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The Value of Suspending Values, Bartoloni +

The Value of Suspending Values, Bartoloni +

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Neohelicon XXXIV (2007) 1, 115–122 DOI: 10.




This article sets out to interrogate the notion of literary value by placing it within a broader discussion of literature’s relation to truth. It asks, in other words, if it is possible to evince the value of literature by assuming that literature is a carrier of certain truths. Institutions have in turn been called upon or even created to evaluate and demonstrate its value according to a series of criteria often based on the investigation of the relation author-work-audience. I argue that the dynamicity of literary values, their development and changeability, is related to the priority that one of the terms of the relation authorwork-audience has enjoyed over the others at different historical times. I also argue that the emphasis on the link between literary values and strong truths (demonstrable truths) has produced disabling dichotomies and, perhaps more importantly, violated the nature of literature in relation to experience – phenomenological, ontological, metaphysical or aesthetic experience. This article introduces an alternative approach to literary value predicated not so much on strong truth as on weak truth. In this context reference will be made to the work of the Italian philosophers Mario Perniola and Gianni Vattimo.


The belief that literature has value and that there are values in literature, originates in the contiguity between literature and truth. The implications of this relation are, however, complex and require careful consideration. Could the truth of literature be extricated, for instance, from the mystical aura that, at various periods of history, has surrounded the author? It is in the Renaissance first and during the romantic period later that the idea of the artist as genius and creator acquires connotations that elevate the poet to the category of alter deus. These are, in fact, the very terms with which Giulio Cesare Scaligero refers to the poet in his 1561 Poetices libri septem,1 one of the most comprehensive treatises of the period on the ars poetica. If it is true that the poet partakes of some divine qualities whereby she can create freely and from nothing, it fol1

Quoted in Rüdiger Bubner, Esperienza estetica, trans. Monica Ferrando (Torino: Rosenberg & Sellier, 1992), p. 41.

Paolo Bartoloni, Italian Studies & International and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Sydney, A18NSW, 2006, Australia; E-mail: paolo.bartoloni@arts.usyd.edu.au
0324–4652/$20.00 © 2007 Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest Springer, Dordrecht

often regardless of the intentions of the author and that of the work. three times removed from the work of art. . Truth is. Heidegger essentially interprets George’s words as the emblem of a discourse on which the discussion of negativity still hinges. The work only speaks its truth disinterestedly and unknowingly. it only means that creation contains the truth which. the poet as genius does not simply reproduce what is already available in reality. the work after Being and Time. It is in this sense that the significance of Kant’s articulation of the aesthetic experience becomes obvious: if the work as such is silent as to its own word. notably that of George. a realization that elicits in the poet an aesthetic acknowledgement and a poetic disposition: “thus I sadly learned to renounce. in order to apprehend these values and truths. must be disinterested. persisting in the view that if 2 Martin Heidegger. One poem in particular “Das Wort” (“Word”) by Stefan George catches Heidegger’s attention. But. in this sense. she instead accesses (attinge) a truth which is at once removed and invisible to the level of quotidian life. Hölderlin. pointing to a further goal which is often equated with secrecy and. and in the third instance that of an experience which. however. HEIDEGGER’S TURN An interesting instance in which the value of literature is renewed from the outside.116 PAOLO BARTOLONI lows that artistic creation is firstly removed from a given truth. renounce the already known in order to capture that which is by necessity removed from and invisible at the level of reality. might very well remain undisclosed. and secondly that it is naturally connected with a transcendental truth. is Martin Heidegger’s investigation of German poetry. trans. she must. in the second instance that of the reader.” These two lines sent Heidegger into a philosophical trajectory whose outcome has been extraordinarily important for the history of twentieth century hermeneutics and deconstruction. “There is no thing where the word breaks”. like the work itself. it is the reader who may give it a voice resonating with truths and values. But this in itself does not mean that artistic creation explains and makes available the truth. the reader. although revolving around the work. in more contemporary time. is strongly indebted to his growing interest in poetic language. leaves it behind. the one that inaugurated a long and illustrious series of literary texts read and commented by philosophers. Hertz (San Francisco: Harper. 1982). In other words. Rilke and Trakl. Heidegger’s famous “turn” (Kehre). On the Way to Language. and yet the most notable case. historically speaking. The obvious reference is the book On the Way to Language2 in which Heidegger embarks once again on an exploration of language by way of reading a series of poems by George and Trakl. writes George. is found in the philosophical interpretation of literary texts. that is. within the domain of the author. negativity. in other words. Examples abound. it is in the first instance. Peter D.

Derrida (Berkeley: University of California Press. is not so much the statement that language does not speak truth as the proposition that language retains truth by renouncing it. Derrida. without these texts. is the human language that comes closer to language as such through learning to renounce the efforts of conceptualisation. however. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. Poetic language. 1990. by deferring it ad infinitum. and Allan Megill. Heidegger embarked on what many other critics have done and still do with regard to works of art: he read these texts to advance his own theory and views. Many critics have more than a few doubts as to the accuracy of Heidegger’s interpretation of his favourite German poets. By contrast. But language’s keeping of truth is also truth’s inevitable loss. Anthony Gottlieb. January 7.4 They are probably correct when they state that Heidegger’s interventions do not add to the scholarly discussion of German literature or. it is specifically poetic language. as we see. Gadamer. The language of communication. poetic language. New York Times Book Review. its negativity and its disappearance/appearance among the folds of language. “Heidegger for Fun and Profit”. or. The Coming Community. 1993). A further clarification must be made at this stage. is far from negating any notion of truth. 88–105. as Vattimo would say. And yet he could not have done it. and to anchor and support his critique of metaphysics. at worst. it is also true that this language is no common language. Heidegger’s philosophical position. And yet language. poetic language says the truth by removing it or. with3 4 Giorgio Agamben. pp. trans. to be just language. by making it stronger through exposing its weakness – which is its dispersal. states Heidegger as he interprets this poem by George. Blanchot. as Derrida would say. but in doing so he has also made a long lasting contribution to continental philosophy. it indeed celebrates it by suspending it or. that they are mystifying and misguided. according to Heidegger. and allow language to be as such. Foucault. This condition decrees at once the greatness of poetic language but also its weakness. to name only a few. and their simultaneity remains impossible. and paradoxically. if it is true that for Heidegger the mutual appropriation of language and truth leads to their inevitable separation. It is either truth or language. Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche. Heidegger. Heidegger may have disregarded the intention of the author and the intention of the work. Truth and language can recreate their natural belonging only if humans accept a new experience of language. We will return shortly to the notion of weakness to discuss Gianni Vattimo’s famous conceptualisation of “weak thought”. has no communion with truth. renewing in the process the literary value of those texts in conjunction with his philosophical texts. rationalisation and effability with regard to truth. . as Giorgio Agamben would say. it has to be found in language. an impossible possibility. Cf. has learned to renounce the effability of truth since the proximity between truth and language is also their mutual negation.THE VALUE OF SUSPENDING VALUES 117 truth exists. or done it as well as he did. 1985).3 Heidegger’s innovation. Vattimo. It would be impossible to understand the work of Agamben.

cit. Weakening Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Gianni Vattimo (McGill: Queen’s University Press. Distinction. Vrasidas Karalis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Heideggerian Consequences. 10 5 6 7 8 9 10 For a discussion of renunciation in Heidegger see also my “Renunciation: Heidegger. In the context of metaphysics truth.118 PAOLO BARTOLONI out the support of Heidegger’s conceptualisation of language and being along the paradigmatic axis of Verzicht (renunciation) and Gelassenheit (abandonment).9 he stresses their contiguity and their mutual appropriation. for instance.8 an equation that Vattimo picks up immediately. It is because of this that Vattimo recognizes in Heidegger’s philosophy a democratic and inclusive element that he sets out to explore. is underpinned by a conceptualization of language and being. ed. ed. If literature retains a value in virtue of its connection to truth. for example. “L’età dell’interpretazione”. . especially in relation to “weak thought”. Heideggerian Consequences. cit. “Heidegger: A Philosopher of Democracy”. For a discussion of being in Heidegger see the recent book by Santiago Zabala. exclusion and separateness are removed from Heidegger’s thought in the attempt to bring about a new experience of Being. ethics and politics. Heidegger says that language is being and that being is language. the main thrust of which is to rethink and go beyond metaphysics. The ethical value in literature resides in its weak truths. is always and already external to being. Santiago Zabala. The Remains of Being (New York: Columbia UniversityPress.6 Vattimo’s weak thought is a reconceptualization and an extension of Heidegger’s philosophical project which.. forthcoming). VATTIMO’S “WEAK THOUGHT” Gianni Vattimo has coined the notion of “weak thought” (pensiero debole) in the domains of aesthetics. Western metaphysics is predicated upon a series of polarizations rotating around the all-encompassing opposition subject-object that in the end forget and even obliterate the essence of Being. a Greek word meaning unconcealment but also truth. including works by Umberto Eco. Heidegger. forthcoming). p. p. This is the state of aletheia. op. Jean-Luc Nancy and Charles Taylor. On the Way to Language. 63. Ed. Martin. Vrasidas Karalis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. and he does so by emphasizing the facticity of life and its throwness in the world. Mutuality and togetherness are some of the concepts that resonate strongly in Heidegger’s philosophy.. this would be an ethical value. and truth. 94. Blanchot”. When.5 This brings us to a reassessment of literary value according to the relation author-work-audience. either as the Platonic idea or the Catholic and Jewish God. Moreover. 2007). 2006). Gianni Vattimo. and not necessarily an aesthetic value. op. Agamben. Gianni Vattimo.7 According to Heidegger. the metaphysical truth is a strong truth that requires obedience and reverence. A recent volume of collected essays. Heidegger’s project is to challenge metaphysics by undermining its transcendental spirit. as we saw earlier. explores the relevance of Vattimo’s philosophy. in which individuals open themselves to the world and are appropriated by the world but also appropriate the world.

trans. as Vattimo understands it. by remaining internal. which does not mean that truth is negated. and therefore the love for God. Is it possible. then. is not thought and seen. and literary texts are seldom read unless as a pretext to illustrate some topical issues.12 In Vattimo’s reflections on religion. the thought that unites the community by suspending truth. both contingently and historically. Paul’s thought is predicated upon weakness11 as the ultimate strength that first has enabled God to provide the ultimate sign of love by allowing his son to die on the cross for the salvation of humans. in that comparison itself retains the uniqueness and the specificity of the terms of comparison. of being and Being along a path that arrives at an interesting discussion of democracy via Paul and Heidegger’s thought. This would be more like a transversal experience through which the very notion of values. But in turning form one to many. might lose a sense of direction and urgency. and its significance as a vehicle of ethic and aesthetic values? One possible answer to these questions is: yes. Dana Hollander (Stanford: Stanford University Press. especially in those who are used to follow ready. implies a symbiotic relation to truth which. 52–53. not even a comparison.made truths. And yet it is by switching the attention from that which is outside to that which is naturally inside that an ethics and also an aesthetics of democracy might commence. The Political Theology of Paul. Weak thought is. Gianni Vattimo. to regain literature’s dignity and role. as a love that flows from people to deity. 2. 1998). Religion (Cambridge: Polity Press. it means that truth is appropriated. as in Catholicism or Judaism for instance. But this can be achieved only if the love for the truth. On love in Paul see also Jacob Taubes. rather from deity to people. 1998). It is by demonstrating his unconditional love regardless of laws (Judaism) and sins (Catholicism) that the Christian God comes down from the sky and the cross and becomes one of many. 2004). the love of God becomes the love for each other and a love which is simultaneously within and without. 12. questioning the false strength of transcendental and metaphysical truth. To stress this point.13 one finds the mutual appropriation of human and God. PERNIOLA’S INTERESTED DISINTEREST Can renunciation and weakness have value today? In other words. 1–10. especially pp. Vattimo turns to the Gospels. therefore. and Corinthians 2. knowledge and attendant prescriptions 11 12 13 Corinthians. What value can be found in suspending values? Literature is fast disappearing from the university curricula. 1–5. Credere di Credere (Milano: Garzanti. This ought not to be a confrontation. relating Paul’s discussion of weakness (asthenès) and love (agápe) to Heidegger’s philosophy. and especially to Paul. and second to establish his Church on the weakness and sins of individuals. but providing that literature and its conventional value systems are brought to react with various other systems of values. 1. Gianni Vattimo and Jacques Derrida.THE VALUE OF SUSPENDING VALUES 119 A mutual appropriation. . 22–29.

should he prefer to. Billy Budd and Other Stories (Vermont: Everyman. he terms disinteresse interessato (interested disinterest). He sits in the legal office. On the Way to Language.16 In these works. for instance. cit. “La letteratura nonostante tutto. op. pp. “Silence: The Utmost in Ambiguity”. Mario Perniola. I am using “renunciation” in the Heideggerian sense of Verzicht. 1993). . As we all know this is the story of a scrivener who chooses not to carry out the tasks he is assigned. and yet always potentially ready to act and produce. Mario Perniola. tells us that Bartleby appears to be engaging in some kind of “passive resistance”. It is. Perniola’s is an original discussion and reconfiguration of modern and contemporary tropes informed by suspension and renunciation. 107. This takes into consideration the need to engage the contemporaneous head on with regard to its very core value. a process – a hermeneutic process – that may renew the significance of values by virtue of suspending and “renouncing” them. p. 2004). the narrator of Melville’s “Bartleby”. the path that Mario Perniola announces in an important essay. Paolo Bartoloni and Anthony Stephens (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press. This is. and its embodiment as suspended language within other suspended languages from. nor by amnesia or forgetfulness. Bartleby’s behaviour and presence – charisma. eventually leads to a new experience – in his case of language and Being – in our case of values. in a contemporary shift of the Kantian paradigm. the Scrivener”. One of the most emblematic examples of suspension is Melville’s “Bartleby. more of it as a matter of fact”). closed off from the other employees by a screen that the principal has provided him with. forthcoming). a process enacted by spectacularized destruction. anzi a maggior ragione”.17 The lawyer himself. the philosophical canon. Agalma 12 (September 2006): 122–125..14 which implies a process of “becoming knowledgeable” by virtue of “learning renunciation”. eds. mysticism ? – are so uncanny that his employer is not only disarmed. How do we “learn renunciation”? Through the literary canon. but also “wonderfully” “touched and disconcerted”. according to Heiddegger. rather. anzi a maggior ragione” (“Literature in spite of all. Perniola advocates a form of open intellectual “hostility” against the superficial emotions of the contemporaneous through the mobilisation of aesthetic acts informed by discretion and selection which are predicated on what. Ambiguity. Bartleby simply “prefers” not to do what he is required of him. “La letteratura nonostante tutto. Contro la comunicazione (Turin: Einaudi. This is not.15 But it is also a more general aesthetic attitude that the Italian philosopher explores with considerable insights in other recent works such as Contro la comunicazione (Against Communication) and “Silence: The Utmost in Ambiguity”. economy. remains idle.. in other words. Herman Melville.120 PAOLO BARTOLONI will be suspended and momentarily renounced. Behind the screen this man who can copy more quickly and effectively than all the other clerks in the office. 139–156. 105. p. and question it through a profession of rational critique which collides frontally with ephemeral and immediate requirements of aesthetic gratification. 18 14 15 16 17 18 Martin Heidegger. It is the path toward “learning renunciation” that. Ibid. for instance.

economy. The Writing of the Disaster.20 Blanchot’s very own literary production is based on an active refusal and renunciation of conventional language and narrative strategies. a value. then. it must instead gain a purchase on the world via its main vector. the necessary starting point from which a renegotiation of literature – its production and consumption – might commence? In value terms. in which we could always already decide that we prefer not to. Giorgio Caproni. The values inscribed in the literature of passivity cannot be underestimated.THE VALUE OF SUSPENDING VALUES 121 PASSIVE RESISTANCE Maurice Blanchot picks the notion of “passive resistance” up with relish in The Writing of Disaster in which he defines Bartleby’s action as non-action. paired down. We might start judging again. 1992). 1986). willingness. but only from the threshold of the suspension of judgement. paraphrasing an Italian contemporary poet. this would mean to suspend our ability. starting with Mallarmé. in other words. Ibid. It must become. from that position. Perniola understands the risks inherent in a thought and a literature which have made passivity and negativity their paradigmatic raison d’être. The Wall of The Earth. a refusal that “does not yet allow separation from the power of consciousness”. Giorgio Caproni. According to Blanchot. to where we have never been. p. 17. Bartleby’s is in fact an abdication which equates with a “relinquishment of identity”. Is Bartleby. and these demands need to be “transversed” by us. but because we prefer not to. In 1971 Caproni wrote the poem “Ritorno” (“Return”) and published it in the collection of poems Il muro della terra [1975] (The Wall of The Earth). In fact. an interesse disinteressato . . in Perniola. Our judgement will be marked by the ability to return. unaffected and yet incredibly ambiguous. although producing a form of refusal. refractory. literature arrives with Blanchot at a state of separation and detachment from the world. trans. In time it has become a powerful symbol of suspension and inde- 19 20 21 Maurice Blanchot.19 Blanchot pairs this form of refusal with another kind of refusal in which a “decision” is “expressed”. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. a model. The refusal. which. that is. cannot be just disinterested. trans. Pasquale Verdicchio (Montreal: Guernica. According to Perniola. desire to judge. but not because we do not want or because we cannot. the poem is simple. and yet one cannot help but think that this “renunciation” in action is the result of a longer process of “learning renunciation” that may very well need to pass via “passive renunciation”. he reaches the conclusion that the cause of literature’s demise might very well imputed to the process of self-reflexivity and insularity that. They lie in the demands that they – as literary texts – implicitly and explicitly make. is equated with a position of aristocratic contemplation.21 In keeping to Caproni’s style. ends with Blanchot. and via that “abdication of identity” that Blanchot speaks of in relation to Bartleby.

Philosophy. Leslie Hill.”23 We are where we have never been./ Nothing. and yet we are not. After Blanchot: Literature. has changed. op. Brian Nelson & Dimitris Vardoulakis (Newark: University of Delaware Press. half filled/ I found the glass/ never filled. but it must first of all bid adieu to the cultural mechanisms it has become entangled with. The Wall of the Earth. p. cit. 22 23 On this see also my “Literature of Indistinction: Blanchot and Caproni”.. Criticism. Literature might as well have a future. Giorgio Caproni.122 PAOLO BARTOLONI terminacy. from how it was not. ed. pp./ on the table (the checkered/ cloth). remarks Perniola. . 81. The topos that Caproni sketches in “Return” is not so much the moment of arrival or departure as the movement that maintains and incessantly reconstitutes the known as foreign and the foreign as known. Everything/ is still as/ I have never left it. 2005).22 It reads: “I returned there/ where I had never been. 238–256.

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