Orgasmo

Spegnila quella luce, dai

che forse faremo l’amore

come una volta, sai,

spegnila, sì, vedrai verranno i morti

a benedire ogni carezza tua e mia

e poi staranno in silenzio ad ascoltare

ogni sospiro tuo e mio

ogni tuo e mio più forte

ansimare

fino all’ultimo sussulto dell’orgasmo

piena di mare

ascolta come bussano alle porte,

dicono che sanno tutto di noi

ma si sbagliano, sai, siamo noi

a sapere tutto di loro

che non possono più aggiungere o togliere

nulla

e perciò stanno muti in ascolto

di ogni stormire di fronde

del fruscio di ogni carezza

fra queste lenzuola.

Ora, guarda, sono venuti a benedire

la nostra meravigliosa e provvisoria,

condivisa, fra noi, piccola morte.

Spazio letterario e ciberspazio

Giuseppe Martella                                   

Spazio letterario e ciberspazio

in AAVV, Leggere il tempo  e lo spazio. Studi in onore di Giovanni Bogliolo, Munchen, Martin Meindenbauer, 2011, pp. 269-282

Spazio naturale e spazio simbolico

Ogni spazio simbolico si innesta sullo spazio materiale della percezione, ma questo a sua volta si radica sempre nello spazio simbolico, in quelle sue declinazioni che la tecno-scienza e la tradizione culturale ci rendono di volte in volta accessibili. Lo spazio geometrico, in quanto simulazione schematica di relazioni oggettuali (di forma, grandezza, distanza) a partire da una intuizione organica iniziale, ci offre il migliore esempio di questo mutuo parassitismo. Tra lo spazio naturale e quello culturale, di cui il simbolico è la matrice, vi è una relazione di simbiosi che, una volta stabilitasi, non può più essere sciolta, se non per qualche mutazione della fisiologia umana o per una rivoluzione tecnologica epocale. Proprio da un tale tipo dirivoluzione nacque a suo tempo lo spazio geometrico: puro, vuoto, isotropo, atemporale, disponibile a ogni sorta di operazione. Tale spazio geometrico che (in quanto suscettibile di calcolo) è altresì matematico, non è pura astrazione ma il convergere di spazio percepito e spazio simbolico, se è vero che la geometria nasce dalla pratica tutta concreta della agrimensura, intrisa di sudore e di passioni, radicata nella terra che ci sostenta, per poi elevarsi alle misurazioni del cielo, attraverso i passi intermedi delle triangolazioni trigonometriche e delle cartografie regionali. Concettualmente la geometria si situa sulla linea d’orizzonte fra il cielo e la terra, l’astratto e il concreto: disegna la congiunzione mobile e illusoria fra il dentro e il fuori, i contorni dell’esperienza – così come fa la retorica con le figure del linguaggio verbale, che sono fossili di memorie e gusci d’immaginazione. Oggi più che mai, nell’epoca della conversione al digitale di tutti i media, ossia della codifica numerica di tutti gli spazi simbolici, è necessario riflettere sull’omologia tra figure geometriche e figure del discorso, enunciati verbali e numerici.

Lo spazio vissuto e abitato dai nostro corpi, quello a cui già sempre inconsciamente apparteniamo, lo spazio organico, la casa dell’anima, dove “il nostro inconscio è ‘alloggiato’”[1], è come un edificio le cui parti appartengono a varie epoche (una rosetta romanica, un campanile gotico, una volta rinascimentale, un fregio barocco): un insieme di tracce, una costellazione di oggetti-eventi-narrazioni asincrone, un cronotopo denso, dove convivono epoche e livelli di realtà diversi.

La casa dell’essere, quella che comprende il linguaggio ma non si esaurisce in esso, è dunque composita, articolata, spuria, inautentica. Nel senso che è sempre predisposta dai due simbolismi fondamentali della nostra cultura: lettere e numeri; schemi geometrici e schemi retorici. L’orizzonte epocale degli eventi che ci toccano è dunque da sempre a memoria d’uomo est-eticamente inautentico e tecno-logicamente rimediato. Su questo dobbiamo essere chiari, per evitare miraggi nel deserto del reale e non indulgere in mistificazioni consolatorie.

Se lo spazio dell’esperienza si schiude per noi nella singolarità e nella contingenza dei vissuti individuali, allora ogni inaugurazione di spazi simbolici, ogni poesia degna di questo nome, sarà pensiero occasionale, nato sotto una dominante psicotecnica epocale; e in questo senso sì ogni poetica dello spazio dovrà “nascere  e rinascere in occasione di un verso dominante, nella totale adesione a un’immagine, precisamente nell’estasi stessa provocata dalla novità dell’ immagine.”[2] Tale verso dominante, cifra del senso globale o versione del mondo fittizio, non è mai solo un artificio retorico o mnemotecnico: l’artificio linguistico custodisce quello del nostro stare al mondo, è la trasmutazione simbolica della manipolazione ambientale in cui già sempre ci troviamo catturati. Solo in questo senso, impuro e artigianale, la poesia è praxis téleias, modello d’azione che domina i propri fini; sul polo opposto dell’ispirazione, dell’énthousiasmos, del pathos, essa non può che essere invece assoluto abbandono allo spirito del tempo e al destino che ci è preparato. 

E’ per questa dimensione ‘impura’ dell’esserci che la quint’essenza del poetico si può cogliere nel retentissment[3] (ritenzione, risonanza, evocazione, appello, orizzonte di suono-senso, auralità, contraccolpo). Dunque nel risentimento, piuttosto che nel sentimento, del trovarci qui ed ora provvisoriamente insieme; nel risentimento come risonanza psichica della manipolazione tecnica dell’essere-al-mondo. Da tale risentimento-risonanza nasce la poesia in quanto incipiente sillabazione di protesta (Dichtung, come articolazione sonora dell’atto di ostensione: come dal greco deìknumi) il ricorso di lamentele e preghiere, il verso della via crucis dell’esserci: di cui la poesia è il farmaco, o rimedio-veleno, simbolico.

Il risentimento psichico, come condizione po-etica individuale, ha poi un equivalente nell’effetto di narcosi sociale prodotto dall’avvento di un nuovo medium dominante[4], che si presenta allora come condizione del tenore metaforico e del ventaglio dei messaggi possibili di una data epoca. Di essa i nuovi media costituiscono le dominanti o informanti, disegnando vincoli e possibilità, orizzonti di esperienza e di esperimento; scandiscono il ritmo della storia, le sue discontinuità e dislivelli, i suoi stili, le sue figure, pause, omissioni, silenzi: le modalità del visibile e dell’udibile, della leggibilità e intelligibilità del mondo. Così lo spazio-tempo naturale trapassa (o è già sempre trapassato) inesorabilmente in quello artificiale o culturale, e solo per questo trasporto – che è la radice di ogni metaforica – fa si che nelle comunità si costituiscano lieux dé memoire e forme di testimonianza, sia pure di un’ineludibile solitudine, dell’unicità della traiettoria di ciascun essere destinato alla morte.

Per questo miracolo della condivisione del destino singolare, si può convenire con Bachelard che “la poesia mette il linguaggio in stato di emergenza”,[5] o meglio dà voce, trasportandolo nella dimensione del simbolo, a quel contraccolpo dello strumento sull’organo che l’impiega (cioè a quel traumatico incremento tecnico dell’evoluzione naturale), in cui consiste la dis-continuità, o epocalità, del nostro essere al mondo nel tempo, che è il presupposto della tradizione culturale.

Il libro del mondo

Il ‘mondo della vita’, dunque, lo spazio vissuto, scivola inavvertitamente da sempre in quello artificiale e simbolico, dove si formano gli archivi della memoria e dell’immaginario, dove si producono tracce reperibili, in materiali e media di volta in volta diversi. E’ la strumentazione tecnica, dunque, fra tutte le basi materiali della cultura, a decidere in primo luogo sulle forme simboliche, sulle metafore guida e sulle grammatiche della creazione di un’epoca. La nostra civiltà si è sviluppata a lungo nell’orbita della metafora radicale del libro-del-mondo, in cui si istituisce di fatto l’equivalenza tra leggibilità e sperimentabilità del reale. Già in Platone e Aristotele si trovano passi in cui alla natura e all’anima ci si riferisce come a spazi di iscrizione, e Joyce a distanza di millenni risponde loro, nell’Ulisse, facendo il verso al linguaggio dell’idealismo filosofico moderno: “Ineluttabile modalità del visibile: almeno questo se non altro, il pensiero attraverso i miei occhi. Sono qui per leggere le segnature di tutte le cose, uova di pesce e marame, la marea avanzante, quella scarpa rugginosa. Verdemoccio, azzurargento, ruggine: segni colorati. Limiti del diafano.”[6] In questa parodia di ogni estetica trascendentale, si può cogliere quel sentimento del tramonto della civiltà di cui parla il maggior critico letterario del secondo Novecento.[7] Ma per quanto dalla metà dell’Ottocento ai primi del Novecento (da Flaubert a Spengler) tale percezione del tramonto della civiltà occidentale, letteraria e umanistica, fosse assai diffusa fra gli intellettuali, è pur sempre la pratica della scrittura-lettura su supporto materiale ad avere segnato la strada alla cultura d’élite fino ai giorni nostri. Ora qualcosa sta irreversibilmente cambiando.

Nella lettura del libro del mondo, attraverso i secoli, è stato proprio il variare del rapporto fra veicolo (libro) e tenore (mondo) della metafora a scandire l’evoluzione della civiltà europea, il cui stesso concetto etimologicamente rivela le sue radici nello svolgersi di un rotolo (volumen) in cui man mano si leggono i capitoli successivi della storia del mondo (evolutio), supposta continua, progressiva e sensata. Nella sua duplice versione, sacra e profana, prescrittiva e descrittiva, bibbia ed enciclopedia, il libro-del-mondo traduce lo sdoppiamento fra essere e coscienza: si presenta come ‘figura’ della coscienza collettiva nella sua traditio, nella coincidenza effettuale tra volontà di potenza e volontà di forma. Il libro è stato allora non solo strumento ma modello princeps dell’evoluzione culturale. Questa duplice funzione strumentale-modellizzante, che caratterizza l’oggetto tecnico in generale, si esalta nel caso del libro in quanto, sia istituzionalmente che immaginativamente, esso ha costituito la casa della memoria e della cultura.

E come aggirandoci per le stanze di codesta memoria, non andiamo forse ancora a spulciare copertine, pagine e capitoli di libri pesantemente annotati, quando vogliamo riannodare i pensieri e le nozioni acquisite? Ecco che allora basta porre a confronto la poetica dello spazio (Bachelard) con i suoi luoghi dell’anima privilegiati (case, camere, angoli), con la metaforica del libro (Blumenberg) con i suoi indici, capitoli e sottolineature, le sue pagine e copertine che tengono in forma il volume dell’esperienza che si dispiega sotto i nostri occhi, per comprendere tutto il valore ‘poetico’ dello strumento-modello del libro, in quanto custode di una totalità di senso che esso impartisce per analogia alla natura. Sebbene codesta, poi, nel suo essere scritta in cifre e formule matematiche (come voleva Galilei), che di per sé costituiscono ipotesi da sottoporsi a verifica, si presenti di fatto come libro in fieri, o opera aperta, suscettibile di essere riscritta e scompaginata. Ma questa contingenza irriducibile della natura e della storia è stata a lungo messa in parentesi, neutralizzata, regolata e relegata tra le copertine del libro. E’ stata proprio la compiutezza materiale del libro a costituire la base di una tradizione acquisibile e tramandabile gradualmente, per pagine e capitoli, cioè a tenere a freno la provocazione rivoluzionaria dell’esperimento scientifico nei confronti della natura. E’ stata proprio la presenza del volume, rilegato e conchiuso per materia e pensiero, a tenere in forma l’epoca moderna, o post-rinascimentale, nel corso dell’evoluzione culturale. I volumi delle nostre biblioteche sono infatti anche i capitoli della nostra storia intellettuale e affettiva, i luoghi della nostra memoria ed affezione. Essi costituiscono l’humus della nostra tradizione culturale: ed è proprio questo terreno che comincia a mancarci nel momento che i caratteri e i testi che abbiamo a lungo compulsato transitano sul supporto elettronico, si smembrano in ologrammi della ragnatela globale, divengono costellazioni di dati indefinitamente riproducibili in quell’ “allucinazione consensuale”[8] che è il ciberspazio.

Il libro si svuota

In uno scritto che ha avuto una certa notorietà, Maurice Blanchot sviscera le pieghe più riposte dello spazio letterario in rapporto all’atto della scrittura, che egli sgancia completamente dal medium che la produce, sia esso penna, macchina da scrivere o computer. Tutto il suo libro si basa  su questo assunto di fondo: l’identità di scrittura e letteratura, che esclude ogni mediazione strumentale, affermando la purezza e il valore dell’opera presa per se stessa, nell’autonomia di uno spazio artistico separato dalle vicende della storia e del tempo, e pertanto ineffabile, per quanto ricalcato su quello vissuto.

La concezione dello spazio letterario che ne scaturisce risulta così atopica e atemporale, consegnata all’incanto (o alla presunzione) dell’ucronia (“scrivere è consegnarsi al fascino dell’assenza di tempo”[9]) e di una essenziale utopia dove “il qui è talmente nessun luogo che ogni cosa si ritrae nella sua immagine e l’io che noi siamo si riconosce inabissandosi nella neutralità di un ‘Egli’ senza volto.”[10] Sono parole suggestive che accennano all’ideale dello spazio letterario come proiezione impersonale sublimata di quello corporeo, come vuoto sempre disponibile alle imprese di un’immagin-azione iperbolica che si identifica nella magia del contatto a distanza, ove si esercitano il narcisismo e il solipsismo di una volontà di forma che, per lunga abitudine all’egemonia tra le arti, ha messo fuori gioco i vincoli della propria base materiale.

Di qui uno spazio letterario (o un mondo, quello del libro) che paradossalmente si presenta a un tempo sia come specchio mimetico di quello vissuto che come spazio poetico assolutamente separato e autonomo, per l’esercizio di un’immaginazione trascendentale che imita non più la natura ma direttamente il creatore, e diviene la provincia del genio, che “dà la regola all’arte.”[11]

Questo rivolgimento dalla prima alla terza persona, che per Blanchot costituisce la mossa fondante dell’esperienza letteraria, è il perno di una sublimazione iperbolica per cui la fiction (poiesis) diviene romanticamente un analogo della divina creazione. La terza persona, che tecnicamente è oggetto della descrizione, diviene soggetto letterario, ossia quella posizione vuota, quell’amministratore in absentia delle regole del gioco, quel guardiano della inscrutabile legge del Castello di carte, del Tempio delle Sacre Scritture, dei cui dettami l’autore si fa umile e orgoglioso scrivano, esecutore testamentario, spogliandosi del proprio io, le cui vicende relega semmai nei diari (14-15); spersonalizzandosi, liberandosi della prigione del corpo, per poter entrare nel ciclo psicotecnico delle reincarnazioni, di cui la scrittura si è completamente appropriata. Lo scrittore si abbandona allora all’incanto della pagina bianca, dello spazio assolutamente disponibile e tuttavia già dissodato, mappato, sicuro e canonico, regolato e rilegato, della Legge del libro vuoto divino, che custodisce la chance di una seconda imperitura creazione: sicché si può ben consentire con Blanchot che “scrivere è consegnarsi al fascino dell’assenza di tempo […] Il tempo in cui niente comincia, in cui l’iniziativa non è possibile, in cui, prima dell’affermazione, c’è già il ritorno dell’affermazione […e] il qui è talmente nessun luogo che ogni cosa si ritrae nella sua immagine e l’ ‘io’ che noi siamo si riconosce inabissandosi nella neutralità di un “egli” senza volto”[12] — il soggetto letterario, appunto, quel Dio che detta le tavole sia della legge morale che della ‘educazione estetica’ del genere umano.

Scrivere, il gesto che costituisce lo spazio letterario, è dunque un’ipostasi metastorica quasi-mistica del discorso, che ha dimenticato le condizioni tecnologiche del proprio esercizio e la contingenza del proprio esserci, per ergersi a donazione assoluta di senso, apertura epocale, scaturigine essenziale ed infinita di ogni disvelamento e verità: “il poema – la letteratura – sembra legato ad una parola che non può interrompersi, in quanto essa non parla, essa è.”[13]

Lo spazio letterario, in quanto spazio elettivo di una creazione di seconda, parallela a quella divina, diventa perciò il luogo dove la cura dell’artigiano della parola custodisce l’angoscia del mortale che ha preso il posto del Dio che crea dal nulla; sicché Mallarmé può confessare: “ho sentito sintomi molto inquietanti, causati dal solo atto di scrivere […]  sviscerando il verso a tal punto, ho incontrato due abissi che mi gettano nella disperazione. L’uno è il Nulla, […] l’altro è la morte.”[14]

Squisitamente con Mallarmé la metafora del libro del mondo si fa catacresi, metafora assoluta, designazione letterale della letterarietà, e la religione del libro si fa laica, puramente letteraria: non si dà ormai senso dell’esperienza che non sia quello esprimibile dalla scrittura; non si dà ordine del reale che non sia quello rilegabile tra le copertine di un libro. Questo è racchiuso nel celeberrimo detto per cui “tutto il mondo esiste per costruire un libro”, cui risponderà a distanza di parecchi decenni il “non v’è nulla fuori del testo” di Jacques Derrida. Questa è la linea della stilizzazione assoluta dell’esperienza che, almeno dal Petrarca in poi, si sviluppa accanto (intersecandola talora) a quella del realismo occidentale (così ben descritta da Auerbach) che tiene ancora separati, nella rappresentazione artistica, il veicolo e il tenore (il libro e il mondo) della metafora fondante della nostra civiltà.

L’esperienza poetica di Mallarmé si svolge allora tutta all’interno dello spazio della scrittura che assimila completamente quello della poesia (o fiction), e specialmente di quello regolato tra le copertine di un volume la cui rilegatura, supporto tangibile della religione del Libro, separa assolutamente lo spazio simbolico da quello fenomenico e assolve il vissuto (Erlebnis) dalla propria contingenza, rivendicandolo al regno dei fini.

E’ proprio il concetto di ‘rilegatura’ come analogo materiale della religione del libro che costituisce il fulcro della poetica di Mallarmé: una poetica della secolarizzazione della religione del Libro. E’ in questa parabola di secolarizzazione umanistica della sacralità della Scrittura e delle sue figure, che parte almeno col Petrarca e si compie con Mallarmé, che si articola storicamente la linea più pura della tradizione letteraria, o della letterarietà della nostra visone del mondo.

Specialmente istruttivi a questo proposito sono i saggi di Mallarmé, “Quanto al libro” e sul “Libro come e strumento spirituale”. Qui si vede chiaro l’istituirsi dell’equivalenza fra i concetti di poesia, scrittura e libro, e il compiersi della coscienza letteraria nello Spirito, cioè come autocoscienza. E’ una vera dialettica dello spirito assoluto che, nel pervenire alla autotrasparenza, tradisce però la propria base materiale nello spazio di carta.

Ogni decisione esistenziale, ogni atto degno di questo nome, per Mallarmé, si risolve ora infatti in un atto di scrittura: “il tuo atto sempre si applica a della carta; infatti, meditare, senza tracce, diventa evanescente”:[15] è questa evanescenza che bisogna esorcizzare, abbandonandosi ad essa, spersonalizzandosi, sì da poterla fissare sulla carta, da poter vergare col “calamaio, cristallo come una coscienza”, “l’alfabeto degli astri”, testo, scrittura siderale, “questa piega di oscuro merletto che trattiene l’infinito”, e infine aprire il libro del cielo, in cui solo può vivere “lo spirito soddisfatto”. Il libro, “tra gli accessori umani è unico; fatto, esistente”, dove “il senso sepolto si muove e si dispone nei fogli in coro.”[16] L’angoscia della sottile canna pensante-scrivente che è l’uomo, trova allora sollievo tra le copertine del libro.

È nella integrità del libro come oggetto materiale, nel suo ordine o religio intesa come messa in forma e chiusura di un mondo fittizio, che la pratica della scrittura e la vita che l’ha ispirata trovano entrambe un senso compiuto e una legittimazione. Mallarmé infatti oppone esplicitamente la chiusura del libro alla impaginazione provvisoria e volgare del giornale, che “svolazza […] aperto in mezzo all’aiola”, lembo esposto al vento della novità, all’improvvisazione, all’irruzione del quotidiano, “all’incoerenza di grida inarticolate”, sfoggiando uno “sfolgorante e volgare vantaggio” sul “libro, supremo”, sacro, atemporale, eterno. Nella cui rilegatura e spessore materiale si s-chiudono il senso della la storia, la legge del cosmo e lo scrigno della psiche: “la piegatura è, in rapporto al grande foglio stampato, un indizio quasi religioso; che non colpisce quanto il suo accumularsi in spessore, che offre, certo, la minuscola tomba dell’anima.”[17] E’ qui che si compie il gioco della finzione, la poesia come gioco assoluto del mondo; nell’atto della lettura come esecuzione di una partitura che detta il ritmo spirituale dell’esserci che, abbandonandosi alla contingenza della dizione-ostensione, (Dichtung, deiknumi: sillabare, indicare), della singola frase, si affranca dalla insignificanza dell’evento vissuto: “nulla di fortuito là dove sembra che un caso catturi l’idea […] Immemorialmente il poeta seppe il posto di quel verso, nel sonetto che si iscrive per lo spirito o su spazio puro.” (329) Partitura dello spirito, che prende vita nell’atto di lettura come esecuzione musicale, nel “va e vieni successivo, incessante dello sguardo, finita una riga alla seguente, per poi ricominciare […] esecuzione attiva, come di brani sulla tastiera, misurata dalle pagine.” [18] Musica muta, “un solitario, tacito concerto” che incarna e custodisce l’idea, a partire comunque dalla ferita inaugurale inferta all’oggetto materiale, alla “piegatura vergine del libro”, dal tagliacarte, pendent della penna o stilo, che riapre lo spazio letterario, in cui il tempo e lo stile di lettura si incontrano con quelli di scrittura, istituendo quel fragile effimero ferreo patto tra parole e mondo che è l’opera come oggetto-evento le cui “pieghe perpetueranno un sigillo, intatto, che invita ad aprire, a chiudere la pagina, secondo il maestro.”[19]

Solo in base al presupposto tecnologico, alla piega materiale, si istituisce allora l’ipotesi di quella semantica, che consente di de-costruire infinitamente il senso del testo senza più ormai uscire da esso, dal libro-del-mondo (“il n’y a pas de hors texte”, suona l’aforisma di Derrida). Ogni decostruzione avvenire è già qui consapevolmente racchiusa, nella declinazione mallarmeana della metafora radicale della civiltà letteraria. Nella presa d’atto della rilegatura e dell’artificio tipografico come ultima origine dello spazio artistico, e d’ogni evento di verità (l’Ereignis di Heidegger), nell’orizzonte della civiltà letteraria. E’ questa oltraggiosa consapevolezza della implicazione materiale fra pensiero e scrittura che costituisce la cifra dell’opera di Mallarmé e ne giustifica l’enorme influsso esercitato su poeti e scrittori del Novecento (Eliot, Valery, Rilke, lo stesso Joyce), per altri versi di lui molto più grandi. È un’opera, la sua, che si costruisce per piani, come un vero e proprio castello di carta, a partire dal verso come artificio tipografico, dalla frase dominante “perseguita, in carattere grande”, dalla spaziatura, “una riga per pagina”;[20]  essa trova il suo compimento esemplare in quel Colpo di dadi, che più che un atto costituisce un’ipotesi poetica, in cui, nel segno del come se, caso e necessità si incontrano in via di principio. E qui che si realizza, prospetticamente, anche l’assoluta equivalenza di poesia e scrittura, di partitura e disegno, e viene disseminato l’artificio della versificazione come equivalente della scansione ritmica del suono e del senso. Qui vengono mostrate nella “visione simultanea della pagina” le “suddivisioni prismatiche dell’Idea […] in una messa in scena spirituale esatta”, che si sviluppa “attorno a pause frammentarie di una frase capitale introdotta fin dal titolo e sviluppata”.[21] Quanto a dire che nel segno di una dominante visiva (riduzione prospettica della ‘musica di idee’) si istituisce l’ordine tipografico del testo come base di quello tipologico o figurale che ha avviato (già fin dalle Sacre Scritture) l’evoluzione del sistema letterario in quanto ripartizione e ricorso di tratti dominanti in uno spazio presuntivamente autonomo, assoluto ed assolto dai suoi debiti mondani, del tutto auto legittimato.

Nella scansione grafica della pagina del Colpo di Dadi si trova la quint’essenza dello spazio letterario come spazio simbolico egemone, luogo di una possibile donazione di senso all’esistenza effimera. Ma anche luogo in cui, nella esibizione dell’artificio grafico come presupposto della convocazione di suono e senso, della loro poetica coincidenza, si denuncia il contingente tecnologico che la fonda e si annuncia l’incrinatura stessa della sua tenuta, l’apertura di possibili spazi simbolici alternativi, basati su nuove tecnologie dell’informazione. Nella imitazione grafica, sulla pagina, della disseminazione statistica degli eventi nel tempo, dell’azzardo ineliminabile dal colpo di dadi, vi è il segno inequivocabile della rottura del patto vigente fra parole e cose nella tarda civiltà della Scrittura, e si avverte il presagio di un nuovo ordinamento probabilistico dell’esperienza e delle sue simulazioni, di un inedito spazio dello scrivere,[22] del ciberspazio come ultima quasi-mistica ‘allucinazione consensuale’.

Scrittura e lettura

Nello spazio letterario, scrittura e lettura si corrispondono come due poli, o due istanze di quella ripetizione differente che è la messa in opera di uno schema del mondo. Non che si attui un dialogo fra due soggetti animati dalla buona volontà di mettersi d’accordo sulla cosa di cui è questione; non che il lettore debba necessariamente venire incontro all’intenzione artistica dello scrittore. Egli piuttosto può prendere una qualsiasi strada perversa, o leggere nel più profondo distacco, noncuranza e distrazione: la sua mancanza di attenzione e di rispetto hanno da mettersi in conto nel gioco delle parti che si svolge nello spazio letterario che, in quanto orizzonte egemone dell’esperienza, deve pertanto essere in grado di contenerne gli aspetti più disparati e imprevisti.

Scrittura e lettura sono due iniziazioni simmetriche e, ciascuna a suo modo, ugualmente rischiose. Leggere ha una sua difficoltà intrinseca, sebbene di ordine molto diverso da quello dello scrivere, e nonostante l’apparente naturalezza dell’atto ormai consueto. Per noi alfabetizzati, leggere è la cosa più naturale di questo mondo e, per lunga abitudine, si identifica con gli atti dell’apprendere e del comprendere. Per l’organismo culturale, leggere è naturale come il respiro. Per ascoltare della musica ci vuole orecchio e per guardare un quadro occorre un occhio coltivato, comunque un inclinazione, un dono, speciale. In virtù della alfabetizzazione diffusa, sembra invece che la scrittura-lettura sia l’atto più scontato e democratico che esista. Leggere sembra far “giustizia di qualsiasi ricorso a un privilegio naturale”.[23] Tutto ciò a causa della presunta naturalezza del linguaggio e financo della scrittura amanuense.

Ma in effetti l’atto di lettura, come presupposto materiale-organico di ogni comprensione e interpretazione, ha una sua singolarità e violenza intrinseche, che sole possono forzare lo scrigno del libro, riaprire a forza l’orizzonte di senso in esso custodito, squarciare il velo opaco della scrittura, mettendola effettivamente in opera. Leggere trae dal libro l’opera che custodisce, lasciando che essa impersonalmente si reincarni: infatti “che cos’è un libro che non viene letto? Qualche cosa che non è ancora scritto. Leggere sarebbe dunque non scrivere di nuovo il libro, ma far sì che il libro si scriva o sia scritto, – questa volta senza l’intervento dello scrittore, senza nessuno che lo scriva. Il lettore non si aggiunge al libro ma tende prima di tutto a liberarlo da un qualsiasi autore.”[24] E’ nell’atto di lettura che si compie allora, come per gioco, (per una sorta di infedeltà costitutiva della tradizione) il processo serio e faticoso di spersonalizzazione dell’autore che fonda la dimensione della fiction, la purificazione del materiale biografico, la trasmutazione alchemica del vissuto singolare nell’idea dell’opera: “l’apparenza di una cosa superflua, ed anche la poca attenzione, lo scarso interesse, tutta l’infinita leggerezza del lettore afferma la leggerezza nuova del libro, divenuto un libro senza autore, senza la serietà, il lavoro, le gravose angosce , il peso di tutta una vita che vi si è riversata, esperienza a volte terribile, sempre temibile, che il lettore cancella, e, nella sua leggerezza provvidenziale, considera come niente.”[25]

L’atto di lettura restituisce dunque “l’opera a se stessa, alla sua anonima presenza, all’affermazione violenta, impersonale, che essa esiste. Il lettore è egli stesso sempre fondamentalmente anonimo, è un lettore qualsiasi, unico, ma trasparente.” Vi è perciò una profonda dissimmetria fra l’atto della lettura e quello della scrittura nello spazio letterario, e tale dissimmetria ne costituisce la caratura, la cifra che lo caratterizza in quanto spazio simbolico, la sua dis-misura di fondo rispetto a quello reale. Ora è proprio questa dis-misura costitutiva, che viene meno negli ipertesti interattivi elettronici, nel ciberspazio, dove il lettore diventa a tutti gli effetti coautore,[26] azzerando, almeno idealmente, la distanza che lo separa dall’altro, ma nello stesso tempo annullando quel tipo di differenziale po-etico, di violenza inaugurale che erano propri dello spazio e dell’opera letteraria; assimilando perciò la messa in opera di una intenzione artistica non più tanto a un processo di spersonalizzazione quanto a uno di cooperazione ideale; non più tanto alla lotta violenta con l’ ‘angelo necessario’ della storia inventata, con l’autore antagonista, con l’autorità personificata nel s/oggetto letterario, quanto alla distribuzione variabile dei ruoli e delle parti, dei moduli e delle gerarchie, dei linguaggi, dei livelli e dei gradi di libertà fungibili nei disegni d’interfaccia e nelle applicazioni disponibili, che comunque vanno implementate all’occasione e consensualmente, secondo una competenza tecnica che è ancora lungi dall’essere naturalizzata; e che dunque non può facilmente scomparire nell’artefatto, come è nel caso della scrittura letteraria, o essere innocentemente violentata nella pacata consuetudine di un gesto acquisitivo (quello indicale) o di una funzione (quella fonatoria) che omologano ogni alterità in nome di un presunto diritto naturale di dar nome alle cose. Con tutta la libertà di scelte che lo caratterizza, non rimane più alcuna innocenza nell’atto del lettore ipertestuale che non può mai dimenticare le prefigurazioni, le opportunità e i vincoli offerti dall’interfaccia in uso, il processo di rimediazione materiale sottostante al testo digitale che egli può ‘riscrivere’, o al ciberspazio in cui egli può ‘liberamente’ immergersi e a piacimento navigare. Proprio per l’apertura infinita e per l’infinita s-componibilità dell’ipertesto digitale in rete, non può più sussistere alcuna illusione o presunzione di assolutezza e autonomia del nuovo spazio simbolico egemone, del ciberspazio che si presenta pertanto come spazio di simulazione illimitata, matrice culturale e ideologica, ‘allucinazione consensuale’ produttiva delle nostre condizioni di esistenza reali.

La dis-misura (tra scrittura e lettura) caratteristica dello spazio letterario è cosa trapassata: la violenta trasmutazione in opera, quasi per un processo naturale, del testo durante l’atto singolare e anonimo della lettura muta, che decifra “le ineludibili modalità del dicibile e dell’udibile”, le “segnature di tutte le cose”, è cosa già desueta per le giovani generazioni che, come spesso con disappunto ripetiamo, non sanno più né leggere né scrivere. Né lo sapranno mai più: almeno non secondo i canoni, i modi, e gli atteggiamenti psicosomatici che ci sono consueti e che associamo ‘naturalmente’ al culto e al privilegio della tradizione letteraria. Le cose non stanno più così: i mezzi e i canali della trasmissione culturale sono irreversibilmente mutati. Si tratta allora di concepire una nuova teoria della produzione, archiviazione e trasmissione del senso; e al suo interno ridefinire il ruolo della letteratura, i limiti dello spazio letterario e le nuove figure che in esso possono albergare. Soltanto al prezzo di questa negazione radicale di ciò che siamo sempre stati (soggetti letterari) e di ciò di cui siamo sempre stati competenti (oggetti letterari), soltanto a tale prezzo sarà possibile trasmettere ai giovani il patrimonio della letteratura, seppure con una funzione più sobria e modesta di prima, e tuttavia di vitale importanza per mantenere un minimo di continuità col passato nel bel mezzo della cesura epocale in cui siamo capitati. Il nostro è il compito del sopravvissuto che suo malgrado deve dare testimonianza di un mondo desueto, di colui che non condivide più con le nuove generazioni né patria né lingua, e tuttavia è chiamato a mettere a rischio la propria identità professionale, per poter tenere il filo esile di un discorso comune, su cui altri potranno costruire una tradizione nuova.

E’ in questo sacrificio dei ruoli istituzionali e delle competenze culturali faticosamente acquisite, che consiste la chance di ciò che ci piace chiamare ciberermeneutica, cioè di una teoria della produzione e della ricezione del senso, sotto condizioni e presupposti tecno-logici radicalmente mutati, nel momento in cui ci tocca di rinunciare per sempre alla presunzione di autonomia ed assolutezza dello spazio letterario, in quanto spazio per lungo tempo consueto ed egemone della trasmissione culturale.

Riferimenti Bibliografici

Bachelard Gaston (1989) La poetica dello spazio,  trad. a cura di Ettore Catalano, Bari, Dedalo.

Blanchot Maurice (1967) Lo spazio letterario, trad. a cura di Gabriella Zanobetti, Torino, Einaudi. 

Blumenberg Hans (1984) La leggibilità del mondo, trad. a cura di Bruno Argenton, Bologna, Il Mulino.

Bolter Jay David (2002) Lo spazio dello scrivere, trad. a cura di Stefano Galli, Milano, Vita e Pensiero.

Gibson William, Neuromante, trad. a cura di Giampaolo Cossato e Sandro Sandrelli, Milano, Nord, 1993

Joyce James, Ulisse, trad. a cura di Giulio De Angelis, Milano, Mondadori, 1984.

Kant Emmanuel (1984) Critica del giudizio, trad. a cura di Alfredo Gargiulo, Bari, Laterza.

Landow Gorge P. (1993) Ipertesto. Il futuro della scrittura, trad. a cura di Bruno Bassi, Bologna, Baskerville.

Mallarmé Stéphane, Poesie e prose, trad. a cura di Adriano Guerrini e Valeria Ramacciotti, Milano, Garzanti, 2007.

McLuhan Marshall (1990), Gli strumenti del comunicare, trad. a cura di Ettore Capriolo, Milano, Mondadori.

Steiner George (2003) Grammatiche della creazione, trad. a cura di Fabrizio Restine, Milano, Garzanti.


[1] Bachelard 1989, 27.

[2] ibid., 5.

[3] ibid., 6.

[4] McLuhan 1990, 51-57.

[5] Bachelard 1989, 17.

[6] Joyce 1984, 51.

[7] Steiner 2003, 7.

[8] Gibson 1993, 5.

[9] Blanchot 1967, 15.

[10] ibid.

[11] Kant 1984, 166.

[12] Blanchot 1967, 15.

[13] ibid., 23.

[14] cfr. Blanchot 1967, 24.

[15] Mallarmé 2007, 307.

[16] ibid., 313.

[17] ibid., 325-29.

[18] ibid., 325-29.

[19] ibid., 331.

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid. 401.

[22] cfr. Bolter, 2002.

[23]  Blanchot 1967, 165.

[24] Blanchot 1967, 166-7.

[25] ibid., 167.

[26] Cfr. Landaw 1993, 105.

FROM INDEX TO LINK: A PHENOMENOLOGY OF LANGUAGE

From index to link: a phenomenology of language

Giuseppe Martella

in M. Procházka, M. Malá. P. Šaldová (eds.), The Prague School and Theories of Structure, Göttingen, V&R UP, 2010, pp. 427-436.

“So that gesture, not music, not odours, would be

 the universal language, the gift of tongues

 rendering visible not the lay sense

 but the first entelechy, the structural rhythm.”

(Joyce, Ulysses, “Circe”)

1. Language of the body

Gesture and word have always been intimately connected in the history of man. As Gregory of  Nyssa once observed, “it is the hand that renders free the word”, and  if we ask to what purpose does it free the word for, the answer might be: in order to arrive at some awareness of shared gestures and actions or, in other words, to common consciousness. However this may be, it is certain that the use of any single utensil frees the word in a specific way of its own. We could therefore maintain that the joint enterprise of  signs and deeds on one hand evolves together with our technological instruments, while on the other hand transcends the sphere of man/woman, as both ethology and robotics have well shown. We ought therefore by now to be prepared to see such an enterprise as pre-human and post-human. In order to articulate this statement it may be useful to adopt a sort of paleontological perspective, capable as such of encompassing Primary era fish  and Quaternary era man, and in which we can as it were witness to a series of successive liberations, “that of the whole body from the liquid element, that of the head from the ground, that of the hand from locomotion, and lastly that of the brain from the facial mask.” (Leroi-Gourhan 1964, 40-41) And surely among the organs of a living body there is always some sort of solidarity, determining functions that are distinct and yet reciprocal. Therefore, it seems to me that a “thick description” of human language should first of all consider its functions in relation to the organs of the individual body and only in a second place to those of the social body, in which it cooperates. Instead of this, both historical and structural linguistics have generally disregarded the basic relationship of language with the body and the use of utensils, considering language as an autonomous entity severed, as it were, from the sphere of animality and from animal evolution. Both approaches have indeed studied language in pretty abstract terms, occasionally referring to its connection with the social milieu, but in fact ignoring both its biological and ethological aspects. (Robins 1967) In my opinion, now time has come to restore a body to language, and to incarnate the word in the whole history of the living (i.e. not only of humankind), in order to better understand its genesis and functions.

In the past fifty years, molecular biology, ecology, cybernetics and information technology have changed respectively the notions of life, environment, intelligence and  language, relating them all, more or less explicitly, to such ideas as chance, considered as a principle of organisation, autopoiesis, complexity and statistical inference. The disciplines of language, text, society and culture – in other words: the human sciences as a whole – must simply face up to these changes and shed their disciplinary isolation and anthropocentric approach. Erwin Schroedinger (a pioneer at once of atomic physics, molecular biology and the theory of information, and the first scientist to intuit the notion of a genetic code) once suggested that all living beings feed not only on energy but also on information, that is, on negative entropy; if this is true, then language is really a constitutive part of man’s being, not only in the metaphysical sense of man’s being-thrown-into-the world and of his existential angst in the face of casualties and death, but also in a sheer scientific sense, according to which all living things feed on an energy-information diet allowing them to regulate their  life and thus to survive by means of a more or less complex interpretation of all stimuli coming from the world without. We might thus conclude that the existence of codes permits both the constitution of cultural texts and that of organic tissues, and put aside all sharp distinction between hermeneutics and biology. (Maturana 1980) Life and understanding are in fact to be regarded as reciprocal functions that cover the entire time span from pre-human to post-human. They transcend the homo sapiens as a species, locating him in a tensional space within the ecosystem, as it were in a precarious balance between the impact of micro-organisms and that of microchips.

In this perspective, it is my opinion that, both from a historical and a structural perspective, human language is not to be considered as a closed system of neutral and conventional differences, but rather as an open system of differences that are so to say biased or asymmetrical, i.e. stemming from significant and motivated gestures, and bearing traces of the course of their histories, beginning with a living body trying to find its way and to mark out its territory. In a phenomenological perspective such as the one I am now trying to follow, the world of perception and that of expression should be considered on a pair and as complementary. Just as experience of the world is gained in fact through the unfolding of inherent horizons of meaning, so its expression is achieved as a gradual de-marking of the self-here-now (the subject of the utterance) and as a gradual and oriented demarcation of the world, starting from a single body and from its occasional, more or less violent, inaugural gestures. It is therefore useful to take the phenomenology of perception and that of motility as starting points for the understanding of the functioning of language both in its relation to the body and as the expression of the world-body. By so doing I believe we can avoid the snares of both a mechanical structuralism and a mystique of language, seen as the unearthly home of being and of its unspeakable event.

On the other hand, today’s digitalisation of cultural memory is quickly modifying the relations between the individual and the species, in a way never before dreamt of in the course of evolution, thus forcing  us to explore such topics as artificial intelligence, the animal-machine relation and the statute of cyborgs. What is most dramatically changing in the realm of human interaction is in my view the very nature of deixis, and this also means the nature of the space-time coordinates of the living body. In other words, we are witnessing to a rapid reconfiguration of all modes of territory-demarcation that have long been preserved in the memory of our species, materialised in its symbols and myths, schemata and figures of speech, and eventually in the texts of our tradition. Thus the so-called natural languages, being now also used by cyborgs, ought to be seen as non-autonomous systems, open to stimuli from the external environment and to alphanumerical complications, and moving towards the condition of artificial languages. Such considerations should help us unmask the long-standing illusion of the ‘naturalness’ of verbal language, showing that it is merely the result of a process of naturalisation of an interiorized technique, that of speaking, which has ever since become an unquestioned habit. (Armand 2006, 1-4) Following this train of thought, I am driven to conclude that the horizon of our age is marked by the eclipse of natural languages, so far considered as the tokens of the originality of our cultures and the guarantors of the purity of our identities. All cultural identity is in fact being exteriorised and resolved  in the digital multiplication of the programmes accessible to our organic index (our finger), which in an immemorial time founded subjectivity in language and set it up as a system of demarcation of the surrounding environment.

2. Functionalism and phenomenology

We know that what is generally understood as “mark” is a “sign or symbol impressed on an object to indicate whose property it is, the place of origin or manufacture, the quality, or other characteristics”. Hence in linguistics the term “mark” has come to indicate “a significant element that characterises in an oppositional way the phonological, morphological or lexical entity that possesses it as compared to the one that does not”. (De Mauro–Paravia on line dictionary) We can thus observe that the concept of linguistic mark, or feature, contains the orientation of a given term towards a more general one to which it has given birth in time and to which it logically belongs. (Jakobson 1980, 92)[1] This generation and participation of words out of words both refer to the ways in which subjectivity operates in language.

When asked about the concept of linguistic feature, developed simultaneously by him and Trubeckoj, Roman Jakobson replied that “it is a kind of intrinsic content of correlations […] In linguistic consciousness the binary opposition takes the shape of a contrast between the presence of a mark of any kind and its absence (or between the maximum of any mark and its minimum).” He then impeccably concluded that structural correlation, not only in linguistics but also in ethnology and the history of culture, “is always a relation between the categories of the marked and the unmarked [… and for this reason] it is important to establish for each age, group, nation etc. which series is the one constituting the category of the marked.” (Jakobson 1980, 92)  This statement is tantamount to acknowledging (as later done by Jury Lotman) that every language of culture, being a system of differences, is made up of a network of deep asymmetries (between marked and unmarked terms), each of which points to both a ceremonial beginning and/or an end, and thus gives way to the possibility of a cultural typology. (Jakobson 1980, 94)[2]

In conclusion, a rethinking of the whole matter reveals that the functionalist approach that characterised the linguistic and literary studies of the circles of Moscow, Petersburg and Prague in the Twenties and Thirties of last century was in many ways already beginning to corrode from within Saussure’s paradigm of language considered as a simple system of differences (Saussure 1977). In particular, the observations made by Jakobson on the status of the so-called shifters or deictics and on the presence of marked terms at various levels of linguistic opposition (which amount to recognising the foundation of language in a historical subject) represented a radical questioning of Saussure’s idea of the purely differential and conventional nature of language. Such a train of thought allows us to notice, for example, that the procedure of commutation, which has been adopted in phonology to individuate the relevant traits and the differential values of a phoneme in a given language, is after all only empirically based and issues results that are often questionable. Or also that the criterion of double articulation as a distinctive characteristic of human (as opposed to animal) language, turns out at close inspection to be nothing more than an anthropocentric prejudice, for we can never rule out the possibility that also in animal languages a distinction can exist between gestures and sounds that have a meaning and others that have no meaning; or better, and according to a scale, between single signs-sounds with a vague meaning and clusters of them that take on a more precise meaning for a given group and in a particular ecological environment.

On the other hand, in digital codifications it is certainly possible to distinguish, at various levels, starting from bits and bytes, purely differential oppositions from fully meaningful configurations. What I want to suggest is thus, firstly that double articulation (that is, the shift from merely distinctive to fully signifying contrasts) transcends the phonetic field and is applicable at the very least also to gestures; secondly, that it not only regards human but also animal language; and lastly, that it can very well be applied to machine languages, down to the distinction between algorithm and instruction. In conclusion, in a pale-ontological and technological, rather than merely anthropological, perspective, language appears as a function that is transversal to biology, anthropology and cybernetics. Its genesis, structure and function should therefore be considered as jointly and severally related to human evolution and to the evolution of the environment as a whole, from its physical-chemical basis to its modes of organisation, both biological and ethological, technical and scientific, sociological and cultural. An integral functionalism ought therefore to take into account this double opening of the so-called natural languages, both downwards (ethology and molecular biology) and upwards (the languages of culture and of artificial intelligence). The scientific paradigm of complexity as well as all the recently developed systems-theories can possibly embrace both linguistic functionalism and the typology of culture. As Edgar Morin, among a few others, has has been pleading for a while, it should be desirable to go beyond the sharp distinction between man, animal and machine, as well as beyond that between nature, culture and technology. (Morin, 1973, chap. 1, 2.) I do believe the time has eventually come to fully face the serious challenges issuing at once from our inter-disciplinary and ecological predicaments.

But only a truly phenomenological approach to language can indeed help us understand that the hierarchical order inherent in the concept of feature is the result of a genetic course that starts from the index of the hand, pointing to the I-here-now of the utterance as the marked category par excellence and the true origin of language as a cultural institution. In fact, the most substantial and specific information conveyed by the marked as compared to the unmarked term in all language, implicitly regards its distance from the bodily index which deeply roots every speech act in the living ground of culture. Every linguistic feature in a text or discourse can be considered in fact as the lingering trace of an act of indication, being this the inaugural gesture of orientation of the body in a given environment and in an interactive situation. Every language in this sense bears the traces of a people’s history, having elaborated and configured them as a sort of map of the habitat of the gesturing body. We therefore need consider the latent topology of language, which is able to disclose in turn a possible typology of the manifestations of the world in language.

To sum it all up: we can now refer the concept of linguistic feature back to that of deixis as the inaugural gesture of orientation of the subject in its world-environment; the very gist of the concept of mark consists in fact precisely in its being a trace of indication lingering in the language system – a trace and distant echo of the indexical explosion that gave origin to the linguistic universe. For this reason it is only misleading to conceive language as an abstract system of differences that the subject can make use of in an occasional speech act, because language is the result of recursive acts of orientation that construct an environment around the gesturing body. These acts do not happen in the void but in interactive situations, in which the living subject defines itself in relation to another one, whom it indicates and with whom it starts a sort of mimetic game, be it cooperative or antagonistic, which gradually develops into ritual, myth and eventually culture. We can therefore conceive language as a whole system of asymmetrical differences (that is, differences between marked and unmarked terms) issuing from a motivated act and a deictic basis, originating from the gesturing body within an interactive situation, and answering the subject’s need of orientation for the sake of its survival in a given habitat. All these occasional gestures and sounds are later fixed (through repetition and habit) in formulaic performances, as well as, through garlands of rites and myths, in social norms and institutions.

All the major themes in the thought of Jakobson and of the Russian Formalists[3] show them as being closer to phenomenology than to Saussurian structuralism, although it was rather Saussure they were associated with in the Fifties and Sixties of the Twentieth century. But it is in the concept of “dominant” that the phenomenological orientation of Jakobson’s linguistics can be fully grasped. This is because the idea that the evolution of language and that of literature come about through the alternation of different symbolic forms in a dominant position, rightly places them in the sphere of genetic evolution and reassigns them to the bodily functions and to the phenomenology of perception which derives from them.

In an essay entitled The dominant, Jakobson in fact makes a few telling comments on this topic, referring to some of the major themes and phases of research of the Russian and Czech Formalists, and particularly to the link between sound and sense as an “inseparable whole” in the poetic texts. In this essay he offers a good definition of the dominant “as the focusing component of a work of art […that] rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components […,that] guarantees the integrity of the structure […and that] specifies the work.” (Matejka and Pomorska 1971, 82) As one can clearly see from this passage, Jakobson points to cohesion, specification and focusing as the constituent functions of the dominant in a certain textual corpus[4]. In short, as the dominant informs and focuses all cultural work in its own context, any emergent dominant trait de-forms the work and determines its reception and adaptation within a given social environment.

I have mentioned this passage of Jakobson’s in order to suggest that there is a unique thread connecting the phenomenology of perception, linguistic functionalism and the typology of culture. This thread, which can perhaps be spun out of the concept of dominant, leads us to compare the movements of the body with those of language, since the phenomenology of the word is rooted in its physiology, and the sense of all discourse in the senses of the living organism.

4. Index and link

As Maurice Merleau Ponty once remarked, “the sense of a thing perceived […] can only be articulated as a certain gap with regard to the level of space, of time, of mobility and in general of signification in which we find ourselves, and can only be given as a systematic deformation, of our world of experience, without our being necessarily able to name its principle. Every perception is not the perception of some thing unless it is also the relative in-perception of a horizon or background that is involved, although not thematized, in our experience.” (Merleau-Ponty1995, 25, my translation) All this is as true of perception, as it is of our experience in general and of its linguistic expression. This should induce us first of all to conceive of linguistic difference in terms of the relation between figure and background, which is essentially an asymmetrical relation.  Every symbolic system stems, in fact, from this basic perceptual game, which is implicitly rooted in the gestures of turning our eyes and of pointing our fingers. And this amounts to reaffirming the principle of the deictic basis of all language and to drawing the systemic conclusions thereof. The relation between figure to background in the act of perception constitutes in fact the first breaking of the universal principle of symmetry and equivalence holding in our psychic unconscious, (Lotman 1992, 70) and this breaking of symmetry is an event which is capable of opening the basic horizon of sense for the living mind-body (think, for instance, to a child first fixing his gaze on an object, and then pointing to it while emitting a few sounds).

Perception and expression are complementary functions. The focusing of an object against a background, which is often accompanied by an indicating gesture, is the founding element of both. This conduces us to consider the index as the constituent element of all languages, demarking the asymmetrical relation between our bodies and the surrounding space. Deixis is the basis of every difference-relation in an ordinary language, conceived as a system of historically given differences. This system is composed of marked terms and unmarked ones, that is of a set of asymmetrical relations that articulate the fundamental asymmetry inherent in bodily perception and motion. The whole of language can thus be regarded as a system of differences that are neitherneutral nor arbitrary, but rather marked and motivated, right from the start – a system by means of which the subject has once been able to settle in its environment, using language both as a basic techno-logical framework (Gestell) and archive (Bestand). (Heidegger 1977) This framework and reserve of meaning, like every other technical device, does not lie outside of man, but rather constitutes an extension and articulation of his body, which is subject to both motion and emotion.

We should be aware by now that the use of personal computers and word processing programmes has changed our whole sensibility with respect to writing and language. They have both modified the relationship between eye and hand in the act of writing, and that between perception and bodily expression for a given subject in its own environment. As a consequence of this, our relation with language as an indexical issue results utterly modified. Working with word- processing programmes, in some way restores the index to the ancient prominence it had been deprived of by the advent of writing, but also tends to change its function in the games of language.

Typing on a keyboard obeys in fact a sort of double articulation between the space of signs and that of commands. While you are typing in with a writing programme, you are in fact composing a text while disposing of a hypertext. This change in the relation between eye and hand can be easily grasped when the cursor shifts its shape on the computer screen (for example when the vertical flashing bar becomes an arrow, and then a little hand with a pointing finger): in this case the cursor is just moving from the space of signs to that of commands – in other words, from signification to interaction. A move of this kind is bound to affect not only the statute of writing as such but also our attitude towards language as a whole. It affects in fact our way of situating ourselves in the surrounding territory and of marking it out, starting from indication as the founding act of language. The technical modifications of deixis implied in the use of digital interfaces are thus going to change our whole sense of language as the substrate of our being-here-now, and with it the horizontal structure of every possible experience. What is changing utterly then is also our grasp of the world as an intentional act of our body, in which synaesthesia and motility, perception and expression, draw the line of our existence. From this perspective, and at this stage of transition from the civilisation of print to that of the electronic media, the whole of language begins to appear to us less and less ‘natural’, more technical and re-mediated.[5]

Our powerful digital machines that use statistical procedures are for instance already able to recognise the frequency of certain clusters of words or particular clichés, a preference for a certain type of syntactic construction and its degree of complexity in a given document, and to compare these elements with those contained in a number of other selected documents. They can thus recognise the “voice”, the signature, or the style of a given author often better than a literary expert can do.[6] And if “the style is the man”, one can but wonder whether a computer can know us better than we do. In any case, neither embracing cybernetic fundamentalism, nor belittling the dramatic impact of digital technology, we certainly ought to pose anew the question of the relation between artificial and human intelligence, and between machine language and “natural” language, in their common space of performance, between the first organic demarcation of an environment and its further techno-logical expansion in the course of time; between the naïve gesture of pointing to an object and the building of a whole sophisticated system of culture – or in a more up to date figure: between the finger of the hand and its digital semblance on a screen, pointing to the presence of a hypertextual link.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Armand Luis (2006) Literate Technologies: Language, Cognition, Technicity, Prague: Litteraria Pragensia.

Bolter Jay D. and Richard Grusin (2000) Remediation, Cambridge; London: MIT. 

De Mauro – Paravia, on line dictionary of Italian: http://www.demauroparavia.it/

Heidegger Martin (1977) The question concerning of Technology, trans. W. Lovitt, New York: Harper & Row.

Jakobson Roman (1980) Magia della parola, a cura di Krjstjna Pomorska, Bari: Laterza.

Leroi-Gourhan,  André (1964) Le geste et la parole, Paris : Albin Michel.

Lotman Jurij M. (1992) La semiosfera. L’asimmetria e il dialogo nelle strutture pensanti, a cura di Simonetta Salvestroni, Venezia: Marsilio. 

Matejka Ladislav and Krjstjna Pomorska (1971), eds., Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, Cambridge: MIT.

Maturana, Humberto (1980) “Biology of cognition”, in  Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living, Boston: Kluver.

McLuhan Marshall (1987) Understanding Media, London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty Maurice (1995) Linguaggio, storia, natura, Milano: Bompiani.  

Morin Edgar (1973) Le paradigme perdu: la nature humaine, Paris: du Seuil.

Robins, Robert H. (1967) A Short History of Linguistics, London: Longman.

Saussure Ferdinand de (1977) Course in general linguistics, edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with Albert Reidlinger, translated by Wade Baskin, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins. 


[1] Jakobson’s example is that of subjective time in verse, as opposed to the objective, non-marked time of ordinary speech. For Jakobson however, all grammatical declination/conjugation is constituted through the opposition of marked/non-marked terms.

[2] According to Jakobson,  “the fact of conceiving every binary opposition at whatever level of the linguistic structure as the relation between the mark and the absence of it is the logical outcome of the idea that a hierarchical order is at the basis of every language system, in all its ramifications and manifestations”.

[3] The concept of mark, the order of the appearance of phonemes in children, the six great functions of language, each of which is prevalent in a given text, as well as the general conviction that “a hierarchical order lies at the foundations of every language system, in all its ramifications and manifestations”. (Jakobson 1980, 94)

[4] Jakobson gives  the example of Czech poetry between the fourteenth and twentieth centuries, where, depending on the occasion, metre rhyme or intonation assumed a different weight in determining the poetic value of the artefact or even its status as poetry. (Matejka and Pomorska 1971, 82)

[5] For the concept of “remediation” see M. McLuhan (1987), Bolter and Grusin (2000);  and remember the concept of writing as pharmakon (remedy-poison), discussed by Plato in the Phaedrus (274e-275a), at the time of transition from oral to written culture.

[6] This has already been the case for texts by Shakespeare and for a number of apocrypha ancient and modern. (Johnson 1997, 160 ff.)

Memory Figures in Rushdie's Midnight's Children

Giuseppe Martella

University of Urbino – Italy

                              Memory Figures in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

in The cultural reconstruction of places, ed. by Astradur Eysteinsson, Reykjavik, University of Iceland Press, 2006, pp. 131-45.

1. Figures of memory

Midnight’s Childrencould be regarded as a phenomenology of India’s culture after independence, as it gets filtered through the unreliable memory of Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of the book, whose sick body appears as the all-too-real memorial place of an imaginary Indian-English motherland, a place of both clash and encounter between cultures. Saleem’s memory is hybrid and unreliable, but extremely honest and perspicuous for all that. It manifests itself especially through the figure of allegory, which deals in fact with the places of cultural memory and the spirit of place/time (genius loci). Allegory is in fact a way to keep the flow of time in the grip of memory (Benjiamin), and offers itself to interpretation as the figure that can convey a shared memory and Weltanschauung. Especially in the specific mode of personification or prosopopoeia (‘to give a face to’), the one especially used in Saleem Sinai improbable tale, allegory presupposes the value and persistence of the genius loci. On the other hand, in the very act of conferral of sense on the world, it also stresses the sense producing function of the single living body, equipped with its five senses and a common sense. Allegory on the one hand presupposes the persistence of a cultural memory, whereas on the other hand it refers to the work of a natural organism, thus establishing itself as a mediating place between nature and culture, sense and thought, and in this way it recalling the constitutive nexus between perception, memory and imagination.

There is a fine passage at the beginning of Haydin White’s Tropics of Discourse that can help us develop this subject of shifting memory:

When we seek to make sense of such problematical topics as human nature, culture, society, and history, we never say precisely what we wish to say or mean precisely what we say. Our discourse always tends to slip away from our data towards the structures of consciousness with which we are trying to grasp them; or, what amounts to the same thing, the data always resist the coherency of the image which we are trying to fashion of them. (White 1978: 1)

Memory certainly belongs to this set of problematic topics that White refers to. It is problematic above all because it is strictly connected to the living body, to its fleeting needs and drives: human, all too human, is Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, of imagination and of history; astute and stubborn in her resistance to any conceptual framework we can devise in order to capture her. It will not behave differently in the present occasion. So let us, from the outset, bear in mind this “resistance to theory” (De Man 1986: 3-20), this deconstructive or self-ironic intention that inhabits memory all the way back through its subconscious roots, and affects all discussion about it. All act of intentional recollection does in fact inevitably slip from our grip into brute organic materiality on one hand, and pure imaginative evasion on the other. Or more exactly, memory consists of this unconscious slipping, call it the sliding of chronotopes (single compositions of place and time) through the interplay of its figures. We can say that memory is the moving ground or the implicit frame of all human interaction, and therefore the problems relating to its functioning imply and magnify most of the biggest issues of the so-called human sciences, especially in this present age of extensive cultural mutation. Memory and imagination, consciousness and culture, history and fiction in fact form a single whole that the Greeks personified in the figure of Mnemosyne, at once the mother of the art-inspiring muses and of that of history (Clio), that is the Goddess presiding to that complex of disciplines we call the “humanities”, and that today appear to be threatened by the speed of technological progress and by the overbearing interests of the free market, often scarcely coinciding with the well-being of the human kind. For this reason, the text of our cultural memory should be the more attentively be preserved, perused and regenerated in all its recesses and in all its speech registers, genres and tropes. This is the general aim of the interesting European research project, that of the ACUME network to which I belong, pursuing the study of the European cultural memory form several points of view and in many disciplines[1]. In a talk I gave in Cyprus[2], a few years ago, on the narrative of Sebald, an exile within the European framework, I discussed memories as tropes provided with a temporal index; now I shall move in the opposite direction considering the figures of speech as traces of cultural events or behaviours that have become habitual, sedimented in customary language, as the typical modalities (topoi and tropes) of its use. In a word, I shall probe here the possibility of charting a t(r)opology of cultural memory, as the basis of both historical and fictional narrative.

To reflect on memory is to enter into the mirror, or the matrix, of wonderland, to move in its interstices without ever reaching out into the ‘real’ world. My discourse will inhabit this interstitial order, which is in fat the order of meta-discourse. In the field of language, in fact, meta-discourse is to discourse what memory is to perception: the former never grasping the latter although always aiming at it. Memory represents past perceptions and feelings with an inevitable time gap, a temporal index that is translated into bio-logical traces and codes, scars and inscriptions of the individual and the social body, which gradually develop into places and figures (topoi and tropes) of discourse, which act as the preconditions for the work of anyone who is about to play his part in history, in the double role of subject/object, actor/spectator, servant/master. It is precisely this divided subject of memory that is portrayed, with great awareness, in the best contemporary novels, in which the meta-narrative, far from being a mere mannered affectation, is also an index (a meme) of the groundlessness and the contingency of the literary vision of the world (as contained in the root metaphor of the book-of-the-world) in an age when literature is compelled to abdicate its role of queen of the cultural transmission in favour of the new media. It seems to me that the so-called post-modern fiction of the last few decades more than anything else shows symptoms of this change from a literary to a multi-medial culture, and that now we should therefore begin to speak of a post literary or inter-medial fiction.

This inter-medial, as well as multiethnic and nomadic, subject is dealt with great mastery, breadth of cultural implications, wealth of figures of thought and speech (variety of topics and dialects stretching from folklore to myth) in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which I have therefore chosen as a case study for my inquiry into the tropology of memory, as an instrument for the definition of single and collective identities. Saleem Sinai, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, tells us at a certain point that his life is linked to the history of India in four different ways:

I was linked to history both literally and metaphorically, both actively and passively, in what our (admirably modern) scientists might term ‘modes of connection’ composed of dualistically-combined configurations  of the two pairs of opposed adverbs given above. This is why hyphens are necessary: actively-literally, passively-metaphorically, actively-metaphorically and passively-literally, I was inextricably entwined with my world. (238)[3]

This is a rather theatrical and almost ridiculous formula, of which there are quite a few in this theatrical and apparently “infantile” narrative (recalling G. Grass’s  The Tin Drum), but it does reveal the overall design of the novel, its fundamental configuration. And if its plot is an unreliable recollection of the life of Saleem Sinai and of that of India after her independence, that is a political allegory, this formula reveals the novel’s rhetorical strategy which develops through the constant movement of Saleem’s account between the past and the present, and between the activity of writing and a pretended  spoken report to Padma, the impatient listener:

While I, at my desk, feel the sting of Padma’s impatience. (I wish at times for a more discerning audience, someone who would understand the need  for rhythm, pacing, the subtle introduction of minor chords which will later rise, swell, seize the melody […] Padma says: ‘I don’t want to know about this Winkie now; days and nights I’ve waited and still you won’t get to being born!’ But I counsel patience; everything in its proper place, I admonish my dung-lotus, because Winkie, too, has its purpose and its place. (102)

Padma, this coarse but faithful  indigenous nurse, is the naive fictional listener of this unreliable narrator, whose words are actually intended for an educated and cosmopolitan reader. That between writing and speaking is a tension woven into the very fabric of this novel which is positioned programmatically not only between east and west, but also between literature and the new media, and using for example the metaphor of the living transistor in the event of Saleem’s acquiring of telepathy, thus making it the central device in the plot, the magic means for the convocation of the Conference of the Midnight’s Children:

By sunrise, I had discovered that the voices could be controlled – I was a radio receiver, and could turn the volume down or up; I could select individual voices; I could even, by an effort of will, switch off my newly-discovered inner ear. It was astonishing how soon fear left me; by morning, I was thinking, ‘man, this is better than All-India Radio, man; better than Radio Ceylon! (164)

The connecting thread of Midnight’s Children is the staging of memory, as an act of mediation between opposite political instances, between different languages and media, and as a chance to redeem the past of the oppressed through the manipulation of official history. But it is an imperfect remedy, a medicine and a drug causing hallucinations. The great theme of the novel is in fact that of the fallible individual memory as a necessary error, an instrument of testimony and political commitment:

As I wrote the novel, an whenever a conflict arose between literal and remembered truth , I would favour the remembered version. This is why, even though Saleem admits that no tidal wave passed through the Sundarbans in the year of the Bangladesh war, he continues to be born out of the jungle on the crest of that fictional wave. His truth is too important to him to allow to be unseated by a mere weather report. It is memory’s truth he insists, and only a madman would prefer someone else’s version to his own. (Rushdie 1992: 24-25)

The stubborn attachment of Saleem Sinai to his errors of memory constitutes, in fact, the basic condition of his story-telling. The alternative would be silence, amnesia (from which he indeed suffered for while after a shell shock: 343 ff.) and the eventual drying up of the imagination, the loss of hope in another possible world. It is what Saleem, towards the end of the novel, also calls “sperectomy” (437), and which he, like all other midnight’s children, have to suffer at the time of the Emergency and of the special laws proclaimed by Indira Ghandi in 1977, for the sake of the security and well-being of the nation. A proclaimed state of emergency in order to face economic crisis and political terrorism: an issue that is at least as current today in the West as it was in India in the Seventies. And the whole of Rushdie’s book, with its play of baroque allegories, its exaggerations and improbabilities, can be used as a hyperbolic mirror which through the Indian caricature shows the West its own deformed and ailing image.

2. Political allegory

In the narrative development of Midnight’s Children, with the explicit coincidence of the birth of the protagonist and of that of the independent India, allegory is the dominant figure from the very beginning:

I was born in the city of Bombay […] at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence […] I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. (9)

Rushdie himself, however, repeatedly in his lectures and interviews, seems ready to deny the allegorical nature of his novel. This, for example, is what he declared during a lecture at the University of Aarhus in 1983:

I didn’t want to write a book which could be conventionally translated as allegory, because it seems to me that in India allegory is a kind of desease [….] There is an assumption that every story is really another story which you haven’t quite told , and what you have to do is translate the story that you have told into the story that you haven’t told.” (Rushdie 1985: 3) 

And in the novel, Saleem Sinai denounces this self same disease:

As a people, we are obsessed with correspondences. Similarities between this and that, between apparently unconnected things, make us clap our hands delightedly when we find them out. It is a sort of national longing for form – or perhaps simply an expression of our deep belief that forms lie hidden within reality; that meaning reveals itself only in flashes. Hence our vulnerability to omens. (300)

But this weakness for the allegorical form has also its positive side, in that it constitutes a “national longing for form” (Brennan 1989: 79-117), the forma mentis, the spirit of the place, and the figure most appropriate to Indian cultural memory. Indeed it can become a true obsession for the hidden meaning of events beyond the veil of appearances, an obsession to which Saleem often makes reference in the course of the story. But it also represents the vivifying spark and the ultimate aim of his narrative:

If my crumbling, overused body permits […] I must work fast, faster than Sheherazade, if I am to and up meaning – yes meaning – something. I admit it: above all things I fear absurdity. (9)

As you can easily understand, the ailing narrating body craving for meaning is once again an allegory of India.

However Midnight’s Children is by no means a simple allegory, but it rather amounts to an extended allegoresis, a strategy of narration that is put on display in order to denounce the pretence to truth of any canonical form of national history, and indeed to expose the very same idea of official national history (including that of literature) as an ideological expedient. Rushdie does use allegory in a deconstructive and ironical way, which is in some respects similar to that which Walter Benjamin deemed to be a characteristic of German baroque theatre: that is to say, allegory as an means for exploding the a-temporal perfection of classical form or the suggestive pregnancy of romantic symbol, in order to let appear some traces of the multifarious and inconclusive process of memory and history (see Kuchta 1999: 205-224).  

Allegory is the trope informing the whole of Rushdie’s novel and dominating its plot: an inverted, ironic allegory, or better a hyperbolic allegoresis that is emphatically declared right from the start, and is subsequently accomplished in an equally ostentatious manner through the insisted use of leitmotif and that of synecdoche often assuming the value of a true antonomasia. Some examples of the latter are the exceedingly big, sensitive and fertile nose of Saleem and of his ancestors, which remind the Indian reader of the mythical figure of the elephant-god Ganesh[4]; the irresistibly powerful knees of Saleem’s god-like rival-twin Shiva; the unnaturally bronze idol-like hair of Saleem’s younger sister who is thus provisionally called “the brass monkey”; the astonishing resemblance of Saleem’s face to the map of India, etc.

It is in fact Rushdie himself who alerts us about his peculiar use of allegory, suggesting that it might be rather somehow the case of the leitmotif. As one critic observes, “the leitmotif, as described by Benjamin, involves the use of recurring things in the plot incidents or objects or phrases which in themselves have no meaning … but which form a kind of non rational network of connections in the book” (Kuchta 1999:  206) And it is again Benjamin’s concept of Allegory that can help us understand the narrative rhetoric of Midnight’s Children: “seeking to rehabilitate its debasement in romantic aesthetics, Benjamin distinguishes allegory from the symbol – the preferred figure of Romanticism – by centering not on the  relationship between part and whole but rather on the decisive category of time. While the measure of time for the experience of the symbol is the mystical instant, allegory involves a corresponding dialectic between the sign and its historical context.” (Kuchta 1999: 207) As it is explained in this dense passage summarizing Benjamin’s view, allegory can become the informing trope of  the work of memory within the stream of historical change, thus responding to “the decaying process of time in general, and to transitory historical moments in particular, with a melancholy desire to preserve the objects of the past by ripping them from their previous contexts and relocating them within the present.” (ibid.) We can attempt to sum up the whole issue saying that allegory is the trope that helps retrieve or reclaim lost places of memory, both individual and collective, and thus reconstruct the past in its critical moments. In the words of Benjamin: “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ […] It means to seize hold of memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” (Benjamin 1999:  247) Allegory, thus understood, is a trope of memory in a state of emergency, when the risk of its being cancelled reaches a peak and when recollection amounts to a political act.

Such is  the use of allegory in Midnight’s Children, where the work of memory appears as a kind of land reclamation, both in the sense of the recovery of a submerged past and in that of the construction of a half-fictional homeland for the future, as Rushdie explains to us in one of the plainest statements of his poetics:  

exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our political alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be able of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. (Rushdie 1992: 10)

 And further on in the same text he points again to this kind of reflection on memory, which underpins all his novels:

(in spite of my original and, I suppose, somewhat Proustian ambition to unlock the gates of lost time so that the past reappeared as it actually had been, unaffected by the distortions of memory) what Iwas actually doing was a novel of memory and about memory, so that  my India was just that: ‘my’ India, a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions possible versions. (ibid.)     

On several occasions, in fact, Rushdie has commented again on the purposes of his rewriting of Indian history and cultural memory. In an interview he gave to the New York Times, for instance, we can read as follows:

Q.: Were you aware in writing these India books that the clearing you were making was in such virgin territory? I mean that no one had mined the myths of contemporary India. – A.: Yes. It was amazing. It seemed to me that if you had to choose a form for that part of the world, the form you would choose would be the comic epic [my italics][5]. It seemed like the obvious, the most natural form. And it seemed amazing to me that when you looked at the literature that had been produced about India, it seemed dated and delicate, and I wondered why these dainty, delicate books were being written about this massive, elephantine place? It was as if you’d seen an area of cultivable land and the richest soil in it had never been cultivated. You know that everybody is trying to grow crops in the stony ground around the edges and this wonderful prime soil is just left there.” (Kaufmann 1983)

In this long passage you can appreciate Rushdie’s “cultural” perceptivity and find both an apt commentary on the function of place memory in narrative and on the narrative genre to which Ruhdie’s works in general belong: a broadly human, rich, inclusive comic epic, primarily about his native East but also intended as an inverted  picture of the West. That is, an effective staging of the difficult cultural relationship between the first and the third world, as politically engaging as one can expect from a gifted émigré writer,  and on the purpose of which Rushdie further comments in an essay entitled Outside the Wale, intended as an echo of George Orwell’s well known Inside the whale, which was a far cry against political commitment:

Outside the whale is the unceasing storm, the continuing quarrel, the dialectic of history. Outside the whale there is a genuine need for political action, for books that draw new and better maps of reality, and make new languages with which we can understand the world. Outside the whale we can see that we are all irradiated by history, we are radioactive with history and politics; we can see that it can be as false to create a politics-free fictional universe as to create one in which nobody needs to work or eat or hate or love or sleep. Outside the whale it becomes necessary, and even exhilarating, to grapple with the special problems created by the incorporation of political material, because politics is by turns farce and tragedy, and sometimes […] both at once ” (Rushdie 1992: 100).

The latter, farce and tragedy at once, is the case of Midnight’s Children.

3. Intercultural memory

The man as well as the writer Rushdie (of whom Saleem Sinai is a mask in Midnight’s Children) is an important figure not only for postcolonial narrative but for contemporary European narrative as a whole. This depends on his being a translated, hybrid nomadic consciousness that works as a cracked mirror capable of reflecting back to us a kaleidoscope of forms, a range of possibilities and preclusions of our western memory, imagination and world vision. In Rushdie’s works we can find pregnant figures of the sweeping cultural and anthropological change that concerns us all today[6]. A change we can sum up in the concept of globalisation, which involves, among other effects, also the end of the hegemony of the European literature in favour of the postcolonial literatures and of the new media and discourses. The result of all this is the hybridisation of languages, behavioural codes and categories of knowledge which produces the loss of what we used to call historical distance, which again appears today as a mere mythological distance of the subject from events that affect his life and that he reconstructs half-fictionally composing a picture of his own imaginary homeland and identity. But borrowing a Hegelian insight, we can keep in mind that the imagination of the Other often makes our own reality. The identity of Europe thus appears to us in Rushdie’s works in the deforming mirror of an ‘imagined’ India. The present ideological disorientation of Europe looms in the watermark in the memorial reconstruction of a half-fictional country, of an India of the mind. As in a distorting mirror, the hopes and the hypocrisies, the scandals and the errors, the failures and the massacres of the recent Indian history return to us the grimace of a European politico-cultural journey fraught with uncertainty.

Rushdie holds a particularly important place in the growth of a political, ideological and cultural awareness in the capitalist and neo-colonial West of the present. In Timothy Brennan’s words, “he has done what few writers in any tradition have done: recorded the totality of neo-colonialism as a world system, with its absurd combination of satellite broadcasts and famine, popular uprisings and populist rant, forced migration and tourism. One might say he brings British literature up to date. For he occupies more than any other contemporary writer a special place at the crossroads of the English literary scene” (Brennan 1989: XII-XIII). He posses in fact a multicultural perspective that we have to acquire if we want to construct a viable European project for the future of the world, and one that is different from and alternative to that of the US, who lack the direct experience of suffering and the burning sense of guilt that are at the roots of the European historical consciousness, and which only people who have been directly suffered the horrors of two world wars can possess.

Although Rushdie’s patent first poetic intention is that of fashioning an imaginary motherland, an India of the mind, Midnight’s Children in fact also belongs to the long standing tradition of the European encyclopaedic narrative, stretching forward from Rabelais and Cervantes through Flaubert, Proust, Joyce, Broch, Musil and Thomas Mann, up to the popular forms of postmodernist pseudo historical best sellers. He therefore also dialogues from a distance with the experimentalism of our twentieth century avant-guard novelists, and finds a place as a crucial author in the panorama of contemporary narrative. He writes a digressive and polyphonic (hi)story that unites what could have been with what has been, and presents an implausible reconstruction where in the surreal element there looms forth the unrealised possibility. In other words, he writes a story that is in many respects hyper-textual as well as intercultural: a story where the postcolonial themes meet those of  intermediality, and where the redrawing of the map of literature in English meets the relocation of all literature within the context of a multimedia culture. Rushdie challenges in fact the literary canon both in a horizontal (geographical) and a vertical (intermedial) sense. His imaginary  motherlands have this dual dimension: they are sociological and technological fictions. His alleged ‘magic realism’ amounts to what Nietzsche (1997)), distinguishing it from antiquarian and monumental,  used to call ‘critical history’.

Saleem Sinai, the imaginary witness of the ‘Emergency’ of the new India[7], by any means wants to give a meaning to his past experience because what he most fears is absurdity (9). His response to the question of the possibility of witnessing the past is a history especially depending on smell and taste, what he calls “the chutnification[8] of history” (459). This is anything but a world  vision: Saleem Sinai has no Weltanschaung, no proper idea of history. What he does have instead is a sense of smell to follow the tracks, a sense of touch to put memories in brine and a sense of taste to distinguish their different flavours. As compared to the mainstream of European historical thinking from Vico to Hegel, Marx and beyond, Rushdie takes a 180° turn. Recalling Vico’s New Science, for instance, where, despite all its philological concreteness, one finds the belief in an ideal eternal history, running above the histories of all nations and revealing a common divine plan inherent in them all, we can say that Rushdie’s history is instead a material transient history that runs beneath, or in the interstices of the local histories and the contradictory memories of sundry cultural subjects, gathering all their debris, waste and refuse. His history subtends the opacity, the weight of the body, with its deliriums and fevers, the unreliability of its senses, the perishability of its organs and functions. It is characterised by the fallibility and guilt of its narrator, who is the bearer of a decaying memory. He is not only an eye-witness, but rather an ear-, nose- and tongue-witness of the events in which he finds himself collusively and confusedly involved. Like an insect trapped in the great web of information from which he cannot escape. Because he is so entangled in events, and has been since he was born, “mysteriously handcuffed to history” (9), this narrator is tricky, forgetful, contradictory and unreliable. He lacks the critical distance of the ideal eye-witness, who ought to be impartial, objective and balanced: the ideal and fictional subject of the history of science and of history as a science, as well as of all grand narratives which were the vehicles of our world visions.

Saleem is the post-modern subject trapped in the bidimensional picture (Bild) of his own consciousness but he tries, by mixing memory and desire, to reconstruct the process of his own entrapment/education (Bildung). And if in a certain sense every novel is a Bildungsroman, (cf. Moretti 1987) Midnight’s Children is certainly such one, but in a peculiar sense: a novel of de-formation and amputation, that moves swiftly in the end towards the ultimate maiming of the protagonist’s body and soul, which is anticipated and looked forward to in the course of the whole story. And there is a very special, and paradoxical, sense in which this happens because the narrator-protagonist, Saleem Sinai, bearing this multicultural name (Hindu–Jewish–Muslim), appears as an amateur cook of events who smears his hands (trying to make jars of pickles, preserves of memory that inevitably, in the very process of pickling, alter the taste of the ‘original’ events) and through tactile and olfactory means creates a history in brine (461). The whole process of recalling, in his hands, leads not to the discovery of truth as an idea (or a vision), but rather to that of truth as a taste (somewhat modified, bitter-sweet, maybe disgusting) of the past (461). The primacy of vision over the other senses, which characterises the tradition of Western history and fiction, thus seems to be coming to an end. It has imploded in the making of pickled jars, in the chutnification of history, in the pastiche as the cipher of post-modern perception, memory and invention. In Saleem’s narration the acts of history-writing, of story-telling, of recalling and of imagining all undergo a simultaneous sea change. We ought perhaps to understand this poetic process through a revaluation of the metaphor of taste, although not the aristocratic, selective taste of the English connoisseur of the Age of the Enlightenment, but the hybrid plebeian taste of the Indo-English of the late twentieth century.

It is the very idea of  imagination as the creative faculty par excellence (as the mediating instance between sensation and concept, between perception and judgment, between memory and project) that is in fact put to trial, and imploding in the terrestrial plurality and the levelling con-fusion of the senses, which strips the sense of sight of the ‘natural’ and despotic privilege it has always exercised, and from the metaphor of the vision-of-the-world the epistemological privilege, the paradigmatic value, that has characterised the whole of Western civilisation in its intimately literary essence, and the project of modernity as a progressive and continuous process of enlightenment.

Rushdie’s Midnight’ Children is an exemplary text of this postmodern, post-literary civilisation inasmuch as it stands at the meeting point of at least three great cultural traditions and three great religions: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. It takes on board the advent of the languages of the new media and presents that readjustment of perception and of common sense that Rushdie, with a hyperbolic and theatrical gesture, translates into a baroque poetic, into a carnival of  magic events and figures (the tuning up with the all India radio, the magic summoning of the conference of the Midnight’s Children, Saleem’s sudden transformation into the impassive figure of the Buddha, etc), reconciling the opposite extremes of myth and publicity, of archetype and cliché, of Indian folklore and English literary tradition, of parody and allegory. In a word, he effectively stages the tension between East and West, between past and future, between religion and laicism, in this vast baroque pantomime whose time span stretches from the narrative elephantiasis of Indian mythology in the remote past to the Babel of the new media in the present.

4. Conclusion

Memory is a bridge crossing time and space: an element of socialisation. Above all it is a bridge between time and space and the primary ground of every transfer, of every figure of speech, it is the mother of the muses and the loom where all yarns are spun. But the master of all tropes is this same exchange between space and time: the spatialisation of time and the temporalisation of space which define the horizon of our thought-language (logos). As memories are temporal metaphors, so figures of speech are fossilised cultural memories, linguistic traces of habits and customs cancelled-but-conserved (aufgehoben) in the collective unconscious. But in the language, the act of recollection marks above all the live relation between the propositional content of a speech act  an its occasional utterance, and thus it is not only a relation between the present and the past tense but also between the active and the passive mode of an event. This configuration of the subject (both the agent and the topic) of cultural memory, this transcendental tropology which situates it, in relation to its historical context, constitutes at once the theme and the narrative programme of Midnight’s Children. We can recall the ways in which Saleem feels himself linked to the history of India: active, passive, literal and metaphorical, in all their possible combinations. (238) Saleem Sinai’s apparently far fetched description of his own historical destiny ironically represents in fact the double articulation of the language of memory, in time and space: memory of the body and memory of places. And the whole novel is a dislocation of the body of Anglo-Indian cultural memory in its foundational modes and tropes.  For us Westerners the memory of Saleem Sinai, living in a decaying individual body, reconstructs, in a tragi-comic act of testimony, the body of an imperfect collective memory and the plural consciousness of a huge subcontinent, in the facies (his face being the shape of India), in the simpering voice (the skatz), and in the imperious gesture of this unreliable resilient story-teller. As Benjamin says, in the act of oral narration, the reported facts get their significance from “a certain accord of the soul, the eye, and the hand of someone who was born to perceive them and evoke them in his own inner self […] soul, eye, and hand are brought into connection. Interacting with one another they determine a practice. We are no longer familiar with this practice. The role of the hand in production has become more modest, and the place it filled in storytelling lies waste. (After all, storytelling, in its sensory aspect, is by no means a job for the voice alone. Rather, in genuine storytelling the hand plays a part which supports what is expressed in a hundred ways with its gestures trained by work.)”  (Benjamin 1999b: 106-7) Especially this role of the hand, in the manipulation of the past, in the gesture at once clumsy and authoritative of the story-teller, is thematic in the plot of  Midnight’s Children. This authentic hermeneutic reworking of the past through the toil of the living memory is staged in all its difficulty and imperfection, and the cooperation of the “soul, eye and hand” of the ancient story-teller, as the keeper of the memory and wisdom of a people, reappears in the grotesque guise of a deformed child of modern India who possesses some features of the ancient elephant-like Indian god of poets, Ganesh, who helped Vyasa (their Homer) write the Mahabahrata. This is a re-visiting of the ancient social function of narrative (that of giving advise to a community) and of its essential dignity, which is woven into the destiny of the narrator, whose talent is at one with his life, and who “could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story” (Benjamin 1999b: 107) This story thus appears as the consummation of an individual body-memory, in the act of making itself available to others and thus public, by the dangerous act of testimony in times of emergency, which can redeem the past of the oppressed and give to all of us a “weak messianic hope” for the future. This for Benjamin is also the real task of the historian: in his words, “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ […] It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” (Benjamin 1999a: 246) And for Rushdie this is also the task of the story-teller, especially in the case of writers who are exiles, emigrants or expatriates: the task of inventing[9] places of cultural memory, imaginary homelands, which, in each separate reader’s response, will be capable for the time being of redeeming the senselessness of universal history.

Bibliography

ACUME European Network. www.lingue.unibo.it/acume last visit: 9/15/2005.

Benjiamin W., 1999a, Thesis on the Philosophy of History in Illuminations.  London: Pimlico.

Benjiamin W., 1999b, The Storyteller in Illuminations.  London: Pimlico.

Booker K. (ed.). 1999.  Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie. NY: Hall.

Brennan T. 1989. Salman Rushdie and the Third World. London: MacMillan.

De Man P. 1986. The Resistamce to Theory. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP.

Kaufman M. T. 1983. Author From 3 Countries, New York Times  (November 13,). http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/04/18/specials/rushdie.html#news1 last visit: 9/15/2005.

Kuchta T.M. 1999. Allegorizing the Emergency in K. Booker (ed.).

Moretti F. 1987. The Way of the World: the Bildungsroman in European Culture.  London: Verso.

Nietzsche F. 1997. Untimenly Meditations: II. Cambridge: CUP.

Reder M. 1999. Rewriting History and Identity in K. Booker (ed).

Ricoeur P. 1983. Temps et Récit: I, Paris: Du Seuil.

Rushdie S. 1985. Midnight’s Children and Shame. Kunapipi 7/1.

Rushdie S. 1995. Midnight’s Children (1981). London: Random House.

Rushdie S., 1992, Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta.


[1] The project (see www.lingue.unibo.it/acume) is coordinated by professor Vita Fortunati of the University of Bologna. To her and to my other colleagues involved in ACUME go my thanks for the fertile discussions of this and related topics in a few recent meetings in Cyprus, Rejikiavik and Trento.  

[2] The Acts of this Conference are forthcoming.

[3] The numbers in brackets in the text refer to Rushdie 1995.

[4] The elephant-god who helped the poet Vyasa  write the Mahbahrata, the ancient national Indian Epic.

[5] James Joyce gave the same definition of his own Ulysses.

[6] In connection with this epoch making cultural change we might want to remember the clear foresight of the Italian poet and film-director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who (like Marshall MacLuhan) used to be derided some thirty years ago by wise engaged intellectuals and professional opinion makers, both of the right and of the left wing, because he was considered exceedingly ‘primitive’ and catastrophist, while he was simply to the point.

[7]  Both in the sense of a birth and in that of a political crisis.

[8] Chutney is a sweet-and-sour typical Indian sauce.

[9] In the double sense of finding them and of creating them. See Ricoeur 1983: 85-129.

Walter Benjamin: experience and technology

Giuseppe Martella

Walter Benjamin: experience and technology

in AAVV, The Case and the Canon, Goettingen, VR Unipress, 2011, pp. 21-34

Born and raised in a wealthy Jewish household in Berlin, fragile of health, a wandering student of philosophy between Freiburg and Berlin, at the age of twenty Benjamin started writing essays in which he argued for the need of a general cognitive and educational change in times of emergency. His idea of criticism as a dialectic of case and canon, as well as that of ‘exposition as peripety’ both point in this direction. His career and writing style are likewise a testimony of this profound urge. During World War I, while Einstein was toiling after his General Relativity Theory[1], Benjamin was translating Baudelaire, meeting with Rilke and Scholem in Munich, with Ernest Bloch in Berne, and writing on Hölderlin. At that time he was in fact coming to terms with the canon of modern European literature, thereby preparing himself for his confrontation with the whole legacy of our humanistic tradition. After World War I Benjamin then became acquainted with Bertold Brecht and Theodor W. Adorno, wrote on Goethe and Kafka, translated the first volume of Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and, after Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany,moved to Paris where he became acquainted with Hannah Arendt and Hermann Hesse. In 1940, eventually, when the Germans entered Paris, Benjamin, having obtained a visa to the US, tried to reach Spain, wherefrom he planned to sail for America. It seems that in Portbou, a French-Spanish border town in the Pyrenees, his group of Jewish refugees was intercepted by the Spanish Police, and Benjamin, fearing to be handed over to the Germans, committed suicide by taking an overdose of morphine. There is some tragic irony about this passing away on a border, as if dizzy with the fear of captivity, of somebody who throughout his lifetime was a trespasser of disciplinary boundaries and a theoretician of the experience of shock. Or it was simply the bad luck that this frail genius believed to be haunted by from his childhood in the shape of a hunchback.

Benjamin’s mind was sharp and fragile as that of a cultural hybrid, who precisely thanks to his hybridity was able to question the literary canon as the dominant form of cultural transmission of his time. In her beautiful introduction to a by now classic American selection of his works, Hannah Arendt found apt words to express this peculiarity of Benjamin’s personality: “no society can properly function without classification, without an arrangement of things and men in classes and prescribed types […] In the case of Benjamin the trouble […is that he is] absolutely incomparable […] The trouble with everything Benjamin wrote was that it always turned out to be sui generis.” (Benjamin 1969: 3) Benjamin however was not just a singular writer, but also a thinker of singularity, capable of observing the world under the light of experiment and of reading history through the contingencies of personal experience (Erlebnisse), thereby undoing the texture of the historical continuum from within (see his Theses on the philosophy of history. Benjamin 1969: 253-64.). The elusive nexus between art, technology and experience in modernity is a major leitmotiv of his thought, which variously focuses on the human body and its adjustment to the stimuli coming from the technological environment of the modern metropolis, and thus developing a fundamentally aesthetic or physiological insight.

Benjamin is a unique thinker in the history of Western philosophy, his place in it only being comparable with that of Plato, in that he marks a fundamental turn in the long-standing relation between literature and philosophy that the Greek genius had inaugurated some 2500 years ago. And just as Plato distanced himself from myth as a way of thought by modeling his Dialogues after the form of the Attic tragedy, Benjamin articulates his speculations on modernist narrative modes, thereby unsettling the conventions of both the literary and philosophical canons, and foreboding their oncoming disciplinary crisis in the age of technical reproduction and mass communication.

As Plato’s Dialogues have to be understood in relationship to tragedy, Benjamin’s essays strongly rely on the literary genre of the novel, assimilating fictional narration to philosophical speculation, and anticipating through this hybridization the inter-discursive and hyper-medial horizon of our days. This move upsets the disciplinary frames of Benjamin’s own time and helps us explain the unique style that characterizes his work. For instance, it is from the experimental narratives of the avant-gardes that Benjamin takes the varying rhythm effects of his prose – one just needs to recall to this purpose his frequent alternation of convoluted phrases and sudden accelerations culminating in a brilliant punch line, aphorism or quotation. Quotations in particular are in Benjamin’s discourse an analogue of what he calls a ’messianic halt’ in history: as he suggestively writes, “quotations in my work are like wayside robbers who leap out armed and relieve the stroller of his conviction” (One Way Street: Benjamin 1986: 77). Since, as he further comments elsewhere, “thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts but their arrest as well.” And “where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it is cristallized into a monad”, where one can spot “a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past”. (Theses on the philosophy of history: Benjamin 1969: 262-3) So the irreversible course of the narrative stroll characterizing so many of his writings takes shape (the One-way street title of one of his essays being an apt metaphor of this irreducible historical contingency), charming the reader into the irregular pace of this curious and restless flaneur.

Two further features of Benjamin’s prose I wish to point out here for the sake of my argument: firstly one needs to stress the ‘speculative’ use that Benjamin makes of narrative modules such as order and duration, summary and expansion, distance and perspective regarding the concepts or events that he is  presenting; and secondly, one needs to notice the relativistic deformation that he submits disciplinary spaces and historical periods to, thence extrapolating single figures and projecting them onto the ‘messianic stage’ of his own enunciation, as it is the case with the Baroque Allegory (which he discusses in his Trauerspiel essay) that eventually becomes a ‘figure’ emblematic of the modern avant-gardes poetics.

Being born a borderline character and writer, Benjamin best expressed himself in the hybrid form of the essay, which was at the time in Germany practiced by a few high modernist first class narrators such as Musil and Broch. And yet, compared to them, Benjamin follows a reverse route in that he often moves from a speculative theme to a narrative development. Such special articulation of his thought – whose most important devices are digression, ellipsis and anaphor – distinguishes him both from the dialectical tradition and from the mystical turn taken by some thinkers of his time (notably Heidegger).

I should say that Benjamin shows indeed in his own discourse the same peculiarly post-modern resistance to the symbolic resolution of a fragmentary experience that he has theorized regarding the function of allegory in German baroque drama. I would even suggest that the digressive and suggestive course of his thought could be assimilated to that of the indirect free speech, understood in the etymological meaning of the German Erlebte Rede: namely, a speech lived-through the body’s experiences of shock due to the excess of stimuli to which it comes to be exposed to in the modern metropolis. Departing from the assumption of such bodily exposition, Benjamin then tries to catch on the aesthetic and bio-political mutations of his time, characterized by the technical reproduction of art and eventually of life itself. It is on this latter aspect of Benjamin’s work that I am now going to linger a while.

The main field of reflection on technology and its function within contemporary society in XX century philosophy has been that of aesthetics, understood as the thought on perception and artistic production[2]. Art is in fact, as we all know, that special kind of technology which should be able to coordinate means to ends in the finite work[3]. Walter Benjamin notably spent some very important words on the topic of the statute of art in the age of technical reproducibility. But the entirety of Benjamin’s thought, both regarding its content and form, can be read as an exemplary record of technology’s impact on art, language and literature. Keeping on Benjamin’s track it is in fact possible to explore the mysterious nexus betweenErlebnis, or lived experience, mimesis, or our embodiment of it for the sake of communication, and poiesis, or the use of the technical-symbolic means to this end. Following this track, one should keep in mind however that all of these elements pertain both to the logics of the scientific inquiry and to that of the historical reconstruction of the events[4], that is e. they apply to both science and the humanities.

As I already mentioned, the reflection on the statute of art in the age of its technical reproduction plays a major role in Benjamin’s thought, well beyond the famous essay of 1936 on this topic, eventually finding a particularly dense articulation in the essay on Baudelaire of 1939. Here Benjamin elaborates on his opposition between Erfahrung (mnemonic-reflexive reconstruction of the events) and Erlebnis (punctual lived experience), making of the latter the distinctive feature of modern avant-garde poetics. Benjamin then links the centrality of Erlebnis to the role of mimesis as a historical category capable of describing the relationship between the corporeal existence of human beings and the ever-changing material environment they find themselves in.

If the irreducibility of singular Erlebnisse to a unitary vision is the main characteristic of modern poetics, technical reproducibility is its perspicuous agent. And the experience of the city stroller for Benjamin is a good case in pointing to the advent (or return) of an elementary, pre-linguistic form of chameleonic mimesis, which he sees as an adaptive corporeal reaction of the subject to the serial organic shocks coming from the surrounding technological environment. This sort of corporeal mimicry, or existential physiognomy, has both a subliminal character and sets the foundation for a mimetic model of experience and an ecologic notion of environment. Within this new notion of mimesis, language looses its long-acquired categorical privilege and takes up the more modest role of a mode of interaction among others, working at a provisional comprehension of an ultimately irrepresentable somatic experience. Benjamin’s revaluation of such organic and tactile mimesis as opposed to the traditional linguistic and figurative one anticipates our post-modern mimetic condition and offers us a way to “recognize the pre-social role of technology as an agent of the material complexification” (Hansen 2000: 233-4) in the modern age.

Benjamin in fact fundamentally modifies the philosophic semantics of Erlebnis, when he is linking it to the structuring role of technology within the modern world: instead of indicating that which is deeper and more lasting in memory (which was the case with Bergson’s and Dilthey’s use of the word), Erlebnis indicates for him that which is more fleeting and irrecoverable: the shocks that befall us and cannot reach psychic representation, and yet leave permanent somatic traces that function as a reservoir of meaning for the future performances of memory and imagination (Hansen 2000: 239).

Such shocks which constitutiveof the psychic process can somehow be seen as analogous to the energetic discontinuous exchanges shaping the realm of microphysics. The ‘er’ of the Er-lebnis could thus be conceived as the ‘infra’ of the infra-action taking place in the exchange processes of energy-information at the basic level of both the material and discursive universe. I suggest that these fundamental homologies between material, organic and cultural exchanges can be summed up in the notion of quantum leap, which we can regard as a shock event that is constitutive of a microcosm not only observed but also pierced by an individual Erlebnis. Such an event can neverbe thoroughly translated into a representation, but it can only leave back local traces of its happening. And these are dependent on a given experimental apparatus and thus cannot be freely extrapolated or reduced to any form of objective, coherent and complete rendering of a given phenomenon.

Benjamin’s Baudelaire essay of 1939 eventually sums up all these reflections on the changes intervening in contemporary aesthetics. There Benjamin delves into the pre-categorial and physiological roots of conscience and memory, reaching down to the juncture linking energy and information processes, or matter and life. At a close consideration, all XX century arts and especially the avant-gardes bear deep marks of the shocks produced on the human organic constitution by the technological environment and they have seismographically registered this impact well before philosophy and the human sciences. These marks or traces in fact define the very physiognomy of modern art and the tactic response of its public, as Benjamin notes in considering the adaptation of the watcher’s mind to the effects of the film montage. Film has arguably been the most widespread, socially diffused and influent example of artistic reproduction of an ‘absent’ nature in the XX century; and the most perspicuous example of homeopathic mimesis of the repeated organic shocks produced in the laboratory of modernity.

For Benjamin, Baudelaire, considered as the type of the modern poet, is the one who “indicated the price for which the sensation of the modern age [die Sensation der Moderne] may be had: [that is] the disintegration of the aura in the experience of shock. [And] he paid dearly for consenting to this disintegration – but it is the law of his poetry, which shines in the sky of the Second Empire as ‘a star without atmosphere’” (On some motifs in Baudelaire: Benjamin 1969: 194) Here we find this metaphor of nuclear fission to which Benjamin returns time and again when speaking of the “destruction of the aura” of the perceived object in its technical reproduction. And although Benjamin’s sentence has been quoted to nausea, to the scientific side of his metaphor little or no attention has been paid so far. “Disintegration of the aura through the experience of shock” would in fact be an apt description for a subatomic event made possible through a microphysical experiment, as for example the expulsion of a particle from a bombarded nucleus. The fact of having established the punctual and non-objectifiable Erlebnis as the central category of fragmented modern experience, which eludes any attempt at a coherent and exhaustive recomposition from any center of consciousness, may amount indeed to a transposition in the realm of the human sciences of Niels Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity, which after the crisis of Newtonian determinism and the advent of quantum mechanics may be taken as constituting the basic paradigm of the natural sciences.

Baudelaire, the Parisian flaneur who has used his own body as an experimental laboratory, represents for Benjamin the prototype of modern poet who has to be able to sacrifice his own personality and become a mere medium for the recording of the shocks imparted by the surrounding city, the place where nature has long yielded to technology. The ‘second nature’ that has issued from such a transformation is not to be considered as a ‘fable’ wherefrom it would be possible to return to a more authentic reality (as may perhaps appear both in Nietzsche’s genealogy and in Heidegger’s existential hermeneutics), but rather as a point of arrival of a irreversible process, of a ‘one-way street’ that allows no way back and therefore calls for a final confrontation with technology. This relationship between medium and personality, which I have just hinted to above, has been lucidly discussed by T. S. Eliot in a once rightly renowned and nowadays unjustly forgotten essay, titled “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (Eliot 1919). The idea of the sacrifice of one’s own personality through the experience of shock as a condition for the validity of artistic testimony has been further indicated by a few other great modernist writers (such as Valery, Joyce, Musil, Broch), and stands at the core of the avant-gardes poetics, variously showing in expressionist deformation and in cubist geometrization, in the surrealist confusion of reality levels and in the Dadaist questioning of the social function of art. All this is well known, but what has received less attention so far is how such modernist depersonalization of the artist, which invests all XX century poetics and aesthetics, is the index of a much deeper upheaval in the realms of physics and ontology. The meta-physical constitution of the artistic object-event should in fact be regarded from this perspective as the effect of a cortical infraction of an organic center of experience, or more generally as the result of a contact between interacting physical systems.

It is my claim that the nexus between XX century poetics, physics and ontology has not been emphasized enough in critical discourse to date. Nowadays this nexus presents itself with renewed force in the advent of digital technology and the W3, where synthetic images do not represent something preceding them, but are rather object-events of their own, copies without originals or simulacra[5] – the result of technological infra-actions constituting an expanded reality in which the binary oppositions nature/technology, language/world, subject/object have lost some of their salience. All these phenomena, which challenge us today and pose us ineludible questions regarding our being-in-the-world, have been intuited with large anticipation by Benjamin, not only or so much in his thematic reflection about technology, as in the subliminal and infra-logical form of his thought – or what I would call the ‘cortical’ dimension of his discourse.

We know as a matter of fact that the statute of modern art is fundamentally experimental, i.e. that it more or less deliberately resembles the conditions of laboratory experiments. This can be explained by the fact that human experience itself in the course of the XX century has growingly come to resemble a technical experiment. XX century art witnesses this convergence of experience and experiment, that is of nature and culture, and the modern poet consequently appears as a laboratory animal, his personality functioning as a sort of catalyst. In order to describe this new condition, T.S. Eliot used the memorable metaphor of the filament of platinum triggering a chemical reaction (Eliot 1951:18). Such one was Baudelaire, the poet of the  “fourmillante cité”, an enlarged techno-social laboratory where “le spectre en pleine jour” who “raccroches le passant” somewhat resembles the digital avatars of today’s web environments.

According to Benjamin, Baudelaire’s sacrifice anticipates the unstoppable incorporation of technology into the life texture in our century. (Hansen 2000: 250-3) By using the body as a mimetic receptor of shocks, he inaugurates a way of experience that will obtain a normative status only much later, when the technical reproducibility will have accomplished itself to the full, and the excess of artificial stimuli will have definitively foreclosed the reflexive retrieval of experience in memory, bringing the mere somatic aspects of aesthetic reception to the fore. It is at this point however that, by soliciting the progressive transfer of voluntary memory from the human body to the machine, technology may allow a new collective recuperation of what is individually precluded.

To sum it all up, for Benjamin the technical reinvention of experience not only recuperates what had been apparently erased by modernization, but also produces a whole new post-literary and post-human form of cultural experience, calling for a repositioning of the philosophical subject, whose task will therefore be that of understanding the range of the technical mutations investing the body and thus informing the mind at a level preceding the stage of conscious representation.

Benjamin’s analysis of film as a medium producing perceptive shocks and his observations on what he calls the ‘optical unconscious’ of the spectator are to be situated within this whole frame of reference. By bursting our “prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenths of a second” (The work of art: Benjamin 1969: 236) the cinema, especially through the technique of montage, introduces us in a so far unknown world. Rather than merely enlarging the space of conscience, it creates the conditions for a new psychic attitude and a new perceptive capacity that allows the recipient to reach out into unexplored dimensions of reality through tactical adjustments not only of his sight, but of his entire sensorial apparatus. As Benjamin himself will explicit in his essay on Baudelaire, thereby expanding onto the ontological realm the socio-political valence of his shock theory, “technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training”, which has stirred new needs, until “there came a day when a new and urgent need of stimuli was met by the film. In a film, perception in the form of shocks was established as a formal principle. That which determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the basis of the rhythm of reception in the film” (On some motifs in Baudelaire: Benjamin 1969: 175). The poetic-hermeneutic circle thus turns into a sort of cybernetic loop: the theory of somatic mimesis, which produces tactical attitudes as a response to the technical shocks of modernity, finds its accomplishment in the analysis of film and its main example in the technique of montage. Our task nowadays will be to adapt this theory and the analysis resulting thereof to the effects of reality’s (de)-montage made possible by the digital codification and now experienced by everyone in the interactive, virtual world of the W3.

Even though the notion of organic mimesis, understood as a tactical response to the perceptive shocks issuing from the technological environment is fully developed only in his later Baudelaire essay, the reflection on the relationship between experience and representation in modernity accompanies Benjamin’s whole intellectual career. Already in the closing paragraph of the earlier One-Way Street, titled “The Planetarium”, for instance, Benjamin detects in what he calls ‘instrumental perception’ a distinctive way of modern knowledge as compared to the ancient one, which consisted in a sort of collective ecstatic contact with the cosmos, or an astro-logical shared ritual: “nothing distinguishes the ancient from the modern man so much as the former’s absorption in  a cosmic experience scarcely known to later periods.” But with the invention of the telescope, says Benjamin, “the exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe, to which astronomy very quickly led, contained a portent of what was to come.” (Benjamin 1986: 92) In the same essay, Benjamin further reflects on the relationship between nature and technology as it dramatically showed up in the apocalypse of World War I, seen as a sort of technical re-embodiment of the ancient ritual trance, when “everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother earth” and an “immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, that is, in the spirit of technology”. (Benjamin 1986: 93) However technology’s immanent end, which is usually thought to be the domination of nature, uncritically assumed as an extra-historical force, is for Benjamin the creation of a new nature, where “mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families.” And this can happen because the essence of technology is not “the mastery of nature”, but rather “the shaping of the relation between nature and man.” (ibid.) In my view this specification alone should suffice to make Benjamin’s approach to the topic of technology (as it is developed by him in his essays from the 30es) more convincing than Heidegger’s almost contemporary and much too celebrated one.

I will now go back again to the Baudelaire essay of 1939 in order to make some further observations about the conceptual couples art/experience and nature/technology with regard to literature. According to Benjamin here, in modern times the reception of lyrical poetry has become more difficult and this may be due to the changed structure of the readers’ experience, which in turn depends on the modified structure of our collective memory or tradition, which is primarily shaped at a subliminal level.

Borrowing from Proust’s notion of mémoire involontaire, Benjamin says that the past is “somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect, and unmistakably present in some material object (or in the sensation which this object arouses in us), though we have no idea which one it is.” (Benjamin 1969: 158) In other words, and in full agreement with Freud’s idea of the psychic unconscious, immediate experience (Erlebnis) and involuntary memory have an immanent history led by unconscious drives.  Voluntary memory and conscience on the other hand fulfil the task of making up for the perceptive shocks coming from our modern technological environment. For Benjamin,  “the function of remembrance [Gedaechtnis…] is the protection of impressions [while] memory [Erinnerung] aims at their disintegration. Remembrance is essentially conservative, memory is destructive.” Thus “Freud’s fundamental thought” bases for Benjamin on the assumption that “consciousness comes into being at the site of a memory trace” (Benjamin 1969: 160), or as a protection against the excess of stimuli coming from the external world.

Right at this point Benjamin further develops his theory of bio-psychic evolution as a tactical adjustment to perceptive shocks within our technological world, which was already outlined by him in the renown essay on art’s technical reproduction and on film: “the greater the share of the shock factor in particular impressions, the more constantly consciousness has to be alert as a screen against stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less do these impressions enter experience (Erfahrung), tending to remain in the sphere of a certain hour in one’s life (Erlebnis). Perhaps the special achievement of shock defence may be seen in its function of assigning to an incident a precise point in time in consciousness at the cost of the integrity of its contents.” (Benjamin 1969: 163) I want to make you notice here that Benjamin’s latter statement amounts to a pretty exact transposition in the field of experience of Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle[6], as this was devised to interpret the results of microphysical experiments. In Benjamin’s account we are now dealing precisely with an analogous transposition from quality (the integrity of contents) to quantity (the temporal position), that is with an informational quantum leap, which is made to lie at the basis of any conscious picture of reality.

We have said that Benjamin developed his reflections on art and technology mainly basing on the film. However, even before that, he also considered photography as a decisive modifying factor of  our experience within the urban techno-sphere: “a touch of the finger now sufficed to fix an event for an unlimited period of time. The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock, as it were. Haptic experiences of this kind were joined by optic ones, such as are supplied by the advertising pages of a newspaper or the traffic of a big city. Moving through this traffic involves the individual in a series of shocks and collisions. At dangerous intersecti

ons, nervous impulse flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery.” (Benjamin 1969: 175) This earlier accustomation to shock in modern metropolitan environments then prepares the subject for the film experience, where, as we have seen, the rhythm of reception according to Benjamin matches that of material production at the assembly chain.

The material mutation here suggested by Benjamin exceeds by far any kind of historical dialectics between economic structure and artistic superstructure, as it enacts a sensorial adjustment of the human organism to the solicitations of the modern city. Relating to this, Benjamin (here expanding on Marx) makes a sharp distinction between the learning process in craftsmanship and the routine procedures (or drillings) which non-skilled factory workers are submitted to at the assembly chain, which he surprisingly assimilates to the psychical solicitations experienced by both the city stroller and the gambler: “since each operation at the machine is just as screened off from the preceding operation as a coup in a game of chance is from one that preceded it, the drudgery of the labourer is, in its own way, a counterpart to the drudgery of the gambler. The work of both is equally devoid of substance.” (Benjamin 1969: 177) What these sundry practices have then all in common is the automatization of gestures, the fragmentariness of lived moments (Erlebnisse) and the consequent pre-empting of any unitary sense of experience (Erfharung). This also suggest that the gist of modernity is not to be caught so much in the analysis of a set of practices, discourses and disciplines (which seems for instance to be implied by Foucault’s notion of ‘episteme’), as in the tactile addiction to the technological drills and routines of the modern city. This addiction or adaptation is of a mimic and subconscious kind, that is it precedes the forms of conscious recollection, taking place at a level in which the elements of experience cannot be assembled coherently, but are rather arranged along a diffraction spectrum and coupled as it were following a complementarity principle analogous to that formulated by Bohr in his interpretation of quantum physics[7].

Not only the contents however, even the form of Benjamin’s discourse reflects the somatic mimicry, and the tactile strategies and associations that he sees as distinctive features in the experience of modern man. In his poignant, mosaic-like and almost alchemic discourse patterns Benjamin appears to be the true prototype of the post-modern, post-literary and post-human critic. He undertook a wealthy stretching exercise of the anthropocentric worldview pointing both towards its genealogy and eschatology, and delved well into the individual and collective memory (dominated up to then by the forms of the literary technology), down to the organic roots of man’s being-in-the-world – an operation that we might define with the catchphrase ‘from logos back to phyisis’, hereby inverting a time honoured philosophical move made once by Socrates. It is as though Benjamin’s somatic thought moved from the Hegelian work on the concept (Arbeit am Begriff) back to a work on perception, and from the dialectical discourse to a tactile treatment of the topic in hands. Benjamin’s discursive art drew figures of sense both improbable and suggestive, which keep burning out in the fraction of a second as falling ideal constellations in the course of history. Such figures sway between the macro- and the microcosm, as traces and portents poised between the nostalgia for an impracticable anthropocentric past and the feeble ‘messianic hope’ for a future cosmic order.

All in all, Benjamin’s writings on the relationship between technology and experience invite us to rethink the entire tradition of modernity in terms of an accelerated material remediation, and therefore to conceive of the history of the single arts, considered in their impurity and constitutive heteronomy, as a history of hybridization and crossbreeding. A huge field thus opens up before the eyes of the humanists, whose task will be that of rewriting the history of each single discipline (starting from literature) under the perspective of the intense historical remediation that has produced it.[8] This task consists in writing genealogies and archaeologies of knowledge both more daring and concrete that those proposed by Foucault and the micro-history of the Annales, which although quite innovating at a methodological level, put aside the question of technology and the media in the formation of knowledge, and thus betray their anthropocentric and literary character, still well gravitating within the Gutenberg Galaxy and the Newtonian Universe. 

It will instead be necessary entirely to rewrite the history of the single practices, discourses, objects and institutions, following a different perspective than the one dominated up to now by a literary understanding and mentality. This means we will coherently have to rethink our whole cultural heritage in terms of or inter-discursivity, inter-mediality and synaesthesia, possibly abandoning the notion of an autonomous aesthetic experience together with that of a sharply defined singular art.[9] The current conversion of all media to digital technology implies in fact a double movement of de-formation and re-framing of every single object and practice, as we are experiencing a powerful kind of cultural mutation produced by digital interfaces. This is why I believe that it will also be useful to return to two key concepts from the Russian Formalists’ linguistic and literary criticism: I mean the concept of ‘dominant’ (or ‘informant’, in the sense specified by Jakobson for linguistics and Tinjanov for literature) and that of ‘estrangement’ or ‘deautomatization’ of everyday experience through the artifices of the literary work. (Matejka and Pomorska 1971: 66-78; 82-90) It will be useful to apply these concepts to both the production and reception of art-works, or rather of performance-objects within digital environments. And in order to do this, it will also be advisable to start out from Benjamin’s notion of the somatic infraction and the ensuing mimetic adjustment which constitute all conscious experience, so as to move towards a new inter-medial and post-humanistic aesthetics.

With the process of digital conversion of our history (taken both as the plotting of facts and as that of narrations) well under its way, Benjamin’s aesthetics of redemption can be of some help in the renewal of our critic attitudes thanks to its explosive intrinsic materiality. Such an aesthetics eventually implies in fact the idea of a resurrection of the body and of a return to the body in an unaccustomed form, which may well be that of a cyborg. Benjamin’s theory of the relation between technology and experience in fact teaches us on the whole how the effects of technological shock radically redefine the impact of the artefact on the recipient, and this puts bodily experience back to centre-stage, though this may now be haunted by a ‘a ghost in the machine’. We are facing here a return to the body seen as an experimental instrument producing singular eventful effects. This is a device-body which can no longer be merely human, but has rather to resemble an instrumental laboratory, technologically connected with a world which is always being reshaped in each new act of observation. All works of art to date, before passing our critical scrutiny, ought therefore to be considered in this perspective as a sort of reciprocal surgery between the sensing cyborg and its environment, or, if you prefer, as living forebodings of a yet encrypted virtual history.

Bibliography

Benjamin W., Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. and Introduction by H. Arendt, NY, Schocken Books, 1969.

Benjamin W., Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed by P. Demetz, NY, Schocken Books, 1986.

Eliot T.S., “Tradition and Individual Talent” (1919), in Selected Essays, London, Faber, 1951.

Frasca G., La lettera che muore, Roma, Meltemi, 2005.

Hansen M., Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing, Ann Arbor, Michigan UP, 2000.

Heidegger M., The question concerning technology, ed by W. Lovitt, NY, Harper, 1977

Matejka L. and Pomorska K., eds., Readings in Russian Poetics, Cambridge, MIT, 1971.

Merlin D., “Art and cognitive evolution”, in M. Turner, ed., The artful mind, London, OUP, 2006.


[1] I want to stress this comparison between the two Jewish-German geniuses – both commuting between Berlin and Berne roughly during the same years – who were bound to burst the ground of the Sciences and the Humanities respectively.

[2] For a discussion of cognate topics in a somewhat different perspective see D. Merlin, “Art and cognitive evolution”, in M. Turner, ed., The artful mind, London, OUP, 2006.

[3] As it is well known, Aristotele in the Poetics defines poetry as a praxis téleias, that is an action directed towards immanent ends.

[4] Although science is predictive and history is retrodictive, the Greek word historia meaning ‘investigation’ or ‘inquiry’, well applies to both of them.

[5] As suggested by Jean Baudrillard in many of his essays.

[6] In quantum physics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says that it is not possible to establish with precision the quantity of movement and the position of a given particle at the same time.

[7] Where for instance the wave-particles dualism of events can never be reduced to a single coherent description of the enquired field.

[8] A good Italian example of this course is G. Frasca’s La lettera che muore (2006) on the development of the modern novel in a media context.

[9] Although all this is well under way, we are still in need of a convincing critical synthesis.

“Science, Culture, Media: Untimely Meditations”

https://www.ledonline.it/index.php/linguae/article/view/238/213

. “Science, Culture, Media: Untimely Meditations” , Linguae, http://www.ledonline.it/linguae , 2008, 1, pp. 21-34

Casella di testo: www.ledonline.it
2009-02-04 03:56:53
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Click on the title to get to the website of  the Journal

Giuseppe Martella – Università di Urbino

Science, Culture, Media:

Untimely Meditations 1

giuseppe.martella@uniurb.it

  1. SCIENCE, CULTURE AND SOCIETY

Around the mid of 20th century, Beltrand Russel lucidly commented with the following words on the different kinds of impact that science and technology can have on our society:

the effects of science are of various different kinds. There are direct intellectual ef- fects: the dispelling of many traditional beliefs, and the adoption of others suggested by the success of scientific method. Then there are effects of technique on industry and war. Then, chiefly as a consequence of new techniques, there are profound changes in social organization which are gradually bringing about corresponding po- litical changes. Finally, as a result of the new control over the environment which scientific knowledge has conferred, a new philosophy is growing up, involving a changing conception of man’s place in the universe. (Russell 1951: 9-10)

Cultural and social studies in the last three decades have generally shunned such sweeping analyses and devoted themselves instead to micronarratives  and local issues, but time is come perhaps to deal again with wider topics.

The variety of effects mentioned by Russell can in my view be basically reduced to three fundamental types: practical, theoretical and imaginative or figural effects. As such, they therefore pertain respectively to politics, philoso- phy and art, – or, to put in Kantian terms, to practical reason, pure reason and judgement, be it of taste or of value, aesthetic or teleological. However, we also ought to consider that these effects are neither unidirectional, nor cumu- lative and synchronous, since they all take part in a complex and unpredictably

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1 An earlier version of this text was presented at the UCSC Center for Cultural Stud- ies Colloquium series, on April 9th 2008.

dynamic socio-cultural environment. Today, we can observe for example that the results of the huge technological developments of the last 50 years do not look at all like what Russell and other intellectuals of his time had hoped for. In fact, they have neither produced an increase of cooperation and tolerance, nor a more intelligent strategic planning of our common future, guided by the wise authority of supranational institutions. On the contrary, they have trig- gered a convulsive competition, an uncontrolled exploitation of natural re- sources, an ever more iniquitous distribution of riches and, as a counterpart to all this, new kinds of obscurantism, a plethora of minority reports and a wide- spread religious fanaticism, both in the rich and the poor countries. This situa- tion forces upon us the conclusion that scientific and technological progress do not necessarily lead to the kind of open and enlightened society hoped for by a number of scientists and philosophers in the Fifties and the Sixties of the Twentieth century. Consequently, we have to rethink the whole relationship between science, technology and culture as a field of (often antagonistic) in- teractions between practices, discourses and disciplines; that is, as a complex epistemic field (quite in the way suggested by Foucault), marked by numerous conflicts and contradictions, by the different times of development of its sev- eral components and, finally, by possible unpredictable emergencies. In con- clusion, cultural development appears today conflictual and asynchronous,  and its overall outcome uncertain as never before.

Technical and scientific progress in particular, not unlike cultural pro- gress as a whole, takes place in a field of interaction between tradition and innovation, that is between the principle of authority on one hand and that of observation and inference on the other. Scientific progress not only destroys old authorities (dogmas, superstitions, habits), but also helps create new ones. That means that there is a sort of re-productive circle (more or less virtuous  or vicious) between belief and science, involving the whole field of culture. In any case, we cannot trace any stable or direct relationship between techno- scientific progress on one hand and social improvement on the other.

Bertrand Russell also argued that the invention of gunpowder and of the compass in the late middle-ages, followed by the invention of print in the early Renaissance, were crucial factors for the formation of strong nation-states as well as for the beginning of what we now call ‘globalization’: the artillery of the king could dismantle the castles of the barons, the compass pave the way for the discovery of the Indies and America, and both of them contribute to break down local medieval autonomies. This increasing capacity for commu- nication and control by the central powers was reinforced in the next few cen- turies by the inventions of the steam engine, electricity and the telegraph. But

this general centripetal tendency has, in Russell’s view, undergone a strong reversal with the diffusion of radio, photography and the cinema at the turn of the 19th century, followed by that of television some fifty years later, all of which are powerful vehicles of propaganda hardly controllable by a centre. This process of reversal, we may say , has come to its climax with the inven- tion of the computer and the diffusion of the internet. Nowadays fluxes of goods, money and news have all become almost uncontrollable by any central institution, and this has contributed to the revolution of world-economy, causing the crisis of nation-states and of traditional politics.

The major themes of the reflection on the impact of techno-science on society to be found in Russel’s pamphlet-book are in my view, (as it is also the case with those to be found in the Frankfurt school’s philosophers), still rele- vant today: 1) the relationship between local and global; 2) the cultural impact of networked hypertexts, both as tools and models of knowledge/power; 3) the consequent change of several forms of social games through the combina- tion and synthesis of older kinds.

To sum it all up, the developments in techno-science are changing the typology as well as the economy of social interaction, introducing a new ratio between four different ideal types of games: those of collaboration, competi- tion, randomness and vertigo (Callois 1967: 45-91). In the case, for instance, of the internet multi-user dungeons (MUD) or role-playing games, as well as in those of stock exchanges and bets, chats and forums, virtual communities and fanzines, it is clear that social games are taking up new shapes, often by recombining and synthesizing older ones.

Needless to say, amongst all games, those of war are of particular impor- tance, since they have a bearing not only on the power-relationships between nations and peoples, but also, and more dramatically, on the survival of the human species as a whole. More than fifty years ago Bertrand Russell de- scribed the changes induced by technological progress in the conduct of war, understanding what was at stake therein and pleading for the necessity of a rational solution to the problem:

we have to choose, within the next fifty years or so, between two alternatives. Either we must allow the human race to exterminate itself, or we must forgo certain liber- ties which are very dear to us, more specially the liberty to kill foreigners whenever we feel disposed to. I think it probable that mankind will choose its own extermina- tion as the preferable alternative […] we are perhaps living in the last age of man, and, if so, it is to science that he will owe his extinction. (ibid.: 102)

This seems to me a very clear and still valid diagnosis, registering a decisive

change in our responsibility (both individual and collective) in the field of ground-breaking scientific research as well as in that of political action. Invo- lutions as well as revolutions, both in science and politics, might in fact have disastrous consequences, since their potential impact on the planet has now become incalculable. Responsibility therefore can no longer be restricted to single individuals and to their intentions, or applied to local situations, but has to be stretched beyond the scope of our single actions, which seem now to fall under the spell of some ‘universal sympathy’ principle (cf. Jonas 1979).

In any case, the main issue regards the ratio between the ever growing knowledge-power of man and the stability of the ecosystem. With respect to this, the instrumental as well as the modelling value of the internet appear to be of great momentum: the economic and eco-logical games of the future will in fact be played mostly on the web; the new imaginative patterns, forms of judgement and behavioural norms will issue from this telecommunication-matrix.

We have previously observed that, at the moment, no centralized institu- tion (either nation-states or supranational organisms) can neither exert a total control over the global economy, society and culture, nor establish clear, ex- plicit and effective norms for their functioning. We should therefore acknowl- edge the fact that our global village is built on a number of scattered multina- tional gambling subjects, decentred and hardly localizable, which tend to act obeying no statutes, long-term projects or ideologies, but rather extemporarily, and according to chance and opportunity. Not only traditional war has there- fore drastically been changed by the introduction of a new tension between blind-striking terrorism and ‘international’ (mostly biased) police agency; not only war, but the whole sphere of social interaction is being in fact configured around these two poles. More so, it is the entire ecosystem which is now con- stantly solicited by such opposing drives of terrorist insurgency and police intervention (just think to the routine production/management of ‘natural’ emergencies such as earthquakes, floods, tornados and so on). Although it is not easy to predict how humans and their environment will interact in  the next few decades, we should nevertheless keep in mind that the evolution of a system may have a point of no return and take a sort of qualitative leap after which catastrophe for it becomes unavoidable, and that this cautionary princi- ple equally applies to the evolution of natural as to that of cultural systems.

  • IDEAS OF CULTURE AND SOCIAL MODELS

As Raymond Williams once remarked, both the idea and the common use of the word “culture” were developed in Great Britain during the so-called Indus- trial Revolution (Williams 1961: 7), that is more than two centuries ago: nowa- days, in the post-industrial age, this word-idea has undergone further consider- able mutation. With the advent of the mass media, followed by that of the digi- tal technologies and the internet, the modes and places of cultural produc-  tion/transmission have multiplied and scattered. Hierarchical institutions such as state, school, university, church and political parties, which once presided over cultural re-production and transmission, no longer have a total control over it, and are much less able than before to exert forms of hegemony, which have as it were been handed over directly to the economic-financial powers that be. And high culture has been fleeing its old temples, churches and academies, flooding over streets and squares, in the theatres of the real as well as of the virtual world, apparently becoming more democratic and ‘demotic’, affecting and infecting us with ads and clips. However, as I have been arguing before, technological changes usually destroy older forms of authority and hegemony only in order to create new ones. Therefore, understanding what new forms of hegemony the telematic era is now bringing about, is of greatest importance. Such an understanding will probably require the creation of a whole new theory of cultural transmission, along with a reformulation of the role played in it by old practices and institutions such as the public school, the study of literature, the printing press, the state, political parties, and all the (more or less secret) associations and corporations of sundry kind.

During the 20th century we have witnessed to the gradual passage from the local community, based on the concept of ethnicity, residence in place and the personal acquaintance between its members (the so-called Gemeinschaft) to modern society, based on complex impersonal relationships, depending on the functions exerted by the single individuals in the whole system, rather than face-to-face interactions: the so-called Gesellschaft (cf. Tonnies 2002). Nowa- days, in the information age, we are already witnessing to an increasing tension and contrast between territory-based communities and delocalized interest- communities. And this could cause a new unpredictable synthesis of the two previous models of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, as well as of the two distinct figures of the freelance task-worker and of the functionary 2. If the whole

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2 This is in fact already happening in Europe in many spheres of the so called public service such as healthcare, education, territorial management, which are more and more being delegated to external contractors.

shape of society-and-culture is dramatically changing at the beginning of the new millennium, surely that of cultural studies cannot remain untouched.

  • CULTURAL SYSTEMS AND EVOLUTIONS

Using a wholly different approach from that of the British cultural studies –  an approach, strangely enough, almost completely ignored in the Anglo- American world – the Russian semiotician Jury Lotman has been studying for some decades the forms and evolutions of culture. Lotman proposes an op- erative definition of culture both as language and text – that is, as a system of systems (Lotman 1973: 25ff.). Lotman makes some very interesting observa- tions on the relationship between society and culture: first of all, he notes that, for how much cultural expressions may seem a form of luxury as compared with primal needs, a brief historical survey may suffice to show how they are indeed an indispensable luxury from which no civilization, even in the most extreme conditions of survival, has managed to abstain: “the life of a commu- nity of any kind is not possible without a culture.” (ibid: 26)

Why this is the case? Well, because if man is an organism whose life is determined by biological processes, society owes its existence to a symbolic, that is a cultural, diet. Culture is for society as necessary and inevitable as breathing is for man.

For Lotman, culture can first of all be considered as a process of accu- mulation and exchange of information. It can be defined as “the ensemble of all non-hereditary information and of the means needed for its [society’s] or- ganization and conservation. […Therefore] information is not an option, but an essential condition for humanity’s survival. The struggle for survival, both biological and social, is a struggle for information.” (ibid.: 28) 3.

This exchange of information happens in each and every cultural organ- ism, and as every culture has been shaped firstly through language, for this reason it tends to reproduces the structural scheme of language at all levels of its internal organization. However, rather than as a single language, culture should be conceived of as a (more or less cohesive and hierarchic) set of lan- guages, caught in a process of constant interaction and mutual translation, as well as of the texts that have been produced through and in these languages.

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3 This idea of culture as a mechanism of accumulation and exchange of information (being computational in kind) may be useful to understand the relationship between cul- ture and the digital media, as well as the problems of present-day hyper-wired society.

One could conclude that Lotman conceives of culture as a hyper-language as well as a hyper-text. This concept of culture as a set of different codes, texts and media may allow us to think of its development as a process of constant translation and trans-codification, through which the collective memory of a given community is conserved and reproduced.

Lotman considers culture as a complex and polyphonic meta-language, defined not so much by a system of social conventions or by a logical syntax, but rather by a dialogical praxis: a sort of dialectics between texts, codes, sys- tems, matters and forms of expression and content in mutual cooperation as well as competition, swinging to and fro between the opposite poles of order and chaos, meaning and noise, continuity and explosion.

Lotman thinks indeed in a holistic way, adopting a logic of complexity for the study of culture: between lived experience and thought there is speech, deploying itself in different medias; between the biosphere and the noosphere, there is the cultural semiosphere. This is a complex, steadily evolving system, partly linear, and partly discontinuous and unpredictable. To sum up the core of Lotman’s argument, we may say that cultural evolution, just as literary evo- lution, happens in time through the change of alternating practices, media, institutions, models and genres of speech in the dominant function within a given social system. The dominant, (as it was conceived by Trubeskoj, Jakob- son and Tynjanov with respect to linguistic and literary evolution) constitutes the characterizing (focusing or de/forming) element of whichever symbolic system; so different phases in the evolution of systems in general can be con- sidered as the result of a change of dominant among their elements or func- tions. (Pomorska and Mateika 1971: 66-90) A cultural dominant thus shapes both the production and the reception of texts and discourses, practices and institutions – in other words, the whole episteme of a given epoch. Moreover, the replacement of dominant functions combines with that of the informing metaphors and world-models in the self-representation of a given culture: for this reason we can talk of myth, book or (nowadays) multimedia-civilizations.

As we have seen, according to Lotman, in a perspective similar to that of systems-theory, cultural evolution can be conceived of as “a process of informa- tion, accumulation and elaboration” (Lotman 1992: 133) That is, culture itself can be understood as a wired hypertext, a system that is subject to multiple in- teractions with the surrounding environment, which define its overall evolution. The metaphor of the hypertext may sum up Lotman’s theory of cultural evolu- tion, which is based on the internal dialogue between subsets and regions, on their struggle for dominance, on the interplay of production and consumption, demand and supply, as well as on feedback mechanisms, positive and negative,

which amplify or neutralize the solicitations coming from the external environ- ment, that is from everything that is perceived by its users as not belonging to their culture. I consider the metaphor of the hypertext as the characterizing fea- ture and the interpretative key of present-day civilization.

In Culture and explosion Lotman keeps further reflecting on culture as a stratified and complex system in its development through time. His analysis here stresses two points which are fundamental for the study of any system: the relationship between system and environment, and that between stasis and dynamics. As we have seen, for Lotman the interaction between two or more languages (as for instance numbers and letters), and their relative translatability within a given society is to be considered as a basic presupposition both for the functioning and the comprehension of culture itself: “a minimal function- ing structure is composed by two languages which, taken apart, cannot contain the exterior world” (Lotman 1993: 23). In other words, cultural studies have to be intrinsically trans-linguistic and interdisciplinary. In this respect, Lotman clearly sets himself at a distance from all sort of structuralism: “the ideal

[se- miotic]

model with a single perfect language has to yield to that of a structure including at least two languages, or to all the open list of different languages that are reciprocally indispensable, as they cannot express the world sepa- rately.” (ibid.: 10) His conception of culture as multi-lingual translation could therefore be also defined, borrowing a Bachtinian terminology, as that of the ‘constitutive polyphony of culture’. What we are dealing with here is the radi- cal affirmation of a pluralistic epistemology opposed to the monological and reductive models of communication elaborated in structural linguistics and analytic philosophy in the course of the XX century. Particularly interesting in this context is the postulate of the limited translatability of two different lan- guages or codes (for example the literary and the musical one) within a given cultural context, as a minimal prerequisite of the system’s vitality and of its adequacy to survive in its surrounding environment: so the plurality of lan- guages and their partial translatability are the preconditions of cultural life. Lotman further notices in the development of all culture a constant polarity between an irreducible multilinguism – or babelic principle – and a tendency to- wards the unification of all experiences in a unique language – or mythical prin- ciple. This polarity is analogous to that which, in Bachtin’s view, we can find in literary texts, between the tendency towards heteroglossia on one hand, and that towards authorial stylization of the linguistic materials employed (cf. Bachtin 2001).

Within the development of such a plurilinguistic and multilayered system of culture, Lotman also detects the action of a generative tension between

continuous and discontinuous, or, in his own words, gradual and explosive proc- esses. These two developmental modalities however are both indispensable for the functioning of a system of culture, both in a diachronic and in a syn- chronic perspective. Reading the works of Lotman, we find ourselves before a stratified and dialectical idea of culture, characterized by an asynchronous de- velopment of its different levels, practices, discourses and institutions. These asynchronous, discontinuous, explosive processes constitute indeed the real basis for the evolution of cultures, and only at a second stage, that of self- consciousness and self-representation, they are reflexively reconfigured , nor- malized and historiographically reconstructed. All cultures are thus endowed with mechanisms of self-conservation, which allow for the moment of ran- dom unpredictable change or explosion to be as it were digested and corrected by a feedback loop or conservative retrodiction, reducing the casual and frag- mented events to the hypothesis of a necessary and continuous process, which ultimately sediments as figures and schemes of discourse (logos-in-action) in the collective memory. In this perspective, the historicization and the legitima- tion of socio-cultural processes seem to be indivisible and inherent to the same narrative structure of collective memory and consciousness.

Even though culture can be studied both from a synchronic and a dia- chronic perspective, that is both as a system and as a process, only the latter aspect represents the reality of culture, and the static condition is only a speculative abstraction. Amongst the discontinuous processes of cultural evo- lution, we have especially to mention semantic intersection, which produces new figures of speech, and intertextuality, which provides for new canons and discursive genres. If the interaction between texts, practices and disciplines constitutes the dynamics of a given culture, this is all the more the case with the interplay between old and new media, that kind of dense re-mediation (cf. Bolter and Grusin 1999) that takes place in times of such dramatic techno- logical as well as social changes as ours, and constitutes cultural evolution as such.

According to Lotman, within the cultural dynamics of continuity and ex- plosion, art has an especially important position. Art is for him one of the main organs of mediation between the unforeseen event, the acquisition of an awareness of it and the construction of cultural memory. And the function of artistic imagination consists precisely in the linking of events, discourses and forms of collective consciousness. For this reason the work of art ought to be ideally conceived as a hyper-media and an inter-text. The idea that firstly there is a text and then that it may show some kind of intertextuality at work proves inadequate, as the text always offers itself to the interpreter together with the

tradition to which it belongs, and in an ongoing dialogue with other texts that belong to the same tradition.

The starting point of Lotman’s cultural theory is not the single sign, text or system, but rather the relationship between at least two signs, texts and sys- tems, that is the hypothesis of a semiotic space which is to be considered as essentially synaesthetic, polyphonic and intermedial. The three fundamental oppositional axes detected by Lotman for the study of culture(s) are: sys- tem/environment, static/dynamic, gradual/explosive change. These axes may perhaps help us construct orientational grids in the wide sea of cultural studies by re-mapping the social on the media sphere.

  • CULTURE, MEDIA AND LITERATURE

In Lotman’s view, art and literature constitute forms of mediation between technological innovations and social practices. As we know, this is also the starting point of Marshall McLuhan’s studies on the cultural impact of the  new media. In my opinion, McLuhan’s contribution for an understanding of contemporary culture(s) is still of the greatest import, though it has generally been undervalued by most Anglo-American currents of cultural studies in the last three decades. It is important to remark that McLuhan, one of the major media scholars of the XX century, was first of all neither a sociologist nor a computer scientist, but a professor of English literature with a comparative slant, who at a certain point in his career realized how much modernist literary fiction (in particular Joyce’s) was suited to represent the epochal transition from the literary to the multi-medial civilization. In other words, McLuhan lucidly detected in the experimentalism of the literary avant-gardes an anticipa- tion of the networked cultures. His study of the important effects of the new media on society is in fact constantly underpinned by a strong belief in the fundamental role played by literature in adapting the reader to the contempo- rary mass-media world, by enabling him to go back from the clichés offered by the advertisement and entertainment industries to the archetypes of a shared tradition (Lamberti 2000: 38-49). This is a very fruitful approach in- deed for the study of collective imagination, evolving between literature and the new media, and one that can also offer a considerable hermeneutic van- tage point in the field of cultural studies. It would be out of place here to go into the single themes and cultural phenomena treated by McLuhan, and on which very much has already been written to date. However, it shall be useful

to stress the great potential of the approach of the whole Toronto school for the definition of the concept of culture and for the study of the many net- communities of today. The insistence on the new dialectics between cliché  and archetype, for example, as well as the mechanisms of re-mythization that take place in mass-culture are a fundamental key of access to the forms of contemporary culture and to the modes of production of identity and differ- ence, of individuals as well as of groups, in a time when the technological ar- chives of collective memory are radically changing.

Even though this is not apparent at first sight, this approach recalls that of Walter Benjamin (along with a whole strand of Marxist sociology, especially that of the Frankfurt School) and his considerations on the technical repro- duction of the work of art. For Benjamin the effect of this reproducibility can be summed up in the loss of cultural relevance (or aura) of the single work, in a generally spread popular taste for serial production, in a dangerous confu- sion of the spheres of aesthetics and politics, and finally in a sort of loss of identity for the artist (especially for the literary artist, as the representative of high-culture) as the privileged functionary to which the task of the cultural transmission had been assigned.

I am neither here trying to assess a direct cultural affiliation, nor to equate the Frankfurt and the Toronto School approaches to a sociology of art and literature, but only to indicate some points of contact and articulation of two major (somehow antithetical) tendencies in XX century thought: Husser- lian phenomenology and Marxist historical materialism. The first tendency aimed at bracketing all hidden structures, the various entanglements of causes and ends, the biological as well as cultural conditionings of a given behaviour, in order to be fully able to appreciate it as sheer phenomenon, in its indubita- ble manifestation. The second tendency on the other hand has insisted on the economic dependence, and therefore on the ideological nature of every repre- sentation, which ought therefore to be openly exposed and denounced. Thinkers such as Benjamin, McLuhan and Lotman (even when strongly differ- ing in terms of their approach and style), starting in their analysis from litera- ture and art as crucial laboratories of social dynamics, have managed to detect the fundamental junctions of articulation between technology and society, and to consider cultural dynamics as a contended field for hegemony, that is for the redefinition of the canons and for the administration of the symbolic capi- tal of a given society.

These thinkers all conceive culture as the result of a techno-economic basis , on which the former can nevertheless have retroactive effects, thus in- jecting complexity in the social world, and showing the insufficiency of any

deterministic analysis of social phenomena.

The significance of these techno-cultural loops is increased by the new interactive media and telematic networks which now cover up the whole ‘global village’. The cultural network of our days can be thought of as a huge hypertext, subject to a constant feedback-process, and ideally coincident with the web, functioning as the root metaphor of our days. To put it simply, that of the wired culture appears to be the most fruitful paradigm for the compre- hension of the present social dynamics in all their complexity.

Since technical tools and apparels act as prostheses of the human body, the impact of a revolutionary technology can be considered, as McLuhan puts it, as a sort of collective surgery, producing a post-surgery shock on the social body, followed by a general narcotic effect, which prevents people for a cer- tain period of time (as a sort of defensive mechanism) from understanding the real nature and import of the changes that are taking place within it. Accord- ing to McLuhan every major technology brings with itself new forms of cul- tural interaction, and modifies the social background on which they operate. As a result of this ‘narcosis’, the new social environment which is created as a response to the advent of a revolutionary technology is not immediately rec- ognizable for the subjects which inhabit it. For a while, they remain as it were unconscious of the new configuration. Here the artist makes his appearance on the stage, as he is the one who first perceives the alterations which a new medium provokes on human experience and is thus able to redefine a com- mon horizon of sense. The function of art therefore is that of creating a sort of counter-environment in which it is possible to perceive the subliminal condi- tionings on man that result from the impact of a new medium. (Lamberti 2000: 91-117) Fiction thus presents itself as the laboratory of critical (de)composition of the social situation that results from the technological process, as well as the pre-figuration of its possible horizons of sense. Art is the true starting point of every cultural strategy, understood as the cognitive response of the social systems to the solicitations of technology. This is all the more evident in the case of the new hypermedia, which appeal to the whole sensory spectrum, and thus directly modify our perceptive habits, mental and practical attitudes, and create a new horizon of alternative virtual realities.

The recovery of such philosophical, semiotic and hermeneutic strands within cultural studies may hopefully help articulate the concept of culture as an ensemble of signifying practices, in the age of the digital recombination of every sign-object and of long-distance social interactions. This is a time when all phases of the cultural process (representation, identity-construction, pro- motion, consumption, regulamentation of exchange-processes) are character-

ized by modularity, retroaction and inter-mediality, all of which can be clearly observed in the functioning of the networked-hypertext, which I therefore consider as the radical metaphor of today, replacing the older root metaphor of the book.

The concept of culture we are dealing with here is a complex system of reproduction and self-representation, conceptually articulated around such polarities as cliché/archetype, local/global, structure/process, static/dyna- mics, gradual/explosive, system/environment, production/reception. This concept of culture allows one to avoid determinism, be it Marxist (economic structures determine cultural super-structures) or neo-Darwinist (culture is the product of random occurrences and the survival of the fittest), while shirking absolute, non-decisional relativism as well as the acritical optimism of those who believe in the political power of selective, critical consumption and in its capacity to destabilize the economic status quo. Culture is much more than a single language or text, and for this reason it cannot be simply understood following the games of encoding and decoding, as once suggested by Stewart Hall (1992: 128-38); we might rather consider it as a hypertext, that is as an en- semble of interactive, virtually accessible contexts; a horizon that is always open, though requiring, in order to become really meaningful, operative choices and provisional cuts and closures from its users and explorers, that is from all the hybrid and nomadic subjects whose intersecting paths are tracing out our new global cultural geography.

In this perspective, and taking into account the irreducible complexity of the social world, we ought in my view be ready to redefine the relationship be- tween science, art and politics in this age of technological re-combination and quick consumption of symbolic goods; and hopefully, we should also be able to find new possible intersections between intellectual work and social en- gagement. I believe time is come again to get out of textual practices, campus politics and minority reports, which all have gone hand in glove with market strategies and proved equally effective in keeping a few in power, many in dis- tress. Our environment is firstly at stake. You, the youth, have no longer a frontier to cross, nor a land to conquest or a dream to foster. You simply have a world to keep alive and enjoy, if this is still possible. No God will help. Per- haps time is come again for more relevant and responsible (i.e. also more ‘total- ising’) thinking and more daring action, in social practice and cultural studies.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Lotman’s works are not translated in English and Bachtin’s works are translated only in part, therefore I have used Italian versions. All English translations from Italian are mine.

Bachtin, M. (2001), Estetica e romanzo, Torino, Einaudi.

Bolter J.D. and R. Grusin (1999), Remediation, Cambridge, Mass., MIT. Callois R. (1967), Les jeux et les hommes, Paris, Gallimard.

Hall S., “Encoding and Deconding” (1992), Hall et al. 1992: 72-97. Hall, S. et al. (1992), Culture, Media, Language, London, Routledge. Jonas H. (1979), Das Prinzip Verantwortung, Franfurt, Insel.

Lamberti E. (2000), Marshall McLuahn, Milano, Bruno Mondatori.

Lotman J.M., B.A. Uspenskij (1975), Tipologia della cultura, Milano, Bompiani. Lotman J.M. (1992), La Semiosfera, Venezia, Marsilio.

Lotman J.M. (1993), La cultura e l’esplosione, Milano, Feltrinelli.

Pomorska K. and L. Mateika, eds. (1971), Readings in Russian Poetics, Cambridge, Mass., MIT.

Russell B. (1952), The Impact of Science on Society, London, Allen & Unwin.

Tonnies F. (2002), Community and society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, trans. by C. P. Loomis), Mineola, N.Y., Dover.

Williams, R. (1961), Culture and Society: 1780-1950, London, Chatto & Windus.

Dislocations of Memory in (Post)modern Narrative

Giuseppe Martella

University of Urbino

Dislocations of Memory in  (Post)modern Narrative

1. Postmodernism and the hypertext

Many a scholar has claimed that our present age is marked by a gradual loss of cultural memory due to the technical devolution of the acts of recalling[1]. As Edward J. Casey puts it, nicely summarizing a complex story:

we have turned over responsibility for remembering to the cult of the computers, which serve as our modern mnemonic idols. The force of the remembered word in oral traditions […] has given way to the inarticulate hum of the disk drive. Human memory has become self-externalized: projected outside the rememberer himself or herself and into non-human machines. These machines, however, cannot remember; what they can do is to record, store, and retrieve information—which is only part of what human beings do when they enter into a memorious state. The memory of things is no longer in ourselves, in our own discerning and interpreting, but in the calculative wizardry of computers. If computers are acclaimed as creations of our own devising, they remain—whatever their invaluable utility—most unsuitable citadels of memory, whose “fields and spacious palaces” (in St. Augustine’s phrase) they cannot begin to contain or to replicate. […] Computers can only collect and order the reduced residues, the artfully formatted traces, of what in the end must be reclaimed by human beings in order to count as human memories. In this respect, our memories are up to us. But for the most part and ever increasingly, we have come to disclaim responsibility for them.[2]  

In fact, in the successive stages of writing, printing and electronic word-processing, we have gradually entrusted a significant part of our memory to technical reproduction, triggering a far-reaching modification in our whole psychic economy: memory, imagination, intellect and feeling. This by now pervasive interaction with machines modifies the processes of our mind and in particular, for our present concern, those of literary and artistic reproduction. The instruments used for the retrieval, selection and storage of data, not only influence the messages and codes of a given culture but also create dominant metaphorical fields, within which thought locates and evolves. Rhetorical figures, tropes and topoi of a given historical language are dependent on the technical manipulation of experience (present, past, future, possible). This was the case, for long time, of the master trope of the book of the world, inside of which the collective imagination of literary civilization has unfolded for many a hundred years. Drastically simplifying this complex matter, I am surmising that this present, so-called postmodern, phase of civilization is shaped by the instrument/model of the networked hypertext, translating technical reproduction from the field of objects to that of symbols, and radically changing the modes of literary invention and disposition.

Intuitively we all know what a hypertext is, but it may be useful briefly to define it, starting out from the notion of text that is most congenial to us as still children of the literary civilization. A text is linear, bounded and fixed; in relation to this, we can define the hypertext as

the use of the computer to transcend the linear, bounded and fixed qualities of the traditional written text […] the hypertext reader sees only the image of a single block of text […] behind that image lies a variable textual structure […] metaphors that can help us to visualize the structure behind the screen include a network, a tree diagram, a nest of Chinese boxes, or a web.[3]***

The new way of perceiving a text as an image on the computer screen brings in fact the graphic sign into a different dimension from that of the printed page and changes both the practice of writing and that of reading. We can say that we are presently in the way of moving from a rhetoric that is prevalently typographical to one that is rather topographical, aiming firstly at the positioning of textual chunks in a whole discursive frame, and that as a result of this the forms of our formerly literary memory and imagination are changing.

2. Memory and dislocation

Memory by its very nature involves the possibility of dislocating experience[4]. In the act of recollection, in fact, an event is removed from its original space-time co-ordinates and re-located in our present living experience. The event thus recollected is, so to speak, duplicated in its space-time identity: it holds inside it temporal distance as part of its significance for the thinking subject. This also implies that the recollected event contains an index of meaning that goes beyond the mere immediate experience. Recollection amounts in fact to incipient reflection. In an impersonal and linguistic perspective, we might say that a memory contains a metaphorical index. It may be considered as a temporal metaphor: memory is to the perception of an event as metaphor is to the letter of a text. The imagery inherent in all language and thought, the capacity of bringing together distant semantic fields, works on a memorial ground.

            Space and time obviously constitute the a priori conditions of all experience[5]. If it is true, therefore, that memory (in the sense of the retrieval of an event in time) is always linked to a composition of place, it is also true that the particular mode of translation of an object from one semantic field to another, that is each single figure of speech in a given field of discourse, expresses a form of temporality that is accessible to a given culture in a given phase of its development. Acts of recollection are essentially analogous to figurative speech acts. The characteristic topoi of a certain genre of discourse or of a culture as a whole are none other than points of intersection between ways of remembering and figures of language; places in which the significance of the speech act manifests its inherence into the temporality of the human being. On the premise of the recurrence of these cultural topoi, one can hope to grasp the entire map of a culture through the perusal of a partial section, that is of one of its documents. In fictional narrative (which represents action in a con-figuration of discourse) the imagination creates semantic fields under a temporal index; in other words, in avoiding making reference to facts that have happened and in putting in abeyance the whole question of truth, it shows the workings of active memory (memory as vis), by the same token of bracketing the truth of object-memory (memory as res). Fiction in fact implies a temporal distension of the metaphorical tension of language. It linguistically instanciates that distensio animi which is a possibility inherent in our being-in-time. This is why storytelling will probably never die. However, in each single age it is subject to a series of constraints and possibilities, mostly dictated by the material conditions of our existence, among which the instruments of the technical reproduction of goods and messages stand out. The technical equipment of the present age, and the figurative range that derives from it, can be summed up, in my view, in the dominant metaphor of the hypertext as the mnemo-technical index of the postmodern age.

            Some of the co-implications of memory and material techniques of reproduction that I have just outlined appear in a concrete and effective form in the work of Winfried Georg Sebald, and in particular in The Emigrants[6], which I now shall briefly examine.

3. Landscapes and links of memory

Sebald’s work is a narrative dealing on one hand with the dislocation of memory and on the other with the material link between text and image. It is difficult to attribute this work to a precise narrative genre, above all because it is collocated in a middle space half way between the photographic and the typographical medium, but also because the four biographies it is made up of turn out in the end to be part of the one fictional autobiography of the narrator. The protagonists represent four different types of German Jewish emigrants: a doctor explorer, a schoolmaster, a highly placed butler and an introverted but genial painter. They also represent four types of repining memory, four ways of tentative escape, and four styles of life, which the narrator retraces through embedding, interventions, montages, changes of perspective, and still shots, making use of various testimonies and documents – family albums, notebooks, diaries, pictures and mementos – in his effort to reconstruct a composite memory out of which the meaning of individual lives can be drawn. More than anything else, this inquiry uses photographs that serve as lieux de memoire[7], but also as frames, on which the narrative is articulated. Here, the image functions as the fulcrum of memory and as the material link of the whole narrative rather than as a simple ornament or illustration of the text.

            Let us take, for example, the initial image of the first of the four episodes that make up the story: “it did not take us long to find the house the agents had described. One of the largest in the village, it stood a short distance from the church with its grassy graveyard, Scots pines and yews, up a quiet side street.” (3) We have here a landscape of the memory that develops out of a snapshot, the picture of a country cemetery that takes on a symbolic value, since the story eventually concludes with a symmetrical photo, a newspaper cutting showing the body of a mountain climber brought to light after decades in a glacier. The climber was someone known to Dr. Swewlyn, the protagonist of the story, and the narrator has just learnt of the man’s death. The theme of the story is the unearthing of the dead, the coming and going between past and present; what it traces is the cemetery-glacier of memory in which figures of the past are buried deep, and from where, sometimes by chance, they are returned to us in their sharp glassy profile. This is like Sebald’s prose, which cuts like a scalpel into the scarred deposit of collective memory, yielding the diamond-clear figures of migrating lives and of wounded memories–memories that gather and depart from the images inserted into the text in a sort of pulsation, a mysterious, hidden algorithm of a mind in search of the common meaning of separate experiences.

            In Sebald’s stories, the memory that brings us together is always indirect and filtered by a number of witnesses, in a play of refractions that makes it meaningful and bearable to us. It is the filter of these intersecting memories that allows the shape of the destiny of the protagonists to show through, as happens in the case of the reconstruction of the life of the schoolmaster Paul Berayter, through the accounts of his French friend Lucy Landau, the key witness of the second episode.

            As the first episode closes, the second one opens with a suicide, the ensuing newspaper account and the photograph of the railway track where it took place. (27) The newspaper story mentions in passing the profound reasons for what happened: at the time of the Third Reich the Jewish teacher was forced to leave the school where he taught. The narrator traces the design of that life, between trauma and death, a design that is revealed at the end in the dual aspect of a map of the railway depot (62) and of the reported occasional witty remark of Berayter’s uncle’s (“that he would end up on the railways”: 62) that expresses the hidden meaning of the protagonist’s life. This destiny is figured as graphics and as oracle, a matter of a bend in the road and a turn of phrase.

            In this way, the initial scene of the suicide, the railway track that has always obsessed the mind of Paul Berayter, with its suggestive and partial perspective, is resolved at the end in the skeletal map of the station representing the graphic of a destiny marked by an obsession with the railways (symbols of a prefigured track) that gradually took possession of the mind of the persecuted Jewish schoolmaster: “Railways had always meant a great deal to him – perhaps he felt they were headed for death. Timetables and directories, the logistics of railways, had at times become an obsession with him, as his flat in S showed. I can still see the Marklin model railway he had laid out on a deal table in the spare north-facing room: to me it is the very image and symbol of Paul’s German tragedy.” (61) The interplay of scene and map, which supports the whole imaginative framework of the story, is anticipated in a dazzling alpine landscape described again in the words of the French friend of the protagonist, Lucy Landau: “Clearest of all, though, were the memories of their outing […] up Montrond, from the summit of which she had gazed down for an eternity at Lake Geneva and the surrounding country, which looked considerably reduced in size, as if intended for a model railway. The tiny features below, taken together with the gentle mass of Montblanc towering above them, the Vanoise glacier almost invisible in the shimmering distance, and the Alpine panorama that occupied half the horizon, had for the first time in her life awoken in her a sense of the contrarieties that are in our longings.” (45)

            It is in fact the idea of predestination as trace, imprinting, memorative orientation that is incarnated in the narrator’s archaeological dig, which cuts out and sews together the partial memories of its witnesses[8]. Destiny here appears as the composition of some innocuous and casual suggestion of childhood that sediments in the memory until the painful events and traumas of life (Nazi persecution in this case) transform it into an inevitable end: “Paul told me that as a child he had once spent his summer holidays in Lindau, and had watched from the shore every day as the trains trundled across from the mainland to the island and from the island to the mainland. The white clouds of steam in the blue air, the passengers waving from the windows, the reflection in the water – this spectacle, repeated at intervals, so absorbed him that he never once appeared on time at the dinner table all that holiday, a lapse that his aunt responded to with a shake of the head that grew more resigned every time, and his uncle with the comment that he would end up on the railways.” (62) This oracular sentence and the final comment that follows give us the cipher of the story, in the elusive and epiphanic link between memory and presentiment of death: “I suppose I did not immediately see the innocent meaning of Paul’s uncle’s expression, end up on the railways, and it struck me as darkingly foreboding. The disquiet I experienced because of that momentary failure to see what was meant – I now sometimes feel that at that moment I beheld an image of death – lasted only a very short time, and passed over me like the shadow of a bird in flight. ” (63) The anamnesic inquiry has transformed the initial scene of the crucial event, the suicide of the protagonist, into the graphic of his destiny.

Sebald’s investigation is one that uncovers indirect relationships; a torch that illuminates things obliquely, like a ray of sunlight between the clouds, lighting up outlines and figures. We get sideways, slant, translucid, black and white pictures, cuts of memory: precise, delicate, nuanced; but without colours, all black and white, and without sounds, in a total attention to the echoes of the past. This is a composition of place, a spiritual exercise: calligraphy here matching photography. The noise and fury of the world are subdued in this pondered interplay of media. There is no relation of direct filiation between the people or between the events of the various episodes, but a web of memories that intersect each other on different planes, like unexpected vistas opening up by the clicking of a link. This is a hypertextual and hypermedial memory. As we can see in the reconstruction of the life of an uncle who emigrated to America, of whom the narrator at the beginning of the third episode shows “barely any recollection.” (67) Ambrose Adelwarth, adventurous and impeccable man of the world, is a character whose life is marked by the intimate and perhaps morbid friendship with the bizarre son of a Jew magnate of American finance. He is a person of whom the narrator has a few vague recollections, as when for instance this uncle used to visit him as a child in a town without a name in Germany. The mythical figure of his uncle remains linked in the narrator’s mind to the American dream of his youth, to a fabulous America, which in his adult years he decides to visit again. The reconstruction of the life of this uncle and of the circumstances of his death in a mental asylum coincides in fact with the deconstruction of the narrator’s mythical adolescent vision of America. If anyone were to think that the digging into the memory and the testimony of the past imply here only the denouncement of the crimes of Nazism, and not also of those of present-day consumer society, they would have failed to grasp the meaning and value of Sebald’s work (see for example p. 105), which consists, especially in this episode, in a demystification of the American way of life which, by contrast, allows the narrator to delineate his identity as a European Jew. In order to reckon with his past, the narrator visits his surviving relatives in the USA and through their testimonies, those of a doctor at the mental asylum, and the examination of a diary belonging to his uncle that he comes into possession of, he can eventually reconstruct some features of this mysterious and reserved character and the unusual circumstances of his life, gradual alienation and painful death (as a result of the electric shock treatment) in a mental asylum.

The link between photograph and text, which is always structural in Sebald’s narrative, here becomes also thematic, and of particular salience in this episode are the photographs that portray texts, as for example in the case of the uncle Adelwarth’s elegant leather-bound diary containing an account, written in shorthand and full of gaps, of his travels in the fabulous East (Jerusalem, Turkey, the banks of the Dead Sea, etc.). (127) This image is also a symbol of the material support of literary memory (short-hand, incomplete, fable-like), that is nearby here revealed to us by some photos of the open diary, which somehow add up to the photographic archaeology of Sebald’s narrative. (132) Here we can find a also a note on the residue of fantastic suggestion of a disrupted literariness that is laid bare and transfigured, preceded by the comment of the narrator: “The route they took from Constantinople can be followed very closely from the diary notes, despite the fact that they are farther apart now, and at times stop altogether.” (135) And the cipher of this story consists precisely in the gloss in the margin of a place of memory and of identity (fetish, relic, object, lieu de memoire): this is the photograph of one of Ambrose’s calling cards, with a few hand written words containing a message for his niece as for his final decision to retire; his choice to be shut away in a mental asylum in Ithaca, New England, where he was to end his days. “I have gone to Ithaca. Yours ever. Ambrose”. (103) The calling card thus takes on an ontological quality. It shows us the place of memory as that which allows us to sense the frame of Adelwarth’s destiny; it presents itself as a snapshot around which the whole account of the event by a cousin of the narrator can eventually unfold: “One morning when I went out to Mamoroneck, Uncle Adelwarth was gone. In the mirror of the hall stand he had stuck a visiting card with a message for me, and I have carried it with me ever since.” (103) Here we can sense the full significance of Sebald’s poetics of intermedial framing, exploiting the play of text and image, in order to convey the process of foundation and deposit (Gestell)[9]  of shared memory as it unfolds between the trauma of the event reported and the constraints of the technique it uses and by which it is shaped.

Sebald’s is an impersonal and sober elegy that contains a quiet but no less effective denouncement of the responsibilities not only of Nazism, as the exceptional emergence, but also of the unbridled free market as the normal practice of the banality of evil, and the cause of the degradation of the human mind and of its environment. This is shown, for example, in the fourth episode, with the glimpses we are given of post-industrial Manchester, “anthracite coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see.” (156) Where “whole square kilometers of working-class homes had been pulled down by the authorities, so that, once the demolition rubble had been removed, all that was left to recall the lives of thousand people was the grid-like layout of the streets.” (157) Manchester is hence a vast desolate expanse of waste that appears to the narrator as a modern reversal of the Elysian Fields, (158) haunted only by bands of children roaming like tormented souls with nowhere to go.

City of industrial residues that come to coincide with the debris of memory[10]  in a vast fresco of neglect, squalor and alienation (where postmodern architecture sprawls in a melting-pot of waste, refuse and maquillage), Manchester becomes the indicator of a whole phase of civilization, in which the violence of the new, the uncontrollability of our collective destiny and the planetary risk we are sensing, are compensated by a complacent and indiscriminate historicism which cancels the sense of history and resolves it in the (Elysian) reconstruction of places that combine accuracy of detail and deadness of atmosphere[11].

Sebald’s narrative denounces the posthumous condition in which we now find ourselves; the diffuse and impalpable sense of guilt for coming too late, in a world that has undergone some damage we are not able to locate and heal. It does this through an investigation of personal memories, and through a radical collage of texts and photographs, pictures from an archive that is no longer only paper but also multimedial, electronic, ubiquitous and phantasmatic. This is the archive of postmodern ‘historical’ narrative that alongside the various tonalities of hysterical and camp sublime made in USA[12], will count this other more subdued and decidedly European register of a painful memory marked out by open and incurable traumas, which preclude innocence, initiative and joie de vivre. A catatonic sublime, a quiet lucid folly in which rhetorical inventio, dispositio and elocutio–elegant, punctilious and precise turns of phrase–aim at the disconsolate definition of a collective memory in which the banality of evil precludes the sense of an active life and a taste for it.

If on the one hand this text is a monument to the aching Jewish and European cultural memory, on the other it is a masterly exercise in hypertextual rhetoric, opening up oblique breaches of abandoned Elysian Fields and finding in the re-visitation of a family album the epitaph of the whole literary civilisation.

The degraded and mortiferous space of consumer society, the “glacis around the heart of the city” (158), gravitates inexorably, in the last episode, towards the empty, silent centre of its representation, the studio of the painter Max Ferber, where he obstinately redraws landscapes of collective memory, leaving behind a mass of debris, dust, residue–a sediment of colors that accumulates endlessly in this black hole of the reproduction of reality in the civilisation of the image: “the entire furniture was advancing, millimetre by millimetre, upon the central space where Ferber had set up his easel in grey light that entered through a high north-facing layered with the dust of decades. […] the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. ” (161) This is also the centre of the memory of the text, attracting inexorably to itself all the images and all the recollections that become rough material for the tireless work of the painter (the alter ego of the autobiographical narrator), who for twenty years has scrupulously and hopelessly pursued trajectories of images that slip away, in an attempt to give meaning to his past:

This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure. […] the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell and which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than everything else in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.  (161)

“Dust” and “sinter” are the results of Ferber’s effort, but these terms best connote Sebald’s work as well: a poetics of fine dust that, disturbed by the torch of memory searching in the lofts of the past, suddenly comes alive forming ephemeral trajectories, relics of lives that are no longer or that never were, just like an old black-and-white newsreel film where live shots are put alongside repertory pictures to form optional versions of reality. It is in the image of silt, to which all landscapes of memory are eventually reduced, that Sebald’s topos of emigration encounters, eventually, the apparently antithetical topos of “the land reclamation”, a survival strategy of memory, as developed for instance by Graham Swift in Waterland. And it is also reminiscent of the dense, ghost ridden, bogs of Seamus Heaney: quicksand, reserve and infrastructure, layout of our memory in an age of indiscriminate production of consumer goods and inorganic waste.

The postmodern world of silt, of the trash of consume-and-throw-away society, of the deposit/reserve of products of technological violence on our environment, which is so well represented in the metaphor of salt sediment, of inorganic residue, is the object of Sebald’s inquiry. This is eventually carried out in the protagonist-narrator’s visit to the salt-frames, which constitutes the ultimate destination of his entire journey of memory and of writing: the visit to a crumbling spa resort, where Farber’s parents, victims of the Nazis’ persecution, once used to go on holidays, and where the salt residue now encrusted on the buildings manifests the coincidence of nature and technology in the inorganic residue. (228, 229) The narrative caption goes as follows: “Mineral water raised by a cast-iron pumping station was running down them, and collecting in a trough under the frame.” (228) But in these snapshots of the spa establishment all the valences of the term “frame” come to life, and particularly those inherent to the field of photography and of the use of photography in the text: “mound, scaffold, construction, constitution, structure, chassis, size, bodywork, order, system of reference, set of standards, plan, attitude, disposition, frame of mind, mood, case, border, edge, photo framing, photogram, setting, scene, angle, viewpoint.” They are all meanings that connote both the undertaking of memory and that of narrative, and give a metaphysical import to these final images. They define the existential commitment of the narrator, as well as that of the painter Ferber, to a work continually effacing itself in the way of its accomplishment, a desperate enterprise issuing in a residue of dust or salt that is the result of an unceasing  rewriting of memory, a continuous in-organic exhaustion in which the working of nature, technology and art collaborate in “finishing” the fluid scenario of the world:

I […] immersed myself in the sight and sound of that theatre of water, and in ruminations about the long term and (I believe) impenetrable process which, as the concentration of salts increases in the water, produces the very strangest of petrified or crystallized forms, imitating the growth patterns of nature even as it is being dissolved.” (230)

“Silt” is the issue of this “theatre of water”, and the common denominator of both the theatre and the book of memory in our (post)modern era in which the care and worry for technology shape the destiny of the West.

Bibliography

Agazzi E., La memoria ritrovata, Milano, Bruno Mondadori, 2003.

Assmann, A. Erinnerungsräume : Formen und Wandlungen deskulturellen Gedächtnisses,

Munchen, Beck, 1999.

Casey E. S., Remembering, Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1987.

Delany P. and Landow G. P., eds., Hypermedia and Literary Studies, Cambridge, MIT, 1994.

Heidegger, M., The question concerning technology, and other essays, NY, Harper, 1977.

Jameson F., Postmodernism. Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, New Left Rev., 1984.

Kant, I., Critique of Pure Reason, Cambridge, CUP, 1997.

Nora P., sous la direction de, La Republique, vol. I, Paris , Gallimard, 1984.

Sebald W. G., The Emigrants (1993), London, Vintage, 2002.

Yates F., The Art of Memory, London, Routledge, 1966.


[1] See for instance, Yates 1966: chapter XVII; Nora 1984: XVII-XLVII; Steiner 2002: chapter V.

[2] Casey 1987:  2.

[3] Casey 1987: 2.

[4] Casey 1987: 182 ff.

[5] Kant 1997: part I, Transcendental Aesthetics.

[6] Sebald 2002. The numbers in brackets in the text refer to the pages of this edition.

[7] Cf. Nora 1984: XVII.

[8] Agazzi (2003), in her book on German post-war narrative, rightly insists on the remarkable heuristic value of Sebald’s memorative quest.

[9] See Heidegger 1977.

[10] See Assmann 1999.

[11] See Jameson 1984.

[12] Writers like Pincheon and De Lillo, Ellroy and Philip Roth, for example, although very different in style and value, all sound quite eloquent and diffuse, compared with Sebald’s reserve and precision in the fictional retrieval of a relevant common past.