By Sayani Sinha
If philosophy is thinking (mostly out loud), what is literature? Taking a cue from commonsense, literature is writing and reading. But if literature is sui generis a product of thinking itself, what philosophy does is ponder on this mode of thinking, engage with the concrete metabolism of a certain thought-process – that closely is literature. To problematize this a little, if literature is constitutive of objective reality as such, philosophy appears, in Heideggerese, at the critical distance between objective reality and the (non)/knowledge of it. If literature assumes and acts on a kind of subjective knowledge of objective reality, philosophy puts into question the legitimacy of such an assumption. It purports to study the relationship between literature – as a representation and a mode of representation of objective reality – and objective reality as such.
This is the defined space of philosophy proper, or in relation to literature, of hermeneutics: to properly acknowledge it is to see it in its difference from the subjective knowledge of objective reality. But the stated objective of this paper is not to defend philosophy and the philosophical, but literature and the literary. And towards that end, it is highly significant to mention that throughout the ancient rivalry between philosophy and literature, the depiction has been of a literature that ‘is’, and of a philosophy that ‘does’; in other words, literature is the substance while philosophy is the practice (subject). As explicit as this hierarchy might seem, it is one that has not been traversed. The first in a long line of thinkers (from Plato to Heidegger and beyond…) to turn the table around (but not without implicit dubiousness) is, surprisingly, not Derrida but Deleuze.
Gilles Deleuze has a very interesting take on literature and its validity, as also literary texts and their utility. What he came to understand literature to be, is perhaps best summarized in a single line from his 1990 book, Pourparlers. He regarded the art works (both literature and film), that he dealt in as apparatuses engaged in/with the world, not receptacles of some hidden content that is to be unearthed by the diligent labour of interpretation. He was interested in what they did, not what they meant.
How rigorous is this distinction between meaning and doing? The first is apparently connected to finding what is inside texts, the second with the endeavour to show how texts engage with what is outside them. Deleuze, like Derrida, expresses his dislike for hermeneutics but in a manner totally unlike his. For Deleuze, the error of interpretation is traced to its insistence that one thing stands for another, and that in the end flux can be stabilized and to reduce it to a unitary core of meaning which is the critic’s job to discover. Flux here is more appropriate to the process of meaning-production proper, rather than the act of interpretation. Simply, ‘flux’ in this context alludes to one thing standing for another, a third standing for the latter, and so on and so forth. Fiercely opposed to Derrida’s deconstructive ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ and of the view that there is nothing ‘inside’ the text, Deleuze develops a strikingly original conception of literature, one that is not to be understood as “being about the memories, identities or opinion of its authors. It is a ‘rhizome’ or a mechanical assemblage which is political and experimental; it deterritorialises, creates lines of flight, transmutes flight (…)”. For Deleuze, there is no hidden meaning or secret to be interpreted in a literary text; rather it is to be seen in the light of a complex continuum with everything that is external to it. Its interest does not lie in what it contains, because it contains nothing; rather our nature of concern should be how it functions when it engages with the world.
In defense of Deleuze and the Deleuzian predisposition of this paper, it might be said that for the very first time in the history of practicing hermeneutics, the ground-rules stand utterly reversed. Literature no more ‘is’, but it actually ‘functions’ as it engages with the world. Although Deleuze is reluctant to draw all of its implications and certainly does not pursue this line of argument to its conclusion, needless to say, he lays down a dangerous precedent: it is no longer that literature only means what it does not do, or only does what it cannot mean (articulate). In other words, it does what it means and vice versa; or to put it in even simpler terms, literature both means and does. Significantly, therefore, philosophy has lost the prerogative to stand for what literature means, or articulate what literature stands for.
Baugh, Bruce. Deleuze and Literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001.
Bernasconi, Robert. Heidegger in Question: The Art of Existing. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993.
Bogue, Ronald. Deleuze on Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.
Davis, Colin. Critical Excess. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.
Deleuze, Gilles. Pourparlers. Paris: Minuit, 1990.
Žižek, Slavoj. Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.
Sayani Sinha is a postgraduate student of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. She graduated first-class from Presidency University, Kolkata, where she was also born and brought up. Her research interests include but are not limited to Marxism, New Left Theories, Postcolonial and/Subaltern Studies, Nation and Nationalism, German Aesthetics, Modernist Poetry, Contemporary British Theatre, Postmodernist Short Story, Cryptocurrency, and the Internet of Value.
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