Denarrativization: A Return. (Draft Paper for Rethinking Form in Latin American Literature and Visual Art Workshop, University of Texas-Dallas, January 19, 2018.
Many years ago, in a book called The Exhaustion of Difference, I associated the notion of “denarrativization” to a historical break, or to the tendency towards a historical break, with what I was then calling, following Louis Althusser, “melodramatic consciousness” (see Exhaustion 51, 56, passim). I am not sure I would use the notion of “historical break” so resolutely nowadays, or I am sure I would not. Those were the days of subalternism for me, and I was following the thought that subalternity can rely on no narrative, subalternity is the very explosion or termination of narrative safeties, of narrative homes, of narrative harbors. So the idea was that there could be or there was a more or less phantasmatic “historical break” in our times, the times of interregnum, between hegemonic and subaltern spaces, organized around the notion of narrative, or what this conference might want to call the notion of “narrative form.”
I offered a couple of possibly inadequate examples of denarrativizing moments in the Latin American postcolonial literary tradition—the suicide of José María Arguedas, which was for me an organic part of the writing of El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, being one of them (Exhaustion 206); the other was the total randomization of life in Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Lottery in Babylon” (181). But the general theoretical point I was trying to make was possibly not clearly made until the very end of the book. Please forgive my self-quotation, only justified because I will use it to say as a point of departure to say quite something else, all these many years later.
The subalternist position undoes hybridity thinking, that is, the hegemonic thinking of the passage to empire, by sharing in a savage hybridity with is, in Spivak’s words, “the absolute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic” (“Subaltern Studies” 16)—and therefore also an absolute refusal to narrativization itself. But from this refusal, from the nakedness that results, something like a force able to confront “the central axis of conflict” begins to emerge. I think Latin American cultural studies is in at least as good a position as any other discursive field to open itself to it—provided that we do not tell ourselves stories. (299)
Of course there are several things wrong with that paragraph. Let me quickly mention three, starting with the least controversial: Latin American cultural studies, as it turned out, was not the place to rehearse any kind of historical break with melodramatic consciousness, since Latin American cultural studies soon revealed itself, terminally I should say, as melodramatic consciousness itself. In other words, Latin American cultural studies was no site for denarrativization; it was rather the last and rather fallen bastion of mythmaking in the melodramatic vein. Big mistake. The second big mistake was to invoke the notion of an “absolute refusal” of narrativization. That is not subtle enough: there is no “absolute” refusal of narrativization for the very good reason that an absolute refusal of narrativization can only be expressed in narrative form, even if it is the minimal narrative of negation (negation always implies a negated instance, and the relationship of negation to the negated constitutes a minimal narrative without which it could not produce itself.) And the third mistake I want to underline was of course the notion that subaltern denarrativization could generate the conditions for a grand politics able to engage and perhaps even to overturn “the central axis of conflict,” whatever that was (I no longer remember). I am not sure there is a “central axis of conflict” in our world precisely to the extent I increasingly see conflict, in myriad forms, everywhere—I must confess the old counterposition hegemony-subalternity is not very persuasive to me any more as a platform for thinking (there is of course an antagonism there, but it does not explain our world, and it is probably not a particularly useful door towards improving it. To that extent I am no longer a subalternist, needless to say.)
So what I want to do today, necessarily very briefly, is to rethink the notion of denarrativization, in the context of the conference question about “form,” and away from any recovery of the notion of culture and from any recovery of the notion of a contestatory or overturning grand revolutionary politics of subalternity. Instead, I will invoke the more modest notion of infrapolitical investment. I will move rather telegraphically in reference to four texts that I have recently read or reread more or less randomly: Jacques Derrida’s 1964-65 seminar entitled Heidegger: The Question of Being & History (2013) and Derrida’s 1974-75 Théorie et pratique seminar (2017); Isak Dinesen’s Last Tales (1955), or rather two stories from the first division of Dinesen’s Last Tales, which have given me the basic intuition of what I want to offer (or of what I will eventually want to offer, since time is very short now). And Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (2000), a novel on the Sri Lanka turmoil of the 1990’s. My apologies if not everything becomes too clear in the few minutes I have. The comments on Derrida are to be taken as an enframing and introduction to what Dinesen says. Ondaatje’s novel is one signal example, I think, of what I mean, although showing that would take more time than the time I have.
In the first sessions of the 1964-65 seminar on Heidegger Derrida discusses proximity and distance in a rather provoking way. He reaches no conclusions, just elaborates on the theme, which is of course related to the Nietzschean theme of the narrowest abyss (the harder to cross), and to the proverbial notion that what is closest is sometimes very far off. But it also points to the ontico-ontological difference and our difficult relationship with it. In the 1975-76 seminar on theory and practice (really on Althusser and Heidegger), in the final sessions, Derrida brings up the French word “incontournable,” unavoidable, and claims that Heidegger says or intimates that thinking is the ceaseless attempt to access what is barred to access and is however at the same time unavoidable. Thinking would be to seek access to a symbolically forbidden inevitability (as the real). Such would be the tense structuration of thought–always looking for the inaccessible inevitable, which calls or beckons as such.
And then Derrida, in full reference to Heidegger, provides some examples that may be polemical: science seeks access to physis, but science will never reach physis; Historie seeks to enter Geschichte, but Historie can never enter Geschichte; grammar wants to capture language, but grammar is incapable of capturing language; the human wants to become Dasein, but Dasein is not reachable through will. The labor of thought is the engagement with that great difficulty. It is carried out through metaphorization. The tense structuration of thought is itself the purveyor of metaphor. Metaphor is in every case a response–a compensation as well–to the impossibility of reaching the “incontournable.” So metaphor is in every case a pharmakon, a medicine that is also a poison. Take “house,” for instance. We could claim that the relationship between house and Being is of the same order as that obtaining between science and physis, human and Dasein, Historie and Geschichte, etc.
But, and here is the crux, does that not enable us to invert the terms and say, for instance, that not only is “house” a metaphor for being, but “being” is also a metaphor for “house”? In other words, given a general field of metaphor as the compensation of thought, the remedy of thought, then the ontico-ontological difference could also be understood, and related to, as a necessary field of demetaphorization. The practice of thought would be the tracing itself, in every case, and according to whatever metaphorical chain, of the difference between being and thinking. For me, that is, very precisely, infrapolitical practice as existential, that is, always embodied, always situated, practice of thought.
The 1964-65 seminar incorporates specific comments on “not telling ourselves stories,” which is a Heideggerian phrase in Being and Time. You must take my word for it that for both Heidegger and Derrida the refusal of what I will call diegesis is connected to the thoughts on metaphorization just summarized. Diegesis, as, in fact, narrativization, is to be taken, in fact, as the first or original metaphor in every case, metaphor at zero degree, the “vehicle” for a transposition, for any transposition, into an order of sense. This is of course a strong thesis, my apologies. Diegesis is form, ultimately aesthetic form, which can in this sense be seen as the particular structuration of metaphor in any given object of human activity. Form is, in every case, not in itself but as soon as it is apprehended, metaphor: form is always already understood on the way to sense (let us not forget that “metaphor” means “vehicle,” from the literal, if it is ever given, to the figural, supposing we are not always already there.) This complex notion is, remarkably, precisely what is questioned in the passage to the ontico-ontological difference, which is also a passage towards the unavoidable, towards the inaccessible inevitable: the passage to infrapolitics.
But, in that very sense, narrativization, like metaphorization, can never be the object of an absolute refusal—there is only ever a punctual refusal of narrative, there is only ever a specific refusal to “tell ourselves stories.” Because every refusal of narrative is based upon an alternative narrative, and diegesis is irreducible. Form is irreducible, and there is no non-form even in chaos, since there is a chaotic form. The game, then, and this is the infrapolitical game, or the game of deconstruction, or the subalternist game against every production of melodramatic consciousness, call it what you will, is the existential exposure to what calls but does not present itself, the necessary but concealed (non)object of sense (perhaps some version of the Lacanian objet a).
The first seven tales in Dinesen’s Last Tales were meant for a novel, “Albondocani,” that was never completed. At the end of the first one, “The Cardinal’s First Tale,” there is a conversation that sets up an enframing metanarrative for what follows. In it the Cardinal says: “Within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: ‘Who am I?’” (Last Tales 26). The last story, “The Blank Page,” enables us to understand the relationship between the authority of the story and the position of the story-teller: “Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence” (100). Dinesen is of course conveying the thought that the loyalty of the story-teller is his or her aesthetic prowess—the composition of form, without which the story is betrayed and silence is emptiness. But I am more intrigued by the notion that, in a story that has been told with loyalty, it is silence that speaks: silence is therefore “the voice” that can respond to the cry of heart regarding the who question, which I think we should interpret not in an identitarian but rather in an existential sense. How is one to understand this?
I think the answer—an analysis of “The Blank Page” would confirm it, but I have no time for it—is that every story, like every subjective position, is at the same time enabled and destroyed by its silence, which is at the same time constitutive and deconstituent. An instance of denarrativization is inscribed at the heart of every narrative, without which the narrative could not be produced: inevitable and at the same time elusive, concealed, opaque. It speaks from its very concealment, silence speaks from silence itself, but only when a particular stasis of form has been reached. In every other case silence is mere emptiness.
Does this not mean loyal stories are the very opposite of melodramatic consciousness? So many stories are little but the crust, the fixation, the frame for a disloyal word, for a lying word, for a treasonous word. So many, for instance, of the stories told to us by Latin American cultural studies as academic discourse, or by Latin Americanism as such. Let us prefer stories that denarrativize, that speak through their silence. One of them—and Ondaatje says it could have been written about Guatemala; it could indeed have been written about the Mexico of narcotráfico—is Anil’s Ghost, probably one of the most signal achievements of contemporary postcolonial literature. I want to finish this very short presentation in reference to it just to mark its powerful abandonment of the political as the final horizon of the word. And to invite conversation. Anil’s Ghost accomplishes what no Latin American novel except perhaps for Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes has accomplished, but less explicitly: a politically sustainable abandonment of politics for infrapolitics as the register of form and thought. For all the reasons given. And this is yet another one not to let ourselves be confined, in our narrative practices, in our practices of denarrativization that are also our practices of thought, to the registers of an inadequate and necessarily failed Latin Americanism.
Texas A&M University
Derrida, Jacques. Heidegger: The Question of Being & History. Geoffrey Bennington
transl. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2016.
—. Théorie et pratique. Paris: Galilée, 2016.
Dinesen, Isak. Last Tales. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Moreiras, Alberto. The Exhaustion of Difference. The Politics of Latin American
Cultural Studies. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
Ondaatje, Michael. Anil’s Ghost. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.