Friday, December 14, 2007

Paradox of Ulysses

Adriana Cavarero speaks of a paradox of Ulysses, by which she means the situation that we recieve our own stories from the narrations of others (Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, trans. Paul Kottman, Routledge, 2000, p. 17). In other words, we are the protagonists but not the authors of our own life stories. Cavarero's perspective, suspicious of autobiography, contrasts with László Tengelyi's (The Wild Region in Life-History) emphasis on a life history that one tells oneself, although on the question of the irreplacable uniqueness of the existent there is perhaps some agreement. Where does the unicity of an identity come from? It is tempting for me to think that experience has a unicity, that all of my experiences seem to belong to me alone, and thus perhaps my consciosness could be a source of my identity. Cavarero (and in a different way Tengelyi) will have none of that. In her view the unicity that pertains to identity is given by others; identity is not substantial but rather relational and expositional. On the topic of the expositional character of identity, she is of course interpreting Hannah Arendt, which is her strong suit. When discussing the self-disclosure that pertains to action, she says that identity is expressive. It is not then consciousness which exercises an esemplastic power over experience; rather, relations between singular exposed existents constitute identity and, if I'm reading her correctly, give meaning to a course of life events.

When Jean-Luc Nancy says "birth" I'm not sure if he literally means birth from a womb. Cavarero, who reads Nancy affectionately, leaves no doubt that natality is about birth from the womb. The mother, she says, "embodies the ex- of existent" (p. 19). She says appearance is "rooted in the materiality of the context" (p. 21). I think maybe she means "the context of exhibition," which doesn't really say much, but the mere acknowledgement of a context is perhaps important, and of course there's the question of its materiality, which primarily interests me. Cavarero's thoughts on materiality are fleshed out in For More than One Voice which argues against the primacy of the visual that she posits in Relating Narratives. In any case, she appears to be committed to a kind of materialism. We might call it an expositional materialism, though it is also a materialism of natality. Here is a display:

The expositive and the relational character of identity are thus indistinguishable. One always appears to someone. One cannot appear if there is no one else there. It follows, to say it again with Nancy, that 'the un-exposable is the nonexistent'; that is, existing consits in disclosing oneself within a scene of plurality where everyone, by appearing to one another, is shown to be unique. They appear to each other reciprocally–first of all in their corporeal materiality and as creatures endowed with sensory organs. Put another way, the language of the existent assumes the bodily condition of 'this and not another' in all of its perceptible concreteness. Starting from birth, from the 'naked reality of our originary physical appearance,' [Arendt, The Human Condition] each of us is who appears to others uniquely and distinctly.

(pp. 20-21)

"[T]he language of the existent assumes the bodily condition of 'this and not another' in all of its perceptible concreteness." I find this intriguing, but I wonder about the distance between language and the existent that has been opened up in the paradox of Ulysses. Whose story is the Odyssey, or the story told at the court of the Phaecians? I'll quote another paragraph at length which shows, I hope, why the paradox of Ulysses is a paradox, or at least an irony.

To be sure, by emphasizing heroic action, the constitutive unmasterability [impadroneggiabilità] of the 'who' is made hugely evident. No one can know, master or decide upon identity. Each one of us is only capable of exhibiting it, of exhibiting that unrepeatable uniqueness which he is, as he appears to others in the actual context of his exhibition. Our Ulysses, who interacts with his peers on the Trojan plane, is thus not an extraordinary case at all. As happens not only with heroes, but also with all of the other actors, he does not know who he is because he could in no way know it. The one who is revealed never knows whom he reveals. Given that everyone's identity lies completely in the exhibitive character of this whowho the agent reveals is, by definition, unknown to the agent himself.

(p. 23)

Is the narrator a master of identities in any way? A master of anybody's language? When Cavarero goes on to speak of a desire for one's life to be narrated, I rather doubt she will be thinking of a desire to be mastered. What exactly is the power that the narrator holds? Who speaks the language of the existent?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:54 AM.


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