Friday, January 04, 2008

Repeatable Fragments

Cavarero provides some texture to the idea of plurality:

Biographies and autobiographies, before being textual sites of a refined and professional hemerneutics, are life-stories narrated as a written text. For as much as they are necessarily constructed according to diverse standards, or according to the epoch or the tastes of the times, they nonetheless tell the story of a narratable self whose identity–unique and unrepeatable–is what we seek in the pages of the text. It is this identity, which may be rendered as a fragmentary or multiple segmentation of the self, which would deny its unity. [Those commas don't seem right to me.] Our thesis, once more, is that the etymological root that the terms uniqueness [unicità] and unity [unità] share does not flatten them out into a homogeneous substance, but rather renders them signs of an existence whose life-story is different from all others precisely because it is constitutively interwoven with many others.

(Narratives, p. 71, Cavarero's emphasis, my bold)

What should we make of this association of uniqueness with unrepeatability? What does it mean to say that only the what is subject to repetititon (if it exists), that the who is exempt? What else would the who be exempt from?

The ambiguity of these questions regarding the persistence of identity lies in fact in the confusion of the status of the who with the what. The what–that is, the qualities, the character, the roles, the outlooks of the self–changes and is inevitably multiple and may be judged or reinterpreted in many ways. The who, on the other hand–as the uniqueness of the self in her concrete and insubstitutable existence–persists in continual self-exhibition, consisting in nothing else but this exposure, which cannot be transcended

(pp. 72-73, Cavarero's emphasis, my bold)

The space of appearance, which must mean in this context the space of co-appearance, is not then a space of transcendence. Does transcendence belong only to that which can repeat itself? How would that even be possible? If this is an anti-intellectual attitude, what's at stake? That is, whose intellects are exposed?

One could indeed maliciously suspect that the whole affair about the centrality of the text, which reduces the existence of the living to a status of extra-textuality, depends on the well-known tendency of intellectuals to represent the world in their likeness and image. This is, of course, an ancient vice. It originates, perhaps, with Parmenides–the first professional thinker–who declares that 'being and thinking are the same.' The 'I think, therefore I am' of Descartes, and the 'all that is real is rational' of Hegelian memory, echo h im through the millenia. After which, in more recent times, the subject fades away–but not the sacredness of the intellectual work, which, for centuries, has claimed to put it into the world. On the contrary, such intellectual work, tirelessly speculating upon itself, decides that the very same speculators are a fictitious product of the speculating game. With a rather democratic gesture, the text thus consumes everyone's existence–philosphers and housewives, heroes and poets, characters and authors–in a single mouthful.

(p. 76, Cavarero's emphasis)

Caverero is most brilliant when she is critical. I wouldn't idealize, and I wouldn't suspect her of idealizing, plurality. Here she is critical of a notion of the totality of an existent or a self:

Fragile and contingent–and already marked at birth by a unity that makes of herself first a promise, and then a desire–the narratable self is an exposed uniqueness that awaits her narration. The text of this narration, far from producing all the reality of the self, is nothing but the marginal consequence, or symptom, that follows that desire.

(p. 86, Cavarero's emphasis)

The existent, which is insubstitutable for the duration of his/her life-span, is never an all–although it is born into the promise of the one. Still less does he/she find in death 'an adequate base for establishing in what sense the totatilty of Being-there can be talked about.' Only a perspective that is obsessively focused on death can in fact read existence in terms of totality. Even the posthumous horizon that characterizes the motive of many autobiographical writings supports this obsession.

Precisely because of htis irremediable exposure to others, uniqueness–although it speaks the desiring language of the one–rejects, at the root, the synthesis of the all. The en kai pan, the One and All, belong to the doctrine of Parmenides, not to the design of a life traced by human footsteps on the terrain of unforeseeability and contingency. Fragile and exposed, the existent belongs to a world-scene where interaction with other existents is unforeseeable and potentially infinite. As in The Arabian Nights, the stories intersect with each other. Never isolated in the chimerical, total completion of its sense, one cannot be there without the other.

The narratable self thus re-enters into what we could call a relational ethic of contingency; or rather, an ethic founded on the altruistic ontology of the human existent as finite. Already exposed within the interactive scene that Arendt calls 'political,' there lies at the center of the narrative scene a who which–far from enclosing herself within the pride of a self-referential ego meant to last forever–gathers the in-born matrix of an expositive and relational existence. She wants and gives, receives and offers, here and now, an unrepeatable story in the form of a tale.

(p. 87, Cavarero's emphasis, my bold)

(Snark: Cavarero has exposed herself as a pleonasmist; so much for unrepeatability.) The challenging thought here (for me, of course) is to not align the infinite with repetition. Can one repeat one's way to infinity? If infinity is a place, perhaps you are already there, at your relations, or your relationality. Far be it from me to contemplate your finitude. When I consider my own existence, and what finitude means for me, I am not confident that infinite relationality has it all sewn up. All sewn up. Well, is this really my problem, thinking that the who (my dear sweet who) can be a totality? Do you see where my thought veers, always at odds? Caverero won't let me get me comfortable with an estrangement from myself. She says:

The altruism of uniqueness has thus the additional merit of avoiding that 'rhetoric of alterity,' which the philosophical discourse of the twentieth century seems to adore. 'The Other' or 'the other,' capital or lower-case, often gets invoked by contemporary philosophers as a proof of their good intentions with respect to the individualistic spirit of the times. Whether it is the alterity that invades the self, rendering him nomadic and fragmented, or the alterity that lures the self more subtly with his embrace, these others never have the distinct and unrepeatable face of each human in so far as he is simply another. Intolerant, as usual, of many elementary givens of existence–a large part of contemporary philosophy disdains the ontological status that binds the reality of the self to the (well, yes, empirical) material presence of someone other.

As we never tire of repeating, the ontological status of reciprocal appearance [comparizione] belongs to the existents–distinct and plural, each one for and with another–of a living context like life [ahem]. Continuing to live as a unique existent, here and now, in flesh and bone, this and not another, the who therefore avoids both the usual language of ethics and of politics. Constitutively altruistic, rather than by choice, the ethics and politics of uniqueness indeed speak a language that does not know general names. They tend, moreover, to coincide in the relational character of the very same scene–where the other who interacts, watches and recounts is the inassimilable, the insubstitutable, the unrepeatable. She is a unique existence that no categorization or collective identity can fully contain. She is the you [tu] that comes before the we [noi], before the plural you [voi] and before the they [loro].

(p. 90, Cavarero's emphasis)

Perhaps we could talk about a revolutionary you. I don't know. I feel we're still at an awkward stage in our relationship where I don't know how to talk about your finitude–if you have one. If you asked me to tell you your story, I would put an ending on it. Can that be what you want? (At the risk of repeating myself, I should mention that Cavarero is about as different from Tengelyi as one could imagine; when I feel something other within my experience, as in the case of letting my imagination flow, which I don't regard as psychopathological, I don't know why I wouldn't want to talk about that using a rhetoric of alterity, though, naturally, I wouldn't confuse my imagination with you, gentle soul.)

At last I'd like to look at Cavarero's critique of individualism because she says something quite intriquing and I hope she means it. (I simply must say in passing a word about Cavarero's rhetorical strategy. She's attempting to preempt a criticism of her philosophy as being individualistic. Well, she provides a few good reasons why we shouldn't want to think individualistically. I must say, however, that I haven't yet read a genuine defense of individualism. I must sort of take it on faith then that people believe in such a reprehensible doctrine–in which case I'm sure they have their reasons.)

As the elementary lexicon of democracy demonstrates, individuality is indeed a repeatable, atomized, serial paradigm. Each individual, in an of himself, is as valid for one as he is for any other; he is equal because he is equivalent [ahem]. Uniqueness, on the other hand, ends up rendering useless both the concept of repetition and the principle of generalization that nourishes the individualist theory. Uniqueness is an absolute difference, which, as Arendt never tires of arguing, changes the very notion of politics.

(p. 89, Cavarero's emphasis, my bold)

Let me be so bold as to ask you, Why should you want to repeat yourself? Why should you want to generalize? Maybe you would repeat yourself or generalize to make yourself understood? I doubt, if I may, that you would want to be repeated or generalized by me or anybody else. Anyway, that's a tricky proposition. Why is it tricky to repeat another and not to repeat oneself, to be repeated by another and not to be repeated by oneself? (Sometimes I feel that everything having to do with others is tricky.) I offer you the thought that you shouldn't want to repeat yourself because you really don't know yourself that well. See? You are trickier than you know.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 4:31 PM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, Mariela once commented that we may change but 'we' do not become someone else....

'camping' for a few days...we will all come back 'changed'...(smile).

January 04, 2008 11:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesing - your post is longer when I look at it in the comment section.

January 05, 2008 12:02 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

"your post is longer when I look at it in the comment section"--to make the front page easier to navigate. It's why I have the "whole enchilada" link, though I seldom make use of the hidden text feature.

I think Cavarero would agree with Mariela. When Cavarero says one is "unrepeatable" she assumes that one has been created–once but not for all, I guess–by another. When somebody says they repeat themselves they may not (probably do not) mean it literally. I am taking it literally. My attitude is that if one really is unique and unrepeatable, one should think and act accordingly at every moment. And if we don't, if we form attachments to the what of an ipseity, which Cavarero would regard as confused, then I think those attachments should be investigated. Why do we live with such confusion? I think people may want to transcend themselves and some may admit as much. (So I take repeating oneself literally.) If the genuine ipse/ipsa cannot be transcended, it would be wise to live with this fact, and that may mean not desiring what cannot come to pass. But as you might guess I am not totally on board with Cavarero. I suspect there may be something to this confusion about the self other than simple wrongness. I don't know.

January 05, 2008 9:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just occurred to me that the 'who' would also be exempt from mortality...(as crocco and christianity would affirm)

I'll have to read this post again when i return. Arendt on 'absolute difference' rather than a relation of difference sounds like the difference btwn being one and not being another.
A difference that seems to be obscured with all this talk of 'alterity'....A one that would be one even if there were no others....

January 05, 2008 10:41 AM  

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