Monday, January 29, 2007

The aura of books

Sitting here all weekend with an iBook on my lap, reading online, hoping for emails to arrive, waiting for RSS feeds to update, the TV on uselessly, an iTunes playlist running, a work-in-progress in the background awaiting attention, I often wonder why those objects over there on the table should radiate such an incomparable aura.

A woman who wrote to me last year to deride this blog asked: "Have you ever managed to get a BOOK actually published? I doubt it". I remember my bafflement. Why would that make any difference to what is written here? Is it because books go through a process to be published and, along the way, absorb editorial and commercial authority, thereby transferring it to the words within, something a blog, even a blog of a book, could never absorb? It seems that way. Of the dozen or so reviews I've written that have been published on paper, only a few satisfy the need to speak that this space embodies, yet somehow they offer a guarantee, however small, to these notes, as gold in the Bank of England guarantees Sterling.
"What would be at stake in the fact that something like art or literature exists?" This question is extremely pressing, and historically pressing, but it is a question that a secular tradition of aestheticism has concealed, and continues to conceal.
Blanchot wrote that nearly 40 years ago. Last week, Andrew Bissett asserted that "Art exists for one reason: to bring pleasure", as if pleasure was one thing. He falls back on fashionable philistinism because the god of art fails to show himself. Nothing is at stake anymore but our boredom. Others instead might herald an imminent new age, the age of the internet, streaming media, instant access to escape, the end of patience. That at least has been happening for some time, and is often equated with a change of epoch, as Nick Tosches says, quoting Erich Auerbach:
"European civilisation is approaching the term of its existence," he stated bluntly near the end of his own days. We live now in what with a straight face is called the information age. Not enlightenment, not knowledge, surely not wisdom, but bits and bytes of meaningless ephemera.
And in the TLS, Stephen Burn quotes Italo Calvino at the beginning of his reassessment of Infinite Jest.
It has been the millennium of the book, in that it has seen the object we call a book take on the form now familiar to us. Perhaps it is a sign of our millennium's end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called post-industrial era of technology
Burn doesn't claim that Foster Wallace's novel is an example of the affect of the millennium on literature as literature - in fact from his description of Infinite Jest it seems very old-fashioned. Instead he discusses the social resonance of the date-change for American writers. This innocent evasion suggests a blind spot as we wonder. In the same passage quoted above, Blanchot offers a reason why. His words have always stirred me, even if I don't understand what's he's saying exactly. It gives the kind of pleasure Andrew Bissett would either not recognise or, if he did, would dismiss for social reasons.
If one ceased publishing books in favour of communication by voice, image, or machine, this in no way change the reality of what is called the "book"; on the contrary, language, like speech, would thereby affirm all the more its predominance and its certitude of a possible truth. In other words, the Book always indicates an order that submits to unity, a system of notions in which are affirmed the primacy of speech over writing, of thoughts over language, and the promise of a communication that would one day be immediate and transparent.

Now it may be that writing requires the abandonment of all these principles, that is to say, the end and also the coming to completion of everything that guarantees our culture - not so that we might in idyllic fashion turn back, but rather so we might go beyond, that is, to the limit, in order to attempt to break the circle, the circle of circles: the totality of the concepts that founds history, that develops in history, and whose development history is. Writing, in this sense - in this direction in which it is not possible to maintain oneself alone, or even in the name of all without the tentative advances, the lapses, the turns and detours whose trace the texts [in The Infinite Conversation] bear - supposes a radical change of epoch: interruption, death itself - or, to speak hyperbolically, "the end of history". Writing in this way passes through the advent of communism, recognised as the ultimate affirmation - communism being still always beyond communism. Writing thus becomes a terrible responsibility. Invisibly, writing is called upon to undo the discourse in which, however unhappy we believe ourselves to be, we who have it at our disposal remain comfortably installed. From this point of view writing is the greatest violence, for it transgresses the law, every law, and also its own.

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