Yes, Yes, the (im)possibilities of the future perfect (or what it's like to channel a trace)
Note: one of the goals I have for Roer is that it provide a space for the more ephemeral genres of academic production -- the conference paper, the visiting lecture, the campus event -- those moments that, while they can be crucial in terms of developing the ways we think about or the methods we use to approach an idea or area of study, remain predicated on a certain presentism. In other words, you have to be there. But what if those who were there created a conversation about the event?
Yesterday Diane Davis, a friend and former advisor at the University of Texas, gave a talk at UW-Madison ("Performative Powerlessness: Yes, yes") in which she outlined Derrida's perverformative as a rhetorical condition that arises prior to the subject and signifier of Austin's famous formulation of performative speech acts.
Derrida locates this in the trace and not the signifier and one of Diane's statements, that starting with the signifier and not the trace is a humanist position, had me thinking about passivity and powerlessness in relation to nonhuman objects. It helps that I was staring at a poster advertising Dana Luciano's talk the previous day (so frustrated I missed that one) called "Sacred Theories of Earth, or, What It's Like to Channel a Thing," in which Luciano connects new materialism with queer theory through a study of nineteenth-century spiritualists who channeled geological spirits. (There is apparently a special issue of GLQ coming out this fall dedicated to queer inhumanisms.) But while the talk opened up the window to discuss non-humanist ethical relations, the example of forgiveness and its contrast with the work of reconciliation focused most of the group on the consequences of this shift for human interaction.
I think a lot of that has to do with the difficulty of moving beyond the signifier, the messy analytical arena of the aporia, and the scholarly imperative to identify and argue that exists within the boundaries of language. But while the signifier and the trace are not equal, the trace is still present in language, and I had a great discussion with a couple of my Literature of the Fantastic students after the talk about how we can think about the work we've been doing with narrative through the lens of this idea of a prior affectability (prior to the encounter, the text, even the coherent ego), how we can use this to think about a sociability before the law (before the laws that govern social organization) that a messy, confusing genre like the fantastic draws on for its effect. (Have I mentioned how awesome these students are? Be prepared for me to mention it. A lot.)
One idea I talked about with my students was the way translation brings this quandary to light because a translation simultaneously provides access to the primary text and draws your attention to the gap that remains between you and the primary text. In the note accompanying her translation of Derrida's "Law of Genre," Ronell writes that the translation "solemnly holds itself in abeyence. it is neither itself nor its other: unable to make authoritative claims for its autonomy - for instituting its own name - it is also prohibited by an implicit limit from drawing too closely to its origin, to the ever engendering Urtext." (This is something we've been thinking about a lot, not just because we began the semester with "The Law of Genre" and Ronell's translation note, but also because our central texts for the course have included translations from Spanish, Catalan, German, French, and Italian.) Translations thus encourage the practice of toggling the at/through that Richard Lanham discussed in The Electronic Word, a model that helps us think not only about the mediated nature of texts but also the trace within language of what escapes or eludes or exceeds the signifier. When I was a *very* young student, Tim Morton told his theory class that the goal is to "mind the gap," and this is what I passed on to my students yesterday as a way of writing and thinking about what cannot be (wholly) written (or really thought about).
I also warned them that this is what I'm going to be asking them to do in their upcoming multimodal projects on House of Leaves - to essayer in forms new and unfamiliar in the hopes that they can attend or at least be more hospitable to a genre and a text that is at every moment resisting (and affecting) them.
[image - a Wordle of my notes and questions from DDD's talk]
I know, it's a Wordle. But they are pretty. And sometimes they speak to you. My first Wordle read "yes call takes place." Creepy.