- What Is Neuro-literature?
Neuroliterature: this word is not a name for a new discipline, which—like neurolinguistics, neuropsychoanalysis, or neurophilosophy—would tend to explain the way in which our mental acts are rooted in biological neural processes. Even if we have to pay these new sciences the most acute attention to the extent that they are currently re-sketching the inner and outer boundaries of the Humanities, my purpose here is different and wishes to escape all forms of reductionism.
Current neurobiology will be present in my discourse, but not as a possible new foundation for literature. Speaking from the continental philosophical point of view, I am interested in the way neurological research helps both radicalizing and challenging certain major motives of what took place in the second half of the twentieth century under the names of “deconstruction of subjectivity” in Derrida on the one hand, of “archeology of knowledge” in Foucault on the other. These two movements—let us call them movements for want of a better name—as different and sometimes opposed as they might have been, have shared what I will call a common faith in literature. I will limit myself here to exploring the Foucaultian structure or economy of this faith, which might be formulated as a faith in the outside. According to Foucault, literature promises the opening of an outside: outside of philosophy, outside of representation, outside of “discourse,” and, of course and above all, outside science, which has always been identified with power, regulation, normalization, and discipline.
This “outside” will actually be my topic, and I will focus on Foucault’s reading of Blanchot in his short but fundamental book entitled The Thought From Outside. In this book, Foucault declares:
the event that gave rise to what we called ‘literature’ is […] a passage to the ‘outside’: language escapes the mode of being of discourse—in other words the dynasty of representation—and literary speech develops from itself, forming a network in which each point is distinct, distant from even its closest neighbors, and has a position in relation to every other point in a space that simultaneously holds and separates them all.(12)
What does this have to do with the question of a possible “neuro-literature”? [End Page 78]
Neuroliterature here helps me name a crack or a flaw, not to mention a contradiction, in the very notion of literature understood as the thought from outside.
What literature was supposed to resist most, namely scientific discourse, paradoxically appears today as revealing the truth of literature, as opening for literature the outside that it was supposed to offer, and that it actually failed to open. If I absolutely agree with Foucault that there is no genuine thought without a passage to the outside, we have to come to the conclusion that literature is not an outside for anybody any longer, and that Blanchot’s fictions do not constitute the neutral space, or shelter, that would protect us from the mastery of transcendental subjectivity and of discourse.
I will radicalize this conclusion and state that neurobiology appears to be this absolute outside of literature that gives the outside in literature its effective meaning. Neurobiology achieves the neutralization of subjectivity. In other words, the deconstruction of subjectivity that is at work in neurobiology today is the material and effective accomplishment of neutrality, the material and effective opening of the “neutral space” (Foucault 12) which was supposed to be the space of literature (“l’espace littéraire”).
The revelation that the outside escapes literature, that the literary outside is outside of itself, is not a contingent fact, something which happens only today; it is inscribed within the very concept, or structure, of literature as Foucault, Blanchot, Derrida and others have understood and defined it.
In his second chapter, “The Experience of the Outside,” Foucault characterizes the birth of modern literature as a historical event that brings to light a new essence of language, a language precisely deprived of any subjectivity:
The breakthrough to a language from which the subject is excluded, the bringing to light of a perhaps irremediable incompatibility between the appearing of language in its being and consciousness of the self...