05 October 2008

levinas and textual communities

wood s lot, one of those rare, wonderful blogs that makes me want to know more, recently posted a link to this essay: "Textual Communities: Nancy, Blanchot, Derrida," by Kuisma Korhonen. There are some glowing gems in here; like this one:
By reading, we are already confronting something that is necessarily on the limits of the living presence of other humans: language as such is both the living energy of living human beings and more or less inhuman structures that can be stored, reproduced and even generated by machines. What we ultimately encounter in literature is not the author (the author is, by definition, no longer present) or the world full of different beings (they are, after all, only textual constructions, although we cannot help but imagine some kind of existence for them in our reading experience), but the very materiality of language, the ‘il y a’ or the ‘murmur of the world’ (Lingis, 1994), the white noise of being that we hear when all meanings have been stripped from words.
I love that phrase, "the white noise of being." Gadji beri bimba. A, a, aar, aas, aer, agh, ah, air, är, are, arh, arre, arrgh, ars, aude. A Babette of electrons and photons.

And I love that I discovered an essay on readerly communities by, well, being part of one. "We read each other," Korhonen writes, "in a chiasmatic but unsymmetrical exchange of positions and identities." He's talking about himself and the text, but the sentence might be even more meaningfully applied to the relationship between his work and the web.
In every textual encounter, the other in the text is in some way transformed from a sheer object or machine to something that carries marks of subjectivity; the text becomes a prosopopoeia, a personification of the other.
At times, it seems that Korhonen's essay is too crowded with personality, with the individual, whether in the form of the reader or this other in the text. I'm not sure we need to anthromorphize media objects as voices from the dead or speaking texts in order to make the concept of community meaningful to the solitary act of reading. Everytime a reader opens a book -- really just a code word for "big, bound bundle of social and legal protocols" -- she enters an institutional context that includes a preexistent community of shared interests. The very form of the object prescribes how it will (or should) be used. No "virtual groups" or sense of "the Other" necessary.

But, then, I do love me some Levinas. Not only did he pen the most memorable line I've ever read in a philosophical text -- "Harsh reality (this sounds like a pleonasm!)" -- but he is sorely under-quoted in my field(s). Much to his credit, Korhonen skillfully sketches out the ways Levinas's thought might contribute to the study of literature.
In the background of this discussion has been the conviction, shared more or less by all the authors mentioned above but expressed perhaps most memorably by Levinas, that human subjects come into being only in relation to the Other. Singularities may gain their subjectivity only by facing the other or the multiplicity of others; before one can construct any immanent self-hood, one has already been called into question by the existence of others.
I wonder if this sentiment isn't more fruitfully applied to the kind of online readerly community that led me to this essay in the first place. In any case, much to pursue here (and a lot that's relevant to my thesis!)

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