Here is the paper, finally, from the Glossator conference in April at the CUNY graduate center. The final roundtable with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, David Greetham, Jesús Velasco, and Avital Ronell, with introductory remarks and questions from Nicola Masciandaro, can be heard here.
Affects and Their Gravities: Commentary as a Capacity of Care
1. Commentary and Secular Sense
Wai Chee Dimmock, ostensibly an Americanist, has argued for “literature as a democratic institution, vibrant and robust.”[i] Alternately, she finds literary culture a kind of slow moving “civil society”: “an unusually fine grained and lasting one, operating on a scale both too large and too small to be fully policed by the nation-state.”[ii] For Dimmock, the literary as such “is not an attribute resident in a text, but a relation, a form or entanglement, between a changing object and a changing recipient, between a tonal presence and the way it is differently heard over time.”[iii] Literature, “is thus an object with an unstable ontology, since a text can resonate only insofar as it is touched by the effects of its travels.”[iv] The literary is thus a relation.
We could, already, at a conference like this, apply certain epithets to this relation in a manner facile (yet perhaps needful)—understanding the literary as commentary, the act of translating which enables much of the movement of this society through deeper time as a kind of commentary. And we would in so doing deepen our understanding of commentary, of what we call the ‘literary.’ Yet, following this relation into moments of its manifestation will bring us to a strange territory: one that our classical notion of worldly civil society—one for and in this world—cannot, for all that, account for. Such a sense of the literary which, as relation we would call commentary, through deep time, would include strange phenomena. For instance, as Dimock enumerates, “Translation—the movement of a corpse by a vehicle driven by someone other than himself, and the movement of a text by a vehicle driven by something alien—unites the living and the dead in a gesture steeped in mortality and inverting it, carrying it on.”[v] Dimock is thus willing to admit that to acknowledge the sense which emerges from such a relation comes with a certain risk—as we knowledge that the literary as relation (between us, here, but also but also in meaningful relations with the dead) we must also acknowledge its filiations with the content and structure of religions and the religious.[vi] Just as Jean-Luc Nancy must acknowledge that politics (specifically the politics of democracy) in its history as the “renewed aporia of a religion of the polis” must go the way of fundamentalist theocracy or follow a radical “reinvention, perhaps, of what secularity means,” so too commentary (if we take it as a literary relation), like politics, must “assume a dimension it cannot integrate for all that, a dimension that overflows it, one concerning an ontology or an ethology of “being-with,” attached to absolute excedence [excédence absolue] of sense and passion for sense for which the word sacred was but the designation.”[vii] How might we gloss of this sense of being-with, trembling within what we call commentary?
Heidegger’s thinking on the structure of Mitda-sein (being-together) as a structure equiprimordial with Dasein stands out from his analysis of Care as a fundamental structure of Dasein in Part 1 of Sein und Zeit, to the point that Being-with or Being-together would be necessary for our being itself. I would offer this sense of Care which determines being-with as a gloss on a possible ground of an “ethology of ‘being-with’”:
Since being-in-the world is essentially care, being-together-with things at hand could be taken in our previous analyses as taking care of them, being with the Mitda-sein of others encountered within the world as concern. Being-together-with is taking care of things, because as a mode of being-in it is determined by its fundamental structure, care.[viii] (180)
To invoke this concept of Care is to assert that one’s being can only emerge as already oriented towards the Being-together of others that involves taking care of things. Being together thus involves a taking-care-of-things-together. It is this concept of Care, I would contend, which could provide access to the new kind of secularity that literature as civil society (as a way of Being-together) would need in its theoretical enunciation: a way of understanding how literary practices—specifically those of commentary—are caught up in the practices that simultaneously produce and consist of the sense of the mysterium being-together [the glosser participates in a society across time addressing herself to the text, the author, and previous glossers at the same time that she squeezes the sense out of a line of verse in bringing the stylus to the margin]. I would thus link commentary as Care to an ethos of Being-with while at same time reckoning with the resemblance of such a sense-producing structure to the production of sense proper to religions by locating its manifestation in the radically worldly and mundane practices of reading and writing (commentary).
According to Heidegger’s conceptualization, Care appears equiprioridally with Being itself, resulting in the practice of taking care of things as part of one’s reactionary and determined responses to the thrown-ness of finding oneself being-in the Mitdasein of others.[ix] Even so, this formulation of Care inextricably links Being-together to the possibility of the appearance of the mysterium of Being at all: “The being of Da-sein means being-ahead-of-onesself-already-in (the world) as being-together-with (innerworldly beings encountered). This being fills in the significance of the term care...”[x] Care is a fundamental structure, not the result of conscious or appropriative practice. But when commentary might be understood as a taking care of things (texts) together (together because glossers will inevitably add to and argue with each other across time and space while they fill up the margins of a given text) then the question could then be posed—as we are together at a conference on commentary: can concrete practices of taking-care-of-things-together contain the possibility of producing in reverse the kind of exceedence I would ascribe to Care? I would offer the remainder of this paper, a commentary on two short sections from a contemporary poem, to risk attempting what must amount to that impossible heresy.
2. Commentary on two lines from “Daughter” by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge[xi]
from part one, “Dream”:
An angel swims silently to a flat rock in the night, where seabirds are sleeping, senses them,
and stops. Their recognizing her in the moonlight, without waking, is the physical sensation of meaning
of your dream, when you awake. The birds’ dream represents an angel, and later it shelters the meaning,
Berssenbrugge’s poems, like this one, charge the line with a task of generously exhausting her readers—pushing them into a game of remembering as one reels further and further towards the right margin. They can be for this reason, very forgettable lines—hard to call up and quote, but nonetheless leaving a reader with a residue of specific affects. These lines open a scene in which a swimming angel can sense.
The birds, sleeping, recognize the angel, and this recognition forms something of a ‘phenomenological correlative,’ to recognize in this line something akin to Eliot’s objective correlative even if it will open onto these secular literary aesthetics. The dream of the birds, within the dream of the poem (so-named by the section heading “dream”) does the work of a language, representing an angel, sheltering the meaning angel, and unfolding, even as an ethereal dream within the fiction of a poetic dream, a ‘physical sensation of meaning,’ except that unlike Eliot’s figure, here the sense is not conveyed with reliance on an image.[xii] Instead, the poem-commentary insists, sense is literarily and physically sheltered by the sound of the poem pronounced, and sheltered by a dream—as if the dream, as a wish or a desire, were also a physical phenomon in the world of the dream within the dream, pulling the angel towards itself, a gravity of affect pulling in and giving shelter to the meaning, even in an echo of itself after the dream is over.
The very first line physically works to shelter this sense, dissipating the s-sounds throughout the line, so that the angel’s approach, silently swims, is, physically, intimate with the very word ‘sense’ when the line is audibly pronounced. The physical feeling of the s anticipates sense before its arrival, but also helps to shelter it in the memory of the reader or listener as sound physically ties the end of a long line to its beginning, helping one to remember the sense of the long line. This “physical sensation of meaning’ consists in a recognition without waking—a dreaming within a dream which recognizes what is outside of the dream, but, impossibly, without breaching the boundary of the dream—giving the shelter of the dream over to itself on the condition that it shelter more than just dream (ie. meaning), even as what it contains (the meaning Angel) is within the ‘dream’ of the poem, but outside the dream of the birds inside the poem. §
from part 2 “Commentary”:
The dream represents a meaning to me. Then it’s a structure that shelters the meaning.
My emotion can represent an evaluation or contain one, of interaction between an etheral object
and an organism. The angels bows down.
The commentary opens itself by saying what the dream is doing. It does this in the form of lineated verse—verse of a long line, almost resembling prose, yet failing to reach all the way to the right margin despite coming quite close. The commentary establishes a temporal order for what the dream does (we must hold in reserve the question of which dream?): first, it represents. then, it is (a structure that shelters the meaning). Either the form of the two sentences of this first line is not parallel, or the being of the dream is considered its activity by the end of the first line. The dream thus has its being in sheltering. The difference between representation and being is quite significant. The dream is a structure that shelters the meaning. Now, what sort of structure is it?
Dimmock reminds us, as she explains her privileging of the audible over the visual in her theory of the literary relation, that “Literary study makes a large provision for the unvisualizable,”[xiii] and I might offer this moment as such a instance of that provision. What kind of structure shelters a meaning? If the meaning has moved into the very operations of ontology, it is a meaning whose being is in its very relation, in its unfolding as unveiling. The shelter of such a delicate creature would then surely be strange. Yet even though I would desire philosophical rigor for this paper in the last instance, I am really dealing with poësis, a poësis which is prior to any philosophy—so we will dare to name what is strange. To do so we must venture out of our text briefly because it is only later in the poem where we read that what is contained in the dream, the scene of the dream (rocks, angel, birds, etc.) is “like a stage set” (Part 2, 2nd complete stanza).[xiv] A stage, as the marking off of a limit which is nonetheless an opening—an enclosure whose function it is to open for the audience, an open circle—a structure which functions to allow an event to occur from inside which overfills it and brings the audience into relation with it as the event of a theater, a figure (pace Nancy on Gérard Granel) operating in the mode, of “the simultaneity of the open and the ringed...the simultaneity of the void and the divided out”[xv]
The claim of the second line opens the possibility of a vacillation between representating and sheltering, or, containing, but with respect to an emotion. This similarity to the relations of the first line suggests the possibility that the dream is, or at least can operate in the manner of, an emotion—the history of dream as wish-fulfillment underscores this possibility—the dream as desire. The desire is not in itself an evaluation, but can contain one. This is the relation between a being (an organism) and an ethereal object (the literary). A desire then operates here as the stage of, or the scene of, the intellection. The affective lien between a being and the literary shelters the sense of that relation. The poet-exegete identifies a shelter within the text and cares for it—even while taking shelter in it among the other readers that will encounter this shelter. Her and our commentary Cares for this shelter, expanding it without compromising its uniqueness—making it available to a community on the condition of maintaining its singular texture. This Care is not the Anxious care of the religious for the sacred word worth more than the World [Heidegger’s Care too suffers under Angst], not the gnostic privileging of Word over World which the literary as a civil relation, a conference on commentary, or any civil gathering around any text constantly risks practicing. As sheltering, commentary could operate as a practice of giving the world back to itself in its very worldiness.
For the shelter to undergo the circumspection of commentary and yet continue to function as a shelter of meaning it must somehow be able to be given back itself and its sheltering. This sheltering and what it draws towards itself (in terms of the sense of the poem) as well as the preservation of this sheltering (which any commentary on it would require) thus provokes a relation that is the very meaning of Heidegger’s Care: “the possibility of a concern which does not so much leap in for the other as leap ahead of him, not in order to take “care” away from him, but to first to give it back to him as such.”[xvi] This poem’s own gloss on itself, if it is to care for itself, cannot simply open up this shelter and grasp at or gaze on the meaning that the shelter shelters, but must leap ahead of the poem’s own appearance so that it give back to the poem the event of its sheltering. The poet-exegete moves and thinks and is-with all of these events in the dream which operates as a stage that opens for the performance of the poem—a shelter which, once given it back to itself so that meaning be immanent in its sheltering, exerts such a gravity so as to make our sheltering of the poem’s sheltering possible, and in turn our gloss, our meaningful being-with.
At the end of our text, the Angel bows down. The Angel seems to have escaped from the dream and into the commentary. The angel tends to the sheltering, bows in the commentary to the sanctuary of sense that, being literary, can only be (in the first instance) felt or heard. Again, the dream first sheltered the meaning, “angel,” a thing that outside of it, bows down, as part of its commentary. The poem, at least the part of it which consists of the dream, is not unless the angel is, and is in such a way that it tends to the poem’s sheltering of sense as part of the commentary to the dream. The Angel is not only the dramatization, but also the literal event of the poem’s leaping ahead of both the sheltering and the meaning sheltered even within the topology and vocabulary of the poem itself so it can infinitely give itself back to itself. This angel is then not a religious worshipper, not bowing out of penitence or unworthiness, but in following and attending to, indeed leaping ahead of and sheltering, the affective gravity of the Being-with of the poem as commentary in which it has its being. Something of this being-with escapes itself while still remaining worldly and finite—escapes the finite figure of the dream which nonetheless somehow shelters the infinite sense that resounds in the impossible space and movement of the Angel between the inside and the outside of the dream.[xvii]
The success of the poem’s commentary on its own dream/desire depends on the preservation of this finite structure which shelters sense exceedent enough for an Angel from within the dream to bow to it. This is a capacity of the literary Dimock describes as the ability for tiny details of a text to shelter global relations through deep time: “These two—finite parameters and infinite unfolding—go hand in hand. The latter is embedded in the former, coiled in the former [I might say, sheltered by]...Scalar opposites here generate a dialectic that makes the global an effect of the grainy.”[xviii] This careful and circumspect bringing out of almost infinite sense out of finite figures might be seen as a concept of commentary itself as the ‘spice’ or “savor of the significance of the text” (as Nicola Masciandaro would say).[xix] But it need not be glossed as a religious exegesis of transcendent sense. Rather, I would gloss this relation of Care as the very relation of commentary, infinitely leaping ahead of the shelter so as to give the shelter back to itself in its sheltering (here, in the mise en abîme of the exe-poësis which, despite what it is, escapes itself to bring us in turn, outside of the poem, into the same relation, pulling us together into the shelter of its auto-commentary): a capacity for which, while remaining secular, a secular structure cannot keep account; a tending to the sense which, given back to itself, exceeds itself—the relation to the infinite that we are first drawn to by a finite dream, or even a desire for the finite entity of a poem bursting out from exegesis.Giambattista Vico’s etymology of lex (for law) famously explains the term as referring initially to a gathering of acorns, then as a gathering of vegetables or crops, and finally “a collection of citizens, or the public parliament” from which gathering of lex or law gives way again to the gathering of letters into the legere of reading.[xx] This etymology, no matter how inventive, importantly roots reading in a practice emerging from a civil way of being-together. Literature operates as a lex alternative to the compulsory civil gathering of nations—but as a relation, one which gathers not only letters—where the civil gathering, rather than making the literary possible, is made possible and in fact manifested imminently in the literary. Commentary tends to this gathering-relation as being-together—across time and in a secular space, in the absence of the scribe and/or the receiver—, promotes it in reverse of the Heideggerian schema with which I began this essay, gathers beings into a secular order arising co-extensively with its sense in the shelter of commentary. Commentary tends to an alternative lex, not only alternate to the nation-state Dimock wisely wants out of, but also in its capacity to include sense in that order of being-together. Commentary: a secular practice of being-together, which can assume a dimension of sense.
[i] Wai Chee Dimock, “A Theory of Resonance,” PMLA (March 1999):1060.
[ii] Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: America Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 8.
[iii] Dimock, “Theory of Resonance,” 1064.
[iv] ibid., 1061.
[v] Dimock, Through Other Continents, 16.
[vi] ibid. Dimock refers to World religions as “well established phenomenon, one of the most durable and extensive on earth,” 23.
[vii] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Opening,” in Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. Bettina Bergo et. al. (NY: Fordham University Press, 2008), 3.
[viii] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 180.
[ix] Cf. Heidegger, Being and Time, §38 “Falling Prey and Thrownness,” §26 “The Mitda-sein of the Others and Everyday Being-with,” and §27 “Everyday Being One’s Self and the They,” on authentic Being and the everyday “leveling” of being or falling of discourse into idle talk, into which “Da-sein is disperesed in the they and must first find itself” (p.121), those passages part of those themes of Heidegger so misread by Sartre.
[x] Heidegger, Being and Time, 179-180.
[xi] Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, “Daughter,” in I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems (Berkley: University of California Press, 2006), 77-79.
[xii] Cf. F.O. Mathiessen, “The ‘Objective Correlative,” and “The Auditory Imagination,” in The Achievement of T.S. Eliot: An essay on the Nature of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).
[xiii] Dimock, “A Theory of Resonance,” 1066.
[xiv] Berssenbrugge, “Daughter,” p. 78 Part 2, 2nd complete stanza.
[xv] See Jean-Luc Nancy, “A Faith That Is Nothing At All,” in Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, 73.
[xvi] Heidegger, Being and Time, 115.
[xvii] In one of the later Harry Potter novels (and I will remain vague here for those who have ‘spoiler’ concerns), Prof. Dumbledore says to Harry, who is concerned about the status of their current conversation within the poles of dream and reality, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and XXXXXX (New York: Scholastic, 2007).
[xviii] Dimock, Through Other Continents, 77.
[xix] Nicola Masciandaro, “Becoming Spice: Commentary as Geophilosophy,” given at CUNY Graduate Center, Glossing is Glorious: The Past, Present, and Future of Commentary, April 9, 2009.
[xx] Giambatissta Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1968), Book 1, LXV, p. 240.