Colloques & Conferences de l'Universite Lyon 2, Modernism and Unreadability / Modernisme et Illisibilite

Practicing Reading: The Aesthetic Monument, Readability, Experience

Anthony Larson

Temps: 2008-10-24  05:10  – 06:45
Dernière modification: 2008-07-07


One of the assumptions underlying so-called "un-readable" texts is that one cannot do anything with them. That is, one is frustrated by such texts because one feels powerless or helpless before them. But just what is being rendered "helpless" or "powerless" in such readings? Is there not a further underlying assumption - indeed a whole underlying framework - that is present with the term "un-readable?" That is, a text is "un-readable" to the structure of the reading and philosophical subject and what one is really decrying when feeling "helpless" or "powerless" before such texts is the limits that one's subjectivity suddenly comes up against with such texts. Perhaps this is not a problem at all, or, more importantly, the problem of un-readability is poorly posed when framed in terms of loss of power or negativity (un-readable).
In What is Philosophy? Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari famously declare the work of art to "stand alone" as a "monument." After forty years of literary theory where the imbrication of reader, text(s), and context(s) has been intensely analyzed, this still comes as a surprise. How can a work of art such as a literary text "stand alone?" The answer for Deleuze and Guattari is that the work of art has a special function which is to transmit a glimpse of the pre-personal, pre-subjective/objective field of Life itself. "Life" in this sense is not simply a variant of Aristotelian vitalism, reduced to a biological bare vitality of life but what Deleuze later called a "transcendental field" in which agent and patient are indistinguishable. By "standing alone" Deleuze and Guattari go against art as a transcendent experience where the work of art yields to critical and judgmental faculties. This "yielding to" is important because it is marked by a threshold or experience of the subject subsuming the artwork to itself. Instead of "standing alone," a relation of domination is installed, which is the sensation of power that comes in one's everyday relation to "readable" texts. A work of art that stands alone, on the other hand, undoes this relation since what is transmitted by the work of art is a sensation that goes beyond the faculties, loosening their critical and judgmental relation. What is "experienced" (and one hesitates to use such a term, given the Kantian overtones it mobilizes) is a vertiginous movement of a-subjectivity in which the aesthetic sensation is simultaneous with and from an a-subjective field. The work of art "stands alone" because the sensation of this a-subjective field is the work of art and nothing else. Perhaps, then, the un-readable text is not so frustrating after all. What is un-readable to a critical and judging subject is the sensation or affect of the work of art as monument. For Deleuze, instead of rendering the subject helpless, such a sensation has the power to raise one to a higher level, to Life itself.
In a late interview, Michel Foucault characterized his later works to be "fictions" and tied this notion to what he called "the experience book," a project in which he inscribed himself and the aim of which was to transform the reader, pushing one to what he called "de-subjectivication." Might it not be profitable to take this page from Foucault and re-read Modernism's "un-readable" texts as a modern "practice of the self?" Like a contemplative practice, un-readable texts allow one to excavate the illusions of the subject and of thought and to access what Deleuze and Guattari term "pure contemplation without knowledge." In this light and contrary to received opinion, un-readable texts are far from debilitating or limiting, but, rather empowering and highly active.
In order to put such a highly ambitious project to the test of the text, I wish to examine how, in textual terms, so-called un-readable texts from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons transmit this head-turning sensation. In terms of the text, how does such an "experience" take place? What is its effect on the reader? What kind of thought occurs when experiencing some of the more notorious poems from this collection? And, more importantly, what kind of "self" emerges after practicing such a reading? These are the questions my proposal will seek to address and if not answer, at least provide strategies towards answers.