Bruns, Gerald. "Review of Asja Szafraniec's BECKETT, DERRIDA, AND THE
EVENT OF LITERATURE." NDPR November 14, 2007.
Over the years there have been various efforts to engage Jacques
Derrida's conception of literature. I think it is widely acknowledged
now that there is (or was) no concept or theory of any sort but instead
an ongoing attraction to forms of language that make certain works of
writing peculiar enough to trouble the ways in which we make sense of
things. Anyhow here is what I think we think we know about Derrida's
thinking with respect to literature:
1) There is no literature as such. It is, whatever else it is, the
transformation of something given into something other, that is,
non-identical, outside the grasp of concepts, categories, distinctions,
not to mention purposes, functions, or positions in any standing order
of things. This leaves us with almost nothing to say about what a work
of literature is. One recalls what Adorno said about the task of art:
"To make things of which we do not know what they are."
2) Literature has a history rather than an essence. Derrida's way of
addressing this issue is to characterize literature as an "institution,"
by which he appears to mean (apart from the imposing edifice of French
Literature) the history of genres, conventions, forms, and movements
with their assorted "isms." No doubt much of what is written belongs to
this "institution," but Derrida thinks that every work is always in
advance of what the "institution" of literature is able to recognize as
belonging to itself. In this respect Derrida is pretty much a classic
modernist keyed to experiment and innovation.
3) Literature is thus not so much an object as an event in which each
work is absolutely singular, a law unto itself, but perhaps less
autonomous than antinomian, irreducible to any reading or appropriation.
Literature is a work of writing (écriture) in Maurice Blanchot's sense
of the term, referring particularly to the materiality of language that
works on us as a kind of limit-experience, that is, an experience that
takes us out of the role of cognitive agents grasping things (like
texts) and construing their intelligibility. This materiality perhaps
forms the meeting ground where philosophy and literature approach only
to recoil from one another.
4) How does one register this event of language? There is no "literary
hermeneutics." Each experience of a literary work is itself singular and
unrepeatable, however "iterable" the work itself may be as a
construction of words. One responds to the work not by way of commentary
and exegesis but by close attention to the anomalies of the text, its
phonic and graphic complexity, its dissonance or antinomies, the
openness of its form and the many different directions this may lead us.
Such a reading, however, is less philological or critical (much less
philosophical) than ludic: the idea is to play along with the text or
perhaps to take off from it. Every text is in some sense a pretext, even
as every reading is a supplementation or, more exactly perhaps, a kind
of marginal writing or parody -- of which Derrida's Glas is perhaps the
canonical example. . . .
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