Feature: Reading Jeremy Fernando

 

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By Jeremy Fernando

If writing is of the order of death, and reading is the order of life — or a reviving, resuscitation, even necromancy — then the question that is opened is: what happens in-between? Or, perhaps more importantly, what happens to the text in that in-between state; where, when, it is neither alive nor dead? And as one attempts to bring the text from this death, does one — like Orpheus — have to just stare ahead as one reads: not look back lest the text fades away from us. Does one, can one only, read as an act of faith that something is coming along, that the text comes with us, from its grave?

Which opens the possibility that reading always also — if not already — entails a looking away, a turning of one’s gaze from, the very thing that one purports to be reading, attending to, responding with. Averting one’s eyes at the very moment of reading itself. Not only does this open the register of reading as a moment of re-writing, this writing might not even be of the order of repetition. And, even if it is a repetition — for one cannot write without repeating something, recalling a memory, harking language itself — it might well be a repetition of something completely other, of a completely different order, a repetition that depletes the memory of what it is purporting to recall.

Perhaps here, in this moment of darkness about reading, what comes to light is the adage that reading improves one’s imagination. And here, one should never forget that to imagine something requires a certain correspondence; it has to be based on something previously known — in this case, language itself. Language that is based on other readings, other texts that one has read. Thus, there is a possibility that at the moment of reading — a moment that might always already remain shrouded from one; which suggests that one might not know if one is reading, let alone if one has read — all that one is reading is every other text that one has read, every text except the one that one is attempting to read.

Thus, what is being raised from the dead is not so much the text that one is attempting to attend to, but every other text that one has read: the text in front of one being the ritual through which reading takes place. But even as reading the text might be construed as a sacrifice that one passes through in order to read — not that we can fully comprehend what this even means — one should bear in mind Georges Bataille’s teaching that “sacrifice destroys that which it consecrates. [But] it does not have to destroy as fire does; only the tie that connected the offering to the world of profitable activity is severed, but this separation has the sense of a definitive consumption; the consecrated offering cannot be restored to the real order.” [1]

And what is “severed” is precisely the notion of reading as production, of gaining something from reading, of reading as “profitable activity.” In the attempt — for, it would not be a ritual if the end result was known, let alone guaranteed — to read, the text itself might well remain — after all, sacrifice “does not have to destroy as fire does” — but even as it remains, it  “cannot be restored to the real order”; which suggests that the moment of reading introduces a cut, a caesura, between what is being read and the possibility of reading. Which means that, not only does one quite possibly not know if one has read, one might not even know if one is reading. For, if it is no longer of the “real order” it is not only uncalculable, unexchangeable, but also beyond the ratio, rationality, beyond reason itself; and thus, might well also be beyond comprehension.

But, it is not as if one is unaltered by reading: that would be — or at least is potentially always already — untrue. So, what is perhaps also cut, “severed”, “cannot be restored to the real order” is one’s self.

Thus, one might well be changed, just in ways that might well be — remain — beyond one.

However, in order to know that, one would have to attempt to read oneself.

/

The text that is being read maintains its otherness from the reader (who is central) when the reader maintains a certain blindness to it. In other words, it is only when the reader does not claim full knowledge over the text but is in continual negotiation with it that the text remains fully other. It is the space, the gap, between the reader and the text that is the site of reading, for it is this gap that ensures that “understanding is [always] in want of understanding”: the reader is responding to the text, whilst acknowledging that it is impossible to fully understand the text, all the while realizing that understanding itself brings with it a un-understandability … It is this gap, between understanding and un-understandability, this gap within understanding itself, that ensures that reading can even begin to take place.
(Reading Blindly, 59)

Each writing, each inscription, is in some way in preparation for our absence: in future-memory of the eulogy that will be written for us—a call for that eulogy that is always already to come.
(Writing Death, 59)

The centrality of the reader, the one who reads: without which, one is doing nothing but a disavowal of responsibility, a denial that it is one — and no other — that is reading the text, making claims on and of the text, enacting a certain violence on the text. Reading a text without recourse to — without turning to — the fiction of the one who has written it, the one whom is called, named as, author of the text.

Without turning to the gaze of authority.

Without asking: daddy, daddy, what is to be read?

Which also means that not only is reading an attempt to read in place of daddy — in the absence of daddy, perhaps even to exorcise daddy — in the re-writing, one might well be authoring daddy.

In the reading, one might well be doing nothing but anointing oneself daddy.

… in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti …

But, even as one is doing so, this does not mean that one can fully exorcise the name that stands before one — the name of the author. The name that all attempts to read — even if reading is an attempt, one’s attempt, “at responding to the text, whilst acknowledging that it is impossible to fully understand the text, all the while realizing that understanding itself brings with it a un-understandability” — are not only haunted by, but linked to, if not premised upon. For, even as one separates the text from the writer, the text does not exist without first having been written. So, even as one’s reading of the text quite possibly happens independently of the one who writes it, the link cannot quite be completely severed. However, this is not a link that is based on intention — nothing quite so banal — but on the very notion that the text that is being read, the text that is being attended to, is the very same text that is written.

Perhaps, one might even go as far as to say: reading is the moment when the text itself is authored — by the one who reads — and what is inscribed is the very notion of reading itself. Never forgetting that writing, each moment of writing, is “in some way in preparation for our absence … a call for that eulogy that is always already to come.”

Thus, a calling for a text that is perhaps not quite there yet, but always already to come. A calling that never quite knows exactly what it is calling; a reading that never quite knows if it is even is reading.

For, in every inscription — every writing by way of reading, writing that is reading — every scribere, there is always also the notion of tearing, ripping, perhaps even a mourning for what is unwritten, for the unwriteable in what is written … written whilst tearing, with a small tear.

Blind reading.

Keeping in mind that, “this is not a blindness that is negative in the sense of a deliberate refusal to see certain readings, certain possibilities, a blindness that is opposed to sight, but rather a blindness that is inevitable, a blindness that is structural, beyond subjective choice.  Not an I do not want to see, but that I cannot see …” (Reading Blindly, 144)

Keeping in mind that as one is reading — even as this reading is fraught with blindness — that as one is attempting to respond to a text, a text that one might be writing as one is reading, one is also naming this very text as a text one is reading, one is naming it as one’s text, even if that is a momentary naming. And at the moment of doing so, one is also inscribing the name of the author: this is why the author is dead — not because (s)he is not there, not because (s)he is missing, but that in attempting to read the text, one is always also writing her into being.

The author as the name for the moment, the site, even the possibility, of reading. Reading as writing the author; reading as a “call for that eulogy that is always already to come.”

Even if one is the alleged author.

/

It’s hard to say whether a book has been understood or misunderstood. Because, after all, perhaps the person who wrote the book is the one who misunderstood it…
(Michel Foucault)

For to understand, to claim to comprehend, is to seize, to grasp, to subsume a book under one, under one’s self. It is to squeeze the life, the vitality, the movement, out of the text.

But it is not as if one can read without a gesture — no matter how temporary — of understanding. Even if, one heeds Werner Hamacher’s warning that, “understanding is in want of understanding,” that all understanding brings with it, is even premised on, un-understanding. [2] That perhaps understanding itself is nothing more than a useful heuristic fiction; without which, however, no reading itself would be possible.

Perhaps the only one who can resist this is the one who writes — not because (s)he is the one against murder, but that (s)he has long already killed it; by writing it. [3]

Perhaps then, without this primordial murder, no act of writing would even be possible. Keeping in mind that what is being murdered is the text itself. Not that the text itself dies, not that the one who writes even has a remote chance of killing the text — after all, it only comes into being through writing; thus, could not otherwise be around to be killed — but that the attempted murder is the very ritual through which the possibility of writing is opened. Thus, perhaps what is killed is none other than the one who writes, the self who is attempting to write.

Which is why writing is “a call for that eulogy that is always already to come”: for, it is nothing other than an attempted suicide.

Never forgetting — as Larry Rickels, channeling Freud, reminded me one summer in Saas Fee — that suicide is also an attempt at killing, murdering, the other.

And this is the true radicality of Roland Barthes’ claim that, “to know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not — this is the beginning of writing.” [4] It is not just that one cannot write for another, for the other; it is not just that one attempts to write out of love for the unknowable, unreachable other, but that whenever one writes, one enacts a murder on the other — the other that is in one’s self; the other that is the one who first reads what one writes, that brings one’s writing into being through first reading it.

Not just that “this is the beginning of writing” but that in the beginning there was writing.

But not a writing of one, nor by an other, certainly not for another.

Just writing.

Notes:

[1] Georges Bataille. The Accursed Share, Vol 1. translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 1991: 58.

[2] Werner Hamacher. “Premises” in Premises: Essays in Philosophy & Literature from Kant to Celan. translated by Peter Fenves. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999: 1.

[3] Perhaps this is why authors are sometimes valourised. For, as Michel Foucault teaches us: “to the popular memory … murder is the supreme event. It posits the relation between power and the people, stripped down to its essentials: the command to kill, the prohibition against killing; to be killed, to be executed; voluntary sacrifice, punishment inflicted; memory, oblivion. Murder prowls the confines of the law, on one side or the other, above or below it; it frequents power, sometimes against it and sometimes with it. The narrative of murder settles into this dangerous area; it provides the communication between interdict and subjection, anonymity and heroism; through it infamy attains immortality.”
(‘Tales of murder’ in Michel Foucault (Ed.) I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century. translated by Frank Jellinek. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982: 206.)

[4] Roland Barthes. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. translated by Richard Howard. London: Vintage, 1982: 100.


Echoes

Jeremy Fernando. Reading Blindly: Literature, Otherness, and the Possibility of an Ethical Reading. New York: Cambria Press, 2009.
—. The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death. New York: Atropos Press, 2010.
—. Writing Death, with an introduction by Avital Ronell. The Hague: Uitgeverij, 2011.

Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at the European Graduate School, where he is also a Reader in Contemporary Literature & Thought.

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