You find yourself in a dark room with a table, a chair, and a small circle of candlelight. On the table lies an open book. You are facing the text, and nothing but the text. Everything else in the room disappears in the shadows. There is nothing but the text and you, encountering each other in the, so it seems, eternal presence of Midnight.
This is the scene that we find at the beginning of Stephane Mallarmé’s Igitur, a scene that we could call the primal scene of pure textual encounter. This is our phantasmatic image of reading: a moment of perfect communication, where we find the textual other waiting for us, lying on the table, always ready and willing to give itself to us; and the textual other finds us alone, in perfect solitude where we are ready to yield ourselves completely to it, with nothing that could disturb the pure ecstasy of encounter, in the presence that is Midnight, the end of time. In this scene, I find myself totally outside myself, in the text, the text being totally outside itself, in me. There is nothing that could put an end to the pure, never-ending circle of reflection between me and the text, this exchange where all thirds are at least temporarily excluded.
Yes, I know: this scene has never taken place. It is only a phantasm, a vulnerable hope for communication that would not be as imperfect as encounters in real life necessarily are. In real life, there is always a third in the room, even when we read in solitude. Textual encounters are always interrupted encounters: the ecstatic exchange between the text and the reader is never complete, and the circle of reflection is always broken by our awareness of a larger textual community.
Every night ‘ almost every night ‘ I read something to my son. A chapter from Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, for example. He lies on his bed, or sits on my knees, and travels with my voice to a faraway country where dragons are still alive, children ride on clouds, and a comet is just about to land on earth. His big brother reads his own book, pretending that he is too old for Moomins, but still sometimes his head turns slightly toward us in order to hear better. The youngest one is there, too, perhaps not understanding much, but still wanting to participate in the ritual.
It is hard to find any other moment during the day that would bind us as closely as this one. Together we encounter strange beings, feel compassion for the heroes and fear the enemies. This unique moment of being-together, this moment of sharing, prepares us all to face the night and the darkness, the outer limits of our small community.
At the same time, our community is, from the beginning, a necessarily heterogeneous and asymmetrical one. There is the author, already dead, whose voice I am trying to represent with my own. There are the fictional creatures of another world. There I am, reading both for my own pleasure and for my children, playing the role of the father. And there are three small listeners, one merely participating in the social event, one plunging into a world of wonders, one already differentiating himself from others by choosing his books, his singular identity within the family. Our textual community is, alas, only temporary.
The notions of ‘textual community’, ‘literary community’, or ‘community of readers’ are traditionally used as a way to stress the role of specific contexts in literature. In author-oriented criticism, authors and their works are interpreted as representatives of certain literary communities. In reader-oriented criticism, reading as a social phenomenon is approached by analysing certain groups of readers, usually coming from a shared social background. In education, one of the challenges of the teacher is to build a ‘literary community’ into a class-room. In Medieval and Renaissance studies, the notion of textual community usually refers to clearly determined social groups, and analysis of these groups is supposed to help us interpret the text in its original context.2 One may claim that literature is thus seen as a social activity of a certain spatially and temporarily determined group of authors, readers, translators, editors, publishers, booksellers, critics, students, and other members of a literary community.
Of course, literature does originate in small literary circles. Literary education has always been a privilege of the few, and the majority of humankind today is still deprived of the actual possibilities of participating in literary communities. Western civilizations have for a long time justified their political supremacy by their cultural heritage, and the canonized literary works have been read as founding texts of national identity, mirrors within which the nation sees its own mythic self-portrait. Literature is read in what Stanley Fish (1980) once called ‘interpretive communities’: readings are governed by those interpretive practices that we have learned in our community, even to the point where the text itself is less important than the textual strategies we apply to it.
Literature creates all kinds of communities, every day. Lovers and friends come together, reading groups meet, fan clubs are founded, discussion groups flourish on the Internet, bookcrossing creates unexpected encounters, etc. In theatre, drama texts are transformed into shared experiences where singularities become a multitude, an audience. In schools, children are taught to love ‘ or if not to love then at least to respect ‘ the ‘national literature’, the canon of those authors that have become the emblems of a nation’s cultural identity. In literature departments, young students analyse texts in small groups, identifying themselves, little by little, as belonging to the community of ‘intellectuals’ or ‘scholars’. And literature travels to other media, creating new kinds of communal identities. In the Hollywood film industry, manuscripts are produced in order to teach us to identify with a certain life-style so that we might join those who consume the same cultural products as the rest of the world, the obedient citizens of the new Empire.
Books create religions and ideologies. Those who read the Bible identify themselves as distinct from those who read the Koran. Those who once read The Communist Manifesto, or those who once read Mein Kampf, tried their best to create new societies ‘ and new systems of terror against all those who did not read the same books, or did not read them correctly. (The need to protect oneself and one’s loved ones against the threats from outside is the basis of our existence, our families, our societies. We need communities, textual and non-textual, in order to love and stay alive. But the need for protection also harbours the fear of the other within it, and thus may lead to the worst deeds of racism and vengeance.)
However, even though literary communities may in practice be limited to certain social groups, even though literary works are constantly used in order to solidify imaginary national, religious, or political identities, and even though individual readings are often determined by socially shared interpretive strategies, textual communities also create a challenge for all homogenised communities. Literary works may originally be addressed to a certain social group, but when they leave their original context they can travel from one place and time to another and be read by a radically indeterminate group of people who do not necessarily share any common background. The basic feature of writing that Derrida has called iterability ‘ that written signs must always be repeated, preserved, modified, and transported ‘ means that the fate of literary works is highly unpredictable. Literature can cross national, social, and ‘ with the help of competent translators ‘ linguistic boundaries.
Moreover, the potential of a literary text to survive seems to be determined by its ability to produce new readings that challenge the values of previous interpretive communities. Texts that once were used in order to construct common identities are, a few generations later, read in order to debunk them. Textual encounters do not only create communities but challenge them, make them unstable, and unpredictable. This may sometimes lead to the collapse of former institutions and to the birth of new interpretive communities, sects and institutionalized identities. The unstable character of institutionalized textual communities can be seen as an indicator revealing the existence of an invisible textual community, perhaps the most radical community of all: those who do not know each other, who are not reading for any clearly determined purpose, who open themselves to the otherness of literary texts beyond all socially shared conventions of reading and interpretation. There is another community beneath the visible institutionalized communities, a community of solitary readers.
Of course, the notion of a ‘community of solitary readers’ is paradoxical. If we understand community as a place where we share a common identity, or as being-together in the same spatio-temporal presence, then the intimate relationship between the text and the solitary reader seems to work against communality itself. Literature invites us away from the common sphere, to a virtual space of intimacy where nothing else seems to exist but me and the text. At the same time, however, we may also argue that solitary reading creates some kind of virtual community. The text is not for me alone ‘ there might be other rooms, in other times, in other places, where someone is having the same kind of experience with the same text as I am, as if nothing could disturb their ecstatic communication. And I feel certain complicity with that unknown other. Yes, we both are within this text, and the text is in both of us; we both belong to the community of its readers, even though we will probably never meet each other in real life. And here a community of solitary readers seems to differ from the community of lovers that the ‘primal scene’ in the beginning of this essay may have evoked. In textual encounters, there is usually no jealousy, no need to appropriate the other. Texts are promiscuous, even though we perhaps do not like the idea that literally everyone reads them (we perhaps still want to think that communities have an outside). With the help of singular texts, we identify with communities that are perhaps not visible but that still have at least one distinctive feature: they are formed by readers of the same singular text.
In fact, every book creates several textual communities. I do not necessarily feel a sense of being-together with all the readers of a given book; I mostly only identify myself with those readers who share my values, who share the same ‘interpretive community’ as I do ‘ an interpretive community that is often defined by sex, race, and class. But is any interpretive community really one?
The secret sense of complicity that we feel when we read in solitude, the sense that ‘there are people out there that are reading the same lines and understanding the same thing as I do’, is, in fact, mostly an illusion. In reality, we do not know what other readers get out of the text, how they interpret it, or what enjoyment they draw from it. This often becomes evident when textual communities become public, when we learn to know who our virtual reading companions were and how they actually received the book. It is always a shock when I learn that an old friend of mine, a friend whose values and thoughts I have always believed to be similar to my own, has read and understood some book in a totally different light than I. Should I doubt my judgment of the book, or my judgment of my friend? Do we live in the same world?
Do the participants of textual communities have anything in common? Or should we accept that a textual community is always a community of those who have nothing in common, a community that must not recognize itself, a community that is to come ‘ a community that has nevertheless always already collapsed? That is no longer and not yet our community?
It seems that in order to think communities of solitary readers we need a new concept of community that is not based on the ideas of a shared time, space, or identity.
Is there still any form of community that would not lead us to the kind of ‘identity rage’ that created the Holocaust and the Gulag? That would still count as a ‘community’ and resist the war of everyone against everyone that governs the logic of neo-capitalism? Can we form a community, for example a community of readers, which would not identify itself as antagonistic to other communities?
These are some of the questions that have given rise to the contemporary debate on the notion of community. Although the roots of this debate are deeply embedded in the Western philosophical tradition, we can discern the starting point for a more recent discussion in Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay ‘La communauté desoeuvré’ (1983), in which the French philosopher borrowed the central notion of désouvrement from Maurice Blanchot while reading the work of Georges Bataille. Blanchot soon replied to Nancy in a small book called La communauté inavouable (1983), which included two essays, ‘La communauté negative’, on Nancy’s close reading of Bataille and ‘La communauté des amants’, on a récit by Marguerite Duras. The foundational figure in this dialogue was, in a way, Bataille, but we know that Bataille was already deeply influenced by Blanchot; and even though Blanchot seemed to be just commenting upon Nancy’s text, we also know that Nancy’s text had been already heavily influenced by Blanchot. Nancy then continued the dialogue in two books: La communauté desoeuvré (1986) and La communauté affrontée (2001). This dialogue is thus already a work of a textual community ‘ a virtual, heterogeneous, changing, and temporary community that also includes thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben and Alphonso Lingis.
In the background of this discussion has been the conviction, shared more or less by all the authors mentioned above but expressed perhaps most memorably by Levinas, that human subjects come into being only in relation to the Other.3 Singularities may gain their subjectivity only by facing the other or the multiplicity of others; before one can construct any immanent self-hood, one has already been called into question by the existence of others.
Some primal community is thus inescapable, but it is soon replaced by communities that constitute themselves as work ‘ communities that exist in order to produce an identifiable institution that then defines the identity of its members, or communities that are produced by the work of those institutions. These communities ‘ the whole network of social relationships and institutions in our modern society ‘ are based upon a conviction that everything can be brought under human control, and that the active subject can construct everything, even the foundations of her own subjectivity, with a free and independent will (Blanchot, 1983: 11). This conviction found its extreme form in Nazism and Stalinism, where it became the myth of a new, promised society ‘ a mythical community that Nancy describes in his La communauté désoeuvree. However, also avant-gardist communities that in principle resist all totalitarian ideologies ‘ like, for example, the group of surrealists, led by the ‘pope’ André Breton ‘ are subject to myth formation, communal identities that replace singularities, and dreams of action that reveal an illusion of an immanent will. Even though their anti-totalitarian and anti-instrumental ideology also leads them to resist all strong communities and cause immediately internal disputes and unavoidable ruptures, they still form their own mythology and their own institutions and ways in which the community becomes ‘a work’, a teleological organization that reduces the original being-together to certain goals and objectives.
Are all actual communities bound to the logic of immanent, ‘working’ communities? Or is there some other form of community that would escape this fate and reveal the primordial community that exists prior to them? The conditions that Nancy and Blanchot ascribe to the community ‘ in the ideal, ‘non-working’, ‘negative’, and ‘unavowable’ meaning that they give to the word ‘ are strict and in many ways paradoxical. We may briefly list here the most important ones, referring to Blanchot: community does not lead to any ‘communion’ or fusion of singular identities, but at the same time it affirms both the difference and being-together of singularities (1983: 17-22). Its only foundation is the death of the other ‘ the act of accompanying the dying other (1983: 21-23). Community is ‘unworking’, ‘unoccupied’, ‘idle’: it is not bound to any institution, instrumental reason, or some clearly defined goal (1983: 23-25). Community is ‘loneliness that is experienced together’ (1983: 39). More difficult still, as Blanchot suggests (and Nancy concurs in his later book, La communauté affrontée), the community is ‘unavowable’: it does not avow itself, it ‘knows itself by ignoring itself’ (1983: 47).4
Can there ever be any community that fulfils these conditions? And if there is any such community, how could we recognize it, how could we even speak about it, if it should be ‘unavowable’? The conditions for community seem to be as aporetic as the conditions that Derrida (1991) describes for the ‘gift’: at the moment when something is recognized as a gift, it ceases to be a gift; at the moment when something is recognized as a community, it ceases to be a community.
In fact, in La communauté affrontée Nancy explains that in his later works he has preferred the expressions ‘being-together’, ‘being-in-common’, or ‘being-with’ to ‘community’. He points to the dangers of using the word ‘community’ ‘ its religious and ethnic use (or misuse), and suggests that ‘with’ is ‘just the sharing and sharing out of space, at most a contact: a being-together without assemblage’ (Nancy 2001: 32).
Blanchot, however, spoke about communities and referred, for example, to the group of friends that gathered around Bataille as an ‘ideal community of literary communication’ (1983: 40). In fact, in publishing La communauté affrontée, Nancy has actually rehabilitated the word, albeit with reservations. Is there, in a literary community, something that avoids the pitfalls of immanent, working communities? Can we recognize in textual community something like the ‘unavowable community’?
There are many good (and many not so good) reasons to read and to participate in actual working communities of readers: we may gain cultural capital, we may develop our emotional skills, we may learn more about other cultures, we may satisfy our curiosity, we may enjoy voyeurism, we may just want to kill time, etc. (Or, as professionals of literature, we may gain money.) But for the most part, these ‘reasons’ imply that there is some other, more fundamental desire for reading, desire that cannot be pinpointed or defined exactly, except perhaps by this loose and not really very clear definition: we read because we are not self-sufficient creatures, because we acknowledge (perhaps unconsciously) the imperative of the Other, the necessity to stay open to the call of otherness.
We do not have to assume any ethically advanced reader in order to acknowledge the crucial role of openness to otherness in reading. In fact, this openness is not our choice; if we follow Levinas, it is openness to the vocative we hear in the Saying of the Other, openness that precedes the said and all instrumental reasoning, openness that constitutes subjectivity and thus also the possibility to form instrumentalist working communities around the text. It is what Jacques Derrida (1994) calls ‘friendship prior to friendship’, readiness of the reader to welcome the other that takes place before we actually read, before we even know what to expect. Without this openness, there cannot be any reading at all. The call of the Saying may become, however, forgotten as soon as we read, and it is replaced by our ‘work’, all those good or not so good reasons that we use in order to justify our reading.
The dimension of otherness in literature is multiple, and the emphasis differs from genre to genre, text to text, and reading to reading: sometimes the other in the text is experienced primarily as the author’s voice, sometimes as a presence of a fictive person or entity, sometimes as History or Nature, sometimes as the sheer materiality of language. However, in every textual encounter, the other in the text is in some way transformed from a sheer object or machine to something that carries marks of subjectivity; the text becomes a prosopopoeia, a personification of the other.5 In a textual encounter, the reader feels that she is no longer only reading a text, but, in a curious and paradoxical way, the text is also reading him or her. In reading, we are both active and passive: we use texts for our own desires and purposes, but we also, in a way, encounter texts, almost as we encounter other human beings, taking the risk that the encounter may change us in a way that we cannot totally know or control beforehand.
In other words, although we cannot say that textual encounters are truly reciprocal, I would like to argue that we can discern a kind of chiasmatic structure in them, in the sense that Merleau-Ponty once gave to the word chiasme.6 I am the one who sees, but I am also the one who is seen. The contact I make with otherness is also a contact that otherness makes with me. I read a text, but I am also the one who is read. Or, as Bataille formulates it from the point of view of the author: ‘the reader is discourse ‘ it is he who speaks in me, who maintains the discourse intended for him’ (Bataille, 1988: 60).
Or, to use some other vocabulary (not necessarily compatible with Merleau-Ponty’s), we can describe the textual encounter in terms of Levinasian substitution.7 In the experience of reading, the reader ceases to be only an immanent and autonomous subject; instead, reading demands a level of passivity where the reader takes responsibility for the other, exists, as Levinas puts it, as ‘one-for-the-other’. Not only does the reader see what the narrator or character in the novel sees, but he or she cannot help but become responsible for the actions that the other commits. In reading Crime and Punishment, we cannot play the role of the jury: we cannot decide whether Raskolnikov is guilty or not because, for a short moment, we have become Raskolnikov. We have become his hostages, we share his fate and his crimes; it is ultimately I, the reader, who kills those two women in my imagination.
When Blanchot speaks about ‘ideal community of literary communication’, he refers, in the first place, to an actual group of people who more or less knew each other, a group that was gathered around Georges Bataille. Before the World War II, Bataille had some more defined groups with names, like the secret society of Acéphale and the more official Collège de sociologie, but he abandoned both projects relatively quickly. From the necessity of sacrifice and mystical communion, which at the time of Acéphale still defined the possibility of community for Bataille, he moved to more loosely connected friendships and to the possibility of virtual communities. The community that Blanchot refers to as ‘ideal community of literary communication’ was therefore not a self-conscious organization, but rather a changing network of friends who gathered, every now and then, around a table, everyone with different motives, not necessarily recognizing the full significance of the moment, and not making any lasting commitments (1983: 40). The moments of shared reading were, indeed, instances of ‘unworking’: as an example, Blanchot quotes a passage where Bataille tells about his reading experience with a friend ‘ they both had drunk so much wine that neither of them remembered much of the occasion. In a way, one may think that the whole reading event took place in vain, that the words that were read aloud in a state of deep intoxication could not lead to any positive or constructive result. Bataille does, nevertheless, see the event as meaningful, affirming that we are united only when we are open and vulnerable to each other ‘ and to the powers of destruction (Blanchot, 1983: 42-43).
The literary community that Bataille talks about refers also to a virtual community: it was, for example, a virtual community of those who read Nietzsche. But this virtual community was, at the same time, a community that necessarily cancelled itself: every reader dismantled the community by not resolving the enigma that Nietzsche had posed. Moreover, as Blanchot muses, it seems that Bataille himself had to abandon Nietzsche ‘ for example, the latter would never have approved of the kind of drunken self-abundance that Bataille defends.
Literature founds, thus, not only communities that can gather around the same table, but virtual communities, or a ‘negative community: a community of those who do not have community’, as Blanchot writes, quoting Bataille (Blanchot, 1983: 45).8 A book is not addressed to anyone in particular ‘ it is communication in the night, written to the unknown other that one accompanies in death: ‘”The one that I write to” is the one that cannot be known, he is the unknown, and the relations with the unknown, even by writing, expose myself to death and finitude’ (Blanchot, 1983: 44). It follows that also I, as a reader, become ‘the one that cannot be known’; while reading, I am exposed to myself as an unknown other, as a subject of death and finitude.
In discussing the possibility of community, Blanchot thus arrives at the question that haunted him throughout his life: the experience of literature. What is literature? How it is possible? How does literature expose us to existence?9 In the second part of the book, ‘La communauté des amants’, Blanchot reads a story of Marguerite Duras, La maladie de la mort (1982). The story of Duras is written in the second person, the narrator addressing a fictional man who is encouraged to imagine an encounter with a woman. The relationship between the man and the woman is based on a pact, and their moments together are full of anxieties and fears. During their encounter, they expose themselves to each other. Little by little the reader learns that the man has a malady of death, but it is ambiguous what exactly the word is referring to: is it love, or deadly pain that comes from the man’s inability to feel and express loving emotions?
The two parts of Blanchot’s book seem to have little to do with each other. The first is a philosophical and political analysis of certain ideas of community, the second is a commentary on a literary narrative between two lovers. In La communauté affrontée, however, Nancy stresses the close relationship between them:
Perhaps he is saying ‘ this is what a re-reading must look for ‘ that these two approaches to the essenceless essence of ‘community’ cross one another’s paths somewhere, between the two parts of the book as between the social-political order and the intimate-passionate order. (2003: 32-33)
Already Hegel holds that the intimate-passionate order and the social-political order are tied together. In the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, love leads to marriage, and marriage leads to families, societies and states (1991, § 158-181). However, in Blanchot we can see the emergence of another love and another community beneath the Hegelian order, beneath the socially accepted forms of social networking. Love in Duras does not lead to marriage or to any other public institution, but rather destroys all previous social structures: the community of lovers ‘has as its ultimate goal the destruction of society’ (Blanchot, 1983: 80; 1988: 48).
Moreover, it seems to me that Duras’ narrative not only serves for Blanchot as an example of the intimate-passionate order between two subjects in the text, but that we may also read it as an allegory for a textual encounter in general, as if literary communities, just as communities of lovers, belonged ultimately to those asocial and unworked communities that are always on the brink of collapse. Here we are perhaps stretching the interpretation further than the text actually calls for, but not, I think, in a manner that is incompatible with Blanchot’s other texts on literary experience.
First of all, Duras’s choice of second person narration, making the narrator address the protagonist as ‘you’, vous, underlines and plays out the relationship that the reader always has towards the narrative. Although the reader soon learns to distinguish himself or herself from the ‘you’ in the text, the double meaning of the word cannot be totally cancelled out. ‘You’ is addressed not only to the protagonist, but also, both openly and secretly, to the reader. From that vocative ‘you’ we can discern a plea: the reader is invited to share the position of the protagonist, to imagine him- or herself in the protagonist’s place. We could thus argue that the use of ‘you’ illustrates the process of identification that takes place in all reading of narratives: the reader must, at some level, identify with the protagonists in the text. It is ‘you’, the reader, who is invited to identify with the man who imagines himself in a phantasmatic play where he is both an agent and an object. However, it is in fact questionable whether we can still use the word ‘identification’ here: the man is never given a name or definite qualities, he is an empty site (empty of emotions, also, as the woman in the story claims), without any definite identity that the reader could appropriate. The man exists only for the encounter between him and her; it is difficult to imagine him outside the story. There is, in a way, not really much to identify with, except this site. Perhaps it is better, then, to speak about ‘substitution’ in the Levinasian sense of the term: the reader is called to carry responsibility for an unknown man in a situation that properly speaking is pre-identificatory. Here the narrative underlines the structure that is common to all narratives: they construct a situation where the reader must live as ‘one-for-the-other’, where the reader must act out in his or her imagination, at least conditionally, those deeds that the protagonists commit, and/or those words that the narrator utters. This takes place whether the reader wants to identify with the character or not ‘ the reader may find the character strange or repulsive, but is still unable to avoid participating, at least on some level, in his or her fate.
While the reader of Maladie de la mort may be seen as being invited to the position of ‘you’, that is to say the man in the story, the woman then can perhaps be seen as a figure for the text. At first, it may seem that the man in the story is active whereas the woman is passive, letting her body be used, sleeping while the man watches her, as if the man were the reader and the woman the text. But the woman keeps her secret, while at the same time revealing it and hiding it. Blanchot pays attention to the important role that sleep has in the story ‘ the man is closest to the woman while she sleeps, while at the same time he is infinitely distant from her, having no access to her dreams. But the passivity of the woman becomes her greatest strength. Following Levinas, Blanchot describes the face of the woman:
Two further traits give her a reality that nothing real would suffice to limit: the fact that she is without defenses, the weakest, the most fragile, exposing herself through her body offered ceaselessly, as her face is, a face which in its absolute visibility is its own invisible evidence ‘ thus beckoning murder Â… but, due to her very weakness, due to her very frailty, she cannot be killed, preserved as she is by the interdiction which makes her untouchable in her constant nakedness, the closest and most distant nakedness, the inaccessible intimacy of the outside. (1983: 67; 1988: 37)
In the same manner, the obvious passivity of the text ‘ the fact that the text is silent and still, that the text and all it contains is on our mercy ‘ defines our ethical relationship to it. The text may raise different emotions from love to hate, it may even provoke us to the point where we want to destroy it, burn it with the other satanic books of the world, but the imperative of the text that comes from its mere passivity cannot be cancelled out. We can do anything to the text ‘ we may read, interpret, evaluate, represent, misrepresent, or fake it in any way we like, even burn it, no one can stop us ‘ but the text protects itself by not protecting itself, by exposing itself to us in all its vulnerability and fragility.
But passivity and vulnerability are deceiving: the text is also powerful, so powerful that the roles can also be reversed. Just as it is, in the end, the woman in the story who sees deeper inside the other, who analyses and criticises the man, so the text reads the reader, as if the text had some kind of subjectivity, subjectivity that is not tied to its ability to act as an actual agency (agent). We, too, become exposed to the text, being, after all, unable to control our encounter with textual otherness completely. We read each other, me and the text, in a chiasmatic but unsymmetrical exchange of positions, viewpoints, and identities.
The anonymity of literary communication strips us from our earlier identities, challenging and deconstructing them. The effect might be provisional, and we may soon return to our old ways of thinking and imagining our selves. There are moments, however, when something in the text breaks our defence systems and hits us, like ‘punctum’ that Roland Barthes talks about in Camera Lucida (1981); some seemingly meaningless detail may knock us off balance and make us sweat and cry. Those moments are rare ‘ luckily, for we could not continue living if they took place all the time ‘ but it is perhaps precisely those moments that give meaning to all reading, moments when something unnameable touches us, creeps under our skin, like love, like death, exposing us to the limits of our existence.
From the reader’s point of view, nothing in the text itself reveals whether the one who once wrote it is dead or alive. By writing, we inscribe ourselves into a sphere where the living and the dead are co-equal; moreover, according to a long tradition, reading is a conversation with the dead.10 We may even claim, like Jean Genet once did, that not only can we read sentences that are written by dead authors ‘ by writing we move, in a way, already into a world where we can respond to the voices of the dead.11 Or, perhaps, the very fact that we cannot answer in this life to those who are on the other side renders the twofold imperative of responsibility ‘ to carry responsibility for the other and to respond to the other ‘ even more urgent and calls us to imagine another world, a fictive world where communication has no limits, and where other minds become transparent to the eyes of the narrator.
As writers, we join the dead. As soon as we have written our words down, they cease to be ours, they become words of someone who is no longer here, who has already crossed the line and moved to the other side. In writing, we face the past ‘ my past, our past, and the past of those who I never knew. Part of the author’s responsibility is to answer also for those who did not write, who did not leave documents or other official traces; who, in the maelstroms of history, were marginalized, silenced or killed. It is part of the author’s responsibility to listen to how the wind cries and how the stones weep for those who are no longer here, not even as traces. And perhaps for those, too, who have never been alive.
The text itself does not necessarily reveal whether the characters that are represented in it have ever been real or not. Of course, there are textual conventions that suggest that the text is meant to be read as fiction; and we do necessarily hold some previous knowledge of the world that suggests to us whether it is probable that these kind of events can take place in our real world or not. But as Hayden White (1973) has argued, the techniques of description, figuration and emplotment are not so different in fiction and non-fiction as we would like to believe. Or, as Ricouer (1988) put it, history consists of more or less fictionalized narratives of the past, whereas fiction is more or less historicized imagination.
We may also claim that literature challenges the limits between human and non-human communities. Fiction (such as myths) may take us to the world of animals and help us to imagine other kinds of living forms. By reading, we are already confronting something that is necessarily on the limits of the living presence of other humans: language as such is both the living energy of living human beings and more or less inhuman structures that can be stored, reproduced and even generated by machines. What we ultimately encounter in literature is not the author (the author is, by definition, no longer present) or the world full of different beings (they are, after all, only textual constructions, although we cannot help but imagine some kind of existence for them in our reading experience), but the very materiality of language, the ‘il y a’ or the ‘murmur of the world’ (Lingis, 1994), the white noise of being that we hear when all meanings have been stripped from words.
Textual communities are thus communities that are capable of transgressing limits between life and death, existence and non-existence. Textual communities are formed by the living, the dead, the human, the non-human and imaginary beings.
To say that an encounter is an event implies that encounters are singular. However, the singularity of an encounter means also that the encounter that takes place between singularities cannot be reduced to those singularities alone: an encounter always includes something more than singularities can ever bring with them. This is the miracle of encounter: something new comes into being, something that did not exist before, something that seems to have come into existence from nowhere. A community is more than the sum of its participants. It was not in me, it was not in you, and it was not in any previous notion we held ‘ it only came into being by our encounter.
An encounter takes place between the same and the other, but it also marks the becoming of a new community, a new horizon of ‘us’. This promise of ‘us’ does not mean the disappearance of difference and creation of some absolute unity, but rather the co-existence and, as the painful experience of lovers proves, endless oscillation between the same and the other, the time of separation and the time of becoming-together. We would like to believe in our experience of the encounter and to remain faithful to it, but we really lack words, and with words we lack all real knowledge about that new ‘thing’ that the encounter has brought in with it. However, the more we emphasize this promise of ‘us’, the more this ‘us’ becomes in fact a threat to the encounter itself: whenever an encounter founds an institution, it ceases to be an encounter. As an encounter achieves its goal, it also loses it. Love fades away, friendship becomes a habit, revolutions end up in corruption, communities become self-justifying organizations ‘ and intellectual encounters, alas, end up in unquestioned dogmas and weary jargon.
How could we avoid this? Perhaps we should read ‘community’ as a self-deconstructive term, just as Derrida reads notions of ‘democracy’, ‘justice’, ‘friendship’, etc. They are always hyperbolic and messianic ‘ they are always coming, and they deconstruct every application that we try to fashion out of them. No actual form of democracy can ever fulfil all the promise that lies dormant in the word ‘democracy’. And no community can ever fulfil the visions of communication and recognition that the notion of community opens up to us. Every community betrays us, although by betraying us it may also bring us new encounters that we never even dreamed about.
(Does this community – the community of you, readers, who found your way through the cyberspace to this essay ‘ also betray you? Is our community not already a ‘working’ community, an institution?)
We cannot escape communities. We need working communities, we need new ways of being-together, new institutions that offer frameworks for our labour. The negative, unworking or unavowable community is not an alternative that could replace working communities. Literature cannot exist without those social structures that enable the development of literary circles and production of books. But beneath those working communities is always another community ‘ a textual counter-community that includes not only silent, solitary readers, but voices of the dead, the absent and the non-existent. Our duty in our respective working communities is to stay open to the call of this other community, and to allow the traces of this other community to interrupt our becoming-one.
Mallarmé refers, in his essay ‘Crise de vers’ (1976), to a silent revolution that took place at the end of the19th century, a revolution of poetic language that did not take place in the public sphere as earlier revolutions did, but behind the veil of words. What we see in poetic revolution is only some movement of the veil, not the event itself. It is hard to define what effect solitary reading has had on different civilizations in the world ‘ has it made people more responsible, or has it just produced soldiers that can cite Goethe while committing genocide?12 But just as the millions of readers who publicly follow the Bible, the Koran, or The Communist Manifesto have certainly changed the world in many visible ways, so has the experience of solitary readers changed it in ways that are perhaps less visible but still crucial for our living-together.
Epilogue: The community of those who read Derrida
When we were planning a memorial session for Jacques Derrida at the International Association for Philosophy and Literature conference in 2005, one of the first ideas in our brainstorming session was that each of us could, for example, speak about the first time he or she read Derrida. Granted that this was not a very sophisticated idea, but ‘ when was the first time I read Derrida? Or, dare I say, even today, that I have ever really read Derrida? I tried to recall some kind of primal scene of reading Derrida, like the one I described in the beginning: just me in a dark room, and on the table some of his books, perhaps Grammatology, with nothing that could disturb us in our pure, ideal encounter. I, finding his writing for the very first time, and the book, finding me, for the very first time.
I could not recall such a scene. It did not take place like that.
I think the first time I read Derrida was when I found a Finnish translation of his essay ‘Différance’ in the first year of my studies in the early eighties. To be honest, at that time I did not know whether I was someone who read Derrida or someone who wanted to identify himself as someone who read Derrida. My philosophical education soon proved to be too weak, and my reading was abandoned. In the years that followed I even tried to avoid Derrida, to escape him. But it was not so easy. Like Augustine who tried to escape God but found him everywhere, I found Derrida in surprising places. I found out that we had mutual friends: my interest in Rousseau got me into Grammatology; my interest in Genet got me into Glas; my interest in Mallarmé got me into ‘Double Session’; my interest in Montaigne and friendship got me into Politics of Friendship, etc. There were many communities that I actually shared with him ‘ a community of those who read Rousseau, of those who read Genet, of those who read Mallarmé, etc. And the community that Derrida himself speaks about (referring to Bataille) in Politics of Friendship, ‘the community of those who read Nietzsche’. And Derrida’s texts presented me to numerous new friends and communities ‘ to Levinas, for example, and the community of those who read Levinas.
Textual encounters create strange communities ‘ in these communities, ‘the absent are present and the dead are alive’, as the motto from Cicéro in the beginning of Politics of Friendship puts it. Textual communities are perhaps communities of those who have nothing in common (Bataille), inoperative communities (Nancy), unavowable communities (Blanchot), or communities without communities, as Derrida is perhaps suggesting when he asks why Nancy and Blanchot still want to use the word ‘community’ despite their criticism of all kinds of common identities (1994: 338).
In the scene of reading there was never just me and Derrida ‘ there were always others, many others, huge and radically indeterminate communities of others. I learned a lot from these communities. I started to see writing as spacing, I became sensitive to certain atopologies of writing, I started to enjoy my travels on the borderlines of the impossible. I was not alone. In fact, the very expressions I just used reveal that there was already a large community, in Finland and elsewhere, that was gathered around that one name, that one metonymy: Derrida.13
At that time, the community included one privileged member: Jacques Derrida, the man. In a seminar that he held in Helsinki in May 2000 we talked together about his Force of Law. As we kept on asking questions, the seminar actually became much longer than planned ‘ he did not look at his watch, he did not complain about how tired he was. He patiently answered every question we asked, giving his time in that particularly generous manner, until we were told us that the University was closing.
The community of those who read Derrida still exists ‘ except that today Jacques Derrida is no longer participating in it. He will no longer come to our seminars and answer our questions. Our community of ‘those who read Derrida’ now has a new dimension; it is now a community of those who have an obligation to carry the voice of Derrida inside them (like Derrida says in Béliers that from now on he has to carry the voice of Gadamer inside him). A paradoxical community, in many ways ‘ because it is a community that founds its identity on philosophical work that tries to deconstruct all communities that are based on strong identities. Yes, we are all friends of Derrida, I hope ‘ but dare I use the word ‘friend’ in this case when we hear the echo of Carl Schmitt haunting us, saying that ‘if you are not my friend you are my enemy’? Dare I speak about the ‘community of those who read Derrida’ when I hear that my words are also evoking ‘a community of those who do not read Derrida’ ‘ and evoking also an unavoidable antagonism between these two communities? What would be the right way to deconstruct this community, to hyperbolize it, to undo it ‘ perhaps in the name of some forthcoming community without community? This is the work that we still have to do.
I am alone in a room, reading Derrida. And I am not alone ‘ I can never truly be alone when reading, I always carry the voices of others within me, and the text I read carries the voices of others in it. The encounter between me and the text will always be governed by this multitude of voices, the multitude of chiasmatic relations that tie us together, the multitude of different networks and textures where threads will be tied and untied in a never-ending movement. No one can ever master or predict this movement, the movement that produces the veil of information which simultaneously reveals and conceals the voice of the other, that singular other who is no longer with us ‘ although in writing ‘the absent are present and the dead are alive’. The person whose voice we hope to carry with us, inside us, but whose voice is no longer his voice, whose voice is gradually transforming itself into a spectral presence, is an impossible presence of someone who keeps on returning, in our memories, in our writings, in our speech.
Yes, thanks to Derrida ( Bataille, Blanchot, Nancy and
others) we have this large, exciting, self-transforming, and
radically indeterminate community of those who read Derrida, but
thanks to Derrida, we must also respect the paradoxical nature of
this community as a community of those who are working in order to
deconstruct all forms of communities, perhaps in the name of some
future community, some future democracy to come.
1 This essay is part of my book project Poethics of Encounters, in which I develop the ideas introduced in the book Textual Friendship (forthcoming in 2006). The first and last part of this essay, displayed in italics, were read during a memorial session for Jacques Derrida, held at the 29th annual IAPL (International Association for Philosophy and Literature) conference Chiasmatic Encounters, at University of Helsinki (4 June 2005).
2 See, for example, Brian Stock (1990, 37) and Anne Blackburn (2001: 12).
3 On the relationship between Blanchot, Bataille, and Levinas, see, for example, Libertson (1982).
4 Lars Iyer describes Blanchot’s notion of community as follows: ‘Community never happens once and for all, hypostatizing itself into a positive, fully present institution, but it is, paradoxically, the exposure of any determination of being-together to a unilateral and dissymmetrical experience of the other’ (Iyer, 2001: 12).
5 Personification or prosopopoeia is, as Paul de Man (1986) and J. Hillis Miller (1990) once suggested, the figure of reading itself: to read is to give voice to an inanimate object. Although we should be aware of many unexpected consequences of personification (Hungerford, 2003), we may claim that some kind of personification is unavoidable in reading (Korhonen, 2005).
6 See especially ‘Notes de travail’ in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Le visible et l’invisible [The visible and the invisible] (1964 : 311-14).
7 A more common way to proceed here would be to talk about identification. However, identification not only refers to a kind of chiasmatic exchange of positions between the subject and its other (for example, between the reader and the character), but also to a process where the subject appropriates the identity of the other and constructs his or her own identity through this appropriation. This may, indeed, take place in reading, and we do not need to see this as a childish or naïve act. I would like to suggest, however, that substitution can be seen as a process more fundamental than identification, accounting not only for identification but also for difference and interruptions in identification. For a discussion of the problems related to the notion of identification, see, for example, Robert Eaglestone (2004, 15-41).
8 Blanchot does not give any exact reference to the quote, and I have not been able to locate it in Bataille’s text. Moreover, Nancy admits that he does not know whether the formulation comes from Blanchot or Bataille (2003: 29).
9 One may claim that all of Blanchot’s work addresses this question, but we can, at the moment, mention at least two crucial texts: ‘La Littérature et le droit à la mort’ [Literature and the Right to Death] (1949) and L’espace littéraire [The Space of Literature] (1959). For Blanchot and the question of literature, see especially Françoise Collin (1971).
10 See, for example, Jürgen Pieters, Speaking with the Dead (2005).
11 In his essay ‘L’atelier d’Alberto Giacometti’ Genet affirms:
No, no, the work of art is not intended for future generations. It is offered to the innumerable people of the dead. Who welcome it. Or reject it. But these dead I was speaking of have never been alive. Or I’m forgetting. They were alive enough to be forgotten, and the purpose of their life was to make them pass over to that calm shore where they wait for a sign ‘ from here ‘ that they recognize. (1979: 311)
12 As George Steiner famously wrote: ‘We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning’ (1967: ix).
13 Outi Pasanen, Writing as Spacing (1992); Jari Kauppinen, Atopologies of Derrida (2000); Merja Hintsa, Mahdottoman rajoilla: Derrida ja psykoanalyysi [On the borderlines of the impossible: Derrida and psychoanalysis] (1998).
Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. R. Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Bataille, G. (1988) Inner Experience. Trans. L. A. Boldt. Albany: SUNY Press.
Blackburn, A. (2001) Buddhist Learning and Textual Practice in Eighteenth-Century Lankan Monastic Culture. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Blanchot, M. (1949) ‘La Littérature et le droit à la mort’. In M. Blanchot, Part du feu. Paris: Gallimard.
Blanchot, M. (1959) L’espace littéraire. Paris: Gallimard.
Blanchot, M. (1983) La communauté inavouable. Paris: Minuit.
Blanchot, M. (1988) The Unavowable Community. Trans. P. Joris. Barrytown: Station Hill Press.
Collin, F. (1971) Maurice Blanchot et la question de l’écriture. Paris: Gallimard.
De Man, P. (1986) ‘Hypogram and Inscription’. In The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Derrida, J. (1991) Donner le temps. 1. La fausse monnaie. Paris: Galilée.
Derrida, J. (1994) Politiques de l’amitié. Paris: Galilée.
Derrida, J. (2003) Béliers : Le dialogue ininterrompu: entre deux infinis, le poème. Paris: Galilée.
Duras, M. (1982) La maladie de la mort. Paris: Minuit.
Eaglestone, R. (2004) The Holocaust and the Postmodern. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fish, S. (1980) Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Genet, J. (1979) ‘L’atelier d’Alberto Giacometti.’ Oeuvres complètes. Vol. 5. Paris: Gallimard.
Hegel, F. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right. In A. W. Wood (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hintsa, M. (1998) Mahdottoman rajoilla: Derrida ja psykoanalyysi. Helsinki: Tutkijaliitto.
Hungerford, A. (2003) The Holocaust of Texts: Genocide, Literature, and Personification. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Iyer, L. (2001) ‘Our Responsibility: Blanchot’s Communism’, Contretemps 2 (May): 59-73.
Kauppinen, J. (2000) Atopologies of Derrida: Philosophy, Law and Literature. Helsinki: University of Helsinki.
Korhonen, K. (2005) ‘Personification of Books, or the Night of the Living Dead’ in Proceedings from the conference Rhetoric, Politics, Ethics. http://www.rpe.ugent.be [October 5].
Korhonen, K. (2006) Textual Friendship. The Essay as Impossible Encounter. Amherst: Humanity Books.
Lévinas, E. (1974) Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Libertson, J. (1982) Proximity: Levinas, Blanchot, Bataille and Communication. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Lingis, A. (1994) The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964) Le visible et l’invisible. Suivi de Notes de travail. Paris: Gallimard.
Mallarmé, S. (1976) Igitur, Divagations, Un coup de dés. Paris: Gallimard.
Miller, J. H. (1990) Versions of Pygmalion. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.
Nancy, J.-L. (1986) La communauté désoeuvrée. Paris: Christian Bourgois.
Nancy, J.-L. (2001) La communauté affrontée. Paris: Galilée.
Nancy, J.-L. (2003) ‘The confronted community’. Trans. A. Macdonald. Postcolonial Studies 6 (1): 23-36.
Pasanen, O. (1992) Writing as Spacing: Philosophy, Literature, and the Work of Jacques Derrida. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Pieters, J. (2005) Speaking with the Dead: Explorations in Literature and History. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Ricoeur, P. (1988) Time and Narrative, vol. 3. Trans. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Steiner, G. (1967) Language and Silence. New York: Atheneum.
Stock, B. (1990) Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
White, H. (1973) Metahistory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.