive: reflexivity and self-awareness is, well, what critical philosophy is, if the very discipline arises from a need to say what something is not, or what something is relative to the speaker rather than as object in the world or component. So Bartleby is certainly reflexive as well. But this reflexivity — and this is what negation is — speaks of the self in relation to another element, even if it can only tell us what the self is not doing. This other element is in fact the ground of memory — negation is the relating of the self to the ground of memory. The law always claims to be doing things in the world, even if “violent” things, ie, which is another way of saying, even if it works “indirectly”, in a “zen-like” way, even if it’s task is not the fowarding the cause of good or right (for what do those terms really mean? Isn’t that the very world that we are doing violence to?) but of law itself. The negation of the law — which comes after the law — can only occur by “breaking up the law”, by bringing forth the role of the pure intention.

Subjects for next time:

1) The role of theoretical aesthetics, which is probably art itself

2) The most important question right now actually has to do with our earlier comment about history and materiality: how does (or could have, if we are talking about hidden voices in history) memory affect culture, without resorting to the trivial cases?


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