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Fr. 436

November 13, 2013

A recent post at Vertigo suggests a paradox underlying language through the juxtaposition of two paragraphs from Gert Jonke’s essay “Individual and Metamorphosis”, published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 2012, Vol. XXXII. The paragraphs so juxtaposed are here given:

a. “I am an invention of my own self.  Since coming upon myself facing myself I’ve been faced the whole time with the problem of how to place myself somewhere, in some place where I would be able either to find or somehow cobble together on my own, through hints and hunches at least, something like a roof, a lodging, a shelter for me and my head.  In my case it was clear soon enough that this would be most feasible if I came to settle in a region of my own arranging, a plot of land in the realm of language, or narration.”

b. “How, nonetheless, from a purely technical standpoint, can language express what has always been inexpressible, grow literate enough to produce literature?  Allow me to try illustrating it for you through an image.  Picture language as a fence you’re erecting: letters and words as fence posts, sentences as fences put up around an area itself unknown, intangible, unmeasured, perhaps not even really accessible; but my fencing it in with language delineates its outlines to me, allows me to see its contours, even though I cannot gain access or perhaps do not even need to enter this area…”

Despite Jonke’s sometimes opaque style, from these passages there emerge a few promising routes from which to pursue further reasoning on the question of the relation between self and language, along with a healthy dose of skepticism on just how far one might be able to push or analyze such a relation.

The first paragraph reprises key themes from both the history of philosophy and literature, particularly in their romantic iterations, where the question on which thinkers lingered before all was that of (re)finding or (re)making a home for oneself in the world. Insofar as the initial premise in this romantic reasoning consists in the alienation of humanity from its original unity with world and nature, these thinkers then posit the need for a return to this state that is, at the same time, qualitatively different from it. In other words, the return desired is not that of a simple coming back by the straight path but, instead, the circling around by other paths and means to that place from where one had set out.

More concretely, if this original unity is correlated with an immediate, non-discursive consciousness of world and nature, then the only means of return are those afforded by one’s mediate, discursive consciousness through which one might attain to a consciousness so thoroughly mediated by the interrelation of all things through the subject that consciousness thus passes into a sort of mediated immediacy. This higher reflexivity is perhaps best captured by Jonke’s: “Since coming upon myself facing myself I’ve been faced the whole time with the problem of how to place myself somewhere…”. For the subject of higher consciousness, its thoughts no longer move through limited, discursive circles; rather, they engage in a qualitatively higher intuition, the result of having pushed the discursive means of the mind to their logical extreme.

Although Jonke’s position is not by any means to be reduced to a mere retread of romanticism, there remain important similarities both in this background story and its emphasis on the work of the individual, as is clear from the preceding paragraph. Moreover, Jonke seems keen to answer two questions with which the Romantics were also confronted: “is there an existence beyond alienation from world and nature?” and “with what means can the individual overcome alienation?”. It is here that Jonke stands apart from the Romantics, at least to some extent, for, in both cases, the former holds that the answer is to be found in language or, perhaps better, is language.

If the first paragraph cited seems to provide a straightforward manner of finding this place in the world, it should be noted that it hides within it internal tensions that need to be brought out more fully. It is clear from the above that the individual is necessarily confronted with the question of its own consciousness or self-reflection and, thus, the question of what is to be done with itself. As it does not feel at home, it must instead find some way “to place [itself] somewhere” with “something like a roof, a lodging, a shelter for [it] and [its] head”.

Yet where is this place to be found? Jonke’s wording seems to indicate that it is not to be found; it must be made. Hence, his emphasis on the individual “as an invention of [its] own self’, which echoes the place and role of the individual in most strands of Romanticism. The place where the individual is to find its home and settle will most likely prove to be one of “[its] own arranging, a plot of land in the realm of language, or narration”. Thus, language proves to be, at once, that material on which the individual will work and the means by which the individual will carry out that work. More simply, it is through narrating or narrativizing world and nature and bringing these into language in new forms that the individual will come to feel more at home in it. This is precisely because these linguistic measures consist in lending world and nature an order that consciousness finds otherwise lacking in the latter.

Wherefore the skepticism above mentioned? This owes to two developments: one considered by Jonke in the second paragraph cited above in the form of language’s relation to the absolute; the second an issue underlying Jonke’s own assumptions concerning the relation between individual, language and community on which the first paragraph stands or falls.

 

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