Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-7486-1929-1.
Timothy Clark is one of the best-kept secrets of British intellectual and literary-theoretical life. Quietly working away, specialising in the fertile ground which mixes Romanticism, European philosophy and literary theory, he has produced some of the most striking and demanding work in this field in English. His Derrida, Heidegger, Blanchot: Sources of Derrida’s Notion and Practice of Literature (1992) is an outstanding book: careful, scholarly, serious and insightful. His The Theory of Inspiration: Composition as a Crisis of Subjectivity in Romantic and Post-Romantic Writing (2000), consciously written against the grain but without making a huge declamatory fuss about this, seems to be both definitive and to open up all sort of avenues for research, and more importantly, for thought. His 2002 book Heidegger (and now a personal admission, as they say in the newspapers) in the series I edit for Routledge is a superb introduction for undergraduates, especially strong on Heidegger’s later thought. Clark’s work in general is characterised by scholarly care and scrupulous attention, by a commitment to its own motivation and movement and by its wide range of reference and scope of thought. The Poetics of Singularity is no exception to this. Moreover, one of the defining features of all Clark’s work — and perhaps the one most to be emulated or envied — is the clarity of the prose and of the argument, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. This is not writing simplified by aiming at a lower audience, but clarified by his profound and rigorous understanding of the texts and ideas.
The book was commissioned as part of a new series from Edinburgh University Press called ‘The Frontiers of Theory’, edited by Martin McQuillan, who has a keen eye for the demanding and for the genuinely subversive. Some presses might use this sort of title for a series as a ‘hold all’ for a range of work that one might call avant-garde: however, true to its blurb, this series so far features only Cixous, Derrida, Herrnstein Smith and this book.
The Poetics of Singularity takes it place as one of the most thoughtful and meticulous works in what it calls, uneasily, the ‘school of singularity’ and what others have named the ‘New Aestheticism’. This name brings together a number of fairly disparate thinkers and finds in them a central idea: that art is not simply re- or pre-baked ideology, but something important, revelatory and foundational in its own right.
As one might expect, Clark’s book is hard to summarise, expect in the most banal way: ‘this book has tried to highlight a distinctive school of critical thought in Heidegger, Gadamer, Blanchot and Derrida’ (158). Indeed, part of its point is that summary (in a review, as a critical mode) fails to do justice to what it summarises. The book’s aim is to try to comprehend how we might come to understand literary texts not as examples of political or historical documents produced by certain ‘types’ in ‘certain places’, but each as a singularity. Understanding the nature of this singularity is, of course, the core of the work: it is ‘a mode of demand and a performative act’ (9). Each singularity is different, of course, and each one is demanding. Perhaps it’s easiest (in a review, anyway) to understand the thrust of this in the following way. In a conversation about a work of literature with someone you trust and respect, who is well-read and thoughtful, you often discuss its pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, as if it were a commuter route, a racehorse, a recipe, or football team: but then, as you reflect on the impact of that work on your own inscape — not as source of theses or of original phrases, nor as a font of information about a time and place, but as a work – you tend to pause and say: ‘but it’s a great novel’ (or poem, whatever). This can be platitudinous, of course, but it can — more often is, in these circumstances — a moment where you recognise the singularity of the work, what it was that drew it to your attention first of all, what made it stick with you. Why this work (Middlemarch, H.D.’s poems) rather than the others? The problem with this is that it doesn’t leave very much more to do (I’ll come back to this). Clark’s aim is to try to use this moment, this response to the singularity of the work, to refocus the study and understanding of literature. And to do that, he begins with a polemical analysis of the current state of the discipline.
For Clark, the study of English has been both historicised and Americanised, and so no longer connects with the texts qua texts: ‘”Tintern Abbey” … is “really” (as they say) a textual strategy expressing the stance of a disillusioned radical in the insecure context of England in 1798’ (17). Texts are reduced to historical evidence or seen as the inevitable product of a certain (cultural) construction of an identity, making literary critics historians manqué or political activists. This sort of complaint was common in the ‘theory wars’ (‘Texts are not simply works of ideology: discuss’) but this often masked a play of ideologies and political differences. What makes Clark different is his attempt to think through this, to, as it were, bracket off this ideological debate in order to explore why it might have occurred around these texts in the first place. (In academic journal-ese: not to eschew theory but to go through theory.) Clark goes further and argues that the position of contemporary criticism is Americanised: that is, it has a ‘pervasive identification of the critical arena in general with the norms and assumptions of an American institutional context, and the insidious presence in criticism of what is effectively, and sometimes explicitly, an American nationalism’ (24). This claim does have some truth behind it: certainly, almost all the institutional pressures on English (and the humanities) tend towards the core of the new Rome: publishers ask ‘can you get an American co-editor?’ or ‘it needs at least four US contributors’; we poorly paid staff fantasise about (usually fictional) well-paid jobs in the US; the fashionable heat of the intellectual running is at the MLA in North America. And it’s true also that many recent American books have a blindspot about UK criticism (just as we UK critics do to the work of our colleagues in other European countries and world wide). In contrast, Clark turns to Nancy and to Arendt’s ‘Natality’ as ways of thinking about breaking out of this universal darkness that buries all.
The book then turns to the four thinkers who, for Clark, offer this natality. As I have suggested, these chapters are astonishingly lucid, even over this demanding terrain that so often creates jargon and inarticulacy. Heidegger’s slow, slow readings of H?lderlin and Antigone show how focussing on the singularity of the text makes the text uncanny, makes it say not what one might think. But more than this (which looks, in summary, like ‘Deconstruction 101’), they show how texts think: how, for example, Antigone makes real ‘a non-violent revolution in ethics and politics’ (48). This is at the core of the book, and of the New Aesthetics. Michael Wood writes that ‘every poem and novel’ holds a ‘decisive (but speculative) thought Â… in a unique and unalterable form, every reading or rereading [is] another moment among the essays of our life” (2005: 189-190): it is only by working it through in relation to texts that these can emerge. (Yet to say this is already to make a method of what is an engagement). It is Heidegger’s thought — which saw so clearly the bonds of Western life, and ‘almost suppressed but still legible’ (59) the escape from these to a future – that underlies the others Clark discusses. If there were time, it might be possible to speculate on the hope that lies in Clark’s Romantic Heidegger, a hope signed by Clark’s adoption of Arendt’s ‘natality’. I find this one of the most interesting aspects of the book, in fact: Clark does not forget the Rectoral Address and Heidegger’s acts of anti-Semitism, but, like Derrida and others, against the grain, finds resources in Heidegger against Heidegger. Clark argues that Heidegger has no ‘school of followers in literary reading’ (60) (though critics like Paul Bové tried): this is in part because he ‘set the intellectual stakes so high’ (60) and because so few in the field read him but also because his work cannot be reduced to a method, and so can’t easily be taught.
The next chapter turns to Gadamer, and especially his readings of Celan. Gadamer is one of the great ‘missing links’ in Anglophone theory and criticism, and this chapter alone should serve as a way of rightly raising his profile. Making his way among contesting interpretations, Clark focuses on ‘Das Unvordenkliche’ in Gadamer, ‘the unpreconceivable’ or ‘that prior to whose terms on cannot think’. To speak (too) broadly, this idea, of course, haunts most great twentieth century thought (our ‘pretheoretical understandings’ for Heidegger, our unclear ‘pictures’ of the world in the Philosophical Investigations, ‘discourse’ for the later Foucault). Clark explores this dark and complex area through Gadamer’s work on Celan. What is most powerful here is the way in which Clark shows how Gadamer becomes both banal and barely comprehensible in these analyses. The work of analysis exists in the work of analysis, not in surfacing clutching some hidden truth about Celan. This is not to say that these are therapeutic (in that ‘New Wittgenstein’ sense) but that they simply make us go more slowly and draw ‘us “back” to an unthematised obviousness which is our unthought and uninterpretable starting point’ (88). To ask what use this is, how it serves, is to miss the point entirely. Compare: there comes a time in teaching (some poets, some novels, few philosophers) where you can’t explain it any further; you have simply to say: well, look, no, I can’t really explain more, the poet has turned into a golden bird to sing of what is past or passing and to come, go away and think about it with all the resources, rational and irrational, that you possess. (And noting to yourself that discussing the history of golden birds either in the 20th century colonial context or in Byzantine Icons isn’t going to help much either).
The fourth, and least successful, chapter turns to Blanchot. Its lack of success is (basically) down to the odd blankness of Blanchot’s work. This chapter concludes by arguing (rightly, I think) that Blanchot’s work can’t be assimilated to any programme or mission statement, except in its refusal to be so assimilated. However, Blanchot’s work can’t even be really assimilated as unassimilatable. It would be simple, but in fact rather stupid, to point out that this is true of all the thinkers discussed by Clark: of course, that’s part of the point. However, the book works by ‘drawing attention to’ not so much by ‘reduction and explanation’.
Finally, the book turns to Derrida. Derrida’s thought, always so flexible and fluent, is of course in one way clearly part of the ‘school of singularity’. On the other hand, it clearly isn’t, with its insistent social and ethical concern. Clark’s chapter follows this through, with full and interesting support from Derrida’s work: indeed, this is one of the very best essays on Derrida and literature (rather than Derridian essays on literature) I have read. This final chapter, as the ‘pragmatics’ in its subtitle suggests, deals with the more oddly concrete issues of singularity. It does not shy away from the complications of Clark’s position (‘the singularity of the poetic cannot but risk becoming part of a reactionary politics’ (142)) nor does it simplify the core issues, and focuses on testimony: this idea — however phrased and whatever its connections — clearly lies at the heart of Derrida’s work and with his engagement with the literary.
The book is clearly a major achievement, and one that should be read widely: but, while I am in broad sympathy with Clark’s work, I have, of course, some cavils and some worries.
It might look as if the ‘poetics of singularity’ leads to an ‘oh wow, this is great’ sort of appreciation: I am tempted to say well, yes, it surely begins in this (why shouldn’t it?) but takes it further. It is about how texts themselves think. This is hard to do, hard to work out: it takes time and effort, and this is precisely the point. It’s easy to show how one text is of its time (in its sexism, say) but surely, we’re all familiar with the tools of analysis that reveal this? But is this too quickly to dismiss the political? Yes, of course. The ‘school of singularity’ while about the political in the broadest sense (say, the polis), finds it hard to articulate the complexities of local, or of cultural politics. Here, Clark’s argument about Americanisation is an example of this: while it’s true that even American anti-Americanism is still ‘America-centric’ there is a wider range of voices and thought in the American academy than Clark allows. This might be the case in comparative literature, for example. (A simple test: google to see where books in English on non-Anglophone Nobel Prize winners are published.) A wider and more complex sense of the political and the global might shed more light on this.
For me, this is also highlighted by what (on rereading) became rather a trope. Throughout, Hannah Arendt’s concept of ‘natality’, the being born into freedom, the hope of change, is referred to as what these thinkers offer. However, this notion seems stripped of its origins in Arendt’s work and more akin to Heidegger’s thought (indeed, it becomes ‘Heideggerian/Arendtian notions of freedom and natality’ (160) on the final page). For Arendt, while of course acknowledging the power of art, natality emerges from or through history and politics. Indeed, ‘natality’ for Arendt is in part a counter-Heideggerian notion (though, to be sure, this is implicated in the work of Heidegger): authenticity through realising our natality, rather than arising from our contemplation of our Being-Towards-Death. Could Clark not have articulated what I think he wants, simply a more Heideggerian way of phrasing this, rather than taking on Arendt’s term? I think there is more at stake in the difference between Arendt and Heidegger than Clark admits. Moreover, ‘natality’ seems to me to awaken Arendtian questions about the role of history. While one can be in broad favour of Clark’s argument, and one can agree that artworks are not simply ideology or historical evidence, they are also historical: where could aesthetic/existential issues be aired, save in particular histories? How can particular histories be reflected upon, except through a wider, aesthetic/existential mirror? These two are inextricably woven into each other.
A minor personal cavil: the tone of the writing is often ‘de haut en bas’, which I find rather gates on me. It seems unfair to accuse people of being ‘citizens with hyphens (116) or to blame academics for ‘library cramming’ (26). Of course, I see that Clark feels strongly about these issues, but I can’t help thinking that invective is not very helpful or polite (perhaps this is just me).
And this leads to a final worry. Singularity is hard to teach. Indeed, many great poems simply don’t have this effect on students. Often they have to be (and this is the core of teaching in our disciple, I think) attuned to texts, made to see why it is that they are powerful, important and so on. In a way, this is only a version of how most of us (J. S. Mill excepted) learn to engage with literature anyway (Biff and Chip before The Lord of the Rings before War and Peace). While I agree with Clark that criticism and so teaching that is only historical and political doesn’t go far enough, perhaps it is an important part in the process of teaching, of coming-to-understanding.
Overall, however, this is a very important book: like Attridge’s work The Singularity of Literature, it sets up the arguments with which we should be engaging and brings to the fore the thinkers that, perhaps, should mean most to us today. It is without question one of the ‘Frontiers of Theory’ we should be exploring, and one of the most interesting and important.
Wood, Michael (2005) Literature and the Taste of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Robert Eaglestone works on contemporary and twentieth century literature, theory and philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. His publications include Ethical Criticism: Reading after Levinas, Doing English, The Holocaust and the Postmodern and articles on Levinas, Derrida, Agamben, Beckett, Carter, Rushdie, Kertész, Tolkien, the Holocaust and historiography. He is a Literary Advisor to the British Council and Deputy Director of Royal Holloway’s Research Centre for the Holocaust and Twentieth Century History. He is the series editor of Routledge Critical Thinkers.