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The Trauma of Irishness; or, Literature as Material Cultural Memory in Joyce

From: Configurations
Volume 7, Number 2, Spring 1999
pp. 247-266 | 10.1353/con.1999.0012

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Configurations 7.2 (1999) 247-266

In the essay "What Is an Author?" Foucault set out to draw the full implications of the "death" of the author, arguing that notions like "the work" or "writing" ("écriture")--prevalent in structuralist and poststructuralist approaches to literature--"suppress the real meaning of his disappearance." Foucault aimed at clearing the way to a full understanding of the function of discourse in the positioning of subjectivity. In this essay I argue that the Irish writer James Joyce -- conventionally associated with the literary movement called "modernism," and the object of intense interest of Foucault's contemporaries Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, and Lyotard -- took the implications of the death of the author even further than Foucault himself, although his work is often identified with the notion of écriture.

A postcolonial perspective on Joyce alerts us to the peculiar situation of the Irish colonial experience: its discursive dispossession literalized the concept of the "death" of the author as his muting and the inability to speak from a position of discursive interiority. Thus Irish history gives the notion of the death of the author an additional dimension. In his notoriously disruptive and elusive works, Joyce, dramatizing the Irish situation of insertion into discourse, brought about the dramatic materialization or literalization of the failure of symbolization itself: the "death" of discourse. In other words, I argue that Joyce inscribed a spot of discursive failure, a touch of unconsciousness within power-knowledge. This, it seems to me, ought not to be understood as the willful negation of the possibility of communication, but as a symptom pointing to the paradoxically self-destructive effect of discursive dominance, which opens up a new dimension of communication through affect and the intersubjectivity of transference.

In the history of the twentieth century, the term "Auschwitz" has come to serve as signifier for just such a paralyzing deadlock of signification. Although Adorno's claim -- that after Auschwitz literature loses its legitimacy -- has become the standard reference for literary discussions of the Holocaust, I want to begin my discussion by turning to Lyotard's figuration of Auschwitz in The Differend, because he uses "Auschwitz" as a signifier for a discursive deadlock, not an ethical one. I believe, with Foucault, that we need to redefine the function of discursivity before we can rethink and rearticulate a normative ethics.

Lyotard points out that not only did the Germans exterminate the Jews, they also, in destroying a large quantity of the pertinent records, removed the possibility of the validation of the fact. How do we write a history after the total destruction of its discursive inscription? Lyotard makes Auschwitz into the index (in the Peircian sense of "pointer to") of a moment of failure of symbolization, which he describes as "the indetermination of meaning left in abeyance . . ., the shadow of negation hollowing out reality to the point of making it dissipate." How do we record or reflect in discourse and as discourse that which remains excluded from discourse, for which we have no words, nor a record or memory? What is there beyond discourse? Can we, perhaps, write a history of the nondiscursive impact, the "feeling" (Lyotard's term) left by such a cataclysmic event?

In Lyotard's discussion, it is not only the question of finding language for what cannot be named that is important: especially relevant is his manner of referring to it. In Lyotard's text the place-name "Auschwitz" functions as the signifier for something prior to speech and declaration that has just been declared unnamable. He uses the geographical-historical name "Auschwitz" to fill in the void in history. But in choosing to take this signifier from the discourse of history to denote an unavowable loss prior to its discourse and declaration, he practices a secondary positivization of that unavowable moment. Lyotard discursively rematerializes as place-name the discursive death that inaugurates the condition of which the inception can never be given in its positivity, but only pointed to as the unnamable moment of advent. The name thus functions as a Vorstellungsrepräsentanz for that which cannot be named. In The Four Fundamental Concepts, Lacan, deliberately twisting Freud's use of the term, speaks of...


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