- Diminishing I’s: The Unnamable’s Absent Subjecthood and the Disintegration of Meaning in the Face of Foucault’s Panopticon
Since its publication in 1953, Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable has confounded casual readers and critics alike with its richly convoluted narrative voice and the intentionally ambiguous time and space. The title refers to both the character of the narrator and the narrative itself; the ambiguities created by the narrator’s contradictory, mysterious, and intertextual claims render both the narrator and the story “unnamable,” in the sense that neither can be positively identified, described, or defined, at least not to the extent that they might be sufficiently named. Thus, both the novel and the narrator are The Unnamable, and though initially daunting, this conflation ultimately points the way to an intelligible reading of the text because of what it reveals about the narrator’s position. In short, by applying a consideration of the importance of naming to literature first formulated by Jacques Derrida to the inherent difficulties presented by the text, one is able to see the unnamable narrator as the “model” citizen of the kind of society described by Michel Foucault’s metaphorical panopticon, an entirely circumscribed consciousness attempting to reach beyond the constraints of its position but ultimately failing in the face of overwhelming surveillance and oppression.
The novel engages in a kind of “secret agent” discourse of interrogation and resistance in order to inhabit the inner life of the individual at the center of a panoptic, society even as that individual is rendered unnamable and unknowable to the reader. The narrator resists the [End Page 465] interrogation of society (and implicitly, the reader) by creating alternate identities with which to use the unique abilities of a narrator to inhabit other characters and escape from the surveillance under which he finds himself. This ability is only ever a delaying tactic, however, because the narrator’s efforts to use alternate characters in order to avoid surveil-lance only serves to divide the narrator’s agency across those characters, thus reducing him to a hollow placeholder instead of an actual person; in other words, the narrator’s efforts to escape the panoptic society ultimately only serves to dissolve his identity, leaving nothing except precisely that part of him that is controlled and surveyed by society.
Before exploring The Unnamable in more detail, it will be necessary to review the critical tools that allow for an accurate understanding of the novel. First, a look at Jacques Derrida’s consideration of the “name” of literature in his essay “Who or What Is Compared? The Concept of Comparative Literature and the Theoretical Problems of Translation” offers a means of understanding the novel and narrator’s most prominent feature (or lack thereof). Ostensibly a consideration of the phenomena in the comparative literature department, Derrida’s essay actually reveals the importance of names as they relate to meaning, because according to Derrida, proper names “cannot be translated . . . because they have no meaning, no conceptualizable and common meaning” (p. 36).1 What he means by this is that “they only have a referent, as one says, a unique referent, and when they are pronounced one can designate [viser] only a single, singular individual, one unique thing” (WW, p. 36).
This claim demands interpretation because of the implications it has for Beckett’s unnamable narrator, because as will be seen, the narrator’s struggles are ultimately an attempt to become that “single, singular individual,” which is an irreducible identity, standing apart from any generalized mass of humanity, and precisely the thing quashed by the kind of oppressive society described by Foucault’s panopticon and the novel itself. Furthermore, the fact that the narrator is not simply unnamed but rather unnamable suggests the terrifying implications of the novel’s society, and subsequently, human society in general.
If proper names have no meaning, then conversely, that which is unnamable would seem to have the potential for infinite meanings, such that the unnamable object is only ever visible in brief flashes, and never in its totality, like the quantum state of an electron, only ever [End Page 466] existing as a potentiality until observed by an...