Thursday, February 28, 2008

Agamben's Idea of Prose and Derrida's Writing: Are they the same thing?

Met with Sean Gaston in Oxford yesterday and we spoke for a couple of hours about Derrida's Signsponge. Towards the end I raised an issue about Derrida's conception of the event of literary inventiveness leading on from issues discussed in Signsponge.

If, as Derrida says elsewhere, there is very little literature, and yet if, as he says in Signsponge, Psyche and Shibboleth, the moment of invention is intrinsic or potential in all inventive/literary language, how can it be that it happens so rarely. The logic of invention, that singularity immediately is disseminated into generality and yet in doing so generality is destabilised by the presence of non-translatable singularity either as a trace or a potential, means that invention is fleeting certainly, but not as Badiou would have it, rare.

I suggested to Sean that the issue was that while invention is a potential in all writing,it occurs only rarely at which point its effects are inscribed within the text, effectively infecting the text's claims to stability and authorship and thus disseminating the trace of singularity throughout all writing in effect. Thus is happens only on occasion, but the reverberations of the trace of this are present in writing. Otherwise how would one explain the scarcity of literature in contrast to the omnipresence of the logic of the trace inherent in invention and thus all writing?

Sean's reply was that he felt the issue resided in reading, that the event occurred in reading, and that I assume only certain readers can activate the event through its encounter. Part of a wider project he has to suggest that for Derrida all thinking is reading.

We did not resolve this issue but it led on to our considering the difference between literary invention (rare, singular, with finitude) and philosophical prose (common, general and without finitude). Poetry that can be signed versus philosophy that cannot. I suggested that in fact the age old antagonism between poetry and prose as Agamben terms it is not between two genres of writing but two moments in writing, that of the singular, which is occasional, and the general which is common. That writing is dominated by the law, but that said law can only function due to the event of singularity and is permanently deconstructed by the presence of the event which also can only occur through the immediate betrayal of the event by the generalities of the law. Thus all writing is prose, with the potential for poetry within.

We then gave examples where in Derrida it was meaningless to call a text philosophy or poetry, for at certain points the text was both: Glas, Envois, Signsponge, Cinders and so on. Sean said that for Derrida there was no poetry or prose, there was just writing.

This led me to a rather exciting proposition which I will just outline here. In the controversy between Agamben and Derrida, Agamben dismisses the trace on favour of a messianic idea of prose wherein the divisions between poetry and prose, singular and general, would disappear and a language would come into place, a being in language, that existed beyond difference. His criticism of Derrida being that the arche-trace disallows any way out of differentiation.

Yet, in fact, Derrida's conception of writing is just such an idea of prose. For in Derrida's writing while the role of differance is essential, he never ending oscillation between the trait and the re-trait, fist as Gaston explains, erases the difference between time and space as it is both time and space, and, as I hope to have shown, the overall effect is that differentiation between poetry and prose becomes simply a rhythm, mostly prose, sometimes poetry.

This being the case Derrida's writing is Agamben's idea of prose. Which might explain Agamben's odd blindspot in reading the trace in Derrida and his regular attacks on the one thinker who, in fact, is in almost complete agreement with him on all other issues.
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