Skip to main content

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.
1 comment

Popular posts from this blog

John Ashbery, Some Trees

John Ashbery, Some Trees
(New York: Corinth Books, 1970)
Originally published (New York: 1956)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001) currently in the process of complete update (2013)

"Two Scenes," 9

This is a poem about duality so in this sense the title actually refers to what the poem is ‘about’. John Shoptaw notes, for example, the phonic mirroring of the poem which he sees as an element later phased out as is the “linear introversion” to be found here. Thus we have the following phonic recurrences: “we see us as we”; “Destiny...destiny”; “News...noise”; “”; “-y” and rhymes of section 2; and “...old man/...paint cans”.

This simple but subtle semiotic device is then developed structurally as well, as the title hints. So ‘scene’ 2 reflects back internally onto ‘scene’ 1. “Machinery” recalls the train as does the canal; g…

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1977)
First Published (New York: Viking, 1975)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)


· Shoptaw notes that this return to poetry is dominated by images of waiting, that narrative (especially fairy-tale) returns, as do the musically based titles, there are no prose poems and no fixed forms such as sonnets of pantoums, most are free verse paragraphs, also bring forward a new American speech, more direct and inclusive.

“As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat”, 1-2

· Shoptaw notes this was the original title for the collection, marking a self-consciously Romantic return to poetry, recording the thoughts of “I” from afternoon to night, just outside a childhood country home. Has a pastoral crisis narrative in that a summer storm gathers but passes leaving the poet relieved i…

The Grenfell Tower Murders

The 72 victims of Grenfell Tower Fire were murdered, victims of the violence of neglect.  Here is the proof.
A year ago, a fire started on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, due to a faulty appliance.  The fire spread quickly up the side of the building because the tower had been refurbished in 2016.  Flammable cladding had been added to the exterior building as part of an £8 million refit which appears to have primarily made the tower more cosmetically pleasing.  The money was not spent on improving fire safety within the building, it would appear, a cause for concern for residents’ groups for years. The initial cladding that was to be used is not illegal in the UK but its use is restricted in other countries.  To save costs a cheaper version was eventually attached to the building, a more flammable version. 
Once the fire caught, residents were advised to stay in their flats.  In 99% of all cases this is the best advice, because flats are designed to be “fire resistant boxes” surr…