Bad Company: On the Theory of Literary Modernity and Melancholy in Walter Benjamin and Julia Kristeva
Boundary 2, Vol. 22, No.3 (Autumn, 1995),57-79.
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Bad Company: On the Theory of Literary Modernity and Melancholy in Walter Benjamin and Julia Kristeva
John Lechte's lucid and enlightening recent book on Julia Kristeva draws what has already become a long and rich record in her work as a continuum of development. He describes a succession of books and essays, and a succession of ideas and polemical positions to show her as an exemplum of history in which he can turn back layer on layer in the sequence of changes. But while the metaphor of movement through successive stages, of additions to a record of territory crossed and explored, is a convenient device in composing a scholarly work, the idea of progress and success implicit in that figure runs counter to the material he actually presents. The image of succeeding metamorphoses does, indeed, create a vivid impression of an individual history, but it is part of the rhetoric we use to describe the heroic labors of writers from some other age, not our own. The material suggests that the value of Kristeva's achievement lies at least as much in the hesitation, retrenchment, and unmaking of her positions. Perhaps more than any of the other members of the Tel Quel group, she invites the reader to give up the pleasures of contemplating the upward and outward sweep of an unfolding persona. She is less inclined than anyboundary 222:3,1995. Copyright © 1995 by Duke University Press. CCC 0190-3659/95/$1.50.
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one to mistake the "success" of her distinctive public profile for an answer to the problem with which she began and which has only slowly come into clear focus through its repeated reformulation. Referring to Kristeva's repudiation of any single affirmative position in the relations between the semiotic and the symbolic, Lechte does agree that, "of course, to win, in a situation where psychic equilibrium is needed, is to lose." 1 Yet, her concern outlines something that goes beyond the intellectual understanding of an opposition in which it is absurd to pursue privilege of one side over another. In 1987, Kristeva published Black Sun, continuing the movement toward simpler language in her more recent work. And there she writes of "a belief in stylistic performance" that betrays the essential desires of human life to the public powers of language. Such a belief abandons the living chance that lies beyond what the discourse can "convey," counting that life "less important than the success of the text itself." 2 Real importance in a publicly transmitted discourse, one that might deserve to be called "grandiose" language, is restricted only to "the royal way through which humanity transcends the grief of being apart, the way of speech given to suffering, including screams, music, silence, and laughter" (Black Sun, 100). Outside the reality of desire, the reality of one person desiring another, she finds only language that settles for something that is really nothing, its place among the powers of artifice. There, grandeur is merely the prize of its success, which means only its establishment at the central point of a world that has "dissolved" a living core "in the thousand and one ways of naming it" (Black Sun, 68). This is a murderous or a suicidal diversion. "Outside the depressive space," she asks, "is the grandiose anything but a game?" (Black Sun, 100). The game that Kristeva herself now names suicidal is played out on a court of grand oppositions: freedom and fate, body and soul, the raw and the cooked. These are clearly situated outside the unique desire for love that animates every tremor of her voice in Black Sun, but what she succeeds in enunciating above all is how the extraordinarily complex route in and out of these alien kingdoms still distracts her from the "royal way" of humanity. Perhaps the nature of that distraction is already explicit in the rhetoric of grandeur and royalty used to express the value of what is lost.
1. John Lechte, Julia Kristeva (New York: Routledge, 1990), 209. 2. Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 68. Hereafter, this work is cited parenthetically in the text as Black Sun.
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These oppositions are the fulcra in machinery about which her own history of citizenships turns, as well as that line or fold at the heart of a culture that requires the appearance of the hero. But the hero is the enemy of desire, sacrificing the inner domain of human happiness for the outer structure that holds a culture together. The magnetic pull of such sacrifice cannot be resisted if the choice to be made identifies two kingships, for the greater kingship always overrules and subsumes the lesser. To succeed, to triumph heroically, means to be visible and acknowledged in a public sphere, to achieve a distinction of citizenship in the service of a reigning authority. Therefore, to look for the joy of desire along a royal road means always to go astray, for signs of regal distinction trace a way to the forum, the central stage of authority, and to the drama in which the game of powers is played out. If one can look on Kristeva's thought as the adventure of an exploration, then she does acquire the look of the hero pressing onward. Yet she herself clearly feels the deceptive ambiguity in her own powers and the dubious distinction with which they reward her, even if she does not see another way forward. Kristeva's participation in the Tel Quel group gives the frame in which to contemplate the stages of a heroic passion. What seems much truer in her experience, however, is the coming to consciousness of her mistrust in her own role among that company. The role falls away from her, but only piecemeal, as the repeated jolt of events undoes the dream of change that had animated French intellectual life at the moment of her first entrance. It is Walter Benjamin who gives the most succinct formula for a process of thought in which affect can come grinding to a halt, a process Kristeva tries to restrict under the name "depression." The clinical force of the term limits it to a mere quality or coloration of experience from which one recovers, that is, returns to the correctly balanced light. But for Benjamin, to fall away from a publicly sanctioned order into pain and melancholy was a first step in liberating oneself from the false majesty of things in the clarity of their continued progress: "Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock." 3 Black Sun names Benjamin quite prominently for his work on allegory as the function literature assumes under the condition of melancholy. Kristeva alludes to his work on the baroque play of mourning, and yet he also seems to haunt the text as an
3. Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), 262.
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unassimilated 'presence for the way he applied the concepts of melancholy and allegory to the literature of modernity in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. The extensive discussion in her book seems to place Gerard de Nerval at the initial evolutionary moment of literary modernity that Benjamin reserves for Baudelaire, whose name is completely excluded from Black Sun. This place for Nerval is consistent with Kristeva's view of literary modernity and that established by the Tel Quel group in general. Raymond Jean, for example, observes in his Poetique du desir of Nerval's writing: "One can say of it quite legitimately what Philippe Sollers said of some other writers, such as Sade, Mallarme, Artaud, or Bataille: 'In all the texts in question, the theory of writing is there, immanent, ready to be demonstrated: but it is generally perceived in the form of delirium, fantasm, poetry, hermeticism, personal deviation, etc.'''4 The contrasting perspectives between Benjamin and Kristeva, and the different place ascribed to Baudelaire by one and to Nerval by the other, help us understand the view of modernity Kristeva assimilated early in her work and the continuing tensions that emerge in the later work as the major contradictions with which she struggles. In the simplest and most general formulation, Benjamin regards the hard allure of Baudelaire's verse as a hollowed-out form designed to convey the arrest of time and the penetration of an illusory continuity of development in the human sphere. This experience of time at a standstill leaves the future open to a completely heterogeneous order of change. Kristeva takes the breaking up of the surfaces in representation, the fragmentation of the image and the dissolution of the coherent voice, to be indicative of a change and renewal already contained in the literary process. The revolutionary extension of that change requires only that the work of critical and philosophical mediation be undertaken to expand the liberation achieved by writing so that it may enter and determine a larger domain of experience. Yet Kristeva, for whom this liberation of experience has an added dimension of urgency not present among the men, can never free the promise of change, and the enticements of success as the bond of that promise, from an underlying doubt. This doubt begins with the potential of our own modernity, with its contemporaneity, or its adequacy to a unique experience of the present in which the separation from another person, the "grief of being apart," can be repaired. It begins with the anxieties of finding a lan4. Raymond Jean, La Poetique du desir: Nerval, Lautreamont, Apollinaire, Eluard (Paris: Seuil, 1974), 31; my translation. The quoted comment by Sollers is from "Ecriture et revolution," in Theorie d'ensemble, ed. Philippe Sollers (Paris: ed. du Seuil, 1968), 72.
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guage whose fullness is of the present and whose flow carries one person toward another. But the present is only ours and only promises the joining of life, if it contains the future. It is theirs, property of the dead, if it is only the recurrence of the past or the continuation of a game. The entire nature of activity and identity at which the present grasps is thus open to doubt and loss. Kristeva wrote in 1971 that "only one language grows more contemporary: the equivalent, beyond a span of thirty years, of the language of Finnegan's Wake." The reason she gives is that such language, or its equivalent, stands separate and free of "didacticism, rhetoric, dogmatism of any kind." It also stands in contrast to others that, "in any field whatsoever, no longer command attention," although they "have survived and perhaps will continue to survive, in modified form, throughout Academia."s Much has changed in the meantime, including what survives in, and some might say, of, academia, but not the central place of that particular language in Kristeva's concerns. In Black Sun, the medusa-like ability of literature and art to fix the crumbling and collapsing meanings of the world in a "nameable melancholia" is a means to withstand catastrophe, not to turn that catastrophe about into a chance for a life filled with its own recovered significance. "Sublimation alone withstands death," she writes, but it does so only as a displacement of despair, not a way to the real: The beautiful object that can bewitch us into its world seems to us more worthy of adoption than any loved or hated cause for wound or sorrow. Depression recognizes this and agrees to live within and for that object, but such an adoption of the sublime is no longer libidinal. It is already detached, dissociated, it has already integrated the traces of death, which is signified as lack of concern, absentmindedness, carelessness. Beauty is an artifice; it is imaginary. (Black Sun, 100) It is at this point that Kristeva introduces Walter Benjamin's work on allegory in his book on the baroque drama of mourning, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Black Sun, 101). The chastened view of what lit5. Julia Kristeva, "How Does One Speak to Literature?" in Desire in Language, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 92. Hereafter, this work is cited parenthetically as How. The essay first appeared in Tel Quel47 (fall 1971): 27-49, and was subsequently reprinted in Polylogue (Paris: Seuil, 1977), 23-24.
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erature has to offer has come closer to Benjamin's perception of a hollow rigidity in poetic forms but is still very far from finding an alternative emancipatory potential here, as he does. He finds a critical force in the shock of arrest that these cold structures direct against the ruling ideology of organic change. A cessation of happening threatens a ruling order that preserves itself by its renewal in progress. Kristeva had seen the unchained energy by which Joyce's writing dismissed the narrative forms of the past as the implicit literary equivalent of revolution itself. In "How Does One Speak to Literature?" and the other essays she collected in Polylogue in 1977, she emphasizes the "rhythmic" or "musical" quality of language, its "semiotic" as opposed to "symbolic" quality, as a true presence of vitality, where Joyce had, from the start, taken the libertine content of modern art in all its manifestations to be merely the mockery of the rigidity that art had discovered and rejected in all the forms of illusion, especially the illusion that it pursued in its own prior tradition of representation. Benjamin regards the incorporation of pure negativity as the fundamental achievement in Baudelaire's poetry: "The glory of an allegorical intention: destruction of the organic and the living-elimination of semblance." 6 Benjamin argues that this marks the essential break of modernism with the previous tradition of literary aesthetics, which used an idealizing distance to hold the world of appearance at a point where representation could secure these appearances as beauty. Baudelaire uses "spleen" as an intellectual discipline within the composition of poetry to establish a quite new aesthetic position. His viewpoint remains firmly fixed in the world of collapse and decay but chills the spectacle by giving up the natural desire to believe in a life the object no longer contains and can no longer promise. Spleen, this deeply sobered perspective on emptiness and banality, withholds itself; it is a reservation in one's position. Benjamin writes that spleen is a "barrage erected against pessimism," because it refuses to give itself over to hopes that can never lift us to fulfillment and that therefore sink us down finally to despair. "Baudelaire is no pessimist. He is not, because he sets a taboo on the future. This is what distinguishes his heroism most sharply from that of Nietzsche" (Zentralpark, 657). This is the heroism of the dandy, who conquers the absence of love by a devotional atheism, celebrating his equanimity while repeating forms of a life that he believes most likely never was and certainly never will be.
6. Walter Benjamin, "Zentralpark," in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Hermann Schweppenhauser and Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974),669-70; my translation here and subsequently. Hereafter, this work is cited parenthetically as Zentralpark.
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Kristeva agrees, in Polylogue, that modernist texts do not give voice to the fantasy image of an ideal, the "schaner Schein," or "beautiful semblance," whose pleasures in classical aesthetics displace the real, but she argues for a quite different kind of negativity replete with hope. The modern text gives up the pleasure of closed forms, but instead finds jouissance in bursting the bounds of explicit communicative expression. What she calls "semiotic functions" gain by the retreat of discredited ideals, and through their more material qualities, poetic language is able to expose an absence registered in the desiring body: "in so doing, it refers neither to a literary convention ... nor even to the body itself, but rather, to a signifying disposition, pre- or transsymbolic, which fashions any judging consciousness so that any ego recognizes its crisis within it. It is a jubilant recognition that, in 'modern' literature, replaces petty aesthetic pleasure." 7 Kristeva wrote very little about Baudelaire for a long time. In her Histoires d'amour (1983), she makes it quite clear that she did not include him in the canon of modernity because she considers him to be still stranded at the outer margin of the traditional image and traditional language. The gaze of the flaneur remains fixated on the spectacle of hollow faces because only by transfixing himself with the delight in his own coldness can he hold any ground under the shock of their emptiness. This is the substitute of a game, because such a sensibility "cannot bear being without some form of symbolic existence in a fully articulated form." 8 Kristeva's section on Baudelaire in Histoires d'amour places critical emphasis on the role of perfumes for his sensibility, as well as on the distant shiver of sounds and the shimmer of light playing on jewels, because these convey the aesthetic Catholicism that binds him to the authority of classical French prosody over his verse, as well as the unbroken authority of the Church over his senses. In a similar vein, she draws heavily on Georges Blin's characterization of Baudelaire as a sadist 9 to support her argument that his verse subjects the human body, and the full rhythmic or musical substance of its desires, to a process of destruction and reduction so as to extract from it the refined delices of synaesthesia. Therefore, she can offer the example of writers who destroy the integrity of closed literary forms as figures who are implicitly committed to reversing that process and to giving the body its full due. Yet her comments in Black Sun throw the significance of the semi7. Julia Kristeva, "From One Identity to an Other," in Desire in Language, 141. 8. Lechte, Julia Kristeva, 181. 9. Georges Blin, Le Sadisme de Baudelaire (Paris: Conti, 1948).
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otic functions in modernism directly up against the demand they have not met and raise the questions Kristeva cannot answer: Why should the texts she privileges be any nearer the reality of love than Baudelaire's; and Why are they not games of a more (or perhaps less) devious kind? If she stands closer to Benjamin in her later work, it is still not possible to decide exactly how close, and if she has moved away from her more hopeful stand in the past, it is still not possible to decide where she stood then. It might be more accurate to say that her later work simply begins to acknowledge her own uncertainty about where she stands in relation to hope and desire, because time has exposed the desperate crag of loneliness on which she was perched all along. If Kristeva is now beginning to approach Benjamin's position on literary modernity, or if her current position is beginning to expose the difficulty of overcoming his view of the position modernist aesthetics defines for itself, then this reflects back to the political and historical understanding of literary activity that not only she, but Philippe Sollers and the Tel Quel group generally, asserted as a way of affirming that what they represented was not merely "a game." John Lechte writes of this beginning: "Through the opaque pathos of writing, the shadow of death and the oblique political gesture become one and the same. With this gesture, the writer is an intellectual-not by being the vehicle of a moral or political message, but by becoming a writer in the fullest sense possible: by becoming the opponent of all normalizations and stereotypes, and the practitioner of his/her art." 10 But the rhetoric of the Tel Quel group about themselves and their situation is very different from anything one finds in James Joyce, insofar as they feel the need to undertake this theoretical project of self-justification in the context of politics and history, and they pursue this project by insisting that the writing needs no justification. The idea of a jubilant recognition of crisis quoted from "How Does One Speak to Literature?" suggests Kristeva's first investment in literature was a straight bet on this direct mediation of a revolutionary affect. Benjamin's view is much closer to the idea of an interruption. The explicit quickening of a promise Kristeva claims to feel in the stirring of crises runs counter to what he considers the chance of a change - namely, a shock delivered by bringing continuity to a standstill. That is the reason he worked so tenaciously to show a revolutionary potential in Baudelaire. The moment of a crisis, understood as a sudden acceleration of possi10. Lechte, Julia Kristeva, 21.
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bilities, is, for Benjamin, likely to prove a utopian idea caught up with the illusions of progress. As he illustrates through his much discussed image of the Angel of History in the ninth of the "Theses on the Philosophy of History," this movement of progress defers change before the catastrophe of things going on as before. Such a helpless pursuit of paradise in the future freezes and cracks under the gaze Baudelaire turns on the spectacle before him: "Rigid disquiet is also the formula conveying Baudelaire's image of life, which knows no chance of development" (Zentralpark, 668). Most specifically, this experience marks the undone promise of love. "Woman for Baudelaire: the most precious object of plunder in the 'Triumph of Allegory' -the life that signifies death" (Zentralpark, 667). This embrace of death and deception turns against the illusion of any fruitful passage of purposeful time. Therefore, it is impervious to any promises that history, or what Benjamin calls historicism, can point to in a future of progress. Only at that point does Benjamin begin to set up his very complex historical dialectics and draw the negativity of literature into a political critique. His radical notion of a materialist historical optic closes out the empty expansiveness and repetitions of what he calls the homogeneous past of historicism and cancels the meaningless continuity of progress that historicism projects into the future, thereby rendering time open to a critical alternative in active political understanding. Kristeva not only looks to the recognition of a common state of crisis as the mark of a singular language in modernist writing but also finds reason for "jubilation" in this disposition to exceed what she takes to be the limited symbolic function of discourse. She looks to Philippe Sollers, to the achievements of a modern canon that includes Mallarme, Lautreamont, and Artaud, for this precious surplus in poetic language. Though it is not yet knowledge, the site of that crisis gathers these authors within a single project, she argues, since the semiotic function presents a singular challenge to the traditional domination of symbolic functions. The task of reading and understanding begins by acknowledging the failure of symbolic meanings to absorb all experience of the subject as a material being and a desiring body. The determinate system that articulates symbolic language is inadequate to the materiality of life, and the texts of the resulting artifice are in that sense "empty." But she does, at this early stage, regard the semiotic side of the text, the side that gives full emphasis to the rhythmic or musical qualities, as "full." And the material qualities that fill it in this way are capable, through the process of revaluation by theoretical work, of a direct expansion into active political and historical significance.
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The lesson Kristeva has drawn from Roland Barthes is to look to a concept of "writing" (ecriture) as a particular practice of literary production with new historical substance. Because it is not exhausted in the presentation of communicable meanings for the "petty aesthetic pleasure" of its readership, "writing" does not reproduce the structures of a determinate, rule-bound subject within its language: "As infra- and ultra-language, as translanguage, writing is the ridge where the historical becoming of the subject is affirmed; that is, an a-psychological, a-subjective subject-an historical subject" (How, 97-98). But a ridge about which the crisscross winds of so many neologisms blow is not a place to trust anything very far. Everything in her claims depends on the promise of something new that has yet to appear, but only then, after that coming to appearance, can so many new terms be considered full speech and perform this new critical mediation of semiotic language, rather than simply repeat their negation of the symbolic. Until then, there is a fundamental difficulty in her invocation of "history," with all its rich reverberations of redemption. Desire may well arise within, and as a response to, history. Of course: how could it possibly be otherwise? But history is the record of appearances, and Kristeva has already established that what is most characteristic of this contemporary language of literary modernity is that it refuses to produce appearances as the material of petty aesthetic pleasure. Indeed, it steps back from engagement in history as "didacticism, rhetoric, dogmatism of any kind." This splits her argument quite dangerously, so that it seems to contradict the very possibility of change on which her revaluation of literary writing at that time insists. On the one hand, Kristeva affirms that "writing thus posits another subject, for the first time a definitively antipsychological one, for what determines it ultimately isn't the problem of communication (relationship to an other) but that of an excess of 'ego' within an experience" (How, 98). On the other hand, if this "necessary practice," as she calls it, is not to be produced as an appearance (and thereby brought into a relationship to an other), then each work presents only the site of an internal separation from, and within, history, and the practice of such writing only marks the general locus to which such sites are restricted. That separation in no way implies a power of change in the domain of historical appearances. Recognizing this, she has to posit another complementary practice that will realize this otherwise immobilized negativity as a different, and truer, history: "Once this area has been determined, literary practices can be considered as the object of a possible knowledge: the discursive possibility emerges out of a reality impossible for it although localizable by it" (How, 98).
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This possibility, the always deferred promise of change and reality, is the justifying standard beneath which the long and intricate history of Kristeva's own theoretical and polemical labors began and has been pursued to the scene of depression and melancholia. Her enterprise, looking forward to an as yet unrepresentable potential, remains always beyond the reach of a definitive critique. It has always not yet reached the point at which its claims could be subjected to any definitive test. Debate about Kristeva's larger enterprise has been strangely fraught with undecidable differences because it is ultimately about an object that has not made any ultimate appearance. 11 But there should also be no doubt that what makes the enterprise preeminently important is the clarity with which she acknowledges the afflicted state, the permanent crisis, of a consciousness imprisoned by desire for this "Thing" that is not even an object, that cannot even be raised to the substance of an absent object. In the work she completed in 1980, Powers of Horror, Kristeva applies the word abject or abjection to this non-object. She thereby loosens the earlier deceptive temporal orientation of a future toward which the present turns and frOtll which the labors of the present derive their meaning. If the possibility of change implies that the future holds another object toward which one can extend oneself to appropriate it, then the otherness of the object has already been transformed into a promise, into a conviction. The object is the correlative of a certain knowledge. The abject is not. She writes: "The abject has only one quality of the object-that of being opposed to I." 12 In the case of an object, this relation of opposition also supports other qualities, qualities of connection and the force of knowing: "If the object ... settles me within the fragile texture of a desire for meaning, which, as a matter of fact, makes me ceaselessly and infinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses. 13 The antinomy here is simple and obvious. Kristeva's ecriture is indeed drawn toward the point where meaning collapses, but her meaning does not collapse. Her meaning is the gesture of approach, her own labor
11. There is an intriguing example of this in the entirely incommensurable readings put forward by Calvin Bedient in "Kristeva and Poetry as Shattered Signification," Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4: 807-29; Toril Moi's response to him, "Reading Kristeva: A Response to Calvin Bedient," Critical Inquiry 17, no. 3: 639-43; and his response to her response in that same issue, "How I Slugged It Out with Toril Moi and Stayed Awake," 644-49. 12. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 1. 13. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 1-2.
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of making and doing; the production of a text in which she inscribes the track of this approach is an invitation to the reader to reenact the gesture, to participate in it, to reenact a homologous I that participates in the same coherence as Kristeva's production. The text creates a space and direction of movement that substitutes for the motion in time toward a graspable transformation in the future. Writing exerts an attracting force here that is not the appeal of a petty aesthetics but is able to replace the enfeebled answer such aesthetics offers in the face of a crisis, because, in its own gesture, it transfigures the unimaginable time of the future into a present figure, the trope of this "toward." Kristeva's writing has accomplished an approach within the language of criticism equivalent to that cited for poetic language in "How Does One Speak to Literature?" and capable, like it, of promoting a "jubilant" recognition. And the critical response to Powers of Horror does reflect how completely horror has been sublated in the elegance of her textual gesture. Guy Scarpetta noted that with this book, Kristeva had enriched her "theoretical rigor" with "an effective measure of seduction." 14 This kind of appeal is enormously successful in expanding the sphere in which she is heard, and yet it also postpones the change that lies at the basis of the enterprise itself: the emancipation of a silenced world. Jubilation in a moment of crisis does not arise from the recognition of the savage and uncertain turn a course toward emancipation has to take; it comes either from the relief at the end of a numbing emptiness or from the promise of what lies beyond the transformation to come. But the essential condition of a real change, as opposed to a restoration or a pursuit of fantasies drawn from an idealization of past appearances, differs in that one cannot see past the place where a real turn comes into view. Therefore, the first part or possibility of jubilation, which draws away from the past at the approach of a future that differs from what is and has been, also stands with a sharp reserve from the second, which imagines the future. In the first, a historical consciousness may sustain a preponderance of "theoretical rigor" in the process of sobering up from the debilitating fascinations of the past. This process is what Walter Benjamin refers to in his essay on surrealism as the "dialectics of intoxication." The importance of the process, for him, lies in the equal critical force a consciousness schooled in the nature of intoxication may direct against the powers of fascination exercised by images of the future. Seduction preponderates over critical rigor if the future is dissolved into irreality, because the dangers to
14. Quoted by Leon S. Roudiez in his translator's note to Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection, vii, cited in Le Nouvel Observateur (19 May 1980).
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be negotiated are transfigured into objects of delight for a renewed state of intoxication. That is precisely the fault Walter Benjamin suspects in the surrealists, where they "subordinate the methodical and disciplinary preparation for revolution ... to a praxis oscillating between fitness exercises and celebration in advance." 15 The equivalent fault in Kristeva may be located with some precision: in her use of the word history. Just as the surrealists mix and confuse experiences of ecstasy and desires for emancipation to produce what Benjamin considers a "romantic," rather than dialectical, concept of intoxication, so Kristeva confuses models of change in the past and projects of change for the future. The path followed by history in the Renaissance is to be her map for a reversal of the past to make a rebirth in the future, as though time were as continuous and coherent as this implicit return to the treasures of recollection. The objectifying function of literary representation in bourgeois history from the Renaissance on is carefully explored in Kristeva's early work. The beginnings of the novel are, for example, analyzed through the case of Antoine de la Sale's Jehan de la Saintre in the essay written in 1967, "Le Texte clos" (included in the collection LY]}lELWTLXry, 1968). The qualities of a more musical or rhythmic medieval writing had, she argues, left it still open to a heterogeneity, and thereby implicitly to valorizing women, but by the fifteenth century, this was giving way to literature that represented the speech of the new man, the assertive language of a self-sufficient author anxious to establish himself as a voice of authority. The valorization of this power and devalorization of writing is "a paradoxical phenomenon that dominates, in different forms, the entire history of the novel." 16 The historical weight given her confident dualism of speech and writing distinguishes the eager sense of imminent change in these early essays most clearly from the dark tone of Black Sun. There is certainly a venerable tradition that opposes speech as true and immediate language and writing as mediated, indirect, and arbitrary. Nonetheless, the emphasis on this opposition as the ultimate determinant of a metaphysics of authority looks rather exaggerated and even dated now. We can show no natural or actual identity between that which has been suppressed by the division of labor in the bourgeois era and the fate of "writing." Consequently, there is no reason why a political polemic revalorizing writing should create a strategy that could reverse the triumph of
15. Walter Benjamin, "Surrealism," in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken, 1986), 189. 16. Julia Kristeva, "The Bounded Text," in Desire in Language, 58.
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bourgeois history. Kristeva writes that "for the phonetic consciousnessfrom the Renaissance to our time-writing is an artificial limit, an arbitrary law, a subjective finitude," 17 but the pathos of struggle is misleading if it sets these two ideas up as combatants fighting out change to and fro between them in the actualities of history. The rhetoric of "How Does One Speak to Literature?" presents the language of Finnegan's Wake as the modern redemption of writing from phonetic consciousness. By alienating his work from communicative forms of speech, the essay claims, Joyce not only ends the history of the novel but starts the work of ending that history at all levels and recovering all that was (supposedly) lost with this passing of the medieval world: "It follows that the literary avant-garde experience, by virtue of its very characteristics, is slated to become the laboratory of a new discourse (and of a new subject), thus bringing about a mutation, 'perhaps as important, and involving the same problem, as the one marking the passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance'" (How, 92).18 To speak about the future is, for Benjamin, always endangered by seduction and delusion. Speech and writing in any form can displace the movement of time by the substitution of mythology, or false knowledge, that gives assurance where there is no knowledge. Despite the special discipline of "writing" that refuses to participate in the beautiful semblances of pleasure, the celebration of its own powers implicit in a jubilant reading remains, in the phrase Benjamin applies to the surrealists, "too impetuous." 19 Benjamin closes his "Theses on the Philosophy of History" with an approving reference to the biblical ban on divination: "We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment." 20 An understanding of time and the labor of producing change does not come from a mythological reach beyond the horizon of the present but from the active application of a consciousness of the present to the appearances of the past. He notes that the historian is "a prophet turned backward." 21
17. Kristeva, "The Bounded Text," 58. 18. The quoted line she includes here is from Roland Barthes's Critique et Verite (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 48. 19. Benjamin, "Surrealism," 185. 20. Benjamin, "Theses," 264. 21. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften 1/3, 1235. This idea is borrowed from Friedrich Schlegel.
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But in Black Sun, Kristeva evidently also acknowledges the effect of her earlier desire to penetrate the future. The demonic gloom of melancholy follows inevitably in the train of an enraptured or jubilant prophetic consciousness. Thus, she later turns, like him, away from the deceptions of magical projection into the future. Today, the span of time since Finnegan's Wake to which Kristeva referred in "How Does One Speak to Literature?" is almost sixty years. The continued contemporaneous presence of its language attests to a change in the meaning of its contemporaneity. In 1971, that language had been directly tied to the active prospect of an end to the past in the general condition of history: "As capitalist society is being economically and politically choked to death, discourse is wearing thin and heading for collapse at a more rapid rate than ever before" (How, 92). But now that capitalism has emerged in full planetary possession of history, the aesthetic extrication of poetic language from the communicative forms of public discourse reveals itself as a cessation in the process of literary history, while outside that special aesthetic domain, the arena of political, economic, and moral discourse continues its self-assertion and sustains itself by providing its own imagery and narrative representations through the consciousness industry. For this reason, Kristeva has to give up a concept of "history" that arises in the Middle Ages and arches over the ridge marked by ecriture to pass from an old form of the subject to a new one that is to come. What now becomes crucial about the language of Finnegan's Wake is where the journey that falters on that high ridge does actually come to an end. The forms of narrative that, in Benjamin's image from the "Theses," so powerfully organize strings of facts "like beads on a rosary" 22 do so still in the political arena. Though contemporary poetic prose has refused those forms and constructs an artful tangle in the literary sphere, its critical force does not extend far. Its primary resonance reaches, now, into "academia," albeit into those spaces in the institution that are themselves politically isolated. This tangle appears where once an earlier academic historicism had drawn a clear crossroads pointing onward to the future through homogeneous time. The forms of argument then still inhabiting that older "academia" now live on in the consciousness industry. The popular persuasiveness of enchained facts rests on supposedly scientific necessities in the human domain, though the unique realities of human desire lie outside the sphere of causality. The split between the
22. Benjamin, "Theses," 263.
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"high" domain of poetic language and the "popular" domain of general discourse leaves a core of human life and desire powerless to speak. Writing articulates that powerlessness, but only in the form of its own impotent exclusion. In Powers of Horror, Kristeva notes "how dazzling, unending, eternal-and so weak, so insignificant, so sickly-is the rhetoric of Joycean language." 23 Where progress continues to rule the language of social transactions, and projects itself into the same future, literary language can only abstract itself from such abstraction. Yet this language becomes "more contemporary," Kristeva insists in Polylogue, because it presses toward a change. The direction, or substance, of this change lies in an element beyond the linguistic processes of "sense" that constitute the symbolic system of language. This translinguistic excess is present as rhythm. Thus, she writes in Polylogue that poetic language is "an undecidable process between sense and nonsense, between language and rhythm (in the sense of linkage that the word 'rhythm' had for Aeschylus' Prometheus according to Heidegger's reading), between the symbolic and the semiotic." 24 Rhythm is a presence of time set in the materiality and corporeality of experience. It contrasts with discursive ideas of temporality. The power and authority of ideas derive from a different form of permanence or duration, which is precisely what establishes the domain of sense. Yet Kristeva cannot show how the restricted extension of rhythm through time can challenge the authority of represented ideas in their own domain. In rhythm, a future is possessed in the body. As such, it may be jubilant. It may be experienced as the ecstatic power of bodily reality, but even though there may be a lesser experience of reality in the realm of ideas, this is outweighed by the different and greater power in the extension of authority through the vastly greater duration available to "sense." Moreover, the larger the sphere to be occupied by the economy of social or cultural life, the more overwhelming the advantage of power that accrues to the representation of ideas and to relations construed by their exchange. The abstraction that takes hold in the modernity of fully extended industrial economies cannot be resisted as long as there is nothing else that can unfold and expand to the limit of their ravenous horizons. This presents Benjamin with the same problem that confronts Kristeva, which is, of course, also the problem that runs through every critical
23. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 22. 24. Kristeva, "From One Identity to an Other," 135.
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analysis of modernity. How can writing that withdraws from the domain of an empty and mechanical process of history be brought into critical opposition to its counterpart in the sphere of public and explicit relations? Both Benjamin and Kristeva resort to an element that is "too impetuous" to remain true to either the condition of modernist literature or anything observable in history. Though Benjamin values the taboo that will not relieve emptiness by opening the present up as a transition to the future, he inserts the esoteric idea of a revolutionary messianism in the space left by that taboo. Though Kristeva values the sharply enclosed and uncompromising language of Joyce that refuses to participate in institutionalized, authoritative, communicative discourse, she nonetheless attempts to extend an experience so specific and restricted in time as the semiotic to establish an equivalent universal dimension in that same space. It is the imperative of redemption that reconciles these alienated domains with an idea of history. The element that is so impetuous in a desire for redemption sees the present condition of the world as a rule of evil. Redemption requires turning the world upside down and inside out, so that the unrepresentable is the real and the marginal is the source from which all meanings flow. But Baudelaire has identified the world of evil as a banality having neither margins nor center and finds the possibility of poetic language only in the creation of an artificial margin, like the artificial fastidiousness of the dandy that he insinuates between himself and the crowd. Where Kristeva speaks of reality and Benjamin of truth, they ascribe a value to the repressed that is only accorded its rights when it is restored to a central position. Thus, the process of negation that they pursue as the political dimension of modernist language actually reverses the form of negation accomplished in modernist aesthetics. Joyce's language is "dazzling, unending, eternal" in halting the stream of everyday discourse and breaking it up, just as the cubist painting of eighty years ago broke up the optical representation of visual continuities in the world, but this does not imply any form of restoration. The freedom and strength of the work of art vanish at once from any attempt to recuperate the work as public discourse, as didacticism. The productive endowment of modernist works finds its source in the negation of active worldly power and derives a powerless strength by identifying with the contraries of worldly life. This corresponds exactly to what Benjamin observes in Baudelaire: "To interrupt the earth in its course-that was Baudelaire's deepest wish. Joshua's wish. Not so much the prophetic part of it, because he had no thought of turning it back. Out of this wish came his violence, his impatience, and his anger; from that
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same source too came his constant efforts to stab the world to the heart, or to sing it into a sleep. By reason of this wish he also offers an encouraging companionship to death in the pursuit of its works" (Zentralpark, 667). The secular promise of salvation through progress is intimately connected with the history of art and literature from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of modernity. That history extends an ever more explicit representation of the individual, or human possessions, artifacts, and settings, in portraits and narratives that give substance to the assertive exercise of an identity. In the last stages of that extension, the mechanical processes of reproduction, especially photography, propel the work of art to the logical conclusion of an exploration that had its tentative beginnings in the secularization of beauty in the Renaissance. The logic of representation pursued in this history is to let the meaning of a physiognomy speak through its appearance without violating the optical characteristics of its presence. The image of a person in a portrait from that tradition subordinates the rhythm of a painterly freedom of action to a discipline of appearances. That discipline will render the mask and gesture, through which the portrayed figure might speak as an individual subject in life, and lets the visible form of a face convey and enframe the nature of the speech and the acts with which the individual is identical. The connection between the presence of the image, a surface of appearances, and the origin of a more permanent value, a depth of interiority in the psychological subject, is what Benjamin called "aura." His definitions of aura are well known. He calls it "the experience of a distance, however close it may be," and writes that "to perceive the aura of an object means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return." 25 The disappearance of aura certainly has a direct connection with Kristeva's concept of writing, if this is taken as a general metaphor of a surface, a mask, that has lost the connection to a singular true voice speaking through it. Benjamin builds this idea up in the unstable persona of Baudelaire himself. He quotes Gustave Courbet's observation that "Baudelaire looked different every day" and describes "Baudelaire's physiognomy as that of a mime" (Zentralpark, 676, 672). The loss of the artist's traditional position as the man who mediates auratic connections between surface and psychological depth (as expressed in Baudelaire's "Perte d'aureole") can be accounted for, in Benjamin's view, by the overwhelming presence of mass-produced
25. Walter Benjamin, "The Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, 222; and "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," in Illuminations, 188.
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commodities that have no individual characteristics. The shock of this emptiness in appearances turns the artist away from modes of meaning that look for the life in the masks and leaves him the task of contemplating them as death. This is the "allegorical" function of modernism in art, incapable of holding up a mirror to reflect the ideal life of its society. Its material, instead, becomes a mute world of ruins. Benjamin writes, "The man sunk deep in contemplation who is shocked with fright when his eye falls on the fragment in his hand becomes an allegoricist" (Zentralpark, 676). This art suddenly begins to speak of its own shock, for it has discovered that it cannot any longer give its voice to the mask of appearances. Therefore, it can no longer close the split between the distinctive author of the work and the banal authority of the worldly object bid for in the market. The significance of the characteristic artistic activity that now supervenes under conditions of modernity and redefines the work of art as the classical forms of beauty break up and are abandoned also divides Benjamin and Kristeva. Where the traditional discipline of representation falls away, the freedom that falls to the artist to portray the arbitrariness of formal production can bespeak that condition in two ways. For Benjamin, it turns backward in a disenchanted look of shock at the futility of the beauty that went before. It exposes the game that had once masqueraded as the true voice of human life by portraying the abstractness of all artifacts. In his essay "The Author as Producer," Benjamin takes the example of a dada "still life," in which discarded objects of everyday use are included with painted elements: "And thereby the public was shown: look, your picture frame ruptures time; the tiniest authentic fragment of daily life says more than painting." 26 Alternatively, it can look forward as the site of a first freedom of human essence and a premonition of a revolution that enables that freedom itself to rupture the frame and flood out into a historically transformed world filled by that essence. Though Kristeva inclines initially toward the second position, the frailty of that power locked up within the frame puts it in question from the start. To Benjamin's eye, only the quite separate theological concept of a messianic force can compensate for that frailty. In the black light of depression, Kristeva contemplates the counterillumination of atheism. But this, too, passes on the function of mediating between art and the social world to criticism, which arrives to throw light on the text as soon as the
26. Walter Benjamin, "The Author as Producer," in Reflections, 229.
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author's aureole drops away into the street. Whereas once the effect of framing established a privileged tie of aesthetics that might speak in larger, mythic terms for the audience, now the work of art stands coldly shadowed by a wall refusing the audience its seductive desires to possess the poet as their own more exalted reflection. Baudelaire's fraternal reader shares in the poet's reduced aspiration that only knows an exalted role in the form of hypocrisy. Kristeva dislikes what Baudelaire's place in literary history suggests about the importance of framing effects that he achieved by strict form, but her own productive activities highlight the dependency of modern literature on the institutions of criticism that also establish the special place of an artistic text or artifact that cannot operate through the luxurious means of high formal order. This recognition of her own place brings her closer to Benjamin's view, as her practice of critical reading fails to bring the vitality of writing any closer to real presence. Criticism voices the truth that arises out of the insignificance of art, acknowledging that "beauty is an artifice; it is imaginary." Though Benjamin may be correct to reprove the surrealists for confusing the jubilation of aesthetic experience with the triumph yet to be reached in a historical redemption, both he and Kristeva risk precisely the same mistake from the other side, as critics. The role of activating art in politics and history by a theoretical mediation requires the work of transvaluation only, "thus opening the way for philosophers or semioticians" (How, 98). Yet philosophical or semiotic reading can only demonstrate that under conditions of modernity, the position of poetic language outside communicative discourse is its sole constitutive meaning. What turned literary modernity away from the model of authority in aura was not only the evident failure of one distinction, the artistic achievement of an image that truly captured the deep autonomy of the subject, but also its replacement by another, the image that now refuses to let distance maintain the illusion of depth. And to this corresponds the shift in the idea of what is "heroic" in the artist. Benjamin writes of the "mark of heroism in Baudelaire: to live in the heart of the unreality (of appearances)" (Zentralpark, 673). The creative giant of the Renaissance, whose stature empowers him to reach into the distant origins of the autonomous spirit, gives way to the figure who endures the impoverishment of the spirit, inflicted when truth goes out of the world and leaves a ruin behind or a mere fragment in the artist's hand. This is what connects the different situations of Baudelaire and Nietzsche, in Benjamin's perspective: "Baudelaire's heroic composure
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could be closely related to that of Nietzsche. Even though he held on to his Catholicism, his experience of the world remains precisely in step with that experience which Nietzsche captured in the formula: God is dead" (Zentralpark, 676). The failure of the distinction that raises up one class of images as the appearance through which truth speaks leaves another measure of artistic success in its stead, the truthfulness of an eye that can look on the world without drawing distinctions in a universe of untruthful appearances. This does lift a boundary to let the discredited margins jostle and mock the dignified center, but only in the aesthetic realm and not in the space of discourse. Thus, Kristeva exaggerates the case when she says established forms of communicative power in the institutions of the public domain "no longer command attention" (How, 92). There, the truth of facts and the truth of ruling influences continue to sustain both a political and social mythology. This appears in the "low" domains of images marketed to sustain that sphere, from which the "high" art of heroic modernism would withdraw completely were it not also disseminated in the marketplace. In Black Sun, Kristeva has recognized that even when narrative or pictorial illusion is gone from the work of art, the semiotic functions do not fill it up with living reality. For us, the experience mediated by the work of art remains, as before, tied to the condition of the artifact. The active energy that produced it does not have the capacity to reach across the frame and lift either the maker or the contemplating person from isolation. It is, in Kristeva's words from Black Sun, "no longer libidinal. It is already detached, dissociated," and, like the image of woman for Baudelaire, "it has already integrated the traces of death." With the last measure of distance gone, approach to artistic representations no longer offers falsely whispered intimations of love and survival. But, as before, the sounds we might hear when we let them "bewitch us" in the momentary thrall of longing do not speak from any heart but are part of "an artifice" in the composed surface. Here we come equally to the mature prose of Joyce and the verse of Baudelaire. How can one expect to transform the text and its paragrams into a heartfelt call of erotic connections? Baudelaire can only draw on the image of the harlot in order to cancel everything. Finnegan's Wake has collected everybody within the equality of a destruction wrought on the language of literary tradition. The whore becomes the representamen of all relations and appearances for Baudelaire because she stands allegorically for all that need never be listened to. Since she is simultaneously commodity and purveyor in one, what she says is not real speech but doubly lost. Benjamin points out that even though Baudelaire moves the figure of
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the whore to the center of his stage, he does not interfere with the convention of her speechlessness: "Baudelaire never wrote a poem about a whore from the point of view of a whore" (Zentralpark, 672). But in this, he conveys the point of view of modern aesthetics altogether. It is a point of view that knows identification with what it contemplates only as the collapse of identity and is inseparable from Baudelaire's heroic heartlessness, living at the heartless heart of unreality. The fear of pleasure that ties Benjamin to the messianic idea appears in a secular form as Kristeva's attachment to an idiom of general command, appearing most recently in the abstractions of clinical discourse. As her language becomes simpler, less writerly, its tremors do grow more seductive, and also more like speech, but it returns to an older voice that still argues or pleads for that most terrible longing-for the assent of others-that draws us out into the marketplace. Her language still trembles with horror at the unruly nakedness of a private hearing and the heterogeneous response in a tongue that escapes the discursive frame of public solidarity to open up a different life far from that heroic solitude of public agreement we mistake for ourselves. And what distinguishes our time as a hundred years frozen in a solitude of unchanging modernity is that it cannot arrive at a renewal out of itself and become the mother of its own redemption, though it "seems to have, for a century now, gone into unending labor pains." The dream of a Renaissance continues to be swept away into the future, like Benjamin's Angel of History, and persists as longing and fascination: "The enchantment will have to wait for some other time, always and forever." 27 In Black Sun, however, the backward gaze of the historian takes in the spectacle of Benjamin and Kristeva's own earlier writing as well: "To posit the existence of a primal object, or even of a Thing, which is to be conveyed through and beyond a completed mourning-isn't that the fantasy of a melancholy theoretician?" (Black Sun, 66). The labor of writing, a productivity that has no power of redemption, is discovered now to have displaced the absent maternal meaning. Desire has proved once again to have transferred its libidinal energy to its own image: "The Western subject, as potential melancholy being, having become a relentless conveyor, ends up a confirmed gambler or potential atheist." The game, the contest, is played compulsively, or without hope. "The initial belief" in a renewal that
27. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 23.
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writing was to have prophesied and brought to birth gives out. The text turns "stylistic performance" into the vehicle of its other side, what the game itself constructs as a substitute. The chance is lost because what is "primal" and "other" in the text is accounted "less important than the success of the text itself" (Black Sun, 68). And thus, she leaves no doubt that, here, to win is to lose-even to lose the remembrance of what might have been ours to win.