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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999) 53-75

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The Imaginary Materiality of Writing in Poe's "Ligeia"

Dorothea Von Mücke *

What does it mean to speak of "Writing in the Realm of the Senses"? The phrase captures a crucial aspect of what has been called "the materiality of the signifier." Regardless of whether writing is understood in the larger sense of the cultural techniques and technologies of literacy, or in the narrower sense opposed to the hermeneutic activity of reading and sense-making, the term emphasizes the externality and materiality of a sign system. This understanding of "writing" locates it within the realm of concrete, external sense perception and ties it to a material reality that can be apprehended by way of the senses of sight, hearing, or touch. Yet whenever writing is understood as a cultural technique of preserving and transmitting meaning, this "materiality" of writing is merely virtual materiality; although indeed some material support is needed to inscribe and preserve writing, its actual concrete nature is largely irrelevant. For writing to mean anything, it suffices that it partake of an internally coherent system of differential marks that can be read. Whether we are dealing with printed letters on paper, painted signs on silk or parchment, electromagnetic signals, or engravings in stone seems to matter little. Moreover, as soon as writing is linked with reading, as [End Page 53] soon as the differential marks make sense, the external sensory perception of the characters can be replaced by merely imagined sense perceptions. The question of writing's material sensuousness is displaced when we attend to the sight, sound, taste, or feeling of the immaterial signified. One realm of senses gives way to another, and the text as such disappears. But this transparency is historical. It is especially within the domain of print culture that the activities of reading and sense-making tend to render the medium of writing transparent.

Oddly, perhaps, it is only when the materiality of the textual surface is flawed, wounded, or interrupted that we can think about it. Whenever writing is undecipherable, due to some physical distortion or damage done to the characters or the surface of inscription, or due to the reader's ignorance of the code, the elements of writing are foregrounded in terms of their physical features. One might think, for example, of instances when one cannot decide whether some marks represent an undecipherable writing or are merely accidental stains. Sensory details of certain shades or traces can be noted from which otherwise the activity of decoding would abstract. The written text might appear as a pattern or differentiated surface that nevertheless remains an enigma. In the case of undecipherability, when a particular artefact resists a decoding effort, we encounter writing as a specific instance. This particularity is, indeed, the materiality of the script. A similar shift of attention, from writing as a general medium, to a particular, specific instance of writing, can be witnessed in the aesthetic domain. When a writer or reader attends to the form of one specific piece of writing, it matters more how something is being said than what it is that is said. It is the rhetorical devices, the poetic forms, the strategies of voice that become perceptible as such. The observer is alerted to the specific uses of the medium, its sensory and conceptual qualities, the form of this particular instance of writing as opposed to writing as the transmission of meaning. The aesthetic domain shares with the domain of undecipherability a tendency to foreground instances of the medium's opacity. Under certain historical circumstances this opacity becomes available for its own elaboration. The sensuousness of writing, and the relation between writing as material presence and writing as a transparent instrument through which meaning can be conveyed is, indeed, the object of an entire genre of literature, the one we know as the fantastic tale.

The emergence of the fantastic tale during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century manifests, like few other literary forms...


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pp. 53-75
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Archived 2004
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